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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.

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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Prosecutorial misconduct in DE renders guilty plea unconstitutional

Delaware Coat of Arms
Wikimedia Commons

Prosecutorial misconduct in DE renders guilty plea unconstitutional

When a defendant pleads guilty, he must do so “knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily.” Whether those requirements are undermined when prosecutors withhold information concerning the credibility of a key witness was explored in a recent decision by Judge Richard Stokes of the Superior Court of Delaware.

On February 19, 2016, Michael Coverdale came to court on heroin-related criminal charges. During the February 19 hearing, Coverdale’s attorney informed the court that the State had just disclosed that the its forensic chemist, Dr. Bipin Mody, had resigned. Defense counsel said that he understood that Mody “was actually suspended pending discipline up to termination,” and suggested that what little he knew about the situation “affects the integrity of the information” — the testing of the heroin — “that substantially affects this case.”

The prosecutor dismissed Coverdale’s attorney’s suggestion and asserted that Mody’s departure was unrelated to any wrongdoing. “There is no Bradyinformation that the State is aware of,” the prosecutor assured Coverdale and the court, rerferring to Brady v. Maryland—a US Supreme Court case that requires prosecutors to provide information to the defense when it is material and exculpatory.

Three days later, the prosecutor again dismissed concerns about why Mody’s employment ended. “Your Honor, I did check with Wilmington and the only issue is his turnaround time on case work. There’s nothing else.”

Up against a plea deadline, Coverdale agreed to plead guilty.

Only after Coverdale pled guilty, the truth about Mody — and what prosecutors knew yet withheld from Coverdale — emerged.

Contrary to the prosecutor’s earlier claims, Mody didn’t lose his job because of “laziness.” Instead, what the prosecutor knew — and withheld — was that Mody “was subject to disciplinary actions because he … did not follow correct testing procedures; undertook multiple practices which, in a variety of ways, undermined the chain of custody; and/or was untruthful with regard to his … testing procedures.”

According to Judge Stokes, issues known by the Delaware Department of Justice regarding Dr. Mody included: he did not always rerun drug samples after being told to do so; some cases had to be retested because he was not following the proper testing procedures; he was not always candid when confronted about his errors and omissions; he sometimes entered incorrect lot numbers for reagents; cases were returned to him because he had not entered the correct information on his reports; and he did not follow proper procedures when doing his proficiency tests.

Judge Stokes found that these “affirmative prosecutorial misrepresentation[s] … caused the defendant to enter the plea under a misapprehension or mistake as to his legal rights.” Notwithstanding the uphill legal battle defendants often face when asserting that prosecutors withheld Brady information before entering a guilty plea, Judge Stokes found the conduct in Coverdale’s case crossed the line.

“In this case, the prosecutor’s misrepresentation and concealment of the Bradymaterial was serious; i.e., it was a grave misrepresentation which constituted grave prosecutorial misconduct. Furthermore, the misrepresentation impacted the integrity of the plea process and the justice system in turn.”

Judge Stokes concluded that Coverdale “entered a plea bargain that he otherwise would not have entered,” and vacated his convictions.

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