Monday, January 25, 2021

Airline passengers behaving badly

Here's a case from December 2020 in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth circuit.  Here's a map of the circuits.

This case is called United States of America v Monique Lozoya and is an appeal of a case from the District Court for the Central District of California.

On a commercial flight from Minneapolis MN to Los Angeles CA, Lozoya wanted to sleep, but the passenger behind her kept jabbing at his touchscreen monitor attached to the back of her seat.  Each jab startled her awake. In the middle of the flight, Lozoya asked him to stop banging on her seat. This escalated into an argument, and Lozoya slapped the man in the face.

I would NOT have wanted to be on that flight.
After trial, Lozoya was convicted and sentenced to pay a fine of $750.

Defendant argued that this case should not be in the court in CA, because the assault happened in mid-air over a different state entirely.  Article III of the US Constitution states that a criminal trial shall be held in the state where the crime was committed.

"Lozoya’s crime would have been alien to the Framers [of the Constitution]. It happened on an airplane flying almost 600 miles an hour, five miles above the earth. And it occurred over one of several states or districts, depending on the time of the slap."

The court ruled that the trial was proper in CA, the state where the plane landed.

Do you agree with the court's conclusion?  Why or why not?

Monday, January 18, 2021

No arbitrary cutting of trees

Here's a case from December 2020 in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth circuit.  Here's a map of the circuits.
This case is called Columbia Gas Transmission v Janet & Melvin Haas and is an appeal of a case from the District Court for the District of Maryland.

Columbia Gas Transmission sued Haas for breach of contract, to enforce a pipeline right-of-way agreement over the Haases’ residential property. Columbia claimed that a 40-year-old Japanese red maple tree on the property interfered with its contract rights and the safe operations of its natural gas pipeline.

The recorded easement provided that a pipeline could “be constructed and maintained below cultivation, so that the property owner may fully use and enjoy the premises, subject to the rights of the pipeline operator to maintain and operate said line.”  Under the recorded easement, “the planting of trees is limited only to the extent that it actually interferes with the maintenance and operation of the pipeline.”

In March 1975, the Haases purchased the property subject to the easement. In July 1976, the Haases planted the Japanese red maple within the easement.  This tree is the centerpiece of their front yard.
More than 40 years later, Columbia put a flyer on the Haases’ front door informing them that vegetation clearing in the easement would begin.  Columbia sent a contractor to remove the tree.  Haas called the police, and officers directed the Columbia personnel to leave the premises.

At trial, Columbia's expert testified that trees located in rights-of-way are hazards to pipelines. He explained that pipeline companies assume that the roots of trees are threats to pipelines because it is “proven” in the industry that tree “roots go to the pipeline and compromise the coating and allow the pipe to corrode.”  Additionally, he testified that the canopy of the tree will block aerial observation of the pipeline.  Therefore, industry standard is to remove all trees from pipeline easements.  The Japanese red maple had been a potential threat since it was first planted in 1976.

Haases' expert explained that Japanese red maples have “very shallow root systems” and are used often in landscaping because their roots do not damage nearby sidewalks and structures. He advised that the average root depth of such trees is 20 to 24 inches and that the roots of the Haases’ tree would not be deeper than 27 inches.  He also testified that the root tips of a Japanese red maple are “really fine, almost like hair” that very easily break off because they are “tiny and fragile.”

Columbia’s expert agreed that Japanese red maple trees are generally known as having a shallow and non-invasive root system.

The court found that the pipeline passed approximately two feet from the trunk of the tree, and that the pipeline was between four and five feet (48-60 inches) below the ground.  Because (1) the tree’s roots were substantially shallower than the pipeline, (2) an inspection of the pipeline only has to take place once a year and could be conducted in winter, and (3) the tree had coexisted with the pipeline for more than 40 years without complaints or issues, Columbia had an obligation to present stronger evidence of interference before it could remove the tree.

The Haases kept their tree.

Do you agree with the court's conclusion?  Why or why not?


Monday, January 11, 2021

No cell phones in the courtroom

Here's another case from November 2020 in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth circuit.  Here's a map of the circuits.

This case is called United States of America v Rebecca Moriello and is an appeal of a case from the District Court for the Western District of North Carolina.

Defendant [Appellant] is an attorney who practices in the area of immigration law.

After completing a hearing on behalf of her client, Moriello requested permission to observe an asylum hearing [which was "closed" and confidential].  This permission was granted. A sign outside the courtroom stated: “Persons in EOIR space must turn off their electronic devices (e.g., smartphone, laptop). For clear and immediate business purposes only, attorneys and other representatives are exempt from this rule . . . .”

[I typically type on my phone, check emails, etc, while in court, so this is not unusual.  But it definitely depends on the courtroom.  Some judges allow it, others absolutely do NOT allow it.]

During the hearing, the bailiff observed Moriello typing on her phone. Because Moriello was not representing anyone in that hearing, the bailiff concluded that it wasn't for a "clear and immediate business purpose" and requested that she leave the courtroom or alternatively stop using her phone.  Moriello refused to do either.

