Archive for the ‘Law’ Category

You’re going down in flames, you tax-fattened hyena! (#39 in a series)

Thursday, April 20th, 2017

Sherry Cook is retiring May 23rd.

Ms. Cook, if you didn’t know, was the executive director of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, the agency that enforces the state’s liquor laws. (And yes, I recognize the…irony?…in having someone named “Sherry” in that role. Onward!) She’s been in that post since 2012.

Why retire now?

The decision comes a month after the Texas Tribune reported that Cook and other agency employees spent thousands of dollars in taxpayer money for trips to resorts in Florida and Hawaii, among other places, for meetings hosted by the National Conference of State Liquor Administrators, an industry trade group.

But the thing that seems to have really upset people?

Cook was grilled last week during a House General Investigating and Ethics Committee hearing about, among other things, a flyer that depicted Cook and other top agency officials holding or drinking Lone Star Beer as they rode on a plane on their way to a liquor administrators conference.
According to the Tribune, Cook told lawmakers that the flyer was an “inappropriate use of our time” and agreed it was a misuse of state resources to exchange emails about creating it.

You get the feeling that this would have kept on, if she hadn’t rubbed her travel in the faces of her employees? Seems like an important safety tip or two: if you’ve got to go to conferences, make them someplace not exotic, like Buffalo in January. Or if you do have to go somewhere exotic, complain the whole time. Don’t make up a flyer with shiny happy beer drinking people on a plane to Cali.

Reacting to the announcement, Gov. Greg Abbott said in a tweet: “It’s time to clean house from regulators not spending taxpayer money wisely. This is a good start.”

Obit watch: April 13, 2017.

Thursday, April 13th, 2017

J. Geils, of J. Geils Band fame. Remember “Centerfold”? I used to have that on a 45 somewhere.

(Kids, ask your parents about records.)

My brother mentioned Charlie Murphy‘s death yesterday, and I’m embarrassed to admit: it rang no bells with me until I read the obit and realized, “Oh, yeah, the ‘True Hollywood Stories’ guy from ‘Chappelle’s Show’.” (I didn’t watch the show first run, but Lawrence has some DVDs that we’ve been watching from time to time.)

And I think this is worth noting for news value:

Sheila Abdus-Salaam, an associate judge on New York State’s highest court and the first African-American woman to serve on that bench, was found dead on Wednesday in the Hudson River, the authorities said.

I don’t want to speculate, but it doesn’t seem like the authorities suspect foul play at the moment.

Memo from the DA’s office.

Wednesday, April 12th, 2017

For a long time now, the policy of the Travis County DA’s office has been to present all cases involving police shootings to a grand jury for review, no matter what the circumstances where.

That was the case, for instance, for Austin police officer Carlos Lopez, who a grand jury no-billed 11 months after he shot and killed a gunman who was randomly shooting inside the downtown Omni hotel. The gunman had already shot and killed taxi driver Conrado Contreras by the time Lopez arrived.
It also happened with Austin police Sgt. Adam Johnson, who a grand jury declined to indict in 2015 for shooting and killing a man in downtown Austin who was standing in the middle of Eighth Street firing a rifle at police headquarters, and had already sprayed several government buildings with gunfire.

Not any more. The new Travis County DA, Margaret Moore, has decided that her office is going to review officer-involved shootings, and only present the ones that they feel require review to a grand jury.

She will only take cases to grand jurors if she thinks the shooting was unlawful or if facts about what happened are in dispute.
Unlike predecessors, who have viewed grand juries as independent reviewers best equipped to determine whether to indict an officer, Moore said she also will issue an opinion, with help from the new Civil Rights Division she has established, and provide a recommendation “as to the legal sufficiency of a case.”

Bad idea, as I see it.

There are a lot of problems with the criminal justice system, including grand juries. Jurors sometimes aren’t much more than rubber stamps for the DA’s office. But at least they are independant. At least grand juries offer some kind of outside review, flawed though it may be. This is going to backfire badly on DA Moore the first time a shooting that didn’t get reviewed blows up.

I’m baffled by the NAACP’s support for this: you would think they’d want the additional scrutiny, but perhaps the DA was persuasive. The support of the police union makes a little more sense:

Moore said those cases often have taken months to present to a grand jury because of workload and a backlog of other cases, leaving officers in limbo and sometimes preventing police officials from closing administrative investigations.

The people who have spoken to our CPA classes and that have been involved in shootings have said that there is some stress involved in waiting on the grand jury verdict. But they downplayed that specific part of it. Yes, the aftermath is highly stressful (and the department has good programs in place to deal with it). But it seemed to me that they felt the grand jury verdict was just the end: by the time that came in, they’d already been cleared by Internal Affairs and the Special Investgaions Division, and had usually moved on to other assignments.

