Federal Lawsuit Targets Spying By New York City Police Department In The City And New Jersey

June 6, 2012

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – Eight Muslims filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday in New Jersey to force the New York Police Department to end its surveillance and other intelligence-gathering practices targeting Muslims in the years after the 2001 terrorist attacks. The lawsuit alleged that the police activities were unconstitutional because they focused on people’s religion, national origin and race.

It is the first lawsuit to directly challenge the NYPD’s surveillance programs, which were the subject of an investigative series by The Associated Press since last year. Based on internal NYPD reports and interviews with officials involved in the programs, the AP reported that the NYPD conducted wholesale surveillance of entire Muslim neighborhoods, chronicling daily life including where people ate, prayed and got their hair cut. Police infiltrated dozens of mosques and Muslim student groups and investigated hundreds more.

Syed Farhaj Hassan, one of the plaintiffs, stopped attending one mosque as often after he learned it was one of four where he worships that were included in NYPD files. Those mosques were located along the East Coast from central Connecticut to the Philadelphia suburbs, but none was linked to terrorism, either publicly or in the confidential NYPD documents.

Hassan, an Army reservist from a small town outside of New Brunswick, N.J., said he was concerned that anything linking his life to potential terrorism would hurt his military security clearance.

“Guilt by association was forced on me,” Hassan said.

The NYPD did not respond to questions about the lawsuit but noted the New Jersey attorney general determined last month that NYPD activities in New Jersey were legal.

NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly has said his department is obligated to do this type of surveillance in order to protect New York from another 9/11. Kelly has said the 2001 attacks proved that New Yorkers could not rely solely on the federal government for protection, and the NYPD needed to enhance its efforts.

Hassan said he served in Iraq in 2003 to stop the atrocities of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s secret police.

“I didn’t know they had one across the Hudson,” he said, referring to the NYPD intelligence division.

California-based Muslim Advocates, a civil rights organization that meets regularly with representatives of the Obama administration, is representing the plaintiffs in the case for free.

“The NYPD program is founded upon a false and constitutionally impermissible premise: that Muslim religious identity is a legitimate criterion for selection of law-enforcement surveillance targets,” the lawsuit said.

New Jersey lawmakers were outraged earlier this year when they learned of the surveillance. But after a three-month review, the state’s attorney general found that the NYPD did not violate any state laws when it spied on Muslim neighborhoods and organizations. The attorney general found no recourse for the state of New Jersey to stop the NYPD from infiltrating Muslim student groups, video-taping mosque-goers or collecting their license plate numbers as they prayed.

No court has ruled that the NYPD programs were illegal. But the division operates without significant oversight: The New York City Council does not believe it has the expertise to oversee the intelligence division, and Congress believes the NYPD is not part of its jurisdiction even though the police department receives billions in federal funding each year.

Members of Congress and civil rights groups have urged the Justice Department to investigate the NYPD’s practices. A Justice Department spokeswoman said they are still reviewing the requests. Federal investigations into police departments typically focus on police abuse or racial profiling in arrests. Since 9/11, the Justice Department has never publicly investigated a police department for its surveillance in national security investigations.

Because of widespread civil rights abuses during the 1950s and 1960s, the NYPD has been limited by a court order in what intelligence it can gather on innocent people. Lawyers in that case have questioned whether the post-9/11 spying violates that order. The lawsuit filed Wednesday is a separate legal challenge.

The NYPD and New York officials have said the surveillance programs violated no one’s constitutional rights, and the NYPD is allowed to travel anywhere to collect information. Officials have said NYPD lawyers closely review the intelligence division’s programs.

“The constitutional violation that the NYPD did commit was blanket surveillance of a group based on religion,” said Glenn Katon, Muslim Advocate’s legal director. He said a program that treats people differently based on religion, national origin or race is subject to the Constitution. “That’s the crux of our claim,” he said.

A George Washington University law professor, Jonathan Turley, said it would be a challenge to convince the government that the NYPD’s practices were illegal because the courts and Congress have allowed more and more surveillance in the years since 9/11. But, he said, most of these questions have been handled in policy debates and not in the court systems.

Nineteen-year-old Moiz Mohammed, a sophomore at Rutgers University, said he was moved to join the lawsuit after reading reports that the NYPD had conducted surveillance of Muslim student groups at colleges across the Northeast, including his own. He said the revelations had made him nervous to pray in public or engage in lively debates with fellow students — a practice he said he once most enjoyed about the college atmosphere.

“It’s such an unfair thing going on: Here I am, I am an American citizen, I was born here, I am law abiding, I volunteer in my community, I have dialogues and good relationships with Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and the NYPD here is surveilling people like me?”

“We feel as though it was a violation of our constitutional and our civil and our human rights,” said Abdul Kareem Muhammad, one of the plaintiff’s in the case. Muhammad is the imam of the Newark mosque, Masjid al-Haqq. That mosque was listed and pictured in a September 2007 NYPD report on Newark.

