Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.
Showing posts with label criminal justice. Show all posts
Showing posts with label criminal justice. Show all posts

Friday, August 26, 2022

McMahon debates incumbent insider in DA race

[UPDATE, Sept. 7, 2022.] With 90% reporting, the N.Y. Times lists Quinn prevailing with 65% of the vote to McMahon's 35%. This result is not surprising with a well known, insider incumbent. McMahon's strong showing as an out-of-the-box challenger will, I hope, keep the DA's office mindful of its accountability to the public. And I hope we'll see McMahon again in politics and public service soon.

Shannon McMahon and Thomas Quinn, candidates in the September 6 primary for Bristol County, Mass., district attorney, faced off August 12 in what South Coast Today described as a "bare-knuckles debate," sponsored by Dartmouth media and available on YouTube, below.

McMahon is a former student of my advisership.  I assessed the race in the spring.

Friday, July 22, 2022

Court denies police immunity under state tort claims act in death of intoxicated man in protective custody

Michael Coghlan CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
In a lawsuit over the death of an intoxicated man in police protective custody, the defendants were not entitled to immunity under exceptions to the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act (MTCA), the Commonwealth Appeals Court held in April.

Police in New Bedford, Mass., took the plaintiff's decedent into protective custody upon finding him in a state of heavy intoxication and disturbing the peace. Police put the man in a county jail cell, where he got into an altercation with another detainee. The other detainee pushed the man to the ground, where he hit his head. The man died from complications of the injury.

Defendant officials sought immunity from the plaintiff's negligence lawsuit under the discretionary function exception to the MTCA, section 10(b), and under the causation limitation of MTCA section 10(j).

Section 10(b) is similar to the discretionary function exception of the Federal Tort Claims Act. It disallows tort claims when public defendants exercise policy-making discretion, even when discretion is abused. The theory behind this exception is that public officials require latitude to make decisions, good and bad, and not every government decision should be second-guessed in litigation. The tort claims act reserves for litigation cases in which standards of conduct are set or clear, and the plaintiff alleges negligence relative to that standard.

The court denied defendants discretionary function immunity, because state law provides that persons in protective custody should be held at police stations, referred to appropriate care facilities, or returned home. The plaintiff alleged that the decedent's commitment to the county jail was improper and proximately caused the injury and death. Police had no discretion under the law to detain the decedent in the county jail.

MTCA section 10(j) is a creature specially of commonwealth law and articulates a potent liability limitation arising in causation. Section 10(j) disallows liability for 

any claim based on an act or failure to act to prevent or diminish the harmful consequences of a condition or situation, including the violent or tortious conduct of a third person, which is not originally caused by the public employer or any other person acting on behalf of the public employer.

Thus, state defendants disavow liability under section 10(j) when the plaintiff's liability theory is in the nature of a failure to supervise or intervene, and the more proximate cause of the injury is the conduct of a third party. Here, the defense pointed to the push to the ground by the decedent's fellow detainee, if not the decedent's own provocation.

The court also denied the defendants 10(j) immunity. The official act relevant to the plaintiff's claim was the decision to place the decedent in a county jail cell with potentially dangerous detainees, the court opined, not the precise mechanism of injury that ensued.

The case is Baptista v. Bristol County Sheriff's Department, Nos. 20-P-731 & 20-P-778 (Mass. App. Ct. Apr. 15, 2022). Justice Peter J. Rubin wrote the opinion of the unanimous panel.

Saturday, July 16, 2022

'Civil death,' denial of tort claims, violates prisoners' right of access to courts, R.I. high court holds

N.C. State Archives public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons
The Rhode Island Supreme Court in March struck down the state "civil death" statute, which disallowed civil claims by inmates imprisoned for life.

The statute at issue states:

Every person imprisoned in the adult correctional institutions for life shall, with respect to all rights of property, to the bond of matrimony and to all civil rights and relations of any nature whatsoever, be deemed to be dead in all respects, as if his or her natural death had taken place at the time of conviction. However, the bond of matrimony shall not be dissolved, nor shall the rights to property or other rights of the husband or wife of the imprisoned person be terminated or impaired, except on the entry of a lawfully obtained decree for divorce.

