Why the foiled Halifax shooting plot (allegedly) wasn’t terrorism

This Canadian Press article by Laura Kane explains how the distinction between “terrorism” and mere criminal activity can be blurry, and why the alleged plot to shoot up the Halifax Shopping Centre this past weekend doesn’t qualify as a terror plot:

Police said there is no evidence that ideology or culture is part of the allegations. But if plotting to cause mass murder in a public place is not called terrorism, then what is?

Defining terrorism is a complex task, one that has preoccupied governments since the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, experts say. And with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s new anti-terror bill before Parliament, taking a closer look at the Canadian definition is all the more crucial.

“The problem of defining terrorism has been a thorny one from the get-go,” said terrorism expert John Thompson, vice president of Strategic Capital and Intelligence Group.

“Terrorism overlaps with so many other activities. When does a violent protest become terrorism? When does some sort of psychotic episode where someone is acting out become terrorism? It’s a very hazy border.”

In Canada, section 83.01 of the Criminal Code defines terrorism as an act committed “in whole or in part for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause” with the intention of intimidating the public’s security or compelling a person, government or organization to do or refrain from doing an act.


Andrew Mack, a security expert and professor in the school for international studies at Simon Fraser University, called the alleged Halifax plot a “deadly criminal offence,” but not a terrorist one.

“The important point there is political intent, and ‘political’ is fairly widely interpreted,” he said. “If we’re talking about (ISIS), for example, they will always justify what they’re doing in religious terms. But as far as law enforcement is concerned, that’s political.”

That’s the question: were the shooters motivated by any religious or political ideology?  A widely-shared article by Robert Devet, for the Halifax Media Co-op, argues that the would-be shooters’ fascination with Nazism is being downplayed:

The Tumblr blog of James Gamble, the 19-year old found dead in Timberlea, features pictures of Adolph Hitler and marching Nazis.

You go to the Tumblr blog of Lindsay Kantha Souvannarath, the Illinois woman now in custody, and a swastika is the first thing you see.

Meanwhile, thanks to the work of people who know their way around in the world of blogs, message boards and handles, there are strong suggestions that at least Souvannarath has along-time infatuation with fascist and white supremacist ideas.  None of this has made it into Nova Scotia news outlets.

One CBC reporter looked at Gamble’s Tumblr blog, and mentions the Nazi references in passing, almost as an afterthought.

The same for a Chronicle Herald story, where a reference to Nazi images warrants one sentence.

You have to wonder whether coverage would have changed in tone had the plotters been Muslims, and had the Tumblr images been of Osama Bin Laden, or ISIS militants?

That’s a good question, actually.  Justin Bourque, who murdered three RCMP during his shooting rampage in Moncton, was apparently motivated at least in part by his radical anti-government, anti-police beliefs, yet he wasn’t charged with terrorism-related offences.

Islamist terrorism is a very serious threat – we saw that in Copenhagen this past weekend, right around the same time as the Halifax plotters were being charged.  But not all terrorists are Muslims – and, it goes without saying, not all Muslims are terrorists.

Blasphemy is a crime in Canada

Not because we’re living under the Stephen Harper Christofascist dictatorship, though. (Sorry, Michael Harris.)  It’s actually a law that hasn’t been enforced successfully since 1935, but remains part of the Criminal Code of Canada:

Section 296 of the Criminal Code makes “blasphemous libel” punishable by up to two years in jail in Canada.

No one been prosecuted under the law since 1935. As late as 1980, the law was used to charge the Canadian distributor of Monty Python’s film Life of Brian; the charges were later dropped.

Only last month, the heads of Humanist Canada and the Centre for Inquiry, a national organization that promotes “skeptical, secular rational and humanistic inquiry,” met with Ambassador Andrew Bennett, head of the federal government’s Office of Religious Freedom, to note the law’s inconsistency with Canada’s policy of supporting religious freedom abroad.


Derek From, a lawyer for the Calgary-based Canadian Constitution Foundation warns that while the law may be dormant, it is not dead. Britain’s blasphemy law, for example, was considered “dead” until it resurfaced in 1977 when a pornographic magazine was charged with the offence for publishing gay poetry about Jesus.

