A Half-Million People Got COVID-19 in Prison. Are Officials Ready for the Next Pandemic?

Derrick Johnson had a makeshift mask. He had the spray bottle of bleach and extra soap that corrections officers provided. But he still spent every day crammed in a unit with 63 other men in a Florida prison, crowding into hallways on their way to meals and sleeping feet from one another at night.

As the coronavirus ravaged the Everglades Correctional Institution, Johnson was surrounded by the sounds of coughing and requests for Tylenol. And while he thought a lot of the prison’s policies were ineffective at protecting prisoners, he also wondered if that was the best the facility could do.

“Prison is not built to compete with a pandemic,” said Johnson, who was released in December. “The pandemic’s gonna win every time.”

For 15 months, The Marshall Project and The Associated Press tracked the spread of COVID-19 through prisons nationwide. We counted more than a half-million people living and working in prisons who got sick from the coronavirus. Prisons were forced to adapt to unusual and deadly circumstances. But now, as new cases are declining and facilities are loosening restrictions, there’s little evidence to suggest enough substantive changes have been made to handle future waves of infection.

With crowded conditions, notoriously substandard medical care and constantly shifting populations, prisons were ill-equipped to handle the highly contagious virus, which killed nearly 3,000 prisoners and staff.

There were
512,864 cases
of coronavirus reported among prisoners and staff through June 2021.

Sources: The Marshall Project and Associated Press weekly data collection from state and federal prison agencies.

Download our data.

Corrections systems responded with inconsistent policies, struggling to contain the virus amid understaffing and overcrowding. At its peak in mid-December, more than 25,000 prisoners tested positive in a single week.

But in recent months, infections behind bars nationwide have slowed to a few hundred new cases each week, and many prisons have eased what restrictions they had in place, including mask-wearing, visitors and other movement in and out, going back to business as usual.

It’s a critical moment, with new coronavirus cases low but the threat of infection looming as new variants spread around the world, said Dr. David Sears, an infectious-disease specialist and correctional health consultant.

“The medical community, prison leadership and society at large have learned so much about COVID in a short period of time,” Sears said. “We need to take these lessons and make sure that the things we’ve learned after a lot of real human suffering are not in vain.”

According to the data collected by The Marshall Project and The Associated Press, about 3 in 10 people in state and federal prisons were infected with the virus. But correctional health experts widely agree that this number is an undercount.

“A great many of the people who ever had COVID, they were never tested,” said Dr. Homer Venters, a former chief medical officer of the New York City jail system who has inspected health conditions in prisons around the country over the last year. “In most prisons it ran through these places like wildfire. People were never tested.”

One man housed at a low-security federal prison compared the Bureau of Prisons’ public data to what he was seeing inside. At least half of his unit fell ill, he said, but the bureau’s data didn’t reflect that. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he is still incarcerated and afraid of retribution.

“For the first year of the COVID, they never tested anybody in my institution unless they had a fever,” he said in a call from prison. “The easiest way to not have a positive at your institution is to not test anybody. … It’s like, hello, we’re dying from this shit. Can you test us?”

In the early days of the pandemic, testing within the Bureau of Prisons was limited, and staff at some prisons were told there was no need to test inmates and they should just assume everyone had the coronavirus. The Justice Department’s inspector general found that at some facilities, like FCC Oakdale in Louisiana, which emerged as an early hotspot, inmates who tested positive for the virus were left in their housing units for days without being isolated. The Bureau of Prisons said it follows guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and that any inmate who is symptomatic or tests positive for the virus is placed in medical isolation until they recover.

Even when state and federal prisons did conduct tests, they still allowed prisoners who tested positive to come in contact with others.

Texas prison officials transferred more than 100 infected prisoners in East Texas to prisons just outside Houston in the first months of the pandemic. Officials said the move would bring the men closer to medical resources, but other prisoners worried it would just bring the virus closer. A few days after a group of the sick arrived to his unit, Jason Duncan fell ill.

“The unit nurse came around to take temperatures, mine was checked at 102,” he wrote in a letter at the time. A few hours after having his temperature taken, he fainted. “When I came to, my body was so hot I could not stand at all. I could not breathe, it felt like the life was being [sucked] out of me. I was also covered in sweat — all my clothes wet.”

Eventually, he ended up in a hospital and “hooked up to a breathing machine.” Finally, he got a COVID-19 test. “I was given no medication at all,” he wrote, adding that he was instead sent back to the prison and housed in the wing with the sick prisoners who’d been transferred in.

Scott Medlock, an attorney who represented prisoners in a class-action lawsuit accusing Texas of inadequately protecting them from the virus, said the failure to properly quarantine prisoners was key to the spread of COVID-19 at Texas’ Pack Unit. While staff would isolate those who tested positive for two weeks, they considered prisoners “recovered” when the quarantine period ended, regardless of whether prisoners were showing symptoms.

“They were moving people who had quote-unquote recovered, who were still having symptoms, sometimes into dormitories where there would be people who have not tested positive yet,” Medlock said.

But many prisons simply lack the space needed to adequately isolate sick prisoners. There are structural and logistical changes prisons could make, such as upgrading ventilation systems and creating surge capacity for staff and health care workers. But the most effective approach, Sears said, is to drastically reduce prison populations.

