They May Be Intelligent, But Are They Wise?

Speaking of fair shakes, here is a wise word of caution about the emerging, expanding use of computer programs to evaluate people in the justice system, whether at bail hearings, sentencings, or elsewhere.

The author is a former software engineer at Facebook who’s now studying law at Harvard. Her point isn’t that we shouldn’t use or consult these programs, but we should know what we’re getting into and proceed with caution. It’s troubling, for example, if we use programs that no one in the field fully understands—not judges, not lawyers, not probation—because the manufacturer won’t disclose a proprietary algorithm.

She says we turn to computers in part to control for our own biases, “[b]ut shifting the … responsibility to a computer doesn’t necessarily eliminate bias; it delegates and often compounds it.” That’s because these programs mimic the data we use to train them, so even the ones that accurately reflect our world will necessarily reflect our biases. Plus, they work on a feedback loop, so if they’re not constantly retrained, they lean in toward those biases and drift even further from reality and fairness. So they don’t just parrot our own biases; they amplify them. She saw this phenomenon time and again as a software engineer.

She agrees that algorithms can work for good. They’ve reportedly helped New Jersey reduce its pretrial jail population, for example.

But let’s proceed with caution, she says:

“Computers may be intelligent, but they are not wise. Everything they know, we taught them, and we taught them our biases. They are not going to un-learn them without transparency and corrective action by humans.”

Commemorating a Courtroom Legend

One of the great professional experiences of my life was the year I spent working for a federal trial judge in Los Angeles. Fresh out of law school in 2005, I served as a law clerk to the Honorable Manuel Real, who was appointed by President Johnson in 1966 and has presided there in the district court since. He’s a walking, living legend of the law.

Judicial clerkships are sought-after jobs for good reason. You learn more about litigation in that year than you ever could by practicing law in any other capacity. It’s because you read and analyze a lot of briefs, and you watch and listen to a lot of lawyers. You see it all from good to run-of-the-mill to bad, and it’s not always what, or whom, you’d expect.

Last year, I was asked to write a piece to commemorate Judge Real’s fiftieth year on the bench, and recently, it was published in the newsletter of the Federal Bar Association in Orange County. Here’s a link to the newsletter if you’re interested, and you’ll find my profile of Judge Real on page ten. Or you can just keep reading below. You’ll hear about bank robberies, business litigation, and even a little gardening.


What do you say when someone celebrates fifty years on the bench?

Plenty in Judge Real’s case if you ask me, and since someone did, here’s my piece.

Who am I? Well, I was the Judge’s 62nd law clerk: one of two during the 2005-06 term, and one of 82 now overall. A lot of those clerks feel the way about him that I do, so I’m delighted to help commemorate this very special jubilee; it’s a deep and sentimental honor for me.

The Judge hired me when I was 26 years old, and he made a big impression on me from the beginning.

For one thing, he seemed like the strongest 82 year old in the world. I remember we flew to Arizona once to sit by designation, and at the airport, I found myself scampering ten or fifteen feet behind him because he was tearing along at a brisk pace with all of his luggage in tow. It was the gait of a man who knew where he was going. A lot of folks have marveled at his vitality over the years, and the Judge will often attribute it to his gardening, but I’m not sure you’d grasp what he means by that if you haven’t seen some of the gardening he’s done.

Here’s a story for you. A few years ago, I went to visit him at home, and when I got there, he was all by himself; no Mrs. Real, no family. He asked me to give him a hand with something, so we headed back toward the garden, and I saw that he was already in the middle of some heavy-duty project. Before I knew it, he brought over a ladder and power saw, and he said we were going to clear out some tree branches and foliage. That sounded good to me in the abstract, but then I found myself at the foot of a very tall ladder, staring up at my 86-year-old former boss, who happened to be a federal judge, perched on the penultimate rung. And above him, the tree branches loomed large and thick. It would’ve been a tough job for someone half his age.

Suddenly, I was pretty worried. And I didn’t like my options. I couldn’t ask him to come down from there any more than I could’ve told him not to go up in the first place. Not to someone like Judge Real, and not in his own house, anyway. But my mind was running and my adrenaline pumping. All I could think about — in addition to his falling and hurting himself — was how in the world I would account for that afterward to his family, or the world.

So I held onto that ladder as best I could and braced myself to break his fall or do whatever else.