“It is an open question whether the Charter’s guarantee of freedom of expression will offer any protection,” Mr. From wrote in a 2013 letter to Calgary-area MP and Minister of State for Finance Kevin Sorenson. “This is a constitutional question that has never been tested.”

“The conservative right gets bents out of shape about hate speech provisions because they see it as an unconstitutional restriction of their freedom of expression. But that’s exactly what people who are [irreligious] would say about the blasphemy prohibitions — that they cannot say what they want without freedom of prosecution,” Mr. From said.

There’s no way the offence of “blasphemous libel” is compatible with a modern, democratic society, or constitutional under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  That said, if threats of violence will keep people and media outlets from publishing material some people find blasphemous, what difference does it really make?

(Note: needless to say, an image of “Piss-Christ” was easily found on the CBC website.)

Greenspan’s last words

Just hours before he passed away on Christmas Eve, Edward Greenspan, arguably Canada’s best-known criminal defence lawyer, submitted this critique of the Harper government’s “tough-on-crime” rhetoric (co-written with Anthony Doob) to the National Post:

“All convicted criminals belong behind bars.”

We know of no person knowledgeable about criminal justice in any democratic society who has ever proposed imprisonment for all convicted offenders. But earlier this month, Canada’s Public Safety Minister, Steven Blaney, who oversees our penitentiaries, bluntly told Parliament that “Our Conservative government believes that convicted criminals belong behind bars.” No qualifications, no exceptions.

An opposition MP understandably replied, “Mr. Speaker, that is scary to hear.” Scary? It’s more than scary. It is hard to imagine such a statement being made by someone who supposedly has knowledge about crime and the criminal justice system.

Consider this example: If we take the Public Safety Minister at his word, his government believes that all those guilty of driving with blood alcohol levels even slightly above the legal limit, not speeding and not involving an accident, belong behind bars: Go directly to jail, no need to consider anything else. Currently, only 8% of all offenders — and fewer than 2% of all young women — are imprisoned for this offence. Do the Tories propose locking up the 92% who are dealt with through other means?


Some believe that offenders learn from imprisonment that “crime does not pay.” This, too, is wrong. Published research — some of it Canadian and produced by the federal government — demonstrates that imprisonment, if anything, increases the likelihood of reoffending. For example, a recent study of 10,000 Florida inmates released from prison demonstrated that they were more likely subsequently to reoffend (47% reoffended in 3 years) than an almost perfectly equivalent group of offenders who were lucky enough to be sentenced to probation (37% reoffended).

Crime and punishment issues are far too complex and far too serious to allow the national debate to be dominated by dishonest platforms and slogans. False promises are often convincing. Whether those offering them are dishonest or ignorant matters little: Conservative crime policies will not make Canadians safer.

Hamas’ Jewish lawyer

There’s nothing wrong with defending unpopular people in court.  On the contrary, it’s downright admirable.  It’s what the criminal justice system is all about.

But this guy gives off a definite Doug Christie vibe. (Or he would, if Doug Christie stood up for people who’d have him killed because of his religion.)

A Hamas-defending, Israel-slamming Jew, Cohen simultaneously confounds and agitates. He’s known for f-bomb-laced rants against what he calls a “Zionist hijacking” of his religion. He demeans the tax charge to which he pleaded guilty [emphasis added] in April as a government attempt “to silence me.” And he doesn’t necessarily disagree with foes who label him “a traitor.”

“Am I someone who would intentionally, willfully sell government secrets or engage in activity with the intent to hurt America or American citizens? Absolutely not,” Cohen said in an interview with NBC News. “But I am someone who will, just willy-nilly, accept the party line whether it comes out of the White House, the Congress, or nice, safe majoritarian values? No. And if that makes me a traitor, then well f*** it, I’m a traitor.”

U.S. officials will, indeed, remove Cohen from his practice of defending some of those whom the feds deem enemies of the state. The tax case against him will likely cost him his law license.

