Criminal Justice

There’s nothing grand about grand juries

(A version of this piece was posted in Medium.)

If the decisions to not indict officers Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner taught us anything, it’s that Americans have grave misconceptions about the role and work of grand juries.

In the wake of the Ferguson and Staten Island non-indictment decisions, some outlets rushed to note that the grand juries “cleared” Wilson and Pantaleo of wrongdoing, while social media users proclaimed that the “jury had spoken.” Rep. Peter King, for his part, urged New Yorkers to “respect the decision.”

All of this is misinformation because grand juries have nothing to do with justice.

A cornerstone of any system of justice is due process. But grand juries observe none of the due-process safeguards we associate with Law & Order and that are practiced in criminal courtrooms across the country. Not one.

Jury trials are public; grand juries are secret. Jury trials are overseen by a judge; grand juries have no judge. Jury trials are adversarial, with prosecutor and defense attorney going head to head; grand juries are run entirely by the prosecutor. A jury trial assesses guilt at a high standard of proof; a grand jury only assesses whether charges are warranted at a very low standard of proof.

In chart form, the differences between a grand jury and a jury trial are even starker:


The chart shows a grand jury’s function is a very simple one: to get you from the first row to the second row. The second row is what we typically associate with justice.

Prosecutors have absolutely nothing to gain with an indictment—it is such a routine process, that thousands are issued by grand juries on a daily basis, in a matter of hours, and on the strength of very little evidence.

This routineness may explain why the Supreme Court has given grand juries a very short shrift. For one, the court has never recognized a “right” to a grand jury. The Bill of Rights may mention it by name, but the grand jury is not regarded the same way the right to remain silent or the right to an attorney in a criminal case are regarded. These rights are so important, the Supreme Court has systematically applied them to the states to protect the rights of the accused.

But not the grand jury; the Supreme Court has specifically declined to impose it on local governments. That means a state prosecutor can get away with providing no grand-jury review of criminal charges against you, and you’d be out of luck. You can’t sue the state because it didn’t convene a grand jury to review the evidence against you. To date, only about half the states still use grand juries.

Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, known for his originalist view of the Constitution, also thinks little of grand juries. Short of dismissing them outright, he once wrote about them at length in United States v. Williams, a 1992 case involving a man charged with loan fraud.

The short of Scalia’s view: Grand juries have no connection at all to the apparatus of justice. Think first row in the chart above. Scalia called this “operational separateness.”

In denying the man’s arguments, Scalia wrote that “it should come as no surprise that we have been reluctant to invoke the judicial supervisory power as a basis for prescribing modes of grand jury procedure.”

Absent a judge’s oversight, it’s no surprise prosecutors across the country call the shots during grand jury proceedings. That’s precisely what happened in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases. Not only did the prosecutors act as parties, advocates, and judges during their presentations—which is normal—but they took an unusually long time to make their case, overwhelmed grand jurors with mountains of evidence, and even asked the accused, Wilson and Pantaleo, to testify. All of this is abnormal.

And because of these abnormalities, the non-indictments in both cases speak louder about systemic problems with grand juries and prosecutors than with the justice system. In this context, the chants of “No justice, no peace” mean something else: the wheels of justice never even had a real chance to turn.

En Español

El regreso de Dante

Bill de Blasio jamás hubiese llegado a la alcaldía de Nueva York de no ser por el empuje que le dio su hijo Dante en la primaria Demócrata. Fue la estrella de la campaña.

Y al momento de saberse que un jurado de Staten Island no formularía cargos por la muerte de Eric Garner —el afroamericano que sufrió un paro respiratorio tras ser estrangulado por un policía—, Dante volvió a ser la estrella de su padre.

Pero esta vez no fue Dante quien le habló a los votantes de su padre. Su padre habló de él.

Y es que fue tal el desconsuelo y la frustración que causó el anuncio de que el oficial Daniel Pantaleo no enfrentaría a la justicia, que lo único que pudo hacer de Blasio fue dirigirse al pueblo en un tono familiar. No era tiempo para hablar de políticas, de reformas, de procesos legales, de lo que ha hecho y no ha hecho su jefe de policía, William Bratton.

Era tiempo de sincerarse. Y de hablarle a los neoyorquinos sin libretos y con la mano en el corazón. No como político —aunque es posible que sus dichos se lean como cálculo político—, sino como padre de un joven alto, imponente y de tez oscura. Un joven casi de la misma edad y tamaño que Michael Brown.

