Saturday, May 21, 2016

Religious Liberty vs. Abortion Coverage Mandate (Part 2)

As discussed in Part 1, the Catholic Diocese of Albany, together with other religious organizations, has filed suit challenging a New York State regulation that mandates abortion coverage in employee health insurance policies. These organizations object to the mandate because it requires them to violate one of the most fundamental tenets of their religion or moral conscience. They argue that applying the mandate to them violates their constitutional right to free exercise of religion.
As also discussed, any 1st Amendment protection for religious freedom is minimal under current Supreme Court case law. In Oregon v. Smith (1990), the controlling federal precedent [which happened to involve a Native American religion], the Court shocked religious liberty scholars by holding that “any otherwise valid law” defeats free exercise of religion. Then, when Congress enacted RFRA (the Religious Freedom Restoration Act) to overrule the Smith decision and to restore the heightened protection for religious liberty that earlier landmarks had required, the Supreme Court in City of Boerne v. Flores (1997) held that RFRA could not be applied to state laws.
With that as a backdrop, New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, dismissed religious objections to the state’s contraceptive mandate for employee health policies. In Catholic Charities v. Serio (2006), the Court denied the request for an exemption sought by organizations with religious and moral objections to contraception. But the Court did not do so on the ground that the state had some very important reason that actually necessitated applying the mandate to the religious objectors. No. Instead, the Court explicitly rejected the so-called “compelling interest”/”strict scrutiny” test, just like the Supreme Court had done in Smith.
What the New York court did do was to adopt an extremely low level of protection for religious freedom. The Court held that, as a matter of the state’s constitutional law, the guarantee of free exercise of religion protects objectors whose religious freedom is being infringed only when they, the religious objectors, can prove that the "interference with religious practice is unreasonable, and therefore requires an exemption.”
Since the Catholic Charities decision is the controlling precedent in New York, and thus will govern the newly filed Catholic Diocese litigation (unless, of course, it is overruled or “distinguished”), let’s take a closer look.
To begin with, the rule applied in Catholic Charities—regardless of one’s favorable or unfavorable view of it--is a drastic reversal of traditional constitutional principles. The reversal is as drastic as the rule the Supreme Court adopted in Smith. It is the opposite of what the rules are for other fundamental constitutional rights.
Whether free speech, free press, racial equal protection, parental rights, or some other fundamental right is being infringed, basic constitutional law places the burden on the government to prove that the infringement is justified. More than that, basic constitutional law demands that the justification for the infringement be “compelling.” (The terms “paramount” and “overriding” are used as well.) But under the rule applied by the Court of Appeals in Catholic Charities, the justification for interfering with religious freedom need only be reasonable. And the religious objector bears the burden of proving that it isn’t.
Consequently, when the Supreme Court’s and the Court of Appeals’ decisions are combined, the result is precious little protection for free exercise of religion under either federal or state constitutional law. Assuming the Supreme Court does not overrule its Smith decision any time soon, [although there does seem to be support among some of the Justices to return to the earlier more protective 1st Amendment landmarks,] religious objectors in New York courts, such as those who have brought the Catholic Diocese litigation, must confront the state constitutional rule set forth by the Court of Appeals in Catholic Charities.
On its face, that Catholic Charities rule subordinates free exercise of religion to any law that interferes with it—unless that interference is proven to be “unreasonable.” Not surprisingly, when the Court of Appeals applied that [abysmally low and rather amorphous] standard for "protecting" religious liberty in that case, it had little difficulty rejecting the religious objectors’ challenge to the state’s contraceptive coverage mandate.
Of course there is nothing particularly unreasonable about a law generally requiring contraceptive coverage in health insurance. Of course there is nothing particularly unreasonable about applying that requirement to all employers. Of course there is nothing particularly unreasonable about the state government insuring contraceptive coverage in an expeditious manner. Of course there is nothing particularly unreasonable about state government wishing to avoid the administrative inefficiencies and complications of determining qualification for exemptions.
On the other hand, a perfectly workable accommodation for religious objectors might have been available in the Catholic Charities case. Protecting religious freedom and yet still insuring the availability of contraceptive coverage for employees who want it might well have been entirely feasible. [The Supreme Court concluded exactly that in its 2014 Hobby Lobby decision, requiring an exemption for religious objectors to the Obamacare contraceptive mandate. Of course, as previously noted, that Supreme Court ruling was based on the federal RFRA statute which does not apply to state laws.]
But the feasibility of accommodating religious objectors seemed irrelevant to the Court of Appeals' decision in Catholic Charities. The focus was on the legitimate legislative policy behind contraceptive coverage generally. The Court actually made light of the religious objections to paying for contraceptive coverage and, thus, gave little consideration to available accommodations.
So, in applying the Catholic Charities rule to the newly filed Catholic Diocese litigation, the religious liberty question is whether the abortion coverage mandate, as applied to those who view abortion as gravely violative of their most fundamental religious beliefs and moral conscience, is an "interference with religious practice [that] is unreasonable.” And the burden is on the religious objectors to prove that it is.
But here’s the question, about that question: what exactly did the Court of Appeals mean by “unreasonable" interference? That was not made clear in the slightest in the Catholic Charities decision. Was the Court referring to the law that creates the interference, or to the interference itself? And if that's not clear--which it isn't--then what about the factors that are relevant in determining “unreasonable" interference? Who knows?
Is the centrality or criticality of the religious tenet in question a factor? So, for example, does it make a difference that abortion is involved in the Catholic Diocese litigation rather than contraception? That what is involved is the objectors' most fundamental religious belief in the sanctity of human life and that abortion is the equivalent or akin to killing a human being?
Along similar lines, is the relative importance of the competing interests at stake a factor? So, for example, religious liberty versus the universal (or near universal) availability of abortion coverage? And more specifically, religious objection to subsidizing abortion, which is believed to be the same as or akin to killing a human being, versus the societal benefit of widespread affordable access to abortion through insurance coverage?
What about the actual need to interfere with religious freedom, or the lack thereof--a factor? So, for example, does it make a difference if religious objectors to the abortion mandate can readily be accommodated? That is, if some alternative to providing abortion coverage for the employees of religious objectors can be readily devised?
Is the degree or directness of the interference with religious free exercise a factor? So, for example, requiring religious objectors to pay for abortion coverage would constitute a greater intrusion than requiring them simply to notify employees that there are alternate means for obtaining it. On the other hand, requiring religious objectors to pay for health insurance that happens to include abortion coverage would constitute a lesser intrusion than actually requiring them to perform or assist or accommodate abortion.

