June 18, 2019

Want to See My Genes? Get a Warrant

[Cross-posted from the New York Times]

Someone broke into a church in Centerville, Utah, last November and attacked the organist who was practicing there. In March, after a conventional investigation came up empty, a police detective turned to forensic consultants at Parabon NanoLabs. Using the publicly accessible website GEDmatch, the consultants found a likely distant genetic relative of the suspect, whose blood sample had been found near the church’s broken window.

Someone related to the person on GEDmatch did indeed live in Centerville: a 17-year-old high school student. Alerted by the police, a school resource officer watched the student during lunch at the school cafeteria and collected the milk carton and juice box he’d thrown in the garbage. The DNA on the trash was a match for the crime scene evidence. This appears to be the first time that this technique was used for an assault investigation.

The technique is known as genetic genealogy. It isn’t simply a matter of finding an identical genetic match between someone in a database and evidence from a crime scene. Instead, a DNA profile may offer an initial clue — that a distant cousin is related to a suspect, for instance — and then an examination of birth records, family trees and newspaper clips can identify a small number of people for further investigation.

The identification of Joseph DeAngelo in the Golden State Killer case also relied on genetic genealogy. He was charged with 26 counts of murder and kidnapping after a genealogist helped investigators in California identify a third cousin of Mr. DeAngelo’s through GEDmatch and other genealogical records.

While there may be broad public support for a technique that solved serial murders, just because technology allows for a new type of investigation doesn’t mean the government should be allowed to use it in all cases.

Genetic genealogy requires lots of DNA samples and an easy way to compare them. Americans have created millions of genetic profiles already. A 2018 study published in Science predicted that 90 percent of Americans of European descent will be identifiable from their DNA within a year or two, even if they have not used a consumer DNA service. As for easy access, GEDmatch’s website provides exactly this opportunity. Consumers can take profiles generated from other commercial genetic testing services, upload them free and compare them to other profiles. So can the police.

We should be glad whenever a cold case involving a serious crimes like rape or murder can be solved. But the use of genetic genealogy in the Centerville assault case raises with new urgency fundamental questions about this technique.

First, there is now no downward limit on what crimes the police might investigate through genetic genealogy. If the police felt free to use it in an assault case, why not shoplifting, trespassing or littering?

Second, there’s the issue of meaningful consent. You may decide that the police should use your DNA profile without qualification and may even post your information online with that purpose in mind. But your DNA is also shared in part with your relatives. When you consent to genetic sleuthing, you are also exposing your siblings, parents, cousins, relatives you’ve never met and even future generations of your family. Legitimate consent to the government’s use of an entire family tree should involve more than just a single person clicking “yes” to a website’s terms and conditions.

Third, there’s the question of why the limits on Americans’ genetic privacy are being fashioned by private entities. The Centerville police used GEDmatch because the site owners allowed an exception to their own rules, which had permitted law enforcement access only for murder and sexual assault investigations. After user complaints, GEDmatch expanded the list of crimes that the police may investigate on its site to include assault. It also changed default options for users so that the police may not gain access to their profiles unless users affirmatively opt-in. But if your relative elects to do so, there’s no way for you to opt out of that particular decision. And what’s to stop GEDmatch from changing its policies again?

Finally, the police usually confirm leads by collecting discarded DNA samples from a suspect. How comfortable should we be that a school resource officer hung around a high school cafeteria waiting to collect a teenager’s “abandoned” DNA?

All of these issues point to one problem: Police use of genetic genealogy is virtually unregulated. Law enforcement agencies and cooperating genetic genealogy websites are operating in a world of few limits. There are not only few rules about which crimes to investigate, but also unclear remedies in the case of mistakes, the discovery of embarrassing or intrusive information, or misuse of the information.

If these concerns sounds similar to other technology and privacy problems we’re facing, they should. Our genetic and digital identities raise similar questions of autonomy, civil liberties, and intrusion by public and private entities.

Without legal limits, genetic genealogy will become a more popular tool for the police. Rather than wait for the courts to deal with difficult and novel issues about genetic surveillance and privacy, state legislatures and attorneys general should step in and articulate guidelines on how far their law enforcement agencies should go. Congress and the Federal Trade Commission should take further steps to protect the privacy and security of consumer genetic data.

If the police are to be given unlimited access to the genetic information of your entire family tree, they should have it at the end of a public debate, not by default.

April 1, 2019

A consumer DNA testing company's alarming new marketing pivot

[Cross-posted from Slate.com]

Sometimes a marketing pivot serves a truth-telling function. A new television ad for the consumer DNA database FamilyTreeDNA asks the public to share their DNA with the company not to find out whether they’re at high risk for breast cancer, whether their ancestors were black, or what their Spotify playlist should include. Instead, the father of Elizabeth Smart, who was abducted in 2002, observes that “when a loved one is a victim of a violent crime, families want answers. … If you are one of the millions of people who have taken a DNA test, your help can provide the missing link.”

FamilyTreeDNA makes explicit the use of consumer DNA testing that law enforcement agencies have increasingly relied on to solve cases. When police identified Joseph DeAngelo in 2018 as the suspected Golden State Killer responsible for a series of rapes and murders in California several decades ago, they did so with the aid of genetic genealogy: the combination of genetic matching and traditional genealogical methods. Police uploaded crime scene DNA to GEDmatch, a free service where people submit genetic information (typically from consumer testing services like 23andMe) to find relatives and ancestors. A genetic genealogist combined the identification of those genetically related to the then-unknown suspect with genealogical aids like birth records and newspaper clippings. DNA taken from his trash and car door confirmed the match between DeAngelo and the crime scene evidence.

