Category Archives: Federal

What exactly is Sedition?

As the first indictments are coming down from the riot that occurred at the Capitol last week, the allegation of sedition has been referenced several times. Since it’s not a statute that is prosecuted very frequently, I thought it worth considering the legal definition. Federal Law defines “Seditious Conspiracy” under 18 U.S. Code § 2384 as “…two or more persons in any State or Territory, or in any place subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, conspire to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States, or to levy war against them, or to oppose by force the authority thereof, or by force to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States, or by force to seize, take, or possess any property of the United States contrary to the authority thereof…” It’s a felony that carries a fine or a prison sentence up to 20 years. It certainly seems that those rioters who occupied the Capitol building would be subject to prosecution under this statute.

First, it requires that two or more people be conspiring, and there were hundreds working together to breech the Capitol building, so that element is satisfied. While it mentions putting down the government, which is arguable, it also includes other ways to break the law including levying war, oppose the authority of, hinder the execution of law or most notably, “by force to seize, take, or possess any property of the United States”. That certainly seems to be an apt description of the mass of people who breeched the Capitol building and occupied it. The Federal government certainly could make a case that the activity was seditious, especially if more information were to come out about conspiratorial actions in the lead up to the riot.

Some have suggested the President could also be criminally liable for the inflammatory language he used preceding the riot. It would be difficult for him to face criminal liability, though he not need be present to have conspired to commit a crime. Conspiracy charges, such as Seditious Conspiracy, punish not only the direct actors, but those that conspire with them. However, since the President did not directly call for invading the building, it would be difficult to make a case without something more. If things come to light over time that suggests there were actions or conversations with the President and those intending violence at the Capitol, he could face criminal liability, but his bigger concern is probably being held civilly liable.

The first indictments related to the riot have been issued, and sedition charges have not been filed against those individuals, including one who did enter the building. Mark Leffingwell does face a felony charge under the Federal Anti-Riot act for allegedly interfering with an officer during a civil disorder. He faces several other charges, including assault on law enforcement. The other individual is Lonnie Coffman, who was caught later in the day with weapons and a bunch of Molotov cocktails in his vehicle: he also faces felony charges. Dozens more have been arrested, and at least one law enforcement officer died, so many more charges are slated to come down, including homicide for anyone responsible for the officers death.

*UPDATE The FBI indicated this afternoon they are considering an array of charges, including possible sedition charges.

Challenges growing to use of Cell Phone location- “Geofencing” Warrants by Law Enforcement

Law enforcement is increasing its use of reverse-location warrants with companies like Google, known as “geofence” warrants. Instead of asking Google, or Verizon, or AT&T for the specific history of a person, these warrants ask for the identifying information of all the people in a certain area. For instance, a bank is robbed, and the authorities file a warrant on Google demanding that all of the Google Maps users with a certain radius of that bank be turned over to authorities. While the perpetrator may be included in that group, it could also potentially include the private data of dozens or even hundreds of innocent people. That’s where the biggest privacy concern arises.

The use of geofence warrants is growing, Google indicated that they were receiving 180 requests per week at the end of last year, and the numbers have been steadily increasing. The cases challenging these searches, generally most will target the lack of specificity and the invasion of privacy, have not yet resulted in many appellate decisions detailing when such warrants may be appropriate. One judge wrote in denying a warrant application, “The potential to use Google’s capabilities to identify a wrongdoer by identifying everyone (or nearly everyone) at the time and place of a crime may be tempting, but if the government can identify that wrongdoer only by sifting through the identities of unknown innocent persons … a federal court in the United States of America should not permit the intrusion.”

There is likely a path to make such reverse-location warrants valid, but it will likely encounter strict scrutiny to ensure limiting the request as narrowly as possible by size, time, and other factors to target the likely offenders, and not invade the privacy of law-abiding citizens. The concerns about unconstitutional intrusions were brought to light when NYC sought geofence data for people protesting and counter-protesting last year in the hunt for data about criminal rioters. The concern here is not only the invasion of privacy, but also the chilling effect on the 1st Amendment rights of lawful protestors. There are a lot of complex issues here, and it will likely be some time for the courts to develop guidance as to when geofence warrants are permissible, and when they are not.

Florida Man Convicted of Smuggling Water Monitor Lizards

Akbar Akram with a Water Monitor lizard

A Florida man was sentenced for his part in a scheme to traffic in Water Monitor lizards from the Philippines. Adbar Akram and an accomplice in Massachusetts imported lizards that were taped into socks, and then concealed in audio speakers and other electronic equipment. Akram admitted to his part in the scheme, and to selling lizards to buyers around the United States. All this is illegal, and he was sentenced to 4 years of probation with 90 days home detention and 288 hours of community service.  Don’t smuggle wildlife!

