Category: Criminal Law

7

What is a Prosecutor’s Duty?

The Brown and Garner cases lead me to ask this question:  Suppose I am a prosecutor and I conclude that a police officer is guilty of a crime, but I also conclude that no jury will convict given the evidence.  What should I do?  The most straightforward thought is that I should not bring a charge.  It would be irresponsible to charge someone when you feel sure that you cannot win a conviction (I’m equally sure that prosecutors do this all the time and hope to get a plea, but leave that aside).

On the other hand, can public opinion on these issues be changed without some trials of police officers?  In other words, could a prosecutor say something in private like, “I know that a jury probably will not convict, but we need to bring a charge to express the view of a minority of the community that this sort of conduct is intolerable.”  Is that an appropriate action?  Would that just be grandstanding?

5

The Garner Case

I’m not a criminal law expert, of course, but I thought I would start what amounts to an open thread on the Garner case.  Here is my question:  Can the decision by the grand jury not to indict be defended?  If so, how?

I’ll add one qualification.  A perfectly fine answer to my question is that the grand jury had before it exculpatory evidence that we don’t know anything about.  Since there is no way to disprove that assertion (given that these grand jury proceedings are still secret), let’s assume for the sake of argument that what is in the public record is all of the relevant evidence.  Discuss.

9

Police Killing Unarmed Minority Men on Video with Impunity is not New

The grand jury’s decision to not indict a police officer in the death of Eric Garner despite video of the incident, in the wake of the failure to indict Darren Wilson, further illustrates the apparent immunity of police officers in cases where officers have killed ethnic minority Americans. The Garner case is a reminder that the interpretation of (crime) videos is filtered through pre-existing cultural lenses, but it also speaks to a more fundamental problem. The case provides more evidence that video has not been a panacea in addressing lethal violence by police officers, a fact which is relevant in discussing the likely efficacy of cop cams. I have posted other similar disturbing videos of lethal force being used against unarmed ethnic minority men (after the jump) wherein there has been no accountability in the criminal justice system for the officers involved.

Read More

3

The Grand Jury in Ferguson

Up until now, I have not had anything to say about the events in Ferguson. I’m not an expert on policing or racial profiling, and sometimes you have to know your limitations. But I am fascinated by the deliberations of the grand jury, which are a throwback to another time.

The most common phrase that goes with “grand jury” nowadays is “ham sandwich.”  Not so here.  Ordinary citizens are carefully considering whether an indictment or “true bill” should issue in a controversial case.  This is what the Framers had in mind when they wrote the grand jury into the Fifth Amendment, and they were drawing on a rich colonial and British tradition of grand juries shielding people from wrongful accusations or expressing the community’s view on a criminal prosecution.

The trouble now is that this only works when the case reaches an astronomical level of visibility.  In ordinary cases, an information is at least as good, if not better, at serving the functions of a grand jury (especially when combined with some form of prosecutorial accountability.)  This may explain even ardent supporters of incorporation seem uninterested in reversing Hurtado and making the grand jury requirement applicable to the states.

 

5

California’s College Rape Rule is Probably a Bad Idea (but not for the Reasons the Critics Say)

Jonathan Chait has joined the chorus of critics of the new affirmative consent rule in California for college campuses. Like others, he contends that the new rule effectively criminalizes ordinary sexual activity among college students. For three reasons, I think the claim is not well supported.

First, consent standards probably do not matter. Dan Kahan did the best study on this issue and the results are pretty clear. No matter what you tell people examining a rape case, they end up applying their own notions of consent. To the degree that any instruction of the law matters the effect size is small. I think this finding will hold true in adjudications under the California affirmative consent rule.

Second, stories of the alleged rapist and victim almost never match rendering legal standards as side issues and putting credibility as the central problem of rape cases. There are normally significant discrepancies between the accounts of alleged rapes. For the people willing to intentionally lie (either way), the new rule just indicates the content of their lie must change. For example, instead of saying, “she never objected,” a defendant would say “she said ‘yes.'” Even for those cases where the discrepancies are based upon cognitive biases or other unconscious factors, it is likely, if history is a guide, that the differences will align around the legal rule in place.