“When you’re filled to the max and you have two people in an 8-by-10 cell right next to two more people in an 8-by-10 cell and on and on, it’s impossible to create any form of physical distancing,” Sears said. “We have to get people out of prisons so we have that space.”

While many jails emptied out during the pandemic and prison populations declined, the criminal justice system has not fundamentally changed. Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, who leads the COVID Prison Project, said she hasn’t seen the systemic change needed to address the next pandemic.

“What we’re seeing over the past couple weeks and months is a real return to status quo, which makes me worry that prisons and jails didn’t learn much at all,” Brinkley-Rubinstein said. “I see incarcerated populations returning to what they were before.”

Photographs from inside a federal prison show how close people slept during the pandemic last year. The images have been altered to obscure the identity of people in the prison.

The Marshall Project

Employee shortages plague many prisons. The federal system is at critically low levels and has been forced to make teachers and others watch prisoners. The Nebraska prison system recently declared a staffing emergency at a fourth facility, and Texas prisons are struggling with more than 5,000 correctional officer vacancies and the lowest staffing levels in recent memory.

In Pennsylvania, transfers and insufficient quarantine policies contributed to spreading the virus between prison facilities, said John Eckenrode, president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association. Once there were active cases throughout the state’s prisons, including among staff, the department became lax with quarantining and actively contact-tracing staff after someone tested positive.

A few months into the pandemic, Eckenrode believes, a lot of supervisors were tired of quarantining officers and calling in overtime.

“There were definitely officers who went weeks without a day off and sometimes working all 16-hour shifts,” he said. “It takes a toll on you, your home life, your time with family, your mental and physical exhaustion.”

The Pennsylvania Prison Society, a group that advocates for humane prison and jail conditions, found at one point during the pandemic 1 in 6 corrections officers was out sick or in quarantine. Prisoners contacted the society to say their medical request slips were piling up.

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“Because so many staff members were out sick during COVID-19, what we found was people had an even harder time getting access to medical care,” said Anton Andrew, the society’s education and advocacy fellow.

The strain of understaffing and working in a high-risk environment has led to corrections staff leaving their jobs, Venters said. These staffing shortages will have long-term consequences, especially as prison populations rise.

“Understaffing means people don’t get to their health care appointments and certainly don’t go outside,” Venters said. “It’s unlikely when they have an emergency that anybody is going to see it or respond to it.”

Like life on the outside, the immediate risk to prisoners in many states has largely receded. Twenty states have administered at least one dose of the vaccine to two-thirds of their prison population, and new cases in prisons nationwide have stayed below 500 a week for more than a month. Prisoners who spent more than a year without family visits, educational programs and outdoor recreation are eager to regain more social interaction and activity. Despite these promising signs, however, doctors and advocates for the incarcerated fear that prisons are letting their guard down too quickly.

New variants of the coronavirus are more contagious, which Sears said may call for higher vaccine rates to bring about herd immunity. Maryland, Michigan and Colorado found variants within their prisons earlier this year, though case numbers remained low.

In Hawaii, one of the few states where cases have risen in prisons in recent weeks, state authorities attribute the outbreak to overcrowding and transfers into its facilities. Unlike most states, Hawaii’s correctional system houses both sentenced prisoners and people awaiting trial, a more transient population with lower vaccination levels.

“Our jails have all been burdened by extreme overcrowding for decades, and now added to that are the unique challenges posed by the COVID pandemic,” Toni Schwartz, a spokesperson for the Hawaii Department of Public Safety, said in an email.

While vaccine acceptance among prisoners has been higher than anticipated, most systems have seen staff vaccination rates lagging behind.

“We know that COVID doesn’t just spring up from the ground within a prison. COVID is introduced by people coming into and out of a prison,” Sears said. “Ninety-nine percent of that movement is staff … so creating that ring of protection around a prison with higher staff vaccination rates is vital.”

In Colorado, where 55% of corrections workers are fully vaccinated, unvaccinated staff are tested daily with rapid tests, said Brandalynn Anderson, spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Corrections. Both vaccinated and unvaccinated staff take weekly PCR tests.

Not all prisons take as thorough of an approach. In some states, such as Wisconsin and South Carolina, staff are tested every two weeks. Others only mandate testing when employees are suspected to have been exposed to the virus.

As prison coronavirus cases have slowed, so, too, has the release of data from state and federal agencies. Michele Deitch, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has researched prison data transparency during the pandemic, said this is a troubling sign that prisons are prematurely moving beyond the pandemic.

“There’s a sense that COVID is over, that the pandemic is behind us, and that is just not the case,” Deitch said. “We have to remember that prisons and jails were hit so much harder than the outside communities were, and in many jurisdictions, they were late to provide vaccinations to incarcerated people.”

Katie Park

is a developer and data journalist who creates data visualizations and digital features at The Marshall Project. Her work has been recognized by the Society for News Design, the Society of Professional Journalists, Malofiej Infographic Awards and the White House News Photographers Association. She previously worked at NPR and The Washington Post.

Keri Blakinger

is a staff writer whose work focuses on prisons and jails. She writes the column “Inside Out” with NBC News, and her work has appeared in the Washington Post Magazine, the Houston Chronicle and The New York Times. She is the organization’s first formerly incarcerated reporter.

The latest on coronavirus and the justice system.

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June 30, 2021 at 06:03AM

Why Did It Take 47 Years to Prove Anthony Mazza was Innocent?

