Tag: law

Prosecutors Should Not Be Allowed to Fabricate Evidence

In 1977, county attorney David Richter and assistant county attorney Joseph Hrvol worked side by side with police to investigate and “solve” the notorious murder of a former police officer in Pottawattamie County, Iowa. The prosecutors fabricated evidence and used it to charge and convict Curtis McGhee and Terry Harrington, sending them to prison for 25 years.

After the convictions were overturned for prosecutorial misconduct, McGhee and Harrington sued the county and prosecutors. The defendants in that civil suit invoked the absolute immunity generally afforded prosecutors to try to escape liability. After the Eighth Circuit ruled against them, the Supreme Court agreed to review the case.

On Friday, Cato joined the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the ACLU on a brief supporting the men unjustly imprisoned. We argue that prosecutors should be responsible for their role in manufacturing a false “case,” just as police officers would be under the same circumstances. As the Court has held, prosecutors enjoy absolute immunity only during the prosecutorial phase of a case, not its investigatory phase. Were prosecutors to receive absolute immunity here, citizens would have no protection from or recourse against prosecutors who frame the innocent by fabricating evidence and then using that evidence to convict them.

To read Cato’s brief in the case of Pottawattamie County v. McGhee, see here.

A Chance to Fix the PATRIOT Act?

As Tim Lynch noted earlier this week, Barack Obama’s justice department has come out in favor of renewing three controversial PATRIOT Act provisions—on face another in a train of disappointments for anyone who’d hoped some of those broad executive branch surveillance powers might depart with the Bush administration.

But there is a potential silver lining: In the letter to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) making the case for renewal, the Justice Department also declares its openness to “modifications” of those provisions designed to provide checks and balances, provided they don’t undermine investigations. While the popular press has always framed the fight as being “supporters” and “opponents” of the PATRIOT Act, the problem with many of the law’s provisions is not that the powers they grant are inherently awful, but that they lack necessary constraints and oversight mechanisms.

Consider the much-contested “roving wiretap” provision allowing warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to cover all the communications devices a target might use without specifying the facilities to be monitored in advance—at least in cases where there are specific facts supporting the belief that a target is likely to take measures to thwart traditional surveillance. The objection to this provision is not that intelligence officers should never be allowed to obtain roving warrants, which also exist in the law governing ordinary law enforcement wiretaps. The issue is that FISA is fairly loosey-goosey about the specification of “targets”—they can be described rather than identified. That flexibility may make some sense in the foreign intel context, but when you combine it with similar flexibility in the specification of the facility to be monitored, you get something that looks a heck of a lot like a general warrant. It’s one thing to say “we have evidence this particular phone line and e-mail account are being used by terrorists, though we don’t know who they are” or “we have evidence this person is a terrorist, but he keeps changing phones.” It’s another—and should not be possible—to mock traditional particularity requirements by obtaining a warrant to tap someone on some line, to be determined. FISA warrants should “rove” over persons or facilities, but never both.

The DOJ letter describes the so-called “Lone Wolf” amendment to FISA as simply allowing surveillance of targets who are agents of foreign powers without having identified which foreign power (i.e. which particular terrorist group) they’re working for. They say they’ve never invoked this ability, but want to keep it in reserve. If that description were accurate, I’d say let them. But as currently written, the “lone wolf” language potentially covers people who are really conventional domestic threats with only the most tenuous international ties—the DOJ letter alludes to people who “self-radicalize” by reading online propaganda, but are not actually agents of a foreign group at all.

Finally, there’s the “business records” provision, which actually covers the seizure of any “tangible thing.”  The problems with this one probably deserve their own post, and ideally you’d just go through the ordinary warrant procedure for this. But at the very, very least there should be some more specific nexus to a particular foreign target than “relevance” to a ongoing investigation before an order issues. The gag orders that automatically accompany these document requests also require more robust judicial scrutiny.

Some of these fixes—and quite a few other salutary reforms besides—appear to be part of the JUSTICE Act which I see that Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) introduced earlier this afternoon.  I’ll take a closer look at the provisions of that bill in a post tomorrow.

Washington Legal Foundation Opposes GBS Deal

Via James Grimmelmann, the Washington Legal Foundation, a group known for its defense of property rights, filed an objection to the Google book deal earlier this month focusing on concerns related to those I raised in my posts earlier this week.