According to federal prosecutors, Cohen failed to report more than $3 million in income.


“Hamas represents the kind of commitment and integrity that is so important to me — the leadership in particular, is comprised largely of physicians, engineers, academics, and political scientists,” Cohen said. “So they’re a people that not only do I share a common bond with in terms of their struggle, but they’re folks who I just love hanging out with.”

Murder without a body

Yesterday, the news we’d all been dreading was confirmed by Calgary police, and today a suspect was charged:

The man police have been investigating in the disappearance of a missing Calgary family has been formally charged with their murders.

Douglas Garland was arrested near Airdrie on Monday morning, as the search for five-year-old Nathan O’Brien and his grandparents, Alvin and Kathryn Liknes, turned into a homicide investigation.

He was escorted to the Calgary police arrest processing unit on Monday evening, prior to appearing before a justice of the peace.

On Tuesday, Garland was officially charged with two counts of first-degree murder in relation to the deaths of Kathryn and Alvin Liknes, and one count of second-degree murder in the death of Nathan O’Brien.

He is scheduled to appear in court on Wednesday, July 16, 2014.

When asked how police were able to lay charges despite not yet recovering the bodies of the victims, Calgary Police Chief Rick Hanson admitted it is a ‘complexity.’

“You can still find evidence that supports a homicide, unequivocally supports a homicide charge in the absence of a body.” says Hanson while on Global Calgary’s Morning News on Tuesday.

“Without bodies, you have to build a case which is based on pieces of evidence that have to pull together at a particular time,” adds Hanson. “You assess, you add evidence, you get new evidence in, you chase down some leads, you pull more information together… and every day you’re looking at what you’ve got.”


After processing the horror that someone took the life of an innocent little boy, many probably wonder how Garland can be charged with murder when none of the alleged victims’ bodies have been discovered. Needless to say, that will make prosecutors’ job of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt much more difficult – but not impossible.

Following the arrest of New Yorker Robert Bierenbaum for the murder of his wife fifteen years earlier – ABC News posted a fairly detailed piece explaining the burden to be met by prosecutors where there is no body:

To prove there was a death in missing-body cases, prosecutors must prove there has been no sign of the person’s existence. That means presenting close friends and family members who would say they haven’t heard from the alleged victim in a long time and that the missing person would not have just gone away without informing them. Prosecutors and investigators also comb through records in 50 states to show there has been no activity in the accounts belonging to the victim, such as Social Security funds, bank accounts and credit card activity.

“You have to develop an understanding of the victim’s life, the details of their life,” says California prosecutor Richard Holmes, who successfully convicted Alejandro Gilbert Ruiz in the disappearance and murder of his wife in 1980. “Who would they contact? Do they have any medical problems that would require constant attention? What are their habits? You have to do everything you can to bring the victim to life in front of the jury. Very few people drop off the face of the earth. You have to prove that the victim is unlikely to do so, disregard everyone they’ve known in the past, especially if they have nothing to hide from.”

Prosecutors also must illustrate the circumstances under which a murder could have occurred: evidence of a troubled relationship; the discovery of the victim’s blood in their house or the suspect’s house. A confession from the suspect to either police or other people is always welcomed by prosecutors. But that alone is not enough to win a missing-body homicide case. The law mandates that prosecutors should have enough evidence to prove their case without a confession because suspects often retract their statements.


Without the presence of a body, Pertler says, questions that normally would be uncontested, such as the occurrence and place of the death and the identity of the victim’s remains, become fuel for the defense. In missing-body cases, almost every piece of evidence presented by the prosecution can become the defense target for reasonable doubt.

“Most definitely they are the toughest cases you can face,” says Pertler. “With any murder case, there are certain elements that are no-brainers, like the death of so-and-so occurred in such-and-such a county and they died in this way. But without a body, you have the other side saying, ‘There’s no way you’ve identified these remains as belonging to the victim.’ You’ve got to hope that your case withstands the defense’s request for a directed verdict of acquittal from the judge [because of lack of strong evidence] and that your case passes with the jurors, who take their job seriously.”


