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The Law Blogger is a law-related blog that informs and discusses current matters of legal interest to readers of The Oakland Press and to consumers of legal services in the community. We hope readers will  find it entertaining but also informative. The Law Blogger does not, however, impart legal advice, as only attorneys are licensed to provide legal counsel.
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Friday, June 25, 2010

SCOTUS Bruises First Amendment in "Terrorist Aid" Case

On Monday, I was scheduled for admission to the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court; a very formal proceeding.  So first thing Monday morning, I made my way past the security checkpoints of the storied courthouse on the far-side of the Hill, and into Room G-32 (they have an entire suite of offices devoted to bar admissions).

There were only four attorneys slated for individual admission on the Court's docket that day; the last day of the 2009-2010 term.  Good news for us admittees; the Court was issuing 4 opinions so the entire bench would be present for the admission ceremony.

In another piece of extraordinary luck, we were seated in the front row of the courtroom for the day's proceedings.  I actually had a better seat than Nina Totenberg from NPR and Bill Mears of CNN; both were present to hear the opinions read from the bench.

The high-point from that session was Chief Justice John Roberts reading the 6-3 majority opinion in the case of Humanitarian Law Project v Holder; followed by Justice Stephen Breyer reading his dissent (joined by Justices Ginsberg and Sotomayor).  Dissents rarely are read from the bench in the High Court's chamber; this one signaled a strong warning from the Court's liberal wing that the government had gone too far by criminalizing free speech in the name of national security.

This case (actually two cases) involved application of a 1996 federal law banning "material support" to known foreign terrorist organizations black-listed by the Secretary of State.  The terrorist groups in these cases were not Al Qaeda or the Taliban but rather, dissident groups from Turkey and Sri Lanka.

The actions sought to be criminalized in the Holder cases would ordinarily receive First Amendment protection as a form of "pure political speech".  For example, teaching members of the foreign groups how to petition bodies like the United Nations, or hiring an attorney to resolve disputes in a US courthouse.

The federal government has utilized the "material support" law as an effective courtroom weapon in our protracted war on terror.  Justice Roberts emphasized, however, that the Court's holding was narrow and did not criminalize pure speech; just conduct in aid of known terrorist groups.

Prior to Humanitarian Law Project, the Court's terrorist cases were limited to constitutional issues surrounding detainees.  This case, the only "terrorist" case to be decided this term, moved the terrorist jurisprudence outside the detention centers and into our streets; into the heart of our right to free speech.  In so doing, the High Court's decision in this case affects each and every one of us as free thinking individuals.

When the cases were argued before the Court back in February, it was Solicitor General Elena Kagan, subsequently nominated by President Obama to occupy a seat on that very Court, who vigorously defended the law and its effectiveness in combating terror here in the homeland.  She prevailed in the forum where, presumably in October, she will become a mainstay.

The Holder decision evidences the Court's traditional and continuing deference to the political branches (Congress and the Executive) in matters of national security.  In the 21st Century, perhaps like no other time in our history, national security matters are everywhere; even in our own backyards.

After the Holder opinions were read, the Chief Justice turned to the administrative motions of the day, calling my long-time college friend and fellow-attorney, Barak Romanek, to the podium to move for my admission.  Thankfully, his motion was granted and I was duly admitted to the bar of the SCOTUS with a friendly nod from the Chief Justice.

