Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Snowden, Surveillance, and Democrats: Debate Observations

The first debate among Democratic presidential contenders was more than half over before moderator Anderson Cooper of CNN got around to asking a question about the biggest intelligence scandal in more than 40 years. You can read the full transcript here but the exchanges between Cooper and the candidates on Edward Snowden (via Ars Technica) is what’s worth the read:

COOPER: Governor Chafee, Edward Snowden, is he a traitor or a hero?

CHAFEE: No, I would bring him home. The courts have ruled that what he did—what he did was say the American…

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: Bring him home, no jail time?

CHAFEE: … the American government was acting illegally. That’s what the federal courts have said; what Snowden did showed that the American government was acting illegally for the Fourth Amendment. So I would bring him home.

COOPER: Secretary Clinton, hero or traitor?

CLINTON: He broke the laws of the United States. He could have been a whistleblower. He could have gotten all of the protections of being a whistleblower. He could have raised all the issues that he has raised. And I think there would have been a positive response to that.

COOPER: Should he do jail time?

ClINTON: In addition—in addition, he stole very important information that has unfortunately fallen into a lot of the wrong hands. So I don’t think he should be brought home without facing the music.

COOPER: Governor [Martin] O’Malley, Snowden?

(APPLAUSE)

O’MALLEY: Anderson, Snowden put a lot of Americans’ lives at risk. Snowden broke the law. Whistleblowers do not run to Russia and try to get protection from Putin. If he really believes that, he should be back here.

COOPER: Senator Sanders, Edward Snowden?

SANDERS: I think Snowden played a very important role in educating the American people to the degree in which our civil liberties and our constitutional rights are being undermined.

COOPER: Is he a hero?

SANDERS: He did—he did break the law, and I think there should be a penalty to that. But I think what he did in educating us should be taken into consideration before he is (inaudible).

Third Circuit Reinstates Muslim Discrimination Suit against the NYPD

Yesterday, in a case called Hassan v. The City of New York, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated a lawsuit accusing New York City of violating the 1st and 14th Amendment rights of Muslim-Americans in New Jersey under a sprawling and ineffective NYPD surveillance dragnet.

The ruling overturns a decision by the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey dismissing the suit for lack of standing and for failing to state a claim.

In layman’s terms: the district court, without a trial or the presentation of evidence, ruled that the plaintiffs weren’t harmed unjustifiably, that they hadn’t alleged sufficient wrongdoing by the police, and that they had no right to sue.  The Third Circuit ruling rejects those determinations and the case will now move forward at the district court.

An Associated Press investigation uncovered the NYPD program in 2011 and detailed the immense breadth of the NYPD’s surveillance efforts against the Muslim community in several states.  Police officers and informants infiltrated dozens of mosques. Police installed surveillance cameras so that Muslim-owned businesses, places of worship, and residences in New Jersey could be surveilled remotely. The NYPD even sent undercover officers to infiltrate Muslim student organizations at out-of-state universities such as Yale and the University of Pennsylvania, including one field trip to go whitewater rafting.  Those agents recorded the names of the students, how often they prayed, and what they talked about.  The NYPD is alleged to have “generated reports on every mosque within 100 miles of New York City.”

Despite the cost and the seemingly boundless geographic and jurisdictional scope of the spying program, there is little evidence of success.  In fact, the now-defunct “Demographics Unit,” a central component of the program, generated no convictions or, according to one agent deposition, even any tangible leads in more than a decade of operation.

Bernie Was Right, and Hillary Wrong, on Gun-Lawsuit Bill

It came up again at last night’s Democratic debate, so it’s worth repeating: Bernie Sanders and more than 60 other Democrats in Congress were right to support the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), and Hillary Clinton was wrong to oppose it.