Though they lack more direct physical evidence, missing-body cases, some lawyers say, ultimately can be stronger than standard murder cases with bodies and are more likely to withstand appeals. Because the body is missing, prosecutors must worry more about their case being thrown out before or during trial because of a lack of sufficient evidence. These obstacles, along with the fact that they have to prove there was a death by murder make prosecutors present a more efficient case.

“Circumstantial cases can often be stronger than direct evidence cases whereas the evidence you present is less susceptible to tampering,” says Joshua Marquis, who successfully prosecuted a missing-body case in Oregon in 1993. “You don’t have all the baggage that may come if police are not as careful as they should be at the scene of a crime. And I don’t worry about these cases being overturned on an appeal. Most judges won’t let you get past [the defense’s request for] a directed verdict of acquittal at trial if you don’t present a strong case. You combine that along with the fact that you convinced a jury to convict, it’s unlikely an appeals court will overturn the verdict.”

Bierenbaum was convicted, and as Christie Blatchford notes, there have been some successful missing-body murder prosecutions here in Canada:

There’s R vs. Pritchard, a decision affirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada. It’s a 2007 decision from the British Columbia Court of Appeal which involved a man convicted of first-degree murder despite the fact that the victim’s body has never been found.

There’s R vs. Ratte, another B.C. case where a husband was convicted of second-degree murder despite the fact his wife’s body was never found. The Supreme Court dismissed the application for leave to appeal.

There’s R vs. Wristen, a 1999 Ontario case where another husband was convicted of second-degree murder though the body of his wife has never been found; that was upheld by the court of appeal.

If Garland is convicted, it may bring some closure to that poor family – but only a little, if the bodies of Nathan and his grandparents remain undiscovered.  For any parent, not knowing for sure what happened to your child must be unbearable.

In defence of Hillary’s defence work

The conservative Washington Free Beacon dug into Hillary Clinton’s representation of an accused rapist during the mid-eighties, and posted this audio recording from an interview given a few years later:

The Free Beacon‘s Alana Goodman argues that Clinton’s representation of this man, and her subsequent discussion of the case, raise serious ethical questions about the presumptive presidential nominee.  And to be fair, the fact that she discussed the case publicly, in such detail, is indeed questionable conduct for a defence lawyer:

From a legal ethics perspective, once she agreed to take the case, Clinton was required to defend her client to the fullest even if she did believe he was guilty.

“We’re hired guns,” Ronald D. Rotunda, a professor of legal ethics at Chapman University, told the Washington Free Beacon. “We don’t have to believe the client is innocent…our job is to represent the client in the best way we can within the bounds of the law.”

However, Rotunda said, for a lawyer to disclose the results of a client’s polygraph and guilt is a potential violation of attorney-client privilege.

“You can’t do that,” he said. “Unless the client says: ‘You’re free to tell people that you really think I’m a scumbag, and the only reason I got a lighter sentence is because you’re a really clever lawyer.’”

Clinton was suspended from the Arkansas bar in March of 2002 for failing to keep up with continuing legal education requirements, according to Arkansas judicial records.

This really isn’t what she’s getting attacked for, though.  And The Volokh Conspiracy‘s Jonathan Adler is troubled by Ms. Clinton’s zealous representation of client accused of a serious crime – something the legal system needs people to do – being used against her all-but-declared presidential run:

Much, if not all, of the criticism of Clinton resulting from this story is misplaced.  She was asked (by the prosecutor, no less) to represent a criminal defendant.  Her client was accused of raping a 12-year-old girl.  From what I can tell, Clinton believed her client was guilty but was nonetheless able to obtain a favorable plea deal because the government had mishandled incriminating evidence.  A forensic lab performed tests on blood stains found on the defendant’s underwear, but discarded the relevant piece of clothing (literally leaving a pair of underwear with a hole cut out).  Lacking the necessary physical evidence to convict, the prosecution offered a plea deal.  Some of the relevant court documents are available here.  A previously unreleased interview with Clinton about the case is available here.

