Citing racial bias, U.S. high court tosses black man’s murder conviction

Death row inmate Curtis Flowers. Courtesy Mississippi Department of Corrections/via REUTERS

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court, confronting racial bias in the American criminal justice system, on Friday threw out a black Mississippi death row inmate’s conviction in his sixth trial for a 1996 quadruple murder conviction, finding that a prosecutor unlawfully blocked black potential jurors.

The court, in a 7-2 ruling written by conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh, found that the prosecutor’s actions violated the right of Curtis Flowers, 49, under the U.S. Constitution to receive a fair trial. The ruling does not preclude Mississippi from putting Flowers on trial for a seventh time.

Kavanaugh, appointed by President Donald Trump last year, wrote that the prosecutors sought to strike black jurors through all six trials. Prosecutors “engaged in dramatically disparate questioning of black and white prospective jurors” at his sixth trial, Kavanaugh added.

The prosecution’s decision in the most recent trial to strike one black juror in particular “was motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent,” Kavanaugh wrote.

The decision was the latest of several in recent years in which the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of individual criminal defendants on race-related issues.

Justice Neil Gorsuch, appointed by Trump in 2017, and fellow conservative Justice Clarence Thomas dissented in the case.

In his dissenting opinion, Thomas described the ruling as “manifestly incorrect.” Thomas noted the court’s majority “does not dispute that the evidence was sufficient to convict Flowers or that he was tried by an impartial jury.”

Thomas, the only black Supreme Court justice and one of its most conservative members, asked his first questions during an oral argument in three years when the case was argued in March. His questions centered on whether defense lawyers for Flowers during his trials had excluded white potential jurors.

In U.S. trials, prosecutors and defense lawyers can dismiss – or “strike” – a certain number of prospective jurors during the jury selection process without stating a reason. Some prosecutors, including in Southern states like Mississippi, have been accused over the decades of trying to ensure predominately white juries for trials of black defendants to help win convictions.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that people cannot be excluded from a jury because of their race, based on the right to a fair trial under the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment and the 14th Amendment promise of equal protection under the law. Friday’s ruling applied that precedent and, Kavanaugh wrote, “we break no new legal ground.”

Flowers was appealing his 2010 conviction, in his sixth trial, on charges of murdering four people at the Tardy Furniture store where he previously worked in the small central Mississippi city of Winona. There were 11 white jurors and one black juror.

His lawyers accused long-serving Montgomery County District Attorney Doug Evans, who is white, of engaging in a pattern of removing black jurors that indicated an unlawful discriminatory motive. Evans has given non-racial reasons for striking black potential jurors.

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat, said it is now up to Evans to decide whether Flowers will face another trial. Evans could not immediately be reached for comment.

Flowers’ lawyer, Sheri Lynn Johnson, expressed hope Flowers would not face another trial.

“A seventh trial would be unprecedented, and completely unwarranted given both the flimsiness of the evidence against him and the long trail of misconduct that has kept him wrongfully incarcerated all these years,” Johnson said.

Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law civil rights group, said the ruling should “sound an alarm” for prosecutors who engage in racial discrimination during jury selection.

“Racial bias continues to infect virtually every stage of our criminal justice system, including the jury selection process,” Clarke added.

In 2016, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a black Georgia death row inmate who also said black potential jurors were excluded by the prosecution in his case. In 2017, the court ruled in separate cases that a Hispanic man could challenge his conviction based on a juror’s racist comments and that a black Texas death row inmate could seek to avoid execution due to testimony from an expert witness at trial who said the man was more likely to commit future crimes because of his race.

Flowers was found guilty in his first three trials – the first one with an all-white jury and the next two with just one black juror – but those convictions were thrown out by Mississippi’s top court. Several black jurors participated in the fourth and fifth trials, which ended without a verdict because the jury both times failed to produce a unanimous decision.

Prosecutors have said Flowers was upset with the store owner for firing him and withholding his paycheck to cover the cost of batteries he had damaged. Flowers was convicted of killing store owner Bertha Tardy, 59; bookkeeper Carmen Rigby, 45; delivery worker Robert Golden, 42; and part-time employee Derrick Stewart, 16. All except Golden were white.

