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Articles Posted in Constitutional Rights

In 2017, California instituted a new lawthat prohibits law enforcement from seizing any asset valued over $40,000 in what is known as civil asset forfeiture. Civil asset forfeiture is nothing more than official theft by the state under the color of law. Basically, it allows law enforcement to seize property suspected of being used or in any way connected to suspected criminal activity. This may be a house, a car, jewelry, cash or any asset.

Civil asset forfeiture has, for example, been used to seize the home of a grandmother from which her grandson was allegedly selling drugs without her knowledge. Prior to the change in law in California (and still applicable for assets under $40,000), and in many other states, the owners of the property had to prove innocence—even when there are no charges yet filed and certainly before there is any conviction. In fact, it is estimated that in over 80 percent of all civil asset forfeiture cases in the United States the owners of the property were never even charged with the alleged crime. Yet law enforcement can and does keep the property. The hurdles owners are required to pass to challenge the forfeiture are legally complex and expensive.

As hard as it is to believe, civil asset forfeiture has been an important law enforcement “tool” – or better termed, a legal way to fund law enforcement coffers, for that is what happens to the assets seized – the “proceeds” go directly to the seizing agency. Unamerican? Perverse? Legal theft? Yes, and more. And the United States Supreme Court agrees!

Did you see the 2002 movie Minority Report? Back then, it was science fiction; now it’s getting close to reality. In Minority Report, police departments had “PreCrime” units where “precogs” (strange psychic bodies that lived in liquid pools) were able to predict when a person was going to commit a crime. Based on this knowledge, the police would arrest the individual before they had the chance to commit the crime.

Today, police departments are utilizing predictive policing technology to pre-empt criminal activity. They don’t employ precogs, but they do use algorithms. And they aren’t arresting people before they commit a crime – at least not yet, but they do plan policing day-by-day based on software predictions. Utilizing algorithms, the Los Angeles Police Department’s program PredPol (the title itself sounds dystopian) identifies 150 square-meter areas where certain types of crime are more likely to occur on any given day. The PredPol technology got its start when then LAPD Chief, Bill Bratton, went to UCLA researchers seeking a way to use the historical data compiled by the LAPD to pre-emptively deploy the police force wherever crime was likely to occur.  Using the PredPol algorithms the LAPD sends units to patrol these “hotspots” based on the predictions.

This is not a matter of just beefing up the police force in high-crime areas, it’s way beyond that. Data is continuously fed into the model resulting in ever-changing predictions. The algorithms predict the highest risk areas for any particular crime on any particular day and at any particular time, thereby theoretically (and perhaps factually) stopping the crime before it happens, or at least being there when it does.

Many of my clients are surprised at the amount of information law enforcement has gathered about them. I wrote awhile back about how ubiquitous law enforcement surveillance is in our everyday lives.   Many of my clients learn the hard way. Not only is it impossible to hide from the police these days unless you go live in the woods (well, not even that), but past crimes that many think they have escaped often come back to haunt the present because technology has conquered our “secret” world.

One of the “gifts” to law enforcement is the cell phone. Cell phones make it so much easier now for law enforcement to track down a suspect, discover a suspect’s plans or activity (although this usually will require a search warrant or consent in California), and learn much more about a suspect just by reviewing cellphone or cell tower data. We want to believe law enforcement conducts their cell phone surveillance lawfully but in this age of whistle blowers, we know that is not always the case.

One of the supposed advantages of iPhones is that the data on the phone is encrypted. Even law enforcement cannot access information from an iPhone…or so they say. The reader may recall the outrage over the reported inability of the FBI to access the iPhone data of the San Bernardino terrorist. The FBI couldn’t crack the iPhone code and asked (well, ordered) Apple to create software that would allow the FBI access. Apple refused. Before the FBI went to court to compel Apple to crack the code, the FBI paid a third-party “hacker” to break into the phone’s data.

While every defendant has a constitutional right to a jury of his or her peers, criminal charges rarely go to trial. In fact, around 97% of criminal cases are resolved by a plea bargain. A plea bargain is when the defendant pleads guilty or nolo contendere (no contest) to criminal charges. Often the process involves the prosecutor agreeing to dismiss some of the charges in exchange for a plea to the remaining charges. Sometimes, the plea will include an offer of a low-end sentence or probation in exchange for the plea. These are called conditional pleas. An open or unconditional plea is one where the defendant pleads guilty with no promises made to him or her for the plea.

The judge has very little to do with the conditional plea process and, in fact, in California, the judge is not allowed to engage in any plea bargaining. However, at the time the plea is entered by the defendant in court, the judge can reject the plea agreement but the judge cannot change the terms of the agreement. Open pleas can be made to the court and the judge can, in that instance, indicate the sentence he or she will levy against the defendant. If that sentence is not imposed, the defendant can withdraw the plea.

Following the acceptance by the judge of the defendant’s plea of guilty or no contest, whether after a plea bargain with the prosecutor or an open plea, the court will enter judgment, that is, the judge will enter the conviction pursuant to the plea.

