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House Passes Bill to Limit Police Practices

This week the House of Representatives passed legislation named after George Floyd that would impose new federal restrictions on how local and state police agencies act.

 

By a vote of 220-212, the House passed HR 1280. This will would:

 

  • Strip federal money from police agencies that use chokeholds
  • Remove immunity from lawsuits for police officers
  • Require the use of body cameras
  • Prohibit the use of military-style weapons and equipment in police work
  • Limit the use of no-knock warrants
  • Establish a national database for officers who have a record of abuse complaints

 

Democrats backing this bill argued that these reforms are necessary to end rampant abuses by law enforcement. They argue that the death of George Floyd is only one of many examples of police misconduct, and it is long overdue for the federal government to step in and curb abusive police activity.

 

Republicans pushed back, pointing out that this would be a large federal takeover of state and local authority. They also noted that many Americans welcome police presence to protect lives and property, especially in the wake of riots and other disorders that occurred in cities over the past couple of years.

 

In some cities, activists and politicians are demanding that police department budgets be cut or that some troubled departments be disbanded. While this legislation would not accomplish either of those goals, it would impose new federal restrictions on how police operate.

 

Only 2 Democrats opposed the legislation. One Republican voted in favor of it but later tweeted that he made a mistake and meant to vote against it.

 

Do you support federal restrictions on how local and state police agencies operate?

House Defeats Push to Mandate Voting Rights for Felons, Incarcerated

The progressive caucus in the Democratic Party has long pushed to expand voting rights to felons and individuals in jail. This week, however, they could not even garner a majority of their Democratic colleagues to support that in the House of Representatives.

 

While considering HR 1, a bill that contains a variety of provisions related to federal election law, Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO) introduced an amendment that would mandate that states allow felons and otherwise eligible voters in jail to vote. She said that those who are sent to prison are still people and should retain their rights. Supporters argue that denying the incarcerated their right to vote disproportionately affects minorities and that it is a social justice issue to allow them to vote.

 

The House of Representatives overwhelmingly disagreed, however. The amendment failed by a vote of 97-328. No Republican voted in favor of it, but 119 Democrats also opposed the amendment. 

 

Opponents argued that the federal government should not be telling states that they must allow felons or the incarcerated to vote. They also argued that stripping voting rights from those in jail was part of a proper punishment for their crimes.

 

There have been efforts in states to restore voting rights to felons, although maintaining voting rights for the incarcerated is more controversial. Rep. Bush said that while this amendment may have failed, it would help spark a national conversation on this issue.

 

Do you think that people in jail should be able to vote?

Virginia Set to End Death Penalty

The Virginia legislature voted this week to abolish capital punishment in the state.

 

The House of Delegates supported a death penalty repeal bill this week, following prior action in the State Senate. The House vote was largely along partisan lines, with all the Democrats supporting it and all but two Republicans opposing it. The two chambers passed slightly different versions of the bill, with one containing language that allows judges to impose a maximum sentence of life without parole while the other allows for parole in limited instances. A conference committee will reconcile these differences. Once a final version of the legislation passes the legislature, Gov. Ralph Northam is expected to sign it.

 

Upon enactment of this bill, Virginia will be the first Southern state to end the use of capital punishment. There has been a movement across U.S. states to abolish the death penalty, but its use has survived in the South. With Democrats now controlling the legislature and governorship in Virginia, that state is set to break with its neighbors on this issue.

 

Supporters of ending the death penalty contend that it is a barbaric practice that has no place in civilized society. They also say that innocent people may be put to death. Opponents of repeal say that there are some crimes so heinous that they deserve to be punished by death. They argue that ending the death penalty will send the wrong message to criminals.

 

Do you think states should stop using capital punishment?

Gov. Northam Pushes to Legalize Marijuana in Virginia

If Gov. Ralph Northam gets his way, Virginians will soon be able to enjoy legal marijuana.

 

This week the Northam Administration outlined legislation that would legalize marijuana for recreational use. If enacted, this law would impose a 21% tax on marijuana products and establish a process for those who were affected by marijuana laws in the past could gain entry into the legal marijuana system.

