Category Archives: Legal

Just Consequences

There was an interesting criminal case out of Fairfax, Virginia the other day, involving a young lady named Sandra Mendez Ortega who stole some jewelry from Lisa Copeland while cleaning her house. The Washington Post lays out the events this way:

The case began with Copeland’s discovery in September 2016 that her engagement and wedding rings were missing from the container where they were usually kept. The engagement ring had been her grandmother’s, made in 1943, and the two rings were appraised at $5,000 in 1996, Copeland said. Copeland didn’t realize a third, inexpensive ring had been taken until it was turned in.

Fairfax City police investigated and interviewed the three women who had cleaned the home. All three denied taking or seeing the rings, court records show, and no one was charged.

But after the interviews, Mendez Ortega reportedly felt bad about the theft, admitted to her boss that she had the rings and turned them over to him. The police were contacted and Mendez Ortega confessed to them as well, saying she returned the rings after learning they were valuable. The police had her write an apology letter to Copeland, in Spanish, which said in part, “Sorry for grabbing the rings. I don’t know what happened. I want you to forgive me.”

The case went to trial, and the jury found her guilty. But in Virginia the jury is not only the finder of facts, but also has the job of deciding the sentence. I’ve heard Virginia criminal defense lawyers complain that this can lead to very harsh sentences, because jurors lack the sense of proportion that a seasoned criminal judge would have. In this case, however, the jury went the other way:

What the jury did was extraordinary. They felt bad for the young woman, pregnant with her second child, and agreed that she had made a dumb, youthful mistake. Reluctantly, they convicted her of the felony. But the fine they imposed was her daily pay as a maid, $60. And then they took up a collection and gave her the money to pay the fine.

Naturally, this has pissed off some law-and-order types. Gatewaypundit hilariously lives up to the stereotype by blaming the whole thing on liberal jurors who are just looking for a chance to hurt America by granting special favors to illegal immigrants:

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Fairfax County residents are some of the best educated, most worldly and wealthiest and liberal people in the nation. They can spot an illegal alien right away as they have willfully turned the D.C. suburb in to a haven for illegals. Mendez Ortega’s appearance on the witness stand during the penalty phase after her conviction made it clear she fit one of the profiles of illegals-she doesn’t speak English and worked as a a maid.

Fox News also leads with the illegal immigrant angle, and runs essentially the same story under the headline “Couple’s fury as jury pays illegal immigrant maid’s fine after jewelry theft conviction.”

That’s referring to the victim, who comes across as remarkably unsympathetic in news reports. I don’t mean that she has no sympathy for the woman who stole from her (although she doesn’t seem to), but that after reading her statements to the media I have very little sympathy for her. Obviously, stealing from her was wrong, and it was also a crime, but in the aftermath of the trial, she comes across as disturbingly vindictive. For example, regarding the letter of apology that Mendez Ortega wrote to her:

Copeland said she has never seen that letter, and that Mendez Ortega has never apologized to her in person. “Never saw it,” Copeland said. “Never heard about it until the trial, during sentencing.”

Well, the reason Copeland never saw the apology letter has nothing to do with Mendez Ortega. Copeland never saw the letter because the Fairfax police never gave it to her. That’s because they were deceiving Mendez Ortega when they got her to write a letter to Copeland. It a trick to strengthen the case against her, since almost anything she’d say in an apology for the theft would also be an admission of damaging facts. It’s a confession in the defendant’s own hand, which will be damning in court.

Nevertheless, Sondra Mendez Ortega most certainly did apologize for what she did. It’s not her fault that the police never delivered it. And as for an apology in person before trial, I’m pretty sure that’s an insanely bad idea. At the very least it would be another confession, and it could easily be construed as witness tampering.

“I was outraged,” Copeland said. “I was just flabbergasted. I didn’t think $60 equated to the crime at all.”

That was my first reaction too, but when I think about it, the outrage seems overblown. After all, this was

  • a non-violent crime
  • by a first-time offender
  • who turned herself in,
  • returned everything she took,
  • and showed up to face her trial.

Given all that, the jury’s sentence of time-served with a nominal fine (and the collateral consequences of a felony conviction) doesn’t seem completely out of line. Many judges are aware of what jail can do to people, and they’re reluctant to put first-time offenders through the system for fear it will make everything worse.

At trial, the facts were not really in dispute. The jury did not hear from Mendez Ortega during the case in chief, but they were already sympathetic to her. “We didn’t feel she should have been tried and convicted,” said Memmott, the foreman. “We tried every way we could to find some way of not convicting her. But the legal standard was very clear.” Two other jurors agreed that the felony conviction was appropriate, given the facts and the law.

I’ve been on a jury that convicted someone of a felony. It’s not a fun experience, signing that verdict sheet and knowing I’m saddling them with a felony record and possibly consigning them to a cage for a long time. Just because they deserve punishment doesn’t mean it feels great to dish it out. All things considered, I’d rather I never have to do that again. Which is why this bit makes me so crazy:

Lisa Copeland was amazed. “The fact that she confessed,” she said, “and they didn’t want to convict her? I don’t get this. That’s basically saying it’s okay to steal.”

Good God. The jury may have said they didn’t want to convict her, but they did in fact convict her. So the victim is basically angry because the jurors didn’t enjoy it enough. What the hell?

(Obviously, she’s the victim here, and therefore she deserves some slack, but I can’t help wondering if one of the reasons for the light sentence was that the jury somehow picked up on her vindictiveness, found it as ugly as I do, and decided they didn’t want to give her what she wanted.)

