All posts by MuniCourts

Mass Shootings vs St. Louis

Fear is a powerful and dangerous motivator which can mask real issues. Fear is an effective tool to control populations and convince people to voluntarily give up their rights.  The video below of an 11-year-old active shooter expert provides an excellent example and has over 18 million views on Facebook. 

Any death is tragic, especially the death of a loved one. My heart goes out to those who lost family and friend during mass shootings. My heart also goes out to those who have lost loved ones to violence right here at home and across the country.

On Sunday, August 18, 2019, my birthday, I woke up to read the following headline in the St. Louis Post Dispatch, "Almost A Dozen Children Fatally Shot, 1 Arrest". As of August 18th, 53 people out of a U.S. population of 330 million were killed in mass shootings this year. In contrast, 122 people out of a population just over 300,000 were killed in St. Louis during that same time frame. To put that into perspective, it would take over 133,000 mass shooting deaths in this country to equal the ratio of deaths in St. Louis. 

In 2017, there were 14,542 gun homicides and nearly 40,000 gun deaths when suicides are included. We need to concentrate more on reducing those mostly handgun deaths and the underlying cause. I don't know many people within the black community that has not been personally touched by gun violence. I have personally lost a brother-in-law, a nephew, classmates, and my sons, nieces, and nephews have lost friends and relatives. I've experienced close encounters with guns fired from moving vehicles and so did my parents prior to the passing of my mother.  Mass shootings are horrible situations, but I'm more concerned with gun violence on the streets of St. Louis than I am in Wal-Mart.

While fear has you worrying about a statistical improbability, your rights could be stripped away. Don't get distracted by false narratives.  

Black Gun Rights Under Attack

I'm not a big fan of guns, however, if gun rights continue to exist, I don't want my gun rights infringed upon. Every time a mass shooting incident happens, the discussion eventually turns to background checks. Many if not most mass shooters passed background checks or possessed legal firearms.

Bans on assault weapons is currently a hot topic. Even if assault weapons were banned, handguns with magazines that hold 16-18 rounds are common. A person carrying one or two concealed handguns with multiple clips could also do a lot of damage. 

As mention in our Missouri Gun Law page, gun restrictions in this country have always had racist intent. The FBI recently created "black identity extremism”, which falsely identified black protest groups as terrorists. Had the FBI been successful, members of "Black Lives Matter" and related groups could possibly have had their gun rights restricted because of supposed terrorist affiliations. Ironically, white mass shooters are rarely described as terrorist

Let's do some math. 

In both percentages and numbers, the black community has some catching up to do. I suspect that the vast majority of assault-style weapons are white-owned. Historically, bans include a grandfather clause, so if assault weapons are banned, the black community would be permanently disadvantaged. 

Why Facebook’s new ‘privacy cop’ is doomed to fail

Editorial note: by Randall Hill

I've always been suspect how Facebook so quickly overtook MySpace and dominated social media. Early on I assumed the government had some major role. Much of the information people voluntarily share on Facebook, the government would need a search warrant to discover. 

Sound far fetched? The CIA runs a venture capital firm called In-Q-Tel. Its purpose is to find and finance companies that could benefit the CIA. It invests in high-tech companies for the sole purpose of keeping the Central Intelligence Agency, and other intelligence agencies, equipped with the latest in information technology in support of United States intelligence capability. 

In-Q-Tel sold 5,636 shares of Google, on November 15, 2005. The shares were a result of Google's acquisition of Keyhole, Inc, the CIA-funded satellite mapping software now known as Google Earth.

The first In-Q-Tel CEO was a venture capitalist named Gilman Louie. Louie once served on the board of the National Venture Capital Association. While Louie was on the board of NVCA, another board member was James Breyer, who runs Accel Partners which was Facebook's first venture capital investor. Coincidence? You decide.


Bhaskar Chakravorti, Tufts University

The Federal Trade Commission issued its largest-ever fine, of US$5 billion, to Facebook for violating a 2011 privacy settlement in late July. But the amount is only about a month’s worth of the company’s revenue, suggesting that the fine, while seeming large, is, in fact, rather modest.

More significantly, Facebook is required to have an “outside assessor” – a sort of privacy cop – to monitor the company’s handling of user data, along with following a few other corporate procedural requirements. That assessor could address the fundamental problems with the way Facebook operates – but as a scholar of technology companies’ business practices, I’m worried that this potentially all-important role is set up for failure.

Who’s watching Facebook watch you?

In my opinion, in order to be effective, there are three main privacy-related concerns the FTC’s newly designated cop would need to look out for: the potential for genuine violations of users’ privacy; the targeted spread of harmful content, especially resulting in election manipulation and ethnic violence; and instances of collecting and harvesting far more data than is warranted to provide services to users.

An independent assessor will lack the standards, regulatory and legal guidelines, and the insight needed to actually monitor how Facebook handles those three issues. This makes the privacy cop’s job much harder than that of a regular cop or, say, a financial auditor.

Protecting users’ privacy

Facebook’s history of privacy violations extends well beyond the most publicized ones, like letting Cambridge Analytica access the personal data of 50 million users to craft micro-targeted political ad campaigns.

Facebook has secretly shared data with other companies for years, without notifying the users. That practice, as well as the function that lets users sign in to other websites and apps with their Facebook login, has helped advertisers follow their targets around the internet. The company has also used its trove of user data to gain a competitive advantage in business negotiations, boosting its own profits without compensating the users themselves.

The FTC ruling gives the privacy cop no clear guidance on which data-sharing or data-withholding arrangements between Facebook and other companies are legitimate and where they cross a line. This is because there are still no internationally agreed-upon data protection rules, and few clear regulations in the U.S. to compare Facebook’s actions against.

FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra. 

Facebook’s business model uses its treasure trove of user data to target advertising, the source of almost all the company’s revenue. An outsider will be unable to tell the difference between legitimate business practices that harvest user data to increase profits and problematic abuses that violate users’ privacy. In fact, FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra, who dissented from the decision, declared that the new settlement still “allows Facebook to decide for itself how much information it can harvest from its users and what it can do with that information.”

Blocking harmful content

Facebook has struggled to limit harmful content on its networks, such as that which fed ethnic violence, distributed misinformation or facilitated election interference. Personal data helped the perpetrators target their messages to certain groups of Facebook users.

The outside assessor will be focused on privacy, which means that identifying, verifying and policing content will be beyond the assessor’s mandate. Ironically, steps to enhance privacy, such as ensuring end-to-end encryption across all of Facebook’s messaging platforms – as Mark Zuckerberg intends to do – would help in protecting the identity of the spreaders of harmful messages, rather than exposing them and their actions.

Protecting users from giving up too much

Access to Facebook seems free, because it costs no money, but users pay with their data. The assessor should ask if the users are being charged fairly, in privacy terms, for the service they’re receiving. That raises the question of what a “fair” price is for what Facebook provides.

Normally, price is set by a competitive market, where customers can choose from a range of service providers. Not so on Facebook, where there are high costs – again, not financial, but in terms of time and effort – to leaving, and no other option offering equivalent services.

A social science phenomenon called the “network effect” means that any network is increasingly valuable as more people join it – but that means it’s also increasingly hard to leave. There are now more than 2.3 billion Facebook users around the world. For too many people, their most active online social connections are on Facebook.

Spotify is one of the many online services that allows users to log in with their Facebook account credentials. Screenshot of Spotify website, CC BY-ND

It’s hard to leave Facebook, not only because there are so many users. Many customers use their Facebook logins on thousands of other apps and services. If they delete their Facebook accounts, they lose all access to those other apps too, like customized Spotify playlists and Netflix viewing preferences. Worse still, Facebook has bought up many of its competitors. Lots of people who quit Facebook shift over to Instagram – which is owned by Facebook.

