Monthly Archives

September 2018

Plains Oil Spill in California

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Corporate crimes are becoming increasingly common as the public starts demanding more accountability for the harms perpetuated by companies. In California this week, after a four-month-long trial, a Santa Barbara County jury found a Texas company guilty of nine crimes for their role in the 2015 oil spill at Refugio Beach, the worst California oil spill in over two decades.

The spill ended up spreading oil across 4 miles of California coastline. Beaches were closed for months when 123,000 gallons of highly pressurized crude oil spilled onto beaches and into the sea when a 24-inch pipeline carrying oil offshore onto land ruptured. The jury found that the Houston-based oil company failed to properly maintain its pipeline. The jury also found the company guilty of eight misdemeanors, many of which dealt with the environmental damage the spill caused, such as killing mammals and harming protected seabirds.

Immediately after the oil spill, the company, Plains All-American Pipeline, paid for the clean-up efforts and apologized, but has consistently denied any wrongdoing. The clean-up cost around $335 million, not including lost revenues. The company released a statement emphasizing the fact that the jury did not find the company guilty of any  ‘knowing misconduct,’ and continues to claim that the pipeline operations met or exceeded legal industry standards. Plains now faces a criminal fine on top of the costs for clean-up, although the exact amount will not be determined until a final sentencing hearing, scheduled for mid-December.

Plains accused state prosecutors of attempting to criminalize an unfortunate accident. But during the investigation, prosecutors found that Plains made multiple preventable errors which exacerbated the effects of the spill, including failing to detect the rupture and responding too slowly. Workers were found to have turned off the alarm that would have signaled a leak and restarted the line after it had automatically shut down. Plains claims it is still considering legal options and might file an appeal based on the felony charge issued by the jury. Plains had previously been indicted on 46 counts, including four felony charges, and 42 misdemeanor charges. Throughout the course of the litigation, the judge dismissed multiple claims.

Its legal woes are not limited to the state, though. It still faces fines from the U.S. government, as well as a federal class-action lawsuit by individuals who owned beachfront properties, commercial fishermen, other members of the oil and gas industry, and oil workers who lost their jobs as a direct result of the spill. The city of Santa Barbara has filed its own separate lawsuit seeking $2.1 million in compensation against the company, claiming that millions were lost in tax revenue due to the slump in tourists. And while the pipeline in question has been permanently shut down, Plains has re-applied for a pipeline replacement in almost the same position. State and city workers claim they will oppose the application, stating that it gives the company the opportunity to spill again. Plains has an uphill battle: currently, 69 percent of Californians oppose any new offshore drilling projects.

If the jury’s verdict is upheld, it could face over $1.5 million in fines, on top of the millions it has spent in clean-up and litigation fees.

Crime and Celebrities

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Criminal defense and celebrities often intersect. Whether it is tax fraud or evasion, issues with drugs and alcohol, or often more grisly features, there is no shortage of drama in Hollywood. Lately, there have been several crimes or criminal updates dealing with notorious figures.

            First, Jean-Claude Van Damme’s son recently pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct after he held his roommate at knifepoint in Phoenix. He had previously been arrested for suspicion of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, unlawful imprisonment, marijuana possession and possession of drug paraphernalia. The prosecution apparently extended a plea deal for a lesser charge. Apparently, Van Damme’s son became upset with the roommate after he answered the door. So, he grabbed a knife, threatened the roommate and prevented him from leaving.

 Over in Connecticut, one of the creeps busted in the scandal where all the celebrities were hacked and their personal photos were published is asking for leniency at his upcoming sentencing hearing. He pleaded guilty back in April for one charge of unauthorized access to a protected computer to obtain information and was one of four hackers charged in the leaking incident. He and his co-defendants developed a phishing scheme to enable them to hack into over 250 iCloud accounts, including multiple celebrities, back in 2013 and 2014. His cohorts were sentenced between 9 and 18 months in prison over the last year.

