Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The fishbowl

If you're into social media and designing applications (and helping los federales to spy on the citizenry), the FBI has the perfect free-lance job opportunity for you.

How would you like to design an app that could search social media sites such as Facebook, YouTube, Flickr and Twitter and allow users to compile information on domestic and international terrorism?

The FBI's Strategic Information and Operations Center (SOIC) posted its "Social Media Application" market research request onto the web on 19 January, and it was subsequently flagged up by New Scientist magazine. 
The document says: "Social media has become a primary source of intelligence because it has become the premier first response to key events and the primal alert to possible developing situations." 
It says the application should collect "open source" information and have the ability to: 
  • Provide an automated search and scrape capability of social networks including Facebook and Twitter.
  • Allow users to create new keyword searches.
  • Display different levels of threats as alerts on maps, possibly using colour coding to distinguish priority. Google Maps 3D and Yahoo Maps are listed among the "preferred" mapping options.
  • Plot a wide range of domestic and global terror data.
  • Immediately translate foreign language tweets into English.

Sure, when you post something online it's out there for the whole world to see. But, so many of these social network sites function more like a cocktail party or a backyard bbq. You and your circle of (mostly) virtual friends chat and comment about this or that - until your eye is drawn to the next shiny object.

What has happened to our right to be left alone? As Scott Greenfield points out, on the internet you don't know if you're talking to a dog -- or a terrorist, or at least someone los federales have their eyes on. How does it feel to know you might just get dragged into an investigation? How does it feel to know that you might find yourself under suspicion because of a tweet?

Of course you know that everything changed on 9/11. Now we're all under suspicion. Now the government needs to be able to monitor all our communications lest someone say something that might be a little bit controversial. The same tools that we have hailed for making our world smaller and allowing us to connect with more people are being used to keep an eye on us.

How does it feel to be the fish?

Coming and going

Sign outside the Inmate Processing Center on Commerce Street in Downtown Houston.

Everywhere else downtown, the parking meters are turned off by 6pm every evening and all day on Sunday. But not at the jail.

They'll screw you coming... and going.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Peter Principle in action

Citgroup. Bank of America. AIG. General Motors. Ally. Chrysler. Chrysler Financial.

What do all of these companies have in common? (Ally, for those of y'all who haven't seen the annoying commericals was created by the spinoff of GMAC from General Motors.)

The seven companies listed above were the largest recipients of the bailout funds doled out by the federal government as the economy came crashing down. As part of the bailout, executive compensation at the firms was limited to $500,000. Citigroup and Bank of America have since repaid their loans and are free to pay their executives whatever the hell they want to.

Kenneth Feinberg was named the special master whose duties included overseeing executive compensation at the bailed out companies. Under pressure from the Treasury Department and the New York Federal Reserve Bank, Mr. Feinberg gave the official thumbs-up to the wholesale obliteration of the compensation limit according to an audit from the inspector general for the Trouble Asset Relief Program (TARP).

One of the worst offenders was AIG whose collapse was caused by its sale of unregulated credit default swaps. After handing the company over $180 billion, the taxpayers still own 70% of AIG. Now, keep in mind that the executives we're talking about are the folks who sat in the captain's chair as they drove their companies over the cliff in 2008.

The companies begged and pleaded with Mr. Feinberg (and had their friends in Washington and New York do more cajoling) to ignore the limit on compensation because, otherwise, the executives might just leave the companies and look for work elsewhere.

To which I say, so fucking what? Would you want to retain the people that drove your company into the ground? As an example, Robert Benmosch is the CEO of AIG. In 2008 Mr. Feinberg authorized a $10.5 million compensation package for Mr. Benmosch. For what? Under his leadership AIG's stock was worth less than the paper it was printed on. But that wasn't all. The following year Mr. Benmosch found himself the recipient of another $10.5 million in compensation while 17 of the company's 22 top employees received between $3 million and $7.6 million in compensation.

And they were rewarded for what? Getting down on their knees and begging the government to give them taxpayer money to keep their doors open? They shouldn't have been rewarded. They should have been kicked to the curb and left to fend for themselves.

Instead the men responsible, in large part, for the economic meltdown continue to sit in the lap of luxury on the taxpayer's dime. If executive compensation is meant to be a reward for steering the company to higher profitability then the opposite must also be true. Meanwhile the federal government just doesn't seem to be able to scrape the money together to help homeowners stave off the repo men.

The moral must be that if you screw something up, screw it up royally - otherwise you'll just find yourself on the unemployment line.

H/T Democracy Now!

Chasing down SEO rabbitholes

This is probably the most amazing blogs Ive study inside of a really extended time. The level of information in here is stunning!
That was the comment. It was submitted by someone named "Bose." The piss poor grammar and spamishness sparked my curiosity. Who was the spammer?

There wasn't much to go on when I clicked on Bose's blogspot user profile. Just a link to something called ArticleCity(dot)com. And just what is ArticleCity, you may ask. It's your "one-stop" shop for free articles to put in your online newsletter or e-mail spam.
Welcome to ArticleCity(dot)com - your one-stop source for free articles. Do you need content to add to your web site? Or articles for use on your opt-in newsletters and e-zines? ArticleCity.com maintains a huge collection of articles on a wide variety subjects. 
So I scrolled down to the legal articles and found one about when you need to hire a DUI lawyer. The article was a tangled mess of poor grammar and viewpoints. Here's an excerpt:
DUI (Driving under the influence) of alcohol or drugs is considered to be a serious offense as it is the greatest cause of criminal injury and death. The drugs that are taken into account include tranquilizers, opiates, amphetamines, cocaine and marijuana. When the driver has a blood alcohol level of 0.08% or higher then in that case that person is guilty of the offense. Drivers who drink and drive not only put their life in danger but also of the people around them. They think that after drinking they can control their driving without caring about the consequences like they might get caught by the police or they might get involved in an accident. They also have to face severe legal consequences such as their license may be suspended or they might be placed in jail and fined substantial fees.
We are then told that if you are arrested for DUI then you will need a lawyer who's "highly experienced and skilled," "highly skilled and efficient," "expert," "qualified," , "reliable," "right" and "proficient." I think he got in all the SEO-friendly keywords in that paragraph.

Our author ends with this caution:
Some lawyers offer free consultation to their clients. An initial consultation with your DUI lawyer helps you in deciding whether you want to work with them or not. Ensure the upfront fee and payment options. Therefore in order to save yourself from such kind of punishments it is advisable not to indulge in these type of things as it might be considered a crime and in case if you get involved in this type of situation then hiring an expert DUI lawyer can be the best solution.
Now we can all nitpick the article to death but that would be like shooting fish in a barrel. The article was written by someone named Sukhmannjot who provided a link in the author box to the Abreu Law Firm in Miami.
Abreu law firm Attorney Miami able to handle Criminal Lawyer Miami cases in either state or federal court.
I don't know if our friend Sukmannjot is an employee of the Abreu Law Firm or if he just works for some SEO company that posts spam comments and poorly written articles on websites. Whichever the case may be, I would suggest that Mr. Abreu keep closer tabs on those he uses to market his firm.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Pressure builds on judge to step down

Well, what do you know, Christopher Dupuy is back in the news.

