Articles Tagged with search & seizure

In April of 2010, Mr. Cornell had his home raided by police where 1/16th of an ounce of marijuana had been found – not enough to roll a joint. None of the potential jurors called for the case where willing to consider convicting someone for possessing a very small amount of marijuana.[1]

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November 16th 2010, Touray Cornell from Montana, breathed a sigh of relief and smiled as Judge “Dusty” Deschamps convened his court to report that out of all the potential jurors who had been called, not one would be willing to convict Mr. Cornell. Dumbfounded by the jurors’ decision, the District Attorney quickly spoke to Mr. Cornell’s defense counsel and an immediate plea deal was made. Mr. Cornell walked out free without admitting guilt and without probation.

Mr. Cornell witnessed the power of Jury Nullification, a show of citizen’s power through the legal system have a long and storied history in America. it is the power of Jury nullification and Mr. Cornell saw a version of that power first hand.

It is said that everything is bigger in Texas, unfortunately, that isn’t always a good thing. In just under a decade, Texas has taken $540.7 million dollars’ worth of assets from its citizens.[1] Texas is one of the more aggressive states when it comes to the practice of civil asset forfeiture, earning an average yearly income of $41.6 million from the practice. [2]

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Legal Taking of Property?

Civil Asset Forfeiture is the practice by which property can be confiscated from people without ever charging them with a criminal offense. Civil asset forfeiture is an actual civil suit brought against the confiscated item leading to bizarre sounding cases such as State of Texas v. One 2004 Chevrolet Silverado, and State of Texas v. .39 acres.

iStock_000006229203XSmall-214x300As the digital age advances, technology becomes ever more entwined into our daily lives. Stunning revelations about mass government surveillance[1] have led many to wonder what privacy protections still remain for citizens. With the death of Justice Antonin Scalia[2]; the most ardent defender of the Fourth Amendment on the Supreme Court, some feel that the Amendment’s protections will continue to erode in the digital age.

What is the Fourth Amendment?

The Fourth Amendment of the Unites States Constitution is one of the bedrocks of our criminal justice system. While relatively short, the Amendment encapsulates a foundational idea of our government. It guarantees citizens’ protection against unreasonable search and seizure, and establishes the importance of a warrant.  The Fourth Amendment reads as such:

iStock_000000350401XSmall.jpgThe government intercepts the phone calls of suspect criminals through the use of a wiretap. Wiretaps are search warrants that allow a law enforcement agency to eavesdrop on phone calls or internet communications (E.g. cell, land line, Skype calls). Law enforcement agencies can only eavesdrop after they obtain a court order from a judge authorizing them to listen in on certain conversations. In order to obtain a court order, the officer must file an application with the court requesting authorization from the court to conduct a wiretap. The application is an essential part of the process and is subject to strict compliance with 18 U.S.C.A. § 2518.

The first requirement is that the investigative or law enforcement officer making the application be identified along with the officer who authorized the application. This requirement is important for a couple of reasons. First, there are strict disclosure laws that prohibit liberal sharing of wiretaps. Officers cannot freely discuss wiretaps with whomever they want, even if they are talking to other officers. The disclosure must be permitted by statute. Second, it identifies the law enforcement agency that is conducting the wiretap. Particular agencies can conduct wiretaps for certain reasons. Certain agencies investigate certain crimes; not all crimes are subject to wiretap surveillance either. A law enforcement agency must be investigating a crime that is enumerated under 18 U.S.C.A. § 2703, and the crime must be one that the agency investigates.

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iStock_000020746027_ExtraSmall.jpgIn December of 2013, a 54-year-old Texas woman was traveling back from spending the Christmas holiday with a family friend in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico when she was stopped by federal agents at the Cordova Bridge border crossing in El Paso, Texas. As the unnamed woman was passing through the checkpoint, a police drug dog allegedly alerted on her, prompting U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents to select her for additional screening. The woman was quickly stripped searched and forced to undergo several body cavity searches at the crossing checkpoint, but the agents failed to turn up absolutely any evidence of drugs.

Regardless of this fact, the agents were determined to find some evidence of drugs and proceeded to transport the woman, handcuffed and against her will, to the University Medical Center of El Paso. At the hospital, doctors subjected the woman to an observed bowel movement, an expensive total body CT scan and numerous body cavity probes in a desperate attempt to find some trace of drugs. However, after enduring over six hours of demeaning and highly invasive searches, the agents were forced to admit the woman had committed no crime and released her with no charges. However, to add insult to injury, the woman soon received a $5,000 bill from the hospital for the exams she was wrongly forced to undergo.

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When a suspect is in police custody and being questioned by an officer, Texas law requires police officers to meet multiple conditions and give the suspect various warnings before statements made by the suspect can be used against him at trial. By being aware of these requirements, Texas residents can gain insight into the protections Texas law provides to those accused of a crime.

Take for example the case of Steven Woods. The defense was able to establish that the interrogating officers did not fulfill the requirements needed to admit Woods’ oral statements, and therefore, the highest criminal court in Texas ruled that the trial court made a mistake by admitting Woods’ statement against him. Texas law requires that among the warnings officers must provide when questioning an individual who is in custody, officers must inform the individual that he has the right to terminate the questioning at any time. In Wood’s case, officers failed to meet this requirement, thus his statement should not have been admitted against him at trial.
The other warnings officers must provide include telling the suspect/defendant that:
1. s/he has the right to remain silent;
2. s/he does not have to make any statement at all;
3. any statement made may be used as evidence against him in court at trial and;
4. s/he has the right to have a lawyer present to advise before and during any interrogation. (If the suspect cannot hire a lawyer, he has the right to have a lawyer appointed.)

