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Archive for the ‘Crime’ Category

My previous post looked at the federal government’s troubling decision to investigate, persecute, prosecute, and ultimately imprison a random home-loan borrower named Charlie Engle for the crime of mortgage fraud. Citing a column on the legal fallout from the financial crisis in the New York Times, I noted that it was rather odd that the government would target a nobody like Mr. Engle while letting all the big fish swim away.

This story certainly paints a picture of a government that has one set of rules for ordinary people, but an entirely different set of rules for the political elite and those who make big campaign contributions to that ruling class. But I also noted that I’m not a legal expert and was unsure about the degree to which the big players actually broke laws, or whether they simply made stupid business decisions (often encouraged by bad government policy).

The most upsetting part of the story, though, is how the government wound up targeting Mr. Engle. It turns out that an IRS agent, Robert Norlander, must have been competing for the IRS’s Thug-of-the-Year Award (or maybe it was A-Hole-of-the-Year or Jerk-of-the-Year) because here are some of the things he did:

o  Mr. Norlander decided to snoop into Mr. Engle’s because he saw a film about him training for a marathon. In other words, there was no probable cause, no reasonable suspicion, nothing. Just the perverse decision of an IRS bully to go after someone.

o  Mr. Norlander admitted a pattern of thuggish behavior, stating that he will snoop into someone’s private life simply because that person drives an expensive car.

o  Mr. Norlander continued to investigate and persecute Mr. Engle, subjecting him to undercover surveillance, even though his tax returns showed no wrongdoing.

o  Mr. Norlander even engaged in “dumpster dives” to look for evidence of wrongdoing in Mr. Engle’s garbage. Keep in mind that there is no probable cause, no reasonable suspicion, and Engle’s tax returns were legit.

o  Mr. Norlander used a sleazy KGB tactic by sending an attractive woman to flirt with Mr. Engle in hopes of getting him to somehow admit to a crime.

o  Mr. Norlander failed to find any evidence of a tax crime. He couldn’t even hit Engle with a money-laundering offense. But the undercover agent who was part of the “honey trap” was wearing a wire and supposedly got Engle to admit to mortgage fraud and Norlander used that extremely flimsy evidence to justify a Justice Department case against Mr. Engle.

In other words, this whole thing has a terrible stench. Assuming the details in the story are accurate, we have an IRS agent engaging in a vendetta against someone, and then apparently justifying his jihad by figuring out how to nail the guy for a very weak charge of mortgage fraud. I would refer to Mr. Norlander as a “rogue agent,” but apparently his jackboot behavior is business-as-usual at the IRS.

Here are the relevant passages from the New York Times column.

Mr. Engle received $30,000 for his participation. The film, “Running the Sahara,” was released in the fall of 2008. Eventually, it caught the attention of Robert W. Nordlander, a special agent for the Internal Revenue Service. As Mr. Nordlander later told the grand jury, “Being the special agent that I am, I was wondering, how does a guy train for this because most people have to work from nine to five and it’s very difficult to train for this part-time.” (He also told the grand jurors that sometimes, when he sees somebody driving a Ferrari, he’ll check to see if they make enough money to afford it. When I called Mr. Nordlander and others at the I.R.S. to ask whether this was an appropriate way to choose subjects for criminal tax investigations, my questions were met with a stone wall of silence.) Mr. Engle’s tax records showed that while his actual income was substantial, his taxable income was quite small, in part because he had a large tax-loss carry forward, due to a business deal he’d been involved in several years earlier. (Mr. Nordlander would later inform the grand jury only of his much lower taxable income, which made it seem more suspicious.) Still convinced that Mr. Engle must be hiding income, Mr. Nordlander did undercover surveillance and took “Dumpster dives” into Mr. Engle’s garbage. He mainly discovered that Mr. Engle lived modestly. In March 2009, still unsatisfied, Mr. Nordlander persuaded his superiors to send an attractive female undercover agent, Ellen Burrows, to meet Mr. Engle and see if she could get him to say something incriminating. In the course of several flirtatious encounters, she asked him about his investments. …Unbeknownst to Mr. Engle, Ms. Burrows was wearing a wire. …No tax charges were ever brought, even though that was Mr. Nordlander’s original rationale. Money laundering, the suspicion of which was needed to justify the undercover sting, was a nonissue as well. As for that “confession” to Ms. Burrows, take a closer look. It really isn’t a confession at all. Mr. Engle is confessing to his mortgage broker’s sins, not his own.