If you don't know, Mr. Dupuy is the judge in County Court at Law No. 3 in Galveston County. At the time he was running for the bench the State Bar had placed him on probation for violating ethics rules. The seat he ran for was held by the judge in the divorce case filed by his now ex-wife. His platform was a bizarre assortment of right-wing positions that would have made any wingnut proud. He sits on the bench because Galveston County voters in the north end of the county blindly selected the straight ticket option for the Republicans.
SUSPENSIONS On Oct. 9, 2009, Christopher Dupuy [#24003931], 38, of League City, accepted a six-month, fully probated suspension effective Oct. 9, 2009. An evidentiary panel of the District 5 Grievance Committee found that Dupuy’s professional websites contained statements that omitted facts necessary to make the statements considered as a whole not materially misleading. Also, Dupuy’s advertisement in a telephone directory did not conspicuously publish the name of at least one lawyer responsible for the content of such advertisement, and did not disclose the geographic location, by city or town, of Dupuy’s principal office. Dupuy failed to file the telephone directory advertisement with the State Bar Advertising Review Committee.
Dupuy violated Rules 7.02(a)(1) and (a) (2); 7.04(b), (c), and (j); and 7.07(b). He agreed to pay $2,500 in attorney’s fees and costs.
-- Texas Bar Journal, January 2010
If you've ever had the "pleasure" of practicing in Judge Dupuy's court you know what an interesting experience it is. I had a case in which the prosecutor and I submitted an agreed motion for new trial. When I handed him the motion, the judge looked at me and asked what he was supposed to do with it. I told him it was an agreed motion and that he should sign it. He took it under advisement and made up wait for 45 minutes while he went back in his chambers and did God knows what before returning to the bench.

In his latest misadventure, Mr. Dupuy was fined $7,500 by a judge for improperly trying to remove a judge who was hearing a malpractice case against him filed by a former client. The $7,500 fine is in addition to an $1,800 levy ordered against him for failing to appear at a deposition in that case. David Bryant, a Houston attorney handling the suit, told the Houston Chronicle he thought he'd have to attach Mr. Dupuy's bank account in order to get the money.

Dupuy is also under investigation by the Galveston County District Attorney's Office for allegedly lying about his residency on the application he filed to run for the bench.

The situation is so bad that the Galveston Daily News is calling for Dupuy to resign from the bench.

The man is not qualified to sit on the bench. The unethical manner in which he ran his practice. Sleeping with an attorney practicing in his court. Lying on his application to run for office. The unprofessional way in which he conducts business in his courtroom.

The folks in Galveston County who voted straight ticket Republican got exactly what they deserved.

Transcript of DuPuy hearing

Saturday, January 28, 2012

How much is a life worth?

On November 19, 2005, in the Iraqi city of Haditha, a bomb went off and killed an American soldier, Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas. In the aftermath of the explosion, an Iraqi cabdriver and four teenagers were shot and killed by US troops under orders of Sgt. Frank Wuterich.

Upon arriving at the scene, Lt. William T. Kallop ordered the troops to seize a house from which he believed shots were being fired. The marines stormed the house and killed 19 unarmed civilians, including seven women and children, through the use of rifles and grenades.

The original story was that the dead were part of a group of Iraqis who opened fire on the Americans. But questions were asked when the dead were found wearing their nightclothes.

But when witnesses were asked to recount the events of that day, a startlingly different picture emerged. Tim McGirk of Time Magazine broke the story in March 2006. The account of 9-year-old Eman Waleed is harrowing:

 "We heard a big noise that woke us all up," she recalls two months later. "Then we did what we always do when there's an explosion: my father goes into his room with the Koran and prays that the family will be spared any harm." Eman says the rest of the family—her mother, grandfather, grandmother, two brothers, two aunts and two uncles—gathered in the living room. According to military officials familiar with the investigation, the Marines say they came under fire from the direction of the Waleed house immediately after being hit by the ied. A group of Marines headed toward the house. Eman says she "heard a lot of shooting, so none of us went outside. Besides, it was very early, and we were all wearing our nightclothes." When the Marines entered the house, they were shouting in English. "First, they went into my father's room, where he was reading the Koran," she claims, "and we heard shots." According to Eman, the Marines then entered the living room. "I couldn't see their faces very well—only their guns sticking into the doorway. I watched them shoot my grandfather, first in the chest and then in the head. Then they killed my granny." She claims the troops started firing toward the corner of the room where she and her younger brother Abdul Rahman, 8, were hiding; the other adults shielded the children from the bullets but died in the process. Eman says her leg was hit by a piece of metal and Abdul Rahman was shot near his shoulder. "We were lying there, bleeding, and it hurt so much. Afterward, some Iraqi soldiers came. They carried us in their arms. I was crying, shouting 'Why did you do this to our family?' And one Iraqi soldier tells me, 'We didn't do it. The Americans did.'"

Eight marines, including Sgt. Wuterich, were charged with murder and dereliction of duty. The cases almost immediately began to fall apart with military investigators recommending that charges against the soldiers be dismissed or reduced to just dereliction of duty. The investigation uncovered instances that the defendants had destroyed or withheld evidence.

Of the eight, one was acquitted and charges against six others were dismissed. In the last case, Sgt. Wuterich pled guilty to negligent dereliction of duty. The manslaughter and assault charges were dismissed. As punishment, Sgt. Wuterich was demoted to private.

And so the question remains, what's an Iraqi life worth? According to the military court, one American life was worth the lives of 24 Iraqis; but the lives of those Iraqis was only worth a loss of rank.

I do think Sgt. Wuterich was being made something of a scapegoat in this affair. He, after all, wasn't the one who ordered the marines to storm the houses. But no one ever went after Lt. Kallop. As a result we have 24 dead civilians who were killed as the result of a war without purpose entered into by President Bush.

War isn't about fighter jets and targeted bombs. It isn't about smart bombs and surgical strikes. War is about death and destruction. Collateral damage is just a sanitized why of saying "We fucked up."

For more background, see:

"Investigating the Haditha Killings," NPR

Friday, January 27, 2012

Working blind

Ask any scientist and she'll tell you that the best result from an experiment is often the one that disproves the hypothesis being tested. Why? Because such a result means there are more questions to ask - and more knowledge to be gained.

According to the scientific method, we first develop a hypothesis, then we conduct experiments. We observe the data obtained and compare the results to our hypothesis. If the data contradicts the hypothesis we must change our hypothesis. That, you see, is the recipe for scientific breakthroughs.

But such a scenario is anathema in a crime lab.

The last thing the police want is an inconclusive test. Analysts know this. Their supervisors know this. The people funding the lab know this.

And so the "forensic scientists" at crime labs across the country are made part of the criminal investigation. They are given the task of proving a link between the test result and the suspect. And, as many results are subject to interpretation, there is an inherent bias to be found.

Grits for Breakfast referenced an article in The Economist that when forensic scientists are given too much "contextual information," test results can be subject to a "cognitive bias."

As Grits points out medical trials work because the doctors conducting them don't know who's receiving the actual treatment and who's receiving the placebo - and neither do the test subjects. Without that knowledge there is no pressure (whether real or imagined) to make the results fit the desired outcome.

In the criminal (in)justice context, however, the forensic scientists, or lab technicians, running the test are told they are testing something that came from the suspect. They are told what that person is suspected of doing. They are told they're part of the team. Their mission, in other words, is to provide the evidence the government needs to obtain a conviction.

They are neither neutral nor unbiased. Just think what role that ideology played in the expansion of forensic analysis into the analysis of tire tracks and foot prints. Fingerprints and bite marks. Ballistics and lead analysis. Arson investigations.

If we are going to call these glorified lab techs "forensic scientists," then we should at least expect them to play by the same rules other scientists follow. It's the least we should demand when people's lives are on the line.

