Category Archives: First Amendment

Sex Offenders & Cyberspace

Image result for Sex Offenders & Social Media

In Packingham v. North Carolina, the United State Supreme Court outlawed a North Carolina statute that makes it a felony for a registered sex offender to access a commercial social networking web site. The statute restricts lawful speech in violation of the First Amendment.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In 2008, North Carolina enacted a statute making it a felony for a registered sex offender to gain access to a number of websites, including commonplace social media websites like Facebook and Twitter. North Carolina has prosecuted over 1,000 people for violating this law.

The Defendant was charged after posting a statement on his personal Facebook profile about a positive experience in traffic court. The trial court denied petitioner’s motion to dismiss the charges on the ground that the law violated the First Amendment. He was convicted and given a suspended prison sentence. On appeal, the State Court of Appeals struck down the statute on First Amendment grounds, however, the North Carolina Supreme Court ended up reversing the decision.

The United States Supreme Court granted review on the issue is whether the Carolina Statute was permissible under the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause, applicable to the States under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSION

The U.S. Supreme Court held that the statute impermissibly restricts lawful speech in violation of the First Amendment.

First, the Court reasoned that the First Amendment allows all persons have access to places where they can speak, listen, reflect, speak and listen once more. Today, one of the most important places to exchange views is cyberspace, particularly social media, which offers “relatively unlimited, low-cost capacity for communication of all kinds to users engaged in a wide variety of protected First Amendment activity on any number of diverse topics. Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, 521 U. S. 844, 870. The Court stated that the Internet’s forces and directions are so new, so protean, and so far reaching that courts must be conscious that what they say today may be obsolete tomorrow. Indeed, the Court expressly proceeded very carefully in its analysis:

“Here, in one of the first cases the Court has taken to address the relationship between the First Amendment and the modern Internet, the Court must exercise extreme caution before suggesting that the First Amendment provides scant protection for access to vast networks in that medium.”

That said, the Court bluntly reasoned that the statute is not narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest.  Like other inventions heralded as advances in human progress, the Internet and social media will be exploited by the criminal mind. It is also clear that sexual abuse of a child is a most serious crime and an act repugnant to the moral instincts of a decent people, and that a legislature may pass valid laws to protect children and other sexual assault victims.

“Two assumptions are made in resolving this case,” said the Court. First, the law applies to commonplace social networking sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Second, the First Amendment permits a State to enact specific, narrowly-tailored laws that prohibit a sex offender from engaging in conduct that often presages a sexual crime, like contacting a minor or using a website to gather information about a minor.

However, the Court reasoned that even with these assumptions, the North Carolina statute enacts unprecedented prohibitions in the scope of First Amendment speech it burdens:

“Social media allows users to gain access to information and communicate with one another on any subject that might come to mind. With one broad stroke, North Carolina bars access to what for many are the principal sources for knowing current events, checking ads for employment, speaking and listening in the modern public square, and otherwise exploring the vast realms of human thought and knowledge.”

The Court said that even convicted criminals might receive legitimate benefits from the social media for access to the world of ideas, particularly if they seek to reform and to pursue lawful and rewarding lives.

Consequently, the Court reasoned that North Carolina failed to prove that its sweeping law was necessary or legitimate to serve its purpose of keeping convicted sex offenders away from vulnerable victims. “No case or holding of this Court has approved of a statute as broad in its reach.” With that, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed and remanded Mr. Packingham’s criminal conviction.

My opinion? Excellent decision. Granted, nobody wants anyone using the internet for predatory purposes. Nevertheless, its simply unconstitutional to totally prohibit people – even convicted sex offenders – from using the internet and social media. There’s plenty of spyware, child molestation sting operations and government internet monitoring happening on the internet to reduce the risk of predatory behavior. There’s no need for the Government to make statutes which violate Constitutional rights.

Good decision.

Seattle Allows Filming Cops

 

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Great article in the Seattle Times by Daniel Beekman discusses how Seattle’s City Council voted Monday to enshrine in the Seattle Municipal Code the rights of the public to observe, record and criticize police activity without fear of retaliation.

