Monthly Archives: March 2016

No More Freezing Assets Not Tied to Crimes Supreme Court Says

The Supreme Court’s ruling on Wednesday arose from the prosecution of a Florida woman for Medicare fraud that, according to the government, involved $45 million in charges for unneeded or nonexistent services. CreditWin Mcnamee/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The government may not freeze assets needed to pay criminal defense lawyers if the assets are not linked to a crime, theSupreme Court ruled Wednesday in a 5-to-3 decision that scrambled the usual alliances.

The case arose from the prosecution of Sila Luis, a Florida woman, on charges of Medicare fraud that, according to the government, involved $45 million in charges for unneeded or nonexistent services. Almost all of Ms. Luis’s profits from the fraud, prosecutors said, had been spent by the time charges were filed.

Prosecutors instead asked a judge to freeze $2 million of Ms. Luis’s funds that were not connected to the suspected fraud, saying the money would be used to pay fines and provide restitution should she be convicted. Ms. Luis said she needed the money to pay her lawyers.

The judge issued an order freezing her assets. That order, the Supreme Court ruled, violated her Sixth Amendment right to the assistance of counsel.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer, in a plurality opinion also signed by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, said the case was simple.

The government can seize, Justice Breyer wrote, “a robber’s loot, a drug seller’s cocaine, a burglar’s tools, or other property associated with the planning, implementing, or concealing of a crime.”

But it cannot, he said, freeze money or other assets unconnected to the crime.

“The distinction that we have discussed is thus an important one, not a technicality,” he wrote. “It is the difference between what is yours and what is mine.”

Justice Breyer said the ruling, in Luis v. United States, No. 14-419, did not change the general framework established by United States v. Monsanto, a 1989 decision that said freezing assets was permissible, even if it frustrated the defendant’s ability to hire a lawyer, as long as there was probable cause that a crime had been committed and the assets were linked to the offenses described in the indictment.

The crucial point, Justice Breyer wrote, is that the right to counsel is a fundamental constitutional guarantee, while the government’s interest in recovering money is merely important.

“Despite their importance, compared to the right to counsel of choice, these interests would seem to lie somewhat further from the heart of a fair, effective criminal justice system,” he wrote.

Justice Clarence Thomas voted with the plurality but did not adopt what he called its balancing approach. If the right to counsel is a fundamental constitutional guarantee, he said, it cannot be weighed against other interests.

It made no difference, he said, that the case concerned limits on a defendant’s ability to pay to exercise a constitutional right.

“The right to keep and bear arms, for example, ‘implies a corresponding right to obtain the bullets necessary to use them,’ ” he wrote, quoting an appeals court decision. And the right to free speech, he added, implies the right to spend money to make sure the speech is heard.

Justice Thomas cited a dissent from Justice Antonin Scalia, who died last month, for that second point. He also cited Justice Scalia’s writings four more times.

In dissent, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, joined by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., wrote that the principle announced by the justices in the majority “rewards criminals who hurry to spend, conceal, or launder stolen property.”

“The true winners today,” Justice Kennedy wrote, “are sophisticated criminals who know how to make criminal proceeds look untainted.”

In a separate dissent, Justice Elena Kagan said she found the court’s 1989 Monsanto decision troubling. But she said that decision required ruling against Ms. Luis rather than drawing artificial distinctions.

“The thief who immediately dissipates his ill-gotten gains and thereby preserves his other assets is no more deserving of chosen counsel than the one who spends those two pots of money in reverse order,” she wrote. “Yet the plurality would enable only the first defendant, and not the second, to hire the lawyer he wants.”

“I cannot believe the Sixth Amendment draws that irrational line, much as I sympathize with the plurality’s effort to cabin Monsanto,” Justice Kagan wrote.

