Aug 29 2016

Restriction of movement is a punishment like banishment

A Federal Court of Appeals has found that the latest version  of Michigan’s “Sex Offender Registration Act” (SORA), including restrictions on where registrants can live, work, or “loiter”, constitutes a form of punishment intended to inflict pain or unpleasant consequences. “More specifically, SORA resembles, in some respects at least, the ancient punishment of banishment,” according to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Both Federal and state governments have enacted a variety of misleadingly misnamed “sex offender registration” laws.

Despite being labeled as applying to “offenders”, these laws typically apply also to ex-offenders who have completed their entire sentence of incarceration, parole, and /or probation. These ex-offenders are subject to few legal restrictions except those of the “sex offender registration” laws and the no-gun list.

And while they are described as “registration” laws, these laws almost invariably require more than mere registration.  This parallels the government’s typical euphemistic use of the term “watchlists” for what are, in fact, blacklists or blocklists.

“Registration” laws typically restrict and regulate the exercise of First Amendment rights and rights recognized by international human rights law, including the rights to freedom of speech and freedom of movement, of people who are required to register.  In several states, these laws restrict free speech by prohibiting use of unregistered Internet access accounts or “identifiers” (whatever that means) by ex-offenders who are subject to these laws.  In a growing number of states, these laws restrict freedom of movement and residence by prohibiting registrants from living or working within a specified distance of any school — a distance which, in a populated area with neighborhood schools, can prohibit registrants from legally living anywhere in a municipality or community, or force them to live in wilderness or wasteland encampments without water, sewer, or electric service in order to stay far enough away from any school.

As we have reported, a Federal District Court judge has issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting California from enforcing its requirement for registration of Internet service accounts and identifiers, and that injunction has been upheld by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The lawsuit challenging the California law drags on, however, while the court keeps giving the state more time for its legislature to try to “fix” the law to make it Constitutional.

But in contrast to this judicial rejection of some “registration” laws that restrict ex-offenders’ free speech on the Internet, courts have upheld restrictions on registrants’ residency, employment, and movement against a variety of challenges. So we were especially pleased that last week’s opinion by the 6th Circuit  in Does v. Snyder recognizes that both the restrictions on movement and those on Internet speech in the Michigan SORA amount to “punishment”:

SORA resembles, in some respects at least, the ancient punishment of banishment. True, it does not prohibit the registrant from setting foot in the school zones…  But its geographical restrictions are nevertheless very burdensome, especially in densely populated areas. Consider, for example, this map of Grand Rapids, Michigan, prepared by one of Plaintiff’s expert witnesses:


Sex Offenders are forced to tailor much of their lives around these school zones, and, as the record demonstrates, they often have great difficulty in finding a place where they may legally live or work. Some jobs that require traveling from jobsite to jobsite are rendered basically unavailable since work will surely take place within a school zone at some point.

The John and Mary Doe plaintiffs in the Michigan lawsuit were convicted before the SORA law was enacted. The court found that, because the law imposed imposed retroactive “punishment” on the plaintiff, it was an unconstitutional ex post facto law as applied to the plaintiffs:

We conclude that Michigan’s SORA imposes punishment. And while many (certainly not all) sex offenses involve abominable, almost unspeakable, conduct that deserves severe legal penalties, punishment may never be retroactively imposed or increased…. As the founders rightly perceived, as dangerous as it may be not to punish someone, it is far more dangerous to permit the government under guise of civil regulation to punish people without prior notice. Such lawmaking has “been, in all ages, [a] favorite and most formidable instrument[] of tyranny.” The Federalist No. 84, supra at 444 (Alexander Hamilton)…. The retroactive application of SORA’s 2006 and 2011 amendments to Plaintiffs is unconstitutional, and it must therefore cease.

The court didn’t reach the question of whether the law would be Constitutional as applied to people convicted after its enactment, but did express strong doubts about how it would rule in such a case:

As we have explained, this case involves far more than an Ex Post Facto challenge. And as the district court’s detailed opinions make evident, Plaintiffs’ arguments on these other issues are far from frivolous and involve matters of great public importance. These questions, however, will have to wait for another day because none of the contested provisions may now be applied to the plaintiffs in this lawsuit, and anything we would say on those other matters would be dicta. We therefore reverse the district court’s decision that SORA is not an Ex Post Facto law and remand for entry of judgment consistent with this opinion.


Aug 22 2016

Wanna be Facebook friends with U.S. Customs & Border Protection?

