Category Archives: Criminal Justice

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

The Washington Post recently ran a series of reports about civil asset forfeiture; in the wake of those articles, which were very critical, two of the lawyers who first proposed the approach, John Yoder and Brad Cates, penned a response. Rather than taking a defensive posture, however, they began with an admission that the program had failed.

Last week, The Post published a series of in-depth articles about the abuses spawned by the law enforcement practice known as civil asset forfeiture. As two people who were heavily involved in the creation of the asset forfeiture initiative at the Justice Department in the 1980s, we find it particularly painful to watch as the heavy hand of government goes amok. The program began with good intentions but now, having failed in both purpose and execution, it should be abolished.

The idea, they wrote, had seemed so simple: “Seize the ill-gotten gains of big-time drug dealers and remove the financial incentive for their criminality. After all, if a kingpin could earn $20 million and stash it away somewhere, even a decade in prison would have its rewards. Make that money disappear, and the calculus changes.”

But as they note, since that relatively modest beginning, the concept has been steadily expanded: first,  to include not only cash earned illegally but also purchases or investments made with that money. The property eligible for seizure now includes “instrumentalities” in the trafficking of drugs, such as cars or even jewelry. Eventually, more than 200 crimes beyond drugs came to be included in the forfeiture scheme.

Even at the outset, the use of seized property was an issue. Drug Enforcement Administration agents, for example, might see a suspected dealer in a car they wanted for undercover work and seize it. But if the car had an outstanding loan, the DEA could not keep it without paying the lien. This led to distorted enforcement decisions, with agents choosing whom to pursue based on irrelevant factors such as whether the target owed money on his car.

As time went on and states got into the forfeiture game, the uses became more personally rewarding for law enforcement. Maintaining an undercover identity was often no longer even part of the justification for seizures.

Law enforcement agents and prosecutors began using seized cash and property to fund their operations, supplanting general tax revenue, and this led to the most extreme abuses: law enforcement efforts based upon what cash and property they could seize to fund themselves…

Anyone who knows a criminal defense lawyer has heard horror stories about innocent people caught up in law enforcement behaviors that look more like extortion than policing. Worse, these behaviors are totally inconsistent with the constitution. As the authors say:

Our forfeiture laws turn our traditional concept of guilt upside down. Civil forfeiture laws presume someone’s personal property to be tainted, placing the burden of proving it “innocent” on the owner. What of the Fourth Amendment requirement that a warrant to seize or search requires the showing of probable cause of a specific violation?

When the folks who dreamed up these laws in the first place tell you they’ve outlived any usefulness they may once  have had, it’s probably time to get rid of them.

 

The Arms Race and the Road to Ferguson

Peter Mancuso, at Ten Miles Square, takes issue with the conventional wisdom about “militarization” of police departments. Not that it isn’t taking place–clearly it is–but he argues convincingly that the reasons go far beyond the notion that local police units are simply a convenient receptacle for the federal government’s no-longer-needed weaponry.

He lays the blame on the gun lobby and NRA.

By the early 1980s, there was a growing perception among law enforcement officers and portions of the public that America’s police were being out-gunned in encounters with criminals…. [R]outine arrests for illegal gun possessions were increasingly turning up weapons more powerful than those carried by the officers making those arrests. As law enforcement officers, their families, and police unions began naturally voicing their concerns, the call became louder to increase police officers’ “firepower” (a military term). It was argued strenuously then that this would require replacing the highly reliable revolver, which had been carried by most departments for over a half-century, with a rapid fire, more powerful, semi-automatic side arm.

Of course, this call to increase police officer fire power was further exacerbated by the fact that state legislatures failed miserably in the face of the gun lobby to curb the sale of some of the most powerful and lethal firearms that posed threats to police officers across the country in the first place. As this dichotomy, of the availability of more powerful weapons in the face of police officer safety took hold weapons manufacturers finally broke through and hit real pay dirt. The true irony in all of this is that the huge fortunes realized by their marketing more powerful weapons to American law enforcement, was actually the result of them having already made a fortune selling these more powerful weapons, easily acquired by criminals, to the public to begin with.

You can chalk up the demise of Officer Friendly to your local gun nut. People aren’t the only things being killed by out-of-control guns–sanity and moderation are also victims.

Crime and the City: Some Unsolicited Advice to the Next Mayor

Several years ago, when Bart Peterson and Sue Ann Gilroy were running for Mayor, the IBJ asked Morton Marcus and yours truly to write a series of dueling recommendations to the eventual winner, titled “Letters to the Next Mayor.” My recollection is that they discontinued the feature fairly early on, but in that spirit, I’d like to offer some unsolicited advice to the winner of next year’s mayoral contest.

Give public safety back to the Sheriff.

When Greg Ballard was elected, one of the first things he did was take the newly combined IMPD away from the Sheriff, and assume responsibility for public safety. That was my first clue that he had no idea what he was doing. This wrongheaded move was prompted more by machismo and ego and the fact that the Sheriff was a Democrat than by any requirement of good governance.