Still, the most frustrating response comes not from the victim or Fox News or Gatewaypundit, but from ethicist Jack Marshall at Ethics Alarms, whose post first brought my attention to the case.

As is usual, I have a number of quibbles with Jack’s analysis. For example,

“Justice had to be done,” said another juror, Janice Woolridge, explaining the guilty verdict. “But there’s also got be some compassion somewhere. Young people make bad decisions. We just couldn’t pile on any more.”


(Note to juries: your job is to determine the facts and guilt or innocence. Compassion should be left to judges.)

The parenthetical comment is not how things work in Virginia, where jurors are given the responsibility for determining not only the facts but, in the event of a guilty verdict, the sentence as well. Thus considerations of compassion are entirely appropriate.

One of Jack’s commenters explains this to him in a comment, to which Jack responds,

In this case, the judge should have rejected the jury’s fine and imposed one they’d really have to dig down deep for.

That’s also not the law in Virginia. When a criminal jury recommends a sentence, the judge can only lower it, not raise it.

I’m not a lawyer, so I shouldn’t throw too many stones, but since Jack teaches legal ethics for a living, it would be nice if he got the law right. To be fair, this was a free blog post, not professional advice, so he definitely deserves some slack for shooting from the hip. But he’d make his point more effectively if he focused on the jury’s decision making instead of ranting about ordinary Virginia criminal procedure.

However, as I mentioned in a comment (which Jack called “obnoxious and unfair, as well as ignorant”), in the unlikely event that anyone ever asked me if they should hire Jack to teach legal ethics, I would point them to these two statements:

If she had confessed and was remorseful, why did she plead not guilty?


If you are guilty and admit it, then you don’t try to get lucky with a jury.

Jack is certainly not the only lawyer to think it’s unethical to plead not guilty. (As far as I can tell, it’s pretty much criminal defense lawyers v.s. everyone else — which is practically a criminal lawyer’s job description.) But I think this is the result of confusing the legal meaning of a “not guilty” plea with the common everyday meaning, as Illinois lawyer Jeremy Richey explained some time ago:

Those words do not operate in a vacuum; they are part of our legal system. Our legal system establishes a presumption of innocence for every person charged with a crime and places a burden on the government of proving the accused guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. When a person utters the words “not guilty” in court, all the players (such as the judge, prosecutor, and defense lawyer) understand that the person is requiring the government to carry its burden.

In other words, pleading not guilty is the mechanism by which you secure your constitutional right to a jury trial. And in Virginia in particular, pleading not guilty is a necessary step in claiming your right to be sentenced by a jury instead of a judge. There’s nothing unethical about asserting your rights.

In the comments, Jack attempts to draw a careful line between the ethics of a lawyer and of the client:

An ethical lawyer tells a guilty client that he or she has a good chance of being acquitted, and lets the client decide, after advising the client on the right thing to do. An ethical law-breaker turns himself in, pleads guilty, and accepts the just consequences of wrongdoing.

I see what Jack is getting at here, but it’s nonsense. First of all, on a practical level, how would this work? Is the defendant supposed to meet with her lawyer, discuss her case in detail, listen carefully to his wise counsel, and then just go ahead and ignore everything he recommended? Or do I misunderstand, and when Jack talks about “advising the client on the right thing to do,” does he mean that the lawyer should tell his client to plead guilty? Not for tactical reasons, but because it’s “the right thing to do”?

But why would it be the right thing to do? Owning up to your sins and accepting “the just consequences of wrongdoing” is great ethical advice for, say, a child apologizing to his mother for breaking a vase full of flowers, or a husband explaining to his wife how he lost the rent money at the track. But is has nothing to do with what goes on in a criminal proceeding. Jack is trying to smuggle an awful lot of bullshit into his argument on the backs of the words “just consequences.”

Pleading guilty isn’t the same as accepting the “just consequences.” Pleading guilty means accepting whatever consequences the prosecutor can convince the judge to impose, and there’s no basis for believing those consequences will be just. In an ideal world, the judge will be a neutral party, but the prosecutor will always be your adversary. At best, he’s going to be a stern by-the-book guy, and at worst he’ll be a fucking monster. In any case, the decision will be made by a system that is now biased against you.

So what happens if you feel a 90-day sentence is a just consequence, but the prosecutor is thinking more like five years? Contrary to the implications of Jack’s argument, there’s no a priori reason to assume the prosecutor’s preferred sentence is a just one. Normally, this would be resolved in plea bargaining, where you (through your lawyer) and the prosecutor negotiate to a sentencing plan that is acceptable to both of you. That won’t work, however, if you’ve already committed to a guilty plea, because your only bargaining power comes from your ability to walk away from the bargaining table and demand a trial.

(We can’t be sure, because the news stories don’t say, but it’s quite likely that this case went to trial after an unsuccessful plea bargaining stage. Ms. Mendez Ortega was probably willing to accept consequences for her actions, just not the consequences the prosecutor was willing to offer.)

It’s not sensible to believe that “just consequences” will result from an adversarial system where one side agrees in advance to the other’s terms, and it’s not unethical to refuse to accept such one-sided terms.

Free the Squawk!

Oh my God! They’re going after Squawk!