Now you understand why I’m a libertarian. As George Washington is reported to have stated, “Government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.”

Unfortunately, thanks to bad laws and thuggish bureaucrats, that government is now our master.

A previous post of mine addressed the issue of whether Republicans were right to trim the IRS’s budget. So long as the IRS is employing thugs such as Mr. Norlander, the answer is a resounding yes.

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I confess to mixed feelings on this type of issue. If taxpayers are financing sidewalks, does that mean anybody has a right to use them for any purpose, at any time?

Here’s a blurb from the People’s Republic of San Francisco.

San Francisco police officers have started enforcing the city’s new ban on sitting and lying on the sidewalk. In November, voters approved the sit/lie law, which makes it illegal to hang out on San Francisco sidewalks between 7 am and 11 pm. “The cops said that the first time, we get admonished. And then after that, they’ll start filling out tickets,” he said. “They only have a select few that they’re going to choose to do that with.” Those tickets will start at $50 and could escalate to $500 or even jail time.

One thing I do know, however, is that giving bums tickets is not going to be very effective.

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Alex Tabarrok has a fascinating article in the Wilson Quarterly about the history of bail bondsmen and their role in this privatized segment of the criminal justice system. Let’s start by excerpting some history of the system.

Bail began in medieval England as a progressive measure to help defendants get out of jail while they waited, sometimes for many months, for a roving judge to show up to conduct a trial. If the local sheriff knew the accused, he might release him on the defendant’s promise to return for the hearing. More often, however, the sheriff would release the accused to the custody of a surety, usually a brother or friend, who guaranteed that the defendant would present himself when the time came. So, in the common law, custody of the accused was never relinquished but instead was transferred to the surety—the brother became the keeper—which explains the origin of the strong rights bail bondsmen have to pursue and capture escaped defendants. Initially, the surety’s guarantee to the sheriff was simple: If the accused failed to show, the surety would take his place and be judged as if he were the offender.

The English system provided lots of incentives for sureties to make certain that the accused showed up for trial, but not a lot of incentive to be a surety. The risk to sureties was lessened when courts began to accept pledges of cash rather than of one’s person, but the system was not perfected until personal surety was slowly replaced by a commercial surety system in the United States. That system put incentives on both sides of the equation. Bondsmen had an incentive both to bail defendants out of jail and to chase them down should they flee. By the end of the 19th century, commercial sureties were the norm in the United States. (The Philippines is the only other country with a similar system.)

In recent decades, however, some states have begun to restrict or ban the use of private bail bondsmen. Not surprisingly, this hasn’t been good news. The cost to taxpayers rises and the effectiveness of the criminal justice system falls. Here’s another excerpt.

Every state now has some kind of pretrial services program, and four (Illinois, Kentucky, Oregon, and Wisconsin) have outlawed commercial bail altogether.

…Today, when a defendant fails to appear, an arrest warrant is issued. But if the defendant was released on his own recognizance or on government bail, very little else happens. In many states and cities, the police are overwhelmed with outstanding arrest warrants. In California, about two million warrants have gone unserved. Many are for minor offenses, but hundreds of thousands are for felonies, including thousands of homicides.

In Philadelphia, where commercial bail has been regulated out of existence, The Philadelphia Inquirer recently found that “fugitives jump bail . . . with virtual impunity.” At the end of 2009, the City of Brotherly Love had more than 47,000 unserved arrest warrants. About the only time the city’s bail jumpers are recaptured is when they are arrested for some other crime.

