Police use-of-force has been big news in this country for several years now. A large segment of the public believes that the police have used fatal force without just cause. They cite many high-profile cases: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and so on. These police killings have triggered a storm of protests across the country, including in California. In some of these cases, the officer or officers involved faced possible charges of manslaughter or even murder. In virtually all of these cases, the decision as to whether to prosecute these officers is left to a secret grand jury proceedings. With few exceptions, the grand juries have found that an indictment of the officer is not supported by the evidence. The public often perceives the grand jury as biased in favor of the cops and there has been a high level of distrust in the grand jury system. It doesn’t help that the proceedings are held in secret.

California became the first state in the country to address the public’s distrust of the grand jury system as employed in officer-involved lethal force cases. In 2015, Governor Brown signed into law a bill, SB 227, prohibiting the use of grand juries in California when an officer has used lethal force under circumstances that are possibly criminal. Rather, if a cop was to be charged, the district attorney would have to directly file the criminal complaint and the case would proceed through an open preliminary hearing. Thereafter, charges by what is called an information would be filed by the district attorney if the evidence at the preliminary hearing showed a reasonable possibility that the officer’s use of lethal force was a criminal act. Prior to enactment of SB 227, California prosecutors had the option of going to the grand jury or directly filing charges by a criminal complaint.

Not surprisingly prosecutors opposed SB 277. They argued that the grand jury system, by the fact that it is held in secret, facilitates the discovery of the truth. The grand jury proceedings, they argued, permits them to compel witnesses to testify and “offer a fuller seeking of the truth for all sides. . ..” (SB 227 Arguments in Opposition.) Prosecutors also objected because they argued that if they could not use the grand jury as an investigation tool in police lethal force cases, it hampered their ability to properly investigate the incident.

You probably heard about the four Chicago youths who kidnapped a mentally disabled 18-year-old male, tied him up, assaulted, tortured him, and taunted him with profanities against white people and Donald Trump. Perhaps you saw the video. The assailants actually live-streamed this 30-minute ordeal over Facebook; the video is revolting. The youths are being charged with multiple offenses and while the hate crime charge is getting the most attention, the most serious sentence exposure for these four relates to the mental disability of the victim.

In Illinois, as in California, certain crimes are “aggravated” when the victim is mentally disabled. This can substantially enlarge the potential sentence. For example, in the case of the Chicago four, the kidnapping charges alone stand to enhance the sentence by an additional 25 years (5 years max for kidnapping but up to 30 years when the victim is disabled).

In California, when the victim of a crime is disabled, whether mentally or physically, it can be an aggravating factor that can tack many additional years on to the defendant’s sentence as it applies to certain crimes. Many misdemeanor assault and battery crimes become a felony when the victim is disabled. Surprisingly, in California, unlike Illinois and many other states, kidnapping is not elevated to an aggravated crime if the victim is disabled.

FENTANYL MAKES FOR GRIM STATISTICS AS WE CLOSE OUT 2016

Prince was one of thousands of people who died last year after overdosing on fentanyl. The number of deaths attributed to fentanyl overdoses is rising almost exponentially. Fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid, is said to be from 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and so powerful that heroin addicts report they can no longer get high off heroin after using fentanyl.   Developed over 50 years ago as a “safe alternative” to morphine, its purpose was to treat severe pain. And it is still prescribed, although strictly controlled, to treat cancer pain and as an anesthetic during surgery.

The New York Times recently reported that fentanyl fatalities are surpassing heroin fatalities in much of the country and as part of a national trend that is expected to continue. Drug overdose fatalities are increasing, in no small part due to the rise of fentanyl abuse. For the first time in New York City’s history, drug overdoses exceed 1,000 people in 2016 and half of those were a result of fentanyl. One addiction counselor aptly described fentanyl as “the serial killer of drugs.”

THE ULTIMATE PUNISHMENT

California is one of 30 states in which the death penalty is legal. In the last election, California voters voted to keep capital punishment legal (Proposition 62) and, beyond that, voted to speed up the process (Proposition 66). Proposition 62 would have replaced the punishment for those convictions under which a person could be sentenced to death to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The California voters soundly defeated this proposition with 53% of the voters voting nay. A corollary proposition, Prop 66, approved by 51% of the voters, shortens the time a death row inmate can take to appeal his or her sentence to a maximum of five years. Opponents of Proposition 66 have filed a lawsuit in the Californian Supreme Court challenging the legality of Proposition 66. That lawsuit is pending.

So what is the fate of an estimated 750 death row inmates presently sitting out their time in California prisons? The last time a person was executed in California was in January 2006, when 76 year old Clarence Ray Allen was put to death by lethal injection. A month after Mr. Allen’s execution, the U.S. District Court blocked a scheduled execution after a lawsuit was filed challenging the lethal injection protocol as cruel and unusual punishment. Since this challenge, there has been an almost eleven year stay on lethal injections in California. That stay was challenged in 2010, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal ruled that the stay continued to apply. Even though no one has been executed in this state since 2006, prosecutors continue to ask for the death penalty and new death row inmates are added to the prison population every year.

Researchers have discovered a there is a genetic link between personality and mental illness. As one of the researchers explained: “Mental illnesses can be viewed as maladaptive or extreme variants of personality traits.” The researchers studied the genetic profiles of 260,000 people focusing on the five long-established personality traits (extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, openness to experience and conscientiousness) that are considered the basic categories of personality. What the researchers found was that these personality dimensions when identified on a person’s genome map (yes, there are “personality genes”) strongly correlated to gene variations that predicted various mental illnesses.

Now you might say, “What’s new?” It is observable in our everyday life that people we know who have, for example, a neurotic personality also tend to have anxiety disorders and depression. These links between personality and mental illness have long been observed and studied. What this study reveals however is that there is a genetic link; in other words, it’s not all nurture. The researchers theorize that the personality a person is born with may tip over into mental illness when pushed to extremes by life experiences.

This field of research, which is sure to eventually unlock the keys to mental illness, is a potential minefield in terms of the criminal justice system. It would not be a stretch to say that many criminals are born. In other words, a criminal is born with a certain personality type—as are we all— but the criminal personality is one susceptible to the risk of mental illnesses, such as antisocial disorders or psychopathy. Indeed, it is estimated that more than half of all incarcerated criminals have some kind of mental illness. (Removing the large numbers of persons incarcerated for victimless crimes would increase that percentage substantially.)

On November 8, 2016, California voters passed Proposition 57, The Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 201, by an overwhelming majority of 64%. This proposition contained two key provisions:

1) It makes certain non-violent felons eligible for immediate parole and

2) It requires a court hearing before a juvenile can be tried in adult court.

Until the passage of Proposition 57 on November 8th, minors over the age of 14 charged with a criminal offense would often find themselves directly charged in adult court rather than juvenile court. The two courts are very distinct because the focus of court in a juvenile criminal matter is rehabilitation and education whereas a juvenile who faces charges in criminal court will be treated as an adult and faces the same punishments an adult would on the same charges.

Prior to the passage of Prop 57, prosecutors could, and were often mandated to, directly file charges against a juvenile age 14-17 in adult court. In those cases where the juvenile 14 years or older, direct file was mandatory under the law for certain serious felonies such as murder and many sex crimes. For other crimes, the prosecution could file the charges against a child as young as 14 directly in adult court under what was known as discretionary direct file. Many of the laws regarding direct file were a result of an earlier proposition passed by California voters in the year 2000, known as Proposition 21. Proposition 57 reversed the “get tough on juveniles” sentiment of Proposition 21.

Now under Proposition 57, which became the law on November 9th, prosecutors can no longer directly file charges in adult court under any circumstances. The law now requires a hearing before a juvenile court judge before any person who committed a crime while under the age of 18 can be transferred to adult court on criminal charges. Additionally, prior to Proposition 57, the prosecution could move the juvenile court to transfer the matter to adult court in what was called a “fitness hearing” for those juveniles whose case was not “direct filed.” The criteria under which juvenile judges were mandated by statute to consider the transfer favored the prosecution. Now, all juveniles charged with a crime will appear before the juvenile court in a “transfer hearing,” which requires the juvenile judge to consider five criteria:

PETITION UNDER PROPOSITION 64 TO DISMISS AND SEAL OR TO REDUCE A PRIOR MARIJUANA CONVICTION

By a hefty margin of 56%, Prop 64 was passed in California on November 8. It is now legal for Californians over the age of 21 to possess, transport, and buy 28.5 grams (a little over one ounce) of marijuana for personal use. It is also now legal to grow up to six marijuana plants at a time.

So, what about all those Californians who were arrested and convicted for possessing or transporting amounts of marijuana now legal under the law?

Dystopian films and literature are usually thought of as science fiction, but while this entertainment might be classified as fiction, it often portends a future that may already be here. That is especially true when it comes to crime fighting. In my previous post, I discussed a few of the tools now at law enforcement’s disposal that would have been considered science fiction only a generation ago. Are we heading towards a world with oppressive societal controls and a loss of civil rights as the dystopian novels and films depict? Many civil rights advocates fear just that.

One of the emerging crime fighting techniques is facial recognition and many fear that this technique not only violates the rights of innocent people. There is also legitimate concern about facial recognition errors identifying innocent people. No one really knows how widespread the use of this law enforcement technique is because there are very few controls or reporting requirements and almost zero transparency. Police can scan images from virtually any photograph, including DMV photos, social media, and even video webcams set up to scan the public. Facial recognition software can then be used to scan through these digitized images to look for a match in the search for a suspect. What’s wrong with that, you might ask?

Well, to begin, it is essentially a virtual lineup. Maybe you are in that lineup and you don’t even know it – actually you may have already been in one of these lineups or soon will be. Remember, law enforcement is able to scan through thousands of images at the push of a computer button.

The Brave New World of Law Enforcement Investigation

The digital age has changed everything in the world around us and law Enforcement is no exception. Back in the old days, police investigation procedures were limited to talking with potential witnesses, taking lots of photographs, lifting fingerprints, forensic analysis of blood, and that sort of thing. Now law enforcement has investigation tools that make their job easier and make it harder for the criminal to “get away with it.” But these tools present their own dangers to the public. As civil rights advocates warn, the brave new world of law enforcement tools endanger our civil liberties. I will discuss why this may be so in my next post but today, let’s review just a few of the new age law enforcement tools.

We might begin with DNA analysis, which was no doubt the first huge law enforcement tool of the digital age. We are all familiar with DNA analysis, but it’s pretty amazing to think that it has only been around since the mid-1980s. DNA has proven to be a very effective law enforcement tool and on the flip side, DNA evidence techniques have freed individuals who were wrongly convicted of a crime.