And so forth and so on. A list of possible factors would be very long. But the Court of Appeals in Catholic Charities gave little guidance other than repeating the terms “unreasonable" and "interference.” And that standard is capable of morphing into just about anything the Court might choose in future cases.
Indeed, the Court in Catholic Charities did seem to understand exactly that. It seemed fully aware--or at least some members of the Court seemed concerned--that the standard as stated was somewhat amorphous and entirely susceptible of variously conflicting interpretations. In fact, the Court injected into its opinion a list of certain intrusions on free exercise of religion that, in its view, would amount to “unreasonable" interference. Here’s what the Court said:
“‘[A] requirement that all witnesses must testify to facts within their knowledge bearing on a criminal prosecution . . . if applied without exception, could abrogate the confidentiality of the confessional. Similarly, a general prohibition of alcohol consumption could make the Christian sacrament of communion illegal, uniform regulation of meat preparation could put kosher slaughterhouses out of business, and prohibitions of discrimination on the basis of sex or marital status could end the male celibate priesthood.’ We find these hypothetical laws to be well beyond the bounds of constitutional acceptability.” [Quoting Michael V. McConnell, “The Origins and Historical Understanding of Free Exercise of Religion,” Harvard Law Review (1990).]
But the Court gave no explanation as to why those laws would amount to “unreasonable" interference. In fact, most of the laws identified are themselves perfectly reasonable. Requiring witnesses to testify? Health and animal cruelty regulations on slaughtering? Restricting alcoholic beverage service to regulated establishments?

Each of those laws serves legitimate government interests. None of them targets a religion. Any interference with a religion would be purely incidental to the general health, safety, and welfare purposes of those laws. Nevertheless, the Court insisted that applying such laws to religious objectors would be unconstitutional. And yet, no explanation was given.

The "unreasonable" interference standard is even less clear than that. Recall that the complete standard speaks of  "interference with religious practice [that] is unreasonable." Did the Court mean to say that the protection for religious liberty--whatever the "unreasonable" standard might mean--applies only to religiously required conduct, but not religious beliefs?

Did the Court use the term "practice" deliberately to mean that religious ceremonies, rituals, and other exercises could be protected, but not religious convictions, tenets, or conscience? So, e.g., the Catholic Mass, Jewish bris, and Jehovah Witness door-to-door proselytizing might receive protection from generally applicable laws; but belief that abortion is murder, that work should not be done on the Sabbath, or that the Bible is the word of God are not entitled to any accommodation. Is that what the Court meant to signify by its reference to "practice?"

