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Congress quietly ends federal government’s ban on medical marijuana

Tucked deep inside the 1,603-page federal spending measure is a provision that effectively ends the federal government’s prohibition on medical marijuana and signals a major shift in drug policy.

The bill’s passage over the weekend marks the first time Congress has approved nationally significant legislation backed by legalization advocates. It brings almost to a close two decades of tension between the states and Washington over medical use of marijuana.

Under the provision, states where medical pot is legal would no longer need to worry about federal drug agents raiding retail operations. Agents would be prohibited from doing so.

The Obama administration has largely followed that rule since last year as a matter of policy. But the measure approved as part of the spending bill, which President Obama plans to sign this week, will codify it as a matter of law.

Pot advocates had lobbied Congress to embrace the administration’s policy, which they warned was vulnerable to revision under a less tolerant future administration.

More important, from the standpoint of activists, Congress’ action marked the emergence of a new alliance in marijuana politics: Republicans are taking a prominent role in backing states’ right to allow use of a drug the federal government still officially classifies as more dangerous than cocaine.

“This is a victory for so many,” said the measure’s coauthor, Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of Costa Mesa. The measure’s approval, he said, represents “the first time in decades that the federal government has curtailed its oppressive prohibition of marijuana.”

The war on medical marijuana is over. Now the fight moves on to legalization of all marijuana.– Bill Piper, a lobbyist with the Drug Policy Alliance

By now, 32 states and the District of Columbia have legalized pot or its ingredients to treat ailments, a movement that began in the 1990s. Even back then, some states had been approving broader decriminalization measures for two decades.

The medical marijuana movement has picked up considerable momentum in recent years. The Drug Enforcement Administration, however, continues to place marijuana in the most dangerous category of narcotics, with no accepted medical use.

Congress for years had resisted calls to allow states to chart their own path on pot. The marijuana measure, which forbids the federal government from using any of its resources to impede state medical marijuana laws, was previously rejected half a dozen times. When Washington, D.C., voters approved medical marijuana in 1998, Congress used its authority over the city’s affairs to block the law from taking effect for 11 years.

Even as Congress has shifted ground on medical marijuana, lawmakers remain uneasy about full legalization. A separate amendment to the spending package, tacked on at the behest of anti-marijuana crusader Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), will jeopardize the legalization of recreational pot in Washington, D.C., which voters approved last month.

Marijuana proponents nonetheless said they felt more confident than ever that Congress was drifting toward their point of view.

“The war on medical marijuana is over,” said Bill Piper, a lobbyist with the Drug Policy Alliance, who called the move historic.

“Now the fight moves on to legalization of all marijuana,” he said. “This is the strongest signal we have received from Congress [that] the politics have really shifted. … Congress has been slow to catch up with the states and American people, but it is catching up.”

The measure, which Rohrabacher championed with Rep. Sam Farr, a Democrat from Carmel, had the support of large numbers of Democrats for years. Enough Republicans joined them this year to put it over the top. When the House first passed the measure earlier this year, 49 Republicans voted aye.

Some Republicans are pivoting off their traditional anti-drug platform at a time when most voters live in states where medical marijuana is legal, in many cases as a result of ballot measures.

Polls show that while Republican voters are far less likely than the broader public to support outright legalization, they favor allowing marijuana for medical use by a commanding majority. Legalization also has great appeal to millennials, a demographic group with which Republicans are aggressively trying to make inroads.

Approval of the pot measure comes after the Obama administration directed federal prosecutors last year to stop enforcing drug laws that contradict state marijuana policies. Since then, federal raids of marijuana merchants and growers who are operating legally in their states have been limited to those accused of other violations, such as money laundering.

Read Full Article – http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-medical-pot-20141216-story.html

 

Syrian Refugees To Arrive in Texas Despite Governor’s Lawsuit

A legal standoff will not stop the ongoing resettlement

Three Syrian refugee families—including a dozen children between the ages of two and 15—will arrive in Dallas and Houston this week, despite Texas’s on-going lawsuit challenging the federal government’s process in resettling Syrian refugees in the state.

