Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

New York’s Crazy Gravity-Knife Law

Excellent article by Jon Campbell for the Village Voice about New York City’s zeal for arresting people on charges of possessing so-called “gravity knives” – knives whose blade can be opened without the assistance of a second hand, and then be secured in place for use. Used in countless trades and occupations, knives fitting this description are sold at hardware, sporting, and work-gear stores from coast to coast. But New York City routinely prosecutes persons in possession of them even in the absence of any indication that the holder was up to no good or knew they violated local law. Excerpt:

For years, New York’s gravity-knife law has been formally opposed by a broad swath of the legal community. Elected officials call the statute “flawed” and “unfair.” Defense attorneys call it “outrageous” and “ridiculous” – or worse. Labor unions, which have seen a parade of members arrested for tools they use on the job, say the law is woefully outdated. Even the Office of Court Administration – the official body of the New York State judiciary – says the law is unjustly enforced and needs to change. They’ve petitioned the legislature to do just that.

A move in Albany to revamp New York’s law to cover possession of such a knife only when accompanied by “unlawful intent” failed, due in part to opposition from some quarters in the law enforcement community, where collaring some poor guy walking home from the subway for a “GK” (gravity knife) is known as an easy way to boost arrest numbers:

A poster on Officer.com, a verified online message board for law enforcement officers, put it bluntly in 2013 when he advised a rookie to be on the lookout for “GKs”: “make sure they have a prior conviction so you can bump it up to that felony!!!”

New York’s controversial stop-and-frisk policies are one reason it has such a high number of knife charges:

Village Voice analysis of data from several sources suggests there have been as many as 60,000 gravity-knife prosecutions over the past decade, and that the rate has more than doubled in that time. If those estimates are correct, it’s enough to place gravity-knife offenses among the top 10 most prosecuted crimes in New York City.

More recently, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance in 2010 deployed the law as a municipal money-maker by charging Home Depot and other hardware and sports chains for selling what many of them had assumed were lawful knives, and extracting large “restitution” payments as part of the ensuing settlements.

In much of the rest of the country, fortunately, the law is on a sounder path as Arizona, New Hampshire, and other states revamp outdated laws to respect the peaceful ownership and carrying of knives. (The national group Knife Rights monitors and advances this progress.) Read the whole Voice piece here

The U.S. Fall in Economic Freedom and the Rule of Law

The United States is the 12th  freest economy in the world according to the new Economic Freedom of the World report. Co-published today by Cato and the Fraser Institute, it finds a strong relationship between economic freedom and human well-being.

The U.S. ranking is part of a worrisome decline in economic freedom that began more than a decade ago. For decades, the United States ranked in second or third place on the index. In 2000 it was #2, yet by 2005 it ranked 8 and it continued its precipitous fall until recently. On a 0-10 scale, the U.S. rating is now 7.81 compared to 7.74 last year, a slight improvement. The level of economic freedom in the United States is lower today than it was in 1980. Since 2005, Canada has ranked higher than the United States.

The authors of the report note that the United States has fallen in all five areas that they measure: size of government; legal system and property rights; sound money; freedom to trade; and regulation. But the rule-of-law indicator (legal system and property rights) has seen the biggest decline and, as the graph shows, it has been enormous.

The U.S. Decline

The measured deterioration in the rule of law is consistent with scholarship in that field and, according to the report, is a result of “increased use of eminent domain to transfer property to powerful political interests, the ramifications of the wars on terrorism and drugs,” and other property rights violations. Because the rule of law is of course a cornerstone not just of economic freedom but of all freedoms, and because there is a strong relationship between economic freedom and other liberties (civil and political), all Americans should be concerned with the findings of the report.

A deterioration in the rule of law should also be of special concern to Hong Kong, the top ranked territory in the index, where recent protests highlight the danger that Beijing’s interference in its legal system, including the perception of such, poses to the overall freedoms and economic success of Hong Kong.

