Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

The Unlikely Fight over Gay Rights in the Heart of Europe

This weekend, after months of animated and often vicious campaigning, Slovaks will vote in a referendum on same-sex marriage, adoptions, and sex education. Interestingly, the referendum has not been initiated by the proponents of gay rights, which are not particularly numerous or well-organized, but rather by the social-conservative group Alliance for Family. The goal is to preempt moves towards the legalization of same-sex unions and of child adoptions by gay couples by banning them before they become a salient issue. Overturning the results of a binding referendum would then require a parliamentary supermajority and would only come at a sizeable political cost.

However, in spite of all the heated rhetoric, it seems unlikely that the threshold for the referendum’s validity will be met. Also, as I wrote in International New York Times some time ago, Slovakia is slowly becoming a more open, tolerant place – something that the referendum will hopefully not undo. However,

[i]n the meantime, the mean-spirited campaigning and frequent disparaging remarks about gays and their “condition” are a poor substitute for serious policy discussions and are making the country a much less pleasant place, and not just for its gay population.

Another disconcerting aspect of the referendum is its geopolitical dimension. For some of the campaigners a rejection of gay rights goes hand in hand with a rejection of what they see as the morally decadent West:

Former Prime Minister Jan Carnogursky, a former Catholic dissident and an outspoken supporter of the referendum, noted recently that “in Russia, one would not even have to campaign for this — over there, the protection of traditional Christian values is an integral part of government policy” and warned against the “gender ideology” exported from the United States.

We will see very soon whether the ongoing cultural war was just a blip in Central Europe’s history or whether it will leave a bitter aftertaste for years to come. Here is my essay on the referendum, written for V4 Revue. I also wrote about the referendum in Slovak, for the weekly Tyzden (paywalled), and discuss it in a video with Pavol Demes (in Slovak).

Does the Government Require Your Hotel to Spy on You?

If you’re a privacy conscious traveler, you may have wondered from time to time why hotels ask for ID when you check in, or why they ask you to give them the make and model of your car and other information that isn’t essential to the transaction. What’s the ID-checking for? There’s never been a problem with fraudsters checking into hotels under others’ reservations, paying for the privilege to do so…

Well, in many jurisdictions around the country, that information-gathering is mandated by law. Local ordinances require hotels, motels, and other lodgers (such as AirBnB hosts), to collect this information and keep it on hand. These laws also require that the information be made available to the police on request, for any reason or no reason, without a warrant.

That’s the case in Los Angeles, which not only requires this data retention about hotel guests for law enforcement to access at will or whim. It also requires hoteliers to check a government-issued ID from guests that pay cash.

Open access to hotel records may have been innocuous enough in the early years of travel and lodging. Reading through hotel registers was a social sport among the wealthy, who could afford long-distance travel and lodging. Today, tourism is available to the masses, and hotel records enjoy tighter privacy protections. Most people would quit a hotel that left their information open to the public, and many would be surprised that hoteliers’ records are open to law enforcement collection and review without any legal process.

Police Misconduct — The Worst Case in January

Over at Cato’s Police Misconduct web site, we have identified the worst case for January.  It comes from Miramar, Florida. The misconduct took place in the 1980s, but it took some time for it to be exposed.  A federal appeals court recently upheld a $7,000,000 judgment against two now-former police officers

In 1983, the officers coerced a mentally challenged 15-year-old boy, Anthony Caravella, to confess to rape and murder.

From the Florida Sun-Sentinel:

Caravella was arrested by Mantesta and Pierson on Dec. 28, 1983, on a juvenile case that alleged he stole a bicycle and didn’t show up for court.

Over the next week, while in juvenile custody, Caravella gave a series of statements to the officers that culminated in him confessing to the murder.

Heyer said Caravella trusted Mantesta and the officers, who spent hours alone with him, fed him information about the crime scene and got him to repeat it back to them.

Caravella and his childhood friend, Dawn Simone Herron, testified in the 2013 civil trial that the officers coerced Caravella into falsely incriminating himself by telling him that if he gave a statement they would free the 16-year-old girl who was with him when he was arrested.

After that “police work,” prosecutors actually sought the death penalty against the teen, but the jury opted for a life sentence instead.

The man who was actually responsible for the rape and murder remained free, endangering other members of the community.  He never faced justice for this crime.

