IMG_1241-300x200Sentence Before Verdict- Civil Asset Forfeiture Considered

by R Tamara de Silva

January 26, 2017

 

Let the jury consider their verdict,’ the King said, for about the twentieth time that day.

`No, no!’ said the Queen. `Sentence first–verdict afterwards.’

`Stuff and nonsense!’ said Alice loudly. `The idea of having the sentence first!’

`Hold your tongue!’ said the Queen, turning purple.

`I won’t!’ said Alice.

`Off with her head!’ the Queen shouted at the top of her voice.

 

                                                      Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

 

Few things in the practice of law have struck me as more similar in practice to the Queen’s declaration in Alice in Wonderland than the often seemingly surreal practice of civil forfeiture. Not only when in instances that it goes awry but just even as a theory as it sits written into federal and state statutes -resting on the books yet so very much at odds even in written theory with the scant enumerated rights and protections that are our constitutional safeguards against tyranny. It was anticipated by some that the recent confirmation hearings of the new United States Attorney General would draw attention to the practice of civil forfeiture.  Mr. Sessions had previously defended the practice of civil forfeiture as it was used in Alabama in his tenure as a prosecutor there.

The practice of civil forfeiture provides that federal and state statutes allow the government to seize private property when that property is used in prohibited ways. Like so much in the law, the room for disaster lies in the application of what is subject to interpretation and by whom it is that is doing the interpreting.

Civil forfeiture originated in the laws of admiralty when ships carrying contraband were subject to seizure.  The cargo carried would be seized whether on port or on the high seas often of necessity outside of the presence of the ship’s owners who may have been in distant countries.  Forfeiture was later used in the area of border crossing during customs examinations starting in England in the 1700s and through the Act of Frauds.

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The Doctrine of Privacy in the Age of Big Data

by R Tamara de Silva

 

We all have an unthinking certitude about what privacy means.  We are reasonably sure that we retain this right to privacy when we go about our ordinary activities like buying groceries or using the Internet.

But it is not unreasonable to question what our right to privacy means in the digital world of Big Data.  It bears noting that this cursory discussion will not delve into the more complex issue of what the right of privacy actually is and from where it arises.  Case law typically considers the right to privacy when it comes to striking down laws related to the rubric of human sexuality-the familiar topics of abortion, marriage and contraception.  Aside from First Amendment protections and the right to be secure in your home, what is meant by privacy here for our purposes is the idea of what is left for so many of us to retain as our own.  Or stated alternatively, what we do not want to be shared-even when we seem so compelled to seemingly ‘over share’ so much else.

Privacy is a sphere into which the individual does not want the government, or anyone else for that matter, to reach.  Privacy in any case is practically better discussed in this colloquial and ‘common sense’ way than in the legal sense where one’s politics, ideas of judicial interpretation, and judicial activism do not need to be summoned.

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Edward Snowden and the Meaning of the Espionage Act Post 9-11

 

June 25, 2013

R. Tamara de Silva

The point of demarcation between speech, whistleblowing and espionage has in some instances the aspects of a razor’s edge.
Edward Snowden’s criminal complaint under the Espionage Act was unsealed last Friday.  The Espionage Act has only been used three times since it became law during WWI.  In just five years, President Obama has used it eight additional times to prosecute whistleblowers under an elastic and theoretically boundless definition of what constitutes national security.  Since 2009, the Espionage Act has been used against whistleblowers more than in all other Presidential administrations in the past 90 years combined.
Whether one thinks Edward Snowden is a traitor for exposing a clandestine wiretap dragnet of Americans and foreigners, or a patriot for exposing a truth that may not otherwise ever become known to his countrymen, is largely beside the point.  Snowden’s case reveals a lot more as we approach another Independence Day about how one day has changed our system of government.   The arguments advanced to suggest that the NSA’s powers are checked by two other branches of government, are largely specious.  What Snowden’s case reveals is the extent to which Americans gave the Executive Branch a blank check after September 11, 2001 and what that actually means for every American hereafter.