It all started back in May, when Appellate Squawk (who somewhat disappointingly turns out not to be a bird with legal superpowers but a human female working for the New York Legal Aid Society) published a post poking mild fun at her office’s training about the importance of asking clients to clarify their gender. Here’s a taste:

Lawyer: [Reading from a card] I need to know whether your name expresses your internal deeply-held sense of your gender which may or may not be the same or different from your sex assigned at birth –

Defendant: Yeah, whatever. Then they handcuffed me to a chair and started throwing lighted matches on my lap, causing imminent danger to my manhood –

Lawyer: Tut, tut, gender isn’t a matter of stereotypical physical characteristics –

Defendant:   – so I confessed. But I can prove it’s false because there’s a surveillance tape showing I was on the other side of town at the time. My wife  –

Lawyer:  Your wife? What gender identity does they go by?

Defendant: Yo, are you calling me a FRUIT?

Lawyer: That’s a very discredited terminology. The term is non-binary gender fluid –

Defendant: Will you lower your voice? I’m in a holding cell with 20 other guys, you know what I’m saying?

Lawyer: I’d feel so much better about our relationship if you’d only come out of the closet.

Defendant: But I’m a man. Like Muddy Waters says, “M-A-N, I’m the hootchie cootchie man -”

Lawyer: You sexist pig, how dare you! (Exit)

That should give you the general idea. It’s typical Squawk snark about the absurdities of criminal defense. But apparently it was enough to put some people over the edge, and the Legal Aid Society has started an investigation into the matter.

Scott Greenfield has more details about the original training,

As it turns out, soon after the announcement of the new discrimination and harassment policy, a CLE was held, where the lawyers were instructed that the first thing they must do when meeting their clients was not to ask about the case, not to ask about the defense, not to ask about anything having anything to do with that nasty old-school mission of criminal defense. How horrifying! How exhausting!

No, the first and foremost concern was that LAS lawyers were directed to ascertain their self-identified gender and sexual orientation. It didn’t matter that there was nothing to suggest a gender or sexual orientation issue. They must put it first. And never, but never, call a client “Mr. Smith,” as that would presume their gender, even if no one had ever shown them the respect of using an honorific before. As a last resort, they were trained to use the word “Mx.,” which always serves well in the holding cell to identify defendants who tend not to be particularly woke.

(Scott may be exaggerating a bit. He does that sometimes.) [Update: Scott clarifies in an email that no, he was not exaggerating at all about the substance of the training, which is apparently as self-parodying as it sounds…which is not nearly as self-parodying as the fact that Squawk’s post has triggered an investigation.]

Scott also has samples of the complaints, some of which are kind of amazing.

I am reporting the content of this blog as creating a contributing to a hostile work environment. Please read it. It is terrible.

Some of the complaint is a little more specific.

[Squawk’s] email has served as a huge distraction from doing my job today. I am upset and really troubled that someone who works at the Legal Aid Society-an organization whose motto is to make the case for humanity-is joking about the importance of honoring a person’s preferred pronoun and gender.

Actually, if I understand Squawk’s point correctly, she wasn’t joking about the importance of honoring a person’s preferred pronoun and gender. She was joking about CLE session’s over-emphasis on gender and pronouns.

Yes, I know people with non-traditional gender identities and sexual orientations are going to face special problems when arrested and jailed. I also know this is not news to most criminal defense lawyers. But criminal defense lawyers are supposed to represent the interests of their clients, and I’m pretty sure that for even the most gender atypical of criminal defendants, their main interest when meeting their lawyer is getting the hell out of jail.

It is disturbing that the message indicates that an attorney cannot zealously represent their client while inquiring about a client’s preferred pronoun and gender identity. If anything, by asking a client about their pronoun *furthers* an attorney’s ability to best represent their client.

Well, in the abstract, sure, the more a lawyer knows about their client, the better. But this conversation isn’t taking place in the abstract. It’s taking place in jail. There is no privacy in jail. It’s a terrible feeling, and Squawk doesn’t think their lawyers should be making it worse:

One of the many annoyances of being accused of a crime is having to put up with humiliating questions from your lawyer. Like, “Was your grandmother a drug addict?” “When was the last time you had sex?” or “Do you hear voices?”

So even if the client is a tough-talking street thug who sometimes feels he’d rather be a pretty girl, that may not be the sort of thing he feels comfortable sharing with a total stranger while locked in a cell block with a thousand other tough-talking street thugs.

Then there’s the possibility, also raised by Squawk, that the client may feel insulted that his lawyer is implying he’s less than 110% manly man. We can discuss whether he’s a bad person for thinking that being gay or transgender is an insult, but that doesn’t change the fact that zealous representation will be more difficult if he feels insulted by the very first thing his lawyer says.

But I’m drifting off the main point here. I’m not a lawyer, and I really have no business telling lawyers how to do their job. (Although, some lawyers, damn…) My point is that Squawk’s post wasn’t making fun of LGBTQ people. It was making fun of the people in her office who think LGBTQ issues are more important than proper representation of clients.

A Verdict of Innocence?

Over at Fault Lines, Andrew Fleischman has a post about the idea of letting a jury determine actual innocence. It’s an interesting post — worth a read — but when I read the headline I thought of something a bit different.

Criminal defense attorneys complain about the difficulty of getting a jury to understand the degree of proof necessary for a criminal conviction. They often feel that the jury is setting the bar for a Guilty verdict at something less than “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

My thought (and I know it’ snot original) is that maybe the problem is that we only give the jury two choices: Guilty and Not Guilty. It would be natural for them to regard these as equal choices and lean toward a Guilty verdict if they thought that was more likely, which is a problem because “more likely” is a much less strict standard than reasonable doubt.