But you know what? I didn’t need to worry. The Judge climbed that ladder to the top, stood firmly at its crest, and starting mowing down branches like nobody’s business. Before I knew it, I was getting covered down there with leaves and branches. At some point, he came down to take a break, and I offered to go a round. He didn’t go up again after that, and that was the end of it. But boy, what a moment that was.

And I have to tell you, I was astonished by that. I really couldn’t believe he did something like that at his age, and there was never a moment while he was up there that he seemed unsteady or precarious. The whole thing just blew me away.

But then the Judge is impressive in a lot of ways.

I remember a patent case we had that went to trial. It was a difficult, esoteric case, and the jurors had a hard time following along or even trying to. I found my own thoughts wandering, and I was supposed to be the apprentice law clerk. The Judge, however, actively presided over the trial and lobbed incisive questions from the bench. In the fog of a dry witness examination, he would get the testimony moving again with a series of short, focused questions. The longer I practice, the more I’m impressed by that case and how the Judge exerted the same energy and attention that one might summon in, say, a bank robbery.

Speaking of bank robberies, I remember one of those went to trial, too. The defendant was a middle-aged man who’d walked into a bank and passed a note. It was, like many bank robberies, a nonviolent act of turmoil and desperation. The guy had lost his job, his wife had left him, and his life was falling apart. So he went and robbed a bank. No gun or other alarming facts, just a guy with a note. It was sad and pitiable. He got caught, and now he was looking at a serious term of imprisonment under the federal sentencing guidelines.

There was no jury this time, and the case was tried to the court. I do recall the evidence was sufficient to convict the man, but then I wasn’t the trier of fact, though I’m not sure I would’ve come out differently if I was.

Well, the Judge acquitted him. I’m not saying the evidence was overwhelming, but there was plenty of room to convict if he wanted to. Although I’ve never asked the Judge about it, I believe it was a pure, unsung display of mercy and judgment by a judge whom no one would characterize as easy or soft. Mind you, the law of federal sentencing was in a state of upheaval at the time. The Supreme Court had just declared the guidelines to be advisory, not mandatory, but there was a lot of commotion about it, and the dust hadn’t settled like it has since.

Sometimes, the Judge disagreed with me, and those were the best lessons. One time, we got a motion for attorney’s fees after a disabled-access case had settled. The plaintiff’s lawyer was asking for $103,000, and the defendant, a restaurant, said it should be $13,000. I split the baby and recommended an award of $65,000. I argued that the lawyer’s hourly rate was reasonable and that the award, even if generous, would compensate him for the risk he took in bringing the case and his success in obtaining defendant’s compliance with the law. Or so I thought.

After the Judge reviewed my bench memo, he posed just one question: Could I research the court dockets for cases involving this plaintiff and lawyer? Sure thing, Judge. And so I did, and what I found was quite interesting. In the past three years, the plaintiff had filed at least 21 of these lawsuits in the California federal courts alone. In each case, his complaint made the same boilerplate claim that he’d fallen in a toilet at some restaurant. In two of these cases, he even alleged that it happened on the same day in two different restaurants — on opposite ends of the state. His lawyer in every case? You can take a wild guess.

The two had quite a racket going. They would file a lawsuit based on their boilerplate claims; bring in a consultant to identify every technical violation of disabled-access laws, few of which had anything to do with the plaintiff’s personal claim; settle the case for next to nothing but the defendant’s promise to bring itself into compliance; declare victory; and move for attorneys’ fees, which I suspect the two probably shared to some extent. But this wasn’t the Judge’s first rodeo, and needless to say, they didn’t get what they asked for.

There are a lot of things that you learn in a textbook, but when you learn by doing, and you peel back an onion that way, it tends to stay with you.

In that case, rather than acceding to the parties’ settlement, the Judge pursued a more just result, and he got it.

But that’s how he approaches work every day in my estimation. He’s a prototypical trial judge. During my clerkship, he would often remind us that, as a matter of fact, “we decide these cases.” He knows that it’s his job to decide them, and he understands that, while the court of appeals is there to review them, appellate review isn’t always an adequate remedy for injustice. He knows that, in nearly every case, the most important contest in the lives of those involved is the one decided in his court. And he knows that not everything that happens in a case or courtroom transfers to an appellate record, anyway. He wants to do justice.

