FindLaw Blotter - The FindLaw Crime and Criminals Blog

April 2016 Archives

Ohio Police Unravel Family Massacre, Slowly

Last week eight members of one family, the Rhodens, were executed in Ohio, in four different homes on the same night. Local authorities still haven't found the killer or killers, and all of Pike County, the rural Ohio region where the slayings took place, is reportedly on edge.

There is reason to believe that the murders may have had to do with illegal marijuana growing operations allegedly discovered on the properties where the Rhodens were murdered. There are also stories in the media about the Rhoden family teenage boys being fighters. But despite massive law enforcement efforts, the investigation is moving slowly, writes ABC News, and little is known for sure.

Is It Illegal to Tell Someone to Commit Suicide?

There's a case in Massachusetts juvenile criminal court that's creepier than most horror movies. It's the bizarre story of a suicidal teenager and his girlfriend who texted encouragement while he killed himself.

She is 17-year-old Michelle Carter, and she faces involuntary manslaughter charges for her electronic missives, telling Conrad Roy III, "The time is right and you're ready." The case is alarming for what it may say about communication today but also, reports Vice, because of the legal issues it raises.

New Focus on Rape Kits and Sexual Assault Victim Rights

This month the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously passed a bill to standardize the rights of sexual assault victims and improve prosecution of sex crimes. That federal legislation, introduced by New Hampshire's Senator Jeanne Shaheen, shone a light on rape kit reform throughout the country.

This week, Governor Nathan Deal signed a bill to ensure the timely testing of sexual assault evidence in Georgia, for example. Shaheen's federal bill focused on this type of evidence, and the grueling legal process for sexual assault victims trying to keep track of their rape kits in the criminal justice system. A key feature of The Sexual Assault Survivors' Rights Act that Shaheen introduced is a provision giving victims comprehensive information about their legal options, particularly with respect to rape kits, or forensic evidence collected after an assault.

Sure, you can physically hand your ID or driver's license to your friend. And your friend may hold it in her hands momentarily, while pointing and laughing at the goofy look you're sporting in the picture. That friend can even pass it to another friend, while pointing and laughing and saying, "Look!" All of that is perfectly legal.

It's normally what happens after you give a friend your ID that matters.

Dennis Hastert Sentenced to 15 Months for Past Child Molestation

You cannot judge a person's character or qualities by their title or standing in society, and Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert is proof positive of this. The longest-serving Republican Speaker of the US House of Representatives today admitted to abusing at least one student while he was a high school wrestling coach decades ago.

The admission came during a sentencing hearing on his plea of guilty to charges of illegally structuring bank withdrawals to evade reporting rules for large transactions. The money Hastert was hiding was being paid to a man who says the Former Speaker abused him sexually when he was a 14 years old.

3 Flint Authorities Criminally Charged for Water Crisis: More to Come?

Politicians in Flint, Michigan are waiting and no doubt worrying. Last week criminal charges were filed against three men involved in the water crisis there. Mike Glasgow, Stephen Busch, and Mike Prysby face years in prison if convicted, according to CNN, and they are the first government workers criminally charged in relation to the water crisis.

Governor Rick Snyder responded to the move saying that due process will reveal whether anyone acted criminally. Indeed, that is the goal of the probe being led by State Attorney General Bill Schuette, who says that the charges filed last week are only the beginning of his investigation. "No one is above the law, not on my watch," Schuette said.

Just because they're legal doesn't mean they can't get you in trouble. Prescription drug overdoses reached an all time high in 2014, when there were more deaths from prescription drugs than from cocaine and heroin combined. And prescription drugs can be just as addictive as illicit drugs, leading to similar instances of criminal behavior surrounding use, abuse, manufacture, and sale.

Here are five things you need to know about criminal law and prescription drugs:

The city of Cleveland has agreed to pay $6 million to the family of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old shot and killed by police officer Timothy Loehmann in 2014. Rice was in a park playing with a toy gun when he was shot.

It is the latest in a series of million-dollar settlements following deadly police shootings, and the latest chapter in Cleveland's own history of police violence and lawsuits.

Can I Get Arrested at Home?

You may feel safe at home, but it's not actually an arrest-free zone. The basis for an arrest is probable cause, and police can have probable cause to arrest a person pretty much anywhere, depending on the activities observed or whether they have a warrant, and other factors.

The question then is not the location of an arrest but the basis for it. Let's examine probable cause and consider how you could get busted at home.

