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Free Speech

40,000 Californians Download ACLU App…..Ferguson’s High Priced “Negotiation” With Justice….Chief Charlie Beck Thanks the Troops

May 5th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


Last month a South Gate, California, woman was filming a police action when a Deputy U.S. Marshall saw her, strode over and smashed her phone to the ground.

As of last Thursday, the ACLU of California has an app for that with their new Mobile Justice CA, a free smartphone app that allows people to record video that, at a finger touch, is sent straight to the ACLU—or more specifically to their cloud storage.

The video also stays on your phone so that you retain a copy as well.

It is the transmission that is key, of course, because—as the above video demonstrates—it prevents anyone from deleting the only copy of a recording.

Since MobileJusticeCA was released less than a week ago, the app has been downloaded “around 40,000 times,” said the ACLU’s Peter Bibring when we talked on Monday. Bibring is director of police practices and senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Southern California branch, and one of those most involved with the project. “So we’re calling that successful,” he said.

No kidding.

(By the way, the ACLU of California is made up of the state’s three big regional branches: the ACLU of Southern California, the ACLU of Northern California, and the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties.)

MobileJusticeCA is not the first such application that the ACLU has distributed. The newly launched California app is an improved variation on an app introduced in New York a couple of years ago, when there was a push among activists to document stop-and-frisk incidents. A few other states, like New Jersey, and Oregon, followed suit.

Then California worked with the software developers to make various improvements over the original, said Bibring,.

For instance, unlike the New York version, which only allowed a short recording, the new version allows you to record as long as you want, or at least as long as your battery holds up.

Other improvements in the California incarnation include access—through your phone— to the ACLU’s full library of know your rights material. Plus, there’s a feature that allows someone who is recording a police action to send out an alert that will be seen by others nearby who may then show up to record too.

When I asked Bibring if he was at all concerned with some of the privacy issues that some critics have mentioned since the app was introduced.

“Actually, I’m proud of our privacy policies on this application,” he said.” For example, unless you submit it to us, we don’t collect any kind of information about you. We don’t have your name, or any kind of device ID, or anything else. We just have the video.”

The video exists on the Amazon cloud server, with whom the ACLU has contracted. “And they’re extremely exacting about not collecting access to any personal data.” said Bibring.

In truth, unless the video is flagged by the sender as evidence of possible civil rights violation, ACLU staffers will, in most cases, never look at it, and it will be purged in a few months.

The ACLU is partnering with the Ella Baker Center to do a six month campaign to engage people about ways to promote police accountability in their neighborhoods, said Bibring.

“People unquestionably have the first amendment right to film law enforcement,” he said. “So one of the things we are trying to do with this app is to make sure that people know their rights.”


There’s no question about the fact that Dan K. Webb, 69, is a brilliant attorney. But the fact that Ferguson, MO, has hired one the nation’s highest paid lawyers, in a contract that grants him his full fee for guiding their negotiations with the U.S. Department of Justice, has drawn criticism. In certain pro bono cases, Webb works for a lowered fee. Not this time. His hourly price tag is nearly twice that of the highest paid lawyers—$700 per hour—working in Missouri in the whole of last year.

According to St. Louis Despatch reporters Christine Byers and Stephen Deere, who broke the story after they managed to wrestle a copy of the engagement letter showing the hiring terms away from the Ferguson City Council, which tried very, very hard to keep the letter secret, then reportedly redacted it energetically after they realized they didn’t have a legal leg to stand on in the face of the Dispatch’s Public Records Act request.

Eventually, persistent reporters Byers and Deere got the whole thing which you can read here.

Yet, the most interesting part of the hiring of Webb is not so much that Ferguson, which has been reported to be skating perilously close to bankruptcy, has chosen to pay such an unusually high fee, it is why they were interested in Webb specifically, a story that the Dispatch reporters say came from Webb himself.

It seems that, after interviewing other suitable attorneys and firms with successful experience with this precise kind of negotiation process between the DOJ and a law enforcement entity in need of reform—like, for example, the firm that represented the city of Albuquerque recently to negotiate its consent decree—-Ferguson was attracted to Webb when they learned he had represented the infamous and very colorful Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, when Arpaio and company were facing a DOJ lawsuit.

Here’s a clip from Byers and Deere’s story:

it was Webb’s involvement in Maricopa County, Ariz., which is the subject of a Justice Department investigation, that attracted the attention of Ferguson, Webb said. The DOJ alleged that the Sheriff’s Office and Sheriff Joseph Arpaio engaged in discriminatory and otherwise unconstitutional law enforcement actions against Latinos.

In 2012, the DOJ filed a civil lawsuit in federal court against Maricopa County, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office and Arpaio. In a press release, the DOJ wrote: “negotiations were unsuccessful, primarily because the county and Arpaio refused to agree to any independent oversight by a monitor.”

“They have been the most belligerent” of the communities in negotiations with DOJ, said Walker, the professor at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.


Last Friday was May Day, which brought thousands to downtown Los Angeles for marches, demonstrations and celebration. Expecting big crowds, and a teensy weensy bit jittery about what the day might bring, what with the anger and grief still spilling out of Baltimore and elsewhere, the Los Angeles Police Department wisely called a tactical alert.

Happily, however, it was a peaceful day. And LAPD officers were reportedly helpful and firm, when need be, but not at all aggressive.

So, over the weekend, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck posted a thank you to sworn department members on the police union’s internal website.

To the men and women of the LAPD,

I want to personally thank you for showing the professionalism of the Los Angeles Police Department to the world on May Day. Your efforts allowed thousands of protesters and marchers to exercise their rights protected by our Constitution.

While there were some tense moments yesterday, I witnessed firsthand how LAPD officers exercised discipline and extraordinary professionalism while thousands of people took to the streets to express their views about a number of issues. The fact there was not a single incident, arrest or citation throughout the day is remarkable and indicative of your preparation, professionalism and respect for the communities we serve.

Despite the heat and the sensitive times we face in the law enforcement community across the country, each and every one of you shined. From the leadership team to the men and women working and walking with the various community groups, you did a phenomenal job and I am so proud of you. Like you do daily, you made the LAPD badge shine and the nation took notice.