Looking to the future, the company is making the price of leaving Facebook even higher, by planning to consolidate its data-collection power by integrating its various apps, including Facebook Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp – as well as through a proposed digital currency for transactions conducted on Facebook platforms. All of these create a playing field that is tilted in favor of an all-encompassing single parent company, limiting users’ choices and making switching difficult. No assessor can remedy the inherent unfairness of that imbalance.

Far more than the fine, the centerpiece of the FTC deal is the outside assessor. If properly designed, this role could be truly game-changing – one of a forceful privacy cop setting the standards for how the power of big technology firms is managed from here on. But the fine is a slap on the wrist, and the cop’s arms are tied and don’t reach far enough. This sets a very bad precedent: Both the FTC and Facebook can declare a victory of sorts, while the consumer loses.The Conversation


Republished with permission from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

Restricting SNAP benefits could hurt millions of Americans – and local communities

by Cindy Leung, University of Michigan and Julia A. Wolfson, University of Michigan

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is trying to restrict access to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.

SNAP is the primary way the government helps low-income Americans put food on the table. According to the government’s own calculations, an estimated 3.1 million people could lose SNAP benefits, commonly referred to as food stamps, through a new proposal that would change some application procedures and eligibility requirements.

SNAP benefits help millions of families put food on the table. JACEK SKROK/Shutterstock.com

We are nutrition and food policy researchers who have studied the effects of SNAP on the health and well-being of low-income Americans. Should this change go into effect, we believe millions of Americans, especially children, and local communities would suffer.

Americans access their SNAP benefits through cards issued by the states. United States Department of Agriculture

Helping families and the economy

SNAP helped 39.7 million Americans buy food in 2018.

Federal research has found that the program reduces hunger, particularly in children – who make up 44% of its beneficiaries.

Hunger and poor nutrition harm children’s health and hinder their development. Kids who don’t get enough to eat have more trouble at school and are more likely to experience mental health problems. One research team found that people who had access to SNAP as children earned higher incomes and were less likely to develop chronic diseases like diabetes once they grew up.

“My eating habits have improved where I can eat more healthy than before,” a Massachusetts woman who had recently been approved for SNAP told us. “It is like night and day – the difference between surviving and not surviving.”

SNAP benefits also ripple through the economy. They lead to money being spent at local stores, freeing up cash to pay rent and other bills. Every US$1 invested in SNAP generates $1.79 in economic activity, according to the USDA.

Trying again and again

The Trump administration has repeatedly attempted to slash SNAP and make it harder for people who qualify for benefits to get them.

Its 2018, 2019 and 2020 budget proposals all called for cutting spending on food stamps by about 25%.

The Trump administration also worked with Republicans in Congress to try to tighten eligibility requirements. Had this policy been implemented, all beneficiaries between the ages of 18 and 59 deemed “able-bodied” would have had to prove they were working at least 20 hours per week or were enrolled in school. According to government projections, some 1.2 million Americans would have eventually lost their benefits as a result.

Congress, which would have needed to approve the change for it to take effect, rejected it in December 2018. The White House then sought to change work requirements through a new rule that has not yet taken effect.

In July 2019, the Trump administration again sought to restrict access to food stamps without any input from Congress, this time by going through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families – a program that gives low-income families with children cash to cover childcare and other expenses.

Currently, most states automatically enroll families in SNAP once they obtain TANF benefits. The new rule would prevent states from doing this. Even though 85% of TANF families also get SNAP benefits, the vast majority of them still live in poverty.

The government is seeking comments from the public about this proposed change through September 23, 2019.

Replacing food stamps with ‘harvest boxes’

Other changes to SNAP could also take a toll.

The Trump administration’s proposed budgets have also called for changing how the government helps low-income families get food they have trouble affording. Its 2019 budget proposal called for replacing half of SNAP benefits with what it called “harvest boxes” of nonperishable items like cereals, beans and canned goods.

According to research we conducted with low-income Americans, 79% of SNAP participants opposed this proposal, with one of the primary reasons being not being able to choose their own foods.

“People who are struggling are already demoralized,” a New Mexico woman who uses SNAP benefits told us. “Being able to make our own food decisions is something that keeps us feeling like human beings.”

Congress rejected the concept but the White House included it again in its 2020 budget draft.

Advocates for food aid fear that recent proposals to change how SNAP works would reduce the share of Americans who get these benefits by making it harder to qualify and enroll in the program. Should this major transformation ever occur, children and families won’t have access to critical benefits that help them avoid going hungry.

Tracking the demand for food stamps

Although the Trump administration has until now largely failed in its effort to cut SNAP spending, the number of people getting food stamps is already declining. This trend began during the Obama administration, in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

Since the economy is doing well overall, the number of people on food assistance programs has fallen. The reason for the decline is that the number of people who are eligible for these benefits rises when the economy falters and falls when conditions improve. As a result, the government is spending less on food stamps without cutting the SNAP budget.

Case in point, 7 million people have already left SNAP due to better economic stability. In parallel, federal spending on SNAP budget has dropped from $78 billion in 2013 to $64 billion in 2019.

If the Trump administration wants to shrink SNAP, reduce costs and have fewer low-income Americans receive benefits, we believe that the best thing it can do is to keep working to improve the economy – particularly for low-income Americans, who have been reaping fewer benefits from the improving economy than others in recent years.


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

How the government can steal your stuff: 6 questions about civil asset forfeiture answered

by Nora V. Demleitner, Washington and Lee University

Editor's note: Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in Congress and the states are challenging the Trump administration’s embrace of civil asset forfeiture abuse, which strips billions of dollars a year from Americans – who often have not been charged with a crime. Law professor and criminal justice expert Nora V. Demleitner explains how this procedure works and why it irks conservatives and progressives alike.

The authorities don’t need a conviction or even for a suspect to be charged with a crime before seizing a car, cash or even a house.

1. What is civil asset forfeiture?

Civil asset forfeiture laws let authorities, such as federal marshals or local sheriffs, seize property – cash, a house, a car, a cellphone – that they suspect is involved in criminal activity. Seizures run the gamut from 12 cans of peas to multi-million-dollar yachts.

The federal government confiscated assets worth a total of about US$28 billion during the decade ending in 2016, Justice Department data indicate.

In contrast to criminal forfeiture, which requires that the property owner be convicted of a crime beforehand, the civil variety doesn’t require that the suspect be charged with breaking the law.

Three Justice Department agencies – the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) – do most of this confiscating. Most states also permit local prosecutors to take personal property from people who haven’t been charged with a crime. However, some states have begun to limit that practice.

Even when there are restrictions on when and how local and state authorities can seize property, they can circumvent those limits if the federal government “adopts” the impounded assets.

For a federal agency to do so requires the alleged misconduct to violate federal law. Local agencies get up to 80% of the shared proceeds back, with the federal agency keeping the rest. The divvying-up is known officially as “equitable sharing.” Crime victims may also get a cut from the proceeds of civil forfeiture.

John Oliver’s ‘Last Week Tonight’ segment on civil asset forfeiture in 2014 used humor to help viewers understand the practice.

2. Can people get their stuff back?

Technically, the government must demonstrate that the property has something to do with a crime. In reality, property owners in most states must prove that they legally acquired their confiscated belongings to get them returned. This means the burden is on the owners to dispute these seizures in court. Court challenges tend to arise only when something of great value, like a house, is at stake.

