News

Remember the Heien case?

That’s the case first reported by Policy Watch in April 2014 in which a Surry County Sheriff’s Officer pulled over a car for having a broken brake light and then — under the guise of a legitimate traffic stop — searched the car, found some cocaine and arrested the driver and the car’s owner, Nicholas Heien, for possession.

Turned out, though, that the officer was wrong — having just one broken brake light violated no North Carolina laws.

After his arrest, Heien asked the trial court to suppress the evidence obtained from the vehicle search, which followed from what he contended was an unlawful traffic stop.

The trial court ruled against him, but the Court of Appeals later ruled in his favor, holding that an officer’s mistaken belief that a traffic violation has occurred is not a reasonable justification for a traffic stop under the Fourth Amendment.

The state Supreme Court then reversed — holding that so long as an officer’s mistaken view of the law is reasonable, the traffic stop is justified under the Fourth Amendment.

“Requiring an officer to be more than reasonable, mandating that he be perfect, would impose a greater burden than that required under the Fourth Amendment,” Justice Paul Newby wrote for the court.

In her dissenting opinion, state Supreme Court Justice Robin Hudson projected what might follow from a ruling condoing an officer’s subjective interpretation of the law:

There are many problems with the majority’s decision—it introduces subjectivity into what was previously a well-settled objective inquiry and creates an interpretive role regarding state statutes for police officers and police departments. The danger in adopting a new constitutional rule here is that this particular case seems so innocuous: Of course it is reasonable that an officer would pull over a vehicle for a malfunctioning brake light. But this new constitutional rule will also apply in the next case, when the officer acts based on a misreading of a less innocuous statute, or an incorrect memo or training program from the police department, or his or her previous law enforcement experience in a different state, or his or her belief in a nonexistent law.

Nonetheless, several months later the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the ruling by the state Supreme Court.

And guess what’s happened in the months following that affirmance.

As the Marshall Report relates here, “courts in at least a dozen states have excused mistakes made by police who initiated stops based on a misunderstanding of what is legal and what is not” — with violations ranging from brake lights to trailer hitches to air fresheners:

What’s striking about these cases — aside from the officers’ limited understanding of the laws they’re entrusted to enforce — is how flimsy the pretext can be to pull someone over. The grounds cited for stopping drivers included entering an intersection when the light was yellow; or having, on the back of a car, a trailer hitch; or having, in the front of a car, an air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror — you know, the ones shaped like pine trees, the ones so ubiquitous that the president of the Car-Freshner Corporation once told The New York Times Magazine: “We’ve sold billions of trees. Probably right up there with the number of hamburgers McDonald’s sells.”

Hudson was right.

News

johnson_terryAlamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson did not engage in a pattern of discrimination against Hispanics, U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder has ruled in a 253-page decision just released.

The federal government had alleged that from 2007 to today, Johnson and his office had engaged in a number of discriminatory practices, as identified by the court in the decision, in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Principally, the Government charges that Alamance County Sheriff’s Office (“ACSO”) disproportionately subjects Hispanics to unreasonable searches, arrests them for minor infractions (in lieu of issuing warnings or citations), targets them at vehicle checkpoints located in predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods, uses ethnically-offensive epithets to refer to Hispanics and otherwise tolerates activities of deputies that evidence anti-Hispanic bias, automatically and selectively refers Hispanic arrestees to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement  investigators for deportation, and otherwise engages in deficient policies, training, and oversight that facilitates discriminatory enforcement.

Schroeder found that the government had failed to introduce any evidence of individuals who were deprived of their constitutional rights and relied instead upon “vague, isolated statements attributed to Sheriff Johnson.”

And nobody testified that any ACSO employee carried out any improper directive or otherwise violated any individual’s constitutional rights, Schroeder noted.

“Indeed, all witnesses, including those called by the Government, denied that they ever did or knew any ACSO officer who did,” Schroeder wrote.

The judge also found that statistical analysis offered by the government was unreliable and not persuasive, “failing to sufficiently compare ACSO’s treatment of Hispanics to others who were similarly situated.”

Although ruling that the evidence of conduct by sheriff’s officers did not rise to the level of constitutional violations, Schroeder conceded that much of it was nonetheless troublesome:

While ACSO’s law enforcement practices do not constitute an unlawful “pattern or practice” of constitutional deprivations in violation of federal law, the court’s decision cannot be read to approve or condone all the conduct presented as evidence at trial. Indeed, some of it — for example, the use of ethnic slurs by a few officers largely in the County jail — demonstrated offensive and reprehensible activity that should not be tolerated in any civil society, much less in a law enforcement environment. Other evidence demonstrated potential internal weaknesses in ACSO, such as lack of a system to monitor selection of checkpoint locations, weakness in internal reporting and condemnation of conduct that violates ACSO’s internal policy manual, and a lack of substantive review processes for stops and post-stop outcomes. The absence of a finding of a violation of federal law should not be construed as approval of the status quo, and such matters deserve immediate attention.

For more on the case, read the story earlier this summer by Policy Watch’s Sarah Ovaska and this post on the filing of the complaint.

