FindLaw Blotter: February 2016 Archives

FindLaw Blotter - The FindLaw Crime and Criminals Blog

February 2016 Archives

Are Prisons Liable for Inmate Attacks?

It's understood that prison is and should be unpleasant. Still, that doesn't mean prisoners have no protections. The protections are more limited than for a free person, of course.

Still, in the case of an inmate attack, under some circumstances, there are claims that even the imprisoned can make. Let's take a look at vicarious liability for institutions of incarceration.

Of the many things you should never say to a cop, a lie is near the top of the list -- especially if that lie is regarding a crime that was never committed. Filing a false police report can be a costly waste of time for law enforcement, not to mention a permanent stain on someone's reputation. And it might also land you in jail.

Almost every state makes false reporting of a crime its own criminal offense. And although the penalties can vary from state to state, they are all serious.

Weed in the Car: What to Do When Pulled Over

It's Friday. You are driving along, feeling good about your week and pleased to have some weed to enjoy in the evening, when you are pulled over by the police. Is this a problem?

Not necessarily, although the answer will depend on where you are and how you came to obtain that marijuana which you are now praying won't stink up your car. The laws on marijuana possession have changed dramatically in recent years and continue to do so. The range in rules from place to place is too wide to make any generalizations. Assuming, however, that you have no cannabis recommendation and are not in a state that allows recreational use, here is what to do when you are pulled over and have marijuana in your vehicle.

Feds Indict 11 Polygamous Church Leaders for Food Stamp Fraud

Federal prosecutors this week indicted 11 members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) for conspiracy to commit fraud and money laundering. They are accused of swindling millions of dollars from the government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is intended to help low-income individuals and families buy food.

The accused are part of a polygamous sect living in Utah and South Dakota. Those already arrested on the fraud charges pled not guilty. But the church's founder, Warren Jeffs, is serving a sentence of life in prison on child sex abuse convictions and, NPR reports, many church members believe this latest move proves the federal government is persecuting them for their religious beliefs.

Video recordings of police activity and arrests have become a hot topic over the past few years. Between the ubiquity of cell phone cameras and new calls for police to wear body cameras, the issue of who can record video of the police (and when, where, and how) has been constantly debated. And most courts have found that citizens have a First Amendment right to record the police.

But most of those courts never addressed why citizens were recording police action. And in an odd decision last week, a federal judge ruled that the First Amendment right to record police only exists if the person is recording in order to challenge or criticize the police conduct and he or she asserts this at the time.

Zenefits Could Face Criminal Charges

Employees at the insurance brokerage Zenefits must not be feeling very Zen as the startup's shooting star comes crashing down like a house of cards. The company is under investigation in California and Washington and regulators warn that criminal charges could be filed against those who sold health insurance without proper licensing.

Zenefits' new CEO, David Sacks -- who replaced the company founder Parker Conrad just last week -- has already stated that the company skirted compliance requirements in order for workers to sell insurance. According to The San Francisco Business Times, Sacks has said that controls "have been inadequate and some decisions have just been plain wrong." Now regulators are investigating the free human resources software service that makes its money selling employment benefits.

Felon Voting Rights Range Widely Across the U.S.

It used to be that someone who committed a felony was barred from voting in state or federal elections for life, pretty much wherever they were. Now that is not so, and felons have a range of voting rights, which vary from state to state.

Four states still bar felons from ever voting in governmental elections. Meanwhile, in two tiny New England states felons may vote even while incarcerated. In other words, the variation in law on felony voting rights is wide. The short story is that states decide, not the federal government. Let's look at some details.

The Nevada rancher involved in a 2014 standoff with federal rangers over cattle grazing has been indicted on 16 felony charges. Cliven Bundy, his sons Ryan and Ammon, and two other associates face federal conspiracy, assault on a federal officer, and obstruction of justice charges, among other offenses.

