Legalized marijuana is in the news again, this time because of an announcement by the Trump administration ordering prosecutors to crack down on all usage and possession of the drug. Whether you are for or against its use and legalization, the battle is one that has roots all the way back to the time our country was founded. It is a study in the interplay between state and federal governments when it come to making and enforcing criminal laws.

A History Lesson

It is best to start with a basic history lesson. When our country was founded, the Founding Fathers had a fear of big government, coming off of having been ruled by a monarchy that told them what to do from a faraway land. Thus, wanting locals to have a say in their own governance, our federal and constitutional framework was set up to limit what the federal government could tell states what to do in many areas. One such area is criminal law, where states generally were given free reign to determine what would and would not be a crime.

Humans are visual animals. That is why the power of video evidence can be so persuasive in a trial. Combine that with the fact that video and surveillance cameras are seemingly everywhere, and it feels like every crime gets caught on video, and when it does, there is no defense.

In many cases, there are stories behind video. Someone who is supposedly caught on video committing a crime still has every right to his or her constitutional rights, including a trial and a defense.

Officer Charged with Brutality

Everybody tends to agree that distracted driving is a big problem and that everything should be done that can be to keep people’s eyes on the road and off their cell phones. That is why many states have enacted laws that make texting while driving illegal, or at least, a traffic offense.

The real debate is not whether it should be illegal to text when driving or not, but whether it should be a primary or secondary offense.

Primary vs. Secondary Offenses

Lately there are more and more services that offer to trace your DNA. They propose to tell you what your ancestry really is, revealing things about your familial and ethnic background that you may not have even known. The commercials portray the services as being fun, fascinating, and useful. Just mail a sample to them and they send you back your DNA results.

Information May Threaten Privacy

Reports have disclosed that many of these services can and will give the DNA evidence that they find about you to police, should the police obtain a warrant for such information. That DNA evidence could in turn be used as evidence to link you to a crime.

Unlike what you see on TV, the state cannot just show up at trial and present witnesses and evidence that it has concealed from the defendant. The defendant is legally entitled to be told of  information the state has about things like identifying witness evidence. When the state fails to provide this information, a conviction may be overturned, as was the case in a recent case.

Witness IDs Co-Defendant

The case involved a murder to which there was only one eyewitness, who was prepared to testify that of the two men present at the scene of the crime, and who were co-defendants, she recognizes one co-defendant as not being the murderer (thus implicating the other defendant). The state did not disclose to the defendant before trial that the state had the witness or knew of her testimony.

Being falsely convicted and spending years, perhaps decades, behind bars for a crime that you did not commit is possibly one of the most terrifying things that can happen to a person. Today, we thankfully have DNA evidence and a system that recognizes second chances for people when new evidence is presented showing innocence.

However, that still does not mean that innocent people do not languish in jail for years, waiting for the legal system to recognize the science that proves their innocence. When they are ultimately shown to have been falsely imprisoned, the road to obtain compensation for those lost years can be long and difficult. 

Wrongful Imprisonment can be Devastating

There are times when the truth is stranger than fiction. Sometimes that happens in actual legal cases, when you just have to ask what a court was thinking when a decision is entered.

Man Asks for a Lawyer…Or Does He?

Just last week, a court in Louisiana had to determine a very serious issue—whether a suspect had properly invoked his constitutional right to an attorney. He was not provided one, although he said he asked for one while he was being interrogated by police. The transcript of his interrogation shows that he said, “I know that I didn’t do it, so why don’t you just give me a lawyer dog ‘cause this is not what’s up.”

Do you remember the game you used to play in school as a kid called Telephone? It was the game where everybody whispered a word or phrase to each other, and by the time the phrase was whispered to enough people, the last person’s version of the original word or phrase was completely skewed and inaccurate.

We have our own real life version of Telephone when it comes to police investigations and arrests, and it is called police sketches. These are the sketches of wanted individuals that are put out in the media when police are looking for a suspect or a fugitive.

Communication Breakdown

It is illegal to commit a crime. That simple statement would seem straightforward enough. But do you really know what the words “commit a crime” mean? On the surface it would appear that the crime must be completed. That is, if you commit a robbery, you must actually follow through and rob someone.

That definition leaves out an entire category of what are known as inchoate, or incomplete crimes. In common language, we call these “attempts,” and you have probably heard of people convicted of attempted murder or attempted robbery.

Inchoate Crimes

The law is blind to all but the facts and justice; at least that is the way it is supposed to work. Both our constitution and the integrity of our legal system depend on courts being blind to issues outside the courtroom, particularly when it comes to race.

Race should never enter the courtroom, but when it does, it is particularly egregious when it gets injected into cases that involve the death penalty. The United States Supreme Court may be set to hear an appeal of a death penalty conviction when this is just the question that will be addressed.

Juror’s Statements Show Racial Hostility