Tagged: Criminal Justice

100

DoJ's Gag Order On Reason Has Been Lifted — But The Real Story Is More Outrageous Than We Thought

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Last Friday the folks at Reason confirmed what I suggested on Thursday — that the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York, after hitting Reason with a federal grand jury subpoena to unmask anonymous hyperbolic commenters, secured a gag order that prevented them from writing about it.

Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch describe how it all went down. Read it.

So, the truth is out — and it's more outrageous than you thought, even more outrageous than it appears at first glance.

What, you might ask, could be more outrageous than the United States Department of Justice issuing a questionable subpoena targeting speech protected by the First Amendment, and then abusing the courts to prohibit journalists from writing about it?

The answer lies in the everyday arrogance of unchecked power.

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86

Did The Department of Justice Get A Gag Order Silencing Reason About The Grand Jury Subpoena?

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On June 8 — ably assisted, as I am now, by my co-blogger Patrick — I reported on a federal grand jury subpoena issued to Reason.com in an effort to unmask commenters who used obnoxious hyperbole about Judge Katherine Forrest, who sentenced Ross "Dread Pirate Roberts" Ulbricht to life imprisonment in the Silk Road case.

In that post, I reported that Assistant U.S. Attorney Niketh Velamoor indicated that he "believed" that there was a gag order prohibiting Reason.com from disclosing the existence of the subpoena. I expressed skepticism about that claim because Mr. Velamoor had just two days before signed a letter telling Reason.com that the Department of Justice asked, but did not require, that the subpoena be kept secret.

Since then, additional factors lead me to believe that there is, in fact, an under-seal gag order purporting to prohibit Reason.com from disclosing or discussing the grand jury subpoena.

This post discusses why I think that, and why such a gag order would be an abuse of the law and a grave abuse of power.

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566

Department Of Justice Uses Grand Jury Subpoena To Identify Anonymous Commenters on a Silk Road Post at Reason.com

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The United States Department of Justice is using federal grand jury subpoenas to identify anonymous commenters engaged in typical internet bluster and hyperbole in connection with the Silk Road prosecution. DOJ is targeting Reason.com, a leading libertarian website whose clever writing is eclipsed only by the blowhard stupidity of its commenting peanut gallery.

Why is the government using its vast power to identify these obnoxious asshats, and not the other tens of thousands who plague the internet?

Because these twerps mouthed off about a judge.

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61

Dennis Hastert And Federal Prosecutorial Power

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This week, federal prosecutors indicted former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert.

Hastert is charged with two federal crimes: structuring financial transactions to evade IRS reporting requirements in violation of 31 U.S.C. section 5324(a)(3) and lying to the FBI in violation of the notorious 18 U.S.C. section 1001. Both charges reflect the breadth of federal prosecutorial power.

The indictment has mostly inspired chatter about what it doesn't say. Hastert is charged with structuring withdrawals of less than $10,000 (so that they would not be reported to the IRS) so that he could pay off an unidentified person for Hastert's unidentified past misconduct. What past misconduct, or threatened accusation of misconduct, could lead Hastert to pay $3.5 million? The indictment doesn't say, but it has been drafted to imply that the allegation of past misconduct relates to Hastert's job as a teacher and coach in Yorkville, Illinois. Hastert isn't charged with doing anything to the accuser, and the accuser isn't charged with extortion.

As Radley Balko has pointed out, structuring (or "smurfing") charges are extremely flexible. They demonstrate the reality of how Americans targeted by the Department of Justice can be charged. We imagine law enforcement operating like we see on TV: someone commits a crime, everyone knows what the crime is, law enforcement reacts by charging them with that crime. But that's not how federal prosecution always works. Particularly with high-profile targets, federal prosecution is often an exercise in searching for a theory to prosecute someone that the feds would like to prosecute. There is an element of creativity: what federal statute can we find to prosecute this person?

