23 September 2009

What Have I Done???

Alright, alright, I know; I said I would be "speedy" with my next post on the Bill of Rights...I am not pleased that I am so late in writing about the Sixth Amendment, especially given what it covers. I am going to give you a little quiz right now; what does the Sixth Amendment entail? If you guessed it entails the right of an accused to a speedy trial, you would be correct. In fact here is what the Sixth Amendment says verbatim: "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district where in the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence."

Broken down, what we see is the Sixth Amendment "guarantees" a speedy, public trial by a jury of one's peers, ensuring the accused knows what crime the are accused of committing, the right to have an attorney to defend the accused in court and the right to have favorable witnesses testify on the accused's behalf. Pretty straightforward don't you think? Well it's not quite that simple, folks.

First off, there is no set time limit to define a "speedy" trial. In fact, the idea of a speedy trial is outlined like this: A delay of a year or more from the date of arrest or indictment, whichever happened first, is termed "presumptively prejudicial". The prosecution may not excessively delay the trial for its own advantage, but a trial may be delayed to secure the presence of an absent witness or other practical considerations. If a defendant agrees to a delay when it works to his own benefit, he cannot later claim that his Sixth Amendment right was violated.

Ok, so what about a "public" trial? Well, in 1966 the Supreme Court ruled that the right to a public trial is not absolute. What that means is, if excessive publicity could possibly affect the outcome of a trial, that trial can be closed to the public. Simply put, if the government thinks publicity could harm their case against the accused, they can ask for a closed hearing. Also, if the accused feels that publicity could affect his right to a fair trial, he can request the trial be closed as well...but the burden is on the accused to show proof that publicity would affect the trial.

Ok, so now we know that a speedy and public trial has several different meanings, but what about a trial by jury? Surely any accused person has the right to be tried by a jury, right? Wrong. If you have ever been to traffic court, you know what I am talking about here. Jury trials are dependent on the nature of the crime that was committed. If one is accused of stealing and the maximum punishment allowed is six months or less, a jury trial is not required. Likewise, the requirement to have 12 jurors and a unanimous verdict is not absolute. In the Fourteenth Amendment the Supreme Court held that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, while requiring States to provide jury trials for serious crimes, does not incorporate all the elements of a jury trial within the meaning of the Sixth Amendment and does not require jury unanimity...in other words, a defendant can be tried by six people and a majority vote is all that is needed to either convict or exonerate.

A defendant also has the right to know what charges are being brought, the courts cannot just have someone arrested and tried without them knowing what they are accused of...I'm pretty sure if you are accused of a crime, you are going to know what crime you are being accused of. Other defendant's rights include the right to confront his accuser and witnesses, the right to have an attorney represent him, and the right to represent himself.

Now there have been arguments in the past that this Amendment has been abused by career criminals in order to intimidate witnesses, rig juries, and essentially get off scot-free. In some cases this may be true but you are more likely to see this on Law & Order than in real life. Now I know I will probably be publicly flogged for saying that but, to me, it is true. Our justice system is the finest in the world and, despite a few flaws here and there, is the most fair to everyone. If you don't believe me, check out some of the outrageous stories you read in your email about idiots suing companies for their own idiocy (Winnebago being sued by the guy who crashed his motor home because he set it on cruise control and went to the back to make coffee is a good one), check out the hoax-buster site www.snopes.com. Most of the stories you and I have heard over the years are urban legends.

So, let's wrap this up, shall we? By virtue of the Sixth Amendment, one is not subjected to a kangaroo court, one will not languish for years in jail waiting for a trial, and one will always have the opportunity to defend one's self. So why are the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay not afforded these rights? Well, in my opinion, it is because they are NOT citizens of the United States and therefore are not allowed the rights and freedoms provided for citizens in the Bill of Rights.

Whether or not you agree with me on that point is moot. Yes, the Amendment does not specifically mention "citizens" per se but it does say, "...accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district where in the crime shall have been committed..." Those prisoners committed their crimes not on US soil but in the Middle East and the last time I checked there were no US states over there. Kinda proves my point, doesn't it?

11 September 2009

Do You Remember?

Do you remember? That is a question everyone is asking today. Do you know what happened eight years ago today at 8:46 am EDT? If you are an American citizen over the age of 10 you should have this date indelibly etched in your memory. Eight years ago today, at 8:46 am EDT, a hijacked airliner crashed into the Twin Towers in New York City.
I was stationed at Special Boat Unit 22 then; that morning we had just finished our morning PT. I was just getting out of the shower, putting on my BDUs and getting ready for the rest of my day. I was thinking about the Smoky Mountain vacation my wife and I were taking in a few weeks and what to get her for our first wedding anniversary on the 22nd.

