FindLaw Blotter - The FindLaw Crime and Criminals Blog

February 2012 Archives

Do Cops Need Warrants for Your Xbox Console?

Police officers aren't just playing with the Xbox. No, cops also use Xbox consoles to catch criminals.

Today's gaming consoles are quite sophisticated. They include multi-gigabyte hard drives; connect to the Internet; and record audio and video.

They're a repository of information. And if you're not careful, your Xbox or PlayStation might just rat you out.

Why Do Guilty People Plead Not Guilty?

Mark Berndt, an elementary school teacher in Miramonte, Calif., recently pleaded not guilty to sexually abusing 23 students in his classroom. But authorities have photos depicting the abuse. They have testimony from current and past students. It seems like a slam-dunk case.

So why did Berndt plead as he did? Why do guilty people plead not guilty?

In one word: strategy.

A Virginia couple faces criminal charges for their children's constant tardiness to school, in a case that spotlights state truancy laws. Mark Denicore, the children's father and an attorney, may even lose his law license.

Denicore and his wife Amy, of Waterford, Va., were arraigned Feb. 6 for their children's tardiness. The Denicores' three kids, all under age 10, have been late to school 85 times since September, the local Loudon Times reports.

But the kids have only been a few minutes late each time -- less than three hours, total, by Mark Denicore's count. School officials are being unreasonable by prosecuting him, he said -- and they're misreading the law.

Obama Poster Artist Guilty of Contempt

If you asked anyone what would land Shepard Fairey in jail, they would probably point to his graffiti. But alas, it isn't so. The street artist, who gained popularity with his red, white and blue Obama "Hope" poster,  has pleaded guilty to criminal contempt.

The conviction, which carries up to 6 months in jail, is likely to earn him a short stint behind bars. Fairey admitted to deleting evidence and lying to the court in a civil lawsuit he had brought against the Associated Press.

A repair crew's alleged violations of city code preceded Suzanne Hart's horrific death in a New York City elevator shaft, a city investigation has found. Criminal charges are possible.

Crews with Transel Elevator Inc. purposely disabled a safety device to access the elevator while making repairs Dec. 14, and allowed the elevator to move with its doors open, the city's Buildings Department found in its investigation, according to The New York Times.

But as crews completed their work, they failed to re-enable the safety device, investigators found. Transel's license has been suspended, and the firm was cited for endangering public safety, the New York Daily News reports.

The owner of a dog that bit a Denver TV news anchor in the face is facing criminal charges in connection with the bite, which happened on live TV. But it appears the dog's owner may have a legal defense.

Michael Robinson, 39, of Lakewood, Colo., is charged with allowing a dog to bite, the Associated Press reported. Robinson is also charged with failing to keep his 85-pound Argentine mastiff on a leash, in connection with a separate incident that made his dog somewhat of a local celebrity.

Robinson's dog Gladiator Maximus, or Max for short, allegedly was not on a leash when it fell into a frozen lake Feb. 7. Fire crews responded, and local TV news helicopters captured the dog's rescue.

Illegal to Have Gun Go Off in the Bathroom?

Though you'd be a bit embarrassed if you accidentally fired a gun in a Walmart bathroom, you probably wouldn't expect to be prosecuted. But this is not the case for Andrew Seals of Phoenix, Arizona.

As Seals began to sit down on a Walmart toilet, his revolver fell out of its holster and hit the ground. It fired, and the bullet hit a wall, ricocheted off a light fixture, and then landed a few feet from a man standing at a urinal.

It was a freak accident, but prosecutors may charge him with endangerment.

An Ohio man's Facebook rant violated a restraining order, so a judge gave him a choice: Post a Facebook apology to his estranged wife, or face 60 days in jail.

Mark Byron's court-ordered Facebook apology comprises five paragraphs and more than 200 words, and must be reposted every day for 30 days, The Cincinnati Enquirer reports.

"It's outlandish," Byron told the Enquirer, though he is complying with the order. (You can view Mark Byron's Facebook page here.) "I'm afraid to do anything. People are even fearful that Facebook can be regulated by a judge."

An Ohio woman faces federal charges after she allegedly used Facebook to hire a hitman to randomly kill "someone wearing fur."

Meredith Lowell, 27, of Cleveland Heights, is charged with solicitation to commit murder in connection with her Facebook posts and emails sent to an undercover federal agent, The Plain Dealer reports.

