High court sides with property owners in wetlands case

Topics in Legal News 2016/06/03 23:57   Bookmark and Share
The Supreme Court is making it easier for landowners to bring a court challenge when federal regulators try to restrict property development due to concerns about water pollution.

The justices ruled unanimously Tuesday that a Minnesota company could file a lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over the agency's determination that its land is off limits to peat mining under the Clean Water Act.

The ruling is a win for property rights and business groups that said it was unfair for government agencies to decide what land is subject to complex environmental laws without a court ever deciding whether the agency is right.

It was the second time in four years that the high court sided with property owners against the government in a dispute over the right to challenge a designation of protected wetlands.

The Obama administration argued that the Hawkes Company could only contest the finding by seeking a permit, an expensive process that could take years to resolve. The company said it should be able to challenge the order immediately in federal court without having to spend more than $100,000 on a permit or risk hefty fines.

Writing for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts said the Corps' decision was the kind of final decision that carries a risk of major criminal and civil penalties if landowners don't go along. He said property owners shouldn't have to wait for the agency to "drop the hammer in order to have their day in court."

The case began when the East Grand Forks, Minnesota, company planned to expand its peat processing operations and asked the Corps for guidance. The agency issued a determination that the property was governed by the Clean Water Act because it affected the Red River of the North about 120 miles away.

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Court gives green light to death penalty fast-tracking

Topics in Legal News 2016/03/23 09:34   Bookmark and Share
A federal appeals court Wednesday cleared the way for the Department of Justice to allow states to have their inmates' death penalty appeals expedited through federal court.
 
Legal organizations that challenged the DOJ's criteria for certifying states for the fast-track program lacked standing to bring the lawsuit, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said. The court also noted that the DOJ had not yet granted any certifications, and those certifications would be reviewed by a separate appeals court.

The decision threw out a lower court ruling that blocked the certification process.

The fast-track program would require inmates to file petitions in federal court within six months of a final ruling on their appeal in state court. They normally have a year. It would also require federal courts to act faster on the inmates' petitions.

At least one state, Arizona, has asked the DOJ to certify it for the fast-track program.

Opponents say it would force attorneys representing death penalty inmates to scramble to file appeals, possibly leading some cases to be neglected. Supporters say the program could take years off the death penalty appeals process, giving crime victims faster justice.

"This decision is important not only for the families of murder victims, but also for everyone in the United States who depends upon the rule of law and relies upon the courts to follow it," Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said in a statement. The Sacramento-based nonprofit organization advocates for swift punishment for guilty defendants and filed arguments in the case.

Marc Shapiro, an attorney for the legal organizations that sued — the San Francisco-based Habeas Corpus Resource Center and the Office of the Federal Public Defender in Arizona — said he will ask a larger 9th Circuit panel to review the ruling.

"We're living in a time where our system of capital punishment is being exposed for its critical flaws," he said. "There's a heightened need for assuring we're not sending innocent or otherwise undeserving people to the execution chamber."

To qualify for the fast-track program, a state has to require a court to appoint an attorney to represent an indigent capital inmate unless the inmate rejects the attorney or is not indigent, according to the 9th Circuit's ruling. Regulations finalized by the DOJ in 2013 set benchmarks for attorney competency.

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California High Court Allows Gov. Jerry Brown's Prison Initiative

Topics in Legal News 2016/02/25 14:40   Bookmark and Share
California's Supreme Court is allowing Gov. Jerry Brown's bid to put his plan to reduce the state's prison population before voters in November.

The high court acted Friday after Brown warned that further delay could push voters' consideration to 2018.

The justices put on hold a lower court ruling that barred the state attorney general from issuing the documents that would let Brown's supporters gather the signatures needed to put his initiative on this year's ballot.

The Sacramento-based judge ruled that Brown improperly amended a juvenile justice initiative. The Democratic governor added his proposal to increase sentencing credits for adult inmates and allow earlier parole for non-violent felons.

Brown says it is too late to start over and still collect the nearly 586,000 signatures needed for a ballot measure this year.
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Court records: Apple's help sought in another iPhone case

Topics in Legal News 2016/02/24 14:40   Bookmark and Share
A federal magistrate in Chicago last November ordered Apple to help federal prosecutors access data on an iPhone in a personal bankruptcy and passport fraud case, one of more than a dozen cases around the country similar to the legal battle over the telephone of one of the San Bernardino shooting suspects.

Court records show U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon filed a November 2015 motion saying law enforcement needed Apple's help to bypass the passcode to search, extract and copy data from an iPhone 5S owned by Pethinaidu and Parameswari Veluchamy, the Chicago Tribune reported.

An affidavit filed Nov. 13 said text messages, phone contacts and digital photos might help confirm wrongdoing. It also said data on the phone "may also provide relevant insight into the cellphone owner's state of mind as it relates to the offense under investigation."

The Chicago Sun-Times reported that U.S. Magistrate Judge Mary Rowland's order said Apple should provide authorities "reasonable technical assistance to enable law enforcement agents to obtain access to unencrypted data" She added Apple "may provide a copy of the encrypted data to law enforcement, but Apple is not required to attempt to decrypt, or otherwise enable law enforcement's attempts to access any encrypted data."

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Romania's outgoing PM appears at court for corruption trial

Topics in Legal News 2015/11/04 14:53   Bookmark and Share
Romania's outgoing prime minister has appeared at the high court where he's on trial for tax evasion, money-laundering, conflict of interest and making false statements.

Victor Ponta arrived at the High Court for Cassation and Justice Friday, declining comment saying he was now "a private citizen."

Ponta and his Cabinet resigned Wednesday after mass protests following a nightclub fire that killed more than 30. Protesters have staged mass rallies demanding better governance.

The charges Ponta faces refer to a period when he was working as a lawyer. He denies wrongdoing.

Prosecutors say Ponta, who is still a lawmaker, forged expense claims worth at least 181,000 lei ($45,000) from the law firm of political ally. Prosecutors say he pretended he worked as a lawyer to justify getting money from the firm.

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Court: Therapy dog didn't sway jury against sex offender

Topics in Legal News 2015/10/27 09:34   Bookmark and Share
A therapy dog used to calm a testifying young victim did not influence the jury during the trial of an Ohio man who was convicted of having sex with a minor and providing drugs to another, an appeals court ruled.

The Akron Beacon Journal reports the ruling on Michael Jacobs' complaint to the 9th District Court of Appeals is considered important in Ohio because it was the first time a state appellate court heard a case challenging the use of therapy dogs during trial.

Jacobs was convicted in 2014 of having sex with a minor and providing drugs to another. He's serving a four-year prison sentence.

He argued that the Labrador-golden retriever mix brought in by county prosecutors, named Avery II, was a distraction in the Summit County courtroom.

Prosecutors contended that the dog was out of the view of jurors as it sat by the child's feet.

The court ruled that judges are permitted to allow "a variety of special allowances" for young victims of sexual abuse who testify during a trial, including therapy dogs.

"One of my main objectives as Summit County prosecutor is to fight for the rights of victims, especially children. Avery plays a vital role in how my office focuses on the needs of crime victims," prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh said.

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