Saturday, April 23, 2016
Body Worn Cameras in NC
I expect a majority of the attention on the North Carolina General Assembly during its upcoming short session will focus on the "will-they-or-won't-they repeal it" drama surrounding House Bill 2, i.e., the bill that folks in the media insist on referring to by the maddeningly reductive moniker, "the bathroom bill." (It's maddeningly reductive because while the bill does enshrine anti-transgender discrimination in law, it also does far more sweeping harm by, for instance, eradicating any state law employment discrimination claims.) But those of us lucky enough to live in North Carolina know that the General Assembly must have more well-considered lawmaking in store for us.
With that in mind, I point you in the direction of a legislative proposal recently made by the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Justice and Public Safety Body-Work Camera Subcommittee. It's an interesting proposal on a question I find really challenging: to what extent should body-worn camera (BWC) footage be made available to the public? The main thrust of the bill is that it leaves disclosure up to the "head law enforcement officer" of the law enforcement agency with custody over the footage. Then, if this officer decides against disclosure, then the person seeking disclosure can file suit in NC state court to seek disclosure.
This is a limited victory for transparency with respect to BWC footage, but only because the way existing laws in NC have been interpreted make disclosure unlikely. As it currently stands, most BWC footage would likely be exempt from disclosure either because it is a confidential "personnel record" under NC law or because it falls within the law enforcement record exemption to the NC public records law. So, the proposal at least creates some avenue for disclosure.
But from the standpoint of videos of controversial police-civilian interactions, it's hard to know how the proposed approach would shake out. One thing seems certain, though: given the "squishy" standards that both the head law enforcement officer and courts are supposed to use to determine whether footage will be released, the release decision will likely depend on political expediency and not on any underlying commitment to transparency. As such, the proposal is unlikely to lead to much in the way of fulfillment of the promise of BWC that they will increase the accountability of both police and civilians.
Friday, April 22, 2016
Criminal Law Class Materials Request - Update
Back in January, I imposed on the Prawfs community for some suggestions about materials for a few stand-alone class sessions I was hoping to integrate into my standard first-year Criminal Law course:
A Criminal Law class-materials requestConsulting the blawg-oracle: I'm doing something new (for me!) in my first-year Criminal Law course, and I would welcome very much some help. I made some cuts in my usual coverage, and freed up three classes (75 mins each) for what I'm describing as "special" or "current debates" topics. I was thinking of (1) the "mass incarceration" phenomenon; relatedly (2) the "overcriminalization" debate; and (3) policing. As we all know, each of these topics could take up an entire course (and more) and I'm proposing to put together simply a 30-pages or so handout for each, for the purpose of just one in-class discussion (although, of course, these topics come up, in other contexts, throughout the semester).Take it away! Revise my syllabus!
Monday, April 11, 2016
Over the last few years, I've taken to writing about emerging tech and criminal law. As a childhood fan of science fiction, it's fun to get to think about technologies that are similar to those I read about as a kid. In particular, I have a blast thinking about how the law will or should handle what I predict will be very-near-future technologies. So, for instance, I've written about algorithms taught through machine learning techniques to identify individuals who are likely to be presently or very recently engaged in criminal activity (e.g., an algorithm that says that that guy on that street corner is probably dealing drugs, or that this on-line sex ad (and whoever posted it) is probably related to human trafficking).
At the time I wrote the piece, there were no algorithms that exactly fit what I describe. There were computer systems that identified individuals in real-time as they engaged in activities that human operators had already decided correlated to criminal activity, and there was research ongoing using machine learning to identify activities that correlate to criminal activity, but no one had put the two together. As I saw it (and perhaps it is the sci-fi fan in me), it was just a matter of time before the two came together to create the kinds of algorithms I discuss.
A source of frustration for me when I presented on the topic, then, was that inevitably one of the first questions I'd get would be whether the technologies I discussed really exist. I'd explain what I just said in the prior paragraph, but nonetheless I'd feel defeated in some sense, like my legitimacy had been undermined. And I can see many reasons for the questions: curiosity, to understand the technology better through an example, and skepticism about the validity of discussing something that doesn't exist, to name a few.
But the questions still bothered me. And they got me thinking: To what extent should we talk about the legal implications of things that we believe are about to happen, but which haven't happened yet and therefore may never happen? What is our obligation as scholars to prove that our predictions are correct before engaging in legal analysis? Is this obligation higher in some areas of law, like criminal procedure, that traditionally have not been consistently forced to adapt to technological developments, and lower in areas of law, like intellectual property, that have?
Tuesday, April 05, 2016
A Brief Hello
Hi. Thanks to Howard for the opportunity to guest bl(o/aw)g here this month. For those who don't me, I teach criminal law, evidence, and criminal procedure at the Elon University School of Law in Greensboro, North Carolina, and I write about technologies of crime prevention and criminal informants. I hope to cover a broad range of topics while I'm here: a bit on my research interests, as well as some thoughts on teaching, law school curricula, and some of the challenges I've encountered in my still-relatively-brief career in legal academia. See you soon.
Sunday, February 28, 2016
Claim: There is nothing wrong with politically motivated prosecutions (of genuinely guilty political candidates).
Here's an ethical hypo that isn't really a hypo at all. Suppose a U.S. Attorney from the opposite party has strong reason to believe that a leading---and very dangerous and scary---presidential candidate was guilty of a serious federal felony---if, for example, that candidate were currently embroiled in multiple lawsuits, including one by a major state Attorney General, alleging that the candidate in question had led a fraudulent scheme to bilk thousands of people of their hard-earned money with a fake "university"---allegations that, if true, would also clearly meet the elements of various criminal fraud statutes.
Should that U.S. attorney investigate, and, if s/he finds probable cause, prosecute? Even in an election year?
I'm inclined to think yes: even though it would lead to cries of "politically motivated prosecution," there's nothing particularly wrong with politically motivated prosecutions: if one wishes to run for the highest office in the land, one probably shouldn't go commit a bunch of felonies; if one does commit the felonies then run, one is fair game.* Plus, there's something grim about the idea that one can get de facto immunity from one's felonies by running for president. Especially when the candidate is, as noted, not just an ordinary political opponent, or even an extremist political opponent, but a terrifying, openly racist, demagogue.
edit: at least when the felonies are classic malum in se crimes like conning people out of their money. I might feel differently if we were talking about, e.g., victimless drug crimes.
Friday, February 05, 2016
Power or Participation? Consensus in Political Deliberation
How should we structure our democratic institutions? Do we worry about political power, and so seek to maximize the ways in which political authorities are accountable to the public? Here we might emphasize reciprocity as a core feature of political institutions. Or to maximize the public’s participation in the political process. On the one hand, accountability checks the unbridled power of the political elite. On the other hand, public opinion is likely to be ill-formed or easily manipulated, more the result of passion than reason or knowledge, as Madison worried in Federalist 10? If we are worried about an ill-informed public, then we might promote a form of participation that allows political representatives to discount public opinion, even while maximizing public participation in selecting those representatives or even canvassing opinion.
The debate about political process has become especially important in the policing context. The Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing enthusiastically endorsed procedural justice as the best way for the police to build trust and legitimacy within their communities. Procedural justice has been endorsed on the other side of the Atlantic as a means of promoting consensus based policing. Drawing on research from organizations whose members share a common purpose, procedural justice argues that we ought to adopt procedures that encourage participation, and treat the participants respectfully, beneficently, and neutrally.We might think that fair procedures are ones that guarantee participation, but not influence. What matters is that authorities have a duty to allow participation, and convince participants that they are treated neutrally, respectfully, and as members of the same group, not that authorities must in practice so treat participants. We might think that while a fair procedure does not guarantee participation, it need not preclude it: a participative procedure would be one in which authorities and subordinates see each other as part of the same organization, with the same interests, and so would come to the same conclusions were everyone consulted. What matters most, however, is that the organization generate the right result, and that subordinates comply with that result. Because participative procedures maximize the likelihood of compliance, what matters is participation rather than influence or accountability (what we might call reciprocity). A version of this thesis can be found in Madison’s Federalist 10; and something like it has been described as unitary democracy by Jane Mansbridge. And it seems to be at the heart of procedural justice.
Consensus democracy is compatible with idea that authorities may be, for various reasons, justified in encouraging subordinate participation in the process of decision-making—giving subordinates a voice—while at the same time misrepresenting the amount of influence the subordinates wield in the process. If the goal is to ensure compliance or cooperation, and everyone would agree on the outcome if they were sufficiently well-informed and rational, then it does not undermine the subordinate’s interests in the right result that they are mistaken about the extent of their influence, particularly if they are more likely to reach that result without sanction (and, from the perspective of the authority, without expensive inducement).
But what of dissensus democracy, where there is no right result, or where there is a split authority (such as the tripartite structure of American government) or where the interests of the public conflict in certain ways with the interests of the government? Should we value compliance or cooperation with the authority and so accept as fair those procedures that more effectively produce these effects; or should we instead opt for a process that permits, not just participation, but also reciprocal accountability. That sort of procedure would not only require participation, but also power-sharing, among the members of the organization, or of the community, or of the country.
The debate is an old one, but it has practical urgency in the context of policing. The four-part procedure I described above—participant voice; authority neutrality, respectfulness, and beneficence—are the features of procedural justice which promise to reign in police use-of-force at the same time as more effectively ensuring compliance and cooperation than other methods, baed on inputs like law-abidingness, and outputs like crime reduction or even avoiding criminal sanctions. A core issue is whether compliance and cooperation with the police is a goal that we all share. For example, we have the right to terminate police encounters by walking away and refusing to answer questions; and even if arrested we have the right not to comply by declining to speak during an interrogation. Should we also have the right to challenge the police to justify taking us into custody or searching us by articulating their grounds for doing so? Should the police be dynamically responsive to our facts or reasons or can they ignore our input while still providing for our participation as a way of mollifying us and getting us to comply? Famously, police interrogations follow a two-part process in which the interrogator first determines whether the suspect is guilty or not (the unitary purpose) and then uses various psychological techniques to induce compliance, both at the waiver and at the confession stage of the proceedings. The technique is so powerful, studies show, that some suspects will not only confess, but actually convince themselves that their interrogator was right and they were mistaken about what actually happened.
How structure fair procedures to maximize participant power and participation presents difficult questions. Whatever the answer, procedural justice provides a fascinating account of the way in which the structural features of our interactions with authorities can have important psychological and behavioral consequences, consequences that are of deep democratic significance.
Wednesday, February 03, 2016
Bibas on "The Decline of Mercy"
Over at First Things, Prof. Stephanos Bibas - whose "The Machinery of Criminal Justice" I really enjoyed -- has a review of this book, "The Decline of Mercy in Public Life," by Alex Tuckness and John Parrish. Bibas concludes with this:
Justice requires discretion as well as rules, and it can coexist with mercy.
When our laws deny this truth, they grow mechanistic and inhumane. Strenuously squelching arbitrariness simply drives discretion underground (say, from judges and juries to prosecutors) or forces everyone into the same Procrustean bed. Exalting rights and censoring empathy can be heartless toward criminal defendants and debtors. Government social programs risk crowding out charitable expressions of love that remind ourselves that the poor are our brethren and we are all our brothers’ keepers. And all of these rule-based, bureaucratic approaches miss opportunities to inculcate the virtue of mercy in our hearts as well as in our children’s. Government cannot mirror Christian teaching, particularly in a pluralistic country. But it can leave more room for Christian insights to leaven rules with mercy, compassion, and love.
I shared the review with my CrimLaw students and thought it might be of interest to CrimPrawfs, too! And, I am reminded that our dear friend and colleague, Dan Markel, published an article early in his career -- in 2004 -- called "Against Mercy."
Thursday, January 21, 2016
A Criminal Law class-materials request
Friday, December 04, 2015
The Johnson Retroactivity Circuit Split Plot Thickens...
A few weeks ago, I wrote a rather lengthy post about the circuit split over whether the Supreme Court's June 2015 decision in Johnson v. United States both (1) is "substantive" (and therefore retroactively enforceable by federal prisoners filing their initial claims for collateral post-conviction relief); and (2) has been "made retroactive" by the Supreme Court (and can therefore provide the basis for a second-or-successive application for collateral post-conviction relief). As I explained then, unlike the typical circuit split, a combination of the jurisdictional limitations imposed by AEDPA and the government's litigating position (that the answer to both questions is "yes") has seemed, at least to date, to deprive the Supreme Court of a "normal" way to resolve this circuit split, suggesting instead that the matter be resolved through the Court's seldom-utilized authority to issue extraordinary writs, including an "original" writ of habeas corpus. As importantly, the clock is running; it's widely believed that AEDPA's one-year statute of limitations will require all Johnson-based claims to be filed by June 26, 2016, no matter when the Supreme Court clarifies its retroactive application.
Well, the plots, such as they are, are thickening...
The Supreme Court now has before it at least three petitions for original habeas writs (In re Butler, In re Sharp, and In re Triplett), along with at least one petition for a writ of mandamus (also in Triplett). My own view is that original habeas makes more sense in this context than mandamus, especially since the Justices may agree, even in holding that Johnson is retroactive, that they hadn't previously "made" Johnson retroactive, and so the lower-court decisions refusing to certify second-or-successive petitions aren't erroneous (and, thus, subject to correction via mandamus). For more on this, see the habeas scholars' amicus brief in support of the petition for original habeas in Butler (that I co-authored). But whether it's habeas or mandamus, the bottom line would be the same: using the Court's power to issue extraordinary writs to sidestep AEDPA.
To that end, the Court has ordered the Solicitor General to respond (a very unusual step in an extraordinary writ case) to the habeas petitions in Butler and Sharp, and to the mandamus petition in Triplett. Those responses are all due sometime in December, and it will be fascinating to see what position the SG takes, since the government generally supports Johnson retroactivity, generally dislikes extraordinary relief, and has yet to take a position on whether all Johnson claims must be filed by June 26, 2016 (such that the Supreme Court would have to take and decide the issue sooner, rather than later).
One clue may be found in a brief the Solicitor General filed on Wednesday in opposition to certiorari in another case--Hammons v. United States. Here's the key passage:
If the Court decides to exercise its jurisdiction under the All Writs Act, 28 U.S.C. 1651(a), to resolve the conflict in the courts of appeals on the question whether Johnson has been made retroactive to cases on collateral review, there is a petition for a writ of mandamus currently pending before the Court that expressly asks the Court to address that question through its authority under the All Writs Act and therefore, unlike this petition for a writ of certiorari, specifically addresses the strict standards applicable to an exercise of that jurisdiction. See In re Triplett, No. 15-625 (filed Nov. 10, 2015). The government's response to the petition for a writ of mandamus in Triplett is currently due on December 14, 2015.
There are also three pending petitions for a writ of habeas corpus that ask the Court to address the question of Johnson's retroactivity through the Court's authority to issue writs of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. 2241. See In re Butler, No.. 15-578 (filed Nov. 3, 2015); In re Triplett, No. 15-626 (filed Nov. 10, 2015); In re Sharp, No. 15-646 (filed Nov. 16, 2015). . . . The Court has ordered a response from the United States in Butler, which is currently due on December 18, 2015. It has also ordered a response in Sharp, which is currently due on December 30, 2015. The Court may therefore wish to hold this petition until it acts on the petition for a writ of mandamus filed in Triplett or any of the petitions for a writ of habeas corpus.
Perhaps this passage is meant to suggest that the government will not oppose extraordinary relief--whether through mandamus in Triplett or habeas in Butler, Sharp, and/or Triplett--as a way for the Justices to settle the Johnson retroactivity question. If so, then the Supreme Court may well be on the verge of doing something it hasn't done in decades (and of settling a messy, messy circuit split in the process).
Thursday, December 03, 2015
"Joint" Post on Pot Federalism, by Jessica Berch and Chad DeVeaux
We’re glad that we lived to post another day and that our budding thesis has not yet gone up in smoke. This week Chad and I are writing together to lay out the potential responses a prohibitionist state may deploy to deal with spillover from a pot-friendly neighbor. Until recently, prohibitionist states had two obvious and unsatisfying options — sue their neighbors (as Nebraska and Oklahoma have done), or step up the already draconian penalties for pot possession. The Tenth Circuit recently accepted the scholarly consensus that a state may regulate out-of-state conduct if that conduct affects a substantial number of in-state residents — at least so long as “the burden imposed” on interstate commerce is not “clearly excessive in relation to the putative local benefits.” If this holding stands, it opens a wealth of other options (in my view) or a Pandora’s Box (in Chad’s).
On one end of the spectrum, scholars argue that States can (and should) enact laws punishing their citizens (both civilly and criminally) for getting high while visiting a pot-friendly state. At the other end of the spectrum, other scholars believe that state lines demark absolute regulatory barriers.
Mark Rosen has argued that when a state legalizes formerly taboo conduct (e.g., gambling) such experimentation presents what he calls a “travel-evasion” problem. Such state experiments, he posits, threaten the sovereignty of more-restrictive states. By “giv[ing] citizens the power to choose which state’s laws are to govern them on an issue-by-issue basis,” heterogeneous state laws “cripple the ability of [less-permissive] states to accomplish constitutional objectives.” 150 U. PA. L. REV. at 856. Professor Rosen’s theory implies that prohibitionist states can bar their citizens from — and criminally punish them for — purchasing marijuana or getting high in pot-friendly states.
Others argue that states should take a more measured response. I argue that because a state is “not compelled to lower itself to the more degrading standards of a neighbor,” Illinois v. City of Milwaukee, 406 U.S. at 107, a state has limited authority to regulate extraterritorial conduct. I’m concerned that application of Professor Rosen’s theory would further exacerbate the already epidemic rate of mass-incarceration. I also believe that (as Chad himself has argued in his Boston College piece) because pro-pot states create negative externalities analogous to pollution that spill over into neighboring jurisdictions, it is reasonable for those negatively affected neighbors to impose civil liability on the polluters. Indeed, this reasoning underlies the Tenth Circuit’s conclusion in Epel that Colorado may regulate coal-burning plants in neighboring states.
In the middle of the spectrum is Lea Brilmayer. Confronting divergent State laws on assisted suicide and abortion, Professor Brilmayer proposed her “Interstate Preemption” theory. She contends that “[s]tates . . . possess the power to regulate their citizens’ conduct in other states in the usual case,” but posits that the host state’s law will “preempt” the home state’s law in those comparably rare occasions when the host’s law manifests a conscious decision to make the conduct in question an “affirmative right,” rather than an expression of “mere indifference” to the conduct. 91 MICH. L. REV. at 877-78. The myriad different marijuana regimes — from enforced prohibition (Idaho), to de facto decriminalization (New York), to apparent enshrinement as a constitutional right (Colorado) — will affect a neighboring state’s ability to enforce its own marijuana laws differently.
Further along the spectrum falls Seth Kreimer. What some critics deride as a “travel evasion” problem, Professor Kreimer argues is a feature of federalism, not a bug: “When citizens can choose among and compare the virtues of the permission of assisted suicide in Oregon, covenant of marriage in Louisiana, . . . and same-sex unions in Vermont, we are likely to have a society that is morally richer, practically freer, and personally more fulfilling . . . .” 150 U. PA. L. REV. at 974. He argues that states do not have the authority to forbid their citizens’ extraterritorial acts when those acts are permitted by the host state. In Professor Kreimer’s view, a state’s efforts to deny its citizens the right to partake in activities permitted by the host state run afoul of the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Commerce Clause, and the Privileges and Immunities Clause. 67 N.Y.U. L. REV. at 451. Extending Professor Kreimer’s views to marijuana would seem to leave prohibitionist states with few options to combat spillover.