In April 1973, Anthony Mazza was sentenced to life in prison without parole for a murder in Boston. Last June, at the age of 73, he was released after his conviction was vacated  because his trial lawyer was denied key evidence that points to his innocence.

Charges were dismissed in March, and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court vacated the case in April. Two months later, Mazza became the 2,800th American defendant listed in the National Registry of Exonerations.

He spent more than 47 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, longer than any other American exoneree, but his case received so little attention that it took months to track down the details.

It’s hard to imagine spending decades in prison for a crime you did not commit—but Mazza is not alone.

Gross

Prof. Samuel Gross

The Registry includes nine other innocent defendants who were released after more than 40 years in prison, 60 who spent at least 30 years in prison, 184 who were imprisoned for more than 25 years each. All told, the 2,800 exonerated defendants we know about spent more than 25,000 years in prison.

For most of the time that Anthony Mazza was in prison, he had no legal assistance. His attorney on appeal did not even ask that his conviction be reversed, only that his sentence be reduced because of his supposed “mental retardation.” That appeal was rejected quickly, in 1974.

For the next 32 years, Mazza pursued justice on his own, and did so with determination and effectiveness that’s hard to square with intellectual disability.

The only witness who directly connected Mazza to the murder was Robert Anderson, an acquaintance in whose apartment the body was found, who drove the victim’s stolen car for days after the killing, who gave items of the victim’s property to others—but who testified that Mazza alone was the killer.

Framing an Innocent Friend

Anderson’s statements about the killing were contradictory and his testimony was inconsistent. Mazza, who had an alibi, always maintained that Anderson himself was the killer. That’s a familiar story. There are at least a dozen other exonerations in the Registry in which a murderer avoided punishment by framing an innocent acquaintance or friend.

Between 1977 and 1995, Anthony Mazza, with no legal help, filed four petitions to reopen his case. They were based in part on affidavits from several men who met Anderson in prison, where he served time for other crimes, and stated under oath that Anderson told them that he had framed Mazza for murder. All four petitions were denied—or worse, ignored.

In 2006, Mazza filed a fifth motion, including a new item: a statement that Anderson’s brother gave to the police in 1972, describing conduct and statements by Anderson that strongly support the claim that Anderson was the killer. Mazza’s lawyer had not seen that statement before his trial. It took Mazza years to get a copy from the Boston police department, once he learned he was entitled to it.

After that, things began to change for Mazza’s case, but at a snail’s pace.

In 2006, a judge appointed a lawyer to represent him. In 2009, that lawyer filed a sixth motion to reconsider the conviction. That motion travelled through the Massachusetts courts, from bottom to top, twice. Finally—after 11 more years, with no change in the evidence—the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts reversed Mazza’s conviction because this undisclosed 1972 witness statement undermined the integrity of the jury’s judgment.

This is a common pattern. Withholding evidence of innocence is the most frequent type of government misconduct in trials of innocent defendants. It happened in 61 percent of murder exonerations.

 Living Past Exoneration

Anthony Mazza’s exoneration was hardly preordained.

For one thing, prison is very bad for one’s health. By one estimate, a year in prison reduces a person’s life expectancy by about two years. Mazza is fortunate to have lived long enough to be freed; let’s hope he has a chance to enjoy his freedom.

Olin Coones spent 12 years in prison in Kansas for a murder he did not commit. He was exonerated in 2020, but died less than four months later from health conditions that were not diagnosed or treated in prison.

In addition, all copies of the hidden witness statement that freed Anthony Mazza might have been lost or destroyed before he obtained one. Or the courts might have continued to ignore or deny his claims despite this new evidence. Or Mazza, working without expert help, might never have learned how to obtain public records.

Or he might simply have given up, as many innocent prisoners do.

The most important lesson from the (as of June) 2,808 exonerations in the National Registry is that the great majority of innocent defendants who are convicted of crimes are never exonerated.

Ken Otterbourg

Ken Otterbourg

Why, for example, are defendants who are sentenced to death exonerated about six times more often as defendants—like Mazza—who are convicted of murder but sentenced to life imprisonment?

It’s not because those sentenced to death are six times more likely to be innocent. It’s because defense lawyers, prosecutors, judges, governors and journalists work hard to identify innocent defendants who might be executed.

In particular, unlike Mazza, almost all defendants sentenced to death have lawyers as long as they remain on death row. Few innocent defendants who are imprisoned for life have access to lawyers, and most remain and die in prison.

If we can’t stop convicting the innocent we should at least acknowledge that we do make these terrible mistakes, and take substantial claims of innocence seriously from the start.

We must pay attention when significant new evidence of innocence is presented, not ignore it because the case is closed. And the cases of prisoners who might be innocent should go to the front of the line for decision, not the back, so those who are innocent are freed before they reach old age or die.

Don’t confuse what happened to Anthony Mazza with justice. It’s not.

Samuel Gross, Professor of Law Emeritus at the University of Michigan, is co-founder and senior editor of the National Registry of Exonerations. Ken Otterbourg, a former journalist, is a researcher at the National Registry of Exonerations.