That’s when it happened to me. As I was getting dressed one of the guys ran into the locker room yelling about a jet hitting the World Trade Center. Shocked, I hurried and finished and ran to the compound thinking, “Oh my God what a terrible accident!” As I crossed the quarterdeck, I stopped to look at the TV behind the watch station just in time to see the second jet hit the other tower. Right at that instant I thought, “We are going to war.” We all listened and watched in disbelief as the towers burned, horrified when we watched them collapse and shuddered when we heard the continuing news reports; a jet hit the Pentagon and another crashed in Pennsylvania. And just like that, we were transported away from the cozy little world that was life in the United States of America.

Now we were in a new world; a world of fear and mistrust, suspicion and dread. Everything we knew was gone. Numb in disbelief we went through our day as we went to Threat Condition Delta, the worst of the four; condition Delta is when an attack has happened and we are on full alert, ready for another imminent attack. If you don’t understand that part, just ask a veteran, they will know all too well what that means to us.

Fast-forward to this morning; I was driving to work, listening to NPR when Steve Inskeep, the host of Morning Edition, announced that through the day we would hear stories from survivors of that terrible and tragic day. John Vigliano related his story over the radio; he told us about his two sons, Joe and John Jr., one a member of NYPD and the other FDNY. He told the story of how, on the afternoon of September 10th, he spoke with John Jr. on the phone, their conversation ending with, “I love you.” then, on September 11th, receiving a call from Joe who was on his way to the Trade Center, “…this is a big one…” he told his father. This conversation too ended with, “I love you.”…and that was the last time John Vigliano ever heard from his sons, both perished in the response to the World Trade Center attacks.

As I sat in my truck waiting for traffic to thin so I could turn on to the highway, I started to cry. Every memory I had of that terrible day came flooding back and I started to cry, eventually finding myself sobbing uncontrollably; I felt like my heart had been ripped out of my chest all over again. As sad as I was at that moment, I could only imagine the pain and heartache Mr. and Mrs. Vigliano are feeling every day, much less this day. I recovered and composed myself and thought, “Good…it is a good thing I feel this way. Every single American today should feel this way.” I know that sounds callous and unfeeling but today I hope you cry; I hope today you feel like your heart has been ripped out of your chest all over again. I hope you feel that way today because that means you didn’t forget. As you remember today, please, please, please, stop, take a moment and remember the 2,752 souls lost on that day. Then go out and thank every veteran you see for fighting for our freedom and remember the brave men and women in harm’s way in Iraq and Afghanistan fighting to protect us. They are the true heroes, not the professional athletes, musicians, actors or politicians. Remember that, ok? I will.

09 September 2009

You Can't Make Me Talk!!!

Well, I need to first apologize for taking so long to continue my educational series on The Bill of Rights. Now, let’s get down to business, shall we? “My client takes the fifth amendment…” I am sure you have heard that line uttered in several movies and television shows through the years; I mean who hasn’t. Yes, it is true the Fifth Amendment means one can refuse to answer questions when the answer could provide self-incriminating evidence of illegal conduct. That’s all it’s about, right? Wrong!

The full reading of the Fifth Amendment goes like this, “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

That’s a mouthful! There is simply too much information on the Fifth Amendment to put it all here so I will briefly cover the different aspects of this amendment. First, let’s talk about grand juries; what exactly is a grand jury? Well this is a jury of citizens that are presented evidence in a closed proceeding (meaning no media) by the prosecution. These people review that evidence using rules given them by a judge and they then determine if the evidence warrants a trial, in which case an indictment is issued to the defendant. This also means the defending attorney cannot be there when the evidence is presented and evidence that may have been acquired in violation of the Fourth, Fifth or Sixth Amendments can be presented as well. Here is the other kicker, individual states have the power to abolish grand juries if they want and can institute preliminary hearings.

The next part of this amendment covers something called “Double Jeopardy”…no it’s not the game show Jeopardy’s second half where the dollar amounts double. What double jeopardy means is if a suspect is found innocent by a jury of his peers, that suspect is acquitted and cannot be tried for that particular crime again. But hold on to your hats, this part does NOT apply to situations when a jury “deadlocks” or cannot make a unanimous decision one way or the other. In that situation, a judge can declare a mistrial and the court can try the suspect again.

Now we get to the self-incrimination part, kids! In a nutshell, this little clause means a witness does not have to testify in court if that testimony would incriminate the witness. So that’s it, right? Wrong again, bucko! The self-incrimination clause also applies to questioning by police AND evidence gathered. Ever hear of the Miranda Rights, or “the right to remain silent”? That part of the clause was also put there to ensure a suspect is not forced to confess to a crime they may or may not have committed.

Another part of this amendment is “due process”. So what is due process? Due process is the principle that the government must respect all of the legal rights that are owed to a person according to the law of the land. Basically it means if you are suspected of a crime and are arrested and tried, the government must make sure that your protections and rights were upheld during the entire process.