WLF points out that the Supreme Court has mandated that plaintiffs seeking to certify a class must make a diligent effort to notify all affected class members. According to the high court’s Shutts decision, this effort must include—at a minimum—sending a letter to every identifiable member of the class. In this case, this would mean sending a letter to every address in the US Copyright Office’s database of authors. WLF questions whether this was done; the foundation reports that it never received notification related to any of the books for which it holds the copyrights.

Now, it might be objected that this process would be prohibitively expensive. But if the class is so large that it’s impractical to notify all of its members, then the class is certainly too large to expect a judge to verify that the interests of all class members is being served by the settlement. If the class is too large to notify, then it’s too large to certify.

WLF also points out that the sprawling and heterogeneous class of plaintiffs makes it unlikely that the plaintiffs’ lawyers can fairly represent all parties who would be bound by the settlement:

For example, only those class members whose works have already been copied by Google are entitled to cash payments under the Settlement Agreement. Thus, the financial interests of those whose works have been copied diverge from the interests of class members whose works have not been copied. The former have an interest in maximizing cash payments, while the latter would prefer to see a smaller portion of the settlement pot allocated to those cash payments and a larger portion allocated to compensation for copying to be performed by Google in the future.

Another distinction among class members involves orphan works – that is, works whose owners are difficult (if not impossible) to ascertain. The owners of orphan works (who may not even know that they hold any ownership interests) have an obvious interest in ensuring that a large portion of settlement funds is dedicated to identifying the ownership of orphan works. On the other hand, the owners of works whose ownership is readily identifiable have an interest in holding down such search costs. If less money is devoted to such search efforts, a correspondingly greater percentage of settlement funds will be available to provide compensation
to them.

The point here isn’t that the amount allocated to orphan works searches is too high (or too low), or that more (or less) should be allocated to pay for previously-scanned books. The point is that a settlement involving millions of plaintiffs will inevitably enrich some plaintiffs at the expense of others. This isn’t a problem that can be solved by changing the details of the settlement. It’s a problem that can only be solved by limiting the scope of the settlement to parties whose interests are actually represented by the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

Obama: I Want Those Patriot Act Powers

Yesterday, President Obama’s lawyers informed members of Congress that the president does not want any provision of the  Patriot Act to expire.  Turns out that  Obama wants to have the sweeping powers.  This is just the latest example of the cacophony that pervades Washington.  When Bush was in the White House, the Dems postured against his runaway spending, his military quagmires, and his constitutional violations.  With Obama in the White House, Bush’s most misguided policies either continue or worsen.

Obama is in the news today for his “off-the-record” comment about Kanye West.  It would have been better had a reporter overheard Obama saying something like, “John Ashcroft was a terrific Attorney General, but  I’ll never admit that publicly.”

For related Cato work, go here and here.

Public Information and Public Choice

MalamudOne of the high points of last week’s Gov 2.0 Summit was transparency champion Carl Malamud’s speech on the history of public access to government information – ending with a clarion call for  government documents, data, and deliberation to be made more freely available online. The argument is a clear slam-dunk on simple grounds of fairness and democratic accountability. If we’re going to be bound by the decisions made by regulatory agencies and courts, surely at a bare minimum we’re all entitled to know what those decisions are and how they were arrived at. But as many of the participants at the conference stressed, it’s not enough for the data to be available – it’s important that it be free, and in a machine readable form. Here’s one example of why, involving the PACER system for court records:

The fees for bulk legal data are a significant barrier to free enterprise, but an insurmountable barrier for the public interest. Scholars, nonprofit groups, journalists, students, and just plain citizens wishing to analyze the functioning of our courts are shut out. Organizations such as the ACLU and EFF and scholars at law schools have long complained that research across all court filings in the federal judiciary is impossible, because an eight cent per page charge applied to tens of millions of pages makes it prohibitive to identify systematic discrimination, privacy violations, or other structural deficiencies in our courts.

If you’re thinking in terms of individual cases – even those involving hundreds or thousands of pages of documents – eight cents per page might not sound like a very serious barrier. If you’re trying to do a meta-analysis that looks for patterns and trends across the body of cases as a whole, not only is the formal fee going to be prohibitive in the aggregate, but even free access won’t be much help unless the documents are in a format that can be easily read and processed by computers, given the much higher cost of human CPU cycles. That goes double if you want to be able to look for relationships across multiple different types of documents and data sets.