What should we make of this story?  Perhaps nothing more than that Hillary Clinton represented someone in need and fulfilled her duty as a member of the bar to provide a zealous defense of her client.  This is not something for which she should be attacked.  We are all the worse off if the message sent to young lawyers is that representing guilty or unpopular clients is likely to be a political liability down the road.  Ably and effectively representing a criminal defendant — even one you believe to be guilty — is not “scummy” or inappropriate. Forcing the state to prove its case before it deprives an individual of their life, liberty or property is a noble endeavor.  So while I think the story is newsworthy, I think most of the attacks on Clinton for this episode are misplaced, and a bit opportunistic. [Note that some attacking Clinton are also calling for more more due process protections for college students accused of rape.]


The bottom-line here is that Hillary Clinton’s work on this case as a young attorney 40 years ago is interesting and newsworthy, but that’s about it.  Unless and until more damaging evidence emerges, there’s no basis for the new attacks on her.  Anti-Hillary folks should look elsewhere.

Contra The Washington Free Beacon, there is nothing “scummy” or “semi-sociopathic” about what she did (and, no, I don’t find the uncomfortable laughter on the audio tape interview with Clinton a decade-or-so after the fact to be troubling either — listen to it for yourself.)  She engaged in able and (as far as we know) ethical defense work — and defense work is a noble calling.  The WFB may be correct that it’s not a winning political argument to defend the work that defense attorneys do.  If so, that’s a sad commentary on our political system, and not something thoughtful commentators should celebrate or exploit.

Adler and his libertarian Volokh Conspiracy colleagues aren’t Hillary supporters, and neither am I.  (Fact is, the more I look at both major parties’ potential nominees for 2016, the more I find myself wanting Mitt Romney to run again.  And I didn’t even back Romney last time around.)  But in this case, it seems like she did her job and did it well.

Related: in April Adler savaged the Republican Governors’ Association for a campaign ad against the Democratic nominee for South Carolina Governor, which attacked his criminal defence work, and bemoaned the growing trend of politicians and activists – not just conservatives and Republicans, for the record – going after lawyers for doing their work:

Representing unpopular causes or clients is never easy, but it is necessary.  Organized efforts to blunt the careers of those who take on such efforts are shameful.  It would be one thing if Sheheen were accused of unethical conduct in his representation of his clients.  It is quite another to attack him for defending those who, however horrific their crimes, needed a legal defense.  A lawyer is responsible for his or her own conduct, and is not responsible for the sins of the client.

The RGA is not the first to attack lawyers for having agreed to represent unpopular clients or causes, but that hardly makes the ad any more defensible.  Others on the right wrongly went after attorneys who agreed to represent Gitmo detainees.  Folks on the left assailed Bush nominees who represented corporations or defended administration policies and attacked King & Spalding and Paul Clement for agreeing to defend DOMA.  Some members of Congress are also currently attacking district court nominee Mark Cohen because he helped defend Georgia’s voter ID law.  All such attacks are misguided.  Left unchecked, they pose a threat to the adversary legal system.  As Paul Clement wrote when he resigned from King & Spalding:

Defending unpopular positions is what lawyers do.  The adversary system of justice depends on it, especially in cases where the passions run high. Efforts to delegitimize any representation for one side of a legal controversy are a profound threat to the rule of law.

The story of a little prick

The country’s highest court has ruled that if your partner consents to sexual intercourse with protection, and then you tamper with the condom in some way, you are guilty of sexual assault:

The Supreme Court of Canada has dismissed an appeal by a Nova Scotia man who was convicted of sexual assault for poking holes in his girlfriend’s condoms.

The case involved Craig Jaret Hutchinson, who was sentenced to 18 months in jail in December 2011, after he admitted damaging his former girlfriend’s condoms in an attempt to impregnate her so that she would not end their relationship.

While the Supreme Court’s decision to dismiss the appeal was unanimous, the seven justices were divided into two camps in their reasons for the decision.

The majority ruled that Hutchinson’s decision to sabotage the condom exposed his girlfriend to an increased risk of pregnancy and constituted fraud.

“We conclude that there was no consent in this case by reason of fraud,” the judges wrote in their decision.