Michael Cohen Recommitted to Federal Custody

Michael Cohen has been returned to prison today. According to reports, he went to sign paperwork converting his furlough to home confinement. According to statements attributed to his lawyer, the paperwork included a prohibition on several first amendment protected activities, such as speaking to media, engagement on social media, and publishing things like books. Cohen had been working on a book about his history with Donald Trump, which dates back years before Trump ran for president.

This is troubling for a couple reasons. First, it appears the prison is arbitrarily adding conditions to his sentence that were not ordered by the court. Second, those conditions seem pointedly targeted to silence him from speaking out, which is normally protected by the first amendment. While he gives up some freedom when convicted and confined or supervised, his first amendment rights do not generally go away. There may be exceptions, such as when his crime directly relates to his speech (such as if someone who had sent a threat might be restrained while on supervision,) but such conditions would not be expected in this case. The unique conditions, sprung on him without notice, suggest ulterior motives.

Some People are Taking #COVID Precautions Very Seriously

With coronavirus cases on the rise, and Florida courts trying to safely reopen, there is a tension. That’s in particular contrast when it means zealously advocating for your clients. Miami attorney Sam Rabin had a sentencing hearing. According to fellow attorney-blogger David Oscar Markus, he had the option of attending by Zoom, but did not want to have his client appear without being able to be there for him. He made it to court, in full protective gear, to represent his client. Great work!

Markus also points out that an elderly Defendant awaiting trial just passed away from #covid while awaiting trial in federal custody in Miami. He was facing charges for a non-violent drug offense.

Cocoa Beach Man Threatens to Blow Up Probation Office to Avoid Violation

The state probation office in Brevard County received a call on Wednesday that included a threat to blow up the office. The office was quickly shut down, and BCSO and the FBI came in to investigate- they had a K-9 unit sweep the office for explosive devices. Fortunately, none were found.

Juan Christian, via DOC

Officers were able to trace the call, even though it was from a restricted number, and it led them to Juan Christian, a 38-year-old Sanford man. It just so happened that not only was Christian on probation, but he had missed his appointment that day for his drug test. He is on probation for drug sales, false imprisonment and battery. Officers met with him and he admitted to calling in the threat because he was afraid of being violated. Now, not only is he facing a probation violation for additional reasons, he has new felony charges for the terror threat.

It’s not the first time, and there was a case several years back in Fort Myers where a man actually burned down the probation office. That case was even more tragic, as the fire also burned a kennel in the building, killing several dogs. I was unable, and I can’t remember, if that culprit was ever caught, but it didn’t destroy many probation files, since they are digitally stored in a central location. In researching that, I came across a story I was unfamiliar with, where the Fort Myers DEA office was bombed. That was in retaliation for a man who had been indicted, and Jeffrey Matthews, the “Fort Myers Bomber” was caught and sentenced to life in prison for those and other offenses. As usual, the cover up is often worse than the underlying crime.

The FMPD Officer Investigation Continues to Evolve with new Details

fmpd

Fort Myers Police Department

WINK has done some follow-up reporting about the continuing situation with FMPD officers that were suspended after the Freeh Group audit after new details were divulged a few weeks ago. First, WINK has reported that the four officers were subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury related to the investigation. None of the officers appeared, which is not surprising as any of their attorneys would have declined to allow them to testify under those circumstances. WINK spoke to Captain Perry’s attorney who said as much, and said that he could not let his client testify when he wasn’t sure any details of the investigation. It was mentioned that the officers received letters, which sounds like they may have been target letters: suggesting they were personally being investigated.

Second, that WINK article included an interview with former acting Chief Eads, who ran the department when the investigation got underway. Eads states that during his time in charge that he did not have any facts presented to him that were actionable. Ultimately, the four officers were suspended when the new chief received the Freeh Group report, and the redacted pages that still have not become public knowledge.

These reports, and those we discussed here before, suggest that the investigation of the officers is intertwined with the federal charges against accused drug trafficker Robert Ward, and to federal informants that were murdered. Ward is accused of murder for his involvement in the death of Kristopher Smith, and the murder of Victor Johnson appears to be related, as well. Detective Matt Sellers, the retired FMPD homicide detective, handled the investigation into the murder of Kristopher Smith. He went on WINK and stated that not only does he believe that the officers were not involved with that murder, but that he has also presented evidence that exonerates them to investigators. That means the Chief at the time, and the lead investigator, are both on record saying that they are unaware of any wrongdoing or connection between these officers and the Smith murder.

The city, the FBI, and other law enforcement agencies do not have to release information related to ongoing investigations. It may be years before the public finds out what was really going on at FMPD. The upcoming trial of Robert Ward, who is headed to federal court in Orlando may shed some light on why FMPD suspended the officers. Three of the officers have retired, but one remains on paid leave… three years after the suspensions were handed down. The leave for the officers has totaled over $200,000 and counting, and stands as an expensive unanswered question that even city leaders may be in the dark.

