Collateral Consequences Addressed by Website, Legislation

collateral consequences website and legislation

Photo: trudi1

While finding out the fines and prison sentences for a criminal conviction may be easily done without the need for contacting an attorney, one area that many people aren’t aware of before going into a trial (or after being convicted) are the collateral consequences of a conviction. These are the societal repercussions of being convicted of a crime after the fact, separate from the fines and prison time.

However, a new website developed by the American Bar Association (ABA) Criminal Justice Section hopes to make these consequences much clearer in an effort to assist not only the individual concerned but also lawyers, lawmakers, and advocacy groups. The Uniform Collateral Consequences of Conviction Act (UCCCA) is also addressing similar issues on a larger scale.

Collateral Consequences State-by-State

According to a report by the Uniform Law Commission (the proponents of the Uniform Collateral Consequences of Conviction Act), the Department of Justice has estimated that if imprisonment rates as measured in 2001 continue along the same path, approximately 6.6% of Americans born in that year will serve some form of prison time during their lives. Besides those serving time, a 2003 Department of Justice report stated that nearly 25% of the U.S. population had a criminal record.

That latter statistic plays heavily into the concerns regarding collateral consequences, as they may be imposed on an individual for being convicted of a crime even if the punishment for said crime doesn’t include prison time. Such consequences may include, but are not limited to, denial of the following:

  • employment
  • certain forms of professional licenses
  • acceptance to higher education institutions and financial aid
  • other forms of government assistance
  • housing

As it currently stands, many judges and lawyers are unaware of the full implications of collateral consequences in their jurisdictions as well of those of other states. This is where the free database developed by the ABA Criminal Justice Section enters the picture. Here a user can click on a state and see a full listing of the state’s collateral consequences.

For example, clicking on the state of Utah brings up 688 examples of such consequences. While some would be expected, such as the inability to serve as a law enforcement officer or lawyer with a felony conviction, some may come as a surprise to people, such as the inability to get a cosmetologist or fingernail technician license with a controlled substances offense.

According to ABA President William C. Hubbard, “While some collateral consequences of conviction serve meaningful public safety goals, many only limit a formerly incarcerated person’s ability to find work and reintegrate into society … This, in turn, imposes high social and economic costs including increased crime, increased victimization, increased family distress, and increased pressure on already-strained state and municipal budgets.”

The Universal Collateral Consequences of Conviction Act

In 2009, the Uniform Law Commission, a non-partisan group of lawyers, judges, legislators, and law professors, promoted an attempt to remedy the problems being caused by out-of-control collateral consequences. This remedy was known as the Universal Collateral Consequences of Conviction Act (UCCCA).

According to the Uniform Law Commission website, in a nutshell, the UCCCA “provides states with a process whereby defendants are both notified of indirect penalties [read: collateral consequences] that may attach to their convictions, and have an opportunity for partial relief from those penalties, when appropriate.”

In order to bring this about, the UCCCA addresses several aspects of collateral consequences, including:

  • Collection in one document of all collateral consequences in state law and regulations, and provisions for avoiding or mitigating them.
  • Notification for defendants of such consequences at key points in a criminal case, including at or before formal notification of charges and again at sentencing. Section 5 of the UCCCA instructs trial courts to confirm that the defendant has received such notification and has the opportunity to discuss the consequences with counsel.
  • Standards that decision-makers for such things as housing or employment must follow when considering imposing collateral consequences. The essential elements, facts, or circumstances of the person’s crime must be related to the benefit or opportunity at issue before disqualifying them.
  • Relief from collateral consequences that may come about if a conviction has been overturned or pardoned, or if charges have been dismissed pursuant to deferred prosecution or a diversion program.
  • In addition, UCCCA created two different forms of specific relief. An Order of Limited Relief allows a court or agency to lift an automatic barring of a collateral sanction, allowing licensing or housing agencies to consider whether to uphold the sanction. A Certificate of Restoration of Rights provides public and private employers, landlords and licensing agencies with “concrete and objective information about an individual under consideration for an opportunity or benefit” including their progress toward rehabilitation, in an attempt to help those individuals reintegrate into society.

Currently the UCCCA has been endorsed by the ABA; introduced in Minnesota, New York, and the U.S. Virgin Islands; and enacted in Vermont. The Uniform Law Commission hopes that more states will continue to enact the UCCCA in an attempt to increase clarity regarding collateral consequences, fairness and competence in legal representation, and successful reintegration for ex-offenders who have proven that they are capable of re-entering society.