Third, the drunken sex cases that the critics are focused on are almost never resolved based upon the consent standard. The cases instead rely on incapacity. Whether a negative or affirmative consent standard applies is simply irrelevant in a case where the victim was too intoxicated to consent. The affirmative consent standard is a red herring in the primary scenario identified for overpunishment on campuses.

Even with all of those reasons to doubt its effectiveness in changing case outcomes, the California rule might simply be innocuous. However, there is a real danger that rule changes like this feed into a very dangerous cultural myth about rape law. Stephen Schulhofer probably said it best in his book Unwanted Sex: “Opponents of rape reform have managed to convince a wide audience that standards of permissible conduct are now dictated by ‘hypersensitive’ young women and by ‘radical’ feminists committed to a highly restrictive, Victorian conception of sexual propriety…. The reality is far different. The claim that legal rules, campus behavior codes, and company policies enshrine radically overprotective, puritanical rules of conduct is a myth.” In roughly half the states in America, having sex with someone who is highly intoxicated, but still conscious, is not rape. Many jurisdictions still apply a resistance or corroboration requirement in charging decisions despite such rules having long since been removed from statutes.  The list of problems with the application of modern rape law is extensive. Unfortunately, the backlash against the California affirmative consent rule has already helped spread the myth of radical change. And because the gains of the rule are likely to be minimal, the net effect for rape victims and justice will likely be negative. I hope I’m wrong.

0

Concealing Campus Sexual Assault: An Empirical Examination

On October 1 of every year, higher education institutions across the country are required to publish reports containing crime data for the previous calender year. So, it seemed appropriate today that I would post a draft of my article about whether universities are giving accurate information in those reports regarding sexual assault. The draft is available here and this is the abstract:

This study tests whether there is substantial undercounting of sexual assault by universities. It compares the sexual assault data submitted by universities while being audited for Clery Act violations with the data from years before and after such audits. If schools report higher rates of sexual assault during times of higher regulatory scrutiny (audits), then that result would support the conclusion that universities are failing to accurately tally incidents of sexual assault during other time periods. The study finds that university reports of sexual assault increase by approximately 44% during the audit period. However, after the audit is completed, the reported sexual assault rates drop to levels statistically indistinguishable from the pre-audit time frame. The results are consistent with the hypothesis that the ordinary practice of universities is to undercount incidents of rape. Only during periods in which schools are audited do they appear to offer a more complete picture of sexual assault levels on campus. Further, the data indicate that the audits have no long-term effect on the reported levels of sexual assault as those crime rates return to previous levels after the audit is completed. This last finding is supported even in instances when fines are issued for non-compliance. The results of the study point toward two broader conclusions directly relevant to policymaking in this area. First, greater financial and personnel resources should be allocated commensurate with the severity of the problem and not based solely on university reports of sexual assault levels. Second, the frequency of auditing should be increased and statutorily-capped fines should be raised in order to deter transgressors from continuing to undercount sexual violence. The Campus Accountability and Safety Act, presently before Congress, provides an important step in that direction.

I will be continuing to post about sexual assault at universities and the findings of the study over the next week or two.

8

Is there a Sexual Assault Crisis on College Campuses? Yes and No.

No matter what position you take in discussing rape and sexual assault policy, you can point to some statistic(s) to support your argument. That is largely due to the low quality and/or limited utility of a lot of data about sexual violence. If you do not have any interest in the truth, you can simply pick the statistic you prefer over the ones contrary to your narrative. If, on the other hand, you want a better sense of what is actually happening, you have to put the pieces of data in their proper context. Take, for example, the rate of sexual assault at large universities in the Figure below (based upon Clery Act reports) compared with the rate of forcible rape anywhere in the United States (based upon Uniform Crime Reports).

Figure 1

Taken at face value, you might conclude that sexual assault at large universities has rapidly increased since 2009 and forcible rape has been on a steady decline since 2001. Yet, I think the stronger evidence is that both of those claims are false. The reason that the data is likely misleading is that it relies on reports from institutions under different sets of incentives. As I wrote in my study about the UCR data, police have, based upon my analysis, increasingly been undercounting rape, in part, to meet unrealistic public pressure to continually, repeatedly decrease crime rates. As a result, there has likely been little to no decline (and a possible increase) in the rate of rape since rape rates began falling in the early 90’s.