The two largest DNA testing companies take the position that they will provide customer data only with a lawful order like a subpoena or a warrant. Indeed, 23andMe is explicit in its position of using “all practical and legal administrative resources to resist such requests.” FamilyTreeDNA distinguishes itself by not just allowing law enforcement access to its consumer data but embracing the tactic. It asks consumers to contribute genetic information for the express purpose of helping the police solve crimes.  (If you’ve taken a DNA test elsewhere with a competing company, you can upload your file for free to FamilyTreeDNA.) This marketing shift follows its earlier acknowledgment that the company had already been working with the FBI.  As a result, the company is effectively crowdsourcing criminal investigations.

But when you volunteer your DNA sample, you’re volunteering your genetic family tree, without having asked your parents, siblings, cousins, and distant cousins if they agree. That upends the usual way we think about providing information to law enforcement. You can’t give the police lawful consent to search your third cousin’s house, even if your third cousin (who you may never have met) is suspected of having been involved in a serious crime. Why are we allowing a distant relative to grant police permission to your DNA?

When you volunteer your DNA sample, you’re volunteering your genetic family tree.

And genetic genealogy creates difficulties for the relative who objects to your volunteering the genetic family tree to law enforcement. A woman whose DNA on GEDmatch recently helped lead to the arrest of a second cousin twice removed told a local Iowa newspaper that before she got the test done, her brother raised concerns about getting a family member arrested. But her brother’s objections didn’t mean much.  The consumer DNA companies don’t appear to allow relatives to raise privacy objections to submitted genetic samples. And should a relative later be charged with a crime with the help of genetic genealogy, the Fourth Amendment would be unlikely to allow the relative turned suspect to object to the way he was identified. Even if a relative convinced you that the submission of a DNA sample to a consumer database was regrettable, it turns out that “deleting your DNA” is a very difficult thing to do.

Becoming a genetic informant on your extended family isn’t the only issue here. On its website, FamilyTreeDNA says law enforcement access to its database is limited to cases “identifying the remains of a deceased individual or a perpetrator of a homicide or sexual assault.” Today law enforcement agencies appear to be relying on these consumer DNA databases for long-unresolved homicide cases. And few would object to solving the Golden State Killer case, which involved dozens of violent crimes spanning more than a decade. For now, the genetic genealogy used in that case is time-consuming, and following all of the potential leads raised by a partial DNA match takes considerable police resources.

But if history is any guide, these means will become easier and cheaper to use.  Police already use direct DNA matches to solve crimes like auto theft and burglary.  Imagine if a distant relative’s decision to submit DNA led to your 13-year-old self being arrested for spitting on the bus.

Perhaps you wouldn’t object. Perhaps you think everyone committing a crime, no matter how minor, should be caught. Then, legislators should have a direct and open conversation about a population-wide database: a DNA sample compelled from every person in the United States for the purposes of law enforcement. If that is the goal, we should arrive there directly, not as a de facto matter.

And that leads to perhaps the biggest question raised by FamilyTreeDNA’s ad spot. These are urgent questions about the proper balance between privacy and law enforcement and individual and familial rights. Yet it is a private company making these policy choices, changing the conversation, and shaping its terms. Few would respond well to the question: “Join us as a genetic informant!” But many will likely be moved to “help bring closure to families and victims.” Nor should we forget that while contributors may feel altruistic, the company has many motives. Although uploading your genetic file is free, you can “unlock” all of the company’s features for only $19.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

September 4, 2018

McClatchy feature on policing in rural California echoes my theorizing of law's relation to rurality

Most Wanted Poster

Trinity County, California, Courthouse, July 2018

Photos by Lisa R. Pruitt 

The headline is "Calling 911 in rural California?  Danger might be close, but the law can be hours away," and four Sacramento Bee journalists contributed to this major feature, which has been in the works since December, 2017.

 

I was gratified to see the story--which documents the reality (and consequences) of lack of effective law enforcement and high per capita violent crime rates in California's nonmetro counties.  To be clear, the news is bad, but I was gratified in that the story confirms work I have been doing for more than a decade now (some of it documented in this blog since September, 2007, 11 years ago this month).  That work has been theorizing the difference that rurality makes to law's operation and people's attitudes about law.  In other words, what is the legal relevance of rurality and, thus, why should legal scholars attend to rural difference?  why should "rural" be a category of analysis in the implicitly urbanormative field of law?

Siskiyou County Sheriff's Office, Yreka, California, July 2018

photos by Lisa R. Pruitt (c) 2018

 

Just a few years ago, I published a chapter on this issue in a volume of legal geography essays.  Mine was titled, "The Rural Lawscape: Space Tames Law Tames Space."  My argument was that rural spatiality is in tension with law.  That is, the distance between homes and the distances that legal actors must traverse in order to exert law's authority--to make law meaningful--practically disables law.  Technology can help (that is, time can trump space), but it's costly and cannot always be a substitute for the presence of human law enforcement.  Further, rural residents' sense that they must be self sufficient is reinforced by this lived reality.  As academics express it, society, spatiality and law and all mutually constituting or co-constitutive.  If people know that legal actors such as law enforcement are effectively not present, then they know they must take care of themselves.  In a sense, the lack of efficacy of law promotes a sort of frontier justice or informal order.   

