Category Archives: Legal

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

Better Data Seizure in the Digital World

Scott Greenfield has an interesting post about how much computerized data the government is allowed to seize when serving a warrant. Current practice is to seize it all and do whatever they want with it. Orin Kerr had proposed allowing the government to continue to seize all the data but putting restrictions on the use of that data so that only data responsive to the warrant can be used.

Scott’s position, if I understand it correctly, is that the warrant limits the scope of the seizure to the data specified in the warrant, and if the government can’t figure out how to limit their seizure to that data alone, then they just don’t get to seize anything. Too bad, so sad.

In my heart, I like Scott’s argument. He’s argued in that past that it’s a bad idea to make rules for the digital world by using analogies with the way we did things in the pre-digital world. That makes a lot of sense to me. We now store far more data in digital form than in the forms of data storage available when the Fourth Amendment was passed — my guess is we have more on our hard drives now than has ever been written down in all of human history — and if we were to make up rules from scratch to keep people secure in their persons, houses, papers, effects, and digitally stored data, against unreasonable searches and seizures, they would be considerably different from the rules we’ve evolved by analogy.

We’ve been witness to a similar situation when applying copyright law to digital data. Historically, copying and distributing creative works has been hard, so it made sense to have rules that govern copying and publication. And in the early years of the digital media revolution, copyright owners and publishers tried to build a virtual digital implementation of the system of rules we had been using for printed and recorded works. But as soon as consumers discovered they could copy digital works quickly, cheaply, and perfectly, they started to abandon the old copying and publication rules as too cumbersome, and we now seem to be evolving toward a system based around convenient access to source materials: If I hear a song on the radio and I want a copy, it’s much easier for me to download it from iTunes for $1.29 than it is to find someone willing to let me copy it for free. (Eventually, we will probably have laws that allow us to do this without 57-page click-to-accept legal agreements.)

Congress and the courts have been damned slow to adapt the search and seizure rules to the digital world in a reasonable way. Between things like the current rules for seizing computers and the third-party doctrine, the government has far too much easy access to our digital data, but I like to think that will eventually change as more people who grew up living in the digital world become judges and members of Congress. Someday they’ll get it, and we’ll get robust protection of digital data. Until then, Orin’s plan is about as good as it’s likely to get.

Still, I have at least three suggestions for improving Orin’s plan:

First and foremost (and least implausible),  the government should not be allowed to seize computers for longer than it takes to copy the data and return the computers to the owners. A business without its data is a business that cannot operate, and a warrant to seize data becomes an order to shut a business down. (Even having a personal computer seized is damned inconvenient and expensive.) This is a longstanding problem with seizing evidence, but given that digital copies are quick, cheap, and perfect, it’s an area where seizures in the digital world can and should be less troublesome than in the physical world.

Second, it would be nice for a change if the restrictions on the government came with real teeth. I’m not sure how that could work, however, since the initial seizure would still be legal. But without any punishment for breaking the rules, the government will still try to use everything it has, and the worst that could happen is that a judge will say no. And really, if the government discovers something juicy in the non-responsive seized data that they’re not allowed to use, is it realistic to assume they will simply ignore it? Without serious penalties, what’s to stop them from trying a little “parallel construction” to conceal the fact that they’re using the restricted data?

A similar problem arises in civil lawsuits when one party wants to examine business records from another party, such as all emails relevant to the disputed matter. The party responding to the discovery request doesn’t want to turn over all its email messages, full of sensitive business secrets, to the opposition, but the party requesting the email messages doesn’t trust the provider not to leave out messages that would hurt it in the lawsuit. One common solution to this problem is to have the responding party turn over all email messages to a neutral third party which is responsible for picking out the relevant messages and turning them over to the party requesting them.