Congress had both good practical reason and Constitutional authority to enact PLCAA. Its purpose and effect was to call a halt to the campaign (backed by the administration of Bill Clinton, Hillary’s husband) to launch financially ruinous litigation against firearms makers and dealers – most of them thinly capitalized firms unable to withstand massive legal bills – and apply the resulting leverage to extract promises of gun control without the bother of seeking approval for those measures from a then-skeptical U.S. Congress. It was a campaign rightly decried as undemocratic even by such figures of the Left as former cabinet secretary Robert Reich. It was also a travesty of legal ethics, employing litigation as a pure weapon; thus then-HUD secretary Andrew Cuomo warned gunmakers that unless they cooperated they’d suffer “death by a thousand cuts”, while then-New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer reportedly warned Glock: “If you do not sign, your bankruptcy lawyers will be knocking at your door.”

It is not the place of the U.S. Congress to rectify every ill of litigation that may arise in state courts, but the Constitution specifically contemplates that federal lawmakers will oversee the doings of state courts when those courts assert power over transactions and residents of other states. Thus Article IV, Section 1 grants Congress the power “by general Laws [to] prescribe the …Effect” of state law in other states. These powers are peculiarly relevant when employed to safeguard a Constitutionally specified right that is (purposely) put in jeopardy by tactical abuse of interstate lawsuits. 

Despite the claims of some opponents, Congress’s formula for resolving litigation amounted in essence to restoring, not overturning, the traditional common-law bounds of gun liability. It left open a few exceptions for instances where liability might have been found with some warrant in the older common law, as when a gun explodes or is knowingly sold to a person intent on harm. Otherwise, it codifies the same common-law rule that Cuomo, Clinton et al were hoping to get the courts to abandon: if an otherwise lawful firearm has performed as it was designed and intended to do, its maker and seller are not liable for its misuse.

I’ve written more about PLCAA and its critics here, here, and here

Montana Bureaucrats: Religious Families Need Not Apply

Montana’s scholarship tax credit (STC) law was already crippled and now bureaucrats are attempting to issue the coup de grâce

Montana’s STC law offers individuals and corporations tax credits in return for donations to nonprofit scholarship organizations that help families send their children to the school of their choice. All Montana students are eligible to apply for a tax-credit scholarship and the value of the scholarships is capped at half the statewide average per-pupil expenditure at the district schools (just over $5,300).

The only catch is that donations are capped at $150 per donor, far lower than in any other state. That means it would take at least 34 donors to fund a single $5,000 scholarship–a monumental task for scholarship organizations seeking to fund thousands of students.

But even if the scholarship organizations manage to raise the requisite funds, families may not be allowed to use the scholarships at their preferred school due to Montana Department of Revenue’s proposed rule barring the use of tax-credit scholarships at religious schools

The proposed regulations would bar schools from participating in the program if they’re “owned or controlled in whole or in part by any church, religious sect, or denomination.”

The proposed regulations also note schools are barred if their accreditation comes from a faith-based organization. […]

Republican state Sen. Kristin Hansen, who supported the bill, said the department was out of bounds.

“It’s the opposite of the intent of the legislation,” she said. “When we drafted the bill, we intentionally drafted a substantial definition of who qualified, so there wouldn’t be any questions about who would be eligible. I think the department has exceeded its authority by adding its own interpretation … when the Legislature was very clear. Absolutely, I think this proposed rule exceeds the department’s authority on more than one level.”

The bureaucrats claim they’re just following the state constitution’s historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment, which prohibits the appropriation of “any public fund or monies” to churches, religious schools, and other religious institutions. However, as the U.S. Supreme Court and several state supreme courts have held, tax-credit scholarships constitute private funding, not public funding, because the funds never enter the state treasury. Constitutionally, tax credits are no different than tax deductions or tax exemptions. Has the Montana Department of Revenue prohibited donors to churches from receiving charitable tax deductions? Has it prohibited the churches themselves from taking property tax exemptions? If not, why is it treating the tax credit law differently?

The department will hold a hearing on its proposed rules on November 5th. Hopefully the bureaucrats will see the error of their ways and change course. If not, they are inviting a lawsuit–one they are likely to lose.  