Lowell, using the name Anne Lowery on Facebook, posted that she wanted "to find someone who is willing to kill someone wearing fur," and would pay $850 for the hit, according to an affidavit. When an undercover FBI agent contacted her, Lowell's plot became much more specific:

Nine-year-old Savannah Hardin died after being forced to run for three hours as punishment, investigators say. The girl's grandmother and stepmother are facing murder charges.

The women forced the Alabama third grader to run non-stop, as punishment for lying about eating a candy bar, a sheriff's spokeswoman told the Associated Press. Savannah had a medical condition, and she wasn't supposed to eat candy, authorities said.

After allegedly being forced to run as punishment, Savannah suffered a seizure and later died at a hospital, the AP reports. An autopsy found Savannah was extremely dehydrated and had very low sodium levels. Her death was ruled a homicide.

70-Pound Girl Serially Starved, Beaten in Basement

Authorities in Madison, Wis. have arrested the stepmother, stepbrother and father of a 15-year-old girl who weighs only 70 pounds. A neighbor found the barefoot teenager last week as she stumbled down the street wearing nothing but pajamas.

The 70-pound teen then accused her stepmother, Melinda Drabek-Chritton, of throwing her down the stairs and locking her in the basement. She then explained that she had escaped through a window and was looking for help.

Woman Wasn't Driving, Still Charged in DUI Homicides

Erin Brown wasn't driving her car when it struck and killed two people and injured a third. Her drunk boyfriend, Trevor Bradshaw, was behind the wheel. Nonetheless, she's been charged with vehicular homicide and now faces 30 years in jail.

These charges are the result of a little-known Tennessee law that prohibits a vehicle owner from knowingly allowing her car to be operated in an illegal manner. Violators can be charged with the same crime as the individual driving the vehicle.

When Bradshaw was charged with vehicular homicide and assault, prosecutors decided to charge Brown as well.

Dad Charged After Car Stolen With Kid Inside

You know you're not supposed to leave your kid in a car alone -- even if you're running inside for just a few minutes. But some people do it anyway.

It's illegal. And as Philip Owens knows, it's quite possible that your car will be stolen -- with your kid inside. Luckily, Owens' 6-year-old son was unharmed and found soon after his car was taken from a mini-mart in Rochester, New York.

Not so luckily, Owens has been charged with endangering the welfare of a child.

A Kentucky mom allegedly punched her 10-year-old son in the face during an anger-management counseling session, and her children have been placed in foster care.

Misty Lawson, 30, of Louisville, admitted to the website The Smoking Gun she "smacked" her son twice because he called her the "b" word. "They make it sound like I beat my child like an adult," Lawson complained.

The boy suffered a bruise on his face and "redness to the eye," a police report states. The alleged child assault happened at Lawson's home, where a counselor was supposed to conduct an anger-management session with the angry mom.

Lawson, it seems, has a history of lashing out.

Mardi Gras: LA's Most Deadly Driving Holiday

What are you doing during -- or post -- Mardi Gras? Driving? You should try to be careful. Turns out, Louisiana's car accident rates are pretty high during this time of the year.

In 2010, Mardi Gras proved to be relatively dangerous. There were 509 fatal and injury crashes.

It was the highest figure during all holiday seasons. Around 50% of the fatalities were linked to alcohol.

CO Man Jailed for Not Having a Dog License

Can you go to jail for not having a dog license?

People seem to think so after reading about Matthew Townsend, a resident of Jefferson County, Colo. Townsend was cited by animal control for not licensing Wolfie, his autistic daughter's service dog. He didn't think it was necessary.

Weeks or months later, local deputies arrived at his door. He was arrested and spent 7 hours in jail.

Philadelphia Man Killed in Dog Poop Dispute

Authorities say that 47-year-old Philadelphia man Franklin Manual Santana was killed by his neighbor over a dog poop dispute.

The shooting occurred on Valentine's Day.

Investigators say that the neighbor, 27-year-old Tyrirk Harris had walked his Chihuahua dog earlier that day. Harris was a recently unemployed Philadelphia school police officer. He had a permit for a gun and was wearing it in his holster at the time. The license may have been expired, according to WPVI-TV.

Couple Arrested for Valentine's Role-Playing Sex

Don't drive and role-play. Actually, just keep the role-playing behind your bedroom doors. It's for the good of all mankind. And your criminal record.

Just take a look at Nikolas Harbar and Stephanie Pelzner, a Portland, Ore. couple arrested for role-playing on Valentine's Day. Police carried out a citywide search for Harbar after a witness reported he was driving around town with a naked woman in his backseat.

She was bound and gagged.