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June 30, 2021 at 07:38AM

Man Who Smoked ‘A Lot’ of Crystal Meth Before Flight Tried to Breach Cockpit, Then Jumped Out of Moving Plane: Feds

A United Airlines passenger who unsuccessfully tried to break into a plane’s cockpit before opening an emergency cabin door and jumping off the taxiing aircraft (and breaking his leg in the process) told federal authorities that he had purchased and smoked “a lot” of crystal meth in the days prior to the flight, court documents show.

According to a criminal complaint filed Sunday in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, Luis Antonio Victoria Dominguez, 33, even told the woman seated next to him on Flight 5365 from LAX to Salt Lake City that he was going to “jump out” of the plane prior to takeoff.

“I’m serious,” Dominguez allegedly whispered to the female passenger after telling her of his plan and making a break for the front of the aircraft.

Dominguez reached the front of the plane as the aircraft began taxiing and banged on the door multiple times. He then tried “manipulating the locked doorknob while saying something about getting off the aircraft,” one of the flight attendants told authorities.

When he failed to access the flight deck, Dominguez pushed the flight attendant out of his way and turned his attention to the emergency exit door, the court records indicate. He pulled the lever, caused the door to open, and partially deployed the emergency slide, witnesses told federal agents. A male passenger, referred to as “A.G.” in the complaint, grabbed Dominguez by the shirt and tried to pull him back into the aircraft, but Dominguez “twisted himself free” then “fell out of the emergency exit door and onto the tarmac without coming into contact with the partially deployed emergency slide.”

The plane’s captain told federal agents that the incident amounted to a “Level 4 threat,” which he described as “huge—the biggest” threat on the scale. He also said that the emergency slide was pressurized and could have been sucked into the engine.

Multiple witnesses reported that Dominguez, unable to stand after breaking his leg, then tried to crawl down the tarmac away from the plane. He was arrested by officers with the Los Angeles Airport Police Department (LAXPD) and transported to a local hospital so his leg could be treated.

Federal agents went to the hospital the following day to interview Dominguez who was extremely candid, according to the complaint.

Dominguez allegedly told the agents that he traveled from Mexico to L.A. three days prior to Flight 5365, on June 22. He said he planned to travel to Salt Lake City but didn’t have an immediate connecting flight — so he instead went on an alcohol and drug-filled bender.

“He went to an unknown hotel on 7th Street in downtown Los Angeles near a bus station, where he drank several beers and purchased $20 of crystal methamphetamine from an unknown individual,” the complaint stated. “When asked how much crystal methamphetamine he got for the $20, he responded, ‘A lot.’”

The next day, Dominguez said he “still had crystal methamphetamine and continued to smoke on and off throughout the day.” He decided to book a flight to Salt Lake City for June 24, per the complaint.

After smoking more crystal meth, Dominguez said he missed his June 24 flight and wandered the streets until the next day when he boarded Flight 5365.

“He was coming down from all the drugs he had used the last couple of days and immediately started to doze off. He heard the passengers seated behind him laughing and talking about the flight going to a different city than Salt Lake City,” the complaint stated, adding that he then “began to panic.”

Dominguez also allegedly told the agents that his panic attack “gave him the strength to open the door” and jump out of the plane.

He faces one count of Interfering with Flight Crew Members and Attendants, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison.

Read the full complaint below.

[image via KCAL-TV screengrab via YouTube]

The post Man Who Smoked ‘A Lot’ of Crystal Meth Before Flight Tried to Breach Cockpit, Then Jumped Out of Moving Plane: Feds first appeared on Law & Crime.

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June 29, 2021 at 06:27PM

Juror Fined More Than $11,000 for Doing His Own Research, Causing Mistrial in Case of Alleged Assault on Immigration Officer

A juror in federal criminal trial in New Jersey must pay a fine of more than $11,000 after conducting his own research on a case, a judge ordered on Tuesday.

The juror, identified in a concomitant court docket as Stephen Meile of Lumberton, N.J., was called before U.S. District Court Judge Robert B. Kugler after another juror reported him to court officials.  According to court records (citations omitted):

The Court was informed by Juror #12 that Juror #7, Stephen Meile, had performed outside research related to the case in violation of the Court’s Preliminary Instructions to the jury. Under oath, Stephen Meile confirmed that he had, in fact, performed outside research on matters related to the case. The Court then declared a mistrial.

Moreover:

[A]fter swearing in the jurors, the Court read Preliminary Instructions to the jury. The Preliminary Instructions prohibited jurors from conducting any research or making any investigation on their own into any matters relating to this case or this type of case. This Court advised the juror panel that it would be improper for the jurors to supplement the information about this case with outside research. The Court ordered the jurors to not visit the scene, conduct experiments, consult reference works or dictionaries, or search the internet, websites or blogs for additional information, or use a computer, cellular phone, or other electronic device or tool of technology, or any other method, to obtain information about the case, the type of case, the parties in the case, or anyone else involved in the case. Throughout trial, the Court repeatedly admonished the jury not to conduct any outside research into matters related to the case in any way.

Disobeying those strict orders resulted in a Tuesday hearing for Meile. According to court records, it ended with this order from the judge:

Court finds Stephen Meile in contempt of Court.

ORDERED sanctions be imposed in the amount of $11,227.29 to be paid within 60 days w/Special Assessment in the amount of $25, if applicable.

Order to be entered.

A press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey indicated that the juror — who was named in public court records but not in the press release — conducted the unauthorized research “[d]uring a recess in the trial.”

