Articles Posted in Civil Rights/Civil Liberties

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As I previously wrote , in December 2016 Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure was changed to give law enforcement more expansive authority to conduct searches of computers. How the new procedural rule will interact with core constitutional values and established legal principles, as well as what the practical consequences of the rule are, remain open questions.

(1) Fourth Amendment

The proposed changes may well fall afoul of the Fourth Amendment. As I have discussed in a previous blog post, the Fourth Amendment protects people against unreasonable searches and seizures. It does this by requiring the government to obtain a warrant before conducting most searches, by requiring those warrants to be supported by probable cause, and by requiring the warrants to be particular about the location to be searched and the items to be seized. Continue reading

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At a time of increasingly public protests, the Supreme Judicial Court recently reaffirmed its commitment to protecting speech here in Massachusetts.  Under Masschusetts’s Anti-Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation law (“Anti-SLAPP”), defendants can move to dismiss a lawsuit filed against them if that lawsuit targets their attempt to influence a government body or seek help from one.   It had always been clear that when a person attempts to influence the government on their own behalf – in other words, to vindicate their own interests – the statute protected that activity.  But in Cardno ChemRisk v. Cherri Foytlin et al., the Court made clear that the statute extends to citizens’ right to advocate not just for themselves, but also for others.

Massachusetts is one of twenty-eight states with Anti-SLAPP protection.  These statutes buttress a basic constitutional right:  The First Amendment of the United States Constitution protects the right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  That means that every person has a right to influence government bodies – by, for example, protesting in the town square or testifying at a hearing – without fear of reprisal.  But citizens’ protests can often frustrate powerful, non-governmental interests.  And when they do, those powerful interests may use courts to try to stop or stifle the speech.  Anti-SLAPP statutes protect citizens from those suits. Continue reading

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Since the election, there has been a spike in racist harassment and hate crimes across the county directed at minorities and immigrants.  As reflected in data collected by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), nearly 900 hate incidents were reported in the ten days following November 8.  The incidents have ranged from graffiti of swastikas and nooses, rampant use of racial slurs, verbal denigration of minorities and immigrants, and physical harassment, including assaults or attempted assaults.  These incidents have been most prevalent at K-12 schools and college campuses and reflect a disturbing deterioration of the educational environment in our schools.  These are only the reported incidents to SPLC, a small non-profit located in Alabama; it is most certainly only a fraction of all incidents since the election.  While there are sometimes competing concerns between the free speech rights of students and the protection of minority students, the incidents that have been reported thus far include racist threats of violence that goes beyond free speech rights.  There is a real concern that the failure to adequately respond and remedy this behavior during students’ formative years in middle and high school will normalize it and cause further spillover onto college campuses.

Minority and immigrant students who are at colleges and universities across the country may be understandably anxious about whether they will have protection against such harassment under the new presidential administration.  If campaign rhetoric is to be believed, the Trump Administration intends to gut the Department of Education (DOE).  In addition to its responsibilities administering federal funding and enforcing federal education laws, the DOE is the agency charged with enforcing civil rights laws that apply to K-12 schools and colleges, which includes Title VI, the law that protects students at federally-funded schools from discrimination on the basis of race or national origin.

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In June, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor attracted attention for her dissent in Utah v. Strieff.  In that case – which held that a court need not suppress the fruits of a suspicionless stop if the individual has a pre-existing warrant for their arrest – Sotomayor wrote that the Court’s opinion would encourage more baseless stops and thus “risk treating members of our communities as second-class citizens.”  Setting aside legalese, Sotomayor cited the authors W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, and discussed the humiliation that people of color experience due to their disproportionate targeting by the criminal justice system.  She ended her opinion with the following passage:

We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are “isolated.” They are the canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere. See L. Guinier & G. Torres, The Miner’s Canary 274-283 (2002). They are the ones who recognize that unlawful police stops corrode all our civil liberties and threaten all our lives. Until their voices matter too, our justice system will continue to be anything but. Continue reading

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Yesterday, 11 states sued the U.S. Government in a Texas federal court over recent guidance documents its agencies issued defining “sex” in various civil rights laws to include “gender identity.”  The suit is the latest in a widening legal battle over transgender rights — specifically the right of transgender people to use restrooms that accord with their gender identities.

