Rules to keep federal prosecutors in line revealed

Posted: Thursday March 12, 2015, 3:59 AM>

WASHINGTON – Five years ago, after a major corruption case imploded because federal prosecutors had improperly concealed evidence, the U.S. Justice Department ordered its lawyers to start turning over more information to criminal defense lawyers. But the rules for what prosecutors must share and when remained almost entirely secret, until now.

USA TODAY obtained copies of the department's internal guidelines under the Freedom of Information Act and is publishing them here.

"I think these policies are actually the right policies," said Timothy O'Toole, one of the chairmen of a National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers panel that has been pushing Congress to enact similar measures. "The biggest problem is that nobody outside the prosecutor's office actually knows what those policies are."

Without knowing what the rules are, it's impossible to know whether prosecutors are following them, he said.

The policies mostly instruct prosecutors to turn over more information to defense lawyers more quickly — steps lawmakers and some judges had pressed for in the months after the disastrous prosecution of former Alaska senator Ted Stevens. That case collapsed because government lawyers had improperly concealed evidence from Stevens' lawyers that would have badly damaged the credibility of government witnesses.

Read the rest at USA TODAY.

New police radars can 'see' inside homes

Posted: Tuesday January 20, 2015, 1:35 AM>

WASHINGTON — At least 50 U.S. law enforcement agencies have secretly equipped their officers with radar devices that allow them to effectively peer through the walls of houses to see whether anyone is inside, a practice raising new concerns about the extent of government surveillance.

Those agencies, including the FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service, began deploying the radar systems more than two years ago with little notice to the courts and no public disclosure of when or how they would be used. The technology raises legal and privacy issues because the U.S. Supreme Court has said officers generally cannot use high-tech sensors to tell them about the inside of a person's house without first obtaining a search warrant.

The radars work like finely tuned motion detectors, using radio waves to zero in on movements as slight as human breathing from a distance of more than 50 feet. They can detect whether anyone is inside of a house, where they are and whether they are moving.

Current and former federal officials say the information is critical for keeping officers safe if they need to storm buildings or rescue hostages. But privacy advocates and judges have nonetheless expressed concerned about the circumstances in which law enforcement agencies may be using the radars — and the fact that they have so far done so without public scrutiny.

Read the rest at USA TODAY.


Radar devices that allow police officers to effectively see into suspects' homes raise "privacy concerns of the highest order," top lawmakers on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee said Thursday in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder.

Finally wanted: Police to chase thousands of fugitives

Posted: Monday December 29, 2014, 12:55 AM>

PHILADELPHIA — Five years after he ran from charges that he assaulted a sleeping college student on an overnight flight from Los Angeles, Yamin Ren is finally a wanted man.

For years, authorities said they would not spend the time or money to pursue Ren — who lived in California — as long as he stayed out of their state. For years, he remained free.

Now, after a USA TODAY investigation, authorities here and across the USA have promised to bring Ren and thousands of other fugitives back to face justice regardless of where they are found.

The newspaper found this year that more than 330,000 accused felons — including some wanted in rapes and murders — can escape the charges against them merely by crossing a state border because police and prosecutors secretly decided in advance not to go that far to retrieve them. In the months that followed, officials from Florida to Pennsylvania reversed those decisions by the thousands, informing the FBI that they intend to retrieve fugitives from anyplace in the USA.

In Philadelphia, prosecutors reviewed thousands of the city's old felony case files and identified hundreds of fugitives they plan to retrieve if the suspects surface in other states, a process known as extradition. Prosecutors approved extradition in at least 500 new cases, promising to seek people from other states for crimes as minor as drug possession, according to FBI records and court files.

"Philadelphia took to heart the story and realized that maybe they weren't doing as good of a job as they could have been. So I think they've certainly increased their efforts," said Pennsylvania Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm.

Progress in Philadelphia and elsewhere has nonetheless been halting, illustrating the challenges officials face in pursuing fugitives across the nation's patchwork justice system. Despite having identified hundreds of fugitives who should have been approved for extradition, many of the changes had yet to be entered into the FBI's fugitive tracking database as of mid-October, meaning some of the suspects could continue to get away. In many other cities, the number of fugitives police say they won't pursue has shot up dramatically.

Read the rest at USA TODAY.