Perhaps we could obtain a small improvement in criminal justice by offering the jury a few more choices to pick from, such as Guilty, Not Guilty, and Actually Innocence, with only Guilty counting as a conviction. Or maybe we could offer an array of choices in a familiar form:

Please rate your opinion of the defendant’s guilt on the following scale:

5 – Guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

4 – More likely guilty than innocent.

3 – Unable to tell.

2 – More likely innocent than guilty.

1 – Innocent beyond a reasonable doubt.

The defendant would only be convicted if all members of the jury picked #5. I suspect prosecutors wouldn’t like a procedure like this, although as long as the court imposes an “all fives or no fives” requirement, it would be the exact same standard of proof.

I know I’m not the first one to think of this. In fact, some criminal defense lawyers like to explain the different levels of proof to the jury so they understand just how strict the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard usually is. Basically, they’re trying to get the jurors to think about the reasonable doubt standard as the highest in a stepped series of levels of proof. So why not make it explicit?

I don’t know if it makes sense to give the other levels any legal significance — e.g. a verdict of “innocent beyond a reasonable doubt” blocking plaintiffs in a civil suit from claiming otherwise. That might be using the verdict for more than it actually establishes.

Anyway, posting here has been light lately, so I just thought I’d throw that out there.

in Legal

A Brief Response to Cy Vance About Apple and the FBI

I was going to write an overview of the technical issues involved in the FBI’s demand that Apple help them break into the iPhone 5C that was being used by San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook, but it soon became apparent that the issues were too complex for easy summary, and the story keeps changing as more details leak out.

On the other hand, I would like to respond to a recent op-ed by Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance (brought to our attention by Scott Greenfield) arguing for a government exception to securely encrypted phones:

iPhones are the first warrant-proof consumer products in American history. They compel law enforcement to deploy extraordinarily creative prosecutorial strategies – and obtain state-of-the-art tools – to carry out even the most basic steps of a criminal investigation. I applaud our federal colleagues for their commitment to justice for the 14 killed in San Bernardino and their families.

The magistrate judge’s order rests firmly on centuries of jurisprudence holding that no item – not a home, not a file cabinet and not a smartphone – lies beyond the reach of a judicial search warrant. It affirms the principle that decisions about who can access key evidence in criminal investigations should be made by courts and legislatures, not by Apple and Google. And it provides the highest-profile example to date of how Silicon Valley’s decisions inhibit real investigations of real crimes, with real victims and real consequences for public safety.

I can certainly see what he’s getting at. Up until now, when a court ordered some evidence seized, the government’s ability to carry out that seizure was never in question. The agents of law enforcement have been able to kick open every door, tear down every wall, and break every box. But strong encryption now challenges that idea, and people like Cy Vance don’t like it.

I have a few responses to Vance, starting with “So what?”

Law enforcement agents used to be able to get any evidence they wanted, but now some new technology means they can’t. So what? Things change, the world moves on, the organizing principles of society evolve. Slavery, the divine right of kings, Papal inquisitions — all have fallen. Now maybe it’s the end for the principle that courts have “a right to every man’s evidence.” That’s kind of an open-ended argument, but then Vance’s argument is basically little more than “It’s always been that way.” I think it’s quite reasonable to respond that just because it’s always been that way doesn’t mean that it always should be.

On the other hand, I could also argue that the rule doesn’t really go where Vance wants it to because (1) the current situation is already in complete compliance with the rule, and (2) there is nothing to which the rule could apply.

I need to go into a bit of technical detail. The FBI’s problem is that sensitive data files on an iPhone are strongly encrypted in such a way that reading the unencrypted contents requires one of a handful of “class keys,” which are in turn encrypted using the user’s passcode. So to get an iPhone to read its data, you have to provide the passcode to decrypt the class key it needs to decrypt the file containing the data.

(I’ve simplified this description of iPhone security quite a bit. If you want more details, Dan Guido has a mildly technical overview and you can get more background technical information from the Apple iOS security whitepaper, especially the “System Security” and “Encryption and Data Protection” sections. It’s absolutely fascinating, if you’re into that kind of thing.)

If you have a modern iPhone with a passcode set, you can see all this for yourself. Call your iPhone from another phone that is in your contacts list. When your phone rings, it should display the name of the other phone’s owner, which it got by searching your contacts list for someone with a number matching the calling phone. Now turn your iPhone all the way off by holding down the power button for a few seconds to display the slider you can use to power it off. Then turn your phone back on by pressing the power button for a few seconds, but don’t enter the passcode. Now try calling your phone again from the other phone. This time the phone should only display the calling number, but not the name from the contacts list. Your phone won’t be able to display contact names until you enter the passcode again.

This shows that your passcode is more than just a locking mechanism, it’s a decryption key: Without it, your phone literally cannot even read its own contacts list. It also can’t read any of the other sensitive files that are also encrypted to require the passcode. An iPhone for which the passcode has not been entered doesn’t just refuse to give you access to its data. In a fundamental way, it can’t even read the data.

That’s the FBI’s problem. The passcode is not stored on the device, and the copy of the passcode in Farook’s brain is no longer accessible because he’s dead, so the FBI has no way to get his iPhone to decrypt any of his files without a code-breaking effort.