In short, there seems to be quite a bit unsettled in the "interference with religious practice [that] is unreasonable" standard. That would seem to allow considerable wiggle room and discretion in its application. [That’s just a nicer way of saying that the Catholic Charities rule is cryptic and amorphous.] Future cases will give lower courts, and ultimately the Court of Appeals, the opportunity to refine its meaning. 
Perhaps the Catholic Diocese litigation, with the religious objectors seeking an exemption from New York's abortion coverage mandate, will prove to be just the right opportunity. And hopefully, any refinement will take religious objections more seriously, and will breathe some renewed life into the protection for the fundamental constitutional right to free exercise of religion.

[Disclosure: Again, I am pro-choice. But I am also pro-religious liberty, which I view as a bedrock of a free society. I have provided some assistance in the preparation of the complaint in the newly filed Catholic Diocese litigation, and I provided some assistance as well on the side of the religious objectors in the Catholic Charities case. Any services I’ve provided have been entirely pro-bono.]

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Religious Liberty vs. Abortion Coverage Mandate (Part 1)

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, New York, together with numerous other religious organizations, has filed suit against the State of New York for requiring abortion coverage in its employee health insurance policies. (Catholic Diocese of Albany v. Vullo [filed May 4, 2016].) The lawsuit is directed primarily at the state agency responsible for issuing the abortion coverage mandate--i.e., the State Department of Financial Services, which includes the former Department of Insurance. The religious organizations challenge the requirement as applied to them and seek an exemption.

These organizations argue that applying the abortion mandate to them violates their free exercise of religion as guaranteed under both the United States and New York State Constitutions. The mandate requires employers to pay for abortion coverage in the health insurance they provide to their employees. For the organizations who brought this lawsuit, as well as others with religious and conscientious objections to abortion, the mandate requires them to subsidize what they view as akin to murder or other grave evil. The mandate, in short, requires them to violate a most, if not the most, fundamental tenet of their religion or moral conscience.

In 2006, New York's highest court, the Court of Appeals, rejected a similar challenge brought by some of the same plaintiffs against the state's analogous contraceptive mandate. (Catholic Charities of Albany v. Serio [2006].) That decision is an essential backdrop to this newly filed lawsuit. And to understand the Catholic Charities decision, it is necessary, in turn, to understand 2 previous U.S. Supreme Court rulings that have allowed the Court of Appeals—as well as courts in other states--to decide the way it did against the religious liberty claims.

The Supreme Court rulings were Oregon v. Smith (1990) and City of Boerne v. Flores (1997). Those 2 decisions literally stripped free exercise of religion of virtually any 1st Amendment protection and of other federal legal protection against encroaching state laws. Yes, that may sound like some gross exaggeration. But constitutional scholars--whether they oppose that development or favor it--know that is precisely what the Supreme Court did in those cases.

[And no, it wasn't the liberal Justices who did it. Instead, it was the conservative Justices who were unsympathetic to objections raised by minority religions. See e.g., Justice Scalia's Record (Part 1), New York Court Watcher, Feb. 18, 2016; The Fall of Free Exercise, 70 Alb. L. Rev. 1399 (2007). More recently, with majority or fundamental religions having objections to laws enforcing minority rights, conservatives are much more supportive of free exercise of religion, and liberals much less so.]

In its Smith decision, the Supreme Court rejected the claim of religious objectors for an exemption to a generally applicable state law. In a ruling that bitterly and profoundly divided the Justices, the Court held that "any otherwise valid law" defeats a claim of free exercise of religion. To the surprise--no, shock--of most religious liberty scholars, the majority insisted that the 1st Amendment did not require the government to have 1) some particularly good reason that 2) actually made it necessary to interfere with religious freedom.

In fact, that rejected requirement, the so-called "compelling interest" or "strict scrutiny" test, had been the Supreme Court’s standard for protecting free exercise of religion in several previous landmark decisions. Indeed the “compelling interest"/"strict scrutiny" test is still the standard for protecting other 1st Amendment rights, as well as other fundamental constitutional rights. But the Court's majority in Smith, speaking through Justice Scalia, rejected that test for religious liberty. As a result, free exercise of religion became, and remains, the least protected of fundamental constitutional rights.
[Oh, by the way, the losing religious objectors in the Smith case just happened to be Native Americans.]

Almost immediately, Congress sought to overrule the Smith decision. It enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to restore the "compelling interest"/"strict scrutiny" test for free exercise of religion. However, a few years later in City of Boerne, the first major case involving RFRA, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress had no power under the Constitution--only the Court itself did--to impose that high level of protection for religious liberty against state laws. Congress could only do so against federal laws.

