Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Going Apple Picking: The Rise of Cell Phone Thefts in Major Cities, and the Industry Fueling It


People tell me I don’t have the world’s greatest survival instincts.  I can’t really say that they’re wrong.  I spent most of my life growing up in rural New York, about thirty minutes outside of Buffalo.  Our local paper put out alarming headlines about town youths kicking the railings out of the park gazebo, and when I was in middle and high school, I remember not one – but three annual school-wide assemblies castigating us for the cardinal scourges of pencil-based bathroom graffiti and “freak dancing[1].”

Anyways, transport this same kid to inner-city Baltimore a few years later and the story pretty much writes itself.  But my editor tells me that I have a word minimum for each of these posts so I’m going to write it anyway.  I decided to go out one night in Federal Hill, which is what realtors call an “entertainment district,” after a particularly harrowing week at the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office.  I figured my apartment, just under a mile away, outside of Johns Hopkins Hospital, wouldn’t be too difficult a walk.  Like I said, my life experiences from living in Clarence, New York and Albemarle Street haven’t exactly turned me into a street samurai[2].

Making my way through the streets of Baltimore, I’m approached by a local with a rather surly disposition.  He asked to see my phone, and I complied.  As much as I love statistics, I’d rather not become one.  I handed over my Windows Phone, and he turned it on.  He then asked, somewhat impolitely, what it was.  After he found out that my phone, a Nokia model that was state-of-the-art at the time that Jersey Shore was considered a novel form of entertainment, he tossed it back and suggested that I do something rather anatomically impossible with myself.  Subsequent letters to Microsoft suggesting an ad campaign “Windows Phones: Not Worth Stealing,” have gone unanswered.

I was not alone in being accosted for my phone.  This year cell phones theft accounts for one in three street robberies.  In San Francisco, it makes up four in every ten street robberies.  In New York City, cell phone thefts make up fully half of all street robberies.  Today, cell phone theft now accounts for fourteen percent of all major crimes committed in New York City.  NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly places the blame for New York’s spike in crime specifically on theft of Apple products.

In response to this growing trend, police officers have increased the size of their organized crime departments in an effort to combat the small-time neighborhood crews pulling these thefts.  CTIA – The Wireless Association has teamed up with the FCC to create an expansive database of cell phones to allow for better tracking of the devices, and allow the user to remotely “kill” the phone following its theft.  An alternative use of the system, allowing Bruce Wayne and Morgan Freeman to use phones to create electronic maps of every city with cell phones is – at this point – purely speculative.

Apps like “Find my iPhone,” and “Activation Lock,” a personal kill switch, have surged in popularity.  However, these apps do little to actually address the issue, specifically because these phones can be sold back for profit, regardless of condition.  Easy money is to be made, not in using stolen phones, but in selling them.  Companies like Gazelle.com advertise on daytime TV, and offer quick cash for cell phones in any condition.  Kill switches are a pretty substandard deterrent when a company is willing to offer up to a hundred dollars in easy cash for a phone that doesn’t even turn on.

Too lazy or not tech-savvy enough to deal with an online fence?  No problem, just take your ill-gotten cell phone to the nearest mall, and stick it into devices that are innocuously called “EcoATMs.”  These are kiosks throughout the country, resembling ATMs that a person can simply put a cell phone in, regardless of condition or charging state, and receive an immediate payout.  For a top-of-the-line phone, EcoATM’s are able to pay out hundreds of dollars.

Now, EcoATM’s parent corporation, Outerwall, pays lip service on their website towards cooperation with law enforcement.  They tout their “extensive security processes,” in place to prevent the sale of stolen phones.  These “extensive processes” amount to asking the seller to scan their driver’s licenses, and taking a picture of the seller.  An investigation by Baltimore journalists have shown that the machines are unable to identify between a white woman and an Indian woman ten years younger than her.  I have a hard time calling something an “extensive security process” when it can’t even draw the same distinctions that my ninety year-old, legally blind great aunt is capable of.

Philadelphia was the first city to ban EcoATMs, with Baltimore and DC quickly following suit.  There is a huge market to be made abroad for secondhand phones, and companies like Outerwall are making money hand over fist... and that metaphor kind of seems rather pointed when there’s people getting their heads split open for Outerwall’s profits.  

The most odious element of this problem isn’t born from Outerwall or Gazelle though.  George Gascón is the San Francisco District Attorney, and worked with California and New York Lawmakers to adopt plans to better proliferate kill switch technology.  According to Gascón, the stiffest opposition to this development, however, has come from cell carriers themselves. And why wouldn’t it?  Even though the Outerwall makes money on every cell phone sale – stolen or otherwise – AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon have brought in almost four billion dollars in revenue from selling cell phone insurance. 