For a few votes more

This week the French Senate approved a bill that would make it a crime to deny that the Turks committed genocide against Armenians during World War I. Anyone denying it was genocide could face jail and a fine of up to $58,000.

The rise of the Thought Police in the United States is troubling enough - but to make it a crime to disagree with what someone else says goes beyond anything we could imagine on this side of the pond.

Maybe it was genocide. Maybe it wasn't. That, ultimately, is a question for the historians to answer. But to criminalize a point of view makes a mockery of scholarship. It also makes a mockery of the French justice system.

According to the BBC, there are half-a-million French citizens of Armenian descent. Did the party of President Sarkozy pass the bill in order to curry favor with those voters? Was the criminalization of thought the price to pay for a few more votes? What does that say about the state of politics in France?

Maybe the politicians in France have forgotten the words of the Declaration of the Rights of Men written during the heyday of the French Revolution.

Article 4 states:
Liberty consists in the power to do anything that does not injure others; accordingly, the exercise of the rights of each man has no limits except those that secure the enjoyment of these same rights to the other members of society. These limits can be determined only by law.
Article 5 states:
The law has only the rights to forbid such actions as are injurious to society. Nothing can be forbidden that is not interdicted by the law, and no one can be constrained to do that which it does not order.
Can someone explain to me how the exercise of speech can "injure" another. Sure, you might disagree with what I say, but my words are just that - words. They have no more power than you allow them to have. It is quite a stretch to conclude that denying the Turks committed genocide against Armenians a century ago is injurious.

Likewise, disagreeing with a statement is not injurious to society. It is through the exchange of different, and sometimes contradictory, ideas that our knowledge of the world increases. To criminalize such a disagreement will serve only to chill speech and scholarship.

How ironic that the French gave us the Statute of Liberty.

Update: Let loose the killing machine

The State of Texas got back into the business of murdering people last night with the first state-sponsored killing of the year.

Rodrigo Hernandez, who was convicted of the 1994 murder of Susan Verstegen, was executed after the US Supreme Court denied his request for a stay on Thursday afternoon.

Mr. Hernandez wasn't a good guy. But his death doesn't undo what he did. His death doesn't bring back Ms. Verstegen. Her son will wake up tomorrow, but she will still be dead.

On  the other hand, the Supremes denied the state the opportunity to murder Donald Newbury on February 1. Mr. Newbury was one of seven men who escaped from prison and robbed a Dallas area store, where a police officer was killed. Mr. Newbury was sentenced to die, despite the fact he was not the murderer.

Texas is the only state that permits the execution of a person who only played a supporting role in a murder.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

What's in a name?

It's not enough that Jim Crane is moving the Houston Astros from their home in the National League over to the American League. Nope. Now he's even looking to change the team's name.

Change the uniforms? Okay. They've worn the white, the pinstripes and the red for a decade now. It's probably time for a change. I'd love to see an homage to the tequila sunrise uniforms of the early 80's.

But changing the name of the team? This isn't what we signed up for. We already know we're destined to watch the Astros struggle to avoid another 100-loss season in 2012. We know that Crane isn't going to spend any money to improve the team this year. In fact, if he could find a way to deal away the few remaining high-priced players he has, he'd do it in a heartbeat.

But to change the team's name. That's a whole different story. Maybe he figures if he changes the colors and the name that he can fool the fans into thinking it's a new team. Maybe then the fans won't be upset that the team is mired at the bottom of the standings. As long as Crane's making money from TV and merchandise sales, it's all good.

Jim, baseball is all about tradition. It's about fathers taking their sons and daughters to Opening Day every year. It's about sitting in the bleachers on the 4th of July. The numbers always mattered in baseball because the game didn't change. Why do fans continue to buy tickets to see a team that stinks year after year? It's because it's baseball.

Now we're less than a month until pitchers and catchers report. The time of year when every fan of every team deludes themselves into thinking that this could be the year. Reality will set in pretty quickly here in Houston and changing the name on the front of the jerseys won't do a thing to change that.

Dirty rotten scoundrels

If you want to see your tax dollars at work, you need to check out Michael McKnight's piece on SI.com about the point shaving scheme at the University of San Diego.

Now, before I go any further I must say that sports are entertainment. Yes, a sporting event is the ultimate reality show but, in the end, the game is meant to entertain. Fans have a multitude of entertainment options and sports must compete with restaurants, clubs, the movie theater or the myriad of other things you can spend your hard-earned dollars on.

To this day I don't understand why los federales are interested in alleged point shaving schemes in college sports. The only people who get hurt are the folks who end up betting on the wrong side. We're not talking about throwing games, we're talking about missing a shot here and there or turning the ball over to keep the game within the spread.

Let me repeat, the only folks getting "hurt" are bettors, bookies and the casinos.

As Mr. McKnight points out, the key figure in the alleged scheme was a bookie named Steve Goria. Mr. Goria became the apple in the eyes of los federales when he was stopped at the border with a whole lot of cash - and a map to the pot capital of Northern California. Operation Hookshot was soon born.

The star of the sting was a confidential informant who was looking at a 10-20 year stretch in federal prison for a variety of drug crimes. He was only too willing to help out.

Just to make things more interesting, the informant is represented by the same attorney, Nicholas DePento, who represented Mr. Goria when he was stopped at the border in 2008. That raises questions of whether or not Mr. DePento violated his duty to his former client when he arranged for his current client to become the government's tool.

But the question is whether or not the FBI manufactured this alleged scheme. Did their informant drive the action or was he merely the means of discovering what was going on down by the ocean? Did the FBI stumble onto the scheme when they nabbed Mr. Goria at the border or did they manufacture it?

The evidence compiled by SI.com doesn't seem to indicate that, with the possible exception of one game in 2010, that there was any unusual betting patterns on USD games while the scheme was supposedly going on. And trust me, USD is such a small school that any suspicious bets would be detected quite easily.

What was the point in the investigation? Who benefits from it? And does it make anyone feel better knowing that the key government witness is a convicted felon who is facing a decade or more in prison?

And does it make sense for the government to go around creating criminal acts when there is more than enough real crime going on? If they wanted to go after some folks, why not take a look at the shenanigans in the mortgage-lending industry that helped bring down the economy?

The importance in the story, however, is in laying bare the ways in which our government schemes to entrap people in criminal enterprises. When you lie down with the pigs, you're bound to get dirty.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Execution Watch 1/26/2012

The Texas killing machine is back in business.


RODRIGO HERNANDEZ. Convicted in the murder of a Frito-Lay saleswoman, his appeal was rejected in 2008 by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The seven-year gap from Hernandez' 2004 conviction to the 2011 announcement of his execution date was relatively short. Typically a person sentenced to death spends at least 10 years going through the appeals process.

For more information on Mr. Hernandez, click here.

"Unless a stay is issued, we'll broadcast ..."
Thursday, Jan. 26, 2012, 6-7 PM CT
KPFT Houston 90.1 FM, HD-3
Listen online: www.executionwatch.org > Listen

You can find more information on Execution Watch's Facebook page.

Does more of the same make any sense?

I heard portions of a Mitt Romney speech the other morning in which he urged folks to vote for him to put an end to the health care bill signed by President Obama.

Mr. Romney said that the American people didn't want bureaucrats in Washington making health care decisions for them. He said what we needed were more market-based solutions.


Just tell me, how many people walk around telling others how much they love their health insurance provider? Is it really better for your health care decisions to be made by executives whose job it is to maximize profits? Does it make sense for those decisions to be taken out of the hands of your doctor and placed in the hands of someone sitting in an office who has never seen you?

