What’s Driving Uber’s Pursuit of Driverless Cars?

On March 18th, a self-driving Uber car being tested in Arizona killed a pedestrian. The autonomous Volvo SUV struck a woman crossing the street outside of the crosswalk. There was a driver behind the wheel, but the car was in autonomous mode at the time of the accident. Uber began testing their Volvo SUVs in Arizona in February of last year. Uber is also testing its autonomous fleet in Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Toronto, and Phoenix. After this accident, Uber suspended the self-driving testing in all of these cities.

The economic potential that autonomous vehicles represent has triggered a high-stakes competition between Uber, Google, Apple, Tesla, and major car manufacturers. These massive companies are in a race to be the first to achieve true autonomy, and are throwing loads of money at solving the problem. The company that finds a solution first stands to gain a significant market advantage over everyone still catching up. Truly autonomous vehicles could wipe out the trucking industry, taxi industry, and delivery industry in one fell swoop. Full automation of the $719 billion trucking industry could result in labor cost savings of about $300 billion. Thus, there’s a huge economic incentive for eliminating human drivers.

This heated competition has triggered lawsuits. Google’s Waymo sued Uber, alleging theft of trade secrets. A week into trial, Waymo and Uber reached a settlement, but the lawsuit resulted in some dirty laundry being aired out. The discovery process revealed the internal communications of these companies, shedding light on the mindsets of top executives. A win-at-all-costs mentality and desperation about coming in second was evident between both companies. Emails between Uber executives revealed their desire to “take all the shortcuts we can” because they saw it as “a race we need to win, second place is the first loser.”

Between 2014-2016, about 37,000 people died in car crashes each year. Part of the push for driverless cars and trucks has been increased safety and fatality reduction. Proponents of autonomous vehicles argue that a computer will make far fewer errors than human drivers, considering computers will not get distracted by phones, get tired, get drunk, etc. However, the Waymo-Uber trial inadvertently revealed that Uber’s motivation lies in achieving market dominance.

Additional fatalities are likely to happen as this technology proliferates and becomes more common, but any PR spin from Uber about its commitment to safety may ring hollow due to the short-cut strategy endorsed by its executives. More importantly, Uber will face massive legal liability for wrongful deaths and injuries if plaintiffs show safety concerns were ignored in pursuit of winning the race.

Uber is fully aware of this potential liability. From a cynical perspective, it’s possible that Uber believes the profits they stand to gain from winning will dwarf wrongful death and personal injury losses by so much that shortcuts are worth it. Thus, paying for fatalities and injuries may just be a cost of doing business in Uber’s quest to dominate the autonomous car market.


How Tech Caught the Austin Bomber

For three weeks in March, a serial bomber terrorized Austin, Texas. Mark Anthony Conditt killed two people and injured several others. The manhunt gripped the nation, drawing comparisons to the search for the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, who eluded capture for decades until the FBI caught him in 1995. However, technology has improved dramatically since the ’90s and played a central role in quickly ending the Austin bomber’s reign of terror.

 

Surveillance Footage and ALPR Cameras

The first three bombings were from packages left on a doorstep by the bomber. The bomber used a tripwire for the fourth bombing. The bomber’s final attempted method was mailing a bomb through FedEx, which exploded at a sorting facility near Austin. Authorities tracked it back to the drop-off location at a FedEx retail store. Surveillance footage captured the bomber dropping off the package in disguise, as well as the license plate number of his vehicle.

Police were likely able to track the direction the vehicle went, or where it had been in the past, using what’s known as Automated License Plate Readers. Austin, like many big cities around the country, uses ALPRs. They’re similar to red light cameras, but you won’t see them unless you know where to look. ALPRs are high-speed camera systems typically mounted on light poles, traffic lights, overpasses, and squad cars, which can change locations. They capture the license plate of every single passing vehicle, which is then uploaded into a searchable database. With ALPRs placed sporadically throughout a city, police can piece together the movements of a suspect’s vehicle.

 

Cell Phone Tracking

Prior to catching the bomber on camera at the FedEx store, law enforcement tried to track down the suspect using the cell towers near the bombings. Law enforcement can issue a search warrant for a “tower dump” to provide historical records of all traffic on certain cell towers on specific dates. The FBI’s cellular analysis survey teams sorted through a vast amount of data from the cell towers and were able to zero in on the phone numbers that showed up repeatedly at each of the bombing sites.