Finally, at the opposite end of the spectrum (from Professor Rosen) is Chad. He advocates an expansive view of the dormant Commerce Clause’s (possibly defunct) ban on direct regulation of extraterritorial commerce. He previously argued that the DCC should be read to prohibit the certification of multi-state class actions under a single state’s law. 79 GEO. WASH. L. REV. at 995-1000. Even after the Tenth Circuit’s opinion, he stubbornly adheres to this view.
Chad posits that the DCC protects “the autonomy of the individual States within their respective spheres” by dictating that “no state has the authority to tell other polities what laws they must enact or how affairs must be conducted.” 79 GEO. WASH. L. REV. at 1005-06. If the DCC's extraterritoriality bar has gone gently into that good night, Chad argues that the marijuana-legalization fight will lead to chaos. Prohibitionist states may seek to directly regulate transactions in neighboring states, pressuring pro-pot states to enact legislation protecting their nascent marijuana markets from foreign interference. He asserts that the extraterritoriality doctrine’s demise will open “the door . . . to the rivalries and reprisals” that the Commerce Clause was designed to avert. In short, under his expansive reading of the DCC, prohibitionist states are limited to the two meager options first explored — litigation or increased criminal penalties.
This has been but a 10,000 foot overview of the present dilemma. Next time, Chad and I will more thoroughly explore our own respective theses — and to be “blunt,” I will explain why his view is wrong! (Chad requires me to say that he will show how it is my view that is, in fact, wrong.)
Second Circuit Sides with the "Cannibal Cop"
Today, the Second Circuit (2-1) issued its long-awaited opinion in United States v. Valle--the so-called "Cannibal Cop" case. The court upholds the lower court's judgment of acquittal on Valle's kidnapping conspiracy charge and, joining the Fourth and Ninth Circuits, reverses his conviction under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
A brief recap of the case: Gilberto Valle was convicted of a conspiracy to kidnap, kill, and eat several women based largely upon a set of 40 conversations he had via the website DarkFetishNet. He was convicted under the CFAA for accessing a police database to look up one of the women he had discussed with his alleged co-conspirators (obviously not for NYPD-related purposes). A year after his conviction, Judge Gardephe granted a Rule 29 motion solely on the kidnapping charge on the basis that the government had not sufficiently shown that Valle's online conversations were anything more than fantasy--Valle had thousands of conversations with at least 24 different people on DarkFetishNet, and the government failed to provide any reasonable basis for plucking out 40 "real" conversations from the thousands it conceded were "fantasy." All the conversations involved the same gruesome kidnapping and cannibalism scenarios, and if the prosecution's theory was true, he was planning on kidnapping three different women in three locations (in two different continents) on the same day. Moreover, the alleged conspiracies were contingent upon a number of elements--e.g., a human-sized oven, a secluded cabin in the woods--that didn't exist, and Valle repeatedly lied about and avoided giving any actually identifying information about the victims.
The Second Circuit largely adopts Judge Gardephe's reasoning and as well as the concerns (without citing) that Thea Johnson and I raise in a recent essay: "We are loathe to give the government the power to punish us for our thoughts and not our actions. Stanley v. Georgia, 394 U.S. 557, 565 (1969). That includes the power to criminalize an individual’s expression of sexual fantasies, no matter how perverse or disturbing. Fantasizing about committing a crime, even a crime of violence against a real person whom you know, is not a crime."I see at least three important aspects of this case:
First, as pointed out by Judge Straub's dissent, both Judge Gardepehe and the majority rather boldly set aside the jury's conclusion that Valle's conversations were not merely fantasy. Indeed, a number of other courts addressing Internet sex-related crimes have acknowledged that the defendant presented a potentially viable fantasy defense but nonetheless deferred to the jury’s assessment about the credibility of that defense. See, e.g., United States v. Dwinells, 508 F.3d 63 (1st Cir. 2007); United States v. Howard, 766 F.3d 414 (5th Cir. 2014). The court does really seem to be reweighing the evidence, but this reweighing is demonstrably infused with an awareness of the need to separate out fantasy from real crime. This is an issue that courts will increasingly be called upon to tease out in the Internet era, as people's intimate lives have become both more transparent and more easily admissible in court. Jurors sitting in a single trial are less likely to be sensitive to this need and are more likely to be swayed, as the court recognizes, by a sense of disgust or revulsion. As tempting as it may be to defer to jurors' common sense in these matters, the court recognizes the difficulty of soberly teasing apart fantasy from criminal intent. Relatedly, in an HBO documentary about this case (Thought Crimes), I was struck by an interview with one of the jurors, who said the jury was convinced Valle "wanted to do it." This, of course, is not the relevant inquiry.
Second, and relatedly, the court recognizes the limited probative value of Internet searches, namely that is inappropriate to conflate an interest or curiosity in a particular subject matter with an actual intent to move forward with that fantasy. "Valle’s Internet searches show that he was interested in committing acts of sexualized violence against women. Interest may be relevant evidence of intent, but it does not by itself prove intent." (p 21). Judge Straub counters that the jury could reasonably deduce that his inquiries showed criminal intent (p 57), but this again assumes that a reasonable person has a good grasp on how people use the Internet to explore sexual interests. There’s a growing body of research showing that people search a wide range of “wicked” thoughts online, and as legal scholars like Neil Richards have argued, search history is often an externalized recording of our inner thought processes. It therefore shouldn’t be conflated with probative evidence of our intended actions. As the majority in Valle acknowledges, “the link between fantasy and intent is too tenuous for fantasy alone to be probative.” (p. 4)
The "Cannibal Cop" case may seem like an anomalous case with a strange outcome driven by very strange facts. However, as I am examining in a new paper, it raises important questions that have and will continue to plague courts: what line should the law draw between the virtual and the real? what inferences can we draw from Internet and social media activity? how can judge, juries, and prosecutors adapt free speech and due process to unfamiliar and uncomfortable subject matter made newly transparent?
Wednesday, December 02, 2015
Posner, Porn, and Prison
Decision here. The Seventh Circuit, via Judge Posner, upholds warden's interception and confiscation of a number of pornographic magazines, but in extended dicta questions the wisdom of the prison's pornography ban. Judge Posner points to a number of studies showing little (or even inverse) correlation between violence and pornography in prison. Now, I have no idea what the prison's past experiences with inmate pornography have been, but I do think the nudge towards empirics and social science is an improvement over the "common sense" fears that tend to drive regulation of sexual content. For a good overview of this tendency, I highly recommend Allegra McLeod's California Law Review article from last year.
Tuesday, December 01, 2015
World AIDS Day: Non-disclosure, Criminal Law, and Contracts
Many thanks to Prawfsblawg for hosting me this month! I look forward to discussing my scholarship and sharing some of my favorite cat videos in the coming weeks. I thought I'd start, however, on a more sober note:
Today is World AIDS Day, and I wanted to share two recent items about how the law handles--and mishandles--issues of HIV disclosure. The first is this excellent, yet disturbing, write-up of the trial of Michael Johnson, a black, gay, HIV-positive college wrestler given a 30 year sentence for not disclosing his HIV status to his sexual partners. Although Johnson maintains that he in fact disclosed his status, the article does a good job connecting his conviction to issues of racism, homophobia, and a widely held (and mistaken) belief that no one would have consensual sex with someone HIV-positive. Johnson's case highlights an increasingly wide schism between highly punitive non-disclosure laws and today's reality of HIV treatment and prevention. Current treatments allow HIV-positive people to have a life expectancy roughly comparable to the average US population and can reduce viral loads to undetectable, nontransmittable levels. The best way to prevent the spread of HIV is through testing and treatment, yet criminalizing non-disclosure can deter people from getting tested and taking on the legal obligations that might come with their results.
The other item concerns, perhaps unsurprisingly, Charlie Sheen. Much has been written about Sheen's potential legal issues in the wake of his HIV disclosure (see, e.g., here, here, and here), but I wanted to focus on one interesting detail. Sheen reportedly required his sexual partners to sign a non-disclosure agreement, with liquidated damages of $100,000, covering any personal or business information obtained during time spent with him. The NDA was exclusively leaked to the esteemed repository of legal research, InTouch Weekly. My initial reaction to the NDA was in line with with most others: forcing young women to sign a contract before sex seems sleazy and censorial, designed to insulate potentially humiliating, abusive, or exploitative behavior. After thinking some more about Sheen's circumstances, however, things may be a bit more complex and perhaps sympathetic. As highlighted in the previous paragraph, Sheen's HIV status put him in a rather difficult bind. If he complied with his legal obligation to disclose his status, he faced the high likelihood that his status would either be sold to the press or used as blackmail (which reportedly it was). And even though Sheen had an undetectable viral load--and thus posed minimal risk of infection to his partners--he was at the very least arguably under a moral obligation to disclose that risk. An NDA in these circumstances might thus be a way for Sheen to disclose his status while navigating the unique circumstance of being an HIV-positive celebrity. This is certainly not meant to beatify Sheen, but it highlights an effort to use contract law to organize intimate affairs in the face of continued fear, stigma, and misinformation about sex and HIV.
(By the way, aside from the bigger policy issues, Sheen's NDA is chock full of geekery: sexual consideration (see my student note!); arbitration clauses; copyright assignments (more here); and contracting for irreparable harm)
In the spirit of World AIDS Day, I hope this post will encourage a few more people to learn about the current state of HIV and AIDS, both in the US and abroad. Here are a few useful links I've come across in the past few weeks:
Monday, November 16, 2015
How an Obscure SCOTUS Procedure Can Solve AEDPA's Retroactivity Catch-22 (and a Growing Circuit Split)
Thanks to Montgomery v. Louisiana, the retroactivity of new Supreme Court decisions is already an important part of the Court's current Term. But as I explain in the post that follows, a new application pending before the Justices, In re Butler, raises a far more important retroactivity question, one that is already the subject of a 5-3 (and growing) circuit split, one that has an ever-shortening clock, and, most significantly, one that may only be definitively answerable if the Court does something it hasn't done in 90 years--issue an "original" writ of habeas corpus.
To unpack this dense but significant topic, Part I flags the origins of the problem--the restrictions on second-or-successive applications for post-conviction relief in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), and the Supreme Court's fractured 2001 interpretation of those provisions in Tyler v. Cain. Part II turns to the current circuit split, which involves whether the Court's June decision in Johnson v. United States, which invalidated a provision of the Armed Career Criminals Act (ACCA), can be retroactively enforced in second-or-successive petitions. Part III explains why that circuit split can't be resolved by the Supreme Court via certiorari--and why, instead, the best way for the Court to take up the Johnson question is through an "original" writ of habeas corpus in a case like Butler. Finally, Part IV argues that the Court should use Butler not just to answer the Johnson question, but also to resolve the debate over Tyler, lest this exact same scenario repeat itself after the next Johnson-like ruling.
I. AEDPA and Tyler v. Cain
Of all of AEDPA's restrictions on post-conviction relief, perhaps none are more sweeping than the limits on "second-or-successive" petitions filed in federal courts by state or federal prisoners. As relevant here, AEDPA requires petitioners in such cases to first get permission to file such a claim from the Court of Appeals, which may only "certify" the claim if, as relevant here, it relies upon "a new rule of constitutional law, made retroactive to cases on collateral review by the Supreme Court, that was previously unavailable."
In other words, unless the claim is based upon newly discovered evidence, second-or-successive petitions can only go forward when they rest upon new Supreme Court decisions that, under Teague v. Lane, may be enforced retroactively. (Under Teague, new "substantive" rules may be retroactively enforced, whereas new "procedural" rules may not, unless they are "watershed" rules of criminal procedure). That part is clear (or, at least, well understood). What's less clear is the meaning of the word "made" in the emphasized language above: Must the Supreme Court expressly state that the particular new rule in question is retroactive, or is it enough that the retroactivity of the rule obviously follows from--and is effectively settled by--other existing Supreme Court retroactivity precedents?
In Tyler v. Cain, the Justices considered this very question, and ruled, 5-4, that "a new rule is not 'made retroactive to cases on collateral review' unless the Supreme Court holds it to be retroactive." But Justice O'Connor, whose vote was necessary to the result, opened the door to a slightly broader interpretation in her concurrence. As she wrote,
a single case that expressly holds a rule to be retroactive is not a sine qua non for the satisfaction of this statutory provision. This Court instead may “ma[k]e” a new rule retroactive through multiple holdings that logically dictate the retroactivity of the new rule. . . . [I]f we hold in Case One that a particular type of rule applies retroactively to cases on collateral review and hold in Case Two that a given rule is of that particular type, then it necessarily follows that the given rule applies retroactively to cases on collateral review. In such circumstances, we can be said to have “made” the given rule retroactive to cases on collateral review.
In the 14 years since Tyler, the lower courts have generally followed Justice O'Connor's concurrence, rather than Justice Thomas's majority opinion. The debate, instead, has focused on whether particular rulings qualify as a "Case Two." The latest battleground on this question involves the Court's June decision in Johnson.
II. Johnson and the Circuit Split
In Johnson, as noted above, an 8-1 Court struck down the so-called "residual clause" of the ACCA on the ground that it is impermissibly vague. As a result, not only are sentences based upon the residual clause no longer valid, but individuals who have already served what would otherwise be the statutory maximum (10 years) are presumably entitled to release, since there is no longer any positive authority for their continuing incarceration. Although there's therefore little question that Johnson falls on the "substantive" side of the Teague line, there's also nothing in Justice Scalia's opinion for the Court that says as much--and that therefore clarifies, per Justice O'Connor's Tyler concurrence, that Johnson's new rule is "of that particular type." In other words, Johnson may or may not be a "Case Two," depending upon whether the Court has to expressly say that it's a substantive rule, or whether it's enough that, based upon prior decisions, it's clear that its rule is substantive.
That's the issue on which lower courts have divided. As of this writing, five circuits (the First, Second, Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth) have authorized second-or-successive claims based upon Johnson, with the First, and Seventh providing detailed opinions explaining that, in their view, it's sufficiently clear from existing Supreme Court precedent that Johnson's rule is substantive, and is therefore an example of Justice O'Connor's "Case Two." Three circuits (the Fifth, Tenth, and Eleventh--over a dissent) have held to the contrary--reading Justice O'Connor's concurrence to require some explicit recognition by the Court that a new rule is "of that particular type," i.e., substantive for purposes of retroactive enforcement.
This circuit split is deeply problematic in two respects: First, it creates massive inequities as between federal prisoners convicted under ACCA's residual clause in the five circuits that have allowed second-or-successive Johnson claims and the three that haven't--with those in the latter category now in prison pursuant to convictions that, at the very least, should trigger resentencing, if not (for those who have served 10 years) outright release. Second, because AEPDA imposes a rigid one-year statute of limitations on second-or-successive claims, those serving potentially unlawful sentences have a closing window within which to obtain relief based upon Johnson. Under AEDPA, such claims must be filed by June 26, 2016--the one-year anniversary of Johnson itself. Thus, the circuit split needs to be resolved by the end of this Supreme Court Term--if not sooner.
Usually, of course, there's an easy way to resolve a circuit split like this one; the Court just grants certiorari to review one (or more) of the circuit-level decisions. Here, however, that's not possible: AEDPA itself takes away the Court's certiorari jurisdiction in cases in which the Court of Appeals denies certification (which insulates the Fifth, Tenth, and Eleventh Circuit decisions from review), and the party that lost in the other five circuits that granted certificates--the federal government--hasn't sought certiorari, ostensibly because it agrees that Johnson can be enforced retroactively in second-or-successive cases.
Thus, AEDPA, Tyler, Johnson, and the government's litigating position have produced something of a perfect storm--where there's a major circuit split, and no immediately obvious way for the Supreme Court to resolve it. Enter In re Butler, a petition for an "original" writ of habeas corpus from the Supreme Court.
III. The Supreme Court's "Original" Habeas Jurisdiction
There are few topics in Federal Courts in which there's a bigger disconnect between academic interest and real-world significance than the Supreme Court's so-called "original" habeas jurisdiction -- "'original' in the sense of being filed in the first instance in [the Supreme] Court, but nonetheless for constitutional purposes an exercise of [the] Court's appellate (rather than original) jurisdiction." Ever since Ex parte McCardle, the Court has alluded to "original" habeas writs as a crucial constitutional backstop -- "an unorthodox but sometimes necessary means of exercising review in situations where other avenues for relief are either practically or formally unavailable." Thus, the theoretical availability of original habeas has allowed the Court to sidestep the grave constitutional questions that would otherwise have arisen from various efforts to strip the Court's appellate jurisdiction in habeas cases, including in McCardle itself, and, more recently, Felker v. Turpin.
In Felker itself, the Court was also dealing with AEDPA's limits on its certiorari jurisdiction over second-or-successive petitions, and had no trouble recognizing its power to issue "original" writs of habeas corpus, which AEDPA left untouched, as an available remedy in appropriate cases--and one that obviated constitutional objections to AEDPA under the Exceptions Clause of Article III. As Justice Souter warned in his concurrence, though, "if it should later turn out that statutory avenues other than certiorari for reviewing a gatekeeping determination were closed, the question whether the statute exceeded Congress's Exceptions Clause power would be open." And, in an eerily prescient coda, he added, "The question could arise if the courts of appeals adopted divergent interpretations of the gatekeeper standard," i.e., exactly what has happened after Johnson.
Justice Souter's warning has proven prophetic; although the Court has received a number of serious, significant original habeas applications in the 19 years since Felker, it has yet to grant a single one, even in a 1999 retroactivity case in which the federal government agreed that original habeas was warranted on remarkably similar facts [the issue in that case was eventually resolved--against retroactivity--in Tyler]. Some of these petitions have come in high-profile capital cases, such as those of Troy Davis and Warren Lee Hill, where original habeas was the only way to prevent potentially unconstitutional executions. But whereas those cases may present more emotionally stirring narratives, the Johnson retroactivity issue is, in some ways, a cleaner vehicle for an original writ, since (1) the question before the Court isn't a "merits" question, but a simple retroactivivty question; and (2) the relevant statutes specifically contemplate that the Supreme Court, and not the lower courts (or state courts), will provide the definitive answer to that question. At the very least, if the Court wasn't going to grant in cases like Davis and Hill, and if it's not going to use original habeas to resolve disputes like the Johnson retroactivity issue, then original habeas really is a historical relic--and the constitutional questions Justice Souter worried about might finally have to be confronted.