How has the market done with allocating health care to the American people? Does reducing benefits, raising premiums and denying coverage benefit anyone other than the health insurance executives and shareholders?

And, Mr. Romney, do you have any idea just how much health coverage costs these days? Just how do you plan on ensuring that folks can carry their own insurance with them from job to job?

The health care debate is the perfect example of the perversion of the New(est) Right. If you're not happy with the current state of health care, the solution isn't for the government to step in; the solution is even more of the same.

Does that really make any sense?

Not quite so open

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel or unusual punishment inflicted. All courts shall be open, and every person for an injury done him in his lands, goods, person or reputation shall have remedy by due course of law.
-- Texas Constitution, Art. 1, Sec. 13
Apparently that provision doesn't apply whenever a criminal court overbooks itself and sets so many cases on the docket there aren't enough seats in the courtroom for all of the defendants.

Sit in any Harris County misdemeanor court at docket call and you will hear the bailiff tell you to leave the courtroom if you aren't on the docket. Well, I hate to break it to you, but the public has a right to be in that courtroom. It is, after all, the people's court (thanks, Judge Criss).

The problem isn't mom or dad or husband or wife or boyfriend or girlfriend being there to support their loved one. The problem is requiring defendants to continue showing up in court for multiple settings when there is no need for the defendant to be there.

If it's a so-called "non-issue" setting on a criminal case, the only person who's presence is required is the attorney. Nothing's going to happen. The prosecutor may make an offer. The defense attorney may make a counter-offer, but that's it. Maybe the defense attorney files a motion or two. No reason for the defendant to be in court for the ceremonial exchange of paper.

A defendant's presence is necessary on the initial arraignment setting. After that, there's no need for the defendant to be present until the case is set for trial or to enter a plea. Requiring their presence only clogs the courthouse and puts pressure on defendants to plead out their cases because of the inconvenience of coming to the courthouse.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Hey, kids, get out of my yard!

Back in 2004, D.C. police decided that Antoine Jones was a bad dude and needed watching. Employing a spy store full of surveillance tools, the police obtained a court order allowing them to install a GPS device on the Jeep that Mr. Jones routinely drove (the car was registered to his wife). The court told the police they had ten days to install the device within the District.

On the 11th day, in a parking lot in Maryland, the police attached the GPS device to Mr. Jones' Jeep. Over the course of the next month the police obtained more than 2,000 pages of tracking data they used to put Mr. Jones with some really bad dudes who dealt cocaine.

Mr. Jones was subsequently indicted for his role in the conspiracy. His first trial ended in a hung jury. Los federales then obtained a second indictment. Mr. Jones wasn't so lucky at his second trial - he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

On appeal he argued that the installation of the GPS device constituted an unlawful search and seizure. The appellate court said "yes" and "no." The court held that installing a GPS device on a car was not the equivalent of a search - based upon the Katz test of whether the owner had a reasonable expectation in privacy as to his movements on a public roads. But the court did rule that the data obtained while the car was parked in the couple's garage or driveway did violated the Katz test.

In U.S. v. Jones, 565 US _____ (2012), the U.S. Supreme Court held that the attachment of the GPS device did constitute a search as law enforcement personnel, in effect, trespassed upon Mr. Jones' property in placing the device on the undercarriage of his car. Justice Scalia took a trip in his wayback machine and held that the Fourth Amendment was designed to protect the citizenry from trespass by the state. He wrote that Katz did not supplant the concept of physical trespass as the test to determine whether something was a search - but that  it was an addition to the analysis.

Of course that doesn't explain why it's okay for the police to look through your trash can while it sits on your driveway waiting to be taken away by the sanitation engineers. It also doesn't jibe with allowing the police to wander up to a garage and look in the windows - or to look in the open windows of a house. In making those determinations, the Supremes looked at Katz and then looked away from the Bill of Rights.

In her concurrence, Justice Sotomayor castigated Justice Scalia for taking a narrow approach to the Fourth Amendment. Justice Sotomayor would rather use the Katz analysis for determining whether a search took place. In her view, today's technologies have taken us beyond the question of whether the police trespassed on someone's property. She also raised the question of whether we waive our reasonable expectation of privacy when we disclose private information to a third party (just think about your smartphone's GPS or the information you type in to register for certain websites).

Justice Alito was also concerned that the concept of trespass was passe and that it led to inconsistent outcomes depending on the surveillance methods used by the police. He also pointed out Justice Scalia's opinion failed to address the installation of tracking devices by car manufacturers such as GM's OnStar or Lo-Jack.

Justice Alito also questioned whether a motorist had a reasonable expectation of privacy regarding the movement of his car in public. He didn't seem to have too much problem with what the government did in Mr. Jones' case, but he said at some point such monitoring would raise questions. For Justice Alito, attaching the device to the Jeep wasn't the problem, the problem was the amount of time the device was allowed to transmit.

What we have here is the so-called conservative bloc of the Court ruling against the use of warrantless GPS tracking by the police to be unconstitutional based on 18th century common law trespass while the so-called liberal bloc arguing that the installation of the unit was unconstitutional because it violated Mr. Jones' reasonable expectation of privacy due to the length of time the device was transmitting. Would we have had a different decision had the device only been installed for a week, ten days, two weeks?

From my point of view, the concept of trespass should be the starting point for any Fourth Amendment analysis - with the Katz analysis used to determine if an intrusion into one's privacy not contemplated by the Founding Fathers constitutes a search. Relying on one without the other makes little sense. Left unsaid is how the Court plans to reconcile the holding in Jones with prior decisions ignoring the tort of trespass upon property.

For more analysis, please see:

"Supreme Court strikes down GPS tracking device, raises more questions in the process," Liberty and Justice for Y'all (Jan. 23, 2012)

"Reactions to Jones v. U.S.: the government fared much better than everyone realizes," SCOTUSblog (Jan. 23, 2012)

Book review: Pity the Billionaire

During the depths of the Great Depression capitalism faced its greatest challenge. The unfettered free market of the Gilded Age crashed and brought the economy of the United States (and western Europe) to its knees.

In response to the demands of the people, President Franklin Roosevelt pumped money into the economy to build schools, bridges, parks and buildings. We saw the creation of social security and unemployment compensation. Farmers formed organizations to prevent farms from being foreclosed upon. Banking reforms were enacted to prevent another banking crisis.

The Keynesian model of "priming the pump" during bad times prevailed until the late 1970's when the OPEC oil embargo threatened to bring the US economy to its knees once again. The stagnation of the Carter era paved the way for Ronald Reagan and his religion of free markets.

Over the ensuing 30 years, the reforms of the New Deal were gradually unwound and those who worshiped at the Altar of the Invisible Hand exported their ideology around the world.

And, for a time, everything seemed perfectly okay. Incomes were rising. Profits were rising. Land values were skyrocketing. CEO's were deified. And the free marketeers continued to preach their gospel of limited government interference with the economy.

But that all changed in 2008.

One investment bank after another bit the dust. The derivatives based upon collateralized debt obligations (sub-prime mortgages) tanked. The holders of these bonds found out they were toxic. The government didn't regulate the creation and sale of this instruments. That would have been interfering with the invisible hand of the market.

Banks failed. The housing market tanked. Credit dried up. Workers lost their jobs. People lost their homes. President Bush and his crew had no idea what was going on. They had no clue how to fix it.

President Bush pushed through the first bailout through Congress. While many folks were trying to figure out how to get their lives back on track, the federal government was handing out money to the folks who brought the whole system crashing down. The public was outraged.

