Monday, May 18, 2015

How Should the Police Deal with an Armed and Violent Mentally Ill Suspect?

Today, the Supreme Court decided San Francisco v. Sheehan, 6:2 sort-of-in favor of the city (Justice Breyer recused himself--his brother decided the case in a lower instance.) The facts, taken verbatim from the case syllabus, are as follows:

Respondent Sheehan lived in a group home for individuals with mental illness. After Sheehan began acting erratically and threatened to kill her social worker, the City and County of San Francisco (San Francisco) dispatched police officers Reynolds and Holder to help escort Sheehan to a facility for temporary evaluation and treatment. When the officers first entered Sheehan’s room, she grabbed a knife and threatened to kill them. They retreated and closed the door. Concerned about what Sheehan might do behind the closed door, and without considering if they could accommodate her disability, the officers reentered her room. Sheehan, knife in hand, again confronted them. After pepper spray proved ineffective, the officers shot Sheehan multiple times [seriously injuring, but not killing her--H.A.].

What should the cops do under such circumstances? Sheehan sued the City, arguing that when dealing with a mentally ill patient, the cops are bound by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In lower courts, the city tried to argue that the ADA does not apply to police dealings with an armed and dangerous individuals. However, before the Supreme Court, the city presented and argued a brief merely stating that there was no way to accommodate Sheehan under the ADA due to the circumstances, in which she was not "participating" in an activity from which she might "benefit". The dissent, written by Justice Scalia, would deny the city relief because of this change of tactics.

But the majority opinion, written by Justice Alito, stated that the police officers had qualified immunity from Sheehan's lawsuit, because their actions did not clearly violate her Fourth Amendment rights; Fourth Amendment doctrine at the time did not include a clear and explicit mandate to accommodate suspects with disabilities, and the question whether it should has been left open.

Bottom line:
1. The city does not have to pay; the cops have immunity.
2. We have no answer whether the ADA covers armed and dangerous individuals.
3. We have no answer whether an arrest is an "activity" covered by the ADA.
4. We have no answer whether not accommodating an armed, violent, mentally-ill suspect is a Fourth Amendment violation.

Some thoughts:

1. These sorts of situations are going to be really difficult to parse out constitutionally, because the devil really is in the details. The degree to which the police might be aware that the suspect is mentally ill and the extent of the threat she or he pose would vary from situation to situation, and whatever Fourth Amendment standard is adopted will have to take that into account.

2. Let's set aside constitutional doctrine for a minute and look at sound judgment. If you were the cops, what would you do? Presumably, your decision whether to let things calm down inside before going in might depend on whether there are innocent people inside that are being threatened by the suspect, no?

3. It's also important to keep in mind that this decision occurs in a context of overall public lack of trust in the police, and particularly in its discretion using lethal force. It's interesting that the timing didn't bait the Supreme Court into saying something about this more generally, or even attempt to answer the question of mentally ill suspects for the future. Perhaps this reluctance stems from their willingness to give the police a wide berth of discretion.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Congress Lifts Federal Ban on Medical Marijuana

This is huge news, friends: Congress has ended the era of medical prohibition.

The L.A. Times reports:

Tucked deep inside the 1,603-page federal spending measure is a provision that effectively ends the federal government's prohibition on medical marijuana and signals a major shift in drug policy.

The bill's passage over the weekend marks the first time Congress has approved nationally significant legislation backed by legalization advocates. It brings almost to a close two decades of tension between the states and Washington over medical use of marijuana.

Under the provision, states where medical pot is legal would no longer need to worry about federal drug agents raiding retail operations. Agents would be prohibited from doing so.

The Obama administration has largely followed that rule since last year as a matter of policy. But the measure approved as part of the spending bill, which President Obama plans to sign this week, will codify it as a matter of law.

Some initial thoughts about what this means:

1. Businesses focused on medical marijuana can now operate with no fear of raids. This might lead to new types of business initiatives.
2. Even though the feds are still too wary to call off the war against recreational marijuana, loose gatekeeping in getting medical cards might make it a de-facto thing.

As an aside, the L.A. Times is quickly becoming my favorite California paper, because of excellent stories like this. Well, done, Evan Halper.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

SB 443: Bring an End to Civil Asset Forfeiture in CA!

A new bill sponsored by Senator Holly Mitchell proposes to reform the absurdities of civil asset forfeiture in California.

From the bill text:

The purpose of this bill is to 

1) require a criminal conviction for forfeiture of alleged cash drug proceeds and assets in excess of 
2) reduce the percentage of forfeiture proceeds distributed to prosecutors, law enforcement and the 
General Fund; 
3) distribute 5% of forfeiture proceeds to each of the courts and public defense; 
4) require that California standards be met before federal forfeiture proceeds can be distributed to 
a state of local law enforcement agency through equitable sharing; 
5) grant a right to counsel for indigent defendants in civil drug forfeiture matters; 
6) authorize attorneys' fees and costs for prevailing defendants in forfeiture cases; 
7) prohibit adoption by federal authorities of a state forfeiture matter; and 
8) require the California Department of Justice's annual asset forfeiture report to include data on 
forfeitures initiated under California law,federal adoptions, forfeiture case that were prosecuted 
under federal law, the number of suspects charged with drug crimes, the number of criminal charges brought under each of state and federal law and the disposition of these cases.

In short, to stop this travesty:

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Inequality and Traffic Courts

Sam Levin's East Bay Express story illuminates a hidden corner in the criminal justice system: traffic courts and their contribution to inequality and social stratification.

Statewide data that Bay Area legal aid and civil rights organizations recently compiled and analyzed — along with detailed accounts from people saddled with insurmountable traffic violation debts — demonstrate that municipal courts and aggressive debt collectors in California routinely trap low-income people in poverty with exorbitant fines. Minor traffic offenses that once cost $100 now cost roughly $500, which people living paycheck to paycheck can't afford.

And when defendants miss a single payment or court date, the fines increase exponentially — and their driver's licenses are suspended. In those cases, the courts also frequently block defendants from having a trial unless they post full bail, which means innocent people or those with extenuating life circumstances often can't even present their cases to a judge.

Over the past eight years, there have been 4.2 million cases in which the state suspended driver's licenses because of people's failure to appear or pay fines in court, according to the East Bay Community Law Center, a nonprofit that provides legal services to defendants in traffic court. That means an estimated 17 percent of adults in California currently have suspended licenses for missing a hearing or payment deadline.