Wrongly Imprisoned: Lawmakers Weigh How Much To Pay

Brian Bakst · ·
"The money is just a number. What I really want is my life back," says 38-year-old Michael Hansen at his tattoo shop, Kinship Collective Tattoo, in Northfield. Hansen is one of the first people under a new Minnesota exoneration law to qualify for financial compensation for time spent locked up.
“The money is just a number. What I really want is my life back,” says 38-year-old Michael Hansen at his tattoo shop, Kinship Collective Tattoo, in Northfield. Hansen is one of the first people under a new Minnesota exoneration law to qualify for financial compensation for time spent locked up. Richard Marshall for MPR News
Michael Hansen vividly remembers the day police surrounded his workplace and led him away in handcuffs amid a shocking allegation — that he’d killed his infant daughter.

NJ Lawmaker Wants to Throw You in Jail up to 15 Days for Texting While Walking

Carey Wedler
March 28, 2016

 (ANTIMEDIA) A new proposed law in New Jersey would make texting while walking an offense punishable by up to 15 days in jail or a $50 fine.

New Jersey Assemblywoman Pamela R. Lampitt introduced the bill last week, arguing it was intended to keep people safe. “Distracted pedestrians, like distracted drivers, present a potential danger to themselves and drivers on the road,” she said. “As people’s behaviors change so must our policy.” She cited recent data showing increases in the number of pedestrians using cell phones who were injured by automobiles.

The Washington Post summarized some of these growing concerns:

“New Jersey had the 10th highest pedestrian fatality rate nationwide in 2014 — at 1.88 per 100,000 — according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. New Mexico, Florida and Delaware had the highest rates. New Jersey has had 33 pedestrian deaths in 2016 and had 170 in all of 2015.

“Nationwide, there were as many as 2 million pedestrian injuries related to cell phone use in 2010, and pedestrian deaths tripled between 2004 and 2010, according to the GHSA.”

This is an intoxicant,” Dr. John D’Angelo, head of emergency medicine at Trinitas Regional Medical Center in Elizabeth, N.J., told “It’s worse than alcohol or drugs for drivers and pedestrians. They’re less aware (of what’s going on around them).” Indeed, few deny the impairment often caused by using cell phones while trying to perform other activities. At least one study has shown increased impairment, specifically, while texting and walking, though that same study found users became more cautious as a result.

 Lampitt’s bill would impose the same penalty that comes with jaywalking according to “An individual crossing the road distracted by their smartphone presents just as much danger to motorists as someone jaywalking and should be held, at a minimum, to the same penalty,” she argued.

Though Lampitt’s legislation would allocate 50 percent of revenues toward education some feel the proposal goes too far:

“What are you in jail for?”
“Texting and walking.”


— Jennifer (@JLDuplessie) March 19, 2016

Mustafa Gatollari, a New Jersey resident, highlighted the possibility that, like many rules meant to keep people safe, the proposed law could simply result in inflated revenue for the state:

And I get that the law is meant to protect people or whatever, but I can just imagine some a**hole cop picking on a group of teens standing outside of a strip mall texting their friends, and slapping them all with $50 tickets so they can make their quotas,” he wrote.

Similarly, unpopular bills have largely been defeated. CNET explained:

New York, Illinois, Arkansas and Nevada have also seen legislators try (and fail) to enact laws against texting and walking. In Hawaii, a bill has been proposed that would fine pedestrians $250 for crossing the street while using an electronic device. Fort Lee, New Jersey managed to occasionally embrace texting and walking under its ‘dangerous walking’ laws.

In New Jersey, Lampitt’s bill has not yet been scheduled for a vote. She acknowledged the bill’s small chance of passage, saying, “If it builds awareness, that’s OK.”

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College Savings Plan Bill Signed by Gov. Inslee

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed off on legislation this week that would launch a traditional 529 college savings plan in the state and also revive a prepaid program that has been frozen since August 2015, The Associated Press reports.

Senate Bill 6601, which was sponsored by four Democratic state senators and two Republicans, aims to “help make higher education affordable and accessible to all citizens of the state of Washington by offering a savings incentive that will protect purchasers and beneficiaries against rising tuition costs.”

Washington’s prepaid program — the Guaranteed Education Tuition plan — allows parents to pay tuition in advance. This bill mandates that the plan must be made open to new investments again as of July 2017. The 529 savings plans, meanwhile, exist in 48 other states, and it will again be available in Washington by the end of 2016.