In the Inferno,
when Dante begins his entrance into the gates of hell, guided by no one less than the great Virgil, he comes across a bleak warning, lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate or, “abandon all hope ye who enter here.”  After 9-11, contrapasso to the United States Constitution,
as if capitulating to the admonishment that greeted Dante, Americans abandoned a measure of hope in America’s core values and founding principles.   A bi-partisan Congress signed the Patriot Act-in the absence of any public outcry, and almost no media attention or intellectual grasp of what it would actually mean. 

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Dr. Kermit Gosnell’s Horror Practice

 

By R. Tamara de Silva

April 13, 2013

 

                 

       Dr.
Kermit Gosnell’s illegal abortion practices such as killing babies born alive and performing an abortion on a 14 year old girl who was 30 weeks pregnant, as alleged in a grand jury report, are horrifying.  I first read about this case in the NYT, but it has otherwise received scant national media attention.  It seems that the same CNN that was obsessed with the Casey Anthony trial has gone on to obsess over the Jodi Arias trial.  Or perhaps editorial boards and news editors do not want to run a story that mentions abortion-for whatever reason.  Sex and scandal sell, ghoulish murders that do not involve guns, remarkably less so.     But the story of Kermit Gosnell’s medical practice, to the extent that it can be called this, is not an abortion story; it is a sordid tale of deliberate murders,
concealment of crime and massive regulatory failure.

       Abortion is perhaps the single most polarizing issue in American politics argued between the same parties along predictable lines.  To frame the story of Dr. Gosnell’s case as part of the abortion debate, although tempting, is to miss the fact that it is a human rights issue and a civil rights issue.  Pro-choice advocates are not well cast by the story nor is the story done justice as an opportune trophy for the pro-life crowd.
This is not an abortion story yet a much larger one than Trevon Martin,
some selectively chosen missing teenager or much of what the main stream media obsesses on including at this point, Sandy Hook.  According to the testimony contained within the grand jury report on Dr. Kermit Gosnell, many more lives have been deliberated killed than were lost in the last lunatic’s tragic shooting spree. 

       If the facts are to be believed, the trial of Kermit Gosnell is nothing less than the indictment of several murders.
Murder is murder and you need not inject politics into the matter.  The murder of innocents ought to shock a conscience and the failure to do so is a separate and perhaps more troubling diagnosis.  Wherever one may stand on the abortion issue and separately, what the government’s role in that is or should be, the deliberate taking of a life that is born alive, without legal justification, is murder.  It debases both sides of the abortion issue and evades reality to deny this.
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Proposition 8 at the Supreme Court-Marriage Equality -Part I

 

By R Tamara de Silva

March 27, 2013

 

       The Supreme Court has not delved into marriage lightly, tending to defer to state governments.  While marriage is one of the most democratic and universal states shared across almost all cultures,
socio-economic strata, ethnicities and religions, it remains withheld to one group in America.  In the United States, marriage is a legal contract that confers specific treatment in tax,
probate and property law. This week, the United States Supreme Court begins to consider the constitutionality of marriage between people of the same gender.  The first topic on marriage equality to be covered this week is Proposition 8 followed by the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) on Wednesday.  The Court may potentially decide whether one specific group of people can be treated differently when it comes to one right.  Perhaps it may even consider whether marriage is an unenumerated right.

 

 

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The President As Executioner; the Unconstitutionality of Targeted Killings of Americans on American Soil

By R. Tamara de Silva

March 6, 2013

 

       In the 2004 decision of Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, the Supreme Court of the United States reminded President George W. Bush’s administration that, “we are heirs to a tradition given voice over 800 years ago” by the signing of the Magna Carta and the idea insisted upon by the barons to their king, that his power and that of any subsequent executive would be confined to the rule of the law.  America was founded on this one idea above any other-that we are a country ruled by law as opposed to the historical alternative we had determined to get away from-the rule of men, unanswerable to law and capable of wielding power that would never be unchecked and therefore in its application, absolute.  So it was that American began-in a deeply held commitment to avoid tyranny.  A fair part of this stubborn legacy was set aside yesterday by Attorney General Eric Holder in a letter, which was released in answer to Senator Rand Paul’s questions about the Administration’s nominee for director of the Central Intelligence Agency, John Brennan.[1]  Mr. Holder’s letter dated March 4, 2005 stated that while very unlikely, the President, after conferring with him,
could kill an American citizen by drone even within the United States if he thought he must.  