The indictments stem from an armed-standoff with Bureau of Land Management agents over Bundy's refusal to pay grazing fees to the BLM. The standoff gained national media attention and sparked support from militia members and states' rights groups.

Ex-Priest Arrested in Decades-Old TX Beauty Queen Murder

The reason reality television got so much traction is because truth is stranger than fiction. This is best evidenced by reading crime news, stories like this month's arrest in Arizona of a Texas priest for the murder of a beauty queen half a century ago, reported by the Associated Press.

John Feit, the ex-priest who more than 55 years ago took the final confession of a Texas schoolteacher and beauty queen, 25-year-old Irene Garza, has long been suspected of murder. But efforts to indict him have failed before. Reports are unclear on what new evidence led to the priest's arrest now. But Feit, 83 years old, says he plans to fight extradition to Texas.

An Uber driver who allegedly went on a deadly shooting spree in Kalamazoo, Michigan Saturday night will be arraigned on criminal charges today. Prosecutors believe Jason Brian Dalton killed six people and wounded two others in a series of random attacks, some of which may have been committed in between paid fares.

Dalton will likely face murder, assault, and firearms charges, and the details of his deadly night are horrifying.

Can a Court Order Open a Safe Deposit Box?

You have precious items that you want to keep safe, so of course you are considering getting a safe deposit box. But you are wondering just how safe they are -- who can get in and under what conditions?

The answer will depend on where your safe deposit box is located -- what type of institution, what state, local rules, and more. Let's take a look at some situations when a safe deposit box can be opened by court order or otherwise.

A confession can be a powerful piece of evidence against a criminal defendant, often negating the need for a trial entirely. And in the vast majority of criminal cases, a defendant will admit guilt to charges as part of a plea bargain. This is all well and good, assuming those confessions are true. But that's not always the case.

Defendants give false confessions for a variety of reasons, mostly in the face of overwhelming evidence of their guilt. But what happens when that evidence is faulty? Harris County, Texas is finding out: the jurisdiction just released a report on dozens of exonerations after drug possession guilty pleas were based on inaccurate drug tests. So how is this happening?

After news broke last week that U.S. Marshals arrested a Houston man over $5,700 in unpaid student debt, about 7.6 million people behind on their own loans started to sweat. Threatening calls and letters, garnished wages, and now federal agents showing up at your door?

While most of us were blown away by Paul Aker's arrest, the Marshals Service insists it was business as usual, and that it wasn't their first attempt to get Aker to appear in federal court. So are the feds coming for you next?

FBI Busts GA Prison Guards for Crime Inside

If you ever wondered what goes on in prisons, an FBI bust last week will provide insight. Nearly 50 Georgia Department of Corrections guards were arrested after a 2-year FBI undercover operation revealed "staggering corruption," reports CNN.

Prison guards provided inmates with cell phones and sold drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. The cell phones allowed inmates to commit crimes on the inside, including identity theft and other frauds. Plus, as if that was not enough, among those busted were two officers from an elite special Cobra unit designed to target drug dealing in prison.

Cell Phone Security: Is the NYPD Spying on You?

The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) reported last week that the New York Police Department (NYPD) is not seeking proper warrants when using stingray spying devices to generally track cell phones. Instead, police are requesting "pen register orders" which are easier to obtain than warrants and are normally used to collect data on one specific cell phone, according to The Hacker News.

The NYPD admits its use of stingrays -- cell phone surveillance devices that work by imitating cell phone towers -- without seeking the proper court warrants. And this has happened more than 1000 times since 2008. Let's look at what this means and why we, the people, should be wary.

Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman was in jail in Mexico. And then he wasn't. And then he was again. And then he wasn't. And then he talked to Sean Penn, and now he's back in a federal prison in Mexico. But that might not be where he'll stay.

U.S. Department of Justice officials are planning to extradite El Chapo to Brooklyn, New York to face 21 criminal charges including drug trafficking, money laundering, and murder. Will the breakout artist really make it to New York? And if so, will it be in police custody?