So my third suggestion is that perhaps digital data seizures in criminal matters could be filtered through a neutral third party as well. I believe there’s some precedent for this in the way client files are protected when a lawyer is being investigated for a crime: The court appoints a special master to review the files for privileged material. Perhaps that protection could be extended more broadly to include filtering terabytes of non-responsive data down to just the material specified in the warrant. It would be a time-consuming and expensive process, but maybe that would discourage fishing expeditions, especially the fishing expeditions that turn into massive data dredging operations.

in Legal

A Rule Made To Be Broken

There’s an interesting bit of detail in this post about legal tech from Brian Tannebaum, talking about the policies governing electronic devices brought into the courtroom:

In the Southern District of New York, you can bring in one device, but if you are not a member of the SDNY Bar, you have to file a motion to bring in your one device. Pick your poison – cell phone, iPad, laptop. […] So decide what’s more important – keeping in touch with the office, witnesses, opposing counsel, clients, or having your documents available electronically and the ability to type.

Let’s get past the fact that the court doesn’t seem to realize that lawyers bring electronic devices into the courtroom because they need them to do their job and go right to the real question: Do lawyers in the Southern District of New York hire stooges to carry additional devices for them?

(My wife and do something like that at the grocery. If a sale item has a limit of one per person, we buy two of them by telling the cashier we’re paying for them separately. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out which one of us is the stooge.)

Actually, from a quick glance at the rules, it looks like only attorneys are allowed to bring in devices. This suggests to me that more than a few second or third chair lawyers aren’t really on the team because of their legal skills. In fact, this sounds like a perfect job for a law student: “Hey kid, you want to have front row seat at a federal trial? Great! Carry this.”

Granted, the rules do say that “The Personal Electronic Device may not be shared with any other person,” but these are lawyers we’re talking about. I’m sure they’ve figured out some way to game that rule by now.

in Legal

Return to the Planet of Reasonable Doubt

Over at a public defender, Gideon has posted his second attempt to create a jury instruction for the meaning of “reasonable doubt,” based on feedback he got from his first attempt, which has a lot of interesting comments.

The discussion is far too technical for me to contribute to, for reasons that Scott Greenfield spells out when describing an attempt he was involved with:

The mandate was to come up with an instruction that was consistent with existing caselaw while being comprehensible on a 6th grade level and across varying ethnicities.

That’s way beyond me. I’m sure I have nothing helpful to contribute to the discussion. But I’ve never really let that stop me from blogging, so…

Take a quick look at Gideon’s proposed instruction. You don’t have to actually read it, but I want you to see what it looks like. Here it is:

The State has the burden of proving the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Beyond a reasonable doubt is how convincing the evidence has to be to you in order to find an accused guilty of a crime. So what does “beyond a reasonable doubt” mean?

What it means is this: The evidence must fully and firmly convince you of the defendant’s guilt before you may return a verdict of guilty.The evidence must cause your state of mind to be such that you can confidently say that you are certain of the defendant’s guilt. Although the State does not have to prove the defendant’s guilt to an absolute or mathematical certainty, the State must prove his guilt to a state of near certitude in your own minds. In other words, while the law does not require the State to prove a defendant guilty beyond all possible doubt, it is not sufficient to prove that the defendant is possibly or probably guilty.

After considering all of the evidence, you may be fully and firmly convinced that the defendant is guilty of the crime charged. On the other hand, based on the evidence or lack of evidence, you may think there is a realistic possibility that he is not guilty. This realistic possibility must be based on the evidence or lack of evidence and not arising from mere possibility, bare imagination, or fanciful conjecture.

Thus, if you are fully and firmly convinced of the defendant’s guilt, you must return a verdict of guilty. If you find that there is a realistic possibility that he is not guilty, the law demands that you return a verdict of not guilty.

It seems nice enough. It’s clearly written and full of evocative phrases. But when you step back from its context as a jury instruction, I think there’s a larger, more fundamental problem. There’s just something wrong with trying to explain such an important topic with so few words.