However, once police obtained the bomber’s license plate, they were able to link that plate to his cell phone number. Then they could issue a search warrant to the phone provider for a detailed record of the cell towers his phone connected to in the past. Police could also issue a warrant to track the phone’s current location using cell tower triangulation. “Pinging” the phone reveals the three towers surrounding the target; calculating distances from each of the towers allows investigators to pinpoint a precise location.

A more powerful (and more controversial) tool used by the FBI is known as a “Stingray” device. A Stingray acts as a “cell-site simulator” or a fake tower, forcing all cellular devices in the area to connect to it. The device can fit in the trunk of a car, allowing law enforcement to drive around an area looking for a particular phone. It’s controversial because every other innocent phone in the area has its data scooped up as well.

 

Google Search History

Law enforcement obtained a search warrant for the bomber’s Google search history, revealing searches they found suspicious, as well as searches of other addresses in Austin.  Police were also able to track down store receipts of common household items he used to make the bombs, further confirming their belief that Conditt was the bomber.

 

Conclusion

Using all of these tools, police tracked Conditt’s location to a hotel outside of Austin. Police and federal agents gathered around the hotel awaiting more backup when Conditt got in his vehicle and drove away. Police followed and forced him to stop on the side of the interstate.  As a SWAT team approached his vehicle, he detonated a bomb, killing himself. Technology can often be over intrusive, but it certainly deserves much of the credit for quickly neutralizing this serial bomber.

 

  1. https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/22/us/austin-explosions-investigation/index.html
  2. https://www.eff.org/pages/automated-license-plate-readers-alpr
  3. https://www.usnews.com/news/business/articles/2018-03-22/ap-explains-how-a-phone-may-have-steered-hunt-for-bomber
  4. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/trail-austin-bombing-suspect-combined-high-tech-old-fashioned-techniques-n858791
  5. Order under 18 U.S.C. § 2703(d) (Stored Communications Act (SCA), 18 U.S.C. § 2701 et. seq.)
  6. Order under “Hybrid” authority of the SCA and the Pen / Trap Statute, 18 U.S.C. §§ 3121–3127
  7. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-03-22/how-a-phone-steered-the-hunt-for-texas-parcel-bomber/9576040
  8. https://www.statesman.com/news/breaking-austin-bombing-suspect-dies-police-close-official-says/KZmUAGvKlNazDr31EzeUzI/

Don Cazayoux Joins Branden Fremin on an Interview With Jim Engster

Recently, Cazayoux Ewing partner and Former US Attorney Don Cazayoux had the pleasure of joining current US Attorney Brandon Fremin on Talk Louisiana with Jim Engster. The two discuss the challenges and responsibilities of the US Attorney office and its role in Louisiana’s Middle District. Listen in to hear Don and Brandon answer federal law enforcement questions from the community and share their thoughts about cracking down on drug-related crime in Baton Rouge. Click here to listen to the show! 


LOUISIANA’S 2017 CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM PACKAGE

Louisiana holds the unfortunate title of having the highest incarceration rate per capita in the world.¹  Being the number one incarcerator takes a toll on the state’s resources; Louisiana spent $625 million on adult corrections in 2017.²  With the hope of shedding that ranking and its associated costs, the Louisiana legislature passed a sweeping criminal justice reform package, which Governor John Bel Edwards signed into law.  The amended criminal laws aim to decrease our prison population and government spending, primarily by:

  • Reducing sentences and probationary periods for certain crimes
  • Easing eligibility requirements for drug court, reentry programs, probation, or suspension of sentence
  • Reducing sentencing enhancements for habitual offenders
  • Changing the calculation of “good time” credit for prisoners

Sentencing Guidelines

The justice reform package changed the sentencing guidelines for many non-violent felonies.³  Several of the maximum sentences were reduced and some mandatory minimum sentences were eliminated.  A few examples:

  • The mandatory minimum sentence for “Felon in possession of a firearm” was reduced from 10 years to 5 years.
  • “Money laundering” more than $100,000 was reduced from a 5 – 99 year sentence to 2 – 50 years.
  • The maximum sentence for “Unauthorized use of a motor vehicle” was reduced from 10 years to 2 years.
  • Simple arson no longer has a mandatory minimum sentence of 2 years, with a new sentencing range of 0 – 15 years.