Soooooo, as a result of the Supreme Court's Smith and City of Boerne decisions, there is virtually no federal constitutional or statutory protection of free exercise of religion against infringing state laws. As long as a state law is "otherwise valid," any religious objection fails. No exemption for religious objectors need be made. A state may, with nearly uninhibited impunity, require objectors to violate their most sincere religious beliefs. That is so, even if an accommodation is perfectly feasible. That, at least, is the Supreme Court's current 1st Amendment jurisprudence.

[N.B. The Supreme Court's 2014 Hobby Lobby decision, requiring an exemption for the religious objectors to the Obamacare contraceptive mandate--which, of course, is a federal law, not state --was based on RFRA's "compelling interest"/"strict scrutiny" test. No such exemption would have been granted under the 1st Amendment because of Smith's "otherwise valid law" standard. And the Supreme Court’s decision this week in the Little Sisters of the Poor case (Zubik v. Burwell), directing several circuit courts (federal appeals courts) to consider the possible accommodations between the federal government and the religious objectors, also involved RFRA, not the 1st Amendment.]

What all of this ultimately means is that state courts are largely free to adopt, or to reject, any protection for free exercise of religion under their own state laws. They can adopt the "compelling interest"/"strict scrutiny" test which the Supreme Court applied in the past. (Some state high courts have done that.) They can adopt a somewhat lesser protection. (Some of them have done that.) Or they can adopt a minimal, largely illusory protection--such as the Supreme Court's "otherwise valid law" standard. (And some have done that.)

But virtually any protection for religious liberty, or any lack thereof, that a state court chooses will almost certainly either equal or exceed the Supreme Court's standard. So virtually any level of protection, regardless of how low, will almost certainly be permissible under federal constitutional law.

This is the federal constitutional background in which New York's highest court decided the 2006 Catholic Charities case mentioned previously. The Court of Appeals was free to adopt virtually any standard of its own, high or low.

The New York court actually did have its own heralded religious liberty landmark, People v. Barber (Lehman, C.J., 1943). In Barber, the Court of Appeals made clear that New York would strongly and independently protect free exercise of religion under its own constitution. That is exactly what the Court of Appeals did in that case. It carved out an exemption for religious objectors from a generally applicable, valid law. And it did so despite the Supreme Court’s failure to do so under the 1st Amendment in a nearly identical case decided the previous year. (Jones v. Opelika [1942].)
[Notably, the Supreme Court reversed itself very shortly thereafter in Murdoch v. Pennsylvania (1943), citing the Court of Appeals Barber decision.]

Hence, in the Catholic Charities case, New York’s high court had a clear choice: follow its own proud precedent of safeguarding religious freedom, or follow the path taken by the Supreme Court in Smith and minimize the protection for religious liberty. The New York court chose to do the latter.

In a ruling very similar to the Supreme Court’s decision in Smith, and not at all like its own proud Barber landmark, the Court of Appeals in Catholic Charities adopted an extremely low religious freedom standard of its own.

The Court of Appeals in Catholic Charities expressly rejected the “compelling interest”/”strict scrutiny” test. It held that New York State government had no burden to show that there was any compelling reason (or even any important reason) to abridge free exercise of religion. Nor did it require the government to show that the abridgment was necessary. No, neither of those.

Instead, the New York court placed the burden on the religious objector--even one whose religious freedom is unquestionably abridged. The objector, whose fundamental right to religious free exercise is clearly being abridged, bears the burden of proving that the abridgment is “unreasonable.” That’s right: the government that is interfering with religious liberty has no burden of justifying its action. The objector, whose religious liberty is being abridged, bears the burden of proving that there is no justification.
[That is literally the opposite of what it is for other fundamental rights.]

Applying those rules, the Court of Appeals had little difficulty upholding the contraceptive mandate as applied to the religious objectors. In a unanimous decision in the Catholic Charities case, the Court rejected the free exercise challenge and denied the requested religious exemption.


In the next post, we will continue examining the Catholic Charities decision—which is less clear and more amorphous than it seems at first blush--and the implications of that decision for the newly filed Catholic Diocese litigation.

[Disclosure: I am pro-choice. But I am also pro-religious liberty, which I view as a bedrock of a free society. I have provided some assistance in the preparation of the complaint in the newly filed Catholic Diocese litigation, and I provided some assistance as well on the side of the religious objectors in the Catholic Charities case. Any services I’ve provided have been entirely pro-bono.]