 

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

Supreme Court to decide if LGBT workers protected under sex discrimination law

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Supreme Court building is seen in Washington, U.S., March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to decide whether U.S. law banning workplace discrimination on the basis of sex protects gay and transgender workers, as the conservative-majority court waded into a fierce dispute involving a divisive social issue.

At issue in the high-profile legal fight is whether gay and transgender people are covered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex as well as race, color, national origin and religion.

The court will take up two cases concerning gay people who have said they were fired due to their sexual orientation, one involving a New York skydiving instructor named Donald Zarda and another brought by a former county child welfare services coordinator from Georgia named Gerald Bostock.

The court also will take up a Detroit funeral home’s bid to reverse a ruling that it violated federal law by firing a transgender funeral director named Aimee Stephens after Stephens revealed plans to transition from male to female.

The court will hear oral arguments and issue a ruling in its next term, which starts in October.

President Donald Trump’s administration has argued that Title VII does not cover sexual orientation or gender identity. The Republican president’s administration reversed the approach taken under Democratic former President Barack Obama by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces federal laws banning workplace discrimination.

The Title VII fight marks the first major test on a divisive social issue for the nine justices since Trump’s conservative appointee Brett Kavanaugh joined the court in October after a contentious Senate confirmation process. Kavanaugh replaced Justice Anthony Kennedy, a conservative noted for his support for gay rights who retired last year.

Kennedy wrote the 5-4 ruling in 2015 legalizing gay marriage nationally, a landmark in the U.S. gay rights movement. Kennedy also was the author of the court’s important 2003 ruling striking down laws criminalizing gay sex.

The Supreme Court has a 5-4 conservative majority that includes two Trump appointees, Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch.

The legal fight centers on the definition of “sex” in Title VII. The plaintiffs in the cases, along with civil rights groups and many large companies, have argued that discriminating against gay and transgender workers is inherently based on their sex and thus is unlawful.

But Trump’s Justice Department and the employers that were sued have argued that Congress did not mean for Title VII to extend to gay and transgender people when it passed the law in 1964.

Zarda, fired after revealing his sexual orientation in 2010, died in a 2014 accident while participating in a form of skydiving in which people jump off a high structure or cliff. His estate has continued the litigation.

The New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in February 2018 ruled in Zarda’s favor after a trial judge threw out his original claim.

Bostock worked for Clayton County, just south of Atlanta, from 2003 until being fired in 2013 shortly after he started participating in a gay recreational softball league called the “Hotlanta Softball League.” The county has said he was fired following an audit of the program he managed. His lawsuit was tossed out the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Harris Funeral Homes, the employer in the transgender case, is owned by Thomas Rost, who identifies himself as a devout Christian. The company has a strict sex-specific dress code that requires male employees to wear suits and women to wear dresses or skirts. Stephens, formerly known as Anthony Stephens, joined the company in October 2007.

Stephens was fired when he announced plans to transition from male to female.

Rost said that “this is not going to work out,” according to court papers. Stephens subsequently turned to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which sued on Stephens’ behalf in 2014. The company is represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal group.

The Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2018 ruled against the company.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

Colorado baker in case of Supreme Court sues state over ‘persecution’

FILE PHOTO: Baker Jack Phillips decorates a cake in his Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colorado U.S. on September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/File Photo

By Keith Coffman

DENVER (Reuters) – A Colorado baker who won a narrow Supreme Court victory over his refusal to make a wedding cake for a gay couple is suing the state after it launched another case against him for declining to create a cake for a transgender woman.

Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in the city of Lakewood, accuses Colorado’s Civil Rights Commission of violating his constitutional rights to free speech, freedom of religion, equal protection and due process, according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Denver on Tuesday.

“This lawsuit is necessary to stop Colorado’s continuing persecution of Phillips,” the written complaint alleges. Also named in the lawsuit are Governor John Hickenlooper and Cynthia Coffman, the state attorney general.

