Friday, December 16, 2011

Hot Coffee -- Documentary about Tort Reform

A new documentary explores the rhetoric and politics of "tort reform." Hot Coffee: Is Justice Being Served? begins with the the case that has been fodder for comedians and politicians, Liebeck v. McDonald's.
Seinfeld mocked it. Letterman ranked it in his top ten list. And more than fifteen years later, its infamy continues. Everyone knows the McDonald’s coffee case. It has been routinely cited as an example of how citizens have taken advantage of America’s legal system, but is that a fair rendition of the facts? Hot Coffee reveals what really happened to Stella Liebeck, the Albuquerque woman who spilled coffee on herself and sued McDonald’s, while exploring how and why the case garnered so much media attention, who funded the effort and to what end. After seeing this film, you will decide who really profited from spilling hot coffee.
The next segment of the film looks at how a tort-reform damage cap has affected one family with a seriously disabled son.

And the third segment features Oliver Diaz, a justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court who successfully campaigned against a candidate backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, only to be indicted for accepting a bribe and then for tax fraud. Despite his acquittals, the charges kept him off the bench for years and probably cost him his next election.

The filmmaker, Susan Saladoff, is a lawyer who took on this project – her first film – during a sabbatical from her practice. She definitely has a point of view, and in the film and on the website encourages people to take action opposing tort reform. Whether or not you ultimately share her position, the film offers important information, with clips from advocates on both sides of the debate. Check it out: KF1250.H68 2011 at Classified Stacks.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Brain Science and the Law

Royal Society report
A panel of experts from the Royal Society has issued a report on Neuroscience and the Law (Dec. 13, 2011):

Neuroscientists seek to determine how brain function affects behaviour, and the law is concerned with regulating behaviour. It is therefore likely that developments in neuroscience will increasingly be brought to bear on the law. This report sets out some of the areas where neuroscience might be of relevance, along with some of the limits to its application. Specific issues discussed include risk assessment in probation and parole decisions; detecting deception; assessing memory; understanding pain; and Non-Accidental Head Injury NAHI).
The experts conclude that the science is potentially relevant to the law, but that it's too early to apply neuroscience directly in legal proceedings. They encourage further dialogue between neuroscientists and people in law.  See Maria Cheng, UK experts: Too soon to use brain science in court, Olympian (via AP), Dec. 12, 2011.

The 46-page report is available for free download in PDF, Kindle, or E-Reader format.

This is part of a series of reports the Royal Society is putting out on neuroscience and society.  The others are: Neuroscience, Society and Policy (Jan. 2011), Neuroscience: Implications for Education and Lifelong Learning (Feb. 2011), and Neuroscience, Conflict and Security (forthcoming).

Last March, the Royal Society and the National Academies co-hosted a two-day forum on neuroscience and the law in Irvine, CA. You can watch videos of most of the panels here.

Intrigued by this area of cross-disciplinary study? You can see posts on a variety of issues in The Law and Neuroscience Blog and the Neuroethics & Law Blog

Sunday, December 4, 2011

News Tribune Investigates Kitsap-Pierce Drug Task Force

Today's News Tribune has an investigative report on WestNET, the West Sound Narcotics Enforcement Team, a federally funded drug task force based in Kitsap County, with tendrils reaching into Pierce County. A Dirty Little War, News Tribune, Dec. 4, 2011.

While the task force's mission is to go after drug-trafficking organizations, much of its effort was spent on low-level cases. Critics say that the officers often had a "cowboy" mentality, breaking down doors and bursting into homes wearing paramilitary gear.

The newspaper's review of court records indicates that the task force often inflated its success rate.

At least two people allege that one officer (Roy Alloway, who has since pleaded guilty to federal firearms and tax offenses) pressured them to give evidence that was false, or said that they made statements they did not.

In A story like WestNET's takes considerable work, News Tribune, Dec. 4, 2011, the journalists describe the public records they used, from courts (federal and state) and law enforcement agencies. The Tahoma Narcotics Enforcement Team (TNET), based in Pierce County, presents a different picture. All of its cases went to federal court, while most of WestNET's cases went to federal court. TNET has a much higher success rate (although the journalists did not have a record of cases the prosecutors declined. How WestNET compares with Pierce County task force, News Tribune, Dec. 4, 2011.

If you'd like to read about a drug task force gone horribly wrong, I recommend Nate Blakeslee, Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town, HV8079.N3 B55 2005 at Good Reads. While focusing on one notoriously bad case – with a renegade officer at the center of the action – Blakeslee also discusses the structural factors that make drug task forces susceptible to abuse of power, sloppy police work, and worse. See chapter 11, The Jump Out Boys.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Spokane Judge Won't Approve Plea without Seeing Prosecutor

Spokane County prosecuting attorney Steve Tucker personally negotiated a plea agreement with a defendant who shot a gun into a neighbor's house. The judge wanted to ask him some questions about it, but he chose not to appear, sending one of his assistants. The judge said she wouldn't approve the plea. Prosecutor Rankles Judge Spokesman Review, Nov. 26, 2011.