Police stop pursuing nearly 79,000 fugitives

Posted: Sunday December 21, 2014, 1:28 AM>

By Brad Heath / USA TODAY

YUCAIPA, Calif. — For a time, the intruder charged with pressing a revolver to Armando Botello's forehead truly was a wanted man. When he disappeared, the police promised to pursue him anywhere in the United States.

No longer. Last year, the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department notified the FBI that it would pursue the accused armed robber only as far as the state border, even though investigators suspected he had long since left California.

In effect, the change meant that as long as the gunman left the state, he, like thousands of others, was now free to go.

Nationwide, police and prosecutors quietly told the FBI they had abandoned their pursuit of nearly 79,000 accused felons during the past year and a half, a USA TODAY investigation found. They have given up chasing people charged with armed robbery and raping children, usually without informing their victims. Police in one county in California reported they would no longer pursue three of their most-wanted fugitives and a man charged with a murder for which prosecutors have sought the death penalty.

The authorities had previously told the FBI – which maintains a vast index of the nation's fugitives – that they would arrest each of those suspects if police anywhere else in the United States happened to find them, a process known as extradition. But in each case, police and prosecutors have since indicated they will no longer fetch the fugitives if they flee.

So each can now escape the charges simply by crossing state lines. And FBI records suggest many do.

"That shocks me. I can't imagine why anybody would take a major felony and say we'll only arrest him within the state," said Joshua Marquis, the county prosecutor in Astoria, Ore., and a former vice president of the National District Attorneys Association. "I cannot imagine a case of sexual abuse or rape or murder where I would not go to the ends of the earth to get that person back."

In March, a USA TODAY investigation identified thousands of fugitives who police said they would not pursue if they fled the state, usually because they did not want to spend the time or money needed to get them back. The decisions, typically made in secret, allowed old crimes to go unpunished and offered fugitives a virtual license to commit new ones, often as close as in the state next door.

Those cases are multiplying. In just the past year and a half, the total number of fugitives who police won't pursue beyond a state border swelled nearly 77%, to 330,665. The main reason was police agencies changing their minds about what to do with people who have been wanted for years.

Read the rest at USA TODAY.

Racial gap in U.S. arrest rates: 'Staggering disparity'

Posted: Wednesday November 19, 2014, 3:18 AM>

By Brad Heath / USA TODAY

When it comes to racially lopsided arrests, the most remarkable thing about Ferguson, Mo., might be just how ordinary it is.

Police in Ferguson — which erupted into days of racially charged unrest after a white officer killed an unarmed black teen — arrest black people at a rate nearly three times higher than people of other races.

At least 1,581 other police departments across the USA arrest black people at rates even more skewed than in Ferguson, a USA TODAY analysis of arrest records shows. That includes departments in cities as large and diverse as Chicago and San Francisco and in the suburbs that encircle St. Louis, New York and Detroit.


Those disparities are easier to measure than they are to explain. They could be a reflection of biased policing; they could just as easily be a byproduct of the vast economic and educational gaps that persist across much of the USA — factors closely tied to crime rates. In other words, experts said, the fact that such disparities exist does little to explain their causes.

"That does not mean police are discriminating. But it does mean it's worth looking at. It means you might have a problem, and you need to pay attention," said University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris, a leading expert on racial profiling.

Whatever the reasons, the results are the same: Blacks are far more likely to be arrested than any other racial group in the USA. In some places, dramatically so.

Read the rest at USA TODAY.

The FOIA ombudsman turns five

Posted: Tuesday November 11, 2014, 3:00 AM>

Halloween is a day to celebrate the ludicrous, so it was also a fine time to discuss the current state of FOIA. This year, it was also an opportunity to look back at the first five years of the federal government's new FOIA ombudsman, the Office of Government Information Services. I had high expectations for OGIS. I thought it would be able to grab reluctant agencies by the ankles, turn them upside-down, and shake them until the records I wanted fell out. I thought it would at least tell me when I'm right. That's not what happened. That doesn't mean OGIS isn't having an impact -- it is. But it's not what I was expecting.

U.S. misinformed Congress, public on immigrant release

Posted: Thursday October 23, 2014, 11:03 AM>

By Brad Heath / USA TODAY

New records contradict the Obama administration's assurances to Congress and the public that the 2,200 people it freed from immigration jails last year to save money had only minor criminal records.

The records, obtained by USA TODAY, show immigration officials released some undocumented immigrants who had faced far more serious criminal charges, including people charged with kidnapping, sexual assault, drug trafficking and homicide.