Phillips seeks permanent injunctions against the state from taking any enforcement action against Phillips, who the lawsuit says was “vindicated” by the Supreme Court ruling.

In June, the Supreme Court ruled that the Colorado’s civil rights commission was hostile toward Phillips’ Christian beliefs when it cited him for refusing to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple in 2012, but did not rule on whether he violated Colorado’s public accommodation statute.

Through a spokeswoman, the civil rights commission declined to comment on Phillips’ lawsuit.

The lawsuit stems from a complaint filed by Denver attorney Autumn Scardina with the civil rights commission in 2017, in which she claims that Phillips refused to bake a cake that “celebrates my transition from male to female,” court documents showed.

Scardina did not immediately return a phone message left at her law office.

The director of the state’s Civil Rights Division, Aubrey Elenis, ruled in June that Phillips discriminated against Scardina.

“The evidence thus demonstrates that the refusal to provide service to (Scardina) was based on (her) transgender status,” Elenis wrote in a probable cause determination.

The finding by Elenis requires both sides to resolve the issue through “compulsory mediation,” the document said.

Phillips is also seeking $100,000 in punitive damages against Elenis “for her unconstitutional actions,” according to the lawsuit.

Daniel Ramos, executive director of One Colorado, a group that advocates for the LGBTQ community, blasted the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the conservative Christian group whose lawyers represent Phillips.

“We have seen the ADF launch similar lawsuits across the country that target nondiscrimination laws and civil rights agencies, and this broad lawsuit they filed on behalf of Jack Phillips reads as more of the same,” Ramos said.

(Reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver; Editing by Dan WHitcomb)

Civil rights ‘Freedom Riders’ cherish Martin Luther King’s lasting legacy, 50 years on

Freedom Riders Bob and Helen Singleton are pictured at their home in this still image from video in Inglewood, California, U.S., March 27, 2018. REUTERS/Alan Devall

By Jane Ross

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Bob Singleton only met civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. once, but that meeting changed his life.

As the 50th anniversary of King’s death approaches on April 4, Singleton and others have been reflecting on the man who inspired them and the legacy he left behind.

It was early 1961 and the then 24-year-old college student was protesting against Woolworths’ racially segregated southern lunch counters at a picket line outside the company’s Hollywood, California, store when King was introduced to him by a mutual acquaintance.

“He marched with us in front of the Woolworths store and that really made me, from that point on, an organizer,” said Singleton, now 81.

Soon after that meeting, Singleton organized a group of University of California Los Angeles students to travel to Jackson, Mississippi, to enforce federal desegregation laws at the train terminal.

They were known as the Freedom Riders, and among the group was Singleton’s wife, Helen, now 85. She, too, was inspired by King.

“He was able to make you feel that, whatever burden you might be carrying, carry it with dignity and hope. And then also take action,” she said.

The Singletons and hundreds of other young Freedom Riders were arrested and jailed. But by November 1961, the federal Interstate Commerce Commission’s ruling prohibiting segregation on interstate transportation facilities was being enforced across the South.

“We won that battle,” said Bob Farrell, 81, who was arrested in Houston, Texas, in one of the last organized Freedom Rides in August, 1961. “Inside of one year we contributed to changing public policy that had been there since the beginning of the 20th century.”

But the civil rights struggle was far from over. King was killed on a motel balcony in Memphis by an avowed segregationist on April 4, 1968.

Farrell traveled to Atlanta for his funeral.

“I can remember what it was like finally getting over to Ebenezer Baptist Church and preparing for the great march to Morehouse College where Dr. King was going to be temporarily buried,” he said.

“The silence, the silence once the body came out of the church, the silence on that long march and then the memorial celebration at Morehouse College with the speakers,” he said. “It was just something I’ve never experienced before or since.”

The Singletons and Farrell agree there has been significant progress in racial equality in the five decades since King’s death, but all are dismayed at the current state of U.S. race relations.

“The fact that, 50 years later, there’s so much still to be done just demonstrates to me and to others how deep, how very, very deep white supremacy, its premises and the dynamic that still propels our nation, is still there,” Farrell said.