We'll learn more about the reasons for Hastert's payments in the course of the case (or through Department of Justice leaks calculated to harm him). I suspect we'll find that the investigation happened like this: the feds heard that Hastert was paying someone off based on an accusation of old misconduct, determined that the misconduct was too old (or out of their jurisdiction) to prosecute, and started subpoenaing records and interviewing witnesses until they found some element of what he was doing that was a federal crime. In other words, they targeted the man, and then looked for the crime.

The problem with this scenario is that federal criminal law is extremely broad. Practically speaking, it gives federal prosecutors vast discretion to determine who among us faces criminal charges. If you think that you're safe because you've never committed a crime, you may learn to your surprise that you're wrong.

The rational response to this situation is clear: don't trust the feds, don't talk to the feds. But Dennis Hastert, like many accomplished people, believed he could talk his way out of the situation. When the FBI came to interview him, he didn't refuse to answer and call his lawyer. According to the indictment, he confirmed in response to an FBI agent's question that he was withdrawing cash in order to store it because he didn't feel the banking system was safe. For that, he's been charged with lying to federal agents.

This is another aspect of the federal government's vast prosecutorial discretion. Hastert's alleged false statement happened in December 2014. When agents interviewed him, I guarantee you that the feds had already made their case. They had already put witnesses before the grand jury, they had already used grand jury subpoenas to get Hastert's bank records, they already knew exactly how they would charge and prove up the structuring charge. When they went to interview Hastert, there were only three possible outcomes: he would refuse to talk, he would confess, or he would lie in a way they could easily disprove. They were looking either for the confession, which would make their case easier, or the lie, that would give them a new theory on which to charge him with a crime. Under Section 1001 a lie must be material to be criminal. But the materiality element is weak. It only requires the government to show that the lie is the sort of statement that could conceivably influence the FBI. It doesn't require the government to show that the lie actually had any impact whatsoever. Thus the FBI can show up with its case ready to indict, fish for a lie that they know is a lie, and pile that charge on top of whatever the substantive charge is. That's why I bring up Section 1001 so often and explain why it means you must shut up. You can be prosecuted for as little as saying "no, I didn't" in response to a already-documented accusation.

The criminal justice system needs to be able to prosecute perjury — lies under oath before a tribunal. And I can see why it needs to be able to punish false statements to the federal government that represent an attempt to commit fraud (say, false statements to get a passport) or that impact an investigation (say, a false accusation that triggers an inquiry).

But ask yourself: what is the legitimate basis for giving the feds the power to prosecute people for exculpatory lies that have no impact whatsoever on their operation?

From the federal government's perspective, the basis is clear: it's a tool to help them charge people they want to charge.

From the citizen's perspective, this situation points to one obvious conclusion: shut up. Never answer a federal agent's questions without a thorough debriefing with a qualified lawyer first.

57

Two Stories About The Criminal Justice System And Consequences

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Dateline, Washington D.C.: The Drug Enforcement Administration, pressed by Congress for answers about its treatment of Andrew Chong, has no answers to give.

I wrote about Andrew Chong before. He's the young man the DEA arrested in San Diego when they caught him smoking dope at a friend's house during a raid. DEA agents handcuffed him, locked him into a room, and left him there five days without food or water. He drank his own urine, eventually attempted suicide, and was close to death when he was discovered. He suffers from post traumatic stress disorder, not surprisingly. DEA agents claimed that he was left there through an oversight and that nobody could hear him shouting for help. An investigation determined that you could very clearly hear someone shouting for help from that room.

The consequences? Four written reprimands, a five-day suspension, and a seven-day suspension.

If I seize someone, handcuff them, lock them in a room, and leave them to die, I will suffer severe consequences. I will lose my job, especially if I acted while performing my duties. I will go to jail. I will suffer catastrophic personal financial losses. My name will be broadcast far and wide.

That's the difference between me and a federal employee.

The DEA agents who arrested Andrew Chong for smoking dope and left him to die got reprimands or suspensions that were shorter than my last tension headache. You and I — the taxpayers — paid Andrew Chong the $4.1 million settlement he secured; the agents did not. They are not named in any of the articles about the incident. They will not go to jail. They will not lose their jobs.

Free of significant consequence, they will continue to exercise their armed authority to inflict consequences on other people who break the law.