IV. Using Original Habeas to Solve the Problem
If you're still reading, hopefully I've convinced you by now that the Court should grant an original writ of habeas corpus to resolve the Johnson retroactivity issue (or, at the very least, should set the matter for full briefing and argument). There's at least one other pending original application raising the same question, but what makes Butler so attractive is the sentencing issue--because he has already served 10 years, he's entitled to outright release if Johnson is enforceable through a second-or-successive petition, meaning that the Court could simply grant habeas relief and be done. But should the Court do more than just grant the writ? Briefly, let me sketch out two further steps the Court can take--and then explain why, in my view, one is clearly better than the other:
A. Hold that Johnson is Retroactive
Beyond simply granting the writ in Butler's case (which would leave other cases unsettled), the easiest way out, which would take about a paragraph, would be to expressly hold that Johnson is a "substantive" rule under Teague, and to therefore "ma[k]e" it retroactively enforceable in second-or-successive petitions under AEDPA. Such a ruling would then allow prisoners in the Fifth, Tenth, and Eleventh Circuits to obtain relief--including resentencing and, in cases like Butler, outright release. That wouldn't resolve the circuit split; it would simply moot it, since there would no longer be any question over whether the Supreme Court had "made" Johnson retroactive.
B. Resolve the Circuit Split Over the Meaning of Tyler
The shortcoming of that approach is that, while it would moot the circuit split over Johnson, it wouldn't resolve the cause of the circuit split--i.e., lingering disagreement over the meaning of Justice O'Connor's Tyler concurrence. Thus, to avoid this exact scenario from arising again, the Court could use an original writ in a case like Butler to clarify who has the better of Tyler--the circuits that interpret it liberally to allow retroactive enforcement whenever it is sufficiently clear that a new rule is substantive, or the circuits that interpret it narrowly to require the Supreme Court to specifically say that a new rule is substantive. I have my own views on how the Justices should answer that question (both on the merits and to spare them from having to take pointless follow-on cases after each new rule is announced). But however this question is resolved, it should be clear that settling it in the context of Johnson will have a salutary effect for future litigation.
* * *
In a paper I wrote in 2011, I argued that there's actually a value in preserving the obscurity of the Supreme Court's original habeas jurisdiction--and that, if original writs became common, they'd lose their utility as a safety valve, since Congress would presumably also think to take away that authority as part of future jurisdiction-stripping initiatives. But there's a difference between elusive remedies and illusory ones. For two decades, we have labored under the fiction that AEDPA's gatekeeper provisions don't raise serious constitutional problems entirely because of this safety valve. If, as a result of disuse, it turns out that the safety valve is sealed shut, then we can no longer dodge those constitutional questions. Thus, although we may be in the midst of a perfect storm for retroactivity, a case like Butler may actually be the perfect vehicle for the Justices to remind themselves about their original habeas authority--and, in the process, to issue an opinion that dramatically reduces the need for such relief in future retroactivity cases.
Wednesday, November 11, 2015
The Fungibility of Intentional and Unintentional Punishment
In my prior post, I argued that punishment theorists often speak of punishment in a narrow sense that only applies to intentional inflictions while people more generally tend to think of punishment in a broader sense that includes not only intentional inflictions but others that are foreseen (and maybe even just foreseeable). Much is at stake here because if retributivists only attempts to justify intentional inflictions, they will fail to justify anything like our actual punishment practices which include lots of harm that are foreseen but are arguably not intended as punishment (e.g., the harms to offenders and their families from being deprived of each other; the reduction of First Amendment rights when imprisoned, the emotional distress of confinement, etc.).
Alec Walen, in his helpful and interesting entry on retributivism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, tries to fill the gap. He offers what I think of as a non-punishment shadow theory to justify aspects of our punishment practices not directly addressed by the retributivist justification of punishment. To my claim that retributivists fail to justify punishment to the extent that they fail to justify the varied emotional suffering prisoners experience, Walen writes:
[E]ven unintended differences in suffering are morally significant. But they can justifiably be caused if (a) the punishment that leads to them is itself deserved, (b) the importance of giving wrongdoers what they deserve is sufficiently high, and (c) the problems with eliminating the unintended differences in experienced suffering are too great to be overcome.
Kudos to Walen for acknowledging that (non-accidental) unintended inflictions of harm require justification. That's a point I've been emphasizing for a while. Some retributivists (see p. 24 here) would like to say that they simply need not justify side effects of punishment because these side effects are not punishment. But all of our actual punishment practices involve both intentional and unintentional harms. Carving off intentional inflictions of punishment from the broad notion of punishment leaves retributivist discussion cut-off from real-world punishment practices.
I'm afraid, though, that Walen says too little to defend his three-part test. He simply asserts it (perhaps confident in its double-effect style reasoning). His (a) and (b) essentially say that if the value of retributive punishment is high enough, then it justifies punishment side effects. But this is exactly the claim I've been calling on retributivists to justify and explain in more detail. Here it's just an assertion and not clear that the condition is ever satisfied. Moreover, it provides no affirmative reason to inflict side effect harms. On Walen's view, retributivism offers no justification for side-effect harms except to the extent that they are needed to inflict intentional harms. And these are serious harms. Imagine if we put school children in an environment with a high risk of sexual assault. Outrageous! Yet that's what we do with prisoners. So the justification of the side-effect harm has to be quite strong. It can't be "used up" by the fact that we've already relied on desert to justify delivering proportional punishment. Moreover, can we not imagine non-incarcerative methods of punishment with fewer side effect harms? (To the extent retributivists support incarceration, it's awfully convenient for them that this method of giving people what they deserve also happens to incapacitate the dangerous.)
Two further points: First, Walen's view seems to accord with my own claims that we need to measure the subjective experience of punishment, at least in some respects. How can we be confident that the value of retributive punishment exceeds the side effect harms if we don't measure those harms?
Second, Walen is saying that we have affirmative reasons to impose the intentional inflictions of punishment and permission to impose side effects. I wonder, however, why we don't have to adjust the purposeful inflictions to accommodate the side effects. If A and B are equally blameworthy but A will experience his confinement much more severely, why incarcerate A and B for the same period of time if there is an easy method of making their total harm more equal?
My point is easiest to understand when the units of intentional infliction of harm are the same as the units of side-effect harms. Imagine a futuristic method of punishment. Rather than incarcerating offenders, we spray them with "gravitons" that limit their liberty by slowing them down. Future retributivists have solved problems of proportionality and simply look up an offense, say 100 units of crime seriousness, and then set their guns to 100 gravitons so that the intentional infliction of punishment precisely matches offense seriousness.
There is a catch, however. Graviton guns fire 15 extra units 98% of the time. So setting the gun for 100 units will typically spray 115 units. If the value of retribution is significantly high in some case, Walen seems committed to the view that you can set the gun to 100 and fire away, almost certainly leading to someone receiving 115 gravitons total. I think most of us would say, and perhaps Walen would agree, that you have to set the gun to 85 units to achieve the ultimate 100 units. But notice that doing so falls short of the goal of intentionally inflicting 100 units of punishment. (One might quibble about what your intentions really are if you set the gun to 100, given that it fires in excess so frequently. But note this is not an unrealistic assumption. We sentence people to deprivations of liberty in prison knowing that they will suffer side effect harms with probability greater than 98%.)
In any event, if you agree that it would be better to set the gun to 85 units, then don't we have to shorten prison sentences to accommodate harms that we inflict as side effects? This is where standard double-effect reasoning may break down. The intentional portion of sentences can be titrated up and down to make up for foreseen side effects. So the crux of the debate may turn on how fungible the intentional and unintentional harms of punishment are and how strong the obligation is to avoid side-effect harms. Walen offers some comments in his piece suggesting that side-effect harms are not fungible with intentional inflictions, a topic I'll discuss in an upcoming post.
I should add that one cannot fault Walen for his brief discussion of how he would justify the side-effect harms of punishment. He's writing, after all, in an encyclopedia entry. But to the extent he claims to cite a flaw in my reasoning, I see insufficient discussion to backup his claim. (Adapted from work in progress.)
Tuesday, November 10, 2015
Broad and Narrow Punishment
H.L.A. Hart famously claimed that a central feature of punishment is that it is "intentionally administered” to an “offender for his offence.” Many punishment theorists share Hart's view that punishment essentially concerns an intentional infliction. I will emphasize, however, how extraordinarily narrow this view of punishment is:
(1) Credit for time served inconsistent with the narrow view: When people are detained before trial, we typically don't say they are being punished. After all, they haven't been convicted of any crime. So, consistent with Hart so far, we are not intentionally administering painful or unpleasant consequences on pretrial detainees for an offense. However, when pretrial detainees are subsequently convicted, they almost always receive credit against their punishments for each day they were detained. We reduce the punishment they must serve by the supposed non-punishment of detention. We do the reduction, I believe, because we think the harms of detention (even though not intended as punishment) are essentially the same as punishment, such that we reduce punishment day-for-day with detention. Hence, contra Hart, amounts of punishment depend on more than just those inflictions that are intentionally administered as punishment. (See here for more.)
(2) Our intuitions of punishment severity extend beyond the narrow view: Suppose Judge A in State A sentences a defendant to four years in prison for a particular crime. The judge, and if you'd like, the citizens and legislators in his state have a very vivid idea of what goes on in prison and it is the purpose of the judge (and the citizens and legislators) that the defendant undergo many hardships in prison (worse food; separation from family; loss of sex life, etc.). By contrast, Judge B in State B sentences a different defendant to four years in prison for a crime of equal seriousness. Both defendants, let us assume, are equally worthy of blame. In State B, however, the judge and the citizens and legislators have only vague notions of prison life. It's their purpose that B be deprived of liberty for four years, but they don't think about the side effects, such as the food being bad or the harms of separating from one's relatives. We could say that the judge et al. know about these things, but it's not their purpose that the defendant undergo these hardships.
So A and B are otherwise alike in all pertinent respects; they are incarcerated in identical conditions for four years and they experience confinement in exactly the same way. Wouldn't we say that their punishment severity is the same? That is, even though A and B differ dramatically in the amount of "narrow" punishment they receive, when asked whether their punishment severity is the same, we're inclined to say yes. That is, we are inclined to focus on punishment in the broad sense. We probably don't care precisely which hardships of prison are purposeful and which are merely foreseen when assessing amounts of punishment. (See here for more.)
Why does all of this matter? Those punishment theorists who only purport to justify intentional inflictions (see p. 24 here) cannot justify real-world punishments (or must offer a non-punishment, shadow theory to justify these other aspects of punishment) for all punishments include unintended side effects. I'll also use the distinction between broad and narrow punishment in my next post to reply to Alec Walen's comments on my work in his entry on retributivism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy .
Thursday, October 29, 2015
Yes Virginia, there is a trial penalty, and it's four times larger than we thought
Last year David Abrams, Penn, stunned the criminal law world with a study concluding that defendants actually receive shorter sentences at trial than they do for pleading guilty. Rather than "penalizing" those who exercise their right to trial, we actually punish those who plead guilty more harshly, turning decades of plea bargaining debates on their head.
Abrams was wrong, and he’s not the only one.
My latest article reveals significant conceptual and statistical errors in the canonical methodology that cause most other studies, including those by the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC), to greatly underestimate the trial penalty. Underestimating the Trial Penalty: An Empirical Analysis of the Federal Trial Penalty and Critique of the Abrams Study.84 Miss. L. J. 1195 (2015) (Selected through peer review). Where leading researchers report that the federal trial penalty is only around 3-15%, I find that the average federal trial defendant receives sentences around 64% longer than if they had pled guilty instead. In other words, federal defendants cannot exercise their constitutional right to trial unless they are willing to risk a 64% longer sentence, a heavy "penalty" indeed. Where Abrams reports that Chicago defendants pay a similar penalty for pleading guilty, I reveal that his data actually suggests that plea defendants receive shorter sentences than those who go to trial.
Applying these findings, I demonstrate that the federal trial penalty is so large that only a tiny fraction of defendants could ever rationally choose to go to trial. In such a system, the constitutional right to trial by jury becomes less of a “right” and more of a trap for fools.
Why are my findings so different than everyone else's? Glad you asked.
[More after the fold]
The biggest reason prior federal studies underestimate the trial penalty is that they fail to include the effects of the "acceptance of responsibility" discount. Under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, defendants who “accept responsibility” by pleading guilty automatically receive a 2-3 point discount to their sentences, but lose this discount if they insist on trial. As such, it operates as a statutory plea discount, or "trial penalty," that sets the baseline for all plea negotiations. Because prior studies do not include the effects of acceptance of responsibility, they heavily underestimate the price defendants actually pay for going to trial. Acceptance of responsibility is written into the guidelines and the USSC's data itself, causing prior studies to miss these effects. Indeed, it is impossible to measure the effects of acceptance of responsibility without reverse engineering the data with several hundreds of lines of code, which I think I am the first to do.
I next explain that rather than measuring the "trial penalty" as that term is understood in crim law debates, Abrams asks whether a rational defendant would be better off going to trial. Defendants are better off going to trial if they face a negative "Abrams Trial Penalty," which Abrams claims to find. Abrams is quite upfront that he is not measuring the traditional trial penalty and, indeed, argues that crim scholars should focus on his new metric. The problem is that crim scholars generally do not discuss this metric because it is usually impossible to measure. A positive Abrams Trial Penalty would indicate that the average plea defendant receives a percentage discount that is larger than their percentage odds of acquittal if they went to trial. Because plea defendants do not go to trial, however, we cannot know what their odds of acquittal would have been without a highly expensive controlled experiment. (FYI, I'd be open to grants to explore the question!). As I explain, Abrams' innovative methodologies cannot overcome this fundamental problem. By reanalyzing Abrams' findings, however, I show that the normal "trial penalty" in Abram's dataset is likely positive: defendants do pay a price to go to trial.
In addition, Abrams and many prominent scholars report average sentences as the average sentence excluding defendants that receive probation only. Because probation only is the lightest sentence you can receive, however, excluding those cases artificially inflates the average sentence and produces a metric that is quite misleading and largely irrelevant to crim law debates. Nonetheless, many well known sentencing scholars, including some commissioned by the USSC, persist in reporting the "average incarceration sentence" rather than, or in addition to, the actual average sentence defendants receive. As I explain, this peculiar metric appeared in the 1980's due to fundamental misunderstandings about the nature of censored data and selection effects, and confusion about the proper application of the Heckman 2-step correction factor and Tobit regression to control for censoring. (End stat technobabble). This and other common methodological errors are discussed further in my piece. (I put most of the technical stuff in footnotes).
One major limitation of my study is that, like virtually all sentencing studies, it cannot account for the effects of charge bargaining. Because charge bargaining works to increase the trial penalty, however, it does not affect my final conclusion that for the vast majority of federal defendants, trial by jury is not a "choice" or a "right." It is a "mistake."
Wednesday, October 07, 2015
Should the Umpqua shooter's mother be liable?
Chris Harper-Mercer was 26 years old when he killed 9 people last week. He was a troubled young man living at home, who should not have had access to guns. And yet he had access to 14 of them. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/06/us/mother-of-oregon-gunman-wrote-of-keeping-firearms.html?_r=0
Chris lived with his mother, Laurel Harper. Laurel bragged about keeping fully loaded magazines for her AR-15 and AK-47 semiautomatic rifles in easy access in her house. Laurel also knew that Chris had emotional problems. Should Laurel, and other parents of mass shooters, be held liable for the actions of their adult children?
Professor Shaundra Lewis, (Thurgood Marshall School of Law), asks this question in her timely piece, The Cost of Raising a Killer--Parental Liability for the Parents of Adult Mass Murderers, 61 Villanova L. Rev. 1 (forthcoming 2015). http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2669869 As she explains in her abstract:
[T]he shooter’s parents almost always knew their offspring were seriously mentally ill beforehand . . . Despite knowing her son was severely mentally unstable, Nancy [Lanza] left her son home unsupervised with unfettered access to her arsenal of weapons while she went on vacation. This provided her son with the perfect opportunity to make a practice run to Sandy Hook Elementary School, where he later used her firearms to shoot and kill kindergartners and first-graders.
Using Nancy Lanza’s case and other notorious mass shooting cases as examples, this article [explores] if, and under what circumstances, a parent can be held civilly liable for their adult child’s mass shooting pursuant to general common law negligence jurisprudence [particularly] parental negligence law. [It first] address[es] whether there can be parental liability for parents of adult mass shooters based upon a special relationship under current law. [Then it analyzes] negligence [doctrines] in general and its complexities, as well as explores whether a duty to protect or warn can be established in mass shooting cases. [Next it] examines whether the parents in the real-life examples referenced above breached a duty to protect or warn [and] whether those parents’ breaches caused the shooting victims’ injuries or deaths. [The Article] concludes that in some circumstances parents can, and should, be held liable for their misfeasance or nonfeasance that leads to their child’s mass killing. It further posits that the . . . possibility of parents being subjected to financial liability for their child’s mass shooting will not only incentivize parents to take more aggressive measures to keep firearms out of their mentally unstable child’s hands but to obtain the mental health assistance their child so desperately needs—measures that in the end will make everyone (including their child) safer. [The Article concludes with] advice to parents for dealing with significantly mentally ill, adult offspring residing in their home.
Although I agree that financial liability would incentive parents to limit access to guns, I wonder whether it might also encourage parents to cut ties with their adult children precisely when they need the most support. Nonetheless, Lewis’s article shines a light on the sadly recurring question of whether parents should be responsible for the preventable actions of their adult children.
I’m Andy Kim, Assistant Professor at Concordia University School of Law. My own research focuses on criminal law and empirical analysis of the law. I’ll be guest blogging for the month. Hope you enjoy!
Monday, September 14, 2015
Subconscious Juror Bias
I am a big fan of juries. But it is our job as lawyers to be sure that we structure the process of summoning, seating, and using juries in a way that maximizes their effectiveness. I have argued that we need to do a better job of writing instructions they can understand (because they really try), and that broader jury question formats are more consistent with the political and instruments purposes of the jury. My interest became more than academic when I actually served as a juror in a criminal trial in 2014. That experience reinforced my theoretical expectations: a very diverse group of jurors analyzed the evidence, listened to and learned from each other, deliberated carefully, referred to the court's instructions, and took the process very seriously.
I was so enthusiastic about the experience that, the following semester, I taught a seminar about juries. The students read a lot of empirical information about juries -- from selection through deliberation and on to post-service issues. And they did a bit of research of their own. (The students also blogged, which I recommend as a way to get students to think and write). One issue kept coming up in almost every context: the impact of juror biases, especially racial biases, on the entire jury system. The Batson process would be laughable if the impact weren't so serious. In addition, as in other areas of the law, subconscious bias on the part of people who believe themselves to be racism-free is hard to prove.
That's why I found this recent New Jersey case, State v. Brown & Smith, so fascinating. Brown and Smith were charged with carjacking, and their defense was that they were not the carjackers. During jury deliberations, Juror #4 told two other jurors that she had seen two African-Americans in her neighborhood and this made her “nervous” because this was not typical in the area where she lived. She therefore thought this “may have had some kind of sinister connection to the trial.” The judge questioned all three jurors and assured them that they were not in danger, but the jurors' assumptions about race went largely unexamined.
In considering on appeal whether the jurors should have been removed, the Appellate Division got it:
When Juror 4 inferred a sinister conspiratorial purpose from a facially innocuous event, based only on the race of the participants, she revealed a deeply-rooted, latent racial bias that required her removal from the jury. The trial judge erred in permitting her to remain on the jury and continue deliberating merely based on the juror's self-serving denial of racial bias. Her initial instinctive, subliminal association of race with criminality or wrong-doing far trumped her subsequent assurances of impartiality. In her willingness to come forward and candidly report her misgivings, Juror 4 also revealed her unawareness of how engrained her racial bias was in her subconscious. This incongruity between Juror 4's conscious acts and latent beliefs is one of the most pernicious, unintended aspects of our jury system. (p. 3 of PDF)
The court wrote at length about the trial process, hoping to provide guidance to trial judges that would make clear that the trial judge's attitude -- "[W]e expect to some extent people have developed certain prejudices, some fixed ways of thinking" -- is unacceptable. A juror's assurance that he or she has no biases, or can set them aside, should not overcome evidence of lurking racial profiling.