Today we submitted formal comments to U.S. Customs and Border Protection objecting to its proposal to start asking visitors to the USA to list all their “social media identifiers”. USCBP (a division of the Department of Homeland Security) proposes to add this question to the I-94W form for international visitors arriving in the U.S., and to the online ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) application form for vistors form countries in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program:

Please enter information associated with your online presence—Provider/Platform—Social media identifier.” It will be an optional data field to request social media identifiers to be used for vetting purposes, as well as applicant contact information. Collecting social media data will enhance the existing investigative process and provide DHS greater clarity and visibility to possible nefarious activity and connections by providing an additional tool set which analysts and investigators may use to better analyze and investigate the case.

We’ve previously argued that the entire ESTA scheme is an illegal de facto visa requirement that violates the rights of foreign visitors to the U.S. But this proposal would make it even worse.  Hundreds of individuals and more than two dozen organizations have already denounced this proposal. You can submit your own comments here until midnight tonight, Eastern time. If you agree with us that this is a terrible idea, feel free to endorse our comments or use them as a template:

We oppose this absurd and un-American questioning of foreign visitors to the U.S., and urge USCBP to withdraw this proposal.

Both freedom of speech and freedom of movement (“the right of the people… peaceably to assemble”) are recognized by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. These rights are also recognized in Article 12 (freedom of movement) and Article 19 (freedom of expression) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a treaty ratified by, and binding on, the U.S. In addition, Article 17 of the ICCPR recognizes a right to protection against “arbitrary or unlawful interference with … privacy … or correspondence.”…

The essence of human rights law is that these rights are recognized as universal rights to which all people are entitled regardless of their citizenship or nationality (if any). This proposal … treats foreign visitors to the U.S. as lacking these human rights, and thus implicitly as less than human… This would reinforce the impression around the world that the U.S. does not believe in or respect human rights, but regards these universal human rights as “privileges” granted by the government and enjoyed only by U.S. citizens. We do not want to live under such a government or in such a world…

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Aug 19 2016

An apology from the State Department

We got a pleasant surprise this week: a phone call from Eric F. Stein, the head of the State Department’s FOIA-processing office.

Mr. Stein’s name and signature appeared on a bizarre letter we received last month, telling us that one of the unanswered Freedom Of Information Act requests we’d been bugging the State Department about for the last five years would be “dismissed” if we didn’t respond immediately to say that we were “still interested” in the records we had requested.  To make it harder to respond, there was no phone number or e-mail address in the letter.

“I want to apologize to you directly for that letter,” Mr. Stein said. “I’m sorry we sent you that letter. It was sent by somebody who had the authority to use my signature, but we should never have sent it to you. I’m still trying to find out why it was sent. Somebody is supposed to look at the file before they send out one of these letters. You laid it out very clearly in your letter, and you’re right: Nobody could have looked at that file, and everything you had done to follow up on your request, and thought that you weren’t interested in a response any more. I’ve just had an all-hands meeting of my department and told my staff not to send out any more ‘still interested’ letters until we can be sure that we are following the procedures we said we would follow.”

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Aug 11 2016

Yes, we still want the State Department to answer our 5-year-old FOIA requests

In the latest episode of the FOIA follies, we recently received a bizarre letter letter from the U.S. State Department asking us whether we are “still interested” in receiving a response to one of several of our requests for State Department records that have each gone unanswered for more than five years.

The Department of Homeland Security is the leader in improper denial of FOIA requests and wrongful withholding and redaction of records, and has the largest backlog of unanswered requests. The State Department typically practices a different strategy of denial by delay, and has most of the oldest unanswered requests of any Federal department. A five-year wait for an answer from the State Department to a simple FOIA request is routine, although clearly illegal.

The latest letter we got from the State Department threatens to “close” one of our cases and take no further action on our request — in flagrant violation of the FOIA statute — unless we respond by fax (who still has a fax machine these days?) or snail-mail to confirm our continued interest in having the State Department fulfill its legal obligation to provide us with the records we’ve requested, including those about what happened to our complaints of human rights violations and the supplemental “long form” some passport applicants are asked to fill out, among other issues.

We’ve written back to the State Department (by snail-mail, since their letter included no phone number or email address) to tell them that yes, we really do want them to release the records we asked for five years ago — as they should know, since we already formally appealed their failure to answer our request within the time limit set by the law. (In response, they said they wouldn’t accept any administrative appeal until they answered our original request, making it impossible to challenge an illegal delay without filing a Federal lawsuit.) We’ve been making formal written requests at least annually since then for updates on the status of our requests and when the State Department estimates it will answer. (Each year, they set their estimated response dates back another year.) In the meantime, we made additional FOIA requests to the State Department on other subjects  in 2014 and 2015. We have yet to actually get an answer from the State Department to any of our FOIA requests, regardless of how long ago we made them.