That brings me to the first part of my answer to Vance: The FBI already has all the evidence on Syed Farook’s iPhone. They have physical possession of the phone itself, including the internal flash drive that contains all the data. It’s a relatively minor technical task to remove the drive from the iPhone and attach it to another computer so they can read every bit of it. Of course, the files they read will still be encrypted, so they won’t be able to make sense of the data, but they do have all the data on the phone. No one, including Apple, is keeping it from them.

This may sound like some kind of philosophical hair splitting, but it’s the ground truth of the situation at the technical level. It’s confusing because we often speak of encryption using the metaphor of a container. We describe encrypted messages as being like envelopes with plaintext messages inside, and we talk of using keys to unlock stored data. In reality — the reality of the hardware and software — the relationship between encrypted and unencrypted data is not one of containment but of transformation: Plaintext data is transformed into encrypted data using an encryption algorithm and a key, and encrypted data can only be transformed into plaintext data using a related algorithm and the right key. If the key is lost, transformation of encrypted data into plaintext may not be possible.

When Vance asserts that “no item – not a home, not a file cabinet […] – lies beyond the reach of a judicial search warrant” he’s not speaking about merely metaphorical containment. If the court orders a home searched for drugs, that search will be successful if there are actually drugs in the home. If the court issues a warrant that includes searching a file cabinet for financial records, it’s because there’s reason to believe the file cabinet contains the records. More fundamentally, it makes sense to require the production of evidence because the evidence might exist.

That’s my second point of argument: No matter how much the FBI or the judge may want to seize this data, there’s simply nothing to seize. The data existed at one point, but now it’s all been transformed into unreadable gibberish, and the original data is gone. What the government wants — an unencrypted copy of the data on Syed Farook’s iPhone — doesn’t actually exist anywhere in the world.

As a practical matter, this isn’t a get-out-of-jail card. Don’t go trying to convince a judge that you don’t have to turn over financial records on your computer because your hard drive is encrypted and you haven’t entered the key to unlock it. That’s probably not going to work when you routinely decrypt files every day. (But I’m not a lawyer and this isn’t legal advice, so if you actually find yourself in that situation, talk to your lawyer.)

On the other hand, if you truly don’t have the decryption key, then the unencrypted files on your computer actually are beyond the reach of the court. Of course, you might be in for a really bad time if the judge doesn’t believe you, or simply doesn’t care about what you think is possible.

Pretrial Detention and Why It’s Like That

I’ve been blogging about criminal justice issues for a long time now, and I like to think I know a few things (for an amateur observer) but every once in a while I am amazed to discover that some seemingly normal part of the criminal justice system is, on further examination, inexplicably perverse.

This time it started with Ken Womble’s post at Fault Lines about risks faced by criminal defendants who are stuck in jail awaiting trial when they call their friends and family. Jail phones are tapped, and everything the inmates say on them is recorded. There’s an exception for legally privileged conversations between defendants and their lawyers (mostly), but other than that, anything inmates say to their friends and families is fair game for the prosecution. Womble gives a few examples of the kind of trouble that can lead to:

Yes, sometimes, the jailed party unburdens himself and confesses to his mom or brother.  But then there are the conversations about the case that a prosecutor, hearing things only through his finely tuned ears of justice, will try to convince a judge are relevant admissions of something bad.  […]

Beyond the realm of possible confessions, though, there can be hours of conversations that can let the prosecutor know who the defendant’s closest friends and family are. She can find out immense amounts of background information that might come in handy on cross examination.  This system of surveillance allows the government to detain someone and then sit back and simply gather information on them.  All because the defendant could not afford bail.

These calls also allow the prosecution to hear the defendant relay to his friends and family all the great tactics and evidence that his attorney has explained will help out his case.

Except for some details, most of this was not news to me. I’ve heard lawyers’ stories of charges filed and cases lost because inmates said something incriminating over the jail phones. Every criminal lawyer will tell their clients not to talk to cops, but inmates desperate for contact with the outside can easily forget that talking on the jail phone is talking to the cops.

What got my attention was Womble’s introduction of this issue in an earlier paragraph:

Maybe in reality they did commit a crime, but as far as the government and our law is concerned, they are as innocent as you or I. So if we actually give a damn about the presumption of innocence, why do we allow something done to unconvicted inmates that we would never tolerate for ourselves? We rarely think about some of the more mundane casualties of freedom that so many jail inmates must face.

I couldn’t get that idea out of my head, so I was still thinking of it when I got to this:

Do you know who does not have to worry about having their phone calls recorded as they await trial? People who can afford bail. How can we allow the government to record the phone calls of legally innocent people based solely upon their financial circumstances (or lack thereof)?

If you’re in jail because you can’t make bail, the government can listen in on every one of your phone calls. But if you’re out on bail, law enforcement authorities need to get a warrant to listen to your phone calls, just like they do with anyone else. What’s the legal justification for that distinction?

My guess is that authorities are allowed to listen in on inmate phone calls because inmates have essentially no right to privacy. Guards can search their cells and their bodies any time the want, so why not their phone calls too? But that just begs the question: What’s the legal justification for giving pretrial detainees so little privacy?

In other areas of law, infringements of rights must be limited to what is necessary to serve a constitutionally permissible purpose. E.g. when the government limits freedom of speech to prevent fraud, that limitation is supposed to be narrowly tailored to only limit rights as necessary to prevent fraud.

