The End of Absolute Immunity for Prosecutors

Another outstanding feature by The Marshall Project.

It’s written by a senior federal trial judge in New York. For 23 years, he’s sentenced the likes of murderers, rapists, gangsters, and fraudsters—some to prison for the rest of their lives. But he says it’s time to put an end to absolute immunity for prosecutors.

Absolute immunity is what it sounds like. It doesn’t just protect prosecutors who follow the rules but make mistakes. It protects those who knowingly and purposely break the rules.

Believe it or not, they can do all kinds of dirty deeds to convict you—even to frame you, on purpose—and you have no right to sue them for it. Crazy, huh? They can withhold evidence, put on false evidence, coerce witnesses to testify against you, or worse. No matter the facts, you have no civil rights or remedies against them as a matter of law.

But as the author notes, cops don’t have absolute immunity; they have a form of qualified immunity, so what’s the difference?

For an overwhelming majority of prosecutors, there would be no difference.

But truly bad actions should suffer civil and criminal consequences for their obstruction of justice. For more on why, see this blog post by the American Constitution Society.

When You Walk a Mile in Their Shoes

You may never serve on a jury, but suppose you did.

How would you feel—how would any of us feel—if we voted to convict someone innocent?

This person knows. In 2009, she voted to convict a 17-year-old boy for murder based on the testimony of one eyewitness. The witness and victim were friends, and they were in a car at the time, with the victim driving. They turned a corner and almost hit a pedestrian, which led to a confrontation that ended when the guy pulled a gun, shot the victim, and fled. At trial, the witness took the stand and identified the boy, and that was enough for her and nine other jurors in a state that only required ten of twelve to convict.

When she learned he was innocent, she signed an affidavit that helped free him after nearly ten years in prison. Here’s a local story about his exoneration.

Now when she thinks back to the trial, she sees things differently.

She remembers the boy sitting in court: slumped over, doodling on paper. Back then, she thought his body language seemed cavalier, like he knew he did it but didn’t care. Now she wonders about that, and she sees defeat and despair instead.

She remembers the eyewitness seemed so sure of his identification. Back then, she thought it made sense: If she had seen her friend get murdered, she’d remember who did it, too. Since then, she’s learned that eyewitnesses are often wrong, especially in times of stress and trauma. And yet by the time of trial, they may testify with total certainty.

Today, she wants to sit with the boy and tell him she’s sorry.

And she hopes she never has to be in that situation again.

But if it were me or my loved one, I’d want her on that jury.

Judge Regrets Sentencing Teen to Life Without Parole

Speaking of harsh penalties, how’s 241 years in prison for a 16-year-old boy?

Well, it happened to this boy twenty years ago. The judge who sentenced him told him he’d die in prison. She told him he wouldn’t even be eligible for parole until 2091, when no one he knew would be alive, anyway.

One can forgive the judge her anger. The boy and an 18-year-old friend had robbed a group of six people and shot at two of them. The older boy led the way, but they both had a gun, and they each fired a shot. They could’ve killed someone, but no one was hurt. Then they carjacked and robbed another woman before letting her go. The 18-year-old pleaded guilty and got 30 years. He’ll be eligible for parole this year. The 16-year-old went to trial and lost. He’d already compiled a juvenile record to that point, and the judge was steamed.

But she deeply regrets her sentence now, and she’s joined the boy’s lawyers in asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn it.

Their argument is simple. The Court held in 2010 that it’s unconstitutional to sentence a kid who didn’t kill anyone to life without parole. Simply and logically, the same must go for a sentence that doesn’t say “life without parole” but does the exact same thing.

New California Criminal Laws: Part Deux

To conclude the series, here’s the fab five we promised last week.

Kids age 15 or younger must talk to a lawyer before the police interrogate them. This is Senate Bill 395. It amended the Welfare and Institutions Code to require that kids consult a lawyer before they waive their Miranda rights. They can do the consultation in person, by phone, or by video, but they can’t waive it even if they want to. If they don’t get one, a court may exclude their statements from evidence at trial (if it gets there). But it may not as well. And there are exceptions for emergencies. The law expires on January 1, 2025.

Kids whose juvenile cases are dismissed or diverted get their records sealed. This is Assembly Bill 529. It amended the Welfare and Institutions Code to seal records from a juvenile case automatically if the case is dismissed or the kid successfully completes a diversion program. It takes these cases and treats them the same as another recent law that applies when kids complete probation.