But this time things were different. There was little rage against the free market ideology that caused the entire pyramid to collapse. What we saw instead was the rise of a protest movement of folks who called for even less government involvement in the economy. It was the great Republican reawakening. A movement that defied logic.

In his latest book, Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right, Thomas Frank takes an in-depth look at how the New(est) Right created a protest movement in favor of even more laissez-faire economic policy.

The Right took the themes of Great Depression protests and flipped them inside out then sold their vision of free market capitalism to those who were upset that the government was handing out money to the people responsible for the Great Recession. Suddenly the problem wasn't the lack of government oversight, the problem was too much oversight. The problem wasn't the marketing of toxic securities and unregulated financial instruments (such as credit default swaps), the problem was that people and firms weren't allowed to fail.

Mr. Frank also has harsh words for President Obama and the Democrats. Once upon a time the Democratic Party was the party of the working class and the disenfranchised. That all changed in the 1980's when moderates and conservatives took over the party and got into bed with Wall Street. Without an effective check, the free marketeers led the country to the edge of the cliff and into the sea below.

The New(est) Right has, without a doubt, pulled off the biggest swindle in history.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The growing inequality

So what's the big freaking deal about the 1%? Just what exact share of the national income do the top 1% of wealthy Americans bring in?

The answer may surprise you.

The Paris School of Economics has compiled a database of the world's top incomes. You can pull up information from 26 nations around the world from the early 1900's up through 2008.

In the United States, the top 1% of income earners pulled in 15.4% of the nation's income in 2001. That share rose to 17.7% in 2008 (slightly down from 2007 as a result of the Great Recession). But that's just the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

In that same period, the top 0.5% of income earners increased their share of the national income from 11.7% to 13.8% while the top 0.1% of earners saw their share go from 6.3% to 7.8%.

Now just take a second to let those numbers sink in. In 2008, almost 18 cents out of every dollar earned went to the wealthiest 1% of the U.S. population; almost 14 cents went to the top half of the top one percent and almost eight cents went to the top .01% of the population.

Income inequality in the US is now at about the same level as it was before World War I. And we call that progress.

The numbers are astounding and give us a portrait of the growing inequality in this country.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Piling on

I'm no expert on maritime law. In fact, I know next to nothing about it. I know that if someone is injured on a ship out in the water the Jones Act comes into play and cost of litigation increases. I also know that the field is so specialized that there are some firms that handle nothing but litigation against cruise ships.

Having said that, though, there are some things that are quite odd about the goings-on surrounding the Costa Concordia mishap.

Typically in an accident case involving a commercial truck, the owner of the truck keeps the driver on the payroll. The company also avoids blaming the driver for the accident knowing that any such accusations will only come back to haunt it during litigation. They want to keep the driver happy because they know if they cut him loose he will only be too happy to discuss the litany of safety violations committed by his employer with the plaintiff's attorney. Now, after the litigation is resolved, all bets are off.

I found it odd that Costa Cruises, the owner of the cruise ship, would come out publicly and blame the accident on the captain, Francesco Schettino. The company can't distance themselves from Mr. Schettino. If they want to blame the accident on his negligence, they are setting themselves up for claims of negligent entrustment, negligent training and negligent oversight. (Of course I have no idea whether these are even valid causes of action in whatever court these suits will eventually be heard.) They are also just asking for someone to look into other incidents in which cruise ships were taken off course.

I don't know what happened last Friday aboard that ship. I'm certain it was a harrowing experience for everyone on board. I understand Mr. Schettino is human and subject to the same emotions as everyone else. Maybe everything is his fault. But the actions of Costa Cruises are peculiar and I do wonder what purpose they were meant to serve.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

This bud's for you, or maybe it isn't

Outside the United States soccer is the sport of the working class. Tales of violence at soccer matches around the world are legendary. Violence used to be a problem at soccer matches in Brazil. That is, until the government banned the sale of alcohol at soccer stadiums in 2003.

The measure seemed logical. Rowdy, passionate fans and alcohol don't make the best of combinations. The ban has had limited success since there is no ban on the consumption of alcohol outside the stadiums.

FIFA, the corrupt governing body of world soccer, awarded the 2014 World Cup to Brazil. But now there are problems.

The Brazilians wanted to set aside some discounted tickets for students and seniors. FIFA didn't like that idea as it would reduce the filthy lucre that Sepp Blatter and his cohorts can take back home to Europe. But the biggest dispute has to do with alcohol.

Budweiser, maker of piss water beer, is a big (shall we say huge) sponsor of the World Cup. And, as a major sponsor, carries a bit of weight. It seems that the folks out in St. Louis (or wherever the company is headquartered after its sale) aren't too terribly happy about the prospect of no alcohol sales at the stadiums across Brazil. And Mr. Blatter, always happy to get down on his knees and do the bidding of FIFA's sponsors,  has informed the Brazilian government that there will be beer sales at World Cup venues - Brazilian laws be damned.

Now once upon a time sport was just that - sport. Now it is a business and the actual sporting event is but a marketing device for any corporation that wishes to peddle its products to the viewers. It is beyond absurd that FIFA is demanding that the Brazilians serve alcohol at World Cup venues.

Now I understand the network and cable folks view sports as the ultimate reality show. I also know that there are quite a few universities that are more than happy to let the broadcasters tell them when and where to play. But that doesn't make it right.

I hope the Brazilian government holds its ground and refuses to sell out for a beermaker. But I'm also fairly certain that that is exactly what will happen. And what message does that send to the Brazilian people? And what message does that send to other multinational corporations who don't like the laws in a particular country?

FIFA and Budweiser knew the rules before the tournament was awarded to Brazil. They need to learn to live with it. After all, it's all about the (beautiful) game.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The power of the mind

Yesterday in Houston, a federal grand jury indicted four white men accused of beating an African-American man at a bus stop. The defendants allegedly used racial epithets while beating him.

The four men are charged under the Matthew Shepherd and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act and face up to 10 years in prison for what they said while assaulting someone.

They have already been charged with assault in Harris County and will face up to a year in the county jail if convicted. But apparently that's not enough.

It's not enough that they are facing state prosecution for their acts. Nope. We need to bring the power of los federales down on them. But not for the acts they allegedly committed. They need to be punished because of what they thought while committing their crimes.

And that's the problem. We are all free to think what we wish - at least we're supposed to be. We are all free to hold our own opinions. Some of our thoughts and some of our opinions may be distasteful to others. So what. Our thoughts should never be the basis of a criminal charge.

The only thought that matters is whether you meant to do what you did.

The only crime mentioned in the U.S. Constitution is treason. The states had their own criminal laws. The Supreme Court was to hear cases involving disputes among the states or between individuals residing in different states or disputes involving the United States and another country. The Founding Fathers never intended to use the federal courts to resolve local criminal matters.

Hate is an awful emotion. Hate makes people do stupid things. But there is no good reason to make it a crime to hate someone. The four men in Houston allegedly assaulted another man. If proven, that's a crime.

Sure, maybe the alleged victim thinks a year in the county jail isn't enough. Well, it's not up to him. The state legislature (the voice of the people, or so the textbooks say) has decided that one year in the county jail is sufficient punishment for beating someone up.

A prosecutor friend of mine told a jury during the punishment phase of a trial that punishment has three purposes. The first is to punish the offender. The second is to rehabilitate the offender. The third is to act as a deterrent to others. Nowhere in there does it say that that the purpose of punishment is to avenge the victim.

It's wrong that these men are now facing up to 10 years in prison because of the words they allegedly uttered. Do the math - that's one year for an assault and nine years for what they said and thought.

