Articles Posted in Civil Rights

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By now I’m sure you’ve heard about the anti-gay comments made by Duck Dynasty start Phil Robertson. The popular A&E series follows the every day life of the Robertson clan and has drawn a huge nationwide following, none bigger than in huntin’ happy Mississippi.

By all accounts, the Robertsons appear to be good people. They are funny, fiercely patriotic and above all else they do not hide behind the fact that they are Christians. It’s easy to see why many in the South are drawn to this family.

However, Phil’s comments in the GQ magazine interview are not sitting well with some. Here’s what Phil was quoted as saying:

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As summer winds down and the start of yet another school year is around the corner, I thought it would be a good idea to blog about school bullying and what can be done to protect your child. Bullying in school is nothing new. I can vividly remember an ABC Afternoon Special entitled “Psst Hammerman’s After You!” in which a smaller student was being bullied by a larger student. (As an aside, it seems like my generation who went to school from the mid 70’s through mid 80’s learned all of our valuable life lessons from ABC’s Afternoon Specials. We learned about sex, drugs, divorce, you name it. Our parents got off easy. Where are the Afternoon Specials now that I’m a Dad!. I digress). In the end, the smaller student stands up to Hammerman, gets his nose bloodied but earns the respect of the bully and is left alone. Well, we all know that doesn’t happen in real life.

Recently the nation has been besieged by horrible stories of bullying, some of which end tragically. Take the lesbian student in Mississippi, Destin, who was allegedly bullied by not only the students but teachers and faculty as well. Destin ended up leaving school. My heart dropped when I read the story of beautiful little Phoebe Prince who took her own life after being constantly bullied by “mean girls” at school. Reportedly the school’s teachers and administration was well aware of the bullying but did not take steps to end it.

There are other stories. You may have even been bullied as a kid. I know I was. I talk to my son about it as well. But what can we as parents do if our child is being bullied?

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Although the First Amendment protects citizen-journalists’ rights to photograph and record law enforcement officers in a public setting, officers continue to harass and even arrest citizens for exercising these rights. The First Amendment grants Americans the freedom to document, whether through print, photography, or film, public officials carrying out their duties in the public sphere. However, there have been several instances recently in which journalists have been arrested for photographing or recording officers behaving inappropriately. Do you see the problem here? Public officials, who are paid by the government to perform certain civic duties, are not only verbally harassing citizens exercising their First Amendment rights, but also physically harming and even arresting these individuals.
Four Circuits have already affirmed the rights of citizen-journalists to photograph public employees performing their jobs in a public setting. Recently, a journalist in Maryland filed a Complaint in Maryland District Court, claiming relief for being physically assaulted and unlawfully arrested by the local police. Garcia, the citizen-journalist who filed the Complaint, was accosted by officers when he was discovered photographing a separate incident nearby. However, Garcia did not begin photographing the police officers until he became aware of the excessive force used by these officers in making the arrests in the initial incident.
In Garcia’s Complaint, he cites evidence of his beating at the hands of local police officers and his subsequent unlawful arrest. Not only did these officers prevent Mr. Garcia from exercising his First Amendment right to photograph police activity in a public setting, but the officers also took the film from his camera prior to making the arrest. The officers never returned this film. Garcia’s Complaint even notes a correlation between the surge of police misconduct toward citizen-journalists in recent years, and the increasing popularity of websites such as YouTube, which hosts countless user-submitted videos documenting such police misconduct. Perhaps these officers, aware that Garcia potentially had photographic evidence of their misconduct, did not want their actions to end up in the media spotlight, like countless other documented episodes of police brutality.
As long as citizen-journalists are peaceful, and maintain a safe distance so as not to interfere with the arrest, their rights to document police activity, and that of other public officials, are strictly-protected. Accordingly, the local police department which employed these officers had a media relations policy that encouraged peaceful working relations with news media. The policy even stated that officers should treat the media as “invited guests” on crime scenes, rather than public nuisances, as Mr. Garcia was treated. This media relations policy encouraged the media to document newsworthy crime scenes, even noting that media should be granted greater access to the scene than other members of the public. The policy intended for media to be present at newsworthy incidents, believing their presence would portray the officers in a positive light for performing their duties satisfactorily. However, these particular officers clearly did not follow their department-wide media relations policy.
Citizen-journalists are encouraged to document the activity of police and other public officials to create more transparency in the federal government. Police misconduct in a public setting should be exposed. On the same note, positive acts of police and other public officials should also receive just as much publicity. Instead of accepting responsibility for their actions, and allowing Garcia to photograph the arrest, certain officers let their emotions get the best of them, knowing that Garcia had potentially-incriminating evidence of the officers’ excessive use of force in the initial arrest which sparked this incident. These officers abused their power, turning Garcia’s perfectly-legal actions against him.
Prior to his arrest, Garcia was not disturbing the peace, and he kept a reasonable distance from the officers. He did not interfere with the initial arrest in any way whatsoever. Garcia’s only mistake was photographing these officers in a compromising position. If Garcia had not noticed these officers acting inappropriately, however, these officers would not have taken issue with his photography at all. Garcia was punished for performing his civic duty; for documenting what he believed to be excessive force used by the police. He did not behave inappropriately, nor did he behave in a disorderly manner. He was simply exercising his First Amendment right. Public officials performing official duties should expect their actions to be recorded while in public. How else would these officials be held accountable for their actions? Officials certainly do not object to being photographed when they behave admirably. Consequently, the right of citizen-journalists, and all Americans, to photograph police and other public officials performing their duties in a public setting, will always be upheld, as long as these reporters do not interfere with the arrest, or behave in a disorderly manner.
As this case illustrates, your First Amendment rights are fiercely-protected. If you believe your First Amendment rights have been violated, do not hesitate to call the skilled attorneys as Coxwell & Associates today. To learn more about Civil Rights cases, please visit our website.