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Mental Culpability at Issue Before the NY Court of Appeals

The contention that an injury can amount to a crime only when inflicted by intention is no provincial or transient notion. It is as universal and persistent in mature systems of law as belief in freedom of the human will and a consequent ability and duty of the normal individual to choose between good and evil...[It is] almost as instinctive as the child's familiar exculpatory 'But I didn't mean to.'
Morissette v. U.S. (1952), Justice Robert Jackson

[T]his established concept has influenced our interpretation of criminal statutes...'even where the statutory definition did not in terms include it.' ....[T]he Government's construction of the statute potentially would impose criminal sanctions on a class of persons whose mental state--ignorance of the characteristics of weapons in their possession--makes their actions entirely innocent.
Staples v. U.S. (1994), Justice Clarence Thomas

[A] "statute defining a crime, unless clearly indicating a legislative intent to impose strict liability, should be construed as defining a crime of mental culpability" (Penal Law § 15.15[2]). If any material element of an offense lacks a mens rea requirement, it is a strict liability crime (Penal Law § 15.10). Conversely, a crime is one of "mental culpability" only when a mental state "is required with respect to every material element of an offense" (id.).
People v. Ryan (1993), Chief Judge Judith Kaye

The case before the Court of Appeals, People v. Elliot Parrilla, argued on March 30th, raises precisely these concerns. The Court is reviewing a conviction for criminal possession of a gravity knife.
Not for possession of  a butter knife or a Boy Scout knife. But a gravity knife. It's the gravity aspect that makes it a crime.

Now, related to this Parrilla case, and with Morissette, Staples, and Ryan in mind, let's consider the following:
To be guilty of stealing, must the person be aware that the property belongs to someone else--that it's not free for the taking?
To be guilty of possessing stolen property, must the person be aware that the property is stolen--that it wasn't purchased from the owner?
To be guilty of possessing a narcotic drug, must the person be aware that it's a narcotic drug--that it's not simply aspirin?
To be guilty of possessing an automatic weapon, must the person be aware it's an automatic--that it's not a single shot firearm?

The answer to all of those, of course, is yes.
The person must be aware. Must know.
At the least, the person must be aware that there's a good chance, have a real suspicion.
The person must know, or know that there's a chance, that the property belongs to someone else. That the property is stolen. That it's not aspirin. That it's not a single shot firearm.

That is the point of the Morissette and Staples and Ryan decisions.
Mental culpability is an crucial component of criminality.
Crime is not just about "What was he doing?" But also, "What was he thinking?"

That's what lawyers refer to as mens rea, the mind thing. [The Latin, as usual, sounds alot better!] That mens rea, mental culpability, is just as necessary a component of criminality as the person's action.

This is true for the most serious crimes as well as for others.
So, for example, a hunter is not guilty of murder for shooting and killing what looked like a deer, but was actually a human in camouflage. Not if the hunter had no idea.
Yes, the hunter intended to shoot. Yes, the hunter intended to kill. Yes, the hunter's target was what turned out to be a human. But he didn't know it was a human. Not guilty!
(Indeed, even the least egregious forms of human killing--e.g., negligent homicide, however that crime might be labelled--at least requires the mental culpability that the person should have known.)

In Morissette, the defendant was found guilty of stealing government property.
Did he know that he was taking something? Yes.
Did he know (or was it shown that he knew) that the property belonged to the government? No.
But did the prosecution argue that the defendant only needed to know that he was taking the property in order to be guilty (but not that he knew that the property belonged to the government)? Yes.
Did the Supreme Court reverse and (speaking through Albany Law School's Justice Robert Jackson) forcefully reaffirm that mental culpability regarding an essential element--i.e., the gravamen of the crime, that the property belonged to the government--is necessary for criminal responsibility? Yes!
And that was so even though the statute was silent on that point.

In Staples, the defendant was convicted of illegal possession of an automatic firearm--one that fires repeatedly with a pull of the trigger.
Did he know he possessed the firearm? Yes.
Did he know (or was it shown that he knew) that it was an automatic? No.
But did the prosecution argue that the defendant only needed to know that he had the firearm in order to be guilty (but not that he knew that it was an automatic)? Yes.
Did the Supreme Court reverse and unanimously reaffirm that mental culpability regarding an essential element--i.e., the gravamen of the crime, that the firearm was an automatic--is necessary for criminal responsibility? Yes!
And that was so even though the statute was silent on that point.

In Ryan, the defendant was convicted of an aggravated drug offense, based on the large quantity of the illegal hallucinogen.
Did he know about the illegal hallucinogen? Yes.
Did he know (or was it shown that he knew) anything about the large quantity of hallucinogen, which made the crime an aggravated one? No.
But did the prosecution argue that the defendant only needed to know about the hallucinogen in order to be guilty (but not that he knew anything about the quantity)? Yes.
Did the New York Court of Appeals reverse and (speaking through Chief Judge Kaye) hold that mental culpability regarding an essential element--i.e., the large quantity of hallucinogen, which was the basis for the aggravated form of the crime--is necessary for criminal responsibility for that crime? Yes!
And that was so even though the statute was silent on any mens rea on that point.