If you can make it a crime to hate someone, how much further down the road do you need to go to make it a crime to have other thoughts that someone deems unworthy?

Proving a negative

In a comment to a recent post ("A little shifting of the burden"), Adam Poole referenced a provision of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure that states a judge shall submit the question of the defendant's guilt or innocence to the jury prior to final argument (Art. 37.07(2)(a)).

He also points out a couple of other provisions that have to do with alternate jurors or jurors who die or become disabled during trial. In these provisions the code states that the jury is rendering a verdict on the guilt of innocence of the defendant.

In none of these provisions, however, does it state that the jury charge must state that the role of the jury is to determine the guilt or innocence of a defendant. The provision in 37.07(2)(a) says that the judge shall "submit to the jury the issue of guilt of innocence of the defendant..."

As we should all know by now, a jury is instructed that a defendant in a criminal case is presumed innocent and that the presumption of innocence alone is enough for a jury to acquit a defendant. If a defendant does indeed start out innocent, then the burden to prove each of every element of the alleged offense falls squarely on the head of the state. If the prosecutor is able to prove each and every element of the alleged offense beyond all reasonable doubt, a jury will find the defendant guilty.

Logically it is possible to prove a positive assertion. The assertion that people are bipedal can be proven. The assertion that heating a block of ice will turn that block into water can be proven. The assertion that a certain person committed a certain crime can be proven.

But can you prove a negative assertion? It is possible to prove where you were on a certain date - can you prove where you weren't?

And that brings us to a second problem, in order to prove an assertion, you must present proof, or evidence. In order to convict a defendant, the state must present a chain of evidence that proves the defendant did what he is alleged to have done beyond all reasonable doubt.

If the state can do it, the defendant will be found guilty. If the state cannot do it, the defendant will be found not guilty.

But, if you are asking the jury to determine whether a defendant is guilty or innocent, you are placing a burden on the defendant to present some evidence that he didn't do that which he is accused of doing. And you are taking the focus away from whether the state met its burden of proof - because once the state has presented some evidence of guilt, the defendant must then present some evidence of innocence.

The verdict form asks the jury to determine whether the defendant was not guilty or guilty of the alleged offense. Not guilty is the same as not proven beyond all reasonable doubt. And that may, or may not be, a long way from innocence.

When the Code of Criminal Procedure refers to the question of guilt or innocence, the Code is looking at whether or not the state has met its burden of proof. As lawyers we understand that. When a judge tells a jury they are to rule on the guilt or innocence of a defendant the meaning of the words aren't so cut and dried.

Guilt and innocence are terms of art that mean something entirely different to attorneys in a criminal courthouse than they do to the person on the street. As the verdict is being rendered by the people on the street, the language of the charge should be geared toward the "plain" meaning of the words.

Since the jury is told they are to presume the defendant innocent, the question is not whether they think the defendant is guilty or innocent of the crime; the question is whether they think the state proved each and every element of the alleged offense beyond all reasonable doubt.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

In pursuit of limited government

Where are the voices calling for limited government when we need them?

Where are the voices of the teabaggers, libertarians and wingnuts when it comes to the overpolicing of America?

Last week Jack Abercia resigned his post as Harris County Constable for Precinct One in the face of a federal indictment on corruption charges. As it turns out, all eight Harris County Constables are being investigated in one fashion or another by the County Attorney's Office.

But why do we even have constables anymore? They are a relic from another time. We already have the Harris County Sheriff's Office, the Houston Police Department, the Metropolitan Transit Authority Police Department,  the Port of Houston Police, the University of Texas Police Department, the University of Houston Police Department, police departments in all of the little bedroom communities within the city limits of Houston and those in the county, and of the school districts in the county.

Why is it that the proponents of limited government are nowhere to be heard when the issue of overpolicing arises? Why is it that they have nothing to say when the power of the government is used to infringe upon the freedom and liberty of the citizenry and not the corporations?

There is no need for this level of policing in Harris County. Duplicate functions need to be eliminated. If we are going to keep a constable's office in Harris County, the sole function of the office should be to serve process and subpoenas. But we have a Sheriff's Office. The bailiffs in every court (other than JP courts and municipal courts) are sheriff's deputies. Deputy sheriffs serve subpoenas in criminal proceedings.

There is no further justification for constables in these modern times, unless they are going to be employees of the justice of the peace courts and process servers. There are more than enough paramilitary units patrolling this county as it is.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Chicago mayor seeks to quell dissenting voices

Up in the Windy City, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is preparing to host both a NATO summit and the G8 summit. And, since we're living in a dangerous world, new security measures are a must.

Mr. Emanuel wants to spend money on the summits without first getting approval from the City Council. He wants local police to be empowered to deputize out-of-state law enforcement officers and he wants to be able to restrict the times and locations of protests.

He claimed the requested measures would be temporary - to shut down protesters while the world's eyes were on Chicago. But, like most "temporary" government measures, the changes would have been permanent. The police want more power to deal with any possible scenario - no matter how far-fetched it might be.

Here's an idea, Mr. Emanuel, why not allow Chicago to be a shining beacon of just what the First Amendment means. You chose to have these summits come to your city; in other words, you invited the problems you foresee. Let the world see just how much the right to assemble and voice your grievances means to Americans.

The greatest threat to democracy, Mr. Mayor, is intolerance of differing opinions. Sure, free speech can be ugly. It can be rude. It can be inconvenient. But the people's dissent serves as a check on government. Instead of being afraid of what protesters might say and do while the world is watching, embrace this celebration of the Bill of Rights.

People have died in the streets of Cairo, Damascus and other cities throughout the Arab world over the last year because the authoritarian regimes would not tolerate dissent. In this country we have witnessed the orderly handing over of power for more than two centuries because dissenting opinions are not only tolerated, but encouraged.

Petty tyrants must be in control of everything. Differing opinions must not be tolerated. A true democrat embraces the cacophony of voices and celebrates the people's right to be heard.

School's in session

There are many ways to poison a jury pool.

Prosecutors can tweet the names of people arrested for DWI or post their photos on Facebook. Prosecutors can castigate jurors after an acquittal and give them information the judge ruled inadmissible at trial. Prosecutors can leak information to reporters about high-profile cases.

But the Dallas County District Attorney's Office has come up with an ingenuous way to poison potential jurors. It's called the Citizen Prosecutor Academy. It's an "intensive" ten-week course offered in both the spring and fall twice a week to teach citizens how the system malfunctions "works."
"Unless an individual has served on a jury or unfortunately been a victim of a crime, the average citizen simply does not know how the system works," said Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins . "Last fall, we were approached by James Tate, a graduate student in the Master of Public Policy program at the University of Texas at Dallas, about starting a Citizen Prosecutor Academy in Dallas County. Mr. Tate had participated in a similar program in another county and after he shared his experience with us we were inspired to create our own academy. The curriculum is being developed by a diverse team of seasoned prosecutors, so we are optimistic it will be a success. Our primary goal is for participants to graduate from the program with a realistic and informed perspective of the inner workings of the district attorney's office that we hope they will share with others."
A "realistic and informed perspective" of how the DA's Office works? Really?
The mission of the Dallas County District Attorney’s Citizen Prosecutor Academy is to enable Dallas County residents to be exposed to the numerous procedures within the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office.  This will provide Dallas County residents the opportunity to engage in open dialogue with prosecutors and leaders in the community, and discover the practices and methods of the judicial process.  Our goal is to inform citizens who will share their experience with neighbors, friends, and family in their communities.
Now I will give Mr. Watkins his just due. His office has been at the forefront of exonerating wrongly convicted inmates through the use of DNA testing. In fact, since 2001, there have been more DNA exonerations out of Dallas County (21) than out of any other county in the country.