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dreamstime_xs_22155154.jpgDespite a relatively low crime rate during the last decade, between 1970 and 2010, Texas’ prison population increased by 995%, even though the state’s population only increased by 124% during that same time period. However, Texas’ record-setting incarceration rates are not accidental–meaning this trend can still be reversed. Critics of excessive legislation and prosecutorial strategies such as mandatory minimum sentences stress that our excessive prison population is a direct result of the Texas Legislature constantly criminalizing new acts. Over the last decade, the Legislature has created an average of 40 new felonies during each legislative session while simultaneously increasing penalties for existing crimes. At present, Texas recognizes over 2,500 felony crimes.

Another prime contributor to Texas’ prison population explosion is unarguably the U.S.’s failed war on drugs. At this point, we can all agree that “prison therapy” is hugely ineffective in helping defendants cope with addiction. Considering the fact that over 70,000 people both enter and leave Texas state prisons every year, only 22% of which have been convicted of a violent crime. It should be imperative that we are taking steps to treat and reform inmates during their served time, rather than hoping that imprisonment itself is enough to deter addiction and future bad behavior. Treating a public health problem as a criminal problem is not going to end substance addiction, especially when past imprisonment keeps a person disenfranchised within their community, often without the ability to find a job or place to live. And all too often, the communities that are most impacted by this injustice are young minorities, with a new study finding that by age 23, 49% of black males and 44% of Hispanic males have been arrested, compared with only 38% of white males.

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iStock_000006746569XSmall.jpgUnlike federal law, which more broadly allows officers to make warrantless arrests based on probable cause, Texas laws specify the circumstances when officers can make arrests without a warrant. Understanding these circumstances may better help Texas residents understand the limitations of their rights in police encounters. Knowing the scope of police power can also help Texas residents make smarter choices in their day-to-day actions to avoid undue arrest and imprisonment. There are seven primary types of arrests not requiring an arrest warrant.

On View Arrests: An officer can arrest an individual if the officer views that individual committing any crime in the officer’s presence or within the officer’s view. For an officer to use this type of arrest, the officer must view some part of the crime and play some role in the arrest.

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iStock_000011009457_ExtraSmall.jpgPresident Obama thinks marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol and is less dangerous in terms of its impact on consumers. In a January 2014 interview with the New Yorker, the president compared marijuana to other vices such as alcohol and cigarettes, stating “As has been well documented, I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life. I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.”

While the president doesn’t find the use of marijuana alarming, he is very bothered by the fact that minorities, especially minority youth, have a radically disproportionate rate of arrest and imprisonment. “Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do,” Obama said. “African-American kids and Latino kids are more likely to be poor and less likely to have the resources and the support to avoid unduly harsh penalties…we should not be locking up individual users for long stretches of jail time when some of the folks who are writing those laws have probably done the same thing.” A new study released this month supports the president’s concerns, finding that nearly half of all black males are arrested by the time they reach the age of 23.

What is even more surprising is that notoriously conservative Texas governor Rick Perry has also shown a recent liberalized attitude towards marijuana. Perry, speaking to the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, defended Colorado and Washington state’s vote to legalize the drug, saying it is a matter of states’ rights. Although Perry sidestepped questions of whether he supported the decriminalization of marijuana, he promoted Texas’ drug courts, which offer treatment instead of incarceration for non-violent offenders, as an example to other states and nations.

iStock_000001725183XSmall.jpgA recent report by the Partnership at Drug Free, formerly known as the Partnership for a Drug Free America, found a solid majority of those polled by the organization itself, 52 percent, favor marijuana decriminalization and a vast majority, 70 percent, favor medical marijuana. The Partnership interviewed 1,603 adults. The majority of these adults (1,200) are parents of children who are between 10 and 19 years old. The report found 72 percent of mothers and 67 percent of fathers support medical marijuana.

One may be surprised that an organization focused on combating teenage drug use is publicizing report results showing favorable parental views on marijuana law reform. A deeper look into the results of marijuana law reform reveals that marijuana reform could help combat teenage marijuana use and thus align with the goals of the Partnership. For example, since Colorado passed marijuana laws, marijuana usage among Colorado teenagers has gone down. Colorado, probably the most marijuana friendly state in the nation, has a teenage marijuana use rate that is below the national average. Despite the beliefs of marijuana reform opponents that claim pro-marijuana laws will increase adolescent marijuana use, a recent report revealed there is no visible link between states legalizing medical marijuana and children increasing marijuana consumption.

The Partnership has had a noticeable history of focusing especially on the dangers of marijuana, even though the harms caused by alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceuticals far outweigh the harms of marijuana use. Past funding sources of the Partnership may explain the lack of particular focus on drugs more destructive than marijuana. According to Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), the Partnership has accepted funding from numerous tobacco, alcohol, and pharmaceutical companies. These companies include the Budweiser, Michelob, Busch Beer Company: Anheuser Busch, the Marlboro and Virginia Slims company: Philip Morris, the Camel, Salem, Winston cigarettes company: R.J. Reynolds, as well as firms associated with pharmaceuticals like Bristol Meyers-Squibb, Merck & Company, and Proctor & Gamble. The Partnership reportedly ceased accepting alcohol and tobacco funding, but continues to receive support from major pharmaceutical firms, despite the fact that pharmaceutical drugs cause the most overdose deaths compared to all other drugs.