Excluding the instruction itself, Gideon’s post runs to 800 words, and he and his visitors added another 2000 words of comments. In an earlier post, he wrote another 900 words, which brought another 1500 words of comment. That post was in response to a 700 word post from Scott Greenfield that had another 700 more words in the comments, and it spawned a 2600-word behemoth post from Rick Horowitz, plus 600 words in the comments. Add it all up, and just these few posts amount to a discussion of reasonable doubt that runs to almost 10,000 words.

Yet if the judge uses Gideon’s proposed instruction, the jury will have to figure out what reasonable doubt means from only 272 words. That doesn’t seem…reasonable.

When it comes to explaining nuanced topics like reasonable doubt, there are well-known teaching techniques. For example, you approach the topic several times from different directions, you emphasize key points, and you hit on those points over and over so they sink in. You explore the context in which the subject arises, perhaps considering why reasonable doubt is an important feature of the justice system, so jurors understand why they’re supposed to apply the standard the way you want them to. And you also drop the discussion into the details, illustrating the rules you want to teach with examples — what counts as reasonable doubt, and what does not. You explore corner cases, and you show how the rules of reasonable doubt are derived from the larger goals of our system of justice.

You try to link the subject you’re teaching to things your students already know. You discuss how certitude and doubt already play roles in jurors’ lives, and you explain how reasonable doubt is related to those levels of doubt. You use analogies, diagrams, and stories.

Then you let them practice. You give them an example scenario, and let them figure out whether there’s reasonable doubt. Have them discuss it with each other and with you. You answer their questions, and ask instructive questions of your own. When you see them applying a principle incorrectly, you explain what they’re doing wrong, and you suggest ways to avoid that mistake in the future.

Finally, you test them. You confront them with a series of problems, and you find out which potential jurors demonstrate competence, which ones need more training, and which ones wash out of the jury pool.

In a nutshell, that’s the kind of training program it takes to get a group of people to become competent at a job. So why don’t we train jurors that way for their job?

In the industrial world, we sometimes prefer on-the-job training. It actually includes a lot of the same processes, but in the context of actually doing the job. Employees start out with simple tasks and work their way up, and competency testing takes the form of a supervisor’s evaluation. That doesn’t seem to be what we’re doing with jurors, however, because there’s no evaluation of juror performance, and they don’t work their way up — your first trial as a juror could be a capital murder or a racketeering case with mountains of complex evidence.

Another possibility is that training jurors is just too costly. That’s not quite the whole story, given the extensive training received by almost everyone else involved in the trial — lawyers, judges, court reporters, bailiffs — all of whom receive weeks, months, or years of training. Of course, the training for all of those people is reusable. Once trained, they can participate in many trials. We don’t do that with jurors. We don’t hold trials using fact finders drawn from a pool of trained professional jurors.

Every once in a while, someone proposes switching to professional jurors, but the general consensus seems to be that we prefer to use jurors drawn at random from the community. The argument is usually that professional jurors would be captured (or corrupted) by the system that employs them, and they would soon become insiders — just another part of the incarceration machine. Jurors plucked from the community take their duty of impartiality more seriously, and they represent the community better because they are a random sample. They remain part of the community from which they are drawn, as opposed to professional jurors, who self-select to join the criminal justice community.

I like this argument, but I don’t know if it’s true. In any case, we end up with jurors who are largely ignorant of the law and the workings of the criminal justice system, and who have to be instructed on reasonable doubt (and everything else they need to know) in the limited amount of time available for trial. Overall, it seems like a very sloppy process, and Gideon’s attempt to write a good jury instruction on reasonable doubt seems like a hopeless dream.

Or maybe that’s the wrong way to look at it. Maybe I should take the jury system more seriously. After all, juries have been used for centuries, and they exist in one form or another in most of the free countries of the world.  Maybe jury ignorance is a feature not a bug: Jurors are drawn at random from the community, and the limited instruction is intentional, presumably to encourage jurors to bring their community values into the process.