“He then shared his findings with the other jurors during deliberations, causing a mistrial,” the press release continued. “The fine represents the court’s costs associated with empanelling [sic] the jury for the trial.”

According to a letter from the judge to defense attorneys in the case Meile was called to hear, the $11,227 dollar figure “includes the daily fee” jurors were paid for serving, mileage to and from the courthouse, and meal allowances. Meile’s cost to the system was $311.82, that same letter indicates.

It is not immediately clear from the available documents precisely what Meile was attempting to research or what information he found which damaged the proceeding to the point it needed to be shut down and a fine ultimately levied.

As a matter of legal policy, jurors are not allowed to conduct their own research into cases because allowing them to do so would upend the constitutional guarantee of due process under the Fourteenth Amendment.  The rules of evidence and various high court decisions dictate what jurors can and cannot hear, and outside research would, in effect, nullify those provisions which have been wrought and fought over the centuries through literal trial and literal error — all in a long quest for purer forms of justice.

The underlying case the juror was empaneled to hear was the trial of Kevin Ruiz-Quezada, who was accused of assaulting an Immigration and Customs Enforcement Officer in December 2017, court documents indicate.

Ruiz-Quezada is described in those documents as a “native and citizen of Nicaragua” who became a “lawful permanent resident” in May 2001. He was “convicted of offenses” in a New Jersey state court in 2002 and 2005, leading federal officials to seek his deportation in 2017. It was during his attempted arrest “to compel his appearance before the Immigration Court for removal proceedings” that he “attempted to flee” back into his Pennsauken, N.J. home, a federal criminal complaint alleges. While so doing, the defendant “ignored . . . commands to stop and struggled with the Officers while moving into the house,” the court documents also allege.

“In the course of arresting RUIZ-QUEZADA, the Officers were pulled into the residence by RUIZ-QUEZADA and during the struggle they crashed through a coffee table onto the living room floor,” the documents continue. “The Officers were eventually able to restrain and handcuff RUIZ-QUEZADA while in the home.”

One of the officers is said in court papers to have “suffered bodily injury” — a “ruptured flexor tendon on his ring finger, which required surgery to repair.”

Ruiz-Quezada will now be tried again.

Read the documents in both cases below.

[photo illustration by Mark Wilson/Getty Images]

The post Juror Fined More Than $11,000 for Doing His Own Research, Causing Mistrial in Case of Alleged Assault on Immigration Officer first appeared on Law & Crime.

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June 29, 2021 at 09:39PM

This Cop Conducted 3 Warrantless Searches in Under 3 Years. He Gets To Keep His Job.

A Baton Rouge Police Department (BRPD) officer will keep his job after conducting his third warrantless search in under three years.

Ken Camallo will be demoted from sergeant to corporal, The Advocate notes. He will also undergo a 75-day unpaid suspension.

But the officer will ultimately stay employed after racking up a slew of similar offenses and demonstrating a wanton disregard for the constitutional rights of those in his community.

BRPD declined to provide further comment.

Camallo’s conduct attracted significant national attention after a Reason report last month first released body camera footage of a traffic stop on January 1, 2020, set in motion by Camallo because he spotted a car driving “suspicious[ly].” He’d seen it parked at a “known drug house,” he said.

During that traffic stop, he and four other cops strip-searched a minor on a public street. In a recent press conference, BRPD said none of the officers will face discipline for that move.

But Camallo and Officer Troy Lawrence Jr. proceeded to conduct a warrantless search of the family’s home, resulting in disciplinary reviews. Lawrence’s is still ongoing.

Documents obtained by Reason show that this is not Camallo’s first offense, however. An internal affairs history of his time on the force shows that he has a stain on his record for another warrantless entry in 2019.

Yet even that wasn’t his first foray into unconstitutional searches. In 2017, a federal judge threw out all of the evidence in a case against a man indicted on illegal weapons charges after Camallo was found to have obtained the evidence earlier that year without a warrant. That case was eventually dropped.

Camallo’s disciplinary history shows no demerit against him for that misconduct.

His most recent warrantless search resulted in criminal charges against Clarence Green, then 23, who sat in jail for five months after Camallo found a firearm on his person during the traffic stop. Green was prohibited from owning one while he was on probation for possession of oxycodone, according to the initial incident report.

But those police reports would come to change almost a dozen times after Camallo and Lawrence illegally searched Green’s home—something that drew the scrutiny of a federal judge as he approved the state’s request to drop the charges against Green. One of the altered police reports notes that Tanya Green, Clarence’s mother, gave “written consent” to the search. She says that isn’t true, and the body camera footage shows no such exchange.

“The state agents in this case demonstrated a serious and wanton disregard for Defendant’s constitutional rights, first by initiating a traffic stop on the thinnest of pretext, and then by haphazardly invading Defendant’s home (weapons drawn) to conduct an unjustified, warrantless search,” wrote Judge Brian A. Jackson of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana. “Such an intrusion, in abject violation of the protections afforded by the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which protects citizens against unwarranted governmental intrusions in their homes, may justifiably be considered to be a trespass subject to prosecution under” Louisiana law.

