More Views On The Injustice In Ferguson

Two recent posts (here and here) deal with how a different system of “justice” was applied in Ferguson in order to protect a police officer from facing trial in a situation where anyone else would be tried. This has also been a trend in other parts of the country, with it being very rare for police officers to face criminal charges in shootings. The posts were also cross posted at The Moderate Voice and the first post has quite a lengthy discussion of this issue. (The second post was cross posted there at approximately the same time as this is being posted so I do not know yet whether the discussion will be extended there.)

As information has come out about the proceedings at Ferguson, many others have also expressed similar concerns that the system was abused to protect Darren Wilson from facing a trial in the shooting of Michael Brown despite their being sufficient evidence to establish probable cause. This includes libertarian as well as liberal sites. At Hit and Run, Jacob Sullum wrote that Darren Wilson Got a Private Trial Run by Friendly Prosecutors:

As I noted yesterday, the likelihood that Darren Wilson would have been acquitted if he had faced a homicide charge in connection with the death of Michael Brown does not mean he should not have been indicted. As you go through the evidence that was presented to the grand jury, two things are clear: There is plenty of room for reasonable doubt as to whether Wilson broke the law when he shot and killed Brown, and there is considerable evidence that he did—surely enough to supply probable cause, the standard for charging someone with a crime. St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch managed to obscure the latter point by staging what amounted to a trial behind closed doors—a trial without a judge or an adversarial process. Assuming the jurors were acting in good faith (and there is no reason to think they weren’t), the only explanation for their decision is that they lost sight of the task at hand and considered the evidence as if they were being asked to convict Wilson rather than approve charges that would have led to a real trial.

It is not hard to see how the grand jurors could have made that mistake. McCulloch said he would present all of the evidence collected so far—everything a trial jury would see and hear. The jurors convened on 23 days, hearing testimony that takes up nearly 5,000 pages of transcript, not including the various recorded interviews played for them. Instead of making the case for an indictment, as they ordinarily would do, the prosecutors running the show often seemed to be reinforcing Wilson’s defense, as when they suggested that marijuana-induced psychosis might account for the ferocious attack that Wilson says he suffered at Brown’s hands and for the heedless charge that Wilson says forced him to shoot Brown over and over again.

McCulloch clearly thought an elaborate grand jury process, coupled with public release of all the evidence presented to the jurors, would help keep the peace and mollify critics who feared that Wilson would get away with murder. But a real trial, even one ending in acquittal, would have been much more effective at achieving those goals. A public airing of the evidence, with ample opportunity for advocates on both sides to present and probe it, is what Brown’s family has been demanding all along. McCulloch took extraordinary steps to deny them that trial, thereby reinforcing the impression that the legal system is rigged against young black men and in favor of the white cops who shoot them.

Clive Cook wrote:

A jury may well have found Wilson innocent. Much of the evidence, so far as one can tell, leans in his favor. But there should unquestionably have been a trial. If you ask me, probable cause to indict him for unlawful killing resided in the single word “unarmed” — and that’s to say nothing of the conflicting testimony about whether an already wounded Michael Brown was about to attack Wilson when the fatal shots were fired.

The larger issue — and in this system I see no way to address it — is that in cases such as these, the law-enforcement complex is judging its own conduct. Police and prosecutors seem to get bigger guns and more powers every time policymakers turn their attention to the subject; the trend never seems to go the other way. With this growing and potentially tyrannical power goes the vital necessity of ensuring that officers of the law are held properly to account. And they aren’t. It’s as simple as that.

Jeffrey Toobin discussed how grand juries are used:

In Missouri, as elsewhere, grand juries are known as tools of prosecutors. In the famous words of Sol Wachtler, the former chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals, a prosecutor could persuade a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich” if he wanted to. This is certainly true, but it is true, too, that grand juries retain at least a nominal independence. They usually do what prosecutors want, but they are not legally required to.

In sending Wilson’s case to the grand jury, McCulloch technically turned over to them the decision about whether to prosecute. By submitting all the evidence to the grand jury, he added to the perception that this process represented an independent evaluation of the evidence. But there is little doubt that he remained largely in control of the process; aggressive advocacy by prosecutors could have persuaded the grand jurors to vote for some kind of indictment. The standard for such charges—probable cause, or more probable than not—is generally a very easy hurdle. If McCulloch’s lawyers had simply pared down the evidence to that which incriminated Wilson, they would have easily obtained an indictment.

The grand jury chose not to indict Wilson for any crimes in connection with Brown’s death. In a news conference following the decision, McCulloch laid out the evidence that he believed supported the grand jury’s finding. In making the case for Wilson’s innocence, McCulloch cherry-picked the most exculpatory information from what was assembled before the grand jury. The conclusion may even have been correct; based on a preliminary review of the evidence before the grand jury, it’s not clear to me that a trial jury would have found Wilson guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

But the goal of criminal law is to be fair—to treat similarly situated people similarly—as well as to reach just results. McCulloch gave Wilson’s case special treatment. He turned it over to the grand jury, a rarity itself, and then used the investigation as a document dump, an approach that is virtually without precedent in the law of Missouri or anywhere else. Buried underneath every scrap of evidence McCulloch could find, the grand jury threw up its hands and said that a crime could not be proved. This is the opposite of the customary ham-sandwich approach, in which the jurors are explicitly steered to the prosecutor’s preferred conclusion. Some might suggest that all cases should be treated the way McCulloch handled Wilson before the grand jury, with a full-fledged mini-trial of all the incriminating and exculpatory evidence presented at this preliminary stage. Of course, the cost of such an approach, in both time and money, would be prohibitive, and there is no guarantee that the ultimate resolutions of most cases would be any more just. In any event, reserving this kind of special treatment for white police officers charged with killing black suspects cannot be an appropriate resolution.

