Supreme Court agrees to hear civil forfeiture challenge

U.S. Supreme Court in Washington. Photo Credit: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite as reported by Forbes, 2/1/18.

U.S. Supreme Court in Washington. Photo Credit: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite as reported by Forbes, 2/1/18.

Billions of dollars in government revenue and one of the most contentious constitutional questions of the present day are at stake in a pending U.S. Supreme Court case over civil forfeiture.

“For the first time in over 20 years, the U.S. Supreme Court will have the opportunity to review the constitutionality of civil forfeiture laws, which allow the government to confiscate cash, cars, and even homes,” Forbes reported.

Civil forfeiture laws allowed local and state jurisdictions to reap millions of dollars: “from 2001 to 2014, the Justice Department and the Treasury Department’s forfeiture funds took in almost $29 billion,” Forbes reported.

The court has granted a cert petition from Tyson Timbs, “who was forced to forfeit his $40,000 Land Rover in civil court to the State of Indiana, after he pled guilty to selling less than $200 worth of drugs,” the Forbes article reported.

Timbs prevailed in lower courts, but last fall the Indiana Supreme Court ruled against him. “The Excessive Fines Clause does not bar the State from forfeiting Defendant’s vehicle,” the court ruled, “because the United States Supreme Court has not held that the Clause applies to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment.”

Now, the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to weigh in.

Florida Newspaper Endorsed ‘Civil Gideon’

Scales of justice (freeimages.com)

Scales of justice (freeimages.com)

Citing research from the Florida Bar Association, The Orlando Sentinel newspaper has taken a strong stand on “Civil Gideon,” the idea that some civil cases demand the same right to an attorney as criminal cases.
In an editorial, the paper cites economic benefits from a study commissioned by The Florida Bar Foundation: “… the study concluded that every dollar spent on civil legal aid for lower-income Floridians yields more than $7 in benefits. As Bar Foundation President Matthew Brenner said, ‘Equal justice under law is not only a basic underpinning of our democracy; it’s also good economic policy.'”
Adds the paper: In short, it’s a better deal for taxpayers to invest at the front end to help fellow Floridians solve problems in civil court, instead of paying more to deal with the consequences to the state’s economy of unsolved problems at the back end. This same logic would apply — and should appeal — to other potential legal aid contributors, including the business community and nonprofits. Here’s how the math works.”
The mainstream endorsement is a milestone for the Civil Gideon movement. Read it here:
Invest in access to civil justice: Where We Stand

Florida Court District Says Divorce Hearing Can Take A Year

Courts nationwide are facing serious rationing, but a Tampa-area regional justice system is offering some details of its crisis. The info came as county commissioners are debating new facilities. But the area’s chief judge says that won’t help much because “… we can build additional courtrooms but nothing’s going to happen unless we have more judges to oversee them… we haven’t had a new judge in 10 years. Get the (state) Legislature to give us more judges.”

At issue is Florida’s 6th Judicial Circuit, which serves fast-goring Pasco and Pinellas counties The Tampa Bay Tribune explained that the district is “Florida’s third-largest court system. It has 69 judges to oversee all criminal, civil, appellate, family, traffic and small claims court cases. There are seven county court judges and 13 circuit judges assigned to handle cases at the New Port Richey and Dade City courthouses. In 2013 — the most recent figures available — those 20 Pasco County judges handled 24,069 circuit court cases and 41,733 county court cases. And the caseload keeps growing.”

One judge told county officials that it takes a year just to get a hearing on a divorce case

See more at the Tampa Tribune. 

Thousands in St. Louis land in ‘debtor prisons’ for not paying a court fee

The Atlantic magazine has a new report out about “debtor prisons” in the St. Louis area, and it’s nothing short of alarming. The story by Whitney Benne and Blake Strode traces the problem all the way back to the pre-Civil War Dred Scott decision and includes details about how fairly routine municipal tickets – like for “saggy pants” – end up putting people in jail.
 