In all 3 cases--Morissette, Staples, and Ryan--a mens rea, mental culpability, for the essential element at issue was considered especially imperative because of the heavy penalty attached to the crime, as well as the the stigma of a felony conviction. In each case, the crime involved was punishable by several years imprisonment, and a conviction was seriously stigmatizing.
(These factors distinguished those crimes from the quasi-criminal regulatory or public welfare offenses for which the penalties are relatively light, from which there is no such stigma, and which the courts have thus exempted from the mens rea requirement. [E.g., restaurant regulation infractions, routine traffic offenses, violation of a noise ordinance, etc.])

In Parrilla, the case currently before the Court of Appeals, the lower courts ruled that guilt of the possessory crime involved did not require any mens rea for the essential element--the element that actually made it a crime.
So, according to those courts, criminal possession of a gravity knife did not require that the defendant knew it was a gravity knife--or even that he knew it might be a gravity knife (i.e., recklessness) or should have known it might be a gravity knife (i.e., mere negligence). No, according to the trial judge and then the intermediate appeals court, a person could be guilty of that crime with absolutely no clue that it was a gravity knife.

Yes, according to those courts, a person must know that he possessed something (as opposed to someone else having secretly placed that something in his coat pocket).
Yes, a person must know that what he possessed was a knife (as opposed having no reason to believe that the item had a blade).
And yet no, according to those courts, a person does not have to know--or suspect or even should have suspected--that the knife was a gravity one.
That single element--that it is a gravity knife--which transforms the possession of a knife into a crime, i.e., the very gravamen of that crime, requires absolutely no mental culpability? It's a strict liability crime?

Consider also that the crime of which the defendant was convicted in Parrilla is a class D felony, punishable by up to 7 years imprisonment. (The fact that the defendant "ha[d] been previously convicted of any crime" elevated the crime from a class A misdemeanor and enhanced the punishment from 1 year imprisonment.)
Additionally, criminal possession of  a dangerous weapon, especially one like a gravity knife that is frequently associated with violent individuals and gangs, is precisely the sort of stigmatizing crime that, as Justice Jackson wrote in Morissette, "stir[s] a sense of insecurity in the whole community and arouse[s] public demand for retribution."

All in all, consideration of this crime raises the most fundamental questions about mental culpability as a essential component of criminal responsibility:
  • Possession (Knowledge required.)  + Knife (Knowledge required.) + Gravity type (Knowledge or even reason to know required?)
  • No clear indication by the legislature that strict liability was intended.
  • Serious punishment attached.
  • Stigmatizing crime.
The considerations seem pretty compelling for requiring mens rea, mental culpability, for the essential element of gravity type knife. That element is the gravamen of the crime. It's what makes the possession a crime. It's what makes the possession deserving of punishment. Mens rea, mental culpability for that element would certainly seem imperative. 

Of course, the Court of Appeals might view the issue quite differently.
If it does, however, it would seem that the Court must clearly set forth some overriding rationale and interests that justify dispensing with such a crucial component of our criminal law.

Monday, April 25, 2016

THE SEVEN: About the Court, By the Court - 2016 Cooke Symposium, April 26


See the 2015 Cooke Symposium - High Courts, Center Seat: Chief Justices at Albany Law 
NY Chief Judge Lippman Moderates Chief Justices at Albany Law, Monday, March 23, 2015. HERE

More information on State Constitutional Commentary and the Cooke Symposia in previous years, HERE.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Justice Scalia's Record (Part 6: Technological Surveillance)

One additional look at Justice Scalia's record. Then we'll move on. Besides the Supreme Court, there's much to discuss about the New York Court of Appeals--now the "DiFiore Court" with a near total change in personnel. But first, let's conclude this series with a look at a particularly salient and--How should I say?--curious aspect of Scalia's jurisprudence.

photo:Sang H. Park/AP 
Any consideration of Justice Antonin Scalia's record must include his views on technology. More specifically, the positions he espoused on the use of technological devices by law enforcement in criminal investigations.

He was the author of the majority opinion in two of the Supreme Court's most important decisions in recent years on technological surveillance. The cases dealt with the validity of such surveillance undertaken without a warrant. If the surveillance in question constituted a "search" within the meaning of the 4th Amendment, then law enforcement was required to first obtain a warrant.

Each of Scalia's opinions was controversial. They raised questions not simply about the ultimate conclusions he reached, but much more so about the constitutional arguments he advanced. Let's take a look.