Further coverage from The New Yorker can be found here.

Noam Scheiber also described how St. Louis Prosecutor Bob McCulloch Abused the Grand Jury Process, calling the choice of using the grand jury process to establish Wilson’s innocence” to be deeply unfair:

Why? Because grand juries simply aren’t equipped to adjudicate guilt or innocence. As The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin points out, prosecutors have enormous sway over grand juries. Typically, they cherry pick the evidence that establishes probable cause, helping them obtain indictments in almost every case. But in this case, McCulloch clearly didn’t believe an indictment was deserved. So he used his influence in the opposite directionstacking the deck in favor of a non-indictment. Specifically, he inundated the grand jury with “every scrap of evidence [he] could find,” in Toobin’s words, at which point “the grand jury threw up its hands and said that a crime could not be proved.” [UPDATE: This New York Times story goes even further, showing how McCulloch’s team essentially cherry-picked evidence establishing Wilson’s innocence. It describes how they accepted Wilson’s account at face value, even leading him toward exculpatory statements through their questioning, while going out of their way to point out flaws and contradictions in alternative accounts from other witnesses.]

In effect, McCulloch staged a pre-trial trial in order to vindicate his personal view of Wilson’s innocence. But grand juries simply aren’t the proper forum for holding a trial. The most obvious reason is that they’re not adversarial settings. The prosecutor gets to present his or her view, but there’s no one to present the opposing viewa rather key feature of the criminal justice system. This isn’t a problem when the prosecutor believes the defendant is guilty, since the result is an actual trial. But when the prosecutor stage-manages a grand jury into affirming his view of the defendant’s innocence, that’s it. That’s the only trial we get.

Politically, I understand the advantage of this for McCulloch. He gets to wrap his preference for not indicting Wilson in the legitimacy of a trial-like process, whereas simply declining to indict Wilson without the support of a grand jury would have left him badly exposed. It would have triggered an enormous political backlash, rather than the relatively minor uproar we witnessed Monday night. But as a basic matter of justice, it’s outrageous. As I noted yesterday, the only way to earn the legitimacy of a trial is to actually have a trial, in which both positions are given a fair hearing.

The New York Times placed this in perspective, describing what McCulloch did wrong in this case:

The St. Louis County grand jury’s decision not to indict the white police officer who in August shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, would have generated widespread anger and disappointment in any case. But the county prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, who is widely viewed in the minority community as being in the pockets of the police, made matters infinitely worse by handling this sensitive investigation in the worst possible way.

First, he refused to step aside in favor of a special prosecutor who could have been appointed by Gov. Jay Nixon of Missouri. He further undermined public confidence by taking a highly unorthodox approach to the grand jury proceeding. Instead of conducting an investigation and then presenting the case and a recommendation of charges to the grand jury, his office shifted its job to the grand jury. It made no recommendation on whether to indict the officer, Darren Wilson, but left it to the jurors to wade through masses of evidence to determine whether there was probable cause to file charges against Officer Wilson for Mr. Brown’s killing.

Under ordinary circumstances, grand jury hearings can be concluded within days. The proceeding in this case lasted an astonishing three months. And since grand jury proceedings are held in secret, the drawn-out process fanned suspicions that Mr. McCulloch was deliberately carrying on a trial out of public view, for the express purpose of exonerating Officer Wilson.

If all this weren’t bad enough, Mr. McCulloch took a reckless approach to announcing the grand jury’s finding. After delaying the announcement all day, he finally made it late in the evening, when darkness had placed law enforcement agencies at a serious disadvantage as they tried to control the angry crowds that had been drawn into the streets by news that the verdict was coming. Mr. McCulloch’s announcement sounded more like a defense of Officer Wilson than a neutral summary of the facts that had led the grand jury to its conclusion.

For the black community of Ferguson, the killing of Michael Brown was the last straw in a long train of abuses that they have suffered daily at the hands of the local police. News accounts have strongly suggested, for example, that the police in St. Louis County’s many municipalities systematically target poor and minority citizens for street and traffic stops — partly to generate fines — which has the effect of both bankrupting and criminalizing whole communities.

In this context, the police are justifiably seen as an alien, occupying force that is synonymous with state-sponsored abuse.

The case resonated across the country — in New York City, Chicago and Oakland — because the killing of young black men by police is a common feature of African-American life and a source of dread for black parents from coast to coast. This point was underscored last month in a grim report by ProPublica, showing that young black males in recent years were at a far greater risk — 21 times greater — of being shot dead by police than young white men. These statistics reflect the fact that many police officers see black men as expendable figures on the urban landscape, not quite human beings.

We get a flavor of this in Officer Wilson’s grand jury testimony, when he describes Michael Brown, as he was being shot, as a soulless behemoth who was “almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him.”

Crooks and Liars described How Robert McCulloch Hoodwinked The Ferguson Grand Jury

For the entire proceeding, jurors weighed the evidence in light of a law that was deemed unconstitutional almost 30 years ago. Then they corrected the record at the very end, but by then it was too late.

To me, this invalidates the entire decision. While I believe jurors acted in good faith, the prosecutor did not, and intentionally confused jurors as to the applicable law. Correcting it at the end is not adequate or acceptable.

Unfortunately, there is no way to force Bob McCulloch to prosecute Darren Wilson. But Eric Holder has promised an aggressive investigation of Ferguson police. That’s good, but he might want to broaden that investigation to include St. Louis County prosecutors.

How can anyone believe this Grand Jury proceeding has a shred of integrity? I don’t blame the jurors; I blame the prosecutor.

