Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Supreme Court Focuses on Equality Under Law

Vindicating conventional wisdom, today’s argument suggested that the Supreme Court will find that states must both recognize and license same sex marriage. That’s remarkable in and of itself considering that a little over a decade ago, we were still debating whether states could criminalize gay sex. But it’s not surprising, given that it represents the most rapid transformation in public opinion on any political issue.

What’s more noteworthy is the reason why the Court is poised to rule this way. While it’s certainly possible that Justice Kennedy will wax metaphysical about the “sweet mystery of marriage,” the majority opinion is more likely to rest on the technical requirements of the Equal Protection Clause. Given that provision’s enforcement of “equality under the law,” states simply cannot devise a reason to draw their marriage licensing regimes in a way that distinguishes between heterosexual and homosexual couples.

Haddock and Polsby On How Riots Occur

“This is not justice. This is just people finding a way to steal stuff,” Carron Morgan, cousin of Freddie Gray, told Kevin Rector of the Baltimore Sun yesterday.  That’s one of the most clear-headed interpretations of yesterday’s mob violence in Maryland’s largest city, which followed the convergence of hundreds of youths at 3 p.m. outside Mondawmin Mall, a shopping center on the city’s west side that also serves as a hub for bus service. In the resulting tumult, groups of rioters burned police vehicles, looted stores and restaurants, and injured more than a dozen Baltimore police officers with flying missiles. 

More than twenty years ago in the Cato Journal, distinguished law and economics scholars David Haddock and Daniel Polsby published a paper entitled “Understanding Riots” that’s still highly relevant in making sense of events like these. Employing familiar economic concepts such as opportunity cost, coordination problems, and free-rider issues, Haddock and Polsby help explain why riots cluster around sports wins as well as assassinations, funerals, and jury verdicts; the group psychology of rioting, and why most crowds never turn riotous; the important role of focal points (often lightly policed commercial areas) and rock-throwing “entrepreneurs” of disorder; the tenuous relationship between riots and root causes or contemporary grievances; and why when a riot occurs the police (at least those in places like the United States and United Kingdom) seldom manage to be in enough places at once, more or less by definition.

LAPD Proposes Worrying Body Camera Policies

Today, the five-member civilian Board of Police Commissioners will consider the LAPD’s body camera video (BMV) proposals outlined by Chief Charlie Beck, which leave much to be desired. If implemented as drafted, the proposals will allow officers to view body camera footage before being interviewed after a use-of-force incident and do not outline under what circumstances the public  can access body camera footage. Such policies will not provide the transparency and accountability Los Angeles residents deserve from their public servants.

At first glance, the policy recommendations look relatively innocuous. The document rightly requires that officers have their body camera on “prior to initiating any investigative or enforcement activity involving a member of the public.” It also outlines when officers should not have their body cameras on (such as when talking to informants, undercover officers, or when in hospitals or rape treatment centers). These requirements mean that the majority of police interactions with members of the public will be caught on camera and that investigations and the privacy of crime victims will be protected.                                

Yet other policy recommendations ought to worry civil libertarians and law enforcement accountability advocates. Section 19 of the document reads in part as follows (bolding is mine):                     

If an officer is involved in a Categorical Use of Force (CUOF), such as an officer-involved shooting, an officer shall not review his or her BWV until authorized by the assigned Force Investigation Division (FID) investigator. Once authorized, the officer shall review his or her BWV recording, and any other relevant BWV footage as deemed necessary and appropriate by the assigned FID supervisor, prior to being interviewed by investigators. An officer may have an employee representative present during the review of the BWV recordings without the FID investigator or supervisor present.

This proposal would provide officers with an opportunity that is not afforded to citizens accused of crimes: to view evidence against them prior to being interviewed by investigators. Police officers involved in a use-of-force incident should not be allowed to view their own body camera footage or the footage captured by colleagues’ body cameras before speaking to investigators. An officer involved in a use-of-force incident should give comments to investigators that have not been influenced by police body camera footage.