(Reporting by Jane Ross; Editing by Paul Tait)

Remove barriers to membership talks, Turkey tells EU before summit

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, accompanied by Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Minister of European Union Affairs Omer Celik, speaks during a news conference at Ataturk International airport in Istanbul, Turkey March 26, 2018. Kayhan Ozer/Presidential Palace/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.

By Alissa de Carbonnel and Tuvan Gumrukcu

ANKARA/VARNA, Bulgaria (Reuters) – Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan said he will seek the removal at a summit with the EU on Monday of all obstacles to a stalled membership bid, which the bloc however believes are of Ankara’s own making.

Criticism from European Union governments of what many view as Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism at home and his intervention in Syria’s war has created an uneasy backdrop to the gathering in the Black Sea port of Varna.

Some countries had called for an end to long-stalled accession talks and had hesitated to agree to meet him.

But Erdogan said it was time for the EU to “keep its promises” to Turkey, which started formal membership negotiations in 2005 that stalled five years and have now effectively collapsed.

“EU membership continues to be our strategic goal,” Erdogan told reporters before departing for the summit. “In today’s EU summit, we will convey our expectations about the lifting of the obstacles our country has faced.”

Erdogan, who has alarmed the West with a massive purge since a failed coup attempt in July 2016, remains an important ally in the U.S.-led NATO alliance and the fight against Islamic militants, and the destination for many Syrians fleeing war.

Turkey shares a border with Iraq, Syria and with Russia in the Black Sea, and the EU is its biggest foreign investor and trading partner.

CASH ONLY

EU leaders are likely to provide Erdogan with 3 billion euros ($3.7 billion) in fresh cash to extend a 2016 deal on Turkey taking in Syrian refugees.

They will go no further than that, as Brussels considers the EU membership bid a separate process focused on rule of law, press freedoms and economic reforms.

But Erdogan on Monday appeared to conflate the two.

“Our country has fulfilled all responsibilities as part of the 2016 migrant deal, but the EU has not shown the same sincerity in keeping its promises and still does not do so,” Erdogan said.

“In terms of counter-terrorism, we will convey that we expect unconditional support and cooperation from the EU.”

EU officials say Turkey’s post-coup crackdown on civil rights has taken it further from complying with EU membership criteria.

“The differences in views between the EU and Turkey are many,” said European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who will represent the bloc along with European Council President Donald Tusk.

“(Varna)…will be a frank and open debate, where we will not hide our differences but will seek to improve our cooperation,” Juncker said after a two-day EU summit that condemned what they said were Turkey’s illegal actions in a standoff over Mediterranean gas with Greece and Cyprus.

DIALOGUE OR CONDEMNATION?

Turkey’s EU membership process is not formally frozen, but talks have not taken place for over a year.

Host Bulgaria, which also shares a border with Turkey holds the EU’s rotating presidency, is eager to keep ties as positive as possible.

“The meeting in Varna is likely to be one of the last opportunities to maintain dialogue,” Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said.

Meanwhile Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of Austria, the country the most opposed to Turkey’s EU membership aspirations, called in an interview in Die Welt newspaper for the EU to condemn Ankara for escalating the seven-year-long war in Syria.

(Additional reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels and Tulay Karadeniz in Varna; Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel @AdeCar and Robin Emmott; editing by John Stonestreet)

Chicago homicides fall 16 percent in 2017

Chicago Police officers investigate a crime scene after a motorist was shot in the head and lost control of his vehicle along the 5300 block of west Monroe Street in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., October 31, 2017. The driver later died in the hospital, according to the police.

(Reuters) – Homicides in Chicago fell 16 percent in 2017 while shootings were down and firearms arrests were up, police said on Monday, marking a reduction in bloodshed that made the city a symbol of U.S. gun violence and an object of criticism for President Donald Trump.

Police reported 650 homicides in an annual report on crime statistics, down from 771 in 2016. Shooting incidents fell 22 percent and the number of shooting victims fell by 892 people, a 21 percent drop. Meanwhile, gun arrests increased 27 percent and police reported seizing more than 8,600 illegal weapons.