Unless an owner challenges a seizure and effectively proves his innocence in court, the agency that took the property is free to keep the proceeds once the assets are liquidated.

Many low-income people don’t use bank accounts or credit cards. They carry cash instead. If they lose their life savings at a traffic stop, they can’t afford to hire a lawyer to dispute the seizure, the Center for American Progress – a liberal think tank – has observed.

And disputing civil forfeitures is hard everywhere. Some states require a cash bond; others add a penalty payment should the owner lose. The process is expensive, time-consuming and lengthy, deterring even innocent owners.

There’s no comprehensive data regarding how many people get their stuff back. But over the 10 years ending in September 2016, about 8% of all property owners who had cash seized from them by the DEA had it returned, according to a report from the Justice Department’s inspector general.

3. Who opposes the practice?

Many conservatives and progressives dislike civil asset forfeiture. Politicians on the left and right have voiced concerns about the incentives this practice gives law enforcement to abuse its authority.

Critics across the political spectrum also question whether different aspects of civil asset forfeiture violate the Fifth Amendment, which says the government can’t deprive anyone of “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” or is unconstitutional for other reasons.

Until now, the Supreme Court and lower courts, however, have consistently upheld civil asset forfeitures when ruling on challenges launched under the Fifth Amendment. The same goes for challenges under the Eighth Amendment, which bars “excessive fines” and “cruel and unusual punishments,” and the 14th Amendment, which forbids depriving “any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

In 2019, the Supreme Court unanimously found for the first time that these constitutional protections against excessive fines apply not just to the federal authorities but to the states as well.

Some concerns resonate more strongly for different ideological camps. Conservatives object mostly about how this impounding undermines property rights.

Liberals are outraged that the poor and communities of color tend to be disproportionately targeted, often causing great hardship to people accused of minor wrongdoing.

Another common critique: The practice encourages overpolicing intended to pad police budgets or accommodate tax cuts. Revenue from civil asset forfeitures can amount to a substantial percentage of local police budgets, according to a Drug Policy Alliance study of this practice in California. This kind of policing can undermine police-community relations.

The Justice Department’s guidelines state that forfeitures “punish and deter criminal activity by depriving criminals of property used in or acquired through illegal activities.”

However, the Inspector General’s office noted “without evaluating data more systemically, it is impossible for the Department to determine … whether seizures benefit law enforcement efforts, such as advancing criminal investigations and deterring future criminal activity.”

Critics of civil asset forfeiture argue that it can make policing more about raising revenue than improving public safety.

4. What is the scale of this confiscation?

The federal revenue raised through this practice, which emerged in the 1970s, mushroomed from $94 million in 1986 to a high of $4.5 billion in 2014, according to the Justice Department.

The Justice Department says it returned more than $4 billion in forfeited funds to crime victims between 2000 and 2016, while handing state and local law enforcement entities at least $6 billion through “equitable sharing.”

The scale of seizures on the state and local level is less clear.

5. What happened during the Obama and Trump administrations?

Under the leadership of Attorney General Eric Holder, the Obama-era Justice Department determined that civil asset forfeiture was more about making money than public safety. It then changed the guidelines for asset adoption.

Beginning in 2015, joint state-federal task forces could continue to share forfeiture proceeds but state agencies were no longer permitted to ask the federal government to forfeit property they had taken on their own.

I love that program,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in 2017. “We had so much fun doing that, taking drug dealers’ money and passing it out to people trying to put drug dealers in jail. What’s wrong with that?”

Attorney General William Barr, Sessions’ successor in the Trump administration, has also defended this policy.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has expressed astonishment regarding the unpopularity of civil asset forfeiture.

6. Congress and the states

When Sessions changed the policy, legislative changes seemed possible. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley sent Sessions a memo about how the federal funds obtained from seizures were wasted and misused. In some cases, Grassley wrote, the government provided “misleading details about some of these expenditures.”

The House of Representatives voted in 2017 for an amendment that would restrict civil asset forfeiture adoption.

The House also approved a bipartisan measure restricting civil forfeiture on June 20, 2019. This one goes further though and would substantially curtail the federal government’s powers.

State governments have also tried to discourage this kind of confiscation. New Mexico, Nebraska and North Carolina have banned civil forfeiture. Michigan has made it easier to challenge these seizures. California limited equitable sharing, and other states have increased the burden of proof the government must meet. But in many states, investigative reporting has shown that innocent owners continue to lose their property.

In a Georgia Law Review article, I gave examples of other ways to keep police departments and municipalities funded, such as increasing fines and fees.

Unless the police pursue some alternatives, funding woes will continue to contribute to abusive policing practices that fall most heavily on those who can the least afford them: the poor and communities of color.


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation 

Home Equity Theft: How a Man’s Home Was Seized Over $8.41 in Unpaid Taxes

The unconstitutional practice of home equity theft has allowed individuals to be stripped of their property without fair compensation.

by Brittany Hunter

For three years, the pair scrimped and saved in order to fix up the four-unit property. On the weekends, Ramouldo would spend his days off making the 11-hour drive from New Jersey to Michigan to work on the house, making the much-needed repairs himself. In addition to the small complex, the family had purchased a small home next door. The plan was to renovate and rent out each unit and then use that money to help Ramouldo retire and move his family to the small home in Michigan, where the rest of their extended family resides.

Erica, who had seen her father work long hours and sacrifice to provide for her family over the years, was happy to help her father buy the property. She was eager to begin building her own financial legacy and saw the property as an excellent investment opportunity.

These plans were derailed, however, when their property was seized by Wayne County, Michigan, in 2017 and sold to a private buyer.

All because they unknowingly underpaid their tax bill—by $144.

While the father and daughter had been paying their property taxes diligently for each year they owned the property, in 2014, they unintentionally underpaid by $144. Neither knew about this miscalculation or the situation could have quickly been remedied. And without knowledge of this outstanding debt, the small amount grew as the county tacked on interest charges to the tune of $359.

To be sure, when interest was accounted for, the Perez family did owe roughly $500 in unpaid taxes to the county. County officials used this as justification to seize, sell, and then keep the $108,000 revenue earned from the sale of said property.

The government is allowed to seize property in order to settle a debt owed by an individual. However, it isn’t allowed to take more than it is owed. 

In the American legal system, there is a maxim: the punishment must fit the crime. But when considering the small amount by which the Perez family underpaid their property taxes, this seems like a disproportionate punishment to receive.

The government is allowed to seize property in order to settle a debt owed by an individual. However, it isn’t allowed to take more than it is owed. And in the instance of the Perez family property, Wayne County kept every penny it earned from the sale of their property—a practice known as home equity theft.

Fortunately, Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) has stepped in and on July 9th, announced that it had filed suit on behalf of the Perez family against Wayne County and County Treasurer Eric Sabree.

Many of us have accidentally underpaid a bill before. Whether we were distracted, busy, or simply not paying enough attention to the total amount due, accidents happen to everyone. Eager to get the full amount owed, most companies will send strongly worded letters or call incessantly until you cough up the remaining amount due. It’s completely understandable as to why an entity would do this: they want what is owed.

However, if they tried to take your car away over the miscalculation of a few dollars, most people would be angry—and justifiably so.

When it comes to property taxes, if an individual underpays by even just a few dollars, there are 12 different state governments that can and will seize your property and sell it, without having to pay you a dime of the earnings. This is known as home equity theft. Unfortunately, the Perez family is not the only victim of this practice in Michigan.

