Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

“John Doe” Justice at Last

A quick notice: The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s much anticipated decision in the long running “John Doe” investigations of alleged campaign finance violations came down this morning, and it’s a resounding rejection of the prosecution’s entire theory of the case. By way of very brief background of a very complex case, here’s the opening paragraph from an April 27 post I wrote for Cato@Liberty:

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.

You can’t make stuff like this up. Well here’s just a bit of the language this morning from Justice Michael J. Gableman:

[W]e invalidate the special prosecutor’s theory of the case, and we grant the relief requested by the Unnamed Movants. 

To be clear, this conclusion ends the John Doe investigation because the special prosecutor’s legal theory is unsupported in either reason or law.  Consequently, the investigation is closed.  Consistent with our decision and the order entered by Reserve Judge Peterson, we order that the special prosecutor and the district attorneys involved in this investigation must cease all activities related to the investigation, return all property seized in the investigation from any individual or organization, and permanently destroy all copies of information and other materials obtained through the investigation.  All Unnamed Movants are relieved of any duty to cooperate further with the investigation.

Language like that makes one appreciate the importance of an independent judiciary. You can read the whole opinion here

Former Scott Walker Aide Victim of Unconstitutional E-Fishing Expedition

When Kelly Rindfleisch became a policy analyst for Scott Walker, and then his deputy chief of staff, she didn’t expect all of her personal emails to be the subject of a search into the criminal investigation of another person, but that’s Wisconsin politics for you.

In 2010, state officials opened a “John Doe” investigation (essentially Wisconsin’s version of a grand jury inquiry) into another Walker staffer, then-Chief of Staff Tim Russell. In their investigation, law enforcement sought and obtained a warrant for Google and Yahoo to turn over all ~16,000 emails held on Rindfleisch’s personal email account in order to find possibly incriminating emails sent between her and Russell—no narrowing, minimization, key-word searching, or independent third-party review required.

Through their fishing expedition, prosecutors were able to find enough evidence to support a charge against Rindfleisch, claiming that the incriminating content of those emails was in “plain view” subsequent to the incredibly broad search. Due to the unconstitutional search, Rindfleisch eventually plead guilty to misconduct in public office.

The Wisconsin Court of Appeals upheld the validity of the search warrants, and the Wisconsin Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal—leaving law enforcement with carte blanche to rummage through personal emails. Rindfleisch’s case provides an excellent vehicle for the U.S. Supreme Court to address the degree to which the Fourth Amendment requires a warrant for searching electronic data, tailored to probable cause. That’s why Cato filed a brief, joining the DKT Liberty Project, supporting Rindfleisch’s cert petition.

President Obama Announces Drug Sentence Commutations

Today President Obama announced that 46 non-violent drug offenders will have their sentences commuted and be released this year.  The announcement comes ahead of President Obama’s speech on sentencing reform later this week from a prison in Oklahoma.

The vast majority of the offenders were convicted of cocaine offenses, along with a handful of marijuana cases and some general “controlled substance” violations.  The lowest initial sentence among the 46 was 15 years, while several received life sentences.  In issuing the commutations the White House noted that, due to recent sentencing reforms, these sentences are out of step with the sentences the offenders would receive for the same violations today:

These unduly harsh sentences are one of the reasons the President is committed to using all the tools at his disposal to remedy unfairness in our criminal justice system. Today, he is continuing this effort by granting clemency to 46 men and women, nearly all of whom would have already served their time and returned to society if they were convicted of the exact same crime today.

The list of recipients, along with their offenses, can be found here.  

The ACA Is Dead — Long Live ObamaCare

My first, but not remotely my last, oped on the Supreme Court’s ruling in King v. Burwell appears in today’s Washington Examiner. Excerpt:

Obamacare supporters are mistaken if they think the Supreme Court’s King v. Burwell ruling settles the issue. Even in defeat, King threatens Obamacare’s survival, because it exposes Obamacare as an illegitimate law…

By overriding the operative language of the statute, the Supreme Court colluded with the president to impose taxes and entitlements that no Congress ever approved; to deprive states of powers Congress granted them to block parts of the ACA; and to disenfranchise Republican and independent voters who swept ACA opponents into state office in 2009, 2010 and 2011 for the purpose of blocking the ACA.

The Supreme Court did not lose its legitimacy with King v. Burwell — it has made worse mistakes. Obamacare did. Having been rewritten over and over by the president and the Supreme Court rather than Congress, Obamacare cannot claim to be a legitimate law.

