Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Marijuana Legalization in DC

On February 26, 2015, marijuana becomes legal (again) under the laws of Washington, D.C. The key rules are:

  • It will be legal to possess up to two ounces of pot.
  • It will be legal to smoke said pot on private property.
  • It will be legal to transfer (give) an ounce or less of pot to someone else.
  • It will be legal to grow and cultivate up to six pot plants—no more than three mature ones—in your home.
  • You must be 21 years old to possess, consume, or grow pot.
  • Selling pot will still be illegal.
  • As will be smoking pot in any public space, which includes restaurants, bars, and coffee shops.
  • And, of course, none of this applies to any federal land (which accounts for 22 percent of the District), which considers marijuana illegal.

Overall, this is progress.  But note that:

1. Federal marijuana prohibition still applies.

2. The age limit of 21 is misguided (just as with alcohol).  That limit guarantees that much marijuana use will remain outside the law.

3. The limit on possession amounts is silly; the ban on sale is idiotic.

4. Perhaps restaurants, bars, and coffee shops will circumvent the ban on smoking in public by offering free edibles.

5. The federal government owns 22 percent of the land in D.C.?  Geez.

 

“Black Sites” of Silence?

Those who follow police misconduct closely know that patterns of abuse can become normalized when tolerated or unchecked by police supervisors. Abuses that went unreported or were unsubstantiated in years past have been exposed by the growing presence of camera phones and other technologies that record police-public interactions. But they can’t catch them all.

The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman has reported a truly disturbing practice in Chicago. The police have established a “black site” area where Americans are held incommunicado to be interrogated. Prisoners are held without charge and in violation of their constitutional rights and without access to legal counsel:

The facility, a nondescript warehouse on Chicago’s west side known as Homan Square, has long been the scene of secretive work by special police units. Interviews with local attorneys and one protester who spent the better part of a day shackled in Homan Square describe operations that deny access to basic constitutional rights.

Alleged police practices at Homan Square, according to those familiar with the facility who spoke out to the Guardian after its investigation into Chicago police abuse, include:

  • Keeping arrestees out of official booking databases.
  • Beating by police, resulting in head wounds.
  • Shackling for prolonged periods.
  • Denying attorneys access to the “secure” facility.
  • Holding people without legal counsel for between 12 and 24 hours, including people as young as 15.

At least one man was found unresponsive in a Homan Square “interview room” and later pronounced dead.

Unlike a precinct, no one taken to Homan Square is said to be booked. Witnesses, suspects or other Chicagoans who end up inside do not appear to have a public, searchable record entered into a database indicating where they are, as happens when someone is booked at a precinct. Lawyers and relatives insist there is no way of finding their whereabouts. Those lawyers who have attempted to gain access to Homan Square are most often turned away, even as their clients remain in custody inside.

Clearly Worded Contracts Should Be Enforced

Freedom of contract—the right of individuals to manage and govern their own affairs—is a basic and necessary liberty. The appropriate role of the government in contract-law disputes is to hold parties to their word, not to enforce its own policy preferences.

The New Jersey Supreme Court recently struck a blow against that basic freedom, however, in ruling that clearly worded arbitration provisions—one of the most common parts of consumer contracts—are unenforceable unless the parties comply with multiple superfluous formalities. The case arose when Patricia Atalese retained a law firm, U.S. Legal Services Group, to negotiate with creditors on her behalf. Atalese signed a retainer agreement with a standard arbitration provision: she checked a box that unambiguously indicated that she read and understood that all disputes would be settled via arbitration. Then, after a dispute over legal fees, Atalese disregarded the arbitration agreement and filed a lawsuit in state court.

The trial court dismissed her complaint and compelled arbitration, a ruling that was affirmed by the intermediate appellate court. But instead of letting that decision stand, the New Jersey Supreme Court broke from years of tradition and federal precedent found the arbitration provision unenforceable because it lacked certain magic words stating, in addition to all disputes being resolved by arbitration, that the parties were waiving their right to a civil jury trial.

Cato, joined by the National Federation of Independent Business, has filed an amicus brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. We make three key points. First, the New Jersey court’s proposed requirement—that contracts with an arbitration provision include belt-and-suspenders-and-drawstring language regarding jury-trial waiver—is redundant. Agreeing to submit a dispute to an impartial arbitrator instead of going through the expense of litigation is the very essence of an arbitration agreement.