Both programs allow saving money for college but forgoing federal income taxes on investment earnings.

This measure passed 82-13 by the House on March 3, and 45-2 by the Senate on March 8.

Los Angeles Wants to Tax Medical Marijuana Sales to Solve Homelessness

Claire Bernish
March 29, 2016

 (ANTIMEDIA) Los Angeles, CA — Los Angeles’ government is considering applying a portion of the revenue generated from the medical marijuana industry toward alleviating the city’s homeless crisis.

City officials, according to High Times, have been debating employing cannabis revenue to fund construction of more affordable housing units. After approving a massive $2 billion budget slated to fund housing for those without it, the local government realized it hadn’t yet figured out how to finance such an ambitious plan.

“Even as our economy improves, we do not anticipate to have an additional $1.78 billion over the next ten years to dedicate for this purpose,” Chief Administrative Officer Miguel Santana told city council members recently.

Because funding the program remains up in the air, council members are considering nine other options besides the medical cannabis industry, including billboard and parcel taxes. No other option, however, offers as rich a source of revenue as cannabis — but therein lies the catch.

Confirming suspicions from those who feel the cannabis industry shouldn’t have to operate within the bounds and regulatory structures of the State, in order for Los Angeles to apply medical marijuana revenue to its housing initiative, the city wants to impose a tax.

“The City would join other cities in California passing up to a 15 percent excise tax on medical marijuana sales and cultivation,” states an inter-departmental memo from Santana and Sharon Tso, Chief Legislative Analyst, sent to the Homelessness and Poverty Committee.

Noting several cities that successfully implemented various forms of taxation on sales and cultivation of medical marijuana, the memo explained:

“Such a tax could be charged for medical marijuana, currently legalized in the City; or, if recreational marijuana is approved at the State level, taxing either or both would be an option.”

Sanatana and Tso also note the success of similar taxes on tobacco and gasoline, adding, “Marijuana is a new product in the marketplace and could be a significant source of new revenue.”

Despite the benefits to the housing program, such a tax would represent, it will likely — and understandably — be met by stiff opposition from cannabis and anti-tax activists and organizations. Pro-medical cannabis advocates, as High Times pointed out, would characterize the added cost to patients choosing nature over Big Pharma as a hardship many can ill afford — one that could potentially drive them back to the whims of the black market to obtain this medicine.

Once details of the city’s proposal are hammered out, which must be done by July, the measure will appear on either the November ballot or the Primary Nominating Election ballot next March.

Los Angeles’ homeless population, more accurately termed ‘houseless,’ is estimated to include over a quarter of a million men, women, and children; the city tops the nation in the number of people deemed “chronically” homeless. Linking an undesirable tax to an issue of imperative importance creates a quandary for many — and may create resentment against the city for failure to employ other means of solving the crisis.

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CIA and Pentagon are Fighting Each Other in Syria

Syrian militias armed by different parts of the U.S. war machine have begun to fight each other on the plains between the besieged city of Aleppo and the Turkish border, highlighting how little control U.S. intelligence officers and military planners have over the groups they have financed and trained in the bitter 5-year-old civil war.

The fighting has intensified over the past two months, as CIA-armed units and Pentagon-armed ones have repeatedly shot at each other as they have maneuvered through contested territory on the northern outskirts of Aleppo, U.S. officials and rebel leaders have confirmed.

In mid-February, a CIA-armed militia called Fursan al Haq, or Knights of Righteousness, was run out of the town of Marea, about 20 miles north of Aleppo, by Pentagon-backed Syrian Democratic Forces moving in from Kurdish-controlled areas to the east.

“Any faction that attacks us, regardless from where it gets its support, we will fight it,” said Maj. Fares Bayoush, a leader of Fursan al Haq.

Rebel fighters described similar clashes in the town of Azaz, a key transit point for fighters and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border, and March 3 in the Aleppo neighborhood of Sheikh Maqsud.

“It is an enormous challenge,” said Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, who described the clashes between U.S.-supported groups as “a fairly new phenomenon.”

“It is part of the three-dimensional chess that is the Syrian battlefield,” he said.

