Criminal Justice

  • April 7, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Jamie Hoag, Co-President of the ACS Boston Lawyer Chapter

    What do the cases United States v. Approximately 64,695 Pounds of Shark Fins and State of Texas v. One 2004 Chevrolet Silverado have in common?  They both involve the practice of civil forfeiture - the seizure of property that law enforcement officials suspect of being involved in criminal activity.  While in criminal forfeiture the government has to prove a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in order to seize property tied to the criminal activity, that’s not the case in civil forfeiture proceedings.  In these actions, the property itself is charged with a crime – hence the strange case titles – and it is not necessary for the government to demonstrate that a property owner is guilty of any misconduct.  In fact, civil forfeiture often takes place even when criminal charges are never filed.

    As described in an extensive study done by the Institute for Justice, civil forfeiture laws at the federal level and in 42 states perversely incentivize forfeiture actions.  The money is often used to pay salaries and purchase equipment, providing an incentive for law enforcement officials to increase the number of seizures.  In Philadelphia alone, officials seized approximately $64 million dollars in assets in a 10-year period, and the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office used $25 million of that to pay salaries.  A class action lawsuit has been filed challenging Philadelphia’s appetite for civil forfeiture proceedings.

    The practice is getting the scrutiny and criticism it deserves.  In a comprehensive investigation, The Washington Post reported last year that police have seized almost $2.5 billion from motorists and others without search warrants or criminal indictments since September 11, 2001.  The New Yorker also examined the out of control practice, as did one late night comedy show.  In addition, the Department of Justice report on the Ferguson police department highlighted the role of law enforcement as a municipal revenue generator, noting that the city’s law enforcement activity “shaped by the City’s pressure to raise revenue, has resulted in a pattern and practice of constitutional violations.”

  • April 1, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Leslie A. Shoebotham, Victor H. Schiro Distinguished Professor of Law, Loyola University New Orleans

    This week, the U.S. Supreme Court in a per curiam opinion held that monitoring a recidivist sex offender via an ankle bracelet device was a “search” for Fourth Amendment purposes.  In Grady v. North Carolina, the Court concluded that United States v. Jones controlled the case – i.e., attachment of an ankle bracelet and monitoring of the device to determine Grady’s location was a “search,” just as the government’s attachment and monitoring of a Global Positioning System (GPS) device onto Jones’s vehicle was a Fourth Amendment search.  The Court issued a summary reversal of the North Carolina Supreme Court’s non-search decision and remanded the case to the state courts to determine whether the search is reasonable based on the totality of the circumstances.

    Because of society’s strong interest in preventing child sexual abuse, as well as the overall contempt with which sex offenders are often viewed, it might be easy to assume that the North Carolina courts should find the search to be reasonable.  Don’t be lulled by the opprobrious nature of Grady’s prior crimes, however.  Based upon the facts in Grady, the ankle bracelet search at issue is premised on a future-looking ongoing search – a search that is conducted in the absence of probable cause, or even reasonable suspicion, that a crime will be committed.  If this search is upheld as reasonable, it opens the door to attachment of devices and monitoring in countless other situations.

  • March 27, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Nkechi Taifa, Senior Policy Analyst at Open Society Foundations

    I have spent over 25 years working on criminal justice reform issues and the recent Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform, co-hosted by an unlikely alliance of Van Jones, Newt Gingrich, Donna Brazile and Pat Nolan, was absolutely colossal. Who would have imagined that a huge hotel ballroom would be packed as early as 8:00 a.m. with federal and local legislators, high administration officials, policy experts, criminologists, researchers, faith leaders, academicians, formerly incarcerated people and millennials – all from both sides of the aisle? The event was an ambitious undertaking – a full day jam-packed with featured presentations, panel workshops, video presentations, and luncheon keynote conversations, with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, and Georgia Governor Nathan Deal all sharing their words of wisdom on criminal justice reform. Democratic Members of Congress spoke at the Summit in person, and Republican Members, along with President Barak Obama, made remarks via video. 