 

Eleven states have legalized the possession and use of marijuana for recreational purposes: Alaska, California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington. Most of the legalization efforts succeeded through ballot measures approved by voters, but state legislators are beginning to embrace this cause, too.

 

Supporters of legalization say that marijuana prohibition hurts minority communities, giving many young men a criminal record and hurting their chance of success later in life. They say that legalizing and regulating the drug will keep people out of jail, with the taxes on marijuana products being used for health care and other government services. Opponents of legalization contend that marijuana is a gateway drug. They argue that legalization will lead to increased use of marijuana, which will have significant harms for society.

 

With both houses of the Virginia General Assembly in Democratic control, the prospects for marijuana legalization look good in that state. The governor's measure has been endorsed by the legislative black caucus, among other groups. 

 

Do you support legalizing marijuana?

Schumer Wants Capitol Rioters Put on No-Fly List

In the wake of the riot at the U.S. Capitol, Sen. Chuck Schumer is calling on the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to place the individuals involved on the agency's no-fly list.

 

Sen. Schumer, who will soon become Senate majority leader, contends that these individuals pose a threat to U.S. security. He says that these people may be planning on traveling to other states and committing further crimes, so they should be prevented from boarding aircraft.

 

The TSA maintains a list of individuals whom it has determined are connected to terrorist activity. To be included on this list, someone does not need to have been convicted of a crime. Instead, the list is compiled using a variety of sources of intelligence. Once on the list, a person can be removed, but the process takes a significant effort.

 

These facts about the no-fly list have led many on both the left and the right to question its use. They argue that air travel is essential to the modern world, so depriving someone of the right to fly without due process of law is a violation of their rights. They contend that only those who have been tied to terrorism in a court of law should be on the no-fly list. Supporters of the list argue that it is a necessary way to prevent a terrorist attack.

 

While a senator can call upon the TSA to add someone to this list, the TSA has its own procedures for doing so. While there have been reports of individuals tied to the riots being denied the ability to fly, it is unknown if these are accurate.

 

Do you think the Capitol rioters should be denied the ability to board U.S. airlines?

House Votes to End Federal Marijuana Prohibition

For the first time, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to end federal laws prohibiting the possession of marijuana.

 

By a vote of 228-164, the House approved H.R. 1380. Here is how VoteSpotter describes that bill:

To remove marijuana from the federal controlled substances list. This would end the federal criminalization of marijuana possession and leave it to states to restrict or regulate marijuana. The legislation would also impose a 5% federal tax on legal marijuana sales.

 

Only 6 Democrats opposed the bill and only 5 Republicans supported it. The House's sole Libertarian member, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, voted "aye."

 

Never before had the House of Representatives considered legislation that would completely repeal federal marijuana law. This follows votes in numerous states to legalize marijuana use for medicinal or recreational purposes. While states can remove their prohibitions against marijuana use or possession, it still remains illegal under federal law. The House vote would end that federal restriction and leave the matter of marijuana's legal status up to states.

 

Supporters of ending federal marijuana prohibition argue that this should be a matter for states to decide. If state residents want marijuana to be legal there, a federal law should not overrule it. They say that marijuana is a relatively harmless drug and that law enforcement action against marijuana possession causes more problems than it solves. Opponents, however, say that the federal government has an interest in preventing people from using a drug that causes numerous health and societal issues. They contend that this vote sends the wrong message to children.

 

This legislation now moves to the Senate, where it is unlikely to receive a vote. This action by the House follows a House vote earlier this year when that body approved ending the enforcement of federal marijuana laws in states that have approved state-level marijuana legalization.

 

Do you support ending federal laws against marijuana use and possession?

Florida Governor Wants to Allow More Force Against Rioters

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has not been shy about expressing his dislike of rioting, looting, and demonstrations that block roads. Now he wants legislators to change state law to allow state residents to use more force against people in these situations.

 

Under DeSantis's proposal, the state would expand the number of situations in which people could use lethal force in self-defense. These would include looting and the "interruption or impairment" of a business. The law would also impose harsher penalties for blocking roads and give drivers immunity if they struck protestors unintentionally. In addition, the governor has proposed cutting state funding for local governments that defund police departments.