The report notes that “… as the recent deluge of reports and litigation confirms, and many have long known, thousands of people throughout the St. Louis metropolitan area are routinely sent to jail because they cannot pay local court fines and fees. These people are poor, and they tend to be black. While there are many terms to describe this—including, importantly, unconstitutional, —there is one with historical resonance reserved for such a practice: debtors’ prison.
 
The offer background: “… today, the ‘debts’ that lead to incarceration take the form of monetary penalties established and enforced by municipal courts. For many people throughout the St. Louis region, the nightmare of debtors’ prison is a recurring one: Each time a payment or court date is missed, the court issues another warrant, and the individual is subject to arrest, jail, and additional fines and court fees.
 
It is a case study in how the “gray area” of government activity, in this case charges that are serious enough to land you in jail but not “criminal” in the sense you have a right to an attorney, end up with significant jail time. Prepare your outrage meter and read the entire report: Debtors’ Prison in 21st-Century America.

Justice Dept. Suing Ferguson Over Failure To Make Changes

Photo of Michael Brown Sr., right, at a City Council meeting in Ferguson, Mo., from a New York Times report, 2/10/16, "Department of Justice Sues Ferguson, Which Reversed Course on Agreement"

Photo of Michael Brown Sr., right, at a City Council meeting in Ferguson, Mo., from a New York Times report, 2/10/16, “Department of Justice Sues Ferguson, Which Reversed Course on Agreement”

The U.S. Justice Department is suing the town of Ferguson over its refusal to make changes in how its police and justice system operates. Ferguson, of course, is the St. Louis suburb that been the focus of a national protest over police behavior since 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed in a police shooting there is 2014. Among other problems, the city’s court system was an example of how “civil” infractions like traffic tickets could become criminal charges if court dates, fines or other procedural milestones were missed. A federal report found that the police were acting more or less as a profit-generating system for the town’s budget.

 

Read about the lawsuit in a very solid New York Times story.

Balt. Lawyer Group: Freddie Gray Illustrates Civil Justice Issues

 
Photo from The Baltimore Sun report, "Lawyers launch fresh push to get poor represented in Maryland civil courts," 2/2/16

Photo from The Baltimore Sun report, “Lawyers launch fresh push to get poor represented in Maryland civil courts,” 2/2/16

A new Baltimore-based attorney’s group is referencing Freddie Gray in its push for free access to civil attorneys in some cases like child custody decisions and home evictions, the Baltimore Sun reports. Leadership of the Access to Justice Commission says that “… Gray, the 25-year-old West Baltimore man who suffered a fatal injury in police custody last April, grew up in housing with lead paint. He agreed to convert a major lead paint settlement that would pay out over many years into a lump sum that ultimately was worth far less.”
 
Reporter Ian Duncan writes that the group, “some of Maryland’s top lawyers,” has “launched a fresh drive Monday to have poor people represented by attorneys in civil cases in an effort to spare the vulnerable from what they see as predatory legal practices, such as buying out lead paint settlements for cents on the dollar.”
 
The story quotes sate Rep. Elijah E. Cummings using language usually reserved for addressing shortcomings in the criminal justice system (as opposed to civil cases): “If you do not have justice, then you’ll have the absence of peace…. I’m seeing it more and more, and … at some point, people explode. So we have a duty.”
 
The idea of requiring some civil cases to have a “right to attorney” similar to criminal cases is often called “civil Gideon,” after the landmark Supreme Court case that cemented the right to an attorney so often referenced in TV programs. Some cities, most notably San Francisco and New York, have moved toward civil Gideon, often citing potential cost savings if fewer people lose their homes.
 
Read more about the Baltimore group here.