Thank you and be safe out there.



Posted in ACLU, Free Speech, Freedom of Information, LAPD, Trauma | No Comments »

4 LA County Sheriff’s Deputies Suspect of Theft and Bribe Taking…CA Poor Often Given Cut Rate Legal Defense, Report Finds….Will There Be Fed Indictments for former LASD Top Brass?…& LA Press Club Award to Charlie Hebdo

January 13th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


Four members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department have been relieved of duty without pay pending the outcome of a criminal investigation into reports that the four engaged in a scheme of thefts and bribes regarding towed vehicles or vehicles about to be towed.

According to a statement released by the LASD on Monday morning, the department became aware in December 2014 of evidence that three deputy sheriffs and a parking control officer were implicated in individual incidents of theft from towed vehicles or accepting cash from vehicle owners to avoid towing and impounding of their vehicles. All four of the department members relieved of duty worked out of Century Station located in Lynwood.

As of now, department investigators do not believe that any additional personnel were involved in the alleged theft and bribery.

“As a law enforcement organization, it is imperative that we earn the public’s trust each day,” Sheriff Jim McDonnell said in an email that went to all department members. “Acts such as those described above tarnish the badge all of us wear and erode the confidence the public has in law enforcement.

“We will respond swiftly and resolutely whenever acts of this nature come to our attention,” McDonnell continued. “We must demonstrate to the public and to our own Department family that conduct which violates the public trust will not be tolerated. In doing so we also reaffirm that the vast majority of our personnel perform their duties in an exemplary manner.”

The department is pointing to the announcement of the investigation as evidence of a new policy of transparency.

Those department members—working and retired—we spoke with about the matter on Monday said they appreciated the strategy.

“It sets a good tone,” said one retired LASD lieutenant. “It says the department is no longer going to tolerate this kind of nonsense.”

(Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department badge and patch photo above by Jaime Lopez, LASD)


In the 1963 landmark SCOTUS decision of Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the assistance of counsel for a defendant who could not afford to hire a lawyer was a fundamental right under the United States Constitution. The court’s ruling specified that such legal assistance applied to the preparation for trial as well as the trial itself.

According to a new report by the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, more and more of the state’s counties are cutting funds formerly allocated to provide lawyers for those in need of counsel—and many defendants are getting inadequate “cut-rate” representation as a consequence.

Karen de Sá of the San Jose Mercury News has more on the story. Here are some clips:

Counties are increasingly hiring legal firms that offer cut-rate representation by failing to spend money on investigators or experts that are needed for adequate defense, said the report issued by the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, created to examine ways to guard against wrongful convictions.

“This is like a cancer within the system of providing indigent defense, and it’s spreading,” said Gerald Uelmen, executive director of the so-called Fair Commission, calling the spread of low-bid, flat-fee private firms “a race to the bottom.”

Traditional public defenders in the pay of the various California counties are generally okay, said the report.

But lawyers who are paid a flat fee for representation, the report said, may be tempted to cut corners on pretrial preparation and avoid going to trial to save time and money.

As a solution, commissioners recommend that the state Legislature establish a body to oversee the way counties provide representation to criminal defendants, and also recommend a law to ensure that funding for experts and investigators is separate from the fee paid to the lawyers in publicly funded cases.

The Fair Administration of Justice Commission report cited research by California Western School of Law Professor Larry Benner, who found that inadequate investigation is a recurring problem in cases in which convictions were overturned because of poor representation….

The new California-based report reflects other dismal reports outlining a national crisis in indigent defense that prevents a growing number of Americans from getting adequate legal representation when they most urgently need it.


For the last month or so we’d been hearing that various current or former members of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department had received subpoenas to appear in front of a federal grand jury, as part of an ongoing investigation into the events that resulted in the conviction of seven LASD members for obstruction of justice last year.

Moreover, several of those who were asked to appear were among the seven former department members who have already been convicted. Since all seven contended that the actions that led to their convictions were the result of orders that originated at the LASD’s highest echelon—namely from Baca and Tanaka—there has been much speculation that federal prosecutors are now hoping to indict some of those very former department higher ups.

Over the weekend, the LA Times’ Cindy Chang reported on the matter of the new grandjury subpoenas.

She wrote:

The questioning has focused partly on meetings where then-Sheriff Lee Baca and his No. 2, Paul Tanaka, discussed how to deal with the discovery of a cellphone provided to a county jail inmate by the FBI. In addition to the convicted officials, some current Sheriff’s Department officials have also received grand jury subpoenas.

Many in the Sheriff’s Department believe that low-ranking officials took the fall for following orders from Tanaka and Baca. Now, with the convening of the grand jury, it appears that prosecutors are attempting to target more sheriff’s officials after convicting seven last year for obstructing justice.

Of the seven, Gregory Thompson, a former lieutenant, and two ex-deputies, Gerard Smith and Mickey Manzo, are known to have testified before the grand jury in December, according to a source.

Brian Moriguchi, president of the L.A. County Professional Peace Officers Assn. (PPOA), the union that represents sheriff’s department supervisors, said that he knows of at least one more grand jury subpoena related to the obstruction of justice issue. But, he said, he has heard credible reports of still more such subpoenas.

So will there be new indictments?

When LASD Captain Tom Carey testified at the trials of the seven last year, he admitted that he was the subject of an ongoing federal criminal investigation. And, as WLA has previously reported, Carey was relieved of duty in December pending the result of an internal departmental investigation.

Tanaka also admitted last year to knowing he was the subject of a federal criminal probe.

Yet, despite much pestering on the part of reporters, WLA included, federal prosecutors and a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office have repeatedly declined to comment on the possibility—or lack thereof—of more indictments, and will say only that the investigation is ongoing.

Still, the new grand jury hearings have fueled new rounds of speculation.

“Of course, many of us hope the government is going to reach higher than those who have already been convicted,” Moriguchi said. “But in the end all we can do is speculate. It’s hopeful speculation, but it’s speculation, nonetheless.”

NOTE: Chang’s story has more that you’ll likely find interesting, so be sure to read the whole thing.


The Los Angeles Press Club announced on Monday that its 2015 Daniel Pearl Award for Courage and Integrity in Journalism will go to Charlie Hebdo.

