Topic: Constitution, the Law, and the Courts

When a Cop Says “Stop!” It’s Not a Request

In the foundational criminal-procedure case of People v. De Bour (1976), the New York Court of Appeals (the state’s highest court) held that a police officer may approach a private citizen on the street to request information as long as there is “some articulable reason sufficient to justify the police action which was undertaken”—which need not rise to an indication of criminal activity. De Bour distinguished this “level one” encounter from more intrusive police actions, such as (1) a “common-law inquiry” of individuals, which must be supported by a “founded suspicion that criminality is afoot,” (2) a forcible stop of an individual that must be supported by reasonable suspicion that person was involved in a crime, and (3) an arrest of an individual, which must be supported by probable cause.

This framework remains in effect, but with one wrinkle: in 1994, the Court of Appeals in People v. Reyes held that an officer’s shouted command to “stop!” is a level-one encounter. The conviction of one Ali Cisse depends on the continued validity of Reyes.

On the night of his arrest, Mr. Cisse, then 17, was walking with three friends in Manhattan. A uniformed officer directed Cisse to stop, “hold up and turn around.” Cisse complied, and the officer noticed an L-shaped bulge in Cisse’s clothing that the officer identified as a firearm. The officer arrested Cisse and seized the firearm and other evidence, which placed Mr. Cisse near the scene of a robbery. The trial court denied Cisse’s motion to suppress the evidence and, relying on Reyes, the state appellate court affirmed.

Yet, the hallmark of a level-one encounter is that it is not “threatening” or “intimidating.” Mr. Cisse thus filed a petition with the Court of Appeals to argue that the police officer performed a “common-law inquiry,” which is a more intrusive interaction than authorized in that circumstance. He maintains that the lower courts misapplied the De Bour framework by relying on Reyes.

Cato and the Brennan Center for Justice have joined together on an amicus brief in support of Cisse. We ask the court to overrule Reyes and hold that an officer’s command to “stop” represents a level-two encounter under De Bour. Twenty-five years of developments in both the law and social science show that a police command to “stop” is more than a mere request for information. Nationwide and state-level research confirms that citizens (including New Yorkers) find police commands to be “threatening” and “intimidating.” Reports show that officers frequently resort to physical force when a subject does not immediately respond to verbal commands, even where the subject poses no imminent threat to the officer or others.

For a level-one encounter, we argue that the “right to walk away” must be restored. Citizens have a right to walk away from police encounters unless they have been seized. “Flight” may give rise to reasonable suspicion when “combined with other specific circumstances indicating that the suspect may be engaged in criminal activity”. The problem lies is the fact that “flight” is often indistinguishable from a suspect’s refusal to abide by a command to stop. To reinstate the right to walk away, the court should require the police to have a basic level of suspicion before they issue a command to stop. 

New York: Damned If You Do Insure Guns, Damned If You Don’t

With the takeover of the New York state senate by liberal-leaning Democrats, prospects are improving for such measures as S2857A, sponsored by Sen. Kevin S. Parker (D-Brooklyn), which would require owners of firearms to carry $1 million in liability insurance. There are a number of problems with that idea, one of which turns out to be distinctive to New York. 

The general problems with gun insurance mandates were aired when the idea began to circulate widely a few years ago. Perhaps the biggest is that courts would and should strike down mandates aimed at burdening or doing away with the exercise of a constitutional right. As David Rivkin and Andrew Grossman wrote in 2013:  

Insurance policies cover accidents, not intentional crimes, and criminals with illegal guns will just evade the requirement. The real purpose is to make guns less affordable for law-abiding citizens and thereby reduce private gun ownership. Identical constitutionally suspect logic explains proposals to tax the sale of bullets at excessive rates.

The courts, however, are no more likely to allow government to undermine the Second Amendment than to undermine the First. A state cannot circumvent the right to a free press by requiring that an unfriendly newspaper carry millions in libel insurance or pay a thousand-dollar tax on barrels of ink—the real motive, in either case, would be transparent and the regulation struck down. How could the result be any different for the right to keep and bear arms?

And there’s a special problem with trying to pull this kind of thing in New York, as our friend R.J. Lehmann, insurance expert at the R Street Institute, observes in a Twitter thread today: “New York now wants to require people to hold a kind of insurance that it sanctioned the NRA and an insurance broker earlier this year for selling at all.” In that case, Gov. Andrew Cuomo claimed that private companies Lockton and Chubb conspired with the National Rifle Association to insure liability “against the public interest.”  Lehmann goes on to say (Twitter breaks omitted): 

In its complaint against Lockton, [New York’s regulator] said the Carry Guard program “provided insurance coverage that may not be offered in the New York State excess line market, specifically: (a) defense coverage in a criminal proceeding that is not permitted by law; (b) liability coverage for bodily injury or property damage expected or intended from the insured’s standpoint in an insurance policy limited to use of firearms and that was beyond the use of reasonable force to protect persons or property; and (c) coverage for expenses incurred by the insured for psychological counseling support.” If such coverages are contrary to New York state law, clearly one cannot require New York citizens to purchase them. 

