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Category: Criminal Law

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Recommended Reading: Avlana Eisenberg’s Expressive Enforcement

Avlana Eisenberg recently posted on SSRN her article “Expressive Enforcement” forthcoming in the UCLA Law Review. The piece makes an important contribution to the literature on hate crimes laws and enriches the literature on expressive theories of law. Eisenberg’s study of hate crimes charging decisions (based on a set of interviews with prosecutors in 23 states) finds some surprising patterns. While the prosecutors Eisenberg spoke to often don’t bother with hate crimes charges in archetypal hate crimes cases (because they already can get a serious conviction for a violent crime, and it’s not worth the difficulty of proving bias motives), many do charge hate crimes in certain kinds of cases that don’t really seem “hate”-related at all–for instance, frauds that target senior citizens. Such crimes may well involve “vulnerable victims,” but they do not involve the kind of group-based animus that hate crimes laws are generally intended to condemn. (I blogged about such prosecutions here). Eisenberg uses this to illustrate a broader point: when we talk about the “expressive message of a law,” we usually are thinking about the message legislators intended to express when they passed the law, or at least some message that is encapsulated, even if unintentionally, by the legislation itself. But the way the law plays out on the ground may be very different, and that affects the way the expressive message is actually heard by communities (and, in this case, risks devaluing it, by turning the threat of hate crimes prosecution into just another instrumental tool in prosecutors’ toolboxes).

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Stanford Law Review Online: Privacy and Big Data

Stanford Law Review

The Stanford Law Review Online has just published a Symposium of articles entitled Privacy and Big Data.

Although the solutions to many modern economic and societal challenges may be found in better understanding data, the dramatic increase in the amount and variety of data collection poses serious concerns about infringements on privacy. In our 2013 Symposium Issue, experts weigh in on these important questions at the intersection of big data and privacy.

Read the full articles, Privacy and Big Data at the Stanford Law Review Online.

 

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Putin Gays on the Agenda

When I hear about American supporters the new Russian homophobic legislation (or, for that matter, about President Putin and his aides who initiated such crazy legislation, which prohibits, among other things, even expressing tolerance towards LGBTs), I can’t help but recall a New York Time article from last year titled Homophobic? Maybe You’re Gay, which claimed that there is “empirical evidence of a connection between homophobia and suppressed same-sex desire.”

NSA Penalty Proposed

Readers suggested potential penalties for improper gathering or misuse of surveillance data last month.  As revelations continue, Congressmen have recently proposed some new ideas:

Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) proposed legislation . . .  that would cut National Security Agency (NSA) funding if it violates new surveillance rules aimed at preventing broad data collection on millions of people.

Fitzpatrick has also offered language to restrict the term “relevant” when it comes to data collection.  On the one hand, it seems odd for Congress to micromanage a spy agency.  On the other hand, no one has adequately explained how present safeguards keep the integrated Information Sharing Environment from engaging in the harms catalogued here and here. So we’re likely to see many blunt efforts to cut off its ability to collect and analyze data, even if data misuse is really the core problem.

Documentary on Indonesian War Crimes Strikes a Chord

TalkShowThe documentary “The Act of Killing” appears to be an extraordinary commentary on the violent anti-communism of Suharto‘s Indonesia. As Francine Prose notes, “the country’s right-wing leaders recruited gangs of thugs to wipe out suspected Communists with messy, improvisatory, but astonishing efficiency; estimates of the number killed during this period range from 500,000 to a million or more.” As in Vietnam, it appears that extremism in the defense of liberty was no vice.

As gangs become a tool of the prison industry in the US (or vice versa), the following observations from participants in the documentary are a striking commentary on the relativity of law in extreme scenarios:

On screen, one unrepentant murderer mocks the notion of human rights: “The Geneva conventions may be today’s morality,” he says, “but tomorrow we’ll have the Jakarta Conventions and dump the Geneva Conventions. War crimes are defined by the winners. I’m a winner. So I can make my own definition.”

When some of “the most important figures in organized crime are employees of multinational companies, politicians and bureaucrats,” the definition of the “criminal” leaves ordinary rule of law principles behind. The problem affects far more countries than the obvious targets of, say, Indonesia, Italy, and India. The “officialization of the criminal” and “criminalization of the official” may well be one of the darkest trends of our already troubled times.

Image: From The Act of Killing (directed by Joshua Oppenheimer), video still of an Indonesian talk show, where the audience applauded the “homicidal exploits” of a “self-described gangsters who” engaged in “brutal campaigns against Communists, ethnic Chinese and critics of the military government.”

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Separation of Powers and Prosecutions

97px-RoberthjacksonI was reading a book about Chief Justice Warren the other day and learned about a case that I knew nothing about.  In Irvine v. California, 347 U.S. 128 (1954), the petitioner was convicted of bookmaking.  To obtain the evidence that supported the conviction, state police went into Irvine’s home four times without a warrant to install hidden microphones (including a bedroom mic) and used the neighbor’s garage as a listening post for a month.  At that time, though, the exclusionary rule did not apply to the states, so the Court affirmed Irvine’s conviction.

