Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Police Misconduct — The Worst Case in March

Over at Cato’s Police Misconduct web site, we have selected the worst case for the month of March.  It’s the scandal plagued Sheriff’s Office in Iberia Parish, Louisiana.

Sheriff Louis Ackal and Lt. Col. Gerald Savoy were indicted last month for criminal civil rights violations.  Eight former deputies have already pled guilty to similar charges.  False testimony in court and false allegations in official documents.  Hundreds of criminal cases are now being reopened because they could be tainted by corrupt acts.  The now former deputies admit that they lied in various reports, including search warrant applications.

The scope of this scandal is worth repeating: hundreds of cases will have to be reexamined.

Go here for the full story.

Supreme Court Leaves Meaning of “One-Person, One-Vote” Unclear

This morning, the unanimous Supreme Court ruled that Texas was constitutionally justified in drawing state electoral districts based on total population, even if this meant that great disparatives result among districts in numbers of voters. This was the case of Evenwel v. Abbott, in which Cato had filed a brief arguing that the plaintiff-voters’ proposed “citizen of voting age population” (CVAP) metric was a much better one to use when applying the “one-person, one-vote” standard. 

While the eight-justice Court managed to achieve rare unanimity in an election-law case, at least in judgment, it did so only by declining to address the elephant in the voting booth. The Court failed to fill the gaping hole in its voting-rights jurisprudence: the question whether the venerable “one-person, one-vote” principle requires equalizing people or voters (or both) when crafting representational districts.

Still, the ruling leaves open to the states the ability to experiment further with populations considered in drawing district lines both for their own legislatures and federal House seats. Some states already exclude aliens, nonpermanent residents, nonresident military personnel, inmates who were not state residents prior to incarceration, and other non-permanent or non-voting populations.

States like Texas where total-population allocations continue to diverge from eligible-voter allocations—resulting in great disparities of voters between districts—should indeed try to ensure that each vote has the same relative weight, forcing the Supreme Court’s hand in some future case. Regardless of the outcome in that eventual case, however, jurists and political scientists should take heed of Justice Alito’s concurring opinion, which concisely explains why the “federal analogy” to the Constitution’s apportionment of House seats among states is inapposite to the question posed in Evenwel regarding redistricting.

For more background on the case, see my SCOTUSblog essay.

Oklahoma Sheriff Indicted for Extortion, Blames Civil Forfeiture Reformers

Instances of civil forfeiture abuse are common. Indictments against law enforcement are not.

However, this week an Oklahoma grand jury returned an indictment against Wagoner County Sheriff Bob Colbert and one of his deputies stemming from a civil asset forfeiture case.  The indictment charges Sheriff Colbert and Deputy Jeffrey Gragg with extortion and bribery, among other things, stemming from the stop, arrest, and subsequent release of Torrell Wallace and a 17-year old passenger.  

According to the indictment, during a traffic stop of Wallace’s car, Deputy Gragg discovered $10,000 in cash.  When asked about the money, Wallace and his passenger both claimed it belonged to them and were subsequently arrested for “possession of drug proceeds.”

At the jail, the indictment alleges that Sheriff Colbert and Deputy Gragg told the men that they’d be allowed to go free if they signed over the $10,000 to the office’s asset forfeiture fund, which they did.

If this fact pattern sounds familiar, it’s because cases like this are not isolated incidents. The case of Javier Gonzalez sounds eerily familiar. In 2013 Sarah Stillman at The New Yorker documented several similar cases of seemingly extortive forfeiture actions.  Our friends at the Institute for Justice have compiled many more

Because the burden of proof for civil forfeitures is so low, even perfectly benign behaviors can result in seizures. These include carrying too much money, carrying money in an envelope or some other “unorthodox” fashion, or even “traveling to or from a known drug source city,” which seems to include virtually every major city in America.  Such a deficient process for government seizures of cash and property makes abuse inevitable, especially when the seizing agency is permitted to keep most or all of the proceeds for itself.

Equality Run Amok—Women’s Soccer Version

The New York Times reports today that five key members of the US women’s national soccer team have filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charging U.S. Soccer, the private federation that oversees soccer in the United States, with wage discrimination. It seems that, on average (see the article for details), the federation pays women players considerably less than players on the men’s team, and that may be a problem under current law.

If Thomas Jefferson only knew what would follow from writing “All men are created equal.” What he meant, of course, was only that we all have equal rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and we’re free to pursue happiness however we think best. Most of us do that through voluntary association with others, which can result in all kinds of inequalities, yet violate the rights of no one. After all, whose rights are violated if Mia Hamm negotiates a salary with the team that is higher than a lesser player negotiates?

