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Tom Head

Tom\'s Civil Liberties Blog

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Justice Department Announces Racial Profiling Data Clearinghouse

Wednesday April 30, 2014

When historians look back on Eric Holder's time as attorney general, there's a lot they may remember him for--some of it good, some of it not so good. But we can safely sort the National Center for Building Community Trust and Justice into the "good" column:

These efforts were triggered in part by the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida, which moved President Obama to call for "a better understanding between law enforcement and young men of color." Holder said that Obama charged the Justice Department with working more closely with local police agencies and to improve training around racial profiling problems.

Racial profiling has always been part of the American story, but the Obama administration has done more than most to address this problem (most notably by helping to get rid of the racist crack-powder disparity). If this is a problem that simple professional education can help solve, the Justice Department has a responsibility to do what it can to enable that process. This won't do that, at least not on its own--but it's an important first step.

Oklahoma Justices Threatened with Impeachment Following Botched Execution

Wednesday April 30, 2014

If you're a member of the Oklahoma Supreme Court and you'd discovered that an execution in your state had been horribly botched, that might reasonably lead you to declare a moratorium on further executions until the underlying errors could be identified and resolved.

But that's not the way things work in Oklahoma. Not in the Tea Party era, anyway:

On April 21, the Supreme Court said that to avoid a miscarriage of justice, it would delay the executions until it had time to resolve the [lethal injection drug cocktail] secrecy matter ... An outraged legislator, Representative Mike Christian, said he would seek to impeach the justices, who were already under fire from conservative legislators for striking down laws the court deemed unconstitutional. A constitutional crisis appeared to be brewing. But last Wednesday, the Supreme Court announced a decision on the secrecy issue -- overturning the lower court and declaring that the executions could proceed.

You may recall that the similarly botched lethal injection execution of Angel Nieves Diaz prompted a brief nationwide moratorium in 2006-2007--but not this time. Apparently, we've just gotten used to this sort of thing.

Brooklyn Museum Exhibit Celebrates the Art of the Civil Rights Movement

Wednesday April 30, 2014

The Brooklyn Museum's new exhibit, Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties, takes a second look at the visual arts legacy of the civil rights movement--an effective component of the movement's messaging that has not been adequately described in history books or media retrospectives of the movement. As curator Teresa A. Carbone explains:

It's a reminder of the fact that things don't happen automatically because they should, and that there were thousands of people, including activist-artists, who were pushing and pushing to keep the realities and public consciousness and reinforce the necessity for change.

The exhibit continues through July 6th.

Christian Group Objects to Baptism-by-Waterboarding Threat

Wednesday April 30, 2014

Last week, Sarah Palin made the wrong kind of headlines when she said, well, this:

"They obviously have information on plots to carry out jihad," Palin said of terrorists. "Oh, but you can't offend them, can't make them feel uncomfortable, not even a smidgen. Well, if I were in charge, they would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists."

This put Religious Right organizations in a bind: should they condone what most Christians would consider a fairly blasphemous definition of baptism, or be seen in public criticizing Sarah Palin? For the most part, Palin seems to have won out over baptism--which is no surprise for those of us who have come to doubt the movement's aggregate religiosity--but one group, Faithful America, has organized a petition against Palin's remark and gathered 15,000 signatures so far.

Under "Nuisance" Statutes, Domestic Violence Survivors Face Eviction

Wednesday April 30, 2014

The municipal government of East Rochester, New York really hates it when police officers have to deal with domestic violence calls. That's the message their nuisance statute sends, at any rate--as one survivor now faces eviction if she calls the police on her abusive partner again. And the ACLU has a lot to say about how this statute and similar statutes prevent police from doing their jobs:

One recent study showed that nuisance ordinances have been enforced against domestic violence far more often than the drug, weapon, and property offenses that municipalities intend to target. They also can affect anyone whose home is the site of disturbances they cannot control, such as aparent whose child's school bullies harass the family at home or a tenant who reports assaults against a neighbor. By chilling reporting of crime and leading to evictions of vulnerable individuals, nuisance ordinances in fact undermine public safety.

The ACLU's current efforts attempt to restrict nuisance ordinances in New York, but this is a national problem--and one we're going to need to deal with comprehensively on a national, or at least state-by-state, level.

Wisconsin Ruling Proves Voting Rights Act May Still Have Teeth

Wednesday April 30, 2014

The Supreme Court's decision to substantially weaken the Voting Rights Act last year was a significant blow against the right to vote, but they left some sections of the Act unharmed--and if yesterday's federal injunction against Wisconsin's voter ID law is any indication, section 2 may still be enough to prevent some of the more egregious attempts to suppress nonwhite voter turnout.