All familiar enough to transparency boosters. Is there a reason proponents of limited government ought to be especially concerned with this, beyond a general fondness for openness? Here’s one reason.  Public choice theorists often point to the problem of diffuse costs and concentrated benefits as a source of bad policy. In brief, a program that inefficiently transfers a million dollars from millions of taxpayers to a few beneficiaries will create a million dollar incentive for the beneficiaries to lobby on its behalf, while no individual taxpayer has much motivation to expend effort on recovering his tiny share of the benefit of axing the program. And political actors have similarly strong incentives to create identifiable constituencies who benefit from such programs and kick back those benefits in the form of either donations or public support. What Malamud and others point out is that one thing those concentrated beneficiaries end up doing is expending resources remaining fairly well informed about what government is doing – what regulations and expenditures are being contemplated – in order to be able to act for or against them in a timely fashion.

Now, as the costs of organizing dispersed people get lower thanks to new technologies, we’re seeing increasing opportunities to form ad hoc coalitions supporting and opposing policy changes with more dispersed costs and benefits – which is good, and works to erode the asymmetry that generates a lot of bad policy. But incumbent constituencies have the advantage of already being organized and able to invest resources in identifying policy changes that implicate their interests. If ten complex regulations are under consideration, and one creates a large benefit to an incumbent constituent while imposing smaller costs on a much larger group of people, it’s a great advantage if the incumbent is aware of the range of options in advance, and can push for their favored option, while the dispersed losers only become cognizant of it when the papers report on the passage of a specific rule and slowly begin teasing out its implications.

Put somewhat more briefly: Technology that lowers organizing costs can radically upset a truly pernicious public choice dynamic, but only if the information necessary to catalyze the formation of a blocking coalition is out there in a form that allows it to be sifted and analyzed by crowdsourced methods first. Transparency matters less when organizing costs are high, because the fight is ultimately going to be decided by a punch up between large, concentrated interest groups for whom the cost of hiring experts to learn about and analyze the implications of potential policy changes is relatively trivial. As transaction costs fall, and there’s potential for spontaneous, self-identifying coalitions to form, those information costs loom much larger. The timely availability – and aggregability – of information about the process of policy formation and its likely consequences then suddenly becomes a key determinant of the power of incumbent constituencies to control policy and extract rents.

The Libertarian Case against the Google Book Search Deal

Five years ago, Google began scanning millions of books for inclusion in what eventually became Google Book Search. Google carefully designed the service to stay within the boundaries of copyright’s fair use provisions, at least as Google interpreted them. Still, some authors and publishers objected, and in 2005 they filed a lawsuit accusing Google of copyright infringement. The lawsuit dragged on for more than three years. Finally, in 2008, the parties announced a settlement of the lawsuit. Its text runs for 140 pages, not counting a secret termination clause available only to Google and its adversaries. The deadline for comments on the settlement was earlier this month, and on October 7 a federal judge must decide whether to approve or reject the settlement.

I was (and still am) firmly on Google’s side on the copyright claims at issue in the lawsuit. But the proposed settlement is another matter. The parties like to describe the agreement as a private agreement settling a legal dispute. But I agree with Librarian of Congress Marybeth Peters, who surprised almost everyone on Thursday when, testifying before Congress, she came out swinging against the agreement:

We realized that the settlement was not really a settlement at all, in as much as settlements resolve acts that have happened in the past and were at issue in the underlying infringement suits. Instead, the so-called settlement would create mechanisms by which Google could continue to scan with impunity, well into the future, and to our great surprise, create yet additional commercial products without the prior consent of rights holders. For example, the settlement allows Google to reproduce, display and distribute the books of copyright owners without prior consent, provided Google and the plaintiffs deem the works to be “out-of-print” through a definition negotiated by them for purposes of the settlement documents. Although Google is a commercial entity, acting for a primary purpose of commercial gain, the settlement absolves Google of the need to search for the rights holders or obtain their prior consent and provides a complete release from liability. In contrast to the scanning and snippets originally at issue, none of these new acts could be reasonably alleged to be fair use.

In the view of the Copyright Office, the settlement proposed by the parties would encroach on responsibility for copyright policy that traditionally has been the domain of Congress. The settlement is not merely a compromise of existing claims, or an agreement to compensate past copying and snippet display. Rather, it could affect the exclusive rights of millions of copyright owners, in the United States and abroad, with respect to their abilities to control new products and new markets, for years and years to come. We are greatly concerned by the parties’ end run around legislative process and prerogatives, and we submit that this Committee should be equally concerned.