 Another celebrity’s son has run into trouble – last week, Hall of Fame NFL Quarterback Dan Marino’s son was arrested in Florida for a DUI, with a blood alcohol content at almost three times the legal limit, according to police. He was apparently involved in erratic driving which caught the eye of an officer who pulled him over. He was found with glassy eyes, smelled like alcohol and his speech was slurred, according to reports. He has posted bond and has since entered a not guilty plea. Given that it’s his first offense, and no one was hurt, he likely won’t spend any time in jail if he is convicted or pleas.

 Earlier this summer, Heather Locklear was arrested on suspicion of fighting with first responders – again. She appeared to be extremely intoxicated when police came to her house to look into a dispute between Locklear and family or friends, according to the Ventura County  Sheriff’s department. Allegedly, Locklear kicked one of the deputies, and then kicked a paramedic who had been called to check on her. She was booked on two misdemeanor battery counts, and upon release, checked into a treatment facility, according to sources close to Locklear. She is currently on trial for similar conduct back in February. Her next appearance will be on August 30. 

 Finally, an old case has been making waves recently. John Lennon’s killer was up for parole – again (for the 10th time to be precise). Beatles fans held rallies and asked the state Parole Board to deny Mark David Chapman parole for the murder. Chapman, currently 63 years old, was charged with second-degree murder after he shot John Lennon at close range five times with hollow-point bullets. He eventually pleads guilty over his attorney’s objections and concerns over Chapman’s sanity. Both John Lennon’s fans and wife, Yoko Ono, have lodged objections with the Parole Board in the past, urging them to deny his parole. 

School-to-Prison Pipeline?

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You might have heard of the school-to-prison pipeline, where students of color or of low socioeconomic status are more likely to become incarcerated due to the disproportionately harsh discipline found in schools. In Riverside County, California, one program has come under fire as critics say that it exacerbates this problem.

Riverside County has established the Youth Accountability Team Program, (YAT program) run by the local probation department, to counsel ‘at risk’ youth and administer six-months of supervision, designed to prevent them from engaging in criminal activity. But the ACLU has filed a lawsuit alleging that the program fails to inform students and their parents that the program actually institutes punishment far beyond any basic school disciplinary program. The program has been accused of being used for things that are hardly considered disciplinary issues, much fewer crimes – things like earning bad grades or being late to class have been punished by the program. One student was referred to the program for missing class and being ‘easily persuaded by others.’ Other students have been referred for mere disrespect to teachers or their fellow students.

The suit also alleges that participants in the program are usually not given sufficient information before they sign a contract which allows a government entity to subject the student to monitoring, drug testing, and searches. The program has also been used against students of color, leading critics to argue that the program is instituted discriminately. Black students comprise about 16 percent of the student population in California but represented over one-third of the number of students who had been suspended or expelled, according to the Office for Civil Rights. Black girls are suspended at six times the rate of white girls, and twice that of white boys. The bias is already there, the ACLU argues. The YAT program just makes it worse.

Because of the scope of the YAT program, lawyers have claimed that it is a violation of students’ 4th Amendment rights because they frequently do not give a knowing, voluntary consent to things like searches. Law enforcement officials have admitted that the students ‘get into the system’ by having their fingerprints and photographs taken, and the former D.A. relished the idea, saying that all kinds of surveillance could be done without permission from a judge – including wire-tapping telephones.  All of these matters tend to compound the problems leading to the school to prison pipeline.

Advocates of the 17-year old program (currently instituted in 17 California counties) argue that it has had only positive impacts, and has successfully diverted students from the criminal justice system. But students who were actually involved with YAT report a different perspective, alleging that instead of mentorship, they are subjected to monitoring and interrogation, often during school hours, forcing them to miss class. The YAT program also maintains records of its students beyond the conclusion of the program. A student’s failure to complete the program successfully could be used against him or her in the future if they are found to have committed a crime later on.

Overall, the YAT program is arguably ineffective. It imposes far harsher punishments in a far more discriminatory fashion than regular school discipline. In fact, it often includes more strict requirements than juvenile probation. There are multiple approaches to combating the school-to-prison pipeline. Overall, the YAT program appears to be a bad one.