Alleging negligent maintenance, one plaintiff-inmate complained "that his arm was severely burned and permanently disfigured when he made contact with an exposed hot water pipe at the [prison]." Another alleged negligence when he slipped and fell after being compelled "to walk across an icy walkway at the [prison]." The trial court rejected both claims as barred by the "civil death" statute.

I was shocked to read of this case in my home state's Providence Journal; I never had heard of a "civil death" statute. The R.I. ACLU provided some background:

Rhode Island was apparently the only state in the country still enforcing a law like this, whose origins date back to ancient English common law. As far back as 1976, a court struck down Missouri's civil death statute, noting that "the concept of civil death has been condemned by virtually every court and commentator to study it over the last thirty years." The court observed that such laws had been characterized even before then as "archaic," "outmoded," "an outdated and inscrutable common law precept," and "a medieval fiction in a modern world." In 1937, when 18 states still had civil death laws, a law review article called the concept "outworn."

Applying the 1843 state constitution (article 1, section 5), a four-justice majority of the Rhode Island Supreme Court had little trouble reaching the conclusion that I thought was obvious, that the law violates the fundamental due process right of access to the courts.

Justice Lynch Prata
(via Ballotpedia)
Employing strict scrutiny, the court acknowledged that "civil death"

functions as an additional sanction imposed upon some of the state's worst criminals and furthers the goals of punishment and deterrence. This Court has recognized that "[t]he loss of civil status as a form of punishment is a principle that dates back to ancient societies." .... However, it is our opinion that this particular additional punishment is not a compelling reason to override the right of access to the courts that is textually guaranteed by the Rhode Island Constitution.

Justice Goldberg
(via Ballotpedia)
Even were the statute supported by a compelling state interest, it is not narrowly drawn, the court further opined, as it fails to distinguish between prisoners based on their eligibility for parole.

Justice Maureen McKenna Goldberg dissented. "Prison inmates, especially life prisoners, are not entitled to the same degree of constitutional rights as are members of society at large," she wrote, "and that includes the right to bring tort claims against the warden for a slip and fall or a burned hand." She would have narrowed the question to the plaintiffs' negligence claims and upheld the statute.

"In my more than two decades of service on this Court, I cannot recall ever having declared a statute to be unconstitutional," Justice Goldberg opined. "[T]his should not be the first case with such a drastic result in light of our longstanding jurisprudence."

The case is Zab v. R.I. Department of Corrections, No. 2019-459-Appeal (R.I. Mar. 2, 2022). Justice Erin Lynch Prata wrote the majority opinion.

A former state senator Judge Prata was nominated to the court by Governor Gina Raimondo in December 2020, just three months before she left office to become the U.S. Secretary of Commerce. Justice Lynch Prata is 2000 graduate of Catholic Law, for which I periodically teach as a visitor. Judge Goldberg is the senior-most justice on the court, having served since her appointment in 1997.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Shannon McMahon for Bristol County, Mass., DA

[UPDATE, Sept. 7, 2022.] With 90% reporting, the N.Y. Times lists Quinn prevailing with 65% of the vote to McMahon's 35%. This result is not surprising with a well known, insider incumbent. McMahon's strong showing as an out-of-the-box challenger will, I hope, keep the DA's office mindful of its accountability to the public. And I hope we'll see McMahon again in politics and public service soon.

Shannon McMahon is running for Bristol County, Mass., DA (press release) and has my wholehearted support (in my personal capacity*).

Attorney McMahon, a former assistant DA, is a colleague, friend, and former student, an alumna of UMass Law School, where I work.  She was editor-in-chief of the newly constituted UMass Law Review in the early days of the Commonwealth's public law school project, in 2011, when I joined the faculty and served as law review co-adviser.  At the same time, she worked as a bartender and raised two children.  Oh, and she finished law school at the top of her class.

I deeply valued McMahon even then more as colleague than advisee; she was, and no doubt remains, bold in tackling problems head on.  Her penchant for plain-speaking was a breath of fresh air in the stultifying environment of public higher ed, especially in staid Massachusetts.

McMahon has been accused of irreverence; what I see in her is a refusal to defer to the status quo, a flat denial that things must be what they are because that's how they always have been.  No surprise, then, that McMahon has made headlines (e.g., The Public's Radio) for stepping out as the first challenger in 16 years to give voters a choice before the dynastic incumbent DA can walk away with a third four-year term.