“Dante es un buen joven, cumple con la ley”, dijo de Blasio. “Jamás se le ocurriría hacer nada malo. Pero aun así . . . hemos tenido que entrenarlo —de la misma forma que lo han hecho otras familias por décadas— en cómo cuidarse si llegara a tener un encuentro con la policía, la que existe para protegerlo.

“Esa es la dolorosa contradicción con la que se enfrentan nuestros jóvenes: que la policía está aquí para protegernos . . . pero que a la misma vez hay una historia que tenemos que vencer. Porque muchos de nuestros jóvenes tienen miedo. Y muchas de nuestras familias tienen miedo.

“Así que con los años me he preocupado. Chirlane se ha preocupado. ¿Está Dante a salvo cada noche? Hay tantas familias en esta ciudad que se preguntan todas las noches, ¿está mi hijo a salvo? Y no sólo a salvo de las dolorosas realidades —como el crimen y la violencia en nuestros vecindarios—, sino de aquellas personas en las que tienen fe que las protejan. Esa es la realidad”.

Y con eso, de Blasio dijo lo justo y necesario. Podría haberse referido a los lazos del fiscal de Staten Island, Daniel Donovan, con la policía local. Podría haber mencionado las irregularidades del proceso legal. O de la presión política que ejercen los sindicatos policiales en esta clase de casos. O de sus planes de implementar un sistema de cámaras corporales para el NYPD. O de lo mucho que le falta para eliminar la discriminación racial.

Pero nada de eso habría consolado a la familia de Eric Garner, a la ciudad o al país. Por eso sólo se limitó a expresar sus condolencias. A valorar la vida de los afroamericanos. Y a recordarle a los neoyorquinos del hijo en el que muchos se vieron reflejados cuando votaron por él.

Immigration, Media

Jimmy is off on #ImmigrationAction

Jimmy Fallon and NBC’s Nightly News host Brian Williams are the unlikeliest of partners, and yet they continue to collaborate and delight on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

One of the duo’s most viewed clips on YouTube is a Williams rendition of “Rapper’s Delight,” a work of genius featuring hundreds of Williams fragments from various Nightly News broadcasts and other segments, all to the beat of an American classic. It was television at its finest.

But Fallon and Williams were off Tuesday in their latest offering of another popular feature, “Slow Jam the News,” a musical bit where the pair, backed by house band The Roots, reads the news of the moment to the beat of an introspective, R&B groove.

This time, the topic was President Obama’s executive action on immigration—indeed an important subject and one deserving of a further push into the mainstream. What could go wrong?

Alas, everything. Neither Fallon nor Williams appear to have done their homework on the matter, and instead let the segment air as is—filled with misinformation, legal errors, and even damning stereotypes more befitting a Rush Limbaugh rant than something a beloved funnyman and a respected anchorman might come up with. It was a hot mess.

Here’s the clip:

Williams’s opening flow was flat-out wrong from beginning to end:

“President Obama signed an executive order that granted temporary legal status to five million undocumented workers and provided a path to citizenship for those that meet certain criteria, thus giving new immigrants a new way to enter our country.”

For one, there’s the fiction that with the stroke of a pen Obama “granted” deferred action to undocumented immigrants, as if nothing were required on their end to accede to the program’s benefits—no application process, no background check, no payment of back taxes, no fee. It assumes a work permit will magically show up on the doorsteps of five million people.

There’s also the falsity that the president’s action only benefits workers, when the universe of beneficiaries is much larger—DREAMers, the parents of American citizens and permanent residents, and others such as victims of crime and those with pending cases.

The “legal status” bit is also wrong, because legal status would mean being on equal footing with green-card holders, which Obama’s executive plan certainly does not promise. Social Security benefits may accrue and become available after 10 years of paying into the system—hopefully comprehensive immigration reform will be a reality before then—but no significant federal benefits other than a work permit will flow to beneficiaries. No federal financial aid. No welfare. No food stamps. No healthcare or housing subsidies.

Perhaps the most egregious untruth of all is that Obama’s immigration plan offers “a path to citizenship.” That would be amnesty, something the president can’t and won’t do without Congress. Feeding the notion that the plan promises naturalization only lends credence to the cries of “lawlessness” and unconstitutionality that have plagued the new policy since even before it was formally announced.