In other FMPD news, more details from the discovery in the case of former Captain Jay Rodriguez have been released. Also, it appears the state is considering additional charges for making a false report (no additional charges have been filed, it’s still in an investigation phase.) Rodriguez filed a report prior to release of the prostitution video that local activist Anthony Thomas tried to extort him for money or he would release the video. Thomas denies the extortion claim, which is now the basis for the false report allegation. Thomas later published the video on Facebook. The alleged extortion attempt supposedly took place when Thomas confronted Rodriguez outside a city council meeting, but there do not appear to be any witnesses. This type of charge is difficult to prove, because it is entirely he said/she said.

Finally, several FMPD officers are under investigation for an altercation that occurred off-duty at a Cape Coral bar the Dixie Roadhouse. Three officers have been placed on administrative leave pending the ongoing investigation. Apparently, the alleged victim was struck in the head with a beer bottle, and the incident was captured on video, which may become public down the road.

Police Manipulate Photo to Implicate Man they Suspect in a String of Robberies

Portland police had a suspect in a string of bank robberies in 2017 but they had a problem, he didn’t match the description of any of the tellers who had been robbed. The suspect, Tyrone Allen, has multiple, distinctive facial tattoos, and none of the victims observed any tattoos on the robber. Instead of trying to generate a new suspect that matched the description, the cops decided to double down on Mr. Allen. In order to make him look like the suspect in the robberies (some of which were capture on surveillance video), a technician digitally removed the tattoos from a picture of Mr. Allen. These manipulated photos were then placed in a photo-lineup and a couple of the victims identified Mr. Allen. He is no facing multiple robbery charges. Here’s a side-by-side comparision:

This tactic is extremely troubling, as it increases the potentiality for mis-identification. For that reason, Allen’s attorneys have asked the court not to permit the identifications to be presented to a jury. Courts have often held that identification procedures, if they are unduly suggestive, are not permissible. I’ve never seen this extremely concerning procedure, but it certainly appears to raise concerns that there is a high risk of an erroneous identification. It’s troubling that a man who was not identified by witnesses was only identified after his image was airbrushed.

Supreme Court Upholds the Double Jeopardy Exception

Supreme Court

I suspect most people don’t realize there is a key legal loophole that allows people to be prosecuted more than once for the same crime. It’s understandable that people would not realize this, as the Fifth Amendment pretty clearly states: “… nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb…” It’s a principle handed down through the common law, and appears to date all the way back to the Roman Empire. However, U.S. courts have allowed people to be tried, and punished, for duplicate offenses if those offenses are prosecuted in different jurisdictions: State and Federal. That is, even if a state court has tried, convicted, and sentenced someone for a charge in state court, the federal government can also try, convict, and sentence them in federal court. The sentences can even run consecutively, that is, one after the other.

On Monday, the Supreme Court issued a decision in a case, Gamble v. United States, that could have reversed the long-standing exception to the bar on double jeopardy. Instead, a 7-2 majority upheld the double jeopardy exception. The majority opinion found that the separate laws are defined by different sovereigns: although “separate sovereigns” is a judicial construct that does not appear in the Constitution. Mark Joseph Stern at Slate points out that dissenting justices Ginsburg and Gorsuch cite founding father Alexander Hamilton, in the Federalist papers, argue that sovereignty derives from the people and that the federal and state governments are to be regarded as “ONE WHOLE”. So, the two-sovereignty theory fails the framer’s intent test, as well as failing to convince the court’s leading textualist in Gorsuch. The plain language of the Fifth Amendment does not seem to support that the “atom of sovereignty” can be split so as to place a person twice in jeopardy for the same offense.

This is not a change of law, the courts have long upheld the state/federal exception to the bar against double jeopardy. However, for those that have long thought the state of the law did not reflect the intent of the Constitution, this opinion represents a missed opportunity to close this loophole and protect this right of the people.

Brooklyn 99 used the Stingray as a Plot Device

We’ve talked about the secretive Stingray devices several times on crimcourts, and I’ve even talked about them on local TV. Stingrays are devices that mimic cell phone towers and can allow law enforcement to secretly collect cell phone data. The problem is, without a warrant, they can be used to unconstitutionally invade people’s privacy and to collect overbroad types of data from innocent citizens. It’s a clear violation of the constitutional prohibition on unreasonable searches.

On the pair of shows of the fictional New York police precinct “Brooklyn 99” which aired last night, the officers of the 99th precinct discover the new NYPD police commissioner has started using a Stingray to illegally collect data. The good guys set up a sting operation to bust the commissioner and end the illegal data collection program- a Stingray-sting! Hijinks ensue, but I won’t spoil the outcome for those who haven’t seen it. Nonetheless, it’s impressive that a comedy show used a hot button topic as the basis for an episode.