 

These proposed changes to state law come in the wake of nationwide protests over police brutality and racial discrimination. in some cities, these protests have turned violent, leading to looting. Many times protestors will also block traffic in an attempt to bring attention to their cause. Many elected officials have deplored the protests and rioting, saying that law enforcement should do more to stop them.

 

Critics of Gov. DeSantis's proposals say that this would empower vigilantes to kill protestors and run over demonstrators. They argue that the punishment for these actions should not be death. DeSantis says these changes are necessary in order to stop protestors from destroying businesses and blocking traffic. 

 

The Florida legislature may consider this legislation when it convenes in January.

 

Do you think there should be tougher laws for looters and demonstrators who block traffic?

Voters Legalize Marijuana Use in Five States

 

The legalization of marijuana continues to score victories at the ballot box.

 

Voters in Arizona, Montana, South Dakota, and New Jersey approved ballot measures that legalized marijuana use for recreational purposes. These measures differ in their details, with some being more restrictive than others. Most limit how much marijuana is considered a legal amount and impose heavy taxes on it. New Jersey, however, simply legalized the possession of marijuana, said its sales are subject to the state sales tax, and prohibited any new taxes on it.

 

Mississippi and South Dakota also approved medical marijuana. In South Dakota, however, the more expansive legalization measure also allows the use of marijuana for medical purposes.

 

With these victories, there are now 15 states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use. Most of these states have done so via ballot measures, although Vermont and Illinois legislators passed legalization bills in those states. Many more states have decriminalized marijuana possession.

 

The federal government still lists cannabis as a controlled substance. Federal agencies can still arrest individuals for marijuana possession, but states that have legalized the drug do not do so. Some members of Congress are pushing for the federal government to relax its marijuana laws.

 

Do you think that the federal government should still prohibit the possession and use of marijuana?

Virginia Bans No-Knock Warrants

This week Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed a variety of bills into law that reform policing in Virginia, including one that prohibits the use of no-knock warrants.

 

No-knock warrants have come under scrutiny since the police shooting of Breonna Taylor. Police in Louisville, Kentucky, had a no-knock warrant to search her apartment. They ended up shooting her, with the exact details of what happened under dispute. Some observers say that if police failed to identify themselves, such as no-knock warrants allow, this can lead to a situation where police are mistaken for intruders. Some argue that this is what happened in the Breonna Taylor case, with her boyfriend then shooting at police because he thought they were criminals. The police then shot back, killing Taylor.

 

In the wake of this shooting, criminal justice reform advocates have pushed states and local governments to outlaw the use of these warrants. They maintain that ending the use of no-knock warrants will reduce the possibility of accidental shootings like that which killed Taylor. Critics of these bans contend that police need them to serve warrants in a way that minimizes suspects from destroying evidence.

 

Legislators passed this ban as part of other criminal justice reform bills. These other measures include mandating that police officers intervene if they see other officers using excessive force and curbing the use of military weapons and tactics by police.

 

Virginia becomes the third state to ban police from using no-knock warrants.

 

Do you think that no-knock warrants should be banned?

Michigan Voters Could Mandate Search Warrant for Electronic Data

With so much personal information being kept in electronic form, there are increasing concerns about how private that data is. On Election Day, Michigan voters will decide whether state police must get a warrant to access this electronic information.

 

If voters approve Proposal 2, it would add "electronic data" and "electronic communications" to the list of items that the state constitution says can only be searched by police if they get a search warrant. Currently, there is uncertainty about how protected electronic data is from police searches.

 

Both the federal Constitution and the Michigan constitution protect "persons, houses, papers and possessions" from warrantless searches. When written, there were no such things as electronic communications and electronic data. Advocates for this amendment argue that the state constitution needs to be updated to ensure that this constitutional protection is adequate for modern times. Opponents have noted that such protections could make it more difficult for law enforcement to do their jobs. 

 

Both houses of the Michigan legislature voted to place this amendment on the ballot for voters to decide. The votes in each house were unanimous.

 

Do you think that police should get a warrant before accessing someone's electronic communications?

Federal Government Executes Fourth Inmate in Two Months

This week, the federal government executed its fourth federal prisoner in two months, a pace of federal executions not seen since the 1950s.

