Wanna Get Out of Jury Duty Forever?

Watch this simple video! Then be ashamed. It’s your duty to serve on juries!

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Know Your Rights

There’s these pointless immigration checkpoints out there that serve no real purpose. The agents stop people and ask them if they’re American citizens. Apparently the idea that someone from another country might just lie is something that no one considered. All these stops really do is harass and annoy American citizens going about their daily lives. I saw them in action myself once, and was appalled.

It’s important to know your rights in these situations. When they ask if you’re a citizen, you don’t have to answer. They don’t have any probable cause to detain you, so you’re free to go (though it doesn’t hurt to confirm that). Certainly don’t let them look in your car or trunk, no matter how nicely they ask. You might think you have nothing to hide, but if you’ve ever had someone in your backseat, you have no way of knowing if, say, a joint fell out of their pocket.

These checkpoints serve no real purpose and need to go away. Check this video for further information, and remember: always be polite.

Bail Fail

George Zimmerman, the shooter in the Trayvon Martin case, has been granted bail at the price of one million dollars. The amount is very large for someone facing a non-capital, non-life sentence crime that they’re likely to be acquitted on. It was much lower, but Zimmerman was stupid enough to lie about his income and assets, so, yeah.

Bail is a very important part of our judicial system, and it’s one that in our zeal to punish people no matter what, we tend to not treat with the respect it deserves. Being released on bail allows people, who are, you must always remember, legally innocent until convicted, to get on with their lives, continue to earn a living and basically carry on while awaiting trial. It’s something that is so important, it’s part of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

Bail as a system works great if you’ve got money. You can pay and be out the door within an hour or two. But if you’re poor, it amounts to you being held in jail, maybe for a year or more, while awaiting trial. During this time you are treated like a criminal despite the fact that you’ve not been convicted of anything. If you’re actually innocent, I can only imagine how hellish this must be. Also during this time, you’re a drain on the state’s assets, rather than someone who is out earning your way, paying taxes, maybe taking care of your family, etc.

Our system of bail needs to be reformed. It’s inexcusable to hold someone for months or years at a time simply because they’re too poor to afford bail. Here’s how I would fix things.

1. Eliminate any bail requirements for any non-violent offenses. For these, personal recognize is enough. If someone fails to appear in court or whatever, sure, round them up and jail them; they had their chance. But otherwise, let them be out there taking care of their lives. In the most extreme non-violent cases, mandate some sort of check-in system and require monitoring.

2. Restructure the bail system so that no one is charged more than they can afford. Yes, even if they are charged with a violent crime. The way you do this is by charging enough to make them feel it. Don’t charge a flat rate. Charge someone, say, 10 – 25% of their previous years’ income and/or their assets. This assures that the rich will feel the sting just like the poor, even if it isn’t as severe.

3. If, for whatever reason, someone being held prior to trial is unable to be bailed out, then stop treating them like criminals, since under the legal system, they aren’t. Hold them in their own part of the jail. Give them access to as much entertainment as you can. Give them access to quality food. Give them plenty of visitor time. Remember that under the law, they aren’t guilty.

I know that most of these reforms are unlikely, but I remain hopeful that at some point, someone might implement them.

Some Thoughts on Copyright Law

Yes, it’s one of those articles again. The sort where I get a bug up my ass about something or other and then blog about it for a few hundred words. In this case, I’ll be blogging about copyright law. Did you know that this very article is protected by copyright? It’s true. And due to the way the laws are written, the copyright on it won’t expire in 2040, like it should, but instead won’t expire until 2107. Take that, would-be copiers!

See, back in the day, the copyright laws in this country granted people copyrights on their work for 28 years. That’s not horrible, but people thought it was a bit short, and it was, so it got extended. Over time it’s been extended to the point it is at now, where anything produced under copyright law isn’t in the public domain until 95 years after it’s made.