"Given the dynamics of the community right now, between the drug crisis and the mental health crisis and issues with the police and the community, people are angry and upset that nothing is being done to help with the people's problems, and I think right now, and it's imperative, that people have a choice," McMahon told the Herald News.

Massachusetts can be unkind to people who are willing to topple the apple cart to effect needed reform.  The state's veneer of progressivism is a thin veil for a social and political culture that demands conformity and doubles down on socioeconomic hierarchy.

For that very reason, McMahon is perfect for the job, and I hope she's only getting started.

You too can donate at McMahon for DA.  Save the date for a March 28 event.

*As always, this blog is a product of my personal creation, even if it sometimes serves also to fulfill my responsibilities as an academic in teaching, service, and research, and as an attorney in the Bar of the District of Columbia.  The Savory Tort is neither affiliated with nor within the editorial control of my employer, the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.  I produced this posting, "Shannon McMahon for Bristol County, Mass., DA," on personal time and with no public resources.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Student comment calls on police unions to do their part for accountability reform, revelation of truth

Michelle M.K. Hatfield, an alum of my Torts I-II classes, has published a comment, Can Police Unions Help Change American Policing?  

This comment nicely links the need for police accountability with the right to truth, a theme better known in post-apartheid South Africa than in American policing, and suggests that police unions could do more to stimulate socially constructive reform.  Here is the abstract:

Police unions are part of the problem in American policing. Could police unions also be part of the solution? This Comment begins by putting into practice the dialectic we must achieve at a societal level by detailing the ways in which police and Black Americans have been positioned to be in conflict from the seventeenth century to the present, and by discussing the formation of police unions. American society needs truth-telling about the history and present context that drives police officers into deadly conflict with Black Americans to heal, trust, and effectuate a more perfect system for public safety. This Comment wrestles with the need to understand several truths at once: that police organized into unions in part to protect the rank-and-file from managerial abuse; that the American policing system is in many ways designed and implemented against Black Americans; that police unions organized in the Civil Rights Era to protect police officers from discipline for following orders; and that deep, structural change should include police unions. Less fundamental changes that leave in place the core of American policing, without examining its racist foundations and incentives toward brutality and lethal force, will not serve to bring about lasting reconciliation. This Comment reviews several ways to improve the management of police departments put forth by labor and policing scholars and suggests that the promise of such reforms could motivate participation in a truth process. The conversation about policing reform in the United States has expanded and deepened tremendously in the past year, and it continues to evolve and take on new dimensions. This Comment urges policymakers to create a truth process as part of police reform and suggests that the process be implemented via the police unions because the voices of police organizations that represent rank-and-file officers are a critical ingredient for meaningful change.

Needless to say, police accountability has become a recurring theme and point of student interest in my courses, including Torts and Freedom of Information Law.  Ms. Hatfield gave me and my law-librarian-extraordinaire spouse Misty Peltz-Steele the privilege of feeding back on this article prior to submission for publication, but that's me riding coattails.  Ms. Hatfield prepared this superb paper principally upon her own impressive initiative and in ample fulfillment of the paper requirement of a popular course in labor law taught by my colleague in public policy, Professor Mark Paige.

The comment appears in the UCLA Criminal Justice Law Review, 2021:211.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Court sentences 'Hotel Rwanda' activist to 25 years; U.S. plaintiffs serve Greek airline in civil action

Paul Rusesabagina
(NDLA: Creator: Erik Mårtensson/TT | Credit: TT Nyhetsbyrån CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Real-life "Hotel Rwanda" protagonist Paul Rusesabagina was sentenced in Kigali to 25 years' imprisonment on terrorism and related charges.

PRI The World's Marco Werman has an interview with journalist and author Michela Wrong about the latest in the case.  I wrote about the case in February.

Besides the concerning criminal proceeding in Kigali, the luring in 2020 of Rusesabagina, a Belgian citizen and U.S. resident, from his San Antonio, Texas, home to his abduction on a Dubai flight purportedly bound for Burundi spawned a lawsuit in the United States.  Claiming under the alien tort statute (ATS) and Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA), Rusesabagina's family sued GainJet, the Athens-based airline that conveyed Rusesabagina in his abduction to Kigali, and Constantin Niyomwungere, who the complaint alleges was a Rwandan agent pretending to be a pastor conveying Rusesabagina to speak in Burundi.

