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October 2014 Archives

Inmate Whose Confession Led Ill. to End Death Penalty Is Released

An Illinois inmate has been released after over a decade in prison for a double-homicide conviction that was key to ending the state's death penalty.

Alstory Simon was the second person to be convicted for a 1982 double murder, but there were serious questions about whether Simon's confession was coerced, the Sun-Times Media Wire reports. Now, more than three decades after the deaths, Illinois prosecutors have asked that charges against Simon be dropped.

What happened in Simon's case, and why is he now being released?

Attack on Gay Couple Spurs New Philly Hate Crime Law

Philadelphia is adding increased penalties for hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity after a gay couple was attacked in September.

According to The Associated Press, prosecutors claim they couldn't charge the three assailants with a hate crime because "sexual orientation isn't covered in the state's hate crime law." So Philly's city council moved quickly and passed a new bill authorizing added penalties for hate crimes left out of Pennsylvania's law.

What does this new hate crime law entail?

Don't Be Haunted by a Halloween DUI: 4 Sobering Tips

You may be too old to worry about overdoing it on Halloween candy, but Halloween may have an ever scarier trick in store for adults: an arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

With Halloween falling on a Friday this year, the large number of Halloween parties and other festivities offer plenty of opportunities for celebrants to get themselves into downright spooky legal predicaments. And with potential criminal penalties for DUI arrests including jail time, costly fines, and a driver's license suspension, avoiding a DUI is certainly in your best interest.

How can you do yourself (and everyone else) a favor and avoid a Halloween DUI? Here are a few suggestions:

Do You Have to Let Cops Search Your Cell Phone?

When a police officer asks to search your cell phone, it may be difficult to know if you can legally refuse.

The situations may vary, but in general, arrestees do not have to let the police search their cell phones, even if cops demand it. As one retired California judge told San Francisco's KPIX-TV, officers can only look at a suspect's cell phone with consent, in an emergency, or with a search warrant.

Before you let a cop search your cell phone, consider this:

CHP Officers Made 'Game' of Sharing Suspects' Nude Pics: Warrant

The California Highway Patrol is being investigated for an alleged "game" in which officers shared nude photos of women stolen from suspects' cell phones.

In a search warrant affidavit, CHP Officers Sean Harrington and Robert Hazelwood are accused of snagging near-naked selfies from arrestees' phones and then trading them like baseball cards. The Contra Costa Times reports that Harrington confessed to stealing explicit photos from a DUI suspect's phone as part of a sophomoric "game" between other officers.

If true, what charges could these allegedly pervy CHP officers face?

NYPD Hatchet Attack: Innocent Bystander Shot; What Happens Next?

After the hatchet attack on NYPD officers in Queens last week, the alleged attacker was shot and killed. But what about the innocent bystander who was accidentally shot by police?

A 29-year-old woman was struck in the back by officers' bullets as she was walking about half a block away, The New York Times reports. The woman remained in the hospital over the weekend.

The woman's ordeal raises questions about what happens when innocent bystanders are accidentally shot by a police officer's stray bullets.

Is It Legal to Fight Back If Someone Hits You First?

No one (or at least anyone in their right mind) goes around looking for a fight.

But sometimes, whether you’re looking for it a not, a physical confrontation may find you. If you find yourself the victim of an assault, what can you do to defend yourself without also potentially being charged with a crime?

Is it legal to fight back if someone punches you first?

5 Rare, Long-Shot DUI Defenses, Including the 'Low Carb' Defense

Drunken driving suspects don't always argue "I wasn't drunk" or "I wasn't driving." Sometimes, they get a little more creative with their DUI defense theory.

Of course, the more creative the theory, the less likely it is to work. But hey, everybody needs a Hail Mary once in a while. And if a DUI is likely to impact your career (as it may for police officers and truck drivers, for example) one of these long-shot defenses might be worth trying.

Of course, defense strategy is something that you should discuss with your attorney, and if you're desperate enough to try one of these, you need an attorney, so consider this helpful information -- not legal advice. Here they are, from plausible to utterly nuts:

Ind. Serial Killing Suspect Remains Silent, Gets Contempt Warning

An Indiana man arrested last week and charged with the murder of a 19-year-old woman made his first appearance in court today after leading police to the bodies of six more women he is believed to have killed.

