Polygraph Evidence: If Courts Don’t Allow Them, Why do Police Use Them?

The use of  so-called “lie detectors” to solve crimes and gain convictions has been largely overstated by the media and the big screen. As a matter of fact, many states don’t allow the results of a polygraph test to be admitted in court at all. The fact is, they are unreliable. Their unreliability is widely recognized by criminal justice professionals (aside from the polygraph administrators) but police agencies continue to use them.

Polygraph machines work by measuring certain physical qualities and responses, namely patterns in your heart rate. As questions are read, the test administrator analyzes these patterns and reportedly determines whether you are being honest or not. But despite what these analysts would have you believe, it’s not an exact science. [Read more…]

The FBI May Be Reading Your Emails

If the police want to go through your home, they need your consent or a warrant. The same is true if they want to sift through your mailbox. These are places where you have a certain expectation of privacy, where you do or have personal things that you may not want shared with everyone. The 4th Amendment protects you from unreasonable infringements on this privacy, by barring unreasonable searches and seizures. Interestingly, however, the FBI doesn’t seem to think this applies to them searching through your emails. [Read more…]

Will Drunk Driving Laws Change to Criminalize a Single Drink?

Across the country, you can be arrested and jailed for having a blood alcohol content of .08% or greater. Generally, this equals about four drinks in an hour for an average 180 pound man. But federal officials have decided this isn’t good enough; they’ve recommended that all states lower their legal limit to .05%, an estimated two drinks in an hour’s time. Their error isn’t in wanting to keep people safe, but in thinking that criminalizing everyone who has a few drinks will result achieve that goal. [Read more…]

Congress Creates Over-Criminalization Task Force

There is a lot to complain about in the U.S. criminal justice system. And many of those complaints (mass incarceration, mandatory minimums, etc.) have a whole lot to do with over-criminalization in general. To that end, the House Judiciary Committee has created a task force to look at over-criminalization at the federal level and issue recommendations. [Read more…]

How Being Poor Could Land You In Jail

Being poor isn’t a crime. Or is it? Americans living in poverty are more likely to be involved in the justice system than those from other economic groups. It’s partly because they have little to no access to employment and the means by which to keep themselves and their families fed with a roof over their heads. It’s also because high crime rates in poor neighborhoods puts the citizens of those communities in greater contact with police and therefore at a greater risk of arrest (ex. stop and frisk policies of the  NYPD). But, there’s another problem at play here and it involves jailing people based solely on the amount of money they have. [Read more…]

Colorado Court: Medical Marijuana Can Cost You Your Job

In Colorado,people with a number of conditions have been allowed to smoke marijuana for medical reasons. They’ve jumped through hoops to be allowed this designation and are “card carrying” members of what was once an elite club (not so elite now that recreational marijuana has been legalized). Still, the medical marijuana users represent a group of people who use the plant for its healing properties—many of them afflicted with debilitating and chronic illnesses. Despite their medical justification for using marijuana, a state Court of Appeals recently ruled their medicine, unlike the medicines pushed by large pharmaceutical companies, could cost them their job. [Read more…]

Supreme Court Rules on DUI Blood Draws

Score a victory for civil liberties and protections. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week that police generally must seek a warrant before drawing blood in a suspected drunk driving case. In a section of criminal law that often turns due process on its head, this ruling is a positive one indeed. [Read more…]

What You Should Know About Recording Police

Many of us no longer feel like the police are here to protect us. As a collective, citizens are growing more and more suspicious and even afraid of police officers. When we see cases of police brutality and the militarization of law enforcement, it only makes us more wary of the badge. This distrust has led to citizens arming themselves with cameras—looking to hold cops accountable when it seems like the system won’t. [Read more…]

Examples of Our Growing Police State?

When you call the United States a “police state”, people either look at you like you are a paranoid conspiracy theorist or they nod their head in agreement. While the thought of the “land of the free” being anything but free is troubling, to be sure, there are signs that the people of this nation are being increasingly controlled by a system that wants to criminalize everything and repress any opposition. [Read more…]

Bill Would Let Judges Bypass Mandatory Minimums In Certain Cases

Sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimums have not done what was promised—they haven’t reduced crime and they haven’t eliminated racial disparities. What they have done is serve as fuel to the prison systems of this country and forced government at local, state, and federal levels to dole out millions in related costs. In an effort to slow their effects, lawmakers have introduced “safety valve” legislation that would give judges a way out.

According to Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM)—an advocacy organization supporting the bill­—the legislation would allow federal judges to depart from mandatory minimums under specific conditions. The bill, coined The Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 (S.619) was introduced by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Rand Paul (R-KY).

3D Judges Gavel“I am thrilled that Sen. Leahy and Sen. Paul are promoting this common-sense sentencing reform,” said FAMM President Julie Stewart. “The mandatory minimum sentences Congress chose might be appropriate in many cases, but certainly not in every case, especially those involving nonviolent offenders. By giving courts more flexibility, Congress will ensure that judges use our scarce prison beds and budget to keep us safe from truly violent offenders.”

Bill Would Give Judges “Safety Valve” In Limited Situations

Judges would be able to sentence a defendant below the mandatory minimum only if that lesser sentence wouldn’t sacrifice public safety. It doesn’t do away with the mandatory minimums, nor apply that they aren’t appropriate in some cases, but merely offers judges a chance to make more proper sentencing decisions in cases where a defendant plays a limited role in the commission of a crime, for instance, or where the greater sentence would just be out of line with the spirit of justice.

“Our country’s mandatory minimum laws reflect a Washington-knows-best, one-size-fits-all approach, which undermines the Constitutional Separation of Powers, violates the our bedrock principle that people should be treated as individuals, and costs the taxpayers money without making them any safer,” said Sen. Paul. “This bill is necessary to combat the explosion of new federal criminal laws, many of which carry new mandatory minimum penalties.”

Currently, there is a “safety valve” on the books, but it only applies to drug offenses. The new bill would allow it to be used elsewhere with the goal of balancing public safety with the goals of justice.

The “tough on crime” rhetoric of years passed is played out and has served to do nothing more than create a system of retribution rather than rehabilitation or real safety. Smart on crime policies stand to change that.