Even generations of defendants whom he’s supervised on probation write to him, still — decades after he’s sentenced them or terminated their probation — to thank him for taking the time to judge them in a way that improved the balance of their lives.

That kind of stuff makes an impression on you, too.

In the end, everyone will have his or her critics — we all do — and fifty years of judging will earn you a few.

But I’ve learned that Judge Real cares only to do the best he can every day in law and in life. May we all do it so well.

His style may hark back to the brand of judge he used to appear before in his day, but his instincts are sound, his philosophy just, and his heart tucked securely in the right place. He is a good man in a preternatural sense, one of the very best I know, and I’m proud to call him a friend and mentor. Happy anniversary, Judge, and here’s to many more.

California’s New Sex-Offender Registry

Big news out of California last week.

Beginning in 2021, the state will replace its current sex-offender registry, which requires everyone to register for life, with a three-tiered system that distinguishes among low-risk, medium-risk, and high-risk offenders.

People in the first tier will be able to petition to end their registration after ten years. You’re in this tier if you were convicted of a misdemeanor or a non-violent, non-serious felony.

Those in the second tier will be able to petition after twenty years. This applies if you were convicted of a serious or violent offense but do not pose a high risk of reoffending.

Those in the third tier will continue to have to register for life. This applies to high-risk offenders, repeat offenders, and sexually-violent offenders.

For juveniles, there are two tiers. Those in the first tier can petition for removal after five years. Those in the second tier can do so after ten years.

In all cases, the district attorney can oppose your petition, and the court can deny it. If it’s denied, you can petition again, but you’ll have to wait at least one year and as many as five.

Almost everyone supported the new law, including law enforcement, which argued the current registry was so large that cops couldn’t focus effectively on the high-risk offenders.

For local and national press coverage, see here, here, and here.

For the text of the new law, see here.

Impaneling a Jury of Your Peers

Do you have a civil or criminal case that’s heading to trial?

Starting next year, California will have new rules for picking a jury in both types of cases.

First, the rules for criminal cases. This is Assembly Bill 1541. It brings jury selection in criminal trials more in line with the procedure for civil trials.

The process will still begin like before. The court will question the jury pool to see if anyone knows the parties or witnesses or otherwise holds a bias that will keep them from being fair and impartial. The court may also agree to ask additional questions that the lawyers have submitted in advance. Then the lawyers will get their crack at it, though the court can set reasonable limits on their questions.

The new emphasis, however, will be on giving lawyers more time and room to question the pool and follow up on the answers. The court can still set limits, but they can’t be arbitrary, inflexible, or unreasonable. In setting those limits, moreover, the court must consider the complexity of the case and even the amount of time the lawyers want. It should allow them to follow up on the court’s questions as well as their own, and it shouldn’t screen their questions beforehand unless they’re really trying to indoctrinate the jury.

Next, the rules for civil cases. This is Senate Bill 658. It makes fewer changes to existing procedure but also puts greater emphasis on letting the lawyers conduct voir dire.

How will the courts apply these rules in practice?

That’s where the rubber meets the road.

Two Sides of the Same Coin

It’s not always easy to weigh the scales of justice.

Sometimes, like in the two stories from last week, the system treats people too harshly, and it ruins their lives.

Other times, though, someone’s unfairly blamed for not being harsh enough.

That’s the premise of this piece by a former chief criminal judge who was vilified for setting someone free without bail who then committed another crime.

But he made the best decision he could at the time. The guy was charged with failing to register as a sex offender. It’s a fairly common charge, and the guy was there for arraignment along with some thirty people.

It was a typical busy day in court, and the judge had to make a bunch of good decisions quickly. The prosecutor’s office called for a high bail amount that could have kept the guy in jail pending trial. But they always did that in these types of cases.

Under the law, the guy was presumed innocent in this case, and he was supposed to be released unless he was a flight risk or danger to the community. He didn’t seem to be a flight risk because he’d come to court on his own after being summonsed by mail. And he didn’t seem like a danger to the community, either. He wasn’t charged with a violent crime, and though he’d been convicted of forcible rape in 1993, that was over twenty years ago.

The judge heard from both sides and then followed the law, releasing him.

A week later, the guy was arrested on suspicion of rape and kidnapping. He ended up pleading guilty to lesser charges in that case in exchange for a seven-year sentence. But in the meantime, some hell broke loose.