Louisiana’s “Theft” statute bases the severity of punishment on the value of the property stolen. The new law adjusted the dollar value ranges, making some of the penalties more lenient.⁸  For example, a theft under $750 formerly resulted in a zero to six month sentence (misdemeanor) and anything more than that amount was a felony.  Now, the misdemeanor/theft threshold has been raised to $1,000.  Other similar statutes that use this dollar amount threshold followed the same pattern: issuing worthless checks, residential contractor fraud10, access device fraud11, and organized retail theft12, to name a few.

Probation, “Good Time,” and Parole

The changes to the criminal code expanded the ability of judges to suspend a sentence for certain crimes, placing the defendant on probation rather than in prison.13  Defendants charged with drug-related crimes are now eligible for substance abuse probation programs.  Also, entry into the drug division probation program was expanded to permit defendants charged with a crime of violence, as long as the crime was not against a family member or dating partner and does not carry a maximum sentence over 10 years.

Inmates will now earn “good time” more easily, which is a way for them to earn credit toward an earlier release from prison.  For non-violent and non-sex offenses, the new changes increase “good time” to a rate of 13 days for every 7 served, or an extra 130 days annually shaved off their sentence.  Certain inmates can reduce their prison time by participating in educational programs, drug programs, and work programs.

The new law changes the time the defendant must serve prior to becoming eligible for parole. Now, for non-violent crimes and non-sex offense crimes, defendants are parole eligible once 25 percent of their sentence has been served, including those sentenced as a non violent habitual offender.  Upon a first conviction for a crime of violence, a defendant with no prior sex crime convictions will be eligible for parole once 65 percent of the sentence is served.

Sentencing Enhancements for Habitual Offenders

Due to Louisiana’s habitual offender statute, a defendant convicted of a felony can receive a significantly enhanced sentence if they have a prior felony conviction.  Those enhancements are no longer quite as harsh.14  The mandatory minimum sentences have been reduced.  Also, for certain felonies, the “cleansing period” has been shortened from 10 years to 5 years.  The “cleansing period” means that after a certain amount of time has passed, prosecutors can no longer use a defendant’s previous convictions against him.

Conclusion

This article is merely a brief overview of what Louisiana’s criminal justice reform package entails.  The changes made to our criminal statutes were vast, but also highly specific depending on the crime. The date when certain aspects begin to take effect and to whom they apply will also vary person to person.  If you believe these changes may affect the charges you or a loved one face, or if they may affect your sentence or probation, do not hesitate to contact the Cazayoux Ewing Law Firm.  As former federal prosecutors, these experienced attorneys understand the nuances of the changes to our criminal law and will provide you with a tailored analysis of your situation.

 


[1] http://www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2017/05/louisiana_incarceration_rate.html

[2] http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2017/mar/16/louisiana-has-the-highest-incarceration-rate-in-th/

[3] Act 281/S.B. 220, 2017 Regular Session – http://www.legis.la.gov/Legis/ViewDocument.aspx?d=1051860

[4] (La. R.S. 14:95.1) – http://www.legis.la.gov/Legis/Law.aspx?d=78740

[5] (La. R.S. 14:230) – http://www.legis.la.gov/Legis/Law.aspx?d=78382

[6] (La. R.S. 14:68.4) – http://www.legis.la.gov/Legis/Law.aspx?d=78631

[7] (La. R.S. 14:52) – http://www.legis.la.gov/Legis/Law.aspx?d=78556

[8] (La. R.S. 14:67) – http://www.legis.la.gov/Legis/Law.aspx?d=78605

[9]  (La. R.S. 14:71) – http://www.legis.la.gov/Legis/Law.aspx?d=78645

[10] (La. R.S. 14:202.1) – http://www.legis.la.gov/Legis/Law.aspx?d=508538

[11] (La. R.S. 14:70.4) – http://www.legis.la.gov/Legis/Law.aspx?d=78642

[12] (La. R.S. 14:67.25) – http://www.legis.la.gov/Legis/Law.aspx?d=451833

[13] Act 280/S.B. 139, 2017 Regular Session – http://www.legis.la.gov/Legis/ViewDocument.aspx?d=1051859

