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How Las Vegas Became National Role Model for Police Shooting Cases

After a series of questionable police shootings and a subsequent federal intervention, Las Vegas Metro Police became a role model for law enforcement agencies struggling with accusations of racial bias, reports the Las Vegas Sun. The rigorous investigation by the U.S. Justice Department led the local agency to transform the way it interacts with the public, and law enforcement experts now praise the department for its overhaul. “There are some things the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department does really well that other agencies should consider doing,” said George Fachner, a researcher at Virginia-based CNA Analysis & Solutions who helped the Justice Department do its analysis.

Las Vegas has adopted at least 72 of the 79 recommendations made by the Justice Department. The Sun takes a look at four of them: bias classes for officers, body cameras, critical investigation procedures, and increased training. Among many reforms, the department formalized a peer review of its use-of-force investigation reports and worked with community leaders  Metro formalized a peer review of its use-of-force investigation reports and worked with community leaders and stakeholders to establish expectations and protocol for releasing information about officer-involved shootings. Officials now conduct news conferences every time an officer fires a gun on the job, and video of every news conference is posted online.

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Judge Advises People In D.C. To Decline Police "Voluntary" Searches

"I do not wish to have an encounter with the police right now. Am I free to leave?” So advises Judge Janice Rogers Brown of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit about what to say to police on patrol in Washington, D.C., for illegal guns. Brown urges citizens to address officers “firmly, politely, respectfully,” but to exercise their right to end what are supposed to be voluntary encounters with law enforcement. The National Law Journal says Brown was on a three-judge panel that said members of the Metropolitan Police Department’s Gun Recovery Unit were allowed to approach people on the street to ask if they were carrying contraband and if they would consent to a search.

Brown expressed her unhappiness about the practice. “Our jurisprudence perpetuates a fiction of voluntary consent where none exists,” she wrote. Confronted by police officers in tactical gear who might use a refusal or other reaction as justification to conduct a search anyway, Brown said, the person being questioned in fact had little choice about whether to comply. Police will “have a tough time ignoring it if somebody says that in the future,” said federal public defender A. J. Kramer, referring to the script Brown provided.

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Lynch Confirmation Vote Imminent As Senators Agree On Trafficking Bill

Senate leaders today announced a deal to move forward on a stalled human trafficking bill, clearing the way for a vote on Loretta Lynch, President Obama's attorney general nominee, within days, the Associated Press reports. The deal aimed to solve a dispute over abortion that had stalled the once-popular trafficking bill for weeks. Lynch was caught in the crossfire, infuriating Democrats, because Republican leaders decided to hold off on her confirmation vote until the trafficking bill was resolved. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) He said he anticipated a vote on Lynch, who will become the nation's first black female attorney general, "in the next day or so."

The trafficking deal aims to address Democratic concerns that the legislation would expand existing prohibitions on spending federal funds for abortions. The legislation envisions a new victims fund made up of fees paid by sex criminals. Democrats said applying abortion spending prohibitions to that new source of non-taxpayer funds was an expansion they could not accept. Republicans had to be satisfied that abortion spending prohibitions were not curtailed. The final language solves the problem by establishing two sources of money for the new victims' fund. Money collected from fines assessed on criminal perpetrators would be used for services such as legal aid, but not health or medical services, and therefore language on abortion would not be relevant. 

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Six Minnesota Somalis Charged With Trying To Join Islamic State

When Guled Ali Omar made up his mind to join the Islamic State group, he wasn't easily deterred, reports the Associated Press. The Minnesota man emptied his bank accounts last May and planned to fly to Syria via San Diego, federal officials say, but his family stopped him. In November, he tried to board a flight in Minneapolis, but was blocked by the FBI. Even while under investigation, Omar and five other men kept trying to go to Syria, coming up with a plot to secure false passports. Omar is among six Minnesota men of Somali descent charged with terrorism offenses in charges unsealed yesterday. They are among the latest Westerners accused of traveling or attempting to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State group, which has carried out a host of attacks including beheading Americans.