More kids get a crack at sealing their records. This is Senate Bill 312. It amended the Welfare and Institutions Code to give kids who weren’t even eligible before a chance. It applies if you were found to have committed an especially serious or violent offense when you were at least 14 years old. Now, a court may consider your petition to seal under limited circumstances. It doesn’t apply if you were required to register as a sex offender. And your records can still be looked at by the courts or district attorney if you get in trouble again. For more on sealing juvenile records, see here.

The state continues to implement Prop 57. Remember Prop 57? It required judges to decide whether a kid age 14 or older could be prosecuted in adult court, and it promised a shot at parole for nonviolent offenders who’ve served the bulk of their sentence. But it also aimed to expand the credits an inmate could earn through good conduct or specific rehabilitative programs. Now, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is finalizing its regulations under Prop 57, and you can find more information about them here.

Your Uber, Lyft, or taxi driver can’t have a blood-alcohol level more than .04. This is Assembly Bill 2687, which passed in 2016. It amends the Vehicle Code to apply the lower limit for truckers and other commercial drivers. The law is effective July 1, 2018.

New California Criminal Laws in 2018

We’ve already touched on four of them: Recreational pot. A ban-the-box law for employers. An overhauled sex-offender registry beginning in 2021. New rules for picking juries in civil and criminal cases.

Here are five more this week, with five more to come next week.

Lawyers can advise clients on cannabis. This is Assembly Bill 1159. It amended the Evidence Code to protect attorney-client privilege and confidentiality for legal services rendered in compliance with state and local law. The lawyer must also advise the client on the current conflict under federal law. Lawyers are already advising the cannabis industry, of course. But generally speaking, there’s no attorney-client privilege for legal services that are sought to help someone commit a crime or fraud. It’s the famous crime-fraud exception to the privilege. This law makes clear that, notwithstanding federal law, there’s no crime-fraud exception here just because it’s pot. The law also amended the Civil Code to support commercial cannabis activity that complies with state and local law.

You can seal your arrest record automatically if you weren’t charged or convicted. This is Senate Bill 393. It amended the Penal Code to permit most people who’ve been arrested but not charged or convicted (or whose convictions were overturned on appeal) to seal their arrest record. You may even be entitled to it as a matter of right in many cases; otherwise, you have to show that sealing your record would serve the interests of justice. Before this law, you couldn’t seal an arrest unless you proved your innocence, which is often difficult or impossible even when people did nothing wrong. But the law doesn’t apply if you could still be charged with something, so you must wait until the statute of limitations has run.

You don’t need to plead guilty to get drug treatment for simple possession. This is Assembly Bill 208. It amended the Penal Code to change a type of drug-treatment program we wrote about two weeks ago. The program used to be called deferred entry of judgment; now it’s called pretrial diversion. Before, you had to plead guilty and complete a program that ran 18 months to three years. If you completed the program, your case was dismissed, but if you didn’t, you’d be sentenced on your guilty plea. Now, you can plead not guilty, and the program runs only 12 to 18 months. But you have to waive your right to a jury trial, so if you don’t complete the program, you’ll go before a judge for trial.

The military diversion program includes misdemeanor DUI. Speaking of pretrial diversion, this is Senate Bill 725. It amended the Penal Code to extend a military diversion program to misdemeanor DUIs. This program enables a court to postpone a misdemeanor prosecution and place the defendant in a treatment program in which he may earn a dismissal if he is or was a member of the U.S. military and may be suffering from significant trauma or mental health problems as a result of his service. It wasn’t clear if the program included DUIs; two cases had decided it differently. This law resolves that it does. But it doesn’t guarantee diversion, and it doesn’t stop the DMV from taking your license.

It’s okay to enter a crosswalk during the countdown signal as long as you reach the other side before it ends. This is Assembly Bill 390. Before, you could only enter a crosswalk on a “walk” sign or symbol, and it was a crime (well, an infraction) to do it during the countdown. Who knew? So what if there’s no countdown, but the “don’t walk” sign or symbol is flashing? You’re not supposed to enter the crosswalk.


When the Doctor Is Not In

Last week, it was the California Medical Board, but Medicare ain’t playing around either, doc.

It will revoke your billing privileges if you submit inaccurate claims, and it will test the accuracy of those claims by mining data about you and your travels.

Recently, for example, the government revoked a clinic’s privileges because it determined the doctor who supposedly rendered the services wasn’t present on the dates of service. It’s not clear how the government knew that, but the implication is that it cross-referenced the doctor’s travel records. The clinic challenged the decision, and the case went to an administrative law judge.

The clinic admitted that the doctor wasn’t there on the dates of service, but it argued that the claims weren’t fraudulent because they covered services that were medically necessary and performed by other doctors on staff.