 

This week, it executed Lezmond Mitchell, who was convicted of carjacking and murder. In July, the Trump Administration executed three men. Prior to these executions, the federal government had not put anyone to death in 17 years. The last time that four men were put to death during a single president's term of office was during the administration of Dwight Eisenhower.

 

Attorney General William Barr has made it a priority for the Justice Department to resume the use of capital punishment. Attorneys for prisoners on death row have been asking federal courts to stop their executions, but judges have cleared the way for lethal injection to resume after over a decade-and-a-half hiatus.

 

The death penalty is a deeply divisive issue, with some states recently abolishing it. However, there are 58 individuals on federal death row -- 57 men and 1 woman. The Trump Administration is resuming executions after the last ones that occurred were during the George W. Bush Administration. 

 

Do you support resuming federal executions?

House Votes to Bar Feds from Interfering with State Marijuana Laws

This week, the House of Representatives approved language that prohibits the Department of Justice from interfering with state and tribal programs concerning legal marijuana.

 

The 254-163 vote was on an amendment to the appropriations bill for the Department of Justice. This type of amendment is known as a "rider," and it places policy restrictions on the spending of money by a federal agency. In this case, the amendment prohibits the Department of Justice from spending any money on actions to enforce federal marijuana law in states that have legal recreational or medicinal marijuana. As long as individuals or businesses are operating in compliance with state law, this amendment would stop the federal government from pursuing legal action against them.

 

Similar prohibitions have been part of past appropriations bills. This is an attempt to harmonize federal and state marijuana policy. The federal government considers marijuana a prohibited drug, and its use is illegal nationwide under federal law. However, states have been taking steps to either decriminalize or fully legalize marijuana's use. That means that marijuana is allowed under state law, but not under federal law in these areas. This legal limbo poses a special problem for marijuana-related businesses who are operating legally under state law but who potentially face federal penalties.

 

While the support for this amendment came primarily from Democrats, many Republicans have also been pushing for the federal government to refrain from enforcing marijuana law in states where it is legalized. President Trump has, at times, said he supports this type of federal policy. However, Congress has failed to pass any law that enshrines this principle in law. instead, it has passed appropriations bills that contain riders that contain this language. However, these riders only last as long as the spending bill does -- for the duration of the fiscal year.

 

The Senate must still pass the Department of Justice appropriations bill, so this prohibition on federal drug enforcement activity could still potentially be removed.

 

Do you think the federal government should enforce laws against marijuana possession in states that have legalized the drug?

Democrats Reject Marijuana Legalization Plank

As the Democrats prepare their party platform for the 2020 election, advocates for marijuana legalization suffered a blow. Their efforts to obtain support from the Democratic Party for full legalization of marijuana failed by a vote of 50-106 this week.

 

As marijuana legalization becomes more popular with the public, advocates had been pressing for the Democratic party to embrace this position, too. The Democratic National Committee is meeting this week to prepare the party’s platform, and some members put forward a proposal to amend the platform to back full legalization. That vote failed, however.

 

Instead, the platform will continue to have language in it that supports marijuana decriminalization and federal recognition of state laws that relax marijuana penalties. This is in line with what presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden supports.

 

That stance, while significantly different from the GOP platform, does not go far enough for many of the Democratic Party’s base voters. They argue that marijuana laws are used to harm people of color and minority communities. They say that marijuana legalization is a necessary part of criminal justice reform. 

 

The issue of marijuana’s legal status has been a growing concern in recent years. States across the nation have legalized it for recreational use, joining many states that also allow it for medicinal use. However, the drug is still on the federal controlled substances list. So while states may not recognize marijuana as being illegal, the federal government still does. That puts marijuana businesses and users in a legal limbo that will only change with changes in federal marijuana law.

 

Do you think that marijuana should be legalized?

Senate Rejects Ban on Feds Giving Military Items to Police

The Senate passed the Department of Defense authorization bill this week, but defeated a bipartisan amendment to ban the transfer of some surplus military equipment to state and local police.

 

Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hi) and Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) sponsored an amendment that would place new limits on a controversial program where the Department of Defense provides surplus military items to police department around the country. This program has come under increasing scrutiny with the police response to protests over the murder of George Floyd.