By the way: for a wonderful weekly email with news related to both civil and criminal juries, subscribe to the National Center for State Court's Jur-E Bulletin.
Sunday, July 19, 2015
Complicating the "Trolly Problem"
I had thought the Trolly Problem and its many, many variation was becoming yesterday's news but . . . not so fast. This piece in Wired and this one in Popular Science (HT: Gizmodo, here) suggest that the coming of robot-cars and the matter of their programming might add new life to the question. Maybe a film, "Droids on the Mignonette"? If only Brian Simpson were still among us . . .
Thursday, June 25, 2015
“An Antidemocratic and Largely Foreign Conspiracy”
In my last post, which considered whether abolitionist sentiment should matter to the Justices’ decision-making in Glossip, I noted that part of that sentiment (a good deal of it, actually) is coming from nation-states that have long been abolitionist. Here I’ll expand on that theme, and connect it up with the title of my post, which unfortunately comes from one of the amicus briefs in Glossip.
As most people know, Europe is almost entirely abolitionist (indeed, in all of Europe, only Belarus still has the death penalty, and it’s so close to Moscow that it’s hard to think of it as Europe). And Europe isn’t abolitionist-light—it’s as committed to abolitionism as the United States is to its death penalty. Abolishing the death penalty is a requirement for EU membership, and in 1998, the EU made worldwide abolition a centerpiece of its human rights agenda, declaring that it would “work towards universal abolition of the death penalty as a strongly held policy view agreed by all EU member states.”
These guys are not fooling around. It was the EU that sponsored UN Resolution 62/149, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007, which declared that “the death penalty undermines human dignity” and called for all nation-states to institute a moratorium as a first step towards abolition. The vote was 104 nations in favor, 54 against, with the United States leading the dissenters.
The point here is that European abolitionism has been around for a long time, a lot longer than the current snafu over lethal injection drugs, and these countries are Dixie Chicks serious about abolishing the death penalty worldwide. So when the market for thiopental experienced upstream supply problems, and when thiopental’s producer (Hospira) moved its production plant from North Carolina to Italy for reasons that had nothing to do with any of this, is it any wonder that Italy, then Great Britain, and then the EU as a whole, saw an opportunity, and seized it, to put the damper on death penalty drugs?
For decades, EU governments had tried, and largely come up short, to influence the United States with their anti-death penalty views. To borrow a line from my paper with Jim Gibson, it turns out that the best way for European governments to export their abolitionist norms was to stop exporting their drugs.
What’s wrong with that?
That brings me to the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation’s amicus brief in Glossip. I originally wanted to do the Harry Potter “It that must not be named” thing—my attempt at that was yesterday’s post. But that approach has proven unsatisfactory. I’ve got to name it, because it named me, or rather the paper I just co-authored—all under the heading “The United States must not allow its justice to be obstructed by an antidemocratic and largely foreign conspiracy.” Wait, what?
That’s right, that section of the brief cites the paper, and quotes it, to show that foreign governments are “meddling” in our business—our execution business, which it alleges is of “no legitimate concern of European governments.”
I dissent. We are a sovereign state and so yes, we can execute if we please. If we can’t get the drugs to inject someone to death, we can hang them. Or shoot them. Or electrocute or gas them. We can double-down on death, no matter what the EU does.
But those European countries are sovereign states too, and they aren’t “meddling” in our affairs when they make their own decisions in response to ours.
The EU doesn’t have to sell us its drugs. We’re not entitled to them. It’s a free country (or countries, I suppose). If European countries, or nation-states anywhere else, want to use export controls to express their moral disapprobation of the death penalty, they can do that—just like we’ve done it countless times when other countries do things we find morally repugnant.
The CJLF amicus brief states in a footnote when citing the paper that “Amicus does not endorse the views of the authors, who seem to think that European government meddling in American criminal justice policy is a good thing.”
For the record, we don’t take a stand on whether these developments are a good thing, or a bad thing; they’re just a thing. I can say, however, that I don’t endorse the views of amicus any more than it endorses mine.
The US is sovereign, but no more sovereign than other nation states. Rather than fuming about foreigners meddling, we’d be better served to think about execution methods that don’t require the cooperation of nations that don’t want us to execute.
Wednesday, June 24, 2015
In Anticipation of Glossip
I’m excited. Not like Harry Potter World excited, but excited in that geeky, purely academic way that sometimes feels inappropriate in the death penalty context. The Supreme Court will issue its ruling in Glossip any day now, and certainly within the next 7 days. What will the Justices do?
I posted a comment earlier titled why is Glossip hard? so yeah, you could say I have a point of view. In this post, I’ll pick up where I left off, and think a bit more about what seems to be making this easy case hard, at least for the Court’s conservatives: abolitionist sentiment.
The reason the Court is stuck considering the constitutionality of midazolam in lethal injection protocols is that the states are stuck using it. More effective drugs—sodium thiopental, pentobarbital (of the uncompounded variety), and propofol—have all been taken off the market, or at least out of executioners’ hands, by the companies that make the drugs.
Why? In part it’s because abolitionists have played the ‘name and shame’ game, calling out drug companies whose mottos include “advancing wellness” for selling their drugs to put people to death. And in part it’s because European governments, which have long been abolitionist, have tightened their export controls. So yeah, it’s fair to say abolition sentiment of one variety or another is behind the current shortage of death dealing drugs.
That led Justice Scalia to blame the “abolitionist movement” for the mess lethal injection is in nowadays, and for Justice Alito to ask whether it was “appropriate for the judiciary to countenance what amounts to a guerrilla war against the death penalty.” For the condemned, maybe those were lost votes anyway, but then Kennedy asked The Question: “What bearing, if any, should be put on the fact that there is a method, but that’s not available because of opposition to the death penalty?”
Now we’ve got everyone’s attention.
George Will says the success of abolitionists in convincing drug companies not to play merchants of death, and of European governments in enforcing their export controls, is of no moment. “Public agitation against capital punishment is not relevant to judicial reasoning,” he says, “and it is not the judiciary’s business to worry that a ruling might seem to ‘countenance’ this or that social advocacy.”
It’s worth noting that before abolitionists stumbled upon the lethal injection drug supply as a way to thwart executions, there was a shortage in the raw ingredients necessary to make those drugs. Indeed that and some other random events are what started the scramble for death drugs in the first place (as my colleague Jim Gibson and I detail in a recent article). So what if the coveted lethal injection drugs were unavailable because of problems in the upstream supply rather than downstream distribution?
I’m left wondering why it matters why the traditional drug protocol is unavailable; indeed, why abolitionist sentiment is in this at all. The ‘naming and shaming’ on the domestic side is free speech, and the export controls on the international side are a sovereign state’s prerogative (and one we’ve used to express our moral disapprobation numerous times).
I’m with George on this one, the reason for the shortage shouldn’t matter.
Policing False Speech in Political Campaigns
I'm working on the update memo for my Mass Media Law casebook while simultaneously working on a new edition, which means I'm coming across some interesting cases I missed when they came out. One of these is Eighth Circuit's decision in 281 Care Committee et. al. v. Arneson, No. 13-1229 (Feb. 13, 2014), which strikes down a Minnesota law attempting to assign administrative law judges and county attorneys the job of policing the truth of statements partisans make for or against ballot initiatives. Arneson involved a challenge by advocacy organizations to the constitutionality of a Minnesota law making it a gross misdemeanor for a person to prepare or publish a political advertisement or campaign materials supporting or criticizing “a ballot question, that is false, and that the person knows is false or communicates to others with reckless disregard of whether it is false.” Minn.Stat. sec.211B.06, subd. 1. Under the statute, any person can trigger an investigation by an administrative law judge to determine whether probable cause supports the complaint. Upon such a finding, the ALJ may refer the case to a panel of three ALJs for further determination or may refer the matter to a county attorney to prosecute.
A district court held that the statute served a compelling interest in preserving fair elections and preventing frauds on the electorate. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed. The Eighth Circuit held that the advocacy organizations had standing to challenge the statute and that the statute was a content-based regulation of political speech that violated the First Amendment. The district court, citing the plurality and concurrences in United States v. Alvarez (striking down the Stolen Valor Act), determined that the appropriate constitutional standard was intermediate scrutiny, but the Eighth Circuit distinguished Alvarez because it did not involve core political speech; moreover, the court noted that the false assertion criminalized by the Stolen Valor Act--that one received a military honor one did not receive--is verifiable objectively. In contrast, the Minnesota law targeted "false" political speech that was likely to include opinion or other unverifiable political speech. The court therefore concluded that strict scrutiny was the appropriate standard to judge the Minnesota law.
Applying strict scrutiny the court determined that, regardless of whether Minnesota’s interests in passing the statute were compelling, the statute was neither necessary nor narrowly tailored but instead was “simultaneously overbroad and underinclusive, and [was] not the least restrictive means of achieving any stated goal.” The court bolstered this conclusion by observing that the State had failed to show “an actual, serious threat of individuals disseminating knowingly false statements concerning ballot initiatives.” Furthermore, and more central to the court’s analysis, was its determination that the statute “tends to perpetuate the very fraud it is allegedly designed to prohibit.” As the court cannily deduced, the Minnesota statute lends itself to use by political adversaries seeking to undermine the message of their opponents. Filing a complaint against one’s opponent can be used as a political tool to undermine the opponent’s message and force the opponent to “’to devote time, resources, and energy defending themselves.’” All of these strategic political goals can be accomplished by a complainant whether or not his or her complaint is meritorious. The filing of the complaint itself becomes a news item and casts doubt on the credibility of the speaker, and the investigation takes up time and money even if the investigation ultimately terminates in one’s favor.In light of this political reality, the court concluded that the mens rea requirement in the statute was not enough to render it constitutional. Most of the statute's chilling effect on political speech occurred because any person can file a complaint under the statute at any time: “[M]ost cynically, many might legitimately fear that no matter what they say, an opponent will utilize [the statute] to simply tie them up in litigation and smear their name or position on a particular matter, even if the speaker never had the intent required to render him liable.”
The court further explained that the statute’s exemption for news media made its unconstitutionality all the more apparent. Exempting the media from liability for false statements while targeting advocacy groups did not advance the state’s interests in policing election fraud. The underinclusiveness of the statute undermined the state’s claims that its speech restrictions were necessary to achieve its stated aims.
Ultimately, the court’s decision to strike down the statute stemmed from both its understanding of the political process and its embrace of the First Amendment ideal of the marketplace of ideas. Counterspeech, not criminalization, is the remedy that the US Supreme Court’s decisions interpreting the First Amendment precribe for false speech during political campaigns. Counterspeech is clearly a less restrictive alternative than criminalization, and “[t]he citizenry, not the government, should be the monitor of falseness in the political arena.”
The court's opinion thus relied on two central tenets (some would call them myths) of First Amendment jurisprudence. As I've previously described these tenets in an article called Nobody's Fools: The Rational Audience as First Amendment Ideal: "[t]he first is that audiences are capable of rationally assessing the truth, quality, and credibility of core speech. The second is that more speech is generally preferable to less." The problem, of course, is that these tenets, or assumptions, may be demonstrably wrong. False speech in political campaigns may bamboozle the electorate, if they're even paying attention. Nonetheless, the court in Arneson reached the right decision based on both Supreme Court precedent and democratic theory. An audience that is incapable of critically analyzing campaign speech is also incapable of participating in political discourse or engaging in democratic self-governance, and to abandon the ideal of the rational audience for political speech is to abandon the ideal of democracy. This is not (yet) something we're prepared to do.
Thursday, June 18, 2015
Oklahoma’s Latest Invention: Execution by Nitrogen Gas
In 1977, Oklahoma started a national trend when it adopted lethal injection as a new method of execution. This year, maybe it will do the same in adopting death by “nitrogen hypoxia” as a statutorily authorized alternative to lethal injection.
Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallon said she signed the bill to give the state “another death penalty option,” and if there’s one thing the state of Oklahoma likes about its death penalty (besides secrecy), it’s options. Whereas most death penalty states have one lethal injection protocol, maybe two, Oklahoma has five. And whereas most states have one method of execution, maybe two, Oklahoma has four. If for some reason lethal injection and nitrogen gas don’t work out, the state has the electric chair and firing squad also waiting in the wings. Little wonder Oklahoma has in the last several years edged out Virginia as the second most executing state since the revival of the death penalty in 1976—it’s nothing if not committed to the death penalty.
Oklahoma’s statute doesn’t say exactly how death by nitrogen hypoxia will be carried out, and it’s brand new so we’re all just guessing here, but the assumption appears to be that some sort of mask would be affixed to the condemned inmate’s head, which would then be used to pump in pure nitrogen. Nitrogen is already in the air we breathe so it’s not inherently toxic; it’s the lack of oxygen that does a person in, and that’s apparently painless. “You just sit there and a few minutes later, you’re dead,” the bill’s sponsor said. Rather than imposing death, nitrogen hypoxia “withholds life.” Sounds kinda brilliant when you put it that way.
But there’s always a hitch. Execution by nitrogen hypoxia is a one-off of Jack Kevorkian’s “exit bags” and similar techniques advocated by right-to-die advocacy groups. The problem is that its only use has been on people who wanted to die, so they weren’t trying to break the seal, or refusing to breathe, or doing whatever else one might do to gum up the works. “It requires the total cooperation of the person who is dying,” one euthanasia spokesman said of the process.
The other difference—and maybe this doesn’t matter—is that those groups use helium rather than nitrogen to get the job done, and that was off the table from the start. Indeed, even with nitrogen as the designated gas, some legislators worried that death by hypoxia would be accompanied by a brief moment of euphoria rather than pain.
In the end, we really don’t know how all this will work out, which I suppose is the case with most any innovation in execution methods. “I assume somebody must have done some research,” one state senator said—and that’s true, to an extent.
What data we have on forced inhalation of pure nitrogen comes from veterinary science, and in that experiment, the cats and dogs howled and convulsed. The American Veterinary Medical Association has taken the position that nitrogen asphyxiation is not appropriate for animal euthanasia, but that doesn’t seem to matter much. The AVMA has said the same thing about using paralytics during animal euthanasia by lethal injection, and we’ve done that to humans for decades.
All that brings me back to what the Oklahoma legislator who wrote the bill said about nitrogen hypoxia—“It’s foolproof.” I say maybe it will work, maybe it won’t. But if we think know the answer to that on the front side, we’re fooling ourselves.
Wednesday, June 17, 2015
If Not Lethal Injection, Then What?
With lethal injection on its heels (as a practical matter, maybe constitutional matter too), one question that’s on many a mind is—if not lethal injection, then what?
The electric chair is pretty gruesome—you’re stuck with the sound and smell of burning flesh and it occasionally catches the condemned person’s head on fire.
Hanging is pretty hard to get right—it’s supposed to kill by breaking the condemned person’s neck, but if the measurements are off (which is often the case), the person ends up either slowly strangling to death or getting decapitated.
And the gas chamber is reminiscent of Nazi death camps and pretty grisly in its own right—the cyanide pumped into the chamber causes the condemned to die by asphyxiation, but not before a significant amount of gasping, drooling, and retching first. Arizona got rid of its gas chamber in 1992 when an execution made the state attorney general vomit and the warden threaten to resign if he ever had to use it again. In 1999, the Ninth Circuit declared it a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s “cruel and unusual punishments” clause.
That leaves the guillotine (not a chance), the firing squad, and Oklahoma’s newest innovation: death by nitrogen gas. Today I’ll consider the firing squad. Tomorrow, nitrogen gas.
My thoughts on the firing squad bring me back to Chief Judge Alex Kozinski’s dissent from the denial of a rehearing en banc in Wood v. Ryan. I quoted part of that dissent in a post last week, here’s the rest:
If some states and the federal government wish to continue carrying out the death penalty, they must turn away from this misguided path and return to more primitive—and foolproof—methods of execution. . . . The firing squad strikes me as the most promising. Eight or ten large-caliber rifle bullets fired at close range can inflict massive damage, causing instant death every time. There are plenty of people employed by the state who can pull the trigger and have the training to aim true. The weapons and ammunition are bought by the state in massive quantities for law enforcement purposes, so it would be impossible to interdict the supply. And nobody can argue that the weapons are put to a purpose for which they were not intended: firearms have no purpose other than destroying their targets. Sure, firing squads can be messy, but if we are willing to carry out executions, we should not shield ourselves from the reality that we are shedding human blood. If we, as a society, cannot stomach the splatter from an execution carried out by firing squad, then we shouldn’t be carrying out executions at all.
Again, I think Kozinski is on to something here. Execution by firing squad is fast (around 15 seconds as opposed to lethal injection’s 3-10 minutes, and that’s if done right). It’s effective (or at least less subject to mishaps than any other execution method—let’s not forget Wallace Wilkerson of 1878’s Wilkerson v. Utah, who cried, “My God! My God! They missed!” and then bled to death for nearly 30 minutes from shots in the arm and torso rather than heart). And it’s out in the open; no question here about what the state is doing in our name.
Two additional observations merit mention (along with a shout out to the Richmond Law student who recently published a comment advocating the firing squad in Virginia—I had nothing to do with it, by the way).
First, execution by firing squad scratches that retribution itch. This is why Robert Blecker likes it—you want blood, you’ve got it.
Second, execution has the unique feature of allowing executioners to absolve themselves from responsibility for the execution. One of them will fire a blank, and none of them knows who the non-shooter will be. Blecker doesn’t much like this aspect, but one could see how executioners might—and the states that employ them too.
Death by firing squad makes sense in so many ways. So why are we hesitant to go there? My only guess is our delicate palate, but that brings me back to Kozinski’s point. If we truly can’t handle quick, easy, low-risk executions that show us what executions are, maybe we shouldn’t be doing them.
Tuesday, June 16, 2015
Is Criticism of Lethal Injection Just a Front For Opposing the Death Penalty?
I had planned to follow last week’s post on lethal injection with a post about the firing squad as a method of execution. But I’m saving that for tomorrow in light of the numerous emails and conversations that have come my way about the relationship between one’s position on lethal injection and one’s position on the death penalty itself. Is criticism of lethal injection just a front for criticizing the death penalty?
My own experience over the past week suggests that most people think the answer is yes—if you have a problem with lethal injection, it’s because you must have a problem with capital punishment, so let’s be real about where the façade actually lies.
But the two don’t necessarily, or even logically, go together. There are plenty of people who support the death penalty on retributivist grounds (indeed, retribution is by far the most popular reason people support the death penalty today) who have a problem with lethal injection for the very reasons I mentioned in last week’s post. Law Professor Robert Blecker, an outspoken retributivist, is a prime example. Here’s what he had to say:
Lethal injection conflates punishment with medicine. The condemned dies in a gurney, wrapped in white sheets with an IV in his veins, surrounded by his closest kin, monitored by sophisticated medical devices. Haphazardly conceived and hastily designed, lethal injection appears, feels, and seems medical, although its sole purpose is to kill.