In 2014, Uri Refaeli lost his home after it was foreclosed on and seized by Oakland County, Michigan. In 2011, Rafaeli purchased a small $60,000 property for his business, Rafaeli, LLC. While he had paid his 2012 and 2013 property taxes in full, he discovered that he had accidentally underpaid in 2011. When he made this realization and tried to correct his mistake in 2013, he forgot to account for the interest that had accrued on his back taxes. As a result, he underpaid by a measly $8.41. The county seized and sold his property for $24,500. Rafaeli never saw a dime of this money.

When it comes to outstanding debt, just like private companies, governments are eager to get what is owed and there nothing wrong with them attempting to do so. However, when they begin to go after more than they are owed, the situation becomes troublesome.

To make matters worse for Michigan, the state also has a shady reputation for using this practice to its own benefit. According to Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), local governments pad their budgets with the money earned from this stolen property. Each year in Detroit’s budget, there is a line with the estimated total revenue that the government is expecting to bring in from foreclosures of this very nature.

Earlier this year, it was discovered that Wayne County Treasurer Eric Sabree had violated Treasurer’s office rules by funneling foreclosed properties to family members and well-established and connected businessman for a fraction of the cost.

While state Treasurer’s office rules prohibit family members from participating in these auctions, several Freedom of Information Act requests filed on behalf of a Detroit News investigation found that transfers involving Sabree's family overlap with his time in office. Since 2011, when Sabree began as deputy treasurer, Wayne County has transferred ownership of more than 1/4 of privately owned properties in Detroit as a result of back taxes—making the whole situation in Michigan even more suspicious.

Michigan is not the only state guilty of using the practice of home equity theft. In Montana, local governments have been known to sell private homes of those with back taxes to “preferred” private investors, a practice that helped get the practice of home equity theft banned statewide just a few months ago.

Eighty-year-old electrician Gary Guidotti once owned four homes in Great Falls, Montana, which he rented out to help support himself and pay his bills. When the Great Recession hit in 2007, some of his tenants were no longer able to afford rent and stopped paying altogether. And without their rent helping to support him, Guidotti stopped paying his property taxes.

In 2008, Cascade County, Montana issued a tax lien of $1,125.45 on one of his homes. Just 17 months after issuing the lien, the county ended up selling it to a well-connected private entity for pennies on the dollar at $667.20. The private company, Sunrise Financial, acquired the deed to the property in 2011 and in 2015, sold the property for $139,300. Guidotti, of course, received no compensation from the sale of his home.

“This can’t be fair,” Guidotti said. “It (the law) has to be changed, but what’s the sense in fighting? The lawyers will have it all anyway. It’s just the way it goes.”

Without his properties, Guidotti was forced to move into a motorhome parked behind one of the homes that he used to own.

Our country was founded on the fervent belief that individuals have the right to their life, liberty, and, as is especially applicable here, their property. Greatly influenced by philosopher John Locke and his Second Treatise on Government, our country’s Founders understood how important property rights were to securing individual liberty and protecting Americans against government overreach.

In chapter five of Locke’s famous essay, “On Property,” he writes:

Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men: for this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to (emphasis added), at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.

When a person works, like Ramouldo Perez did, and uses the fruits of his or her labor to purchase property, that property is theirs and theirs alone. This respect for the sanctity of property rights has been one of the most defining characteristics of the American idea.

Yet, practices like home equity theft and civil asset forfeiture, which allow law enforcement to strip individuals of their property without due process, have belittled this sacred principle and harmed many innocent people in the process. The confiscation of a person’s property, especially over a few dollars of unpaid taxes, is thoroughly unAmerican. Private property should be protected by the government, not seized and sold off before an individual has an opportunity to remedy the situation.

The unconstitutional practice of home equity theft has allowed individuals to be stripped of their property without fair compensation. But there is hope that this practice could soon be reined in or perhaps even stopped altogether.

In May, after diligent efforts made by PLF, Montana passed Senate Bill 253, giving property owners further protections against home equity theft.

The new law protects homeowners’ equity by requiring homes be sold to the highest bidder. Now the extra profits must be returned to the former owner after deducting taxes, interest, penalties, and costs,

Christina Martin of the Pacific Legal recently wrote.

In addition to Perez v. Wayne County, this fall, the Michigan Supreme Court will also begin hearing oral arguments for Rafaeli v. Oakland County.


Republished with permission under license from FEE.org

University of Mississippi Students Face Possible Civil Rights Investigation After Posing With Guns in Front of Emmett Till Memorial

Photos of Ole Miss Students Posing With Guns in Front of a Shot-Up Emmett Till Memorial Found. Now They Face a Possible Civil Rights Investigation.

OXFORD, Miss. — Three University of Mississippi students have been suspended from their fraternity house and face possible investigation by the Department of Justice after posing with guns in front of a bullet-riddled sign honoring slain civil rights icon Emmett Till.

One of the students posted a photo to his private Instagram account in March showing the trio in front of a roadside plaque commemorating the site where Till’s body was recovered from the Tallahatchie River. The 14-year-old black youth was tortured and murdered in August 1955. An all-white, all-male jury acquitted two white men accused of the slaying.

The photo, which was obtained by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica, shows an Ole Miss student named Ben LeClere holding a shotgun while standing in front of the bullet-pocked sign. His Kappa Alpha fraternity brother, John Lowe, squats below the sign. A third fraternity member stands on the other side with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. The photo appears to have been taken at night, the scene illuminated by lights from a vehicle.

One of the students posted a photo to his private Instagram account in March showing the trio in front of a roadside plaque commemorating the site where Till’s body was recovered from the Tallahatchie River.

LeClere posted the picture on Lowe’s birthday on March 1 with the message “one of Memphis’s finest and the worst influence I’ve ever met.”

Neither LeClere nor Lowe responded to repeated attempts to contact them.

It is not clear whether the fraternity students shot the sign or are simply posing before it. The sign is part of a memorial effort by the Emmett Till Memorial Commission, a Mississippi civil rights group, and has been repeatedly vandalized, most recently in August 2018. Till’s death helped propel the modern civil rights movement in America.

Five days after LeClere posted the photo, a person who saw it filed a bias report to the university’s Office of Student Conduct. The complaint pointed out there may have been a fourth person present, who took the picture.

“The photo is on Instagram with hundreds of ‘likes,’ and no one said a thing,” said the complaint, a copy of which was reviewed by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica. “I cannot tell Ole Miss what to do, I just thought it should be brought to your attention.”

The photo was removed from LeClere’s Instagram account after the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica began contacting fraternity members and friends. It had received 274 likes.

Kappa Alpha suspended the trio on Wednesday, after the news organizations provided a copy of the photo to fraternity officials at Ole Miss. The fraternity, which honors Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee as its “spiritual founder” on its website, has a history of racial controversy, including an incident in which students wore blackface at a Kappa Alpha sponsored Halloween party at the University of Virginia in 2002.

Patrick Weems, executive director of the Emmett Till Memorial Commission, takes down a bullet-riddled sign honoring the slain youth, whose death helped propel the civil rights movement in America. (Courtesy of Emmett Till Interpretive Center)

“The photo is inappropriate, insensitive and unacceptable. It does not represent our chapter,” Taylor Anderson, president of Ole Miss’ Kappa Alpha Order, wrote in an email. “We have and will continue to be in communication with our national organization and the University.”

After viewing the photo, U.S. Attorney Chad Lamar of the Northern District of Mississippi in Oxford said the information has been referred to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division for further investigation.

“We will be working with them closely,” he said Thursday.

University officials called the photo “offensive and hurtful.”