The state will most likely appeal the ruling, and similar federal cases in four other states are pending.

BART Officers Arrest Teenager, But Back Off When Video Surfaces

Wednesday April 30, 2014

Imagine you're a 19-year-old woman riding Oakland's public transit system. Police charge the bus and say somebody was dancing for money. You didn't see anything along these lines, but someone points to you. Four days later you find yourself in jail, recovering from injuries sustained at the hands of police officers, facing felony charges, expelled from school--but at least the person who pointed police your way now admits they had the wrong person.

Welcome to the world of Nubia Bowe, Bay Area Rapid Transit's latest victim:

"Once they pulled me off the train, I was first slammed to the ground and then thrown against the wall," said Bowe. "The officers pushed me back down and continued to elbow and knee me in my back. My mouth was full of blood by then. The whole time this was happening, I repeatedly said 'I am not resisting arrest. You are violating my civil rights.'"

When Bowe's friends protested the young woman's treatment, they were taken upstairs away from the conflict. Some of the passengers recorded the confrontation on their cell phones showing footage of Bowe pinned down by officers while screaming for help ...

When she arrived at Santa Rita, she was taunted, battered and denied medical care, as well as the right to make a phone call for three days. Bowe is 5'1" and weighs 105 pounds.

Last week, concerned residents formed the One Shot Away Coalition to address BART's long history of brutality against black passengers. Felony charges against Bowe were dropped once video of the incident came to light, but she faces a pre-trial hearing on the misdemeanor charges on May 19th.

The U.N. Human Rights Committee: Summary of Findings

Monday March 31, 2014

The U.N. Human Rights Committee has released its 2014 periodic report on our compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Some of you will be interested in this international perspective on human rights in the United States, and some of you decidedly will not, but it's worth summarizing in any case. You can find a link to the full report in Word format here.

The gist:

Death Penalty -- They like the fact that we've stopped executing minors, but they hate the fact that the system is still racially discriminatory, generates false convictions, and may be administered using inhumane lethal injection drugs.

Drones -- They don't like the fact that there are no clear standards regulating the use of drones, and they have noted--and disapprove of--the high number of innocent civilian casualties who have fallen victim to drone strikes.

Gun Violence -- They don't like racial disparities in the application of Stand Your Ground laws, they have concerns about Stand Your Ground laws in general, and they don't like the fact that gun purchases occur with no background checks.

Police Use of Deadly Force -- They don't like the fact that U.S. police forces use tasers so casually, and they disapprove of the high number of legal extrajudicial shootings committed by police officers, especially in major cities.

Torture -- They don't like the fact that mental torture is still legal and, by all accounts, still put to use.

Extraordinary Rendition ("Refoulment") -- They don't like the fact that the United States exports prisoners to torture-friendly countries for interrogation or detention.

Trafficking and Forced Labor -- They don't like the fact that undocumented immigrants are often trapped into forced-labor "contracts."

Immigrants -- They don't like the fact that immigrants do not receive adequate counsel, they don't like policies permitting the indefinite detention of immigrants, and they don't like the fact that undocumented immigrants often do not receive access to health care.

Domestic Violence -- They don't like the fact that law enforcement agencies aren't required to protect survivors of domestic violence from their abusers, and they're concerned that domestic violence cases are not adequately prosecuted on American Indian reservations.

Corporal Punishment -- They don't like the fact that American schools still sanction paddling, and that it is put to use in prisons as well.

Psychiatric Treatment -- They don't like the fact that patients are often drugged unnecessarily and against their will.

Homelessness -- They don't like municipal and state codes that criminalize the homeless as a class.

Detention -- They don't like the frequent and casual use of solitary confinement.

Guantanamo Bay -- They don't like the fact that we still haven't shut down Camp X-Ray and transferred the detainees into appropriate courts for processing.

NSA Surveillance -- They don't like the surveillance program as a whole, though it's worth noting that most of their recommendations line up with the Obama administration's proposed NSA policy reforms.

Juvenile Courts -- They like the fact that we've stopped sentencing minors to life without parole for nonviolent offenses, but they still have grave concerns about the criminalization of minors as a group and our criminal justice system's practice of trying minors as adults.

Voting Rights -- They're concerned that voter ID statutes may suppress votes, they believe the felon voter restoration process needs to be more accessible and transparent, and they believe the District of Columbia should have full voting representation.