 

Now, the empirical work of these Bee journalists confirms my theorizing with hard data about the number of sheriffs deputies per 100 square miles in California counties--including those all across the state, not just in the northern third on which Sac Bee usually focuses.  These journalists also look at  violent crime rates, confirming that  many of the highest crime counties are "rural" according to the metric used by the reporters:  Alpine (with a population of just 1,175, the state's least populous county, in the eastern Sierra) and Lassen (in the northern Sierra) lead the pack.  Third is metropolitan San Joaquin County, home to Stockton.  

Plumas (again, northern Sierra) is next, followed by the state's most urban county, San Francisco, then nonmetro InyoShastaLake and Modoc.  Of course with populations as low as those of many of these nonmetro counties, the violent crime count doesn't have to be very high to rise to the top of the per capita heap.  Indeed, it would be interesting to see data on deputy sheriff per 1000 residents vs deputy sheriff per 100 square miles.  How different would the map and rankings look then?  And which is the more salient metric, given the significance that material distance plays in rural lives? 

 

The Bee story begins with information about a 2011 double murder in the Trinity County community of Kettenpom, nearer to Mendocino County than to Weaverville, the Trinity County seat.  In that case, Trinity County law enforcement asked the neighbors of a couple who called 911 to check in on that couple because sheriffs deputies coming from Weaverville were several hours away.  The incident ended badly, with the responding neighbors severely wounded and the assailant, who had killed the couple who initially called 911 by the time the responding neighbors arrived, also dead after a car chase.  The responding neighbors, Norma and Jim Gund, are suing the Trinity County Sheriff (in a case now going to the Supreme Court of California), and in the related story by journalist Ryan Sabalow observe, "Over here, we have to take care of ourselves."  Any trust they had in the sheriff's office has disappeared, the story reports.  (The separate story about this law suit is well worth a read, especially for legal eagles who will be interested in the arguments of the respective parties, including the assertion that the Gunds were effectively "posse comitatus," which happens to be the name of a far-right survivalist group).

Another quote from this McClatchy feature similarly speaks powerfully to informal order.  The man quoted is one whom Modoc County Sheriff's deputies knew was growing marijuana illegally.  Yet when they stopped him in a remote locale, they made an effort to calm his anger rather than confront him with the marijuana infraction.  The story reports that the deputies planned to return later with reinforcements rather than risk the consequences of his ire when they stopped him in a vulnerable location.  The man who was stopped, identified as Roberts, told the reporter who was on a "ride along" with the deputies:

We have freedom with responsibility out here.  We can do a lot of stuff. These guys [sheriffs deputies] referee.  

Read more here: https://www.sacbee.com/news/state/california/article215453050.html#storylink=cpy

Wow, law enforcement as referees for what residents want to do?  This is sounding like the wild west, indeed.  (As it happens, I am in the midst of reading about the wild west in Wallace Stegner's Pulitzer Prize winning Angle of Repose, which features vignettes where vigilante justice takes over, much to the dismay of eastern transplants to places like Leadville, Colorado in the 19th century).  

Bieber, California (Lassen County), July, 2018 

Lack of tax revenue undermines rural counties' 

ability to finance public services

 

These somewhat harrowing vignettes from Trinity and Modoc County aside, what I consider to be the story's lede contrasts rural with urban:

As urban areas such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sacramento and Fresno grapple with discussions about use of force and the over-policing of minority communities, the state’s rural counties face a growing and no-less-serious law enforcement crisis: a severe shortage of staff that puts the public — and deputies — in danger. 

A McClatchy investigation found that large stretches of rural California — where county sheriffs are the predominant law enforcement agencies and towns often run only a few blocks — do not have enough sworn deputies to provide adequate public safety for the communities they serve.

Elsewhere the story provides this illustration, again contrasting rural and urban:

Del Norte Courthouse, Crescent City, July 2018  

While the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department employs nearly 160 deputies for every 100 square miles it covers, the tiny sheriff’s departments in Madera, Mariposa and Mendocino counties employ about four deputies for the same amount of turf. In Del Norte and Alpine, the counties make do with two deputies per 100 square miles.

Those figures include non-patrol personnel and those who work in county jails. 

Also, consider the role that the phenomena of distance and personnel shortage played in this tragic story out of Tehama County last fall.  Perhaps these Rancho Tehama events gave the Bee journalists the idea for this story.

Tehama County Sheriff's Office, Red Bluff, California, July 2018

The McClatchy story features a color-coded map that shows the number of law enforcement officers per 100 square miles (again, what would it look like if deputies per 1000 residents?).  It reminds me of maps I have helped to produce here showing lawyers per capita in California counties.  Guess what? As with law enforcement officials, nonmetro counties have shortages of lawyers.

 

Another interesting theme/revelation in the story is that no deputy actively patrols in some counties, e.g., Mendocino, for some parts of the night, though deputies are on call from their homes.  When I wrote something similar on Legal Ruralism about my home town in Arkansas a few years ago (see herehere and here), students in my Law and Rural Livelihoods class were shocked to imagine a place with no law enforcement on duty 24-7, yet it is happening here in California, too.