University spokesman Rod Guajardo acknowledged that an Ole Miss official had received a copy of the Instagram picture in March. The university referred the matter to the university police department, which in turn gave it to the FBI.

Guajardo said the FBI told police it would not further investigate the incident because the photo did not pose a specific threat.

Guajardo said that while the university considered the picture “offensive,” the image did not present a violation of the university’s code of conduct. He noted the incident depicted in the photo occurred off campus and was not part of a university-affiliated event.

“We stand ready to assist the fraternity with educational opportunities for those members and the chapter,” Guajardo said.

He said the university will continue to build programs to engage students in “deliberate, honest and candid conversations while making clear that we unequivocally reject attitudes that do not respect the dignity of each individual in our community.”

Since the first sign was erected in 2008, it has been the object of repeated animosity.

Vandals threw the first sign in the river. The second sign was blasted with 317 bullets or shotgun pellets before the Emmett Till Memorial Commission officials removed it. The third sign, featured in the Instagram photo, was damaged by 10 bullet holes before officials took it down last week. A fourth sign, designed to better withstand attacks, is expected to be installed soon.

News of the suspensions and referral to the Justice Department came as Till’s cousin, Deborah Watts, co-founder of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, was already planning a moment of silence Thursday to honor her cousin with a gathering of supporters and friends dressed in black and white in “a silent yet powerful protest against racism, hatred and violence.” Thursday is Till’s birthday. Had he lived, he would have been 78 years old.

This is not the first time Ole Miss fraternity students have been caught up in an incident involving an icon from the civil rights movement.

In 2014, three students from the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity house placed a noose around the neck of a statue on campus of James Meredith, the first known black student to attend Ole Miss. They also placed a Georgia flag of the past that contains the Confederate battle emblem.

According to federal prosecutors, the freshmen students hatched the plan during a drinking fest at the house, where one student disparaged African Americans, saying this act would create a sensation: “It’s James Meredith. People will go crazy.”

One pleaded guilty and received six months in prison for using a threat of force to intimidate African American students and employees because of their race or color. Another student also pleaded guilty. He received probation and community service after he cooperated with the FBI. A third man wasn’t charged.

All three students withdrew from Ole Miss, and the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity’s national headquarters shuttered its chapter on the Ole Miss campus after its own investigation, blaming the closing on behavior that included “hazing, underage drinking, alcohol abuse and failure to comply with the university and fraternity’s codes of conduct.”


Republished with permission under license from ProPublica.

 

 

The Supreme Court decision that kept suburban schools segregated

by Jon Hale, University of South Carolina

America recently marked the 65-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education – a landmark case intended to abolish the “separate-but-equal” doctrine of racial segregation in schools.

But the racial makeup of today’s schools actually owes itself to a series of other court decisions – including one issued 45 years ago on July 25, 1974. The Milliken v. Bradley decision sanctioned a form of segregation that has allowed suburbs to escape being included in court-ordered desegregation and busing plans with nearby cities.

A 1974 Supreme Court decision found that school segregation was allowable if it wasn’t being done on purpose.

The Milliken decision recognized “de facto” segregation – segregation that occurs as a result of circumstances, not law. This allowed schools in the North to maintain racially separate schools at the same time southern schools were being ordered by the courts to desegregate. By giving suburbs a pass from large mandated desegregation attempts, it built a figurative wall around white flight enclaves, essentially shielding them from the “crisis” of urban education.

Upholding segregation

Outside a few voluntary and limited programs such as METCO in Boston and Springfield, Massachusetts, or Chapter 220 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that enabled a small number of children from cities to attend schools in the suburbs or more affluent areas, northern school districts remained largely segregated.

The decision ruled that social segregation was permissible and therefore exempt from court-ordered, “forced” desegregation plans. That is, the court said, if segregation occurred because of certain “unknowable factors” such as economic changes and racial fears – not a law – then it’s legal.

Originating in Detroit, a major destination of the Great Migration, the mass movement of southern African Americans to northern cities, the decision dictated how desegregation would proceed outside the South, if at all.

Federal courts had issued rulings that helped eradicate legal segregation – primarily in the South – through the 1968 Green v. School Board of New Kent County and 1969 Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education decisions, even employing military force.

But the nation largely understood segregation to be an issue confined to the South. Milliken brought the freedom struggle’s call for integration to the North.

A new legal front

Twenty years after the Brown decision, the NAACP, Urban League and civil rights activists documented how segregation led to underfunded and inferior schooling across the North in cities like Chicago, New York and Detroit.

Black activists in Detroit like Rev. Albert Cleage, the NAACP and black parents in segregated housing and schools began to demand education reform as the freedom struggle intensified during the 1940s. They demanded things that ranged from community control to integration in all schools as opposed to token desegregation. By 1970, the NAACP demanded a desegregated school system as promised by Brown and filed a lawsuit against the governor, William Milliken.

As the Milliken case worked its way through the courts from 1970 to 1974, the nature of public education was changing. Millions of whites abandoned the cities for suburban enclaves. Like the rest of the North, Detroit experienced dramatic population shifts that decimated public schools. From the 1950s through 1970s, Detroit lost over 30% of its white population to the suburbs, where the population climbed to over 3 million. By the 1970s students of color comprised nearly 75% of a once majority-white system. More affluent whites and the few families of color who fled left behind a depleted tax base that starved public schools, as described in Jeffrey Mirel’s “The Rise and Fall of an Urban School System.”

Desegregation dreams deferred

To address the issue of persistent segregation, the Supreme Court consented in the 1971 Swann v. Mecklenburg decision to busing students outside their neighborhood schools in North Carolina as a solution to segregation.

Following the spirit of Swann, a United States district judge for the Eastern District of Michigan named Stephen J. Roth, issued one of the most extensive desegregation orders of the era in 1972. Roth’s plan called for the two-way integration of 780,000 students across not only Detroit, but school districts in a tri-county area.

The plan was never put into action because of the 1974 Supreme Court Milliken decision.

Districts could still voluntarily bus – but busing was so unpopular and politically untenable in 1974 that few attempted it in any serious manner. A narrow 5-4 majority of justices determined that “racial imbalance” in Detroit – and by inference in other U.S. cities – was caused by “de facto” segregation.

Justice Potter Stewart wrote in his concurring opinion that segregation in Detroit was “caused by unknown and perhaps unknowable factors such as in-migration, birth rates, economic changes, or cumulative acts of private racial fears.” In other words, the justices in the majority – most of them appointed by President Richard Nixon – found that the suburbs should not be subject to busing.

In a scathing dissent, Justice Thurgood Marshall, the lead counsel for the NAACP when the Brown case was brought to the court and who was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1967, wrote: “After 20 years of small, often difficult steps (toward equal justice under law) the Court today takes a giant step backwards.” He said the Court revived “the same separate and inherently unequal education … afforded in the past.”

Milliken put forth the convenient narrative that segregation in the North was natural and therefore permissible. It also freed northern school districts from being forced to participate in large-scale solutions to segregation and unequal education outside their boundaries.

I believe continuing to ignore Milliken covers up the ongoing segregation of America’s schools today and the nation’s collective, ongoing failure to improve public education in the spirit of Brown.


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

The Pentagon’s New Laser-Based Tool Uses Your Heartbeat to Track You

by Shelly Fan

The government’s hefty arsenal of surveillance tools just welcomed a powerful new member. Rather than monitoring an external device—a bug or a smartphone—or even the exterior features of your face, the new tech aims straight for your heart. Literally.