In that case, the true definition of reasonable doubt is not really up to lawyers or judges or legal scholars. We tell juries they must be convinced of a defendant’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt,” and they tell us the verdict. As a practical matter, the meaning of reasonable doubt is whatever the jurors say it is. And since this is the result of the evolved design of the jury system, perhaps this practical meaning of reasonable doubt is in fact the only true meaning of reasonable doubt. Reasonable doubt is whatever the jury does after you give them the reasonable doubt instruction.

I don’t know if you learned anything from reading this, but I feel better now. This way of thinking has a certain elegance, and it makes Gideon’s task seem less hopeless. He doesn’t have to teach a jury everything they need to know about reasonable doubt in 272 words. He just has to get them to use what they already know.

in Legal

Reviewing the Charges Against the Bronx Defenders

Professor Jonathan Oberman from the Cardozo School of Law has a great opinion piece in the New York Law Journal about the two lawyers who were forced to resign as a result of the Bronx Defenders’ “Hands Up” kerfuffle.

These lawyers are smart, committed and hardworking, and have earned their clients’, their community’s, and this city’s trust as a consequence of their dedication and the quality of their work. The two lawyers who appear in the unspeaking cameos may have made an ill-considered decision to involve their office in a video that, in the current environment, placed its good works at risk. But they are decent, caring, thoughtful people—hardworking lawyers motivated by concerns for social and racial justice and committed to achieving a world where access to due process does not depend on the color of one’s skin or the color of one’s uniform.

Like me, Oberman points out that the lyrics are about people in the black community being angry enough to talk about killing cops, but they don’t actually advocate killing cops. “Hands Up” is literally (at least in part) about putting your hands up.

In a less charged moment, with a mayor unconcerned about regaining the trust of the city’s police rank and file, I suspect much less would have been made about the lawyers’ decision to appear in the video.

When I first heard about the controversy, one of the things that struck me hardest was the incredible overreaction — demands for the city to stop funding the Bronx Defenders — over a monumentally trivial matter. (And Scott Greenfield has some interesting points about the level of scapegoating involved.)

As near as I can tell, all reported accusations against the Bronx Defenders trace back to the New York City Department of Investigation’s press release and findings. It appears to be the result of reviewing public information about the Bronx Defenders, reviewing emails sent within the organization and between the organization and members of the city government, and interviews with key staff members including Kumar Rao and Ryan Napoli, the two lawyers in the video, and Executive Director Robin Steinberg.

The two lawyers who participated in the video admitted to being aware of the lyrics to “Hands Up” before participating in the video. They told the DOI that they believed they would be given the opportunity to edit anything offensive from the video before it was released, but they didn’t have any legal agreement to enforce that requirement, and there’s apparently no evidence of them wanting to remove the cop-killing lyrics.

Here is a brief description of what was known about the lyrics and video, according to the DOI report*:

Rao and Napoli stated that on the date the video was filmed at The Bronx Defenders office, they were shown the portions of the video filmed at the office that day. Rao said that they were also shown some other snippets of previously recorded scenes, including one where individuals portraying NYPD police officers were taking someone into custody. Rao stated that they were not shown images of the singers pointing guns at the head of a police officer, which ultimately appeared in the video released to the public.


Steinberg stated that it was her understanding that no one at The Bronx Defenders saw the complete video before its release, including the images of guns pointed at the head of an individual portraying a police officer. Rao and Napoli said that they did not see the entire video until after its release.

The Bronx Defenders are certainly doing a job where things can go wrong in a big way. They take on some very heavy responsibilities for indigent defendants, and bad things happen if they screw up. Mistakes could result in clients losing their families or spending undeserved decades in prison. Poor leadership could allow a culture of sloppiness to establish itself, and their criminal defense practice could decay into a meet-and-plea mill. The organization’s officers could mismanage funds, dole out favors to friends, or outright steal money.

Those things would all be serious problems demanding a prompt and decisive response. But a couple of lawyers opening the office on Sunday so they can be in a gangster rap video for a local artist…not so much.