[14] Act 282/S.B. 221, 2017 Regular Session – http://www.legis.la.gov/Legis/ViewDocument.aspx?d=1051861

 


Alexa and Uber Take the Stand: Your Data as a Witness

Silicon Valley’s amazing technology has made our lives easier. Voice assistants like Amazon’s Alexa can tell us the weather, play our favorite music on command, and add grocery items to our shopping lists. With the tap of a button, we can catch a ride using the Uber app. Countless other products offer similar conveniences and provide greater simplicity to our lives. However, this added convenience comes with strings attached.

By using these products, we generate vast amounts of data. These giant tech companies store that information to improve their products (and their targeted advertising). This data is increasingly entering the crosshairs of law enforcement to investigate and prosecute crimes. By putting enough pieces of your digital footprint together, law enforcement can generate a pretty complete picture of a person’s life.

Law enforcement is relying more and more on digital evidence because of how enlightening (or incriminating) this information can be. Warrants for a cell phone search are commonplace in today’s world, but as Silicon Valley develops newer products, law enforcement sees additional opportunities to gather evidence.

Recently, police in Arkansas turned their sights on an Amazon Echo smart speaker found in a murder suspect’s home. The Amazon Echo has a built-in microphone that is always listening, waiting for the user to issue a command. According to Amazon, the speaker only starts recording once it hears “Alexa.” Amazon stores the recorded commands or questions that follow in a database to improve its voice-recognition accuracy.

Police issued Amazon a search warrant for any data the speaker may have recorded on the night of the murder. Since a judge signed off on the warrant, Amazon became the last line of defense against turning over the data. Amazon refused to grant the request, citing the privacy concerns of its customers.

The murder suspect ultimately granted Amazon his consent to provide the data, moving the resolution of this legal showdown to another day. While Amazon was likely more concerned about future customer’s fear of losing their privacy, the takeaway is that this data may be easily obtainable if the company possessing it complies with the request.

The focus of this case was past data already recorded and stored, but something to consider is the possibility of tapping into the Amazon Echo’s microphone in real time. Law enforcement can obtain judicial authorization for a wiretap of a suspect’s electronic communications. Any internet-connected smart device with a microphone can theoretically be remotely activated without the user knowing, creating a bugging device. On a scarier note, hackers have demonstrated the ability to do this with ease. The average citizen probably has nothing to worry about, but public figures, politicians, journalists, etc. may want to weigh whether the convenience of these devices is worth the privacy risks they pose.

Another recent target of law enforcement has been data generated by Uber riders and drivers. Just as in the Amazon case, a judge approved the subpoena for these records. The likely trend will be that judges grant these requests with regularity. One can imagine these records being requested in a divorce or custody proceeding, revealing a spouse’s habitual Uber rides from the bar or to his or her paramour’s house.

Technology will continue to progress and tech companies will continue to vacuum up more and more data about our daily lives. It’s possible we may never be able to delete that data, or only with varying degrees of difficulty. When enjoying the conveniences of Silicon Valley technology, it must always be assumed a detailed trail will be left behind.


Protecting the Rights of Home Care Workers

Home care workers play a vital role in the lives of many elderly and disabled patients. While these workers are labeled by a number of different job titles, they all work to provide those in need with the fundamental services to increase their quality of life. But as home care workers serve and protect their patients, they should be mindful to protect their own rights and interests under federal and state labor laws.

Home care workers — and most workers in the United States generally — are provided certain minimum wage and overtime protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act, or FLSA. The FLSA is a federal law that enacted comprehensive protections dealing with employment and labor issues and also standardized the 40-hour workweek.

As home care workers are increasingly required to travel to and from patients, and draft and handle reports and paperwork away from the job site, home care workers should ensure that their rights under the FLSA are being protected. Particularly, if a home care worker handles paperwork or charting that is required or necessary for the job — even away from the job site or patient’s home — they are generally entitled to be compensated by their employer. To add, travel time between job sites or patient homes generally is compensable.

An employer’s failure to provide compensation, including applicable overtime pay, to home care workers for these qualified activities is a serious violation of federal law. Ultimately, the home care worker has the right to sue their employer or to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor asking the Department to investigate the alleged noncompliance. This could result in the employer paying back wages to the home care worker and other fines.