The judge was called incompetent; he was called pro-rape; he was attacked on local talk radio and even the national news.

Here is how he dealt with it.

 

Two Tears

Two true stories, that is, of people on a sex-offender registry.

The first. Today, she’s a 34-year-old mother of two great kids. Back then, she was a teenager herself when she slept with a boy on the night of her 19th birthday party. The boy was mature enough to pursue her but, as it happened, he was 14. His mom reported her to the police the next day, and they called her in to talk. They told her if she were honest, she wouldn’t go to jail, but it’s funny how that works, because after they filed the case, she was told that she could serve 20 to 25 years if she went to trial and lost. Or she could plead guilty and serve minimal time, but she would have to register as a sex offender.

Today, she’s a good person and a mother of two great kids, but her conviction looks like child molestation on paper, and she must register as a sex offender for life. Recently, she worked to become a staff writer for a local newspaper, but then someone complained about it, and the paper let her go. No one bothered with the details. You should watch her video.

The second. He was a junior in college when he went to Miami for spring break. He met a girl there at an 18-and-over club, and they ended up hooking up. Seven months later, he got a call from law enforcement in Florida. As it happened, the girl had used a fake ID to get into the club. She was actually 15 at the time, and her mom filed a complaint when she found out. So they asked the young man to come to Miami to talk, and he agreed. He told them everything was consensual, and he assumed she was 18 or older since she was in the club. They took his statement, thanked him for his cooperation, and arrested him on the spot.

Five years later, he was homeless because he couldn’t find a job or housing given his lifetime sex-offender registration. Two years ago, almost ten years after his conviction, he failed to register his whereabouts and received three years in prison. You should read his story, too.

 

Certificates of Rehabilitation in California

A certificate of rehabilitation is a court order that declares your rehabilitation to the world. It also automatically recommends you to the governor for a pardon. If you’re not eligible for an expungement, you can still clean up your record through a certificate of rehabilitation. Or you may want to apply for one even though you’ve already expunged your conviction.

Like an expungement, a certificate of rehabilitation will bring better job prospects and a better chance at getting a professional license. Unlike an expungement, it won’t allow you to say that you have no conviction.

But also, unlike an expungement, a certificate of rehabilitation can relieve you from having to register as a sex offender. The court will deny it, however, if it finds you’re a continuing threat to minors. Or the district attorney’s office can petition to rescind it on that ground.

[Update: Beginning July 1, 2021, a certificate of rehabilitation will no longer end sex-offender registration because of a new law and process for doing so.]

To qualify, you must show that you live “an honest and upright life” and have demonstrated rehabilitation for a number of years after you were released from custody or put on probation or parole. You can’t still be under supervision, and the number of years depends on the nature of your conviction. In a nutshell, it’s nine years if you were convicted of a serious violent crime; ten years if you were convicted of most sex offenses that require sex-offender registration; and seven years for anything else. You also must prove that you’ve lived in California for at least five years before you filed your petition.

Who’s ineligible? Well, you’re not eligible if you don’t meet the above criteria. But you’re also ineligible if you were convicted of a serious sex offense involving a minor. If that’s the case, you can still ask the governor directly for a pardon, but you’ll need to show extraordinary circumstances to get it. Finally, you’re not eligible for a certificate of rehabilitation if you were convicted of a misdemeanor, unless it was a sex offense that required registration.

How do you do it? You can find more information from the governor’s office here, and you can pull the appropriate forms from your local courthouse, public defender, or probation department. The court may even appoint counsel to represent you. Or, if you can afford it, retain counsel to make the best case for you.

Getting Removed From the Megan’s Law Website in California

Last week, we wrote about certificates of rehabilitation, which relieve you from having to register as a sex offender.

As you may know, California publishes information from its sex-offender registry on a public website. The information includes your name, gender, date of birth, ethnicity, photograph, physical description, and relevant conviction. It also includes your home address or your county and zip code depending on the conviction. For violent or otherwise serious offenses, including those against children, it gives your home address. For somewhat less serious offenses, it gives your county and zip code, but if you have priors, that can change.

In a few cases, even if you can’t end or avoid registration, you can remove yourself from the public website. To do it, you have to apply directly to the California Department of Justice, and you can find the application form here.

