Trump Aligns With NRA on Gun-Control Moves

It wasn’t by accident that two presidential actions — authorizing a crackdown on “bump stocks” and signaling support for a stronger background check system — are backed by the National Rifle Association. Now the question is what stance will the White House take on stronger gun-rights measures pending in Congress.

After a week of relative silence on guns after the deadly Florida school shooting, President Trump moved to take action on gun violence without antagonizing his pro-gun base, reports Politico. It wasn’t by accident that two moves — authorizing a crackdown on “bump stocks” and signaling support for a stronger background check system — are backed by the National Rifle Association. They would allow Trump, who spent much of the last weekend at Mar-a-Lago watching cable news coverage of the shooting’s aftermath, to say he’s taking action. Pacifying gun-control advocates without stirring up his core supporters will be a high-wire act for Trump. Even if he manages to pull it off — gun-control advocates will never be satisfied with the background checks bill the White House is getting behind — he’ll have to contend with Republicans in Congress who want to loosen gun control laws, not strengthen them. (Trump meets Wednesday with students, parents and teachers affected by mass shootings in Parkland, Fl., Newtown, Ct., and Colorado’s Columbine).

A House-passed bill pairs narrow background check changes with concealed-carry reciprocity legislation. The bill, a top NRA priority, would allow gun owners with concealed-carry permits in their home states to carry guns into states without them. Pro-gun conservatives are beating the same drum. Radio host Rush Limbaugh said on “Fox News Sunday” that “the solution is we need concealed carry in these schools.” As gun-control protests ramp up and Republicans dig in, where Trump will come down is an open question. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said he is open to a range of options, including an assault weapons ban and raising the minimum age for purchasing AR-15s. Trump has been all over the map on guns, endorsing an assault weapons ban in 2000 and winning the NRA’s highest rating in the presidential campaign.


Media Interest in FL School Shooting Higher Than Usual

Five days after the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman High School in Parkland, FL, media coverage was higher than it was at the same point after Connecticut’s Sandy Hook shootings in 2012. The number of Google searches on gun control remains high.

It’s been nearly a week since the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Advocates and pundits say the national conversation has unfolded differently from previous shootings, reports Students who survived the shooting have been speaking out, organizing events, and demanding that leaders do something about gun laws that allow people to easily obtain weapons and slaughter children inside classrooms. In shooting after shooting — whether it’s Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, or Las Vegas — public attention quickly moves off the topic and onto other subjects.

Even in the deadliest or highest-profile shootings, the coverage peaks the day after the shooting, stays relatively high for a day or two — and then fades into the background in a few weeks. That’s what it looked like the Parkland school shooting was destined for. But on Monday, after weekend attention on special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictments of Russians who tried to interfere with the U.S.election, coverage of the shooting came roaring back. Five days after the shooting, coverage of it was higher than it was at the same point after the Sandy Hook shootings in 2012. That attention waned a little on Tuesday, but was still at relatively high levels. Google search volume suggests that people are still very interested in gun control nearly a week after the shooting. Since peaking on February 16, just two days after the shooting, searches for “gun control” have plateaued at about half that volume. It’s hard to say for sure what it means, because all previous evidence shows that the likeliest scenario is no action on guns.


Guilty Gun Defendant Can Challenge Law: High Court

Splitting 6-3, the Supreme Court said a man who pleaded guilty to possessing firearms on the U.S. Capitol grounds could still file an appeal contending that the law was in conflict with the Second Amendment.

In another gun rights case at the Supreme Court, the justices ruled on Wednesday that a guilty plea in a criminal case does not prevent a defendant from later appealing his conviction on the ground that the statute under which he was convicted violates the Constitution. The case was filed by Rodney Class, who admitted that in 2013 that he had firearms in his locked jeep parked on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol.  After his plea, Class filed an appeal, arguing that the statute he was accused of violating was in conflict with the Second Amendment.