U.S. Supreme Court Considers Huge Shift In Union Dues Collection

Photo: From Newsweek report, 1/18/16

Photo: From Newsweek report, 1/8/16

A 2013 California civil lawsuit is up for U.S. Supreme Court review this week and could dramatically change the organized labor landscape for public employees. The core issue in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association is whether unions can collect fees from people who do not want to be in the union. The Los Angeles Daily News explains that “… since 1977, the court has allowed public-sector unions to charge the nonmembers whom they represent fees to cover the cost of bargaining over working conditions that will benefit those nonmembers as well as the union’s own ranks on the payroll… they cannot charge a fee to cover union political activity, such as lobbying or campaign spending…”

The case against the Teachers Association argues, in effect, that everything a union does is political – even bargaining. Everyone agrees that the controlling legal precedent is a case called Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which actually moved the case through the lower courts relatively quickly. The Daily News notes that justices have signaled a sea change: “Although the Abood ruling remains a controlling decision, the court has been dropping hints for the past two years that the precedent has become shaky. A majority of the Justices joined in the critique, most strongly expressed in 2014 in Harris v. Quinn. The court said then that it is a ‘bedrock principle that, except perhaps in the rarest of circumstances, no person in this country may be compelled to subsidize speech by a third party that he or she does not wish to support.’

Thus, the challengers are turning their case into a ‘compelled speech’ dispute, treating union assessments as forcing nonmembers to embrace union goals.”
Read the Daily News story and follow the lawsuit here:

What the Supreme Court must decide about union dues

Alabama Joins California In Civil Court Cuts, Delays

In a situation similar to what California faced in 2012 and 2013, Alabama is the latest state to face dramatic court system budget cuts. The now-familiar refrain is that criminal courts, with their constitutional guarantees, will remain a priority while civil cases will really feel most of the impact.  The Birmingham Business Journal has a good report and notes that “.. one overlooked aspect of cutting the court budget is how it will affect businesses. Already, short-staffed civil cases with businesses can take up to two years to resolve, but with the proposed budget cuts [a court source] said he sees these cases taking up to five years.
 
That would, in turn, change the local business landscape, the report argues.
 

In L.A., Student Tickets Give Way To Counseling, Other Intervention

According to a 11/3/15 LA Times Report, "L.A. Unified sees success in counseling rather than arresting truants and kids who fight."

According to a 11/3/15 LA Times Report, “L.A. Unified sees success in counseling rather than arresting truants and kids who fight.”

The Los Angeles Times is following up on measures taken last year to reform an out-of-control truancy system. The shift actually began under pressure from civil rights groups and was approved back in 2012 when the LAT reported that: “Under the old policy, a student who received a truancy ticket had to appear in court with a parent. A judge would issue a fine and order the student to be on time for the next 60 days or face more legal trouble. Both the parent and student had to return two months later for a follow-up, causing the student to miss school time and the parent to lose wages.”

The update offered this background that the shift involves: “… 405 sworn L.A. Unified police officers who, along with more than 125 safety officers, make up the nation’s largest independent school police force. Across the nation, campus officers are facing criticism that they’re pushing children into a “school-to-prison pipeline” with citations, arrests and excessive force for issues that could be resolved by other means. National studies show that one arrest doubles a student’s odds of dropping out.”

The student truancy policies were also seen as a path to criminal records. While the initial “tickets” were treated as civil cases, failing to comply with the results, like paying fines or doing community work, led to criminal arrests.

Read the excellent Times coverage here.

WSJ Report Outlines Delays For Federal Civil Court Dockets

Detailing the case of a man awaiting his day in court since 2007, the Wall Street Journal notes that the example is only one of “… more than 330,000 such cases” and that “… thee number of cases awaiting resolution for three years or more exceeded 30,000 for the fifth time in the past decade.”
 
The report gives reasons, and makes the case that the civil justice system slows when the criminal justice system gets busy: “… the Seventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to a jury trial in civil cases. But the Sixth Amendment gives people in criminal cases the right to a “speedy” trial. The upshot: Criminal cases often displace and delay civil disputes, creating a backlog.”
 
It also says that “… federal court for California’s Eastern District [where the example case is located] has a particularly deep backlog. The number of cases filed per judge, 974 last year, is almost twice the national average. More than 14% of civil cases in that district have been pending for three years or more.” The report outlines the political challenges to fixing the tardy system. Read the WSJ story here: In Federal Courts, the Civil Cases Pile Up