Thomas Frampton, an attorney for the Green family, agrees. “The Supreme Court has said that officers may conduct a ‘frisk’—meaning a brief pat-down of the outer garments—if the officer has a reasonable suspicion that the individual is armed,” Frampton told Reason last month. “The reason that’s okay, according to the Court, is because a properly conducted pat down is ostensibly non-invasive. A strip search on a public sidewalk, however, is something else altogether.” The family recently settled for $35,000 against the city of Baton Rouge.

But real accountability will apparently be elusive for the Greens. That entire sum will come out of taxpayer dollars and was only reached after the family agreed to drop a civil suit. Camallo will not have to explain his actions in civil court—and he gets to keep his job.

Instead, the city is trying to hold Frampton accountable for sharing the body camera footage with the press. During May’s BRPD press conference, the Parish Attorney’s Office for East Baton Rouge notified him that it would seek to hold him in contempt of court and jail him for up to six months for disseminating the video, although the government had already made it publicly available in November of 2020.

Holding a rogue officer to account is no easy feat. At the center of the debate is qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that prohibits victims of government abuse from suing state actors if the precise way a public official violated your rights has not been explicitly ruled unconstitutional in a prior court precedent. That explains, for instance, why the cops who allegedly stole $225,000 while executing a search warrant, or the cop who shot a man who’d been sleeping in his car, or the cop who led a botched drug raid on the wrong house were all protected from civil liability. The victims were not permitted to bring their claims before a jury.

Firing a bad cop is perhaps even harder. The process is mired in safeguards enshrined by labor precedents and police unions, which have a history of defending their workers’ most unsavory misdeeds. That is the purpose of any union, after all: to stick up for its people. That principle comes at a cost to the public they are supposed to protect, though, when considering that police unions represent the monopoly on state power.

The BRPD and the city of Baton Rouge did their best to produce the veneer of accountability. But in just two and a half months, Camallo will be back on patrol, protecting and serving.

via Criminal Justice – Reason.com https://reason.com

June 24, 2021 at 11:44AM

Court Says Cops Can’t Search People’s Garbage Without A Warrant

A search is a search, even when the intrusion is minimal. The court cites the US Supreme Court’s Jones decision, which said the warrantless placement of a tracking device on a vehicle was a trespass.

Here, Heinz testified he opened the garbage to “obtain information about what Mr. Wright may have been doing inside [his] house” and obtain evidence “related to drug activity.” A constitutional search occurs whenever the government commits a physical trespass against property, even where de minimis, conjoined with “an attempt to find something or to obtain information.”

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June 25, 2021 at 11:50AM

This Week’s Corrupt Cops Stories

A DEA agent and his task force buddy get convicted of thievery, a Louisiana town cop gets busted for taking bribes from a drug dealer, and more. Let’s get to it:

[image:1 align:right]In Pearl, Mississippi, a state prison guard was arrested June 10 for smuggling drugs into the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility. Guard Brenda Denise Hicks is charged introducing contraband, possession of methamphetamine, trafficking methamphetamine and extortion.

In Kaplan, Louisiana, a Kaplan police officer was arrested and fired June 17 for taking bribes from a drug dealer. Former Officer Mitchell Guidroz allegedly took $500 from a local drug dealer to ignore his activities. He now faces charges of public bribery and malfeasance in office.

In Cordele, Georgia, a Crisp County sheriff’s detention officer was arrested Tuesday for allegedly smuggling drugs and cigarettes into the Crisp County Detention Center, Jhayvion Smith, 20, now a former guard, went down after he was spotted “exchanging items” with a person in the detention center parking lot. He is charged with bringing contraband across guard line to inmates, possession of a controlled substance, and violation of oath by public officer.

In New Orleans, a former DEA agent  and a former DEA task force officer were found guilty June 15 in a long-running scheme to rip-off cash and personal property from people he had arrested on drug charges Former Agent Chad Scott, 53, and task force member Rodney Gemar, 45, repeatedly stole the personal property of arrestees instead of logging it in as evidence. They also took money from the pockets of arrestees, lifted it out of wallets, and skimmed money off cash seizures made by the DEA. Two other former Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff’s Office deputies who had been serving as DEA task force officers in New Orleans have pleaded guilty in this investigation. Karl Emmett Newman, 54, pleaded guilty to unlawfully carrying a firearm in furtherance of an August 2015 robbery, which was disguised as the execution of a search warrant, as well as misappropriating money confiscated by the DEA during another search. Johnny Domingue, 32, pleaded guilty to possession of cocaine and misappropriating money confiscated by the DEA.

In Spokane, Washington, a former state prison guard was sentenced June 10 to two months in prison after being convicted of smuggling drugs into the Airway Heights Correction Center last July. Former guard Michael Mattern, 46, got caught with 200 strips of Suboxone, the prescription medication used to treat opioid addiction that can also be abused. Investigators also found him in possession of 14.6 grams of methamphetamine and 2.9 grams of heroin at the prison. The drugs were hidden in a tobacco tin inside his lunch box.

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June 25, 2021 at 06:33PM

Florida Pastor Charged in U.S. Capitol Siege After One of His Own Followers Ratted Him Out

Florida pastor James Varnell Cusick Jr. and his son Casey Cusick are facing charges in connection with the Jan. 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol Complex — all because a member of Cusick’s church told federal agents he was inside the Capitol with his pastor.

