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“How The Supreme Court Protects Bad Cops”: How Many More Deaths And Riots Will It Take Before SCOTUS Changes Course?

Last week, a grand jury was convened in St. Louis County, Mo., to examine the evidence against the police officer who killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, and to determine if he should be indicted. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. even showed up to announce a separate federal investigation, and to promise that justice would be done. But if the conclusion is that the officer, Darren Wilson, acted improperly, the ability to hold him or Ferguson, Mo., accountable will be severely restricted by none other than the United States Supreme Court.

In recent years, the court has made it very difficult, and often impossible, to hold police officers and the governments that employ them accountable for civil rights violations. This undermines the ability to deter illegal police behavior and leaves victims without compensation. When the police kill or injure innocent people, the victims rarely have recourse.

The most recent court ruling that favored the police was Plumhoff v. Rickard, decided on May 27, which found that even egregious police conduct is not “excessive force” in violation of the Constitution. Police officers in West Memphis, Ark., pulled over a white Honda Accord because the car had only one operating headlight. Rather than comply with an officer’s request to get out of the car, the driver made the unfortunate decision to speed away. The police chased the car for more than five minutes, reaching speeds of over 100 miles per hour. Eventually, officers fired 15 shots into the car, killing both the driver and a passenger.

The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and ruled unanimously in favor of the police. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said that the driver’s conduct posed a “grave public safety risk” and that the police were justified in shooting at the car to stop it. The court said it “stands to reason that, if police officers are justified in firing at a suspect in order to end a severe threat to public safety, the officers need not stop shooting until the threat has ended.”

This is deeply disturbing. The Supreme Court now has said that whenever there is a high-speed chase that could injure others — and that would seem to be true of virtually all high-speed chases — the police can shoot at the vehicle and keep shooting until the chase ends. Obvious alternatives could include shooting out the car’s tires, or even taking the license plate number and tracking the driver down later.

The court has also weakened accountability by ruling that a local government can be held liable only if it is proved that the city’s or county’s own policy violated the Constitution. In almost every other area of law, an employer can be held liable if its employees, in the scope of their duties, injure others, even negligently. This encourages employers to control the conduct of their employees and ensures that those injured will be compensated.

A 2011 case, Connick v. Thompson, illustrates how difficult the Supreme Court has made it to prove municipal liability. John Thompson was convicted of an armed robbery and a murder and spent 18 years in prison, 14 of them on death row, because of prosecutorial misconduct. Two days before Mr. Thompson’s trial began in New Orleans, the assistant district attorney received the crime lab’s report, which stated that the perpetrator of the armed robbery had a blood type that did not match Mr. Thompson’s. The defense was not told this crucial information.

Through a series of coincidences, Mr. Thompson’s lawyer discovered the blood evidence soon before the scheduled execution. New testing was done and again the blood of the perpetrator didn’t match Mr. Thompson’s DNA or even his blood type. His conviction was overturned, and he was eventually acquitted of all charges.

The district attorney’s office, which had a notorious history of not turning over exculpatory evidence to defendants, conceded that it had violated its constitutional obligation. Mr. Thompson sued the City of New Orleans, which employed the prosecutors, and was awarded $14 million.

But the Supreme Court reversed that decision, in a 5-to-4 vote, and held that the local government was not liable for the prosecutorial misconduct. Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, said that New Orleans could not be held liable because it could not be proved that its own policies had violated the Constitution. The fact that its prosecutor blatantly violated the Constitution was not enough to make the city liable.

Because it is so difficult to sue government entities, most victims’ only recourse is to sue the officers involved. But here, too, the Supreme Court has created often insurmountable obstacles. The court has held that all government officials sued for monetary damages can raise “immunity” as a defense. Police officers and other law enforcement personnel who commit perjury have absolute immunity and cannot be sued for money, even when it results in the imprisonment of an innocent person. A prosecutor who commits misconduct, as in Mr. Thompson’s case, also has absolute immunity to civil suits.

When there is not absolute immunity, police officers are still protected by “qualified immunity” when sued for monetary damages. The Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia in 2011, ruled that a government officer can be held liable only if “every reasonable official” would have known that his conduct was unlawful. For example, the officer who shot Michael Brown can be held liable only if every reasonable officer would have known that the shooting constituted the use of excessive force and was not self-defense.