Law enforcement officers and prosecutors are facing an even bigger hurdle in breaking up cell phone theft rings. Consumer databases, have proven largely ineffective in fixing the issue and many of the phones make their way overseas, where recovery for evidence purposes is virtually impossible.  Ultimately, the real kill switch that needs to be thrown is the one attached to the gross profiteering from theft that marks this industry.  

Travis Nemmer
Staffer, Criminal Law Practitioner

[1] For the record, I still do not know what this is, and I am fairly certain that I did not partake in it. Your humble author was apparently not particularly popular in High School. Editor’s Note – Or in Law School.
[2] My predilections towards referencing 1980’s Pen-and-Paper roleplaying games probably explains a lot about the above footnote. Editor’s Note – “Probably?”

Friday, September 12, 2014

Church v. State: The Debate Over Allowance of Beards in Prisons

Gregory Houston Holt, also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad (hereinafter Holt), appealed in a hand written statement to the United States Supreme Court seeking certiorari for his right to wear a beard. Holt, currently serving time in an Arkansas Prison, wrote that correctional officers “force inmates to either obey their religious beliefs and face disciplinary action on the one hand, or violate those beliefs in order to acquiesce with the grooming policy.” Arkansas’ correctional facility allows inmates to wear a neatly trimmed mustache and a short beard only in the case of skin problems. Holt is challenging the correctional facility’s policy under the Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act (RLUIPA), which states that the government shall not enforce a “burden on the religious exercise of a person” within an institution unless it fits in the two-prong test. The two-prong test states: the burden is in 1) furtherance of a compelling government interest; and 2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

The government will argue that there is a significant government interest and point out that grooming policies prevent inmates from hiding contraband, quickly changing appearances, and that any special privileges to inmates could result in being targeted by other inmates. On the other hand, Holt will focus on the second part of the test and show that the means used are not the least restrictive in furthering that interest. For example, other jurisdictions allow for beards longer than what Holt is asking for, having inmates with beards vigorously run their hands through their beards upon inspection, and authorities could also take pictures of inmates before and after their beards in case the inmates decide to shave. Furthermore, Holt’s hand written brief goes through numerous case precedence where courts have struck down policies banning beards in prisons.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is representing Mr. Holt, who has also represented Hobby Lobby, where the court ruled that corporations could refuse to provide contraception coverage to their employees on religious grounds. The Supreme Court should apply to Holt’s case the same two-prong test that it applied in the Hobby Lobby case. However, corporations and inmates have different levels of security interests and the Court will assess religious freedom in a higher context as compared to a publicly traded corporation. “After going out on a limb by providing newfound rights to corporations,” said Marci A. Hamilton, a law professor at Cardozo Law School said, “are they now going to turn around and say that prisoners can’t grow beards?” 

However, if the Court rules in favor of Holt, would that open up doors for others to pressure law enforcement or prison officials to allow for new forms of religious exceptions? For example, similar to this case, would Sikhs in prisons now request to grow beards, wear turbans, and carry a Kirpan (sword). Or would Zoroastrians in prisons be able to ask for a fire temple. What if these laws were to be applied to school settings? For example, would Muslims or Jews be able to pressure schools to allow Muslim/Jewish students to take extra breaks for mandatory prayers? Wherever these laws take us, religious freedom has found its place in this country and it is here to stay.

Hassan Mukhlis
Staffer, Criminal Law Practitioner

Photo by Broadhead, via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Inconsistent Application of Pretrial Diversion Programs

Prosecutors may often be confronted with a complex moral dilemma when pursuing cases against first-time offenders.  Namely, does every first-time offender, whose past offers little or no indication that she may commit a future crime, deserve to have a permanent felony on his or her record and face possible jail time?

Friday, September 5, 2014

Coping: Stress and Critical Incidents in the Legal Profession

Stress, and the effects that it can have on an individual’s health and well-being, are pressing issues in the modern, excessively fast-paced world. Every profession has its own set of stressors, whether they be the dangers that a fireman experiences saving someone from a burning building or the absolute need for precision that a surgeon faces while performing an operation; the legal profession is no different. Lawyers are crushed under immense workloads and many struggle with depression and other work-related difficulties; the legal field boasts the fourth highest suicide rate, falling behind only dentists, pharmacists, and physicians.

With such a high level of stress already engrained into the profession, it’s hard to imagine how attorneys in the criminal field, whether they be law enforcement lawyers or the inspector general, handle the added stress and trauma that comes with being present at crime scenes and other critical incidents. Most police departments and law enforcement agencies have built in Critical Incident Stress Management programs that assist officers and first responders with the after effects of seeing traumatic accidents and crimes first-hand. The U.S Department of Health and Services defines a critical incident as a traumatic event that an individual is unable to readily cope with, such as a worksite shooting or a co-worker suicide. However, these sorts of events are classified as separate from “catastrophic incidents,” which are occurrences like bomb explosions and hostage situations.