But, back to the indoctrination course...

According to the press release:
Each week, participants will hear from guest speakers including assistant district attorneys within various divisions/units of the DA's office, and other key personnel in Dallas County's criminal justice system.
There's nothing in the press release about speakers from the criminal defense bar. Now, maybe that was just an oversight. Maybe "other key personnel" refers to criminal defense lawyers. But I doubt it.

I'm sure the folks who sign up for the academy won't hear much about illegal and repressive bond conditions, the abuses indigent defendants face in the courts, how junk science is used to obtain convictions or the ways in which Brady material is either hidden or never disclosed.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Vultures and thieves

Mitt Romney is a "vulture capitalist."

Mitt Romney "made a lot of money while people were going broke."

The allegations were that Mr. Romney's firm Bain Capital bought up struggling companies, laid off workers and sold what remained for a profit. The allegations were that Mr. Romney profited off the backs of the workers he fired.

But isn't that part of the destructive cycle of capitalism? Aren't the strong companies supposed to survive and thrive while the weaker ones fall by the wayside? Isn't that what competition is all about?

Were these the attacks of the Democrats? Were these the words of President Obama? What about the occupiers? Trade unionists? Commies? Athiests?


Those were the words of Mr. Romney's fellow Republicans - Gov. Goodhair and the Newt.

You just have to love the irony of it all. Two candidates who worship at the altar of the free market railing against another candidate because he is too much of a capitalist. Of course the Newt has since backtracked on his statements because, well, he's a politician and that's what they do. Mr. Perry, on the other hand, hasn't yet figured out what irony even means.

Here is the Newt's paean to capitalism:

The price of due process

Out in the hinterlands of Texas, near the Red River, is a place called Jack County. A total of about 8800 folks call Jack County home. Of course there is a local constabulary patrolling the (largely) empty roads of Jack County. Maybe they're looking for terrorists, drug dealers and liberals. They are most assuredly looking for speeders.

The folks in the JP's office are more than happy to let you know just how much it will cost you to get through Jack County as quickly as possible.

As with any place else in the Lone Star State, you can choose to have your ticket dismissed after completing a driver safety course or a probationary period, along with the payment of a bribe court fee. If you're the daring sort, you can even challenge the ticket in court.

And the court's minions will allow you to exercise your constitutional right to due process for the posting of a $200 appearance bond.

What a bargain!

What a farce.

Now I would imagine that most of the folks who receive a traffic citation in Jack County are just passing through (as quickly as possible, no doubt). And I can't think of too many good reasons to drive back up there to contest a traffic ticket. I would assume that the court collects quite a few pretty pennies from folks who just want to get their case dismissed without the hassle of fighting it.

But to charge someone $200 to exercise their right to a trial by jury in a criminal case is not only ridiculous - it's unconstitutional. Nowhere in the U.S. Constitution does it state that the people have a right to due process if they can afford it. Nowhere in the Texas Constitution does it state you only get to exercise your right to due process if you can afford to post a bond.

The entire purpose of the appearance bond is to discourage the few people who are willing to stand up and challenge a speeding ticket. It should be no surprise that it's a justice of the peace court imposing such a rule. The criminal (in)justice system is replete with examples of judges at the bottom of the food chain acting like tyrants.

Sure, defendants in county and district court have to post bonds to get out of jail -- well, if you're a defendant in county or district court you've been charged with an offense that carries the possibility of confinement. Hell, you were handcuffed and carted off to the county jail.

But you aren't subject to confinement if you're found guilty of speeding. When the officer asks you to sign the ticket you are making a promise to appear in court. The requirement of an appearance bond to exercise your right to hold the state to its burden only serves as a restriction on the due process rights of motorists in Jack County.

Violation Sheet

Monday, January 16, 2012

Our "colorblind" society

Here's a little more food for thought on MLK Day.

According to Ohio State University law professor Michelle Alexander, in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, there are more African-Americans under the control of the criminal (in)justice system - whether in jail, prison, parole or probation - than were enslaved in 1850.

There are also more African-American men disenfranchised as the result of felony convictions than were disenfranchised in 1870.

Something has to change.

H/T Amy Goodman, Democracy Now!

MLK Day 2012

Martin Luther King patterned his nonviolent approach to the fight for civil rights after Gandhi's campaign of nonviolence against the British in India. But how far does King's approach advance without Malcolm X's militant views?

Desegregating lunch counters and buses were symbolic moves that relied upon officials in the south being embarrassed by the the pictures being seen across the nation. The fight for political power struck at the very heart of Dixie.

Rev. King's tactics were radical, but it took the fear of revolution in the streets for the powers that be to finally realize that the Constitution applied to everyone. Without the fear of violence, would the politicians have reacted the way they did?

Rev. King and Malcolm X were two sides of the same coin. Their tactics may have differed. Their motivations may have differed. Their goals, however, were similar.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Update: Born to run

This year's Houston Marathon didn't quite go as planned. My day ended after just a  mile-and-a-half with a bum knee. I knew my knee was a bit sketchy beforehand but I had hoped to muddle my though 26.2 miles this morning and deal with the consequences later.

Unfortunately, the pain got to be too much going over the viaduct and once I stopped at the first water station there was no hope of getting back up to speed.

I did see some behind-the-scenes things at the race this morning that I've never had the opportunity to see before (and hope I never see again).

I'd like to thank the officer on Hardy just past the first water stop for his help. He called back to race control to let them know there was an injured runner who needed a ride back to the GRB. I never did get his name, but, thanks.

Thanks also to the crew in the "sag wagon" who took me back downtown. I had to wait until the entire field had passed before they picked me up so I saw crews cleaning up the water cups from the street and picking up discarded clothing.

On the way back we saw crews taking down the banners and gates around the various start lines.

I also want to send a special shout out to the medical crew at the GRB. It sucked having to abandon the race but they were all chipper and upbeat. Since it was so early they also weren't very busy so I was treated like royalty. I must have had at least two doctors a couple of aides and a few other support folks helping me out.

It certainly wasn't the way I had envisioned today going but, it certainly could have been worse. At least I'm physically able to run a marathon and I'm fortunate enough to live in a city that has a thriving running culture and the resources to put on a great race.

Born to run

As y'all read this drinking your morning coffee and holding your doughnut, I'll be taking my annual tour of Houston by foot with some 20,000 of my closest friends and neighbors. So, enjoy your relaxing morning - and save some doughnuts for me.

Marathon Course Map

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Review: First Week In

Having a bad day? Things just not going well? Get into an argument with your spouse or significant other? Kids getting on your nerves? Just feeling bad about how life is treating you?

Have no fear. No matter how bad your day is, it can't possibly compare to the folks you'll meet on First Week In, the new reality show on Discovery.

First Week In follows three people through their last few minutes of freedom and into the world behind bars. For those who have never been in jail or known anyone who spent time in jail it's an eye-opener. For those of us who live in that world it's more a game of Name that Defendant.

The premier episode introduced us to a guy who was picked up, along with his "girlfriend" for pimping and pandering at a local hot sheet establishment. Let this be a lesson to anyone thinking about picking up a meth habit -- it's not a good idea. It makes you stupid.

Now he took advantage of the free room and board offered by Orange County and (at least tried to) wean himself off the drugs and his destructive relationship.

He was young, naive (bordering on stupid) and completely unaware of the world around him.

