Monthly Archives: March 2012

Trayvon Martin and Southern Justice

Casey Bonner, Junior Editor, Alabama Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law Review

Casey Bonner, Junior Editor, Alabama Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law Review

It is August 1955 in Money, Mississippi. A pre-teen boy from Chicago, Illinois is spending part of his summer vacation visiting some relatives in the Delta, and the boys are currently hanging out in a small, local grocery store. An attractive woman walks in, and the boys’ attention is instantly drawn to her.  The Yankee, a visitor to the South, doesn’t know the old customs of the state. He whistles at the beautiful woman. The grocery store briefly falls silent before the boys are thrown out in an uproar. The visitor has made a grievous mistake: the woman at whom he had whistled is the grocery store owner’s wife. She is also white.

Several days later, the visitor goes missing. Rumors start to circulate; word starts flying around that the grocery store owner, Roy Bryant, and two other men have kidnapped the visitor. The sheriff quickly makes an arrest and charges the three men with kidnapping. Three days after the visitor is abducted, two boys fishing in the Tallahatchie River find his body. His body is beaten, bloody, and bruised. His captors had tied his body to a heavy fan blade with barbed wire tied around the neck. His eye is dislodged, and he has a gunshot wound slightly above his ear. The young male visitor, Emmett Till, had been killed for one reason and one reason only: He was Black.[1]

Flash forward to February 2012 in Sanford, Florida. A high school senior is walking home from a nearby grocery store after buying Skittles and some iced tea. He’s crossing through a neighborhood being watched by the Neighborhood Watch Captain, George Zimmerman. Zimmerman notices the young man walking through the neighborhood, and calls and reports the young man’s presence as “suspicious.” The police urge Zimmerman not to pursue the young man, but Zimmerman does not heed their order. What exactly happened next is still unknown, but the end result is clear: 17-year-old Trayvon Martin is dead, shot by George Zimmerman.[2]

Since Trayvon’s death, facts have emerged and allegations have been made that have led some to call Trayvon a “modern-day Emmitt Till.”[3] The 911 call from Zimmerman to Sanford police reveals that Zimmerman told police a Black male, wearing a hoodie, was walking through the neighborhood, which Zimmerman felt was suspicious. Zimmerman told 911 dispatchers that he was following the young man, which they instructed him not to do.  Zimmerman’s own statement to 911 dispatchers contradicts what he told police after they arrived on the scene of the crime – that Trayvon had attacked him, and he had shot Trayvon out of self-defense.[4] When police arrived, Trayvon was unarmed and carrying only his cell phone, a bag of Skittles, and an iced tea. Police did not arrest Zimmerman, nor did they perform any tests to determine whether Zimmerman was intoxicated. Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee stepped down from his duties after the city council passed a no-confidence vote in Lee. The 911 call reveals Trayvon was screaming for help before he was killed.[5]

 Amid calls for justice from not just Trayvon’s parents, but to the President to everyday citizens, the tragedy continues. Trayvon’s girlfriend was on the phone with him when the scuffle began, and she heard someone accost Trayvon shortly before the line went dead. Facts continue to emerge that indicate Zimmerman’s actions against Trayvon were racially motivated. Most recently, reports have emerged that Zimmerman used a racial slur while following Trayvon, which was recorded on the 911 call.[6] On March 23rd, students in Florida high schools participated in a walk out in protest of the lack of arrest in Trayvon’s killing.[7] That same day, President Obama stated at a press conference, “[W]e will get to the bottom of exactly what happened.[8] Trayvon’s parents have attended rallies in honor of their son’s life and have publicly called for justice.[9] Although Zimmerman remains free, his actions will be reviewed by a grand jury, and the FBI and Justice Department have opened their own investigations into the case.[10] Unfortunately, justice may not be served so easily.

 The issue: Florida is among twenty-one states that have a “Stand Your Ground” law that allows people to use deadly force when engaged in a fight.[11] The law reads as follows:

A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.