Virginia Governor Orders Felon Voting Rights Restored

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe signed an order restoring voting rights to over 200,000 felons in that state. The order applies to both violent and non-violent felons and extends to the right to vote, to sit on a jury, to serve in elected office or to become a notary, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Republican critics are not happy. The rights restoration move is seen by critics as highly political, an effort on McAuliffe's part to boost Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign in November, as Virginia is a swing state. Let's examine.

All rape is bad. Raping a person is bad and witnessing a rape and doing nothing makes you a bad person. But witnessing a rape and deciding, "Yeah, I need to livestream this" makes you a bad and dumb person.

Raymond Boyd Gates is the bad person who allegedly raped a 17-year-old. Marina Alexeevna Lonina is the bad and dumb person who allegedly livestreamed the rape on Periscope. Fortunately, both bad people are currently in jail and have been indicted for crimes that could keep them there for 40 years.

Do Liquor Stores Increase Neighborhood Violent Crime?

Liquor stores are hot spots, attracting crime to a neighborhood "the way honey attracts flies," according to Susan Cheever. She is the prize-winning writer of a memoir on alcoholism recovery and the daughter of a great American storyteller whose work explored the pleasures and perils of booze extensively.

Writing in The Fix, an addiction recovery publication, Susan Cheever examined studies from around the US and the world, concluding that there is a direct link between a liquor store in a neighborhood and the number of homicides that occur nearby, among other alarming things. She makes a case for closing liquor stores altogether. Let's consider it.

5 Questions for Your Criminal Defense Attorney

If you have been accused of a crime and are looking for a criminal defense lawyer, you should consult with a few attorneys. That may sound costly and time consuming but it need not be -- many lawyers consult for free or a minimal fee and will be happy to discuss your case.

Talking to a few different attorneys will give you a sense of your prospective lawyers' different styles, fees, and experience. These questions will help you figure out what you need.

Rape Kit Basics: Collecting Forensic Evidence

In the best of worlds we would not discuss rape kits because there would be no need for such things. But according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RANIN) there are more than a quarter million sexual assaults a year in the US, and every 107 seconds someone is sexually assaulted. Nearly half of the victims are reportedly under 18.

That means we do need rape kits and we should know something about this tool of forensic evidence. So, let's familiarize ourselves with the basics of rape kits -- what are they for, what is in them, how they are used, and by whom.

Distracted Driving: Would You Pass a Textalyzer?

Drunk driving has the breathalyzer and soon distracted driving may have the textalyzer, a device that allows police to measure phone use of those involved in car accidents. The device has not been perfected and is only now being considered by New York lawmakers.

The textalyzer will help police determine whether to proceed with a criminal case after analysis of pre-accident phone use. The device's creation was inspired by 19-year-old Evan Lieberman who died in a car crash with a distracted driver, reports the American Bar Association Journal. The law under consideration in New York, Evan's Law, is reportedly the first of its kind in the country.

For smokers, stoners, tokers, vapers, and now edible nibblers, tomorrow is a national holiday on par with Christmas, Thanksgiving, and New Year's Eve all rolled into one giant doobie, lit, puffed, and passed to the left. Every year, 4/20 celebrations around the country get bigger and bigger, as marijuana becomes more and more legal.

Does that mean you have the right to blaze wherever you want on 4/20? Not quite. The feds still outlaw weed (though maybe not for long) and even in states where recreational pot is legal, being high in public may not be (though we don't expect that to stop all of you). What else do you need to know about marijuana possession and use on 4/20? Here's a quick rundown:

As we have explained here before: Facebook threats can get you arrested; Twitter threats can get you arrested; and even one-word text threats can get you arrested. So as teens abandon these modes of communication in favor of the image messaging app Snapchat, it's probably a good idea to let them know that yes, Snapchat threats can get your arrested.

Modesto, California police arrested two California high school students after they posted a video on Snapchat, aimed at a black classmate, complete with noose, the words "You must die motherf***er," and an image of a gun being fired at the viewer. Here's what the students are charged with:

Real Handgun 'Nintendo Duck Hunt Zapper' Is a Safety Threat

Adults know a gun is not a toy but when a Texas custom gun maker modified a Glock to look like a classic video game weapon this month, many critics worried kids would not. The "Nintendo Glock" caused such an uproar that Precision Syndicate was forced to clarify that it was not going to mass produce the firearm made to look like Nintendo's Duck Hunt Zapper.

Most of the negative comments about the gun came from people concerned about children being confused by the guns and police safety and responses as the line between toys and deadly weapons grows finer. But there will be only one such gun made by Precision Syndicate, says the company.

Pennsylvania Legislature Votes to Legalize Medical Marijuana

Pennsylvania legislators voted overwhelmingly this week to pass a medical marijuana bill into law, joining the growing group of states to legalize weed in a limited fashion. And it is very limited indeed in Pennsylvania, but the new legislation will address the needs of those who pressed hardest for its passage, a group of parents.

