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Florida To Investigate Future Miami Police Shooting Incidents

After years of complaints and controversial shootings, Miami-Dade police will no longer investigate itself for criminal wrongdoing in shooting deaths. Those probes will now fall under the watchful eye of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Miami Herald reports. The move by the largest police agency in the southeastern U.S., which rarely accuses one of its own of using excessive force in a shooting death, was hailed by county leaders as a lesson in objectivity.

Local civil rights groups, which for years have been calling for the department to distance itself from investigating its own, are warily on board. The police union is complaining about not being involved in the negotiation process. “It really is an effort to give the public a sense of third-party objectivity,” said Miami-Dade County Police Director J.D. Patterson. “It’s always a good idea to have an objective third party from time to time if your integrity is questioned.” County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who pushed for the change, said it will make the department more transparent and strengthen the community’s trust. “I don’t believe agencies should be investigating themselves,” the mayor said.

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Tech-Savvy Criminals Can Build Cellphone Interceptors, Expert Says

With the right equipment, people can hijack your cellphone, listen to your calls and read your texts, alarming privacy rights advocates and tech experts alike, says NPR. Law enforcement agencies do it, but they have been restricted by the FBI from telling us about it. Beyond the police, the listeners could be the U.S. government, corporate spies or even foreign intelligence agencies. It's done with devices known as IMSI catchers or by a brand name like Stingray. They used to be expensive, bulky and hard to purchase. Now they can be bought online for $1,800 and can be as small as a briefcase.

"Today, a tech-savvy criminal or hobbyist can even build one using off-the-shelf equipment," says Stephanie Pell, a cyberethics fellow at the Army Cyber Institute at West Point. IMSI catchers trick cellphones into thinking they're connected, as normal, to a network like Verizon or AT&T. But the devices hijack the phone's signal, and in some cases, intercept the contents of calls and texts. The IMSI catchers take advantage of a vulnerability built into the system. Phones using new technology can authenticate cell towers, but phones on older systems cannot tell between real and fake towers. NPR says, "There's an arms race on between the technology used to intercept cellphone calls and the technology used to detect that technology."

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State GOP Boss Charged in 'Indictment of Alabama'

Mike Hubbard, speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives and a powerful state Republican boss, has been indicted on 23 criminal counts, including using his office for personal gain, reports AL.com. Hubbard, 52, who led a historic Republican takeover of the state Legislature in 2010, was charged after a yearlong investigation. If convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of two to 20 years in prison and up to $30,000 in fines for each count. 

According to the indictment, Hubbard solicited favors from some of Alabama's rich and powerful, including former Alabama Gov. Bob Riley and many prominent businessmen. He is accused of soliciting or receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in business from Riley and others for his personal firms, including The Auburn Network and Craftmaster Printing. "This isn't just an indictment of the speaker of Alabama's House of Representatives," said John Archibald of AL.com. "This is an indictment of Alabama."

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Violent Felon Accused of Serial Killings in NW Indiana

Accused serial killer Darren D. Vann took Gary, Ind., police on a bloody scavenger hunt last weekend, leading them to bodies of his alleged victims scattered in abandoned buildings all over the rusted-out Steel City, reports the Chicago Sun-Times. Police believe Vann used online prostitution services, including Backpage.com, to lure women to Gary and nearby Hammond, Ind. — typically to empty buildings — before killing them. And they said he has enjoyed showing off his handiwork.

“He’s basking in the glory,” one detective said. “He is reliving everything, seeing photos of the victims, dead and alive.” Police have connected Vann, 43, to seven victims, but there may be more. He allegedly admitted to killings dating back 20 years. He was arrested after surveillance video evidence linked him to the murder last Friday night of Afrika Hardy, 19, found strangled at a Hammond Motel 6. An Indiana native, Vann is a registered sex offender who spent five years in prison in Texas for raping and attempting to strangle a woman in Austin. He was paroled last July.

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Schools Struggle to Dial Back Juvenile Arrests

A generation ago, schoolchildren caught fighting in the corridors, sassing a teacher or skipping class might have ended up in detention. Today, there’s a good chance they will end up in police custody, says the Wall Street Journal. Over the past 20 years, prompted by changing police tactics and a zero-tolerance attitude toward small crimes, authorities have made more than 250 million arrests, the FBI estimates. Nearly one in three American adults are on file in the FBI’s master criminal database.