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for a 6-to-3 majority that “the claims at issue here do not fall within any of the categories of claims that Class’ plea agreement forbids him to raise on direct appeal.” In a dissent, Justice Samuel Alito said that Class should not be able to challenge the law after pleading guilty. “There is no justification for the muddle left by today’s decision,” Alito said, adding later, “I fear that today’s decision will bedevil the lower courts.” The case will now continue in the lower courts.


Why Alaska Rolled Back Some Criminal Justice Reforms

A sponsor of a reform law said it signalled criminals that they could get away with a lot more mischief than before. Crime has been rising in the state despite the reform law. Will other states reconsider reforms?

In many states, a coalition of conservatives and liberals, concerned about the fiscal and social costs of mass incarceration, decides it’s time to move away from the “tough on crime” policies of the 1990s. They reduce some nonviolent crimes to misdemeanors, offer alternatives to harsh sentencing and offer more rehabilitation to help ex-offenders keep from committing new crimes. Things haven’t played out that way in Alaska, Governing reports. After years of study,Alaska enacted a law in 2016 to revamp sentencing and other criminal justice policies. Within a few months, a majority of legislators decided they’d taken a wrong turn. A vote to repeal the law failed, but the legislature rolled back many of the law’s provisions and ramped up penalties for minor felonies.

Some say the law wasn’t given enough time to work. “Our public just needs to have a little bit of patience,” says Dennis Johnson of Alaska Pretrial Services. “You’re not going to see an instant reduction in recidivism.” State Sen. Mia Costello, a co-sponsor of the law, said it signalled criminals that they could get away with a lot more mischief than before. The knowledge that they wouldn’t receive jail time for shoplifting or thefts below a certain dollar amount was, in Costello’s view, tantamount to a green light. Some people wonder if states can reduce penalties and still reduce crime. Despite statistical successes in many states, it doesn’t take a big crime wave to increase doubts. A few well-publicized crimes can do the trick. In Alaska, violent crime has been trending up since the start of the century and car thefts are rising rapidly. For the first time in a decade, criminal justice reform is facing political headwinds in other states, with partial rollback efforts being discussed in states as different as California and Louisiana.


MO Used Code Names, Cash for Execution Drugs

Missouri has spent more than $135,000 since 2014 in secret drug deals to obtain drugs used in executions, reports BuzzFeed News. The supplier was a St. Louis area pharmacy named Foundation Care that since has been sold.

The state of Missouri has engaged in a wide-ranging scheme involving code names and envelopes stuffed with cash to hide the fact that it paid a troubled pharmacy for the drugs it used to execute inmates, BuzzFeed News reports. It has become almost impossible for states to obtain execution drugs, as major pharmaceutical companies stopped making them or refused to provide them for capital punishment. Missouri faced a crisis in 2014, when the previous pharmacy it had been using stopped providing the state with drugs. Missouri found a new pharmacy and stockpiled the lethal injection drug pentobarbital, enabling it to set a record pace for executions, scheduling one a month for more than a year.

To hide the identity of the pharmacy, the state took extraordinary steps. It used a code name for the pharmacy in official documents. Only a handful of state employees know the real name. The state fought at least six lawsuits to stop death row inmates and the press from knowing the pharmacy’s identity. The state sends a high-ranking corrections officer to a clandestine meeting with a company representative, exchanging an envelope full of cash for vials of pentobarbital. Since 2014, Missouri has spent more than $135,000 in such drug deals. BuzzFeed News says the supplier was Foundation Care, a 14-year-old pharmacy based in the St. Louis suburbs that has been repeatedly found to engage in hazardous pharmaceutical procedures and whose cofounder has been been accused of regularly ordering prescription medications for himself without a doctor’s prescription.  Last year, Foundation Care was sold to a subsidiary of health care giant Centene Corporation. Centene says that under its ownership, “Foundation Care has never supplied, and will never supply any pharmaceutical product to any state for the purpose of effectuating executions.” Two sources report that Missouri used Foundation Care’s drugs for 17 executions.