Thus, in order to have a successful claim, Zimmerman would only need to prove that he had a right to be where he was at the time and that he believed it was necessary for his to shoot Trayvon in order to protect himself from harm or death. The only real question left is whether Zimmerman had cause to believe Trayvon was going to harm him. Seeing as Trayvon was found holding only a bag of Skittles and an iced tea, Zimmerman will have a difficult time showing he was reasonably fearful of “great bodily harm” or death. When the grand jury reviews the evidence – Zimmerman’s statements, the 911 call, Trayvon’s girlfriend’s testimony about their phone call, and the situation as a whole – they will be able to start the steps of bringing Zimmerman to justice.

Even though the process of determining what really happened that night has finally begun, scrutiny of the police department’s handling of the case is opening them up to harsh criticism. Under the law, police are allowed to determine at the scene of the homicide whether they believe the self-defense claim, which is precisely what the police did in the Martin case. However, can they really be faulted for following the law? An at-the-scene determination of Zimmerman’s truthfulness could easily be believed: he had a bloody nose, scratches on his skin, and grass stains on his shirt, all signs of an apparent scuffle.[12] The police were not obligated to take Zimmerman in for further questioning, nor were they obligated to perform any sort of test to determine whether Zimmerman was intoxicated. Yet some have claimed the police did not do enough; they claim if the situation were reversed and Trayvon had been the one claiming self-defense, there would have been an arrest immediately. Whether that is true we do not know for it is only speculative, unfortunately, statistics suggest that statement may have some truth to it.

 Statistics indicate that prosecutors are three times more likely to seek the death penalty when the perpetrator is Black and the victim is White.  Studies have also shown that prosecutors are less likely to seek the death penalty when the victim is Black, regardless of the perpetrator’s race.[13] Aside from the eventual sentence, Black defendants are incarcerated 5.6 times more than White defendants.[14] Even more shocking, White defendants receive sentences ten percent shorter than those received by Black defendants, even when charged with the same offense.[15] Thirty-two percent of Black men will be incarcerated at some point in their lives, while only six percent of White men will suffer the same fate. For drug offenses specifically, African-Americans are thirty-seven percent of those arrested, although they are only thirteen percent of the United States population as a whole.

Though it clearly shouldn’t, race quite obviously plays a factor in criminal charges and criminal sentencing. It mattered in 1955 with Emmett Till: though Till’s captors were caught and charged, an all-white jury acquitted the defendants in a little over an hour. One juror commented, “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop, it wouldn’t have taken that long.[16] Some jurors admitted they believed the defendants were guilty, but they did not think the death penalty was appropriate for White men who had killed a Black man.

We as a society have progressed since 1955. We cannot allow people like George Zimmerman to stem that progress. We cannot allow Trayvon’s memory to fade. We cannot allow Trayvon to become a modern-day Emmett Till. We cannot allow justice to pass us by. We must continue to push for change at every chance we are given. We must continue to change the way we see each other and the way we view justice.  We must continue to seek justice for Trayvon — for justice is the reason we study law.


[16]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emmitt_till#cite_note-75

Disclaimer: The copyright in each article and post is owned by its respective author. Opinions expressed are those of the respective contributor and not presented as the views of the Alabama Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law Review, its editors, the University of Alabama School of Law or the University of Alabama Board of Trustees or any other entity not specifically mentioned. All statements on this site belong to its writer. In addition, the views, opinions, and conclusions expressed in this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of The University of Alabama or its officers and trustees. The content of this page has not been reviewed or approved by the University of Alabama, and the author is solely responsible for its content.

Drones: Soon Coming To A Sky Near You

The technology used for air traffic control is changing and so is the civilian aviation landscape. Last month,

James Tarbox, Junior Editor, Alabama Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law Review

James Tarbox, Junior Editor, Alabama Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law Review

Congress approved a plan that would phase out radar as the means of tracking planes and shifted to a system using GPS-satellite tracking.

