Above the law: HPD officers told to ignore subpoenas

A recent Houston Chronicle story outlines the deserved low public opinion of a new Houston Police Department court appearance policy. Specifically, HPD officers are instructed not to show up in court until 1pm on trial days, even if the subpoena says 8am or 10:30am.

Unlike the police officers, defendants (the citizens on trial) are not allowed to leave the courtroom except for bathroom breaks or to put money in the parking meters. (Or possibly for lunch at noon, though the story does not mention this in particular.) Of particular note is this part of the story (emphasis added):

[Mark] Adlam [a defendant awaiting his speeding ticket trial that day] said that under the previous policy, his lawyer would quickly know if the complaining officer was available to testify. If an officer did not show, Adlam said, prosecutors would have no choice but to dismiss the ticket.

[Gary Blankinship, t]he head of the Houston Police Officers Union said the new policy — which was distributed late Friday and took effect Monday — will lead to massive gridlock of the municipal court system, as well as exposing officers to possible arrest for ignoring a lawful subpoena.

Normally I do not so readily concur with someone representing law enforcement, But when the HPOU leader sees the potential for officers to be arrested for ignoring the subpoenas, it’s obvious the policy is on its face illegal, in addition to being bad for the public opinion of Houston’s government.

Specifically, that opinion is that the potentially five-hour-long wait now encourages more citizens to just plead guilty so they can go back to work. Note that if a defendant does not show for trial, they are subject to an immediate citation for failure to appear (class C misdemeanor). Not surprisingly, the cops can come and go as they wish.

To his credit, the HPOU president, Gary Blankinship, has told officers to do what the subpoena says and disregard an “illegal order” by the chief. I admire and respect that, but at the same time, I recognize that an unwillingness to back down to Mayor Annise Parker and Chief of Police Charles McClelland is bound to come with its own share of consequences. Indeed, doing the right thing is against one’s best interests so often it’s not funny.

In case anyone’s wondering, this kind of thing is why I did not vote for Annise Parker for mayor. I would like to think Gene Locke would have handled this better.

A black mark on La Marque

The Houston Chronicle recently reported on perhaps the biggest failure by a Houston area suburb to foster a better police-citizen relationship in recent memory. La Marque’s police chief, Randall Aragon, has instructed the city’s officers to use a “pro-arrest” policy when dealing with littering violations. From the article:

The new get-tough policy aims to cut violent crime in La Marque by eliminating the petty crimes, Police Chief Randall Aragon said.

“When you take care of the little things, the big things start falling in place,” Aragon said.

If there is a littering problem that needs to be addressed, that’s one thing. However, the story goes on to mention in the previous six months, only one littering ticket has been written. Count it: one. Also to note is that littering is a class C misdemeanor, meaning it is not eligible to be punished with a jail sentence (that being reserved for class B misdemeanors and higher).

Is it any wonder why the reputation of so many of Houston’s suburb city police departments is so low? La Marque is only the tip of the iceberg. Ask around what people think of the police departments of Jersey Village, Bellaire, West University, Tomball, Conroe, Katy, Pasadena, Baytown, and Humble. Just to name a few. Hopefully most of them, and Houston itself, will not so eagerly adopt policies like this one doomed to tarnish the reputation of La Marque’s police department for years, and make “La Marque’s finest” impossible to say with a straight face.

Taking a slice out of the DRM dragon

As recently reported in chron.com’s Techblog, the Librarian of Congress has approved a few important exceptions to the force of law afforded to digital restrictions management (DRM). This ruling has given the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) grounds to claim victory.

Most of these are long overdue. There were six items, I’m only going to touch on four of them.

The most-noted is that jailbreaking an iPhone, or for that matter, any similar mobile telephone or computing device, is not a DMCA violation now. There’s considerable doubt on whether it was a DMCA violation to begin with, but of course, it’s kind of moot now. This decision, while important, does not even come close to solving the issues with DRM on the iPhone. Apple can still refuse to honor the warranty for jailbroken iPhones and almost certainly will. Play Apple’s game, follow Apple’s rules, and bow to Apple’s whims. There’s still a very real risk that jailbreaking one’s iPhone will sooner or later “brick” it, and there are other laws which may apply to the DRM on an iPhone besides copyright. This ruling would appear at first glance to not necessarily apply to the iPad.