To qualify, the state must regard you as a low risk for reoffending, and your only registry-related convictions must be for the following:

  1. felony sexual battery by restraint under Penal Code section 243.4(a);
  2. misdemeanor annoying or molesting a child under Penal Code section 647.6;
  3. some felony child-pornography offenses if all minors were 16 years of age or older; or
  4. an offense for which you’re on probation or have successfully completed probation, where you’re the victim’s parent, sibling, stepparent, or grandparent, and it didn’t involve oral copulation or sexual penetration.

If you qualify, the government must grant your exclusion. By the way, don’t go searching the Megan’s Law website yourself; it’s a misdemeanor.

[Update: Beginning January 1, 2022, these rules will change because of a new law and system for sex-offender registration. The changes will affect qualifying convictions under 1, 2, and 3, above. If you no longer qualify at that point, the state will rescind your exclusion.]

Expunging Criminal Records in California

It ain’t just for kids, after all. Anyone who’s eligible can petition to expunge a criminal conviction in California. Here’s what you need to know.

Like we explained last week, the term “expungement” is a misnomer because it doesn’t erase the conviction or wipe the slate clean. But that’s still how lawyers and judges will refer to it. Technically, it’s called a dismissal under Penal Code section 1203.4 or other such section. So you’re still going to have a rap sheet, in other words.

But it will add a line item to your rap sheet that shows the case was dismissed. If you had pleaded guilty before, the court will permit you to withdraw your plea. If you were convicted at trial, the court will set aside that verdict. Either way, the court will then dismiss the case.

In most situations, that means you can legally and truthfully say that you don’t have a conviction. That can help on a job application, for example, though the rule is different for public employers like law-enforcement agencies. In all situations, you can at least say that the conviction was dismissed, because it was.

[Update: Beginning January 1, 2018, many employers will no longer be able to ask about convictions on a job application. But there’s more to it than that, as we explain here.]

Most employers aren’t even supposed to ask about convictions that have been dismissed, and they’re not supposed to rely on them in their decision-making. The exceptions include public employers like law-enforcement agencies.

Most licensing boards, on the other hand, can ask about them, and you should answer by disclosing both the conviction and the dismissal. They’re not supposed to deny a license basely solely on a conviction that has been expunged or dismissed.

You’re eligible to expunge a felony or misdemeanor if you were sentenced to probation or the county jail. If you successfully completed probation or had it terminated early then you are entitled to the dismissal. If you didn’t then you can still win if you can persuade the court of your rehabilitation. If you went to county jail on a felony then you’re eligible one or two years after the end of your sentence; it depends on whether you served a split sentence that included post-release supervision (one year) or a full sentence in jail (two years). Or, if you didn’t get probation on a misdemeanor then you’re eligible if it’s been over a year since you were sentenced, and you’ve completed that sentence and otherwise done well.

You’re not eligible if you were sentenced to state prison, unless you would go to county jail for the same offense today or the court suspended the execution of your prison sentence and put you on probation instead. You’re also not eligible for certain sex offenses involving minors, including child pornography or statutory rape if you were 21 or older and the minor was younger than sixteen.

So how do you do it? Here’s a guide from the official website of the California courts that can help you do it yourself. But you should check your own county’s rules and forms, too. Here’s the link for Orange County, for example. Or, if you can afford it, get a lawyer. He or she will navigate the process for you and help you put your best foot forward. Plus, you may not ever have to go to court yourself.

Expunging Juvenile Records in California

If you spent time in juvie, and you don’t qualify to seal your records, you can still petition to expunge your case.

If the court grants your petition, it will set aside the finding of guilt, dismiss the case, and release you from all penalties resulting from it. That’s what the statute says, anyway.

In reality, an expungement doesn’t erase the past or wipe the slate clean. It won’t seal your records and destroy them. It can’t spare you from registering as a sex offender. And if you pick up another case, the prior can be used against you as a strike or other enhancement.

But it’s still worth it because it reflects your rehabilitation and efforts toward it. Your rap sheet will no longer show a conviction as the last line item for the case. Instead, it will show the case as being dismissed. In most situations, you can legally answer that you don’t have a conviction at all. In all situations, you can at least say that the conviction was dismissed, because it was. That can improve your odds of getting that job, loan, housing, or license.

So it gives you a fresh start.

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