 

A third interesting theme:  population churn in rural areas, partly driven by low cost of living, has had an impact on how rural communities are policed:

Tex Dowdy, the sheriff-elect of Modoc County, said an influx of transient residents drawn to the low cost of living has made identifying suspects harder for Modoc’s deputies. 

The story quotes Dowdy: 

It isn’t the same place where we used to live.  You used to recognize the bad guy walking around the street because he was in the paper every week.

Alturas, California (Modoc County) July 2018

Note the lack of anonymity theme, about which I have written a great deal in the last decade, including here and here.  The sheriff basically confirmed what I have argued:  in rural counties, the "usual suspects" is as powerful a type of profiling as racial profiling, if not more so (and, of course, the two can overlap).

 

A fourth interesting theme--one also  articulated in my academic writing--is that some people seek our rurality for the privacy and effective seclusion from law that it provides.  (Think Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, in rural Montana).  These folks are unlikely to call on law enforcement even when they need it.  Regarding this proposition, the story quotes Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal in relation to this phenomenon:

Things go on in the hills all around us that go unreported.  We know that. Daily. It happens. It’s something that we’ve just gotten used to. There are shootings that occur in the middle of the night. ... We know that there’s kidnappings, we know there are people getting brutalized out in the hills, we know there are people getting robbed.

Honsal's quote reminded me of this feature by Reveal last fall, which I blogged about here, regarding wage theft and sexual abuse of "trimmigrants" in places like Humboldt and Trinity County.  Of course, immigration status can also make people reluctant to report a crime, a particular concern in places like the San Joaquin Valley.  The Chief Justice of California has, for that reason, criticized ICE for any presence in California courthouses.

 

A fifth theme relates to budgets, cuts to which have undermined a prior practice of deputizing people who lived in the remote reaches of a given county:

Until recent years, many rural departments had regional substations and hired “resident deputies” who lived in the remote areas they served. Those resident deputies knew their territories and most of the locals by name, making it harder for crime to go unnoticed, said multiple sheriffs. Resident deputies also allowed for quicker response times. 

Those in need “just come and knock on your door,” said Modoc’s Poindexter. “You just grab your gun belt and go out the door and try to fix it.”

July 2018, Bieber, California (far northern Lassen County), a sheriff station

at the local school, which is closer to Alturas, in Modoc County, than to Susanville,

the Lassen County seat.

Indeed, in my recent drive up California 299 from Burney (Shasta County) to Alturas (Modoc County), I saw a sign indicating such a remote outpost of the Lassen County Sheriff's office in Bieber, which is near the Modoc County line and also not far from Shasta County.   Yet it is technically in Lassen County, and how interesting that the Lassen Sheriff's substation should be at the school, of all places. (More photos from that journey are here and here with more to come in future posts on access to justice in rural California).  A few years ago, I also photographed a Siskiyou County Sheriff's substation in Dunsmuir.  Though it is at the southern edge of the county, it is hardly remote given its locale on I-5.

 

Siskiyou County Sheriff's

Substation, Dunsmuir July 2016

Another aspect of the economic situation is the inability of counties to tax public lands, both federal and state.  The story explains:  

The state compensates counties for protected lands, too, but that funding has been controversial and even less predictable. Since the 2015-2016 budget cycle, the state has given rural counties $644,000 for payments in total each year to be divided among them, said state Sen. Mike McGuire, whose coastal district spans seven counties from Marin to the Oregon border.

I have written previously here and here of the constraints that lack of tax revenue on federal lands place on local governments in rural areas, especially in the West, which has a much greater percentage of public lands than the rest of the country.  The impact of shrinking federal dollars on law enforcement in Southern Oregon has attracted media attention in recent years.  As for that state contribution, less than $700K/year spread among seven counties is pretty pitiful,  even in the context of a paltry rural budget. 

 

Sierra County Courthouse,

Downieville, California, July 2017

A sixth theme of the story is that the state practice of re-alignment (re: prisons and local jails) has not served nonmetro counties well.  The Bee story includes a few interesting quotes to illustrate the conundrum re-alignment has created for county law enforcement. 

 

A seventh theme is the lack of mental health support.

Rural counties have 0.9 psychiatrists for every 10,000 residents, about half the statewide average, according to California Medical Board data. Mariposa has been experimenting with “tele-doc” video technology to connect jail inmates with mental-health professionals in other counties.

Read more here: https://www.sacbee.com/news/state/california/article215453050.html#storylink=cpy

Of course, telemedicine is being used to provide mental health and other services in rural counties generally, and not only to incarcerated populations.

 

An eighth theme regards reliance on other law enforcement agencies, including not just California Highway Patrol, but also both federal and state game and fish officers.  The photos show a sign at the California Highway Patrol office in Weaverville (Trinity County), which sits next to the DMV office.  I assume that the sign encouraging reports of vehicle theft responds to the reality that rural residents report crimes at lower rates than their urban counterparts, even when the perpetrator is a stranger.  The other photo I took in Weverville this summer is of a USDA vehicle, reprsenting the sort of law enforcement proxy that game and fish commissioners sometimes represent in rural areas. 

USDA Forest Service vehicle, Weaverville, California, July 2018 

Back to the budget/economics note, I'll close with this stunning data point:  rookie deputies in Modoc County earn $13/hour!  I assume baristas in Los Angeles are paid better than that, especially if you take into account tips.

 

Cross-posted to Legal Ruralism.  