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Wisconsin Man Files Suit After Police Arrest Him For Calling Them Racists On Facebook

This case is something completely different yet fits in with the previous two posts (here and here) which deal with abuse of police powers. A man from Wisconsin is filing suit alleging that he was arrested for comments posted on Facebook accusing policemen of racism. The StarTribune reports:

A man who got arrested after he posted Facebook comments calling a southwestern Wisconsin police department racist has filed a federal lawsuit alleging one of the agency’s officers violated his constitutional rights.

Thomas G. Smith posted profanity-laced comments on Facebook that called police officers in Arena racists in July 2012. He posted the remarks in response to a police Facebook posting several days earlier thanking community members for helping detain two black juveniles who were fleeing officers.

According to the lawsuit filed Monday, an officer named Nicholas Stroik saw Smith’s comments and deleted them, along with comments from two other people who accused police of targeting black people.

Police then called Smith, who was living in Arena at the time, and asked if he had posted the remarks attributed to him. He told officers he wrote the comments and he meant them. Later that night officers arrested him at his home and took him to jail, the lawsuit said.

Prosecutors later charged him with disorderly conduct and unlawful use of computerized communications. They contended his comments amounted to fighting words, defined by the U.S. Supreme Court as utterances that have nothing to do with the exchange of ideas and can incite an immediate breach of the peace.

A jury convicted him and he was sentenced to probation and community service. A state appellate judge, however, tossed his convictions out in July, ruling that the fighting words doctrine doesn’t apply when the speaker and listener aren’t in close physical proximity and that Smith’s comments amounted to protected free speech under the U.S. Constitution.

The suit seeks unspecified damages and attorney fees from Nicholas Stroik and from the Village of Arena for failing to properly train Stroik on the U.S. Constitution.

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More Evidence For A Different System Of Justice For The Police

Yesterday I discussed how the grand jury was used in Ferguson was an example of how justice is different for the police than it is for everyone else.  The Washington Post also reports on unorthodox police practices in handling Darren Wilson after the shooting:

When Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson left the scene of the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, the officer returned to the police station unescorted, washed blood off his hands and placed his recently fired pistol into an evidence bag himself.

Such seemingly un­or­tho­dox forensic practices emerged from the voluminous testimony released in the aftermath of a grand jury decision Monday night not to indict Wilson.

The transcript showed that local officers who interviewed Wilson immediately after the shooting did not tape the conversations and sometimes conducted them with other police personnel present. An investigator with the St. Louis County Medical Examiner’s office testified that he opted not to take measurements at the crime scene

Charles Johnson adds, “Perhaps the most outrageous thing: police never tested Wilson’s gun for Michael Brown’s fingerprints. Since one of the main points of Wilson’s story was that Brown grabbed his gun, why wasn’t this done?”

The National Bar Association has also responded to the decision:

 The National Bar Association is questioning how the Grand Jury, considering the evidence before them, could reach the conclusion that Darren Wilson should not be indicted and tried for the shooting death of Michael Brown. National Bar Association President Pamela J. Meanes expresses her sincere disappointment with the outcome of the Grand Jury’s decision but has made it abundantly clear that the National Bar Association stands firm and will be calling on the U.S. Department of Justice to pursue federal charges against officer Darren Wilson. “We will not rest until Michael Brown and his family has justice” states Pamela Meanes, President of the National Bar Association. 

President Meanes is requesting that the citizens of Ferguson, Missouri not allow this decision to cause an unnecessary uproar in the community that could lead to arrests, injuries or even deaths of innocent people. “I am asking for everyone to remain as calm as possible and to join in solidarity as we continue to support the family of Michael Brown and put our legal plan into full effect” says President Meanes  “I feel the  magnitude of the grand jury’s ruling as Ferguson, Missouri is only minutes from where I reside”, adds President Meanes.

Over the last couple of months, the National Bar Association has  hosted Town Hall meetings informing  attendees of their Fourth Amendment (Search & Seizure) constitutional rights, whether it is legal to record police activity, and how citizens should behave/respond if and when they interface with police officers. “The death of Michael Brown was the last straw and the catalyst for addressing issues of inequality and racial bias in policing, the justice system, and violence against members of minority communities,” states Pamela Meanes.

The family of Michael Brown requested that District Attorney McCullough step aside and allow a special prosecutor be assigned to the investigation to give the community confidence that the grand jury would conduct a complete and thorough investigation into the tragic shooting death of 18 year old Michael Brown. The grand jury’s decision confirms the fear that many expressed months ago — that a fair and impartial investigation would not happen.

“The National Bar Association is adamant about our desire for transformative justice. While we are disappointed with the grand jury’s ruling, we are promoting peace on every street corner around the world. The only way to foster systemic change is to organize, educate, and mobilize. We are imploring everyone to fight against the injustice in Ferguson, Missouri and throughout the United States by banding together and working within the confines of the law,” states President Meanes.

Update: More Views On The Injustice In Ferguson

 

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Two Systems Of Justice: One For Police, One For Everyone Else

The grand jury’s decision in Ferguson not to indict Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown demonstrates how we have two systems of justice in the United States. I am not referring only to the differences in treatment based upon race. This is clearly a major factor, but as it has already been discussed at length at many sources I am going instead to highlight another aspect of this problem. The system works different for police officers as opposed to anybody else. Needless to say, blacks are at an even further disadvantage in a case involving blacks and the police.

The grand jury system was originally formulated in an attempt to place a check over the power of prosecutors and protect those who should not be prosecuted. Instead grand juries typically give the prosecutor an indictment when desired in the vast majority of cases. The exception is when a police officer is the one being investigated. In these cases the prosecutor’s office often takes the part of the defense. In a typical grand jury case, Darren Wilson’s side of the story would not have been presented as it was in Ferguson.

FiveThirtyEight has some data on grand jury decisions:

Former New York state Chief Judge Sol Wachtler famously remarked that a prosecutor could persuade a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich.” The data suggests he was barely exaggerating: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases in 2010, the most recent year for which we have data. Grand juries declined to return an indictment in 11 of them.

