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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?

Los Angeles Looking at Cutting Police Funding

Police are facing scrutiny for their actions around the nation. In Los Angeles, city leadership is trying to cut their budget.

 

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has said he will look for $150 million in cuts to the Los Angeles Police Department budget. He said that other city departments are facing cuts due to the coronavirus epidemic, and that the police department should face cuts due to racial justice.

 

Prior to the mayor’s move, members of the city council had introduced resolutions calling for the same amount of budget cuts. These council members say this is one way they can introduce change to the way policing is done in California.

 

Cutting funding for police departments is becoming a popular issue for people who are upset with law enforcement actions in the wake of the George Floyd killing. They argue that the money going to police departments could be better spent on helping the community instead of paying for what they perceive as oppression.

 

Opponents of this move say these cuts will endanger public safety. They point to the unrest currently occurring and argue that it is more important than ever that police have the tools necessary to protect people and property.

 

Mayor Garcetti has said he will look to redirect money from the LAPD to other community programs.

 

Do you think that the budget for police forces should be cut?

Trump, Pentagon Clash on Insurrection Act

President Trump is frustrated that rioting and looting continue across the U.S. To stop it, he has threatened to use the U.S. military to restore order. This has prompted his Defense Secretary to issue a public disagreement with his boss.

 

This week, President Trump addressed the nation from the Rose Garden and said, ““If a city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.”

 

Federal law prohibits the use of active duty military personnel within the United States except in rare instances. One of the exceptions comes from the Insurrection Act, which permits troops to be used in the case of insurrections or rebellions. Presidents such as Dwight Eisenhower and George W. Bush have used this law to deal with riots.

 

Defense Secretary Mark Esper disagrees that the current situation warrants the use of the act, however. He said that invoking the Insurrection Act should be done as a “last resort and only in the most urgent and dire of situations.” He then said that the situation right now does not meet those criteria.

 

The governors and mayors targeted by Trump’s words also reject the need to call in the military. They say that armed troops will only make the situation worse. They prefer to be left alone to handle any rioting and looting their own way, without having the president override their decisions.

 

Do you think that President Trump should activate the military to deal with rioting?

Senate Considers FISA Surveillance Reauthorization

This week, senators are taking up legislation to reauthorize and change some of the procedures for the  Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court.

 

The process for obtaining intelligence under FISA has been under scrutiny by allies of President Trump. The FBI used this process to obtain warrants to monitor members of the Trump campaign, and a recent report has illustrated numerous problems with that warrant.

 

HB 6172 reauthorizes the FISA court through 2023. Here is how VoteSpotter describes the bill:

 

To renew provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that permit the federal government to collect business records and other information during national security investigations without a warrant. The FISA law allows a federal judge to approve such collections without notifying the target or hearing opposing arguments. The bill would also to expand the circumstances that require FISA judges to hear from a government-appointed critic of such requests, and increasing the number of FISA courts.

 

The changes contained in this legislation do not go far enough for some senators, though. They argue that the process for the FISA courts tilts too heavily towards the government, and that abuses would still be too easy to commit. This bipartisan group plans on offering amendments that would limit the collection of Internet usage history as well as strengthen the role of outside experts to challenge requests for surveillance.

 

The bill passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 278-136 in March.

 

Do you think the federal government has too much power to conduct surveillance and collect information under the FISA process?

High Court Bars Non-Unanimous Jury Verdicts

Today the Supreme Court held that there must be unanimous jury verdicts to convict someone in criminal cases.

 

In Ramos v. Louisiana, the court held that it violated the Constitution to convict someone of a crime using a jury that did not return a unanimous verdict. This applies only to offenses deemed “serious.” The court did not rule on cases concerning petty offenses.

 

This decision arose from the conviction of Evangelisto Ramos for murder in Louisiana. A jury in that state found him guilty by a verdict of 10-2. At that time, Louisiana allowed non-unanimous jury verdicts. It has subsequently changed its law.

 

The decision finding these verdicts unconstitutional was 6-3, with Justice Neil Gorsuch writing the majority opinion. Chief Justice John Roberts dissented along with Justices Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan. The majority concluded that the standard at the time the Constitution was written required a unanimous verdict. The dissenting justices said that the court had previously held that it was not unconstitutional for states to use non-unanimous jury verdicts, so the court should not be overturning precedent here.

 

Only Oregon is currently affected by this decision, at it was the last remaining state that allowed criminal convictions without a unanimous verdict.

 

Do you support requiring unanimous jury verdicts for criminal convictions?

Virginia Decriminalizes Marijuana Possession

Possessing small amounts of marijuana in Virginia will no longer be a criminal offense.

 

Under a bill passed by Virginia legislators this week, someone is caught with less than an ounce of marijuana or marijuana products will face a civil fine of $25. The bill also puts convictions for this level of drug possession under seal so they would not be available to employers or others.

 

This new penalty is in contrast to the criminal penalties under current law. Right now, marijuana possession is punishable by a fine of $500 or 30 days in jail.

 

Supporters of the bill say that current drug laws disproportionately affect minorities, giving them a criminal record that makes it difficult to obtain employment. They note that many other states are undertaking similar reductions in penalties for simple marijuana possession.

 

This bill does not legalize marijuana possession and use, as a handful of states have done. However, legislators approved a bill that would study full legalization in the state.

 

Both Democratic and Republican legislators supported the decriminalization bill. Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam has said he would sign the legislation.