The Freedom Of Information Act does not require periodic expressions of continued interest in receiving late responses. But even though it isn’t required, we have provided repeated, explicit written expressions of continued interest in each of our requests.  It would make no sense to allow a government agency to use the fact that it hasn’t responded to a request for government records within the legal deadline as an excuse never to respond at all.

In response to complaints from numerous advocates for government transparency, both the Department of Justice (OIP) and the FOIA ombudsman’s office (OGIS) of the National Archives and Records Administration have recently issued guidelines for the use of “still interested?” letters, if they are used at all.  In May 2016, OGIS wrote to the State Department urge it to  implement the OGIS recommendations regarding “still interested?” letters to FOIA requesters.

The State Department’s Chief FOIA Officer has claimed, both in her most recent annual report in March 2016 and in her response to OGIS in May 2016, that “we can assure you that DOJ guidance and OGIS recommendations are being thoroughly followed”.  As we discuss in our reply to the State Department , which we have also sent to OGIS, the “still interested?” letter we received makes clear that this isn’t true.

“Freedom of information” means nothing if government agencies can, with impunity, ignore the law. A government agency’s own delay in complying with the law shouldn’t be an excuse never to comply at all.

Aug 10 2016

DEA recruits airline & travel industry staff to inform on travelers

Brad Heath reports in USA Today that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has been recruiting airline and other travel industry staff to inform on travelers. The DEA has been using these tips from industry insider informers with access to travel reservations as the basis for searches, seizures, and “civil forfeiture” proceedings to confiscate cash from travelers on the basis of allegations that it was somehow associated with illegal drugs:

USA TODAY identified 87 cases in recent years in which the Justice Department went to federal court to seize cash from travelers after agents said they had been tipped off to a suspicious itinerary. Those cases likely represent only a small fraction of the instances in which agents have stopped travelers or seized cash based on their travel patterns, because few such encounters ever make it to court.

Those cases nonetheless offer evidence of the program’s sweep. Filings show agents were able to profile passengers on Amtrak and nearly every major U.S. airline, often without the companies’ consent. “We won’t release that information without a subpoena,” American Airlines spokesman Ross Feinstein said.

In almost none of these cases has the DEA actually brought any criminal charges against the travelers whose cash has been confiscated:

A DEA group assigned to Los Angeles’ airports made more than 1,600 cash seizures over the past decade, totaling more than $52 million, according to records the Justice Department uses to track asset seizures. Only one of the Los Angeles seizure records included an indication that it was related to a criminal indictment…. Of the 87 cases USA TODAY identified in which the DEA seized cash after flagging a suspicious itinerary, only two resulted in the alleged courier being charged with a crime. One involved a woman who was already a target of a federal money-laundering investigation; another alleged courier was arrested a month later on an apparently unrelated drug charge.

According to USA Today, “The DEA would not comment on how it obtains records of Americans’ domestic travel, or on what scale.” USA Today wasn’t able to identify any of the travel industry informers who have been tipping off the DEA about customers they thought might be carrying cash. But DEA spokesman Russ Baer said DEA agents “receive information from employees at ‘airlines, bus terminals, car rental agencies, … or other businesses.'”

Because airlines and computerized reservation systems don’t keep any access logs, it’s impossible for anyone to tell, after the fact, which travel industry personnel looked at a reservation and might have been DEA informers (or any other sort of attacker or threat: identity thief, stalker, industrial spy, etc.).

Some of the examples reported in USA Today relate to DEA access to Amtrak reservations. In court filings quoted in the USA Today story, DEA agents described their review of reservations for domestic Amtrak travel within the US as “routine”. From one of Amtrak’s responses to our FOIA requests, we know that Amtrak has a special “police GUI” for police to use in mining and reviewing data from Amtrak’s “Arrow” reservation system. We’ve asked Amtrak for all records pertaining to access to reservations by law enforcement agencies. After more than a year and a half, Amtrak is still continuing to process responsive records, as discussed in our previous articles about Amtrak. But Amtrak hasn’t yet disclosed anything to us about DEA access to Arrow or other Amtrak data.

The story in USA Today notes that the DEA isn’t supposed to have access to the information about travelers on domestic flights that airlines are required to transmit to the TSA before they can get permission to issue boarding passes. The TSA has defended the Secure Flight passenger surveillance and control scheme as an administrative search for the limited purpose of aviation safety. But we’ve heard rumors that the TSA is under pressure from other law enforcement agencies to open up the Secure Flight database of domestic air travel itineraries for general law enforcement uses. Those uses would likely include both arrest warrants and lookouts derived from NCIC, and profiling for forfeiture targeting by the DEA.