The three other judges wrote that the question in the case was not whether the girlfriend’s consent was “vitiated,” or invalidated, by fraud, but whether the girlfriend had consented to “how” the sex had taken place.


The court was also clear that merely deceiving a sexual a partner — for example, by lying about one’s marital status – would not be enough to warrant a sex assault conviction.

The justices writing for majority noted that their decision recognizes that not every deception “that induces consent” should be criminalized.

“To establish fraud, the dishonest act must result in a deprivation that is equally serious as the deprivation” in this and similar cases, they wrote.

Full decision here.  The ruling makes sense to me – in this case, while the woman consented to sex, she clearly had not consented to it being carried out in such a potentially harmful manner.  (She became pregnant, chose to terminate the pregnancy and then wound up with a uterine infection.)

The question is, if this were the other way around – if the female partner somehow tampered with the condom, in the hopes of surreptitiously getting pregnant – is there any reason why she wouldn’t be guilty of sexual assault?  What if she said she was unable to have children, or lied about being on birth control?  What if the male partner lied about being sterile?  It will be interesting to see how this case is applied.

How a floppy disk* brought down the BTK killer

Ken Landwehr, the Wichita detective who arrested Dennis Rader, has passed away at age 59.  Via The Atlantic, this ABA Journal article explains how the killer was caught:

The beginning of the end for BTK came in January 2005, when he sent a postcard to a Wichita TV station describing a package he claimed to have left by the side of the road. In the message, BTK also asked about the status of another package he said he had left at a Home Depot store a few weeks earlier.

The roadside package turned out to be a cereal box containing a document. It described in gruesome detail his first crime–the 1974 murders of a couple and two of their five children. The box also held some jewelry and a doll with a rope around its neck; the doll was tied to a curved PVC pipe, apparently representing one of the victims, an 11-year-old girl.

But it was BTK’s reference to a package at the Home Depot that gave police their first big break in the case.

An initial search of the premises turned up nothing from BTK. But a store employee told police that his girlfriend had found a cereal box with writing on it in the bed of his pickup truck about two weeks earlier. The employee, thinking it was a joke, threw the box away.

Police recovered the trash and found the box, which contained several documents, including the one asking police whether BTK could communicate with them via a floppy disk without being traced. If so, he asked police to place the newspaper ad saying “Rex, it will be OK.”

Police ran the ad. They also reviewed the store’s se­curity videotapes, which showed an unidentified man in what appeared to be a black Jeep Grand Cherokee pull­ing alongside the employee’s pickup truck and walking around the vehicle.

Two weeks later, a disk arrived in the mail at another TV station, along with a gold chain, a photocopied cover of a novel about a killer who bound and gagged his victims, and several 3-by-5 index cards, one of which gave instructions for communicating with BTK through the newspaper.

The disk contained one valid file bearing the message “this is a test” and directing police to read one of the accompanying index cards with instructions for further communications. In the “properties” section of the document, however, police found that the file had last been saved by someone named Dennis. They also found that the disk had been used at the Christ Lutheran Church and the Park City library.

Landwehr says Rader had taken pains to delete any identifying information from the disk. But he made the fatal mistake of taking the disk to his church to print out the file because the printer for his home computer wasn’t working.

“It’s pretty basic stuff,” Landwehr says about the reconstruction of the deleted information. “Anybody who knows anything about computers could figure it out.”

A simple Internet search turned up a Web site for the church, which identified Dennis Rader as president of the congregation. Police quickly determined that Rader was a code compliance officer in Park City, located his address, drove past his house and saw a black Jeep Grand Cherokee registered to his son, Brian, in the driveway.

From there, prosecutors subpoenaed a tissue sample from a Pap smear done on Rader’s daughter, Kerri, at a student clinic near Kansas State University in Manhattan, which she had attended five years earlier. DNA tests on that sample showed that Kerri Rader was the daughter of BTK.

Any lingering doubts were erased after Rader’s arrest, when he proudly described, in a bone chilling, matter of fact way, the torture and murder of 10 people, including the 11-year-old girl and 9-year-old boy. His recorded confession, which lasted more than 30 hours, filled 17 DVDs.