Witnessing an execution in Florida, I shuddered. It felt too much like a hospital or hospice. We almost never look to medicine to tell us whom to execute. Medicine should no more tell us how. How we kill those we rightly detest should in no way resemble how we end the suffering of those we love.
Others who support capital punishment might rightly oppose lethal injection for the endless litigation, delay, and bad press it has brought the administration of the death penalty in the United States.
On the flip side, some abolitionists support lethal injection under the theory that at least when done right, this method of execution inflicts the least amount of pain upon the condemned, and until the death penalty is abolished, that’s about the best they can do. Others in this camp like what lethal injection has done for the abolitionist cause—allowed drug companies to gum up the works, brought renewed salience to botched executions, and mobilized the medical profession to take a stand its involvement in the process.
Of course, abolitionists can also oppose lethal injection, just as death penalty advocates can support it. Years ago, one such abolitionist said this in making the point, “The worst sin of all is to do well that which should not be done at all.”
Given the recent litigation in Glossip v. Gross, I’m not so sure the shoe fits anymore, if it ever did. But it’s an open—and quite separate—question as to whether that’s so because lethal injection doesn’t “do well” in executing the condemned, or because executing the condemned is something we shouldn’t be doing at all.
Wednesday, June 10, 2015
Is Lethal Injection About Us or Them?
I’ve been thinking a bit lately about lethal injection, about the ways it is problematic regardless of what the Supreme Court holds in Glossip. I’m at the very early stages of a work-in-progress on the topic, and one of the things I’ve been quite drawn to is a passage from Chief Judge Alex Kozinski’s dissent from the denial of a rehearing en banc in Wood v. Ryan.
Here’s what he wrote:
Using drugs meant for individuals with medical needs to carry out executions is a misguided effort to mask the brutality of executions by making them look serene and peaceful—like something any one of us might experience in our final moments. . . . But executions are, in fact, nothing like that. They are brutal, savage events, and nothing the state tries to do can mask that reality. Nor should it. If we as a society want to carry out executions, we should be willing to face the fact that the state is committing a horrendous brutality on our behalf.
It’s worth noting that Judge Kozinski supports the death penalty (his essay “Tinkering with Death” presents a thoughtful and remarkably personal account of his views on the subject) so his position here can’t be written off as just another abolitionist trying to muck things up. The pain inflicted on victims and their families is tremendous, he says, and society has a moral right to respond accordingly. The point here is that we should at least be honest about what the death penalty is: brutality for brutality. And if we’re not willing to accept that, we shouldn’t be doing it.
So here’s my question: is lethal injection about us or is it about them? That is, is it about masking the brutality of executions so we don’t have to deal with the violence inherent in taking another life? Or is it about providing the condemned with a relatively painless death, something they don’t deserve (at least by the measure of their own crimes) but can expect from a civilized society?
Perhaps it’s both, but the history of lethal injection suggests it’s a lot about us. Oklahoma was the first state to adopt lethal injection, and its legislators did not ask how do we euthanize pets, how does physician-assisted suicide work, how can we do this as pain free as possible. It was 1977, and the Supreme Court had just brought back the death penalty the year before in Gregg v. Arizona, after having abolished it in Furman v. Georgia in 1972. Legislators worried that the American public wouldn’t have the stomach for executions the old fashioned way—hanging, electrocution, gas (firing squad made a famous appearance in 1977 but never really got off the ground). They needed something that wouldn’t jar the public, something that looked much more peaceful, civilized. The answer was what would become the standard 3-drug lethal injection protocol.
I’ve been chewing on the democratic accountability point Kozinski makes at the end of the above passage: “If we as a society want to carry out executions, we should be willing to face the fact that the state is committing a horrendous brutality on our behalf.” We should own it, and that means we shouldn’t be executing in a way that people associate with putting down a beloved pet. It seems to me he’s on to something here.
But how far do you want to take this? one of my colleagues asked. I mean, one could go all Hunger Games on this thing, and make people watch executions on a huge screen. The more blood the better.
That’s not what I have in mind, but there is something to recognizing that the death penalty is inherently violent. It has to be; it’s extinguishing life before the body would naturally have it end. And there is something to recognizing that lethal injection hides that fact, and indeed was designed for the very purpose of hiding that from us to make it more palatable.
Friday, June 05, 2015
Despite Nebraska’s repeal of its death penalty last week, Governor Pete Ricketts has vowed to execute the 10 inmates now on death row. Here’s the argument:
Nebraska’s repeal legislation states “It is the intent of the Legislature that in any criminal proceeding in which the death penalty has been imposed but not carried out prior to the effective date of this act, such penalty shall be changed to life imprisonment.”
The state AG’s office says the provision violates the state constitution, which gives the Board of Pardons exclusive power to change final sentences.
The repeal law’s defenders say it does not change the actual sentence of death, but rather removes the state’s ability to carry it out, just like repeal legislation in other states. And as for the intent provision, well that’s just an intent provision; it doesn’t carry the force of law.
In my mind, the issue is purely academic (which, I’m an academic, so fine by me) because Nebraska will never get the drugs to execute anyway (yesterday’s post).
But this one has me scratching my head. Other than the intent provision, the bill effectuates the repeal by simply amending the classes of felonies from 9 to 8 and striking out the death penalty as the highest class one felony. So there’s that change, and the intent provision. That’s it.
On the one hand, I think the constitutional claim has legs—it’s one thing to pass repeal legislation, and quite another to legislatively change someone's sentence. And the intent provision in the statute is the clearest indication of what the statute is intended to do, change the sentence.
On the other hand, the only operative language in the amendment is just removing the death penalty as the highest penalty, and functionally, that does change death sentences to life, which is clearly what intent statute, although perhaps inartfully drafted, is trying to communicate. Besides, once Nebraska repealed its death penalty, it has no need to literally change existing death sentences to life, because as a practical matter those death sentences cannot be carried out anyway.
Recognizing that, a literal reading of the intent provision can’t be the legislature’s intent, which is itself a sad state of affairs.
Thursday, June 04, 2015
Nebraska’s Governor said he did (or at least promised they were on the way) while trying to fend off the state’s repeal of the death penalty last week. For those who missed this nail-biter, Nebraska’s unicameral legislature had voted to repeal the death penalty, the governor had vetoed the repeal measure, and the legislature was gearing up to override the veto (they needed 30 votes, and pulled exactly 30).
Nebraska is the first Republican-controlled state in over 40 years to repeal the death penalty, a fascinating account in a number of ways. I’m not sure it’s “a Nixon-visits-Red-China moment” but it’s big. When it makes a John Oliver segment, you know it’s big (and messed up in some strangely entertaining way).
It’s fascinating that Governor Pete Ricketts responded with the tweet: “My words cannot express how appalled I am that we have lost a critical tool to protect law enforcement and Nebraska families.” I found myself shouting at my computer when I read this, like some crazy sports fan yelling at the TV. “Are you serious?” I asked (expletives redacted). “Are you aware that Nebraska hasn’t had an execution in almost 20 years? You do know that your death row of 11 just dropped to 10 because another guy died waiting to be executed, right?” Nebraska’s death penalty was a waste of time and money, which is part of the reason conservatives voted to repeal it.
But what I find especially fascinating is the role that lethal injection drugs—or more accurately, the lack thereof—played in Nebraska’s repeal. Here’s the backstory:
When drug manufacturer Hospira pulled out of the sodium thiopental market in early 2011, death penalty states scrambled to replace the supplier. They had to. Thiopental was the first drug in the then-standard three-drug lethal injection protocol.
Nebraska was memorable in this regard because it bought thiopental from a broker in India, who, as it turned out, had gotten the drug from a Swiss manufacturer that was adamantly opposed to the use of its product in executions. When the Swiss manufacturer found out, it demanded that Nebraska give its drugs back. Nebraska said no. (My colleague Jim Gibson and I detail this story and others in a forthcoming article on the international market for death penalty drugs).
Fast forward to 2015. Nebraska has been out of thiopental for years, everyone knows the drug isn’t gettable any longer, and the legislature is about to override the governor’s veto. On the eve of the vote, the governor makes an announcement: he’s got the drugs. $54,000 later, they’re on their way—from the same broker that sold the state someone else’s drugs in 2011. No need to repeal, Nebraska can start executing again. Maybe the rest of the country can too.
Except, hold up. The thiopental shortage wasn’t just about suppliers refusing to sell. It was also the result of a 2013 DC circuit court decision forcing the FDA to enforce its import controls, which basically put the kibosh on states’ efforts to import thiopental for lethal injection purposes, a “concededly misbranded” use.
The Nebraska Attorney General says the DC circuit decision doesn’t apply to it because it wasn’t a party to the case. I’m yelling at my computer again. Does the state AG really think Nebraska is exempt from FDA enforcement of import controls because it wasn’t a party to the case that started the enforcement?
The FDA said this in response: “With very limited exceptions, which do not apply here, it is unlawful to import this drug, and the FDA would refuse its admission into the United States.”
Nebraska says it’s going ahead with the executions, despite the repeal, as soon as the drugs come in—which I think means never, but its claim of authority for doing so is the topic of my next post.
In the meantime, I find myself wondering whether the administration’s actions here were just a political ploy, or whether the problems with procuring death penalty drugs have become a bona fide tipping point for repeal and/or retention. If the latter, then the international market for death penalty drugs has had an impact indeed.
Sunday, May 24, 2015
Causation Anonymity in Group Police Misconduct: No Conviction, No Justice, No Peace
Here in Cleveland, tensions are running high as the City reacts to a judge's decision, following a bench trial, that Police Officer Michael Brelo is not guilty of voluntary manslaughter or the lesser-included offense of felonious assault in connection with the deaths of Timothy Russell and Melissa Williams. Russell and Williams were shot a total of 137 times by various police officers, including Brelo. Brelo himself fired 49 rounds and at one point climbed atop the victims' car to shoot them (15 shots) through the front windshield.
The judge carefully parsed the evidence on the manslaughter charges and concluded that both victims suffered multiple fatal wounds--some from Brelo, some from other officers--and that he therefore could not conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Brelo's wounds were the but-for cause of the victims' deaths. Thus the not-guilty finding.
From a purely legal standpoint, the decision makes sense. Lawyers, with their technical training in the various elements of crimes and torts, understand that the State fails to meet its burden of proof if even one of the essential elements of a crime is in doubt.
But the public doesn't think that way. The ordinary citizen understands the bigger picture. Two unarmed people were shot 137 times. They were African-American, the shooter white. Whatever the victims' conduct, and whatever deadly force may even have been warranted at some point to protect others, what is the possible justification for 137 shots?
More troublingly, if Brelo wasn't the "but-for" cause of their deaths, who was? We'll never know. The forensic evidence does not lend itself to anything but speculation in terms of the sequence of the bullet wounds and the likelihood that any one of them was the one that precipitated each victim's death.
And therein lies the rub. This decision paves the way for causation anonymity to immunize homicide, any time a group of police officers (or gang members or any other shooters) act together to end another human being's life. We can never know which bullet caused death. We therefore can never know which shooter caused death (at least from a legal standpoint). And we can never, therefore, punish the murderer.
Ironically, it would not have mattered in this case even if we could have pinpointed Brelo as the but-for cause. The judge also acquitted him of felonious assault, concluding that his actions were reasonable under the circumstances. Presumably, his ostensibly reasonable conduct would have served to exonerate him of voluntary manslaughter, even if the evidence established him as the instigator of the death-causing bullet. That finding, and not the missing evidence of causation, is probably the most-controversial aspect of this decision.
But causation anonymity could well matter in future cases. The law's devotion to technical minutiae is sometimes the enemy of justice. Wrongdoers now have a roadmap for how to act in concert in order to absolve each of them individually of legal responsibility for the most heinous of crimes.
Ultimately, then, I fear that justice will be, over time, the greatest victim of Brelo's conduct and its aftermath. And without justice, as the protesters (in Ferguson, in New York, in Baltimore, and now in Cleveland) remind us, there can be no peace.
Monday, May 18, 2015
Justice Scalia was not pleased
Justice Scalia was not pleased with Monday's decision or with the petitioners in San Francisco v. Sheehan. The Court dismissed certiorari as improvidently granted on one question, involving application of a provision of the Americans with Disabilities Act to police affecting arrests, because petitioners ended up not briefing or pursuing that issue. The court then resolved the other question, holding that officers were entitled to qualified immunity for an incident in which officers entered the room of a mentally ill woman and shot her when she charged at them with a knife.
While agreeing with the decision to DIG the first issue, Scalia, joined by Justice Kagan, argued that the Court also should have dismissed the second question as improvidently granted, because the Court never would have granted cert on a fact-bound qualified immunity issue standing alone. Scalia argued that while non-independently certworthy issues often are decided alongside connected certworthy issues, where the certworthy issues is dismissed, the Court should not decide the otherwise unworthy subsidiary issue. And he placed the blame squarely on the city and county; he threw around terms such as "induce," "bait-and-switch tactics," and "reward[ing]" petitioners by giving them "all they seek" to describe what San Francisco did and what the Court was allowing it to do. Scalia worried that future litigants will be encouraged to "seek review premised on arguments they never plan to press, secure in the knowledge that once they find a toehold on this Court's docket, we will consider whatever workaday arguments they choose to present."
Otherwise, Justice Alito's opinion for six justices (Justice Breyer recused) was a straightforward restatement and application of the emerging modern law of qualified immunity, in all its unfortunate development. The Court again questioned, without deciding, whether binding circuit precedent or a "robust consensus of cases of persuasive authority" could clearly establish a right. And it showed how precedent-bound the analysis has become, with clearly established being all about how factually analogous or distinguishable prior cases are. At one point, the Court spoke of reasonable officers "carefully read[ing]" precedents and what officers could know from that precedent--giving voice to the fiction that police officers actually read case law and are put on notice and guided by the factual specifics of prior cases compared with the situation they currently face.
Judy Clarke, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and the Discretion of Strategy
As the Alabama spring progresses towards summer, I naturally have continued to think about the State’s power, particularly in its exercise of discretion – what to investigate, which suspect to arrest, which cases to charge, which cases to prosecute and how. As I was drafting a blog post last week, NPR informed me that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s jury had sentenced him to death. There has been a lot written and said about the prosecutor’s discretion in this case. Massachusetts after all has no state death penalty, so Tsarnaev was charged in federal court, where a death penalty was possible. Prosecutorial discretion, in this case and more broadly, is both a fraught and a well-trod topic. And deservedly so, but in this post I want to explore a different path – the discretion of the defense.
Judy Clarke was Tsarnaev’s defense attorney and she chose what some characterized as a risky defense – she conceded his guilt in the hopes of saving his life. Put another way, she named him a murderer in the hopes that the jury would be able to see something of him as a person beyond the horror he caused. In doing this Clarke did something that lawyers do everyday in all variety of cases – she made a decision of how best to defend her client. Thinking of what I know of Judy Clarke, I have no doubt that she weighed her decision – the evidence against her client, the shock and tragedy of the event itself, the emotional weight of the trial – and discussed the defense with him. At the end of the day, however, it was her decision to make as defense counsel and she exercised her discretion to create the best trial strategy she could. That it ultimately failed, that her client got the death penalty anyway, doesn’t change the reality that she did one of the hardest things lawyers do – she made strategic choices and she presented the case according to those choices. I don’t know any trial lawyers who don’t second guess these choices, particularly after a loss, and likely Judy Clarke has her own doubts.
What can and should professors do to prepare our students to make those choices. And when I say preparing, I mean lots of different things. On the one hand, there’s the preparing that accompanies knowing enough about the law itself to understand what choices are available. I suspect (hope) most law professors do a good job teaching students what the law is. How to apply the law is a trickier proposition. It’s one thing to memorize a holding, it’s another thing to decide whether or not that holding applies to your case or even ought to apply to your case. Beyond this, there are the more amorphous decisions of strategy and the emotional baggage that accompanies decision-making. I wonder whether these can be taught at all by anyone (or anything) other than experience.
In my own classes I use role play and “exercises” to try to get students to think beyond the inevitable exam at the end of the semester and to think of the “case” in real terms (even as they play pretend roles), but I have often wondered if all I have taught in the process is how I would strategize a case. As for the sense of loss I always felt when I knew I had chosen badly (or when the best choice was still a bad one as I suspect was the case with Tsarnaev’s), nothing ever prepared me for that. I could anticipate it. I could rationalize it. But I couldn’t ever quite be ready for the knowledge that I had made decisions that contributed to the conviction and punishment of my client. So I wonder how I, and others, can teach that? I can talk to my students about the practicalities of being a lawyer and embarking on a profession in which we all wield at least some tendril of power we lacked before those three letters, esq., were placed after our names, and I do. But in the end, I think discretion remains that double-edged sword that we all have yet to master the perfect instruction on its use. And so I think some of the best “teaching moments” I have had with regard to discretion have come years after my students left my class, when they email or call or sometimes even text to say “I have a hard decision to make, do you have a moment to talk?”
Judy Clarke was not my student. She never called me to talk. But from what I can tell, she did a great job with a hard, hard case. In the end, the jury found her argument unpersuasive and sentenced her client to death. There were thousands of events that led up to that moment, most of which pre-dated Judy Clarke’s work on the case, but in the end I wonder if there is some small part (or maybe large part) of her that wonders what if I had done it just a little differently. We can all say it wasn’t ever about Judy Clarke or her choices; the case was always about the client and the victims and the law. But that would not be completely true, and it would shove back into some dark corner one of the hardest parts of being a lawyer – making the decisions that constitute advocacy.
Saturday, May 09, 2015
Capital Punishment's Loyal Officer
It was a zinger worthy of a Presidential debate (and almost certainly just as planned). Justice Samuel Alito, confronted Federal Public Defender Robin Conrad in the midst of her oral argument on April 29 in Glossip v. Gross, a case challenging Oklahoma’s lethal injection execution procedure.
The diatribe won the lions share of media attention on the case and much of it seemingly approving. The stunning nature of his attack on our adversary system has gone little remarked. Indeed Justice Alito seemed to be refreshingly candid (Chris Christie style): “let’s be honest about what’s going on here.” He appealed to his media audiences common sense that executions could be carried out painlessly (although four of his colleagues doubted that the last time SCOTUS reviewed lethal injections in Baze v. Rees). He acknowledged that abolitionists have been making significant political progress lately winning legislative abolitions, with “red” Nebraska only the latest state legislature to express a desire to rid the law of capital punishment. He invited direct challenge to the constitutionality of the death penalty: an invitation that might have seemed totally empty a few years ago but now seems to have increasing constitutional force (see Jones v. Chappell finding the California death penalty unconstitutional on grounds of being arbitrary and capricious).
Yes. I mean, let's be honest about what's going on here. Executions could be carried out painlessly. There are many jurisdictions there are jurisdictions in this country, there are jurisdictions abroad that allow assisted suicide, and I assume that those are carried out with little, if any, pain. Oklahoma and other States could carry out executions painlessly. Now, this Court has held that the death penalty is constitutional. It's controversial as a constitutional matter. It certainly is controversial as a policy matter. Those who oppose the death penalty are free to try to persuade legislatures to abolish the death penalty. Some of those efforts have been successful. They're free to ask this Court to overrule the death penalty. But until that occurs, is it appropriate for the judiciary to countenance what amounts to a guerilla war against the death penalty which consists of efforts to make it impossible for the States to obtain drugs that could be used to carry out capital punishment with little, if any, pain?