Big Win for MetLife and Other SIFIs

MetLife notched an important win this week, securing a ruling from a federal court that it is not a systemically important financial institution (SIFI) under Dodd-Frank. Like much of the Dodd-Frank Act, the SIFI designation has been controversial since its introduction in 2010. The designation is intended to help the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC, another Dodd-Frank creation) to monitor companies whose demise could destabilize the country’s financial system. Putting aside the question of whether a group of regulators in Washington could see and stop a crisis more quickly than those in the trenches at the nation’s financial giants, the designation triggers a host of regulatory requirements that many companies would prefer to avoid. 

One of the most controversial aspects of the SIFI designation is its black box nature. There is no publicly available SIFI check-list. The rationale for following a more principles- than rules-based approach may be that the definition needs to remain flexible. Companies may be motivated to avoid the letter of such a rules-based approach without avoiding the spirit, leaving FSOC without the ability to monitor a company that, despite not triggering the SIFI designation, still poses a risk to the financial system. But this has left companies in a bind. The SIFI designation has real and substantial ramifications for any company that triggers it, but companies have been unable both to avoid designation and to challenge designation once applied.  It’s hard to argue that you don’t fit a certain definition if you don’t know what the definition is.

Of course, not all companies want to avoid SIFI status. Although some have argued that FSOC and other aspects of Dodd-Frank will prevent future bailouts, it seems naïve to think that the government could designate a company as a risk to the entire financial system and then sit idly by as it burns.  SIFI designation is a wink and a nod, all but assuring government support if the designated company founders in rocky times.

Department of Justice Resurrects the Equitable Sharing Program

Well, it was fun while it lasted.

Last December, civil liberties advocates cheered the Department of Justice’s announcement that it was indefinitely suspending its equitable sharing asset forfeiture program due to fiscal constraints.  This week, unfortunately, the Department of Justice lifted the suspension and resumed payments to local police departments.

Civil asset forfeiture allows the government to seize property and cash from Americans, without charge or trial, on the mere suspicion of wrongdoing. In most jurisdictions, the seizing agency gets to keep some or even all of the proceeds, creating a clear profit motive for the agencies to seize property.  

Equitable sharing is a federal program which allows state and local law enforcement to seize property under federal, rather than state, forfeiture law. Law enforcement agencies in states with more restrictive forfeiture laws are thus able to get around those state restrictions by participating in the federal program.

The equitable sharing program also provides an 80% kickback to the seizing local agency, which is a larger share of the proceeds than many states allow. As one might expect, the more a state restricts the use and abuse of civil asset forfeiture, the more state and local police tend to rely on the federal program instead.

In short, equitable sharing creates a federal incentive for law enforcement to sidestep state law and chase profits under federal law instead.

While then-Attorney General Eric Holder imposed some small rerforms on the equitable sharing program on his way out of office, the program still rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars a year.  Given this week’s announcement, the chances that the Obama Administration will take further steps to rein in forfeiture abuse in its final year seem slim.  

Nothing, however, prevents state governments from asserting their sovereignty by restricting their law enforcement agencies from participating in the federal program.

This morning I discussed the resumption of equitable sharing with Darpana Sheth of the Institute for Justice:

 

For more on civil asset forfeiture, check out the Institute for Justice’s exhaustive survey of forfeiture laws and abuses, Policing for Profit.

Also check out Cato’s explainer on civil asset forfeiture.

Public-Sector Unions Survive to Fight Another Day

This morning, the Supreme Court disappointingly, but expectedly, split 4-4 in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. With Justice Antonin Scalia’s untimely death, one of the likely blockbusters of the term turned into a terse, one-sentence opinion: “The judgment is affirmed by an equally divided Court.”

“The judgment” was the Ninth Circuit’s decision, which sided with the unions on the question of whether forced union dues for public-sector workers violate the First Amendment. At stake in Friedrichs was whether public-sector unions would continue to be permitted, under a 1977 case called Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, to take forced dues from non-members in order to fund the day-to-day activities of the union. In an alternate universe, one in which Scalia is still alive and sitting on the Court, Friedrichs would have almost assuredly overruled or severely limited Abood, essentially converting public-sector unions into “right to work” unions.  

The lack of a blockbuster decision in Friedrichs is one of the most significant immediate consequences of Scalia’s death. Few issues split the Court more starkly than unions, and there were clearly irreconcilable differences among the justices. Friedrichs was only argued on January 11, so the justices didn’t take too long to conclude that there was no way to decide the case with five justices in the majority, thus the thoroughly unsatisfying opinion today.