If you believe that your employer has not fulfilled its legal obligations under the Federal Labor Standards Act or that you are not being compensated what you are owed, a qualified attorney can help you receive the money you deserve.

This article is intended for information only and should not be considered legal advice.


The Top 3 Questions We Heard at “Lawyers in Libraries”

Lane Ewing of the Cazayoux Ewing Law Firm recently volunteered at Louisiana State Bar Association’s “Lawyers in Libraries,” an event in which lawyers seek to help the public become aware of options available to them when they cannot afford an attorney. As a part of Louisiana’s “National Celebrate Pro Bono Week,” the program is designed to deliver information about pro bono attorneys through the city’s public libraries.

People are given the opportunity to ask a legal question and get a brief response and advice on where to seek more information to solve their problem.

Typical questions include:

  • How do I get the title for my deceased parents’ home transferred to their heirs?
  • How do I protect my elderly parent from identity theft or telephone scams?
  • Is it necessary for me to draft a will to ensure my children are cared for in case something happens to me?

While fifteen minutes is usually not enough time to solve a complex legal issue, most who participate in the program are surprised to hear that there are clinics that offer free or reduced rate services.  Volunteers and the Legal Education & Assistance Program work to provide online and print resources that are available to the public year-round. Click here to read more about this important event.


Fraud inevitably follows disasters, so authorities in Texas, Florida prepare for post-storm scams

Original Post: The Washington Post on September 8, 2017 by Tom Jackman

Amid each natural disaster such as Hurricane Harvey, there are inspiring tales of rescues and generosity and hope. And invariably, those are followed by tales of scams and frauds and storm survivors revictimized by those looking to capitalize on the relief system. The problem has become so bad that, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Justice Department established the National Center for Disaster Fraud, which receives hundreds of calls every month even when a cataclysm such as Harvey or the Deepwater Horizon oil spill isn’t occurring.

And now the calls are starting to roll in from Houston. Unscrupulous repair and removal contractors. Robo-calls about phony insurance schemes. FEMA “inspectors” charging for their services. The Texas attorney general’s office said Thursday that it has received more than 3,200 complaints about scams, fraud and price gouging since Aug. 25, for things such as $99 for a case of water. In Baton Rouge, where the National Disaster Fraud Center is located, the number of fraud reports went from 79 the week before Hurricane Harvey to 425 in the week after the storm hit, center director and U.S. Attorney Corey R. Amundson said.

“It’s a cascade of crime,” said Walt Green, Amundson’s predecessor as U.S. attorney in central Louisiana and head of the fraud center for the last four years. “Houston, and now Florida, this is not over in weeks or months. We’re talking a decade-plus.” He said before he stepped down earlier this year that the center received a call from a woman who was being pursued by the IRS for not paying taxes on her Katrina relief benefits from 12 years ago — which she had never sought or received.

In Houston, Amundson and the Justice Department last week formed a working group of various federal law enforcement agencies and prosecutors to specifically target crime related to Hurricane Harvey, with support from the fraud center, which serves as a national clearinghouse for fraud reports. In addition, “we’ve talked with Florida” as Hurricane Irma approaches, Amundson said in an interview. “We’re coordinating already. But the first priority of the Justice Department right now is to keep folks safe.”

Green said there were some predictable phases to disaster-related crime, often launched by “disaster chasers” — people who target disaster relief money or donations intended for charity. The national fraud center can sometimes detect repeat violators with its 12-year-old database of shady activity. Green said charity fraud is often the first to occur, with false websites set up to collect donations. When the National Weather Service releases its list of storm names each year, he said, people buy up domain sites such as “Irma Relief” or “Help Harvey” in hopes of fooling well-intentioned donors.

Investigators found 5,000 questionable Katrina-related websites after that storm, Green said, and not just from the area of the disaster, but nationwide. While Katrina was still slamming into Louisiana, a man in Florida launched “AirKatrina.com” claiming he was a private pilot performing rescues and needed money for fuel. He wrote that he saw people huddled on roofs and that “I will hear these screams for the rest of my life.” He was nowhere near Louisiana, but he raised $40,000 in two days, authorities said.