Finally, there’s the assertion that the new executive plan gives immigrants “a new way to enter our country.” This goes to the heart of the same conservative fears—long proven unfounded—that the original Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy somehow caused the surge of unaccompanied children at the border. That was not the case, and harping on this misleading falsehood only compounds anti-immigrant sentiment.

As if all of the above weren’t already bad, The Roots’ Tariq Trotter, the soulful partner of Fallon and Williams, gets away with a stereotypical line that doesn’t even merit serious analysis: “They’re lining up to get inside the U.S.A. . . . just like it was at Kmart on Black Friday.”

As irony would have it, we learn at the end of the slow jam that the comedy bit coincided with Williams’ 10th anniversary as host of Nightly News. What a way to celebrate.

Civil Rights, Criminal Justice

Ferguson’s glimmer of justice: Federal law

The failure by a St. Louis grand jury to indict officer Darren Wilson for the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., means the quest for justice in state court is likely over.

Now the attention turns to the federal system, where Brown’s family—and Ferguson as a whole—still has a chance to achieve some measure of justice. But the odds are still long.

First is the possibility of a federal indictment against Wilson. Unlike the state case, a federal case won’t center on homicide charges, but on whether Wilson violated Brown’s civil rights. But the criminal civil rights statute isn’t just an average criminal law.

Conceived during the Reconstruction Era alongside other antidiscrimination laws, the statute was passed to protect the rights of blacks enshrined in the Fourteenth Amendment, which promised equality regardless of race. When enacted in the mid-1800s, the intent of Congress was to punish egregious, state-sponsored abuses of power against blacks—lynchings, mob killings, sham trials, unlawful arrests. It’s the same law under which the police officers involved in the Rodney King case were federally indicted.

In determining whether Wilson’s conduct rises to this level of abuse, a key inquiry for the Department of Justice will be whether the officer willfully deprived Brown of his civil rights. That in itself is a really hard case to make because proving “willfulness” requires federal authorities to essentially get inside Wilson’s mind. Did he shoot Brown and thus deprived him of his constitutional rights because he was black?

That’s a huge piece of evidence, and one that—short of a full confession—is extremely difficult to uncover. This explains why FBI has reportedly interviewed hundreds of witnesses, and Attorney General Eric Holder’s statement that “federal civil rights law imposes a high legal bar.” This investigation will remain ongoing for some time.

A second possibility is a private civil rights suit by Brown’s family against the City of Ferguson and Wilson. This kind of litigation—brought under Section 1983 of Title 42 of the United States Code—is very common in federal courts when police brutality or use of force are involved. Landmark civil-rights lawsuits against New York City—including stop-and-frisk, the Central Park Five case, and the wave of arrests following the 2004 Republican National Convention—were brought under Section 1983.

But these cases, too, are rife with complications. Not only is litigation long and protracted, but case law and courts have erected legal barriers—such as qualified immunity and other judge-made justifications—making it really hard for plaintiffs to hold municipalities and officers accountable. Just this year, the Supreme Court handed down two rulings on the same day shielding government officials from liability in the face of seemingly unconstitutional conduct against citizens.

Those potential setbacks aside, the biggest benefit of a civil lawsuit is allowing the Brown family to shape and present its case to a judge and a jury—in a public forum and in whatever manner they please. None of this was available in the criminal case handled by St. Louis authorities. At the very least, the likelihood of unfavorable press for Ferguson for a case that’s already attracted enough media scrutiny might be an incentive for the city to settle with the Brown family. Money will not atone for the death of Michael Brown, but it could signify a loss for a city that is yet to be held accountable.

Lastly, DOJ’s Civil Rights Division is still conducting a “pattern or practice” investigation into the Ferguson Police Department. This process, which could last more than two years, does not look at the Brown case in isolation, but examines in depth Ferguson’s policing practices—including standards for stops, searches, and arrests, racial profiling, handling of citizen complaints, and issues of diversity within the force. Broadly speaking, the inquiry is concerned with the city’s compliance with the Constitution and federal law.

More than prior administrations, Holder’s DOJ has been extremely active and successful in obtaining important consent decrees from law-breaking municipalities. These decrees are legally binding agreements where cities and localities agree to reduce dramatically incidents involving force, conduct further training, and improve community relations. DOJ closely monitors the progress of the offending police departments, and can sue in federal court in the event of noncompliance.