 

Under the Schatz amendment, the Department of Defense could not transfer these items to state or local police departments:

  • Bayonets, grenade launchers, grenades (excluding stun and flash-bang), explosives, and firearms of .50 caliber or higher and ammunition of 0.5 caliber or higher.
  • Tracked combat vehicles.
  • Weaponized drones.
  • Asphyxiating gases, including those comprised of lachrymatory agents, and analogous liquids, materials or devices.

 

Critics argue that these items are inappropriate for local police departments. They say that military hardware that is designed to kill a foreign enemy should not be deployed by domestic police departments. Supporters of the program contend that it is a vital way for police departments to obtain law enforcement tools at no cost. They say that many of these items are necessary to protect people and property.

 

While a majority of senators agreed by a vote of 51-49, the amendment needed 60 votes to be approved. Instead, the Senate voted 90-10 for an amendment by Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) that bans a much narrower category of military equipment from being transferred and imposes new training requirements.

 

Do you think the federal program to provide military equipment to police departments should be ended?

Judge Once Again Blocks Federal Executions

The Trump Administration’s movement to resume federal executions has once again been put on hold by a federal judge.

 

On Monday, the federal government planned to execute Daniel Lewis Lee, who was convicted of three murders in 1996. There have been ongoing legal challenges to his execution, but an appeals court had ruled on Sunday that it could proceed. However, hours after this ruling, another federal judge placed an injunction on any federal executions.

 

That judge, Tanya Chutkan, said that the courts still needed to sort out the legal challenges from four inmates on death row. These cases concern whether federal execution protocols are cruel and unusual, and are therefore banned by the Constitution. Some analysts argue that the drugs used for lethal injection cause significant pain and distress to those being executed.

 

Chutkan’s ruling contends that there is sufficient evidence that these drugs do indeed constitute cruel and unusual punishment, so there should be a definitive ruling by federal courts before executions resume. The Trump Administration has aggressively fought to begin using the death penalty again.


The last person executed by the federal government was Louis Jones in 2003.

 

Do you support the federal government resuming use of the death penalty?

House Passes Police Overhaul Legislation

With minimal GOP support, the House of Representatives this week passed legislation that would mandate changes to how state and local police operate.

 

By a vote of 236-181, the House passed HR 7120, legislation named after the late George Floyd. Among the things this bill would do are:

  • Banning the use of police chokeholds
  • Removing immunity from lawsuits for police officers
  • Requiring the use of body cameras
  • Prohibiting the use of military-style weapons and equipment in police work
  • Establishing a national database for officers who have a record of abuse complaints

 

House Democrats argued these measures were necessary to stop law enforcement abuses that led to the death of George Floyd and other people in police custody. They contended that systemic racism is plaguing police departments nationwide, and their reforms can help alleviate some of the negative effects of heavy-handed law enforcement. No Democrats voted against the bill.

 

Republicans were not buying these arguments, however. Only three GOP House members supported HR 7120. They noted that this was a huge federal imposition on what is typically a state or local issue. They noted that the federal government has no constitutional role to mandate how non-federal law enforcement operates. They also said that at a time of rioting and looting, it was counterproductive to impose new restrictions on police.

 

The Senate is unlikely to consider this legislation, but Senate Republicans have introduced their own police reform bill.

 

Do you think Congress should pass a federal law to change the way state and local police departments operate?

Colorado Passes Police Reform Bill

In the wake of protests over law enforcement tactics, Colorado legislators have passed a bill that will overhaul how police in that state operate.

 

This week, Gov. Jared Polis signed into law SB 217, which both houses of the legislature quickly passed this month. Among other things, this new law will:

  • Mandate the use of body cameras in many instances, and penalize officers who turn off cameras to obstruct justice
  • Allow police to be sued and be personally liable if they violate someone’s civil rights or do not step in to prevent another officer from violating someone’s civil rights
  • Ban police from firing rubber bullets at protestors
  • Establish a use-of-force database
  • Create an oversight board to monitor police actions

 

Supporters of this bill say that it will help address many of the troubling law enforcement practices that have led to the deaths and injury of suspects. They argue that these reforms will help ensure police protect the rights of people while also upholding the law. Opponents, however, contend that the bill was hastily written and will handicap efforts to protect the public.