This arrest wave, in many ways, starts at school. Concern by parents and school officials over drug use and a spate of shootings prompted a rapid buildup of police officers on campus and led to school administrators referring minor infractions to local authorities. Some jurisdictions are so overwhelmed that they are experimenting with routing schoolchildren into specially designed courts that would keep first-time offenders from being saddled with an arrest record. Others have passed new laws or policies to dial back police involvement in school discipline.

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WA Court Hears Sex Case Against Backpage.com

The Washington Supreme Court is set to hear arguments Tuesday in a case filed by three sex trafficking victims who say the website Backpage.com helps promote the exploitation of children, reports the Associated Press. A separate federal case against Backpage.com was filed in Boston last week. The firm argues that the lawsuits are an attempt at censorship. It says the Communications Decency Act gives it immunity from the activities of its members or users.

Lawyers for the three girls say they were sold as prostitutes in advertisements on Backpage.com. They say it and other sites offering "adult services" are not protected by the communications act because the sites are responsible for some of the information posted. (On Monday, Indiana authorities said that a suspected serial killer of prostitutes who was arrested over the weekend met at least one of his victims through a Chicago Backpage.com ad.)

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Cops, Courts Increase Reliance on 'Cadaver Dogs'

Increasingly, law enforcement investigators across the country are putting dogs to work to help find remains — bodies, bones and blood from the missing and the murdered, reports the Associated Press. And the results of their labors are being used more and more often in court. Cadaver dogs, as the specially trained canines are sometimes called, were used in searches after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and to help find victims of natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina.

More recently, these dogs have helped convict some murder suspects, even when no body is found. Trainers and some forensic scientists say the dogs can detect human residue that's been left behind in a trunk, or on a blanket or tarp, or a temporary grave of some sort. In some cases, the dogs also help pinpoint areas where air and soil can be tested with increasingly sophisticated detection devices — though these methods have not been without controversy.

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Court to Rule on Police Access to Motel Registries

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to decide whether Los Angeles police can inspect hotel and motel guest registries without permission from a judge, reports the New York Times. Dozens of cities, including Atlanta, Denver and Seattle, allow such searches, which law enforcement officials say help them catch fugitives and fight prostitution and drug dealing.

A group of motel owners challenged the law. They said they were not troubled by its requirement that they keep records about their guests. But they objected to a second part of the ordinance, requiring that the records “be made available to any officer of the Los Angeles Police Department for inspection.” In December, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, struck down the ordinance on a 7-4 vote, saying it ran afoul of the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches.

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PA 'Sociopath' Justice Suspended in Porn Scandal

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Monday night suspended Justice Seamus McCaffery, who last week publicly apologized for exchanging hundreds of sexually explicit emails with state attorney general staffers, reports the Lehigh Valley Morning Call. The court said it was suspending McCaffery with pay to "protect and preserve the integrity" of the state's judicial system and called on the independent Judicial Conduct Board to complete an investigation in 30 days.

McCaffery, of Philadelphia, has called the email scandal a "cooked-up controversy" that is part of a "vindictive pattern of attacks" on him by Chief Justice Ron Castille. In his opinion Monday, Castille suggested that McCaffery displays "pathological symptoms [that] describe a sociopath" who blames others for his "transgressions." The Morning Call on Oct. 2 disclosed McCaffery's role in an email porn scandal that has gripped Pennsylvania. Castille described the 234 sexually explicit emails he reviewed as "highly demeaning portrayals of … women, elderly persons and uniformed school girls."

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Justice Advocate Says Civil Rights Fight Goes On

Americans are "too celebratory" about gains in civil rights, legal advocate Bryan Stevenson tells Terry Gross on NPR's "Fresh Air." He says the U.S. criminal justice system is rife with racial prejudice that demands diligent attention. Stevenson, executive director of the Montgomery, Ala.-based Equal Justice Initiative, helped exonerate Walter McMillian, a black man who was wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to death in Alabama. Stevenson is the author of a new memoir, "Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.'

He tells Gross, "We're too celebratory of civil rights these days. We have these 50th anniversaries and everyone is happy and everybody is celebrating. Nobody is talking about the hardship. It's almost as if the civil rights movement was this three-day event: On Day 1, Rosa Parks didn't give up her seat on the bus. On Day 2, [the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.] led a march on Washington. And on the third day, we signed all of these laws. And if you think about that history in that way, you minimize the trauma, the damage, the divides that were created. You can't segregate and humiliate people decade after decade without creating long-lasting injuries."

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