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Posts Tagged ‘Victimless Crime’

Even though I’ve expressed a small bit of sympathy for their motives, I’m not a fan of the OWS protesters. But other than sharing some jokes about the movement (see here, herehereherehere, and here), I haven’t had much to say.

But this video showing a clash with police at UC Davis is rather troubling.

I realize that I don’t know the context, but the police reaction seems rather excessive. Two questions spring to mind.

1. Why does anyone care that they’re blocking a sidewalk? I can understand that the police have to act if protesters decide to block a street,but why was there a need to have a big confrontation (one that the protesters obviously wanted) to clear a sidewalk? My instinct would be to leave them alone.

2. Why did they use mace? Surely there ought to be some rule of proportionality. If a bunch of protesters are smashing windows or overturning cars, then a more aggressive response obviously is needed. But why use pepper spray on some college kids sitting on a sidewalk?

I consider myself a tough-on-crime conservative, but mixed with a strong libertarian belief in individual rights. As I said in an earlier post, the real key is to make sure laws are just.

That’s why I’ve criticized abuses of police power, in cases such as asset forfeiture, the destructive war on drugs, videotaping of public officials, and persecution of victimless crime.

Is this video another example of a government doing the wrong thing? Again, we don’t know the context, but this doesn’t seem right.

I assume the cops are just following orders, so the real issue is decision making by local politicians or university administrators.

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Nullification occurs when jurors refuse to find a defendant guilty because the underlying law is unjust (visit the Fully Informed Jury Association if you want more details). And if I ever wind up on a jury and the government was trying to throw someone in jail for a victimless crime, I certainly hope I would do the right thing and refuse to declare the person guilty.

The good people of western Montana certainly have the right attitude about victimless crimes. A jury pool in Missoula County basically told a court that they would not be willing to convict a defendant for possessing a tiny amount of marijuana.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this happened all over the country and politicians were forced to stop the war on drugs? That would be a Christmas present for the entire nation.

While we’re waiting for that to happen, let’s celebrate what happened in Montana. Here’s an excerpt from the Billings Gazette.

A funny thing happened on the way to a trial in Missoula County District Court last week. Jurors – well, potential jurors – staged a revolt. They took the law into their own hands, as it were, and made it clear they weren’t about to convict anybody for having a couple of buds of marijuana. Never mind that the defendant in question also faced a felony charge of criminal distribution of dangerous drugs. The tiny amount of marijuana police found while searching Touray Cornell’s home on April 23 became a huge issue for some members of the jury panel. No, they said, one after the other. No way would they convict somebody for having a 16th of an ounce. In fact, one juror wondered why the county was wasting time and money prosecuting the case at all, said a flummoxed Deputy Missoula County Attorney Andrew Paul. …“Public opinion, as revealed by the reaction of a substantial portion of the members of the jury called to try the charges on Dec. 16, 2010, is not supportive of the state’s marijuana law and appeared to prevent any conviction from being obtained simply because an unbiased jury did not appear available under any circumstances,” according to the plea memorandum filed by his attorney.

(h/t Jason Kuznicki)

