13 Unusual Stories about Serious Subjects from AllGov.com—2014

Saturday, December 27, 2014
Judge Lynn Rosenthal being arrested for DUI

1. Violent Crime Down Since Colorado Legalized Marijuana

 

When Colorado legalized recreational marijuana, critics of the idea warned it would lead to more crime throughout the state. But the impact has been just the opposite so far in the state’s largest city, which has seen violent crime go down.

 

Crime data for Denver, the hub of legal pot sales in the state, shows murders, assaults, rapes, burglaries and other violent crimes declined during the first three months of the year, compared with the same period for 2013.

 

Homicides went down from 17 to 8 (a 53% drop), automobile break-ins from 2,317 to 1,477 (down 36%) and sexual assaults from 110 to 95 (down 14%). Overall, violent and property crimes dropped more than 10% from last year to this year during the first quarter.

 

Two types of property crime did go up—arson from 20 incidents to 47 (a 135% jump) and larceny from 2,133 to 2,287 (up 7%).

 

Meanwhile, marijuana sales across the state increased during the first three months of 2014, from $14 million to $19 million, according to Vox. “For all three months, Denver County made up about half that revenue,” German Lopez reported, noting the city is host to nearly 60% of Colorado’s licensed retail pot stores. Disappointed opponents of legal marijuana pointed out that there has been no connection shown between the drop in the crime rate and the increase in marijuana sales.

 

Some opponents say the criminal effect of decriminalizing marijuana won’t be felt for several years. “This is a great opportunity for us to find out what happens when you legalize a substance like marijuana,” Tom Gorman, director of Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, told Vox before the police statistics came out. “Just wait and watch what happens in these labs, and then you can make a decision based on data and facts and not rhetoric.”

 

2. Refrigerator Used to Launch Hacker Attack

 

It has been well established that hackers often hijack computers of unsuspecting users to launch cyberattacks. But this kind of technology takeover has moved beyond laptops and desktop computers and now includes “smart” home appliances, like televisions and refrigerators.

 

An Internet security provider, Proofpoint, Inc., says it found the first example of an Internet of Things (IoT)-based hacking scheme that included at least one fridge, as well as thousands of computers, TVs, home-networking routers and multimedia centers.

 

The consumer goods were responsible for sending out more than a quarter of the 750,000 malicious emails delivered between December 23, 2013, and January 6, 2014, by unidentified cyber criminals.

 

Proofpoint says this kind of IoT-based cyber assault will only increase in coming years, with “significant security implications for device owners” and those targeted by hackers.

 

“Bot-nets are already a major security concern and the emergence of thingbots may make the situation much worse,” David Knight, general manager of Proofpoint’s Information Security division, said. “Many of these devices are poorly protected at best and consumers have virtually no way to detect or fix infections when they do occur. Enterprises may find distributed attacks increasing as more and more of these devices come on-line and attackers find additional ways to exploit them.”

 

 

3. If a Driverless Car Gets a Ticket, Who Pays?

 

The age of robot-driven cars is here, thanks to Google. These self-driving vehicles have logged thousands of miles on California’s Bay Area roadways, ushering their human passengers (a person is always in the driver’s seat, per the law) to their destinations.

 

So far, Google’s autonomous cars have a perfect law-abiding record: Not one of them has been issued a traffic citation…yet.

 

But it seems like just a matter of time, or robotic hiccup, before one of the vehicles does something to get pulled over and issued a ticket.

 

When that day comes, who’s going to pay the fine? Google? The person behind the wheel, who has no control over the car?

 

Which leads to the question of whether a vehicle “operator,” as referenced in the legal code, may be either a human being or a corporation (which brings to mind a certain U.S. Supreme Court ruling that infamously equated corporations with people).

 

“A person, if it is defined as a human person and not a corporation, that's what we're really wondering about,” Ron Medford, safety director for Google's self-driving car program, and a former deputy administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,  said at a recent meeting at the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). “Even in this definition... does a person mean a human individual or can it mean something more?”

 

The response from DMV assistant chief counsel Brian Soublet: “Well, right, if you look at the common definitions that are in the vehicle code, a person includes a corporation and a partnership and other forms of entities. So when we think of a vehicle being operated, is it that inclusive? Is the operator that person, that could be a corporation?”

 

“Perhaps the ticket should go to the programmer who wrote the algorithm that made the mistake?” The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal supposed, tongue in cheek.

 

Sergeant Saul Jaeger, press information officer at the Mountain View Police Department, told Madrigal in an email: “Right now the California Vehicle Code reads that the person seated in the driver’s seat is responsible for the movement of the vehicle.”