Now we come to my favorite part of the Fifth Amendment…Eminent Domain! What is Eminent Domain? Well it is the government’s power to take private property for "public use". The Fifth Amendment limits this power by requiring the government pay “just compensation” if private land is to be taken for public use. Unfortunately through the years, the definition of just compensation has been changed to “fair market value” of the property…which basically means the government can decide how much your property is worth. Originally, this clause tried to prevent the government from taking privately owned property for private developers. That was forever changed in 2005 when Supreme Court Justice Stevens wrote an opinion stating a government can take private property for developers if the development plan had a public purpose, saying that "the city has carefully formulated a development plan that it believes will provide appreciable benefits to the community, including, but not limited to, new jobs and increased tax revenue." (Kelo v. City of New London) Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote a dissenting opinion arguing the decision would allow the rich to benefit at the expense of the poor. All is not lost, dear readers, for many of the individual states have passed laws making it difficult for local governments to seize private property.

I hope I didn’t bore you with this very long narrative, folks. This little piece of mine only just touches on the highlights of the Fifth Amendment. As I have said before, don’t take my word for it, look it up for yourself and learn! Tata for now, folks…up next the Sixth Amendment…and I’ll be “speedy” next time!

03 September 2009

The Bill of Rights Part III and IV

When I announced I was going to write about the Bill of Rights, I intended to write 10 individual pieces, one for each amendment. Well, if you are an American citizen with even the slightest inkling of our Constitution and first 10 Amendments, aka The Bill of Rights, then you know there's not much to say about the Third Amendment. So, I am going to write about both the Third and Fourth Amendments today.

The Third Amendment has lost some of its relevance over the years since the Civil War; if you just don't understand what I mean, here it is verbatim for you, "No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law." This amendment was included in the bill specifically to prevent the government from forcing homeowners to house soldiers in their homes without their consent; if you are even a mediocre student of American History, you would know this was a common practice by the British government in our pre-Revolutionary War days.

In fact, I can only remember one incident where the Third Amendment was invoked; in 1979, in the state of New York, prison officials organized a strike and were promptly evicted from their residences that were on prison grounds. National Guard members were put in those residences since they were now running the prisons. The lawsuit the prison officials filed claimed their Third Amendment rights had been violated; this was rejected by the court and was appealed. The Circuit Court of Appeals eventually ruled the prison officials had a "reasonable expectation" of privacy regardless whether they owned their residences, since they legally lived there it was "their personal property" and therefore, under the Fourth Amendment, the appeal was granted and the officials got their homes back. This is just a bare reference to the incident, if you would like details you can look it up using this information: Engblom v. Carey, 677 F.2d 957 (2d. Cir. 1982).

Which now brings me to the Fourth Amendment, "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." This amendment should be self-explanatory, but it, as well as all of the other amendments, is misunderstood by a great majority of people. Its intent was to ban warrant less searches of private property by officials, a reaction to the British Government's penchant for using general warrants to conduct raids in search of materials that were thought to be attacking both government policies and the King, George II and later George III.

So basically, this amendment tells us the police cannot just come into your house and search for anything that could get you into trouble. Rather, the police must first apply for a warrant to search and then the warrant must detail what they are searching for. However, folks, this doesn't mean if you are driving erratically the police can't pull you over and search you or your car. Nope, your behavior can give an officer of the law a little thing called probable cause. In other words, if you give the officer a reason to suspect you are driving drunk, the officer can legally search you and your vehicle so...for all you malcontents out there who think a field sobriety test is a violation of your Fourth Amendment rights, think again (I say this because, as a former cop, I ran across this several times).

What it does mean is you have a reasonable expectation of privacy in your home and in your car. The government cannot just walk right into your home without cause and search for anything illegal. Nor can the government pull you over on the road "just because", nope kids, if you see the blue flashies in your rear-view mirror chances are you either did something or your car has something wrong with it like a burned-out light.

What else can happen, you ask? Well, let's say the neighbors have been calling the police about the smell emanating from your home, they think you're cooking meth in you garage. The police can come and investigate but cannot enter your property without a warrant so they apply for a search warrant that allows them into your home...they search your entire house but you're smart, you cleaned up the other day so they don't find anything...until they see something you forgot to throw away on your garage workbench...it's not specifically mentioned in the warrant but there it is, plain as day. They can't touch it because it's not in the warrant, right? WRONG. There is a little exception in the rulebook that talks about plain sight!

Basically, it means if they are legally searching for something but find something else that was out in the open, they can take it as evidence. Same thing in your car, if you are pulled over for, let's say speeding, and as the officer is writing the ticket he notices the dime bag of weed on the floorboard that you forgot to stash, he can arrest you for possession without having to apply for a warrant. Yep, you guessed it, I saw that one too when I was a cop.

So kids, I hope we learned something today. There is a ton of information out there on the Third and Fourth Amendments; much much more than I can cover here, so I hope you will do what it is I do whenever I read a column like this. Research the information yourself, don't just take the writer's word for it. We've got enough ignorant idiots like that here; I call them reporters.

Coming next - the Fifth Amendment, I promise I won't take the Fifth!