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At the federal level, efforts at criminal justice reform have been trapped in a legislative logjam.  Despite considerable bipartisan consensus on the subject – including the backing of the notorious Koch brothers, who fund Republican candidates across the country – no significant legislation has passed through the United States Congress.  That, despite the fact that the United States currently houses 2.2 million people in our prisons and jails.  That translates to an incarceration rate of 693 per 100,000 people – a rate far in excess of Iran, Zimbabwe, and Singapore.  A recent report by the Brennan Center for Justice concluded that 576,000 people who are currently incarcerated could be freed with little-to-no impact on public safety, at a savings of $20 billion annually.  According to the report, 364,000 prisoners could be subject to alternatives to incarceration – treatment, community service, or probation – while another 212,000 have already served lengthy prison terms and could be directly released into the community.

At the federal level, the only steps to remedy the effects of our draconian system have come from the executive branch.  Attorneys General Holder and Lynch have told their line prosecutors to pursue fewer mandatory minimum sentences, and Holder urged the U.S. Sentencing Commission to apply a recent reduction in drug sentences retroactively to reduce the sentences of thousands of those currently incarcerated.  In addition, President Obama has commuted the sentences of 1,176 prisoners and issued 148 pardons – far more than any other president in history.  But even those historic numbers are a mere drop in the proverbial bucket.  With a federal prison population of 190,058 inmates, Obama’s clemency numbers constitute about 0.6% of that group.  Those numbers will likely increase a bit before January 20th, but executive clemency is a poor substitute for true legislative reform. Continue reading

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Earlier this month, my colleague blogged about concerns that a weaker federal Department of Education (DOE) in the Trump Administration would mean less protection against discrimination and harassment for minority students. Under Obama the DOE took strong, sometimes controversial, positions in the name of anti-discrimination, for example, issuing numerous guidance documents instructing schools on how to address sexual harassment and sexual assault, and interpreting Title IX to protect transgender students. In the views of its critics, DOE often went too far in issuing these rules, both because it circumvented the normal rule-making procedures for administrative agencies, and because in many instances its guidance letters seemed to directly conflict with the free speech and due process rights of students.

It seems safe to assume that sexual harassment prevention is not high on Trump’s priority list. During the presidential campaign videos surfaced of him discussing sexually assaulting women and more than a dozen women came forward to accuse him of having done just that, and his sons — who played key roles in his campaign — have both indicated that women who do not like being sexually harassed either should not work, or should find a different job. Given that fact, and his stated antipathy to the DOE, it seems quite likely that his administration will do an about-face on both the scope of the DOE’s work, and its positions on key title IX issues. But will the administration’s positions change anything on campus?

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In late November, a federal district court in Texas enjoined the Department of Labor from implementing and enforcing a new rule that would have made it more difficult for employers to claim that workers do not qualify for overtime pay.  But the Texas court may not have had the power to apply its order nationwide, and Massachusetts employees may still be able to collect overtime under the new rule.

Under the Federal Labor Standards Act, every employee must be paid a minimum hourly wage.  Employees are also entitled to overtime pay at one and a half times that rate for all hours worked above forty per week.  However, the statute exempts certain types of jobs from the requirement to pay overtime.  One of those exemptions is for any work done in a “bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity,” and is sometimes referred to as the “white collar exemption.” The statute grants the Department of Labor the authority to issue rules defining what exactly qualifies as a “white collar” job. Since 1940, the Department has defined the exemption, in part, by setting a minimum salary cap under which all workers must be paid overtime – in other words, anyone paid less than that set figure cannot qualify as an exempt “executive, administrative, or professional” employee.  In 2014, after extensive notice and comment from outside stakeholders, the Department of Labor raised the salary cap from $23,660 to $47,476.  The rule was set to go into effect on December 1, and experts estimated that more than 4 million additional workers would now qualify for overtime pay. Continue reading

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Early one morning in 2013, Verissimo Tavares fled the Boston Police on his motor scooter, and in the process tossed away what turned out to be a gun.  He was charged and convicted in federal court of the crime of being a felon in possession of a firearm, and was sentenced to seven years, which was a “departure” from the recommended sentence of 10-12 ½ years that the federal sentencing guidelines prescribed.