Police attributed the drop to putting more officers on the streets, investing in new technology and a smarter policing strategy.

The city was also coming off a high baseline after the number of homicides in 2016, which represented a nearly 60 percent spike from the previous year.

The United States’ third largest city still ranks No. 1 in murders, with more than the two largest cities combined. New York and Los Angles each had fewer than 300 homicides in 2017.

Overall crime for other offenses – including sexual assault, robbery, aggravated battery, burglary and vehicle theft – was down 2 percent, police said.

“I am proud of the progress our officers made in reducing gun violence all across the city in 2017, but none of us are satisfied,” Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said in the report. “In 2018, we are going to work to build on the progress we made last year – to reduce gun violence, to save lives and to find justice for victims.”

Chicago initiated police reforms in 2017 after a federal investigation found officers routinely violated people’s civil rights, citing excessive force and racially discriminatory conduct.

The city hired more than 1,100 new police officers in 2017, and the department issued a new policy on use of force.

Crime fell by 43 percent in Englewood district and 26 percent in Harrison, the first two districts to employ so-called Strategic Decision Support Centers, police said.

The centers use predictive crime software to enable a more efficient deployment of officers, install more cameras, set up gunshot detection systems and send real-time notifications and intelligence data to officers on their smartphones, the department said.

The deployment of more than 7,000 body cameras was the largest of its kind in the United States, the report said.

Trump made Chicago crime a theme of his 2016 campaign and kept criticizing the city in 2017 even as crime fell.

“Crime and killings in Chicago have reached such epidemic proportions that I am sending in Federal help. 1714 shootings in Chicago this year!” the Republican president wrote on Twitter in June.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Trump’s tweet referred to sending more federal agents to Chicago and plans to prosecute firearms cases aggressively.

A spokesman for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a Democrat, thanked the U.S. government for 20 additional agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives but said the progress was made before those agents had arrived.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Frank McGurty and Jonathan Oatis)

As shootings soar, Chicago police use technology to predict crime

A Chicago police officer attends a news conference announcing the department's plan to hire nearly 1,000 new police officers in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. on September 21, 2016.

By Timothy Mclaughlin

CHICAGO (Reuters) – In a control room at a police headquarters on Chicago’s South Side, officers scan digital maps on big screens to see where a computer algorithm predicts crime will happen next.

Thrust into a national debate over violent crime and the use of force by officers, police in the third-largest U.S. city are using technology to try to rein in a surging murder rate.

And while commanders recognize the new tools can only ever be part of the solution, the number of shootings in the 7th District from January through July fell 39 percent compared with the same period last year. The number of murders dropped by 33 percent to 34. Citywide, the number of murders is up 3 percent at 402.

Three other districts where the technology is fully operational have also seen between 15 percent and 29 percent fewer shootings, and 9 percent to 18 percent fewer homicides, according to the department’s data.

“The community is starting to see real change in regards to violence,” said Kenneth Johnson, the 7th District commander.

Cities like Philadelphia, San Francisco, Milwaukee, Denver, Tacoma, Washington, and Lincoln, Nebraska have tested the same or similar technologies.

The techniques being used in Chicago’s 7th District’s control room, one of six such centers opened since January as part of a roughly $6 million experiment, are aimed at complimenting traditional police work and are part of a broader effort to overhaul the force of some 12,500 officers.”We are not saying we can predict where the next shooting is going to occur,” said Jonathan Lewin, chief of the Chicago Police Department’s Bureau of Technical Services. “These are just tools. They are not going to replace (officers).”

The department’s efforts come after a Justice Department investigation published in January found officers engaged in racial discrimination and routinely violated residents’ civil rights.

That probe followed street protests triggered by the late 2015 release of a video showing a white police officer fatally shooting black teenager Laquan McDonald a year earlier.

Some critics of the department fear the technology could prove a distraction from confronting what they say are the underlying issues driving violence in the city of 2.7 million.