Under this plan, the FAA would be required to phase in unmanned drone flights in currently-restricted U.S. airspace.[1] At the present time, the United States military maintains an arsenal of roughly 7,500 remote-controlled drones. With the end of combat operations in Iraq and the scale-back of combat operations in Afghanistan, there will be more drones back in the United States. Under current FAA regulations, remote-controlled drones are not allowed in U.S. airspace without special permission. This restriction is in place because the technology is not compatible with manned aircraft. The FAA is unsure of how the unmanned aircraft will interact with manned aircraft in U.S. cities.[2] To test how to integrate the drone force into the current civilian airspace, the FAA must establish a testing ground by June 30th of this year. The manufacturers of the drone fleet will have to create technology that allows the drones to sense they are flying too close to commercial or other manned aircraft and react accordingly. The FAA has yet to create guidelines as to how the technology needs to be developed and what the technology must contain.[3] Furthermore, there are broader questions as to how military technology used on the battlefield will be implemented back on the home front.

Several organizations have come out against the creation and implementation of these new policies by the FAA. Groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, have petitioned the FAA to ensure that the privacy rights of citizens are included in the analysis of allowing drones to be used domestically. The group warns in their petition that drones can easily intrude on the privacy of everyday people, and that this intrusion is a violation of the Fourth Amendment.[4] The ACLU’s petition states that these drones can “track up to 65 different targets across a distance of 65 square miles.” In addition, in the near future, these cameras may soon include facial recognition technology that would make it possible to remotely identify individuals at parks, schools, and political gatherings.”[5] The petition further urges that drones offer the user the ability to survey an area undetected by persons below. The drones can provide constant surveillance that previous technology could not sustain. Additionally, the petition argues that once facial recognition software is available for use on the drones, the FBI and other monitoring agencies could use that same technology against political dissidents. This use would, according to the ACLU, violate the would-be dissident’s First Amendment rights. The petition goes on to urge the FAA to evaluate the available options and conduct a study balancing the public and private interests in drone usage.

According to a recent Rasmussen poll, “that despite a willingness on the part of Americans to see the use of drones by the military in overseas situations, 52% oppose the use of surveillance drones by private entities, police agencies, and government agencies inside the US. Just 30% said they were in favor of the use of drones in the US.”[6] Jay Stanley, of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, says, “the FAA should be rightly concerned about ‘the safety effects of filling our skies with flying robots.’”[7] The concerns of these groups can be summed up in an additional quote by Stanley where he stated, “Congress — and to the extent possible, the FAA — need to impose some rules (such as those we proposed in our report) to protect Americans’ privacy from the inevitable invasions that this technology will otherwise lead to. We don’t want to wonder, every time we step out our front door, whether some eye in the sky is watching our every move.’”

Are the fears of the ACLU and other civil rights and watchdog groups well-founded? Will law enforcement in the United States be able to capitalize on this drone technology to decrease the amount of privacy we as Americans enjoy? In a world filled with security cameras and electronic monitoring of our activities such as credit card purchases, how much further can (should) the government go? The ACLU cites facial recognition software as a concern on these drones if used for domestic surveillance. This technology has already been used at large events such as the Super Bowl (since 2001) to target suspected terrorists in the crowd.[8] While it is apparently still in the development stages for use on aircraft, the fact of the matter is that we as Americans already subject ourselves to the use of this technology in some areas of our lives already. Additionally, police helicopters already have the technology to track individuals using infrared sensors. In this day and age, it is nearly impossible to get away from a police helicopter that is equipped with the most up-to-date technology.