…Unserved warrants tend not to pile up in jurisdictions with commercial bondsmen. In those places, the bail bond agent is on the hook for the bond and thus has a strong incentive to bring those who jump bail to justice. My interest in commercial bail and bounty hunting began when economist Eric Helland and I used data on 36,231 felony defendants released between 1988 and 1996 to investigate the differences between the public and private systems of bail and fugitive recovery. Our study, published in The Journal of Law and Economics in 2004, is the largest and most comprehensive ever written on the bail system.

Our research backs up what I found on the street: Bail bondsmen and bounty hunters get their charges to show up for trial, and they recapture them quickly when they do flee. Nationally, the failure-to-appear rate for defendants released on commercial bail is 28 percent lower than the rate for defendants released on their own recognizance, and 18 percent lower than the rate for those released on government bond.

Even more important, when a defendant does skip town, the bounty hunters are the ones who pursue justice with the greatest determination and energy. Defendants sought by bounty hunters are a whopping 50 percent less likely to be on the loose after one year than other bail jumpers.

In addition to being effective, bail bondsmen and bounty hunters work at no cost to the taxpayers. The public reaps a double benefit, because when a bounty hunter fails to find his man, the bond is forfeit to the government.

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While some on the left were utterly contemptible in their efforts to blame the Tuscon shootings on anything or anyone other than the nut who pulled the trigger, it is perfectly legitimate for them to claim that the tragedy is a reason to impose gun control are erode constitutional rights.

But that doesn’t mean they’re right. I’ve commented on gun control issues many times, including here, here, here, and here, but let’s see what some real experts have to say. John Lott deals with the “concealed carry” issue for FoxNews.com, and here are some key excerpts.

Of all the multiple victim shootings around the country in public schools, the Appalachian Law School, on city streets, churches, or in malls that have been stopped law-abiding citizens with concealed handguns, none, not a single one has resulted in innocent bystanders being shot. Indeed, rarely do the citizens with the concealed handguns actually pull the trigger, simply brandishing the gun stops the attack. Permit holders do not endanger others. Take Arizona, since that is where all the focus is. As of December 1, 2007, there were 99,370 active permits. During 2007, 33 permits were revoked for any reason — a 0.03% rate — cases that did not involve using the gun to harm others. …most of the academic research, including recent research on right-to-carry research by economists and criminologists do indeed show that the laws reduce violent crime. Among peer reviewed studies in academic journals, 16 studies examining national data find that right-to-carry laws reduced violent crime, 10 claimed that they found no discernible effect, and zero studies found a bad effect from the law. Five other non-refereed studies were more divided, with three finding drops in crime, one claiming to find no effect, and two saying that there were either no effect or possibly small increases in crime. But even “no discernible effect” is usually not the same as “debunking” or “refuting” a hypothesis. Rather it often means that the evidence is not sufficient to draw a conclusion. Both Kristof and Donohue link to a paper by Ayres and Donohue that supposedly “debunks” my research. That is hardly true. Even if we were to fully accept the wording of the research paper, which is questionable, they claim to have found a small temporary initial rise in crime, followed by a long sustained drop. Yet, even the initial increase is a result of a mistake in how they set up their regressions and even their own more precise estimates of the yearly changes in crime never show that increase.

And Robert Verbruggen, writing for NationalReview.com, undertakes the daunting task of trying to educate anti-gun zealots (i.e., journalists) about basic firearms knowledge. He makes a few suggestions that, if followed, would at least protect them from looking completely ignorant.

If a left-of-center reader turned to his favorite pundits this week to find out what to think about the Tucson massacre and gun laws, he’d have read nothing but clichés and half-truths. There are at least two reasons for this. First is that most of these columnists have no firsthand knowledge of guns or gun culture. Second is that they haven’t bothered to read any of the countless academic studies of gun control that have come out since John Lott published More Guns, Less Crime in 1998. …Here are some quick and easy tips for anti-gun columnists — if you follow them, you’ll still be wrong, but at least you won’t sound so ridiculous. 1. Don’t assume criminals follow laws. …2. If you’re going to write that a certain kind of gun is particularly dangerous, consult someone who knows something about guns first. …3. Don’t prattle on about “hunting” or “sport” — and more generally, don’t forget about self-defense.