This is not a good thing. As the video on this post indicates, companies like Disney, who have based much of their success on works in the public domain (Snow White, Cinderella, Tarzan, Sleeping Beauty, Pinocchio, The Little Mermaid, etc), would not be what they are today without copyrights expiring. The fact that they were one of the ones who pushed so hard to have the most recent extension in 1998 is very ironic, and was done mainly because they didn’t want Mickey Mouse to hit public domain.

I foresee a time before 2020 where an effort is made to extend the copyright laws further. At a guess, it will be at least to a nice, round, 100 year mark. If they get really ambitious, I imagine it will be extended out to something like 125 years. Whatever mark it is set at, you can bet there’s going to be serious effort at extending that range when it’s about to start expiring.

Currently under United States law, anything written, painted, filmed, etc, before 1923 is in the public domain. For those of you playing at home, that was 89 years ago, long before most of the world’s population was currently alive. The people behind creating pretty much any work prior to about 1940 are almost all dead. At this point it’s only the descendents of the authors, artists and composers, as well as the corporations that own the movies, who are making money off them. The original creators are long since gone.

Now I’m not one of those “information wants to be free!” people. I believe strongly in copyright law. Hell, since I do a lot of writing and hold ambitions to make money off it some day, you better believe I support copyrights. But that said, the current system is broken and very much needs to be fixed.

Here’s how I would fix copyright law. First off, I think we can all agree that works created by someone should remain under their ownership at least for the remainder of their life. I think that’s quite fair. It means that J K Rowling will be able to keep making money off Harry Potter until the day she dies. That seems reasonable to me.

I would then extend the copyright out by twenty years after the creator’s death. This means that the family of Kurt Vonnegut, who died in 2007, would be able to keep making money from his works until 2027. That also seems reasonable to me.

Now in most cases, it’s easy to say who the “creator”, and therefore the copyright owner, is. But not always. In the case of books, I would consider the author the creator. Music, the composer. Paintings, sculptures and the like are all owned by the person who made them. For comic books, I’d say the person who created the character (Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, etc), counts as the “creator” for purposes of copyright on that character only. Individual works would be copyrighted by the authors. So that’s easy enough, but then we get into two odd places: TV and movies.

Clearly one solution to copyrights for movies and TV shows is to say that they are under copyright until the last person involved in making them is dead. Do that, and I can promise you a sudden increase in infants joining SAG. So that’s clearly a stupid idea. Here’s a better one: in the case of movies, the director, and only the director, counts as “creator” for copyright purposes. This means Star Wars would remain under copyright until twenty years after the death of George Lucas, though it also means that The Empire Strikes Back would enter the public domain twenty years after the death of Irvin Kershner, who died in 2010. So, yes, different movies in the same series would enter the public domain at different times, but seldom do you have very long series of movies directed by many different people, so it’s not likely to be a major issue.

It is, however, a major issue with TV shows. If you take something like Star Trek, which had 79 episodes, and base your copyright law on the death of the director of each episode, you soon wind up with a mess. You could have half a season in public domain, and half out. It could get very messy, very fast.

So in the case of TV shows, I think the rule should be fifty years after they were first aired. By that time, everyone involved in making them will have had plenty of time to make money from them, as will the studio that made them. If they haven’t managed it by fifty years, they likely won’t manage it no matter how long you extend the copyright. So fifty years seems fair to me.

So that is what I would do. Life of the creator plus twenty years on books, movies, artwork and music. Fifty years from the first airing for TV shows. For the curious, that would mean that the following items that are not in the public domain right now, would be now or would be within a couple years.

