Center for Individual Liberty

Drug Penalty Reform Coming to Utah

October 23, 2014  |  Posted in: Center for Individual Liberty  |  3 comments

“Don’t do drugs, because if you do drugs you’ll go to prison… and drugs are really expensive in prison.”

This humorous quote underscores the fundamental problem with imprisoning people with a substance addiction problem. Prison alone is not a sufficient treatment for a physiological disorder. Despite the walls and guards, inmates still find a way to access and use drugs. Treating and solving drug addiction requires a different approach. Finally in Utah, policy may soon begin to reflect that reality.

Since early this year, the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ) has been working on a study of the Utah criminal justice system in order to propose reforms that will reduce recidivism and the need for more prison beds. One of the goals of these reforms is to focus existing jail beds on more serious offenders and relieve the fiscal burdens on localities. CCJJ believes this can be accomplished by reclassifying certain offenses and eliminating certain sentencing enhancements that needlessly lengthen prison stays. In other words, by addressing the rampant criminalization of human activity, less people will be charged with crimes and sent to prison.

Among the recommendations from CCJJ is a specific proposal to reclassify simple drug possession from a third degree felony—which carries a penalty of up to five years in prison—to a class A misdemeanor, which carries a penalty of only up to one year in jail. Currently, minor marijuana possession is already at the class A misdemeanor level. This proposal would bring minor drug possession charges for all substances into alignment with marijuana possession, thus ending the discrimination against type of substance. Additional reductions would include one for commercial drug offenses in order to differentiate between professional drug dealers and those whose conduct is driven by serious substance abuse problems. Also included is a proposal to reclassify certain moving vehicle misdemeanors from a Class B down to a Class C or from a Class C to an infraction.

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Police Shootings: Racial Identity Politics Sidestep the Conversation on Government Power

August 29, 2014  |  Posted in: Center for Individual Liberty  |  One comment

So-called “identity politics” have recently been at the heart of many political controversies in this country. From immigration policy to public spending, it seems that political spin doctors attempt to make each policy controversy personal for voters by making the narrative about personal traits like race or gender and creating an “us versus them” dichotomy for each debate.

This approach often sidesteps the more fundamental questions about the proper role of government and the use of government power. Such is the case with recent police shootings. A recent Washington Post article did exactly this by framing the differences in media and community responses to the Ferguson shooting and Utah’s own shooting of Dillon Taylor in racial terms. In Ferguson, a white police officer shot a black teen while in Utah a white man was shot by a non-white officer. The article tries to frame the outrage in Missouri with thousands of protestors versus the more subdued response in Utah as one based on race. This approach misses the more important point—the difference in responses is a direct reflection of the level of discomfort with government power in the two states.

In Ferguson, racial terms are only an easy way to understand people’s level of personalization with the event. There is a large population of racial minorities who may perceive the shooting of Michael Brown as a use of police authority that could be used against any of those who share Michael Brown’s race. That group is likely to respond strongly because the use of deadly force by a government actor is considered a more likely possibility for them on a personal level. However, in Utah a member of the racial majority being shot by police didn’t evoke the same response. The use of racial terms are only superficial. The deeper issue is whether Utahns see the use of deadly force by government agents against them as a possible or personal reality.

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Recording Police Officers Leads to Two Separate Disorderly Conduct Charges

August 18, 2014  |  Posted in: Center for Individual Liberty  |  One comment

In two recent and separate incidents, individuals recording the actions of police officers were cited for “disorderly conduct” after testy exchanges between the person recording an the officer(s) being recorded.

The first incident occurred in Bountiful, where Bryce Weber noticed a police officer sitting outside his home for some 40 minutes. He stepped outside to record the officer, who alleged that Weber’s recording of him was interfering in his work. Despite Weber ultimately moving across the street while continuing to record, the officer still claimed that he was interfering and thus cited him for disorderly conduct, as Weber refused to return to his home when ordered to do so by the officer. Read more details of the encounter here.

As it relates to this situation, a person in Utah is guilty of disorderly conduct if “the person refuses to comply with the lawful order of a law enforcement officer to move from a public place…” The question Weber’s defense attorney will likely push back on is whether the officer’s command to Weber to return to his home was lawful. While in certain circumstances an officer can lawfully order a person to move away so as not to impede the flow of traffic, interfere with an investigation or other police action, etc., an order to go inside one’s home—as opposed to moving away a safe distance, for example—seems unreasonable and unlawful.