“We have a very strong objection to that,” Muhammad said. “We condemn and denounce every form of terrorism.”

Muhammad said he and other Muslim community leaders have not been given assurances that the NYPD is no longer conducting surveillance on their communities.

“That’s become very disturbing, too,” Muhammad said. “There’s a possibility that this is still going on.”

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More Federal Government Debt Racked Up In Last 15 MONTHS Under Obama Than In Previous 195 YEARS Under 43 Presidents

June 3, 2012

WASHINGTON, DC – The Republican-controlled House of Representatives, which took office in January 2011, has enacted federal spending bills under which the national debt has increased more in less than one term of Congress than in the first 97 Congresses combined.

In the fifteen months that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives–led by Speaker John Boehner–has effectively enjoyed a constitutional veto over federal spending, the federal government’s debt has increased by about $1.59 trillion.

Article 1, Section 9, Clause 7 of the Constitution says: “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.” A law appropriating money cannot be enacted unless it is approved by the House.

The approximately $1.59 trillion in new debt accumulated since the Republican-controlled House gained a veto over federal spending legislation is more than the total increase in the federal debt between 1789, when the first Congress convened, and October 1984, when the 98th Congress was nearing the end of its second session.

Rep. Frederick Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania served as speaker in the first Congress. Rep. Tip O’Neill of Massachusetts served his third term as speaker in the 98th Congress.

When Boehner became speaker on Jan. 5, 2011, the federal government was operating under a continuing resolution that had been passed on Dec. 21, 2010 by a lame-duck Congress. That CR expired on March 4, 2011.

On March 1, 2011, Boehner agreed to a new short-term spending deal with President Barack Obama and Democratic congressional leaders to keep the government running past the March 4, 2011 expiration of the old CR. Since March 4, 2011, federal expenditures have been carried out under a series of CRs approved by both the Republican-controlled House and the Democrat-controlled Senate and signed into law by President Obama.

At the close of business on March 4, 2011, the total federal debt was $14,182,627,184,881.03, according to the Treasury Department’s Bureau of the Public Debt. At the close of business on May 31, 2012, it was 15,770,685,085,364.14. That is an increase of $1,588,057,900,483.11—in just 15 months.

All of the debt accumulated by the federal government throughout the history of the country did not exceed $1.588 trillion until October 1984.

Under the Republican-controlled House, the federal debt has been increasing at an average pace of about $105.9 billion per month.

Frederick Muhlenberg served two non-consecutive terms as speaker–in the first and third Congresses. At the end of the first Congress, in 1791, the total debt of the federal government was about $75.5 million, according to the U.S. Treasury.

Tip O’Neill served as speaker in the 95th through 99th Congresses, from 1977 through 1986.

At the end of September 1984, during the 98th Congress, the total national debt was approximately $1,572,266,000,000.00, according to the Treasury Department’s Monthly Statement of the Public Debt for that month. At the end of October 1984, it was $1,611,537,000,000.00, according to the Monthly Statement of the Public Debt.

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Federal Judge Calls For Reducing Prosecutors Roles And Returning Courtroom Control To Judges – Prosecutors Abusing System With Respect To Mandatory Minimum Sentences – Small Time Criminals Sentenced As “Kingpins”

May 28, 2012

WASHINGTON, DC — Judge John Gleeson hears cases where he used to prosecute them, in the federal courthouse in Brooklyn. There, in 1992, he led the team of prosecutors that put the Mafia boss John J. Gotti in prison for life.

Judge Gleeson is not shy about meting out tough sentences. “Most people, including me,” he wrote in a 2010 decision, “agree that the kingpins, masterminds and midlevel managers of drug trafficking enterprises deserve severe punishment.”

But he has lately been saying that his old employer, the Department of Justice, has stopped living up to its name when it comes to some small-time criminals.

Almost 20 years to the day after delivering his closing argument in the Gotti trial, Judge Gleeson considered the fate of Jamel Dossie, whom he called “a young, small-time, street-level drug dealer’s assistant.”

Mr. Dossie was an intermediary in four hand-to-hand crack sales, for which he made a total of about $140. Two of the sales exceeded, barely, the 28-gram threshold that allows prosecutors to call for a mandatory five-year sentence. “Just as baseball is a game of inches,” Judge Gleeson wrote, “our drug-offense mandatory minimum provisions create a deadly serious game of grams.”

It is a curious game, one in which a participant rather than the supposed umpire can have the last word, Judge William G. Young of Federal District Court in Boston wrote in a ruling in another case a couple of weeks ago.

“Prosecutors run our federal justice system today,” Judge Young wrote. “Judges play a subordinate role — necessary yes, but subordinate nonetheless. Defense counsel take what they can get.”

The prosecutors’ decision to invoke the law calling for a mandatory sentence in Mr. Dossie’s case meant that Judge Gleeson had no choice but to send Mr. Dossie away for five years. Had his hands not been tied, Judge Gleeson wrote, “there is no way I would have sentenced” Mr. Dossie to so long a sentence.