Technological developments generally make their way from military use to civilian use, just look to cell phone technology and sport utility vehicles. Why aren’t drones just the next step of technology in a long stream of innovations that have traveled through the military to civilian use cycle? While the ACLU uses a “parade-of-horribles” for their scenario, it does make a valid point. If the police already have the technology to pursue criminals with infrared from a helicopter, why do the police need to be able to track people up to over 65 square miles? If the FAA program is successful in implementing the use of drones, strict limits will have to be put in place. Battlefield technology does not need to be implemented in whole on the home front. There should be certain exceptions allowed for entities such as the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI; however, these exceptions should have to go through the highest levels of authority to be approved.

The FAA has the opportunity to upgrade our air traffic systems to the highest level. The future of shipping could one day be changed because some of these drones can carry such large payloads. While helicopter pilots will not be replaced, there could be fewer deaths from helicopter crashes. While few and far between when compared to the number of helicopters flying every day, there are frequent helicopter and even small aircraft crashes in the United States. If a news crew needs to get a shot of morning traffic, no longer will a helicopter have to take the camera man to the scene. A drone could take off, circle the city, and relay the images of the interstate back to the station to be broadcast. The possibilities for new innovative uses are endless; however, the possibilities for government use against the people are endless, as well, and must be closely monitored to ensure that our right to privacy is not infringed upon by a piece of technology that the eye cannot even see.


 [8] http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2007-05-10-facial-recognition-terrorism_N.htm

Disclaimer: The copyright in each article and post is owned by its respective author. Opinions expressed are those of the respective contributor and not presented as the views of the Alabama Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law Review, its editors, the University of Alabama School of Law or the University of Alabama Board of Trustees or any other entity not specifically mentioned. All statements on this site belong to its writer. In addition, the views, opinions, and conclusions expressed in this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of The University of Alabama or its officers and trustees. The content of this page has not been reviewed or approved by the University of Alabama, and the author is solely responsible for its content.

Who Should Pay? American Birth Control and The First Amendment

Jared Miller

Jared Miller, Junior Editor, Alabama Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law Review

“I almost threw up,” was a remark by current presidential candidate Rick Santorum given in response to a speech by John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States. On September 12, 1960, Kennedy’s speech outlined his opinion on the distinct roles that the church and state should play in America. Kennedy’s speech came in response to skepticism and disdain projected at him because of his Catholic faith. Public counter arguments undermining previous President’s views by presidential hopefuls and political ideologists are not uncommon. It is common for these opposing statements to be made for political gain, political distancing, or simply because of honest disagreements. This is especially true when a political stand has been taken or when a new piece of legislation is proposed. A debate has been ignited and statements such as Santorum’s have been prevalent due to President Obama’s recent birth control policy.

The new policy, which was adopted earlier this month as part of Obama’s health reform law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, requires most employers to provide health insurance coverage for women’s contraceptives free of charge. This birth control aspect of the law caused an immediate and swift backlash, especially from a great deal of Catholics. A large percentage of Catholics do not believe in women’s contraception at all and feel the law unjustifiably and unconstitutionally forces their hand.  Many Catholics, especially company owners and others in positions of power, find a problem with the law in that it essentially forces them to insure employees with respect to something they do not personally believe in. Even Vice President Biden, a Catholic, was vocal about the controversy and said the presidential administration needed to reassess this component of the reform law “to make sure that we do not force the Catholic Church to do something that they fundamentally think is inconsistent with their religious beliefs (sic).”

Obama made a “compromise” after national pressure from the Catholic Church and a subsequent reassessment of the reform law. In specific situations the compromise requires the insurance companies to cover the cost of birth control coverage for employees, hence eliminating the employer’s obligation.  The compromise is applicable to religiously affiliated institutions, including “Catholic-run hospitals and universities that oppose artificial contraception.”  The compromise made it so the law does not apply to places of worship, including, churches, synagogues and mosques. The compromise did a service to Obama’s administration by appeasing a faction of the Catholic community and allowed the administration to make strides toward weathering the controversy.