Upon news of the criminal conviction, I thought it time to check the docket in Rusesabagina v. GainJet Aviation S.A. (Court Listener; see also family statement on conviction and more at Rusesabagina Foundation).  Regrettably, there is little of substance to report.  As one might expect, the plaintiffs have struggled with service of process.

The complaint was filed in the Western District of Texas in December 2020.  In May, plaintiffs reported to the court their intention to drop Niyomwungere from the lawsuit.  Plaintiffs wrote that Niyomungere "gave statements to the Rwanda Investigation Bureau in February and August of 2020 admitting that he had helped to kidnap Mr. Rusesabagina."  However, plaintiffs wrote, Niyomwungere is believed to reside in Burundi, and Burundi is not a signatory to the Hague Service Convention.

Meanwhile, plaintiffs had had service on alleged "co-conspirator" GainJet translated into Greek and delivered to Greek authorities under the Hague convention.  In the latest docket entries, in late August, GainJet returned a waiver of service of summons without waiving any defense of jurisdiction or venue.

Plaintiffs re-alleged in the May report that GainJet told Rusesabagina he was aboard a flight to Burundi.  Then "Gainjet’s pilot and flight crew stood idly by and watched as Mr. Rusesabagina was tied up by the hands and legs, his eyes covered, and his mouth gagged," plaintiffs further alleged, and GainJet accepted payment from the Rwandan government.

A private charter service, GainJet does fly to the United States.  In 2019, the U.S. Soccer Women's National Team flew home from the World Cup in France on a GainJet 757 to New York.  But I've not been able to identify any GainJet office or assets in the United States.  That bodes ill for having a federal district court in Texas exercise jurisdiction.

At the same time, GainJet holds itself out worldwide, and in English, as a luxury charter service.  Ongoing association with the Rusesabagina case can't be good for business amid the jet set.

A defense response in the case is due in late October.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Texas indictment surfaces problem of elected prosecutors; First Amendment protects Netflix film

Actor, model, and District Attorney Lucas Babin
(Steve Stewart CC BY 4.0)
A Tyler County, Texas, grand jury has indicted Netflix for lewd depiction of TV girls in the French film, Cuties (2020).  Sadly, the indictment says more about Texas and American criminal justice dysfunction than about Netflix or contemporary media.  

The film plainly is protected by the First Amendment, rendering the indictment more political stunt than serious legal maneuver.  I wasn't going to watch Cuties, but now I feel like I should, so score one for Netflix, nil for District Attorney Lucas Babin.  Or, I should acknowledge, this might be good campaign fodder for an elected D.A. in East Texas, so it's win-win, minus transaction costs.  

Using the criminal justice system as a means to political ends is a deeply disturbing phenomenon; John Oliver featured the issue in 2018 commentary on Last Week.

Besides being an attorney, Babin is himself, or was, an actor and a model.  His father is dentist and U.S. Rep. Brian Babin (R-Tex.).

The September 23 indictment (image from Reason) relies on Texas Penal Code § 43.262, Possession or Promotion of Lewd Visual Material Depicting Child.  The statute reads:

(b) A person commits an offense if the person knowingly possesses, accesses with intent to view, or promotes visual material that:

     (1) depicts the lewd exhibition of the genitals or pubic area of an unclothed, partially clothed, or clothed child who is younger than 18 years of age at the time the visual material was created;

     (2) appeals to the prurient interest in sex;  and

     (3) has no serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

The latter conjunctive element (3), lacking in serious value, is a typical savings provision meant to bring the law into conformity with the First Amendment, which certainly protects the film.

Promotional image of Cuties French release
Cuties, or Mignonnes in the French original, is a 96-minute drama about a Senegalese-French girl coming of age in contemporary Paris.  She struggles to reconcile her conservative Muslim upbringing with the popular culture of her schoolyard peers in the social-media era.

A Sundance 2020 award winner in dramatic world cinema, the film was written and directed by Parisian born Maïmouna Doucouré, herself of Senegalese heritage.  In a September 15 op-ed in The Washington Post (now behind pay wall), Doucouré wrote:

This film is my own story. All my life, I have juggled two cultures: Senegalese and French. As a result, people often ask me about the oppression of women in more traditional societies. And I always ask: But isn't the objectification of women's bodies in Western Europe and the United States another kind of oppression? When girls feel so judged at such a young age, how much freedom will they ever truly have in life?