We Should Only Trust the Government as Far as We Can Throw It

Vietnam vet Robert Rosebrock is 72 years old, but he’s still got enough fight in him to stand up for what he believes in. The Veteran’s Administration of Greater Los Angeles (VAGLA) and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit would prefer his fight to be in vain.

Rosebrock’s fight here is a protest against VAGLA’s use of a parcel of land deeded to the U.S. government for the care of homeless veterans for purposes other than that purpose.  For example, VAGLA leased parts of the land to a private school, an entertainment company, and a soccer club, and occasionally used it for hosting events. Every Sunday for 66 weeks, Rosebrock hung at least one and as many as 30 U.S. flags from a border fence on the VA property that he believed was being misused.

After seeing a celebrity gala event on the property one Sunday afternoon, Rosebrock started hanging flags with the stars down, signifying dire distress to life and property—the distress faced by LA’s homeless veterans. At this point, VAGLA started enforcing its policy against “displaying of placards or posting of materials on bulletin boards or elsewhere on [VA] property.” When Rosebrock continued, believing his First Amendment rights would protect him, he was issued six criminal citations. He then stopped hanging his flag upside down but was later allowed to hang it right-side-up—a clear if unusual example of viewpoint-based speech discrimination that violates the First Amendment.

“Slipshod Work, Faulty Analysis, And Statistical Sleight Of Hand” At the EEOC

We’ve reported earlier in this space on how the Obama administration’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) keeps getting slapped down by federal judges over what we called its “long-shot lawsuits and activist legal positions.” Now the Fourth Circuit has weighed in on a high-profile employment screening case from Maryland – and it too has given the EEOC a good thwacking, in this case over “pervasive errors and utterly unreliable analysis” in the expert testimony it marshaled to show the employer’s liability. Those are the words of a three-judge panel consisting of Judge Roger Gregory, originally appointed to the court by Bill Clinton before being re-appointed by his successor George W. Bush, joined by Obama appointee Albert Diaz and GWB appointee G. Steven Agee. 

The case arose from the EEOC’s much-publicized initiative of going after employers that use criminal background checks in hiring, which the agency insists often have improper disparate impact on minority applicants and have not been validated as necessary for business reasons. It sued the Freeman Cos., a provider of convention and exposition services, over its screening methods, but Freeman won after district court judge Roger Titus shredded the EEOC’s proffered expert evidence as “laughable,” “unreliable,” and “mind-boggling.” The EEOC appealed to the Fourth Circuit. 

If it was expecting vindication there, it was very wrong. Agreeing with Judge Titus, Judge Gregory cited the “pervasive errors and utterly unreliable analysis” of the commission’s expert report, by psychologist Kevin Murphy. “The sheer number of mistakes and omissions in Murphy’s analysis renders it ‘outside the range where experts might reasonably differ,’” which meant it could not have been an abuse of discretion for Judge Titus to exclude it. 

Strong language, yet Judge Agee chose to write a separate concurrence “to address my concern with the EEOC’s disappointing litigation conduct.” Noting a pattern in multiple cases, Agee faulted the commission’s lawyers for circling the wagons on behalf of its statistical methods despite repeated judicial hints that it needed to strengthen its quality control. “Despite Murphy’s record of slipshod work, faulty analysis, and statistical sleight of hand, the EEOC continues on appeal to defend his testimony.” If the agency doesn’t watch out, exasperated judges might start imposing more sanctions against it. 

Incidentally, as a counterpoint to the EEOC’s bullheadedness, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights a year back did a briefing program on employee screening and criminal background checks that tries to include an actual balance of views. You can read and download it here.

When Wisconsin Officials Badger Their Political Opponents, It’s a Federal Case

SWAT teams—police units equipped with military-style weaponry and trained to deal with the most dangerous of criminals—were first created police realized that patrolmen equipped with revolvers and batons are generally able to keep the peace, they lack the resources and skills to deal with riots, urban terrorism, and other exotic crime. Since then, SWAT-style paramilitary units have been deployed to rescue hostages, end bank robberies, secure campuses after school shootings, and, in Wisconsin, to raid the houses and offices of people the state believed to be guilty of exercising their rights under the First Amendment.

That’s right: in the last few years, SWAT raids were part of a wide-ranging (politically motivated) investigation into whether certain unknown individuals—“John Does”—were violating campaign finance laws. Some of these John Does objected and challenged the validity of the subpoenas requiring them to turn over their records to the district attorney’s office.