First reported by MIT Technology Review, the US Pentagon is developing an infrared laser that captures a person’s unique “cardiac signature” from as far as 200 meters—the length of just over two football fields—away, as long as you’re still. According to Steward Remaly of the Pentagon’s Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office (CTTSO), even longer ranges may be possible with higher intensity lasers.

Although chilling, the tech builds on previous ideas.

Contact infrared sensors have long been used to monitor a person’s pulse, in a clinical setting or when traversing high altitudes. Here, the devices shoot infrared light into a finger and measure how much blood flow alters the refraction. Unlike this classic setup, the Pentagon’s new tech—dubbed Jetson—uses laser doppler vibrometry that detects minute movements on the skin caused by heartbeat.

Currently under development by Ideal Innovations, Inc., a veteran-owned biometrics, forensics, and scientific company based in Arlington, Virginia, the goal of Jetson is to positively identify an individual within five seconds using a “heartprint.”

“Existing long-range biometric methods that rely on facial recognition suffer from acquiring enough pixels at a distance to use the face matching algorithms and require high performance optics to acquire visual signatures at significant distances,” explained the CTTSO. “The Jetson effort…is a ruggedized biometric system that will capture cardiac signatures to aid in the positive identification of an individual” from a distance with little lag time.

Jetson is just the latest attempt at surveillance from a distance. Rather than old-school technologies such as fingerprinting or retinal scans, this new generation of surveillance technologies uses biometrics to monitor your every move—be it face, speech, heartbeat, or even brain activity—from a distance.

The tech may sound extreme, but Jetson is using the same playbook as biometrics for security. And to project where surveillance is going, it pays to look at biometrics research as the canary in the coal mine. Using your finger or face to unlock your phone is just the convenient side of things—what makes your biometric signature secure as a passcode is also what makes you identifiable as an individual.

Face Off

Facial recognition technology is no doubt the current crown prince of surveillance technologies. China readily adopted the tech as part of their Social Credit System, which monitors a civilian’s every move in public to generate a numerical score for compliance. Even here in the US facial recognition is welcomed by law enforcement. Amazon’s Rekognition system, for example, is reportedly “supercharging” police efforts in Oregon and other police departments, despite pressure from civil liberties groups, lawmakers, and even its own shareholders.

Surveillance loves facial recognition because the tech is relatively mature and can be done from a distance. And no doubt, there is value for the technology in long-range counterterrorism. For example, the technology can be used to remotely confirm the identity of a suspect—say, an ISIS leader—and in turn allow a state to authorize an attack.

The problem? Facial recognition software is far from perfect. A study by the ACLU using Rekognition found that the system incorrectly matched 28 members of Congress to mug shots, with the majority being African-American. Technological hiccups aside, a face is relatively easy to disguise. The perfect surveillance system needs to be efficient, effective, and low-error. In other words, it needs something more concrete, immutable, and physiological to target.

That’s where cardiac signatures come in.

Beat of the Heart

To Dr. Wenyao Xu at the State University of New York, the heart is a much better surveillance target than facial recognition. “Compared with face, cardiac biometrics are more stable and can reach more than 98 percent accuracy,” he said.

Back in 2017, his team developed a non-contact, remote biometrics device that uses dimensions of the heart as a person’s identifier for security. His system distills the geometry of a person’s heart—measured by refracting sound waves with Doppler radars—to identify the particular shape and size that characterizes an individual. But because it relies on sound waves, the system could only function up to 30 meters away—a fraction of the Pentagon’s ideal distance.

Other cardiac signatures have also been used for security. The Toronto company Nymi, for example, developed a wearable wristband that uses an employee’s electrocardiogram (ECG), which is also uniquely tailored to each individual, as an access passcode for an enterprise’s secure database.

Jetson extends this approach by co-opting an off-the-shelf device that normally measures vibrations from structures at a distance. The device further utilizes a gimbal to hold its laser beam steady, allowing it to keep its measurements on target. According to MIT Technology Review, the current system takes roughly 30 seconds to generate a good return signal, and it’s only effective if the target is staying put—either standing or sitting.

Despite these caveats, Remaly said that Jetson works with an admirable 95 percent accuracy if the conditions are optimal. In practice, though, this means Jetson isn’t accurate enough to be reliable on its own. If adopted into surveillance tech, it would likely work alongside other measures, such as facial recognition or gait analysis, as secondary confirmation.

In addition, unlike faces and fingerprints, cardiac signatures aren’t exactly standard collection data. For the technology to truly impact surveillance, the government needs to build a new database from scratch. However, the team argues, when deployed over a period of time—sufficient to capture the heartprint of an individual seen doing something they shouldn’t, for example—it may still be used to positively identify a person, even if his or her actual identity remains mysterious. What’s more, clothing isn’t a deterrent since the tech blasts right through.

Military use aside, the Pentagon foresees the technology trickling down into the cultural mainstream. A doctor could remotely monitor his patient’s cardiac rhythms, for example, without having to rely on electrical wires. Nevertheless, like technologies using echolocation to track an elderly person’s gait for falls, it’s an open question if the benefits warrant the invasion of privacy.

Biometrics Revolution

Monitoring the heart may be just the first step in a new age of long-distance biometrics surveillance.

Speech is another identifier under attack. According to the CTTSO, the already-completed project Beetlejuice uses a beam-forming microphone array to monitor an individual’s speech, in addition to performing speaker tagging, tracking, and locating. The tech relies on deep neural networks to reduce noise and allow near real-time situational awareness of incoming signals, filtering speaker, messages, languages, and location, the report stated.

“The capabilities will be integrated into a lightweight platform in support of operators on the move and handle a variety of noisy audio media…This unique combination will improve performance in both noise reduction, source location, and human language technologies,” the team explained.

Going even further, Xu and others are working on “brainprints” for security measures. Unlike facial or cardiac fingerprints, the brain offers an “inexhaustible” source of secure passwords based on its response to various stimuli, explained Xu.

Using EEG, which picks up neural electrical activity from electrodes placed on the scalp, the team can extract automatic and unconscious activation patterns as a “brain password” unique to a particular individual. Of course, so far there isn’t a way to remotely monitor someone’s brain activity or construct a database of initial readings. And unlike a face or retina, a brainprint changes when an individual is faced with another stimulus.

Nevertheless, a snapshot of brain activity perhaps most uniquely represents you, as an individual, and technological challenges haven’t exactly been a deterrent to agencies that stand most to gain (hydrogen bombs, anyone?).

If history’s any indication, security measures based on biometrics are ripe for hacking and tracking. Now, thanks to Jetson, smearing paint on your face or wearing thick jackets will no longer circumvent surveillance monitoring. San Francisco and Somerville, Massachusetts both recently blanket-banned facial recognition software in protection of civil rights, with New York likely to follow in narrower domains. It’s worth keeping an eye on what comes next.


Republished with permission under license from SingularityHub.

Why the federal government isn’t prosecuting the officer who choked Eric Garner

Editorial note by Randall Hill: 

Systems, including the legal system, are created to protect the wealth, power, and self-interest of those who create them.

White slave owners created our legal and other systems still in use today. Eric Garner, Mike Brown and more were casualties of rigged systems.

Can you name a single system that does not fail black people in general? Education, banking, political, and just about every other system you can think of has extraordinary obstacles or traps targeted against us. We are de facto slaves because of our misguided trust in or lack of understanding about the systems that govern us. 