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Wednesday, June 9, 2010

What Happens at Your Creditors' Meeting Once You've Filed for Bankruptcy

 This post is the original content of the Colorado law firm of Wink & Wink, bankruptcy specialists.  They maintain an excellent law blog with frequent updates on matters of bankruptcy that are as relevant here in Michigan as they are in Colorado.  We hope you find this post as informative as we did!
For many bankruptcy filers, the prospect of the §341 Meeting of Creditors causes some stress and anxiety. It’s normal to be apprehensive about your 341 Meeting, but at the same time it’s nothing to be afraid of because most 341 hearings go quickly and smoothly. As with all other aspects of your bankruptcy case, preparation is the key. So what follows is an overview of the 341 process to ease your worried mind.
What Is A 341 Meeting?
The Meeting of Creditors is described in section 341 of the Bankruptcy Code, hence the name “341 Hearing”. It provides for a United States Trustee to convene and preside at a meeting of creditors and directs the Trustee to “orally examine the debtor” in a Chapter 7 case to make sure they are aware of 1) the consequences of filing for bankruptcy, 2) their ability to file a petition under another chapter, 3) the effect of any discharge of debts and 4) the effect of reaffirming any debt.
What happens in reality is that the bankruptcy trustee reads an advisement and then begins calling cases by debtor name. Once you hear your name called, you and your attorney walk up to the desk or podium and the panel trustee places you under oath, checks your identification and asks you questions on the record about your bankruptcy petition and your financial situation.
In Colorado, where I practice bankruptcy law, you will also hand a completed “Trustee Information Sheet” to the panel trustee along with a bank statement and pay stub that covers the date your case was filed. Additionally, the trustee must already have received a copy of your most recent tax return. As I will discuss below, these requirements alone are enough reason to make sure you are represented by an attorney at your 341 Hearing.
In fact, if you meet with an attorney who does not provide representation at the 341 Hearing as part of their services, you should keep looking. If there is ever a time to have the services of a bankruptcy lawyer, it is when you are answering questions about your case under oath.
Who Is the Bankruptcy Trustee?
In a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, private trustees—or panel trustees—are appointed to administer estates under the supervision of the United States Trustee for their judicial district. That means there is a U.S. Trustee’s office in each judicial district (part of the Department of Justice), and then each U.S. Trustee’s office has a panel of private trustees who do the day-to-day work of administering Chapter 7 cases, which includes presiding at the 341 Hearings.
These panel trustees are usually private bankruptcy attorneys who do the work on a part-time basis. They take a cut of any assets they find in the bankruptcy estate, along with a flat fee for each case they administer.
So, in a Chapter 7 case, you have two levels of trustee involvement: 1) the U.S. Trustee, who is reviewing your case to make sure you qualify for chapter 7 and that your case is not an ‘abusive filing’; and 2) the panel trustee who is looking for assets they can sell to make some money.
What Is the Trustee Looking For?
Because the panel trustee has a financial stake in every Chapter 7 case they see, the 341 Hearing really boils down to one thing: money. The panel trustee is looking to see if you have assets they can liquidate because that is how they get paid. (The panel trustee takes 25% of the first $5,000, 10% of the next $45,000, etc.) Therefore, the questions you are asked are tailored to determine if your estate has any non-exempt assets.
For example, if you own a car, the trustee will want to know how you came to the value the vehicle(s) you listed for the car in your bankruptcy petition. If the trustee thinks the value is too low, they may order an appraisal.
A bankruptcy attorney is invaluable in preparing you for the types of questions you may be asked at the 341 Hearing.  This is because your attorney, in preparing your bankruptcy case, will know what property or interests you have that will be of interest to the trustee and can prepare you accordingly.
What About the Creditors?
Since the 341 is technically called the Meeting of Creditors, you may be wondering where the creditors are in the process. All of your creditors receive notice of your bankruptcy and also the date of your 341 Hearing. However, it is very rare for a creditor to appear at this meeting.
In fact, the only time you usually see creditors at the 341 Hearing is when the creditor is an ex: ex-wife, ex-husband or ex-business partner, someone with an opinion about your bankruptcy or who wants the trustee to know that they think you have some very fancy golf clubs in the garage that you didn’t list on your petition (another reason to have an attorney prepare your bankruptcy case!). In other words, you probably will never see Bank of America at the 341 meeting, they just aren’t emotionally involved and they don’t have the staff or money to send someone to every meeting of creditors when one of their customers files for bankruptcy.
The Role of the Attorney
The 341 Hearing is a perfect example of why having a lawyer prepare your bankruptcy AND represent you at the trustee meeting is essential. If you spend any time at all in the hearing room, listening to other cases as they go before the panel trustee, the benefits are obvious.
Last month, I saw an extreme example of what can happen when you aren’t prepared for or represented at the 341 Hearing. The trustee called the next case and the debtor approached the table, raised his right hand and took an oath. Once he sat down he was shaking and obviously nervous. The trustee asked him a few preliminary questions, checked his identification and then asked him if he had personal knowledge of the contents of his bankruptcy petition. This very basic question threw this guy for a loop. He asked to have the question repeated, and repeated again. And then he turned very, very pale and passed out. It was scary and sad because the poor guy was obviously nervous about his case and his petition and would have benefitted greatly from professional advice and representation. My client actually turned to me and said “Am I ever glad we have a good bankruptcy attorney!”
Fainting at the 341 Hearing is not at all common, but having your case dismissed for failure to provide your tax return to the trustee is, along with having to surrender property (like your tax refund) that you could have kept if you’d had legal advice.
Overall, the 341 Hearing is nothing to be scared of, as long as you are prepared and accompanied by an attorney who has prepped you for the meeting. Most 341’s go quickly and painlessly, especially when your case was properly prepared, you know what to except, and are ready for the specific questions that might come your way.