(I can’t recall a case in…well, ever, where APD ruled a shooting okay and a grand jury indicted. Maybe the Kleinert case mentioned in the article, but I’m not clear on what action APD took in that case. In the most recent case that I know of where there was any controversy – the naked 17-year-old – the grand jury no-billed but APD fired the officer anyway.)

You’re going down in flames, you tax-fattened hyena! (#38 in a series)

Tuesday, April 11th, 2017

This broke kind of late in the day yesterday. I’m a little behind because of that, and because I was distracted by the situation I alluded to in a previous post. (They’re still doing well, but still in the hospital being observed. Thanks for asking.) Also, Alabama isn’t part of my usual beat, though I was sort of vaguely aware the governor was embroiled in a controversy.

He resigned yesterday.

Even better:

Before making his resignation speech in the Capitol, Bentley pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor violations of the campaign finance law under a deal with the attorney general’s office. He agreed not to seek public office again. He will serve one year’s probation, perform 100 hours of community service, repay $8,912 he used from his campaign account to pay legal fees for former advisor Rebekah Mason and forfeit the remaining $36,912 in his campaign account to the state treasury.

The NYT also has a summary of events. The whole thing seems to have started with former advisor Mason, who was also having an affair with Governor Bentley. Which, you know, consenting adults, their thing, not my place to pass judgement and all that. But former Governor Bentley apparently decided it was a good idea to use his office and state resources to try to cover up the affair, and to intimidate people who knew about it. Funny thing is, that didn’t work out too well for him: there are supposedly copies of text messages and recordings of phone calls between the two circulating on the Internet. (I haven’t gone looking for those. While I take pleasure in the downfall of a tax-fattened hyena, even I have my limits.)

When will people learn: the cover-up is almost always worse than what’s being covered up?

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, Explosives, and NASCAR.

Tuesday, April 11th, 2017

Remember BATFE’s secret slush fund?

Agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives used a secret, off-the-books bank account to rent a $21,000 suite at a Nascar race, take a trip to Las Vegas and donate money to the school of one of the agent’s children, according to records and interviews.

I could see maybe, possibly, someone making an argument that the NASCAR suite and Vegas trip were for legitimate investigative purposes. I wouldn’t buy that without a lot of supporting documentation, but I can see someone thinking that.

Giving money to “the school of one of the agent’s children”, though? I think someone’s going to prison over this.

(Speaking of going to prison, flaming hyenas watch to come.)

(Also, I think I need a BATFE tag. Should it be a subset of “Guns” or “Law’?)

The things we do for love.

Tuesday, April 4th, 2017

“Between approximately 2015 and 2016, while I was working at the Kings County District Attorney’s office here in Brooklyn, I intentionally forged court orders that allowed me to wiretap cellphones for two different people,” Ms. Lenich said at a brief plea hearing Monday in Federal District Court in Brooklyn. She added that she knew this conduct was illegal and, breaking down into muffled sobs, said that she was sorry for her actions.

Yes, you did read that correctly: she worked for the DA. Specifically, she was a prosecutor. “…Ms. Lenich was a rising star who specialized in using secret surveillance to take down violent street gangs and drug organizations.”

She also apparently had a complicated personal life. Which would be her business under ordinary circumstances, but…

According to the indictment, she also gave false grand jury subpoenas to the phone providers of her targets (who have not been publicly named) to determine whom they had been calling. At her hearing, Ms. Lenich admitted to using a computer to monitor the phones. She covered her tracks, the indictment said, by lying to fellow prosecutors in the unit she helped to run, telling them she was conducting her own confidential investigation and was the only person who could have access to the wiretaps.

Obit watch: March 31, 2017.

Friday, March 31st, 2017

Donald Harvey is burning in Hell.

Mr. Harvey, among the most prolific mass murderers in United States history, confessed to killing 37 people, mostly hospital patients, over two decades in Ohio and Kentucky.

Mr, Harvey was, according to reports, attacked and killed by another prisoner.

Mr. Harvey killed most of his victims by poisoning them with substances like cyanide, rat poison, petroleum distillate or arsenic, which he often mixed into beverages or foods like freshly baked pie.
Others were suffocated in their hospital beds, either with their pillows or by oxygen tanks that he refused to refill.

“I felt what I was doing was right,” he told reporters in 1987. “I was putting people out of their misery. I hope if I’m ever sick and full of tubes or on a respirator, someone will come and end it.”

Bagatelle (#4).

Wednesday, March 29th, 2017

If you told me I could only take one Talking Heads album to the desert island with me…it would be Stop Making Sense.

If, however, you said that it had to be a studio album, Remain In Light would be a good choice.