       Mr.
Holder’s letter clarifies the White House’s position on the extra-judicial killing of Americans contained in what has come to be called, the Drone Memo.   I have written more extensively about what the Drone Memo means here.
The import of the Drone Memo is that a high ranking official of the Executive Branch can now kill an American if he deems that American a “continuing threat to the country.”
No actual evidence prior to killing is deemed necessary by the Drone Memo.  In fact, there need not be an imminent threat to the United States nor even, “clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.”[2]

       What Mr. Holder’s letter states is that it is within the sole power of the President to kill Americans on American soil, without providing them a trial, a jury, any due process, notice, or their death justified by the existence of any concrete and articulated standard.   Continue reading

What the Drone Memo Means

By R. Tamara de Silva

February 7, 2013

 

[W]e are heirs to a tradition given voice 800 years ago by Magna Carta, which, on the barons’ insistence, confined executive power by “the law of the land.”  Justice Souter and Justice Ginsburg, Hamdi v.
Rumsfeld
542 U.S. 507 (2004)

 

       On February 5, 2013, a Department of Justice memo (“Drone Memo”) was released to NBC justifying the President’s killing of Americans by lethal force, such as by drones.[1]  The targeted killing of Americans as justified in this memo gives the Executive Branch a power over American lives that is at once unprecedented and terrifying in scope.   The idea of a government unilaterally assassinating its citizenry is fundamentally at war with America’s Constitutional legacy,
which was established with separate and equal branches of power specifically to limit the possibility of an abuse of government power or outright tyranny.  The issues presented in the memo have Constitutional implications that cease due process rights based upon what may be unsubstantiated accusations and go against traditions of justice dating back to the Magna Carta.  Americans need to understand what is at stake.
The Drone Memo justifies the assassination of Americans by the Executive Branch based on the equating of terror (a term and concept that is not defined in the memo) with war and making Americans into enemy combatants without any due process of legal proceedings for actions and associations that are similarly ill-defined.  This memo does outline an enlargement of Executive power over due process that is without historical precedent in American history.
It bears note, that the Drone Memo asserts for the first time in American history, the power of a President to assassinate Americans, unchecked and unanswerable to anyone, including the Judiciary and the Legislature.
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United States v. Standard &
Poor’s

By R Tamara de Silva

January 5, 2013

 

       The Department of Justice filed a civil lawsuit yesterday against one of the of big three credit ratings agencies, Standard & Poor’s (“S&P”) and its parent company, McGraw-Hill, Inc.[1]  The suit alleges that S&P deliberately gave its coveted triple-A ratings to sub-prime debt in order to win fees.  The suit does not address the structural conflicts of interest within the three credit ratings agencies that are Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organizations (“NSRO”), nor will it address or cure any of the underlying causes of the credit crisis.  While there are problems with the credit rating agency business model, it will be difficult to prove that S&P knew any more than even the audit committees of the investment firms on whom it relied, or the issuers of debt instruments themselves.  The suit will of course result in the levy of a fine.
But while S&P’s hands may not be entirely unsullied- far more importantly to the untrained public eye, they are as good a scapegoat as any other.

       S&P is a credit rating agency whose business is to provide credit ratings represented by letters from triple-A to D, in exchange for fees.  Federal laws require that certain institutions only hold investments that have a credit rating of “investment grade,” but most of the financial world relies on credit ratings agencies to weigh and measure risk, risk defined in terms of the credit worthiness of investments and institutions.    S&P is the largest of three credit ratings agencies that is recognized by the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”)
as an NSRO.   From 2004 towards the end of 2008, S&P assigned credit ratings on nearly $4 trillion of debt instruments.  In terms of sheer size and credibility, despite this suit and skepticism of the NSROs particularly in Europe, the world has no credible alternative to credit ratings agencies and specifically nothing to replace, Standard & Poors.