One thing everybody agrees on, supported by all available evidence, is that Robin Steinberg had not seen the lyrics. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to me that the director of a 250-member organization might delegate a side project like this this to her subordinates. The DOI findings, however, fault Steinberg for a lack of due diligence.

The DOI findings also fault Steinberg for failing to take disciplinary action against the lawyers involved. I think this is overreaching by the investigators. The Bronx Defenders are a private organization, and unless internal disciplinary procedures are in the scope of the contract with the city, it’s none of the city’s business how Steinberg disciplines her people. That’s between her and the board of directors. Unlike the bureaucratic hacks who run the city government, not every leader regards assigning blame and meting out punishment as the most productive way to address failures. Accountability is important when it comes to deliberate wrongdoing, but mistakes are often better handled through techniques such as cause analysis, process modification, and training.

Several commentators unsympathetic to the Bronx Defenders have drawn attention to the DOI’s finding that Director Steinberg made misleading statements to city officials during the investigation. To my mind this is the most damning accusation: Everything else can fairly be described as a mistake, but there’s no justification for lying.

The thing is, when you actually read the DOI findings, there’s not much to it. All of Steinberg’s supposedly misleading statements were made after the video came out, when Steinberg was responding to questions from several officials. Here are excerpts of what the DOI findings have to say about them:

On December 5, 2014, The Bronx Defenders released a public statement regarding its participation in the video, which did not address the song’s lyrics. […] However, the statement did not address the song’s lyrics, which, as discussed above, were known to Rao and Napoli when they agreed on behalf of the organization to participate in the video.”

I don’t quite see how failing to address the lyrics is misleading. The lyrics were public knowledge, easily discoverable by anyone interested.

None of these email communications fully described the circumstances of The Bronx Defenders’ involvement in the video. They did not mention that Rao and Napoli were aware of the song’s lyrics — months before the release of the video — when they commenced initial discussion with the producer about the video.

I’m not sure what to make of the fact that the emails didn’t mention that Rao and Napoli were aware of the lyrics. It’s not a lie, but it doesn’t sound like the whole truth either. This seems more legit than the previous accusation.

Further, none of the emails mentioned that Steinberg approved the organization’s involvement in the video without reviewing the lyrics or inquiring further about the songwriters. Instead the emails provided a selective and misleading recitation of the circumstances surrounding The Bronx Defenders’ involvement in the video.

It would be one thing if Steinberg had lied about reviewing the lyrics, but faulting Steinberg for failing to list things she didn’t do seems like a bit of a stretch. And frankly, if she had come out and said she never saw the lyrics, that would seem like she was covering her ass and trying to blame subordinates.

For example, in her email to Ms. Glazer on December 10, 2014, though she was aware months before the release of the video that Rao was coordinating with the producer regarding The Bronx Defenders’ involvement in the video, Steinberg wrote, “Late last week, I became aware of a hip hop video that was making its way into the world called ‘Hands Up.'”

This seems like reasonably accurate language. The video had been in production for a while, but it didn’t start coming out — “making its way into the world” — until a couple of months ago. It’s just a turn of phrase, not an attempt to hide her earlier knowledge of the video. In fact, she clearly admits to earlier knowledge of the video in that very same email message, as described by the very next sentence in the DOI findings:

Later in the email, Steinberg wrote that “[t]he version of the video that is on the internet — and that two of our lawyers appear in — is not the version we saw when they agreed to appear in the video.”

So in this case it was the DOI findings that were misleading, accusing Steinberg of trying to hide something that she in fact admitted to.

In any case, the DOI has problems with her admission as well:

This statement suggests that The Bronx Defenders saw a version different from the one released to the public when, in fact, Steinberg acknowledged during her interview that they had only seen limited footage and did not see a full version of the video before its release.

So the essence of the DOI accusation is that she said she saw a version of the video, when in fact what she really saw was some fragments of the video. “Version” vs. “fragments.” I see the difference, but it’s not much of a difference. And either way, the salient point remains that the offending scenes from the final video were not present in the video material the Bronx Defenders reviewed.