Rights of Indigenous People -- They don't like the fact that American Indian tribal authorities are not always party to discussions regarding sacred ground that is not located on reservations, or the environmental effects of industries located near reservations.

None of these requests are entirely unreasonable, and they're in general alignment with what the U.S. civil liberties community has been asking for, too. Incorporating the U.N. Human Rights Committee's report into our activism on these topics couldn't hurt--and might help, as it indicates how many of our domestic policies are received internationally.

Saving the World Isn't Enough

Monday March 31, 2014

I'm grateful to President Barack Obama for proposing NSA policy reforms that will protect us from a nightmarish Orwellian panopticon of universal, undocumented surveillance. But is it too much to ask that he propose NSA policy reforms that actually affect something the agency might want to do?

It's not that I want to agree with Michael Brenner's take on the president's suggested surveillance law reforms, but he's right when he says this:

"Data storage by companies rather than the NSA is inconsequential since the NSA requests to the FISA courts for a warrant to access the information are granted automatically. Over the past eight years, only 11 of 33,900 requests have been refused."

President Obama's position seems to be that as long as the NSA isn't providing the server space for data storage, we're in the clear. And he's right that this does protect us from some things--there's something to be said for spreading out the data among a variety of private companies rather than putting it all under the umbrella of a federal agency. But when we're talking about where the data is stored, and not how it's gathered or used, we're really talking about limiting the way federal agencies can mine the data, automate surveillance associated with same, and so on. We're talking about the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four instead of the world we're actually living in, and as a result of this the practical consequences of the president's NSA reforms are likely to be negligible.

We encountered a similar situation in 2012 and 2013 when Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) filibustered a bill based on his alleged concerns about the potential use of drones on U.S. soil, then later endorsed the use of drones by law enforcement--with this chilling quote, no less:

"I've never argued against any technology being used when you have an imminent threat, an active crime going on. If someone comes out of a liquor store with a weapon and fifty dollars in cash, I don't care if a drone kills him or a policeman kills him."

Not only does Paul support drones, but he also apparently supports summary execution as a punishment for a $50 robbery--but let's focus on the first point, because it bears more resemblance to what Obama is doing with respect to the NSA. Why does Sen. Paul filibuster the hypothetical use of drones on U.S. soil in one context, then endorse them in another? Because the first example is Terminator and the second is Short Circuit meets Dirty Harry. And while nobody wants to live in the world of the Terminator series, Short Circuit and Dirty Harry are a little closer to what we're comfortable with.

It's the stuff that we're comfortable with that should bother us most of all. Dystopias are great at showing the natural conclusions of bad policy decisions, but that doesn't mean you can write policy to prevent specific dystopias and call it a day. What we most need to do is look at current policy consequences and likely near-future policy consequences--prioritizing the stuff that's happening to real people in the real world (or can be reasonably projected to happen to real people in the real world), not the stuff of our darkest nightmares.

Tea Speech

Monday March 31, 2014

Louisiana lieutenant governor Jay Dardenne doesn't handle criticism well. His bizarre lawsuit against MoveOn.org over their billboard encouraging Medicaid expansion--ostensibly provoked by MoveOn's satirical use of the Louisiana tourism slogan, but functionally more of an attempt to resurrect the colonial tort of seditious libel--is doomed to fail in the courts, as Eugene Volokh explains:

"[T]he First Amendment protects speech -- especially outside the context of commercial advertising -- even when it quotes or refers to others' trademarks, so long as it's not likely to be confusing. This case itself illustrates this will: MoveOn is using the mark to criticize the Louisiana government, and suggesting that the government's actions are at odds with the welcoming message the same government is conveying using the mark."

But Dardenne isn't concerned about the courts. He's concerned about next year's Republican gubernatorial primary against Senator David Vitter, where he's polling behind and badly needs a gimmick. "The guy who filed a lawsuit against MoveOn.org" may very well be a winning gimmick in the Tea Party movement, especially if he can lose the case and then complain about liberal judges with a Hollywood idea of free speech, or whatever.

But don't shed any tears for MoveOn.org. The lawsuit is the best publicity they've gotten in years, and they'll raise more than enough money to make up for their legal fees. (You can sign their petition here, by the way.) The only real losers in this case are the ordinary Louisiana residents whose tax dollars are being used to fund this nuisance suit, and let's be honest: if Jay Dardenne cared a lick about them, he wouldn't have supported blocking their access to Medicaid expansion in the first place.

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