Gone with the Wind, both the book and the movie
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The movie, not the book, which has been in the public domain for ages
Most, if not all, of the classic Universal Horror movies, like Frankenstein and Dracula
All of the Ian Flemming James Bond books
The movie versions of Dr. No, From Russia with Love, and Thunderball would all go into the public domain in 2014
The films of Alfred Hitchcock (including Psycho), F W Murnau, Fritz Lang, Orson Welles (including Citizen Kane), John Ford and David Lean
The first season of Doctor Who would go into the public domain in 2013
All of the Middle Earth books by J R R Tolkein. Ones written with, or by, his son remain under copyright, as would the movies
All of the Chronicles of Narnia, but not the movies
Every Charles Chaplin film
All the films of Michael Curtiz, including Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood and Casablanca
Season one of Star Trek in 2016
The characters of Superman (in 2016), and Wonder Woman, with Batman joining them in 2018

Imagine all that creative people could do with their own movies based on these works. Then explain to me why we’re better off with the current copyright structure that does nothing but benefit large corporations who have had enough time to make money off their works.

Alone Among the “Civilized”

In 2011, 20 countries carried out state-mandated murders against helpless people, something more euphemistically called “capital punishment”. And if you don’t categorize convicted criminals as “helpless”, ask yourself how helpless you’d be locked in a small cell with several large, armed men coming to put you in chains and haul you off to die.

Those countries are:

South Sudan
Saudi Arabia
North Korea

And in case you didn’t see this one coming…

The United States of America

Notice the company we keep on this list. States like North Korea, Iran and Syria, who are known sponsors of state sanctioned terrorism. Dictatorships like Belarus. Countries who were so rotten that we invaded them, like Afghanistan and Iraq. Notice also the countries that aren’t on that list. Mexico, Russia, Libya. And then there’s us. The land of the free, the home of the brave, etc. A nation not built on the concept of revenge, but one that’s fully embraced it.

Don’t pretend the death penalty is anything other than revenge and murder. It’s clearly not self-defense, since we’re quite capable of putting people in prison and keeping them from escaping. Don’t pretend it’s a deterrent, because we know it isn’t. Don’t pretend it’s anything other than revenge and murder. Revenge against someone for doing something we don’t like, and murder because they’re helpless and a threat to no one at the time they are killed (and if you do think they’re a threat, again, ask yourself how much of a threat you could be locked in a 6′ by 8′ cell with large armed guards available 24/7).

We continue with this bizarre, appalling, barbaric practice despite the fact that we like to claim we’re the best, most civilized country in the world. Many people also like to claim we’re uniquely virtuous and Christian. I guess if you think that your god was killed by capital punishment, than perhaps it isn’t too bad, but remember that as far as I know, Jesus never called for people to be murdered by the state.

We can and should be doing better. I don’t want us on the same list with these other countries.

On Al-Awalaki

The American government has hunted down and killed an American citizen. This was done without charges filled or trial held. It was a deliberate, intentional targeting and, very arguably, outside the realm of law.

The person killed was Anwar Al-Awalaki, an American citizen who was working for al-Qaeda and hiding in Yemen. He was, no doubt, a very unpleasant person who, because he was born in America and lived here for the first seven years of his life, then came back to go to college, was able to get his evil message out in a language that was easier to understand for American audiences. In this way he was rather like Tokyo Rose.

Al-Awalaki was, as I said, someone who pushed an evil message, and the world is better for that message being stopped. But I cannot escape the fact that in this case the American government hunted down and murdered a US citizen against whom no charges were filed.

According to what I’ve read, he was killed when missiles were fired into a vehicle he was in. I must ask, if we knew where he was and were able to target him, shouldn’t we have been able to drop in some troops to take him into custody? Yes, it might have been a bit risky, and he might have gotten away, but anytime police go in to arrest suspects it’s a bit risky and the suspect might escape. That doesn’t mean that the cops get to shoot said suspect as soon as they are spotted.

I’m not displeased that Al-Awalaki is dead. The world is better without him being in it. But there are ways to do these things, and if we’re going to be a country of laws, and if we’re going to have the moral high ground, we need to find ways other than killing American citizens without charges or trial.

Mandatory Lawyers

“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or do can and will be held against you in a court of law. You have the right to speak to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.”

That is, as I’m sure most of you know, the standard text of the so-called Miranda warning. It’s generally read to suspects prior to interrogation by the police. It’s a good, sound warning, and a lot of people ignore it, though if you’re ever in a situation where a cop reads you that warning, you need to take it to heart.