“We are deeply honored. Of course, we’ll accept, said Gerard Biard, Editor-in-Chief of Charlie Hebdo.

“No act of terrorism can stop freedom of speech. Giving the Daniel Pearl Award to Charlie Hebdo is a strong message to that effect,” said LA Press Club President Robert Kovacik of NBC LA.

Since 2002, the Los Angeles Press Club in conjunction with Judea and Ruth Pearl, the parents of Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl—who was kidnapped in 2002 by Pakistani militants and later murdered by Al-Qaeda’s Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—have handed out the award to those who have displayed unusual courage in reporting.

Past recipients have included Richard Engel, the NBC correspondent who covered multiple mid east wars on the front lines, before being abducted in Syria in 2012, and Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist/author who became famous for her reporting on the conflict in Chechnya, who was murdered in 2006 in the elevator outside her apartment in what was widely viewed as an ordered assassination to prevent her latest deeply reported story from being published.

The 2015 award will be presented by Judea and Ruth Pearl at a gala awards dinner held at the Biltmore hotel in Los Angeles on Sunday, June 28th.

In the meantime, Charlie Hebdo’s first cover since the murderous attack on its Paris offices that killed 12 people, will feature a tearful prophet Mohammed holding a sign that reads “Je suis Charlie.” The magazine’s headline says “All is forgiven.”

The magazine, which will go on sale on Wednesday, will reportedly print as many as record 3 million copies in 16 languages, instead of its usual 60,000.

The cover cartoon, which you can see below, was drawn by the weekly’s cartoonist Luz, who survived the massacre because he was late arriving at the office.

(Click on the Charlie Hebdo cover image to enlarge it.)

Posted in art and culture, FBI, Free Speech, Freedom of Information, Future of Journalism, Jim McDonnell, LA County Jail, LASD, media, Paul Tanaka, Sheriff Lee Baca, The Feds | 19 Comments »

Standing With Charlie Hebdo

January 8th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon

As certainly everyone reading this knows by now, gunmen attacked the offices of well-known French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday morning in Paris, killing 12 people, including the magazine’s editor and four celebrated cartoonists—one of them 76-years-old, another 80—along with two police officers who rushed to attempt to protect the publication’s staff.

It was not the first time that the magazine had been attacked. In 2011, the Charlie Hebdo offices were firebombed because of cartoon images they had printed depicting the Prophet Mohammed in less than flattering terms. Yet, in keeping with the irreverent ethic that had guided the publication since its founding in the 1960s, the Charlie Hebdo staff didn’t back off an iota. Instead, six days after the bombing, the magazine’s cover featured a drawing of one of its male cartoonists kissing what appeared to be a bearded Muslim man under the headline that translates as, “Love is Stronger Than Hate.”

Comedy shouldn’t be an act of courage, said Jon Stewart when he talked about the magazine massacre on his Wednesday night show. For the men and women of Charlie Hebdo, of course, it was.


Artwork at top of page by WitnessLA. Magazine cover from Charlie Hebdo.

Posted in art and culture, Free Speech, Future of Journalism | No Comments »

Baca Reportedly Hires LASD’s New Head of Custody & New LASD Memo Causes Concern.

February 6th, 2013 by Celeste Fremon


Sheriff Lee Baca has reportedly chosen Terri McDonald, up until recently the Undersecretary of the California Department of Corrections (CDCR) to be his new Assistant Sheriff in charge of custody. The creation of this post to be filled by a custody expert from outside the department was among the main recommendations made by the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence.

(UPDATE: The selection of McDonald has not yet been officially announced. But LASD spokesman Steve Whitmore has confirmed that McDonald is indeed the sheriff’s choice, that the deal has been made. “She’s excited,” he said. “The board has until February 15 to object, and then it’s a done deal. She has a great resume. And, in addition to her decades of custody experience, she’s a subject matter expert on AB109 since she worked with the governor when it was being written.”

Baca launched the search for a custody head very shortly after the commission delivered its findings at it is to his credit that he has followed through so quickly.

A look at McDonald’s background shows she has had a 24-year career in state government that started as a correctional officer, so she is familiar with the workings of a paramilitary organization and comfortable with the chain of command.

I’ve only done preliminary checking around, but her reputation with CDCR-watchers I spoke with is, thus far, good. “She’s smart, moral, and works very, very hard,” said one. “Incredibly hard working,” agreed another, “and very effective at implementing programs.”

More on McDonald as we learn it.


WitnessLA has obtained a revision to the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department manual (see below) that sets down policies regarding conduct on the internet. The memo announcing the changes has reportedly causing many LASD personnel worry that they will be sanctioned for anonymous postings in the comments sections of news sites like WitnessLA, LA Weekly or the Los Angeles Times, if those comments are critical of the sheriff’s department or members of its command staff.

Here are the new sections in question:

All Department members shall be held accountable for their utterances, writings, conduct,
and visual representations,including electronic and web-based communications, when
they conflict with Our Core Values, Our Mission, or Our Creed and personnel can
reasonably be identified as Department members. Personnel who cause undue
embarrassment or damage the reputation of and/or erode the public’s confidence in the
Department shall be deemed to have violated this policy.
Unit commanders shall ensure copies of Our Mission, Our Core Values, and Our Creed
are clearly and prominently displayed and maintained in the public lobbies of all Sheriff’s
Department facilities.

Unit Commanders shall ensure copies of Our Mission, Our Core Values, and Our Creed
are clearly and prominently displayed and maintained within a high-traffic work area in all
Sheriff’s Department’s facilities (e.g., briefing room) for viewing by assigned personnel.

Electronic and web-based communications include any medium used to deliver
information electronically or digitally. Examples of electronic and web-based
communications include, but are not limited to, websites, “smart” phone technologies, text
messaging, Nixle, electronic mail (email) and “social media” sites such Facebook,
Myspace, Pinterest, and Twitter; photo sharing websites such as Flickr; video sharing
websites such as YouTube; and/or any other similar electronic or digital delivery system.
“Social media” includes any electronic medium where users may create, share, and view
user-generated content, including uploading or downloading videos or still photographs,
blogs, video blogs, podcasts, or instant messages, or online social networking content.