 

But that doesn’t really answer the question in the case of self-driving cars.

 

As far as Google is concerned, it will pay for any tickets stemming from its special cars running afoul with the law.

 

“What we’ve been saying to the folks in the DMV, even in public session, for unmanned vehicles, we think the ticket should go to the company. Because the decisions are not being made by the individual,” Medford told The Atlantic.

 

The California Legislature addressed the matter in Senate Bill 1298, which requires the state DMV to adopt regulations for the testing and use of autonomous vehicles on public roads. It adopted said rules on May 20. They will go into effect on September 16, 2014.

 

4. Why is the CIA Fighting Release of Documents Relating to 4 Planes that Went Missing in 1980?

 

A federal judge has told the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other federal offices to continue looking for records pertaining to the disappearance of four transport planes in 1980.

 

The case was brought before Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly by plaintiff Stephen Whitaker, who has attempted to obtain information about four DC-3 aircraft, one of which was flown by his father, Harold William Whitaker.

 

Stephen Whitaker filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the CIA, as well as the Department of Defense and the State Department, to learn if they possessed records that might explain what happened to the DC-3s.

 

The CIA refused to tell Whitaker if its archives held any relevant documents pertaining to his search. The agency cited various exemptions under federal law, including the CIA Act of 1949 (pdf), which allow it to avoid responding to certain FOIA inquiries.

 

Whitaker argued in his lawsuit that the CIA improperly invoked FOIA Exemption (b) (3) (pdf), which authorizes the agency to keep from revealing information on agency “functions” and “intelligence sources and methods.”

 

Kollar-Kotelly sided with Whitaker, ruling (pdf) that “the CIA has too broadly applied the CIA Act to withhold information pursuant to Exemption (b) (3).” However, she agreed with two other exemptions cited by the CIA that pertain to attorney-client privilege and the withholding of personnel and medical records.

 

The plaintiff’s search for information seems to be both personal and more.

 

He said the plane piloted by his father disappeared somewhere over Spain in October 1980. It had been purchased at auction from the Spanish Air Force and was being flown to Germany to become part of a museum.

 

A report from Spain’s Civil Aviation Commission on Accidents says the aircraft’s instruments may not have been fully functional, and that the radio may only have been capable of sending messages but not receiving them.

 

The report added that there was no record of a distress call from the pilot, or co-pilot Lawrence Eckmann, a major in the U.S. Army.

 

Stephen Whitaker also sought records from the government about Eckmann. The State Department claimed its search turned up nothing on Eckmann. The plaintiff challenged this assertion, and Kollar-Kotelly agreed that Eckmann had been excluded from the search, which was found to be “inadequate and should have been revised….”

 

The plaintiff seems to suspect that some of the DC-3s he has sought information on were used by the CIA in its covert operations.

 

His FOIA request to the spy agency asked for any information that would reveal whether

“any of these persons or aircraft were later found to be employed or contracted by the CIA for service in Central America or elsewhere.”

 

The CIA has a long history of using DC-3s that ranges from the Vietnam War to the recent conflict in Libya that ousted dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi.

 

5. Is Sherri Ybarra the Weirdest Candidate to Win Election?

 

Sherri Ybarra isn’t clear on how long she’s been married, figured she’d be able to get a Ph.D. in education in one semester and hasn’t voted in a general election since moving to Idaho 18 years ago. But she has a good chance of being elected the state’s superintendent of schools.

 

Ybarra has also plagiarized material from the website of her competitor and has claimed endorsements from elected officials who are not supporting her, according to Betsy Z. Russell of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington.

 

Ybarra says she’s running for superintendent to atone for her lack of a voting record. “That’s a civic duty,” she said of voting during a televised debate, “and if elected, this will be a civic duty that I will repay Idaho through for my lack of having a consistent voting history. And I would be honored to do that.”

 

Ybarra’s challenger, Jana Jones, served as deputy superintendent for two years during the mid-2000s and worked in other positions in the superintendent’s office before that. Since then, she has worked with educational consulting firms. Ybarra was a teacher, principal and the curriculum and federal programs director for Mountain Home School District, which serves about 4,000 students. Jones, though, has the handicap of running as a Democrat in a deep-red state, while Ybarra carries the Republican banner.

 

One of Ybarra’s biggest missteps has been her claim that she would earn a doctoral degree by August. She did not, earning instead an educational “specialist” degree. “She changed her mind,” Ybarra campaign spokesman Melinda Nothern said. However, Ybarra’s website claims she has an “EdDs in educational leadership.” An Ed.D. is a doctorate in education; a specialist degree is referred to as an Ed.S.