Disclaimer: This blog is intended as general information purposes only, and is not a substitute for legal advice. Anyone with a legal problem should consult a lawyer immediately.

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In U.S. v. Taylor, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia recently held that the police strategy of “permeating” a vehicle, prior to a drug dog sniffing the vehicle for drugs, constitutes an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment. Permeating a vehicle, or entering the suspect’s vehicle without a warrant and tampering with the controls, involves turning the vehicle “on”, rolling up the vehicle’s windows, and adjusting the air conditioning to blow odors from the inside of the vehicle to the exterior, so the drug dog can more easily sniff out illegal drugs. This process of tampering with the interior mechanisms of the vehicle increases the likelihood that the drug dog, sniffing the exterior of the vehicle, will pick up the scent of any illegal drugs inside the vehicle. Since this search was performed without a warrant, and these officers did not have probable cause to search Taylor’s vehicle, the judge found the officers’ permeation unconstitutional. The officers’ entry into the suspect’s private automobile, to gather evidence they otherwise would have been unable to obtain lawfully, constituted an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment.

Although permeation has become a fairly common practice in many jurisdictions across the country, this West Virginia court found the practice unconstitutional. The court relied on two recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to make this ruling: U.S. v. Jones and Florida v. Jardines. In Jones, the Supreme Court determined that placing a GPS device on the suspect’s private property (his vehicle), without a warrant, was not only trespassing, but also constituted an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment, since this device was used to collect information about the suspect for over a month before his arrest. In Jardines, the Supreme Court upheld the Court’s decision in Jones, finding that a police officer could not enter a suspect’s porch, which was held to be an extension of the person’s home, with the intention of conducting a search of the property without a warrant. Since the officer brought a drug dog to the porch for the purpose of carrying out a warrantless search, the Court held that the officer performed an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment.
When permeating a vehicle, the officer unlawfully enters the suspect’s vehicle without probable cause. The officers entered Taylor’s vehicle for one reason: to “stack the deck” against him by making it more likely the drug dog sniffing the exterior of his car would be able to detect the smell of illegal drugs, if any were hidden inside the car. The West Virginia court recognized the unconstitutionality of this practice, and stood up for Taylor’s civil rights. As the Jones opinion notes, the government may not trespass, or physically enter private property, to collect information about suspects, without a warrant or probable cause. Doing so constitutes an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment. Because the officers physically entered the suspect’s private property without a warrant, and performed an unlawful search of his vehicle, Taylor’s constitutional rights were violated. Thus, physically entering private property without a warrant, to aid in the search of a suspect’s property, is unlawful under the Fourth Amendment.
If you, or a loved one, have fallen victim to an unlawful search, please contact the skilled attorneys at Coxwell & Associates today. To learn more about civil rights litigation, please visit our website.

Disclaimer: This blog is intended as general information purposes only, and is not a substitute for legal advice. Anyone with a legal problem should consult a lawyer immediately.

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Rosa Parks would have been 100 today. She passed away in 2005. When Ms. Parks refused to give up her seat on that bus on December 1, 1955 I don’t think anyone realized what a profound impact she would have on what we now recognize as Civil Rights. Ms. Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person and was arrested for violating the segregation laws known as “Jim Crow Laws”. After her arrest, African Americans organized a boycott against bus companies led by a young preacher by the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. The boycott lasted 381 days until the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Jim Crow laws were unconstitutional and that buses were to be desegregated. Ms. Parks’ refusal to give up her seat sparked a civil rights revolution.

But how did the case get to the United States Supreme Court or even find its way to the court system? The NAACP legal team decided to use the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. 1983, to file suit against the the Mayor of Montgomery, Alabama W.A. Gayle. (Ms. Parks was not a Plaintiff in the civil suit. Instead, the NAACP selected five other African Americans who had also been discriminated against on the buses.) 42 U.S.C. 1983 was originally enacted in 1871 to help the Federal government combat KKK attacks on African Americans. Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill into law. The law was later changed to allow private citizens to sue states, cities, or counties for money damages or injunctive relief.

The strategy paid off as the Alabama federal district court ruled inn June 1956, that “the enforced segregation of black and white passengers on motor buses operating in the City of Montgomery violates the Constitution and laws of the United States,” because the conditions deprived people of equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. The court further enjoined the state of Alabama and city of Montgomery from continuing to operate segregated buses. The case was appealed all the way up to the United States Supreme Court but they refused to overturn the district court’s decision.