In the law enforcement field, employees constantly come in contact with critical incidents, as they handle everything from traffic accidents to mass murders. In considering the types of trauma that these individuals experience, it is also important to remember that lawyers are present at many of these scenes or at least have access to the horrific details. Prosecutors, defense attorneys, attorneys involved in police oversight, and law enforcement lawyers all at one time or another will come in contact with gruesome and harrowing situations, regardless of their client’s involvement. Crime scene photos, victim interviews, and the trauma of seeing a gory traffic accident first hand can all have a detrimental effect on any individual, even if that individual is not aware of those effects. This constant barrage is known as psychic battering and can include a wide range factors: a victim’s description of a rape; a vicious custody battle; crime scene photos from a triple murder. Although it may not be initially clear, a consistent exposure to such material, even if it is only vicarious, can have lasting damaging effects. It is often considered the job of the lawyer or attorney to remain detached and not invested in the details of each specific case; they are meant to strive for excellence on a professional level, but to not commit to any particular client on a personal level. Unfortunately, no one can predict the way a particular situation will affect them, and even the most seasoned attorneys can find themselves jarred by a particularly upsetting situation.
           
With the number of high-stress tragedies that are occurring on a day-to-day basis in the U.S. today, including the number of shootings that have happened recently, it is important for members of the legal profession to have resources available if the need for outreach arises. The American Bar Association includes the Commission on Lawyer Assistance, which services lawyers struggling with alcohol abuse, drug addiction, and depression. It also sponsors a National Mental Health Day, which focuses on ensuring that both licensed attorneys and law students understand that there are support systems available to help them cope with the pressures of the legal profession. Every state bar has its own form of support group; New York City has its own Lawyer Assistance Program with a confidential helpline, while the D.C. Bar program offers counseling and sessions with volunteers that have experienced the same problems. Many of these Lawyer Assistance Programs also offer continued monitoring to ensure that individuals are not benefitting from the help that they are receiving.  However, although these initiatives focus on generalized, work related stress, perhaps there should be more focus for lawyers that are present at crime scenes and handling disturbing material on a daily basis. Although the Department of Justice has a plan of action for critical incidents, the plan makes no mention of how to handle the psychological and emotional after-effects of such occurrences.  Considering the amount of discourse that has occurred about the mental health of lawyers in general, it is surprising that there has not been more discussion on how these individuals are dealing with the effects of critical incident stress. It would be disingenuous to imply that attorneys interact with such incidents on the same level as law enforcement officers; however, it cannot be denied that lawyers have to cope with these situations in some manner and that they should be afforded the resources to do so. 

Jacqueline Morley
Staffer, Criminal Law Practitioner

Photo by Gates of Ale, via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Defense of Justification: An Analysis of the Case Against Darren Wilson

File:Spartan-APC Innisfil Location.JPGAs news spreads of the shooting of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson, many have already begun to speculate as to the result.  Some say Wilson will go to jail murdering a boy in cold blood, and others say he was justified in defending himself and should not face jail time for doing his job.  Although the facts of the case are not crystal clear, it is important to view the facts and apply the law in as unbiased a manner as possible.  An analysis of the relevant statutes and possible facts of the case follows.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Weakening the Shield: Maryland Reforming Sex Offender Registry Laws for the Worse?

The sex offender registry has long been a system relied upon by the government to keep track of the residence and activities of sex offenders, including ones who have completed their court-ordered sentences.  It is also a shield designed to protect the public; however, the shield could soon be weakened when at least 1,200 names disappear from the State of Maryland’s registry.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Judicial Economy Overstepping? Maryland's Lack of Recognition of Antagonistic Defenses

File:L'inégalité.JPGIt is embedded in our judicial system within the Fifth and Sixth Amendments of the United States Constitution that a person in a criminal proceeding is entitled to have a fair trial with all of his or her due process protections.  Stemming from these constitutional provisions, Maryland recognizes in Sessoms v. State the right to “ensure that an accused gets a fair trial free from undue prejudice.”  Although Sessoms is speaking directly to other crimes’ evidence, that same fairness is applied throughout the criminal justice system.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Soldier Department

In November 2012, the local police department for the small town of Keene, New Hampshire announced the acquisition of a ballistic-engineered armored response counter attack truck, more affectionately called a BearCat, from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  Meanwhile, local police in the small town of Cary, North Carolina taught a training course entitled Warrior Mindset to its incoming class of officers. In February 2013, a New Haven Police Department Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team used a battering ram through a single familys front door, shooting a flash-bang grenade to temporarily blind the family while it executed a search warrant for drugs.  No drugs were found.