The Pennsylvania medical marijuana law was sought by parents of epileptic children with debilitating seizures, some of whom went door to door trying to convince fellow citizens of the need for this legislation to be approved for over a year. Let's look at the details.

A Texas judge sentenced Ethan Couch to a tentative 720-day jail sentence related to the "Affluenza" teen's probation conditions stemming from his 2013 drunken driving accident that killed four people and injured two more. Couch celebrated his last teenage birthday in the maximum security Lon Evans Correctional Center in downtown Fort Worth, Texas, and could spend his remaining teenage days there.

But District Judge Wayne Salvant did give Couch's attorneys two weeks to come up with an argument to reduce the jail sentence. Can they do it?

Hope for the Wrongfully Convicted: Exonerations Are on the Rise

Last year more than 151 people were exonerated after spending an average of 15 years in prison, despite being innocent. Some were sentenced to death and pardoned before the ultimate punishment.

This reveals something about the criminal justice system. That is why, according to the National Registry of Exonerations at the University of Michigan Law School, increasingly even prosecuting offices are focusing on innocence to regain public trust. What does that mean for all of us or you individually if you've been falsely convicted?

How Small Crimes Get You Jail Time

If you have no contact with the criminal justice system, you might think jail is for bad people who commit vicious crimes. That's not quite right.

Jail is where people often go after an arrest, and it is where people serve sentences on misdemeanors (beyond a year of incarceration is a felony and it's off to prison). But people get arrested for all kinds of things, and some of them might surprise you.

Tennessee Gang Enhancement Statute Found Unconstitutional

In an effort to target gang violence, states create statutes that punish gang-related crime more severely than other offenses. Enhancement statutes are used as a tool in plea negotiations by prosecutors and in sentencing by judges.

But now one such law in Tennessee has been struck down as overly-broad and unconstitutional, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel, which means that defendants sentenced under this statute will need new hearings. Let's look at why it was unconstitutional and who might get a new hearing.

Guilty Until Proven Innocent: Man Cleared of Crimes After Decades in Prison

No one can give Keith Allen Harward back the decades he spent in prison but DNA evidence has helped him to win his freedom. Harward is 60 years old, a former sailor in the US Navy who was convicted of killing a man and raping his wife in 1982, according to NBC News.

He spent over 30 years incarcerated in Virginia prisons before the state Supreme Court unanimously found that he was innocent. The State Attorney General Mark Herring, who joined a brief petitioning the Supreme Court to issue a writ of actual innocence, called the ruling "wonderful news."

If you're going to come into contact with law enforcement, it's likely to be over a traffic offense. Anyone who's been pulled over for speeding, rolling a stop sign, or texting while driving can tell you it's not a fun experience, mostly because we don't know what will happen next.

But because traffic tickets are fairly common, they tend to follow the same pattern, and there are some general legal principles typical of most traffic offenses. Here are five of the most frequently asked traffic ticket questions:

The Legalize It crowd got a bit of a boost last week, as news outlets published a letter from the Drug Enforcement Administration to Sen. Elizabeth Warren. In it, the DEA said it will review marijuana's status as a Schedule 1 banned substance, sometime before the middle of this year.

The DEA has performed these reviews before, but never in a climate so conducive to reclassification, with major newspapers calling for the agency to move pot to a "less restrictive category that better reflects both its danger and the undeniable facts on the ground -- that nearly half the states in the nation allow the use of cannabis for medical purposes, and several allow it to be used recreationally." So is the DEA about to decriminalize weed?

What Is a Gang Injunction?

We increasingly hear about gang injunctions on the news, but what do they do and why are they so controversial? An injunction is a court order, generally speaking. A gang injunction is a court order targeting a specific group that prosecutors have deemed a public nuisance.

The practice of seeking these injunctions has come under fire from civil rights groups and some cities have paid a high price for using these orders as a criminal justice shortcut. Let's explore.

Yes, the First Amendment protects our freedom of speech. But there are still things you can't say. Obviously threatening to kill someone, especially the president, is a no-no, and as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously wrote, "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic."

So how are free speech rights balanced when it comes to interacting with police? Given the heightened tensions between officers and civilians, an increase in interactions at protests and demonstrations, and a rise in awareness and curiosity about legal rights when coming in contact with cops, exactly what you can, and can't, say to police officers has become a hot topic. Here are your general boundaries when it comes to swearing or yelling at police officers:

Can I Be Extradited on an Out-of-State Warrant?