After Father’s Plea, TX Panel Seeks to Stop Execution

For the first time in more than a decade, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles asked the governor to call off an execution. The board acted after Kent Whitaker sought mercy for his son, Thomas, who was convicted of having his mother and brother killed in a plot to get inheritance money.

In a rare move, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles voted Tuesday to recommend a lesser sentence for a death row inmate facing execution, the Texas Tribune reports. The board voted unanimously in favor of clemency for Thomas Whitaker, a man who is set to die on Thursday evening. The decision now falls on Gov. Greg Abbott, who can approve or deny the recommendation to change Whitaker’s death sentence to life in prison. The last time the board recommended clemency for a death row inmate was in 2007.

Whitaker, 38, was convicted in the 2003 murders of his mother and 19-year-old brother as part of a plot to get inheritance money. His father, Kent Whitaker, was also shot in the attack but survived and has consistently begged for a life sentence for his son. “Victims’ rights should mean something in this state, even when the victim is asking for mercy and not vengeance,” Kent Whitaker said. Thomas Whitaker, then 23, came home from dinner with his family knowing that his roommate Chris Brashear was waiting there to kill them. When they entered the house, Brashear shot and wounded Thomas’ father and killed his mother, Patricia, and 19-year-old brother, Kevin. Whitaker fled to Mexico, but was arrested more than a year later. Whitaker offered to plead guilty to two life sentences, but the prosecution rejected the offer, saying Whitaker wasn’t remorseful and was being manipulative. He got a death sentence; Brashear was sentenced to life in in prison.


‘Legal Equalizer’ App Helps People Stopped by Police

Smartphone apps helps motorists understand their rights and alerts contacts that you’ve been stopped by police. The phone’s camera can record the interaction.

You’re driving and a police officer turns on blue lights. You hear sirens and pull over. The officer approaches. If the officer suspects you’ve been drinking, can you refuse to take a field sobriety test or blow into a blood-alcohol reader? If the officer wants to search your car, can you say no? You shouldn’t have to guess about your rights, says tech entrepreneur Mbey Njie, the Charlotte Observer reports. In both scenarios, DUI and police search laws vary by state. Njie created a smartphone app called “Legal Equalizer.” It helps you understand your rights and alerts selected contacts in your phone that you’ve been stopped by a police officer. A built-in video feature uses your phone’s camera to record the interaction and the video is automatically saved.

The app was prompted by Njie’s frustration, as a black man in North Carolina and Georgia, about being frequently pulled over for minor traffic violations. The first version of the Legal Equalizer app emerged in 2015 and was marketed as a police watchdog tool. It was a year after Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., setting off a week of protests. Legal Equalizer puts the camera in the hands of a person stopped by a police officer. In the first two years, Legal Equalizer saw nearly 100,000 app downloads. There are similar apps put out by the American Civil Liberties Union, Cop Watch and Five-O. To set his apart, Njie has expanded the scope to include links to local legal help and descriptions of state and federal laws relevant to police searches, DUIs, and drug possession. Njie hopes to broaden the app’s tools to be useful for victims of domestic violence and people targeted by immigration officers.


Conspiracy, Hired Gunman Cited in Prosecutor’s Killing

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is due in Seattle to discuss new evidence in the 16-year investigation of a federal prosecutor’s murder. Thomas Wales may have been the first U.S. prosecutor in history to be slain in the line of duty.

The FBI has found evidence suggesting that the fatal shooting of Seattle federal prosecutor Thomas Wales in 2001 involved a conspiracy and a hired gunman, the Seattle Times reports. Agents had pursued a single-shooter theory and focused on a former  airline pilot who has long been a leading suspect. An FBI official said there is a “very small group” of people who know what happened. “They never talk about it,” the official said. The pilot, whom Wales had prosecuted in a bitterly fought fraud case, has maintained his innocence.

