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West Des Moines Iowa Criminal Defense Law Blog

Supreme Court: States may determine their own insanity defenses

Traditionally, the insanity defense has been available in two situations:

  • Due to a mental illness or defect, the defendant could not keep his actions within the dictates of the law.
  • Due to a mental illness or defect, the defendant could not appreciate the wrongfulness of his actions.

Can the police test shed skin cells for DNA evidence?

Human beings leave behind DNA wherever we go. We shed skin. We sneeze out DNA-containing droplets. We shed hairs. We can't avoid it.

Now, DNA testing has reached the point where the police could start testing this unavoidably-shed DNA and using it in criminal cases. With ancestry DNA, we don't even have to be the person the police are interested in; any reasonably close relative will do. Some DNA testing allows the identification of a person based on a close relative's DNA sequence.

Increased OWI enforcement for St. Patrick's Day begins now

You may need more than the luck of the Irish to get home safely on St. Patrick's Day. It's one of the biggest nights of the year for drinking, and that means there will be a lot of impaired drivers on the roadways Tuesday -- and also this weekend.

That's why there will be increased OWI enforcement this throughout the state this weekend. That likely means increased staffing, saturation patrols and OWI checkpoints in many areas.

Law enforcement increasingly using 'reverse search warrants'

Traditionally, search warrants only went one direction. A crime was committed or suspected, and the police would investigate. Witnesses would be contacted. A theory would be developed. When the police had probable cause to search for evidence, they got a search warrant and searched.

Since smart phones began tracking people's locations, however, police have been engaging in an interesting new tactic. Instead of searching for witnesses of a crime, they head straight over to a tech firm that has tracking data. Typically using a court order, they demand that the company pull up a list of all the phones that were in the area at a specific time and date. Then, they cull through those phones to find a suspect.

Study: The FBI's blue jean wear mark analysis is not reliable

Over the last year, the nonprofit investigative newsroom ProPublica has published a series of articles that called into question whether some forensic techniques produce reliable results. One of the techniques questioned is the matching of wear marks along the seams of blue jeans. Now, a leading forensic image analyst and a postdoctoral researcher have published a study finding that the technique produces limited evidence at best.

Along the vertical seams of any pair of blue jeans, wear marks gradually develop. The FBI has been using these light and dark patches as essentially a barcode that they have asserted is unique to every pair. The FBI uses this "wear mark barcode" to match pairs of jeans shown in surveillance photos or videos to those owned by suspects.

Study: Many junk psychology tests are being admitted as evidence

In 2009, the National Research Council issued a report on forensic analysis in court. It found that few forensic investigative techniques are supported by sufficient science.

The Federal Rules of Evidence require judges to admit evidence from expert witnesses, like forensic analysts, only when their testimony is "based on sufficient facts or data" and "the product of reliable principles and methods." State rules of evidence have different standards. For example, the Iowa Rules of Evidence allow experts to testify whenever their "scientific, technical or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue."

Do bail risk assessment tools reduce unnecessary pretrial holds?

Many people agree that our criminal justice system relies too much on pretrial detention -- keeping people in jail because they are assigned bail they can't afford. Ideally, we could tell who is a flight risk and who is a danger to the community in some logical way and release those who are not.

Detaining people before trial goes against the legal assumption that people are innocent until proven guilty. There is also good reason to believe that bail is commonly assigned arbitrarily or in a racially biased way.

Arrests, jail more common in rural and small/midsize counties

As we consider the causes of mass incarceration in the United States, we start with the knowledge that crime has been dropping since the mid-1990s. That should mean that arrest rates are also dropping, but that isn't always the case.

Furthermore, 25 years ago, the police jailed about 70 of every 100 people they arrested, on average nationwide. In 2016, the latest year for which data is available, police were jailing 99 out of every 100 people arrested.

Federal First Step Act has brought over 2,400 reduced sentences

The federal First Step Act was passed in late 2018 in an effort to reverse course on some overly harsh sentences that had been passed down over the last several decades. It also allowed for the early release of terminally ill people and passed a variety of reforms to the federal prison system.

For example, people convicted of crack cocaine offenses have historically been sentenced to as much as 100 times the sentences handed down to people convicted of a similar amount of powder cocaine. This is problematic, in part, because white people have tended to use powder cocaine, while minorities have tended to use crack cocaine.

Marijuana still the drug involved in 40% of all US drug arrests

According to data collected by the FBI, law enforcement officers in the U.S. arrested approximately 663,000 people for marijuana-related offenses in 2018, the latest year for which data is available. It's still the most commonly charged drug in the U.S., despite the fact that 33 states have at least partially legalized it.

Marijuana accounted for 40% of all drug arrests for possession, sale and manufacturing/cultivation in 2018. That includes all 50 states and Washington, D.C.

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