Despite his earlier cooperation with police, suspect Darren Vann, 43, was silent during his first court appearance, reports the Chicago Tribune.

Vann's refusal to answer questions posed by the judge caused the judge to postpone the hearing for a week; she also warned Vann that he may be held in contempt if he continued to stonewall.

Failure to Appear in Court: What Can Happen?

If you’ve been charged with a crime, it should go without saying that showing up for your court appearances is important.

Even if the crime you are accused of committing is something as minor as a traffic offense, if you agree to appear in court and fail to show up, you may find yourself facing additional penalties. In cases where the charges are more serious, the consequences for failing to appear will likely be even more severe.

What can happen when a criminal defendant fails to appears in court? Here are a few of the potential consequences:

Arrested While in College? What Happens Next?

Ah, autumn. That time of year when leaves change, pumpkin-flavored foods proliferate, and college students become unruly. As you may have heard (and seen), Keene State College in New Hampshire was the site of injuries and arrests this weekend, when students attending various off-campus parties celebrating the annual pumpkin festival started throwing things, leading to tear gas and arrests.

College sometimes feels like a whole different universe than the rest of the world, but are the laws any different? What happens when you get arrested in college?

Here's what inquiring students need to know:

Beware Pot-Laced Candy This Halloween, Denver Police Warn

Police in Denver are warning parents about the potential for trick-or-treaters to get tricked into consuming pot-laced candy this Halloween.

With the passage of Colorado's marijuana legalization law, the state's marijuana dispensaries have begun selling pot-infused candy that often times looks nearly identical to regular candy, reports ABC News. Edibles such as marijuana-infused candies account for as much as 30 percent of sales at some of Colorado's legal dispensaries.

Now police are trying to get the word out to parents about the potential for children to be exposed to marijuana by inadvertently eating these marijuana-laced treats.

Mom Drives Son to Commit Shooting; Charged With Attempted Murder

A Florida mom has been charged as a principal to attempted murder after allegedly driving her gang member son to go shoot someone.

Sondra Conegia, 54, the mother of attempted murder suspect Lewis Hawkins, 32, is alleged to have driven her son to the intended victim's girlfriend's apartment where Hawkins fired "four shots at him from a 9 mm gun," reports the Daytona Beach News-Journal. Hawkins then reportedly got back in Conegia's car and they left the scene.

No one was killed or injured in the shooting, and Hawkins has not yet been caught. So why is his mom still on the hook for attempted murder?

Can You Refuse a Field Sobriety Test?

Field sobriety tests (FSTs) are a nightmare scenario for many drivers, but you may be able to legally refuse to perform one.

Refusing Breathalyzers and blood tests will likely result in the automatic suspension of your license, but the same may not be true for FSTs. There may be other practical and legal consequences for refusing to try to balance along the side of the road, but it may a driver's best legal option.

So can drivers legally refuse a field sobriety test?

5 Teens Charged in 'Ice Bucket' Urine Prank on Autistic Boy

Five Ohio teenagers accused of playing an Ice Bucket Challenge prank on an autistic classmate are facing criminal charges.

Prosecutors in Cuyahoga County, Ohio charged the teens -- all juveniles, ranging in ages from 14 to 16 -- with disorderly conduct. In addition, three of the teens are charged with misdemeanor assault, reports the The Plain Dealer. The charges stem from an incident earlier this year in which the teens dumped a bucket of filled with urine, tobacco, and spit on an autistic classmate who thought he was taking part in an ALS Ice Bucket Challenge video.

What are the details of this case, and how are juvenile criminal cases different from crimes involving adults?

DOJ: Guilty Pleas Won't Require Waiver for Bad Counsel Claims

The Department of Justice will no longer ask defendants who accept a plea deal to waive their rights to appeal their case based on bad advice given by their defense attorneys.

This is a bit of a departure from plea bargain tactics employed by federal prosecutors, which sometimes involve requiring an appeal waiver for any sort of plea deal. According to The Associated Press, this might not be that big a change, as only 35 of the 94 U.S. Attorneys' offices request that defendants pleading guilty give up their right to sue over ineffective counsel.

What does this change in DOJ policy mean for criminal defendants in federal court?

If You Witness a Crime, Do You Have to Testify?

Witnesses to crimes are often nervous about being called upon to testify about what they have seen and heard, but in many instances, there's no other way to get that important information.