The area in northern Syria around Aleppo, the country’s second-largest city, features not only a war between the Assad government and its opponents, but also periodic battles against Islamic State militants, who control much of eastern Syria and also some territory to the northwest of the city, and long-standing tensions among the ethnic groups that inhabit the area, Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen.

Puerto Rico “Walmart” Tax Declared Invalid

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Retail giant Walmart won a legal victory Monday in a fight over taxation by Puerto Rico’s government.

A federal judge in the U.S. island territory ruled that a modified tangible-property tax is invalid. The ruling was issued as Puerto Rico’s government rushes to find new sources of revenue and a debt restructuring mechanism from the U.S. Congress while struggling through a decade-long economic crisis.

Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla said his government will appeal the decision.

“The judge just took away $100 million from the people of Puerto Rico and gave it to Walmart,” he said, referring to the revenue the tax would have generated this fiscal year for the U.S. territory. “Now I have to look for that money somewhere else. Of course I’m going to appeal the decision, and immediately.”

Legislators echoed his sentiments, pledging to approve a new bill to obtain a portion of the revenue generated by retail giants across the island.

Walmart is Puerto Rico’s largest private employer, with more than 14,000 workers, and argued in a lawsuit filed in December that the tax was unconstitutional.

Federal Judge Jose Antonio Fuste agreed in his 109-page ruling and said the island’s treasury secretary must immediately stop levying, collecting and enforcing the tax. He noted Puerto Rico legislators had increased the tax by 325 percent in May 2015 during what he called a brisk approval process so they could capture revenues from Walmart.

The 6.5 percent tax would have applied to every piece of inventory Walmart received for its stores even if it wasn’t able to sell it, Fuste said.

He said that if the tax were to remain in effect, it would generate more than $40 million in “unconstitutional taxes … to an insolvent government without any hope that the victimized taxpayers will be reimbursed in the foreseeable future. That is the very definition of an inadequate remedy,” he wrote, adding that $10 million of that revenue would have been from Walmart alone.

The ruling comes as Walmart prepares to close seven stores in Puerto Rico as part of a plan to shutter 269 stores worldwide.

Fuste also reflected on the island’s financial situation and said the government is in urgent need of more transparency.

“The people deserve to know the truth about how we got to where we are, and we can go from here,” he wrote. “The residents of the island most affected by this crisis deserve the very transparency whose absence helped caused the crisis.”

Government officials have warned that the U.S. territory’s government will run out of money in June. Puerto Rico has a $70 billion public debt load that the governor says is unpayable and needs restructuring.

Garcia also said Monday that he will fight to amend legislation before the U.S. Congress that seeks to create a federal fiscal oversight board for Puerto Rico, saying it threatens the territory’s democracy. He made the announcement just days after U.S. House created a draft bill that calls for establishing a board that would audit Puerto Rico’s government and have final say over budget and fiscal issues.

“That board would be a substitute for an elected government,” Garcia said, adding that it could not be held accountable come election time. “That is unacceptable.”

The House Natural Resources Committee is expected to vote on the bill in April.


Danica Coto on Twitter:

On pardons, Obama is One of the Most Merciless Presidents in History

When the Obama administration’s new acting pardon attorney, Bob Zauzmer, arrived on the job last month, he ran headlong into a backlog of more than 9,000 clemency petitions awaiting a decision on whether they deserve the president’s consideration. Many of those petitions were the byproduct of the announcement of Clemency Project 2014, which was established by the Justice Department — to great fanfare — to process additional applications from federal prisoners seeking reductions of unjustifiably long drug sentences.

Zauzmer has his work cut out for him — it has been widely reported that his predecessor, Deborah Leff, stepped down in January over frustrations with a lack of resources.

Was the administration ever serious about Clemency 2014? The rules for commutation requests even reaching the overburdened pardons office under the initiative are inexcusably discouraging. The worst is that inmates must have served at least 10 years of their sentence. Other rules state they must not have “a significant criminal history” (whatever that means); they must be nonviolent, low-level offenders; and they must be serving a sentence harsher than they would have gotten if convicted of the same offense today. Those who fall “outside of this initiative,” according to the Justice Department, can still seek clemency under the old rules if their applications are “especially meritorious.”