    As I sat in the audience, I reflected that criminal justice was no longer the lightening rod it was two decades ago, thanks to a more recent, huge paradigm shift.  Twenty years ago, Republicans and Democrats alike were horrible on criminal justice issues.  Candidate Bill Clinton left the campaign trail to oversee the execution of a mentally challenged man in Arkansas. Every year or so during the early 90s we fought against unwieldy omnibus crime bills, culminating in the “granddaddy” of all the crime bills – the Violent Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1994.  This bill expanded the federal death penalty to a level unprecedented in modern times, gutted habeas corpus reform, eviscerated the exclusionary rule, allowed for the prosecutions of 13-year olds as adults, and refused to address the crack/powder sentencing disparity, while implementing a slew of additional mandatory minimum sentences and offering monetary incentives to states to lock up more and more people for longer periods of time in exchange for loads of money to build more prisons. 

  • March 26, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Sarah Hunger and Meredith Kincaid, Associates at Jones Day.  Jones Day represents The National Association of Black Veterans, Swords to Plowshares, Veterans Defense Project, and The Constitution Project in an amicus brief that the authors filed in support of Mr. Lockhart.  Mr. Lockhart is represented by Equal Justice Initiative.

    In 2010, an Alabama jury voted unanimously to spare the life of Courtney Lockhart, an Iraq war veteran facing the death penalty for a murder he committed while suffering from combat-related mental health issues.  Several months later, and upon consideration of evidence never shown to the jury, the elected judge overseeing Mr. Lockhart’s case sentenced him to death.

    In Alabama, the jury’s role at capital sentencing is merely advisory, and the imposition of the death penalty hinges upon specific, written findings of fact made by elected judges.  Under this regime, Alabama courts are empowered to make these factual findings “based upon information known only to the trial court and not to the jury.”  Adhering to this doctrine, Mr. Lockhart’s sentencing judge overrode the jury’s unanimous recommendation of life based upon information never presented to the jury, including evidence deemed inadmissible in a suppression hearing.

    In January, Mr. Lockhart filed a petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court arguing that his death sentence, as well as the Alabama regime that authorizes it, violates the Sixth and Eighth Amendments.  The Supreme Court’s review of this important and recurring issue is long overdue.  In the past decade, at least 28% of death row inmates in Alabama were sentenced via judicial override, and more than 100 inmates now sit on death row because of its use.  Nevertheless, the Supreme Court has not reviewed Alabama’s death penalty regime since 1995, well before it announced in Apprendi that the Sixth Amendment precludes judges from making findings that authorize an increase in the maximum punishment.

    Most notably, as Mr. Lockhart and amici assert, judicial override as practiced in Alabama deprives defendants of their Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury by making the heightened punishment of death dependent upon judicially found facts.  This means, in other words, that Alabama defendants are not eligible for the death penalty until the trial judge makes sufficient findings of fact to support it – a remarkably clear-cut Apprendi violation.  Alabama’s death penalty regime, which gives judges the unilateral power to impose death sentences on individuals that juries have voted to spare, should no longer go unchecked.  The Court should grant Mr. Lockhart’s pending petition.

  • March 20, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Christopher R. Poulos, President, ACS University of Maine School of Law Student Chapter; Chair, Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program Subcommittee, City of Portland, Maine.

    The United States now has more incarcerated citizens both in raw numbers and per capita than any other nation on Earth.  Over two million people are currently incarcerated in the United States, up from around 200,000 as recently as 1975.  The vast majority of prisoners are economically disadvantaged and lack college degrees, and many did not graduate from high school.  The number of minorities incarcerated, particularly black males, is disproportionately larger than their percentage of the general population.  Liberals – and now conservatives, including the Koch brothers and Newt Gingrich – are finally calling attention to the long ignored issue of mass incarceration.  The current focus on this matter by both ends of the political spectrum makes this a ripe time for positive change.

    One way to immediately begin addressing the daunting issue of criminal justice reform generally – and mass incarceration specifically – is to divert eligible low-level offenders away from the criminal justice process entirely.  The program is called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), and one of its many objectives is to transform and transcend the relationship between police and the residents they serve into something more positive and less adversarial.  The idea began in Seattle and has also taken root in Santa Fe.