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Hobby Lobby Case Shows the Importance of Congressional Limits on the ‘Despotic Branch’

July 3, 2014  |  Posted in: Center for Individual Liberty  |  2 comments

“The Constitution… meant that its coordinate branches should be checks on each other. But the opinion which gives to the judges the right to decide what laws are constitutional and what not, not only for themselves in their own sphere of action but for the Legislature and Executive also in their spheres, would make the Judiciary a despotic branch.” –Thomas Jefferson to Abigail Adams, 1804

In Thomas Jefferson’s analysis a Supreme Court that can decide the constitutionality of laws for all other branches renders it a “despotic branch.” Certainly many would agree that the Supreme Court has become far more powerful than envisioned by the framers who sought a balance of power between co-equal branches. As the Court acts to overturn congressional and presidential action, many lament that the only seeming check on the court is the selection of the justices themselves. However, the recent Hobby Lobby case pulls back the curtain on a significant area of congressional power that can limit court action.

In the recent Supreme Court case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the Court decided in a 5-4 decision that Hobby Lobby’s religious freedom in deciding not to cover certain birth control treatments through its employee health care plans is protected under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Congress passed RFRA in order to reverse a previous court decision in the 1990 case of Employment Division v. Smith. In the Smith case the Court declined to acknowledge Native American ritual use of peyote as protected under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.  The decision seriously narrowed the “compelling interest” doctrine where the Court previously placed a high burden on government regulations that threaten religious practices. In response, Congress—in a nearly unanimous vote—passed RFRA to statutorily require that strict scrutiny be used by the Court in assessing government action that burdens a person’s exercise of religion. That statute played a key role in the Court’s decision for the Hobby Lobby case as justices acknowledged that RFRA protects against substantial government burdens on the free exercise of religion by closely held for-profit corporations.

While proponents of the Affordable Care Act’s mandates on employer coverage are outraged at the thought that Congress cannot micromanage the employee benefit decisions of private employers on account of religious beliefs, they should remember that it was also Congress who decided to protect religious liberty long before it sought to micromanage employer sponsored health care plans. The important distinction here is that the latter is a protection against government power while the former is an expansion of it.

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U.S. Supreme Court Moves to Protect Cell Phone Data

June 25, 2014  |  Posted in: Center for Individual Liberty  |  One comment

In a unanimous opinion announced earlier today, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police officers must obtain a warrant to search a cell phone that is seized incident to an arrest.

The case stemmed from the 2009 arrest of David Riley in California on a traffic stop that found loaded firearms in his car. The officers subsequently seized Riley’s cell phone and searched through his messages, contacts, videos, and photos. Tipped off by information they found in that search, the officers charged Riley with an unrelated shooting that took place several weeks earlier.

Riley attempted to suppress the evidence officers had found on his phone, arguing a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. The trial court disagreed, as did the appellate court, claiming that the “search incident to arrest” doctrine—used historically to ensure that a person did not have any weapons or contraband on them while in the custody of police—permitted officers to conduct a search of a seized cell phone, even if that search is conducted later and at a different location than the arrest.

Today’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court overturns this argument. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the unanimous court, stated:

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New ACLU Report on Police Militarization Highlights Problems, Proposes Solutions

June 24, 2014  |  Posted in: Center for Individual Liberty  |  One comment

After over a year of investigation, surveying law enforcement agencies in 26 states, the ACLU has now released its report on police militarization. “Neighborhoods are not war zones,” the report reads, “and our police officers should not be treating us like wartime enemies.” Data obtained from open records requests for the years 2011-12 covers over 800 SWAT deployments in the report.

Noting that at least 62% of SWAT deployments from their data deal with drug searches, ACLU says that the use of “heavily armed SWAT teams” to search people’s homes for drugs “means that law enforcement agencies across the country are using this hyper-aggressive form of domestic policing to fight a war that has waning public support and has harmed, much more than helped, communities.”

While the report focuses on the equipment used by officers and the alleged crimes that lead them to use it, it also discusses how police militarization is about “culture.”

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11th Circuit Court of Appeals: Warrant Required for Cell Phone Location

June 11, 2014  |  Posted in: Center for Individual Liberty  |  No comments

Today the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion in the case of United States v. Quartavious Davis that may impact the policy landscape relative to fourth amendment application in the digital age.

The case was brought about after government agents obtained the cell phone location information of four people over a two month period in 2010 as part of a criminal investigation in Florida. The records were obtained without a warrant. Police received 11,606 location records of one of the suspects, Quartavious Davis, averaging 173 location points each day. Davis was convicted at trial based on this information, and appealed his ruling to the Eleventh Circuit Court. Today’s opinion is the first time a federal appeals court has ruled that a warrant is required to obtain cell phone location data.

“There is a reasonable privacy interest in being near the home of a lover, or a dispensary of medication, or a place of worship, or a house of ill repute,” the three-judge panel wrote in a unanimous opinion. “In short, we hold that cell site location information is within the subscriber’s reasonable expectation of privacy. The obtaining of that data without a warrant is a Fourth Amendment violation.” While the court’s ruling applies only to Florida, Georgia, and Alabama, it may very well be referenced and used in other court cases navigating through the judicial system.