 

Other states are considering similar reform legislation. Next week, the House of Representatives will vote on a bill that will enact some of these measures at a federal level.

 

Do you think that police officers should be personally liable if they violate someone’s civil rights? Should police be prohibited from firing rubber bullets at protestors?

Congressional GOP Introduces Police Reform Bill

This week congressional Republicans outlined police reform legislation in the wake of demonstrations over the killing of George Floyd. Democrats say it does not go far enough.

 

This bill would, among other things:

  • Mandate federal reports on use-of-force incidents and no-knock raids
  • Provide federal incentives for local and state police departments to ban the use of chokeholds and require the use of body cameras
  • Develop use-of-force training by the Justice Department for local law enforcement
  • Reauthorize federal law enforcement grant programs for five years

 

Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) took the lead on developing this legislation, and there is a companion bill in the House of Representatives. He and other Republicans say these steps are good ways for the federal government to respond to calls for police reform. Democrats, however, say that this bill leaves out many important provisions.

 

Congressional Democrats introduced their version of reform legislation last week. It went much further than the Republican bill, imposing new rules on state and local law enforcement as well as removing legal immunity that protects police officers from many lawsuits. Republicans argue that the Democratic bill goes too far, and intrudes upon state and local government functions.

 

The Senate will consider the Republican police reform legislation next week.

 

How far do you think the federal government should go in forcing state and local police departments to change their practices?

Police Unions are Under Scrutiny

The protests over the George Floyd killing and other actions by the law enforcement often include a call to reform police departments. Some observers say that one obstacle to such reforms is police unions, which represent millions of law enforcement officers across the nation.

 

Many cities and counties allow collective bargaining for police officers. The unions that represent these officers bargain for pay, working conditions, and other contract provisions to govern their members. Some of these provisions concern the investigation, discipline, and dismissal of officers who have been accused of misconduct. Some are accusing these provisions of preventing bad officers from being fired and protecting officers from the consequences of unjustified violent action.

 

According to these critics, unions negotiate levels of protection that make it very expensive and difficult for bad police officers to be fired or otherwise disciplined. They point to the fact that the officer who killed George Floyd had numerous complaints filed against him, but he was still working for the Minneapolis police department. One way to improve policing, these critics argue, is to reduce the power of police unions to protect violent police officers.

 

Union leadership pushes back against these concerns, however. They contend that police officers face a uniquely difficult task, one that often results in complaints being filed against police. They argue that police need to have a process that gives them formal protections in order to ensure that they are not unfairly disciplined or fired.

 

Some police union officials have come under fire during recent disturbances resulting from George Floyd’s death. These officials have strongly supported police officials arrested for violence against protestors. Elected officials and marchers say these actions illustrate why police unions need reform, while union officials argue they are merely standing up for their membership who are being unjustly accused of crimes.

 

Do you think that police unions should be ended?

Democrats Outline Federal Police Legislation

In the wake of demonstrations nationwide concerning police conduct, Congressional Democrats this week unveiled legislation that would impose sweeping new changes on the way law enforcement is conducted.

 

Among the things this bill would do are:

  • Banning the use of police chokeholds
  • Removing immunity from lawsuits for police officers
  • Requiring the use of body cameras
  • Prohibiting the use of military-style weapons and equipment in police work
  • Establishing a national database for officers who have a record of abuse complaints

 

The backers of these proposals say they are necessary reforms to end rampant abuses by law enforcement. They argue that the death of George Floyd is only the latest example of police misconduct, and it is long overdue for the federal government to step in and curb abusive police activity.

 

Congressional Republicans are skeptical of the need for federal restrictions on local police. They point out that this would be a large federal takeover of state and local authority. They also note that in the wake of riots and other disturbances, many Americans are welcoming police presence to protect lives and property.

 

In some cities, activists and politicians are demanding that police department budgets be cut or that some troubled departments be disbanded. While this legislation would not accomplish either of those goals, it would impose new federal restrictions on how police operate.

 

House Speaker has said she would like to vote on this legislation by the end of the month. It is unlikely that the Senate will consider that chamber’s version of the legislation.

 

Do you support a federal ban on police chokeholds? Should all police officers be required to wear body cameras? Should there be a federal ban on police using surplus military equipment?

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