The above legal scenarios within the federal system will take time to yield results, but they offer a glimmer of justice in the wake of a grand-jury outcome that left many with a sense that justice was not served.

En Español

#Ferguson: Ni justicia ni paz

(Una versión de esta artículo apareció en la edición impresa y digital de La Opinión.)

De todas las funciones de un fiscal, la menos trascendental es acusar a alguien de un delito.

Sol Wachtler, el otrora juez y ex-presidente del máximo tribunal de Nueva York, dijo en una ocasión que un fiscal podía acusar y procesar a un “sándwich de jamón” si así lo quisiera. Es así de simple el proceso.

Nada de esto ocurrió en Ferguson, Missouri.

Robert McCulloch, el fiscal a cargo de procesar a Darren Wilson, el policía que baleó a Michael Brown el verano pasado, hizo lo imposible para que no fuese acusado formalmente por la muerte del joven afroamericano. El lunes, el jurado indagatorio se negó a emitir cargos en contra de Wilson.

Desde un principio, se temió que McCulloch arreglaría el caso a su medida. Cuando el fiscal tenía doce años, su padre, policía de profesión, murió en el cumplimiento del deber producto de un altercado armado con un afroamericano. Desde ese entonces, McCulloch se entregó a la protección del orden público. Y al parecer, de los que protegen el orden público.

McCulloch trató a Wilson como a ninguno de los miles de sospechosos que ha investigado desde que juró como fiscal en 1991.

En un caso cualquiera, la obtención de cargos es pan comido. Sólo basta con presentar uno o dos testigos. Quizás alguna prueba física. O una confesión firmada. Lo suficiente para convencer al jurado que existe “causa probable” de un ilícito. Como máximo, el trámite dura un día.

Pero a diferencia de los jurados que se ven por televisión, el jurado indagatorio está a la merced del fiscal, quien actúa como juez y parte del proceso. No lo supervisa un magistrado. No hay abogado defensor que se le oponga. Las audiencias son secretas. El fiscal puede hasta omitir información que favorezca al acusado. El acusador tiene todas las de ganar.

Pero en el caso de Wilson, el acusador fue dócil con el acusado. Tan dócil, que hasta le permitió que diera su versión de los hechos, en la cual se refirió al joven Brown como a “un demonio”. La presentación de pruebas, incluyendo el testimonio de Wilson, duró 25 días. Declararon 60 testigos. Se excusaron errores, como la filtración de información secreta a la prensa.

En fin, el proceso estaba viciado; fue un montaje con pinta de legalidad. Cuando se informó que Wilson no enfrentaría cargos por la muerte de Brown, fue un desenlace que ya muchos divisaban a leguas.

Esa misma noche, Ferguson ardió. Por más de tres meses, sus habitantes clamaron “No justice no peace” . . . “sin justicia no hay paz”. Y al enterarse de cómo un fiscal no fue capaz de hacer la tarea más simple —formular cargos por la muerte de uno de los suyos—, la ausencia de justicia dio paso a la ausencia de paz.

Mientras siga la impunidad policial, Ferguson seguirá ardiendo.

Civil Rights, Criminal Justice, New York

SNL on pot: Off the mark

Thanks to Saturday Night Live, now everyone is up on New York City’s new marijuana policy. If you missed it, here’s the clip.

Now that was funny.

And legally, it was correct: From now on, merely possessing less than 25 grams of weed in public won’t get you arrested. But it will get you a summons, and you’ll have to take a trip to court and pay a fine.

The last part of the video is also correct: Smoking it in public will land you in lockup.

Treating smoking differently probably makes sense from a public-policy perspective; New York City likely has an interest in keeping the air unobstructed and family-friendly for tourists and visitors.

But there’s a fundamental flaw with the video—a detail that, it turns out, is also a key problem with the new pot policy as a whole: Arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana is chiefly an issue affecting blacks and Latinos, not well-off New Yorkers residing in gentrified areas of Brooklyn.

In the SNL clip, nearly all of the residents awakening to the “new day” of marijuana policing are affluent, light-skinned men and women residing in beautiful, late-19th-century brownstones. The neighborhood looks a lot like Park Slope or Prospect Heights.

That’s a fiction because that’s not the kind of crowd marijuana enforcement has hit hardest. A report issued by the Drug Policy Alliance last month showed that 86 percent of arrestees for pot between January and August—the Bill de Blasio era—are black and Latino. The rate of arrests for whites in the same period was only 10 percent.