Section 1 of Sen. Parker’s S2857A requires a gun owner to maintain a liability insurance policy of at least a million dollars “specifically covering any damages resulting from any negligent or willful [emphasis added] acts involving the use of such firearm while it is owned by such person.” Gun control advocates commonly draft insurance mandates to cover willful rather than merely negligent acts as part of their goal to drive up the cost of insurance, in part by pinning on gun owners legal responsibility for the purposeful acts of others. 

U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Doubles Down on Misguided Prescription Opioid Policy

Conventional wisdom argues that the opioid epidemic has resulted from excessive opioid prescribing, but the evidence shows just the opposite. Restrictions on opioid prescribing have pushed opioid users into the black market, where they overdose on illicit fentanyl, not prescription opioids (mainly because they cannot assess potency).   Reason’s Jacob Sullum has a nice recent piece on this point.

Yet policymakers keep doubling down on the conventional wisdom.  The U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, Andrew Lelling, has just anounced new scrutiny of doctors who prescribe opioids:

US Attorney Andrew E. Lelling has sent letters to “a number of medical professionals” alerting them that their opioid prescribing practices “have been identified as a source of concern.”

In a statement released Thursday, Lelling said that the professionals who received the warning had prescribed opioids to a patient within 60 days of that patient’s death or to a patient who subsequently died from an opioid overdose.

The letters inform the professionals that it’s illegal to prescribe opioids “without a legitimate medical purpose, substantially in excess of the needs of the patient, or outside the usual course of professional practice.” It acknowledges that the prescriptions may have been medically appropriate, however.

Such actions will scare medicial professionals into even less prescribing, force more patients into the black market, and increase the frequency of opioids overdoses.

MPD’s NEAR Act Implementation: The Wrong Way to Do the Right Thing

In 2016, the D.C. City Council unanimously passed the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results (NEAR) Act, partly based on a pilot program in Richmond, California, that sought to implement a holistic approach to crime fighting. Recently, the ACLU of the District of Columbia (ACLU DC) filed suit against the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) to implement the component of the NEAR Act that requires police to track demographic and other relevant data of individuals who police stop and frisk for weapons or otherwise search. MPD Chief Peter Newsham has admitted the department has not yet been able to comply with the law’s data collection requirement and recently a federal judge indicated that he was preparing an injunction in ACLU DC’s favor to compel the department to produce and publish the data.

As a policing researcher, the value of new empirical data is high, because, until recent decades, we haven’t had much of it. For just one example, this paucity of reliable policing data led the federal government to underestimate the number of persons shot and killed by police in the United States by about 150 percent every year. Thanks to the researchers at the Washington Post, we now know that police officers fatally shoot an average near 1,000 individuals every year instead of the roughly 400 that were annually reported by the FBI. Data is particularly helpful when trying to measure the racial and ethnic impacts of intrusive policies like stop and frisk because claims of racial bias are nearly impossible to prove in a single circumstance, but data can support or undermine claims of racial bias depending on population and other variables. While numbers by themselves cannot tell the whole story of any given policy, well-cultivated data can show where and in what circumstances disparities arise, giving researchers information to explain what is happening.

Before the judge made his announcement in the ACLU DC lawsuit, MPD had been training its officers to implement the demographic recording section of the NEAR Act. I had conversations with more than a dozen patrol officers over the past several weeks, and the NEAR Act was often a subject of discussion. While each officer I talked to said they would implement the law in line with their general order to do so, personal reactions ranged from ambivalent, to skeptical, to fearful of what implementation would bring. Most notably, officers were apprehensive about asking people who they have stopped and potentially searched for even more personal information, including their ethnicity and gender identity.

The general order posted on the MPD website states that officers should use the following statement when asking for personal information, “Per the NEAR Act, as passed by the Council of the District of Columbia, we are required to ask for your gender, race, ethnicity, and date of birth.”

But the text of the NEAR Act does not require officers to ask this personal information, only to record it.  Indeed, researchers use demographic information to discover racial and other disparities in police stops and to determine whether those disparities are driven by officer bias or by departmental policy. In either case, the relevant demographic information is the sex and race of the stopped individual that the officer observed while making a stop, not the ethnicity or gender identity of the person stopped. What’s more, the general order instructs officers to select “unknown” whenever an individual refuses to answer the questions, subverting the purpose of recording the officer’s observations because of an uncooperative subject.

A Double Win in the Dusky Gopher Frog Case

By a vote of 8-0 (Justice Kavanaugh did not participate), the Supreme Court today gave a rational reading of both the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and its own power to review administrative agency actions. The decision in Weyerhaeuser v. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is an important win for property owners against arbitrary agency decisions. See Cato’s amicus brief here.