Back when I was Corporation Counsel, I urged Bill Hudnut to consolidate IPD with the Sheriff’s department and give the new entity to the Sheriff. There was a reason for that advice. For one thing, there’s efficiency: a mayor has multiple responsibilities–public works, parks, economic and community development and numerous others–that compete for his time and attention, while the Sheriff is a constitutional officer whose sole responsibility and focus is criminal justice.

It isn’t simply a matter of efficiency, however. Good government and good politics both weigh in favor of letting the Sheriff take primary responsibility for IMPD.

Good government requires clear lines of accountability. When voters are going to the polls to vote for a mayor, they must “grade” an incumbent on what Ed Koch used to call the “How’m I doing?” scale. The multiple responsibilities of the office require voters to balance the incumbent’s record on crime against multiple other aspects of performance; as a result, the message sent by voters will necessarily be mixed and subject to different interpretations. Voting for a Sheriff whose entire portfolio is policing allows for much more direct accountability.

Politically, taking charge of public safety was foolish–what we might call an “unforced error.” When Ballard was elected, he told everyone who would listen that crime was going to be his “Number One” priority, and invited voters to judge him on that basis. They will, and it won’t be pretty.

Sometimes, the political game of “Mr. Macho” works. More often, it comes back to bite you.

 

 

Crime and (Kneejerk) Punishment

How many times have discussions on this blog–as well as others–focused on stupid laws? The drug war (especially marijuana prohibition) is one of the biggest offenders, having ruined countless lives, but everyone has his or her favorite example.

The litany is familiar: who thinks up these rules? Who thought X was a good idea? Why didn’t anyone consider the adverse consequences?

Well, if we want to know what prompts lawmakers to suggest and pass costly measures ranging from irrelevant to unworkable, we have a perfect case study unfolding right before our eyes in Indianapolis.

Our City is experiencing a serious crime wave. There are a number of explanations–and a lot of excuses–for our public safety problem, ranging from insufficient police presence to poverty to administrative incompetence, and it’s likely that all are implicated, along with social pathologies that resist easy answers.

So what are our intrepid lawmakers suggesting? Longer prison sentences for the people we manage to arrest! A quick fix. Easy to understand measures that will allow said lawmakers to boast that they “did something.”

Of course, the “something” they propose to do flies in the face of years of criminal justice research.

Here’s the thing: when we are trying to deter intentional crime (i.e., not a “crime of passion” committed by someone who acted out of a lack of self-control or often, lack of cognitive capacity), research confirms that what is effective is not the severity of the potential punishment–it is the certainty of that punishment. If an individual is considering engaging in a criminal act for which the punishment is 30 years in prison but the chances of getting caught are less than 5%, he’s very likely to go for it. If, on the other hand, the punishment is only 5 years but the likelihood of being caught is 95%, he’s much more likely to rethink it.

As the odds of being punished grow, so does the deterrence.

If we respond to the current crime wave by increasing the severity of punishment, our prison system will just cost taxpayers even more than it does now.

As H.L. Mencken memorably noted, for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

 

You Have the Right to a Lawyer…

 

Accusing lawyers who represent criminal defendants of being criminals themselves seems to be the GOP’s flavor du jour.

Some of you reading this will recall a truly despicable ad run by Mark Massa (now sitting on the Indiana Supreme Court thanks to Mitch Daniels) when he was challenging Terry Curry for the prosecutor’s office. The message was simple: Curry had once represented a criminal defendant, and was therefore unfit for public office.

Massa lost the votes of several Republican lawyers with that one.

A similar political attack advertisement is being used in South Carolina , where the Republican Governors’ Association has used it to target former prosecutor Vincent Sheheen – an attorney who now represents both civil and criminal clients in his private practice.  (Sheheen happens to be the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in South Carolina facing off against incumbent Nikki Haley.)

These attacks are deeply disturbing. If those running them actually believed that representing a criminal defendant is a sign of moral depravity  (which I rather doubt), that belief would be evidence of a total lack of constitutional competence–a total ignorance of the due process guarantees of the Bill of Rights.

I don’t think the people who run these ads are that ignorant. I think the truth is far worse: they make political ads that employ these accusations because they believe the voting public is that ignorant, and because they are willing to play on that perceived ignorance–indeed, reinforce it!–for political advantage.
This is the same tactic that is routinely used against ACLU lawyers when they represent an unpleasant person whose rights are being violated. As I used to explain over and over, I can defend your right to read a book I wouldn’t read. I can defend your right to preach doctrine I believe to be evil. I can defend your right to hold bigoted opinions without sharing those opinions. I defend your rights because liberty is indivisible: the government that can take fundamental rights away from you is the same government that can take them from me.
 Defending accused people is what lawyers are supposed to do. Otherwise, the system doesn’t work. If good lawyers are made to pay a political price for doing the right thing, fewer of them will do it–and justice will suffer.
This is one political tactic that should be beyond the pale.