Category Archives: Legal Analysis

Contempt of Cop, And That Might Be It

iStock_000004808004_SmallI’ve worked closely with police officers my entire professional life, and I find most to be decent, honorable men and women who do a difficult job with a surprising amount of professionalism. I’m far from anti-cop. But sometimes it appears obvious that breaking the law isn’t what will get you arrested. Simply disobeying a police officer, even with the right to do so, might do it.

That’s anathema to the rule of law.

A disturbing video posted by the African-American political and cultural opinion magazine “The Root” shows a black man arguing with police officers, one male and one female and both white, in St. Paul, Minnesota in January and eventually being tasered and then arrested. It’s news again in light of recent events, and race is an assumed factor. At one point in his filming of the incident, the man interrupts the female officer and says “the problem is I’m black.” The two are then joined by a male officer who immediately demands that he put his hands behind his back. A struggle ensues, he’s tasered and then arrested.

I honestly don’t know if race was a factor for the officers involved. I’d like to think it wasn’t, but I completely understand those who most certainly do. Regardless, what bothered me most about the exchange I saw was simply the illegality of what seems to be happening. Apparently charges against the man for trespass, disorderly conduct and disrupting the legal process were dropped.

Understanding that cell phone video is hardly an infallible source of context in a tense situation, watching this one will not yield a single explanation by the officers as to why the man is being arrested that cites Minnesota law or local ordinance. I watched it repeatedly; I don’t hear it. Reports suggest a store clerk called with some concern about his presence as a possible loiterer although he was in a public place. The responding officer demands he identify himself. He refuses, as is apparently his right under Minnesota law. She appears to follow him as he walks away, at one point explaining her demand saying “this is what police officers do when they’re called.”

That may be, but that doesn’t make the demand legal. And if it’s not legal, and no other crime is occurring, she needs to shrug and walk away. Period. But police officers increasingly seem not to want to do that.

In February, a California Highway Patrolman arrested a firefighter who refused to move a fire truck at the patrolman’s insistence while working a car wreck. The firefighter was ordered released and later filed a complaint. Details are in dispute, but it seems as if he was handcuffed and placed in a cruiser simply because he disobeyed the command of the CHP, regardless of the letter of the law.

Like any institution that provides for trappings of authority, deadly weapons and combat training, police agencies sometimes attract bullies and others with big egos and little patience. I believe this is not the norm in American policing but generally an exception. I’ve not only worked closely with cops all of my life, I’ve befriended many. I’ve heard countless head-shaking stories (that never reach the media) of cops who have not used deadly force despite the actions of belligerent and aggressive people who threaten their lives and refuse to obey reasonable commands.

Still, there is justifiable criticism being leveled against the militarization of American police forces and the rise of the “warrior cop.” Engaging the community from behind barricades with automatic weapons is largely counterproductive and stupid. But what’s worse is ignoring the law and putting people in chains and cages- regardless for how long or to what eventual end- simply because they’ve made a cop angry. It doesn’t work that way. It can’t work that way.

As a young prosecutor I practiced before an old and quirky but wonderful judge named Dan O’Flaherty. He showed me once how he kept a copy of Virginia’s contempt of court statute (the one that allows judges to jail people on the spot for in-court behavior) actually taped to the bench where he sat. His reason? When he was insulted or otherwise disrespected by someone before him, he took time to read the statute and think very carefully before even threatening the person with contempt. Because sometimes what they were doing was infuriating, but not illegal.

Anyone with the honor of wielding a badge and a gun needs to understand that as well.

Worth Knowing in the Dylan Farrow Case: The Actual Risk of Suggestibility With Children

Tom Lyon, A law professor at the University of Southern California, has a remarkably valuable dual background when it comes to legal child protection: He’s both an attorney and a psychologist. Among the most influential contributions he’s made is this article, plainly titled “Let’s Not Exaggerate the Suggestibility of Children.”

In a child sexual abuse case, suggesting the complainant was either coached to adopt fantasy as reality, or simply did so out of confusion between the two, is a popular defense tactic. It’s particularly attractive because it doesn’t involve judging the victim or accusing her of lying.  She can be viewed as, in a sense, as much a victim as the state is claiming, but in an entirely different way.

This has, not surprisingly, been suggested over and over again regarding the allegations made by Dylan Farrow, adopted daughter of Woody Allen. Countless observers, and indeed Allen himself, have suggested that Dylan is not a devious liar, but instead a sad pawn, indoctrinated to believe a false memory in the context of a vicious divorce and custody battle.