While the first-time disclosure that multiple people might be involved represents a major step in the investigation, the official cautioned that agents have yet to develop sufficient evidence to bring criminal charges. The U.S. Justice Department has scheduled a news conference in Seattle for Wednesday. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is expected to make the agency’s most extensive comments on the case since Attorney General Eric Holder spoke at the 10-year anniversary of the shooting. Wales, 49, was working as a white-collar criminal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office when he was shot several times while sitting at a computer in the basement of his home on Oct. 11, 2001. If Wales was killed because of his work, he would be the first federal prosecutor in the nation’s history to be slain in the line of duty.


Border Patrol Using Checkpoints 100 Miles from Border

Border Patrol officers are working without permission on private property and setting up checkpoints far from the border under a federal law that is being used more widely in the Trump administration’s aggressive crackdown on illegal immigration. A Texas rancher accused the Border Patrol of trespassing after he found a surveillance camera the agency placed on his property.

Border Patrol officers are working without permission on private property and setting up checkpoints up to 100 miles away from the border under a federal law that is being used more widely in the Trump administration’s aggressive crackdown on illegal immigration, the New York Times reports. A Texas rancher has accused the Border Patrol of trespassing after he said he found a surveillance camera the agency placed on his property. In New Hampshire, border officers working with state officials conducted what the American Civil Liberties Union described as illegal drug searches after residents were arrested at immigration checkpoints set up on an interstate highway. Recently in Florida, New York and Washington State, border officers have been criticized for boarding buses and trains to question riders — mostly U.S. citizens — about their immigration status.

Trump administration officials defend the government’s decades-old authority to search people and property, even without a warrant, far from the border. They call it a vital part of preventing weapons, terrorists and other people from illegally entering the U.S. Officials said some of the searches — particularly on Greyhound buses or Amtrak trains on domestic routes — had increased since the Obama administration. Under President Trump, field supervisors have regained the authority to order the searches, instead of officials at Border Patrol headquarters. The Homeland Security Department would not provide statistics on how often, or where, it checks domestic travel passengers or patrols on private property. Agency data show that fewer than 3 percent of foreigners entering the country illegally were caught at immigration checkpoints nowhere near the border.


Amid Violence, Commercial Robberies Soar in Baltimore

While Baltimore’s three-year spike in violent crime draws most of the attention, business owners have suffered a similar increase in commercial robberies. Such crime has risen 88 percent in the last five years, from 560 commercial robberies in 2013 to more than 1,000 last year. Business owners are complaining of threats outside their stores: drug dealing, intimidation, stabbings and shootings.

While Baltimore’s three-year spike in violent crime draws most of the attention, business owners across the city have suffered a similar increase in commercial robberies, the Baltimore Sun reports. Such crime has risen 88 percent in the last five years, from 560 commercial robberies in 2013 to more than 1,000 last year. Business owners are complaining of threats outside their stores: drug dealing, intimidation, stabbings and shootings. They’re fighting back with security measures — guards, surveillance cameras, door buzzer systems — moving out of the city or, in some cases, shutting down.

“Our members are very concerned,” said Cailey Locklair Tolle of the Maryland Retailers Association. “Unfortunately, a lot of our members don’t relocate. It’s a massive endeavor. A lot of times they just go out of business.” Police have taken notice, and say recent arrests should make a dent. Five men have been charged in at least six robberies across the city. “It’s a small group of people responsible for these,” police spokesman T.J. Smith said. Smith said police are increasing checks on stores and are monitoring CitiWatch cameras more closely. He described an apparent robbery attempt thwarted by CitiWatch personnel in January. Two men appeared to be casing a 7-Eleven store downtown. It had been robbed days earlier, and three times last year. The CitiWatch personnel directed officers to the store. They confronted the suspects at the front door. At least one officer and one suspect fired at each other, but no one was injured. The suspects escaped.