Category Archives: Criminal Law

New Article: “Seizing Family Homes from the Innocent: Can the Eighth Amendment Protect Minorities and the Poor from Excessive Punishment in Civil Forfeiture?”

New Article: Louis S. Rulli, Seizing Family Homes from the Innocent: Can the Eighth Amendment Protect Minorities and the Poor from Excessive Punishment in Civil Forfeiture?, 19 U. Pa. J. Const. L. 1111 (2017). Abstract below:

Civil forfeiture laws permit the government to seize and forfeit private property that has allegedly facilitated a crime without ever charging the owner with any criminal offense. The government extracts payment in kind—property—and gives nothing to the owner in return, based upon a legal fiction that the property has done wrong. As such, the government’s taking of property through civil forfeiture is punitive in nature and constrained by the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause, which is intended to curb abusive punishments.

The Supreme Court’s failure to announce a definitive test for determining the constitutional excessiveness of civil forfeiture takings under the Eighth Amendment has led to disagreement among state and federal courts on the proper standard. At the same time, the War on Drugs has resulted in an explosion of civil forfeiture filings against the property of ordinary citizens—many are whom are innocent of any wrongdoing—and therefore there is a profound need for a robust constitutional test that satisfies the Eighth Amendment’s original purposes. This need has grown more urgent because civil forfeiture practices are increasingly plagued by police abuses motivated by self-gain, and recent studies show that civil forfeitures disproportionately affect low-income and minority individuals who are least able to defend their hard-earned property.

This Article documents the aggressive use of civil forfeiture in Pennsylvania and, by way of illustration, presents the plight of elderly, African-American homeowners in Philadelphia who were not charged with any crime and yet faced the loss of their homes because their adult children were arrested for minor drug offenses. In such cases, the Eighth Amendment should play a vital role in preventing excessive punishments. But some courts mistakenly apply a rigid proportionality test, upon prosecutorial urging, that simply compares the market value of the home to the maximum statutory fine for the underlying drug offense. When a home value is shown to be less than the maximum fine, these courts presume the taking to be constitutional. Under such a one-dimensional test, prosecutors routinely win because the cumulative maximum fines for even minor drug offenses almost always exceed the market values of modest, inner-city homes. This cannot be the proper test. Instead, this Article contends that the proper constitutional test for excessiveness must be a searching, fact-intensive inquiry, in which courts are required to balance five essential factors: (1) the relative instrumentality of the property at issue to the predicate offense; (2) the relative culpability of the property owner; (3) the proportionality between the value of the property at issue and the gravity of the predicate offense; (4) the harm (if any) to the community caused by the offending conduct; and (5) the consequences of forfeiture to the property owner.



New Article: “Graduating Economic Sanctions According to Ability to Pay”

New Article: Beth A. Colgan, Graduating Economic Sanctions According to Ability to Pay, 53 Iowa L. Rev. 103 (2017). Abstract below:

There is growing recognition that economic sanctions — fines, surcharges, fees, and restitution — are routinely imposed at rates many people have no meaningful ability to pay, which can exacerbate financial instability and lead to the perception that economic sanctions are unfairly punitive to people of limited means. Concerns triggered primarily by highly punitive tactics, including incarceration and long-term probation of low-income debtors for the failure to pay, have led to increasing calls for reform. While much attention is now being paid to the back-end of the system, and particularly limitations on punitive responses for the failure to pay due to poverty, this Article considers the problem from the front-end. In particular, this Article focuses on a potential reform with increasing bipartisan support: the graduation of economic sanctions according to a person’s financial circumstances.

To that end, this Article explores several key considerations essential to designing a system of graduation, relying heavily on a largely-forgotten experiment in seven geographically, demographically, and politically diverse jurisdictions in the United States with the “day-fine.” A day-fine is calculated using a penalty unit assigned based on the seriousness of the offense of conviction. The penalty unit is then multiplied by the defendant’s adjusted daily income to determine the day-fine amount. The result is an economic sanction adjusted to offense seriousness and simultaneously graduated to the defendant’s financial condition. This Article mines the historical record of the American day-fines experiments — complemented by recent interviews with people involved in the design and implementation of the projects and experiences with means-adjustment in the consumer bankruptcy, tax, and public benefits contexts — for lessons on the design of graduating economic sanctions. What emerges from this review is promising evidence that a properly designed and implemented system for graduation is consistent with efficient court administration, revenue generation, and equality in sentencing.

New Op-Ed: “Sessions Says to Courts: Go Ahead, Jail People Because They’re Poor”

New Op-Ed: Chiraag Bains, Sessions Says to Courts: Go Ahead, Jail People Because They’re Poor, N.Y. Times, Dec. 28, 2017.

New Article: “Unmarked? Criminal Record Clearing and Employment Outcomes”

New Article: Jeffery Selbin, Justin McCrary & Joshua Epstein, Unmarked? Criminal Record Clearing and Employment Outcomes, 108 J. Criminal L. & Criminology (2017). Abstract below:

An estimated one in three American adults has a criminal record. While some records are for serious offenses, most are for arrests or relatively low-level misdemeanors. In an era of heightened security concerns, easily available data and increased criminal background checks, these records act as a substantial barrier to gainful employment and other opportunities. Harvard sociologist Devah Pager describes people with criminal records as “marked” with a negative job credential.