 

Do you think that marijuana possession should be decriminalized?

Court Upholds Cutting Funds to Sanctuary Cities

President Trump has made no secret about his anger over some cities refusing to cooperate with federal immigration agents. Now a federal appeals court has given his administration the go-ahead to cut some funding for such jurisdictions.

 

The federal government cannot compel local governments, such as states and cities, to enforce federal law. These governments can choose to cooperate with federal law enforcement agencies, and routinely do. But so-called “sanctuary cities” have put in place policies that prohibit their law enforcement personnel from honoring requests from federal immigration agents or notifying the federal government of detainees’ immigration status.

 

These policies do not break federal law, so there is no way for the Department of Justice (DOJ) to attack them in court. However, the federal government does provide law enforcement grants to these jurisdictions. Under then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the DOJ announced a policy of reducing federal funding to areas with sanctuary policies.

 

Some of these jurisdictions sued, saying that this funding cutoff was unrelated to the purpose of public safety grants. This week, however, a federal appeals court ruled that the Trump Administration could indeed reduce funding under these grounds. The court held that Congress gave the Attorney General broad leeway to write rules and conditions for these grants.

 

The cities affected by this ruling are likely to appeal. The case could end up before the Supreme Court.

 

Do you support cutting some federal funding for “sanctuary cities” that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration agencies?

"Assault Weapons" Ban Blocked in Virginia Legislature

A ban on some types of semi-automatic firearms with military features is dead – for now – in Virginia. But legislators could bring up a ban on guns they label as “assault weapons” in 2021.

 

When Democrats took control of the legislature in January 2020, they made gun control one of their top priorities. They had the support of Democratic Governor Ralph Northam in these efforts. He had long supported measures like limiting handgun purchases and banning assault weapons, but he faced opposition when Republicans controlled both houses of the legislature. With Democrats taking the majority in the 2019 elections, however, it paved the way to achieving new restrictions on gun ownership.

 

While legislators have passed a variety of gun control measures, a Senate committee blocked the assault weapons ban this week. Instead of prohibiting these guns, legislators voted to request a study of the issue from a state commission. They postponed a vote on the ban until 2021.

 

Supports of an assault weapons ban argue that these guns are military guns that do not belong in civilian hands. They argue that such a ban will reduce mass shootings. Opponents counter that these guns only look like military guns, and that they are only used in a very small amount of crimes. They also point out that studies found little to no effect on crime reduction during a federal assault weapons ban.

 

Many pro-gun Virginians have rallied in Richmond, urging legislators to vote against gun control.

 

The Senate committee vote effectively ends efforts this year to enact a ban this year. It remains to be seen what a study will produce and whether legislators will have an appetite for such a ban next year.

 

Do you support banning semi-automatic firearms that have the same cosmetic features as military guns?

States Ask Supreme Court to Resume Federal Executions

A federal court order has put federal executions on hold. Now, fourteen states and the Trump Administration are urging the Supreme Court to lift this court order and allow four executions to proceed.

 

Last month, a federal judge temporarily stopped federal executions from occurring in order to let a legal challenge to lethal injection procedures be resolved. There has been ongoing controversy over the types of drugs used for lethal injections. Some states have had to switch their procedures in response to court cases.

 

Attorney General William Barr recently announced that the federal government would use a new drug for its executions. Inmates who had been sentenced to death said this violated the law. A federal judge has stopped executions in order to let the court battle over this legal question play out. This week, another federal court affirmed that order.

 

The Trump Administration wants to proceed with four executions. However, lawyers are arguing that federal law does not allow the Attorney General to mandate a uniform execution procedure. Instead, they say, the law requires that federal executions must follow the rules of the states in which they occur.

 

The states that filed the Supreme Court brief want the high court to intervene and allow executions to resume. They note that some of the states in which these executions were to occur follow the federal protocol. They also argue that they have an interest in seeing capital punishment sentences carried out.

 

The states who filed the brief are Arizona, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah.

 

It is unclear if the Supreme Court will take up this case and issue a definitive answer.

 

Do you support resuming federal executions?

House Committee Advances Marijuana Decriminalization Bill

For the past twenty years, states have been relaxing or eliminating laws against marijuana use and possession. This week, federal legislators got into the act.

 

By a vote of 24-10, the House Judiciary Committee passed H.R. 3884, a bill that would remove cannabis from the federal controlled substances list. This would effectively decriminalize the bill at the federal level. State laws restricting marijuana use or possession would be unaffected.

 

House Judiciary Chairman Jerome Nadler (D-NY) sponsored the bill, but it received bipartisan support. Besides ending federal marijuana prohibition, the bill would also provide a process to expunge the records of individuals convicted of federal marijuana crimes. The bill would also establish a 5% tax on the sale of cannabis products, excluding hemp.

 

Beginning in the 1990s, states started legalizing the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. In the past decade, some states have also removed their laws banning recreational use. However, marijuana possession is still illegal under federal law. This puts marijuana users and businesses in states that have legalized cannabis in the position of violating federal law.

 

Supporters of federal decriminalization say that marijuana is less harmful than some legal drugs, such as alcohol or tobacco, so there is no reason for the federal government to prohibit it. They argue that it should be up to states to decide how to regulate its use. Opponents of decriminalization say that marijuana is a gateway drug, and that decriminalization will cause societal problems.

 

This legislation may now be considered by the full House of Representatives.

 

Do you support legislation that decriminalizes marijuana at the federal level?

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