When a person is charged with a crime, the prosecution is bound by law to provide all the evidence supporting the charge or charges, including evidence that might exonerate the defendant. Evidence that is favorable to the defendant is called “exculpatory evidence” and back in 1963, the United States Supreme Court held that the prosecution must give all this exculpatory evidence to the defense. This case, Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, was the seminal case on exculpatory evidence. These days, attorneys refer to Brady evidence when they are talking about exculpatory evidence.

Unfortunately, the prosecution sometimes plays fast and loose with exculpatory evidence. And if the defense doesn’t know the evidence exists, it may be hidden by the prosecution and not available in the discovery, leaving the defendant at a disadvantage. This doesn’t happen in every case, most prosecutors run an honest practice, but it happens. A few years ago, the Orange County District Attorney’s office was scandalized by allegations that it withheld material evidence from the defense and the court in a high-profile murder case. That led to a new law in California that provides for criminal punishment of a prosecutor who withholds evidence.

Sometimes, the discovery that a prosecutor has withheld exculpatory evidence does not become known until years after the trial. For example, just this year, disciplinary charges were filed by the State Bar of California against a former L.A. City Attorney who was accused of withholding potential exculpatory evidence in a murder case that took place 30 years ago. The case was a death penalty case and the defendant was convicted and sentenced to death.

We cannot walk down our streets, drive our cars, or talk on our cell phones without these activities being caught by ubiquitous law enforcement surveillance. Use a cell phone and your location can be easily discovered. Similarly, the license plates of cars everywhere are being continuously scanned and registered in a database. Facial recognition cameras are scanning pedestrians and drivers at every turn. Next time you are walking in town, look up on the light poles and other high public structures. Smile, you’re on candid camera.

This surveillance undoubtedly helps the cops catch the bad guys. I have seen how these techniques have enabled the police to discover the perpetrator of crime and locate him or her quickly. The techniques also often provide the prosecution with solid evidence. The defendant who says, “I wasn’t there” as defendants do, will often find out that the prosecution has irrefutable evidence that the defendant was there. Maybe the defendant’s cell phone signal was running off a cell tower near the location of the crime, maybe the defendant’s license plate was scanned on the street where the crime occurred, maybe the prosecution even has a picture of the defendant from a nearby surveillance camera, and soon, a law enforcement drone or small plane may capture evidence against the defendant. Defendants are often unaware that they have been surreptitiously surveilled – as indeed we all are!

This comes with a price. Every innocent citizen is caught in this web of surveillance implicating our Fourth Amendment Right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. Many people are willing to be constantly surveilled in trade off for greater crime prevention. But, the wisdom of our Founding Fathers should not be ignored.

Sometimes a person arrested for a crime will swear he or she was nowhere near the location when the criminal incident took place., but the prosecution will allege otherwise…with evidence to prove it. That evidence: tracking of the defendant’s cell phone. Even if the defendant wasn’t using his or her cellphone at the time, the cellphone sends data to cell towers, or more commonly these days, the GPS system embedded on most cellphones does the work. All the police need is the defendant’s cellphone (assuming he or she was carrying it at the time of the alleged crime) to find the defendant’s location at the time. But what if the cellphone, say, disappeared? The authorities can still get the information from the cellphone service provider.

In California, the state authorities need a warrant (or the cellphone owner’s consent) to search any cell phone data, but that isn’t true in all states and it isn’t the case for federal crimes. So even if an individual is suspected of a crime in California, but it is a federal crime being investigated by federal authorities, those authorities do not need a warrant to search historical data held by the suspect’s cellphone service provider.

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees that every person in this country is secure from unreasonable searches and seizures. How “unreasonable” is defined is the subject of many a treatise but for purposes here and ignoring the enumerated exceptions for the moment, if there is no warrant, the search and seizure is considered by law to be “unreasonable.” How would the warrantless search of historical cellphone data as recorded by the cellphone service provider fit into the cellphone owner’s Fourth Amendment guarantee?

A POWERFUL TOOL IN THE DEFENSE TOOLBOX: THE MOTION TO SUPPRESS

Here’s an interesting case that caught my eye: Narcotics officers in Colorado Springs observed a driver in his parked vehicle conducting what appeared to be a narcotics transaction. The officers made contact with the driver and after a brief struggle, they discovered a brown satchel containing cash and Ziploc bags near the vehicle. They then searched the vehicle and found controlled substances, firearms, and ammunition. The first question any good defense attorney would ask is, “What reasonable suspicion did the officers have for contacting and detaining the driver in the first place?” Why? Because the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution requires either a search warrant or a “reasonable and articulable suspicion” that the driver has violated the law before a vehicle can be searched. The courts have fashioned many exceptions to this requirement but if an arrest is the result of a search without a warrant and without probable cause or any of the enumerated exceptions, the entire arrest can be challenged by a motion to suppress.

The Colorado case is particularly interesting because of the facts: The police got a warrant to place a GPS tracking device on a vehicle, the vehicle was sold, and the new vehicle owner was the guy that ended up getting arrested. The police continued to track the vehicle even though there was evidence that they knew the vehicle had been sold. The officers testified that they surveilled the vehicle to see if the previous owner was still driving the car. It was during that surveillance that the new owner of the car was observed parking the car and was contacted by the officers, which ended up in the search of the vehicle and the driver’s arrest.

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.

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.