Supreme Court Shows Active Restraint in Not Taking Up Marriage Cases

Confounding the expectations of most commentators, the Supreme Court this morning denied petitions for review in all seven same-sex marriage cases pending before it. I wasn’t so bullish on the petitions’ chances – the justices are increasingly reluctant to entertain controversial subjects except when they absolutely must – but see a sort of practical wisdom in this noteworthy inaction. Although it’s unusual for the Court to deny review in those rare cases where all parties urge it, there’s no current “circuit split” – all appellate courts have struck down the challenges to various states’ marriage laws – so the justices’ demurral signals a desire to let public opinion shift even further in favor of allowing same-sex marriage before the Court wades in with a definitive constitutional ruling. By doing so, and thereby postponing any eventual ruling (perhaps until a circuit court goes the other way, if one does), the Court is lessening the chance that its involvement will warp American legal and political discourse the way Roe v. Wade did.

In the meantime, once today’s “decision not to decide” works its way through the lower courts, same-sex couples will be able to marry in 30 states and the District of Columbia. That’s a good thing.

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.

The worst case goes to the still-unnamed police officer who shot John Geer in a Northern Virginia incident last year, and the police and federal investigators who have refused to release any information on the case a year after the shooting.

Fairfax County police officers responded to a call from Geer’s longtime girlfriend who called 911 because Geer had been drinking and throwing her possessions out onto the lawn after she told him she was moving out. When officers arrived, they trained their weapons at Geer as they spoke with him in the doorway of his home for almost 50 minutes. Friends and family gathered to watch the situation. One of Geer’s daughters shouted from a neighbor’s home “Don’t you hurt my daddy!”

Geer had been speaking calmly and holding his arms above his head, resting them on the doorframe from within, but when he moved his hands down the doorframe to about face-level, one of the officers abruptly fired a shot directly into Geer’s chest, as his best friend, father, and neighbors watched. Geer spun and closed the door before collapsing. The officers then waited an hour while Geer bled to death before sending in assistance. Over four hours later, Geer’s body was still left lying on the floor of his home.

Police handling of the incident and its aftermath haven’t improved in the year since the shooting. Geer’s family and friends still don’t know the name of the shooting officer—who has been on paid desk duty ever since—whether the shooting was declared justified or not, or why trained negotiators were not called. State and federal investigators have taken no substantial public action on the case, and the family, which exhibited incredible patience for the better part of a year, has finally had to resort to a lawsuit.

The refusal of the police to disclose even the name of the officer who shot and killed an unarmed man is just another example of the same troubling lack of transparency that we saw in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Police officers are human, and yes they make mistakes, but what possible excuse is there for circling the wagons and denying the public—and worse, the victims’ family and friends—the right to know what their public servants have done and which of them needs to be to held accountable? The resulting feeling among those affected, as Geer’s father described it, is “Frustrating to say the least—not knowing anything and having a feeling of helplessness, sadness, anger. Just wondering what’s going on and why nobody would tell us anything.”

This is a case of one man shooting another unarmed man in the chest in front of dozens of witnesses. No complication can justify forcing that feeling of helplessness and anger on John Geer’s friends and family for over a year.

Court Is Back in Session: No Huge Cases Yet, but Blockbusters Loom

While it seems like just yesterday that the Supreme Court went on vacation after its controversial (but correct) ruling in the Hobby Lobby contraceptive-mandate case, summer is over even for The Nine. Today is First Monday, the traditional start of the new Supreme Court term.

As of this writing, the Court has 50 cases on its docket, which is about on par with recent practice, such that we can expect 70-75 opinions at term’s end once the Court sets more cases for argument later in the term. Here are some of the issues: whether a policeman’s mistaken belief that someone had committed a traffic violation can form the basis for a lawful search (Heien v. North Carolina – Cato’s brief); whether a prison can prohibit a Muslim inmate from growing a beard (Holt v. Hobbs); whether a fisherman can be prosecuted under Sarbanes-Oxley’s recordkeeping provision for throwing undersized fish overboard (Yates v. United States - Cato’s brief); whether Congress can force the State Department to recognize Jerusalem as part of Israel on U.S. passports (Zivotovsky v. Kerry); the circumstances under which criminal charges can attach to Facebook posts (Elonis v. United States Cato’s brief); and whether an occupational-licensing board gets immunity from liability for anticompetitive behavior (North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners v. FTC Cato’s brief). These cases don’t yet reach the high profile of recent terms, but if the Court takes up one of the same-sex marriage or Obamacare-subsidies lawsuits now at its doorstep, all bets are off.

