Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Every 25 Seconds: Human Rights Watch and the ACLU Document More Harms from Drug Prohibition

A new report from the ACLU and Human Rights Watch details many of the harms associated with the criminalization of drug possession. The most striking finding from the report is that police in the United States arrest more people for marijuana offenses than for all violent crimes combined. The title of the report, “Every 25 Seconds,” refers to how often police arrest someone for drug possession in this country.

The full report can be found here, but other key findings include:

  • More than one out of every nine state-level arrests are for drug possession, amounting to 1.25 million arrests per year.
  • Nearly half of those arrests for marijuana possession.
  • While drug usage rates are roughly the same across racial lines, black adults are more than two-and-a-half times as likely as white adults to be arrested for possession.
  • More than 99% of drug possession convictions were the result of guilty pleas, rather than trial verdicts. The authors of the report describe this as “rendering the right to a jury trial effectively meaningless.”
  • The average bail amount for drug possession defendants was $24,000, meaning that poor defendants typically remained incarcerated while awaiting trial and had a strong incentive to plead guilty even if they believed they were innocent.
  • Defendants often did not understand the multitude of collateral consequences of a drug conviction.

When it comes to actual policy recommendations, the report urges legislators, judges, prosecutors, and police officers to de-emphasize the policing and prosecution of drug possession crimes, effectively calling for decriminalization of drug possession across the board.

While the authors stop short of recommending full legalization, even the decriminalization recommendation would be a positive step. We know this because in 2000, Portugal decriminalized all drugs. Despite predictions from critics that decriminalizing drug use would lead to massive spikes in addiction and prove a disaster, a 2009 Cato study by Glenn Greenwald put that speculation to rest. Decriminalization in Portugal has been a success, and there is no substantial movement today to return the country to prohibition.

Similarly, state experiments with legalized recreational marijuana in the U.S. are proceeding well. And the tide in favor of ending marijuana prohibition continues to grow. Next month, five more states (Arizona, California, Nevada, Maine, and Massachusetts) will vote on whether to legalize marijuana. Those states would join Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington state, and Washington D.C. as jurisdictions that have renounced prohibition for marijuana.

Last month, a U.S. federal judge declared that the “principle casualty” of the war on drugs has been the U.S. Constitution. The ACLU/HRW report sheds new light on the truth of that declaration. It’s well past time to admit the failure of the drug war, allow the police to focus on actual crimes, ease the mounting tensions in over-policed communities, and restore our individual liberty.

Texas Wisely Concedes Economic Liberty Case

Last month, I wrote about a case challenging medical-licensing rules that prevented an innovative health-services company, Teladoc, from using advanced technology to provide care to hard-to-reach patients. The Texas Medical Board, which isn’t supervised by any branch of state government, oversaw the restrictions, which a district court threw out on antitrust grounds. After the board appealed, Cato filed a brief supporting Teladoc. And we weren’t alone; the range of briefing was impressive, particularly for a case that hadn’t yet reached the Supreme Court.

Well, today the Texas attorney general’s office filed an unopposed motion to dismiss the state’s own appeal. That should be the end of this case. Although I’m sure Teladoc and its fellow plaintiffs would’ve loved to finish litigating the appeal and get a favorable Fifth Circuit ruling, it’ll take this win all the way to the economic-liberty bank.

It’s always hard to know what impact an amicus brief has – even when you’re cited, it might be for a tangential point, or indeed to counter your argument – and this case illustrates that lesson: there’s not even a court ruling here, but the quality of amicus briefs certainly contributed to Texas’s decision to abandon the medical board’s appeal.

Congrats to Teladoc, its counsel, and the people of Texas!

A Constitutional Amendment to Re-Empower the States

When the Framers designed our federalist system, they assumed that the federal government would be limited to those powers actually enumerated in the Constitution and that it would exercise those powers only when authorized by statute. Further, to give the states some say in the drafting of these statutes, one half of the federal Congress—the Senate—was elected by the state legislatures themselves and designed to reflect the interests of the state governments.