 

Ybarra also claimed support from the state legislature’s joint finance committee. “[S]upport of the majority of JFAC, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee that deals with finances, that is behind me every step of the way,” she said in a debate. However, her website lists endorsements from only two of the 20 members of that committee.

 

Her website also says she moved to Idaho “with the military,” omitting the fact that it was her former husband who had served in the Air Force, not her current one. When asked how her claim that she has lived in Idaho with her family for “nearly 20 years” jibed with her 16-year marriage to her current husband, Ybarra was vague on her earlier marriage. “My brain doesn’t operate in the past” she told the Idaho Statesman.

 

Good thing she’s not running for history professor.

 

Update: The much-maligned GOP candidate for Idaho superintendent for public instruction narrowly defeated her Democratic rival, Jana Jones. Ybarra garnered 50.7% of the vote to Jones’ 49.3% and the winning margin was about 5,700 votes.

 

6. Belarus Dictator Reintroduces Serfdom after 153 Years

 

Europe’s only dictator has decided it’s time to bring serfdom back to his isolated country.

President Alexandr Lukashenko of Belarus, a former Soviet republic, decreed recently that those toiling on collective farms, a leftover from communism, cannot under any circumstance quit their jobs.

 

Critics said the longtime dictator wanted to turn the workers into serfs, which was in existence during the days of imperial Russia. And Lukashenko agreed.

 

“Let’s be frank,” the man who has ruled Belarus for 20 years was quoted as saying. “Serfdom” was exactly what he wanted, adding: “You can’t quit and you can’t get a different job.” Belarus is a signatory of the 1957 Abolition of Forced Labor. But this probably doesn’t mean much to Lukashenko, a former Communist Party member who ran collective farms in the Soviet Union.

 

“We need to train farmers to be very efficient, responsible and organized,” Lukashenko said in his order. “If we get the agriculture industry working like this in one year, it will guarantee that we will continue working this way in the future,” he said.

 

Well, maybe not. He tried a similar serfdom order two years ago, when he commanded that the 13,000 employees of Belarus’ state-owned wood-processing plants couldn’t quit their jobs, either.

 

“There’s little indication from Belarus that this measure actually worked,” The Washington Post’s Adam Taylor wrote.

 

7. Execution Victims who Deny Guilt are More Likely to Order Last Meals Low in Calories

 

Last meals served before executions say a lot about those on Death Row, according to researchers at Cornell University.

 

Professors Kevin Kniffin and Brian Wansink studied (pdf) the last meals of 247 people executed in the United States between 2002 and 2006.

 

They found that prisoners who denied guilt were 2.7 times more likely to decline a last meal than those who admitted guilt (29% to 8%).

 

Also, Death Row inmates who admitted they were guilty requested 34% more calories of food and were more likely to request brand name, comfort-food items, Kniffin and Wansink concluded.

 

The research followed another study they did in 2012, along with Mitsuru Shimizu at Cornell, that found last meals overall are high in protein and fats, and featured items such as french fries, soda, ice cream, hamburgers, chicken, steak, and pie.

 

The meals of those who admitted guilt averaged 2,756 calories and contained 2.5 times the daily recommended servings of protein and fat. The meals of those who had not admitted guilt averaged 2,085 calories.

 

Food most commonly requested was meat (84%), fried food (68%), desserts (66%), and soft drinks (60%).

 

“The prisoners’ proportionally high in protein and fat while low in fruits and vegetables meals were also seen to match the food eating patterns found within insecure environments,” Lizette Boreli wrote at MedicalDaily. “This highlights how food is used to mediate feelings of stress and distress.”

 

8. 10 Governors Elected in 2014 with Less than 50% of Vote

 

Winning isn’t always pretty, as 10 governors who won their races last month can attest.

Five Democrats, four Republicans and one independent were victorious in their gubernatorial campaigns without the support of a majority of voters in their states.

 

The Democratic victors were John Hickenlooper of Colorado (49.3%), David Ige of Hawaii (49.5%), John Kitzhaber of Oregon (48.9%), Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island (40.7%), and Peter Shumlin of Vermont (46.4%).

 

In the GOP camp, there was Rick Scott of Florida (48.1%), Sam Brownback of Kansas (49.9%), Paul LePage of Maine (48.2%), and Charlie Baker of Massachusetts (48.4%).

The lone independent was Bill Walker of Alaska (48.1%).

 

Eric Ostermeier at Smart Politics found that this group in 2014 represented only the third time in the last 100 years that 10 or more governors came out on top with a plurality of the vote. There were also 10 governors elected by plurality in 2010 and 12 in 2002.