200 Priests Accused of Abuse Hiding in CA

Ray Boucher believes 60 California communities are unknowingly harboring Catholic priests suspected of sexually abusing children. These suspected abusers -- about 200 of them -- live near schools and playgrounds without oversight from authorities.

This is because the priests are not sex offenders. Though they have never been convicted, some have admitted to sexually abusing children. And Boucher claims the Church is hiding them anyway.

Top 5 Crimes Not to Commit During Mardi Gras

It's Mardi Gras!

The season of beads and parades is upon us, which means it's time to party. There will be loud music and louder screams. There will be drinks, food and dancing in the street. There will also be cops.

The holiday's debauchery is sure to draw local law enforcement out if its winter hidey-holes, which means arrests and citations for many. So before you head out to join in the fun, read up on these common Mardi Gras crimes. Then don't commit them.

What happens in a church confession, stays in a church confession... Right? Generally speaking, yes -- but not always.

Statements made to a minister, priest, rabbi, or other religious leader are generally considered privileged or confidential communications. State laws generally exempt a pastor from having to testify in court, or to law-enforcement, about what was discussed in a church confession.

The so-called priest-penitent privilege, however, can be challenged in court. And some states are changing their laws in response to a rash of clergy child-abuse cases.

Man Kills Wife During Honeymoon Dive?

An Alabama man killed his wife on their honeymoon, according to prosecutors. Gabe Watson's Australia diving trip in 2003 turned fatal for his then-wife of 11 days Tina Thomas Watson.

Watson's wife was 26 when she was killed. Watson is accused of murdering her for the life insurance money.

She died during a scuba dive in the reef in Australia. Watson allegedly turned her air supply off. He is also accused of "bear-hugging" her while she drowned. Watson was an experienced diver. His wife was not.

Results of Whitney Houston's autopsy, performed Sunday, are pending toxicology tests, according to UPI. While an autopsy was not unexpected after Houston's death, a recent report finds autopsies in general are increasingly rare.

Today, only 5% of U.S. hospital deaths result in autopsies, according to a report by NPR, PBS' Frontline and ProPublica. That's down from about 50% of all hospital deaths half a century ago.

So what factors determine who gets an autopsy? And what does an autopsy actually entail?

Couple Killed in Facebook Defriending Murders

Facebook isn't real, people. Which is why the Facebook defriending murders out of Mountain City, Tenn. are so disturbing.

Police believe Marvin Potter and Jamie Curd are responsible for the shooting deaths of Billy Payne, Jr. and his girlfriend Billie Jean Hayworth. The couple was found dead in their home, having been killed in front of their infant daughter.

The killings are allegedly tied to the couple's decision to defriend Potter's 30-year-old daughter on Facebook.

Judge Frees Man If He Goes Bowling With Wife

"Flowers, birthday card, Red Lobster, bowling."

These are the terms of a sentence handed down to Joseph Bray, a Florida man accused of domestic violence. Broward County Judge John Hurley felt the incident was "very, very minor" and that Bray's wife could use a little romance.

The underlying altercation allegedly began when Bray forgot to wish her a happy birthday.

A Colorado college student who "glitter-bombed" Mitt Romney faces criminal charges and possible jail time if convicted.

The case against Peter Smith, 20, could set a national precedent for punishing "glitter bombers" who dump glitter on a person in protest. The practice is mainly used by gay-rights activists who target conservative politicians, Reuters reports.

Glitter bomb incidents seem to be on the rise as the 2012 campaign season picks up steam. Smith may be the first person to face possible jail time for a glitter bomb attack, but he's apparently not being charged with assault or battery.

New York City news anchor Greg Kelly, son of NYC Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, has been cleared of rape charges. Now some are clamoring for prosecutors to charge his accuser.

But the accuser -- identified as Maria Di Toro, a 29-year-old paralegal -- will not be charged with making a false rape claim, a district attorney spokeswoman told the New York Daily News. The spokeswoman did not elaborate.

Even without criminal charges, Maria Di Toro could still face a civil lawsuit. But experts say there are reasons Greg Kelly may not want to pursue that.

A Brooklyn teacher's aide faces more federal charges in connection with a growing child-pornography scandal. Taleek Brooks made child-porn videos with students, possibly at Public School 243 where he worked, prosecutors allege.

Brooks, 40, was charged last month with possession and distribution of child pornography, The New York Times reports. He was arrested again Monday after investigators found some allegedly abusive videos at his home.

The videos show Brooks touching a young boy's genitals and spanking a naked child at P.S. 243 in Crown Heights, The Times reports. Parents are shocked.