Why wouldn’t universities have the same incentives to limit reporting of sexual assault incidents to assuage fears of potential applicants, avoid Title IX suits, and maintain a positive public image? I think the best answer is that they still have all of those reasons to undercount, but during the last couple of years another concern has trumped those incentives for a certain segment of large universities. The year 2011 is particularly important because that is when the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke. The figure below shows what happened to sexual assault reports at Penn State.

Penn State

Since 2010, according to Penn State’s Clery Act submissions, sexual assault has increased by an unbelievable 1389%. Is that because sexual assault has been increasing on campus? Almost certainly not. As part of the fallout from the Sandusky scandal and the issuance of the Freeh report, Penn State had its lax Clery Act compliance exposed. Similar spikes have happened at other large universities which account for entire increase during the last two reporting cycles. Big 10 schools, of which Penn State is one, have had the change in their collective rates of rape outpace the national average increase by nearly three times. What seems to be happening since 2011 (when the largest increase in sexual assault occurred) is that increased reporting at some schools has led to a significant spike in reported crimes. Other factors during that time frame such as increased Clery Act audits and Title IX lawsuits might have played a role as well.

So, based upon that assessment, is there a sexual assault crisis on campuses? It depends. If by “crisis” you mean an escalating problem based upon increasing rates of sexual assault, then I don’t think so. However, if by “crisis” you mean a serious ongoing problem with significant ramifications, then the best evidence supports that conclusion.

 

 

12

Why Campus Sexual Assault Tribunals are Needed

Since the Obama administration increased its focus on campus sexual assault in January 2014, there has been a steady flow of articles criticizing university sexual assault proceedings. Authors have decried innocent men being railroaded through a system with limited procedural protections and a low burden of proof. Based upon those sources, one would think that prosecution, expulsion, and punishment of innocent men was the norm. Meanwhile, case after case surfaces where the university either failed to act or acted in a woefully inadequate manner.

Consider the case of Yale. After numerous findings of wrongdoing in Title IX and Clery Act audit investigations were made, Yale had the opportunity to start fresh in handling complaints of sexual violence on campus. The critics of campus tribunals cite schools like Yale as embodying the liberal politically correct ethos they associate with rigged campus tribunals. So what happened after the federal regulators left Yale? Yale has issued three semi-annual reports covering the period of January 1, 2013 to June 30, 2014 during which I count 20 resolved complaints of sexual assault (non-consensual sex) between Yale students. In 10 cases, the university found inadequate evidence or the victim decided not to pursue the complaint further. In the other 10, the university assessed some sanction/punishment as follows: 3 received a 2-semester suspension, 2 received a 1-semester suspension, 3 received a written reprimand, and 2 were expelled. Yale should be applauded for making their handling of cases transparent so that this analysis is even possible. Most schools offer little information beyond what the Clery Act requires. In the end, the numbers at Yale are hardly consistent with an off-the-rails tribunal system.

Meanwhile, at Columbia, Emma Sulkowicz is facing the far more common scenario. Most victims are left on campus with their rapist. Emma has decided to protest Columbia’s indifference to her rape complaint by turning it into her senior honors visual arts project. She will be carrying her dorm mattress with her everywhere she goes until her alleged rapist is kicked off campus.

At my home institution, the University of Kansas, the Huffington Post is reporting today that the university decided that community service was too punitive for a student who “would later admit to campus police that he continued to have sex with the woman even after she said ‘no,’ ‘stop’ and ‘I can’t do this.'” Instead, he received a ban from university housing and probation.

We live in a world where police and prosecutors do not regularly pursue rape complaints and convictions are a rarity. If an attempted murderer was left on campus with his or her intended victim, we would be horrified. If a student brutally assaulted another, we would want the university to take action to protect the victim. Even in the non-criminal cases of sexual harassment at universities, defendants are separated from victims without waiting for a civil suit to be completed in the plaintiff’s favor. As a matter of simple humanity, universities need to protect rape victims by having a mechanism to remove/punish rapists.

Does this mean universities have designed effective and fair sexual assault tribunals? Absolutely not. I have been critical of the uneven protections and ad hoc processes often used. However, simply letting the criminal justice system resolve the matter, as many have proposed, is unrealistic and wrong. We should treat alleged rapists on campus as we would alleged murderers, brawlers, burglars, and other violent criminals. That means an internal university process needs to assess the available evidence to protect victims of sexual assault.