The results of this great, unprecedented effort? Obama has a clemency record comparable to the least merciful presidents in history. He has granted just 70 pardons, the lowest mark for any full-term president since John Adams, and 187 commutations of sentence. Meanwhile, 1,629 pardon petitions have been denied (more than five of the previous six presidents), as well as 8,123 requests for commutations (a new record). An additional 3,444 requests have been “closed without presidential action.”

 Obama’s record is all the more deplorable because of assurances that he has made and that have been made on his behalf. On April 21, 2014, then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. encouraged federal prisoners to seek relief, noting that, despite sentencing reforms Obama signed into law in 2010, there were “still too many people . . . sentenced under the old regime” who needed attention. Holder said the White House had “indicated” that it wanted to “consider additional clemency applications to restore a degree of justice, fairness, and proportionality for deserving individuals who do not pose a threat to public safety.” In addition, the Justice Department was “committed to recommending as many qualified applicants as possible for reduced sentences.” Clemency Project 2014 has, however, become a bureaucratic disaster, assigned to volunteer lawyers and law students with little if any experience in the pitfalls of dealing with the federal criminal justice system.

In June 2014, the Hill reported that Obama was pushing forward with a review of the clemency system. In March 2015, the president told the Huffington Post that the pardon process had been “revamped” and that he would be exercising the pardon power “more aggressively.” Seven months later, he told the Marshall Project that clemency applications were being processed “more effectively” and a “steady ramp up” was in play. The Post recently reported that some additional grants are expected in the coming weeks, but “big” is hardly a word that appropriately describes what has gone on to date.

By now, Obama could have simply signed an amnesty proclamation covering everyone qualifying for lesser sentences. He could have taken the pardon process out of the Justice Department and given the job to a commission or an independent agency that would give him a degree of political cover if anything went wrong. Just such a move had been proposed by his first White House counsel, Gregory Craig.

Regardless, seven neglectful years allow for few pretty endings. If current patterns persist, Obama will go down as one of the most merciless presidents in history. On the other hand, even a moderate display of concern about clemency, with a few grants here and there, will almost certainly be viewed (and dubbed) as “a last-minute gesture,” granted to avoid any serious political accountability.

Any such grants will also be greeted with suspicion and exceptional scrutiny by the media and political opponents. Impressions left by any scandalous reports will be much deeper than if the president had simply been more merciful more evenly across the term, and not left everyone to wonder: “Why are these particular people being pardoned? And why are they being pardoned now? Why are they any more special than the thousands of applicants deemed unworthy before them?”

Having waited almost two years before granting his first presidential pardon, Obama would probably do as much harm to the general reputation of the pardon power as to his personal legacy with a controversial, Bill Clintonesque splurge in clemency just before leaving office. Sadly, many deserving recipients would be besmirched as well. This is the bed the president has made for himself.

George Lardner Jr., a former Post reporter, is scholar in residence at American University’s Investigative Reporting Workshop. P.S. Ruckman Jr. is a professor of political science and editor of the Pardon Power Blog.

Thanks to Solar Panels, Syrian Farmers Could Feed People for First Time in Years

Michaela Whitton
March 28, 2016

 (ANTIMEDIA) United Kingdom — A group of Syrian activists have launched a solar-powered irrigation initiative in the Idlib province to assist local farmers in restoring local agriculture devastated by the country’s five-year civil war. Prior to the revolution,  farmers in Idlib’s western countryside would use electricity to pump wells and irrigate their orchards. Since the crippling devastation of much of the country’s infrastructure, some have gone years without being able to harvest a single crop. They have been forced to seek out alternative energy solutions.

In the village of Badama, farmers are beginning to irrigate and harvest their lands again after their main source of power, the Zayzun power plant, was bombed by government forces. Constant power cuts and crippling fuel prices due to the ongoing war have seen agriculture become untenable. Thanks to a new project launched by local activists, in collaboration with the local council and with support from a U.S. civil society organisation, $75,000 has been invested in solar panels, batteries, water pipes and other items. With 12 separate units, each one consisting of 14 panels, 200 farmers are already benefiting from the initiative.

