Public Defender Arrested in Court!

So, this happened today: Two guys were arraigned for petty theft charges. Cops showed up and started asking them questions about an unrelated robbery and taking their pictures. The defense attorney intervened, and this is what transpired:

A short version of what happened, including my commentary, is already on the Chronicle. Since people already know about this, and I therefore can’t use it for the perfect exam question that it is, here’s my analysis:

A. Did the cops violate the clients’ constitutional rights?

A. 1. Sixth Amendment. 

In “criminal prosecutions”, that is, after a person is formally charged, he or she is entitled to legal representation. This means, under Massiah v. U.S., that once the person has retained a lawyer, the police is not allowed to elicit information from him/her. But: The Sixth Amendment is offense-specific, which means the cops *can* approach the person regarding an unrelated offense. So far, what the cops did was kosher.

A. 2. Fifth Amendment

But people also have a privilege against self-incrimination, and when under custodial interrogation, they should be Mirandized so that they know they may remain silent and consult with an attorney. Was this “custodial interrogation”? sticky. On one hand, these guys are not under arrest; they are merely standing in the court hallway. On the other hand, the cop says, “you’ll be free to leave when we’re done”, which presumably means they are not free to leave at the moment. And, does asking for names and taking pictures count as “interrogation”? does it produce “testimonial evidence”? If so, they should have been Mirandized. My instinct, lamentably, is that it doesn’t. No custody, questionable interrogation.

B. Was the lawyer allowed to intervene?

Even assuming that there was a violation of the clients’ privilege against self-incrimination, under Moran v. Burbine the privilege belongs to the client, not to the lawyer. The clients should have stopped the interrogation and asked for the lawyer, not vice versa. Of course, this is ridiculously unrealistic–who better than the lawyer to help people with their rights? But there you have it.

C. Should the cops have arrested the lawyer?

Even if the lawyer did not, constitutionally, have a right to intervene, the arrest is ridiculous. There’s an argument there, but the lawyer is not being violent or disruptive in any way. The cops clearly got carried away.

All the other stuff that is going on in the political chatter–racial profiling, zealous representation, yada yada–strikes me as nothing more than political flourish. The bare bones of the legal situation are, I think, as I stated above. Thoughts?

Crack, Torture, and Conspiracy Theories: Why and Which Stories Matter

Conspiracies and evil machinations have been on my mind lately, for a combination of reasons. One of them is that I recently gave a post-play talk at Cutting Ball Theater‘s production of Superheroes, a play by Sean San José performed in collaboration with Campo Santo. The play is a non-narrative, nonlinear take on the 1996 revelations of Gary Webb, then a journalist with the San Jose Mercury News. In a three-part series of articles titled Dark Alliance (later to appear as a book), Webb outlined the emergence of the crack cocaine epidemic in America’s inner cities. According to the story, CIA agents allowed Nicaraguans who financed the Contras to import cocaine into the United States with impunity and protected mid-level drug dealers from the consequences.

That the CIA was aware of drug importing was already known at the time; a 1989 Senate committee admitted as much, but stopped short of tying the CIA to the actual trafficking. Webb’s article provided the missing link. In response, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times refuted and discredited the story, leading the San Jose Mercury News to withdraw it and sack Webb. After a stream of small jobs and financial ruin, Webb committed suicide.

A recent Hollywood movie, Kill the Messenger, reaffirms Webb’s findings. And at the talk I gave, many audience members, especially people of color who came of age during the heyday of the epidemic, expressed their firm belief that Webb was right, and that the CIA deliberately pushed crack cocaine into their neighborhoods with the express goal to destroy them. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow gives credence to this “strong Webb theory” as well.

Which raises two questions: what do you believe, and, does it even matter what the truth is? When assessing our belief in a story, it’s important to keep in mind the context in which we hear it. There is a lot of talk about white privilege these days, and it’s making a lot of people angry and defensive to the point that I’m not sure the term is useful or productive anymore. What some hear as anger and some as accusation can, however, be understood as an effort to explain to others that one’s lived experience cannot inform a complete view of the subject, and that it is sometimes helpful to open one’s eyes and hearts to the lived experiences of others, particularly if one’s social advantages in life are taken for granted and make them unaware of lives lived without these advantages. The protests erupting in many American cities, by people who are sick of police abuse and of the devaluing of black lives, are an expression of this frustration with not being heard and with having a particular set of experiences ignored and trivialized, even when we are presented with irrefutable evidence.

I think it’s important to take these experiences seriously. Not because I think, at this point, that anyone can productively point the finger at someone at the CIA as some archvillain who decided that dying from crack would be white America’s “final solution” to the black population (if anyone did, I’m sure they’ve found that their cure was much worse than whatever disease they assumed to fix.) I think these experiences matter because, regardless of the personal intent of actors in the system, even if one assumes a modest version of Webb’s theories, which merely ascribes ignorance and neglect, it is frightening that the CIA’s rush to protect the Contras and their allies would lead them to discount the horrific effects drug importing would have on neighborhoods and communities.