However, the contrasting sides of the argument are stark and the debate with respect to the legality of this birth control policy continues. Naturally, litigation is expected to occur when religious beliefs, new legislation and the rights of a constituency are at stake. Subsequently seven states, two private citizens, two religious nonprofit organizations, and a Catholic school have all joined in on a lawsuit against Obama’s policy. The lawsuit asks a federal judge to rule the law unconstitutional and enjoin the government from enforcing the requirement.

Nevertheless, many Catholic leaders, evangelical groups, Republicans, social conservatives and even a minority of Democrats have rejected this compromise. They argue that this law still “violates religious freedom under the U.S. Constitution and would cause economic hardship for self-insured institutions.” Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who heads the Catholic archdiocese of Miami, says this was a unilateral decision made by Obama administration and the compromise was no more than a “smoke screen” to calm down the controversy. He argues that his problem with the birth control policy is that it forces employees of Catholic charities, hospitals and universities to receive birth control coverage, hence affecting one’s “religious freedom.” When pressed about the idea of shifting the burden to the insurance companies, Wenski acknowledges it, but does not feel it solves the religious liberty problems or is a compromise at all. He points out that self-insured dioceses and charities having to cover their employees would be violating their religious principles. Essentially, Wenski questions the policy considerations when an insurance company is not the insurer.

The question then becomes who is responsible. Wenski and other Catholic Church leaders with similar views believe the employers will eventually be held responsible to cover this gray area in the birth control policy. Additionally, some states and religious groups that are not covered under the religious compromise are suing because they say the policy violates their freedom of conscience and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993. John Witte, Jonas Robitscher Professor of Law at Emory University, says RFRA requires the federal government to show it has a compelling state interest if it violates the religious freedom of a person or group, and it must show that it used the least restrictive alternative for achieving that state interest. He also says “those two hurdles of the RFRA, I think, would be very hard for this new mandate to pass, when an individual or group brings claim.” Many members of Congress seem to agree.

Senate Republicans recently proposed legislation that would allow employers and insurance companies to opt out of portions of the reform law in which they found morally objectionable. Members of Congress argued the birth control requirement under the reform law violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom by “forcing insurers and employers to pay for contraception for workers even if the employers’ faith forbids its use.” The measure was narrowly defeated by Senate Democrats.

Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California) was vocal in her opposition to this Republican-led legislation. Her rationale? The proposal gave insurance companies too much discretion in their dealings with employees and this insurance company opt-out clause could potentially be dangerous. She said Congress has “never had a conscience clause for insurance companies” because the majority of them do not “have any consciences.” She went on to say that this would give insurance companies yet another method to deny coverage for medical treatment, virtually undermining the objectives of the reform law.

It is not uncommon for a policy such as this one to cause disagreements about its constitutionality, however, other factors from a public relations standpoint has contributed to heightening the debate.

Aside from the substantive law, many in the public, church and in governmental capacities do not agree with how the decision to move forward with the policy was handled. Wenski pinpoints the lack of collaboration on the act as one of his biggest contentions. He states, “The White House didn’t consult the bishops.” The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops President, Timothy Dolan of New York, expressed his view on the necessity of an open dialogue between the Obama administration and his faction of the Catholic Church, calling the proposed birth control compromise unacceptable. Dolan feels that an acceptable solution can be made if everyone has a seat at the table.

However, the public feelings towards the law are telling a different story despite church leaders’ calls for increased collaboration and the unfavorable characterization it has received from a legal and ethical standpoint. Polling has indicated that the majority of the public favor requiring birth control coverage for employees of religiously affiliated employers. Joint polling by CBS News and The New York Times from February 8th-13th found that 61% support Obama’s birth control policy, while 31% oppose it. Additionally, Thomson-Reuters News has reported that polling of 1,500 adults found that 63% of Americans overall supported the policy, according to the data. It also has to be encouraging to the Obama administration that polling has found that Catholics support the requirement at a similar rate as all Americans. Even the initial compromise of allowing religious institutions to opt out of the birth control policy was met with praise from a faction of Catholics.

