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July|August 2005
City of Blight By Geoffrey Gagnon
The Fourth Man By Margot Sanger-Katz
A Place to Crash By Aaron Dalton
A Man's Home Is His Castle By Elizabeth Austin
Cases & Controversies
The Prudent Jurist By William H. Simon

Cases & Controversies


The Sandwich Board Sentence

INTERNATIONAL BOULEVARD IN THE FRUITVALE NEIGHBORHOOD of Oakland, Calif., has two sorts of local businesses. Lining its streets are storefront retailers selling ethnic foods, jewelry, and clothes. Once the sun sets, however, another group of entrepreneurs peddles rather different wares. Streetwalkers abound on the boulevard, bringing customers and crime with them. Despite a number of sting operations, the police have been unable to stymie this vibrant sex trade. So, with the help of miffed retailers who have seen their property values plummet, the city rolled out a new anti-prostitution policy in February. Surveillance cameras have been mounted in strategic places, designed to spot prostitutes' customers. If convicted, "johns" could have their faces plastered on city billboards and bus stops as part of their punishment.

Oakland officials hope that a good public shaming will discourage Johns from seeking hookers in the city. It's a method of punishment that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, whose jurisdiction includes Oakland, has endorsed. The court upheld a punishment last summer for a man guilty of postal fraud, requiring him to wear a sandwich board that read: "I stole mail. This is my punishment." An appellate panel found that the measure was likely to be a strong deterrent and did not conflict with the Eighth Amendment's ban on "cruel and unusual punishment."

That decision is likely to make such practices even less unusual than they are now. In April, a federal court in Massachusetts declined to sentence a corrupt city employee to a stint in a sandwich board, but the judge remarked that he didn't rule out such methods. The prosecutor who sought the sentence admitted that he'd gotten the idea from the Ninth Circuit case.

The Robinson Identity

A MAN WITH A STRONG WEST INDIAN ACCENT presented himself to the New York City passport office in August 2002 as Charles Edward Robinson. His identity quickly became suspect, however, when Robinson couldn't say much about North Carolina, the state he claimed he was from, and couldn't name his siblings. Robinson was placed under arrest and tried last January for making false statements on a passport application.

Prosecutors suspected that he was an illegal alien, and another man testified in court that Robinson, renamed John Doe for the trial, was a Jamaican trying to obtain a United States passport so he could travel freely between the two countries. But Doe stuck to his story, refusing to reveal his identity or his country of origin. To anyone who asked, he was Charles Edward Robinson from North Carolina. The appearance in court of the real Charles Edward Robinson was not enough to put the defendant off this story.

Doe's single-mindedness, though bizarre, had a big benefit. Prosecutors could find no information on the man's true identity, and without proof that he was in America illegally, they had no grounds to initiate deportation proceedings. The judge suspected Doe was gaming the system and sentenced him to the maximum punishment available under the law—10 years in prison. The Second Circuit overturned that sentence, and a new judge will hear Doe's case. The ordinary sentence for passport fraud is imprisonment for less than a year, and since Doe has been locked up for nearly three years already, he is likely to be released with his secret identity intact.

Prenuptial Arraignment

DEBORA LYNN HOBBS WORKED FOR HER LOCAL JUSTICE SYSTEM. She spent several years as a dispatcher for the Pender County, N.C., sheriff's office and a year as a clerk of the county court. Though she didn't realize it, Hobbs was also an outlaw. She shared a house with her boyfriend, which, in North Carolina, placed her in violation of Statute No. 14-184. Passed in 1805, the law holds, "If any man and woman, not being married to each other, shall lewdly and lasciviously associate, bed and cohabit together, they shall be guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor." The law is still enforced on occasion, resulting in seven convictions since 1997. Cases are often pressed by spurned ex-spouses on their way to divorce court.

When the sheriff learned of Hobbs's lascivious association, he told her to move, get married, or leave her post. Hobbs opted to quit, and then filed suit against the sheriff and the state attorney general, contending that the law violated her constitutional rights.

Under the Supreme Court's 2003 ruling in Lawrence v. Texas, which expanded the right to sexual privacy in the home, it is likely that the North Carolina law is unconstitutional. But since Hobbs hasn't been prosecuted under the law, and doesn't want her job back at the sheriff's office, her suit may be thrown out on grounds that she lacks standing to sue. If Hobbs wants to get serious about legally living in sin, she may have to wait until she's arrested.

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