Today, none of these elements of our original design remain. The Supreme Court has allowed the federal government to control nearly limitless activities, supposedly as an exercise of its power to regulate interstate commerce. The executive branch acts as its own de facto legislative branch, “interpreting” statutes through executive actions and agency rulemaking to unilaterally give itself the powers it wishes to exercise. And after the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment, senators are now elected by popular vote, meaning there is no longer any direct link between the state and federal governments. The result of these three changes is that states have less power than ever – and there’s not much they can do about it.

To solve that problem, Representatives Rob Bishop (R-UT) and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) recently introduced the “Re-Empowerment of the States Amendment,” a proposal that would allow two thirds of the state legislatures to repeal any “Presidential Executive order, rule, regulation, other regulatory action, or administrative ruling issued by a department, agency, or instrumentality of the United States.”

Importantly, this amendment would not allow states to repeal the text of statutes that have duly passed both houses of Congress. This isn’t an amendment to change the system of bicameralism that the Framers designed; instead, it’s an amendment to restore the checks on the executive branch that existed before the massive expansion of the administrative state. As the amendment’s creator David Hemingway has explained, “The practical result would be to enhance the power of Congress since it would encourage the president to work with Congress rather than govern by issuing executive orders.”

The Internet Beats the DEA Over Kratom

Many libertarians believe that technology helps protect our freedoms from excessive government.  That seems to have worked in this case:

The Drug Enforcement Administration is reversing a widely criticized decision that would have banned the use of kratom, a plant that researchers say could help mitigate the effects of the opioid epidemic.

Citing the public outcry and a need to obtain more research, the DEA is withdrawing its notice of intent to ban the drug, according to a preliminary document that will be posted to the Federal Register Thursday.

The move is “shocking,” according to John Hudak, who studies drug policy at the Brookings Institution. “The DEA is not one to second-guess itself, no matter what the facts are.”

And if the DEA has really found new religion, it should admit it does not have sufficient research to ban marijuana, heroin, or any other substance!

There’s No Constitutional Right to a Taxi Monopoly

On Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit handed down a pair of rulings rejecting the argument that taxi companies somehow have a protected property right in their monopolies. The opinions—both penned by Judge Richard Posner—are perhaps the courts’ strongest rebuke yet of taxi cartels’ desperate attempts to stay relevant in an Uber world, with Posner describing their claims as having “no merit” and “border[ing] on the absurd.” It’s nice to know that—in the Seventh Circuit at least—losing your monopolistic cartel due to technological disruption is not considered to be a constitutional violation.

In one case, Illinois Transportation Trade Association v. City of Chicago, incumbent taxi companies sued Chicago for allowing app-based ridesharing companies such as Uber and Lyft to operate, asserting that the city’s decision to allow such companies to enter the market without being subject to the same regulations covering traditional taxis constituted an unconstitutional taking of their property without just compensation (and also somehow violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause).

In the other case, Joe Sanfelippo Cabs, Inc. v. City of Milwaukee, taxi companies sued Milwaukee for eliminating the hard cap on the number of taxi medallions in circulation, opening the market up to any applicant who met the requirements. Like in the Chicago case, the plaintiffs argued that the loosening of regulations to allow new market entrants violated the Takings Clause.

In both cases, the plaintiffs’ arguments more-or-less boiled down to: “We made a deal with the city years ago where we were promised monopoly control over this market. The government’s failure to protect that monopoly constitutes an eminent domain-style taking.” This is, of course, as the court described, an absurd argument. “‘Property’ does not include a right to be free from competition. A license to operate a coffee shop doesn’t authorize the licensee to enjoin a tea shop from opening.” No one is entitled to a government grant of monopoly power.

Yes, Your Honor, the CFPB Is Indeed Unconstitutional

I wrote only yesterday about the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s (CFPB’s) regulatory overreach with regard to payday loans, and it seems the D.C. Circuit Court was on the same wavelength.  Judge Brett Kavanaugh, writing for the court, handed down a stinging condemnation of the Bureau’s structure, labeling the single-director model unconstitutional.  Although the court’s remedy is somewhat limited – changing the agency from independent to one within the executive branch, with the director serving at the pleasure of the President – the opinion itself is a full-throated indictment of the CFPB’s structure and repeated overreach.  Even given its limited application, it is a win for those who have long questioned the many defects in the CFPB’s design.