Flint Water Crisis Could Result in Criminal Charges

Officials could face criminal and civil charges for failure to warn Flint, Michigan residents of lead poisoning in the drinking water, state special counsel, Todd Flood, told reporters last week. Appointed by the State Attorney-General to investigate the case, Flood suggested that some people could face involuntary manslaughter charges if linked to recent deaths, as suspected.

Flood gave no time frame for the investigation, according to The Detroit News. "We're here to investigate what possible crimes there are, anything to the involuntary manslaughter or death that may have happened to some young person or old person because of this poisoning, to misconduct in office. We take this very seriously."

Preparing for Jail Visits and Helping Incarcerated Relatives

This is not exactly the kind of family gathering you ever hoped to attend, but it is happening. You have to go to the county jail to visit a family member and you are wondering what will happen and how to handle it.

Jail regulations will vary from state to state and county to county -- and federal prison is yet another story -- so you must check the local rules as well as inquire with the jail. But here are some tips to minimize the anguish of this difficult family visit.

How Much Jail Time for Stealing a Car?

You were a fan of the video game grand theft auto, and now you wonder what would happen if you played in real life. How much jail or prison time would you serve for stealing a car if caught and convicted?

The answer will depend on numerous considerations, such as where the crime takes place, the value of the car, how the theft occurs, whether you have a prior criminal record, and other factors. So let's take a look at some key terms and state laws to see what's involved in possible punishments.

States With the Strictest Drunk Driving Laws

A feature of American law is that it’s difficult to make bold general statements about requirements and penalties. They vary from federal to state law and differ from state to state. But it is safe to say that it is pretty much always bad news when a drunk driver is stopped and charged, across the country.

The punishment for Driving Under the Influence (DUI) or Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) varies from state to state, and depends on whether it’s a first or subsequent offense. As you can see, even the charge’s name is not uniform. Rest assured, however, that it’s a hassle to deal with a charge wherever you are, and that in some states you’ll really feel the pain.

New Law Creates Special Sex Offender Passport

On Monday, President Obama signed a criminal justice reform bill and it contains a strange provision, an International Megan's Law. The new law will require people who have been convicted of sex crimes against minors to carry special passports that clearly identify their status as registered sex offenders, Slate reports.

The reasoning behind the law seems sensible enough -- it is intended to prevent sex tourism by people who have sexually abused children in the US. But because this takes the states' sex offender registries and make them the world's business, some question just how fair this law is, particularly given the controversy surrounding the domestic registry and residency requirements.

What to Look for in a Criminal Defense Attorney

You were charged with a crime and you need a defense attorney. How do you know who to choose and whether that person will be any good?

Let's take it one step at a time and start with consultation. An initial meeting can reveal a lot.

Sadly, undocumented immigrants find themselves victims of crime on their way to the United States or upon their arrival. Often, they are targeted specifically because of their immigration status and fail to report crimes for fear they will be deported.

In response, many cities, states, and the federal government have begun offering temporary visas and a path to legal permanent residency for undocumented immigrants who are the victims of crime. Here's how these visas work:

You'd better start burying your Benjamins in the backyard -- the days of C-note might be numbered. In a recent academic paper, the former head of Standard Chartered Bank argues that high-denomination currency notes contribute to tax evasion, financial crime, and terrorism, and taking them off the market could deter criminals.

Wait, how can banning big bills battle law-breakers?

What's the Punishment for Distilling Alcohol at Home?

So you have a family recipe for moonshine, which your hipster friends find superb. Your people have passed down the secrets of distillation for generations, and you are proud of this tradition, especially when you see how popular your homemade spirits are with pals.

They insist you should go into business and are even willing to invest. Can you legally distill alcohol at home, or have you been breaking the law all along (which, considering the colorful history of moonshine in ths country, kind of fits the liquor)?

Are There Illegal Internet Search Terms?