Had Mr. Tavares been a newcomer to the criminal justice system, the guidelines would have produced a recommended sentencing range of between 3 and 4 years.  His history, and in particular his previous convictions of “crimes of violence” doubled his sentence and could, without the departure, have tripled it.  In particular, Mr. Tavares had previous convictions for resisting arrest and for assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, and both of those convictions were considered “crimes of violence” by the sentencing judge, with the result that his sentencing range skyrocketed.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Tavares appealed, and the First Circuit took up, for the umpteenth time, the question of what constitutes a “crime of violence” with a substantial impact on how much time a convicted defendant will have to serve. 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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We have previously covered on the blog the implications of Massachusetts initiatives regarding marijuana and the interaction between Federal and state drug laws. In 2008, voters decriminalized the possession of an ounce of marijuana under state law. In 2013, voters set up a system for the medical use of marijuana in Massachusetts. Possession, distribution, or use of marijuana in any form remains illegal under Federal law, and the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration recently reaffirmed the placement of marijuana on Schedule I, meaning that it has “no currently accepted medical use,” a “high potential for abuse,” and a “lack of accepted safety for [its] use.” However, in 2014 Congress enacted into law an Obama administration policy permitting states to implement medical marijuana laws, giving a subtle positive signal at least for medicinal use of marijuana.

This week, Massachusetts voters again gave the green light to marijuana reform in the form of Question 4. Question 4 is long and complex, but we can summarize some of its most important provisions. Under Question 4, starting on December 15, 2016, it will no longer be illegal under Massachusetts state law for anyone 21 years old or older to possess an ounce or less of marijuana, or up to 5 grams of marijuana concentrate. Within one’s own home, an adult over 21 is permitted to possess up to 10 ounces of marijuana, grow up to 6 marijuana plants (up to a total of 12 plants at a time for two or more people), and possess any marijuana grown on the premises. Individuals committing these acts are protected against any criminal or civil penalties under state law; by contrast under current state law possession of marijuana without appropriate medical documentation is at least a civil infraction with a $100 fine, and cultivation or possession of more than an ounce is criminal.

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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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Massachusetts now has two types of restraining orders—abuse prevention orders under M.G.L. c. 209A, which are intended specifically to address and prevent domestic violence and are only available between family or household members (including people who have been in a substantial dating relationship), and harassment prevention orders under M.G.L. c. 258E, which can be issued absent any such connection where the standards for such orders are met. The basic procedure for either order is the same—a court can issue the order ex parte, without the knowledge or participation of the defendant against whom the order is sought. The defendant is then served with the order, and has the right to appear at a contested hearing, no more than 10 days later, regarding whether the order should be extended. The entry of any such order—even if it is not extended at the 10-day hearing—creates a permanent record maintained by the Commission of Probation. The courts have refused to expunge such records except where an order was issued due to “fraud on the court.” In a new decision, M.C.D. vs. D.E.D., the Massachusetts Appeals Court has now held that even where a court determines that a party committed perjury in order to obtain an order, the standard for expungement is not met. Continue reading

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I previously wrote about a Massachusetts federal district court decision that was groundbreaking because it tackled the question of whether a private university’s sexual misconduct investigation and disciplinary procedure was fundamentally fair, and concluded that it was not. Last week another local federal court weighed in on the college sexual misconduct issue and found in favor of the accused student, but went in a distinctly different legal direction.

John Doe v. Brown University is one of the few cases on this issue to proceed all the way to trial. The case arose out of a November 2014 sexual encounter between John Doe and Ann Roe. Roe complained about the incident in November 2015, and the case was heard by Brown in 2016. Notably, in fall 2015 Brown adopted a new Title IX policy that contained Brown’s first definition of consent, and a new process for handling sexual misconduct cases. While Brown informed its investigator and panel that the case against Doe would proceed under the 2014-2015 policy that was in effect at the time of the incident, Brown also provided the panel with the 2015-2016 policy and specifically told the panel that that policy codified the community’s understanding of consent, so they could look to it if it assisted them. Continue reading

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Six months ago a judge in the federal district court in Massachusetts issued what many people who litigate cases surrounding college sexual assault adjudications consider the most comprehensive decision on the topic. In Doe v. Brandeis University, Judge Dennis Saylor denied Brandeis University’s motion to dismiss the complaint by its former student as to claims that Brandeis breached its contractual duties towards him, handled his case with negligence, and used a fundamentally unfair process to evaluate the accusation against him.

The case arose out of a January 2014 sexual assault complaint against John Doe by his former boyfriend. Under Brandeis’ policy, the complaint was investigated by a Special Examiner who also decided whether John Doe was responsible for sexual assault. (This “single investigator” model, promoted by the White House, has gained significant traction with schools nationwide in the last three years, despite significant concerns about its fairness).

Despite noting that “the Handbook is no model of clarity,” the judge nonetheless found for Brandeis on most of the contract claims based on Doe’s allegations that Brandeis failed to follow its Handbook. The judge similarly rejected most of Doe’s tort claims, with the exception of a claim for negligent supervision based on Brandeis assigning an administrator with no familiarity with the process as the final decision maker in the case. The judge was skeptical that Doe could prevail on the claim, but allowed it to survive the motion to dismiss. Continue reading

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