In response to this problem, lawyers have launched unmarking programs to help people take advantage of legal record clearing remedies. We study a random sample of participants in one such program to analyze the impact of the record clearing intervention on employment outcomes. Using methods to control for selection bias and the effects of changes in the economy in our data, we find evidence that: (1) the record clearing intervention boosts participants’ employment rates and average real earnings, and (2) people seek record clearing remedies after a period of suppressed earnings.

More research needs to be done to understand the durability of the positive impact and its effects in different local settings and labor markets, but these findings suggest that the record clearing intervention makes a meaningful difference in employment outcomes for people with criminal records. The findings also suggest the importance of early intervention to increase opportunities for people with criminal records. Such interventions might include more legal services, but they might also include record clearing by operation of law or another mechanism that does not put the onus of unmarking on the person with a criminal record.

News Coverage: “Public Defenders Fight Back Against Budget Cuts, Growing Caseloads”

News Coverage: Teresa Wiltz, Public Defenders Fight Back Against Budget Cuts, Growing Caseloads, PEW Charitable Trusts, Nov. 21, 2017.

Upcoming Conference: “State of the South Conference” Feb. 22-23, Georgia State University College of Law

Upcoming Conference: “State of the South Conference” Feb. 22-23, Georgia State University College of Law. From the conference website:

Join the Center for Access to Justice from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 22, in the Catherine P. Henson Atrium for an opening reception featuring food from Kevin Gillespie’s Red Beard Restaurants.

On Friday, Feb. 23, the center will hold its inaugural State of the South Conference at the College of Law in partnership with the ABA’s Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants. This year’s conference will explore the intersection between the civil and criminal justice systems and how practitioners operating in each system approach that overlap.

New Article: “Dangerous Warrants”

Sekhon, Nirej, Dangerous Warrants, Washington Law Review, Vol. 93, (2018) [Abstract below]

The Supreme Court has cast judicial warrants as the Fourth Amendment gold standard for regulating police discretion. It has embraced a “warrant preference” on the premise that requiring police to obtain advance judicial approval for searches and seizures encourages accurate identification of evidence and suspects while minimizing interference with constitutional rights. The Court and commentators have overlooked the fact that most outstanding warrants do none of these things. Most outstanding warrants are what this article terms “non-compliance warrants”: summarily issued arrest warrants for failures to comply with a court or police order. State and local courts are profligate in issuing such warrants for minor offenses. For example, the Department of Justice found that the municipal court in Ferguson, Missouri issued one warrant for every two of its residents. When issued as wantonly as this, warrants are dangerous because they generate police discretion rather than restrain it. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court has, most recently in Utah v. Strieff, treated non-compliance warrants as if no different from the traditional warrants that gave rise to the Fourth Amendment warrant preference.

This article argues that non-compliance warrants pose unique dangers, constitutional and otherwise. Non-compliance warrants create powerful incentives for the police to conduct unconstitutional stops, particularly in poor and minority neighborhoods. Their enforcement also generates race and class feedback loops. Outstanding warrants beget arrests and arrests beget more warrants. Over time, this dynamic amplifies race and class disparities in criminal justice. The article concludes by prescribing a Fourth Amendment remedy to deter unconstitutional warrant checks. More importantly, the article identifies steps state and local courts might take to stem the continued proliferation of non-compliance warrants.

Upcoming Symposium: “Anatomy of Justice: An Honest Conversation on the Criminal Justice System in 2017” – Wash. D.C. Nov. 10, 2017

Upcoming Symposium: The American University Law Review is pleased to invite you to Volume 67’s symposium, Anatomy of Justice:  An Honest Conversation on the Criminal Justice System in 2017 (Ann. Sympo. Agenda Program). The symposium will feature a keynote address by Professor James Forman Jr. of Yale Law School and panel discussions on juvenile justice, capital punishment, racial disparities, and bail bonds and fines.  Because we are dedicating the event and issue to the Honorable Gerald Bruce Lee for the Eastern District of Virginia, the program will also include a dedication ceremony. The symposium will take place on Friday, November 10, 2017, at the American University Washington College of Law campus in Claudio Grossman Hall.

You may find directions to campus here and there is parking available on-campus. To attend, please register for the event here.  Registration is free but required. The Office of Special Events and Continued Legal Education will apply for CLE credit on your behalf for $275.

New Article: “The Power of the Public Defender Experience: Learning by Fighting for the Incarcerated and Poor”

Patrick C. Brayer, The Power of the Public Defender Experience: Learning by Fighting for the Incarcerated and Poor, 53 Wash. U. J. L. & Pol’y 105 (2017). Abstract below:

This Essay discusses how public defender apprenticeships impact law students and help mold their future careers. Brayer discusses the tangible advantages that the apprenticeship imparts on students as well as the transferable skills that students gain. Brayer then analyzes the internal and professional growth of students that participate in this apprenticeship. Brayer situates this growth within the context of Chief Justice John Marshall’s own similar experience, arguing how the public defender experience focuses and matures aspiring lawyers.

New related op-eds: “Time to end injustice in juvenile justice system” AND “Gouging families with kids in detention serves no one. California should make it stop”

New related op-eds: