Living In Spytown

An interesting lawsuit is proceeding in Coral Gables, Florida.  Coral Gables has installed “license plate readers” at traffic intersections, and one of its citizens, Raul Mas Canosa is suing about the amount of data that the city has accumulated about him — and every other car owner in town.

Coral Gables has more than 30 license plate readers positioned at major intersections in the city.  The readers take a photo of the back of each vehicle and record the license plate number and the associated time, date and location.  Thanks to the license plate readers, the Coral Gables Police Department has captured tens of millions of data points representing individual vehicle movements around the city — more than any of the other 26 South Florida cities that use a similar system.  Privacy advocates say that the license plate readers are intrusive and the accumulated data effectively allows the city to track the daily movements of ordinary citizens who are not suspected of any crime.  The city argues that the system can be used to quickly find vehicles that may be involved in criminal activity and could be used to help solve cold cases, too.

The pending lawsuit argues that the license plate readers violate the Fourth Amendment and rights to privacy under Florida law.  Recently the judge presiding over the case denied Coral Gables’ motion to dismiss the lawsuit, which means the case will proceed into the discovery phase.  The discovery will likely focus on how the city uses the system, its usefulness in helping to solve crimes and apprehend criminals. and whether there is reasonable justification for keeping the data for years.

Should cities routinely track the movements of people going about their daily affairs through the use of cameras at traffic intersections?  After all, traffic intersections are public places where anyone can see who is driving by, and in most major cities there are likely to be security cameras that record movements past particular buildings.  For many of us, being on camera has become a part of our daily lives.  But the problem here is that the city keeps the data for years and presumably can combine it with other information it maintains — like whose car bears the license plate, and where they live — to get a pretty good picture of what people are doing and where they are going from day to day.  That seems pretty intrusive to me.

Police officials are always going to want more data and information that they can sift through in trying to solve crimes.  The question is one of line-drawing, and balancing effective crime fighting with the privacy rights of normal people.  The Coral Gables case is one that will help to start sketching out the boundaries and setting the balance.

Friday Night Hangover

 

When Betty and I took our morning lap around Schiller Park yesterday morning, circling the park, clockwise, on the perimeter sidewalk, we encountered the following, in order: (1) a disgusting pool of vomit that all joggers and walkers were steering clear of but that was of intense interest to Betty and other dogs; (2) an area of a flowerbed where the plants were crushed and uprooted; and (3) a car, which had lost part of a bumper and a hubcap, had white paint scrapes on the left front side, and was parked over the curb with a flat right front tire.

You didn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that some irresponsible person got drunk Friday night, drove when they shouldn’t have, ran into something, “parked” their car at Schiller, toppled into the flowerbed, and then expelled the stomach poisons. I’m just surprised Betty and I didn’t see and smell a reeking figure passed out on the playground or under a tree.

What’s interesting is that, as of this morning when the photo above was taken, the car is still there. Perhaps the offender had a blackout and can’t remember where he/she left the car.  Or, perhaps the car was stolen by the offender, and the true owner doesn’t know where the car is.

So, I’m offering this post as a public service. If this is your car, it’s on the north side of Schiller Park. And if this post helps you retrieve it, how about making a decent contribution to the German Village Garten Club to compensate for the pretty flowerbed that got ruined as part of the entire escapade?

Puppy Fraud

The unfortunate reality is that there are a huge number of scam artists in the world.  There is no fraud too low for them to try, if they think there is money in it, and the internet just makes committing the fraud easier and more anonymous.

block-photos_available-pets_383968525-cropped-small.jpg__320x240_q90_crop_subsampling-2_upscaleThe latest evidence of this is reports of puppy scams that prey upon people, often kids, who’ve saved their money to buy a puppy.  The victims go on line looking for the puppy of their dreams, come across a website that promises to provide them with a cute, furry pet, make contact and wire money to arrange for the delivery of a dog — and then no dogs arrive.  Sometimes the fraudsters even double-down, successfully, on hapless victims by telling them that they need to pay even more money for a kennel crate, or insurance, or to correct a delivery mistake.  People are reporting losing hundreds and even thousands of dollars through such swindles.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone would consciously target dog-lovers — especially kids — in criminal fraud schemes, but apparently there are no lines some crooks won’t cross.  If fraudsters don’t mind cheating senior citizens out of their life savings, or bilking new arrivals who’ve come to this country in search of a better life, why would they hesitate to take advantage of a child who has saved money from their summer job to buy a puppy?

The lesson, of course, is to not assume that every internet web page represents a legitimate business.  If you’re going to buy a puppy — or for that matter, anything else — on the internet, do your homework and pay attention to details.  In the story linked above, for example, the Better Business Bureau notes that scam websites often feature misspellings and grammatical errors that a legitimate business would fix.

But to be as safe as possible, why buy a puppy over the internet in the first place?  Your local dog shelter has real dogs, large and small, that are yearning for a home and that you can see, and touch, and pet before you add a new member to the family.

Anonymizing The Shooters

New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, staked out a firm — and interesting — position after a terrorist attack by a white supremacist on two New Zealand mosques killed dozens of people last month.  “[Y]ou will never hear me mention his name,” said Ardern. “He is a terrorist, he is a criminal, he is an extremist. But he will, when I speak, be nameless.”  She added: “He may have sought notoriety, but we in New Zealand will give him nothing. Not even his name.”

anongiftsPrime Minister Ardern is the latest figure to argue that the individuals who commit mass shootings should be anonymized, and that news reports of such crimes should not name the killers.

The anonymity effort traces its roots back to the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, which produced massive coverage of the American teenagers who did the killing.  The Columbine shootings are believed to have motivated many other mass shootings, both in the United States and around the world, and some observers argue that giving the Columbine shooters publicity and celebrity-style coverage only encourages future attacks.  The New Zealand shooter, for example, was supposedly inspired by a 2015 mass shooting at a church in Charleston, South Carolina.

As one criminologist, Adam Lankford, has put it:  “A lot of these shooters want to be treated like celebrities. They want to be famous. So the key is to not give them that treatment.”  Detailed news coverage of shootings can also be used as a guide to would-be shooters who are planning their own mass attacks, and can motivate future killers to try to outdo the death tolls in prior shootings.  It’s apparently a sad, sick reality of our modern world that some people are so obsessed with becoming famous that they will commit heinous crimes against innocent strangers to obtain the publicity they crave.

Should the terrorists and criminals who commit mass shootings be named, or should the news media refrain from identifying shooters while otherwise providing the news about such killings?  There’s no doubt that the names of criminals are part of the news.  Every new reporter learns about the “5 Ws and an H” — who, what, where, when, why, and how — that should elements of any news story.  But members of the news media also are part of society and have always accepted some element of social responsibility in their news coverage — by not publishing ultra-bloody or violent images, for example.  Withholding the names of mass shooters who hope for notoriety is just one additional step down that same path.

I don’t know whether anonymizing mass shooters will help to discourage future tragedies, but I do know that what has been done to date hasn’t worked.  I applaud the stance of Prime Minister Ardern and hope that reporters and editors will start to recognize that providing publicity to such shooters simply makes the new media a pawn in their sick and twisted effort to become famous.

Operation Varsity Blues

Yesterday federal prosecutors announced that charges were being brought against dozens of people who allegedly were involved in a scheme to use bribery and fraud to get kids admitted into elite American schools.  The investigation — code-named Operation Varsity Blues — swept in Hollywood stars, corporate executives, and high-powered lawyers, all of whom allegedly took illegal steps to game the college admissions process.  The U.S. attorney who announced the results of the investigation and the arrests called the parents “a catalog of wealth and privilege.”

1552422542439The prosecutors says it’s the biggest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the federal government.  Charges were announced against fifty people, including nine college coaches and 33 parents, who are collectively accused of paying an estimated $25 million in bribes to college coaches and administrators.  Individual parents were alleged to spend between $200,000 and $6.5 million in the scam, and allegedly hired an “admissions consultant” to make the bribes, falsely present their kids as star athletes to increase their chances of admission, and hire people to take admissions tests in their children’s stead.

The schools involved — which included elite institutions like Yale, Stanford, and Georgetown — are not targets of the investigation, and some said they were victims of the alleged scam.  No students are being prosecuted, either.  The alleged scam involved college coaches in sports like soccer, sailing, tennis, water polo and volleyball being bribed to put students on lists of recruited athletes, which helped their admissions chances, and parents claiming their kids had learning disabilities that would give them privacy and extra time to take admissions tests and facilitate tampering with scores.

The scam says something sad about the parents who were caught in the dragnet and allegedly participated in the scheme.  They apparently have so little confidence in the actual abilities of their kids, and so much confidence in the allure of elite colleges, that they are willing to participate in fraud and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars just to get their kids in the door, figuring that a degree from one of those schools is all their kids need to secure their futures.  In short, the parents don’t think it’s a meritocracy out there in the real world, and if you’ve got a degree from the right school it will put you on Easy Street for the rest of your days.

The college admissions process is a tough time for parents and students alike, and often the process doesn’t seem fair.  This scandal isn’t going to help that perception.  As the article linked above states:  “The scandal is certain to inflame longstanding complaints that children of the wealthy and well-connected have the inside track in college admissions — sometimes through big, timely donations from their parents — and that privilege begets privilege.”  How many parents who are stressing about their kids and colleges are going to think about that come admissions time?