For more detail on these and other cases, see the “Looking Ahead” essay in this year’s Cato Supreme Court Review, as well as these two previews.

Cato Maintains Opposition to IRS Lawlessness in Obamacare-Subsidies Case

To encourage the purchase of health insurance, the Affordable Care Act added a number of deductions, exemptions, and penalties to the federal tax code. As might be expected from a 2,700-page law, these new tax laws have the potential to interact in unforeseen and counterintuitive ways.

As first discovered by Michael Cannon and Jonathan Adler, one of these new tax provisions, when combined with state decision-making and IRS rule-making, has given Obamacare yet another legal problem. The legislation’s Section 1311 provides a generous tax credit for anyone who buys insurance from an insurance exchange “established by the State”—as an incentive for states to create the exchanges—but only 16 states have opted to do so. In the other states, the federal government established its own exchanges, as another section of the ACA specifies. But where § 1311 only explicitly authorized a tax credit for people who buy insurance from a state exchange, the IRS issued a rule interpreting § 1311 as also applying to purchases from federal exchanges.

This creative interpretation most obviously hurts employers, who are fined for every employee who receives such a tax credit/subsidy to buy an exchange plan when their employer fails to comply with the mandate to provide health insurance. But it also hurts some individuals, such as David Klemencic, a lead plaintiff in one of the lawsuits challenging the IRS’s tax-credit rule. Klemencic lives in a state, West Virginia, that never established an exchange, and for various reasons he doesn’t want to buy any of the insurance options available to him. Because buying insurance would cost him more than 8% of his income, he should be immune from Obamacare’s tax on the decision not to buy insurance.  After the IRS expanded § 1311 to subsidize people in states with federal exchanges, however, Klemencic could’ve bought health insurance for an amount low enough to again subject him to the tax for not buying insurance. Klemencic and his fellow plaintiffs argue that they face these costs only because the IRS exceeded the scope of its powers by extending a tax credit not authorized by Congress.

The district court rejected that argument, ruling that, under the highly deferential test courts apply to actions by administrative agencies, the IRS only had to show that its interpretation of § 1311 was reasonable—which the court was satisfied it had. On appeal, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held that the plain language of the ACA precluded the federal government from subsidizing the premiums of insurance policies obtained through federally established exchanges. Later that same day, the Fourth Circuit in King v. Burwell took the opposite position on the same question—from which ruling there is now a cert petition pending in the Supreme Court.

This circuit split did not last long, however, as the D.C. Circuit decided to vacate the panel opinion and rehear Halbig en banc (meaning all the court’s judges, not just a three-judge panel). Federal appellate rules say that such review “is not favored” and the D.C. Circuit has a particularly high bar, on average taking only one case per year en banc. Judge Harry Edwards, who dissented in the Halbig panel ruling, has taken great pains to reduce the number of en banc hearings. Even before he served as the D.C. Circuit’s chief judge, Edwards wrote in Bartlett v. Bowen (1987) that “the institutional cost of rehearing cases en banc is extraordinary” and that it “substantially delays the case being reheard, often with no clear principle emanating from the en banc court.” Nevertheless, the court took this step, vindicating President Obama’s strategy of packing the underworked D.C. Circuit after the Senate eliminated the filibuster for judicial nominees.

Cato and the Pacific Research Institute have filed a brief continuing our support for the plaintiffs on their appeal. While it is manifestly the province of the judiciary to say “what the law is,” where the law’s text leaves no question as to its meaning—as is the case here with the phrase “established by the State”—it’s neither right nor proper for a court to replace the laws passed by Congress with those of its own invention, or the invention of civil servants.

If Congress wants to extend the tax credit beyond the terms of the ACA, it can do so by passing new legislation. The only reason for executive-branch officials not to go back to Congress for clarification, and instead legislate by fiat, is to bypass the democratic process, thereby undermining constitutional separation of powers.

This case ultimately isn’t about money, the wisdom of individual health care decision-making, or even political opposition to Obamacare. It’s about who gets to create the laws we live by: the democratically elected members of Congress, or the bureaucrats charged with no more than executing the laws that Congress passes and the president signs.

The en banc D.C. Circuit will hear argument in Halbig v. Burwell on December 17.