The full decision is here.

News
(Source: whitehouse.gov)

(Source: whitehouse.gov)

As the Voting Rights Act turns 50 and in the face of renewed efforts across the country to restrict voting, President Barack Obama called on Congress today to restore the Act to its fullest, saying that we need “to ensure every American has equal access to the polls.”

The President recalled the incident on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in March 1965 that brought into full focus for many Americans just what was at stake and how strongly those being denied the right to vote were willing to fight:

And on one afternoon, two visions of America met on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Those nonviolent marchers, representing the idea that all men and women are created equal and deserved to be treated as such, stared into the faces of those who represented a South that stood for the racial segregation and oppression of Jim Crow.

Roughly 600 people stood on the right side of history that day—armed only with their faith, and the conviction that we could be better. They were willing to sacrifice their own bodies in order to help bring America closer to its ideals of equality and justice for all.

Men and women were bloodied on that bridge. Bones were broken on that bridge. And because of the sacrifices made there, their vision—of a just America, a more fair America, a more equal America—ultimately triumphed. We made ourselves a more perfect union.

And he compared the obstacles black voters faced when trying to vote 50 years ago with new and at times insidious obstacles being thrown up now and even signed into law — as in North Carolina:

Fifty years ago, registering to vote across much of the South meant guessing the number of jellybeans in a jar or bubbles on a bar of soap. And while the Voting Rights Act broke down many of the formal and more ridiculous barriers to voting, today—in 2015—there are still too many barriers to the vote, and too many people trying to erect new barriers to the vote. They’re even written into the code of law in some parts of our country—provisions specifically designed to make it harder for some people to vote.

Laws that roll back early voting. Laws with restrictive photo ID requirements. Laws that lead to improper purges of voter rolls.

Read the full text of the President’s remarks here at Medium, and more on the anniversary here.

News

voteA unanimous panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled today that Texas’ voter ID law violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, finding that the law had a discriminatory impact on minorities.

Election law expert Rick Hasen, who has analysis in progress here, calls the ruling on Section 2 grounds a ‘big win” for plaintiffs.

Says Hasen:

The 5th Circuit adopted the two part “vote denial” test for Section 2 claims used by the 4th and 6th circuits (which is probably the standard that the trial court in the North Carolina voter id case will apply).  Applying the test, the 5th Circuit affirmed the trial court’s finding of a Section 2 violation. It upheld the finding that the law will have a discriminatory impact on minority voters—that is, minority voters are disproportionately likely to lack one of the types of ID which are allowed under Texas law. Then, [the court] found enough evidence to sustain a finding that [the law] “produces a discriminatory result that is actionable because [it] . . . interact[s] with social and historical conditions in Texas to cause an inequality in the electoral opportunities enjoyed by African-Americans and Hispanic voters.” Particularly interesting in this analysis is the question whether Texas’s explanations for why it needed its law (antifraud, voter confidence) were tenuous. The trial court found that they were because the evidence did not support the need for voter id for either of these purposes, and this factor worked in favor of finding of a Section 2 violation.

Read the full decision here.

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Senate Republicans failed yesterday in their attempt to strip Planned Parenthood of more than $500 million in federal funding — a move prompted by videos released by anti-abortion activists purportedly showing Planned Parenthood employees discussing the illegal sale of body parts from aborted fetuses. (Planned Parenthood has denied that the activity takes place and said the videos are edited and distort the truth.)

Before the vote, though, Sen. Elizabeth Warren called out her Republican colleagues, ripping them for a continuing campaign of disinformation and calling the measure what it was: More than just a publicity stunt in advance of the upcoming GOP presidential primary, the measure was an effort to build support for an all-out assault on women’s health care.

Warren, visibly angry, took to the podium in a fashion reminiscent of  Texas Rep. Carol Alvarado’s approach to the microphone in 2011 — just before ripping her colleagues over women’s health care legislation – as described in Texas Monthly’s recap, “Mothers Sisters Daughters Wives“:

As soon as Miller finished, Houston Representative Carol Alvarado strode up to the podium. There could have been no clearer contrast: her pink knit suit evoked all those Houston ladies who lunch, its black piping setting off her raven hair. Her lipstick was a cheery shade of fuchsia, but her disgust was of the I-thought-we’d-settled-this-in-the-seventies variety.

“Do you have any idea what year it is?” Warren asked

“Did you fall down, hit your head, and think you woke up in the 1950s? Or the 1890s? Should we call for a doctor?”

“Because I simply cannot believe that in the year 2015, the United States Senate would be spending its time trying to defund women’s healthcare centers. On second thought, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. The Republicans have had a plan for years to strip away women’s rights to make choices over our own bodies.”

Warren then proceeded to discuss what Planned Parenthood means for millions of women in the United States and exposed what is perhaps the biggest public misconception about what any defunding of the program would accomplish.

“The government doesn’t fund abortions,” she said. “Period.”

” A vote today to defund Planned Parenthood is not a vote to defund abortions. It’s a vote to defund cancer screenings and birth control and basic health care for millions of women.”