Our second guest was a man from Tulsa who was charged with assaulting his wife (I'm fairly sure alcohol was involved). He was bound and determined to get bonded out but found out, the hard way, that family friends aren't necessarily the ones who'll bond you out.

Up until he was served with the protective order he was having a hard time getting his head around the fact that his wife hadn't come to see him in jail. Methinks there was a little bit more to his story than he was letting on.

He was in a state of denial and panic. He's the guy who just shouldn't have been charged with anything because he really, really didn't do it.

Our third contestant was charged with kidnapping and rape. He didn't do it - at least that's what he keeps telling us. He learned a valuable lesson his first day in -- the same rules apply to everyone wearing the jumpsuit, whether you claim you're innocent or not.

He walked in with an attitude and thought he was smarter than the rest of the room. Of course the police got it wrong and no one's stories matched up and that's just not how it really happened.

So, if you're having a shitty day, punch up First Week In on the DVR and watch your life get better while you just sit there on the couch. I guarantee you'll feel better afterward.

Not jumping high enough

And why would a group of U.S. Marines urinate on the bodies of dead Taliban fighters? For the same reason cops beat people who don't jump high enough.

Because they can.

Maybe you think it's okay because the dead were Taliban soldiers. Terrorists even.

But that makes as little sense as saying it's okay for the police to beat up a person arrested on suspicion of murder or rape or driving while intoxicated.

Were there just a few bad apples in the squad? Was it a lack of supervision or adequate training? Was it the very culture of war?

I don't know. But the same questions apply whenever we see footage of police brutality. I don't mind telling y'all that I think it has more to do with the culture of the organization than it does with a couple of cops (or soldiers) acting like thugs.

Of course you could say that it doesn't matter anyway because they were dead. Just remember that it cuts both ways. What would be your gut reaction if you saw video of someone else desecrating the bodies of dead American youth sacrificed for the greater good of American politicians and U.S. corporations?

Friday, January 13, 2012

Crime lab loses federal funding

The honeymoon for Sam Houston State's Regional Crime Lab in The Woodlands is now over.

The lab was opened with the help of a federal grant and the understanding that the lab would become self-sufficient after three years. Owing to the iron law of budgeting (he who holds the iron makes the budget), that three year window ended about two years early.

The lab had charged Montgomery County, its largest customer, $200 for every drug or alcohol test in DWI cases. Without the funding from the feds, MoCo will pay $386 for alcohol tests and $290 for drug tests. Due to the increasing costs of operating the lab, all controlled substance evidence tests will be handled by the DPS. The switch will increase the wait time for test results.

But how to pay for the increased cost of testing is the question. The original idea was that MoCo would pay for the tests through sentencing fees for those who plead guilty or are convicted at trial. But that only covered about 3% of the cost. MoCo District Attorney Bret Ligon now wants to use the asset forfeiture fund to pay for the tests.

The problem, of course, is the increased incentive to seize property and file forfeiture actions against defendants. Forfeiture actions serve to tie up defendant's assets and make it that much harder to muster a defense against the state. You will also find out that the vast majority of defendants either default or negotiate settlements in which they receive just a portion of the value of the items seized. The asset forfeiture funds then become a private slush fund for whoever's running the DA's Office (just ask former MoCo DA Michael McDougal). Of course there's no telling where the property seized in Tenaha went.

In the meantime, however, defendants in MoCo will have to wait longer for lab results to come back in drug cases as it can take up to nine months for the DPS lab to release test results. In the meantime that's nine months of missing work to take yourself to court (if you're on bond) or (if you can't make bond) the prospect of sitting in a cell for nine months waiting to fight a case.

Some of the lessons from MoCo's crime lab are obvious. First, for entities involved in the criminal (in)justice system who rely upon government funds to operate - those funds will diminish or vanish at some point, even if the entity  is there to help the state. Second, the lab should have charged a more realistic rate for their services; the excess would allow for a "cushion" when the funding was cut or dropped. Third, no one gives a rat's ass about the people accused of committing a crime.

It's all about the kids... really?

As Scott Greenfield likes to point out -- it's all about the kids.

According to an article from the Associate Press, a little more than a third of the people who committed sex offenses against juveniles are, themselves, juveniles. And, since it's all about the kids, these juveniles are now required, in many instances, to register as sex offenders.

What purpose does that serve? What purpose is served by requiring a teenager to register as a sex offender for life? What's that going to do for his education prospects? What's that going to do for his future employment prospects?

All we're doing is guaranteeing he will fail in life. And if he can't get his education, and if he can't find a job, then what's he going to do? If it's all about the kids, what about the kids whose lives are being destroyed before they've even begun?

But you can't reduce that to a soundbite. You can't reduce it to a slogan. It would take some actual thought to understand the irreparable harm we're doing - and no one in the state legislature is willing to do that. God forbid someone criticize them as being soft on crime or coddling child molesters. Mustn't take that risk.

So we force them to register as sex offenders for life.

Mark Chaffin, a professor at the University of Oklahoma, was the co-author of a 2009 report for the Juvenile Justice Bulletin entitled "Juveniles who commit sex offenses against minors." In that report the authors noted that the vast (I might even say "overwhelming") majority of juveniles who committed sexual offenses against minors are never charged with another sex offense.

Similarly, clinical data point to variability in risk for future sex offending as an adult. Multiple short- and long-term clinical fol­lowup studies of juvenile sex offenders con­sistently demonstrate that a large majority (about 85–95 percent) of sex-offending youth have no arrests or reports for future sex crimes. When previously sex-offending youth do have future arrests, they are far more likely to be for nonsexual crimes such as property or drug offenses than for sex crimes. These empiri­cal findings contrast with popular thought and widely publicized anecdotal cases that disproportionately portray incidences of sex crime recidivism. Nevertheless, a small number of sex-offending youth are at ele­vated risk to progress to adult sex offenses. To identify those who are more likely to progress to future offending, researchers have developed actuarial risk assessment tools that have demonstrated some predic­tive validity; efforts to refine these tools are underway.

Citations omitted.

Once again I ask the question, what purpose is served by requiring these juveniles to register as sex offenders for life? More importantly, why hasn't anyone in power thought about the long-term implications of sex offender registration?

It doesn't take courage to stand up in front of an audience and announce that you're tough on crime. It doesn't take courage to stand up and tell them that "it's all about the kids." It does take courage, however, to  take the time to explain why we need to think about the consequences of the laws we pass today. It does take courage to stand up to stop the madness.

That is one thing sadly lacking in Austin.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Happy Birthday, Guantanamo

Where were you ten years ago? What were you doing? Who were you hanging out with? What changes in your life have you seen over the last ten years? Who's died? Who's been born?

Think back to January 2002.

That's when President Bush opened Guantanamo Bay in Cuba as a prison for detainees in the War Against Something Terror. That's when he decided to hold those detainees indefinitely without charges, without bail, without trial.

That's when President Bush said fuck the Constitution. And that's when our representatives and senators in Washington forgot all about that oath everyone took to uphold the laws of the United States.

Sure, it's a dangerous world out there. We all know that. But it's been a dangerous fucking world ever since man first decided to walk upright and venture out of caves.

It was a dangerous world long before 9/11. A good deal of that danger we brought about ourselves by meddling in the affairs of other countries.

Just how safer do you feel knowing that your government has been holding people in prison for a decade without ever bringing them to court? Without ever presenting the evidence it claims to hold against them?

Constantly changing security alerts. Scope and grope at the airport. War in Afghanistan. Feeling safer yet?

So, happy birthday, Guantanamo.