Positioned at slanted angles to harness and absorb the sun’s power during the day, the panels charge batteries, which are connected to them. The project is providing enough energy to extract water from the wells and provide irrigation to approximately 300 acres of Badama’s agricultural land. In turn, the sustainable power source is enabling the farmers to once again cultivate their vegetables, apple orchards, and olive groves.

An official publishing platform for aspiring Syrian journalists, Damascus Bureau, reported an improvement in the quality and quantity of Badama’s agricultural production. It said farmers are no longer struggling to make ends meet and called the project a huge success.

“God has blessed us with sunshine throughout most of the year, and thanks to its rays, irrigated lands will never be unkind to those who cultivate them,” local council member Abu Mohammed told the Bureau, saying he hoped the initiative would be rolled out to all liberated areas.

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Activist Who Filmed Execution of Dying Man by Israeli Soldier Speaks Out

Michaela Whitton
March 25, 2016

 (ANTIMEDIA) Palestine — An Israeli soldier has been arrested after video footage emerged of him shooting a Palestinian in the head while he was wounded and immobilised on the ground. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) has opened an investigation into the assassination, which took place after two Palestinians were accused of carrying out a knife attack in the city of Hebron.

Ramzi al-Qasrawi and Abd al-Fatah al-Sharif, both 21, were shot on Thursday after stabbing a soldier in the Tel Rumeida area of Hebron. The soldier sustained medium-level injuries, al-Qasrawi died immediately, and al-Sharif fell wounded to the ground.

The damning video footage was captured by cameraman, Emad abu-Shamsiyeh and his wife, Fayzeh, from activist group Human Rights Defenders. The couple were having coffee in Tel Rumeida around 8:30am on Thursday when they heard shots. Taking their cameras, they rushed to the street to find out what was going on. Abu-Shamsiyeh’s footage shows al-Sharif lying on the road injured while Israeli soldiers and medics ignore him. No one attempts to give him first aid. Suddenly, the soldier aims his weapon and fires a single shot at point-blank range into al-Sharif’s head, killing him. This happens in plain view of the other soldiers, who don’t take any notice — despite blood pouring from his lifeless body.

As a form of popular resistance, non-violent activist group Human Rights Defenders have, for the last three years, used their cameras to document human rights abuses and international law violations occurring amid Israel’s military occupation of Palestine. Based in Hebron — a hotbed of friction due to the presence of radical Israeli settlers and military stationed there to ‘protect’ them — the group is made up of men, women, and children. The activists upload their videos to the group’s Youtube channel to expose the crimes committed against Palestinians as a result of Israel’s colonial enterprise.

Coordinator of Human Rights Defenders, Badee Dwaik, translated Emad abu-Shamsiyeh’s statement in an interview with Anti-Media:

I witnessed a young boy who was bleeding from his forehead but he was still alive. As soldiers and settlers gathered, an Israeli ambulance came and took the injured soldier away. No one gave the Palestinian treatment who was laying on the ground. He was still alive and was moving his hand and leg. I was still filming while they put the soldier in the ambulance and saw another soldier get in a position to shoot. He shot one bullet towards the boy, directly in his head. Part of his brain came out on the ground because of the close distance. This is what me and my wife witnessed and filmed with our own eyes and through the lens of my camera.”

 Asked what was different about Thursday’s shooting, Dwaik told Anti-Media in an interview:

Yesterday was different because it was clear from the video that the soldier was in no danger from al-Sharif. The boy was already on the ground surrounded by army, medics and police. This shows what a moral army this is.”

Dwaik said that as a result of widespread media attention, Emad abu-Shamsiyeh is feeling at risk. Stones were thrown at the home on Friday and he is considering moving his family to safety for a while. Asked what would have happened if he and Fayzeh hadn’t been there to film the harrowing scenes, Dwaik was frank:

“No one would know this story and it would be handled by Israel like all the others. This proves the importance of the cameras Palestinians need to tell their stories and document what is going on. Otherwise, you would only hear the Israeli side of the story — which is an occupation story.”

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