It’s time for a new episode of Legal Bits, our occasional series on opportunities for pro se litigants. This week, we look at a novel use of citizen participation laws to force a prosecutor’s hand, along with new appeal rights for immigrants and a fresh analysis of the rights of extraterrestrials. Okay, let’s dive right in.
First, the November police shooting of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old Cleveland boy playing with a toy gun in an empty city park, shocked and outraged many across the country. Video showed the officer arriving at the park and shooting the child within two seconds of exiting his vehicle. Cleveland is where a judge recently acquitted a police officer who’d jumped on the hood of a car and fired 15 shots into the windshield, killing the unarmed driver and passenger, and where the Justice Department issued a scathing report in December on the city’s habitual use of excessive force.
So what many viewed as a clearly unlawful use of force against Tamir Rice was seen by the local prosecutor as something requiring indefinite study. More than six months after the boy’s killing, no charges had been filed in the case.
But Ohio has a citizen participation statute — Ohio Revised Code 2935.09 — that allows any citizen with personal knowledge of a crime to ask a court to find that a crime had occurred. Days after a petition was filed, a municipal court judge in Cleveland did just that, finding cause to charge the officer with murder, and his partner with reckless homicide. The ruling forced the prosecutor’s hand, and the case is now headed to a grand jury for formal charges against the officers. In an era of rampant police brutality, this action showed us the power of regular citizens to influence criminal charges against people they believe have broken the law.
Next, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that immigrants with bad lawyers now have the right to appeal their deportations in a real appellate court. Five years ago, a Mexican immigrant’s guilty plea to a domestic violence charge prompted automatic deportation proceedings. His lawyer tried to stop the procedure using an administrative court within the Justice Department, but he screwed up the documents and forfeited his client’s rights. A new team of lawyers tried to overturn the deportation in federal appellate court, but the court said it had no jurisdiction over a Justice Department proceeding. The high court disagreed, finding that undocumented immigrants would have no recourse to legal malpractice if they were not allowed to appeal their deportations on that basis.
Unfortunately, the ruling only helps those representing themselves at the appellate stage. So a pro se immigrant in a deportation proceeding should not seek an appeal based on his or her own misunderstanding of the law.
Finally this week, we discover that some lawyers have too much time on their hands. SpaceNews has published an analysis of the legal rights of extraterrestrials. Such rights have been the subject of speculation for decades, starting with Robert Frietas’ classic The Legal Rights of Extraterrestrials from the 1970s. This latest effort, written by international law specialist Babak Shakouri Hassanabadi, argues that the best way to pattern our interactions with aliens would be to model them after treaties and diplomatic relations between the nations of Earth.
Of course, a lot depends on how the contact occurs. If we find intelligent life in outer space, we may be able to take our laws to them. But if they find us here, I suspect all bets are off and we’ll be happy to negotiate anything.
Until next time, happy litigating!