Surveillance
U.S. v. Jones (2012): the Court unanimously held that the government violated the 4th Amendment when it monitored a person's movements for 4 weeks, without a warrant, by means of a GPS (Global Positioning System) device that it surreptitiously attached to his vehicle.
Justice Scalia wrote the opinion for the Court, which 4 other Justices joined. He took the position that the surveillance in question was a "search"--thereby requiring a warrant--because 1) the government had engaged in a trespass on 2) an item specifically mentioned in the 4th Amendment. According to Scalia, the government trespassed on the defendant's vehicle when it attached the GPS device without his permission. And the item trespassed upon--i.e., a vehicle--is an "effect," which is a term specifically used in the 4th Amendment. [The 4th Amendment specifically mentions "persons, houses, papers, and effects."]
Justice Alito authored a separate concurring opinion which 3 other Justices joined. He harshly criticized Scalia for relying on the "18th century tort law" of trespass to decide a constitutional issue about 21st century technological surveillance. He argued that the case should have been decided on the basis of the Court's actual search and seizure jurisprudence which asks "whether [a person's] reasonable expectations of privacy [are] violated by the long-term monitoring of the vehicle he drove."
Alito emphasized that the Court had long ago rejected a trespass-based view of search and seizure rights, as well as a rigid limitation to the places enumerated in the 4th Amendment--that the landmark 1967 Katz decision (and the Court's case law ever since) repudiated the old doctrines and focused on the "unjustifiable intrusion by the government on the privacy of the individual" [quoting Justice Brandeis's venerated and vindicated dissent in the 1928 Olmstead case].
Most critically, perhaps, Alito highlighted the fact that much, if not most, technological monitoring can be accomplished today without any technical trespass--i.e., by electronic as opposed to any physical contact.
According to Alito and the Justices joining him, the government's warrantless surveillance violated constitutional search and seizure rights, not because there was some minimal "trespass" or "physical intrusion" on a vehicle, but because of the intrusion on legitimate privacy interests.
Responding to Alito's concurring opinion, Scalia repeated his position that the 4th Amendment "embod[ied] a particular concern for government trespass upon the areas (“persons, houses, papers, and effects”) it enumerates." Moreover, the Court had "deviated from that exclusively property-based approach [my emphasis]" when it adopted the Katz expectation of privacy test and "said that 'the Fourth Amendment protects people not places.'"
Scalia also took issue with the notion that mere monitoring of a person's movements implicates the 4th Amendment. The Court, he insisted "has to date not deviated from the understanding that mere visual observation does not constitute a search [again, my emphasis]." To prove his point, Scalia referred to previous decisions where the Court had held that surveillance of a driver's movements did not constitute a 4th Amendment "search." The reason, according to Scalia, was that in those cases the technological device was actually attached to property that did not belong to the driver--so there was no trespass.
Finally, as to his insistence on limiting constitutional protection to trespasses upon the items or places explicitly mentioned in the 4th Amendment, Scalia argued that the text of that Amendment itself "reflects its close connection to property, since otherwise it would have referred simply to 'the right of the people to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures'; the phrase 'in their persons, houses, papers, and effects' would have been superfluous." By way of example, he noted that the Court has repeatedly refused to apply the 4th Amendment to privately owned land away from one's home (i.e., so-called "open fields")--but only to the "houses," which the text does mention.

Florida v. Jardines (2013): in this case, Scalia employed the same analysis to police use of a drug-detection dog. In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that the 4th Amendment was violated when the police, without a warrant, brought the dog to a homeowner's porch to investigate the presence of marijuana--which the dog did detect.
Writing for the majority, Scalia relied on his Jones opinion. As with the GPS device attached to someone's vehicle in that case, Scalia explained that the police had "physically intru[ded]" with the canine on a place "enumerated in the [4th] Amendment's text." Although the Court had repeatedly held that canine-sniffs themselves were not "searches" withing the meaning of the 4th Amendment [among other reasons because they only detected contraband, not anything constitutionally protected], in this case the government had "gather[ed] information in an area belonging to [the defendant] and immediately surrounding his house—in the curtilage of the house, which we have held enjoys protection as part of the home itself."
Scalia contrasted the search in this case with others which the Court had deemed outside the 4th Amendment's protections. One was the investigation of private property beyond the immediate area of a home, and another was the visual observation of the home from airspace. The first was not constitutionally restricted because private lands are not "houses;" the second because there was no physical intrusion, i.e., no trespass.
Justice Kagan, writing for herself and two other Justices, concurred in Scalia's opinion. But she explained that the case could--seems like she meant should--have been decided under the Katz rubric of "reasonable expectation of privacy." Aiming "high-powered binoculars" at a home to discover what's inside would be a search because, even without a trespass, it would still be an invasion of protected privacy.
Justice Alito, in a dissenting opinion joined by 3 other Justices, argued that the use of the drug-detection dogs did not violate the 4th Amendment. Indeed, the Court had already decided that a canine-sniff was not a "search" under Katz, because it did not invade a legitimate expectation of privacy.
But beyond that, Alito contended that Scalia's majority opinion "is based on a putative rule of trespass law that is nowhere to be found in the annals of Anglo-American jurisprudence." According to Alito, Scalia was "unable to find a single case—from the United States or any other common-law nation—that supports the rule on which its decision is based. Thus, trespass law provides no support for the Court’s holding today."