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Nullification occurs when jurors refuse to find a defendant guilty because the underlying law is unjust (visit the Fully Informed Jury Association if you want more details). And if I ever wind up on a jury and the government was trying to throw someone in jail for a victimless crime, I certainly hope I would do the right thing and refuse to declare the person guilty.

The good people of western Montana certainly have the right attitude about victimless crimes. A jury pool in Missoula County basically told a court that they would not be willing to convict a defendant for possessing a tiny amount of marijuana.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this happened all over the country and politicians were forced to stop the war on drugs? That would be a Christmas present for the entire nation.

While we’re waiting for that to happen, let’s celebrate what happened in Montana. Here’s an excerpt from the Billings Gazette.

A funny thing happened on the way to a trial in Missoula County District Court last week. Jurors – well, potential jurors – staged a revolt. They took the law into their own hands, as it were, and made it clear they weren’t about to convict anybody for having a couple of buds of marijuana. Never mind that the defendant in question also faced a felony charge of criminal distribution of dangerous drugs. The tiny amount of marijuana police found while searching Touray Cornell’s home on April 23 became a huge issue for some members of the jury panel. No, they said, one after the other. No way would they convict somebody for having a 16th of an ounce. In fact, one juror wondered why the county was wasting time and money prosecuting the case at all, said a flummoxed Deputy Missoula County Attorney Andrew Paul. …“Public opinion, as revealed by the reaction of a substantial portion of the members of the jury called to try the charges on Dec. 16, 2010, is not supportive of the state’s marijuana law and appeared to prevent any conviction from being obtained simply because an unbiased jury did not appear available under any circumstances,” according to the plea memorandum filed by his attorney.

(h/t Jason Kuznicki)

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We all know that alcohol prohibition was great news for organized crime in the 1920s, and we also know that drug prohibition is causing widespread societal destruction today, but taxation also can facilitate criminal behavior. Specifically, there is considerable evidence that punitive taxes on cigarettes promote criminal activity. Here’s a video from Michigan’s Mackinac Center.

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A man in New York recently scared off some gang members by firing a couple of warning shots into the ground. When the cops arrived, did they congratulate the man for protecting his family and start looking for the thugs? That’s what would happen in a logical and just society, but the anti-gun mentality in New York is so pervasive that the cops actually arrested the homeowner. Needless to say, I can’t imagine this happening in Georgia or Wyoming – places where both the law and cops seem to be more rational. Some day, I hope to be on a jury and have a case like this so I can vote not guilty and engage in the noble tradition of jury nullification. Here’s an excerpt from the story I saw on Drudge.

He was arrested for protecting his property and family. But it’s how the Long Island man did it that police say crossed the line. …George Grier said he had to use his rifle on Sunday night to stop what he thought was going to be an invasion of his Uniondale home by a gang he thought might have been the vicious “MS-13.” He said the whole deal happened as he was about to drive his cousin home.

“I went around and went into the house, ran upstairs and told my wife to call the police. I get the gun and I go outside and I come into the doorway and now, by this time, they are in the driveway, back here near the house. I tell them, you know, ‘Can you please leave?’ Grier said.

Grier said the five men dared him to use the gun; and that their shouts brought another larger group of gang members in front of his house.

“He starts threatening my family, my life. ‘Oh you’re dead. I’m gonna kill your family and your babies. You’re dead.’ So when he says that, 20 others guys come rushing around the corner. And so I fired four warning shots into the grass,” Grier said.

…You may think a person has the right to defend their home. But the law says you can only use physical force to deter physical force. Grier said he never saw anyone pull out a gun, so a court would have to decide on firing the gun.

Police determined Grier had the gun legally. He has no criminal record. And so he was not charged for the weapon.

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