March 30, 2017

Budding Conflicts: Marijuana's Impact on Unsettled Questions of Tribal-State Relations

As part of a symposium entitled "One Toke Too Far: The Horizontal-Federalism Implications of Marijuana Legalization Symposium," my article "Budding Conflicts: Marijuana's Impact on Unsettled Questions of Tribal-State Relations," will appear in the Boston College Law Review (forthcoming 2017). (There seems to be an unwritten rule that every piece of marijuana-related legal scholarship must contain a pun.) 

Tribes are currently in an uncertain situation with respect to marijuana legalization. A December 2014 decision by the Department of Justice to deprioritize enforcement of federal marijuana laws against tribes as well as states prompted many tribes to revisit their policies toward marijuana. Some tribes opted to legalize marijuana for medical and/or recreational purposes under tribal law, while others went still farther by planning commercial marijuana enterprises. The Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, for example, hoped to launch the nation's first "marijuana resort," complete with a smoking lounge and a shuttle service for guests who wished to avoid driving under the influence. Other tribes occupied the opposite end of the spectrum. The Yakama Nation, which has maintained a strict policy against drugs and alcohol for decades, chose to strengthen its anti-marijuana laws in the wake of Washington's move toward legalization.

In many cases, tribes' efforts to go their own way on marijuana policy have sparked clashes with nearby states. The Flandreau Santee Sioux had to abandon their resort plans after they met with intractable opposition from state and federal authorities, who worried that non-tribal residents of South Dakota (where marijuana is illegal) would be lured onto the reservation. The Yakama Nation is currently engaged in litigation to stop Washington marijuana vendors from doing business on off-reservation lands where its members hunt and fish. Such jurisdictional conflicts are, of course, nothing new; they arise in the interstate context all the time. But they are exacerbated in the state-tribal context for two reasons: the tremendous uncertainty that exists about the proper scope of state and tribal regulation in Indian country and the absence of the formal and informal mechanisms - such as, to take perhaps the most important example, the Full Faith and Credit Clause - that help mediate comparable interstate friction. In my article, I discuss the reasons why state-tribal conflicts over marijuana may be particularly intense and suggest avenues for smoothing state-tribal relations, including clarification of tribes' regulatory authority and possible federal legislation that could draw on the experience of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act while avoiding its mistakes. 

When tribes set their own marijuana policy, they can both express their own sovereign values and serve as useful "laboratories of democracy" in an era when attitudes and legal approaches toward marijuana are changing quickly.  Fully achieving these goals, however, will depend on finding better ways to resolve state-tribal policy disputes.

February 28, 2017

Argument analysis: Justices divided on meaning of “sexual abuse of a minor” for removal purposes

Cross-posted from SCOTUSblog.

This morning, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Esquivel-Quintana v. Sessions, a case that arose from the U.S. government's effort to remove a lawful permanent resident for a "sex crime." Judging from today's argument, the justices appeared closely divided on the question of statutory interpretation before the court.

When Juan Esquivel-Quintana was 20 years old, he was convicted under California law for having consensual sex with his then-16-year-old girlfriend. An "aggravated felony" conviction generally requires mandatory removal of an immigrant from the United States and renders the immigrant ineligible for most forms of relief from removal. 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(43) defines an "aggravated felony" to include the "sexual abuse of a minor." Claiming that Esquivel-Quintana's conviction constituted an "aggravated felony," the U.S. government initiated removal proceedings against him, and the immigration court ordered him removed from the United States. The Board of Immigration Appeals dismissed his appeal from the removal order. Applying the Supreme Court's seminal 1984 decision in Chevron, U.S.A., Inc. v. National Resources Defense Council, Inc.,the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit deferred to the BIA's interpretation of "sexual abuse of a minor" and upheld the removal order. The dissent would have applied the rule of lenity, a judicial doctrine under which ambiguities in criminal law are resolved in favor of the defendant, to the interpretation of the criminal-removal provision in the immigration law and would have found that Esquivel-Quintana's conviction was not an aggravated felony.

The question before the Supreme Court is whether Esquivel-Quintana's conviction constitutes an "aggravated felony" as "sexual abuse of a minor" under U.S. immigration law. The case raises fascinating, and complex, questions about Chevron deference to an agency's reasonable interpretation of an ambiguous statute and about the rule of lenity that is generally applied to the interpretation of removal and criminal laws.

Arguing on Esquivel-Quintana's behalf, Jeffrey Fisher offered a multijurisdictional survey of state laws comparable to the California law to shed light on the meaning of "sexual abuse of a minor" in the immigration law. Justice Elena Kagan quickly began querying Fisher on his methodology for interpreting the statute. Fisher explained that it is appropriate to look at the laws of different states to discern the meaning of "sexual abuse of a minor" under federal law. Fisher later propounded an argument made in a "friend of the court" brief submitted by the Immigrant Defense Project - that there is a "readily apparent" federal definition of the phrase "sexual abuse of a minor." According to Fisher, the phrase refers to the offense of the same name described in the Sexual Abuse Act of 1986, as amended in 1996, the same year "sexual abuse of a minor" was added as an aggravated felony to the immigration statute. That federal offense applies only to minors under 16 and not to all forms of consensual sexual contact. Under that "readily apparent" federal definition, Esquivel-Quintana's conviction would not constitute an aggravated felony requiring removal.