The fundamental problem with the settlement is its audacious use of class action law. As my former colleague Mark Moller has argued, the aggressive use of class action law raises fundamental issues of fairness, due process, and the separation of powers. Rather than dozens of judges hearing individual cases and reaching judgments based on individual circumstances, class action law often asks a single judge to render justice on behalf of thousands of plaintiffs in a single decision. This arrangement opens the door to a whole host of potential problems. A single judge unlikely to have the knowledge required to render justice in thousands of individual cases simultaneously. And there’s a real danger that a nominally judicial proceeding will take on a fundamentally legislative character, reshaping the rights of thousands of people whose interests are not adequately represented by any of the parties before the judge.

This danger is especially acute in the Google Book Search case because of the incredibly broad scope of the class the plaintiffs purport to represent: all authors of books still under copyright in the United States. The settlement class doesn’t just include authors and publishers of still-in-print works, who are relatively easy to contact and can opt out of the settlement if they don’t like its terms. It also includes the copyright holders for millions of “orphan works” – works that are in copyright and whose authors cannot be located. These copyright holders are, by definition, difficult to find. The settlement effectively expropriates these absent parties for the benefit of Google and the large publishers leading the lawsuit.

The usurpation of the legislative function is especially clear in the case of orphan works because Congress has been actively considering legislation to deal with the orphan works problem. I have written in favor of an “orphan works” defense to copyright infringement. The leading orphan works proposals have two key features: they require prospective users of orphan works to make a good-faith effort to find rights-holders before using the works. And they are competitively neutral – everyone would have equal opportunity to use orphan works under the conditions set forth in the legislation.

The Book Search deal has neither characteristic. Using the legal fiction that the plaintiffs represent the interests of millions of absent copyright holders, the settlement would give Google carte blanch to use these orphan works without making a serious effort to contact their owners. This deprives some copyright holders of royalties to which they might otherwise be entitled. And it gives Google a permanent competitive advantage by giving Google an immunity to litigation that would not be available to competitors if they entered the same market. Not surprisingly, Google’s leading competitors, including Microsoft, Yahoo! and Amazon.com, have all urged the judge to reject the agreement.

Our system of government is based on the principle of the separation of powers. Congress, not the judicial branch, is responsible for making broad changes to rules of copyright. The Google Book Search settlement, if approved, would use the legal fiction of the class action lawsuit to re-write copyright law as it applies to the online book market. While the settlement includes some laudable provisions, it’s more important that the judge respect the separation of powers and reject the settlement.

Beach v. Florida

Cato Adjunct Scholar and Pacific Legal Foundation Senior Staff Attorney Tim Sandefur published an excellent op-ed in the National Law Journal this week on the upcoming Supreme Court case Stop the Beach Renourishment v. Florida Department of Environmental Protection:

The case involves a Florida statute determining the boundaries of oceanfront property. Under a 1961 law, the state drew a brand-new line separating public and private land on certain beaches, meaning that some land that would have been privately owned would belong instead to the state. A group of property owners filed suit, arguing that the law deprived them of property without just compensation, violating the state and federal constitutions.

Last December, Florida’s highest court rejected their arguments. It held that, while the new boundary gave the state ownership of the beach land, the former owners actually had no such right to begin with. Despite more than a century of Florida law to the contrary, the court announced that the owners actually only had a right to “access” the ocean, and because the state promised to allow them to keep crossing the land to reach the water, it actually hadn’t taken anything away when it seized the land itself.

Thus, by simply reinterpreting state property law, the court allowed the state to take property without compensation with a mere stroke of a pen. Yet the U.S. Constitution forbids states from confiscating property - even through legal legerdemain - without payment.

[.]

[T]he U.S. Constitution also guarantees every American’s right to due process of law and to protection of private property. If state judges can arbitrarily rewrite a state’s property laws, those guarantees would be meaningless. More than four decades ago, Justice Potter Stewart warned that, without a constitutional limit on the states’ power to determine the nature of property, states could “defeat the constitutional prohibition against taking property without due process of law by the simple device of asserting retroactively that the property it has taken never existed at all.”

It is well-worth a full read here.

Despite the dreadful decision in the Kelo case several years ago, the fight to maintain the fundamental right to private property continues in our courts and legislatures. Tim and PLF have been doing yeoman’s work in the fight for property rights, and I am proud to team Cato up with them and the NFIB Legal Center in filing an amicus brief on behalf of the rightful property owners in this case. You can download the PDF of the brief here.