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  Court Watch - Legal News


The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday that the Constitution's ban on excessive fines applies to the states, an outcome that could help efforts to rein in police seizure of property from criminal suspects.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the court's opinion in favor of Tyson Timbs, of Marion, Indiana. Police seized Timbs' $40,000 Land Rover when they arrested him for selling about $400 worth of heroin.

Reading a summary of her opinion in the courtroom, Ginsburg noted that governments employ fines "out of accord with the penal goals of retribution and deterrence" because fines are a source of revenue. The 85-year-old justice missed arguments last month following lung cancer surgery, but returned to the bench on Tuesday.

Timbs pleaded guilty, but faced no prison time. The biggest loss was the Land Rover he bought with some of the life insurance money he received after his father died.

Timbs still has to win one more round in court before he gets his vehicle back, but that seems to be a formality. A judge ruled that taking the car was disproportionate to the severity of the crime, which carries a maximum fine of $10,000. But Indiana's top court said the justices had never ruled that the Eighth Amendment's ban on excessive fines — like much of the rest of the Bill of Rights — applies to states as well as the federal government.

The case drew interest from liberal groups concerned about police abuses and conservative organizations opposed to excessive regulation. Timbs was represented by the libertarian public interest law firm Institute for Justice.

"The decision is an important first step for curtailing the potential for abuse that we see in civil forfeiture nationwide," said Sam Gedge, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice.

Law enforcement authorities have dramatically increased their use of civil forfeiture in recent decades. When law enforcement seizes the property of people accused of crimes, the proceeds from its sale often go directly to the agency that took it, the law firm said in written arguments in support of Timbs.


Attorney Michael Avenatti has agreed to give up financial control of his former firm's accounts after another lawyer accused him of hiding millions of dollars from a federal bankruptcy court.

Avenatti, the lawyer for porn actress Stormy Daniels, agreed to have a receiver appointed to take possession of the bank accounts, case files and other assets of his former firm, the Los Angeles Times reported Thursday.

The deal came after Avenatti's former law partner Jason Frank made the request Tuesday to block the firm Eagan Avenatti from draining its assets.

Frank, who has been seeking to collect on a $10 million judgment against the firm, alleged that Avenatti moved money around when the firm was under federal bankruptcy protection to hide millions from its creditors.

"This includes brazen acts of bankruptcy fraud," Scott H. Sims, Frank's lawyer, wrote in court papers.

Avenatti is best known for representing Daniels in her lawsuit against President Donald Trump over an alleged affair that he denies.

Avenatti has denied any wrongdoing in the bankruptcy and said there was no fraud.

"Every dollar has been properly accounted for and reported as required and as previously set forth in numerous accountings," Avenatti said. "This is much to-do about nothing."

Frank on Wednesday agreed to withdraw court papers alleging bankruptcy fraud and Avenatti and his firm accepted the receivership.

In court filings, Frank had alleged that Avenatti opened six bank accounts during the bankruptcy proceedings that were not included in required monthly reports on the firm's income and spending.


The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine started making its case in federal court on Monday against the ban on medication-assisted treatment in county jail amid the opioid crisis.

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills recently lifted the Maine Department of Corrections' ban on medication-assisted treatment. The ACLU's lawsuit filed in September argued that it's unconstitutional and harmful for Maine jails to prohibit such treatment.

Madawaska resident Brenda Smith sued, asking to continue using medication-assisted treatment to keep her opioid use disorder in remission. Smith, who is expected to report to Aroostook County Jail this year, testified Monday in U.S. District Court in Portland during a court case that is expected to last all week.

Smith wept on the stand while describing how access to the medicine is critical to stabilizing her life. ACLU lawyers said they will spend the week making the case that such access is a constitutional issue, as well as a protected right under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

"It makes me feel normal, like I'm a normal human being," Smith said.

Smith's lawsuit against the jail comes at a time when jails and prisons across the country are starting to provide addiction medications to inmates, as resistance from long-skeptical corrections officials appears to be loosening amid the national drug epidemic.

Attorneys for the jail have pushed back at the idea that a ban on medically assisted treatment is a violation of a prisoner's rights. Attorney Peter Marchesi, an attorney representing the jail Monday, has previously said medical staff members at the jail have the ability to manage prisoners' withdrawal symptoms.

Monday's court action also included an expert witness, Dr. Ross MacDonald, who has overseen medical care for New York City's jail system. The medical literature supports medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder, and it's important to have that option available to prisoners, he said.


Conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Brian Hagedorn is defending blog posts he wrote more than a decade ago where he said a landmark gay rights court ruling could lead to legalized bestiality and labeled Planned Parenthood a “wicked organization.”

Hagedorn spoke Monday about the blogs to conservative talk radio host John Muir on WTAQ-AM. He wrote the blogs while in law school in 2005 and 2006.

He is an evangelical Christian and says he can separate his personal opinion from the law. Hagedorn faces liberal-backed Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Lisa Neubauer in the April 2 election.

Neubauer is chief judge on the state appeals court where Hagedorn is also a judge.

Neubauer campaign manager Tyler Hendricks says Hagedorn would bring a “personal, extreme and radical agenda to the Supreme Court.”



The North Carolina Supreme Court is brushing aside a rapist's appeal that he shouldn't be forced into a lifetime of electronic monitoring after serving his 41-year prison sentence.

The state's highest court on Friday let stand without comment that 50-year-old Darren Gentle must submit to GPS monitoring after his release, projected for 2048. Gentile was convicted in Randolph County in 2016 of violently raping a 25-year-old pregnant woman with whom he'd been taking drugs.

The court is still considering a separate case on whether forcing sex offenders to be perpetually tracked by GPS-linked devices is justified or is unreasonable search and violates the Constitution. The pending decision in Torrey Grady's case comes after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandating GPS ankle monitors for ex-cons is a serious privacy concern.


U.S. immigration officials blame the government shutdown and the extreme winter weather for confusion about immigration court hearings.

In an emailed statement, the part of the Justice Department overseeing immigration courts said some immigrants with notices to appear Thursday wouldn't be able to proceed with those hearings.

The Executive Office for Immigration Review said the shutdown prevented immigration courts from issuing new hearing notices. Weather-related closures this week also slowed the agency's processing of cases.

The agency also said in some cases, courts didn't receive the required paperwork.

Separately, Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the overflow of hearings scheduled Thursday had been expected due to the shutdown.

Similar backlogs have occurred nationwide since a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling addressed how to provide notices to immigrants to appear in court.


A new Kentucky Supreme Court justice will be sworn in to office next week.

A statement from the Administrative Office of the Courts says Debra Hembree Lambert will be formally sworn in as a justice on Feb. 4 at the state Capitol in Frankfort. She was elected to the court in November and will serve the 3rd Supreme Court District, which includes 27 counties in southern and south-central Kentucky.

Before her election to the Supreme Court, Lambert served as an appellate judge for four years and before that was a circuit judge for Lincoln, Pulaski and Rockcastle counties.

Lambert succeeds retired Justice Daniel Venters.

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