At one point in Fisher's argument, Justice Samuel Alito intervened to ensure that Fisher was not asking the court to overrule Chevron, prompting Fisher to state emphatically "no, no, no." In response to another question from Alito, Fisher argued that the rule of lenity kicks in in favor of Esquivel-Quintana before Chevron deference can be applied. Chief Justice John Roberts seemed unconvinced, noting that "we've ... most often said that the rule of lenity is something you apply when you've already exhausted the normal tools of statutory interpretation," not "the other way around." Kagan sought to come to the rescue in search of "a middle ground," positing "a small exception to Chevron" in cases in which criminal laws come into play. Justice Stephen Breyer, a former administrative-law professor, did not buy this civil/criminal distinction.

Arguing on behalf of the federal government, Assistant to the Solicitor General Allon Kedem emphasized the need to employ traditional tools of statutory construction to interpret the reference to "sexual abuse of a minor" in the immigration law's definition of an aggravated felony. Kagan complained that the United States had pointed to few sources with which to interpret the statute. She nonetheless seemed to think that the statute was sufficiently clear to decide the case, although not in the way that the government wanted.

With respect to Chevron, Kedem claimed that the government would win even without Chevron deference, because the statute plainly included the conduct proscribed by the California law. Alito suggested an alternative approach to support the government's position - that the statute was in fact ambiguous and that through that ambiguity, Congress had afforded discretion to the attorney general to define the relevant term.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is often pivotal in close cases, asked Kedem a telling question about deference:

I can understand Chevron in the context of an agency that has special expertise in regulating the environment or the forest service or fisheries or nuclear power. Why   does the INS have any expertise on determining the meaning of a criminal statute?

Kennedy's question suggested that he may be skeptical about the applicability of deference doctrine to this kind of case.

Asked by Roberts about the role of the rule of lenity, Kedem characterized it as a rule of last resort, coming into play only if all other interpretive methods have failed, which, in the government's view, is not the case here.

Near the end of the argument, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg raised a question that arises in many criminal-removal cases. She stated that Esquivel-Quintana faces removal for a criminal offense that would not be a crime in the majority of states. With states moving toward decriminalization of marijuana possession and use, this kind of question will likely crop up even more frequently in the future.

In sum, the justices did not seem to have reached a consensus as to whether Esquivel-Quintana's crime constituted "sexual abuse of a minor" under the immigration laws. The justices' questions revealed the complicated interaction among the relevant statutory provisions; the high stakes of removal for lawful permanent residents, the complex state/federal issues involved, and the intersection of criminal and immigration law add to the difficulty and significance of this case. A decision is expected by the end of June.

February 21, 2017

Argument preview: Removal of an immigrant for "sexual abuse of a minor"

Cross-posted from SCOTUSblog.

Over the last few years, the Supreme Court has decided a number of criminal-removal cases. Next week, the justices will hear oral argument in another one, Esquivel-Quintana v. Sessions, which stems from the government's effort to remove a lawful permanent resident for a "sex crime."

The facts of the case sound like an episode of "Law and Order SVU." In 2000, Juan Esquivel-Quintana's parents lawfully brought him to the United States and settled in Sacramento, California. When he was 20 years old, Esquivel-Quintana had consensual sex with his 16-year-old girlfriend. He later pleaded no contest to violating California Penal Code § 261.5(c), which criminalizes sex with a person "under the age of 18 years" when the age difference between the parties is more than three years. Esquivel-Quintana was sentenced to 90 days in jail and five years' probation. After his release from jail, he moved from California to Michigan, a state in which the conduct underlying his criminal conviction would not have been a crime.

An "aggravated felony" conviction generally requires mandatory removal of an immigrant from the United States and renders the immigrant ineligible for most forms of relief from removal. 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(43) defines an "aggravated felony" to include the "sexual abuse of a minor." Claiming that Esquivel-Quintana's conviction constituted an "aggravated felony," the U.S. government initiated removal proceedings in Michigan. In 2008, before Esquivel-Quintana's conviction, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit had held en banc, in Estrada-Espinoza v. Mukasey, that a conviction under the California law in question did not constitute "sexual abuse of a minor" under the immigration laws and was not an aggravated felony. Although Esquivel-Quintana asked the immigration judge to apply the 9th Circuit's reasoning to his case, the immigration judge declined to do so, accepting the government's argument that the removal proceedings were occurring within the jurisdiction of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit - Esquivel-Quintana's new home. The immigration judge ordered Esquivel-Quintana removed from the United States. The Board of Immigration Appeals dismissed his appeal, noting that it was not bound by 9th Circuit law because the case arose in the 6th Circuit, which had not ruled on the definition of "sexual abuse of a minor" in this context.

Applying the Supreme Court's 1984 decision in Chevron, U.S.A., Inc. v. National Resources Defense Council, Inc., the 6th Circuit deferred to the BIA's interpretation of "sexual abuse of a minor" and upheld the removal order. The dissent would have applied the "rule of lenity," a judicial doctrine under which ambiguities in criminal law are resolved in favor of the defendant, to the interpretation of the criminal-removal provision in the immigration law and would have found that Esquivel-Quintana's conviction was not an aggravated felony.

The question presented to the Supreme Court is whether Esquivel-Quintana's conviction constitutes an "aggravated felony" as "sexual abuse of a minor" under U.S. immigration law.