 

Ostermeier attributed the large number of plurality-based victories this year to competitive contests, caused in part by strong showings from several third-party and independent candidates.

 

9. Florida Sheriffs Used SWAT-Style Attack to Enforce Barbershop License

 

Florida sheriff’s deputies, under the guise of checking professional licenses, raided an Orlando-area barbershop using SWAT-like tactics back in 2010 and now a federal appeals court has ruled that the search was illegal.

 

In a ruling that allows a lawsuit against the department to proceed, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals strongly criticized the Orange County Sheriff’s Office for storming the Strictly Skillz barbershop four years ago. “With some team members dressed in ballistic vests and masks, and with guns drawn, the deputies rushed into their target destinations, handcuffed the stunned occupants—and demanded to see their barbers’ licenses,” the court wrote. The raid was one of several deputies carried out against minority-owned barbershops and salons in 2010.

 

The justices said the deputies went too far in using a SWAT-like approach just to check whether barbers were licensed. In fact, inspectors from Florida’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) had inspected Strictly Skillz only two days prior to the raid and found everything in order.

 

Describing the raid as a “scene right out of a Hollywood movie,” the panel of judges wrote: “Unlike previous inspections of Strictly Skillz...the August 21 [2010] search was executed with a tremendous and disproportionate show of force, and no evidence exists that such force was justified.” The Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel reported that “no illegal or unlicensed activity was found” at the Pine Hills barbershop.

 

Working with DBPR, the deputy sheriffs claimed they suspected unlawful activity had taken place at the shop, which caters to minority customers, and others like it.

 

Tuesday’s ruling was a result of two deputies, Keith Vidler and Travis Leslie, petitioning  that they should be immune from any civil litigation brought against them for doing their jobs. But the judges rejected their position, noting that they had twice before ruled in other cases that those participating in a warrantless criminal raid were not entitled to immunity. “Today, we repeat that same message once again,” the court wrote. “We hope that the third time will be the charm.”

 

Both the DBPR and the Sheriff’s Office launched internal investigations following a report by the Orlando Sentinel exposing the raids.

 

The DBPR terminated several employees and settled out of court with barbers. But the Sheriff’s Office concluded deputies did nothing wrong.

 

10. Why do Judges Keep Getting Arrested in Broward County, Florida?

 

From alcoholism to ethical and criminal violations, judges in one Florida county keep getting into trouble and proving an embarrassment.

 

Take Judge Lynn Rosenthal. She made a spectacle of herself last month after driving drunk in a courthouse parking lot, hitting a police car and repeatedly driving into a gate. Rosenthal was the third Broward County judge in six months to be arrested for driving under the influence.

 

Another was Judge Gisele Pollack, who was already in trouble for showing up for work drunk, twice, and was later arrested for being under the influence. Still another Broward judge, Judge Nick Lopane, is being investigated for allegedly allowing a convicted Ponzi schemer to influence a case.

 

“I do think it belies an underlying systemic problem in Broward County,” Howard Finkelstein, Broward’s elected public defender, told the newspaper. “I don’t think this stunningly embarrassing fact of having all these charges pending at the same time is indicative of a judiciary with substance abuse problems, but I do think it is a manifestation of the greater problem of a circle-the-wagons mentality.”

 

The troubling episodes also involve former county judges, one of whom, Judge Ana Gardner, was disbarred for exchanging 949 phone calls and 471 text messages with the prosecutor during a death penalty case.

 

Another judge, Judge Laura Watson, may lose her seat after getting caught cheating clients and a fellow lawyer a decade ago. In April of this year, the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission recommended that Watson be removed from the bench.

 

“Even for South Florida, where absurd news events are routine and the sheriff went to prison for corruption, the spate of judicial scandals has raised serious questions about whether the arrests in Broward are a bizarre coincidence or underscore a larger systemic problem,” the newspaper’s Frances Robles reported.

 

“Tell me one other courthouse that at any time ever had three judges pending criminal charges, a fourth judge disbarred by the Supreme Court and another judge awaiting removal,” Finkelstein said. “And that doesn’t include the naked judge!”

 

That would be Judge Joyce Julian, who, in 2001, was found drunk and naked from the waist down in the hallway of the Amelia Island Plantation resort…at a meeting of the Florida Conference of Circuit Judges.

 

11. Tennessee Town Wins Court Approval to Change Name to Popular Country Song Title

 

What’s in a name? A small Tennessee town hopes there’s money.

 

Lake City, a small Appalachian community (population: 1,781) beset by unemployment and methamphetamine use, has been approached by a developer wanting to spruce up its downtown and build an amusement park and water park. The catch is that the city must change its name to Rocky Top.