Wilson’s case was heard in state court, not federal, so the numbers aren’t directly comparable. Unlike in federal court, most states, including Missouri, allow prosecutors to bring charges via a preliminary hearing in front of a judge instead of through a grand jury indictment. That means many routine cases never go before a grand jury. Still, legal experts agree that, at any level, it is extremely rare for prosecutors to fail to win an indictment.

“If the prosecutor wants an indictment and doesn’t get one, something has gone horribly wrong,” said Andrew D. Leipold, a University of Illinois law professor who has written critically about grand juries. “It just doesn’t happen.”

Cases involving police shootings, however, appear to be an exception. As my colleague Reuben Fischer-Baum has written, we don’t have good data on officer-involved killings. But newspaperaccountssuggest, grand juries frequently decline to indict law-enforcement officials. A recent Houston Chronicle investigation found that “police have been nearly immune from criminal charges in shootings” in Houston and other large cities in recent years. In Harris County, Texas, for example, grand juries haven’t indicted a Houston police officer since 2004; in Dallas, grand juries reviewed 81 shootings between 2008 and 2012 and returned just one indictment. Separate research by Bowling Green State University criminologist Philip Stinson has found that officers are rarely charged in on-duty killings, although it didn’t look at grand jury indictments specifically.

If the grand jury system was changed so that the defense case was routinely heard, there might be benefits to this. However, it is not fair when one group of people receive this benefit but others do not. The system was essentially designed to protect the police and deny justice to victims such as Michael Brown.

Think Progress posted the above video on this topic by Phillip Johnson. This also explains how under normal circumstances a grand jury would have found probable cause for an indictment.

This does not necessarily mean that Darren Wison would have been convicted. There was a tremendous amount of evidence to be examined, some of it conflicting, and is possible that Wison might have ultimately been acquitted in a jury trial where the standard is not just probable cause but evidence of guilt beyond reasonable doubt.  There are legitimate questions to be reviewed as to how much discretion to give to police officers who feel the need to use deadly force in self defense versus the degree to which police should be expected to be able to handle an unarmed attacker without resorting to deadly force. The decision as to whether to indict Wilson should have been made by the same process as would have been used if anyone other than a police officer was the accused, followed by a jury trial to examine all the evidence from both sides.

Update: More Evidence For A Different System Of Justice For The Police

Update II: More Views On The Injustice In Ferguson

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Republican Minority Blocks Bill To Curtail NSA; Democrats To Take Over Role Of Blocking What They Oppose

Not very long ago it was common for bipartisan coalitions to accomplish things in Congress. That was largely before the current realignment in which Democratic southern conservatives have either joined the Republicans or been voted out of office, and Republican moderates and liberals have been driven away. Theoretically even a totally conservative Republican Party might have members finding common ground with some Democrats at times.  Traditionally there have been some conservative Republicans who have been strong advocates of civil liberties.

Curtailing NSA surveillance would seem to be an area where liberal Democrats and some conservative Republicans might work together. In our bizarre system where a majority does not rule and sixty votes are needed in the Senate,Patrick Leahy’s bill to end the NSA’s bulk data collection died due to only receiving a 58 to 42 majority. This died due to solid Republican opposition, led by Mitch McConnell who felt the bill went to far, and Rand Paul who rationalized voting with the rest of the Republicans by saying the bill did not go far enough.

Libertarians at Reason’s Hit & Run blog were disappointed in Paul, writing that, “Paul and the rest of his fellow citizens may well come to rue the day that he allowed the perfect to get in the way of the merely better.” Regardless of his justifications, Rand Paul has shown that he cannot be counted upon in promoting civil liberties issues. I fear that as Rand Paul tries to position himself as a serious contender for the presidential nomination, he will increasingly align himself with McConnell and become indistinguishable from other Republicans from the authoritarian right. I have often pointed out how his father, Ron Paul, was also hardly the defender of liberty which his fans made him out to be.

There is some small consolation that the Republican minority which has concentrated on blocking Democratic legislation will now replaced by a Democratic minority which can also act to block the disastrous Republican agenda. In describing the Democrats who blocked the Keystone XL pipeline, Politco reported on what they are calling the “hell no” caucus:

..red-state Democrats like Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mark Begich of Alaska are on their way out, and liberals like Jeff Merkley, Bernie Sanders and Sheldon Whitehouse — with Elizabeth Warren leading the way on messaging — may cause as many headaches for Senate Republicans as tea partyers caused Democrats in the past four years…

Asked if he could ever envision himself performing a Rand Paul-style talking filibuster in the Republican Senate, Whitehouse of Rhode Island replied: “Oh, of course. We will have more tools in the minority than we had in the majority.”

Progressives are girding for battle with Republicans over campaign finance law, consumer protections and women’s health care. But the early battle lines appear increasingly drawn around environmental policy, where Democratic centrists may defect from leadership in next year’s Senate and help Republicans pass legislation strongly opposed by liberal senators…

Even as they vow to fight Republicans at every turn on issues that fundamentally divide liberals and conservatives, left-leaning Democrats insist that they will not do so seeking retaliation against a Republican minority that stymied their economic, environmental and social priorities for so long with filibusters and delay. Those days, they insist, are gone — leaving liberals to somehow find a balance between fighting for their convictions and not drawing the same charges of obstruction that have dominated Democratic messaging for years.

“The best news about a Republican majority in the Senate is that the Republican minority is now gone,” Whitehouse said. “They were just a god-awful minority.”

Maybe this will free up liberal Democrats to more strongly articulate their views on the issues, while allowing more people to see what the Republican agenda really is.