The lawsuit challenges two recent documents from federal agencies.  On May 3, 2016, the EEOC released a fact sheet on bathroom access for transgender employees, which states that discrimination based on transgender status is sex discrimination under Title VII. On May 9, 2016 the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) sued North Carolina over a recently-passed law that required public employees and public school students to use bathrooms that correlate with the sex listed on their birth certificates, and an executive order that required cabinet agencies to use the same definition of “sex” in segregating their bathrooms. On May 13, 2016 the DOJ and U.S. Department of Education (DOE) issued a “Dear Colleague Letter” stating that “[t]he Departments treat a student’s gender identity as the student’s sex for purposes of Title IX and its implementing regulations. This means that a school must not treat a transgender student differently from the way it treats other students of the same gender identity.” The lawsuit argues that these interpretations of Title VII and Title IX constitute a radical change in the law, and that the executive branch, through these two departments, cannot change the law in this way.

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In a new case, Commonwealth v. Celester, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court emphasizes how important it is for defendants to be informed of and advised regarding their right to remain silent, holding that it was ineffective for an attorney not to advise his client to invoke his Fifth Amendment right when questioned by police.  The decision is legally significant in the scope that it gives to the right to effective advice of counsel, but it also illustrates what good criminal defense lawyers already know about the importance of the Fifth Amendment—a lesson that Bill Cosby would have benefited from when giving a deposition in 2005.

In most criminal cases, most defense lawyers advise their clients not to give statements to the police.  This is common, often essential, advice that we give to the innocent as well as to the guilty; someone who will have to defend him or herself at trial is almost always better off not unnecessarily sharing information with prosecutors in advance.  In criminal trials, the choices to invoke the Fifth Amendment and not answer questions from the police, or to remain silent at trial, cannot be held against a defendant, and so there is often little downside in taking the Fifth, particularly in interrogation by police.

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Last week, the Massachusetts House of Representatives passed H. 3944 (now H. 3947), An Act Relative to Substance Abuse, Treatment, Education and Prevention. The bill will, if passed, aim to curb the increasing numbers of opioid addictions and overdoses in Massachusetts. The House and the Senate, which passed a different version of the bill, will now wrangle over a final version. But there is one thing that both bodies agreed on: that our state is long overdue to end the incarceration of women who have been civilly committed for substance addiction. To that end, the House and the Senate separated out H. 3956, an Act Relative to Civil Commitments for Alcohol and Substance Use Disorders, and sent it to Governor Charlie Baker, who enacted the bill into law on January 25, 2016.

The law brings long overdue reform to a troubling system of civil commitment in Massachusetts. G.L. c. 123, section 35 is the law that governs the civil commitment of people who are addicted to alcohol or drugs. People in their lives—from family members to police officers—can petition the court to civilly commit a person they believe to be addicted. If the court agrees, it can commit that person to a treatment facility for up to ninety days. The problem is that the treatment facilities in Massachusetts are often filled to capacity, especially the ones that accept civil commitments. When the beds are full, the courts don’t stop committing people. Instead, the courts shunt them off to prison. Men are sent to Bridgewater, a minimum security facility where they continue to get addiction treatment comparable to the treatment they might have received in a hospital. They’re in prison—despite not having committed, or being charged with committing, a crime—but at least they are getting treatment.

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As I discussed in my last post, the U.S. Department of Justice recently published a new policy that generally requires federal law enforcement agencies to obtain a search warrant before using a cell-site simulator device, otherwise known as a stingray. But the policy itself does not create grounds for someone to bring a lawsuit for improper use of a cell-site simulator. People will have to look to the courts, and to the protections against unreasonable search and seizure offered by the Fourth Amendment and by individual state constitutions. While warrantless use of cell-site simulators likely violates the Fourth Amendment, it may be that even warrant-based searches inherently violate our constitutional Fourth Amendment right against unlawful searches because such warrants are, necessarily, general warrants that have long been prohibited.

The Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures. Typically, a person’s body, home, and belongings cannot be searched unless the government has first obtained a warrant from the court. The warrant has to be supported by probable cause—in other words, a particular and reasonable basis for believing that a crime was committed, and that a search will turn up evidence of that crime. Of course, Fourth Amendment protections are more complicated than that. For one thing, a person can be subject to a brief seizure and search if a law enforcement officer has “reasonable suspicion” that the person has or is about to commit a crime, or that the person has a weapon on them or in their vehicle. For another thing, law enforcement can use the “exigent circumstances” exception to conduct a search without a warrant, when they think they will not have time to get one. In practice, these exceptions can be abused, sometimes systematically and discriminatorily, by law enforcement (my colleague has discussed this here; the report on stop and frisk practices in Massachusetts, published by ACLU Massachusetts, provides additional insight into the issue). But the Fourth Amendment—and similar rights afforded by state constitutions—continues to be a valuable protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.

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We have previously covered on this blog the developing case law interpreting the Massachusetts law governing harassment prevention orders.  To recap, the statute allows an individual suffering from a pattern of “harassment,” meeting certain requirements, to obtain a restraining order against the harasser.  Because “harassment” could be a broad, almost limitless category, the Legislature defined it in the statute to include “3 or more acts of willful and malicious conduct aimed at a specific person committed with the intent to cause fear, intimidation, abuse or damage to property and that does in fact cause fear, intimidation, abuse or damage to property.”  The Supreme Judicial Court clarified in O’Brien v. Borowski that, not only does a plaintiff need to prove three acts, but where speech or expression is involved, it must be in a category deemed unprotected by the First Amendment, such as “fighting words” or “true threats.”

In the recent case of A.T. v. C.R., a majority of the Appeals Court focused on the unsavory facts of the case before it, and lost sight of the broader principles of the First Amendment.  In A.T., an eleven-year-old boy acted in a boorish and offensive manner towards one of his peers, an eleven-year-old girl.  The incidents at issue were the following:

  1. While video-chatting, the boy commented on the girl’s “jugs of milk” (meaning her breasts).  A friend of his recorded a video of the conversation and sent it to her.
  2. The boy told the girl that, if she showed the video to anyone, he would “make her life a living hell.”
  3. In the school cafeteria, the boy described (or helped a friend describe) his sexual fantasy involving the girl, in which she was a pizza delivery girl.
  4. Some time later, after he had withdrawn from the school, the boy approached the girl and said he wanted to “punch [her] in the titties.”

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Last month, The U.S. Department of Justice announced that it was implementing a new policy to govern the use of cell-site simulator technology, known also as “stingrays,” by federal law enforcement. The policy, available here, is intended to better protect suspects in criminal investigations and bystanders from intrusive, warrantless searches of data collected from their cellular phones.

A stingray is a small device—easily transportable in a car or even on someone’s person—that operates as a portable cell tower. Its signal reaches cell phones and other electronic devices in the area, which in turn transmit information through the stingray instead of through a proper cellular tower. The stingray can obtain information from all devices in the area, even those that are not in use. The problem is that the stingray is not owned or operated by a phone company. It’s owned and operated by the government, and law enforcement will collect and retain location and other identifying information from devices in range of the stingray. A police car that contains a stingray can drive down a road, or stop at a busy intersection, and collect data from electronic devices, without the owners of those devices having any idea that it is happening. The stingray works through walls, which means it can collect data from inside businesses and homes, and can accurately and precisely determine someone’s location. Even when the aim is to collect data from a specific person’s phone, it will also pick up data from bystanders who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time: that is, being in the vicinity of a law enforcement officer with a stingray. A stingray has other nasty side effects, too, including by draining device batteries by forcing them to transmit data even when they are not in use, and by disrupting cellular service to the area.

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