The Supreme Court has used this doctrine in recent years to deny damages to an eighth-grade girl who was strip-searched by school officials on suspicion that she had prescription-strength ibuprofen. It has also used it to deny damages to a man who, under a material-witness warrant, was held in a maximum-security prison for 16 days and on supervised release for 14 months, even though the government had no intention of using him as a material witness or even probable cause to arrest him. In each instance, the court stressed that the government officer could not be held liable, even though the Constitution had clearly been violated.

Taken together, these rulings have a powerful effect. They mean that the officer who shot Michael Brown and the City of Ferguson will most likely never be held accountable in court. How many more deaths and how many more riots will it take before the Supreme Court changes course?

 

By: Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the School of Law at the University of California, Irvine: Op-Ed Contributor, The New York Times, August 26, 2014

August 27, 2014 Posted by | Civil Rights, Ferguson Missouri, Law Enforcement, U. S. Supreme Court | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Preying On The Poor”: How Government And Corporations Use The Poor As Piggy Banks

Individually the poor are not too tempting to thieves, for obvious reasons. Mug a banker and you might score a wallet containing a month’s rent. Mug a janitor and you will be lucky to get away with bus fare to flee the crime scene. But as Business Week helpfully pointed out in 2007, the poor in aggregate provide a juicy target for anyone depraved enough to make a business of stealing from them.

The trick is to rob them in ways that are systematic, impersonal, and almost impossible to trace to individual perpetrators. Employers, for example, can simply program their computers to shave a few dollars off each paycheck, or they can require workers to show up 30 minutes or more before the time clock starts ticking.

Lenders, including major credit companies as well as payday lenders, have taken over the traditional role of the street-corner loan shark, charging the poor insanely high rates of interest. When supplemented with late fees (themselves subject to interest), the resulting effective interest rate can be as high as 600% a year, which is perfectly legal in many states.

It’s not just the private sector that’s preying on the poor. Local governments are discovering that they can partially make up for declining tax revenues through fines, fees, and other costs imposed on indigent defendants, often for crimes no more dastardly than driving with a suspended license. And if that seems like an inefficient way to make money, given the high cost of locking people up, a growing number of jurisdictions have taken to charging defendants for their court costs and even the price of occupying a jail cell.

The poster case for government persecution of the down-and-out would have to be Edwina Nowlin, a homeless Michigan woman who was jailed in 2009 for failing to pay $104 a month to cover the room-and-board charges for her 16-year-old son’s incarceration. When she received a back paycheck, she thought it would allow her to pay for her son’s jail stay. Instead, it was confiscated and applied to the cost of her own incarceration.

Government Joins the Looters of the Poor

You might think that policymakers would take a keen interest in the amounts that are stolen, coerced, or extorted from the poor, but there are no official efforts to track such figures. Instead, we have to turn to independent investigators, like Kim Bobo, author of Wage Theft in America, who estimates that wage theft nets employers at least $100 billion a year and possibly twice that. As for the profits extracted by the lending industry, Gary Rivlin, who wrote Broke USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc. — How the Working Poor Became Big Business, says the poor pay an effective surcharge of about $30 billion a year for the financial products they consume and more than twice that if you include subprime credit cards, subprime auto loans, and subprime mortgages.

These are not, of course, trivial amounts. They are on the same order of magnitude as major public programs for the poor. The government distributesabout $55 billion a year, for example, through the largest single cash-transfer program for the poor, the Earned Income Tax Credit; at the same time, employers are siphoning off twice that amount, if not more, through wage theft.

And while government generally turns a blind eye to the tens of billions of dollars in exorbitant interest that businesses charge the poor, it is notably chary with public benefits for the poor. Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, for example, our sole remaining nationwide welfare program, gets only $26 billion a year in state and federal funds. The impression is left of a public sector that’s gone totally schizoid: on the one hand, offering safety-net programs for the poor; on the other, enabling large-scale private sector theft from the very people it is supposedly trying to help.

At the local level though, government is increasingly opting to join in the looting. In 2009, a year into the Great Recession, I first started hearing complaints from community organizers about ever more aggressive levels of law enforcement in low-income areas. Flick a cigarette butt and get arrested for littering; empty your pockets for an officer conducting a stop-and-frisk operation and get cuffed for a few flakes of marijuana. Each of these offenses can result, at a minimum, in a three-figure fine.