In Alabama on Monday, a spokesman for a Muslim couple said their 20-year-old daughter fled a Birmingham suburb to join militants in Syria after being recruited online. The woman's whereabouts weren't immediately clear. Authorities described the Minnesota men as friends in the state's Somali community who recruited and inspired each other and met secretly to plan their travels. They are charged with conspiracy to provide material support and attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. "What is remarkable about this case is that nothing stopped these defendants from pursuing their goal," said U.S. Attorney Andy Luger. "They never stopped plotting another way to get to Syria to join ISIL." The Minneapolis area is home to the largest concentration of Somali immigrants in the U.S. Since 2007, 22 young Somali men have traveled from Minnesota to Somalia to join the militant group al-Shabab, which is also listed by the U.S. State Department as fomenting terrorism. 

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Supreme Court Bars Cops From Extending Traffic Stop for Dog Drug Sniff

Police officers violate suspects' constitutional rights when they extend a traffic stop to allow time for a trained dog to sniff for drugs, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today, 6-3. The justices said officers must let drivers leave unless they have specific reasons to suspect the vehicle is carrying contraband. Writing for the majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said a seven-to-eight minute delay in the search of Nebraska driver Dennys Rodriguez in 2012 was not warranted. "Lacking the same close connection to roadway safety as the ordinary inquiries, a dog sniff is not fairly characterized as part of the officer’s traffic mission," Ginsburg said. Two of the more conservative court members, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia, agreed.

One dissenter, Justice Clarence Thomas, said, "The only question here is whether an officer executed a stop in a reasonable manner when he waited to conduct a dog sniff until after he had given the driver a written warning and a backup unit had arrived, bringing the overall duration of the stop to 29 minutes. Because the stop was reasonably executed, no Fourth Amendment violation occurred."

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After FBI Admits Hair Testimony Flaws, Leahy Renews Forensic Reform Call

After federal officials acknowledged that nearly an entire unit of FBI forensic examiners overstated testimony about hair matches for decades, the question now is how courts and prosecutors will respond to criminal convictions that may have relied on such evidence, the Washington Post reports. A sampling of cases in Massachusetts and North Carolina shows the challenges facing convicts seeking to appeal. Sen. Patrick Leahy (VT) and Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (TX), the top Democrats on the Senate judiciary and House science committees, called on Congress to pass forensic-science reforms to hold examiners to the highest standards. “This kind of gross misconduct simply cannot be tolerated in our criminal justice system,” Leahy said.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers are being notified to determine if the outcome of cases hinged on the problem testimony. The FBI has offered new DNA testing, and the Justice Department will drop procedural objections to appeals in federal cases. The picture is different in state cases, where most errors occurred. Biological evidence in these cases often is lost, destroyed or degraded. Only California and Texas specifically allow appeals when experts recant or when scientific advances undermine forensic evidence at trial. The Innocence Project, which along with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers participated in the federal review, argues that scientifically invalid forensic testimony should be considered a violation of due process and grounds for appeal, as courts have held with false or misleading testimony.

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In Supreme Court, Justice Department Routinely Backs Police Use Of Force

At the U.S. Supreme Court, where the limits of police power are established, the Justice Department has supported police officers every time an excessive-force case has made its way to arguments, reports the New York Times. Even as it has opened more than 20 civil rights investigations into local law enforcement practices, DOJ has staked out positions that make it harder for people to sue the police and that give officers more discretion about when to fire their guns. Police groups see Attorney General Eric Holder as an ally in that regard, and that pattern has rankled civil rights lawyers, who say the government can have a far greater effect on policing by interpreting law at the Supreme Court than through investigations of individual departments.

“There is an inherent conflict between people at the Justice Department trying to stop police abuses and other people at the Justice Department convincing the Supreme Court that police abuses should be excused,” said Ronald Kuby, a New York City civil rights lawyer. Conflict is built into the system. The Justice Department’s core mission is law enforcement. “It’s natural that the instinctive reaction of the department is to support law enforcement interests, even when a particular case may have compelling facts for the individual defendant,” said Neal Katyal, a former acting solicitor general in the Obama administration. He said the Justice Department had a duty to tell the court what effect a ruling could have for federal law enforcement agencies.

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Ohio Case Caught On Video Is Example Of Officer Not Shooting

After a spate of controversial shootings by police officers, a new incident is drawing public attention for the opposite reason: An officer is shown on video refraining from the use of his weapon, despite clearly being in a volatile situation, the Christian Science Monitor reports. The incident involving Jesse Kidder, a rookie cop in New Richmond, Oh., is drawing national publicity and praise as a model of police restraint. After a car chase Thursday, a murder suspect jumped out of his vehicle and charged at officer Kidder, who got out of his car and had his gun ready and a body camera running.

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