Seize First, Question Later: The Institute for Justice’s New Report on the IRS’ Abusive Civil Forfeiture Regime

Considering the growing controversy over the abuse of civil asset forfeiture at the federal and state levels, the Institute for Justice’s newly released report on the IRS’ questionable use of the practice is perfectly timed.

An excerpt from the executive summary:

Federal civil forfeiture laws give the Internal Revenue Service the power to clean out bank accounts without charging their owners with any crime. Making matters worse, the IRS considers a series of cash deposits or withdrawals below $10,000 enough evidence of “structuring” to take the money, without any other evidence of wrongdoing. Structuring—depositing or withdrawing smaller amounts to evade a federal law that requires banks to report transactions larger than $10,000 to the federal government—is illegal, but more importantly, structured funds are also subject to civil forfeiture.

Civil forfeiture is the government’s power to take property suspected of involvement in a crime. Unlike criminal forfeiture, no one needs to be convicted of—or even a charged with—a crime for the government to take the property. Lax civil forfeiture standards enable the IRS to “seize first and ask questions later,” taking money without serious investigation and forcing owners into a long and difficult legal battle to try to stop the forfeiture. Any money forfeited is then used to fund further law enforcement efforts, giving agencies like the IRS an incentive to seize.

Data provided by the IRS indicate that its civil forfeiture activities for suspected structuring are large and growing…

For the uninitiated, under the Bank Secrecy Act of 1970, financial institutions are required to report deposits of more than $10,000 to the federal government.  The law also makes it illegal to “structure” deposits in such a way as to avoid that reporting requirement.  Under the IRS’ conception of the law, “structuring” may be nothing more than making several sub-$10,000 deposits, without any further suspicion of particular wrongdoing.  For obvious reasons, many small businesses and individuals can find themselves on the wrong side of this law without any criminal intent.

When the structuring law is combined with the incredibly low burdens required for the federal government to seize assets through civil forfeiture, the potential for abuse is self-evident.  While the lack of criminal intent may protect against criminal structuring charges, it is no barrier to the government’s overbroad power to initiate civil proceedings against the money itself.

IJ’s report, authored by Dick M. Carpenter II and Larry Salzman, goes in depth to reveal the history and unbelievable breadth of the IRS’ civil forfeiture regime, the perverse incentives it creates for government agencies, and the individual livelihoods it threatens and destroys.  IJ makes the case for much stronger protections for private property rights (including the outright abolition of civil forfeiture as a government power).

Be sure to check out the full report, as well as the Institute for Justice’s other work on asset forfeiture and private property here.

For more of Cato’s recent work on civil forfeiture, see Roger Pilon’s recent National Interest  article here, my blog post here, and a recent podcast here.

 

To Vaccinate, or Not to Vaccinate: That Is the Question

With Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul now having weighed in on the growing compulsory vaccination debate—Paul telling a radio host yesterday that most vaccines “ought to be voluntary”—the question arises whether there’s a “libertarian” position on the question. Rightly suspicious of government compulsion, a libertarian’s first instinct is to say that this is a question for individual parents to decide. But second thoughts suggest that the matter is more complicated. After all, it isn’t simply a matter of assessing the risk to one’s own child, about which the state is not entirely disinterested—enforceable parental obligations to one’s children come with becoming a parent. It’s also a question of how much risk one can impose, even through one’s children, on others. And on the matter of risk, the rights analyses that easily sort out so many other human conflicts start to break down—or, more precisely, require turning to values as well, about which reasonable people can have reasonable differences. Some people are risk averse, after all, others are risk takers, and between the two there is no principled line, which is why we often have to turn to public solutions through public line-drawing.

Fortunately, there comes just this morning a splendid essay by NYU Prof. and Cato Adjunct Scholar Richard Epstein that sorts out the competing claims on this question in a principled and fairly detailed way. To those reluctant to see any government role, for example, he says:

Even in a free state, quarantines are the only reliable remedy to protect the health of the public at large from the spread of disease. It is sheer fantasy to think that individuals made ill could bring private lawsuits for damages against the parties that infected them, or that persons exposed to imminent risk could obtain injunctive relief against the scores of persons who threaten to transmit disease. The transmission of disease involves hidden and complex interconnections between persons that could not be detected in litigation, even assuming that it could be brought in time, which it cannot. Public oversight should be able to achieve the desired end at a far lower cost.