In many ways–which I said on Sunday night at the show–ignorance and neglect are worse than intent and malicious design. Because, if someone is evil and malicious, we can point a finger, accuse, (try to) prosecute. But if there is an entire system which, at some point, just decided that the bottom 15% of American citizens are dispensable, there’s not a lot to do and the fight is going to be much longer and harder. And also, because anyone who regards you as an enemy at least ascribes you some importance. On the other hand, if you are discounted, disregarded, and discarded, it’s because, as many of the protesters today are pointing out, the system has come to the collective conclusion that your life doesn’t matter.

Another thought I’ve had on this has to do with the credibility of the theory. This morning, the Senate Committee’s report on the CIA’s use of torture came out. The report tells you what your country does to people, many of whom are probably innocent, without informing you (if you don’t know, please educate yourself). Before 9/11, before the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, before many other things happened, some of you might’ve thought this impossible, a joke. But those of us who grew up on shows like Mission: Impossible were raised on the premise that we are the good guys, and as such, we are entitled to treat the world as our personal sandbox: torturing, abusing, stealing elections in at least eight countries. Mission: Impossible was a work of fiction, but maybe it was designed to make the inconceivable possible, to ameliorate our feelings and desensitize us for the moment in which we learned the truth.

And what a terrific indoctrination job! In 1974, when we found out that the White House was plotting to steal an election and spied on the opposite party, the president had to resign.  Now, as we find out that a government agency is regularly listening to our telephone conversations and reading our mail, we’re not even apathetic; we’re jaded.

So the question is no more whether the crack cocaine conspiracy is believable or unbelievable. Pretty much everything is in the ballpark of the believable, and Webb’s exposé was not even that far from what the Senate itself admitted back in 1989. The question is, what are we going to do about this?

The Supreme Court: No Cell-Phone Search Without Warrant

Screenshot 2014-06-25 09.02.43
This morning, the Supreme Court ruled in Riley v. CA and U.S. v. Wurie, 9:0, that searching a cellular phone requires a warrant
Chief Justice Robert’s Op. Ct. analyzed phone searches in the context of the Search Incident to Arrest exception to the warrant requirement, comparing a phone search to a search inside a pack of cigarettes in Robinson. Robinson, you’ll recall, extended the Chimel doctrine to all containers within the “grabbing area” of the suspect. But given the newness of the technology, which the framers (duh) could not anticipate, the court thankfully is unable to find “guidance from the founding era” and turns to reason and pragmatics. 
The state presented essentially two rationales for warrantless searches of cellphones: harm to the officer and destruction of evidence. The opinion summarily dismisses the former: contrary to the cigarette pack in Robinson, there could be no argument of a physical weapon hidden in the phone (the police knew what they were looking for: data), and if there were any concerns of alerting someone to the presence of officers using the phone, those could be addressed via other exceptions to the warrant requirement, such as exigent circumstances, in specific cases. As to the second rationale, with the phone itself physically in the hands of the police, the main concerns regarding destruction would involve encrypting and remote wiping, none of which seems to the Court to be an empirically-supported practical concern (maybe it will be, from now on?). Also, the practicalities of securing the scene, bringing the suspect into custody, etc., mean that the police won’t turn its attention to the phone right away anyway, and therefore the warrant requirement is not onerous or time-consuming for the investigation as a whole.
The decision then explains its particular sensitivity to the issue of phones because of the heightened privacy interests involved. Cellphones differ from physical objects in their immense storage capacity, which means that one carries on one’s person intimate, sensitive data from various sources: locations, conversations, history of internet searches, purchases, dating and romantic life. These merit particular scrutiny on the part of the Court and limitations on police power.
The court also rejects other analogies made by the state: to cars, to pen registers, to pre-digital phones. The rationales for the rejection are all about preferring a bright-line rule and concerns abou spillover of information that was not available before the era of smartphones.
(Justice Alito, concurring in judgment, disagrees that danger to the officer and risk of evidence destructions were the rationales behind Chimel, points to some anomalies created by the decision, but does not see a workable alternative.) 
Three notable things:
(1) The decision is refreshing in its willingness to engage with technology and fully comprehend its implications. It is not driven by technophobia (like, say, Kyllo), but by the experience of people who use phones daily.
(2) Not unrelated: Like Jones, this is one more decision that protects the lifestyles and technologies of the middle class. As opposed to, say, searches of homes with no curtilage, or stops and frisks in the street, both of which fall under the “poverty exception”, the privacy intrusions in Jones and Riley are both such that the Justices might be able to imagine themselves subjected to them.
(3) Note that in the era of smartphones, police officers have phones, too. And they can use them to call a courthouse and get a warrant. So, this decision might not stave off privacy intrusions for very long. The extent to which the cellphone warrant requirement is not merely a formality depends on the extent to which judges will exercise discretion in issuing warrants, which we know, empirically, to be fairly limited.
What do you think about the decision?