The Obama administration said in a court filing on Friday that a family of six Syrian refugees, who were originally scheduled to arrive in Dallas on Dec. 4 , will now arrive Monday, after spending the weekend in New York. A second family of six is also expected to arrive in Houston Monday. A third, eight-member family, as well as a 26-year-old woman whose mother has already been placed in the area, are expected in arrive in Houston on Thursday.

Last week, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, with the backing of Governor Greg Abbott, filed a lawsuit requesting an immediate order blocking the arrival of all new Syrian refugeesin the state, in light of “reasonable concerns about the safety and security of the citizenry of the state of Texas.”

Two days later, on Dec. 4, Paxton’s office said it would no longer seek an immediate order blocking the arrival of the refugees, but said it would continue with the lawsuit pressing federal authorities to provide more information on those already slated for resettlement in Texas. Paxton rolled back his initial demand after federal authorities provided state officials with demographic information about the Syrian families arriving today, according to his office.

The shift, however, which came just hours before a federal judge was expected to rule on the case, did not sit well with some Texas conservatives. Abbott’s office remained quiet about the decision, which one Texas official told TIME was “not the governor’s first choice.” Abbott has since said publicly that he opposes accepting any more Syrian refugees on the grounds that the background check process is “inadequate.”

Katherine Wise, a spokeswoman for Paxton, told TIME that the attorney general’s office will continue to pursue a lawsuit against both the federal government and the International Rescue Committee, a non-profit that works to resettle refugees, to determine whether federal authorities are complying with the requirements under the 1980 Refugee Act. The state argues that the law requires federal authorities to regularly consult with, and provide information to, state and local officials in advance of resettling refugees in those localities.

Read Full Article – http://time.com/4138560/texas-syrian-refugees-court-battle/

Don’t Change the Legal Rule on Intent

Congress is achingly close to passing broad, bipartisan legislation that would reform the federal criminal justice system. There is widespread agreement among liberals and conservatives that many parts of the system — particularly federal drug sentencing laws — are overly harsh and fall disproportionately on minorities.

So it is troubling that the whole enterprise may now be in jeopardy because of an unrelated issue: the dispute over whether prosecutors should be required to prove that corporate defendants knowingly violated laws protecting, among other things, the environment and public health and safety.

While most criminal laws require the government to prove “mens rea,” or intent on the part of the defendant, some do not, and the proposed change would apply indiscriminately to all of those. Ignorance of the law is generally not an excuse for breaking it, and it certainly should not be turned into an excuse when the action inflicts serious harm to large numbers of people or to the environment.

Leading the charge to change the standard are the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and Koch Industries, the conglomerate owned by David and Charles Koch, who have also supported the wider criminal-justice reforms.

If the new provision becomes law, corporate actors could avoid prosecution by claiming, as they commonly do now, that they didn’t know what they were doing was illegal. And corporations that now go to great lengths to train employees on their legal responsibilities would have far less incentive to do so.

The proposed provision would require that prosecutors prove that a defendant “knew, or had reason to believe, the conduct was unlawful,” if a “reasonable person” would not have had reason to believe it was unlawful. This confusing standard would create endless litigation as the government and defendants argued over how, exactly, to meet it in each new case.

If anything, it is still too hard for prosecutors to go after corporate bad actors who endanger the health and safety of the public or the environment. And when they do bring charges, they’re generally doing so with good reason. A University of Michigan study examining almost 700 prosecutions brought under federal environmental laws between 2005 and 2010 found that virtually all involved one or more of the following: repeat violations of the law, deceptive or misleading conduct, a refusal to follow regulations at all, or actions that caused significant harm to the environment or to public health.

It is true that many federal laws are sloppily drafted, and some may need to be re-examined and rewritten. But a broad, sloppy fix is not a solution, especially when it is pushed through without meaningful deliberation.