Read the whole thing.

And You Thought Civil Asset Forfeiture Was Bad Enough…

Remember Megaupload.com? It was once the 13th most popular website on the internet, with more than 82 million unique visitors and a billion total page views during its seven-year operation. The site allowed people to store files on the cloud for later use — and some users inevitably stored copyrighted TV shows, films, songs, and software.

In 2012, the U.S. government charged the owner, the colorful Kim Dotcom, and the website’s operators with conspiracy to commit copyright infringement. The defendants are currently resisting extradition to the United States (Dotcom lives in New Zealand), as is their right under extradition treaties. In 2014, the seemingly frustrated government moved to seize the defendants’ considerable assets in a civil forfeiture action, claiming that the assets are probably connected to the alleged criminal activity.

Under civil forfeiture laws, the government can take property without an underlying criminal conviction based only on the allegation of a crime. Those whose property has been seized can get it back by proving that their property is “innocent.” The government, however, is preventing the defendants from even making that argument. Using the “fugitive disentitlement” doctrine, the government is blocking the defendants from challenging the forfeiture.

Fugitive disentitlement has historically been applied only to criminals who escaped custody while appealing a conviction, the idea being that a court could decide to dismiss the appeal because any judgment would be unenforceable against an absent defendant. Here, the government has decided that, because the Megaupload defendants aren’t coming to the United States to defend their property, they are “fugitives” who have lost the ability to defend against that seizure — and the district court agreed. Cato, joined by the Institute for Justice and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, has filed a brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit arguing that it’s unconstitutional for the government to use fugitive disentitlement in civil forfeiture proceedings against non-fugitives.

The Most Racist Urban Area in America?

Yesterday, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) approved a new fair housing rule called Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing. This follows the Supreme Court’s recent ruling allowing HUD to use disparate impact as a criterion for determining whether a community is guilty of unfair housing practices.

 Wikimedia photo by Bernard Gagnon.

In one form of disparate impact analyses, HUD compares the racial makeup of a city or suburb with the makeup of the urban area as a whole. If the city doesn’t have enough minorities, it is presumed guilty and must take steps to attract more. Under the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, that could mean subsidizing low-income housing or rezoning land for high-density housing.

While I have no doubt that prejudice is still a factor in housing in America, there are many other factors that influence the distribution of people across an urban area. These include religion, education, and personal tastes in food, recreation, and other activities. For example, low-income families with children will be more likely to live near a Walmart Supercenter while high-income families with no children will be more likely to live near a Whole Foods. To expect every suburb, most of whose borders are based on little more than historical accidents, to have a perfect mix of races is absurd.

When Battling the Government In Court, What Are You Free To Say in the Press?

Readers who follow the battles over forfeiture law may recall the recent case in which a North Carolina convenience store owner from whom the government had seized $107,000 without any showing of wrongdoing decided to fight the case in the press as well as in court, backed by the Institute for Justice. Lyndon McLellan’s decision to go public with the dispute drew a menacing letter from a federal prosecutor about the publicity the case had been getting:

“Your client needs to resolve this or litigate it,” Mr. West wrote. “But publicity about it doesn’t help. It just ratchets up feelings in the agency.” He concluded with a settlement offer in which the government would keep half the money.

That case ended happily, but the problem is much broader: many individuals and businesses fear that if they seek out favorable media coverage about their battle with the government, the government will find a way to retaliate, either informally in settlement negotiations or by finding new charges to throw against them.

That such fears might not be without foundation is illustrated by last week’s widely publicized Oregon cake ruling, in which a Gresham, Oregon couple was ordered to pay $135,000 in emotional-distress damages for having refused to bake a cake for a lesbian couple’s commitment ceremony. Aside from the ruling’s other objectionable elements, the state labor commissioner ruled it “unlawful” for the couple to have given national media interviews in which they expressed sentiments like “we can see this becoming an issue and we have to stand firm.” Taking advantage of an exception in free speech law in which courts have found that the First Amendment does not protect declarations of future intent to engage in unlawful discrimination, the state argued – and its commissioner agreed – that the “stand firm” remark along with several similarly general comments rallying supporters were together “unlawful.”

That ought to bother anyone who cares about free speech. I’ve got a piece up at Ricochet.com, my first there, exploring the question in more detail. Check it out.