That’s not the point, said the judge. The government didn’t need to prove fraud, only an abuse of billing privileges. Under Medicare’s regulations, one way to abuse them is to bill for services that couldn’t have been furnished on that date. And one example of that is when the billing doctor was not in the state or country at the time. See 42 C.F.R. § 424.535.

So be careful out there. There have been a spate of government actions lately that used people’s travel and location data to build a case. Here’s a good article that cites a few of them. Be careful because even clerical errors can prove costly when the doctor’s not in.

Medical Board Metes Out Discipline Based on a Police Report

If you’re a doctor or other licensed healthcare professional in California, remember. Your board or agency can discipline you for alleged conduct in a police report even if you’re never charged with or convicted of anything.

Just this week, the California Court of Appeal ruled that the medical board could discipline a doctor based on a police report even though his criminal case was dismissed.

Here’s what happened. The doctor was arrested for possessing cocaine. As part of his plea deal, he successfully completed a drug treatment program, and the case was dismissed. But the medical board learned of the arrest and filed its own case against him. At the hearing, the doctor argued the board’s case was based entirely on the arrest report, which was a problem because the Penal Code said you can’t do that.

The case pitted two statutes against each other. On one hand, the Penal Code says that when you complete a program like the one this doctor did, your arrest record can’t be used “in any way” to deny you a professional license or certificate. But the Business and Professions Code says that, “notwithstanding any other provision of law,” an agency that oversees the healing arts can do just that. It can rely on an arrest report to discipline you even if you successfully completed such a program.

It wasn’t the first time this question had come up, but remarkably, it was an issue of first impression in the law, meaning it was the first time a court of appeal had to decide it.

The court, though, had no trouble deciding that the second statute was a straightforward exception to the first one. The clincher was that the Penal Code was amended this year to make that interpretation explicit. So the doctor lost.

In these cases, you should begin to defend your professional license and livelihood at the same time you begin to defend against a criminal case or investigation. Which is immediately. We can help you do both.

Reasonable Minds Can Differ

But they will usually find more to agree on.

Case in point: this short interview with the junior U.S. senator from Utah.

He’s considered one of the more conservative members of Congress, but he’s also part of a bipartisan group that’s pushing to reform our criminal justice system.

As a former federal prosecutor, he’s asked how he feels about the justice system and what’s changed for him over time.

He points to one case in particular that, presumably, he didn’t charge. The defendant was a man with two young children. He sold very small amounts of marijuana to an informant three times. He also owned a gun at the time, though he didn’t use it or brandish it during any of the sales. Based on those facts and the way he was charged, the man received a mandatory sentence of 55 years.

Even the sentencing judge openly criticized the sentence, but he wrote that his hands were tied under the law. He also said that it was a problem only Congress could fix.

The senator remembered those words when he got to Congress, and now he’s trying to do something about it.

Why is he doing this when he’s supposed to be a conservative Republican? That’s exactly why he’s doing it, he says.

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.”

California’s New Law of Fair Shakes

Whether you’re an employer or an employee, take note.

Earlier this month, California enacted the Fair Chance Act.

This means that, beginning next year, many employers can no longer ask about or look into criminal convictions until they’ve decided a person is right for the job. That means they can’t ask about convictions anymore on a job application. It also means they can’t run a background check until they’ve made a conditional offer of employment.

Also, once employers make a conditional offer and run someone’s record, they can’t deny the job based on a conviction unless they first analyze the relationship between the job and conviction. What kind of job is it, after all? Does it have anything to do with the conviction? How long ago was that, anyway? There must be a “direct and adverse” relationship between the two to justify the decision.

Employers don’t have to share their analysis with applicants, but they must advise of their decision in writing. When they do, they must identify the relevant conviction, attach a copy of the report they ran on the person, and explain that he or she has at least five business days to show why the report isn’t accurate or why they should still get the job based on rehabilitation or mitigating circumstances. Employers must consider any evidence they submit. If they still decide to deny the job, they must let the person know in writing, refer him or her to any existing procedure they have for challenging it, and give them notice of the right to file a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

What hasn’t changed? Employers still can’t consider arrests that didn’t lead to conviction, unless charges are still pending or the arrest was for certain drug or sex offenses and the job is in a healthcare facility that requires access to drugs or patients. Nor can employers consider convictions that have been sealed, dismissed, or otherwise expunged.

The law will apply to employers with five or more employees. It exempts those who must conduct background checks by law. For more on the new law and its passage, see here and here. For the text itself, see here.

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