The kicker, though, is that the vast majority of arrestees weren’t flaunting the pot in public; they either had it tucked in their pockets or stashed in their cars or belongings. All of this was legal, even before the new mayor took office.

But because of stop-and-frisk and “clean halls,” which subjected hundreds of thousands of young people of color in poorer neighborhoods to unjustified detentions and patdowns, the pot—like magic—appeared in plain view. And once visible to police, it suddenly became a criminal offense.

This, of course, carried a bevy of consequences: a criminal record, difficulty obtaining employment, loss of public benefits and housing, and no more financial aid to pay for school. None of this had an impact on more affluent white kids, even the unlucky few who did get caught.

Which is why the shift to a summons for possessing marijuana is not necessarily better for minority youth. It’s not better because even paying a fine or missing a day’s work can have untold effects. And worse, who’s to say that the NYPD won’t continue targeting young men of color.

A class-action lawsuit pending in federal court in New York contends exactly that: that police issued in excess of 700,000 summonses without any kind of probable cause, just for the sake of meeting quotas. If a judge rules in the class’s favor, there’ll be more reason to doubt the good intentions behind issuing summons for mere pot possession. As it stands, the summons system is a mess.

With so many lingering questions about the new policy, perhaps it’s time New York underwent true marijuana reform, including fairer policing, a more streamlined summons system, and—why not—decriminalization once and for all.

Until then, New Yorkers of color will have little reason to laugh at a dreadlocked Woody Harrelson carrying a bong in public.

En Español

Marihuana: Falta mucho por hacer

(Una versión de esta columna fue publicada en la edición impresa y digital de El Diario.) 

Muchos aplaudieron cuando Bill de Blasio y William Bratton anunciaron que, a partir del lunes, ya no se detendría más a personas que posean cantidades menores de marihuana.

El cambio es positivo, pero no suficiente.

Bajo el antiguo sistema, un arresto podía conllevar a toda clase de pérdidas: de trabajo, de vivienda pública, de ayuda financiera, de otros beneficios sociales. Para indocumentados, un arresto podía significar hasta la expulsión del país.

Pero la nueva propuesta no es necesariamente mejor.

Cuando un joven es citado a corte por algún improperio —por orinar en la vía pública, por ejemplo—, una leve equivocación puede costarle caro. Más caro que la posible multa.

No presentarse podría resultar en una orden de arresto. Una orden de arresto podría resultar en un fin de semana en la cárcel si la policía se llega a enterar. Y un fin de semana en la cárcel significa pasar un lunes frente a un juez.

Pero allí no acaban las consecuencias.

Un lunes o cualquier otro día frente a un juez significa un día de trabajo perdido. Eso significa menos dinero para pagar la multa. Algunos hasta pierden el trabajo. Todo esto contribuye al ciclo de pobreza al que están sujetos millares de latinos y afroamericanos, por décadas los más afectados por políticas en contra de la marihuana.

Pero otras interrogantes surgen con el nuevo plan. ¿Quedará la multa registrada en el historial de la persona? ¿Qué consecuencias habrá en otras áreas, como en la obtención de empleo o de beneficios municipales? ¿Afectará a jóvenes que buscan ayuda financiera para costear su estudios?

Tampoco se ha informado si habrá una modernización al sistema de citaciones. En la ciudad de Nueva York, es sencillísimo pagar una multa por estar mal estacionacionado: se puede hacer por correo o vía Internet.

No así en el caso de faltas menores. Hoy por hoy, cientos de personas se ven obligadas a acudir a diario a Summons Court, el juzgado a cargo de estos cuasidelitos. El proceso es tedioso, toma horas, y parece más burocracia que un lugar apegado al derecho y el debido proceso. Agregar cientos de nuevos imputados a las largas filas no mejorará las cosas.

Pero esto último se presta para otra clase de abusos. De no haber un control adecuado que resguarde el derecho de las personas, ¿quién se preocupa de que el NYPD esté haciendo su trabajo correctamente? ¿Hay forma de que una persona se oponga a la legalidad del ticket? ¿Y qué si el oficial discriminó a la persona en base a su raza?

No es secreto que la ciudad de Nueva York penaliza más a latinos y afroamericanos por el consumo de marihuana. La nueva política de De Blasio sobre el tema no asegura que nada de esto cambie.

Quizás la solución es despenalizar la marihuana por completo.