There’s a problem with the American criminal system. Well, there’s lots of problems, but the one I’m going to address now is false convictions. We don’t know how many there are, but I’m willing to bet the number is better than 1%, though likely not as high as 5%. Any wrongful conviction is, of course, a major problem. It’s not just a problem for the person being convicted, but it’s also a problem for the system as a whole, because it means the person who actually did the crime is not being punished and is free to reoffend.

I’ve been thinking about a way to minimize these wrongful convictions and I think I have come up with a good one. It basically boils down this: in any circumstances where a suspect would normally be read their Miranda warning, they should instead be automatically assigned a lawyer who must be present during police questioning. It’s the same right you have under Miranda, only in this case it would be an automatic fact. You could choose to waive your right, but before you do the lawyer you are assigned would have to explain to you the possible consequences.

Now you might think this would lead to career criminals getting off scot-free on everything they’ve done. All they’ll have to do is lawyer up and that will be that. Well, not exactly. First off, most career criminals know in advance to ask for a lawyer as soon as they’re questioned. They do so, and that’s the end of that conversation. The police have to build a case based on evidence without the help of a confession.

Innocent people, on the other hand, when questioned by the police, “know” they don’t need a lawyer. After all, they haven’t done anything wrong, so why should they need one? The police will frequently skirt the boundaries of the laws when they find out someone is reluctant to have a lawyer and will do everything they can to encourage them not to have one. This means when they get questioned, they don’t have anyone in their corner. A lengthy questioning session could take hours and by the end the officer in charge could imply heavily that if they just sign a confession, everything will be ok and they can go home. Otherwise, they’re told solemnly, they can be held without charges for three days. The cops don’t do this because they’re bad people or because they’re looking to put innocent people away. They do it for a number of reasons, but usually it boils down to them believing they have the right person and knowing that the best way to get that person convicted, especially if they’re short on physical evidence (and often all they might have is eyewitness testimony, which is incredibly unreliable), is a confession. And those confessions, once given, are very hard to keep out of a trial.

Put yourself in the position of someone who is innocent, but being interrogated by the police. You didn’t request a lawyer, the officers seemed to think you didn’t really need one, and you’ve been having this conversation with them. The police tell you that they know you didn’t do anything wrong, but they’re trying to clear up some inconsistencies in their case, and they’re glad you’re there to help. But the questioning goes on and on, and they start hinting that they think you’re holding out on them. They’ll talk to you about what can happen to people who hold out on the police (very little, btw. Fifth Amendment and all that), and how they’d hate to see you get into any trouble. Now it’s been hours, and you’re in this small room, and you see people getting led off to cells, and it’s very late at night, and your children/spouse/parents are worried about you, and all you want to do is go home. If you had a lawyer, you’d know that you could leave at any point, but you don’t have one, and then the cops offer you an out in the form of a document. Just sign it, you’re told. It’s just a formality, and you can leave right after. They don’t expect anything to come of it, and of course they’ll look for the person who really did the crime, but you’d help them so much and then you can leave and get back to your real life and all you need to do is sign and you find yourself reaching for the pen…

And then it’s done. You’ve signed. The cops thank you. They apologize for having taken up so much of your time. Maybe they even offer to drive you back home, and give you something to eat and drink. The tension is gone, everyone is cheerful, and it sounds like everything will be ok. They thank you for your troubles and you go home, thinking all is well.

At least until the summons arrives.

Don’t think it can happen to you? Think you’re too smart? You’re not. It can. If lawyers were mandatory during police questioning, we’d cut back on instances like this, which I am sure happen far more often than we’d all like. Yes, there would be a few problems and bugs to iron out, but overall I think this is the best way of keeping the innocent out of prison and making sure the guilty still get punished.

Make lawyers mandatory. Do it to shield the innocent, and to save everyone a lot of time, money and trouble. Do it to make sure the right people get convicted. Do it for justice.