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Bexar County D.A. ducks accountability by shutting out newspaper

Bexar Co. DA Nico LaHood
Office of the Bexar County Criminal District Attorney

Bexar County D.A. ducks accountability by shutting out newspaper

Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood is refusing to talk to the San Antonio Express-News and is blocking them from attending press conferences that he holds. The Express-News is the fourth-largest daily newspaper in the state of Texas in terms of circulation and a leading news source for South Texas. Bexar County is the seventh-most populous county in the nation and the fourth-most populated in Texas.

According to the Express-News, LaHood didn’t inform the paper that two press conferences were occurring, and then refused to allow reporters and photographers from the paper in when they showed up. LaHood and his spokesperson are also not returning phone calls from the newspaper.

The animus appears to run deep. LaHood accused the newspaper of dishonesty in a Facebook post last year.

“If I am not expected to tolerate bad behavior from criminals, then I cannot tolerate bad behavior from unethical journalism,” LaHood said, specifically expressing anger at a column where a defense lawyer was quoted as calling LaHood a bully.

The Express-News has written several other critical stories about LaHood, including an allegation that he threatened to destroy the legal practice of two defense lawyers if they publicly made allegations that a prosecutor was having a sexual relationship with a key witness in a murder case. A state district judge backed the defense lawyers and said LaHood made the threat in her presence.

The powerful role of the district attorney is an increasingly frequent conversation. By boxing out reporters and photographers from his county’s biggest newspaper, LaHood is curtailing access, which runs the dangerous risk of making himself and his office less accessible and transparent. As the Express-News editorial page said “Whether you love or hate the media, blocking their access at any level by any public official infringes on the First Amendment and a free press. That, in turn, impinges on your right to information.”

Las Vegas area cops seizing millions of dollars from low-income people of color

Las Vegas area cops seizing millions of dollars from low-income people of color

Between July 2015 and June 2016, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) made $1.9 million from civil asset forfeiture, the law enforcement practice of seizing cash and property from members of the public and forcing them to legally forfeit those belongings. Now, evidence shows that the funds came from low-income, predominately non-white neighborhoods.

According to a new report by the Nevada Policy Research Institute (NPRI), forfeiture took place in one-fourth of the zip codes under LVMPD’s purview. The targeted zip codes have both the highest rates of poverty and the highest percentages of non-white residents.

Nevada law only allows forfeiture of seized goods to occur when a person is convicted of a crime. Once they are found guilty, owners of the money or property have the opportunity to fight for their belongings in a civil court. They simply have to prove that the seized assets weren’t related to the crime. But the people targeted by Las Vegas police are generally unable to afford legal counsel to fight for their belongings, which are typically worth less than the price of an attorney, NPRI reports.

The organization concludes that civil asset forfeiture is “regressive in nature.”

“It targets the poorest, most racially-diverse areas in Clark County, and often the individuals caught within the web of forfeiture lack the knowledge and resources to effectively combat it, even in those instances where little evidence exists against them,” the report states. “The evidence therefore supports the position that the practice of civil asset forfeiture should be abolished completely.”

Just as law enforcement officials have railed against reform efforts and touted the virtues of the practice nationwide, local police and prosecutors argue that civil asset forfeiture has merit. They say it is a way to crack down on a robust drug trade in the state.

“(A driver is) going to say, ‘Well, that’s my money,’ and we’ll say, ‘That’s fine, give us your bank accounts, IRA, tax statements,’” Thomas Moreo, the chief deputy district attorney of Clark County, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal last year. “All of a sudden he has to start naming people. ‘I’m working for Joe Blow’s company.’ That gives us a name.”

But the fact that people are shaken down for money and other assets worth less than $1,000 indicates that they aren’t big-time drug traders with wads of cash.

For years, Moreo has also insisted that there is a fair court process by which assets are seized and forfeited. “This is a difficult concept to grasp if you believe that we take property or money from people. That is not what happens,” he told a state senate committee in 2015. During the committee meeting, he explained that the seized assets are held in court — not in the hands of cops or prosecutors — until a criminal case is finalized. If a defendant is found innocent, he or she gets those assets back. If the defendant is guilty, there is a legal mechanism to fight for the belongings. But the NPRI report shows that this type of legal action is easier said than done.

While the new report focuses on the LVMPD, the Nevada Attorney General Office from which NPRI pulled some of its data shows that civil asset forfeiture is lucrative for law enforcement officers in other parts of Clark County as well. Two police departments outside of Las Vegas made around $650,000 during the same time period analyzed in NPRI’s report.

Due to law enforcement pressure to maintain the status quo, changes to the state’s forfeiture law aren’t likely to be made soon. Early this year, a Democratic senator in the state legislature — who also serves as a deputy district attorney in Clark County — recently helped kill a reform bill dead in its tracks.

Thanks to Josie Duffy Rice.

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Judges matter when it comes to treating kids like kids

Cuyahoga River, Cleveland, OH

Judges matter when it comes to treating kids like kids

Cuyahoga County prosecutor Michael O’Malley attempted to try a 15-year-old boy accused of murder as an adult. The child was accused of shooting 16-year-old Alexander Mullins in an abandoned building in Cleveland’s Slavic Village. O’Malley’s effort to try the child in adult court was rejected by Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court Judge Alison Floyd, who found that the child still had a chance at rehabilitation.

Judge Floyd’s ruling will have massive consequences for the boy. If he’s convicted in juvenile court, the child would have to be released from a youth prison by the time he’s 21. If he’d been tried and convicted as an adult, the child could have faced life in prison with parole eligibility after 20 years.

According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “Floyd held a hearing June 20 and later found that the boy is emotionally mature enough to be transferred to adult court. But he has no previous convictions in juvenile court and Floyd believes there is still enough time before he turns 18 for the juvenile system to rehabilitate him.”

While Ohio law left the final decision in the hands of a judge, in many other states O’Malley would have been free to prosecute the child in adult court without input from or review by a court. In those jurisdictions, it is left up to the prosecutor to determine whether to initiate a case against a child in juvenile court or in adult criminal court (by way of a method called “direct file”).

“With direct file, there’s no opportunity for it to go before a judge to make that very important decision on whether or not a child should be prosecuted as an adult,” said Nisha Ajmani, a lawyer and program manager at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in a 2016 Atlantic article that looked at efforts in California to end the practice.

Ajmani said a judge should be part of the of the process because prosecutors, among other things, may be more focused on appearing “tough on crime” rather than fully exploring a juvenile’s maturity and capacity for rehabilitation.

Florida’s direct file practice has generated the most attention, with the Marshall Project saying that the state is the worst in the nation when it comes to prosecuting children as adults. Human Rights Watch has reported that during a five-year period, over 12,000 children were sent to Florida’s adult courts. Notably, Human Rights Watch determined that “more than 60 percent of the juveniles Florida transferred to adult court during this period were charged with nonviolent felonies. Only 2.7 percent were prosecuted for murder.”

According to HRW’s report, there is also statistical evidence that children of color in Florida were more likely to be direct filed than white juveniles: “Our analysis reveals that black boys make up 27.2 percent of children received by the juvenile justice system (arrested and initially sent for processing to the Department of Juvenile Justice), but account for 51.4 percent of transfers to the adult system. White boys make up 28 percent of children received by the juvenile justice system, but account for only 24.4 percent of transfers.”

Heavy criticism of direct filing led both California and Vermont to recently abandon the practice in their states. Reform efforts in Florida, however, died in the legislature this past spring.

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