We talked to LASD spokesman Steve Whitmore about the new rules and he said there was nothing to worry about. “This is by no stretch an attempt to abridge anybody’s First Amendment rights,” Whitmore said. “It’s just to say, ‘Be careful. It’s the wild, wild west out there.’ I mean most people are anonymous anyway when they post comments—and there’s nothing wrong with that,” he said. “At least people believe they’re anonymous.”

Mostly, said Whitmore, “it’s just a reminder that you represent the entire agency, so behave accordingly.”

Posted in CDCR, elections, Free Speech, jail, LA County Board of Supervisors, LA County Jail, LASD, Sheriff Lee Baca | 5 Comments »

New LA Partnership to Leave Zero Tolerance Behind, African American Activist Says There’s More to Alesia Thomas Story…and More

September 5th, 2012 by Taylor Walker


LAPD, LAUSD, LA County Probation, and city officials are finally coming together to change the LA school system’s broken discipline practices. It is heartening to see concrete changes to the student ticketing policy, but correcting and transforming the larger and longstanding zero tolerance policies for school discipline will be something that takes time and is a process we will continue to closely monitor.

LA Times’ Teresa Watanabe has the story. Here’s a clip:

A new approach is also in the works at the Los Angeles County Probation Department. Officials there are launching alternative programs to keep students out of the court system and provide them instead with counseling, tutoring and other community services.

The move away from punitive law enforcement actions and toward support services reflects a growing awareness, grounded in research, that treating minor offenses with police actions did not necessarily make campuses safer or students more accountable. Instead, officials and activists say, it often alienated struggling students from school, pushing some to drop out and get in more serious trouble with the law.

The shift is being directed by new city and county leaders who community groups say are far more responsive to the groups’ long-running complaints. L.A. Unified Schools Supt. John Deasy, school Police Chief Steven Zipperman and L.A. County Chief Probation Officer Jerry E. Powers — who all took office last year — have embraced the changes for low-level student offenses.

“There’s a very big pendulum shift,” said Robert Sainz, assistant general manager of L.A.’s Community Development Department, which is working with L.A. Unified. “This is the first time the city and school district are working together specifically to bring students back to school.”

WHILE WE’RE ON THE SUBJECT, a hearing exploring alternative school discipline policies will be held on Sept. 10th in the LA Central Library’s Mark Taper Auditorium at 3:00p.m. Speakers and presenters that will highlight school discipline data and explore alternatives to the current California policies that aren’t working include: Russlynn H. Ali, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Education, and delegates from the Youth Justice Coalition, Gay-Straight Alliance Network, Public Counsel, and lots more. The event is sponsored by CA Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, CA Attorney General Kamala Harris, and The California Endowment. (It looks like it’s going to be really dynamic. For more information, contact Melanie Keh at mkeh@calendow.org.)


Earl Ofari Hutchinson, LA African American activist and author, says there is more to the Alesia Thomas story than what the LAPD has presented. (For those who are unaware, Alesia Thomas died in custody after a female officer allegedly stomped on her genital area. Thomas had previously attempted to surrender her children at a police station, and was arrested on suspicion of child endangerment.)

LA Weekly’s Dennis Romero has the story. Here’s a clip:

After meeting with Thomas’ mother and grandmother yesterday he said the cops’ version wasn’t the whole story.

His organization, Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, states:

… Family members vehemently dispute the depiction of Alesia as a drug addicted, unfit mother. They revealed many new facts about Alesia’s background, education, work experience, and her relations with her children.

To be fair, we don’t ever recall the police calling Thomas a drug addict. And her own mother did tell CBS Los Angeles / KCAL that she was prone to depression.

However, Hutchinson is one of L.A.’s more credible leaders, and his alliance with the family can’t be good for the LAPD.


Anti-Mexican notes were placed on Long Beach cars on Labor Day saying things like, “Go back to Baja, Wetbacks,” and, “The Mexicans invaded this beach.” The Long Beach police have shrugged off the notes as a free speech issue. We’re not in favor of the cops going around arresting anyone, as it gets into slippery 1st Amendment territory, but it might be prudent to investigate as a potential precursor to escalation.

The OC Weekly’s Gustavo Arellano has the story. Here’s a clip:

Long Beach is a great town, a town that likes to pride itself on its diversity, unlike us Neanderthals over in Orange County. Nevertheless, it’s a place that boils with racial tension from time to time, as the city has turned from Iowa-on-the-Beach to one of the most diverse towns in the country.

But such incidents usually happen in the working-class areas, definitely not in tony Belmont Shore, where Labor Day found some anonymous pendejo leaving nasty anti-Mexican notes on cars asking “wet backs” to “go back to Baja.”

(Definitely click over to the OC Weekly story, as they have photos of the notes left on cars of beach-goers.)

Posted in Civil Rights, Edmund G. Brown, Jr. (Jerry), Free Speech, LAPD, LAUSD, Zero Tolerance and School Discipline | No Comments »

Steinbeck’s Son Joined Effort to Halt Execution of Disabled Man, a New Report on the Last Decade of Juvenile Justice…and More

August 9th, 2012 by Taylor Walker


Marvin Wilson, a Texas man with an I.Q. of 61 was executed Tuesday after SCOTUS denied him a stay of execution. A TX judge referenced Of Mice and Men to illustrate the difficulty of knowing the level of mental disability one must have to be exempt from the death penalty under the 8th Amendment. Upon reading an account of the death penalty ruling, John Steinbeck’s son, Thomas, joined the fight to stop Wilson’s execution.

The NY Times’ Robert Mackey has the story. Here are some clips:

As the legal analyst Andrew Cohen explains on The Atlantic’s Web site, the execution of a 54-year-old man “who could not handle money or navigate a phone book, a man who sucked his thumb and could not always tell the difference between left and right, a man who, as a child, could not match his socks, tie his shoes or button his clothes,” seemed to “directly contradict the spirit, if not the letter,” of a Supreme Court ruling in 2002 that appeared to bar the execution of mentally retarded inmates.

