why civil libertarians should oppose federal civil rights charges in kelly thomas case

Officers Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli were found not guilty on Monday of charges related to the death of Kelly Thomas. The FBI field office in Los Angeles said it would look into the case to see if the officers would be charged with a federal crime.

Civil libertarians didn’t like the verdict. They pointed to the case as proof that police brutality is worsening because state and local police departments are becoming more like the military. They had hoped that a guilty verdict would show that officers who abuse their power have to answer for what they do.
They were right to bring attention to the case, but they should be against Ramos and Cicinelli being charged by the federal government. You are missing the big picture when you say that multiple governments have the right to charge defendants with the same crime. Even though a conviction in federal court might feel good in this case, it gives the federal government more power to step into state matters and weakens defendants’ rights to due process.

When it comes to defendants who are easy to feel sorry for, bad laws and examples are rarely set. Federal conspiracy and RICO laws were made so that mob boss could be tried for ordering murders or trying to scare witnesses. Few people were against letting these defendants break the rules against hearsay and other rules of evidence.

But once the laws were in place, they were used against hundreds of thousands of low-level drug offenders, giving them sentences that were too long for their crimes. Prosecutors now charge every drug offender with conspiracy as a matter of course. This is done to get around the rules of evidence that would normally apply. Then, judges have to give defendants a sentence for the drugs they were caught with and for any drugs that witnesses mention in hearsay testimony.

So, a person caught with a small amount of cocaine for personal use ends up in prison for “drug trafficking” for 10 or 15 years. This isn’t the worst thing that could happen. In federal drug cases, things are the same as always. It’s also a big reason why the United States has more people in prison than any other country, with more than 2.3 million people locked up. Too many people from minority groups are in jail.
In the same way that conspiracy and RICO laws weaken protections for defendants based on the rules of evidence, federal charges for violation of civil rights after a murder acquittal weaken the protection against being tried twice for the same crime. Even though the federal government doesn’t technically charge the defendant with the same crime, it has often used this strategy as a thinly veiled way to overturn an unpopular verdict, such as the acquittal of the officers charged in the Rodney King beating.

Progressives have usually favored this, especially when it is said that racism was involved in the crime or the court case that followed. But since more power for the federal government has hurt minorities in drug cases, progressives may want to change their minds.

Strangely, civil libertarians on the left might do well to join forces with “states’ rights” groups on the right to fight against not only this tactic but also any way that federal and state jurisdiction in criminal cases overlaps. When federal and state prosecutors are allowed to work together to get more than one piece of the same apple, it is usually not the worst of the worst who are punished. Most of the time, they are minorities who live in the city and are talked into a plea deal by a public defender after state and federal prosecutors stress how bad a trial could be.

Time goes on. Once upon a time, the phrase “states’ rights” made people think of governors standing in school doorways and saying that desegregation took away from the states’ powers. That was before the drug war put more than a million people of color in jail, most of whom weren’t even charged with a violent crime. In recent years, the number of people in prison has gone down at the state level but has gone up at the federal level. The total number of people in prison keeps going up. The people who live there haven’t changed.

When Ramos and Cicinelli went to court, the prosecutors had their turn. They had the full power of the state behind them, but they still couldn’t get a conviction. As bad as this result is for civil libertarians, it’s even worse for them to help the federal government go after them again. Protections for defendants’ rights to due process need to be brought back, not taken away even more.

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