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It can’t all be bad news, right?

April 22, 2016

I came across a couple of encouraging news items recently. First (via Reason), this news from Florida about a new law governing civil asset forfeiture. (My emphasis below.)

RICK SCOTT SIGNS 14 MORE BILLS INTO LAW

Gov. Rick Scott on Friday signed into law another 14 bills from the 2016 Legislative Session. […]

The latest bills include SB 1044, under which law enforcement will have to charge people with a crime before they can seize their money, cars, homes or other property.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, sponsored the measure, which was supported from both sides of the political spectrum.

It’s designed to prevent abuses of the current law, which doesn’t require an arrest before property is seized, but rather law enforcement’s belief that it was likely used in a crime.

“Today is a major win for liberty in the Sunshine State,” Brandes wrote on his Facebook page Friday.

He credited help from fellow Sens. Aaron Bean and Jeff Clemens, and state Reps. Matt Caldwell and Larry Metz, “as well as the wide range of stakeholders from our law enforcement community to civil libertarian organizations.” […]

Now there’s a thought: make the cops stand up in front of God ‘n’ ever’body and charge some people with some crimes if they think crimes were committed.

Amen, Sen. Brandes. It’s a major win indeed. Thank you, Florida! I hope the other states take a lesson.

But, wait, there’s more! And mirabile dictu, it gets even better. The BBC had an article about the State’s Attorney in St. Clair Co., Illinois (which is the next county east of mine).

Could ‘actual innocence’ save the broken US justice system?

In St Clair County, Illinois, the local prosecutor is trying a radical new experiment: admitting his office has charged innocent people with crimes and clearing their names before they spend a day in prison. It’s a unique reform effort as prosecutors around the country face increased scrutiny and diminishing public trust.

Lashonda Moreland’s day had barely begun when the pounding on the front door began. Her husband had already left for work, and she was home with her two children in their second storey apartment in a suburb of St Louis, Missouri.

When a voice barked through the door, Moreland realised the figures outside were police officers.

“He said, ‘You need to open up the door or we’re going to kick it down,'” she recalls. “My kids are scared and they’re crying…I’m upset and I start crying.”

The police arrested Moreland – a 30-year-old home healthcare worker with no criminal history – and she spent the next several days in various jails until she was transferred over the river to St Clair County, Illinois.

“It was scary because I had never been in jail. I never had to be on lockdown,” she says. “I literally cried every day. I was trying to wrap my mind around, ‘Why am I in here?'”

Moreland was accused of shoplifting, evading police and for trying to run down a police officer with her car. […]

All the police had was the licence plate number, which was registered to Lashonda Moreland’s address. When Officer Rutter looked at Moreland’s driver’s licence photo, he immediately identified her as the woman who had tried to run him over.

Moreland didn’t own a Buick, nor did she do her shopping 30 minutes away in a completely different state. She did, however, have a cousin who had registered his maroon Buick LeSabre to her address without telling her. She explained all this to the Fairview Heights police when they first contacted her after the incident, but they didn’t believe her.

Things looked bad for Moreland. She couldn’t prove her alibi and the witness who placed her at the scene was an officer of the law. She was facing up to 11 years in prison.

Instead of getting dragged through a jury trial, something surprising happened. Moreland’s lawyer Kristi Flint told the St Clair County state’s attorney office that her client was innocent. In response, the prosecutor offered Moreland the chance to take a polygraph test. Flint nervously agreed, and Moreland passed. Six months after her arrest, the charges were dropped. Everyone, including the Fairview Heights police department, agrees that Moreland is innocent.

Moreland did not know it at the time, but she was the beneficiary of a new programme created by St Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly: the Actual Innocence Claim Policy and Protocol. It is a unique, pre-conviction intervention which attempts to prevent the “actually innocent” from going through a trial, taking a plea deal, or ending up in prison.

Actual innocence is a legal concept which means, simply, that a defendant did not commit the crime of which he or she is accused. It is usually invoked when a prison inmate is attempting to appeal his sentence, but Kelly wanted to bring the spirit of the concept to the pre-conviction level.

“That’s distinct from ‘I didn’t get treated fairly’,” says Kelly, a Navy veteran who became the county’s top law enforcement officer in 2010 when he was only 34 years old. “It’s not, ‘Some of the evidence was obtained unlawfully, there was an incorrect ruling by the court, on the trial level some error by the defense’ – no, you actually have the wrong person here…they’re actually innocent.”

Since Kelly implemented the policy two years ago, nine defendants – including Lashonda Moreland – have had their charges dropped before trial. Those cases include a reckless homicide by vehicle, four armed robberies and one murder.

To the best of his knowledge, no other prosecutor in the country is attempting anything quite like it. Even the US Department of Justice has taken an interest in what is happening in St Clair County. […]

Kelly does not think being open to admitting law enforcement mistakes makes him soft on crime. He considers himself an “aggressive” prosecutor who believes in law enforcement and its role in bringing about the precipitous decline in crime in the US since the 1990s. […]

“Your local DA is accountable not to some person who appointed them in DC, or some state capitol somewhere, but is accountable to the people that they serve,” he says. “I think the prosecutor has the ability to be uniquely part of the solution, because again, we’re the one entity whose duty is first and foremost to justice.”

Please note that final paragraph. Here’s a State’s Attorney who gets it. (Of course, a cynic might point out that the State of Illinois, in its parlous financial condition, probably can’t afford too many wrongful conviction settlements.)

The only downside to this story is my surprise that the justice system had to come up with the concept of “Actual Innocence” to distinguish how it handles some suspects as compared to how it’s usually handled suspects.

Need I say more about ‘how it’s usually handled suspects’?

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