FindLaw Blotter - The FindLaw Crime and Criminals Blog

November 2015 Archives

Can I Go to Jail for Not Paying a Loan?

States all over the country are being sued by civil rights groups for aggressive debt collection by their courts. This has led to much discussion of what is being called a new debtor's prison system in the US, and also to some confusion.

Technically, you cannot go to jail for failure to pay a civil fine, like a loan. But in some states where consumer protections are not very strong, creditors can ensnare debtors in the court system. Failure to appear for hearings or otherwise respond to court orders arising from collections cases can result in warrants, jail time, and fines. The punishment is for disobeying court orders but the trouble still stems from an unpaid debt.

Yes, Christmas shopping is expensive. But you know what's more costly? A criminal conviction. Not only could a shoplifting charge be expensive (from the costs of defending yourself and paying fines), but a shoplifting conviction could go on your record and stay there.

Here's how shoplifting could go on your record, and what you can do to take it off.

Before John Oliver skewered the practice of civil forfeiture last year, many people didn't know it existed. And many still may not. But for the first time, the dollar value of assets seized by law enforcement has surpassed the amount of property lost to burglaries.

So how does civil forfeiture work and how did it become more costly than home robbery? Here's some insight in to the police practice and the most recent numbers.

Seven States Struggling With Medical Marijuana

Cannabis laws have been changing rapidly in states around the country. But there is still a gap between legislation and life, with some states struggling to sort out implementation of their medical marijuana programs.

In theory, these places have programs that allow qualified patients to obtain medical marijuana legally and without threat of prosecution. In reality, dispensaries are highly regulated and patients in these seven states still face major obstacles to obtaining prescription cannabis, according to Rolling Stone.

Is It Legal to Shoot Someone Carrying a Fake Gun?

Four police officers shot and killed a man in Oakland who approached them with a fake gun last week, SF Gate reports. The officers' body cameras were not on, as they were doing paperwork rather than detaining anyone.

The police said they were shocked to discover the gun was a replica. The shooting is being investigated by Oakland's homicide unit and internal affairs division, as well as the Alameda County District Attorney's Office. But if the officers reasonably believed that the replica -- and therefore the threat to them -- was real, then the shooting of Richard Perkins, 39, was legal.

Accidents and Animals: Pet Hit and Run Laws

There generally are not specific criminal laws regarding hitting a dog or other pet with a car and fleeing, as there are with people. But you may be cited for animal cruelty or for ignoring property damage notification obligations for failure to report hitting a pet in some states.

Penalties for accidentally hitting a pet with a car depend on the breadth of state animal cruelty laws, which are based either on intentional acts or failure to act on behalf of an animal, as well as on state hit and run statutes and the definition of property. The California Vehicle Code, for example, provides that failure to report damage to property after an accident is a misdemeanor, and pets are -- in another statute -- defined as property.

According to some reports, there are a million animals killed on American roads every single day, so let's look at what you should do if you find one.

Date Rape Punishment

Date rape is rape. It doesn't matter if you know the victim, whether you took them out on a date, whether they drank during the date, or whether they led you on during the date. Non-consensual sex is rape, no matter what preceded it. And those convicted of date rape face the same penalties as those convicted of raping strangers.

But a prior relationship between the accuser and alleged perpetrator could complicate the determination of guilt. Here are the possible penalties for rape and how the issue of consent arises in cases of date rape.

8 Crime Victim Rights You Should Know ... Plus the Caveats

In criminal law there is, rightly, much concern about the rights of the accused. These rights are designed to ensure that only the guilty are convicted. But victims have rights, too.

The Crime Victims' Rights Act provides 8 explicit prerogatives that belong to victims. The terms are defined in the federal code, and posted on the Department of Justice's website. The section explains the procedures for ensuring that victims' rights are not trampled.

Phone Thief Uploads Selfies to Victim's Cloud Storage

A California high school student whose phone was stolen provided police with a perfect description of the thief. Selfies appeared on the victim's cloud storage days after the robbery, showing the suspect smiling, pouting, and posing happily, NBC News Bay Area reports.

The victim noticed the images uploaded a few days after the incident and gave them to the police. Now they are all over the web, and the cops are asking for the public's help in identifying the thief.

Is It Illegal to Join Anonymous?

It is not illegal to join Anonymous because you cannot join. Officially, there is nothing to join, although the collective does provide instructions on joining.

Confused? That's because you're supposed to be. Anonymous is a collective of computer coders, hackers, protesters, and geeks who are loosely linked on the web and are, well, anonymous. They do not use their real names. But Anonymous does instruct on affiliation, and following these instructions is not illegal per se.

Being released from prison can be a struggle. Former inmates can find themselves far from support systems and have a difficult time landing a job, which can increase the rate of recidivism. One factor that contributes to recently released people returning to crime is often overlooked: access to health care.

People convicted of felonies often find their rights restricted upon release -- states may limit anything from gun rights to voting rights. But can they restrict access to government-funded health care systems like Obamacare and Medicaid?

What Does 'Chain of Custody' Mean?

The term 'chain of custody' refers to the protocol for handling physical proof that will be introduced in a courtroom, ensuring evidence complies with the rules of criminal procedure. Basically, there are rules for managing different types of evidence and keeping it reliable, and this is the set that applies to the admissibility of material things.

Cases are proven using evidence, and chain of custody dictates how the proofs are collected, stored, and displayed in court. Evidence that has not been documented properly and preserved according to the rules can be excluded from a case. So, in a murder say, if the cops find the silver bullet but handle the evidence it all wrong, the defense can file a motion and that proof is gone.

Estimates indicate over half a million people in the United States are homeless. And while that figure may be declining, states still struggle to find a solution to homelessness. While some states have extended hate crime protections to the homeless and created mobile "homeless courts" others have enacted anti-panhandling laws to criminalize begging.

So are anti-panhandling statutes legal? And if so, what exactly do they prohibit? Here's a roundup of various anti-panhandling laws:

Child Abuse: Is It a Crime to Fail to Report?

If you know of child abuse and fail to report it, or if you file a false report, it may be a crime. Laws vary from state to state and most do not require the average citizen to call out child abuse, although some do.

The obligation to report abuse mostly applies to people who -- because of their professions -- are in a position of responsibility for children and have the obligation to report imposed on them by statute. There are states that obligate anyone to report, however. Below is a look at who, by law, must report abuse, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services Child Welfare Information Gateway.

Part of the reason we gravitate to shows like "Dexter" and "CSI" is the problem-solving element -- we want to figure out whodunnit, hopefully before the show does. We also love these shows because they show off all the fancy technology and science behind crime solving -- it's like Sherlock Holmes came alive in the 21st century.

But did Holmes ever get it wrong? We are often so wowed by the "CSI effect" we fail to question if the science behind the gotcha evidence is sound. And to be fair, we're not scientists, so what position are we in to second-guess the experts? But more and more questions are being raised about real-world forensic evidence and the crime labs that process and interpret that evidence. So just how reliable is forensic evidence, anyway?

Rules for Homebrewers and Moonshine Makers

Home brewing is an ancient practice that's the new cool thing to do. At its simplest you can start with just a cook pot and a stove. Yet, for serious brewers -- and there are many -- it can get complex, an adult chemistry project.

As all of that suggests, it is legal to make alcohol at home. However, there limits on what types can be concocted. And no, you can't turn your basement into a speakeasy.

Last year, Tennessee became the first state to explicitly criminalize drug use during a pregnancy. Since then, around 100 women in the state have been prosecuted under the new law, though most receive drug treatment rather than prison time.

While Tennessee's criminal statute may be unique, many states punish expecting mothers who do drugs while pregnant; and the penalties range from criminal conviction, to psychiatric commitment.

When Is Graffiti Considered Art and Not a Crime?

Art is a strange business if sometimes very lucrative. But how do you even know when a thing is art rather than graffiti or vandalism? This is a serious question, since vandalism can be a misdemeanor or a felony offense.

Some things start out as vandalism and somehow graduate from graffiti to the stuff of fine art auctions. This week, street artist Space Invader arrived in New York from Paris to put up his pixelated mosaics that now sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars and were once considered trash. Does this mean you should be making or preserving the neighborhood graffiti?

Louisiana Police Charged With Child Murder Caught on Body Cameras

Two Louisiana police officers were charged with second-degree murder for shooting and killing a child who was buckled into the front seat of a car they were chasing. The shooting was caught on film but the footage has not been released. Apparently when it is, we will not like what we see at all.

The footage was "extremely disturbing," Colonel Mike Edmonson of the Louisiana State Police told reporters. According to The Atlantic, Edmonson said, "I'm not gonna talk about it, but I'm gonna tell you this. It is the most disturbing thing I've seen and I will leave it at that."

Curfew Laws for Adults

When you were a kid, curfew was when it got dark outside. As a teenager, it was before midnight. But now that you're an adult, can anyone tell you what time you have to be home?

As it turns out, there could be some curfew laws that apply to adults. State and local governments may institute emergency curfews, municipalities can have business curfew ordinances, and some apartment complexes have been trying to enforce curfews on tenants. Here's how curfew laws for adults work.

Police officers often face dangerous circumstances, not the least of which is when a suspect is fleeing in a car. A high-speed pursuit can endanger officers as well as the general public, so there is a safety interest in avoiding them or ending them as soon as possible.

Does this interest include being able to shoot at fleeing vehicles? It's a legally murky area, and may be more confusing after two seemingly conflicting decisions this week.

Fake Calculator App Facilitated School Sexting Scandal

Students in a Colorado high school possibly face felony charges for texting lewd photos. Hundreds of images have been exchanged and stored on phones using an app that is masked as a calculator, CNN reports.

Officials have not yet disclosed how many students are involved in the sexting scandal at CaƱon City High School, but it appears to be big trouble for many. Convictions could lead to sex offender status for the kids. Police have seized several phones with hundreds of photos.

