Thursday, March 17, 2016

Debtors prisons, robot law, flying pigs, and other stories

Here are a number of items which merit Grits readers' attention even though I don't have time to develop them into full posts:

Police accountability roundup
Three of four federal districts in Texas are among those in which US Attorneys decline nearly all civil rights cases related to misconduct by police officers. In San Antonio, a man beaten to the point that he was paralyzed by undercover drug cops and SWAT officers targeting the wrong person has sued in federal court, though his own lawyers, not the US Attorney, are pushing the case. In Dallas County, a Farmer's Branch officer has been indicted on murder charges after killing an unarmed 16-year old he'd chased into neighboring Addison. And Houston cops killed three unarmed suspects last weekend, in each case after initially using their Tasers, which the police union says were ineffective. (So much for Tasers letting police avoid fatal mistakes.) Though the Attorney General's office recently overstated the number of people shot and killed by Texas law enforcement, it almost seems from these stories that Texas cops aim to catch up.

Robots and American Law
I'm really looking forward to attending this talk next Tuesday by Ryan Calo on "Robots and American Law" at the Strauss Center, UT Law School. See an article from The Atlantic based on Calo's paper on the topic. Not long ago, my granddaughter asked if Isaac Asimov's three laws of robotics - starting with robots may never harm a human, or through inaction allow them to be harmed - were real laws. "No," I replied, but they should be."

Medical care scrutinized at Galveston jail
After the Galveston Sheriff was sued over the death of an inmate who did not receive prescribed medication, the Houston Chronicle reported, "Six inmates have died while in custody of Galveston County jailers since January 2010. In five of the deaths, the sheriff's office listed the cause of death as "intoxication or illness/natural causes," while the sixth inmate died from suicide. [Jesse] Jacobs' death was not the first time the jail has been scrutinized for its medical care of inmates: The jail ran afoul of state jail regulators in 2013, when inspectors found that the county was not dispensing medication as doctors had ordered."

Racial profiling and searches at traffic stops
Reported the Austin Statesman, based on a new report from Austin's Police Monitor, "During stops that resulted in a citation or an arrest, African-Americans had a 1 in 6 chance of being searched in the same type of stops, which was the same rate since 2012. Hispanics had a 1 in 9 chance of being searched, which also was the same rate from the previous two years, the report found. Whites had a 1 in 22 chance of being searched."

Thinking about innocence
With the Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Panel meeting next week, this article on conviction review units at prosecutor's offices and this one on rethinking rules for police interrogations. (See agendas and backup materials here.) Speaking of innocence, the Texas Tribune has a story explaining why Ben Spencer, who a judge declared in 2007 was actually innocent, is still incarcerated. Short answer: The Court of Criminal Appeals insisted that Spencer's attorneys prove a negative - that he could not have committed a crime - when the most that's practically possible is to debunk all the evidence against him, which they have done.

Wow, look at those flying pigs!
At the 5th Circuit, former Texas Supreme Court judge Priscilla Owen authored an opinion overturning a child porn conviction because of prosecutorial misconduct.

John Cornyn, George Will tout crimjust reform
Columnist George Will featured comments from Texas Sen. John Cornyn in an article titled, "Rethink causes of crime, need for punishment." Cornyn lamented that the criminal justice system "has become by default a social-services provider." Will, who has more of a way with words than the senator, made the conservative case for reform: "What justice requires, frugality encourages: Too many people are in prison for too long, and too often, at a financial cost disproportionate to the enhancement of public safety."

DOJ critical of using arrest warrants for collections
I'm thrilled to see my old pal Vanita Gupta at the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department targeting excessive fines and fees and debtors' prison policies. See New York Times coverage, a letter sent by DOJ to chief justices and court administrators chastising them for using arrest warrants for collections, and here's more background from the DOJ. Noted the Times, "The issue has helped forge alliances between liberal civil rights groups and conservative organizations. Grover Norquist, the conservative activist, spoke last year at a White House summit meeting on poverty and incarceration. The Institute for Justice, a libertarian organization, has brought lawsuits accusing cities of using court fines to raise revenue."

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