Dateline, Texas:

In 2013, Judge Susan Criss presided over the trial of Alisha Marie Drake, who stood accused of the horrific crime of videotaping the rape of a 14-month-old child. During jury selection, a Jehovah's Witness in the jury pool told Judge Criss that he would not view child pornography and that his religion did not allow him to judge others (an issue familiar to anyone who has ever encountered a Jehovah's Witness in a jury pool). Judge Criss berated the juror and belittled his religious beliefs:

So if it grosses you out, then you can take it out on the person in punishment because it can’t possibly gross you out more than it grossed out that child. So that’s what my God tells me.

Eventually Judge Criss ordered the prospective juror arrested:

Juror No. 48: Your Honor, I’m one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and I believe that Jehovah God is a Supreme Judge and it is not in my place to judge anyone else or to have, for that matter, for them to be – –

The Court: All right. I understand that. We have Jehovah’s Witnesses all the time. But you know what? If you get picked on this jury, you get picked on this jury, and Jehovah can visit you in the jail.

Juror No. 48: Okay. Then – –

The Court: Have a seat, sir.

Juror No. 48: I guess they have to visit me.

The Court: All right. Arrest him. Take him into custody. Take him into custody right now. I’m not playing. See you later.

Judge Criss later explained to the thoroughly cowed jury pool that her experience as a sex crimes prosecutor — which she related in detail — taught her it was difficult to find willing jurors in sex crimes cases, and that she would not be excusing people. "And I'm not playing, and I don't care if anybody likes it or not."

Yesterday the Court of Appeals overturned the conviction. Even though Drake's appointed attorney did not bother to object to Judge Criss' actions, the court found that her comments about the case improperly conveyed her opinion of Drake's guilt, and that her arrest of the prospective juror deprived Drake of an impartial jury by intimidating jurors from confessing possible biases.

But the public opinion by the Court of Appeals did not name Judge Susan Criss. That's a matter of tradition and professional courtesy. You'd have to figure out her name by Googling the case, or by getting it from court records or from someone who knows.

Susan Criss is now in private practice, although she enjoys a public life commenting on her past cases. Criss is defiant about her actions in the Drake case. She won't face any State Bar proceeding. She won't face any consequences at all for her conduct.

These stories are not the exception. They are the rule. The rule is this: citizens generally face consequences for breaking the law and violating the rights of others, but those with the power to administer those laws and impose those consequences rarely face any themselves.

That's the justice system.

40

DEA Orchestrates Disinformation Campaign To Conceal Surveillance Powers

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In Neal Stephenson's brilliant Cryptonomicon, a protagonist works for a shadowy Allied unit called "Detachment 2702." Detachment 2702 creates elaborate fake evidence to offer explanations of how the Allies learned of German movements, thus concealing that the Allies had cracked the Enigma code. Though fictional, the Detachment is based on actual World War II tactics. The Allies did things like send spotter planes to places they knew German ships would be to fortuitously "spot" them, and reportedly sent a fake radio message of congratulations to a non-existent spy to suggest a source for other intelligence.

You expect the government to use secret surveillance and disinformation campaigns against a wartime enemy. You probably don't expect the government to use secret surveillance and disinformation campaigns in court against its own citizens.

You should.

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Nobody, Including Tom Cotton, Knows What Tom Cotton Is Saying About "Corruption of the Blood"

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Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) is in the news this month. For reasons that passeth understanding he's been offered up as a spokesperson for the 47 Republicans who wrote a letter to Iran.1 Today I noticed a number of links to 2013 reports asserting that Sen. Tom Cotton offered an amendment to a bill that would allow imprisonment without due process of the relatives of the targets or Iranian sanctions. The Huffington Post's Zach Carter may be Patient Zero on this idea:

WASHINGTON — Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) on Wednesday offered legislative language that would "automatically" punish family members of people who violate U.S. sanctions against Iran, levying sentences of up to 20 years in prison.

. . .

Article III of the Constitution explicitly bans Congress from punishing treason based on "corruption of blood" — meaning that relatives of those convicted of treason cannot be punished based only on a familial tie.