“Real answers are hard,” said Andrew Ferguson, a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia who has written a book on police technology. “They involve better education, better economic opportunity, dealing with poverty and mental illness.”

 

‘KILLING FIELDS’

Chicago’s recent rash of shootings – 101 people were shot over the Independence Day weekend alone – prompted President Donald Trump to bemoan the response of city leaders to the bloodshed, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to describe some of its areas as “killing fields.”

One of the technologies being used in the 7th District is HunchLab, a predictive policing program made by Philadelphia-based company Azavea. It combines crime data with factors including the location of local businesses, the weather and socioeconomic information to forecast where crime might occur. The results help officers decide how to deploy resources.

Another is the Strategic Subject’s List, a database of individuals likely to be involved in shootings that was developed by the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Police are tight-lipped about how it is compiled, saying only that the algorithm looks at eight factors including gang affiliation and prior drug arrests to assign people a number between 0 and 500. A higher number reflects higher risk.

They are also using the gunfire detection system made by ShotSpotter Inc which uses sensors to locate the source of gunshots. Police officials declined, however, to say how many such devices were installed in the 7th District.

“We can’t give away the kitchen sink and tell them all of our secrets,” district commander Johnson said.

 

(Reporting by Timothy Mclaughlin; Editing by Ben Klayman and Lisa Shumaker)

 

U.S. Supreme Court sides with officials sued over post-Sept. 11 detentions

FILE PHOTO -- U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft (R) and FBI Director Robert Mueller speak about possible terrorist threats against the United States, in Washington, May 26, 2004

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday handed a victory to former President George W. Bush’s attorney general, FBI chief and other officials, ruling they cannot be sued over the treatment of detainees, mainly Muslims, rounded up in New York after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The justices, in a 4-2 decision, reversed a lower court’s decision that said the long-running suit brought by the detainees could proceed against former Attorney General John Ashcroft, former FBI Director Robert Mueller and others. Mueller is now the special counsel investigating possible collusion between Russia and President Donald Trump’s campaign team in the 2016 U.S. presidential race.

Three of the justices did not participate in the ruling.

The civil rights lawsuit sought to hold the various former officials responsible for racial and religious profiling and abuse in detention that the plaintiffs said they endured after being swept up following the 2001 attacks by al Qaeda Islamic militants on the United States.

Writing for the court, conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy said the allegations were serious and that the Supreme Court did not condone the treatment of the detainees. But, Kennedy said, the only issue for the court was whether Congress had authorized such lawsuits against public officials. It had not, the justices concluded.

The court sent one part of the case back to lower courts to determine if claims against Dennis Hasty, the warden in charge of the detention facility in Brooklyn where the detainees were held, could go forward.

The suit was filed by a group of Muslim, Arab and South Asian non-U.S. citizens who, their lawyers said, were held as terrorism suspects based on their race, religion, ethnicity and immigration status and abused in detention before being deported.

The lawsuit claimed that the senior Bush administration officials were liable because they made the policy decisions that led to the round-up and confinement of the plaintiffs.

Liberal justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented.

Breyer took the relatively unusual step of reading his dissent from the bench, saying such lawsuits should be allowed to go forward in order “to provide appropriate compensation for those deprived of important constitutional rights and in times of special national-security need.”

The plaintiffs were charged with only civil immigration violations. But they said they were subjected at Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center to 23-hours-a-day solitary confinement, strip searches, sleep deprivation, beatings and other abuses and denied the ability to practice their religion.

They said their rights under the U.S. Constitution to due process and equal protection under the law were violated.

During the U.S. Justice Department’s massive investigation after the Sept. 11 attacks, certain immigrants in the country illegally were detained until being cleared of involvement.

The New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Ashcroft, Mueller and former Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner James Ziglar could be sued, based on a 1971 Supreme Court precedent. In 2013, a judge had dismissed the claims against them but allowed some against detention facility wardens.

Government lawyers have said there is no proof Ashcroft or Mueller personally condoned any potential unconstitutional actions.