 The only exceptions are when an observer hinders, delays or compromises legitimate police activity, threatens someone’s safety or attempts to incite other people to violence, according to the ordinance sponsored by Councilmember Lisa Herbold.

The First Amendment can offer protections to members of the public when they watch and record police. And a Seattle Police Department policy adopted in 2008 says bystanders may remain nearby and record the incident as long as they don’t interfere.

So, people already were allowed to watch and record police in Seattle. But the council’s vote means the rights of police observers are now recognized in city law.

According to Beekman, the ordinance says officers should assume members of the public are observing and possibly recording their work at all times. Councilmember Herbold initially proposed the change last year, pointing to high-profile shootings that was recorded by bystanders.

 “The value of video and audio recordings by the public is keenly evident from the recordings in 2016 of the deaths of Philando Castile in Minnesota, Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge … and law-enforcement officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge,” the ordinance says.

Across the country, smartphones are helping regular people hold their police departments accountable. But people watching, recording and criticizing officers have in some instances been arrested, according to a council memo.

Though Seattle police are recorded by patrol-car cameras and are being outfitted with body-worn cameras, civilian recordings are still important, Herbold said Monday.

My opinion? Wonderful! I’ve had many Clients complain that their attempts to record interactions with police result in their cameras being confiscated and being slapped with charges of Obstructing and Resisting police.

I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: recording interactions between police and citizens makes everyone behave better and shows proof of what really happened. Kudos to the Seattle City Council.

Jail Mail

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In Mangiaracina v. Penzone, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that prisoners have a Sixth Amendment right to be present when legal mail related to a criminal matter is inspected.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Nick Mangiaracina was jailed as a pre-trial detainee in Maricopa County’s Fourth Avenue Jail in Phoenix, Arizona. The jail’s stated policy is to open legal mail addressed to a prisoner only in the presence of that prisoner. Mangiaracina alleged, however, that his mail was repeatedly opened outside his presence in contravention of this policy. His complaint included descriptions of nine specific instances of the jail improperly opening his mail to/from his attorney.

In describing his injury resulting from the improper opening of his legal mail, Mangiaracina alleged that he and his two attorneys “are afraid to communicate by mail which is hard as I have so many cases and so much paperwork to go back and forth.” He further explained that his “right to confidentiality and privacy was violated” and that his “defense strategy and his rights in general were just shredded.”

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Mangiaracina initially filed suit in Arizona superior court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of his First and Sixth Amendment rights by a number of jail employees and John Doe defendants. The case was moved to federal court. Unfortunately, the U.S. district court ultimately dismissed Mangiaracina’s complaint with prejudice. it noted that Mangiaracina had failed to specifically allege that the pieces of mail were marked as “legal mail” and that, for most of the instances, he failed to explain how he knew the mail was opened outside his presence. He appealed to the Ninth Circuit.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Ninth Circuit reasoned that under the U.S. Supreme Court’s Wolff v. McDonnell  and the Ninth Circuit’s Nordstrom v. Ryan, that prisoners have a Sixth Amendment right to confer privately with counsel and that the practice of opening legal mail in the prisoner’s presence is specifically designed to protect that right.

Furthermore, other circuit courts have similarly recognized the importance of this practice. In Jones v. Brown, the Third Circuit recognized, in the context of a First Amendment challenge, that opening legal mail outside the addressee’s presence was unlawful.

The Ninth Circuit further reasoned that the jail failed to identify any legitimate penological interest that would be served by opening legal mail outside Mangiaracina’s presence: “As we have emphasized in the past, a criminal defendant’s ability to communicate candidly and confidentially with his lawyer is essential to his defense.”  By necessity, reasoned the court, prisoners and pre-trial detainees rely heavily on the mail for communication with their attorneys. Unfortunately, the Maricopa County jail system does not allow incoming phone calls or provide access to e-mail, and outgoing phone calls can only be placed as collect calls.

With that, the Ninth Circuit reversed the lower court’s dismissal of Mangiaracina’s Sixth Amendment and First Amendment claims with respect to some mail-opening incidents and affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of the remaining counts of alleged improper mail opening.