Unless we are prepared to make monumental sacrifices nothing will change. Tomorrow we will learn about another unarmed black person killed by police, get upset and frustrated, possibly march or protest but nothing will change. We will also hear about another black person being gunned down not by the police but by another black person. The police chief and mayor will talk about plans to reduce crime, community leaders will offer prayers and vigils, "We must stop killed each other" signs may go up, but nothing will change because the systems that caused the problems in the first place will not change. 

When we become successful, our success does not look like white success. For the most part, they own and we go to work for them. Two years ago, one in seven white families were millionaires and according to Credit Suisse, there are over 17 million millionaires in the U.S.

White people, for the most part, don't have entire systems designed to work against them, therefore as a group, they have better access to education, employment, housing, capital, and every other meaningful institution and system. Until we figure out a way to disrupt their systems the status quo will remain. What are you prepared to do? If the answer is nothing, nothing will change.

"Give me liberty or give me death"

Most Americans are familiar with the famous freedom quote articulated so eloquently by Patrick Henry, a man who owned 67 slaves at the time of his death. Many have never heard the full speech, a video reenactment is below.

As a slave owner, Patrick Henry knew he did not want to become a slave himself. He understood probably better than most that freedom isn't given, it must be taken. 


Article by Caren Morrison, Associate Professor of Law, Georgia State University

The Justice Department won’t file federal charges against the New York City police officer who put Eric Garner into the chokehold that led to his death. With the statute of limitations having run out, the case, legally, is closed.

Gwen Carr, Eric Garner’s mother, says the federal government should have filed charges. 

The decision, announced almost exactly five years after Garner was pronounced dead following a confrontation with police officers in Staten Island on July 17, 2014, has sparked renewed objections from his relatives, activists and politicians.

Every officer involved has remained on the force, and no criminal charges have been filed. Daniel Pantaleo, the officer caught on video with his arm around Garner’s neck, was assigned to desk duty, but has stayed on the department’s payroll and even received an increase in his overtime pay.

Garner’s death was brutal, but as a former federal prosecutor and a criminal procedure professor who studies how prosecutors handle police violence cases, the lack of federal charges doesn’t surprise me.

According to criminal justice professor Philip Stinson, local prosecutors are often reluctant to prosecute the officers they work with to investigate cases. Reporting by the Marshall Project suggests they may not want to anger the police unions they often count on for political support. And existing law gives the police the benefit of the doubt in most situations. Based on my research, it seems that this is just how the justice system works.

New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo allegedly used a banned chokehold in the July 2014 death of Eric Garner.

Obstacles to prosecution

The case’s basic details are not contested. Pantaleo, who is white, was among a group of officers who approached Eric Garner, who was black, during a routine arrest for selling untaxed, loose cigarettes.

The encounter, which a bystander shot using his phone and the city’s medical examiner ruled a homicide, soon turned contentious. It culminated with Pantaleo taking Garner down to the pavement with his arm wrapped around his neck. Pantaleo is seen shortly afterward on the video pressing down on Garner’s head as other officers crowded around him.

A few months after Garner’s death, the Staten Island district attorney announced that he had presented the case to the grand jury, but did not obtain an indictment.

A public outcry ensued. Garner’s dying words, “I can’t breathe,” became a rallying cry at #BlackLivesMatter protests.

But the fact is that it is extremely difficult to bring charges against on-duty cops for excessive force.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that in police use-of-force cases, allowance must be made “for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments – in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving – about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.”

Ever since, few juries have found police officers guilty of using excessive force. Since 2005, only 35 officers have been found guilty of charges related to killing civilians.

A sign and plaque near where Eric Garner had a deadly encounter with the police in the Staten Island borough of New York City.

Federal civil rights

Because of the Constitution’s protection against double jeopardy, which prevents anyone from being charged twice for the same crime, people aren’t usually prosecuted more than once for a single incident. But because U.S. law considers the states and the federal government to be legally independent jurisdictions, the Justice Department can indict an officer who has previously been charged under state law, even if he was acquitted.

When excessive force prosecutions against police officers don’t result in a conviction at the state level, the local U.S. attorney’s office may indict the officers for violating a person’s civil rights. This happened most notably in 1991 in the case of Rodney King, the black motorist who was beaten by Los Angeles police officers, and recently after the South Carolina mistrial of police officer Michael Slager, for shooting Walter Scott, another unarmed black man, in the back.

But the type of proof needed to bring a federal civil rights case is much more demanding than for a state criminal case. While there are numerous state charges that might be brought against an officer who causes the death of a civilian, from murder to manslaughter to reckless endangerment to assault, there is only one route for a civil rights case.

In those cases, prosecutors must prove that officers used excessive force against a person, generally defined as force that was clearly unreasonable in the circumstances. In addition, they have to prove that the officer’s actions were “willful.”

And willfulness is “the highest standard of intent imposed by law,” as the U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn, Richard P. Donoghue, said in his public statement about Pantaleo. “An officer’s mistake, fear, misperception or even poor judgment does not constitute willful conduct under federal criminal civil rights law.”

A narrow path

Many news outlets reported that the decision to close the Garner case happened once U.S. Attorney General William Barr ordered the case dropped, overruling the Civil Rights Division in his own department.

Activists have questioned Barr’s civil rights record, noting that while serving as President George H.W. Bush’s attorney general, Barr released a report titled “The Case for More Incarceration.” Barr’s predecessor, Jeff Sessions, quashed the Justice Department’s attempts to reform policing.

Still, I’m not sure the outcome would have been different with someone else in the White House.

In fact, disagreements on whether the case could be successfully prosecuted in federal court also snarled proceedings during the Obama administration. And there was only ever a narrow path to prosecution.

When Donoghue gave a detailed explanation for his decision, he took an unusual step. Most of the time, when officers don’t get charged, the reasons are shrouded in secrecy. Instead, Donoghue gave a painstaking explanation of the ambiguities in the video, the conflicting medical expert reports, and the reasons he believed the high standard of intent could not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

I once served in the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, which Donoghue now runs. I hate the fact that many people will never feel that justice was done in Eric Garner’s tragic and avoidable death.

Yet I’m not sure that I could have reached a different conclusion myself.The Conversation


How Eric Garner's Death Changed New York And The NYPD

The sad reality is, that unless your oppression negatively impacts your oppressor, they have no incentive to change.  Even New York Police Commissioner, James P. O'Neill, whose comments begin at 2:26 in the timeline, acknowledges how the protest over no indictments being issued in Eric Garner's death, culminated in the death of two police officers, which was the moment the police department realized they needed to make a change.


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation. The editorial note preceding the article and the video and comments at the end were not part of the original.

Released from prison by Obama, now on the dean’s list

Obama Sends Letter to Prisoner He Freed Who Turned Her Life Around

President Obama let Danielle Metz out of prison. Then she enrolled in college and made the dean's list. Obama heard about Metz's success and sent a letter telling her how proud he is of her for turning her life around and graduating college.

“I am so proud of you, and am confident that your example will have a positive impact for others who are looking for a second chance, Tell your children I say hello, and know that I’m rooting for all of you.”

Barack Obama's letter to Danielle Metz. (Photo: Danielle Metz)

Danielle Metz's full story about her journey from jail to college is below.

From prison to dean’s list: How Danielle Metz got an education after incarceration

by CASEY PARKS

NEW ORLEANS – The sun glowed gold, and a second line parade was tuning its horns just a few streets away. But Danielle Metz had missed half her life already, and she couldn’t spare the afternoon, even one as unseasonably warm as this mid-February Sunday.