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Thursday, June 3, 2010

SCOTUS Tilts Miranda Warnings Toward Police in Case From Southfield

In January 2000, Van Chester Thompkins of Southfield committed a drive-by style shooting, killing one victim and wounding another.  He was convicted by an Oakland County Jury in May 2002 of first degree murder, assault, and a variety of weapons charges.

The case was initially assigned to now-retired Judge Richard Kuhn and subsequently re-assigned to Judge Michael Warren. Thompkins was represented at trial by West Bloomfield attorney, Lawrence Kaluzny.

From these local beginnings, this case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS).

Thompkins was apprehended in Columbus, Ohio nearly a year after the shooting and questioned extensively by Southfield PD detectives.  During his custodial interrogation, the suspect refused to answer the detectives' questions for several hours.

Nearly three-hours into the mostly one-way interrogation, the following exchange occurred:

     Detective:  "Do you believe in God?"
     Thompkins:  "Yes."
     Detective:  "Do you pray to God?"
     Thompkins:  "Yes."
     Detective:  "Do you pray to God to forgive you for shooting that poor boy down?"
     Thompkins:  "Yes."

Kaluzny's motion to suppress this statement was denied by the trial judge.  On the basis of this one-word confession, the jury convicted Thompkins, who is doing a life sentence in Coldwater, MI.

The conviction was appealed to the Michigan Court of Appeals and affirmed in an unpublished opinion issued in February 2004.  Detroit appellate attorney Elizabeth Jacobs challenged the lower court's rulings on the motions to suppress Thompkins' statement and to suppress defendant's identification by the surviving shooting victim.  Jacobs also raised issues of trial misconduct by the Oakland County Prosecutor, claiming that Kaluzny's failure to raise the issue below rendered Thompkins' legal representation constitutionally deficient.

The intermediate appellate court disposed of Jacobs' argument on the suppression issue with the following ruling:

Defendant argues that the trial court erred by denying his motion to suppress his statements to the police. Defendant asserts that the police improperly continued to interrogate him after he “implicitly” invoked his right to remain silent by failing to answer the officers’ questions. We disagree.

The record discloses that defendant was advised of his Miranda rights and, according to the interrogating officer, verbally acknowledged that he understood those rights. Contrary to defendant’s argument, the record does not demonstrate that defendant asserted his right to remain silent. Although defendant refused to sign the advice of rights form, he continued to talk with the officer, albeit sporadically. He answered questions with brief responses, or by nodding his head, but never said he did not want to talk or that he was not going to say anything. “When a defendant speaks after receiving Miranda warnings, a momentary pause or even a failure to answer a question will not be construed as an affirmative invocation by the defendant of a right to remain silent.” The trial court did not clearly err in concluding that defendant voluntarily waived his right to remain silent and that he did not subsequently invoke his right to silence. Defendant’s statements were properly admitted into evidence.

The Michigan Supreme Court declined Defendant's invitation to further review his case.

Once a convicted defendant exhausts all avenues of appeal in a state court, that defendant can avail himself of the federal courts via a petition for habeas corpus.  Thompkins habeas petition was denied in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan (in Detroit).

In a remarkable opinion from the United States 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, Thompkins' conviction was reversed.  The federal appellate court was unimpressed with the above analysis from it's Michigan counterpart; inferring that their unpublished opinion was weak on judicial application of significant precedent.  The federal appellate court also believed the state appellate court got the facts of Thompkins' interrogation wrong.

The 6th Circuit relied on the prior and seminal SCOTUS decisions of Miranda v Arizona and North Carolina v Butler, which establish an accused individual's right to remain silent, and imposes a "heavy burden" on the state to demonstrate that a suspect, once advised of this right, has waived his privilege against self-incrimination.

In reversing the 6th Circuit, the SCOTUS held that by answering "yes" to the detective's questions about God, Thompkins gave an "implied" waiver of his rights and further, that from now on, defendants must expressly and unambiguously state their intent to remain silent to their interrogators.  Also, police are no longer required to obtain written waivers executed by a defendant.

The case provides a slight advantage to police interrogators in that they can now continue to question a suspect until he affirmatively asserts his Miranda rights.  In the police interrogation context, many people are simply not inclined to do so thus, our Miranda rights may have less meaning under the hot lights of persistent, aggressive and skillful police interrogation.

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