Police Misconduct — The Worst Case in September

Over at Cato’s Police Misconduct website, we have identified the worst case for the month of September.  This one goes to the Chicago Police Department, and, in particular, to the officers responsible for arresting George Roberts.

Here’s the background: CBS Chicago reports on a lawsuit filed by Roberts against the City of Chicago.  According to Roberts, he was falsely arrested and roughed up by the police following a traffic stop.  Roberts says the abuse of power began once the officers discovered that he worked for the Independent Police Review Authority, which investigates police misconduct.  Mysteriously, several police cameras were shut down, contrary to department policy.  Here is an excerpt from the news story:

Roberts said he was initially stopped for a minor traffic violation, but was then pushed in the back by one of the officers and forced to the ground. He said in the lawsuit that an officer shouted, “Don’t make me [expletive] shoot you.”

But “when the (officers) turned off the dash camera, things got worse,” his attorneys write in the lawsuit.

Roberts, who was handcuffed and placed in the back of a police vehicle, complained that the handcuffs were too tight, according to the lawsuit. The 6-foot-3, 315 pound man says that, instead, it would have have been appropriate for officers to use multiple handcuffs strung together for someone of his size.

He says in the lawsuit that one of the officers responded to his complaints: “What are you going to tell me next, you can’t breathe?” — an apparent reference to Eric Garner, a New York City man who died in 2014 as a result of a police choke hold.

Roberts also says he was told “that’s your fault,” when he pointed out that his weight made the single set of handcuffs painful.

Read the whole thing.  Roberts was suspended from his job while criminal charges were pending, but after his acquittal, he was able to return to work.  The Chicago Police Department had no comment on Roberts’ acquittal or his lawsuit.

 

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act Is a Compromise, but a Pretty Good One

Last week a bipartisan group of senators, led by conservative Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA), announced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015.

The bill clearly represents a compromise between criminal justice reformers and more conservative law-and-order legislators, but the aggregate effect on the criminal justice system would be a substantial improvement.

On the positive side, the bill reduces several mandatory minimums relating to non-violent drug and firearm offenses (notably reducing the “three strikes” life sentence to 25 years), adds several safety valves to allow judges to adjust the penalties for certain non-violent offenses, and in many cases works retroactively to lower the excessive sentences of those already convicted of the relevant crimes.  Further, the bill would require the federal government to compile and publish a database of all federal crimes, their elements, and their potential penalties.  In addition, the bill would restrict the use of solitary confinement on juvenile offenders, create a new system for assessing the risk level of federal prisoners, among several other corrections changes.

On the other hand, the bill creates brand new federal mandatory minimum sentences for interstate domestic violence crimes that result in death and for providing prohibited support to terrorist organizations. It’s unclear why legislators feel that terrorism suspects are treated too leniently by the current sentencing structure, and taking discretion away from judges to impose sentences based on the particular facts of the cases before them is a step back.  Also on the negative side, the bill increases the mandatory minimum for felons caught in possession of a firearm from 10 to 15 years.  There are nearly 6 million convicted felons in the United States, a great many of them having been convicted of non-violent drug offenses. Once again, it is unclear why legislators, rather than judges and juries, should determine the proper punishment for a felon who is caught with a firearm, or why the current 10 year mandatory prison sentence is considered insufficient.

Protecting School Choice from the State

As economists have understood for more than half a century, government agencies charged with regulating industries are often subject to regulatory capture. Rather than protect consumers from bad actors in the industries they were created to oversee, regulators too often develop cozy relationships with industry leaders and work at their behest to advance their interests. In Free to Choose, Milton and Rose Friedman detailed a particularly egregious example: the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC).

Established in 1887, the ICC’s mission was to regulate the powerful railroad industry, which critics accused of engaging in cartel-like price fixing and market sharing. Instead, the railroad industry took almost immediate control of the ICC. The ICC’s first commissioner, Thomas Cooley, was a lawyer who had long represented the railroads and, as the Friedmans explained, many of the agency’s the bureaucrats “were drawn from the railroad industry, their day-to-day business tended to be with railroad people, and their chief hope of a lucrative future was with railroads.”