CA Mom in Meth Breast Milk Case Pleads Guilty

Maggie Wortman pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter on Monday, bringing the meth breast milk case one step closer to its end. The California mother was charged in the death of her 6-week-old son, who died of methamphetamine toxicity in November 2010.

The child had ingested Wortman's breast milk after she smoked the drug. Prosecutors believe medical professionals warned her of the dangers when she tested positive for meth while 6 months pregnant.

The plea also covers a parole violation and a misdemeanor child endangerment charge from 2009, reports the Times-Standard of Eureka.

'Bucket List' Police Chase Costs Man $1K Fine

John Hughes -- no, not that John Hughes -- wondered what it would be like to be in a high-speed police chase.

The 55-year-old led police on a car chase through Butte, Montana early Thursday morning, hitting speeds of over 100 mph. He wasn't drunk, on drugs, or wanted for a crime.

When confused officers asked about his motives, he told them, "I just always wanted to do that." He did it for fun -- a bucket list police chase, if you will.

Crime Push App Can Cut Crime Via Your Smartphone

Ever wish you could report crime on your smartphone? Now you can. The Crime Push app offers a new way to get in touch with police.

With a few simple taps, you can send officers a wide array of information.

The application will allow you to include the location of the crime, any photos, audio, or video. You can also send in a text description. All of this information is sent to police officers who can then pursue the culprits.

UVA Lacrosse Murder Trial Begins for George Huguely

Jury selection in the George Huguely trial began Monday after the former University of Virginia lacrosse player pleaded not guilty to murder. He's being charged in the 2010 death of his ex-girlfriend, lacrosse star Yeardley Love.

The murder shocked the college town of Charlottesville, Va., where Love was found beaten and face-down in a pool of blood. The incident led police to Huguely, who has been charged with first degree murder and five other crimes.

2nd Miramonte Elementary Teacher Arrested for Child Abuse

A second Miramonte Elementary teacher has been arrested days for child abuse days after Mark Berndt's arrest. Now Martin Bernard Springer, 49, was arrested on suspicion that he fondled two girls.

Berndt's arrest shocked Los Angeles after charges he made children play a "tasting game" with his semen while blindfolded.

Springer, meanwhile, allegedly touched two girls. One was 7 and the other 8. The incidents took place sometime during the last three years, reports USA Today.

An airport security screener's alleged departure from procedure will soon lead to her arrival in court. The TSA agent stole $5,000 from a passenger at New York's JFK airport in a brazen crime caught on tape, police say.

TSA agent Alexandra Schmid, 31, of Brooklyn, faces a charge of grand larceny, the New York Post reports.

Police arrested Schmid after a passenger complained that $5,000 was missing from his jacket Wednesday night. The passenger had placed the jacket on an X-ray machine conveyor belt for screening, the Post reports.

A check of the airport's surveillance-camera video revealed the alleged culprit.

FL Mom Told Daughter to Bite, Hit Girl Harder

A Florida mom set up a fight between her daughter and another girl. She is now facing criminal charges. Sandra Padilla Miranda, 38, organized the duel for her 17-year-old teen daughter.

She arranged the altercation with her daughter's 14-year-old classmate. The two girls both attend a local high school.

The 14-year-old teen said she was contacted by Miranda to come to her apartment complex after school. When she arrived there was a crowd. That's when the punches -- and goading -- started.

A former Los Angeles teacher accused in a sickening child abuse scandal is being held in lieu of $23 million bail.

Mark Berndt, 61, is charged with committing lewd acts against 23 boys and girls, ages 7 to 10. More charges may be coming, as five more alleged victims have stepped forward, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Berndt allegedly made students play a "tasting game" while blindfolded in his class at Los Angeles' Miramonte Elementary School, the Times reports. The "game" allegedly involved feeding children his semen.

No One Deserves 2 years in Solitary for a DWI

Prison officials in Dona Ana County forgot about Stephen Slevin. They tossed him in a New Mexico jail cell and paid him little attention for two years.

During those two years, his mental health would deteriorate. He would receive little to no psychiatric treatment. He would have to pull his own tooth.

This all happened after Slevin was picked up for driving while intoxicated.

He was never convicted.

SAT Cheating Should Be a Crime: NY Bill

In response to last year's SAT cheating scandal, state Senator Kenneth LaValle has proposed a bill that would make cheating on the SAT a felony in New York.

If passed, the SAT cheating bill would formally criminalize the "facilitation of education testing fraud" and "scheming to defraud educational testing." Such a law would punish students who pay an impersonator and the impersonators themselves.

Can New York do this?