The sexualization of the girls in the film is already familiar in the life experience of an 11- or 12-year-old, Doucouré further wrote. Still, a counselor was on set, and French child protection authorities signed off on the film.

Some of the flap over Cuties, and probably precipitating the Texas indictment, was Netflix's initial promotion of the film with an image of the child stars in sexually suggestive outfits and pose (see Bustle).  Netflix apologized publicly and to Doucouré and withdrew the portrayal.

Here is the trailer for Cuties.

The case is State v. Netflix, Inc., No. 13,731 (filed Tex. Dist. Ct. Tyler County Sept. 23, 2020).

Monday, September 21, 2020

Man may sue police in tort, civil rights for violent beating, despite his conviction for resisting arrest

"Defund the police" has been a rallying cry in recent protests. (Photo at BLM
encampment, New York City, June 26, 2020, by Felton Davis CC BY 2.0.)
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court last week vacated and remanded the trial court's judgment for police in a civil suit with racial overtones.

Authoring the unanimous opinion, Justice David A. Lowy characterized the case as "disturbing."  The court recited the facts as most favorable to the plaintiff, Mark S. Tinsley, the non-moving party.  According to that recitation, Tinsley, who is African American, was stopped by Framingham, Massachusetts, police for speeding in 2012.  Suspecting Tinsley of hiding something, police ordered Tinsley from the car, and he refused.  The traffic stop by two police officers became a physical struggle with five to pull Tinsley from the car.  Once he was out of the car, on the ground,

several police officers began beating him.  Tinsley did not resist. He tried to put his hands behind his back so that the police officers would handcuff him and thus, he thought, stop hitting him. The police officers did not stop. [One officer] struck Tinsley's collarbone and upper shoulder, and stomped on Tinsley's left hand. [A second officer] sprayed Tinsley with pepper spray. [A third officer] called Tinsley a "fucking n[word]" [footnote: "At trial, [the third officer] denied that he or any other police officer swore at Tinsley or called him 'any names.'"] and kicked Tinsley in the head. While Tinsley was on the ground, an officer handcuffed him [footnote omitted quoting Tinsley's trial testimony]. Tinsley suffered a broken nose, a broken finger, and a wound on the side of his head that required stitches.

Tinsley was convicted on counts including assault and battery (criminal), carrying a dangerous weapon ("a spring assisted knife"), and resisting arrest.  While criminal charges were pending, Tinsley sued for civil rights violation and tort claims including assault, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and false arrest.  Upon two motions, the latter decided after the conclusion of the criminal proceeding, the trial court entered judgment for defendants police and town on all counts.

The question on appeal was whether the trial court properly recognized in the civil proceeding the collateral estoppel effect of Tinsley's criminal conviction.  The doctrine of collateral estoppel precludes a later civil court from re-trying facts and conclusions of law that were determined by jury and court in an earlier criminal proceeding.  Thus, after conviction, a defendant may not argue his innocence in a later case.

However, the facts deemed determined in the earlier criminal proceeding are limited to the facts that supported conviction.  Tinsley argued, and the Court agreed, that the jury's conviction was not inconsistent with Tinsley's claim of excessive force for the beating he endured on the ground, outside the car, after his arrest.  The Court reasoned that Tinsley was placed under arrest when he was seized inside the car.  Insofar as Tinsley was resisting arrest inside the car, then, collateral estoppel pertains, precluding suit on the tort of false arrest.  But the jury may have based its conviction on a fact pattern that ended before Tinsley was on the ground. So the facts of the beating, occurring after arrest, remain arguable in the civil case.

The Court explained,

Even where the use of force to effect an arrest is reasonable in response to an individual's resistance, the continued use of force may well be unreasonable, as an individual's conduct prior to arrest or during an arrest does not authorize a violation of his or her constitutional rights....  To hold differently would implicitly permit police officers, in response to a resisting individual, to exert as much force as they so choose "and be shielded from accountability under civil law," so long as the prosecutor could successfully convict the individual of resisting arrest.

Accordingly, the Court vacated judgment for defendants on the civil rights claim and the assault, battery, and IIED counts, and remanded the civil case to proceed.  The false arrest claim was properly barred.

The case is Tinsley v. Town of Framingham, No. SJC-12826 (Mass. Sept. 17, 2020).  Chief Justice Gants participated in deliberations before his death.