Bipartisan agreement on any major legislative package is a rare and fragile thing these days. Congressional leaders should not allow the proposed “mens rea” provision to scuttle criminal-justice reforms the nation desperately needs.

 

Police used apparently illegal wiretaps to make hundreds of arrests

Brad Heath and Brett Kelman, USA TODAY

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Prosecutors in the Los Angeles suburb responsible for a huge share of the nation’s wiretaps almost certainly violated federal law when they authorized widespread eavesdropping that police used to make more than 300 arrests and seize millions of dollars in cash and drugs throughout the USA.

The violations could undermine the legality of as many as 738 wiretaps approved in Riverside County, Calif., since the middle of 2013, an investigation by USA TODAY and The Desert Sun, based on interviews and court records, has found. Prosecutors reported that those taps, often conducted by federal drug investigators, intercepted phone calls and text messages by more than 52,000 people.

Federal law bars the government from seeking court approval for a wiretap unless a top prosecutor has personally authorized the request. Congress added that restriction in the 1960s, when the FBI had secretly monitored civil rights leaders, to ensure that such intrusive surveillance would not be conducted lightly.

In Riverside County — a Los Angeles suburb whose  court and prosecutors approved almost one of every five U.S. wiretaps last year — the district attorney  turned the job of reviewing the applications over to lower-level lawyers, interviews and court records show. That practice almost certainly violated the federal wiretapping law and could jeopardize prosecutors’ ability to use the surveillance in court.

“A district attorney is playing with gunpowder if he ignores the potential implications of letting somebody else handle the entire process. That’s potentially catastrophic,” said Clifford Fishman, a Catholic University of America law professor who studies wiretapping.

That also  creates a legal problem for Riverside’s massive wiretapping operation, which had  come under scrutiny from Justice Department lawyers. Last week, USA TODAY and The Desert Sun reported that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration had secretly helped turn the county into the nation’s wiretap capital, even though federal prosecutors repeatedly warned that the surveillance orders violated a separate part of the wiretapping law and would not withstand a legal challenge.

Federal drug agents used information from Riverside wiretaps to make arrests as far away as Kentucky and Virginia, sometimes concealing the surveillance from judges and defense lawyers.

Wiretaps in Riverside more than quadrupled under the county’s former district attorney, Paul Zellerbach, who left office in January. Despite a federal court ruling that only the district attorney himself should usually approve wiretaps, Zellerbach said in two interviews over the past month that he could not recall having reviewed or personally authorized any of the county’s wiretap applications and said he was unaware of the details of the requests. Instead, he said, he delegated that job to one of his assistants.

“I didn’t have time to review all of those,” Zellerbach said. “No way.”

Because wiretap applications are secret, it is difficult to gauge how often they were approved by other lawyers. A report based on information Zellerbach’s office submitted to federal court administrators lists an assistant, Jeffrey Van Wagenen, as the person who authorized nearly all of the county’s wiretap applications. Van Wagenen’s signature appears on a sealed wiretap application approved last year by a Riverside County judge and obtained by USA TODAY. Van Wagenen, who left the office last year, said it would be inappropriate for him to comment.

Delegating that job poses a legal problem because federal law — which regulates wiretap applications even in state courts — carefully restricts who must approve a surveillance request. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1974 that those restrictions were serious enough that it threw out wiretap evidence in a drug case because the surveillance had been approved by the wrong senior official at the U.S. Justice Department.

The federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reiterated that point in 2013 after federal prosecutors sought to use evidence from a wiretap police obtained from a state court in San Bernardino County, just north of Riverside. The prosecutor who signed off on the wiretap was not the county’s district attorney, Mike Ramos, but one of his deputies. That, the appeals court ruled, wasn’t good enough: Wiretaps had to be signed by the district attorney himself unless he had turned over all of his powers to someone else while he was away from the office.

Read Full Article – http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2015/11/19/riverside-county-wiretaps-violated-federal-law/76064908/