For this reason, it’s important to understand what respected research has to say on the subject of- in fact- how suggestible children are. I’d encourage you to read the article itself if you’re interested; it’s written for a general audience and not dense or jargon-filled. But in a nutshell, here’s what the research reveals:

1. Very young children (3 and 4, which is about as young as a child can be forensically interviewed except in exceptional circumstances) can be led to adopt false memories or incorrect versions of events. But this only occurs after extreme efforts such as a very long passage of time between the actual event and the interviews, and repeated interviews over time with constant introduction of false memories. And even with these efforts, a majority of these same, very young children will maintain the actual version of events and resist efforts to conflate fantasy and reality.

2. The danger of children conflating fantasy and reality drops off sharply at around 5 or 6 years of age.

3. By the age of 10, children meeting normal developmental milestones are no more susceptible to adopting false memories than adults.

Even more interesting: The first research done on children and susceptibility (often called the “first wave”) was done by respected psychologists, but also child protection advocates and researchers who believed children were not nearly as susceptible as popular culture largely accepted. The so-called “second wave” research was conducted by equally respected psychologists who thought the first-wave researchers were being too rosy in their assessments and set out to demonstrate that children can be made to adopt incorrect or even wholly false versions of events if efforts are strong enough. They succeeded, but generally with extremely young children and through efforts that are virtually unheard of in child abuse cases. 

The bottom line is that yes, mostly toddler-aged children can be led to adopt false memories with repeated, methodical, and highly suggestive attempts to confuse them after a considerable amount of time has passed between the event and the repeated interviews. But even with these tactics, a majority of children will still maintain a a correct version of events.

Dylan Farrow was seven when she allegedly endured what she clearly describes now, at 28, as sexual abuse at the hands of Woody Allen. Describing her as a liar and a willful tool of her embittered mother even after 21 years is arguable, as it always will be. Anyone can lie, and some can lie very convincingly.

But claiming that she was simply, easily and permanently led to create a false memory- at the level of detail she now relates- is a claim utterly unsupported by the very best research on the subject, about half of it conducted by skeptical researchers suspicious of children’s abilities.

Those who believe Allen is innocent may be right; I will never know and neither will they. But neither they nor Allen himself have a right to claim that Dylan was easily confused and now sadly tied to that confusion. To believe Allen is innocent is, in all likelihood, to reject the detailed account Dylan has given, and to reject her as a liar; the worst kind.

Period.

 

 

Proposed Changes to Military Preliminary Hearings: Reasonable, Easily Implemented, and Sorely Needed

While I believe Congress should pass the Military Justice Improvement Act, there’s a far more easily implemented change being urged on the President that should meet little resistance. But even it is considered “radical” in some military circles. Recently, a Navy Times article focused on proposed changes to Article 32 hearings, which under the Uniform Code of Military Justice operate like preliminary hearings in civilian systems. The “32,” as JAGs typically refer to it, is a less formal hearing where evidence is presented to a neutral investigating officer. That officer then makes a recommendation about the case to the Convening Authority, that is, a commander (usually a general officer) who then makes the final decision as to whether the case is “referred” for court martial.

The changes- implementable by the President- are being proposed specifically for the enhanced protection of complainants in sexual assault cases; the need for them became apparent to reformers particularly after the exhausting, multi-day examination of a Naval Academy midshipman involved in a rape case against three classmates late this summer. The changes are sorely needed, in least in terms of how Article 32 hearings often play out in sexual violence cases, and they are eminently reasonable. 

Yet the language used in the article is perhaps a measure of how concerning any change to the military justice system is to insiders. The reporter describes the proposal as a “major reform” and a “radical overhaul” of the process. It is neither.

The officer who presides over the Article 32 hearing listens to evidence, prepares a summary of the testimony, and gives recommendations for disposition to the Convening Authority. At present, there is no requirement that the investigating officer in an Article 32 hearing be a military judge. Or a JAG. Or someone with any legal training at all. The I.O. can be simply another officer uninvolved with the case, meaning a company commander in an artillery brigade, a signal corps officer, or one of any other specialty.

For many UCMJ offenses,  this is not a matter of concern. The idea of the Article 32 hearing is to allow for a neutral party in the officer corps to consider the matter before a commander at a much higher level considers whether to convene a court martial around it. That officer doesn’t have to be legally trained, in many cases, to competently consider facts and listen to witnesses.

But sexual assault cases are unique and difficult to adjudicate fairly. This is particularly true when they involve (as they almost always do) circumstances like parties known to each other, alcohol consumption, or counter-intuitive behavior like delayed reporting or post-assault communication. Aggressive defense attorneys, bound by ethics to defend their clients zealously, can and do sometimes take advantage of both the relative informal setting and legal inexperience of the I.O. to ask questions of complainants that would not be permissible in a court martial.