So if we accept that the government has a legitimate interest in making sure that defendants show up for their trials, then detaining them in jail may reasonably serve that purpose, and it makes sense to impose restrictions on detainees to prevent them from escaping. However, skimming over the New York City Department of Corrections inmate rule book and visitor’s rules, I was able to hastily put together a short list of restrictions that seem unrelated to that purpose:

  • Inmates can only receive gifts from visitors if the gifts are on a list of 24 categories of items that may be brought in.
  • Inmates are not allowed to have personal shoes. They have to wear jail-provided footware, and that doesn’t include shower shoes like thongs.
  • There are limits to the jewelry they can wear — small wedding rings and religious items.
  • They can’t have clothing that is red, yellow, or light blue, nor can they have camouflage patterns or spandex leggings.
  • They can’t have tobacco products or alcohol.
  • Inmates cannot receive toiletry or food items.
  • They’re not allowed to have telecommunications equipment such as a phone, text messaging device, camera, or tape recorder.
  • Inmates can’t have photographs that include pictures of themselves, and Polaroid photographs are prohibited.
  • They aren’t allowed to have money, checks, or credit cards.
  • They aren’t allowed to have unauthorized art supplies or writing instruments.
  • No sex, even if it’s consensual.
  • No buying or selling of goods or services.
  • Inmates are subject to drug and alcohol testing.
  • Visiting hours are limited and visits are controlled.

It’s possible I’m misunderstanding some of the rules — I read through them pretty quickly and I don’t know much about life in jail — but it’s hard to see how these rules are related to preventing escapes. Perhaps I’m missing a few things — maybe large jewelry could be used as a weapon to threaten a guard, and then once the inmate makes it to the treeline the camouflage would help him hide. Nevertheless, most of these restrictions seem to have little bearing on the goal of ensuring that inmates stand trial.

I understand that there may be good reasons for some of these rules — preventing inmate-on-inmate violence, preserving a sense of order, and making the guards’ jobs easier — but those don’t sound like good reasons to deny legally innocent people their rights, especially since we have rejected those same restrictions for all the innocent people living outside the jail walls.

(I’m pretty sure there are some unsavory motives at work as well: Forcing inmates to buy consumer goods from the jail commissary, forcing them to use over-priced jail phone services, and encouraging them to take a plea deal to get out of jail.)

I realize this is old news to people who know the criminal justice system better than I do. I wonder, however, why this isn’t a more contentious issue? Perhaps I’m just not reading the right news sources. Changes to jail rules might affect thousands of inmates and their families, but they rarely make the news. Or maybe this is settled law, and there’s not much to be gained by litigating.

I’m not sure what reform in this area would look like, but it’s not hard to envision a jail system that prevents inmates from escaping without imposing so many unrelated restrictions. I imagine something resembling a high-security secured college dorm or SRO residence, with private rooms, personal property, phones and internet, pets, and unlimited visitation from family, including overnight stays.

I realize that this vision of comfortable confinement may not be achievable, but that usually isn’t enough to stop reform movements. I’m surprised I haven’t stumbled them somewhere. And nobody said respecting people’s rights was easy.

Haiduk Steps Up On Possession

Kane County criminal defense lawyer Matt Haiduk has posted a response to my earlier post about the strangeness of the crime of possession, in which he address both of my scenarios and makes a few additional points.

In response to my hypothetical stranger-hands-me-a-duffle-bag scenario, Matt has some legal advice:

From a strictly legal standpoint, you need to drop all that stuff immediately. Possession of illegal stuff typically has to be “knowing” to stick in court. Holding that bag in those circumstances for a short time not knowing what’s in it is one thing- you’re not knowingly possessing something you shouldn’t. Once you see child porn, something you believe are drugs, and an illegal firearm the “knowing” element is shot.

You can cure that, though, by not possessing it.  Legally speaking, you don’t take it anywhere to get rid of it and you don’t call somebody while you’re holding it. You cease possessing it immediately.  Then you get the hell away from there…

And then Matt suggests that his legal advice is not the smartest advice:

You’re out on the street with a duffle bag filled with guns, coke and child porn. Depending what the surfaces on the bag or the items in the bag, your fingerprints might be on there. There are cops running at you who haven’t seen you yet, but just might if you do something out of the ordinary (like drop a duffel bag and run across the street).

Assuming that’s how it does go down, dropping a bag full of contraband in front of the cops and possibly having your fingerprints on the contraband inside is what prosecutors call a very strong circumstantial case.

Matt goes on to explain what he thinks is probably the smartest thing to do, but I’m not going to repeat it here. You’ll have to read his post to see.

Matt also addresses my not-so-hypothetical scenario of emergency Doctor Sandeep Jauhar who was handed an envelope of (presumably) cocaine by a client. He promptly threw it away, an act which has attracted criticism from Northwestern Pritzker School of Law Professor Steven Lubet. I in turn had criticized Lubet for accusing Dr. Jauhar of obstructing justice without explaining what exactly the doctor should have done. I felt that Dr. Jauhar did the best he could.

Matt, on the other hand, does better than both me and the law professor:

Patients every day enter a hospital in an emergency fashion with jewellery, a purse or wallet, or important documents. The hospital collects that stuff, and puts it into a safe or some sort of storage.  Juahar could have placed the item in a bag, stapled it shut and put it with the rest of the patient’s belongings- whether in a safe or not.