My opinion? Excellent decision. It’s extremely difficult to communicate with jailed clients. Some jails offer limited hours of visitation and/or phone calls. Reading a defendant’s jail mail deprives the expression of confidentiality and chills the inmates’ protected expression. This is wrong, and violates a defendant’s First Amendment rights.

With respect to phone calls, I don’t discuss important details over the jail phones because the conversations are recorded. Although recorded phone calls with my clients are inadmissible at trial, these conversations are still surveillance which can “tip off” prosecutors to the strategies and tactics I develop with my clients.

Kudos to the Ninth Circuit for a very well-reasoned and substantial decision.

Taping Cops is Free Speech

McKinney police Cpl. Eric Casebolt is shown in a screen shot from video of an altercation in which he pulled his gun on a group of teenagers at a pool party. A witness, Brandon Brooks, uploaded this video of the incident to YouTube. In a recent 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, Justice Jacques Wiener wrote: “Protecting the right to film the police promotes First Amendment principles.”

The federal 5th Circuit Court of Appeals held that videotaping or filming police activities is protected by the First Amendment.

BACKGROUND FACTS
Phillip Turner, a computer science major at Austin Community College, started collecting video of police activities after he said a Cedar Park police officer blocked his view when filming a DUI arrest several years ago. He filed a complaint and during an investigation learned that there wasn’t an established right to film the police.
Armed with his understanding of the law, Turner has since posted a series of videos on his website where he challenges police officers and police department policies on videotaping of their activities.

On the day of the incident, Mr. Turner was video recording a Fort Worth police station from a public sidewalk across the street when Officers Grinalds and Dyess approached him and asked him for identification. Turner refused to identify himself, and the officers ultimately handcuffed him and placed him in the back of a patrol car. The officers’ supervisor, Lieutenant Driver, arrived on scene. after Driver checked with Grinalds and Dyess and talked with Turner, the officers released Turner.

He filed suit against all three officers and the City of Fort Worth under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of his First and Fourth Amendment rights. Each officer filed a motion to dismiss, insisting that he was entitled to qualified immunity on Turner’s claims. The district court granted the officers’ motions, concluding that they were entitled to qualified immunity on all of Turner’s claims against them. Turner appealed.
THE COURT’S DECISION
Ultimately, the Court affirmed in part and reverse and remand in part.
“Filming the police contributes to the public’s ability to hold the police accountable, ensure that police officers are not abusing their power, and make informed decisions about police policy,” Justice Jacques Wiener wrote in an opinion joined by Justice Stephen Higginson. “Protecting the right to film the police promotes First Amendment principles.”

The 5th Circuit made it clear that such activity to be protected, saying that “a First Amendment right to record the police does exist, subject only to reasonable time, place and manner restrictions,” Justice Wiener wrote.

“Filming the police contributes to the public’s ability to hold the police accountable, ensure that police officers are not abusing their power, and make informed decisions about police policy . . . Protecting the right to film the police promotes First Amendment principles.”

The 5th Circuit sent the case back to the lower court to examine Turner’s claims that he was unlawfully arrested. The court cleared the officers on that point, determining the acted appropriately. In her dissent, Justice Edith Clements said Turner’s First Amendment rights were not violated and that the officers acted reasonably in detaining Turner.

Turner’s attorney Kervyn Altaffer called the 5th Circuit’s ruling a significant one in a complicated area of the law.

“I think any time one of the federal court of appeals says that something is protected by the Constitution, that is important for all people,” Altaffer said. “I definitely think they the police overstepped. … This is supposed to be a free country.”

My opinion? Cameras make everyone behave. And I’m extremely happy the 5th Circuit describes this behavior as protected free speech. Kudos to the 5th Circuit.

Special thanks to reporter Max B. Baker and the Bellingham Herald for reporting.

Criminalizing “Illegal Protests”

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The Bellingham Herald reported that Senator Doug Ericksen of Ferndale, a Republican state senator who campaigned for President-elect Donald Trump, wants to propose a bill that criminalizes what he calls “illegal protests.”