In the extreme, this can amount to a strategy of harassment in hopes of improperly discouraging a victim from continuing with a prosecution. Certainly not all defense attorneys plan this kind of legal attack, but without an adjudicator that is familiar with the limits of the law, aggressive and improper questioning can go unchecked even when prosecutors object. I.O.s can seek legal assistance during an investigation, but they don’t have to. Further, defense attorneys may actually outrank both the prosecutor and the I.O, adding a further complicating dynamic. Senator Boxer and co-sponsors (Senator Blumenthal and Congresswoman Speier) are asking the President to formalize the Article 32 process so it mirrors more closely preliminary hearings in Federal courts. This is not too much to ask.

I’ve been told by JAG friends in other services that military judges are regularly utilized to oversee Article 32 hearings. My observation of the Army process though, was much different. I personally never saw a military judge assigned to an Article 32 hearing, and knew of only one or two cases when a JAG presided over one.

Military-wide, the process should be tightened to guarantee that justice for both parties is best approached, and in exactly the way that American criminal procedure provides: By guaranteeing that legally trained professionals who know the rules will also enforce them.

MJIA: The Right Approach to Military Justice with the Right Kinds of Cases

iStock military justice

C.S. Lewis, in the character of a demon in The Screwtape Letters instructing a protege on how lead men to Hell, notes that murder is no better than cards, if cards will do the trick. Lewis was talking about sin, of course, and which ones could successfully separate a person from God. But a limited analogy can be drawn between Screwtape’s analysis and the subtle circumstances that can thwart criminal justice. Cynicism, perfidy and incompetence are all well-known enemies; players in the system influenced by these will fail victims and their community. But there are also more subtle, even inadvertent circumstances that can hinder justice as well.

In almost three years as a civilian expert with the Army JAG Corps, I encountered almost exclusively highly competent, honorable and devoted trial lawyers both prosecuting and defending criminal cases. I also largely found commanders- the decision makers within the military system- to be fair-minded, conscientious and decent.

Still, at least in terms of how the concept of criminal justice is viewed in the civilian world, I saw systemic aspects of military justice that, despite best intentions, somtimes stand as impediments to the kind of justice we expect in response to serious crimes. These are best confronted by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act.  

Military expedience and deference, in particular, can have unintended negative consequences, at least in the cases I consulted on, which included rape, assault and murder. Expedience is demanded in the court martial system given the common exigencies of military life. There must also be great deference, not only to individuals of higher rank, but also to the institution itself.

These are not negative in and of themselves; indeed, they are important principles of an institution that must be cohesive, responsive and lethal. Service members willingly accept a lower value on individuality for the good of the institution. Being a part of the military is a very different experience from civilian life. Its justice system should and does reflect these differences.

But when it comes to felonies, particularly ones not instantly related to military readiness, it does not have to. That is the thrust of the Military Justice Improvement Act.

Under it, commanders, the men and women responsible for increasingly larger units within the ranks, can and will continue to have complete judicial authority where mission-specific crimes like desertion, insubordination, and espionage are concerned. What will shift, partially, will be the responsibility for deciding the merit for prosecution of more traditional felonies like sexual violence, murder and robbery. These crimes can certainly affect a unit’s readiness and cohesiveness, but they have a decreased relationship to military operations, and a profoundly different effect on victims. Traditional, often interpersonal crimes deserve an approach both 1) unhindered by the larger concerns of the command and 2) enhanced through handling by specially trained, unformed legal experts. Sexual violence in particular, given its utter uniqueness in criminality, demands this approach and thus has largely inspired it.

In the meantime, commanders will still have involvement over cases, including supervision of the accused and the victim during the process, and the opportunity to seek lesser disciplinary action in the event that a case is not referred for prosecution. We ask more from military commanders than ever before; the vast majority respond honorably and competently. But asking commanders, even with legal counsel, to make decisions about interpersonal crimes- particularly when inextricably burdened with concerns about unit effectiveness- is both unnecessary and potentially detrimental.

Where sexual violence is concerned, critics point to the willingness of commanders in most cases to pursue charges against offenders, and this is a fair point. But we only know about what is reported, and a major belief behind the MJIA is that the direct involvement of commanders in criminal justice decisions has a chilling effect. This is more than a hunch; it’s been gleaned from surveys, interviews and the accounts of service members over time.

The MJIA is not a panacea for sexual violence or other major crime in the United States military. But it is an idea far less radical than critics charge and worth implementing to bring one aspect of military justice- and only one- in line with that of the larger world.