That story is getting more play this week because of the controversy over the Republicans' Iran letter, and the phrase "corruption of the blood" is on many a lip.

The proposed language, as described, struck me as an unusual thing for a Senator to do, even if the Senator graduated from Harvard Law School and therefore is not entirely responsible for his actions. Is this real? Or is this another case of journalistic malpractice on legal matters?2

The answer appears to be that nobody in this story understands what's being talked about.

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Darren Wilson and the Benefit of Doubt

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The United States Department of Justice has released a prosecution memo explaining how it decided not to bring federal charges against Ferguson Police Department Officer Darren Wilson for shooting Michael Brown.

The report is 86 pages long, with 28 footnotes. The report's summary of relevant federal law — what charges are available, what it would have to prove to convict Officer Wilson, and the landscape of use-of-force law — appears correct. I can't evaluate whether the Department has misrepresented what witnesses said or the circumstances of their statements, but the report's evaluation of the credibility of witnesses is convincing: it is based on inconsistencies in statements, inconsistencies with scientific analysis of physical evidence, and other factors that I would use as a defense attorney to attack a prosecution witness. The Department's conclusion that it can't prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt is likely correct. Its conclusion that there is no credible evidence supporting prosecution, because there is no credible evidence contradicting Officer Wilson's account, is arguable.

Were I still a federal prosecutor, I wouldn't recommend prosecuting the case, and were I Wilson's defense lawyer, I would like my chances much better than the prosecution's chances. I don't disagree with the factual or legal analysis. But I find it remarkable, both as a former prosecutor and as someone who has practiced criminal defense for 15 years.

I find it remarkable because most potential prosecutions don't get this sort of analysis. Most investigations don't involve rigorous examination of the credibility of the prosecution's witnesses. Most investigations don't involve painstaking consideration of the defendant's potential defenses. Often investigators don't even talk to potential defense witnesses, and if they do, don't follow up on leads they offer. Most investigations don't carefully weigh potentially incriminating and potentially exculpatory scientific evidence. If an explanation of the flaws in a case requires footnotes, you shouldn't expect it to deter prosecution.

Instead, I'm more used to the prosecution assuming their witnesses are truthful, even if they are proven liars. I'm more used to contrary evidence being cynically disregarded. I'm more used to participants in the system stubbornly presuming guilt to the bitter end. I'm more used to prosecutors disregarding potentially exculpatory evidence that they think isn't "material." I'm more used to the criminal justice system ignoring exculpatory science and clinging to inculpatory junk science like an anti-vaxxer.

Why is this case different? It's different because Darren Wilson is a cop. Cops get special rights and privileges and breaks the rest of us don't. Cops get an extremely generous and lenient benefit of the doubt from juries. Nearly every segment of the criminal justice system operates to treat cops more favorably than the rest of us.

The Department of Justice report didn't say "we can't prove this beyond a reasonable doubt, particularly because juries defer to cops." It didn't need to. It's understood. The Department of Justice also didn't have to worry about being called out for inconsistent approaches to other reports. That's because when you're a black guy who shoots a white law enforcement officer in self-defense, they don't write an 86-page memo with 28 footnotes about it. They just prosecute you.

It's not unjust that Darren Wilson gets the benefit of the doubt. It's unjust that nearly everyone else doesn't.

A Few Comments on the David Petraeus Plea Deal: What Money And Connections Buy You

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David Petraeus, who suffered a fall worthy of a Greek tragedy when was caught leaking classified information to his biographer-girlfriend, has reached a plea deal with the feds, in the person of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of North Carolina.

As of now two documents are available online. There's the Information, which is the charging document the feds use when grand jury indictment is not required or when the defendant waives that right. There's also the factual basis — the narrative of facts to which Petraeus will admit. These documents reveal that Petraeus has agreed, in advance of charges being filed, to take a misdemeanor.