And the number of possible criminal offenses leading to jail and/or fines has been multiplying recklessly. All across the country — from California and Texas to Pennsylvania — counties and municipalities have been toughening laws against truancy and ratcheting up enforcement, sometimes going so far as to handcuff children found on the streets during school hours. In New York City, it’s now a crime to put your feet up on a subway seat, even if the rest of the car is empty, and a South Carolina woman spent six days in jail when she was unable to pay a $480 fine for the crime of having a “messy yard.” Some cities — most recently, Houston and Philadelphia — have made it a crime to share foodwith indigent people in public places.

Being poor itself is not yet a crime, but in at least a third of the states, being in debt can now land you in jail. If a creditor like a landlord or credit card company has a court summons issued for you and you fail to show up on your appointed court date, a warrant will be issued for your arrest. And it is easy enough to miss a court summons, which may have been delivered to the wrong address or, in the case of some bottom-feeding bill collectors, simply tossed in the garbage — a practice so common that the industry even has a term for it: “sewer service.” In a sequence that National Public Radio reports is “increasingly common,” a person is stopped for some minor traffic offense — having a noisy muffler, say, or broken brake light — at which point the officer discovers the warrant and the unwitting offender is whisked off to jail.

Local Governments as Predators

Each of these crimes, neo-crimes, and pseudo-crimes carries financial penalties as well as the threat of jail time, but the amount of money thus extracted from the poor is fiendishly hard to pin down. No central agency tracks law enforcement at the local level, and local records can be almost willfully sketchy.

According to one of the few recent nationwide estimates, from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, 10.5 million misdemeanors were committed in 2006. No one would risk estimating the average financial penalty for a misdemeanor, although the experts I interviewed all affirmed that the amount is typically in the “hundreds of dollars.” If we take an extremely lowball $200 per misdemeanor, and bear in mind that 80%-90% of criminal offenses are committed by people who are officially indigent, then local governments are using law enforcement to extract, or attempt to extract, at least $2 billion a year from the poor.

And that is only a small fraction of what governments would like to collect from the poor. Katherine Beckett, a sociologist at the University of Washington, estimates that “deadbeat dads” (and moms) owe $105 billion in back child-support payments, about half of which is owed to state governments as reimbursement for prior welfare payments made to the children. Yes, parents have a moral obligation to their children, but the great majority of child-support debtors are indigent.

Attempts to collect from the already-poor can be vicious and often, one would think, self-defeating. Most states confiscate the drivers’ licenses of people owing child support, virtually guaranteeing that they will not be able to work. Michigan just started suspending the drivers’ licenses of people who owe money for parking tickets. Las Cruces, New Mexico, just passed a law that punishes people who owe overdue traffic fines by cutting off their water, gas, and sewage.

Once a person falls into the clutches of the criminal justice system, we encounter the kind of slapstick sadism familiar to viewers of Wipeout. Many courts impose fees without any determination of whether the offender is able to pay, and the privilege of having a payment plan will itself cost money.

In a study of 15 states, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University found 14 of them contained jurisdictions that charge a lump-sum “poverty penalty” of up to $300 for those who cannot pay their fees and fines, plus late fees and “collection fees” for those who need to pay over time. If any jail time is imposed, that too may cost money, as the hapless Edwina Nowlin discovered, and the costs of parole and probation are increasingly being passed along to the offender.

The predatory activities of local governments give new meaning to that tired phrase “the cycle of poverty.” Poor people are more far more likely than the affluent to get into trouble with the law, either by failing to pay parking fines or by incurring the wrath of a private-sector creditor like a landlord or a hospital.

Once you have been deemed a criminal, you can pretty much kiss your remaining assets goodbye. Not only will you face the aforementioned court costs, but you’ll have a hard time ever finding a job again once you’ve acquired a criminal record. And then of course, the poorer you become, the more likely you are to get in fresh trouble with the law, making this less like a “cycle” and more like the waterslide to hell. The further you descend, the faster you fall — until you eventually end up on the streets and get busted for an offense like urinating in public or sleeping on a sidewalk. 

I could propose all kinds of policies to curb the ongoing predation on the poor. Limits on usury should be reinstated. Theft should be taken seriously even when it’s committed by millionaire employers. No one should be incarcerated for debt or squeezed for money they have no chance of getting their hands on. These are no-brainers, and should take precedence over any long term talk about generating jobs or strengthening the safety net. Before we can “do something” for the poor, there are some things we need to stop doing to them.

 

By: Barbara Ehrenreich, Mother Jones, Originally Published on the TomDispatch website, May 18, 2012

May 20, 2012 Posted by | Economic Inequality | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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