But behind this this seemingly candid and refreshing acknowledgment was a remarkable attack upon a lawyer doing exactly what lawyers are supposed to do: zealously advocating for her clients. Justice Alito (echoed by Justice Scalia) cast Federal Public Defender Conrad and her colleagues as duplicitous, pleading the terrible risk of pain facing their clients while working behind the backs of the courts and states to deny states access to chemicals that could painlessly cause death and thus subverting the honorable workings of justice. Absolutely no evidence is presented or even suggested for this conspiracy. In fact, it is a mirror image of reality. The problems American states are confronting in finding drugs to make lethal injections look kind and gentle lie in a growing global movement against capital punishment in which America is increasingly seen as part of an anti human rights “axis” along with Iran, China, and Saudi Arabia. Federal public defenders (and indeed many other Americans) may well sympathize with this global movement but they are hardly relevant to that movement. As Justice Alito must surely know, the European Union-our major trading partner and political military ally and the site of many of the world’s leading pharmaceutical producers---are legally bound to oppose the death penalty where ever it exists. Federal public defenders are even more irrelevant to the completely understandable fact that many businesses will need no additional reason other than publicity to choose to disassociate their products from the deliberate killing of human beings.
The real guerilla war is being waged by death states that continue to pursue executions even as crime remains at historic lows and public opinion turns against this archaic ritual. Many of these states are making a farce of the Court’s own decades long effort to forge a more legal and more humane death penalty by using all means, legal or otherwise, to acquire execution drugs; and obstructing prisoners and their advocates from discovering even the most basic scientific facts about how the state proposes to take their lives. Meanwhile the death penalty majority on the Supreme Court has fought its own battle to prevent continued judicial oversight of state executions. Indeed, the first named petitioner in the case in which Justice Alito delivered his appeal for honesty was executed earlier this year even as the issue he raised was scheduled for Supreme Court argument.
Justice Alito is correct that the times are changing rapidly for the death penalty. In retrospect, the rejuvenation of capital punishment in the 1970s after a couple of decades of declining public support may have had more to do with the high violent crime rates and toxic racial politics of that era---conditions that have changed in many respects---than any core American commitment to capital punishment. Serious challenges to the constitutionality of the death penalty may soon find themselves before the SCOTUS. One can only hope that Justice Alito will bring a less closed mind to those arguments than he did to the ones Federal Defender Robin Konrad (and Justice Sotomayor) presented him in Glossip.
It is our common law tradition that judges are to consider the fate of litigants one at a time, and answer the compelling legal questions that their treatment poses. Yet in his exchanges with Ms. Konrad Justice Alito showed an injudicious interest in capital punishment as an institution. In his willingness to defend the death penalty (and his even odder insistence that if it is to end, it must receive the presumably more honorable dispatch of a direct constitutional assault) Justice Alito seems to be more committed to that institution than to our Constitution.
Justice Alito’s passion for the death penalty recalled for me the curious character of the "Officer” who conducts a “Traveler” to witness the execution of a condemned prisoner in Franz Kafka’s haunting story The Penal Colony. The story, set in a little described “penal colony,” involves an execution ritual in which the condemned are placed into a complex machine known as the “harrow” that effectively kills them by slowly inscribing the name of their crime into their body with metal needles as they are rotated within the harrow. The harrow requires constant tinkering which the Officer enthusiastically supplies. The Officer acknowledges to the increasingly uneasy Traveller that the colony’s commitment to this strange ritual is in fact waning fast, but he remains so loyal to it that he abandons all restraint and ultimately even self preservation in attempting to obtain for it at least one last victim.
Like the penal colony’s harrow, our execution machinery needs constant tinkering, both technical and legal. Some Justices, Harry Blackmun and John Paul Stevens, once supporters of the death penalty, eventually renounced “tinkering with the machinery of death” and denounced the penalty as irreconcilable with commitment to the rule of law. More Justices soon must make clear that their decades long servitude to this institution must come to an end. But perhaps the last will be Justice Alito, who like Kafka’s Officer seems increasingly willing to depart from his role in order defend the machinery of death against law itself.
Note to Prawfs readers:
This post is my first for several years and the first since our founding editor Dan Markel was murdered last August. I had intended to resume after the publication of a new book this past Fall. Dan and I exchanged emails about my return a few days before he died and planned catch up by phone the Friday he was killed. I’ve been too sad about losing Dan to post. I’m still not ready to share some thoughts about his murder (which as a criminal law professor, like Dan, I should in time do). I just want to say that Dan, although the younger colleague, was an inspiration to me about what it means to mature in life and in the law, and to take on responsibility for building something more than your own career. May his memory always be for blessing.
Thursday, May 07, 2015
Tsarnaev and Juvenile Brain Development
Despite promises in yesterday’s post that I would talk more about discretion in criminal law, a report this morning in the Boston Globe prompts today’s post on a completely different, though equally close-to-my-heart topic: juvenile brain development and criminal culpability. Yesterday, defense counsel for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev presented testimony essentially arguing that Tsarnaev’s punishment should be mitigated because he was young. Arguments for mercy based on the youth of the offender are hardly novel, but Tsarnaev’s defense counsel based their argument on the neuroscience of youth – particularly the impact brain development has on decision making and appreciation of long term consequences suggested decreased culpability. Yesterday the jurors in the Tsarnaev case heard testimony from Dr. Jay Geidd, a professor at the University of California San Diego and a child psychiatrist. According to the article, Geidd testified: “Teens are more likely to choose smaller, sooner rewards” and are “less worried for long-term consequences.”
Geidd’s testimony is consistent with what every parent of a teenager knows and what many in the juvenile defense community (myself included) have argued for a long time – adolescents are fundamentally different than adults and criminal law should recognize this fact. Tsarnaev’s defense counsel is making this point in the context of sentencing – a context the Supreme Court itself has repeatedly endorsed as of late (see Roper, Graham, and Miller, all restricting or prohibiting the application of forms of severe punishment to adolescent offenders based on their immaturity). But many, again myself included, have argued that neuroscience should inform substantive criminal law as well. In my forthcoming article, Brain Science and the Theory of Juvenile Mens Rea, I argue that what is known about adolescent decisionmaking is relevant to calculations of mens rea – the state of mind element – required in all but strict liability offenses, as well as for many defenses (think self-defense for example).One of the issues that frequently arises in this context was highlighted by the Government’s cross examination in the Tsarnaev case – even with all we know about brain development generally, how do we calibrate it’s effect on any particular defendant? Put another way, is development, and its effect on adolescents, uniform? When asked this question, Geidd responded no – that many factors, including variation in development rates and environmental factors, can influence brain maturation and decision making. But what was lost in the reporting of Geidd’s response was what neuroscience studies seem to confirm: that even within these degrees of uncertainty and variance, the adolescent brain is not as developed as the adult brain and the adolescent decisionmaking process is different than the adult decisionmaking process.
You can raise all sorts of questions about where this effect fits into the hard decisions that jurors must make, whether in the context of a guilt or a sentencing phase. But what seems clear to me is that this evidence must be presented to those jurors if we are, as we claim we are, seeking to hold defendants accountable, and later to punish them, based on their corresponding level of culpability.
Wednesday, May 06, 2015
First, thanks to the folks at Prawfsblawg for agreeing to have me. For those who don’t know me, I am a former public defender, currently teaching criminal law and procedure at the University of Alabama School of Law, and I write about criminal juries and juvenile justice issues – both of which will undoubtedly supply lots of fodder for my posts this month. Today, however, I want to turn to a matter on my mind a lot lately – police power and, wait for it, speeding.
I know with Baltimore smoldering and a host of other recent events, the conversation about police power could go elsewhere. And it will, though not right now, not in this post. I should start with a full disclosure in the past four months I have received two speeding tickets. This fact, in and of itself, might not seem that surprising. But in my twenty-plus years of driving, these are my first tickets. Sure, I have gotten pulled over before. I have even gotten the stern warnings to “slow it down little lady” (I am neither little nor, according to many, a lady). But before moving to Alabama I had never gotten a speeding ticket.
Setting aside my position that I was not going the speed alleged by the officer when I was stopped, the experience of getting stopped has been fascinating from a “due” process standpoint in that there was none. Quite simply I was given the option to accept the officer’s word that 1. I had broken the law and 2. the officer had accurately witnessed my disobedience even when his and her observations contradicted my own.
Without going into the fascinating details of the stops (particularly since I have decided to go to court on the most recent one), there is a single aspect of the stop that I think warrants attention here. When I asked the officer in each stop if I could see the radar readout – which each officer cited as the evidence of my speeding – I was told I could not because each officer had already cleared it. Apparently this is the policy in Alabama, to clear the radar screen as soon as the officer decides to stop the motorist (though admittedly I have not been able to confirm this with either the police department or the district attorney’s office both of whom hasn’t called me back). With the first ticket I received, I dutifully paid my fine, protesting my innocence as I entered my credit card information online. With the second stop, I asked the officer for the make and model number on her radar gun so I could try to get some information on the gun’s method and ability to record speed and she responded “do you really want to go there, ma’am?”
At this point, as I gazed upon this uniformed, Teflon-clad, hand-on-her-holstered-gun officer, I thought a number of things but first and fore most was “go where?” My daughter, who was in the car, thought I was going to jail and looked at me pleadingly to stop talking to the police officer (of course she was also late to softball practice so I may be reading too much into her look). My criminal-procedure-loving, liberty-loving self wanted to go to a place where the State has to offer the citizen some even small amount of proof before they can detain them. In the end, the officer and I glared at each other briefly and she handed me my ticket. As she began to walk away from the car, I asked her about a court date and she came back to the window. She stood there for a moment and shook her head (literally shook her head) and said “Ma’am, you can go to court on the date listed on the ticket, but what’s the point? I am going to go in and say you were speeding and you are going to say you were not and the judge will believe me.” She walked away before I could come up with a snappy retort. Five days later, I still haven’t come up with one so I guess it’s good she didn’t wait.
All of which brings me to my point. Is the speeding ticket that big a deal in my life? Honestly, probably not, unless of course I continue to get them at this rate in which case I will likely soon lose my license. But what is a big deal, for me, and all those like me who have these daily encounters with the police, was that I had no power in the moment of the encounter—and likely will continue to have no power even as I attempt to litigate my case through the Alabama Municipal Court system. In the end the system is stacked against the very citizens it is allegedly designed to protect. So a speeding ticket matters as much as any executive decision because it is about the power the State can, and does, daily exercise over all of us.
As I think about what my clients told me when I was a public defender, or other encounters I have had with the police, or even hear news reports about Baltimore, Ferguson, New York – I cannot help but marvel that this power dynamic has existed for so long, and continues. I cannot equate the helplessness and frustration I felt on the side of the road that day with what I have seen and heard of in the lives of others. But I can say that I felt like I glimpsed a world in which my sole function was to keep my head down and, when stopped by a police officer, to accept the ticket he/she handed me and shuffle along like the good, obedient citizen. Did the officer in my “case” cross some line? Not in an extreme way. She never pulled her gun. She did not pull me from the car and taze me. She didn’t even raise her voice when she spoke to me. But what she did try to do was to take away any sense I might have had that I could contest what she had concluded was right. If anything, she found my questions about her radar gun and a court date the boring and annoying inquiries of someone she had to educate by the nature of the very power she wielded. So I will see the officer from the second stop in court and I may lose. But in standing up maybe I will win after all. Or maybe I’ll just get slapped with court fees.
(Cue Public Enemy’s Fight the Power)
Friday, May 01, 2015
Why is Glossip hard?
The following is by Corinna Lain (Richmond).
I’ll be guest blogging in June, and am very much looking forward to sharing ideas and, hopefully, generating conversation then. But after listening to this week’s oral argument in Glossip v. Gross, the lethal injection case currently before the Supreme Court, I feel the need to share now.
And here’s what I can’t figure out: why is this case hard?
We’ve got a district court that essentially upheld Oklahoma’s use of midazolam as the first drug in its 3-drug lethal injection protocol against a claim that it would not, and could not, insulate the condemned from the pain associated with the next 2 drugs of the protocol. The pain associated with those 2 drugs is undisputed—one of them is a paralytic that slows and then stops the diaphragm so the condemned slowly suffocates to death, and the other has been dubbed “liquid fire” because it produces the feeling of being burned alive. The Supreme Court has already held that if the first drug doesn’t insulate the condemned from feeling the last two drugs, that’s a violation of the 8th Amendment cruel & unusual punishments clause. So it all comes down to whether midazolam can reliably do that.
So back to my question: why is this case hard?
Midazolam is a sedative, not an anesthetic; it is uncontested that it has no anesthetic properties. The district court said that didn’t matter, relying on a doctor who opined that 500 milligrams of midazolam was enough to kill someone, so even if it wasn’t an anesthetic, it would still render condemned inmates unconscious so they wouldn’t experience the pain. The problem with that is (1) the doctor’s opinion was extrapolated from an estimated lethal dose amount and he made a math error of 3 decimal points in doing so, so the correct estimated lethal dose is actually 4,970 milligrams rather than 4.97 milligrams or even 497 milligrams (an error that is uncontested); (2) even if the drug was lethal at the 500 milligram amount, just because a drug is big & bad enough to kill you doesn’t mean it’s going to render you unconscious and unable to feel pain first; (3) even the sources upon which the doctor relied were sketchy—drugs.com (which explicitly states that its information “is not intended for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment”) and OSHA’s material safety data sheet (which explicitly disclaims “any warranty, express or implied, regarding its correctness”); and (4) there’s a clear consensus in the scientific community that goes entirely the other way. Interestingly, the Court now has an amicus brief by a group of pharmacology professors who are not in support of either side, but want the Justices to at least get the science right. And what they say is that midazolam is incapable of rendering the condemned unconscious at a level that would resist ‘noxious stimuli’ like surgery and pain-inducing drugs.
So you might be thinking how in the world did we even get here? My take is it’s all too easy to dismiss these claims as just another condemned inmate trying to get another day. And you can see this dynamic at the oral arguments in Glossip.
So while Justice Breyer is scratching his head trying to find something, anything, that actually supports the district court finding, and Justices Kagan and Sotomayor are taking Oklahoma to task for quoting medical propositions out of context and misleading the Court, Justices Scalia and Alito have a different point to make: this is all the abolitionists’ fault.
You have to be able to point to a better drug to get the job done, they say, and the reason better drugs aren’t available is because abolitionists have put pressure on drug manufacturers not to sell them (or at least not to sell them to executioners). They’re right about the pressure (kinda sorta—this is largely about European abolitionism, as a forthcoming article shows) but they’re wrong about the condemned having to come up with a lethal injection protocol that works in order to avoid a torturous death with a lethal injection protocol that doesn’t.
So long as capital punishment is legal, there has to be a constitutional way to carry it out, so the argument goes. I think that’s contestable, but even assuming it were true, the Supreme Court has already upheld a number of other execution methods, so the availability of other lethal injection protocols is a red herring. Weird as it sounds, I think there’s a good argument for the firing squad as a more humane method of execution, though I’ll save those musings for my stint as guest blogger. The point is this: if an execution method causes lingering death and/or unnecessary pain (and everything we know about midazolam suggests it does both) then that violates not just our sense of decency, but the constitution as well. And that’s true whether there’s a better lethal injection protocol out there or not.
So why is Glossip a hard case? Best I can figure, it’s because frustration with the success of abolitionists has created a blind spot on the law.
Wednesday, April 29, 2015
A few more thoughts about Johnson and vagueness
As my previous post indicates, I’ve been closely watching this Term’s void for vagueness case, Johnson v. United States. I’m interested in the case because I am working on a larger project about the void for vagueness doctrine. As part of that larger project, I’ve been reading some older scholarship on the topic. As those of you who follow this area of the law probably know, one important law review article on the vagueness doctrine is Anthony Amsterdam’s 1960 student note in the U Penn Law Review. In that note, Amsterdam demonstrates that the Supreme Court’s vagueness doctrine is an inconsistent mess. He provides a number of examples showing that the Court is inconsistent in its decisions whether a statute is so imprecise that it violates due process.
There is an observation in the Amsterdam article that has me wondering about how the Court will rule in Johnson.In particular, Amsterdam claims that a defense attorney is far more likely to succeed in a vagueness challenge if “his client’s conduct is not particularly evil as viewed by the prevailing moral temper of the Court.” In support of this claim, Amsterdam notes that those defendants who have succeeded in their vagueness challenges have largely been either white collar regulatory offenders or offenders who have run afoul of prohibitions on speech. Indeed, the white collar offenders tended to succeed in the pre-New Deal era, when the Court was more protective of economic liberty, and the speech defendants have been successful more recently as the Court has become more protective of speech.
Amsterdam’s historical observation has me wondering the extent to which the Justices’ views of gun control and the Second Amendment may affect their vagueness analysis in Johnson. Samuel Johnson is not a particularly sympathetic criminal defendant. New accounts report that he is a white supremacist who came to the attention of the FBI during a domestic terrorism investigation. (Johnson allegedly planned to attack the Mexican consulate in Minneapolis.) But the legal issue before the Supreme Court is whether possessing a sawed-off shotgun constitutes a crime of violence. To the extent that Amsterdam’s observation continues to hold true, the Justices’ appetite for striking down a clause of ACCA as unconstitutionally vague may turn on how protective they wish to be of Second Amendment rights.
Of course, as with all claims about what is really driving the Court, Amsterdam’s claim about the vagueness doctrine will seem correct only if it continues to be consistent with future cases. And frankly, I haven’t yet looked at all of the vagueness cases that post-date his 1960 note to see whether they are consistent with the claim. But I have seen the claim echoed in more recent scholarship on vagueness (look at page 1188 of this paper, for example). So I suppose this gives us one more reason to follow the Johnson case.
Monday, April 20, 2015
A Few Thoughts on Johnson v. United States and the Void for Vagueness Doctrine
While most Court watchers are gearing up for the same sex marriage cases, I’ve been eagerly awaiting this morning’s argument in Johnson v. United States. Johnson is an odd case. The Supreme Court originally granted cert on the narrow issue whether possessing a short-barreled shotgun qualifies as a violent felony under the Armed Career Criminal Act. The parties briefed that issue and argued it before the Court. But then, rather than deciding the case, the Justices set the case for re-argument and asked the parties to brief whether a portion of the ACCA is unconstitutionally vague.
Over at SCOTUSBlog, Rory Little has a very good overview of the case. He also summarizes the Solicitor General’s brief on the vagueness issue, calling it a “tour de force.” I agree with Little that the government’s brief is quite good. But I wanted to take a quick minute to articulate what I see as a relatively significant oversight in the Solicitor General’s analysis.
The government’s brief, which can be found here, argues that, because the relevant clause of the ACCA involves a non-capital sentencing issue, the defendant’s burden to demonstrate vagueness is higher than it would otherwise be. In particular, the government says “the standard to invalidate a sentencing provision as vague is, at a minimum, much more demanding than the standard that applies to a statute defining criminal conduct,” and it cites Chapman v. United States, 500 U.S. 453 (1991), for this point (p. 17). I think that this government argument fails to appreciate how much the Court’s Apprendi line of cases have changed the constitutional landscape surrounding sentencing provisions.