Steinberg also did not mention that Rao and Napoli had her approval to participate in the video. Moreover, as with the public statement, Steinberg did not address the lyrics or the attorneys’ knowledge of the lyrics. As such, Steinberg’s statements, while perhaps not legally perjurious, were clearly misleading.”

This is just more of the same, and as far as I can tell.

I believe I have now quoted everything in the DOI report that describes Steinberg’s supposedly misleading statements. Perhaps Steinberg responded to the inquiries from city officials with the carefully correct-but-one-sided statements of a lawyer rather than with the full candor they deserved. But with the possible exception of the failure to mention that Rao and Napoli had her approval, the accusations of misleading statements are so thin as to be nonexistent.

I’ll wind this up with one more quote from Oberman’s piece:

But no matter what meaning one extracts from the video, it is difficult to see how one can leap to characterizing the Bronx Defenders lawyers as “bad apples” and demand a plan of action at the cost of an implicit threat to de-fund the office. Its 250 lawyers, social workers, advocates, investigators and other staff serve clients charged with crimes and assist community members with housing, family, child custody, immigration, school-related and re-entry issues. The office has trained scores of public defender offices around the country to adapt its creative, cost-efficient model. At a time when so many communities are struggling to give meaning to the 50-year-old promise of Gideon v. Wainright, Steinberg has built an office that delivers that promise on a daily basis.

Reasonable people should recognize overreaction when it stares them in the face. And no responsible party should have sought to score political points or regain political capital by threatening the health of Bronx’s underserved population or the dedicated Bronx Defenders staff and lawyers who serve them.

Calls for some ameliorative, managerial measures for the Bronx Defenders might have been proportionate to what in hindsight was an ill-advised decision to participate, no matter how tangentially, in the video. But too many were willing to threaten the Bronx Defenders’ ability to continue to serve a borough and its people who rarely get their fair share of New York City’s resources.

Arguably, as I’ve said before, the biggest screw up on the part of the Bronx Defenders was letting something like this jeopardize their mission. NYPD union president Pat Lynch may be an asshole, and Mayor Bill de Blasio may be an unprincipled politician, but neither of those things were a big secret. When you’ve taken on the task of defending 30,000 indigent people every year, you should try very hard not to make it easier for the assholes and the unprincipled to attack your funding. I suspect they’ve learned that lesson now.

*Note: The DOI press release is typeset in the PDF document, but findings themselves are an image of a typeset document. All quotations from the findings are thus hand-transcribed by me and likely include my mistakes.

Why Are Grand Juries So Secret?

I’ve been trying to understand why grand jury secrecy works the way it does, and there are parts of it that just don’t make sense to me. At a fundamental level, the idea of the government telling people there’s stuff they can never, ever talk about just doesn’t seem right. Our right to free speech isn’t absolute, but there usually has to be a pretty good reason for an exception.

As an aside, just why doesn’t the First Amendment apply? While discussing another topic, Mark Bennett explains that there are nine accepted exceptions to the First Amendment’s speech protections:

  1. Advocacy intended, and likely, to incite imminent lawless action;
  2. [Distribution of] obscenity;
  3. Defamation;
  4. Speech integral to [non-speech] criminal conduct;
  5. So-called “fighting words”;
  6. Child pornography;
  7. Fraud;
  8. True threats; and
  9. Speech presenting some grave and imminent threat the government has the power to prevent.

I don’t see how the prohibition against revealing grand jury proceedings fits under any of those. I assume this is because the speech restriction inherent in grand jury secrecy comes about through a completely different legal mechanism, presumably the same one (or a similar one) that enables trial jury secrecy, makes it a crime to talk to a juror about a case they’re hearing, and allows courts to issue gag orders. I’m guessing this is all part the pre-existing common law that underlies much of the U.S. constitution.