When the authorities interviewed David John Lesperance at his home in Florida after identifying him as one of the people present at the capitol, Lesperance admitted that he was in Washington, D.C. from Jan. 5 to Jan. 8 and that he and his pastor were “present at President Trump’s speech and then at the U.S. Capitol afterwards,” according to an FBI affidavit.

Lesperance also admitted that “they” had entered the Capitol, but he initially refused give an exact name as to who “they” were.  He simply indicated that the term included his pastor.

Investigators were able to make the connection to the Cusicks in a few ways.

The FBI first connected Lesperance to James Cusick Jr. through social media. Cusick Jr. is the founder and pastor of a church in Melbourne, Fla., some seven miles from where Lesperance lives, and officials found a picture on the church’s Instagram page that included both James Cusick and Lesperance.

David John Lesperance (center) and James Varnell Cusick Jr. (right).

The FBI, with information obtained from search warrants of the mens’ cell phone history, also determined that the Cusicks and Lesperance were inside the Capitol building at the same time.

During his interview with the FBI, Lesperance admitted that he deleted pictures and videos he had taken while inside the Capitol “out of fear of negative repercussions,” but escape from those repercussions turned out to be difficult:  federal officials searched Lesperance’s iCloud account.  It included pictures of Casey Cusick before and after the siege; he was wearing the same clothes he was seen wearing on the Capitol’s closed-circuit TV system and on police bodycam footage.

Casey Cusick (Left) and James Varnell Cusick, Jr. (Right) are seen in two versions of the same image embedded in various court documents on file in the two men’s cases.

Additional photos found in Lesperance’s iCloud account also placed the Cusicks inside the Capitol building.

An anonymous tipster also sent a letter to the FBI with pictures and other evidence to show that Lesperance and the Cusicks had traveled from Florida to Washington and participated in the Capitol breach, according to the affidavits.

James Cusick, Jr. is the founder of Global Outreach Ministries, the Washington Post reported. His son, Casey, is listed on the church website as “event coordinator,” but according to the report, he is currently the church’s vice president. Lesperance is the owner of an air conditioner company in Florida, the Post said.

All three men are charged with unlawfully entering or remaining in a restricted building, disorderly or disruptive conduct in a restricted building, and violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds.

FBI documents show that all three men were arrested Thursday, and all three made their initial court appearances that day. Lesperance was “released on conditions,” but it was not clear whether either of the Cusicks were released as well.

Read the arrest warrant affidavits for David Lesperance, James Cusick Jr., and Casey Cusick, below.

[images via federal court documents]

The post Florida Pastor Charged in U.S. Capitol Siege After One of His Own Followers Ratted Him Out first appeared on Law & Crime.

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June 25, 2021 at 07:41PM

Are Virtual Courtrooms Here to Stay?

When the pandemic forced attorneys to present their cases remotely, courtroom members had little time to adapt in-person practices to online platforms. Some changes were glaring, like the court’s inability to ‘all rise’ remotely.

Others were smaller but still consequential: sitting behind separate screens, clients and attorneys could no longer whisper to one another — a loss that Howard ‘Rex’ Dimmig, the public defender for the 10th Judicial Circuit of Florida, said conveys the disadvantages of virtual court proceedings.

“When they’re talking on a virtual platform where dozens of people are listening, or if they have to say, ‘Wait a minute, I need to take a break to talk confidentially with my attorney,’ they’re not inclined to do that,” said Dimmig, who serves as the president of the Florida Public Defender Association.

“The quality of communication is impacted.”

Fifteen months have passed since Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles T. Canady issued an administrative order temporarily suspending grand jury proceedings, jury selection proceedings, and criminal and civil jury trials, later instructing judges to facilitate court proceedings “with the use of technology.”

Across the country, judges and attorneys, plaintiffs and defendants suddenly found themselves scrambling to adapt to platforms designed for corporate meetings and college classes.

As in-person proceedings begin to resume, lawyers are reflecting on the long-term viability of virtual proceedings. While some remain skeptical that technology can reproduce the right to fairness legal cases require, others cite the benefits: convenient appearances, cheaper costs and, in some cases, increased accessibility.

Pandemic, Pile-up and Virtual Proceedings 

Victor Plantinga, a criminal defense attorney who primarily litigates in the federal courts in Wisconsin and Illinois, said remote proceedings have saved money and time. Prior to the pandemic, presenting a motion for civil cases in the Northern District of Illinois, for instance, required Plantinga commute from Miluakee to northern Illinois for a “three minute” appearance — an endeavor virtual proceedings have eliminated, he said.

“This is on the taxpayer dime. It was a great expense to have someone who can bill for travel,”  Plantinga said.

“So, in some ways, I think COVID has made us rethink how we’re going to do that going forward. I can’t speak for the judges, but it certainly makes sense to keep some of those remote appearances.”

Remote appearances have happened against the backdrop of a massive case backlog. Most courts postponed jury trials, leading to a case buildup with years-long consequences.

In Texas, a pandemic-induced backlog could last until 2026, with David Slayton, the Administrative Director of the Texas Office of Court Administration, estimating that the number of jury trials plunged in the state from 168 each week to four.

Texas courts have conducted two million remote hearings since March 2020, he said, lessening the backlog of civil and family cases. With attendance up among parties and prospective jurors, judges are seeing fewer default judgements and more racially diverse juries, he added.

“Remote technology and remote appearances remove barriers to court participation that we didn’t really even know existed prior to the pandemic,” Slayton said.