Mr. Wilson’s lawyers argued that the court should intervene because Texas uses criteria to determine whether someone can be fairly classified as mentally retarded that “lack any scientific foundation,” The Texas Tribune reported. As The Atlantic Wire notes, in a 2004 ruling that paved the way for Mr. Wilson’s execution, a state court judge turned instead to literature, invoking John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” to describe the difficulties of defining “that level and degree of mental retardation at which a consensus of Texas citizens would agree that a person should be exempted from the death penalty.”


After Thomas Steinbeck, the writer’s son, read a Guardian article on how his father’s novel had been used in a Texas court to argue for the execution of the mentally retarded, he joined the effort to halt the killing of Mr. Wilson, The Beaumont Enterprise reported. In a statement released on Tuesday, just before Mr. Wilson was put to death for a fatal shooting in 1992, Mr. Steinbeck wrote:

On behalf of the family of John Steinbeck, I am deeply troubled by today’s scheduled execution of Marvin Wilson, a Texas man with an I.Q. of 61. Prior to reading about Mr. Wilson’s case, I had no idea that the great state of Texas would use a fictional character that my father created to make a point about human loyalty and dedication, i.e., Lennie Small from “Of Mice and Men,” as a benchmark to identify whether defendants with intellectual disability should live or die.

My father was a highly gifted writer who won the Nobel Prize for his ability to create art about the depth of the human experience and condition. His work was certainly not meant to be scientific, and the character of Lennie was never intended to be used to diagnose a medical condition like intellectual disability. I find the whole premise to be insulting, outrageous, ridiculous and profoundly tragic. I am certain that if my father, John Steinbeck, were here, he would be deeply angry and ashamed to see his work used in this way. And the last thing you ever wanted to do, was to make John Steinbeck angry.

(Be sure to also check out Andrew Cohen’s article for The Atlantic on the subject, as it is well worth reading.)


A report released Tuesday by the National Conference of State Legislatures examines juvenile justice trends between the states over the past decade. The report reviews state policies distinguishing juvies from adults, the disproportionate representation of minorities in the juvenile justice system, and advances in mental health and rehabilitation policies.

Here’s a clip from the NCSL press release on the report:

Between 65 and 70 percent of the two million youth arrested each year in the United States have some type of mental health disorder. With this in mind, states have focused on providing proper screening, assessment, and treatment services for young offenders with mental health needs. As just one example, a Colorado law now allows a 90-day suspended sentence, during which treatment is provided to juveniles with behavior disorders or mental health issues.

Minority youth come into contact with the juvenile justice system at every stage at a higher rate than their white peers. Between 2005 and 2007, Colorado, Indiana, Kansas and Tennessee established committees or commissions to address the overrepresentation of minorities in their juvenile justice systems. And in 2008, Iowa became the first state to require a “minority impact statement,” which is required for proposed legislation related to crimes, sentencing, parole and probation.


The Ninth Circuit ruled Tuesday that a Burbank detective, who blew the whistle on fellow detectives whom he reportedly saw abusing suspects, was not shielded against departmental sanctions as his did not constitute protected speech. (Not sure what kind of precedent this sets—we’ll let you know more as we find out more.)

Courthouse News Service’s Annie Youderian has the story. Here are some clips:

Angelo Dahlia claimed he saw a fellow detective in the Burbank Police Department squeeze a suspect’s throat and stick a gun in his face, saying, “How does it feel to have a gun in your face motherfucker?”
Dahlia said he heard yelling and the sound of people being hit as the detective continued to interview suspects.
He said he told Burbank Police Lt. John Murphy that “things were getting out of hand, the interviews were getting too physical, and too many people were doing their own thing and were out of control.”
Murphy allegedly told Dahlia to “stop his sniveling.”


Dahlia was interviewed by investigators at least three times. After each interview, Dahlia said he was harassed and threatened.

In May 2009, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department interviewed Dahlia, who said he disclosed his colleagues’ abusive interrogation tactics. Four days later, Burbank Police Chief Tim Stehr placed Dahlia on administrative leave.

Dahlia sued the city of Burbank and several officers, claiming the disciplinary action constituted retaliation for his protected speech.

A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, concluding that Dahlia’s speech was not protected because the “disclosure of incriminating facts” fell within his official duties as a police officer. The federal appeals panel in Pasadena agreed.

Posted in Death Penalty, Free Speech, juvenile justice, literature, mental health | 1 Comment »

SCOTUS Rules on AZ Immigration and Citizens United…and More

June 26th, 2012 by Taylor Walker


The Supreme Court decided Monday in a 5-3 decision that Arizona immigration law does not supersede federal immigration law.

SF Gate’s Greg Stohr has the story. Here’s how it opens:

The U.S. Supreme Court scaled back Arizona’s first-of-its-kind crackdown on illegal immigrants, striking down three provisions in a decision that asserts the federal government’s exclusive role to set immigration policy.

The ruling leaves intact, for now, the law’s centerpiece requirement that Arizona police check the immigration status of people they suspect are in the country illegally. Even so, the 5-3 decision took some of the force from that provision by invalidating parts of the law that would have given the state’s police more power to arrest people for immigration violations.

The ruling gives President Barack Obama’s administration most of what it sought when it sued to block the Arizona law. Supporters of the law said the federal government isn’t doing enough to crack down on an estimated 11.5 million people in the country illegally.

“Arizona may have understandable frustrations with the problems caused by illegal immigration while that process continues, but the state may not pursue policies that undermine federal law,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority.

It should be noted, however, that the reason that the “show me your papers” part of the bill was left alone was because it has not yet been implemented.

The New Yorker Blog’s Alex Koppelman explains in more detail. Here’s a clip:

You can, if you like, interpret that as a defeat for President Obama and for liberal immigration activists. Certainly that’s what Fox News did, and it’s what Arizona Governor Jan Brewer did, when she called the decision “a victory for the rule of law” and “a victory for the 10th Amendment and all Americans who believe in the inherent right and responsibility of states to defend their citizens.” Or you can read the parts of the opinion in which Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote it, makes clear that the part of the law he let stand remains because the state hasn’t yet implemented it, or shown how it will implement it, and that it could very well fall later. (And you could take a look around Arizona and see that people like Sheriff Joe Arpaio may very well, in the way they enforce the bit that remains, make it easy for the Court to strike the whole thing down at some point soon.)