Generally, poor people react and rich people are proactive. Petraeus is sophisticated and has assets; he could afford to hire lawyers to negotiate with the feds before they charged him. As a result, he was able to secure a pretty good outcome that controlled his risks. The feds let him plead, pre-indictment, to a misdemeanor charge of improper removal and retention of classified documents under 18 USC section 1924. That means even if the federal judge who sentences him goes on a rampage, he can't get more than a year in federal prison — and, given that it's a misdemeanor, will very likely get far less. The Factual Basis includes a United States Sentencing Guideline calculation in which the government and Petraeus agree he winds up at an Adjusted Offense Level of 8, which means the judge can give him straight probation.

It is very difficult to get a misdemeanor out of the feds.

Petraeus' factual basis reveals that he could have been charged with much, much worse. The statement discusses his "Black Books" containing his schedules and notes during his command in Afghanistan; those books contained "national defense information, including Top Secret/SCI code word information." (Factual Basis at paragraphs 17-18.) Petraeus, after acknowledging that "there's code word stuff in there," gave the Black Books to his biographer/girlfriend at her private residence. "The DC Private Residence was not approved for the storage of classified information," the statement notes dryly. (Factual Basis at paragraphs 22-25.) He retrieved the Black Books a few days later after she had been able to examine them, and retained them. Thereafter, when he resigned from the CIA, he signed a certification that he had no classified material in his possession, even though he had the Black Books. (Factual Basis at paragraph 27.) Later, when Petraeus consented to interviews with FBI agents3 he lied to them and told them that he had never provided classified information to his biographer/girlfriend. (Factual Basis at paragraph 32.)

To federal prosecutors, that last paragraph of facts is like "Free Handjob And iPad Day" at Walt Disney World. First, you've got the repeated false statements to the government, each of which is going to generate its own charge under 18 U.S.C. 1001, which makes it illegal for you to lie to your government no matter how much your government lies to you. Then you've got the deliberate leaking of top secret/code word defense data to a biographer. An aggressive prosecutor might charge a felony under 18 U.S.C. section 793 (covering willful disclosure of national defense information) or 18 U.S.C. section 798 (covering disclosure of classified communications intelligence materials or information derived therefrom), both of which have ten-year maximum penalties. Those charges don't seem to require any intent to harm the U.S. — only disclosure of information which could harm the U.S. if distributed. Other than that? You better believe there would be a conspiracy count for Petraeus' interaction with his girlfriend.

If Petraeus were some no-name sad-sack with an underwater mortgage and no connections and no assets to hire lawyers pre-indictment, he'd almost certainly get charged a lot more aggressively than he has been. This administration has been extremely vigorous in prosecuting leakers and threatening the press.

So why is Petraeus getting off with a misdemeanor and a probable probationary sentence? Two reasons: money and power. Money lets you hire attorneys to negotiate with the feds pre-charge, to get the optimal result. Power — whether in the form of actual authority or connections to people with authority — gets you special consideration and the soft, furry side of prosecutorial discretion.

This is colloquially known as justice.

Edited to add: Since I wrote this the actual plea agreement has become available. The most notable part:

8. The United States agrees not to oppose the defendant's request that the defendant receive a non-custodial sentence.

9. The parties jointly recommend the imposition of a two-year term of probation.

So, for those of your keeping score at home: Commander of U.S. Forces in a war zone provides classified documents to his biographer/lover? Misdo, two years probation. 25-year-old small-time musician sells half a pound of pot while carrying a gun? 55 years in federal prison.

Broken Windows And Broken Lives

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The Broken Windows Theory led to an era of aggressive policing of petty offenses — which in turn led to increased confrontation between police and civilians.

The theory depends upon the proposition that tolerating bad conduct, however petty, sets social norms, and that bad conduct steadily escalates to meet those norms.

Second, at the community level, disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence. Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in rundown ones. Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.

Let's take this as true for a moment.

If tolerating broken windows leads to more broken windows and escalating crime, what impact does tolerating police misconduct have?

Under the Broken Windows Theory, what impact could it have but to signal to all police that scorn for rights, unjustified violence, and discrimination are acceptable norms? Under Broken Windows Theory, what could be the result but more scorn, more violence, and more discrimination?