Anyway, I’m more interested in the policy argument than the legal reasons things are the way the are. To that end, Jack Marshall’s argument against a Ferguson grand juror going public organizes some of the arguments rather nicely.

Much of the justification for grand jury secrecy is OPSEC:

Secrecy prevents those who are being investigated from interfering with witnesses and otherwise tampering with and attempting to corrupt the investigation. […] It decreases the likelihood that one who is about to be indicted by a grand jury will flee and thereby avoid being brought to trial on those charges.

These are great policy reasons for maintaining grand jury secrecy while the grand jury investigation is in progress, but the harms they protect against are no longer possible once the investigation is over. Because physics. And yet grand jury secrecy is forever.

It protects witnesses who might be reluctant to testify if they believed their comments would be made public.

Grand jury secrecy already has some holes. Testimony can already become public in a variety of ways. If the case goes to trial, the witnesses would be expected to repeat their testimony in open court, and their grand jury testimony can come into play. It’s my understanding that in some states grand jury testimony becomes a matter of public record if the defendant is indicted.

If even one grand jury is able to have the ban on secrecy lifted, every grand jury will labor under the fear of those involved that jurors will speak to the media and reveal harmful details.

Why exactly would revealing details be a bad thing? We generally consider accountability to be a good policy that helps ensure our institutions are doing what we want them to. In fact, almost every other player in the court system has to operate in the sunshine: Cops, prosecutors, witnesses, judges, petit jurors, and defense lawyers all have to do their part with the knowledge that once it’s all over, anyone involved can reveal their words and conduct to the public. I’m not sure why accountability is good for everyone else but bad for grand juries.

Besides, as I said, grand juries already labor under the knowledge that what they do could be revealed. And many states manage to indict people using preliminary hearings. If these non-secret hearings work okay, then I don’t seen why non-secret grand juries couldn’t also work.

It also protects innocent individuals whose names may be implicated in a grand jury investigation but who will never be indicted.

Protecting the innocent. Now that is a justification I can get behind.

Much of the current discussion about loosening grand jury secrecy — or reforming the grand jury system in other ways — is in reaction to suspicions about the grand jury that did not indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for killing Mike Brown, or the grand jury that no-billed NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo for killing Eric Garner. But as Elie Mystal points out, grand jury investigations of cops are the exception, not the rule:

We gain nothing, but stand to lose a lot by releasing grand jury testimony. In the Ferguson and Garner situations, we’re dealing with cops as potential defendants. And that’s why the system favored them and the prosecutors did everything they could to help them. In most situations grand juries are dealing with regular people who are about to be totally railroaded by the system. Innocent or guilty, most grand jury testimony involves a prosecutor, unhinged from any kind of representation on behalf of the defense, painting the worst possible picture of the defendant in order to force an indictment. Grand juries aren’t about truth, they are about giving prosecutors leverage to force a defendant into a settlement on crimes they may or may not have committed.

You want to set a precedent where you make that kind of crap public? Are you insane? You want to give prosecutors more power to sully the name of potentially innocent people as they preen for the cameras and try to do things like run for Congress?

Fair enough, and I’m inclined to agree. Except…

Why are the Ferguson grand jurors still muzzled? All of the witnesses have been heard, the defendant has not fled, and all of the grand jury testimony has been made public. At this point, I think all that is being protected by the policy of grand jury secrecy is the identities of the witnesses and the deliberations of the grand jurors. I’m not convinced that the government’s interest in protecting either of those things is strong enough to overcome our default preference for free speech and transparency. Why should we only hear the prosecutor’s version of what happened in the grand jury hearings?

Arguably, we shouldn’t go changing the rules retroactively, since witnesses and grand jurors have presumably relied on the secrecy guarantees, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right policy, and that’s not a reason to keep doing things the same way in the future. Once the grand jury testimony is public, I can’t see much justification for keeping the grand jurors from talking about it.

(Hat tip: Scott Greenfield.)