The release sparked a furor in Congress. Republican lawmakers accused the Obama administration of setting dangerous criminals free. In response, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it had released "low-risk offenders who do not have serious criminal records," a claim the administration repeated to the public and to members of Congress.

The new records, including spreadsheets and hundreds of pages of e-mails, offer the most detailed information yet about the people ICE freed as it prepared for steep, across-the-government spending cuts in February 2013. They show that although two-thirds of the people who were freed had no criminal records, several had been arrested or convicted on charges more severe than the administration had disclosed.

Read the rest at USA TODAY.


Policeman who shot, killed Detroit man shares his story

Posted: Wednesday September 17, 2014, 1:32 AM>

By Brad Heath / USA TODAY

Detroit police officer David Krupinski pulled his trigger twice and watched the man crumple face-down onto the driveway, the garden rake he was holding clattering down with him.

What happened after Krupinski pulled the trigger that August afternoon in 2000 on the west side of Detroit is a blur, he said.

What happened in the seconds before is still being disputed.

Almost instantly, the shooting turned Krupinski into the face of a police force already besieged by complaints that its officers were too quick to kill, particularly when white officers encountered black suspects. But Krupinski, who is white, said in his first extended interview about the shooting that he did not learn why this shooting stood out among dozens of others until he turned on his television the next day: The man he had killed, Errol Shaw Sr., 39, was black, armed only with a rake, and was deaf and mute, unable to hear officers' commands.

Killings by police officers are a daily event in the United States; at least 400 are reported to the FBI each year, and the true total is almost certainly far higher. Shaw's death and its aftermath offer a vivid illustration of the damage and confusion that often follow. As officials continue to probe the death of an unarmed black teen that touched off a week of unrest in Ferguson, Mo., it is, if nothing else, a reminder that such shootings can cast very long shadows of anguish, mistrust and second-guessing.

Perhaps the longest of those shadows didn't lift until Monday, when a judge in Detroit agreed to end 11 years of federal oversight of the city's police department. Not long after Krupinski fired those two shots, the city's mayor took the unusual step of asking the U.S. Justice Department to investigate his own police force. That probe found an alarming pattern of abuses, including a series of unjustified shootings.

Read the rest at

Federal appeals court arguments

Posted: Tuesday September 16, 2014, 2:35 AM>

Here's my latest side project: Arguments, one-stop shopping for recordings of oral arguments in federal appellate courts.

The site indexes oral arguments from eleven federal appellate courts (the Supreme Court plus the First, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, D.C. and Federal circuits). The other three circuits (the Second, Tenth and Eleventh) still don't post recordings of oral arguments online, so I can't easily index them. The site lets you play, search and download feeds of recordings.

I've been hacking away at this as a side project for a few weeks. It started because I wanted a feed of arguments from a couple circuits that don't have that functionality on their own website. And I wanted to try a different approach to data harvesting with Python. Things still need some work -- think of this as an alpha release -- but it's finally working well enough that I'm sharing it.

For those who are interested, the back-end code is available on GitHub.

For a million fugitives, freedom starts at county line

Posted: Monday August 11, 2014, 1:31 PM>

By Brad Heath / USA TODAY

LAS VEGAS — Their arrest warrants pile up by the thousands: One for a man accused of punching his girlfriend in the face. Another for a man who crashed, drunk, into a liquor store. Another for a man charged with killing a teen in a joy ride that went wrong.

But the authorities are not searching for any of those fugitives, and even if they happen to find them, they will not pursue them beyond the county line.

Across the United States, a USA TODAY investigation has found, police routinely allow as many as half of the people wanted for crimes large and small to escape justice simply by venturing a few miles from where they are wanted. In the Las Vegas area alone, police records list more than 408,000 arrest warrants for fugitives who won't be pursued beyond the edges of Clark County.

And although most of the fugitives face minor charges, law enforcement records in Nevada and other states list thousands of fugitives wanted for domestic violence, sexual abuse, manslaughter and repeat drunken driving who can evade arrest simply by traveling a county or two away. In New York, records list six rape suspects police won't pursue beyond a neighboring county.

Police say they have little choice but to let them go. "It really does come down to cost," says Jack Manning, the head of a small police force responsible for tracking down people wanted by Las Vegas' municipal court. He said he could not recall the last time his officers traveled outside Clark County to retrieve a suspect.