The Scandal in Wisconsin

Over at National Review, David French has a chilling article about politicized ‘John Doe’ investigations and police raids directed against persons and organizations who are suspected of challenging union power and/or supporting Scott Walker.

Here is an excerpt:

[After the early morning police raid came] the warnings. Don’t call your lawyer. Don’t talk to anyone about this. Don’t tell your friends. The kids watched — alarmed — as the school bus drove by, with the students inside watching the spectacle of uniformed police surrounding the house, carrying out the family’s belongings. Yet they were told they couldn’t tell anyone at school. They, too, had to remain silent. The mom watched as her entire life was laid open before the police. Her professional files, her personal files, everything. She knew this was all politics. She knew a rogue prosecutor was targeting her for her political beliefs. And she realized, “Every aspect of my life is in their hands. And they hate me.”

For dozens of conservatives, the years since Scott Walker’s first election as governor of Wisconsin transformed the state — known for pro-football championships, good cheese, and a population with a reputation for being unfailingly polite — into a place where conservatives have faced early-morning raids, multi-year secretive criminal investigations, slanderous and selective leaks to sympathetic media, and intrusive electronic snooping.

Yes, Wisconsin, the cradle of the progressive movement and home of the “Wisconsin idea” — the marriage of state governments and state universities to govern through technocratic reform — was giving birth to a new progressive idea, the use of law enforcement as a political instrument, as a weapon to attempt to undo election results, shame opponents, and ruin lives.

Read the whole thing.

Eric O’Keefe related his experience in this matter at a Cato event a few months ago.  And Cato has filed an amicus brief is support of O’Keefe’s petition to the Supreme Court to hear his case and to rein in Wisconsin’s politicized “investigations.”

Wisconsin’s Criminalization of Political Speech

Just when you thought the long-running “John Doe” prosecution/persecutions in Wisconsin couldn’t get any worse—SWAT teams conducting pre-dawn raids on family homes, gag orders on the victims, and the prosecutor’s recusal motion directed against no fewer than four state supreme court justices, all over politically driven campaign finance allegations—Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm suggested over the weekend that Gov. Scott Walker could be criminally charged for lying. Walker’s “crime”? In Iowa on Saturday, he questioned whether the prosecution’s tactics were constitutional.

As so often happens in litigation over often inscrutable campaign finance law, this case is a tangle of legal complexities, many of which are outlined in Cato’s amicus brief, urging the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the appeal of the “John Does,” their lives on hold as they suffer in silence. At its conference last Friday, the Court considered their cert petition, but it was not included in the Court’s list of denials this morning, indicating a “hold” and hence an increased likelihood that the Court will hear the appeal.

Only two weeks ago, in her first campaign stop in Iowa, Hillary Clinton took a shot at the Roberts Court, calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Court’s Citizens United decision. That would amount to nothing less than an assault on the First Amendment’s protection of political speech. With that speech so threatened, no better illustrated than in the appalling Wisconsin prosecutions, it’s time for the Court to bring an end to this tyranny.

Throw out Massachusetts’s Sedition Act

John Adams left his state a conflicted legacy. As a young man in 1765, Adams took to the Boston Gazette to protest censorship, reminding his readers that “liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people,” and for that reason “none of the means of information are more sacred, or have been cherished with more tenderness and care by the settlers of America, than the press. Care has been taken that the art of printing should be encouraged, and that it should be easy and cheap and safe for any person to communicate his thoughts to the public.” Fifteen years later, Adams was called upon to write a constitution for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which provided that as “[t]he liberty of the press is essential to the security of freedom in a State; it ought not, therefore, to be restrained in this commonwealth.”

Wise words from a wise man. But two decades hence later, Adams was no longer a young man, and no longer so wise.

In 1798, Adams was an embattled and unpopular president, under constant fire from the nation’s papers. In response, he pushed through a law that made it a crime to “write, print, utter or publish … any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States.”