In that situation there’s no hiding and there’s certainly no destruction.  He’s not possessing it, either. He’s also not betrayed any patient confidences. He’s doing what is always done. If the police ask the Doctor about it, he can tell them what he did with it and where it went.

Note that Matt’s solution addresses the criminal law issue without abandoning doctor-patient confidentiality, which is the difference between asking a law professor (or a blogger) and asking a practicing lawyer.

(I say nice things about Matt Haiduk because his blog is a great read, but also because he’s the only real Illinois law blogger I know of, which makes him my first call if I ever get arrested.)

Jennifer Connell Is Not Really a Monster For Suing Her 8-Year Old Nephew

Folks on the internet have been a bit outraged at a woman who sued her 8-year nephew:

Jennifer Connell claims the boy, Sean Tarala of Westport, acted unreasonable when he leaped into her arms, causing her to fall on the ground and break her wrist four years ago. This week Connell is asking a six-member Superior Court jury to find the boy liable for his actions.

She is seeking $127,000 from the boy, who she described as always being “very loving, sensitive,” toward her. The boy is the only defendant in the case.

It sounds kind of awful, suing a child for essentially hugging her too exuberantly, but this is actually a pretty routine legal matter.

The key to understanding what’s going on, and why Jennifer Connell is not actually the monster some people are making her out to be, is that while she is technically suing her nephew, the real target is the insurance company that holds the homeowner’s policy. The kid is just the defendant for legal purposes, since he’s the immediate cause of her injury, but he was almost certainly represented by an insurance company lawyer since they would be the ones paying. People do this all the time. It’s how you make insurance companies pay claims.

Much has been made over a few of the details:

In court Friday, the boy, now 12 years old, appeared confused as he sat with his father, Michael Tarala, in the Main Street courtroom.

The implication is that he was confused over why the aunt he loved was suing him, but I think it’s safe to say that any 12-year old would be confused by the formality of a courtroom. Heck, I find it all confusing whenever I’m at the courthouse.

The boy’s mother, Lisa Tarala, died last year.

That’s hard on the poor kid, but that’s not a reason to let the insurance company off the hook.

Jack Marshall, who should know better, has been particularly scathing about some parts of this:

The horrific actions of the 8-year-old has turned her life into a living hell, she told the jury. “I was at a party recently, and it was difficult to hold my hors d’oeuvre plate,” she said. Believe me, I know what a social handicap that can be.

Yeah, when you see “hors d’oeuvre” written out, it’s easy to make fun of, but here’s the thing: I can hold an hors d’oeuvre plate. Holding a plate with small bits of food isn’t a difficult feat of strength. But the point of her testimony is that she still can’t hold a plate steady even though the injury has had four years to heal. This isn’t just a temporary problem. It’s a permanent debilitating injury.

The extent of the injury is further indicated by another point that people are making fun of:

She changed her mind, she says, because her life was “turned upside down as a result of the injury.” “I live in Manhattan in a third-floor walk-up so it has been very difficult,” she said. “And we all know how crowded it is in Manhattan.”

It certainly is hard to walk up three flights of stairs on one’s hands.

As a 51-year-old guy with bad knees, I say fuck that ableist bullshit. Did you ever notice there are railings in most stairwells? Did you ever wonder why they’re there? It’s because some of us need to hold on with our hands to steady ourselves on the stairs, especially when carrying something that throws us off balance. That’s got to be a lot harder when your wrist is weakened by injury.

As it happens, the jury decided against her because of the way the jury was told to evaluate the kid’s behavior:

Quinnipiac University law professor William Dunlap said in civil cases like this one involving children, the jury is instructed to view the child as a child, and not by a “reasonable person” standard.

“When you’re talking about young children, you’re talking about a subjective standard – not an objective standard,” he said. “The child is not required to conform his behavior to the way a reasonable adult is expected to behave.”

If the defendant had been 18 at the time of the incident, he would have been expected to act like a “reasonable adult.”

“The jury is supposed to judge the child’s behavior by how a child of similar age, intelligence and experience is expected to behave,” he said.

So she took her chances when she visited an 8-year old. Fair enough. And New York personal injury lawyer Eric Turkewitz says he would not have taken the case:

Would I have taken such a case? No. Because the jury did what I expect a jury would do. But eviscerate her on the Internet for it? No. She took the advice of counsel. Bad judgment call perhaps, though the attorney defends the decision to move forward.

In other words, she went to a kid’s birthday party, got injured by accident, and then a lawyer advised her that she might be able to recover some of her medical costs (and probably lost wages) from the homeowner’s policy. So why not try it? I mean, other than because the internet outrage machine might decide to pick on you…

Someone at CNN interviewed her:

“This was meant to be a simple homeowners insurance case,” she said. “Connecticut law is such that I was advised by counsel that this is the way a suit is meant to be worded.”

Connell said that an individual, not an insurance company, had to be named as a defendant.

“I adore this child. I would never want to hurt him. He would never want to hurt me,” she told CNN.

The boy refers to Connell as his aunt, although she said he is the son of her cousin. The family remains close. Just a few weeks ago, Connell said, she took the boy out shopping for his Halloween costume.

“It’s amazing the power that the Internet has that something can go viral, completely out of context,” she said. “I’m certainly not trying to retire to some villa in the south of France. I’m simply trying to pay off my medical bills.”