Esquivel-Quintana contends that because there is no "readily apparent" uniform definition of "sexual abuse of a minor," the court must compare the elements of the California crime against "[t]he prevailing view in the modern codes." Such a comparison, he argues, reveals that "federal law, the Model Penal Code, and the laws of 43 states consider the least of the acts criminalized under Cal. Penal Code § 261.5(c) - consensual sex between a 21-year-old and someone almost 18 - to be entirely lawful. Six of the seven remaining states deem it not sufficiently serious to be treated as 'sexual abuse.'" California is the exception.

Esquivel-Quintana goes on to assert that because the statute is not ambiguous, the BIA's determination that his conviction was an aggravated felony does not warrant Chevron deference. Even if the statute were ambiguous, he points out, in cases such as Immigration and Naturalization Service v. St. Cyr, in 2001, the court has espoused "the longstanding principle of construing any lingering ambiguities in deportation statutes in favor of the alien." Moreover, the rule of lenity also requires ambiguities in statutes with criminal applications to be narrowly construed. Finally, he maintains, the BIA's interpretation here would not be entitled to deference because it is unreasonable.

A "friend of the court" brief in support of Esquivel-Quintana submitted by the Immigrant Defense Project and two other immigrant groups takes a slightly different approach to interpreting the relevant statute. The amici argue that when there is a "readily apparent" federal definition of an offense, the Supreme Court will apply it, as it did in in Taylor v. United States, in 1990. They contend that just such a definition exists in this case: The phrase "sexual abuse of a minor" in the statute refers to the offense of the same name described in the Sexual Abuse Act of 1986, as amended in 1996, the same year "sexual abuse of a minor" was added as an aggravated felony to the immigration statute. That federal offense applies only to minors under 16 and not to all forms of consensual sexual contact. Under that "readily apparent" federal definition, Esquivel-Quintana's conviction therefore would not constitute an aggravated felony requiring removal.

Defending the 6th Circuit's ruling, the federal government contends that Esquivel-Quintana's conviction is an aggravated felony under the plain language of the immigration statute or, alternatively, under the BIA's reasonable interpretation of that provision. The government first asserts that the statutory language - "sexual abuse of a minor" - clearly encompasses all crimes involving sex with minors. In light of that clear statutory language, the government maintains, the court need not engage in the kind of time-consuming surveys of state law that are found in Esquivel-Quintana's brief.

The government goes on to argue that, even if the court determines that the term "sexual abuse of a minor" is ambiguous, Chevron mandates deference to the BIA's reasonable construction of that phrase. Any canon of statutory interpretation, such as the rule of lenity or the rule that ambiguities in deportation statutes should be construed in favor of the noncitizen, only comes into play as an interpretive method of last resort. In the government's view, Chevron deference, not canons of statutory construction, carries the day in this case.

In setting a series of records for numbers of removals during President Barack Obama's first term, the government focused its removal effects on noncitizens convicted of crimes. President Donald Trump has issued an executive order that, if implemented, would expand crime-based removals. This case illustrates some of the complexities associated with reliance on state criminal convictions in federal removals, which can lead to a lack of uniformity in the application of the U.S. immigration laws. The disparities between the states in areas of criminal law frequently relied on for removal, such as state marijuana laws, are growing, and are likely to pose interpretive challenges in the future for the federal courts in criminal-removal cases. It remains to be seen whether the justices will focus on these issues during the oral argument next week.

November 23, 2016

Argument preview: The constitutionality of immigrant detention

Cross-posted from SCOTUSblog.

In recent years, the U.S government has aggressively used detention of immigrants as a tool for enforcing the immigration laws. Immigration detention became national news in 2014 when the Obama administration detained tens of thousands of Central American women and children fleeing violence in their native lands.

In Jennings v. Rodriguez, the court will consider the question whether immigrants, like virtually any U.S. citizen placed in criminal or civil detention, must be guaranteed a bond hearing and possible release from custody. This case is a class-action challenge to lengthy immigration detentions without any opportunity for release on bond.

Brought to the United States as an infant, class representative Alejandro Rodriguez is a lawful permanent resident who had been employed as a dental assistant. Based on criminal convictions for possession of a controlled substance and "joyriding," the U.S. government sought to remove Rodriguez from the United States. While Rodriguez was resisting removal, the government detained him for more than three years without a bond hearing. An immigration court ultimately granted Rodriguez "cancellation of removal," and he remains in the United States.

Another class member, a torture victim from Ethiopia, sought asylum in the United States. The U.S. government detained him on the ground that his proof of identity was insufficient because, in the words of a Department of Homeland Security officer, "[t]here is an apparent correlation with all the Somalian Detainee's [sic] that present [sic] a paradigm of deceit and paralleled ambiguity of events and identity." A bond hearing would have allowed the class member to point out that, among other things, he was not from Somalia. An immigration court eventually granted asylum to this class member.

After Rodriguez and the other class members brought suit challenging the government's prolonged-detention practices, the district court entered an injunction requiring bond hearings for immigrant detainees. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit affirmed most of the injunction. Interpreting the immigrant-detention statutes to avoid constitutional problems, the appeals court held that immigration judges must provide a bond hearing to a class member at least every six months and that a noncitizen must be released from detention unless the government can establish by clear and convincing evidence that the noncitizen is a flight risk or a danger to public safety.