The case arose when the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which administers the ESA on behalf of the Secretary of the Interior, designated a large parcel of land in Louisiana owned by Weyerhaeuser and a group of family landowners as critical habitat for the endangered dusky gopher frog, a small population of which lives today in Mississippi. The problem, however, was that the frog had not lived in Louisiana for decades and, worse still, the land in question, far from being critical habitat, was no habitat at all since it was unsuitable for sustaining the frog’s life cycles. On appeal, FWS did not dispute that critical habitat must be habitat; it argued instead that habitat includes areas that would require “some degree of modification” to support a sustainable population of a given species. In her dissent from the Fifth Circuit’s decision, Judge Priscilla Owen nicely summarized the immense practical implications of that view: “If the Endangered Species Act permitted the actions taken by the Government in this case, then vast portions of the United States would be designated as ‘critical habitat’ because it is theoretically possible, even if not probable, that land could be modified to sustain the introduction or reintroduction of an endangered species.”

Fortunately, Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the Court, today carefully parsed the ESA’s language to avoid that result. And of equal if not greater importance, he did the same to sustain the Administrative Procedure Act’s “basic presumption of judicial review” of agency action, finding here that the ESA requires the Secretary to take into consideration economic and other impacts before making a critical habitat designation. The economic impact to these plaintiffs of losing their right to develop their land was estimated to be $34 million—all to preserve a frog’s uninhabitable habitat. No wonder the decision was 8-0. Still, the plaintiffs had to go all the way to the Supreme Court to vindicate their rights.

The Court sent the case back to the Fifth Circuit to be resolved consistent with today’s opinion.

Supreme Court Upholds Property Rights in Frog Case

This morning, the Supreme Court ruled, unanimously, that a species’ “critical habitat” for purposes of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), is habitat where the species actually lives. Accordingly, it sent Weyerhaeuser v. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to determine whether that’s the case for certain land involving the dusky gopher frog, as well as to see whether the federal agency properly used cost-benefit analysis in its designation.

This quick ruling, coming less than two months after argument, was a breath of fresh air. The ESA doesn’t give the government unlimited authority to do whatever it wants—and land on which a particular animal has never lived and where it can’t live can hardly be considered “critical habitat.” The Fish and Wildlife Service should look into ways of protecting critters without intruding on private property rights or abusing federal power. Good on the Supreme Court for holding bureaucrats’ feet to the fire of judicial review.

For more on the case, see this background and Cato’s brief.

The Supreme Court Should Take Another Slice of Wedding Cake

Is cake-baking art, and if so, can someone be compelled to bake one in violation of his or her religious beliefs? More specifically, can a Christian baker refuse to design a wedding cake for a same-sex couple due to her sincere religious objections to same-sex marriage?

Wait, didn’t the Supreme Court already resolve these questions in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case earlier this year? Actually no; the Court declined to answer these and related important issues, instead ruling narrowly in the baker’s favor because the state civil rights commission displayed animus toward his religious beliefs. There was even unresolved disagreement over whether the baker refused to sell the couple a custom cake or any cake. In short, the Court’s decision was really a minor work, not a masterpiece.

But the Court’s punt, to mix metaphors, didn’t kick the can very far down the road. While the Washington Supreme Court is going through the motions of reconsidering the Arlene’s Flowers case in light of Masterpiece, an Oregon case involving another baker has reached the Supreme Court’s doorstep. Melissa and Aaron Klein are practicing Christians who owned and operated a bakery where they made and sold custom wedding cakes. An administrative law judge fined them $135,000 (!) for refusing to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, putting them out of business. Even though the Kleins had gladly served the couple in the past, and merely objected to helping celebrate this particular ceremony, Oregon state appellate court upheld the fine.

But freedom of expression, as protected by the First Amendment, doesn’t only secure the ability to say what you wish. It also prevents the government from compelling you to say something you don’t agree with. Cake-baking, as anyone who has seen one of countless TV shows can confirm, is an expressive art form. Accordingly, bakers, as artists, cannot be forced to convey messages that violate their beliefs—whether based in religious or secular values. To live according to one’s own conscience is the foundational principle of a free society. If people who agree with same-sex marriage are the only ones allowed to operate businesses related to weddings, freedom of expression will become a hollow principle in that regard.

Cato, the only organization in the entire country to have filed Supreme Court briefs supporting same-sex couples seeking to get married and vendors who don’t want to participate in those weddings, has now filed a brief supporting the Kleins’ petition to the U.S. Supreme Court. Although quite similar to Masterpiece Cakeshop, the Kleins’ case is neater, with fewer distractions unrelated to the core question of expression. For starters, there is no allegation that the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries showed anti-religious animus. Moreover, the Kleins did not sell off-the-shelf cakes to the general public; they created only custom cakes.

The Court should take the case to clarify that the First Amendment protects people from having to convey messages or express support for ceremonies with which they disagree. Klein v. Oregon Bureau of Labor & Industries presents an inquiry into the scope and nature of expression itself—and much like a good cake, we hope that the Court finds these issues too enticing to pass up.

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