*This is what we used to save our computer documents back in the old days, before thumb drives and Dropbox.  Ask your parents about it.



Book review: “Rise of the Warrior Cop” by Radley Balko

[originally posted at Canadian Lawyer]

The next thing [Cheye] Calvo remembers is the sound of his mother-in- law screaming. He ran to the window and saw heavily armed men clad in black rushing his front door. Next came the explosion. He’d later learn that this was when the police blew open his front door. Then there was gunfire. Then boots stomping the floor. Then more gunfire. Calvo, still in his boxers, screamed, “I’m upstairs, please don’t shoot!” He was instructed to walk downstairs with his hands in the air, the muzzles of two guns pointed directly at him. He still didn’t know it was the police. He described what happened next at a Cato Institute forum six weeks later. “At the bottom of the stairs, they bound my hands, pulled me across the living room, and forced me to kneel on the floor in front of my broken door. I thought it was a home invasion. I was fearful that I was about to be executed.” I later asked Calvo what might have happened if he’d had a gun in his home for self-defense. His answer: “I’d be dead.” In another interview, he would add, “The worst thing I could have done was defend my home.”

Calvo’s mother-in-law was face-down on the kitchen floor, the tomato-artichoke sauce she was preparing still sitting on the stove. Her first scream came when one of the SWAT officers pointed his gun at her from the other side of the window. The police department would later argue that her scream gave them the authority to enter the home without knocking, announcing themselves, and waiting for someone to let them in.

Rather than obeying the SWAT team demands to “get down” as they rushed in, Georgia Porter simply froze with fear. They pried the spoon from her hand, put a gun to her head, and shoved her to the floor. They asked, “Where are they? Where are they?” She had no idea what they were talking about. She told them to look in the basement. She would later tell the Washington Post, “If somebody puts a gun to your head and asks you a question, you better come up with an answer. Then I shut my eyes. Oh, God, I thought they were going to shoot me next.”

Calvo’s dogs Payton and Chase were dead by the time Calvo was escorted to the kitchen. Payton had been shot in the face almost as soon as the police entered the home. One bullet went all the way through him and lodged in a radiator, missing Porter by only a couple of feet. Chase ran. The cops shot him once, from the back, then chased him into the living room and shot him again.

Even after they realized they had just mistakenly raided the mayor’s house, the officers didn’t apologize to Calvo or Porter. Instead, they told Calvo that they were both “parties of interest” and that they should consider themselves lucky they weren’t arrested. Calvo in particular, they said, was still under suspicion because when armed men blew open his door, killed his dogs, and pointed their guns at him and his-mother-in-law, he hadn’t responded “in a typical manner.”

Such stories are far too common, unfortunately, and no one does a better job keeping track of them than libertarian journalist Radley Balko.  Writing for the Huffington Post after several years at Reason, Balko has chronicled dozens of nightmarish stories about prosecutorial abuse and dangerous – and often deadly – overreaction by police forces.  And now he has written what might be the most important book of the year.

The American Bill of Rights contains a provision against the quartering of military personnel in civilian households – a reaction to the stationing of British soldiers in American cities, a grievance which led to the American revolution.  But you’d hardly know it today, when you see the equipment, gear and tactics used by SWAT teams even in medium-sized American communities.

Indeed, SWAT teams have become so ubiquitous it’s hard to believe they’re a relatively recent invention.  Following the Watts riots in 1965, soon-to-be Los Angeles police chief Darryl Gates created the country’s first Special Weapons and Tactics force, quickly using it high-profile confrontations against radical groups like the Black Panthers and Symbionese Liberation Army – with the media in tow.

Gates figures heavily in Balko’s narrative – he was ahead of his time in acquiring surplus armored personnel carriers (disingenuously marked “Rescue Vehicle”) for the LAPD.  But even he refrained from many of the tactics commonly used today.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court of the United States (under Chief Justice Earl Warren) was issuing consistently liberal decisions – most notably Miranda – which extended the rights of the accused.  With crime becoming a more important issue for voters during that turbulent era, the Nixon Administration seized an opportunity to crack down against perhaps the most easily demonized class then and now – illicit drug users.  The age of paramilitary-style assaults in the service of civilian law enforcement had begun.