Another important SCOTUS decision made Monday upheld the previous Citizen’s United ruling that allows corporate entities to donate unlimited funds to campaigns.

The Atlantic’s Alex Roarty has the story. Here’s a clip:

The Supreme Court’s rejection of a long-shot legal challenge to let states bar corporate and union political contributions in their own elections underscores the legal quandary in which many left-of-center campaign finance reformers find themselves.

The court, in a 5-to-4 vote split along ideological lines, refused on Monday to strike down a Montana ban on corporate political spending. The decision effectively upholds its landmark 2010 decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which held that corporations and unions were entitled to the same free speech protections as citizens, or at least allow state law to supersede it.

Because the Supreme Court decided Citizens United only two years ago and its conservative majority remains intact, few legal experts expected it to rule in favor of the challenge.

The current case, American Tradition Partnership v. Bullock, stemmed from a century-old Montana law that prohibits corporations from spending money on political campaigns. The effort, joined by more than 20 states, stipulated states should be allowed to carve out their own rules to regulate political fundraising and spending, an argument backed by the Montana Supreme Court when it ruled in favor of the state law last year.


The Department of Justice announced the awarding of grants to fund approximately 800 law enforcement positions to be filled by military veterans.

You can read the press release on the DOJ website. Here are some clips:

The U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) today announced funding awards to over 220 cities and counties, aimed at creating or saving approximately 800 law enforcement positions. The grants will fund over 600 new law enforcement positions and save an additional 200 positions recently lost or in jeopardy of being cut due to local budget cuts. All new law enforcement positions funded in the COPS 2012 Hiring Program must be filled by recent military veterans who have served at least 180 days since Sept. 11, 2001.


“Today, we step up our support for recent veterans by offering them the chance to pursue meaningful careers in law enforcement,” said Attorney General Eric Holder. “At a time of budget shortfalls, these grants will provide opportunities for much-needed, highly-trained professionals – with a proven commitment to service – to continue their careers in communities all across the country.”

By the way, Our Weekly reports that LA received the largest amount of grant money from the DOJ program.

Photo courtesy RI4A via Flickr under Creative Commons license.

Posted in Free Speech, immigration, law enforcement, National issues, Supreme Court | No Comments »

R.I.P. Rodney King, the G-Dog Movie, Gov. Christie’s Rich Halfway House Pals & More

June 17th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

RODNEY KING: 1965 – 2012

He wasn’t a very strong person, and maybe not even a particularly good person. Certainly he was a man who battled with wounds of the psyche. Nevertheless Rodney King has a place of significance in Los Angeles history that makes his death oddly startling and saddening. King understood his importance, and seemed to be in genuine pain about his inability to fully rise to its occasion—to be the hero some people wanted him to be. Instead he seemed, on his best days, be a mostly ordinary, somewhat demon-haunted guy who—despite what a Simi Valley jury said—changed the city simply by the fact of having unwillingly endured the vicious beat down he received at the hands of four Los Angeles police officers on March 3, 1991, a beating that fractured his bones in 59 places, and nearly killed him.
Still, although he may not have had most of the hero’s virtues he believed his moment in LA history demanded, what King did possess was a deep vein of decency, dignity, and real compassion, all of which was particularly visible in his “Can’t we just get along” speech in the midst of the ’92 riots.

Because of this, and because of his crucial role in our collective LA history, we cannot help but mourn Rodney King’s passing. He was a member of the family.

The LA Times Joe Mozingo has a very good obit of King. Here’s a clip:

“Rodney King has a unique spot in both the history of Los Angeles and the LAPD,” Police Chief Charlie Beck said in a statement. “What happened on that cool March night over two decades ago forever changed me and the organization I love. His legacy should not be the struggles and troubles of his personal life but the immensely positive change his existence wrought on this city and its Police Department.”



It was a very full house at the American premiere of G-Dog, the documentary film by Oscar winning director Frieda Mock, about Father Greg Boyle and Homeboy Industries, the gang intervention program that Father Greg founded more than two decades ago. Evidently, a great many LA people decided that watching a movie about the guy who urges us to claim kinship with the men and women whom others often tell us that we should despise—namely former gang members and felons—was an excellent way to spend Father’s Day.

As UCLA’s Dr. Jorja Leap said on screen when she was interviewed in the course of the film, the approach that Boyle and Homeboy practicies produces remarkable results, which was much of what the movie portrayed. Leap (who is a nationally recognized expert in trauma response, gang violence, and at-risk youth) is in the midst of a 5-year longitudinal study of Homeboy, and has noted that, for those who come into its programs, Homeboy has a highly unusual 70 percent retention rate, with only 30 percent reoffending. (The statewide prison recidivism rate is the mirror opposite, with 65 to 70 percent reoffending.)

Thus the film was a portrait, not just of Father Greg, but of the healing and transformative therapeutic community that Homeboy Industries’ programs and its businesses have become, and also of some of the daunting challenges the organization still faces, with its ongoing struggles to balance its fiscal realities with the wrenching needs of the people who daily walk through its doors.

In any case, when I know of another showing of the film, I’ll let you know.

In the meantime, here’s a clip from what the LA Times’ Steve Lopez wrote about the film:

….. writer/director/producer Freida Mock — an Oscar winner for her film on the designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the nation’s capital — wisely focused on the year 2010, when financial problems almost put Homeboy out of business. While trying to save the lives of young men and women, Boyle finds himself trying to save even his own job, and at one point jokes about having to tell his mother he could be collecting unemployment.

Boyle had critics early on who scornfully called his work “hug-a-thug,” but as the program evolved and drew the support of law enforcement officials like LAPD Chief Charlie Beck — who thinks of Homeboy as an important ally — the correspondence went from hate mail to fan mail. Boyle’s gospel was that for people with dysfunctional families, substandard schools and no job prospects, gang life is a natural allegiance, but the cycle can be broken with tough love, accountability, community and a show of respect….