You can search pretty much whatever you want online -- searching for information is not a crime. But certain searches are monitored and certain words will trigger suspicion and investigations, and if you engage in illegal activity online, that is a crime.

You can search the words "kiddie porn" for example -- how else will you find information on the topic? -- but you absolutely cannot download the stuff. People can and do get arrested for their illegal online activities. But it's important to distinguish between suspicious searches and illegal activities. Googling the word "murder" does not make you a killer, and this principle extends to terror, porn, and more.

D.C. Might Pay People to Not Commit Crime

You know the old saying, "crime doesn't pay," but did you know that there could come a time when you get paid to not commit crime? A bill under consideration in Washington D.C. proposes to provide stipends to 50 people annually to learn life skills and avoid crime.

The proposal is not the first of its kind. The D.C. proposal is modeled on an existent program and would create a new office to identify individuals "who pose a high risk of participating in or being a victim of violent criminal activity," reports The New York Times.

We're just over a month into 2016 and already New York City has seen a significant spike in knife attack numbers. The New York Daily News reports slashings and stabbings have jumped 24 percent over the same period last year, with 381 incidents in 2016 alone.

The rise in knife attacks comes at the same time the city's knife laws are under federal judicial review. So what are the knife laws in NYC, and why are they not working?

Until recently, the private sale of guns was largely unregulated. If you had a rifle and a friend who wanted to buy it, that was OK. And if you had multiple firearms for sale, you could simply take them to a gun show and sell them there, without the hassling of registering as a firearms dealer and performing background checks.

But selling guns privately isn't as easy, or legal, as it once was.

How One Man Went From Marine to Jail Break Mastermind

Last week, three men escaped from an Orange County jail, sawing through metal grates and using bed linens as ropes, according to the Associated Press. The dramatic escape was said to be led by one man with a military background, Hossein Nayeri, who served in the US Marines.

Nayeri's descent into hell -- from soldier to wanted fugitive -- was short and hard. And his story, while far from over, is fascinating and terrifying for this reason.

Spartan Man Found Guilty of Intentionally Killing Bears

An elderly man from Sparta, who shot and killed three bears on his lawn and was caught trying to dispose of the carcasses, was found guilty and fined by a New Jersey judge last week. The judge called the defendant's actions those of "a vigilante, usurping the right of the state," according to the New Jersey Herald.

Although this tale reads like fiction, it is fact. The 76-year-old Robert Ehling shot two adult bears and a cub on his lawn with a loaded firearm and was then caught disposing of the carcasses in a ravine. He claimed self-defense but the claim was rejected by Municipal Court Judge James Devine, who said Ehling acted as an aggressor when he shot the bears and was not threatened by them.

False and Coerced Confession FAQ

What makes a person claim responsibility for something they did not do and could it happen to you? It seems crazy to admit to a crime you didn't commit, yet people do it all the time.

They are not crazy necessarily, although they may feel that way after extensive interrogation. Defendants are coerced into confessing by authorities who are too eager to close cases at any cost. Let's take a look at confessions, and some frequently asked questions about this coercion by authorities.

Every time you turn around, some company or the government is getting hacked. Or someone you know is having their credit card information or entire identity stolen.

From accessing a computer without permission to stealing personal information and online bullying, there are a range of computer crimes that are often collectively referred to as "hacking." So what are the possible penalties if hackers get caught?

Oregon Militia Members Face Federal Criminal Conspiracy Charge

Freedom fighters often pay for their struggles with prison time, and this is certainly true for the crew that occupied the Malheur wildlife refuge in Oregon last month in a standoff against the federal government. The Oregon militia members were protesting the imprisonment of two men prosecuted for fires on national parklands. Now they too face prosecution.

The felony charge they face is conspiracy to impede federal officers from discharging official duties through the use of force, intimidation, or threats. This could result in fines and six years in prison, and according to an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, the government was very careful in choosing the charge.