“We had a ‘sentencing proceeding’ that involved no written submissions, no oral advocacy and no judging,” he wrote. “The proceeding had all the solemnity of a driver’s license renewal and took a small fraction of the time.”

The Dossie case illustrates what some judges say is a common problem: Prosecutors’ insistence on mandatory minimum sentences for minor players in the drug trade has warped the criminal justice system and robbed judges of sentencing authority.

The problem, they say, can be traced to a 1986 law enacted in response to the drug overdose of Len Bias, a college basketball star. The law was meant to establish two kinds of mandatory sentences, its sponsors explained at the time. It called for 10-year terms for drug kingpins and five-year terms for midlevel dealers. The law itself, though, used the quantities of drugs involved to signal whether the defendant held a leadership role.

“An addict who is paid $300 to stand at the entrance to a pier and watch for the police while a boatload of cocaine is offloaded,” Judge Gleeson wrote, “qualifies for kingpin treatment.” The law leaves the decision to prosecutors.

As for Mr. Dossie, the judge wrote, “no one could reasonably characterize him as a leader or manager of anything, let alone of a drug business.”

Judge Gleeson called on Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to implement a new policy at the Department of Justice.

“D.O.J. should seek mandatory minimum sentences,” the judge wrote, “only in the cases for which Congress intended them: in cases against leaders and managers of drug enterprises, not the low-level offenders like Dossie who constitute the bulk of the federal drug docket.”

About 74 percent of defendants charged with crimes involving crack cocaine faced a mandatory minimum sentence in the year that ended in September, according to statistics compiled by the United States Sentencing Commission. But only 5 percent of them led or managed a drug business.

A Justice Department spokeswoman said the administration supported the judicious use of mandatory minimum sentencing laws for some serious crimes. In a 2010 report, Lanny A. Breuer, an assistant attorney general, said mandatory minimum sentences “remove dangerous offenders from society, ensure just punishment and are an essential tool in gaining cooperation from members of violent street gangs and drug distribution networks.”

That last point, about gaining cooperation, is the most important one, said Nancy Gertner, who was until recently a federal judge in Boston and now teaches at Harvard Law School.

The goals of criminal law used to be deterrence, punishment and incapacitating violent offenders. “Recent changes,” she said, “are intended to give the prosecutor a menu and tools with which to secure cooperation.”

In a front-page article last year, my colleague Richard A. Oppel Jr. showed that prosecutors use the threat of tough mandatory sentences to extract guilty pleas from defendants and so reduce the number of cases that go to trial.

Paul G. Cassell, a former federal judge who is now a law professor at the University of Utah, said Judge Gleeson’s proposal to have the Justice Department limit its use of mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases to defendants who played a leadership role was “a brilliant package.” It was, he said, administrable, fair and “doable in this political environment” because it requires no action from Congress.

Jamel Dossie, meanwhile, is serving what Judge Gleeson called an onerous and disproportionate sentence.

“The only reason for the five-year sentence imposed on Dossie,” Judge Gleeson wrote, “is that the law invoked by the prosecutor required it. It was not a just sentence.”

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Senators Want Feds To Regulate Egg-Laying Hens

May 25, 2012

WASHINGTON, DC – Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and a half dozen other senators have proposed legislation setting a uniform national standard for the treatment of egg-laying hens, which would ensure egg producers aren’t blocked from selling across state lines due to differing state standards.

Feinstein said on Thursday that six states already have their own standards, and 18 others could put their own rules in place soon, which could cause problems in the years ahead. She said beginning in 2015, for example, eggs produced in Iowa and Indiana will not be able to ship to California because they will not meet California’s standards.

“Different standards in Michigan and Ohio will take effect later, further adding to the patchwork of regulations,” she said. “As states with disparate standards continue to protect their own egg producers by banning the sale of eggs from States with lower or no standards, a complicated web of state laws will impair interstate commerce.”

Feinstein said her bill, S. 3239, would codify an agreement between the United Egg Producers and the Humane Society on how egg-laying hens should be treated and how eggs should be labeled.

“The United Egg Producers and the Humane Society of the United States worked for over a year to reach this compromise, and I believe it is one that strikes a very fair balance,” she said. “Producers must enlarge cages for egg-laying hens and allow space for the birds to engage in natural behaviors such as nesting and perching.”

Under the bill, producers would have as long as 18 years to meet these standards, which also includes a ban on starving chickens as a means of increasing egg production. In addition, it would prohibit excessive levels of ammonia in hen houses and require “humane euthanasia of spent hens.”

Feinstein said the egg industry itself has asked Congress to approve this legislation to help it better cope with the increasing web of state standards.

“The egg industry brought this legislation to Congress and has asked us to help them implement the uniform regulations needed to survive and grow,” she said. “The egg industry and the Humane Society are lock-step in their support for this bill. They are joined in endorsing the bill by the American Veterinary Medical Association and the Consumer Federation of America.”

The bill is co-sponsored by Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Scott Brown (R-Mass.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), David Vitter (R-La.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

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