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The Washington Post has an interesting report about the huge amount of money that Fairfax County spends to go after gambling. The story cites critics who ask “why law enforcement spends valuable time and money on combating sports gambling. The answer is obvious – and explicit in the story: “…police in Virginia are allowed to keep 100 percent of the assets they seize in state gambling cases.” In other words, harassing the gambling business is a profit-making endeavor for police. And it also can be deadly since cops killed an optometrist during a SWAT arrest. The Institute for Justice has a powerful video on the dangers of “policing for profit,” and Fairfax County is just one bad example of how this lures cops into misallocating resources to fight behaviors that shouldn’t even be illegal.
It’s football season, and for millions of Americans that means betting season. …It’s a crime that Fairfax County police take seriously. So seriously that in one recent gambling investigation, they spent — and lost — more than $300,000 in cash to take down a Las Vegas-based online bookie and his group of Fairfax-based associates. …Police critics have long wondered why law enforcement spends valuable time and money on combating sports gambling. In Fairfax, the police rarely publicize their arrests, and the details of their investigations are little known outside the small corps of detectives in the money laundering unit. Unlike drug cases, police in Virginia are allowed to keep 100 percent of the assets they seize in state gambling cases, so other agencies or divisions receive no benefit. And the vast majority of those arrested are placed on probation. “What a waste,” said Nicholas Beltrante, founder of the Virginia Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability, a group formed earlier this year in part to combat unnecessary police spending. “The police should be utilizing their resources for more serious crimes.” Fairfax’s most notorious gambling investigation ended in disaster. In 2006, an undercover detective lost more than $5,000 while betting on NFL games with optometrist Salvatore J. Culosi — and when the detective called in a SWAT team to make the arrest, an officer shot Culosi once in the heart and killed him. …Since 2004, the squad has seized about $1 million in cash and assets annually, but some of those cases landed in federal court, where money is divided among various agencies, Schaible said. …One case from 2006, that of admitted bookmaker Kyle Peters, resulted in police seizing and keeping $566,940 from his bank accounts. Schaible said such funds are recycled “back into investigating cases. It’s helping us resolve these and fight further crime.”

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The Economist has an excellent article about criminal justice in America, including valuable observations about the over-abundance of victimless crimes and incomprehensible laws that result in prison time for failing to understand the intricacies of government regulations. My only quibble is that the article could have paid more attention to the potential value of locking up people who commit real crimes such as rape, murder, burglary, and assault. I realize I’m nit-picking, and I’m fully aware that prosecutors can engage in abuse even when targeting genuine criminals, but there are some people who belong in jail.