Multiple Cases of False Arrest Cost Denver over $500,000

false arrest cases cost Denver thousands

Photo: Andrew Bardwell/Wikimedia Commons

One of the understood purposes of incarceration is to hopefully reduce the rate of recidivism, or repeat offending by criminals. The idea is that a little time spent behind bars should be a deterrent to someone wanting to commit crime again. Jail isn’t a place most people want to be, and hopefully being put there will affect people’s future behavior. However, what about the case of a false arrest? The implications of this can be devastating on innocent victims. The city of Denver has had to face this reality in false arrest civil rights lawsuits to the tune of over $500,000. The question is, will these settlements bring about a change?

A Pattern of False Arrest

According to a report from the Denver Post, the motion filed by the Denver ACLU in the federal civil rights lawsuit stated that an examination of a recent seven year period revealed at least 500 people who were victims of false arrest. Denver isn’t alone in these egregious errors. It has been reported that Los Angeles County’s numbers are even higher, with almost 1,500 cases of false arrest over the span of five years. However, the lawsuit against Denver has brought their particular problems to light. Many of these cases involved the arrest of people who didn’t even match the race or gender of the actual suspect.

A previous settlement saw the City of Denver paying almost $230,000, and the current settlement on Monday, Dec. 1, resulted in an addition $337,250 to three false arrest victims.

Jose Ernesto Ibarra will receive $52,000 of the settlement for his part in the case. In 2007, Ibarra spent nine days in a Denver jail for failing to appear for a traffic violation. After he paid his fines, he should have been released. However, he was held for an additional 25 days because deputies believed he was Jose Caytano Ibarra Almeida, a man with several other criminal violations. Deputies refused to compare crucial information of the two men in question which would have freed Ibarra, such as birthdates, mug shots, or fingerprints. They simply insisted Ibarra was lying about his identity. Ibarra lost his job and missed his son’s first birthday as a result of the incarceration.

Muse Jama, who was innocent of any crimes when he was a victim of false arrest, will receive $50,000. Jama was a student at the time when Denver officers arrived at his apartment and arrested him for crimes committed by a man named Ahmed Alia, another Somalian who had apparently used Jama’s relatively common Somalian name as one of his aliases. Even after offering his driver’s license, Social Security card, and student ID, Jama was still arrested, booked, and held in jail for seven nights. After a prosecutor compared a mug shot of Alia with Jama, the charges were lifted, and he was released with a only simple apology from the judge.

Dennis Michael Smith was the third litigant in the case and will receive $5,000 for the false arrest which led to his incarceration for just under five hours. The Colorado ACLU will receive $230,000 for legal fees.

An Attempt to Find a Remedy

False arrest can lead to not only mental trauma in the case of the victim but also other severe consequences. According to a statement from ACLU of Colorado Legal Director Mark Silverstein, “Beyond the time spent in jail away from work and family, people who are arrested can lose their jobs and be labeled as criminals in their community.”

Silverstein went on to state that “Since the filing of this suit more than five years ago, the ACLU of Colorado has been working with the City of Denver to develop improved law enforcement policies that will reduce the frequency of mistaken ID arrests, and, when mistakes do happen, that will detect them promptly and remedy them quickly.”

Early on in the process, City Safety Manager Al LaCabe stated that one of the problems is the tendency of people who are arrested to lie about their identities.

“The identification process is often difficult,” LaCabe said, “and sheriffs make every effort to ensure they are correctly identifying suspects.”

Another problem identified by Denver’s chief performance officer Dave Edinger is the process used by law enforcement, specifically the separation between the Denver Police Department identification bureau and the Denver Sheriff Department where the booking occurs.

“[W]e have been booking first and then identifying,” Edinger said. “We want to identify first and then book them.”

Denver officials are also looking at the successful Jefferson County operations to see how they might incorporate some of their practices. One such practice is to place someone who has complained of false arrest because of mistaken identity into a special holding cell while authorities check with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. According to a spokesperson for the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, they are usually able to resolve these issues within a matter of minutes as opposed to a matter of days.

Appeal Case Puts Class Action Lawsuits Under Microscope

class action under the microscope

Photo: Ragesoss/Wikimedia commons

Most American consumers have either received an email or postcard about a class action lawsuit or seen commercials from various legal forms informing the general public about these lawsuits where a collective group sues another entity, with the prominent class action suits being against corporations.