Yet he adds: “That said, the categorical defense of compulsory vaccination statutes raises serious questions of its own,” which he goes on to illuminate. Read the whole piece. It brings reason to issues too often fraught with and driven by emotion, understandably when it’s our children who are at risk.

Using Racial Gerrymandering to Combat Racial Gerrymandering

I’ve previously written about the way that the existing case law regarding voting-rights protections requires the very kind of odious racialization of politics that Congress wrote the Voting Rights Act to forbid.  Specifically, courts have read the law in a way that essentially requires racial gerrymandering, which also racializes political differences between the parties. (The Supreme Court this term is considering one of the bizarre consequences of this line of precedent.)

Well, a couple of weeks ago an interesting lawsuit was filed by the Equal Voting Rights Institute (a Texas nonprofit run by Dan Morenoff, who is a friend of mine from law school) that illustrates where this jurisprudence leads when paired with the most basic notions of equal protection.

EVRI has brought exactly the same kind of suit long used by traditional voting-rights activists but this time on behalf of non-Hispanic-white voters in Dallas – where they constitute a racial minority that has seen its “preferred candidate” (a term of art in this arcane legal field) win only two county-wide races contested by the major parties over four election cycles, which is 2 out of about 150 elections. EVRI asks the courts to apply the same measuring sticks they’ve used for decades to require the drawing of districts for other groups in the new context of a “minority-majority” jurisdiction whose governing coalition still votes on ethnic lines and uses its political power to strip an out-of-step race of any chance to fairly participate in elections.

It’s hard to imagine a case where equal protection provisions are more starkly implicated: either the VRA protects the out-voted white voters of Dallas exactly as it protects the outvoted African American and Hispanic voters of Texas, or the Voting Rights Act – as construed by the courts – provides unequal protections to different races in flagrant violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

But this means that a constitutional reading of the VRA would broaden the scope of its case law (and the odious racial gerrymandering it requires) to apply to every minority-majority jurisdiction in the country. In fact, as America becomes more diverse, it makes sense that judges would need to look at actual demographic facts on the ground to determine who needs their protection from racial disenfranchisement. That development may wake up the communities that have long viewed the Voting Rights Act as their proprietary cudgel to the need to return to the original understanding of the legislation: to police against actual instances of discrimination rather than maintain some sort of statistical parity akin to the “disparate impact” theories running rampant in other contexts. 

In other words, and to paraphrase Chief Justice John Roberts’s famous dictum, the way to stop racialized interpretations of the Voting Rights Act is to highlight the way that race-based decision-making has been used to interpret parts of that law. It’s a strange world where a classical liberal is required to root for more racially informed lawmaking in order to recover the core ban on racist voting laws that made the VRA the cornerstone of civil rights movement. But that is the world we live in.

For more on the case of Harding v. County of Dallas, Texas, see the complaint and EVRI’s press release.

Loretta Lynch’s Worrisome Answer on Civil Asset Forfeiture

Referring to the federal government’s forfeiture regime as “an important tool” in fighting crime, attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch staunchly defended the concept of civil asset forfeiture during the first day of her confirmation hearings.

After Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) questioned the “fundamental fairness” of Americans having their property taken by the government without any proof (or often even suspicion) of criminal wrongdoing, Lynch asserted that there are “safeguards at every step of the process” to protect innocent people, “certainly implemented by [her] office … as well as an opportunity to be heard.”

Even setting aside the litany of federal civil asset forfeiture abuses that have come to light recently across the country, Lynch’s reference to her own office’s handling of civil forfeiture is particularly concerning.

Lynch is currently the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, and her office, despite its safeguards, is responsible for one of the more publicized and questionable uses of the asset forfeiture program.  In May of 2012 the Hirsch brothers, joint owners of Bi-County Distributors in Long Island, had their entire bank account drained by the Internal Revenue Service working in conjunction with Lynch’s office. Many of Bi-County’s customers paid in cash, and when the brothers made several deposits under $10,000, federal agents accused them of “structuring” their deposits in order to avoid the reporting requirements of the Bank Secrecy Act. Without so much as a criminal charge, the federal government emptied the account, totaling $446,651.11.

For more than two years, and in defiance of the 60-day deadline for the initiation of proceedings included in the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000, Lynch’s office simply sat on the money while the Hirsch brothers survived off the goodwill their business had engendered with its vendors over the decades.