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Police Are Taught How To Best Benefit From Legalized Theft

Civil asset forfeiture allows a police force to punish people by taking their property with no due process, no conviction, and possibly without charging them with a crime. It has become such a lucrative way for a police force to get money that they are becoming selective in which property they will seize. Police even go to seminars to teach them the best way to make money. The New York Times has recorded some of these seminars and reports:

Mr. Connelly was talking about a practice known as civil asset forfeiture, which allows the government, without ever securing a conviction or even filing a criminal charge, to seize property suspected of having ties to crime. The practice, expanded during the war on drugs in the 1980s, has become a staple of law enforcement agencies because it helps finance their work. It is difficult to tell how much has been seized by state and local law enforcement, but under a Justice Department program, the value of assets seized has ballooned to $4.3 billion in the 2012 fiscal year from $407 million in 2001. Much of that money is shared with local police forces.

The practice of civil forfeiture has come under fire in recent months, amid a spate of negative press reports and growing outrage among civil rights advocates, libertarians and members of Congress who have raised serious questions about the fairness of the practice, which critics say runs roughshod over due process rights. In one oft-cited case, a Philadelphia couple’s home was seized after their son made $40 worth of drug sales on the porch. Despite that opposition, many cities and states are moving to expand civil seizures of cars and other assets. The seminars, some of which were captured on video, raise a curtain on how law enforcement officials view the practice.

The seminars teach which property to take to maximize their profits. They learn not to bother with jewelry as it is too hard to sell, or computers because everyone has one. Instead they are instructed to go after “flat screen TVs, cash and cars. Especially nice cars.”

Much of the nuts-and-bolts how-to of civil forfeiture is passed on in continuing education seminars for local prosecutors and law enforcement officials, some of which have been captured on video. The Institute for Justice, which brought the videos to the attention of The Times, says they show how cynical the practice has become and how profit motives can outweigh public safety.

In the sessions, officials share tips on maximizing profits, defeating the objections of so-called “innocent owners” who were not present when the suspected offense occurred, and keeping the proceeds in the hands of law enforcement and out of general fund budgets. The Times reviewed three sessions, one in Santa Fe, N.M., that took place in September, one in New Jersey that was undated, and one in Georgia in September that was not videotaped.

Officials offered advice on dealing with skeptical judges, mocked Hispanics whose cars were seized, and made comments that, the Institute for Justice said, gave weight to the argument that civil forfeiture encourages decisions based on the value of the assets to be seized rather than public safety. In the Georgia session, the prosecutor leading the talk boasted that he had helped roll back a Republican-led effort to reform civil forfeiture in Georgia, where seized money has been used by the authorities, according to news reports, to pay for sports tickets, office parties, a home security system and a $90,000 sports car…

When discussed with law enforcement, they often made forfeiture sound like a useful tool to reduce crime, but in the end they were often found to be profiting from the practice. This makes it sound like the benefits they claim are just ways to rationalize what amounts to legalized theft.

Sean D. McMurtry, the chief of the forfeiture unit in the Mercer County, N.J., prosecutor’s office, said forfeiture contributes to only a small percentage of local budgets but it is a good deterrent and works especially well against repeat offenders, such as domestic violence perpetrators who repeatedly violate a restraining order. “We’re very proud of our forfeiture operation,” he said in an interview.

But in the video, Mr. McMurtry made it clear that forfeitures were highly contingent on the needs of law enforcement. In New Jersey, the police and prosecutors are allowed to use cars, cash and other seized goods; the rest must be sold at auction. Cellphones and jewelry, Mr. McMurtry said, are not worth the bother. Flat screen televisions, however, “are very popular with the police departments,” he said.

Prosecutors boasted in the sessions that seizure cases were rarely contested or appealed. But civil forfeiture places the burden on owners, who must pay court fees and legal costs to get their property back. Many seizures go uncontested because the property is not worth the expense.

And often the first hearing is presided over not by a judge but by the prosecutor whose office benefits from the proceeds, and who has wide discretion in deciding whether to forfeit the property or return it, sometimes in exchange for a steep fine.

Mr. McMurtry said his handling of a case is sometimes determined by department wish lists. “If you want the car, and you really want to put it in your fleet, let me know — I’ll fight for it,” Mr. McMurtry said, addressing law enforcement officials on the video. “If you don’t let me know that, I’ll try and resolve it real quick through a settlement and get cash for the car, get the tow fee paid off, get some money for it.”

One criticism of civil forfeiture is that it results in widely varied penalties — one drunken driver could lose a $100,000 luxury car, while another forfeits a $2,000 clunker…

Prosecutors estimated that between 50 to 80 percent of the cars seized were driven by someone other than the owner, which sometimes means a parent or grandparent loses their car. In the Santa Fe video, a police officer acknowledged that the law can affect families, but expressed skepticism of owners who say they did not know their relative was running afoul of the law.

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Court Rules Against Quarantine Of Hickox Representing A Victory For Science And Civil Liberties

A judge in Maine has ruled against the quarantine of Kaci Hickox which the governor of Maine has attempted to impose, agreeing with the medical evidence that Hickox “currently does not show symptoms of Ebola and is therefore not infectious.” This is a victory for Hickox personally, along with a victory for both science and civil liberties.

The politicization of Ebola has demonstrated the usual divisions between left and right in this country. As on so many other issues, the right wing has rejected scientific findings, distorted scientific information which conflicted with their political goals, and ignored the rights of the individual. This also provides another example of the emptiness of Republican claims of wanting to keep government out of health care decisions.

While the media has concentrated on a small number of people who have returned from West Africa, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) has had a staff of over 3300. Of these 3300 MSF staffers, only 23 have contracted Ebola. The staff includes over 700 who came to West Africa from other nations with only one developing symptoms of Ebola after he returned home.The one doctor who did return to New York subsequently followed protocols for continued monitoring and was hospitalized prior to spreading the infection to anyone else.