Family Challenges Police Officer Immunity for Son's Fatal Shooting

A family whose son was fatally shot by police after a high-speed chase in 2012 is asking an appellate court to let their civil rights suit go to trial. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California last week heard arguments from Abdul Arian's parents that a finding of immunity for the police officers who shot their son should be reversed, Courthouse News Service reported last week.

Los Angeles Police Department officers shot the 19-year-old man in 2012 after he ran several red lights and told a 911 dispatcher on the phone that he was armed and would use his weapon. The family claims that Arian was shot over 100 times when he exited the car holding a phone believed to be a weapon. Police say they fired closer to only 90 rounds.

Best and Worst Statistics About Juvenile Crime

Juvenile crime across the country is tracked by numerous agencies. For the last 20 years, The National Center for Juvenile Justice has compiled reports that analyze data from the FBI, Centers for Disease Control, and state organizations.

The latest statistics on juvenile justice are from 2014. The report reveals both heartening and disappointing trends.

Is Plagiarism a Crime?

It's exam season, and many students out there will be tempted to pass off someone else's term paper as their own. And in the Internet age, copying and pasting has made plagiarism even easier. At the same time, Google searches have made catching plagiarists easier as well. So if you get caught plagiarizing someone else's work, are you going to jail?

Well, that depends on the context -- what were you plagiarizing and why? What were you trying to do with the plagiarized work? If you were trying to score an "A" on an exam, maybe not. If you were trying to score a job, maybe so. Let's take a look:

School Stabbings: 4 Attacked on UC Merced Campus

A student at University of California Merced yesterday stabbed four people on campus with a hunting knife, the Los Angeles Times reports. A construction worker heard a fight in a nearby classroom and went to stop it, only to find that a student had already been stabbed and that he would be next.

The construction worker, Byron Price, chased the assailant out of the building. Reportedly the student tried stabbing people as he ran, and managed to hurt two more before he was stopped. Two campus police officers chased and shot him to death on a pedestrian bridge on campus, according to UC Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland.

Whether you're wondering what happened to the previous owners or what the next ones will do with the property, there's always an intrigue with abandoned buildings. And the ones with spooky histories or interesting architecture always seem to invite the adventurous to have a look around inside. But is it legal to enter an abandoned building?

It may look like no one will care, but there are quite a few laws covering this kind of urban exploration. Here's a peek inside:

Supervised release works for some ex-cons. Time spent in halfway houses can help some recently released offenders acclimate to life outside and more easily transition into life after prison. Others, not so much.

Phillip Allen Nelson didn't quite take to supervised release, and while there the convicted bank robber knocked over two more banks less than a month after he had been paroled.

Racial Bias in Jury Selection Is Under Supreme Court Scrutiny Again

Justice may be blind. But prosecutors are not. This week, the Supreme Court is considering racial bias in jury selection in Foster v. Chatman. The case is being called "an egregious example" of a rampant problem, according to a former prosecutor writing in the New York Times.

Prosecutors continue to exclude black jurors from juries almost 40 years after a landmark case, Batson v. Kentucky, made clear that the practice is illegal. Only now prosecutors use allegedly race-neutral reasons to justify the exclusions from criminal trials. This practice is problematic for everyone, explains Larry Thompson, who penned the Times opinion piece.

As of 5:00 PM Eastern Standard Time on November 2, a total of 999 people have been killed by police in the year 2015. And even if that total reaches 1,000 before December 31st, it will still trail last year's number of 1,108.

Fatal police interactions have been hard to track until very recently, but KilledByPolice.net and the Washington Post have started to compile databases of police killings and analyzing the data. And several high-profile homicides in the last two years have focused the media's attention on an overwhelming but previously under-reported policing issue.

Penalties for Forging a Prescription for Drugs

Maybe it doesn't seem so bad, just a signature on a piece of paper. But it is bad. In fact, forging a prescription is a crime.

Some states have statutes specifically aimed at punishing the precise offense. And some just consider it plain old forgery. Either way, around the nation, it is illegal to falsify a prescription for drugs.

Sex Offender Zoning Laws: Residency Requirements

Sex offenders face strict residency requirements. The reasoning behind these zoning rules is to keep track of people who are considered an official danger to society and to limit predator proximity.

There are national requirements for registered sex offenders and a national database exists to provide the public with information about registered sex offenders regardless of state boundaries. Individual states all also have laws regarding registration and residency requirements, as well as limits on what can be shared in a public registry or what must be disclosed.

Antiquities Trading Tied to Terrorism

The Museum of the Bible in Washington DC triggered an FBI investigation with some questionable customs claims. The museum is believed to have purchased precious ancient artifacts, claiming they were tchotchkes worth a mere $300. And it may have done business with terrorists.

"Anyone who purchases an antiquity without being 100 percent sure it is a legitimate piece is risking funding organized criminals, armed insurgents, and even terrorist networks, whether they be al-Qaeda or ISIS," Tess Davis, the executive director of the Antiquities Coalition, told Vanity Fair.