The NY Times has a very, very long article about New Jersey’s use of privately run halfway houses favored by NJ Governor Chris Christie as a way of keeping the state’s incaceration costs down and then providing better services to certain inmates in their last few months of incarceration. However, it seems that more than 450 of the half-way house residents escaped last year, some committing very serious crimes, including murder, after vanishing

However, upon reading further, it seems that “escape” isn’t quite the right term, as the facilities aren’t lock-downs, thus anybody can pretty much walk away. By the end it is unclear if the places are a terrible idea from which Christie’s pals are gaining monetarily bigtime, or a good idea that needs better triage, so as to keep the more dangerous people in a locked facility to the end of their term.

On the other hand, since the people in the halfway houses are going to be released in a few months anyway, if they are kept in a locked facility for those last three months, where they will get little or no treatment, can we really say it will lessen the chances they would act out violently? Or what is it that the Times reporters are actually implying or suggesting?

(They feature a tragic story of a young woman who became infatuated with a halfway house inmate who had a past of poor impulse control, had committed armed robbery, and had made at least one violent threat against a woman friend in the past. Anyway, the sweet young woman, who we are told was good with animals, tried to break up withe inmate. His response was to escape the halfway house and kill her. A terrible, terrible story, to be sure. However, it is not at all clear what we are to take from this, or even what would have helped avert this tragedy. Perhaps the state of New Jersey should have locked the guy up indefinitely. However, that’s a sentencing issue, not a programmatical one.)

Take a look for yourself. I found it initially heartening that the NY Times had taken on such topics as private prisons, post-incarceration half-way houses, and corrections as big business. However, whatever conclusions the Times reporters intended us to draw, I’m afraid got lost in the welter of ominous and yet contradictory information they kept piling on us as readers.

Here’s a clip:

After serving more than a year behind bars in New Jersey for assaulting a former girlfriend, David Goodell was transferred in 2010 to a sprawling halfway house in Newark. One night, Mr. Goodell escaped, but no one in authority paid much notice. He headed straight for the suburbs, for another young woman who had spurned him, and he killed her, the police said.
The state sent Rafael Miranda, incarcerated on drug and weapons charges, to a similar halfway house, and he also escaped. He was finally arrested in 2010 after four months at large, when, prosecutors said, he shot a man dead on a Newark sidewalk — just three miles from his halfway house.

Valeria Parziale had 15 aliases and a history of drugs and burglary. Nine days after she slipped out of a halfway house in Trenton in 2009, Ms. Parziale, using a folding knife, nearly severed a man’s ear in a liquor store. She was arrested and charged with assault but not escape. Prosecutors say they had no idea she was a fugitive.

After decades of tough criminal justice policies, states have been grappling with crowded prisons that are straining budgets. In response to those pressures, New Jersey has become a leader in a national movement to save money by diverting inmates to a new kind of privately run halfway house.

At the heart of the system is a company with deep connections to politicians of both parties, most notably Gov. Chris Christie.


We don’t usually do international stories, but this one is alarming and needs to be widely talked about.

Here’s a clip from TechCrunch’s story on the matter that was first reported by Al Jazeera:

The Ethiopian government, Al Jazeera reports, has criminalized the use of Skype and other VoIP services like Google Talk. Using VoIP services is now punishable by up to 15 years in prison. This law actually passed last month, but mostly went unnoticed outside of the country. Ethiopian authorities argue that they imposed these bans because of “national security concerns” and to protect the state’s telecommunications monopoly. The country only has one ISP, the state-owned Ethio Telecom, and has been filtering its citizen’s Internet access for quite some time now to suppress opposition blogs and other news outlets.

As for Skype and other VoIP services, the new law doesn’t just criminalize their usage, but the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology now has “the power to supervise and issue licenses to all privately owned companies that import equipment used for the communication of information.” It’s worth noting that, as TechCentral points out, the new law also prohibits “audio and video data traffic via social media.” It’s not clear how exactly the government plans to enforce this restriction, but a potential 15-year prison term will likely keep most people from using Skype in Ethiopia anytime soon.

G-Dog Photo by Christine Duong Mason for WitnessLA

Posted in Civil Liberties, Free Speech, Freedom of Information, Homeboy Industries, LAPD, Los Angeles history, prison, prison policy | 8 Comments »

Judge Nixes Baca’s Legal Move to Get ACLU Axed from Class Action Suit….and More

June 8th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

In January of this year, the ACLU of Southern California brought a massive class action suit, known as Rosas v. Baca,
against the Sheriff’s Department charging that Sheriff Lee Baca and his top command staff had looked the other way in the face of a long-standing, widespread pattern of violence by deputies against inmates in the Los Angeles County Jails.

Naturally, the sheriff’s lawyers tried to find legal ways to make the lawsuit vanish.

(FYI A class action suit of this nature doesn’t look for any kind of financial payout, but for “injunctive relief.” In other words, the suit is designed to investigate wrongdoing through the discovery process, and then to force reform.)

In any case, when the LASD’s attorneys’ first stab at getting the suit dismissed was a nonstarter, they next tried to get the ACLU removed as counsel from the suit, saying that the fact that the ACLU folks had discovered all this alleged abuse when they were jails monitors, meant that the incidents of abuse they discovered were privileged, and thus couldn’t be used in a lawsuit—or legal jargon to that effect.

(In other words, the wrongdoing you discovered while you were legally monitoring the jails for another kind of wrongdoing, cannot be used to bring a class action suit alleging massive wrongdoing in the jails now. Sure, that works.)

Judge Dean Pragerson has been the most recent jurist overseeing the long standing Rutherford agreement, the result of a 1978 decision on a 1975 class action suit, that resulted in the ACLU being assigned to send monitors into the jails in the first place. This means that Pragerson is not unfamiliar with the reports of abuse that have been bleeding out of the jails in the last few years.

Perhaps for this reason, the judge flicked away the notion of the ACLU being prohibited from bringing suit as counsel.

“And so now the case goes forward,” said a very pleased Peter Eliasberg, the So Cal ACLU’s legal director. “The decision means that we can seek relief systemwide.”

Yep. And that’s a good thing.


In an important victory for free speech, on Thursday, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that South Park’s parody of the raunchy-ish and very viral internet hit song by Samwell was permissible under the Fair Use. (Warning on that link: NSFW.)