The “War on Drugs” escalated in the eighties, and police tactics became increasingly aggressive – not just against gangs and drug traffickers, but against people keeping small skins of marijuana for their own use.  On paper,  “no-knock” raids, in which police burst into a home without having to knock and announce their presence, were only allowed after strict scrutiny by a judge.  In practice, police requests for no-knock warrants were rubber-stamped by the courts.  SWAT teams, meanwhile, began showing up in smaller cities, then the suburbs, and even rural areas.

Crime in America has dramatically declined since the early 1990s, but police tactics have only gotten more aggressive, aided by a series of court decisons that have neutered the Fourth Amendment (which is supposed to guard against unreasonable search and seizure).  Some would argue a clear cause and effect, but Balko convincingly argues that the fall in violent crime has occurred despite the militarization of police, not because of it.

Indeed, aggressive police raids – where doors are kicked in, machine guns are held to civilians’ heads and houses are completely ransacked – create a backlash against the police and against the legal system in general – especially when these tactics are used against “crimes” as mundane as raiding poker games, checking high school students’ lockers for drugs, and even cracking down on unlicensed hairdressers.

Balko notes that a backlash against police militarization has been building in recent years, a promising development undermined by the fact that American politicians tend to be outraged by this kind of thing when the other party controls the White House.  His main proposal for reform is ending the costly, unworkable and devastating “War on Drugs”, but he acknowledges that this is extremely unlikely – though with a few states voting to legalize the weed entirely, who knows?

In the alternative, Balko suggests more community policing, having SWAT team members wear video cameras, and curtailing the practice of civil asset forfeiture (in which property is seized from people accused of drug-related offences, and which in practice has become a serious revenue stream for federal, state and municipal governments.)

But this is just an American phenomenon, right?  To a much greater extent than in Canada, yes.  But ask the family of Sammy Yatim how quickly our own police officers reach for their weapons.

Quackery “They” don’t want you to know about

You mean the guy who hawks “natural cures” on late-night infomercials is a lying sociopath?  I’m as shocked as you are.

A federal judge has sided with the Federal Trade Commission in granting a court-appointed receiver broad authority to marshal assets and take over businesses the judge ruled were controlled by controversial TV pitchman Kevin Trudeau, who last month was found in contempt for failing to pay a $37.6 million sanction against him for deceptive marketing.


The contempt finding was the third of Trudeau’s checkered career, which is also dotted with $2.5 million in prior settlements with the FTC over allegedly misleading claims for a host of products he pitched in infomercials. The 50-year-old Massachusetts native’s record also includes two felony fraud convictions from the early 1990’s, for which he spent nearly two years in federal prison.


Among the companies covered by the judge’s ruling is a multi-layered marketing foundation called the Global Information Network, known by the acronym GIN. It is billed as private wealth, health and success building club – boasting of thousands of members in more than 150 countries.

The club was conceived, Trudeau claims, by a secret council of 30 people – including anonymous billionaires, royals, high-level members of secret societies – and Kevin Trudeau. In internet videos, Trudeau pitched GIN as a way for members, who pay $1,000 to join and $150 a month in dues, to acquire secret information heretofore available to only the elite.

The club’s U.S. subsidiary, GIN USA, reported more than $60 million in gross revenue over the past three years, virtually all of which came from payments, purchases and upgrade fees from the club’s own members. It is not clear how much, if any, of that money remains. The receiver will now have to determine if GIN and its affiliated entities should be allowed to continuing to operate or should be shut down and have their assets liquidated.

Trudeau, who declined to answer questions about the latest contempt finding or the appointment of the receiver, has been ordered to surrender his U.S. and Italian passports. He will have to get by on whatever amount of money the receiver determines is sufficient for him to have ordinary and necessary living expenses. For the time being, he will be permitted to continue living in an expansive rental home in suburban Chicago.