Another victory, which I consider the most important, is for cracking DVD copy protection (Content Scrambling System, or CSS, not to be confused with Cascading Style Sheets). The exceptions granted are for educational uses at colleges and universities, documentary filmmaking, and noncommercial videos. Curiously, the educational exception leaves out elementary and secondary schools. I doubt this was intentional, but either way, the big change is that tools such as DeCSS have substantial non-infringing uses now.

Yet another important victory in this ruling relates to ebooks which have disabled the read-aloud function via DRM. The fact this ruling had to be made to begin with shows just how far the draconian abuse of DRM can go. Maybe this will get the attention of Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and yes, even Apple.

Finally, it’s now legally permissible to get around old dongle-based restrictions when the dongle is damaged, obsolete, and no longer being made. I’m surprised any software companies would use such obnoxious and environmentally unfriendly license restriction enforcement techniques today. Yet I do remember seeing reference to USB dongles some years ago, so it’s quite likely they are still being deployed in 2010.

A little sidenode here: my first experience with dongle-based license restriction enforcement is rather humorous. I remember an old golf game called Leader Board for my Atari 1200XL which came with such a device. It took me about five minutes in BASIC to figure out what it did (it appeared as a joystick with both the up and down switches shorted). Having noted this, I was able to rig up a broken joystick to mimic the dongle long after I could no longer find it.

Taking the “artistic” out of “artistic nudity”

The LA Times Culture Monster blog recently posted an article on YouTube’s censorship of videos containing nudity. At issue here is a 1973 video called Dressing Up by Susan Mogul. The video shows Susan putting on underwear and clothing in a casual fashion and discussing each piece as she puts it on, sort of a strip tease turned around.

Tom Jancar, owner of the Jancar Gallery in LA, posted the video in 2009 and it had received “hundreds of hits” during the time it was up, and also notes Susan is “doing everything posible not to be sexy.”

While I understand Google (who now own YouTube) not wanting the site to become a haven for pornographic short films, there is a difference between obvious pornography and artistic nudity. I saw the clip of Dressing Up on Susan’s website and while Susan is definitely fully naked in the beginning of the clip, I would call this artistic nudity. (It’s still almost certainly NSFW though.) Hopefully, some other site can host this video since apparently it’s too hot for YouTube.

Seriously, how can Google allow this Australian news clip with a straight face at the same time they mercilessly take down Dressing Up?

Another look at photographer’s rights

Gizmodo recently ran a story (which in turn drew on and linked to a Popular Mechanics story) on what they termed “photography bullying” or the intimidation of photographers taking still pictures and/or video.

One of the more interesting parts of the story is a quote from Bruce Schneier, well-known security expert currently employed by British Telecom. From the Gizmodo article:

As Bruce Schneier, head of security technology for British Telecom points out, the notion that terrorist conspirators photograph their targets is an overblown one: “Look at the 9/11 attacks, the Moscow and London subway bombings, the Fort Hood shooting—no photos.” Rather, [Popular Mechanics writer Glenn Harlan] Reynolds argues, a camera in the hand of every pedestrian can only serve to foil potential plotters.

The latter story contains a chilling, yet almost comical, example of just how bad things are getting:

Not long ago, an Amtrak representative did an interview with local TV station Fox 5 in Washington, D.C.’s Union Station to explain that you don’t need a permit to take pictures there–only to be approached by a security guard who ordered them to stop filming without a permit.

The Popular Mechanics story also mentions the Anthony Graber case yet again. Anthony faces 16 years in prison for recording his own arrest under Maryland’s wiretapping laws. If upheld, this would essentially mean law enforcement has the right to privacy when arresting someone in a public place, and the right of the common citizen to document things like the Rodney King beatings no longer exists. To say the least, I find this frightening, and I believe you should too.

I find it ironic that an obvious video camera or DSLR merits harassment, yet those looking to do reconnaissance for a future crime or terrorist act would likely use an inconspicuous pocket sized point-and-shoot or even a cell phone camera. Usually, the odds are against being hassled by cops when using one of the latter two devices, as the assumption made in those cases is usually “tourist” as opposed to “terrorist.”

Anyway, I’ll close with reminders to the fellow photographers out there, paraphrased from the articles (this is primarily for the US, the rules might be different elsewhere):

  • If you’re on public property, it is the rule, not the exception, that photography is allowed.
  • If you are on (someone else’s) private property and you are hassled by security or police, politely ask on what legal basis they are ordering you to stop taking pictures, and be ready to either call a real police officer (for security) or ask to speak to a supervisor (for police).
  • You never have a legal duty to delete pictures or video already taken and should never do so on the order of security or police officers.