Nevertheless, a plurality opinion written by Justice Jackson strongly condemned the police.  Then came this amazing paragraph:

“It appears to the writer, in which view he is supported by THE CHIEF JUSTICE, that there is no lack of remedy if an unconstitutional wrong has been done in this instance without upsetting a justifiable conviction of this common gambler. If the officials have willfully deprived a citizen of the United States of a right or privilege secured to him by the Fourteenth Amendment, that being the right to be secure in his home against unreasonable searches, . . . their conduct may constitute a federal crime under 62 Stat. 696 . . . This section provides that whoever, under color of any law, statute, ordinance, regulation or custom, willfully subjects any inhabitant of any state to the deprivation of any rights, privileges or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution of the United States shall be fined or imprisoned . . . We believe the Clerk of this Court should be directed to forward a copy of the record in this case, together with a copy of this opinion, for attention of the Attorney General of the United States.  However, Mr. Justice REED and Mr. Justice MINTON do not join in this paragraph.”

It’s not unheard of for the Court (or for individual Justices) to call upon Congress to do something.  (Such as amend a statute to correct the Court’s interpretation or provide a remedy where there is none.)  I know of no other example, though, where the Court called upon the DOJ to prosecute somebody.

Race, Justice, and the Political Economy of Vigilantism

A few thoughts in the wake of Zimmerman verdict (and related matters):

1) The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson stated last night, “I still don’t understand what Trayvon Martin was supposed to do” once he knew he was menaced.  Gary Younge similarly asked, “What version of events is there for that night in which Martin gets away with his life?”

Cord Jefferson, in a way, provides a practical response to that question:

To stay alive and out of jail, brown and black kids learn to cope. They learn to say, “Sorry, sir,” for having sandwiches in the wrong parking lot. They learn, as LeVar Burton has, to remove their hats and sunglasses and put their hands up when police pull them over. They learn to tolerate the indignity of strange, drunken men approaching them and calling them and their loved ones a bunch of [n______]. They learn that even if you’re willing to punch a harasser and face the consequences, there’s always a chance a police officer will come to arrest you, put you face down on the ground, and then shoot you execution style. Maybe the cop who shoots you will only get two years in jail, because it was all a big misunderstanding. You see, he meant to be shooting you in the back with his taser.

Yahdon Israel writes about similar coping mechanisms in Manhattan, and the fallback tactic of avoidance.  He notes that, “Although Columbia [University] is in Harlem, power wills that there is no Harlem in Columbia. Rather than walk through, the people of Harlem are more comfortable with walking around Columbia to get to the other side because they know where they don’t belong.”

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Big Rig? Libor & Beyond

BankstersTo inaugurate a series of posts about scandals and crime in the financial sector, I wanted to highlight John Lanchester’s work in the London Review of Books on “banks’ barely believable behaviour.” He mentions the still unwinding Libor scandal up front:

Libor is the single most important number in international financial markets, used as a reference point throughout the global financial system. It is a range of interbank lending rates, set after consultation between the British Bankers’ Association and two hundred and fifty-odd participating banks. During the daily process, each bank is asked the rate at which it could borrow money from other banks, ‘unsecured’ i.e. backed only by its own creditworthiness rather than by specific collateral. The question is, in effect: what would your credit be like today, if you had to ask? . . . .

It seems bizarre that something so central to the global markets – $360 trillion of deals are pinned to Libor – should have such a strong element of invention or guesswork. The potential for abuse is immediately apparent. As Donald MacKenzie prophetically said, ‘the obvious risk to the integrity of the calculation is that a bank on a Libor panel might make a manipulative input, trying to move Libor up or down so as to influence interest rates or the value of its swaps portfolio.’ Surprise! After the crisis, when investigators were taking an energetic interest in Libor, it turned out that that was exactly what had been happening, not just at one or two banks but across an entire swath of the industry.

Lanchester only brings up LIBOR as the opening act for what he considers a far deeper scandal in Britain—PPI. And guess what—it’s not just LIBOR where we’re seeing these concerns about privileged access to information turning into profit. Here are some other “rigging” scandals of recent vintage:
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Badge = Deference & Submission

We know that, in theory, citizens have some rights vis-a-vis police. But in practice, does it make sense to simply submit to any person waving a badge? Reason magazine features a story where that seems to be the lesson:

A group of state Alcoholic Beverage Control agents clad in plainclothes approached [Daly], suspecting the blue carton of LaCroix sparkling water to be a 12-pack of beer. Police say one of the agents jumped on the hood of her car. She says one drew a gun. Unsure of who they were, Daly tried to flee the darkened parking lot. “They were showing unidentifiable badges after they approached us, but we became frightened, as they were not in anything close to a uniform,” she recalled Thursday in a written account of the April 11 incident. . . . That led to Daly spending a night and an afternoon in the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail.

This story also suggests a wider range of opportunities for abuse of the discretion granted to officers.