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Legally Consume Cannabis, Yet Become a Criminal in Utah?

May 28, 2014  |  Posted in: Center for Individual Liberty  |  5 comments

Utah is surrounded by six states, four of which have legalized the possession and use of cannabis to some degree. This means that on a daily basis, drivers from these states pass through Utah’s borders—and in doing so, unwittingly subject themselves to being charged with a class B misdemeanor (up to six months in jail and/or up to a $1,000 fine).

While many people believe that a person should be prohibited from driving while under the influence (of alcohol or drugs), Utah’s law goes much further. It says that “a person may not operate or be in actual physical control of a motor vehicle within this state if the person has any measurable controlled substance or metabolite of a controlled substance in the person’s body.”

A metabolite is the molecular byproduct of your body’s processing of a substance. Though derived from a psychoactive substance, a metabolite may not necessarily be psychoactive itself. The presence of metabolites—and not the presence of the original drug itself—is the primary indicator of drug use for drug testing programs such as urinalysis or hair testing.

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New Rules for Hemp Extract in Utah: HB105 Implementation

May 19, 2014  |  Posted in: Center for Individual Liberty  |  2 comments

The Controlled Substance Advisory Committee in Utah recently discussed regulatory implementation of the bill allowing the use of hemp extract for persons with intractable epilepsy. Libertas Institute was in attendance to hear about the proposed rules. You can listen to the public recording of the meeting here. (The discussion of HB 105 begins at minute 5:00 and goes until minute 35:00.)

This past legislative session, a bill overwhelmingly passed allowing Utahns affected by intractable epileptic seizures, like that of Dravet syndrome, to possess and use an oil extract from hemp plants for therapeutic self-treatment. The bill, HB 105 Plant Extract Amendments, was sponsored by Representative Gage Froerer and comes on the coattails of the federal farm bill which addresses the distinction between cannabis plant varieties used for the psychoactive drug concentration of THC (aka “marijuana”) and the cannabis plant varieties low in THC used instead for their fibrous stalks and seed-based health supplements (aka “industrial hemp”). While the DEA remains confused about the distinction and blindly departs from the rest of the developed world by banning all cannabis plants—including hemp—many states are now recognizing the economic and health benefits of agricultural development in industrial hemp. Libertas recently interviewed the first farmer in the nation to commercially cultivate non-psychoactive industrial hemp in Colorado since the ban was enacted.

The oil extract allowed by HB105 is one such beneficial product from industrial hemp. The oil is high in a substance from hemp plants called cannabidiol (CBD) but is low in the psychoactive substance tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). In fact, those researching the oil believe it is the particular ratio of high levels of CBD to low levels of THC that gives the oil its effectiveness in treating seizures.

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New Judicial Federalism: How Utah Can Avoid Recent Supreme Court Erosion of the Fourth Amendment

April 28, 2014  |  Posted in: Center for Individual Liberty  |  One comment

The U.S. Supreme Court recently issued a decision in the case of Navarette v. California which has potentially grave consequences for Fourth Amendment rights. The decision upheld the stop of a vehicle precipitated by an anonymous phone tip of erratic driving. Upon identifying the reported vehicle, police followed and did not observe any traffic infractions or signs of impaired driving to corroborate the phone tip. Nevertheless, officers stopped the vehicle based on the alleged reasonable suspicion created by the phone call alone. While the court’s opinion is narrow and contingent on specific facts, it leads us down a dangerous road that erodes the reasonable suspicion standard designed to protect Fourth Amendment rights. By allowing an uncorroborated anonymous phone tip to form the basis of reasonable suspicion, we open the possibility for anyone to send government agents to stop innocent actors without requiring any verification of the accusation.

The court points out the precedent-creating legal standard for a permissible stop:

The Fourth Amendment permits brief investigative stops — such as the traffic stop in this case — when a law enforcement officer has “a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of criminal activity.” The “reasonable suspicion” necessary to justify such a stop “is dependent upon both the content of information possessed by police and its degree of reliability.” The standard takes into account “the totality of the circumstances — the whole picture.” Although a mere “hunch” does not create reasonable suspicion, the level of suspicion the standard requires is “considerably less than proof of wrongdoing by a preponderance of the evidence,” and “obviously less” than is necessary for probable cause.

This type of stop is called a “Terry stop,” deriving its legal authority from the case of Terry v. Ohio (1968) where the court recognized a limited exception to the more traditional probable cause standard for seizing a person in an arrest. In Terry, the court agreed that stopping a person is a form of seizure, and therefore covered by the Fourth Amendment. However, the court reasoned that because this type of police stop is only a brief detention and not the full seizure as with an arrest, they would recognize a limited exception and thus lowered the required standard from probable cause to reasonable suspicion. Over time, the court has widened the application of this exception, giving more discretion to police stops generally. In this case we now see a dilution in the factors that can form a reasonable suspicion.

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