In short, his bill would create a new crime of “economic terrorism” and would allow felony prosecution of people involved in protests that block transportation and commerce, damage property, threaten jobs and put public safety at risk.

Erickson said his bill also would apply to people who fund and organize such protests. “We are not just going after the people who commit these acts of terrorism,” Ericksen said. “We are going after the people who fund them.”

American Civil Liberties Union of Washington spokesman Doug Honig told The Associated Press Wednesday that while they’ll need to see an actual bill, Ericksen’s statement throws out a lot of broad rhetoric. Honig said the following:

“We’re already concerned that some of its loose terms appear to be targeting civil disobedience as ‘terrorism.’ That’s the kind of excessive approach to peaceful protest that our country and state do not need. Let’s keep in mind that civil rights protesters who sat down at lunch counters could be seen as ‘disrupting business’ “and ‘obstructing economic activity,’ and their courageous actions were opposed by segregationists as trying to ‘coerce’ business and government.”

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My opinion? Yes, protest is ugly. It’s loud. It’s inconvenient. And it’s American. Fundamentally American. As in, First Amendment American. It’s no secret that the First Amendment plays a large role in enabling robust public political discussion. In particular, expressive freedom can help to generate dynamic political change.

True, there are exceptions to the general protections to the First Amendment; including the Miller test for obscenity, child pornography laws, speech that incites imminent lawless action, and regulation of commercial speech such as advertising.

Despite the exceptions, however, the legal protections of the First Amendment are some of the broadest of any industrialized nation, and remain a critical, and occasionally controversial, component of American jurisprudence.

Erickson’s “economic terrorism” bill is problematic. It attempts to solve little more than a perceived threat and ultimately criminalizes liberty. If proposed and passed through the GOP-controlled Senate, it would likely would face serious obstacles in the current Democratic-controlled House. Even if the bill is passed and made into statute, it would immediately face constitutional challenges as being overly broad and/or facially invalid as applied.

Please contact my office if your friends or family are charged with crimes related to the exercise of their rights to publicly protest. I’m honored to represent clients who face criminal charges for essentially exercising their First Amendment rights. These prosecutions should be dismissed, debunked and exposed.

Panhandling is Free Speech

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 In  City of Lakewood v. Willis, the WA Supreme Court held that a Lakewood Municipal Ordinance that prohibited begging near highways and intersections of major highways violated the First Amendment.
Mr. Willis was standing near an exit ramp from I-5 in Lakewood and holding a sign saying he was disabled and needed help.  An officer cited Mr. Willis for “Aggressive Begging,” a crime under Lakewood Municipal Code (LMC) 9A.04.020A.
At trial, the jury found Mr. Willis guilty. The municipal court sentenced him to 90 days in jail and a fine of $1,000, with 90 days and $750 suspended. The court also assessed $125 in costs. Mr. Willis appealed, raising several constitutional challenges to the statute.
On appeal, the WA Supreme Court reasoned that although the government can impose certain restrictions on speech in a public forum, such as reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions; it cannot impose restrictions based on content. Consequently, Willis may challenge the ordinance as facially overbroad regardless of his conduct. “Because both provisions impose a content-based speech restriction in a substantial number of traditional public forums, Willis’ facial challenge succeeds. Thus, his conviction must be reversed.”
My opinion? This is a great decision, and should be helpful to defense attorneys in other municipalities with ordinances that limit and outlaw panhandling.  Sure, aggressive panhandling from the homeless is annoying. However, it should not be criminalized. It wastes taxpayer money to incarcerate the homeless on these charges. Next thing you know, the Girl Scouts of America will be jailed for selling cookies at your grocery store.
Big congratulations to attorney David Ionnotti, who represented Mr. Willis.  The ACLU and Washington Defender Association filed one amicus brief in the case, and the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness filed another.


Alexander F. Ransom

Attorney at Law
Criminal Defense Lawyer

119 North Commercial St.
Suite #1420
Bellingham, WA 98225

Phone: (360) 746-2642
Fax: (360) 746-2949

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