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As a 3 year member of the Facebook community I continue to be amazed at the personal information that my “Friends” place on their Facebook status. A recent marijuana arrest of a Madison, Mississippi couple caused me to think how such updates on social media outlets could come back to haunt you.

In the above article, the news reporter writing the story went to the Facebook pages for the couple and the couple’s children in order to obtain background information for the story. Several intimate details of the family’s life was detailed on Facebook. You can be sure that whenever a person is arrested, the police quickly find out which of the numerous social media outlets the person is on to see if they can find any evidence to use against them.

Here are just a few examples of some actual Facebook status updates:

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Same sex marriage has been a hot button issue for quite some time. Last week, two major events took place on the west coast. In California, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals declared that the state’s ban on same sex marriages (Proposition 8) was unconstitutional. Then just one (1) day later, Washington passed a law allowing same sex couples to marry.

Prop 8 had been approved by 52% of California voters in 2008. The three judge panel declared the ban unconstitutional because it singled a specific group of individuals- in this case homosexuals- for no reason. In other words, in order to “discriminate” against a specific group of individuals, a state must have a compelling reason. The majority of the judges found California had no such reason; however, the lone dissenting judge found California’s ban was constitutional because the state had an interest in the preservation of families. The judge who issued the opinion on behalf of the Ninth Circuit said the ban “serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California, and to officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to those of opposite-sex couples.”

Even though the Court of Appeals declared Prop 8 unconstitutional, the same sex marriage issue is far from over in California. Opponents of the decision are already planning an appeal to the United States Supreme Court to review the decision. Additionally, Judge Vaughn Walker- the judge who initially declared the ban unconstitutional at the district level (level below the Court of Appeals) in 2010- has a conflict of interest hearing set for later this year. Critics of the decision allege the Judge should have disclosed his sexual orientation due to the decision he was being asked to render. The Ninth Circuit refused to invalidate Judge Walker’s decision on that basis and held a judge’s sexual orientation was not a basis that would allow the court to overturn that judicial decision.

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A tragic police abuse death case which occurred In the college town of Fullerton, California caused a serious deja vu moment for me. In the Fullerton case, a young mentally ill man, Kelly Thomas, was sitting on a bus bench when he was approached by police. They were investigating a report of some cars being broken into in the area and they wanted to search his backpack. When Kelly asked what he had done wrong the police wouldn’t tell him so he ran. He was after all suffering from schizophrenia.

The officers, six in all, gave chase and subdued him with tasers, baton strikes, and general roughing up which included kicks and punches. As he was being beaten, Kelly cried out for his father. Kelly was beaten so badly he was taken to the hospital and later died of these injuries. When his father viewed the body, he assumed that his son had been beaten up by a local street gang. His initial thought was to call the Fullerton police and report the crime. Little did he know that Fullerton police officers were responsible.

The City of Fullerton has become defensive. They claim that this was an isolated incident and that its officers are trained to deal with mentally ill persons. However, either the training these officers received was deficient or they need to be retrained.

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The Clarion Ledger had an interesting article this morning about immunity for Mississippi police officers who are involved in automobile accidents. The article mentions one of our previous cases, Harris v. City of Jackson which you can read about here.

It is truly a shame that police officers and other state, county, and city workers have immunity for car accidents for which you and I would be held responsible. The only way to overcome this immunity is to show the Government worker caused the accident by acting with “reckless disregard” to a person’s rights. In the Harris case, the officer was speeding at 100 mph and ran a red light smashing into our client’s son who was turning on a green arrow. This was held to be “reckless disregard”.

While we are lamenting the immunity given to State employees, we are fortunate to have any recourse. Prior to the legislature enacting the Mississippi Tort Claims Act, Government employees had absolute immunity under state law for all their actions. Without the Mississippi Tort Claims Act, the Harris family would not have had any recourse for their son’s death. Federal law would not have provided any relief since police involved car accident cases under federal civil rights law require a showing that the officer acted with malice when causing a car accident. We could not show that.

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Across the United States a new trend has developed. Teenagers have been using social media to communicate with one another on where groups will be “hanging out” during the summer nights. While this sounds like a simple way to just “spread the word” amongst teenagers, law enforcement has been eavesdropping with their own social media profiles and finding out where and when these “impromptu parties” are being held. Obviously, some residents of a particular area don’t particularly like large groups of kids hanging out around their neighborhood. So they cal the cops if they aren’t there already.

Well, to some cities, this isn’t enough. City Council Members have banded together and have started passing city ordinances providing curfews in an effort to keep people under 18 years of age at home. Curfews are nothing new. Parents and teenagers are getting upset because some of these curfews are set as early as 6:00 p.m. The language of these ordinances are so vague that they basically allow any law enforcement officer to pull over a vehicle for no reason whatsoever other than the driver or passengers “look like they are under 18” and out past curfew.

The ACLU has had a field day with these curfews. They write letters and explain to City Officials that ordinances that seem to be protecting residents can actually be violating teenagers First Amendment Rights.

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