Chapman involved a statutory mandatory minimum sentence for distributing LSD. The question presented in that case was whether the weight of the pure LSD or the weight of the LSD plus the blotter paper on which the petitioners sold their LSD was the legally relevant weight that triggered the mandatory minimum. One of the arguments that the petitioners raised was that failing to use the pure weight of LSD was arbitrary, that there is a fundamental due process right to be free from deprivations of liberty based on arbitrary determinations, and that the government therefore had to demonstrate that its decision to use the weight of the blotter paper furthered a compelling governmental interest. The Chapman Court rejected this argument, stating that it was sufficient that the government had a rational basis for its sentencing classification. Since Chapman, many lower courts have cited the decision for the proposition that legislative sentencing decisions are subject only to rational basis review.
I have little doubt that Chapman is still good law. As I have written elsewhere, the courts generally do not subject sentencing factors to much constitutional scrutiny. But Chapman was decided prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000). And since it decided Apprendi, the Supreme Court has tended to treat sentencing provisions, such as the one at issue in Johnson, more like new substantive crimes. To be precise, the relevant portion of the ACCA imposes a mandatory minimum sentence for those defendants who have three previous convictions for violent felonies and serious drug offenses. One of the most recent decisions in the Apprendi line of cases, Alleyene v. United States, 113 S. Ct. 2151 (2013), held that any fact that increases the mandatory minimum sentence for a crime in an element of that crime, not a sentencing factor. In treating facts that trigger mandatory minimums as elements, the Alleyne Court held that they must be submitted to a jury and proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
I don’t think that Alleyne dictates any particular result in Johnson. But I do think that it forecloses the government’s argument about sentencing provisions not commanding the same sort of vagueness analysis as statutes defining criminal conduct. That is because, after Alleyne, the Court treats this portion of the ACCA as if it is an element of a new statute – one that defines which criminal conduct is necessary for a new sentencing range with a minimum sentence of 15 years.
In any event, I am looking forward to reading the Johnson oral argument transcript as soon as it is available.
Sunday, April 19, 2015
Deferred Prosecution Agreements: Right Problem, Wrong Fix
Yglesias has a good write-up of the problems with regulating big financial firms, but he (and Elizabeth Warren) get to the wrong solutions.
To paraphrase, the problem is that many regulated firms are effectively judgment proof. We may threaten sanctions against accounting firms that commit fraud, or chemical firms that dump waste into the river, or banks that swindle their counter-parties. The problem is that the typical criminal sanction is too big, since indictment triggers a run on the firm by its employees, trading partners, and (eventually) creditors. Prosecutors have therefore basically stopped indicting, leading to the rise of deferred-prosecution agreements, as nicely chronicled by my law school classmate Brandon Garrett.
For Yglesias, and to lesser degree Garrett, the deferred prosecution agreement is too wimpy. Since firms know that the government won’t indict, they have no reason to cave, leading to quite defendant-friendly deals. This leads to under-deterrence. Yglesias endorses Sen. Warren’s proposed solution, which is to credibly put the threat of indictment back on the table.
But prosecutors are not wrong to avoid indictment, since that leads to over-deterrence. Over-deterrence is bad not only for firms that sink too much money into compliance, but also for society. It’s like the problem of medieval justice: if the sentence for every crime is hanging, bandits have no marginal incentive to avoid killing their victims.
My own view, as I sketch in this new draft, is that the problem is caused by the choice of ex post remedies. When regulators are facing defendants who are, in effect, judgment proof, the better solution is to switch to other incentives. So, for example, we might impose a tariff on chemicals that would be hazardous if dumped, or use anti-trust to keep banks too small to impose systemic risks. Obviously, there’s a tradeoff: not all firms will dump the chemical. A key part of my argument is that regulators can adjust their ex ante prices to account for expected variations in ex post behavior; firms that are at higher risk of dumping pay more for the chemical.
(Cross-posted at the Law & Economics Prof Blog)
Monday, April 13, 2015
As many others have mentioned while reminiscing about Danny, one of his great qualities was how he brought other people together. PrawfsBlawg was only one way he accomplished this. He also made lots of introductions and organized workshops. One of the workshops he organized is called CrimFest! (Yes, the exclamation point was Danny’s.) It began as a shadow conference at the Law & Society Association’s Annual Meeting, and then eventually became a stand-alone event.
This year’s CrimFest will be held at Cardozo Law School from July 19th-21st. Registration for the conference closes on Friday May 1st. More details about the conference and how to register follow after the break.
The conference will begin on Sunday, July 19th with the chance to socialize, but the panels will begin in earnest on Monday morning the 20th of July and will end in the late afternoon of Tuesday, July 21st. Participants will be responsible for their own travel and lodging costs (discounted hotel information is included below), and we will also ask attendees to pay an $85 registration fee to help cover the costs of breakfasts, lunches, and (funds permitting) a Monday evening happy hour. You may pay the registration fee via this website: http://www.law.utah.edu/workshops/crimfest/
Please note that the registration fee is non-refundable.
As in past years, we will have a substantial number of paper panels for works in progress. Panelists will be required to read and share comments with the other panelists. And, as last year, we will ask panelists to share their drafts a week in advance with the other attendees, by posting their notes/drafts in a password-secured website, so that more people can offer more informed comments at the panels.
We have a preference for papers that are in early stages---specifically, papers that will not have been submitted for publication prior to the date of the conference. We will also allow panelists to present papers that have already been submitted (or accepted) for publication. But priority will be given to papers in earlier stages, and we will NOT permit presentations on papers that have been published or will be published before August 2015.
We are also limiting presentations to criminal law, criminal procedure, or criminal justice issues. I know that many of us write in other, related fields. But one of the strengths of this conference has always been the ability to get feedback from other experts in a particular area. So please submit proposals only on topics that are in our core areas.
We will also hold some non-panel events during both lunch breaks---such as a discussion of particular teaching issues or other topics that may be of interest to the broader community. If you have an idea for such an event, please let me know ASAP.
Participants may include tenured or tenure track professors of law at any accredited law school. VAPs and Fellows are welcome to present too. For all who are interested in attending, please email me no later than Friday, May 1st at email@example.com
To reduce any likelihood of administrative error on my part, your email should have a subject heading that states "Proposal for 6th Annual CrimProf Conference," and the body of your email should include:
(a) The title and abstract for the paper you wish to present;
(b) Whether this is a true work-in-progress, or whether it will have been submitted for publication prior to July 20th;
(c) Whether you are willing to serve as chair or discussant for another panel; and
(d) Any date restrictions you have. (I cannot promise to accommodate date restrictions, but I will do my best.)
If you would simply like to attend the conference, please send me an email to that effect, and please let me know whether you are willing to serve as chair or discussant for a paper panel.
Finally, please do not submit a proposal or volunteer to serve as chair/discussant unless you know that you will be able to attend. It can be very disruptive when folks drop out and we need to fill spots on various panels.
I hope that many of you who attended last year will be able to attend this summer, and I hope that we are joined by many new participants as well. I can’t help but think that one of the best ways that we can honor Danny’s memory is to continue this conference, giving the best comments and writing the best scholarship that we can.
Thursday, April 09, 2015
The Boston bombing case - spring training is over, and it'll be Opening Day soon
Accused Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was, not surprisingly, convicted yesterday of all 30 federal counts that he faced. As he faced a possible death sentence, the case was bifurcated into a guilt phase and a penalty phase. Various commentators noted that defense lawyer Judy Clarke essentially conceded guilt from the beginning of the guilt phase, an indication that the defense goal has been to avoid the death penalty. (Clarke took similar approaches with previous clients such as the Unabomber and Jared Lee Loughner, among others.)
This means that the legal fight is beginning in earnest with the penalty phase, where Clarke can be expected to put up a fierce defense. It's clear from the defense posture that the theory of mitigation will be that Tsarnaev was heavily influenced, if not coerced, by his older brother Tamerlin (who was killed during capture efforts).Clarke certainly has a formidable reputation with an impressive list of former clients who escaped the death penalty. But of those successes, only Susan Smith and Zacarias Moussaoui actually faced juries in the penalty phase. The others (the Unabomber, Aryan Nations member Brandon Furrow, Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph, and Loughner) all reached plea bargains with the prosecutors. And Moussaoui reportedly avoided a jury vote of death by a single vote.
Predicting the outcome of the penalty phase would be a foolhardy task, especially ahead of the presentation of any of the aggravating or mitigating evidence. The jury has, however, already heard some extremely aggravating evidence in the case in chief:
The government called 92 witnesses over 15 days, painting a hellish scene of torn-off limbs, blood-spattered pavement, ghastly screams and the smell of sulfur and burned hair. Survivors gave heartbreaking testimony about losing legs in the blasts or watching people die. The father of 8-year-old Martin Richard described making the agonizing decision to leave his mortally wounded son so he could get help for their 6-year-old daughter, whose leg had been blown off.
This wasn't an unforeseen result of the defendant's actions. Given that the jury has already been death qualified, one has to wonder, if the death penalty doesn't apply in a case like this, when would it?
As it turns out, we have something of a comparable case: the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing of the Murrah Federal Building. (Obligatory disclosure: I clerked for Judge Holloway in Oklahoma City from 1996-97, so I was in the courthouse for much of the pre-trial hearings in the case, but obviously I wasn't present at the time of the bombing itself.)
Obviously, the death toll in the Oklahoma City bombing was much, much higher, and so too was the property damage. But co-defendants Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols both went to trial, were convicted, and faced the death penalty. McVeigh was sentenced to death, while Nichols was not. What was different between the two of them?
Observers at the time noted that:
[P]roving his guilt would end up a greater challenge for the federal government than it had been in the McVeigh case. There was no evidence that Nichols had rented the Ryder truck used to carry the bomb to Oklahoma City, and there was no one who could positively identify him as the purchaser of the two tons of ammonium nitrate, the major component in the bomb.
Most problematic for the government was the compelling fact that Nichols was at home in Kansas when McVeigh detonated the truck in front of the Murrah building at the promising start of a sunny workday.
One might be able to see Tamerlin Tsarnaev as McVeigh and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as Nichols, in terms of relative guilt, but most of the other comparisons do not favor Tsarnaev. Perhaps most importantly, Nichols may have benefited from being prosecuted after McVeigh had already been convicted and sentenced to death. While Tamerlin Tsarnaev is dead, his death did not result from a completed trial, and so Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is the only one of the two to face a jury; this is the one opportunity for a jury to, as they say, send a message.
(I should note that I'm not offering these to persuade anyone that Tsarnaev should receive the death penalty, but rather, why I think he probably will. For my views on the kinds of cases for which a death sentence would be appropriate in the interest of protecting other inmates, see an op-ed I wrote, or a short law review article.)
Additionally, whereas Nichols aided McVeigh in assembling the truck bomb, he apparently stopped helping McVeigh and thus had gone nowhere near the federal building. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, on the other hand, appears to have been every bit as much of a perpetrator of the marathon bombing as his older brother was.
I wouldn't bet on the outcome of the penalty phase, but I do think Judy Clarke is facing an uphill battle in trying to persuade the jury to spare Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
For further reading on comparisons between the Boston and Oklahoma City bombing cases, see this interview with McVeigh's lawyer.
Friday, April 03, 2015
Deterring Adolescence: A Friday Farewell Post
A brief final post on deterring adolescence, inspired by a story on Slate about four teens charged with child pornography for filming themselves having consensual sex and tweeting a video of it. The police chief said the charge will "send a message to others that kids shouldn’t be involved in this type of behavior, and hopefully this will serve as a deterrent.” If only that were so, prosecutions like this might make some sense. But there is great support for the idea that the criminal law provides very little deterrence when it comes to young people. Their impulsivity, tendency to offend in groups, preference for immediate rewards, and discounting of the future mean that the possibility of getting caught and getting punished plays little role in their decision-making calculus. In the words of Christopher Slobogin, the deterrent force of the criminal law is "literally an afterthought" for adolescents.
This has important consequences in all sorts of arenas, within and beyond criminal justice. The lack of a meaningful deterrent effect of criminal law is one reason (among many) why I argued that DNA collection from juveniles should be reconsidered. In short, we can't regulate adolescence out of adolescents. They don't respond to the incentives baked into the law the same way that adults do. In this important time when juvenile justice norms are being rebuilt, we must use what we've long known and what we newly know about young people to make for smarter policy. This is especially true when, as now, contact with the criminal justice system and criminal records can have such devastating, permanent impacts on lives.
Like my other April guest bloggers, I wanted to thank Howard and Prawfsblawg for giving me a chance to share thoughts on adolescence every couple of days. I even got a few comments to some of my posts, and made a couple of new friends in the process. This is a wonderful community, and I am thankful it exists.
Tuesday, March 24, 2015
"The Theocracy Brief"?
At the Crime and Consequences blog, which is a project of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, there is a post by Kent Scheidegger called "The Theocracy Brief," which takes issue with the amicus brief filed by the National Catholic Reporter in Glossip v. Gross (the SCOTUS case involving Oklahoma's lethal-injection procedures). Here's the primary part of the post:
Some briefs are just downright weird. In Glossip v. Gross, the midazolam lethal injection case, the National Catholic Reporter has submitted an amicus briefpurporting to explain the teachings of the Catholic Church on the subject. I have no opinion on whether what they say is correct. I know nothing about it. I do have an opinion on whether what they say has any relevance. It does not.
Last time I checked, the United States of America was not a theocracy. Quite the contrary, one of the cornerstones of the foundation of our government was a rejection of the mingling of church and state that had caused such enormous trouble in the Mother Country.
If Islamic teachings say it's okay to behead people,* would that make beheading constitutional under the Eighth Amendment? Of course not. So why would the teachings of the Catholic Church have any greater relevance? Because five of the current Justices of the Supreme Court happen to be Catholic? I am quite sure all five have the integrity not to let such an argument influence them.
* I don't know if they do, and truth of the "if" is not necessary to the point being made.
As it happens, the amicus brief has an entire section dedicated to explaining why the teachings of the Catholic Church with respect to capital punishment are, or at least could be, relevant to the particular question presented in this case. It seems to me that Mr. Scheidegger's "theocracy" charge is misplaced.
Obviously, the Church's teachings as such are not binding or authoritative on the Court when it answers legal questions and, generally speaking, whether or not the Church approves of this or that has nothing to do with questions about what the Constitution says (or doesn't) about this or that. But, in this particular context, the Court's own precedents and doctrines seem to make relevant "the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society" and so there seems to be nothing particularly strange -- and certainly nothing "theocratic" -- about an amicus brief that says, in effect, "given that you have told us you are interested in what people think about the matter, here's what a whole lot of us think about the matter, and here's why. Just FYI."
Monday, March 23, 2015
Upcoming Conference on Gang Injunctions, Enhancements, and Databases
The Center for Juvenile Law and Policy at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, where I teach, is holding a 2-day conference about gangs on April 24-25 that may be of interest to Prawfs readers. The conference plans sessions on California's Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act (STEP Act), which is a sentencing enhancement law, the use of gang experts at trial, anti-gang injunctions, gang prevention and outreach, and gang databases. The conference registration page is here
The topic of gang databases is one I cover in my forthcoming article Databasing Delinquency. The article describes the vast extent of modern data collection about juveniles by the criminal justice system (gang databases, sex offender registration for juveniles, DNA databases, schools as informants, and more) and the debilitating short and long-term harms it inflicts on youth. Data collection by itself is not the main problem (though there are harms caused by its mere collection). It’s the retention and sharing of the information that raise concerns. Much of the information collected by law enforcement (which goes far beyond charges and convictions) is retained indefinitely and shared beyond law enforcement, finds its way to the internet and the databases of private commercial background check vendors, and comes back to haunt individuals as they make the important transition to adulthood and seek employment, higher education, and housing.
I argue that, consistent with developmental science, a separate juvenile justice system, Supreme Court jurisprudence, and the purpose and meaning of childhood, there should be limits on the amount of information that the criminal justice system can gather, store and share about juveniles. This would add appropriate restraints so that public safety gains from databasing do not come at the expense of juvenile privacy, juveniles’ life chances, or childhood itself. I’m not arguing for an automatic clean slate at 18 or any other age, but even Santa Claus, who keeps one of the most important lists of who has been naughty and nice, only looks back 12 months.
Biased Police Dogs
One surprising revelation of the Justice Department's report on Ferguson's police department was that:
"[C]anine officers use dogs out of proportion to the threat posed by the people they encounter, leaving serious puncture wounds to nonviolent offenders, some of them children. Furthermore, in every canine bite incident for which racial information is available, the subject was African American."
The obvious takeaway from this startling information is the one drawn by the Justice Department, that "race may play an impermissible role in officers’ decisions to deploy canines." But a short and interesting article in the New Yorker suggests another, equally upsetting, reason that these dogs may have attacked only African American suspects: they are affected by "the hidden racial prejudices of the police officers who deploy them." It is hard to draw this conclusion from the Ferguson case alone but the article's author cites several other examples of how a trainer's biases can impact their canine charges.
The author also questions the received wisdom that dogs are particularly useful aids to law enforcement more generally. This is not an area I have looked into but am now curious about the police's use of dogs, when it is appropriate, and whether the resources spent on their training and care is the best way to spend limited police budgets.
Thursday, March 12, 2015
Decarceration and Violent Offenders
Perhaps the single biggest topic in criminal justice circles these days is the drive to decarcerate. We imprison too many people, the argument goes, and we need to cut back.
And this is surely right. We are home to 5% of the world’s population but 25% of its prisoners. It’s hard to imagine that we are that uniquely criminogenic a society. I’m generally distrustful of “American Exceptionalism” in either the good or bad direction.
But the decarceration argument often then takes a slightly wrong turn. Who comprises these offenders? So often we hear about how our prisons are packed with non-violent property and drug offenders.
Wrong. If we want to decarcerate—and we should—any sort of meaningful change is going to require a very, very difficult discussion about exactly how many, and what sort, of violent criminals we need to either not lock up in the first place, or lock up for much shorter periods of time.A clear example of the “standard account” can be seen in Michelle Alexander’s New Jim Crow:
The impact of the drug war has been astounding. In less than thirty years, the U.S. penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million, with drug convictions accounting for a majority of the increase.
This is wrong.* As I’ve shown before, between 1980 and 1990, increased drug incarcerations explain 33% of the growth in state prison populations, and increased violent incarcerations explain 36%. Between 1990 and 2010, increased drug incarcerations contribute a mere 14% to prison growth, compared to 60% for violent incarcerations. All told, between 1980 and 2010, slightly more than 50% of the net increase in prisoners is due to locking up more violent criminals (with drugs and property both in the low-20%s).
Furthermore, the standard trope that drug offenders are non-violent offenders is generally wrong as well. As this paper points out, using detailed inmate survey data from 1997, a majority of drug offenders in prison are not the stereotypical “low-level, non-violent offender.” Even if the conviction offense is low, the underlying crime—and the 1997 survey included data not just on the actual amount of the drug that led to conviction, but on whether weapons were involved in the drug transaction, the offender’s role in the transaction, prior criminal history, etc.—was often more serious, and the offender often someone with a more-dangerous background than the offense itself may suggest.