The compromise instantly garnered praise and excitement towards the Obama administration from the Catholic Health Association, a substantial association that oversees some 600 Catholic hospitals. The head of this association, Carol Keehan, said that the administration “listened to us and they heard the things that we were most concerned about, and we’re pleased.” She explains that women get the health care they want, the church does not have to pay for or endorse birth control, and everyone wins. This is a feeling attested to by Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest at Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center. Reese believes that the religious liberty issue went away when the birth control compromise ensured that religious groups do not have to pay for or recommend birth control coverage. He further rationalizes that “most Catholic women want, and use, birth control.”

The Obama administration hears the debate and is actively defending their decision. When responding questions about the possible legal ramifications of the policy, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius stated the administration had their legal department “look at a whole host of legal issues.” To minimize litigation and compromise further with the opposing side, the administration has said they are currently crafting a plan to present to self-insured employers that have religious objections to the policy. Having the majority of America’s support in addition to working towards compromising with self-insured employers has put Obama in a strong political position. If polling is accurate, he is on the winning side of the debate regarding contraception.  This is great news for his political standing, however, the birth control policy has to withstand a barrage of scrutiny to remain effective.

This topic is going to be heavily litigated and both sides have compelling arguments.  However, the Obama compromise is a substantial step in the right direction. It is hard to make an argument that your religious freedom is being violated when you (the employer) are taken out of the equation. What argument can be made if an employer does not have to or is not expected to even discuss birth control with their employees is not readily known. It is hard to see where a violation of rights of potential employers comes from if the burden of insuring is now placed in the hands of the insurance companies.

Furthermore, the argument that Wenski makes that the policy is unconstitutional because “it forces employees of Catholic charities, hospitals and universities to receive birth control coverage” is unlikely to stand up. Simply because the employees have access to this right does not mean they have to use this right. President Obama is not forcing anyone to use the birth control; he is just making it accessible to the individuals that choose to use it. It would most likely be hard to convince the public or a court that a piece of legislation is unconstitutional because it provides employees additional coverage and the decision whether to use is left to their discretion. Nevertheless, there is a valid objection that can be made about self-insured employers. The administration has not rectified the situation and this could be problematic. A religious freedom argument could be made if self-insured religious organizations are asked to pay for something they do not believe in. The President must know this and judging by the initial compromise, it is easy to believe he will come up with a fair solution to please all interested, objective parties.

Sources:

http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/03/01/us-healthcare-contraceptives-poll-idUSTRE8200C320120301

http://www.npr.org/2012/02/10/146710901/catholics-have-mixed-reaction-to-birth-control-reversal

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/politics/sns-bc-apfn-us–birthcontrolpolitics,0,231697.story

http://www.lifenews.com/2012/02/15/sebelius-didnt-talk-to-bishops-about-obama-mandate/

http://www.christianpost.com/news/obamas-birth-control-mandate-unlikely-to-win-court-challenges-legal-scholar-says-70598/

http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2012/02/24/7-states-sue-to-block-contraception-mandate/

http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2012/02/rick-santorum-jfks-1960-speech-made-me-want-to-throw-up/

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=146663659

http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/healthcare/210863-president-obama-and-bishops-should-keep-talking

http://www.mpnnow.com/opinions/x1676726073/EDITORIAL-Bishops-Obama-should-work-this-one-out

Disclaimer: The copyright in each article and post is owned by its respective author. Opinions expressed are those of the respective contributor and not presented as the views of the Alabama Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law Review, its editors, the University of Alabama School of Law or the University of Alabama Board of Trustees or any other entity not specifically mentioned. All statements on this site belong to its writer. In addition, the views, opinions, and conclusions expressed in this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of The University of Alabama or its officers and trustees. The content of this page has not been reviewed or approved by the University of Alabama, and the author is solely responsible for its content.

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