She climbed the stairs to the shotgun house her mom had bought in uptown New Orleans more than half a century ago. Metz slipped through the screen door, then shut it tight enough to keep out the sun. Inside, she dug through a box next to her bed and pulled out the clothbound journal that a woman had given her in 1996, when they were both incarcerated in the Federal Correctional Institute in Dublin, California. Metz hadn’t kept much from the 23 years she spent in prison, but the journal had been too special to leave behind. She opened it and read the dedication as a reminder of what she hoped to accomplish now that she was out.

“To Danielle — There’s so many things we can’t get in here, but knowledge and education can’t be kept out by walls.”

Growing up, Metz had believed that college was for white kids and for “Huxtables” — black people she named after the upper-middle-class family in “The Cosby Show.” She knew, as she looked at the laptop screen, how improbable people might think earning a degree would be for her now. She’d dropped out of high school her junior year. At 26, a judge had sentenced Metz to three life sentences plus another 20 years for her role in her husband’s cocaine distribution. She’d thought she’d never see New Orleans again, let alone visit a university.

Even after President Barack Obama granted her clemency in 2016, Metz believed she couldn’t go to college. Nationwide, less than 4 percent of formerly incarcerated people have a bachelor’s degree, according to a report released last year. The chances seemed especially low in Metz’s home state. Louisiana had long held twin records, the world’s highest incarceration rate, and the country’s lowest rate of black college graduates. Put together, this meant tens of thousands of residents lacked a viable pathway to middle-class security.

But lawmakers had come to believe that a change was imperative for the state’s future. In 2017, Louisiana became the first state in the nation to “ban the box” on public college and university applications, prohibiting school officials from asking whether an applicant has a criminal record. Metz knew that people across the country were working to help people like her go to college after prison. Though Illinois and New York failed to pass “ban the box” measures for university applications, several other states are trying to follow Louisiana’s lead. And federal lawmakers from both parties are pushing to allow incarcerated people to access Pell Grants, financial aid that they’ve been barred from using since Metz first went to prison.

Metz was grateful for the legal shifts, but political momentum alone would not carry her through school. As the parade began its march through Uptown, she scrolled through the university’s website and hovered over the tab marked “current students.” She had no idea how long it would take or how much it might cost, but Metz didn’t care. She was going to college.

Metz grew up the youngest of nine children in a city barreling toward chaos. As a kid, she considered herself lucky. Both of her parents worked — her father as a cement finisher, her mother in a bakery — and together they earned enough to buy a home three miles away from the St. Thomas Projects, a public housing development where many other black families lived. St. Thomas was so poor and violent when Metz was young that Sister Helen Prejean described the neighborhood in the opening of her book “Dead Man Walking” as “not death row exactly, but close."

Even as a little girl, Metz knew people who’d gone to jail, but her neighborhood was quiet, and her parents were dreamers. For years, her father urged her to become a nurse. Metz knew the job required a college degree, but she didn’t know anyone who’d earned one. In 1980, the year Metz enrolled at Walter L. Cohen High School, more than half the city’s black adults didn’t have even a high school diploma, let alone a university credential.

Instead, Metz longed to become a hairstylist. She’d practiced since she was a little girl on her mom, whose locks grew in so straight that people speculated she must have white ancestors. But even that goal felt unreachable after Metz became pregnant in 1985, her junior year of high school. She dropped out and assumed she wouldn’t have a career. She’d be a mother instead.

Six months after Metz gave birth to her son, Carl, his father was murdered.

Metz became a single mother just as the state’s economy was collapsing. Louisiana had long been dependent on oil — profits from the natural resource accounted for nearly half of the state’s budget then. But the price per barrel began falling in 1981, and by the mid-1980s, one in eight Louisiana workers was unemployed, the highest rate in the nation. New Orleans lost nearly 10,000 jobs, leaving few openings for a teenage mother with no credentials or documentable skills.

Metz didn’t take time to grieve. Most black people in New Orleans knew someone who’d been killed, she said. Instead, she started looking for someone to help raise her child.

Glenn Metz had money. He’d grown up poor in the Calliope housing projects, one of the most violent neighborhoods in New Orleans, but he owned two tow-truck companies by the time Metz met him. At age 30, he possessed the kind of quiet maturity that Metz, then 18, thought would make him a good substitute father for Carl. Glenn Metz wore such nice clothes and jewelry the night Metz met him that she suspected he at least dabbled in drug-dealing, but she told herself his business had nothing to do with her.

Growing up, Metz believed that college was for white kids and for “Huxtables” — black families she named after the upper-middle-class family in “The Cosby Show.” Cheryl Gerber/The Hechinger Report

According to federal prosecutors, Glenn Metz formed a drug ring just before he met the girl who would become his wife. Between 1985 and 1992, Glenn Metz and his crew came to dominate St. Thomas and Calliope, prosecutors said, distributing more than 1,000 kilos of cocaine and killing 23 rivals. Glenn Metz sat atop an organization manned by more than half a dozen enforcers, two of whom, prosecutors said, drove through town in an armor-plated pickup with the word “homicide” spelled out on the hood in gold letters.

Metz spent most of those years at home. “The Cosby Show” debuted the year she should have graduated high school, and she watched it and its college-based spin-off “A Different World” every week, dreaming of the life she wished she had. She took a few beauty school classes and occasionally cut hair in someone’s home, but Glenn Metz didn’t like when she left the house, she said. They married in 1989, and Metz soon gave birth to their daughter, Gleneisha. Metz didn’t have a social security number or any way to make money on her own. When Glenn Metz told her to ride with her aunt to deliver a few packages to Houston, Metz said, she did it.

Crack cocaine was spreading through black neighborhoods across the country then, and lawmakers blamed the drug for an increase in inner-city violence. New Orleans was especially hard hit. In 1990, the city topped 300 murders for the first time. Nearly every edition of The Times-Picayune that year carried news of cocaine busts. Police arrested scores of black men, including Metz’s older brother, Perry Bernard, for possession. As the city’s murder rate rose to the nation’s highest, investigators worked to take down Glenn Metz. His was the biggest and most violent drug ring in the city, prosecutors said. They indicted him and eight others, including Metz, in the summer of 1992.

Metz, who’d been temporarily living in Las Vegas with her husband before the indictment, fled to Jackson, Mississippi. She rented an apartment near Jackson State University and planned to enroll after the investigation concluded. When police arrested her there in January 1993, Metz figured she’d just get probation. Most people she knew went to jail “seasonally.” Her older brother had drifted in and out before a 1989 arrest netted him 13 years in a state prison.

After crack cocaine became popular, Congress adopted the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, establishing for the first time mandatory minimum sentences triggered by specific quantities of cocaine. The penalties were worse for defendants charged with possession or distribution of crack cocaine, favored by African-Americans, than for those accused of possessing or distributing the powder cocaine primarily used by white people.

But Metz, 25 then, had never had so much as a traffic ticket. She believed her involvement in her husband’s narcotics sales was minimal enough that prosecutors would let her go with a warning. Police did not find any drugs with her, and she was never implicated in any violence.

Instead, federal authorities charged Metz and her co-defendants under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Lawmakers created RICO in the 1970s under President Richard Nixon as a tool to combat the Mafia, but prosecutors increasingly used it in the 1980s to fight drug rings. The charges under RICO carried automatic sentences of life in prison without parole.

The U.S. attorneys who prosecuted her case presented witnesses who were major narcotics suppliers or small-time drug dealers. They testified that Metz had driven packages to Houston for her husband and, on occasion, accepted cash payments and wired money to suppliers. The jury decided she was guilty.

Four months later, in mid-December, U.S. District Judge A.J. McNamara sentenced Metz to three life sentences plus another 20 years in federal prison.