These lawsuits have come under criticism for a variety of reasons. One claim is that abusive, overly-litigious claims do harm to the legal process, especially to legitimate claims as opposed to frivolous lawsuits. While this concern was supposed to be addressed by the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005, another criticism which made legal headlines recently is the tendency of attorneys to charge excessive fees through deals with the defendants which actually end benefiting everyone but the “class” the attorneys are supposed to be representing.

Glucosamine may not Support Cartilage, but the Class Action Supports Attorneys

A recent class action settlement in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois was called into question at the Chicago-based U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

The original class action suit was filed against NBTY, an American manufacturer of vitamins and nutritional supplements, and Rexall Sundown, a unit of NBTY, alleging that they falsely claimed glucosamine could rebuild cartilage and lubricate joints. Six lawsuits were originally filed by separate legal firms when studies surfaced suggesting the supplement wasn’t as effective as proposed. The six suits combined into one. Per 7th Circuit Court of Appeals case Pearson v. NBTY, “it is typical in class action cases of this sort … for the multiple class counsel to negotiate a single nationwide settlement and agree to submit it for approval to just one of the district courts in which the multiple actions had been filed.”

Enter the Northern District of Illinois, Judge James B. Zagel presiding. Zagel found in favor of the plaintiffs, awarding $20.2 million. The catch is that only $865,284 of that went to the class members in the lawsuit.

So where did the rest of that money go? Here is where the Court of Appeals Judge Richard Posner found in favor of the objectors, led by class member Theodore Frank of the Center for Class Action Fairness.

The Breakdown of the Class Action Settlement…and the System

When Judge Zagel made his decision, the $20.2 million settlement broke down as follows. Well, to not get ahead of the issue, here is where the proposed figure came from to begin with. The attorneys for the various firms figured that if all of the plaintiffs who were contacted went through what 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Posner called “needlessly elaborate documentation” for their claims (which would be $3 per bottle for up to four bottles, $5 for up to ten bottles if they had kept their original receipts), the total to NBTY would be $14.2 million. Of the remaining $6 million, $1.5 million would go to the cost of the firms sending notice to the plaintiffs and $4.5 million to the attorneys.

In what Zagel believed to be a reasonable decision, he lowered the $4.5 million to $1.93 million, a paltry $538 per hour for billable time.

So the other $2.57 million would be distributed among the class members, right? Wrong. The extra $2.57 million would go back to NBTY. Herein lies part of what Posner criticized about class action suits, but it wasn’t the first aspect of such suits that he criticized.

The first flaw in this system of figuring a class action settlement deals with including the fees and costs in the settlement at all, something Posner called “costs, not benefits.”

In addition, referring back to the lengthy process to file a claim, Posner stated that it was unreasonable to expect every plaintiff to file a claim. In reality, only 30,245 of the potential 12 million plaintiffs went through the process. This resulted in a total reward for the class members of $865, 284. Posner said this difficult filing process was beneficial to Rexall and the attorneys, “because the fewer the claims, the more money Rexall would be willing to give class counsel to induce settlement.” Posner made several suggestions to remedy this quagmire, including having Rexal simply mail checks to the people who received the class action notification postcards.

When it came to the attorney fees, Zagel claimed the $1.93 million was a reasonable number because it represented an allowable 9.6 percent of the aggregate value of the award. However, that percent was based on the $14.1 million. When compared to the actual award, it represents closer to 69 percent.

Putting that aside, Posner also said the fact that $1.93 million represents approximately $538 per hour seems grossly exaggerated given what he called “routine trial preparation.” By the way, the originally proposed $4.5 million would have been $1254 per hour. And if you’re keeping track of the numbers, the attorneys received more than twice what the class members received.

Perhaps the largest criticism relates to the larger practice of what is known as a reversion or “kicker” clause, wherein the defendants (in this case, NBTY) are remitted any portion of the fee that the judge didn’t authorize (the $2.57 million). Forbes magazine called the practice by class action lawyers “a clever way to keep busybody objectors like Ted Frank … from breaking up their deals,” stating that class members have nothing to gain by challenging the attorney fees since any overage doesn’t benefit them; it just goes back to the defendant.

Posner also made a couple of suggestions to remedy this practice, including a rule that the fee should be judged according to what class members actually received and the fee itself. He stated that adding fees into the equation “gives class counsel an incentive to design the claims process in such a way as will maximize the settle benefits actually received by the class, rather than connive with the defendant.”

Posner also proposed a rule where judges would appoint an independent auditor to evaluate billing rates.

For class members everywhere, hopefully Posner’s decision and recommendations will have an impact of the future of legitimate class action lawsuits.