With these odds, there is no justification in assuming that Hickox, or any other medical worker, is infected with Ebola merely due to having worked in the affected nations. People who are infected have a very low viral load early and do not spread the disease until after they exhibit symptoms, which Hickox has not done. It is becoming increasingly unlikely that she will. While a twenty-one incubation period is commonly cited by the media, and should be used as a precaution, in reality the vast majority of patients exhibit symptoms in six to twelve days. Monitoring for twenty-one days provides an ample additional margin of safety to the public.

While some Republicans have played politics with the issue and, as happens far too often, some Democrats such as Andrew Cuomo initially acquiesced in fear, the guidelines from the CDC and precautions already in effect are sufficient to protect the public and, to err on the side of safety, call for greater restrictions than are necessary based upon the science. There is no need for politicians to go beyond these precautions and unjustly restrict the civil liberties of Americans. The monitoring protocols already in place from Doctors Without Borders can be seen here.

In response to the controversy engendered by those who have been ignoring the science, the American Nurses Association released this statement on October 29:

The American Nurses Association (ANA) opposes the mandatory quarantine of health care professionals who return to the United States from West African nations where Ebola is widespread. ANA supports registered nurse Kaci Hickox, who recently returned to the United States after treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone, in her challenge of a 21-day quarantine imposed by state officials in Maine, her home state. Hickox arrived at Newark airport on Oct. 24 and was immediately quarantined in a hospital tent by New Jersey state officials, who eventually allowed her to travel to Maine via private transport on Oct. 27. After testing negative twice for Ebola, nurse Hickox, who continues to be symptom free, poses no public threat yet is restricted to her home.

ANA, along with the American Hospital Association and American Medical Association, supports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) guidance based on the best available scientific evidence. The CDC guidance would not require a mandatory 21-day quarantine of Hickox given risk levels outlined by the CDC in her particular case. ANA urges authorities to refrain from imposing more restrictive conditions than indicated in the CDC guidelines, which will only raise the level of fear and misinformation that currently exists.

ANA supports a policy of appropriate monitoring for health care workers who have cared for or been in contact with patients with Ebola. Those who are not exhibiting symptoms of illness consistent with Ebola do not require quarantine. Monitoring should follow recommendations outlined by the CDC based on risk levels and the presence or absence of symptoms, including regular monitoring of body temperature and oversight by a public health agency. If symptoms do occur, the appropriate next step is isolation and transport to a medical facility for further evaluation. ANA seeks to balance protection of public health and safety with individual liberties. Policies to protect the public from the transmission of Ebola must be based on evidence and science, not fear.

Mandatory quarantine for individuals who do not have symptoms or risk factors is not backed by science. Such actions undermine efforts to recruit sufficient numbers of volunteer nurses and other health care professionals, who are essential to help contain the spread of the disease in West Africa.

ANA’s position emphasizing evidence and science as the foundation for decision-making extends to proposals to ban travel to the United States from West African nations affected by the Ebola outbreak. There is no evidence to suggest that a travel ban would be effective; public health experts oppose it. In fact, a ban could be counterproductive, encouraging individuals to try to circumvent reporting and other systems. ANA supports the current requirement that those traveling to the U.S. from affected nations in West Africa, including health care professionals who have provided care to Ebola patients, once they have passed initial screening, engage in monitoring according to CDC guidelines and reporting to their respective public health agencies.”

Multiple other medical organizations have issued statements in opposition to imposing quarantines including the American Medical Association, the Infectious Diseases Society of America, and the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology.

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Kaci Hickox Is A Hero–Now On Two Counts

Kaci Hickox is a hero. First for volunteering to help treat Ebola patients, as eradicating Ebola in West Africa is the only way to handle this disease. She became a hero again for standing up to unjust restrictions upon her civil liberties upon returning home and supporting the concept of making political decisions based upon science and reason as opposed to giving in to public hysteria.

It was Hickox’s protests which forced Governors Christie and Cuomo to back away from guidelines policies which were both unnecessary and counterproductive. Some state governments are still going beyond the extremely cautious CDC guidelines with policies such as home quarantine of individuals who show no sign of the disease for twenty-one days. We know that this is unnecessary based both upon our knowledge of how the Ebola virus is transmitted and based upon our experience to date.  Ebola is not contagious early in the disease and is not transmitted by casual contact. While highly contagious when people are having symptoms such as projectile vomiting and uncontrolled diarrhea, those who do not have symptoms are not contagious. People with Ebola do not yet pose a danger of spreading the disease when they initially reach the CDC’s threshold of a fever of 101.4 degrees, and they certainly are not contagious before reaching this point.

We have seen one patient in Texas be released in error by an Emergency Room and return to the community. We have seen a nurse later revealed to be infected with Ebola fly with a low grade fever. We have had a doctor traveling around a city as densely populated as New York City just prior to meeting criteria for isolation. Not a single person has contracted Ebola due to contact with these individuals. That is the nature of the disease.

Kaci Hickox, well aware of the science, has stated she plans to fight the involuntary home quarantine being imposed:

“I will go to court to attain my freedom,” Hickox told “Good Morning America” today via Skype from her hometown of Fort Kent, Maine. “I have been completely asymptomatic since I’ve been here. I feel absolutely great.”

One of her attorney’s explained her legal position:

New York civil rights lawyer Norman Siegel, said she would contest any potential court order requiring her quarantine at home.

“The conditions that the state of Maine is now requiring Kaci to comply with are unconstitutional and illegal and there is no justification for the state of Maine to infringe on her liberty,” he said.

Hickox will abide by daily monitoring, as recommended the by updated guidelines released Monday by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hyman said. She has been in regular contact with state health officials, Siegel said.