The state trial court agreed and quashed the subpoena, finding that the state had no reason to believe that any violation of state law had occurred, or that the records taken would contain relevant evidence. Unsatisfied, the DA appealed the judge’s order. Rather than continuing this battle through the state courts, these John Does sued the state officials responsible for the investigation in federal court. They claimed that the investigation was a speech-chilling violation of their First Amendment rights and asked for a federal injunction preventing the state from pursuing the investigation.

The state argued that a federal law—the Anti-Injunction Act—prevents federal courts from ordering states to abandon in-progress criminal cases. Nevertheless, the district court issued an order stopping the SWAT-style fishing expedition, relying on a series of Supreme Court cases holding that the AIA doesn’t apply where the prosecution is known by the state to be baseless, is part of a campaign of harassment, or involves the enforcement of a blatantly unconstitutional law. The judge concluded that Wisconsin’s campaign-finance laws, as well as the methods used to enforce them, violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed the district court’s order, however, concluding that since the state campaign-finance laws had not yet been declared unconstitutional—and their constitutionality was not directly before the district court—the AIA exceptions didn’t apply and the injunction was improper. In short, Wisconsin will be allowed to continue its investigation, the constitutionality of which is immune from legal challenge in federal court. In effect, the Seventh Circuit held that that under the AIA, the only time defendants can challenge the constitutionality of a state’s criminal laws is “when no state prosecution [is] pending.”

Cato has filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to hear the plaintiffs’ appeal. We argue that regardless of whether Wisconsin’s election laws are unconstitutional, there was sufficient evidence suggesting that the sole purpose of the investigation was to harass the plaintiffs and discourage them (and others) from advocating a particular legislative agenda. Because the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the AIA allows federal judges to halt state enforcement of undeniably constitutional laws where there is evidence that a prosecution is being conducted for an improper purpose (like silencing political dissent), or in a manner that constitutes harassment, the district court had the power to issue an injunction regardless of whether or not Wisconsin’s campaign-finance laws are constitutional.

The fact that the constitutionality of those laws is in doubt—it happens to be one of the most heavily contested questions currently before the courts—only makes the district court’s decision all the more proper and the Seventh Circuit’s all the more worrying. If allowed to stand, the long-term effect of the Seventh Circuit’s ruling would be to give prosecutors carte blanche to do exactly what Wisconsin’s politically inspired prosecutors did: “investigate” perceived political threats for the very purpose of suppressing political speech. So long as arrests are never made and claims are never brought, the prosecutors are in the clear and no federal court can do anything about it. That can’t be the law.

The Supreme Court will decide this in the next couple of months whether to take the case of O’Keefe v. Chisholm.

Lynching, The Rule Of Law, and America’s Past

In connection with his new book The Libertarian Mind, my colleague David Boaz wrote a piece last week on how the struggle to abolish slavery was a defining episode for classical liberals and proto-libertarians of the past, indeed arguably their greatest accomplishment. In America, libertarian history and black history cannot be separated. 

We also know that after the end of slavery, the racial subjugation of American blacks did not end, but took new forms. As a new generation of historians has helped the nation remember, the “Black Codes” and Jim Crow laws that spread across the South after Reconstruction were part of an interlocking array of practices that at its worst succeeded in recreating “slavery by another name.” Some of those laws were explicitly racial–and “segregation” is wholly inadequate as a description of the racial subordination they enforced–but others worked through theoretically race-neutral legal institutions, including convict-leasing combined with steep penalties for minor or pretended offenses, debt peonage for tenant farmers, and laws prohibiting “vagrancy” (i.e., unemployment) or walking away from a labor contract, among other offenses.  

The other main branch of legalized racial oppression after the Civil War was, if anything, even more difficult yet necessary to confront: sanctioned violence outside the machinery of the state, symbolized by the practice of lynching. Last week the Equal Justice Initiative released a report (summary here) that was written up in the New York Times and has drawn attention from commentators including conservative Rod Dreher.

The details–be warned that they are gruesome in the extreme–include burnings alive and public tortures and mutilations carried out before crowds of hundreds, even thousands, of persons. “The white men, women, and children present watched the horrific murders while enjoying deviled eggs, lemonade, and whiskey in a picnic-like atmosphere.”