Criminal defendants have the right to confront their accusers, and this right includes the ability to call witnesses into court to testify and be cross-examined. Even if a witness does not have to appear in court, he or she may be ordered to give a recorded deposition under oath.

So when you witness a crime, do you always have to testify?

Man Recording Cops Gets $37K Settlement After 'Taser Whipping'

A man who captured video of a Honolulu police officer attempting to knock an iPhone out of his hand has settled his lawsuit with the city for $37,500.

On New Year's Day 2013, Randy Salazar Jr. was recording Honolulu police arresting a man outside an apartment complex. Video taken by Salazar's iPhone shows an officer taking a swipe at his camera as he walks past, reports Honolulu Civil Beat. According to Salazar's lawsuit, the officer shown in the video hit Salazar with a Taser, breaking a bone in his hand.

The case is just the latest legal action validating the public's general right to record police activity.

Should You Call the Cops When Someone Is Mentally Ill?

When a mentally ill person is not receiving the proper care or medication, it may be necessary to call the cops to intervene.

Individuals suffering from schizophrenia or bipolar disorders are not easily calmed down or treated by average civilians, even though they may have their best interests in mind. In many cases, calling the police may be the best option.

So how should you deal with calling the cops when someone is mentally ill?

'Lewd' or Just Urinating? NYC Bus Terminal Arrests Challenged

New York City's Port Authority Bus Terminal has its own police officers, and apparently they have arrested more than 60 people this year for alleged public lewdness in the bus station's restroom.

A sign in the men's restroom notes that "Restrooms are patrolled by plain clothes officers," but some of those arrested are questioning those officers' methods. The New York Times reports that "at least a dozen" of those arrested for lewdness are now represented by the Legal Aid Society, who claim the men "were victims of aggressive and intrusive police tactics."

What are the cops up to in these lewd bathroom arrests?

Off-Duty St. Louis Police Officer Shoots, Kills Armed Teen

An off-duty police officer shot and killed an 18-year-old man in St. Louis on Wednesday, prompting many to draw parallels between this shooting and Michael Brown's controversial death.

The killing occurred in St. Louis, the teen was black, and the off-duty officer (who fired 17 shots) was white. But as CNN reports, "the commonalities end there." The teen was reportedly armed with a 9 mm handgun, and after a scuffle with the off-duty officer, he fired three shots before the off-duty officer returned fire and killed him.

What are police saying about this new St. Louis shooting?

Can You Turn Around at a DUI Checkpoint?

Can you turn around at a DUI checkpoint?

Most drivers have probably encountered a DUI checkpoint, where police randomly check drivers who pass through for possible intoxication. For drivers who may have had one or two drinks, DUI checkpoints can — or perhaps should — cause anxiety; the blood alcohol concentration required for a DUI charge can often be less than what many people would consider “drunk.”

But what can these drivers, or other drivers who may wish to avoid contact with law enforcement, do when they see an upcoming DUI checkpoint? Is it legal to just turn around?

Hammond Police Traffic Stop, Video Prompt Federal Lawsuit

Police in Hammond, Indiana, are the subject of federal lawsuit alleging officers broke a window, used a Taser on a passenger, and terrifed a car full of civilians, including two young children.

On September 24, Lisa Mahone and her boyfriend Jamal Jones were on their way to visit Mahone's mother in the hospital when Hammond police officers pulled them over for a "routine seat belt violation," according to the Chicago Tribune. What followed is a matter of contention, but a federal lawsuit accuses Hammond police of using excessive force and battery.

What's the story with this Hammond traffic stop, which was caught on cell phone video?

No Charges for 'Flash-Bang' Grenade That Severely Injured Toddler

A Georgia grand jury has declined to indict sheriff's deputies on criminal charges for throwing a "flash-bang" grenade that burned and severely injured a 19-month-old boy.

The child, Bounkham Phonesavanh, was injured during a police drug raid when the stun grenade landed in the infant's crib. The suspect whom police sought in the raid was not actually in the house at the time. According to Reuters, the grand jury found that deputies did not intentionally injure the child and that their conduct was not tantamount to criminal negligence.

Since no charges are filed against the deputies, will there be any justice for baby Bounkham?

5 Things to Consider Before Accepting a Plea Deal

Accepting a plea deal is often the best course of action for a criminal defendant, but no one should accept a plea bargain blindly.