Apparently we've decided that we won't tolerate broken windows any more. But we haven't found the fortitude to do something about broken people. To put it plainly: just as neighborhood thugs could once break windows with impunity, police officers can generally kill with impunity. They can shoot unarmed men and lie about it. They can roll up and execute a child with a toy as casually as one might in Grand Theft Auto. They can bumble around opening doors with their gun hand and kill bystanders, like a character in a dark farce, with little fear of serious consequences. They can choke you to death for getting a little mouthy about selling loose cigarettes. They can shoot you because they aren't clear on who the bad guy is, and they can shoot you because they're terrible shots, and they can shoot you because they saw something that might be a weapon in your hand — something that can be, frankly, any fucking thing at all, including nothing.

What are we doing about this? Are we pushing back against unwarranted uses of force and deprivations of rights, to prevent them from becoming self-perpetuating norms?

No. We're not pursuing the breakers of windows. If anything, we are permitting the system steadily to entrench their protected right to act that way. We give them second and third and fourth chances. We pretend that they have supernatural powers of crime detection even when science shows that's bullshit. We fight desperately to support their word even when they are proven liars. We sneer that "criminals have too many rights," then give the armed representatives of our government stunning levels of procedural protections when they abuse or even kill us.

Do we really believe in Broken Windows Theory? If we do, how can we be surprised at more casual law enforcement racism, more Americans dead at the hands of police, more matter-of-fact violations of our constitutional rights? We left the windows broken. We helped set the norm. They're just following it.

Is Rapper Brandon "Tiny Doo" Duncan Being Prosecuted For Rapping About Gangs?

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Two things are clear: Brandon Duncan raps under the name "Tiny Doo," and he's being prosecuted for participation in the Lincoln Park street gang in San Diego.

After that, things get a little cloudy. But it appears that the San Diego County District Attorney's Office is prosecuting Duncan on the theory that a gang's activity made his rap music more popular, and that he therefore benefitted from gang activity. That poses some First Amendment problems.

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Dinesh D'Souza's Sentence Isn't Remarkable

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Recently I wrote about political pundit Dinesh D'Souza's selective prosecution claim and about the support for him at sentencing. Today a federal judge sentenced him to five years probation, eight months of that in a community confinement center, community service, and "therapeutic counseling."

A few comments:

1. The sentence isn't remarkable at all. Both sides agreed on the sentencing range under the United States Sentencing Guidelines. Though the recommended sentence under those guidelines was 10-16 months, the judge had discretion to go lower or higher. Probation with a term of home detention or "community confinement" is a very common approach to a nonviolent first offender with a low guideline range. For a 53-year-old with no record, this is roughly in the middle of the array results I would expect. In a case like this I would have shot for probation conditioned on home confinement but told the client that a short term in custody or a term in "community confinement" was a strong possibility. You may see it as unreasonably lenient or hash, but federal criminal practitioners won't.

2. A "community confinement center" sounds Orwellian, but it's just a halfway house. It's like a halfway house used for recovering addicts. Imagine a slightly dingy and run-down house in a not-quite-good neighborhood, with a group of people and someone on staff usually there. Being in a halfway house means that for eight months D'Souza will have to sleep there, but will be allowed to leave to go to work, church, and the doctor, or to other activities permitted by the house supervisors.

3. "Therapeutic counseling" sounds Orwellian but isn't. The BOP doesn't have people to counsel you on politics. Counseling as a condition of probation is typical. Available counseling includes drug, alcohol, marital, parenting, anger management, psychological, and so forth. I don't know what particular element of D'Souza's background resulted in the counseling condition, but there's absolutely no basis to jump to the conclusion that it's meant to reeducate him.

Remember: usually you can't rely on media reports of criminal justice events.

Texas Court Makes Upskirts Mandatory, Outlaws Kittens, Hates Your Mother

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Surely you've heard about this. A Texas court — full of old men, reeking of misogyny — has ruled that taking upskirt photos of unwilling women is free speech protected by the First Amendment!

How ridiculous! How despicable!

I mean, at least — that's what I think happened, based on how the story has been reported and talked about.

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