 

If you’ve ever watched a University of Tennessee football game, you know what “Rocky Top” is. The song by that name has been used to cheer on the Volunteers since the 1970s. It has become synonymous with the university and the state.

 

Standing in the way were the owners of the song’s copyright, House of Bryant, owned by the sons of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, who wrote the song in 1967. House of Bryant sought an injunction against Lake City, claiming the name change would reduce the value of their trademarks.

 

On May 28, federal judge Thomas A. Varlan denied (pdf) House of Bryant’s request. The Tennessee state house, senate and governor have all signed off on the change, so the only hurdle left is for Lake City’s city council to vote for the new name.

 

“We just want to see this happen for the community,” Anderson County Commissioner Tim Isbel told CNN. “There's just so much magic in the name. Not the song, the name Rocky Top.”

 

Once the city council approves, developers will come in, and according to their plan, will spend nearly $150 million to put in a 3-D theater, laser-tag arena, a pirate-themed restaurant and the other amenities. Then the town, about 30 miles north of Knoxville, will be set. Or will it?

 

The town has played the name game before. It was originally called Coal Creek, but in 1936 it was believed that changing the name to Lake City would bring tourists, even though there’s no lake nearby. That plan failed, and now the town’s hoping that a second name change will work.

 

12. Bank of America Ordered to Pay $1 Million for Harassing Couple with 700 Robocalls

 

Harassment comes at a price. Ask Bank of America.

 

Beginning in 2009, B of A started calling homeowners Joyce and Nelson Coniglio of Tampa, Florida.

 

The Coniglios had fallen behind on their mortgage, prompting the bank to unleash their robocaller—the computer system that routinely (if not maniacally) will call customers multiple times a day about bank debts.

 

In the Coniglios’ case, the calls were relentless … upwards of five a day over a period of four years. The total reached 700.

 

Even after the couple won rulings in court ordering B of A to stop the calls, they just kept coming.

 

So the Coniglios sued the bank and won a $1.05 million settlement, which came out to about $1,500 for each robocall.

 

“This judgment against Bank of America is an epic win for consumers across the country,” Billy Howard, an attorney for the Coniglios, told ABC News. “It’s time to fight back against these ‘robo-bullies.’”

 

13. Minnesota Vikings Lead NFL in Player Arrests

 

It’s early in the National Football League season, but the Minnesota Vikings have already outshined the rest of the league in one respect: They are the leaders in player arrests since 2000.

 

The latest Viking to have his mugshot taken is Adrian Peterson, Minnesota’s star running back, who is accused of beating his 4-year-old son with a switch, or tree branch. Peterson turned himself in to Texas police last week and the Vikings moved quickly to declare Peterson ineligible for Sunday’s game against the New England Patriots. The team has had experience dealing with these issues; 45 Minnesota players have been arrested since January 2000, according to USA Today, which maintains a database of NFL player arrests. It’s not even the first time Peterson has been arrested. In 2012, he was charged with resisting arrest in a Houston nightclub. The charges were later dropped.

 

An analysis of the data by The New York Times shows that it’s not a matter of a team having some bad luck over a couple years with players being arrested. The Vikings and the Cincinnati Bengals, the team with the second-most arrests at 43, consistently have more players arrested than other teams. Those teams, along with the Denver Broncos with 40 team arrests, are way ahead of the pack. No other team has more than 32 arrests.

 

There’s no data on why some teams have more arrests than others, but The Times’ Neil Irwin suggests two explanations. The first is the culture of the team. “The top management of a franchise may send a message to personnel scouts and coaches that they are either more or less tolerant of signing players who have had legal problems in the past,” Irwin wrote.

 

The second possible explanation is the location of the team. “Different cities have different patterns of living and different approaches to law enforcement,” Irwin wrote. “Perhaps players for the Jets and the Giants (both with persistently low arrest rates) are at less risk of arrest for DUI because people are less likely to need to drive themselves to nightclubs in Manhattan. Or perhaps in some cities, young African-American men driving expensive cars attract more police attention than in others.”

 

Which are the most law-abiding teams? The Arizona Cardinals, St. Louis Rams and Houston Texans are tied with 11 arrests each, although the Texans only began play in 2002.

 

And despite the publicity surrounding Peterson and the video of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice purportedly beating his then-fiancée (now wife) in the elevator of an Atlantic City casino, arrests of NFL players are actually significantly down this year. The peak was in 2006, when 67 players were arrested. Only 38 players have been arrested so far this year. But as they say, it’s early in the season and anything can happen in the National Football League.

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Steve Straehley, Danny Biederman

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