The Assault on Journalism in Ferguson, Missouri

The city of Ferguson, Missouri now looks like a war zone. Rapidly escalating responses to protest by a militarized police force have created dangerous conditions. About the only defense people have is some public attention to their plight. And now even that is being shut down by a series of intimidation tactics. Consider the following:

1) As the Washington Post states, its “reporter Wesley Lowery was detained by police on Wednesday while reporting on the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., following the fatal shooting of unarmed teen Michael Brown by police over the weekend.” Huffington Post reporter Ryan Reilly had his head slammed against glass as he attempted to report on police action.

2) U.S. Courts of Appeals have affirmed the right to record the police. The Justice Department has offered clear, recent guidance on the topic.

3) As the Post’s Executive Editor has observed, the information blackout has been so pervasive that we are not even allowed to know who is executing it:

[Lowery was] illegally instructed to stop taking video of officers. Then he followed officers’ instructions to leave a McDonald’s — and after contradictory instructions on how to exit, he was slammed against a soda machine and then handcuffed. That behavior was wholly unwarranted and an assault on the freedom of the press to cover the news. The physical risk to Wesley himself is obvious and outrageous. After being placed in a holding cell, he was released with no charges and no explanation. He was denied information about the names and badge numbers of those who arrested him.

This is consistent with other anti-transparency measures in the dispute.

4) Police brutality has been a pervasive problem. We can only start a public conversation on the magnitude of the problem if people have the unfettered right to record law enforcement practices.

5) Many people have reported that police in Ferguson told them to turn off cameras and recording devices. Police refused to answer basic questions. Even major media organizations were told to leave.

6) Police tear-gassed journalists from Al Jazeera and local TV crews.

7) Local leaders are not safe, either. Both an alderman and a state senator were detained and tear-gassed.

The United States has not exactly distinguished itself in its treatment of journalists. In 2012, it fell to 47th in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index, well behind countries like Surinam, Mali, and Slovakia, largely due to police harassment of photographers and videographers at Occupy Wall Street protests. How far should it fall if police can basically decide unilaterally to make entire cities “no First Amendment zones”? How can the US warn other countries not to “take military action against protesters,” if it allows an out-of-control force like Ferguson’s to plot a media blackout? This is a policy of order-at-all-costs, even if it means “law enforcers” breaking the law with impunity.

I will have more to say later on the underlying dispute (well covered by Mary Ann Franks and Jamelle Bouie). For now, all I can say is: we should be deeply worried about the broader campaign to create “urban battlespaces” in American cities. This is a dangerous amalgamation of police and military functions, thoughtlessly accelerated by the distribution of war-fighting equipment to local law enforcers around the country. Minimal standards of accountability require free access by the press.

1

What is the Largest University in the United States?

You are probably surprised to learn that, if you look at crime data gathered by the Department of Education under the Clery Act, the largest 4-year higher education institution is Liberty University. For those not familiar with Liberty, it was founded in 1971 in Lynchburg, Virginia by Jerry Falwell. According to the school’s 2012 submission to the Department of Education, it had 74,372 students. It seems that Liberty has a booming business in online education and counts students enrolled through that program in its student body. A slightly lower number of students, 12,600, are actually in residence. According to the school’s website, there are now 90,000 online students making it the only 4-year college or university with over 100,000 students. I have to say that I am troubled by the nice, round numbers of students in both categories on the website. Are those just estimates and Liberty does not know its precise enrollment? Or is it really committed to all student totals being evenly divisible by 100?

Liberty’s inclusion of online students as part of Clery Act crime reporting obligations has the effect of substantially decreasing reported crime rates on campus. That seems to frustrate the intention of the law as crimes by online students are not tracked. It also makes it difficult for researchers to properly assess the real rates of reported on-campus crime. One might think that Liberty would be a little more careful in its submissions after running into problems during a Clery Act audit. In 2013, the Department of Education stated its intention to fine Liberty for $165,000 because of numerous violations in prior reporting activity. Of course, in reviewing the past Clery Act audits, I did not see one school penalized for failing to accurately count its student body. But there is always a first.