The plaintiffs included Benamar Benatta, an Algerian Muslim who was seeking refugee status in Canada, and Ahmed Khalifa, an Egyptian Muslim who said he was on vacation.

In a similar previous case, the Supreme Court in 2009 backed Ashcroft, saying a lawsuit by detainees failed to contain specific details on Ashcroft’s involvement.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. police body camera policies put civil rights at risk: study

By Gina Cherelus

(Reuters) – Police forces in 50 U.S. cities are failing to protect the civil rights and privacy of residents due to the inadequacy of programs that govern how their officers use body-worn cameras, a report by a coalition of rights groups said on Tuesday.

Many U.S. cities have approved or expanded the use of body cameras since August 2014, when a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri. That incident triggered protests and a national debate about police use of force, especially against minorities.

The study was conducted for The Leadership Conference of Civil and Human Rights coalition by Upturn, a Washington DC-based company that studies how technology affects social issues.

“Body cameras carry the promise of officer accountability, but accountability is far from automatic,” Harlan Yu, principal of Upturn, said on a conference call with reporters.

The study focused on the nation’s largest police departments that have body-worn camera programs, as well as programs that have received federal funding, and those in cities that have had high-profile incidents involving law enforcement officers.

It judged them against eight criteria, including whether each department publishes its body camera policy, to what degree officers are allowed discretion about when they turn on and off their cameras, and whether officers involved in incidents are prohibited from watching the footage before they write reports.

The study found that none of the departments it analyzed met all the criteria, and that the police departments in Ferguson and in Fresno, California, failed all of them. Nearly half did not make body camera footage easily accessible to the public. (Link to the report: https://www.bwcscorecard.org/)

Three major departments with programs – Detroit, Michigan, Aurora, Colorado, and Pittsburg, Pennsylvania – have not made their body camera policies public, the study said.

Representatives of the police departments in Aurora, Detroit, Pittsburg and Ferguson did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The coalition released an initial report in November 2015 that studied body camera programs from 25 departments.

The group said some issues have improved since that report, noting several departments, including Chicago, Washington D.C. and Cincinnati now provide individuals who are recorded the opportunity to view the footage.

“Without carefully crafted policy safeguards, these devices could become instruments of injustice rather than tools of accountability,” Wade Henderson, the coalition’s president and chief executive officer, said in a statement.

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Dan Grebler)

U.S. to schools: Give transgender students bathroom rights

A gender-neutral bathroom is seen at the University of California, Irvine in Irvine, California September 30, 2014.

By Megan Cassella

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Obama administration told U.S. public school districts across the country on Friday to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms that match their gender identity, rather than their gender at birth.

The new guidance comes as the Justice Department and North Carolina battle in federal court over a state law passed in March that prohibits people from using public restrooms not corresponding to their biological sex.

Officials from the Education and Justice departments told schools that while the new guidance does not carry legal weight, they are obligated not to discriminate against students, including based on their gender identity.

“Our guidance sends a clear message to transgender students across the country: here in America, you are safe, you are protected and you belong – just as you are,” Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a statement accompanying the letter sent to school districts nationwide.

The guidance contains an implicit threat that those not abiding by the Obama administration’s interpretation of the law could face lawsuits or a loss of federal aid.

As a condition of receiving federal funds, the letter said, a school agrees that it will not treat any person in its educational programs or activities differently on the basis of sex.

It added that the administration’s interpretation of existing regulations means that a school cannot treat a transgender student differently from other students of the same gender identity.

The issue of access to bathrooms by transgender people flared into a national controversy after North Carolina passed a law in March that made it the first state in the country to ban people from using multiple occupancy restrooms or changing rooms in public buildings and schools that do not match the sex on their birth certificate.

The U.S. Justice Department this week asked a federal district court in North Carolina to declare that the state is violating the 1964 Civil Rights Act and order it to stop enforcing the ban.

North Carolina’s Republican governor, Pat McCrory, and the state’s secretary of public safety sued the agency in a different federal court in North Carolina, accusing it of “baseless and blatant overreach.”

(Reporting by Megan Cassella and Susan Heavey; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Frances Kerry)