But as delayed criminal cases accumulate, the backlog carries the most consequences for criminal defendants, many of whom are “sitting in local jails where there’s no programming available, basically under the worst conditions” for up to two years before their trials begin, Plantinga said.

As jury trials resume, he expects courts will prioritize criminal trials (“which they should,” he added), tipping the scales and setting civil cases behind.

“There’s so many of those trials that are stacked like cordwood,” he said.

The (In)accessibility of Online Court

Like most spheres that have shifted online, the judicial system hasn’t been spared from hiccups, video-call accidents and viral moments. After he was unable to remove a kitten filter from his profile during a virtual hearing, a Texas lawyer was forced to clarify to a judge, “I’m not a cat” in a clip that animated Twitter.

In one of the limited juror selection processes Texas courts conducted, prospective jurors in Harris County were caught applying makeup, playing video games, driving, sleeping and vaping on Zoom.

Dimmig said he’s seen people napping during virtual proceedings, adding that many clients have appeared “in, to put it politely, very informal ways.” Informality isn’t the only issue: technological inaccessibility has hampered proceedings for many of Dimmig’s clients, particularly those who are incarcerated or living in rural areas.

When clients can’t access two devices — one to connect to court proceedings and another to communicate with attorneys — attorney-client confidentiality suffers, he said.

Slayton cited the flipside: courts have aimed for accessibility by inviting people to courtroom kiosks designed for remote appearances and distributing iPads equipped with cell service — efforts he hopes will stick. Technology, he said, has enabled people to appear in court without scrambling for childcare, transportation or time off work.

“If you’re a long haul trucker and you need to appear in court today, if your normal route would have you in Kentucky today — obviously that’s not possible in a normal in-person appearance,” Slayton said. “But with remote appearances, you pull over on the side of the road and you log in and you’re in court.”

Although Plantinga said some court appearances should remain online, he said he prefers in-person proceedings for certain circumstances, like sentencing. In the pandemic’s early months, defendants could choose to attend sentencing hearings remotely or delay the date indefinitely. Most defendants chose virtual hearings.

But Plantinga said he doubts defendants had a genuine choice. “Is it really a free choice when you know the alternative is a big unknown?” he asked.

He said he suspects in-person sentencings are more advantageous for defendants.

“I like in person sentencings because I think it humanizes the person a lot more than seeing some disembodied head on the screen,” he added.

Are Face-to-Face Hearings History? 

As courtrooms and law firms reopen, it’s likely that courts will embrace a mix of in-person and online proceedings, though most attorneys doubt that courts will ever adopt virtual jury trials for criminal cases. In a February article for the American Bar Association, New York attorney Phillip C. Hamilton wrote that virtual jury trials introduce a host of constitutional issues.

“American courtrooms, by their very nature, are physically constructed from the blueprint of the Sixth Amendment,” Hamilton wrote. “Without question, it is highly doubtful that the framers ever envisioned government witnesses testifying via Zoom or Microsoft Teams.”

With respect to liberty interests, parties deserve an effective defense, said Adam Plotkin, the Legislative Liaison for the Wisconsin State Public Defender. “But to provide an effective defense you need to see those people in person.”

Plotkin added that if a court issues a sequestration order barring a witness from viewing the proceedings, it’s nearly impossible to ensure that witness doesn’t access the broadcast. It’s also difficult to discern if a witness, testifying remotely, is “being coached or prompted or even threatened,” he said.

Slayton said officials should consider adopting virtual jury selection, citing its high attendance rates during the pandemic. Dimmig, though, said the inevitable introduction of technology into the courtroom should be handled with caution.

“A scheduling matter can probably be handled remotely, but anything that addresses fundamental rights — that, in my opinion, has got to stay in person, so that there can be effective justice administered,” he said.

“I do think we’re going to see an expansion in the use of technology, but expanding technology cannot be the goal. Improving access to the courts while ensuring fundamental due process has got to be the goal.”

Eva Herscowitz is a TCR justice reporting intern. She welcomes comments from readers.

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June 28, 2021 at 07:42AM

Jury Trial Delays Lead to Longer Lock Ups

Because the pandemic paused jury trials, many defendants will have spent more time jailed pretrial than incarcerated for their sentence, The Washington Post reports. As courts delayed jury trials due to COVID-19, many people accused of violent crimes were released from jail on pending cases. But others remained behind bars for more time than their eventual sentence, and the loosening of health restrictions means courts must now decide how to prioritize cases.

Although prison populations declined during the pandemic’s early days, they crept back up because fewer prisoners have been released, said Prof. Jenny E. Carroll of the University of Alabama School of Law. Some 582 people were detained awaiting trial in D.C. Superior Court on felony charges as of mid-June. Most are accused of violent crimes, though over 100 are being held on drug or gun possession charges. Chief Judge Anita M. Josey-Herring said the court will prioritize scheduling trials for people accused of lesser offenses. D.C. federal court is also experiencing a backlog driven by the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. About four dozen of those defendants are in custody, and some of their attorneys have said they will spend more time in jail before trial than they will receive if convicted and sentenced. Of these cases, U.S. District Judge Carl J. Nichols said “there’s going to be a lot of pressure on the system if the pleas don’t start to move.”

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June 28, 2021 at 09:56AM