       Keep in mind that almost five years after the worst financial crisis in United States history, the Department of Justice has yet to criminally charge a single culpable senior executive or firm.  If history is any guide, the Justice Department will reach a civil settlement with S&P wherein the firm will agree, without admitting any wrongdoing, to pay a fine that in relative terms, will have as large a fiscal impact on S&P as the cost of one month’s dry kibble would have to the owners of the Grumpy Cat.  The suit asks for a fine in excess of $1 billion but these will typically be negotiated down and the government has not latterly demonstrated a willingness to go to trial with these suits.
Like so many Wall Street settlements reached over the past ten years,
the cost of the settlement fine imposed will ultimately be a pittance relative to the quarterly earnings of the offending firm-S&P is not likely to become the first exception to this rule.
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A Tale of Two Classes of Defendant and Lanny Breuer

By R Tamara de Silva

January 28, 2013

 

“swaying power such as has never in the world’s history been trusted in the hands of mere private citizens,…after having created a system of quiet but irresistible corruption-will ultimately succeed in directing government itself.  Under the American form of society, there is now no authority capable of effective resistance.” 

Henry Adams writing about the corruption of the Erie Railroad for the Westminster Review in 1870, he described corporate influence growing to the point of being uncheckable with political parties that would sacrifice principle for accommodation.

 

       Last week, the Head of the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division, Lanny Breuer, announced his resignation.  His resignation is remarkable only in so far that it draws attention to the enormity of what he would not do.  Under Breuer’s watch, leaving aside some high profile and related insider trading prosecutions, not one senior Wall Street executive was prosecuted or even charged (by some accounts- not even investigated) with anything having to do with the worst financial crisis in American history-a crisis that resulted in a bailout of Wall Street banks and the financial sector at a cost to American taxpayers of between $43.32-$59.75 billion.[1]  A day before Lanny Breuer’s resignation, PBS’ Frontline aired an investigation about the failure of the Justice Department to prosecute a single senior banker involved in the mortgage crisis called, “The Untouchables.”  During this same time that the Department of Justice refused to go after a single head of a Wall Street firm,
they took a particularly hard line on a torture whistleblower (not the torturers), and many financial criminals responsible for not the billions caused by elite Wall Street firms but between thousands to hundreds of thousands like elderly couples for possible pension fraud, an appraiser in Florida, individuals who committed bank fraud by lying on mortgage applications and other criminals like pot smokers and Aaron Swartz.  It is not that I condone wrong-doing,
only a record of selective prosecution on steroids.  Lanny Breuer’s Justice Department exposed its full fury to the chubs of the criminal justice systems while systematically saving the titans and whales.

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Prosecutorial Discretion,
Cambyses and Aaron Swartz

By R Tamara de Silva

January 15, 2013

 

The Optimist thinks this is the best of all worlds.
The pessimist fears it is true

J. Robert Oppenheimer

 

       The prosecutor of the late Aaron Swartz and Sisamnes have something to tell us about the purpose of those who have the awesome task of administering justice. The power of the prosecutor in modern times is absolute and as such unlike in the case of King Cambyses and judge Sisamnes, unchecked when it is abused.   All the more reason to ask at these times, what is the purpose of prosecution?  Is prosecution in all instances moral?
And is prosecution the same as justice?  In answer to the latter, in the case of Aaron Swartz, the answer is resoundingly in the negative.
The prosecution of Aaron Swartz may have followed the letter of the law and fit an omnibus catchall federal charge like wire-fraud, but it makes mincemeat out of Justice.  Aaron Swartz’s prosecution also highlights some of the many problems with our criminal justice system.

       One of the more memorable stories in the fifth book of Herodotus’ Histories takes place in the sixth century BC and it tells the fate of judge Sisamnes.  The Persian King Cambyses discovered that Sisamnes had diverted justice and rendered a verdict in a case based upon his acceptance of a bribe.  King Cambyses understood the majesty and power of justice and his retribution for Sisamnes’ abuse of it is unforgettable in its brutality.  King Cambyses had Sisamnes stripped of his flesh, while alive and used the strips of flesh to upholster the court’s judge’s chair.  But Cambyses’
retribution for the abuse of justice did not end there for he made Sisamnes’
son Otanes sit on the grisly judge’s chair as he was made the replacement justice with the lesson that he must always remember his father’s fate when administering justice.

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