Louisiana judge accused of helping pretrial services company extort poor defendants

The ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center have filed a federal lawsuit in the Middle District of Louisiana, alleging that a Baton Rouge pretrial services company required hundreds of state inmates to pay “fees” far in excess of their court-ordered bail before they could be released from jail.  The lawsuit further alleges that the pretrial services company, Rehabilitation Home Incarceration (RHI), was actively assisted by state judge Trudy White. RHI apparently supported Judge White’s 2014 re-election bid.

Although RHI has no formal contract with the state court system, Judge White allegedly ordered more than 300 criminal defendants to complete RHI’s services in 2015 and 2016–without ever inquiring into each defendant’s financial status. RHI subsequently charged the defendants hundreds of dollars in fees for its services–including a $525 “signup fee.” As a result, the suit alleges, hundreds of defendants were forced to languish in jail while friends and family scrambled to raise the needed money.

At this point, these are only allegations.  But we will follow this lawsuit closely.  The caption is Ayo et al. v. Dunn. et al., Case No. 3:17-cv-526.

 

Are Ramadan arrests in Tunisia a sign of tyranny or judicial independence?

Five men have been arrested in two Tunisian cities in recent weeks for breaking the Ramadan fast.  Some are calling the arrests a violation of human rights and the imposition of religious tyranny.  But John Spacapan of the American Enterprise Institute thinks it might be a positive indicator of judicial independence:

The legal dispute over these arrests arises from a paradox in the Tunisian constitution: while the constitution ensures protection from religious persecution, Article 6 makes the government “the guardian of religion.” Local courts used this clause to justify jail sentences for violating Ramadan. The limit on this kind of action lies, in part, in the Tunisian judiciary and the ability of secularists to appeal the interpretation of Article 6, a path to a precedent-setting ruling by Tunisia’s Supreme Court.  In other words, an independent judiciary could be the key to establish the precedent of religious freedom essential to deepen the roots of Tunisia’s democracy.

The full article is an interesting read, and recommended.

A curious string of recusals in a New Mexico corruption case

One by one, eight state trial judges have recused themselves from presiding over a criminal case against a former New Mexico state senator.  Phil Griego was indicated in June on 22 counts, including perjury and embezzlement.  Among other things, Griego is alleged to have spent funds from his re-election account after resigning from the state senate in March 2015.

None of the eight judges identified a specific reason for recusing themselves from the case, with each indicating only “good cause” for the recusal.   The Santa Fe New Mexican reports:

Former state Supreme Court Justice Patricio Serna said one factor in the decision by so many Santa Fe judges to recuse themselves from Griego’s case might have been their role lobbying legislators for court funding.

If the need to obtain court funds from the legislature compromises judges to this extent,  interdependence can become a danger to the administration of justice.

 

 

New York appellate court affirms restrictions on juror anonymity

Under New York law, trial judges may withhold jurors’ addresses from the public and the parties if there is a concern for juror safety. The judge, however, may not withhold the names of jurors. A purely anonymous jury is thought to compromise due process for criminal defendants.

The New York Times reports that a state appellate court recently upheld these restrictions.  In a criminal trial involving four members of an alleged street gang, the trial court declined to provide juror names to counsel, identifying jurors only by number.  Defense lawyers objected, but the trial judge cited to jurors in previous cases who had expressed concerns about their safety. The defendants appealed.

This week, the appeals court sided with the defendants and granted them a new trial, holding that the trial court had violated the statute’s prohibition on purely anonymous juries.

Pennsylvania state court will not schedule criminal trials in July and August

The Luzerne County, Pennsylvania courts will not be scheduling criminal jury trials during the summer months, prompting concern from local officials about a potentially burgeoning prison population.

Scheduling criminal trials during the summer has become increasingly difficult because parties involved often have planned vacations, including attorneys, witnesses, experts who must provide testimony, and prospective jurors, Shucosky said.

Instead of being forced to continue proceedings due to scheduling conflicts, court officials opted to shift the focus and concentrate primarily on non-jury trials, guilty pleas and negotiated plea bargains during the two months, he said.

Court officials expect a large number of cases will be resolved through this effort, allowing some inmates to get out of prison or start serving sentences instead of awaiting adjudication. Many minor cases result in guilty pleas with a sentence of time already served, Shucosky noted.

Hmm.

 

Federal criminal prosecutions fall to lowest level since 1997

The Pew Research Center breaks down the latest statistics.  The drop was fueled by significant declines in prosecutions for drug, immigration, and property offenses.

The 3% drop in criminal filings last year was offset by a 5% increase in federal civil filings, so the federal district courts overall experienced a 3% increase in filings for Fiscal Year 2016.

New release of federal criminal justice data — only 3% of cases go to trial

The Bureau of Justice Statistics has released its newest data on the federal criminal justice system, from 2013-14.  Among the highlights:

  • During 2014, federal law enforcement made 165,265 arrests, a 12% decrease from 188,164 arrests in 2013.
  • In 2014, the five federal judicial districts along the U.S.-Mexico border accounted for 61% of federal arrests, 55% of suspects investigated, and 39% of offenders sentenced to federal prison.
  • There were 81,881 federal immigration arrests made in 2014—one-half of all federal arrests.
  • Ninety-one percent of felons in cases terminated in U.S. district court in 2014 were convicted as the result of a guilty plea, 6% were dismissed, and 3% received a jury or bench trial.

While the data themselves are about two years behind, they obviously inform current policy debates.  The entire statistical package also gives a better sense of the coordination between the federal courts and the DEA, U.S. Marshals, federal prison system, and federal prosecutors.