Thoughtless And Hopelessly Self-Absorbed

Sometimes I wonder about if people have changed, or whether there have always been a healthy percentage of seriously jerky people in the American population.  Did the “Greatest Generation” that survived the Great Depression and won World War II to usher in an era of great prosperity, for example, have a significant number of thoughtless and hopelessly self-absorbed members — or is the presence of such people an unfortunate modern phenomenon?

close-up-of-measles-rash-f7cd43Consider this article.  A 57-year-old Wisconsin man stayed in a hotel with people who have the measles — which is one of the most contagious diseases around.  The measles virus is communicated to different people by coughing and sneezing, and the virus is hardy enough to live for two hours in an airspace where an infected person coughed or sneezed.  In order words, you don’t need to be in the same room as someone who has measles at the same time for the disease to be transmitted.  The U.S. regularly deals with measles outbreaks when an infected person appears in a community, some members of the community aren’t vaccinated, and the disease quickly starts to spread.  With more and more people blithely deciding they don’t need to have their children vaccinated, the risks of an outbreak are multiplying.

Because the man had potentially been exposed to measles, officials decided it was prudent to keep him quarantined for 21 days and he was ordered to stay home.  Police officers were even posted outside his home to make sure he obeyed the quarantine order.  But because the man felt that he was “going crazy” inside his house, he enlisted his wife to help him escape.  He hid in her car and went to a gym so he could work out.  A gym, of course, would rank right up there as one of the best places for the measles virus to spread — an enclosed space where people are exercising in close quarters, and therefore breathing deeply of the shared air.

The man says he only stayed at the gym for a few minutes, because he started feeling guilty, and when he and his wife were later found outside by deputies, he apologized.  He’s now been charged with violating his quarantine order, and he points out that he never was officially diagnosed with measles and never thought he was symptomatic.  But, of course, that’s not a decision he gets to make, and now he and his wife are being prosecuted for their stupid and dangerous decision.

I think it would be tough to stay cooped up in your house for 21 days without getting cabin fever, but quarantine orders are for the public good.  You’d like to think that a mature adult would accept such an order and deal with it — but apparently that’s not the case.  I think anyone who would violate such an order and unilaterally decide to go to a public place like a gym, where they could potentially be exposing innocent people to one of the most contagious diseases around, should be prosecuted.  Maybe he’ll learn that the world doesn’t revolve around him, and there’s such a thing as a greater good.

Reining In Excessive Fines

Yesterday the Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — which states that “[e]xcessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted” — imposes limits on the abilities of state and local governments to seize assets and property and impose financial penalties.  And the Court’s ruling applying the “excessive fines” clause of the amendment to state and local governments was a unanimous one, which is a welcome development in our era of increasingly divided politics.

gettyimages-1066751830The case involved an Indiana man who was arrested for selling several hundred dollars’ worth of heroin, had his $42,000 Range Rover seized as part of the process — even though the maximum fine for his crime was $10,000 — and sued to get his car back.  The Indiana Supreme Court ruled that the “excessive fines” clause of the Eighth Amendment did not apply to the states, even though the “excessive bail” and “cruel and unusual punishment” clauses have long been applied to the states.  The Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, disagreed.

The decision yesterday addresses a significant real world issue — namely, how far can states and local governments go in imposing monetary penalties and seizing property from people who violate the law . . . or, in some cases, are only accused of violating the law.  Because raising taxes isn’t popular with voters, state and local governments have increasingly looked to aggressive forfeiture practices to fund part of their operations.  Briefs filed in the Supreme Court noted that more than half of municipal and county agencies who participated in a survey said reliance on forfeiture profits was a “necessary” part of their budgets, and that, in 2017, 10 million people owed more than $50 billion in criminal fines, fees and forfeitures. And the aggressive penalties aren’t limited to drug offenses.  One brief in the Supreme Court, for example, described how a $100 ticket for a red-light violation in California results in another $390 in fees.

In holding that the excessive fines clause applies to the states and local governments, Justice Ginsberg noted that “[e]xorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties,” and added:  “Excessive fines can be used, for example, to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies. . . . Even absent a political motive, fines may be employed in a measure out of accord with the penal goals of retribution and deterrence.”

Now that the states know that they can’t impose excessive fines, it will be up to the courts to determine whether the aggressive property forfeiture and fining practices, like the seizure of the Range Rover, are “excessive” or not.  We’ll have to see how that works out, but for now it’s nice to know that Americans have another constitutional protection against potentially overreaching governmental actions.