And so, as Megan McArdle recently reminded us, contrary to what we often hear from so many decarceration advocates, if we are going to shrink prison populations, we are going to have to release those convicted of violent offenses, as well as drug (and surely property) offenders who are not nearly as non-violent as the conviction offense may suggest.
This isn’t necessarily wrong. It could in fact be good. Most likely, if we viewed crime as a public health problem more than a… criminal… one, and if we treated repeated offending more like someone coming down with cancer again rather than a complete moral failing on the part of offender and society alike, we would have much more effective policies in place.
But the politics of this are radically different. It’s easy to say “let the low-level pot smoker out.” Good luck with that. About 0.1% of all prisoners in state prison in 2004 were there on marijuana possession charges.
It’s much harder to say “let the domestic violence case out. Cut the sentence for aggravated assault. Raise the threshold between simple and aggravated assault.” But that is what it is going to take if we are going to seriously cut back on incarceration.
And that should also give us pause about exactly how much we want to cut back.
To be clear, we aren’t actually all that exceptional compared to Europe when it comes to crime. Except for lethal violence, gun violence in particular.** But still: we have a lot of violent crime, and cutting punishment on that is tricky.
I’d like to end with what I think is a really clever tool developed by the Marshall Project. In an article on the Cut50 organization—a group with the goal of cutting US prison populations by 50%—the MP provides a nifty little tool that allows you to figure out how much of what type of offender you need to release to cut the population in half. It’s worth trying out.
And remember before you pull the slider for “drugs” to 0% that that’s letting out a decent number of violent people. So too for the property crimes. It’s hard to get to 50%—and a 50% cut would still leave the US prison population 2.5x higher than it was in 1975, and still with one of the highest incarceration rates around.
* Alexander’s core mistake here is that she conflates drug offenders as a share of prison admissions with their share of the prison population. Drug offenders have come to make up more and more prison admissions but not so much population due to the fact—again, contrary to conventional wisdom—that they generally serve relatively short sentences.
** Frank Zimring has argued that this difference in lethal gun violence makes all the difference: our robbery and burglary rates are below-average compared to Europe’s, but our picture of the stereotypical robbery or burglary involves someone pulling a gun. That’s actually not factually accurate, but it makes us much more afraid of crime, and thus explains some of our greater punitiveness.
Wednesday, March 11, 2015
Prosecutor Compensation and Moral Hazard: What Happens in Oregon
I will return to my thoughts on the Brennan Center report shortly, but today I wanted to talk a bit more about prosecutors, though not about prosecutors and police-involved shootings like before. In this post, I want to look at the much less exciting, but quite likely more important, issue of how we pay DAs and fund their offices.
Until recently, almost no one has paid much attention to a giant moral hazard problem that sits at the heart of our criminal justice system: district attorneys are elected by the counties, but the prisons they send felons to are paid for by the state. The standard story, then, is this: DAs will be much more sensitive to county budgets than to state ones, which encourages them to send people to prison (a state expense) rather than jail or probation (both county expenses). Thus one challenge with reining in prison growth: the person most responsible for sending people to prison has no incentive to pay attention to the (state-level) costs of doing so.Bill Stuntz raises this concern in his magisterial Collapse of American Criminal Justice, and David Ball recently talked in Slate about how this problem plays out in California. In theory, California’s Realignment plan was designed to make county DAs incur the costs of locking up low-level offenders.
I recently discovered that Oregon has developed another way of dealing with this: the state pays the DAs salary, but the county hires all the deputy DAs. Furthermore, the counties have generally given the DAs supplemental pay, which they then can (and do) vote to withhold or change. In theory, this gives both levels of government some control over DA behavior.
The system is, not surprisingly, far from perfect. The state portion of the DA salary is fixed in one of two tiers, depending on how populous the DA’s county is (the DAs in the ten largest counties earn slightly more than $17,000 more than those in the remaining 26 counties). Such rigidity doesn’t give the state much ability to single out specific DAs for being better or worse about overusing state prisons.
Furthermore, county supplements can be withheld for dubious reasons, such as one DA who lost his supplement when the county defunded it after the DA’s father ran against a county commissioner in an election and lost. The concerns are obvious. As one DA explains:
If county commissioners can eliminate a supplement, it puts a lot of pressure on the district attorney to not displease them, not support their opponents for political office, not prosecute someone they don't want prosecuted and give special deals to certain people….”
Moreover, some DAs complain that variations in county supplements lead to unappealing variations in overall pay, such as the DA in a smaller county earning more than one in a larger county. The normative implications of such variation, however, are actually pretty tricky. Though the complaint seems fair at first, it could also just reflect the fact that the smaller county puts a higher premium on DA services (whether due to more crime, or to stronger views on criminal justice enforcement, etc.). Such localism isn't necessarily a problem, putting aside concerns of abuse like above.
Furthermore, policies in Oregon point out that stating the question as "how can me make DAs take into account the costs of prisoners they send to prison" perhaps frames the issue too narrowly. There are other financial levers that the state can use to encourage or discourage prosecutors from going after felony cases. Consider this petition from the Oregon District Attorneys Association to the state legislature over funding, which looks not only at salaries, but at witness compensation. State law requires that witnesses be compensated, but the state has also cut its support for that compensation to zero, forcing counties to shoulder the full weight of that (now unfunded) mandate. The ODAA obviously is requesting state support, but the policy shift by the legislature reveals one way that state governments can make DAs more or less sensitive to the various costs at play.
Of course, indirect approaches like this always run the risk of backfiring, or leading to unanticipated and undesirable outcomes. The greater the fraction of the cost of a case the county has to bear, perhaps the more the DAs will conserve resources to focus on the most serious cases. Of course, the alternative possibility is that they will focus on the easy-to-prove cases, and if ease-of-proof and importance are not all that positively correlated--drug cases with buy-busts are cheap, but murder or rape cases are expensive--then the effect could be an undesirable reallocation.
But, of course, the story gets more complicated from there, since at that point county commissioners would attack the supplement if they thought the DA was dodging too many serious, expensive cases. One thing that distinguishes state prosecutorial incentives from federal is that state DAs have less flexibility about the cases they go after: if the public feels like the core violent crimes of murder, arson, rape, aggravated assault, etc., aren't being taken care of, they can get quite upset.*
In other words, what little discussion we see about the role of budgets and incarceration focuses on the prison budget, but there are a lot of other budgets that get implicated before someone ends up in prison, and adjusting those may present other avenues for states to regulate downstream actors’ behavior.
* Maybe. My next post will be about this depressing essay by David Simon on how the Baltimore DA basically made almost half of Baltimore's murders disappear with a statistical sleight-of-hand. Hard to complain about what the DA is doing when you have no idea what he is doing.
Monday, March 09, 2015
25 year-old adolescents
Adolescents are neither children nor adults. But who falls within the category of adolescents? Given the great advantages of age-based distinctions in clarity and efficiency, when does adolescence start and when does it end?
Adolescence has typically referred to the period between puberty and social and economic independence. In the mid-1800s, that meant adolescence lasted about 5 years. But many things have changed since then. On the front end of adolescence, the age of puberty has declined for both boys and girls. At the back end, more young people than ever go off to college, delaying their entry into the full-time job market. They are getting married later. They’re living with parents longer.
As a result, leading adolescence psychologist Laurence Steinberg maintains that adolescence now covers the period from 10 to 25. That would mean that not only every teenager, but almost every college student, and many law students, are adolescents. In fact, Steinberg predicts that the lengthening of adolescence is likely to continue, and conceiving of adolescence as limited to the teen years will become “more outdated and harmful.” (Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence).
There isn’t space in a blog post to debate the length of adolescence (another prominent psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett alternatively talks about “Emerging Adulthood”, by which he means ages 18-25). In any event, it’s almost universally accepted that full development/maturity doesn't come until the early to mid-twenties. I’m interested in thinking about the implications of the law recognizing a long adolescence, which is decidedly not widely embraced.
First off, it would not mean that all the rights and responsibilities of adulthood are withheld until a person reached 25 or 21 or 18. Whether adolescents requires distinct rules depends on how they are different. And they are different from children and adults in different ways at different ages. For example, by 16, most youth are close to adults in their ability to reason and process information, but they’re bad at deploying those skills when in groups of other teens or stressful situations, in part because they’re more interested in risk and less concerned with long-term consequences. That means that someone who can capably recognize right from wrong may nevertheless be less culpable for their actions than adults.
Indeed, some of the rules governing adolescents would overlap with those for children, and others would overlap with those for adults, depending on what was being regulated. This is, in many ways, the world we have. Young people can’t drive until 16, vote until 18, or drink until 21. But we also seem to allocate rights and responsibilities poorly. A 16 year-old can dangerously drive a car on our highways, and can be tried in adult court for his actions, but is not considered mature enough to handle R-rated movies unless watching with a parent. Paying more attention to how adolescents are different from children and adults would allow us to do a better job of assigning rights and responsibilities to adolescents.
I’ve thought most about the change that a long adolescence would bring to the law with regard to juveniles and criminal law. A long legal adolescence could mean an expanded juvenile court jurisdiction. In most states, jurisdiction ends at 18, though North Carolina and New York send everyone 16 and over to adult criminal court. In a world where adolescence lasts until 25, and where what distinguishes adolescents from adults involves decision-making capacities and attributes that make them less culpable for their acts, we might need to significantly expand juvenile court jurisdiction (or, as Barry Feld argues, provide for a youth discount at sentencing for those processed in criminal court). Similarly, 4th and 5th amendment jurisprudence, and the ability to consent to waiving those rights, probably needs to better account for the age of the person protected by and purportedly waiving those rights.
There are undoubtedly implications of a long legal adolescence in fields like torts, contracts, autonomy rights (including health, speech), family law and the strength and duration of parental rights, and more, but I don’t know them well enough to lay them out. If anyone is willing to indulge me and teach me, how might a long adolescence change the landscape in your field of expertise?
Wednesday, March 04, 2015
A foundational, definitional problem for those like me who write about childhood and juvenile justice issues is figuring out who is a child and who is an adult, because rights and responsibilities frequently turn on whether someone is considered an adult or not. The answer, of course, is that it depends. The law considers people to reach maturity at a range of ages: it might be 21 (drink alcohol), 18 (vote), 16 (drive), 10 or 7 (ages of potential criminal responsibility). Of course, age need not be the deciding factor. Determining maturity could turn on capacity instead of age, but the bright line of age is much easier to implement than individual capacity-based inquiries.
The law in all sorts of areas uses this age-based binary approach: people are children until they reach a certain age, at which point they become, or are subject to the same rules as, adults.
But however or wherever the line between adults and non-adults is located, a secondary question is becoming more pressing as developmental science teaches us more and more about the process of maturing: are there any categories within the group of people who are legally children (or “not yet adults”) and should the law account for such?
The obvious middle ground category is adolescence. There has been a tremendous amount of research about adolescence in the last two decades that has transformed our understanding of the period between the onset of puberty and adulthood. It is clear that adolescents are neither children nor adults, and it stands to reason that lawmakers may soon have to reconsider the binary approach and confront this more complicated reality.
In a series of recent juvenile justice cases (outlawing the death penalty and life without parole for juveniles, and requiring police to account for age in determining custody for Miranda purposes), the Supreme Court did not outwardly engage with this definitional problem. In 3 sentencing cases (Roper, Graham, and Miller), the Court predominantly used a binary approach. The holdings applied equally to all those under 18 (based on developmental findings distinguishing them from adults in relevant ways), at which point the categorical protections of childhood vanish.
But word choice matters, and it’s worth noting that even though the holdings in the punishment cases reflect a binary approach, the Court seemed to recognize that it was dealing with folks in that middle ground between childhood and adulthood. The court’s decisions address the “juvenile death penalty” and “juvenile life without parole” and “juvenile offenders.” A crude ctrl+F search, for example, found 97 mentions of “juvenile” in Kennedy’s opinion in Roper and only 9 uses of “child.” Similar results come from searches of Graham and Miller – much heavier use of “juvenile” instead of “child.”
Things get more complicated when we consider J.D.B., a 2011 case holding that the police must account for age in determining custody for Miranda purposes. Sotomayor’s majority opinion proclaims that “a 7–year–old is not a 13–year–old and neither is an adult.” Embedded in that observation is something more than a binary child-adult view. By recognizing that a 7 year old is not a 13 year old, the Court may be recognizing that the adolescent brain and psychosocial research so important to its decisions does distinguish adolescents from children in ways that matter to the law. It may be that the rules for 7 year olds should be different than the rules for 13 year olds, which themselves should be different than the rules for adults.
Yet, the J.D.B. majority opinion used “child” 55 times and “juvenile” only 17 times, with zero mentions of adolescence/adolescents. I’m curious about this. Was it a rhetorical strategy, to emphasize that the core issue is the different between children (everyone under 18) and adults, and the main concern the interaction between trained adult law enforcement officers and non-adult suspects? If so, why here and not in the punishment cases? Was it a rejection of the idea that the transitional stage of adolescence should have its own rules? If so, why recognize that 7 year olds are different from 13 year olds?
I intend to look closer at those questions, and the challenges in identifying what a separate legal category of adolescents might look like, in a future post.
Wednesday, February 25, 2015
Crime, Policing, and CompStat: An OVB/Endogeneity Exacta
Continuing my examination of the Brennan Center report on crime and incarceration, I want to turn my attention now to its treatment of CompStat and policing. The report finds, based primarily on Steve Levitt’s prior work, that policing is responsible for about 0% to 10% of the crime drop in the 1990s and very little in the 2000s; conversely, using city-level data, the report suggests that CompStat contributed to 5% to 15% of the drop in city-level crime. The report quite likely understates the effectiveness of policing and overstates the effectiveness of CompStat.Let’s start with CompStat. The first concern I have with the report is that despite city-level data showing that CompStat works, it isn’t included in the state-level models. The justification—that CompStat is a city-level program, not a state-level one—is one of those arguments that makes sense at first but unravels with more thought.
Consider how the authors themselves explain this decision:
Because policing is a local function, executed on the city and county level, an empirical analysis of CompStat must be conducted at a local level instead of a state level.
But the state-level models include police numbers which, as they say, is a local function executed at a local level. So why include police numbers but not CompStat in a state-level regression? For that matter, most of their other factors are local- and county-level as well, such as unemployment, income, even the use of the death penalty. In all these cases, state-level aggregates are homogenizing county- and local-level variation.
And that may be totally okay. But why treat CompStat any differently?
The only reason I can see is that it is harder to aggregate. It is easy to add up all the police in a state, or to average out the local unemployment rates. But how do you “average” a binary choice like CompStat? A city either has it or it does not. So how do you code “CompStat” for, say, California, if Los Angeles and San Diego use it but San Francisco does not? And do you even care if Sonoma uses it or not?
Tricky questions, to be sure. But that doesn’t mean we can just punt on them. There may be creative ways to manage this issue: how about percent of population or percent of crimes taking place in cities or counties using CompStat, which would be akin to some sort of police-per-capita number? Or perhaps designate a “big enough city” cutoff point (at least x% of the state population), and then have an indicator for each city?
I have no doubt there are problems with each of these, and these are just ideas off the top of my head. But the point is that if CompStat matters at the city level, it matters at the state level, since cities—especially big cities, which are the ones most likely to adopt CompStat—exert sizable influence on state-level statistics. So CompStat can’t simply be dropped without cost.
And while CompStat appears to influence crime (though more on that in a moment), it could also shape incarceration directly. The decision to adopt CompStat could reflect a certain degree of criminal justice sophistication, or perhaps a more cost-based managerial approach, that could reflect a broader shift away from incarceration beyond trends in crime rates. So the standard omitted variable bias concern recurs.
Here, it looks like CompStat reduces both crime and—if my theory here is right—incarceration, so its exclusion, like all the others I’ve identified so far, will tend to make the model understate the effect of incarceration on crime.
Even at the city level, though, there is another risk of omitted variable bias when it comes to CompStat: not CompStat itself (obviously), but how the police use it. The authors of the report are very careful to point out that their variable makes no assessment of how the police use CompStat or respond to its findings—broken windows, stop-and-frisk, hot-spot policing, etc.—on the (again, understandable) grounds that such data is hard to gather.
Unfortunately, it might also be important. A recent paper that randomized police responses in designated hot spots found that foot patrols and problem-oriented policing responses had almost no effect on crime, while offender-oriented tactics witnessed a 42% drop in all violent crimes and a 50% drop in violent felonies. The tactics appear to matter significantly.
So what is this CompStat variable picking up? Is it just the adoption of CompStat, or do cities that adopt CompStat more often than not also adopt tactics along side it that appear to work? It’s possible that much of the “CompStat” effect this model detects is really a “Tactics” effect, with the tactics correlated to the adoption of CompStat.
This is not a trivial question. If I am a cash-strapped police department debating between buying new computer systems or training my officers, I’d really like to know if what matters more is the precision of the response vs. how my officers respond in general. Unfortunately, the Brennan Center model can’t tell us that.
Which is not to say that identifying CompStat or its correlates as important (assuming the rest of the model has no problems) is not useful to know. That could be very useful—it at least narrows down the options for jurisdictions to consider. But it is important to acknowledge the limited nature of the finding.
Finally, I want to turn briefly to the report’s focus on policing. The authors note that their regressions return only a minimal effect of policing on crime, but they are quick to rightly point out that endogeneity is big problem here as well, as Steve Levitt pointed out clearly years ago.* The authors then draw two conclusions:
- They decide to simply accept Levitt’s numbers for the 1990s.
- They point out that the number of sworn officers has been flat or falling slightly over the 2000s, so policing’s effect during that time is likely minimal.
I have concerns with both of these claims.
First, the authors decline to generate new results for policing on the grounds that endogeneity is hard to correct, so it makes sense to stick with Levitt’s popular findings. But Levitt’s instrument is actually pretty easy to use—as long as you have data on when mayoral and gubernatorial elections occurred, you can extend Levitt’s instrument into the present. Admittedly Levitt’s data is city-level, not state-level, but the authors could have run new city-level regressions to see if Levitt’s findings are robust to more data. They may have even been able to directly model whether there are diminishing returns to policing in an era of falling crime, although there could be some technical problems there.**
Moreover, while they are right that the number of officers has been flat, the levels of crime have been falling. So it is likely that officers per crime have gone up. Might that suggest that the relative strength of police forces has risen, even if their absolute number has declined? In which case, might policing have more of an effect into the 2000s? It obviously doesn’t have to—maybe policing becomes less effective as crime falls since it becomes harder to actually uncover it—but the claim that a flat number of officers can be taken as evidence of negligible effect strikes me as perhaps looking at the wrong number (officers, instead of officers per crime).
The tl;dr version, then? The effect of CompStat could be picking up important tactical choices, and the ineffectiveness of policing could reflect incorrect modeling choices. Neither of these problems is guaranteed, but the risk is non-trivial, and the policy implications of being wrong here are non-trivial as well.
* I must admit to finding it somewhat strange that the authors are quick to accept Levitt’s argument that endogeneity is a problem here but not when it comes to incarceration.
** I have no idea off the top of my head if it is easy to instrument for a variable that appears in some sort of quadratic equation.