[Note: if I was using my phone in the courtroom, I would have definitely stopped after being requested by the bailiff.  Or I would have left the courtroom.  I spent too much time/energy/money on obtaining my license to practice law, to jeopardize it by arguing with court personnel.  Plus, I value my reputation with the judges.]

The judge noted "Ms. Moriello had specifically asked for permission to come into a private confidential asylum hearing which is very rarely allowed. And I assumed it was so that she could learn something from it. The entire time that Ms. Moriello was sitting in my courtroom I did not see her paying attention to what was going on with the attorney or with the witness. She was pretty much non-stop glued to her cell phone and she was texting away, and I found it to be very distracting. I also found it to be very disrespectful given that she had asked for permission to sit in on this very sensitive matter, and she was not paying attention."  He asked her to stop using her phone because it was distracting to the current hearing.  She again refused.

The hearing continued and now TWO bailiffs were attempting to persuade Moriello to stop using her phone or conversely leave the courtroom.  She continued to refuse.  Eventually the police were called and the judge recessed the hearing.  While the hearing was in recess, Moriello continued to type on her phone.  The police escorted her out of the courtroom and out of the courthouse.  

A complaint was filed against her, with a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $5000 fine.  The government offered to settle the case without an admission of guilt, for a fine of $300.  Moriello rejected the offer and demanded a trial.  She filed several motions to dismiss the charges, all of which failed.  After trial, she was found guilty and fined $2500.

This is my favorite paragraph of the case:

"[O]ur review is limited to whether Moriello had fair notice that the regulations proscribed her conduct. Moriello argues that neither regulation defines which individuals at the court facility an ordinary citizen must obey and under what circumstances. Yet any person of ordinary intelligence would understand that the regulations prohibit the repeated refusal to cease distracting conduct in a courtroom during ongoing immigration proceedings as directed by both the presiding immigration judge and the uniformed bailiff assigned to that courtroom. Indeed, Moriello’s behavior was so disruptive as to prompt Judge Pettinato to call a recess and PSO Bridges to seek assistance from one additional PSO and two additional CMPD officers to remove Moriello from the courtroom."

The opinion ends with:
"It should come as no surprise that immigration judges and courtroom bailiffs have the authority to reasonably control the conduct of persons within their courtrooms. For the foregoing reasons, the district court’s judgment is Affirmed."

Do you agree with the court's conclusion?  Why or why not?

Monday, January 4, 2021

Cruel and unusual punishment for civil confinement

In 2021 we'll be looking at interesting federal cases.  To start things off, let's look at one from November 2020 in the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh circuit.  Here's a map of the circuits.

The 11th circuit is Florida, Georgia, and Alabama.

This case is called Bilal v Geo Care, et al and is an appeal of a case from the District Court for the Middle District of Florida.

Plaintiff [Appellant] is listed as:  
f.k.a. John L. Burton,
a.k.a. Superman

Defendants are various state employees and/or contractors who were involved in transporting Plaintiff from the Florida Civil Commitment Center (“FCCC”) to Escambia County Courthouse in Pensacola, Florida, for a judge to determine whether Bilal was eligible for release from civil confinement.

Definition: Civil commitment or confinement is court-ordered treatment for persons who are mentally ill, chemically dependent, sexually dangerous, or other condition which generally renders them a danger to society because they are likely to commit future violent crimes.  People who qualify are civilly committed after they have served their time for crime/s they have committed in the past.
In this case, Plaintiff Bilal had been deemed a "sexually violent predator".  He was being transported approximately 600 miles from FCCC [in Arcadia Florida, which is more than half-way down Florida, between Orlando and Miami] to a court hearing in Pensacola Florida [all the way west on the panhandle, just a smidge from Alabama], for a judge to determine whether he was eligible for release from civil confinement.  I googled this and it's estimated to be a 7.5-8 hour trip.

Bilal was transported by van, and to ensure he didn't escape and further endanger the public, Bilal claims that the transportation crew violated his civil rights by, among other things, (1) confining him in handcuffs, leg irons, and waist chains, which was cramped and aggravated his knee condition, requiring surgery, (2) feeding him only a bottle of water and two slices of cheese on two stale pieces of bread for the entire trip, which gave him food poisoning, (3) not allowing him any bathroom breaks, causing him to defecate in his prison jumpsuit and having to sit in his excrement for 300 miles.

Because they have "served their time" and are no longer being punished for past crimes, people who are civilly committed have more rights than those who are serving criminal sentences.  As the court wrote, "We apply a balancing test to determine whether a State’s restraints on a civilly committed person violate that individual’s substantive-due-process rights."

Regarding the handcuffs, leg irons, waist chains, and single bottle of water and cheese sandwich, the court said it did "not conclude that those choices were so extreme and unreasonable as to amount to a violation of Bilal’s constitutional rights."

However, regarding the lack of bathroom breaks, the court said "an unreasonable refusal to allow a prisoner to use the restroom, which results in his being forced to sit in his own feces for an extended period, constitutes an Eighth Amendment violation [cruel and unusual punishment]."

"In short, we conclude that refusing a single bathroom stop during a 600-mile road trip and requiring a civilly committed person to sit in fecal matter for several hours fits squarely within the definition of “deprivation of basic sanitary conditions.”"

Do you agree with the court's conclusion?  Why or why not?