In the government's brief, the solicitor general defends the immigration-detention regime that is currently in place:

Some may believe that the Ninth Circuit's vision of immigration detention is wiser or more humane, while others would disagree. But Congress weighed the interests in controlling the border, protecting the public from criminal aliens, affording individual aliens adequate protections and opportunities for relief and review, and minimizing the adverse foreign-relations impact of U.S. immigration law. The canon of constitutional avoidance is not a tool for courts to comprehensively rewrite those laws and strike a different balance.

The government further contends that habeas-corpus review in individual cases satisfies any constitutional concerns stemming from prolonged detention.

In defending the detention of class members during removal proceedings, the United States relies heavily on the 2003 case Demore v. Kim, in which the court invoked the "plenary power" doctrine - something exceptional to immigration law - to immunize from judicial review a provision of the immigration statute requiring a "limited time of detention" for immigrants awaiting removal from the United States. Last summer, the solicitor general confessed to the court that its briefs in Demore included "several significant errors" and greatly understated the average length of immigrant detention, a misstatement that may have influenced the outcome of the case. In its briefing in Rodriguez, the government minimizes the impact of the statistical misstatements on the court's decision in Demore.

To justify the lengthy detention of noncitizens seeking admission into the country, the solicitor general again relies on the plenary-power doctrine, claiming that the 9th Circuit's ruling "conflicts with this Court's longstanding rule that the political Branches have plenary control over which aliens may physically enter the United States and under what circumstances." In support of this proposition, the government cites a case from 1953, Shaughnessy v. United States ex rel. Mezei. Decided at the height of the Cold War, Mezei denied judicial review to an immigrant held in indefinite detention based on secret evidence, an outcome next to impossible to square with modern constitutional law.

Defending the injunction, Rodriguez and the other respondents contend that due process requires a bond hearing to determine whether the noncitizen is a danger to the public or a flight risk. Rodriguez cites, among other cases, United States v. Salerno, a 1987 case upholding pretrial detention of criminal defendants only after individualized findings of dangerousness or flight risk at bond hearings; Foucha v. Louisiana, a 1992 case requiring individualized findings of mental illness and dangerousness prior to civil commitment; and Kansas v. Hendricks, a 1997 case upholding civil commitment of sex offenders after a jury trial. Responding to the government's contrary assertion, Rodriguez argues that habeas-corpus review is not constitutionally sufficient to satisfy the due process concerns implicated by mandatory prolonged detention.

In a letter, Rodriguez claims that the factual misstatements by the solicitor general in Demore v. Kim "limit its relevance," and that the court must therefore be circumspect about the unverified statistical data provided in the government's briefs in this case. Rodriguez's brief distinguishes Demore, which he claims creates a narrow exception to the rule that detention may be imposed only after a bond hearing. In Demore, he claims, the court relied on two circumstances not present in this case: the government's admittedly inaccurate assertion that the average length of detention was brief and the immigrant's admission of deportability. In contrast, detention of an immigrant who is fighting removal, as in Rodriguez's case, is not brief, but can last many years. Moreover, many class members, including Rodriguez, have defenses to removal, which gives them an incentive to appear for removal proceedings. Such individuals, Rodriguez asserts, cannot therefore be presumed to present a flight risk or a danger to the public. Rodriguez further contends that, as it did in Zadvydas v. Davis in 2001, the court should interpret an immigration statute to require judicial review of a detention decision because "[a] statute permitting indefinite detention of an alien would cause a serious constitutional problem."

Indefinite detention of a person absent a bond hearing generally is not constitutionally permissible. By holding that the immigration statute permitted a bond hearing at reasonable intervals and possible release from custody, the 9th Circuit sidestepped the serious constitutional concerns presented by the statute. Ultimately, the questions before the Supreme Court are whether the 9th Circuit reasonably construed the statute to avoid the constitutional issues and, if not, whether ordinary constitutional rules apply to immigrants in detention. In addressing those questions, Wednesday's oral argument will require the court to grapple with its seemingly inconsistent immigrant-detention decisions in Zadvydas v. Davis and Demore v. Kim.

June 19, 2016

Case Western Reserve Law Review Symposium on Whren

The Case Western Reserve Law Review published its symposium on the 20th anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Whren v. United States.

My contribution is included. Here is the link for "Doubling Down on Racial Discrimination: The Racially Disparate Impacts of Crime-Based Removals."

May 6, 2016

Justice Stevens Discusses Scholarship by Professor Chin

In a recent speech, retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens discussed Professor Gabriel "Jack" Chin's paper Effective Assistance of Counsel and the Consequences of Guilty Pleas

Justice Stevens relied on the paper in his majority opinion in Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U.S. 356 (2010), which held that criminal defense attorneys were required to advise clients about the possibility of deportation.  As Justice Stevens noted, the Court also relied on Professor Chin's work in Chaidez v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 1103 (2013), holding that Padilla would not be retroactively applied to cases which were already final when it was decided.

February 23, 2016

Taking Part in the Crimmigration Law Lecture Series

On March 3, I will deliver a talk in the inaugural Crimmigration Law Lecture Series at the University of Denver.

From the event website: "The lecture series is dedicated to understanding how criminal and immigration norms affect one another and to creating a praxis that can potentially shape crimmigration’s development. As far as we know, this year-long crimmigration-focused project is unique."

 

For more information, visit http://crimmigration.com/2016/02/23/crimmigration-law-lecture-series-at-university-of-denver/.