Technological Devices
Kyllo v. U.S. (2001): the Court, 5-4, held that the warrantless use of a thermal-imaging device, aimed at the marijuana-growing suspect's house from across the street, in order to detect heat emanating from his the roof, violated the 4th Amendment. [The division among the Justices was actually over the esoteric question of whether the information being obtained by the device was outside the house (the heat coming off the roof) or inside the house (the marijuana-operation that was creating the heat). The latter scored one more vote than the former.]
In his majority opinion, Scalia relied on a few major premises. First, a house is a constitutionally protected area, i.e., specifically enumerated in the 4th Amendment. Quoting from prior Supreme Court case law, he emphasized that "'the very core' of the Fourth Amendment was 'the right of a man to retreat into his own home and there be free from unreasonable governmental intrusion.'”
Second, Scalia analogized the use of the thermal imaging device to a trespass into the house. He insisted that the device was being used to obtain "information regarding the interior of the home," information that "could not otherwise be obtained without physical 'intrusion' into" the home [my emphases].
Finally, Scalia expressed concern that the "degree of privacy secured" by the 4th Amendment was being eroded by advancing technology. He nevertheless drew the line of constitutional protection at "technology [that] is not [yet] in general public use." And "on the basis of this criterion," the government's use of a thermal imager was a search.
Putting it all together, Scalia concluded that, "Where, as here, the Government uses a device that is not in general public use, to explore details of the home that would previously have been unknowable without physical intrusion, the surveillance is a 'search' and is presumptively unreasonable without a warrant [my emphases]."

[Disclosure: I agree with the result reached by Justice Scalia in each of these cases. But the analysis used by the Justices to support a decision is typically far more important than the particular result reached in a particular case. It is the analysis that will then be applied by lower courts and by the Supreme Court itself in resolving related issues that they confront thereafter. And with regard to Scalia's analysis, I disagree with it in every case.
His trespass analysis dangerously limits the constitutional protection of privacy under the 4th Amendment--the protection that the Supreme Court expressly outlined in its landmark Katz decision a half century ago. [And which Justice Brandeis did 40 years before that.] Indeed, as Justice Alito stressed in his concurring opinion in Jones (the GPS case), most technological surveillance that intrudes on individual privacy does not require any trespass or any other physical intrusion. Just consider: tracking by means of cell phone towers, following by means of drones or helicopters, scrutiny by means of cameras, snooping by means of high-powered binoculars, eavesdropping by means of audio amplifiers, etc., etc., etc. If trespass analysis was ever an adequate basis for constitutional adjudication, it certainly is not in the modern world.
Similarly, Scalia's insistence on the textual limits of the 4th Amendment's enumerated items undermines what has long been recognized as the fundamental principle underlying search and seizure rights--protecting "people not places." That is, securing the personal privacy essential in a free society, not merely protecting the physical interests in the items specifically mentioned. Note well, private property--other than "house"--is not mentioned. Likewise, private conversation is not mentioned. Neither is a person's movements or whereabouts. Indeed most of what people in a free society would consider to be private, whether places or conduct, is not mentioned.
Then there's Scalia's limited protection to technology that is "not in general public use." Of course, the technology that is in common use has been expanding exponentially and will continue to do so. May any of it be used by the government with impunity? Yes, according to Scalia's formula. From binoculars and other visual enhancing devices, to audio amplifying devices (regularly advertised, readily available, and widely used), to drones, etc., etc., etc.--as technologies advance and become more readily available, personal privacy protection under the Constitution diminishes drastically under Scalia's formula. 
Personally, I do not foresee any of these analytical approaches of Scalia enduring.]

So this concludes the series on Justice Scalia's record.
As I said at the outset, I certainly hope he is resting in peace and that he has reached the heavenly afterlife in which he apparently believed.
Beyond that, if there is such an afterlife, I presume that Justices Louis Brandeis (Olmstead dissent) and John Marshall Harlan II (Katz concurring opinion) are explaining to him, much better than I could, the errors of his privacy jurisprudence.