The thing that sort of surprises me is: he was able to hit 92 on MoPac. Then again, I can’t really tell what time of day it was, and traffic does thin out a little around the Braker Lane exit…

Apropos of nothing in particular, this post from Tam, in particular the last paragraph.

Bagatelle (#3).

Tuesday, March 28th, 2017

As seen in the Statesman:

5 things to know if you think you’re being pulled over by a fake cop

Annals of law (#12 in a series)

Thursday, March 23rd, 2017

Section 29.03 of the Texas Penal Code defines “aggravated robbery”:

Sec. 29.03. AGGRAVATED ROBBERY. (a) A person commits an offense if he commits robbery as defined in Section 29.02, and he:
(1) causes serious bodily injury to another;
(2) uses or exhibits a deadly weapon; or
(3) causes bodily injury to another person or threatens or places another person in fear of imminent bodily injury or death, if the other person is:
(A) 65 years of age or older; or
(B) a disabled person.
(b) An offense under this section is a felony of the first degree.
(c) In this section, "disabled person" means an individual with a mental, physical, or developmental disability who is substantially unable to protect himself from harm.

Seems mostly clear, right? Except: what constitutes “a deadly weapon”?

Is “a pellet gun” a deadly weapon?

Dustin Clark and two other men are suspected in a string of convenience store robberies in Travis County. They were stopped by the Lakeway PD in December of 2015, shortly after allegedly robbing a store in Spicewood, holding “pellet guns” to the clerk’s head, and threatening to kill him. The police found the pellet guns, money, ski masks, other identifying clothing, and a pack of Starburst allegedly stolen by Clark in the car. (The police also found “two deer rifles” in the trunk. I have seen contradictory reports about whether these were airsoft guns or real rifles. However, the “deer rifles” were not used in the robbery, and were not part of the criminal case as best as I can tell.)

Mr. Clark went on trial this week. There seems to have been little doubt about his guilt: his own attorney conceded that it was his client on the surveillance video from the store. The main legal issue was is it plain old robbery, or aggravated robbery?

The pellet guns were found unloaded and not carrying a C02 cartridge that would have made them operable.

Mr. Clark was offered a plea deal of 40 years before trial. The maximum for plain old robbery is 20 years, and 99 years for aggravated robbery. I don’t know enough about Mr. Clark’s background to be able to estimate what the likely sentences would have been.

Mr. Clark turned down the 40-year deal and chose to go to trial. His attorney moved to include robbery as a lesser charge for the jury to to consider, but the Travis County DA successfully fought that motion. So the only charge the jury was allowed to consider against Mr. Clark was aggravated robbery.

And they acquitted him.

But the jury could consider only one charge — aggravated robbery — and after more than six hours of discussion they finally united and ruled that the pellet guns the men used to scare two employees are not deadly weapons. Therefore, several of them told the American-Statesman, they had to acquit Clark. About half of the 12-person jury granted an interview request saying they wish they had the option to convict Clark of the lesser charge.
They said there was no proof the guns contained pellets or the CO2 cartridges that power them at the time of the robbery.

I personally wonder how the clerk was supposed to know that. I’d also really like to see photos of the pellet guns. And I wonder what else this means, legally? Not that I would, but if take the firing pin and cartridges out of a Smith and go hold up a Stop’N’Rob, is it just robbery? The gun can’t fire, right? So it’s not a deadly weapon, at least if I understand the logic here correctly.

[Travis County Assistant DA Amy] Meredith added she still believes aggravated robbery “was the appropriate charge.” State district Judge David Crain denied the defense’s motion to include the robbery charge after taking a break in chambers to research the law. Prosecutors had made Crain aware of a ruling from a case 11 years ago in which pellet guns had been found to be deadly.

I don’t feel too bad for ADA Meredith. Even though she didn’t get a conviction in this case, she did make an interesting legal point. I don’t think this rises to the level of precedent because Judge Crain’s ruling hasn’t been reviewed by a higher court, but perhaps this is something the Texas legislature could offer some additional guidance on. Also, Mr. Clark is still facing charges in six other robberies, so it isn’t like the TCDA whiffed on their only chance to convict him.

I thought about blogging this when the first story appeared Tuesday, but didn’t get to it (this is a busy week). But RoadRich emailed the print version of the story yesterday, which led to a lively discussion between him, myself, Mike the Musicologist, and Lawrence.

MtM observed that he recalls one of the northern states changing the law some years back so that if you brandish a fake weapon with the intent of making your victims think it is real, you get treated like it was real. Spray paint the end of that airsoft gun black and use it to hold up a liquor store? Big boy rules apply.