Corynne McSherry has the story over at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which filed an amicus brief in the case Here’s a clip:

South Park aired the “What What” parody in a 2008 episode critiquing the popularity of absurd online videos. Two years later, copyright owner Brownmark Films sued Viacom and Comedy Central, alleging copyright infringement. Recognizing the episode was an obvious fair use, a federal judge promptly dismissed the case. Brownmark appealed, claiming that fair use cannot be decided on a motion to dismiss, no matter how obvious. Viacom fought back, and EFF filed an amicus brief in support, explaining that being able to dismiss a case early in litigation—before legal costs can really add up—is crucial to protect free speech and discourage frivolous litigation.

The appeals court agreed, calling the district court’s decision “well-reasoned and delightful”


These rulings are important not only to protect speech, but also in fighting back against copyright trolls. Trolls depend on the threat of legal costs to encourage people to settle cases even though they might have legitimate defenses. Citing EFF’s brief, Seventh Circuit acknowledged the problem:

[I]nfringement suits are often baseless shakedowns. Ruinous discovery heightens the incentive to settle rather than defend these frivolous suits.

Thank you to the 7th Circuit and to the EFF. (And down with copyright trolls.)


San Diego City Beat’s Dave Maas explores the use of OC Spray or Pepper spray, as a control technique in juvenile detention facilities, after finding through a public records act request that, last year, SD’s youth facilities used OC spray 491 times.

Here’s a clip:

According to the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators (CJCA), only 14 states allow the use of pepper spray in juvenile facilities, but in most cases, it’s a last-resort measure, limited to riot-level emergencies. Only five of those states, including California, allow staff to carry it on their person, as is the case in San Diego. CJCA notes in its 2011 report on the issue that no studies have been conducted on the safety of using pepper spray on juveniles and that most juvenile correctional agencies shun its use “because of the harm it causes to youths and the negative impact on staff-youth relationships.”

Gladys Carrión, commissioner of the New York State Office of Children and Family Services, which oversees 49 youth-detention programs, says that’s why New York has never used it.

“It’s dangerous,” Carrión says. “I think it doesn’t teach the young person a thing about how to manage their behavior. It really doesn’t teach staff any skills to be able to engage with young people. I don’t see it as an effective tool.”It recent years, many states have voluntarily traded OC spray for new interpersonal techniques designed to de-escalate conflicts. For other jurisdictions, it’s taken lawsuits, federal investigations and court orders. In 2006, San Diego County Probation told The San Diego Union-Tribune that it was weighing sweeping revisions to its pepper-spray policies after a prisoner-rights group threatened legal action.

LA County probation camps used to use OC spray at a rapid clip, but there has been some slowing of the use due to demands made by federal monitors.

This is a good issue to look into further.

Posted in ACLU, Free Speech, How Appealing, LA County Jail, Sheriff Lee Baca | 3 Comments »

Gardens Prevent Prison Return, The OC Jacks School Funds, and More

April 6th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

With Taylor Walker


A growing number of corrections facilities across the US are surprised to find that inmates who participate in gardening programs are significantly less likely to return to prison than the national average predicts.

Pattie Baker writing for Youth Today, has the rest of this terrifically cheering story. Here’s a clip:

The most recent study by the Pew Center for the States and the Association of State Correctional Administrators found the [national] rate of recidivism (percentage of people released from prisons who are rearrested, convicted, or returned to custody within three years) to be 43.3 percent. What may be surprising, however, is that correctional facilities with a few years under their belt with a garden are finding not just reduced recidivism rates, but significantly reduced rates. According to the WorldWatch Institute, Sandusky County Jail in Ohio finds a recidivism rate of only 18 percent from those inmates who participate in its garden program, as opposed to 40 percent for those who don’t. Graduates of the Greenhouse Program at Rikers Island in New York City experience a 5-10 percent recidivism rate, as opposed to 65 percent in the general inmate population. Participants in The Garden Project at the San Francisco County Jail have a 24 percent recidivism rate, rather than 55 percent otherwise.

Jail gardening programs that involve people at even younger ages show promising positive effects in not only reducing recidivism but also helping youth avoid first-time offenses. Sidney Morgan, the Community Works Leader for the Department of Community Justice in Multnomah County, Ore., sees big changes in youth when they work in a garden. Morgan runs Project Sega (which means “to grow”) which provides youth on probation the opportunity to work on a quarter-acre garden to pay restitution for their offenses. Produce from this garden is sold at New Seasons supermarkets in the metro-Portland area, and the participating youth get the opportunity to plant, maintain, harvest from the garden, prep the food, and bring it to market. Morgan says New Seasons will even offer jobs to youth in Project Sega after they are done with probation. Through Project Sega, Morgan claims they learn that they can be successful, and that crime is not their only option.

“I’ve been doing probation work for seven years, and I’ve never seen anything like the reaction and results we get from kids who participate in gardening,” Morgan exclaimed.


The State of California filed a lawsuit against Orange County on Thursday to prevent the budget-strapped OC from using education funds ($73.5M worth) to pay other bills, leaving the state to foot the bill for schools. While California would be held to a constitutional requirement for funding K-12, if the court ruled in favor of the OC, community colleges could take a big hit with the loss of county funding.

The LA Times has the story.

Ted Guest at The Crime Report writes about a new DOJ and MacArthur Foundation-funded study,Causes and Consequences of High Rates of Incarceration,” headed by eighteen corrections experts, will study the the nation’s 2.3M prison population (roughly six times that of most other countries). Research will explore possible low-cost, high-social benefit alternatives to current prison policies.

The panel of scholars, chaired by Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, will examine the reasons for the dramatic increases in U.S. incarceration rates since the 1970s, which have produced one of the world’s highest incarceration levels—with more than 2.3 million people behind bars in U.S. prisons and jails at any time

The topic has been widely discussed and analyzed for years by advocacy groups on the left and right, as well as by individual scholars. But the two-year, $1.5 million project, convened by the National Research Council (part of the National Academy of Sciences) represents the first time in recent memory that these issues have been subject to wide-ranging, cross-disciplinary research.

“It now is time to review the state of knowledge—to look at the causes of the high rate of incarceration and the consequences for society,” said Travis, author of But They All Came Back: Facing the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry (2005).

Posted in California budget, Education, Free Speech, Orange County, prison, prison policy | 2 Comments »

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