You are wanted in one state but live in another and you're curious about whether you can be arrested on an out-of-state warrant. The answer is yes, technically, in most situations.

But whether you will actually be arrested and extradited to the state where the warrant was issued will depend on several factors. States and counties allocate different amounts of resources to different aspects of law enforcement based on their priorities, and extradition can be expensive. Not all warrants are equally important, although any warrant signals unresolved trouble, and thus should be addressed.

Every Halloween raises the specter of candy laced with drugs, or drugs made to look like candy, finding their way into children's trick or treat bags. (We know it's only April, but bear with us here.) The worry builds all October, and then most kids come home with the standard Snickers Mini and not some LSD-laced Starburst.

It would also help if parents and school administrators were familiar with what drugs look like -- much of the paranoia about drug-laced candy or candy replica drugs comes from a fear that drugs could look like anything or find their way into everything. Like a recent case near Sacramento, where school officials thought they found meth in a student's candy, when what they really found was a student carrying a tab of Ecstasy.

What Is the Penalty for Criminal Mischief?

Criminal mischief is an offense that covers a range of trouble, from playful misbehavior to malicious property destruction. Recently, for example, two teens in Alaska were charged with criminal mischief after negligently burning a love letter and starting a fire on school property. Meanwhile, in Michigan painting or sticking things on someone's property will get you arrested -- and the same goes for Texas.

Charged as either a misdemeanor or as a felony offense punishable with prison, depending on the state statute and extent of damage, criminal mischief involves the defacing and destruction of property. It's an interesting crime to consider lately especially as cultural notions of vandalism transform.

A group of local surfers in an affluent southern California beach town have been accused of operating like a criminal street gang, following threats, intimidation, and violence against outsiders trying to surf their break. A federal class-action lawsuit claims Lunada Bay Boys "not only confront and attack other (beachgoers), but also confront, threaten to kill, assault, vandalize property, extort, and bring harm to other persons."

Along with fines and damages, the lawsuit is seeking a gang injunction that would prevent the Bay Boys from congregating anywhere in Palos Verdes Estates, a city in Los Angeles County home to some killer waves and a $125,000 median income.

Criminal Law Definition: What Is an Aggravator?

The law has its own vocabulary, although often the words sound just like those we use in regular life. For example the word "aggravator" has a particular legal meaning in the context of criminal law, which is related to the way we use the word aggravation generally. Let's consider the term in the context of crime prosecution, where it arises during sentencing.

FCC Price Cap on Inmate Phone Calls Stalled, Talk Still Not Cheap

Inmates and their families have to pay to communicate, and some say the costs are so high and outrageous that they constitute a tax on the poor. Last year, in October, the Federal Communications Commission capped the costs of calling inmates, but the International Business Times reports that there are setbacks.

The setbacks reveal a lot about what was wrong with the jail and prison communication system to begin with. Mignon Clyburn, an FCC commissioner who led the charge for reform, has called the prison phone industry the "most egregious case of market failure" she has seen in her career. Here's why.

More and more states are legalizing marijuana. But some allow marijuana only for medicinal purposes, while others are legalizing it for recreational use. And a few jurisdictions have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, regardless of the use. At the same time, federal law still prohibits the manufacture, sale, or possession of any amount of marijuana.

This patchwork of laws can lead to a lot of questions regarding where, how, and why you can possess or use pot, and in some cases, what kind of pot you can use. Here's what you need to know:

Is Eyewitness Testimony Reliable When All Witnesses Agree?

If you've ever been a juror or watched a court case on television, you know that we rely on witness testimony to decide whether people are guilty. The more witnesses there are, and the more their stories agree with each other, the more likely it is that a jury will convict the defendant. Makes sense, right?

Well, not quite. A recent study has found that too much agreement amongst many witnesses might be proof that witnesses are lying, or at least recalling incorrectly, reports Vocativ. The magic number -- when it comes to witness agreement -- is three. Let's review the study.

It sounds like a euphemism that would make George Orwell proud -- calling a process by which law enforcement can seize a person's assets even though they haven't been (and may never be) convicted of a crime, "sharing." But the Department of Justice is resuming its controversial "Equitable Sharing Program," even amidst serious political opposition to the practice.

So how does the seizure process work, and do you have any legal recourse if cops confiscate your property?

To-Do List for Crime Victims

As a victim of crime, you have certain obligations and legal rights. That does not mean that you can personally press charges -- a common misconception -- but you are expected to do certain things to help the prosecution of the matter. You are also entitled to know certain things about the case if you keep the state informed of your whereabouts.

State laws vary but all states do have the obligations and rights of victims outlined. Let's take a look at an example for a better sense of what you can generally expect.