U.S. CDC Director Tom Frieden called for isolation of people at the highest risk for Ebola infection but said most medical workers returning from the three African nations at the center of the epidemic — Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea — would require daily monitoring without isolation.

The new guidelines recommend considering isolation only for individuals exposed to Ebola who show symptoms. Those with no signs of illness should be monitored for 21 days after the last potential exposure, with symptom-free individuals at the highest risk subject to “restricted movement within the community” and no travel on public transportation, according to the guidelines…

“She understands the nature of the disease, she treated it,” Hyman said. “She understands the nature of the risk.”

The American Civil Liberties Union has posted an article on the over-reaction to Ebola coming from some politicians, in contrast to the more rational guidelines proposed by the Center for Disease Control and the Obama administration:

One over-reaction to the disease that has emerged is a proposal for a blanket travel ban from the affected countries in West Africa. Public health experts say that such bans are not necessary, would not be effective, and would be a poor use of resources. Worse still, experts say they would most likely make matters worse by further isolating the countries where the outbreak is taking place, worsening the situation in those countries and therefore the threat to the United States. Travel bans “hinder relief and response efforts risking further international spread,” as the World Health Organization warned. Experts say such bans would also inevitably drive travelers underground, making it difficult to retrace the path of a disease when a case does appear.

Proposals to close the border to all travelers from affected nations are not a scientifically and medically legitimate exercise of government power and therefore would be arbitrary and discriminatory whether applied to citizens or non-citizens.

Now, of course, we are also seeing the questionable use of quarantine powers in some states. Medical experts have opposed such steps given that Ebola is not transmissible until after a fever begins and is not a highly transmissible disease generally, and given that individuals have strong incentives to carefully monitor themselves. Doctors Without Borders, for example, has condemned these quarantines as a threat to its battle against the disease in Africa. It cites the effect the quarantines will have in deterring doctors and nurses from taking the already remarkably brave step of entering the fight against the disease—and in stigmatizing them when they do. In short such quarantines threaten to weaken the most effective weapon we have in stopping the disease at its source. (It’s also shameful to treat returning health care workers, who have put their own lives at risk to help others, as anything less than heroes.)

Where individuals cooperate with the authorities in allowing close monitoring of their health and other reasonable precautions, the imposition of quarantines on those without symptoms appears to be driven by politics rather than science, and therefore raises serious civil liberties concerns.

While some political leaders have acted out of fear, Obama Administration officials deserve praise for largely sticking to science and not caving in to some of the fear mongering that is swirling around them. The White House has prioritized medicine over politics. It has resisted calls for travel bans, tried to persuade the governors of New Jersey and New York to reconsider their quarantines, and has largely followed the advice of public health experts in the recommendations that they have made. The Administration has also taken helpful steps such as expediting emergency FDA authorization for the use of new machines for rapid detection of the Ebola virus—which could allow detection of the disease before symptoms appear.

In fact, the Obama Administration has a history of good policy on communicable diseases. As we described in a 2009 white paper on that year’s H1N1 flu scare, the Administration acted calmly and appropriately in response to that epidemic, and overall, President Obama has turned away from his predecessor’s military/law enforcement approach to fighting disease, which we criticized in detail in our 2008 report on pandemic preparedness.

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Left and Right Join Together To Oppose Militarization Of Police

Police Missouri

The militarization of the police force seen with the shooting in Ferguson, Missouri has led to another case of portions of the left and right joining together. This includes a push for legislation in Congress with the backing of both the American Civil Liberties Union and Gun Owners of America.:

Groups on the left and right are uniting behind calls to end what they say is the rise of a “militarized” police force in the United States.

They say the controversial police tactics seen this week in Ferguson, Mo., are not isolated to the St. Louis County Police Department and warn the rise of heavily armed law enforcement agencies has become an imminent threat to civil liberties.

“What we’re seeing today in Ferguson is a reflection of the excessive militarization of police that has been happening in towns across America for decades,” said Kara Dansky, senior counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

The ACLU is aligned with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and groups on the right who are calling for an end to a controversial Defense Department program that supplies local police departments with surplus military equipment, such as armored tanks, machine guns and tear gas.

According to the Defense Logistics Agency, more than $4 billion in discounted military equipment has been sold to local police departments since the 1990s.

“Why are those guns available to the police?” asked Erich Pratt, spokesman for the conservative Gun Owners of America. “We don’t technically have the military operating within our borders, but they’re being given the gear to basically operate in that capacity.”

Gun Owners of America and the ACLU are both backing a forthcoming bill from Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) that would curtail the sale of DOD weapons to local police departments.

More libertarian factions of the Republican Party are speaking out on this issue:

The killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., has produced a rare and surprisingly unified response across the ideological spectrum, with Republicans and Democrats joining to decry the tactics of the city’s police force in the face of escalating protests.

Most notably, the reactions reflect a shift away from the usual support and sympathy conservatives typically show for law enforcement in such situations. Although possibly unique to the circumstances of the events in Missouri this week, the changing reaction on the right is clear evidence of a rising and more vocal libertarian wing within the Republican Party.

No better sign of that came Thursday than in an article by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) published on Time’s Web site.

“If I had been told to get out of the street as a teenager, there would have been a distinct possibility that I might have smarted off,” he wrote. “But, I wouldn’t have expected to be shot.”

In his piece, Paul criticized what he called the growing militarization of local police forces. “There is a legitimate role for the police to keep the peace,” he wrote, “but there should be a difference between a police response and a military response.”

This comes as a change from what we generally expect from Republicans:

Since Richard M. Nixon made cracking down on crime a central issue of his 1968 presidential campaign, Republicans have held themselves up as the alternative to a Democratic Party they have derided as soft on issues of law and order. But an appetite for changes in the criminal justice system has been building among Republicans, many of whom believe the tough-justice approach has run its course.