I think both MtM and I are on the same side of the divide when it comes to the increased tendency to criminalize everything and sweep up more people in the web. But I also think we’re both in agreement that this is the kind of “play stupid games, win stupid prizes” law that we could get behind.

(On a related side note, I’m halfway tempted to start a podcast with the four of us sitting around eating dinner and talking about legal issues. I even have a name for it: “I’m Not A Lawyer, But…”. I figure it should be easy to get sponsorship from SquareSpace, at least. If it proves popular enough, I might even offer to fly Ken and/or Patrick in as special guests for barbecue. That is, if their heads haven’t already exploded. Episode 1 is going to called “Rule of Parties be damned”.)

You’re going down in flames, you tax-fattened hyena! (#37 in a series)

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017

The district attorney of Philadelphia, Seth Williams, was indicted yesterday.

A 50-page, 23-count indictment accused Mr. Williams of accepting lavish gifts — including trips to a Dominican resort, Burberry accessories, checks for thousands of dollars and a custom sofa worth $3,212 — from businessmen for whom he was willing to do favors. The indictment also accused Mr. Williams of diverting money from a relative’s pension and Social Security for his personal use.

Philly.com reports that relative was his mother.

He also gave Williams his old 1997 Jaguar XK8 convertible worth $4,160, the indictment says.

No wonder Williams was “cash-strapped”. What do you think the repair bills are on a 20-year-old Jaguar?

He has complained of his inability to pay alimony stemming from a 2011 divorce and private-school tuition for his daughters, despite his salary of $175,572 a year.
In January, the Philadelphia Board of Ethics assessed the largest fine in its 10-year history for Williams’ failure to report for years more than $175,000 in gifts he had accepted including a new roof, luxury vacations, Eagles sidelines passes, and use of a defense attorney’s home in Florida.

I don’t see any evidence of hookers or blow yet. However, Philly.com does mention that hr was known to hang out in cigar bars; that seems to have replaced call girls and Bolivian marching powder in the affections of many corrupt politicians these days. I really ought to start keeping a tally.

True crime notes.

Monday, March 20th, 2017

I don’t want to seem like I’m making light of this story: it’s awful, and I hope the victims are able to achieve some level of peace.

But when you see a headline like

Vegas jury convicts War Machine of 29 counts

on the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network’s website, it gets your attention.

“War Machine”, in this case, is Jonathan Paul Koppenhaver.

Koppenhaver went by his birth name during the two-week trial but had legally changed it to War Machine during his 19-fight MMA career.

The jury deadlocked on attempted murder charges, but found him guilty of the other crimes. It isn’t clear to me if those include the eight counts of “domestic battery” that his lawyer conceded to.

He could face up to life in prison.

And I hope he does every damn day of it.

[The female victim – DB] testified that Koppenhaver attacked her after [the male victim – DB] left. The jury saw photos of [the female victim] with a broken nose, missing teeth, fractured eye socket and leg injuries. She also suffered a lacerated liver.

In other words, he beat the shit out of them both. But he apparently reserved special attention for her.

[The female victim] said she fled her home and ran bleeding to neighbors when Koppenhaver went to the kitchen to fetch a knife.

He has been serving a 1½- to four-year sentence for violating his probation on a 2009 conviction for attempted battery involving a 21-year-old woman.

===

On what I hope is at least a slightly less depressing note, here’s something I stumbled across in my reading over the weekend, but haven’t had time to dig into in depth: Taylorology. This apparently started out as a zine in the old pre-Internet/”Factsheet Five” days, but eventually migrated online.

What’s it all about? Quoting the introduction:

TAYLOROLOGY is a newsletter focusing on the life and death of William Desmond Taylor, a top Paramount film director in early Hollywood who was shot to death on February 1, 1922. His unsolved murder was one of Hollywood’s major scandals. This newsletter will deal with: (a) The facts of Taylor’s life; (b) The facts and rumors of Taylor’s murder; (c) The impact of the Taylor murder on Hollywood and the nation; (d) Taylor’s associates and the Hollywood silent film industry in which Taylor worked. Primary emphasis will be given on reprinting, referencing and analyzing source material, and sifting it for accuracy.

The Taylor murder is one of those great unsolved Hollywood mysteries that everyone seems to have a theory about; some of those theories may even have an element of truth to them. Bruce Long, who runs Taylorology, has collected a great deal of archival material related to the Taylor case. And he’s a man after my own heart: he mentions in the biographical information on his site that he first became interested in the case when he was nine.

When I have some spare time (mumble years from now, the way things are going) I’d like to dig deeper into this site. One thing I can give Mr. Long credit for: he’s steered me away from purchasing one of the more famous books on the case. (Actually, I stumbled across Taylorology by reading another book on the case that references the website. Apologies for being elliptical, but I may do a brief review of the second book in the near future.)