Depending on the terms of your agreement to plead guilty or no-contest to an offense, you may give up your rights to change your mind or fight for your case in the future.

So before you sign a plea deal, consider these five things:

Man Points Laser at Police Helicopter, Gets 2 Years in Prison

A Texas man has been sentenced to two years in federal prison for shining a laser pointer at a police helicopter.

Gabriel Soze Ruedas Jr., 25, was arrested in 2012 after the pilot of an Austin police helicopter was forced to delay his landing. A bright laser light reflecting in his cockpit forced him to avert his eyes, reports the Austin American-Statesman.

Although they may seem harmless, laser pointer pranks against aircraft are increasingly resulting in serious criminal charges.

What Is Civil Forfeiture? Is It Legal?

Civil forfeiture is a strange legal concept, allowing law enforcement to seize large amounts of money and even homes from persons who haven't even been charged with a crime.

Comedian John Oliver recently took on the topic of civil forfeiture on his HBO show "Last Week Tonight," revealing many of the shady police practices and procedural gaps that make the asset-seizure process seem so wrong.

But what is civil forfeiture, and is it even legal?

Can Police Reports Be Used as Evidence?

A police report is a written record made by an officer, describing an incident to which police have responded or have been involved. But can a police report be used as evidence?

When a person has been arrested and accused of a crime, a police report can be a significant source of information about the circumstances surrounding the arrest. But by definition, police reports are hearsay: an out-of-court statement, used to prove the truth of the matter asserted (i.e., to prove the truth of what's stated in the report).

Hearsay evidence is generally inadmissible in court, as anyone who's ever watched a television show in which the lawyers scream "Objection! Hearsay!" during crucial moments of a trial doubtlessly knows. So how do lawyers get around this hearsay presumption for police reports?

Philadelphia's Pot Decriminalization Law Takes Effect Oct. 20

Philadelphia may have just become the largest U.S. city to decriminalize possession of small amounts of pot with a bill signed on Wednesday.

Mayor Michael Nutter signed the city's marijuana decriminalization bill into law, making the possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana punishable by a $25 fine, reports The Huffington Post. Dealing or buying marijuana is still a crime, regardless of weight, but those who just enjoy getting blazed in public now have less to worry about.

Let's get down to seeds and stems with this Philly decriminalization law.

5 Legal Lessons From Michael Phelps' DUI

Although celebrities may be immune from many of the potential pitfalls facing everyday people, being arrested for DUI is certainly not one of them.

The latest celebrity to face drunken driving charges is 18-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps, who was arrested and charged with DUI Tuesday after being pulled over for speeding in a Maryland tunnel, reports ESPN.

What legal lessons can be gleaned from Phelps' (latest) DUI arrest? Here are five:

Michael Dunn Guilty of 1st Degree Murder in 'Loud Music' Shooting

Michael Dunn has been found guilty of first-degree murder for the fatal shooting of a teenager in 2012.

Jordan Davis, 17, was shot and killed by Dunn, 47, over claims that Dunn feared for his life, with the teen's loud music and threats allegedly prompting him to pull the trigger. According to Jacksonville's First Coast News, a Florida jury on Wednesday found Dunn guilty of first-degree murder, taking only a fraction of the time to deliberate as Dunn's first trial jury had done.

Now that Dunn is a convicted murderer, what punishment lies ahead?

What Counts as Criminally Lewd Behavior?

You may have heard the term "lewd behavior" in connection with someone being arrested for doing something somewhat less than decent.

But you may not know what criminally lewd behavior actually is. Lewd is typically defined as involving or being sexual conduct that is considered indecent or offensive. But at what point does someone's sexually indecent or offensive conduct run afoul of state or federal laws?

What actually counts as criminally lewd behavior?

Calif.'s Fair Sentencing Act Treats Crack Like Cocaine

California has eliminated the sentencing differences between crack and cocaine offenses, as Gov. Jerry Brown signed the California Fair Sentencing Act into law on Sunday.

The Act, also known as SB 1010, mirrors the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which narrowed the gap in federal law between the punishments for crack and cocaine offenders. But California's law goes further, treating cocaine and "cocaine base" (read: crack) the same in terms of punishing drug convicts.

What does this change mean for drug offenders in California?