Reviled as an unconstitutional affront to liberty, the Sedition Act was so unpopular that it cost Adams a second term, and has served for over 200 years as a symbol of tyrannical overreach. Adams also gave his name to the courthouse where the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts meets; that Court will now have to decide which version of Adam’s legacy it will embrace.

For almost 100 years, Massachusetts has had its own version of the Sedition Act, a law making it crime to publish “any false statement in relation to any candidate for nomination or election to public office, which is designed or tends to aid or to injure or defeat such candidate.” Cato has filed a brief pointing out just how absurd and unconstitutional this law is.

No, not that brief, but if the law sounds familiar it should: Ohio had a similar law—until a trip up from the federal district court to the U.S. Supreme Court and back resulted it in being struck down. Statutes in Minnesota and Washington have suffered the same fate. These laws are a direct and indefensible attack on the freedoms protected by the First Amendment, and because John Adams was right when he described censorship as the “jaws of power … always opened to devour, if possible, to destroy the freedom of thinking, speaking, and writing,” it’s time for Massachusetts to follow suit.

As a more modern president from the Commonwealth once said, the government cannot be “afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court hears argument in Commonwealth v. Lucas on May 7.

A Reasonably Good Week for the Fourth Amendment

This week, two federal court decisions here in D.C. reiterated the importance of the Fourth Amendment in police encounters.

In the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the Court’s opinion in Rodriguez v. United States, declaring that prolonging a traffic stop to initiate a K-9 sniff of a vehicle was unconstitutional. It’s not a revolutionary decision or a watershed moment in the Court’s Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, but it’s always good to see the Court recognize that there are limits on the police during traffic stops. (Such recognition is not usually the case.) That said, police will still try to find ways to get you to surrender your rights during stops.

Down the street at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, Judge Janice Rogers Brown wrote a concurrence in a case that gets to the heart of the problem in Fourth Amendment law today. Because lower courts are not allowed to ignore Supreme Court holdings even when judges think SCOTUS is wrong, Judge Brown had to vote in favor of the government. But in United States v. Gross, concerning D.C.’s roving patrols for illegal firearms in high crime areas, Judge Brown was quite clear when she wrote:

Despite lacking any semblance of particularized suspicion when the initial contact is made, the police subject these individuals to intrusive searches unless they can prove their innocence. Our case law considers such a policy consistent with the Fourth Amendment. I continue to think this is error. Our jurisprudence perpetuates a fiction of voluntary consent where none exists and validates a policy that subverts the framework of Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968).

In the absence of any particularized reports, evidence, or suspicions, patrolling officers simply question every likely person they encounter. They “employ[] a simple technique: they ask[] any individual they encounter[] if he or she ha[s] a gun and then watch[] to see if that individual engage[s] in what the officers perceive[] to be suspicious behavior.” If consent to question or search is refused, officers frequently construe citizens’ varied reactions to their probes as rationalizing a Terry stop.

As a thought experiment, try to imagine this scene in Georgetown. Would residents of that neighborhood maintain there was no pressure to comply, if the District’s police officers patrolled Prospect Street in tactical gear, questioning each person they encountered about whether they were carrying an illegal firearm? Nothing about the Gun Recovery Unit’s modus operandi is designed to convey a message that compliance is not required. While viewing such an encounter as consensual is roughly equivalent to finding the latest Sasquatch sighting credible, I submit to the prevailing orthodoxy, but I continue to reject its counterintuitive premise.

With the guise of voluntary consent stripped away, the reality of the District’s regime is revealed. It is a rolling roadblock that sweeps citizens up at random and subjects them to undesired police interactions culminating in a search of their persons and effects. If the Fourth Amendment is intended to offer meaningful protection in the context of Terry stops, the voluntary consent exemption cannot be used to engage with members of the public en masse and at random to fabricate articulable suspicions for virtually every citizen officers encounter on patrol. (Internal citations omitted.)

The state of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence is not good, but cases like these provide a glimmer of hope that the Supremes will come around one of these days. You should read Judge Brown’s full concurrence here.

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