Three pickup trucks pulled up outside George Norris’s home in Spring, Texas. Six armed police in flak jackets jumped out. Thinking they must have come to the wrong place, Mr Norris opened his front door, and was startled to be shoved against a wall and frisked for weapons. He was forced into a chair for four hours while officers ransacked his house. They pulled out drawers, rifled through papers, dumped things on the floor and eventually loaded 37 boxes of Mr Norris’s possessions onto their pickups. They refused to tell him what he had done wrong. “It wasn’t fun, I can tell you that,” he recalls. Mr Norris was 65 years old at the time, and a collector of orchids. He eventually discovered that he was suspected of smuggling the flowers into America, an offence under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. This came as a shock. He did indeed import flowers and sell them to other orchid-lovers. And it was true that his suppliers in Latin America were sometimes sloppy about their paperwork. In a shipment of many similar-looking plants, it was rare for each permit to match each orchid precisely. In March 2004, five months after the raid, Mr Norris was indicted, handcuffed and thrown into a cell with a suspected murderer and two suspected drug-dealers. When told why he was there, “they thought it hilarious.” One asked: “What do you do with these things? Smoke ’em?” Prosecutors described Mr Norris as the “kingpin” of an international smuggling ring. He was dumbfounded: his annual profits were never more than about $20,000. When prosecutors suggested that he should inform on other smugglers in return for a lighter sentence, he refused, insisting he knew nothing beyond hearsay. He pleaded innocent. But an undercover federal agent had ordered some orchids from him, a few of which arrived without the correct papers. For this, he was charged with making a false statement to a government official, a federal crime punishable by up to five years in prison. Since he had communicated with his suppliers, he was charged with conspiracy, which also carries a potential five-year term. As his legal bills exploded, Mr Norris reluctantly changed his plea to guilty, though he still protests his innocence. He was sentenced to 17 months in prison. …Justice is harsher in America than in any other rich country. Between 2.3m and 2.4m Americans are behind bars, roughly one in every 100 adults. …As a proportion of its total population, America incarcerates five times more people than Britain, nine times more than Germany and 12 times more than Japan. …The system has three big flaws, say criminologists. First, it puts too many people away for too long. Second, it criminalises acts that need not be criminalised. Third, it is unpredictable. Many laws, especially federal ones, are so vaguely written that people cannot easily tell whether they have broken them. …Badly drafted laws create traps for the unwary. In 2006 Georgia Thompson, a civil servant in Wisconsin, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for depriving the public of “the intangible right of honest services”. Her crime was to award a contract (for travel services) to the best bidder. A firm called Adelman Travel scored the most points (on an official scale) for price and quality, so Ms Thompson picked it. She ignored a rule that required her to penalise Adelman for a slapdash presentation when bidding. For this act of common sense, she served four months. (An appeals court freed her.) …There are over 4,000 federal crimes, and many times that number of regulations that carry criminal penalties. When analysts at the Congressional Research Service tried to count the number of separate offences on the books, they were forced to give up, exhausted. Rules concerning corporate governance or the environment are often impossible to understand, yet breaking them can land you in prison. In many criminal cases, the common-law requirement that a defendant must have a mens rea (ie, he must or should know that he is doing wrong) has been weakened or erased. “The founders viewed the criminal sanction as a last resort, reserved for serious offences, clearly defined, so ordinary citizens would know whether they were violating the law. Yet over the last 40 years, an unholy alliance of big-business-hating liberals and tough-on-crime conservatives has made criminalisation the first line of attack—a way to demonstrate seriousness about the social problem of the month, whether it’s corporate scandals or e-mail spam,” writes Gene Healy, a libertarian scholar. “You can serve federal time for interstate transport of water hyacinths, trafficking in unlicensed dentures, or misappropriating the likeness of Woodsy Owl.” “You’re (probably) a federal criminal,” declares Alex Kozinski, an appeals-court judge, in a provocative essay of that title. Making a false statement to a federal official is an offence. So is lying to someone who then repeats your lie to a federal official. Failing to prevent your employees from breaking regulations you have never heard of can be a crime. A boss got six months in prison because one of his workers accidentally broke a pipe, causing oil to spill into a river. “It didn’t matter that he had no reason to learn about the [Clean Water Act’s] labyrinth of regulations, since he was merely a railroad-construction supervisor,” laments Judge Kozinski. …Some prosecutors, such as Eliot Spitzer, the disgraced ex-governor of New York, have built political careers by nailing people whom voters don’t like, such as financiers.

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Since Barney Frank is one of the most collectivist and statist members of Congress, it is very unusual for me to write the words “I agree with Barney Frank.” But on the issue of Internet gambling, the Massachusetts Congressman actually has the right position. Steve Chapman elaborates on this topic in his column, concluding with wise words about getting out of way when someone like Barney Frank actually wants more freedom and less government.

Four years ago, Congress tried to stamp out online betting by forbidding banks from transferring funds to Internet gambling sites. But it was spitting into a gale. “Gamblers have used online payment processors, phone-based deposits and prepaid credit cards to circumvent the ban,” reports The New York Times. It’s an old problem: When lots of people are eager to enter transactions with other people that do no direct harm to anyone else, the government can’t realistically hope to prevent them. All the ban accomplishes is to push the industry offshore, leaving U.S. customers more vulnerable to fraud. Well, that’s not all it accomplishes. It also encourages Americans to do their gambling elsewhere: going to casinos (now found in 33 states), wagering at off-track parlors or buying lottery tickets peddled by state monopolies. The lotteries are a motive for governments to oppose legalization of online gambling, since it might take away customers looking for better odds. …there is no good reason for the federal government to prohibit citizens from engaging in a peaceful, popular and enjoyable activity that almost all of them can handle responsibly. Nor is there any point, since those citizens are going to do it anyway. Congress would be wise to accept that age-old reality and settle for harvesting the tax revenues Internet betting can generate. Maybe it would be the start of something even bigger. After all, it’s not every day you hear congressional Democrats making the case for more freedom and less government. When Barney Frank acts on the view that “most actions the government should stay out of,” it would be a shame to stand in his way.

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