And her lawyer thought this might work. Maybe he was just hoping to pressure the insurance company into kicking in a little more than the single dollar they had offered. Since she lost, maybe this wasn’t the best legal decision. Or maybe it was worth a try. If you suffered a debilitating injury in my house, I sure wouldn’t hold it against you if you tried to get some money out of my insurance company. That’s one of the reasons I have the policy.

in Legal

An Attempt to Explain High Sensitivity Analysis in Collins

Both Jeff Gamso and Scott Greenfield have written about Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Mark Dwyer’s opinion in People v. Collins discussing the admissibility of a certain type of DNA analysis in a criminal case. Since I have an amateur’s interest in both science and criminal law, I thought it might be interesting to read the actual opinion.

Surprisingly, despite the complexity of the subject and the amount of detail, it’s actually pretty readable. Dwyer takes the time to explain a lot of what the reader needs to know to understand what’s going on. And if you’re interested in this kind of thing, it’s fascinating. I think I understand it, so let me see if I can explain some of the science…

The basic issue is whether the court should allow the prosecution to present a certain type of DNA evidence from the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. DNA evidence itself is generally considered very reliable, but in this case the evidence was based on a very small sample of genetic material discovered at the crime scene and processed using a technique called high sensitivity analysis. The judge had to decide if this specialized technique was good enough to allow it to be admitted as evidence.

To understand the basic problem, imagine that you get a voicemail message in which the caller is speaking so quietly you can’t understand what he’s saying. So you try turning up the volume. This makes the caller’s voice louder, but it also amplifies the crackle and pop of the phone line and the background noises behind the caller. The amplifier circuit even introduces some noise of its own. So even though the caller’s voice is louder, you still might not be able to make out what he’s saying.

Photographers working in low light see a similar phenomenon when they try to crank up their camera’s ISO sensitivity. It makes the picture brighter, but it also adds a lot of speckled noise to the image. This happens to the image for roughly the same reason turning up the volume doesn’t make the voice easier to understand: In trying to amplify the signal, you’ve also amplified the noise — and introduced some as well.

The same thing happens with high sensitivity DNA analysis. One of the steps involves using a process called PCR to vastly multiply the number of copies of the DNA markers in the sample, because the process for measuring the markers requires a lot of material to work with. This process is called “amplification,” and just as with the audio and photographic examples, it will amplify the noise and introduce some of its own.

When the starting DNA sample is fairly large, it’s like a voicemail caller who speaks loudly or a photograph taken in bright sunlight: The signal stands out clearly from the noise in the system. When the sample is small — so-called “touch DNA” or a very degraded sample — the noise can overwhelm the signal.

The ME’s office came up with an interesting way to deal with the noise problem: Basically, they fed samples of known DNA through the high-amplification process and measured the statistical likelihood of the different types of noise. This allowed them to develop mathematical models of the effects of the various types of noise.

That wasn’t enough to filter out the noise completely, but it did allow them to make probabilistic determinations about the original DNA sample. Given a particular amplification result, they could now estimate the probability of getting that result from a particular suspect’s DNA fed through the noisy amplification process. They could also produce an estimate of the probability of getting that result from a random member of the population for comparison. Finally, they could even do this for mixtures of DNA from several people. The end result is that they could say things like, “It is 100,000 times more likely that this is a mixture of the defendant’s DNA and that of two other random people than that it is a mixture of the DNA of three random people.”

That’s not the sort of trillions-to-one odds you get with pristine DNA samples, but it is pretty good. If the science is for real. Which was kind of the question in front of Judge Dwyer.

In New York, the standard for admissibility of scientific evidence is Frye, which basically boils down to saying that the methodology behind the evidence must be widely acceptable to the relevant scientific community.

The high sensitivity analysis technique in question had recently been invented by the New York ME’s office and was not used much elsewhere, so Judge Dwyer could not conclude that it was widely accepted on that basis. His analysis didn’t end there, however, because the technique might still be considered widely accepted if it consisted only of components that were widely accepted. That is, doing several widely accepted things together is probably still widely accepted.

Judge Dwyer found that many parts of the high sensitivity analysis technique were indeed widely accepted — polymerase chain reaction amplification, electrophoresis, Bayesian statistics — but not all of them. Therefore he found that high sensitivity analysis was not widely accepted.

The problem that struck me as most significant was the experiments conducted by the New York ME’s office to determine how high-amplification noise affected the known DNA samples. This was a unique experiment, and as such it was a great piece of science, but until other labs have reproduced the results, it can’t really be considered widely accepted. Furthermore, the custom software that does the statistical analysis has not been made available for review, so it’s not clear how other labs could ever reach a conclusion about its acceptability.

Judge Dwyer’s opinion goes into a great deal more detail about the potential causes for concern and why he’s ruled that the technique is not widely accepted. It’s clear he’s given this a lot of careful thought, and as an observer of our justice system, it’s great to see judges take such care to get the science right. It makes me feel good about the system.

Trust Jeff to ruin that:

…he did something that almost never happened with expert evidence: he did it properly. That’s worthy of some note. Frye is readily abused.

And Scott:

To the uninitiated, what happened in Collins may seem, well, normal, expected even, since it’s perfectly reasonable to expect judges to do their job.  But what Justice Dwyer did was remarkably bold, maybe even exceptional.  He said “no” to a new wrinkle in DNA analysis, and he did so after other judges said, “sure, why not?”

With pathetic regularity, the by-product of bad forensic science is revealed when defendants convicted with the utmost certainty are later exonerated.

Oh well. At least it felt good while I was reading it.

in Legal