The case before the court arose out of an enforcement action brought by the CFPB against the mortgage lender PHH Mortgage.  The action was initially brought before one of the agency’s own in-house adjudicators, who imposed a fine on the company.  (Although not explicitly addressed in this case, these internal administrative proceedings, led by administrative law judges or ALJs, present their own issues, similar to those at the SEC that I have discussed here and here.)  Director Richard Cordray apparently thought the $6.4 million fine imposed by the ALJ was insufficient and added another $102.6 million to the bill.  PHH Mortgage appealed the Director Cordray’s decision to the D.C. Circuit.

The court’s decision turns principally on the magnitude of the director’s power.  Unlike the heads of agencies such as the Department of Justice or Department of the Treasury, the director of the CFPB can be removed by the President only for cause.  That is, the President could remove Cordray only for inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance.  In fact, the court called the Bureau’s director the “single most powerful official in the entire United States Government, at least when measured in terms of unilateral power” after the President himself.  And the President is at least accountable to the people through the democratic process.  Other powerful positions within the federal government – Speaker of the House, Senate Majority Leader, heads of other independent agencies – have greater checks on their power.  The Speaker cannot act without persuading and cajoling a large number of colleagues.  Independent agencies such as the SEC and FTC are comprised of multi-seat commissions, and no one commissioner can act alone, making the commissioners themselves the checks on each other’s power.  The director of the CFPB faces no such constraints.

Money Laundering Laws: Ineffective and Expensive

Beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, the federal government (as well as other governments around the world) began to adopt policies based on the idea that crime could be reduced if you somehow could make it very difficult for criminals to use the money they illegally obtain. So we now have a bunch of laws and regulations that require financial institutions to spy on their customers in hopes that this will inhibit money laundering.

But while the underlying theory may sound reasonable, such laws in practice have been a failure. There’s no evidence that these laws, which impose heavy costs on business and consumers, have produced a reduction in criminal activity.

Instead, the only tangible result seems to be more power for government and reduced access to financial services for poor people.

And now we have even more evidence that these laws don’t make sense. In a thorough study for the Heritage Foundation, David Burton and Norbert Michel put a price tag on the ridiculous laws, regulations, and mandates that are ostensibly designed to make it hard for crooks to launder cash, but in practice simply undermine legitimate commerce and make it hard for poor people to use banks.

Oh, and these rules also are inconsistent with a free society. Here are the principles they say should guide the discussion.

The United States Constitution’s Bill of Rights, particularly the Fourth, Fifth, and Ninth Amendments, together with structural federalism and separation of powers protections, is designed to…protect…individual rights. The current financial regulatory framework is inconsistent with these principles. …Financial privacy can allow people to protect their life savings when a government tries to confiscate its citizens’ wealth, whether for political, ethnic, religious, or “merely” economic reasons. Businesses need to protect their private financial information, intellectual property, and trade secrets from competitors in order to remain profitable. Financial privacy is of deep and abiding importance to freedom, and many governments have shown themselves willing to routinely abuse private financial information.

And here are the key findings about America’s current regulatory morass, which violates the above principles.

The current U.S. framework is overly complex and burdensome… Reform efforts also need to focus on costs versus benefits. The current framework, particularly the anti-money laundering (AML) rules, is clearly not cost-effective. As demonstrated below, the AML regime costs an estimated $4.8 billion to $8 billion annually. Yet, this AML system results in fewer than 700 convictions annually, a proportion of which are simply additional counts against persons charged with other predicate crimes. Thus, each conviction costs approximately $7 million, potentially much more.

By the way, the authors note that their calculations represent “a significant underestimate of the actual burden” because they didn’t include foregone economic activity, higher consumer prices for financial services, lower returns for shareholders of financial institutions, higher financial expenses for unbanked individuals, and other direct and indirect costs.

And what are the offsetting benefits? Can all these costs be justified?