Mr. Paul, Senator Rob Portman of Ohio and Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin are among those who say that the federal and state governments need to rethink the way convicts are sentenced and imprisoned, arguing that the current system is inhumane and too costly.

Mr. Paul’s remarks on Thursday were similar to those of other leading conservatives who have weighed in on the events in Ferguson.

“Reporters should never be detained — a free press is too important — simply for doing their jobs,” Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, wrote on his Facebook page on Thursday, reacting to news that journalists from The Washington Post and The Huffington Post had been held by the police. “Civil liberties must be protected, but violence is not the answer.”

Erick Erickson, a conservative writer, took to Twitter to question why the police needed to display so much firepower. “It is pretty damn insane that people who spend all day writing speeding tickets,” he wrote, “hop in tanks with AR-15s at night.”

But not all conservatives are as concerned about the civil liberties aspects:

Other conservatives have focused on instances in which chaos has broken out in the streets. Images and headlines on The Drudge Report and Breitbart.com have singled out acts of violence among demonstrators and shown looters breaking store windows…

In much of the conservative news media, the protesters in Ferguson are being portrayed as “outside agitators,” in the words of Sean Hannity, the Fox News host.

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Media Support For Legalization Of Marijuana and Prostitution

Legalize Pot and Sex

There is a welcome trend towards support of decriminalization of victimless crimes. The New York Times recently came out for legalization of marijuana, outlining the harm done by the unsuccessful prohibition:

America’s four-decade war on drugs is responsible for many casualties, but the criminalization of marijuana has been perhaps the most destructive part of that war. The toll can be measured in dollars — billions of which are thrown away each year in the aggressive enforcement of pointless laws. It can be measured in years — whether wasted behind bars or stolen from a child who grows up fatherless. And it can be measured in lives — those damaged if not destroyed by the shockingly harsh consequences that can follow even the most minor offenses…

The costs of this national obsession, in both money and time, are astonishing. Each year, enforcing laws on possession costs more than $3.6 billion, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. It can take a police officer many hours to arrest and book a suspect. That person will often spend a night or more in the local jail, and be in court multiple times to resolve the case. The public-safety payoff for all this effort is meager at best: According to a 2012 Human Rights Watch report that tracked 30,000 New Yorkers with no prior convictions when they were arrested for marijuana possession, 90 percent had no subsequent felony convictions. Only 3.1 percent committed a violent offense.

The strategy is also largely futile. After three decades, criminalization has not affected general usage; about 30 million Americans use marijuana every year. Meanwhile, police forces across the country are strapped for cash, and the more resources they devote to enforcing marijuana laws, the less they have to go after serious, violent crime. According to F.B.I. data, more than half of all violent crimes nationwide, and four in five property crimes, went unsolved in 2012.

The sheer volume of law enforcement resources devoted to marijuana is bad enough. What makes the situation far worse is racial disparity. Whites and blacks use marijuana at roughly the same rates; on average, however, blacks are 3.7 times more likely than whites to be arrested for possession, according to a comprehensive 2013 report by the A.C.L.U.

Now The Economist has called for legalization of prostitution, partially due to the changes in the profession with prostitution increasingly being arranged on line:

Moralisers will lament the shift online because it will cause the sex trade to grow strongly. Buyers and sellers will find it easier to meet and make deals. New suppliers will enter a trade that is becoming safer and less tawdry. New customers will find their way to prostitutes, since they can more easily find exactly the services they desire and confirm their quality. Pimps and madams should shudder, too. The internet will undermine their market-making power.

But everyone else should cheer. Sex arranged online and sold from an apartment or hotel room is less bothersome for third parties than are brothels or red-light districts. Above all, the web will do more to make prostitution safer than any law has ever done. Pimps are less likely to be abusive if prostitutes have an alternative route to market. Specialist sites will enable buyers and sellers to assess risks more accurately. Apps and sites are springing up that will let them confirm each other’s identities and swap verified results from sexual-health tests. Schemes such as Britain’s Ugly Mugs allow prostitutes to circulate online details of clients to avoid.

Governments should seize the moment to rethink their policies. Prohibition, whether partial or total, has been a predictable dud. It has singularly failed to stamp out the sex trade. Although prostitution is illegal everywhere in America except Nevada, old figures put its value at $14 billion annually nationwide; surely an underestimate. More recent calculations in Britain, where prostitution is legal but pimping and brothels are not, suggest that including it would boost GDP figures by at least £5.3 billion ($8.9 billion). And prohibition has ugly results. Violence against prostitutes goes unpunished because victims who live on society’s margins are unlikely to seek justice, or to get it. The problem of sex tourism plagues countries, like the Netherlands and Germany, where the legal part of the industry is both tightly circumscribed and highly visible…

The prospect of being pressed to mend their ways makes prostitutes less willing to seek care from health or social services. Men who risk arrest will not tell the police about women they fear were coerced into prostitution. When Rhode Island unintentionally decriminalised indoor prostitution between 2003 and 2009 the state saw a steep decline in reported rapes and cases of gonorrhoea.

Prostitution is moving online whether governments like it or not. If they try to get in the way of the shift they will do harm. Indeed, the unrealistic goal of ending the sex trade distracts the authorities from the genuine horrors of modern-day slavery (which many activists conflate with illegal immigration for the aim of selling sex) and child prostitution (better described as money changing hands to facilitate the rape of a child). Governments should focus on deterring and punishing such crimes—and leave consenting adults who wish to buy and sell sex to do so safely and privately online.

More on the effects of the unintentional decriminalization of indoor prostitution in Rhode Island here.

I think  tolerance of marijuana use and prostitution will increase with the millennial generation, which is more socially liberal, and find it a good sign to see long-established portions of the media also moving in this direction. I also fear that, as with same-sex marriage, even the Democrats will lag behind the general population in acceptance of liberal views.

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