“The charity fraud danger period is right now” for Houston, Amundson said. “That’s usually for a couple more weeks.”

FEMA reported last week that scammers were also using robo-calls to tell people their flood insurance premiums were past due and they had to send money immediately or see their policies canceled. “That is pure fraud,” said Roy E. Wright of the National Flood Insurance Program of FEMA. “You should only be taking information from trusted sources.”

As the storm passes, contractors swoop in to clean up debris, take down trees and perform other clean-up tasks. Some will take money and simply disappear. Some will have FEMA benefits signed over to them. Some will actually do the work. Experts said victims can only tread carefully, do their homework, and hope they don’t get fleeced.

The next phase of disaster relief brings the largest amount of fraud — requests for relief payments for damages. Individuals who weren’t affected file claims. Businesses that weren’t near the disaster file false claims. Some fraudsters work hard to get their money, said Don Cazayoux, also a former U.S. attorney and director of the fraud center. “They would create really good false invoices,” Cazayoux said, “with false employee manifests, W-9 [tax forms]. You’ve got to really dig sometimes to figure it out.”

He said scammers would also steal the identities of actual victims and file for their relief funds before the victims did. “Identity theft is one of the most common forms” of fraud, Cazayoux said. From Katrina, more than 1,400 federal fraud prosecutions were launched, as well as untold numbers of state prosecutions. State attorneys general, particularly in New Jersey after Superstorm Sandy and in Texas now, have become more aggressive in fighting disaster fraud, Cazayoux said.

“Unfortunately,” Cazayoux said, “the best and worst comes out in national disasters.”

Because states have become aware of the lengths that scammers will go to for money, Green said, they have taken more time to investigate their legitimacy, and longer to pay benefits. He said relief recipients from Superstorm Sandy in 2012 sometimes had to wait 18 months or more, but that the investigations ensured that fewer phony claims were paid.

New Jersey authorities are still aggressively prosecuting fraud cases connected to Sandy relief. The state attorney general has filed 102 criminal cases and county prosecutors have filed another 95 cases, attorney general spokesman Peter Aseltine said. Among the more egregious examples were a man who posed as a Red Cross worker, collecting payments from storm victims on false promises of providing them with housing or automobiles, and a car dealer who sold Sandy-damaged vehicles to unsuspecting customers.

And then there’s the public corruption that accompanies the rebuilding phase of a disaster, as government officials steer contracts or equipment to friends, or themselves. In Louisiana, Amundson prosecuted a Shreveport area fire chief, Donovon R. McMullen Jr., who conspired to steal and sell more than $1 million worth of defibrillators shipped to the area for distribution in New Orleans after Katrina hit. When McMullen found out he was being investigated by the FBI, he tried to have one of his co-conspirators killed, court records show. McMullen was sentenced to nearly 14 years in prison.

Gradually, the word spread that fraud enforcement was happening after Katrina. Around New Orleans, the Red Cross had distributed payments to supposed victims. But soon, money started coming back. “We got between $1 million and $1.5 million returned to the Red Cross by people who got money,” Amundson said. “They started seeing prosecutions, and they gave the money back.”

If you suspect fraud connected to a natural disaster, you can call the National Center for Disaster Fraud at 866-720-5721, or email the organization at disaster@leo.gov. The center serves as a national clearinghouse and refers cases to the proper law enforcement agency anywhere in the country.


Fighting Fraud Following Disaster: What to Watch out for

The waters recede, the winds calm, the storm passes. Finally, power returns to homes and neighborhoods, and the cleanup begins.

But as community members come together during the days following the storm to rebuild their city, clean up their parks, and feed their neighbors, scammers wait in the wings.  

The rush to provide aid to those in need following a disaster creates an ideal environment for fraudsters.  According to a report in The Washington Post, “In Baton Rouge, where the National Disaster Fraud Center is located, the number of fraud reports went from 79 the week before Hurricane Harvey to 425 in the week after the storm hit,” center director and U.S. Attorney Corey R. Amundson said.

One such fraud is the too-familiar business practice of price gouging. In fact, following Hurricane Harvey, Texas Attorney General, Ken Paxton told CNBC of “reports of $99 cases of water, doubling and tripling of hotel room prices.”

Similarly, in the recent wake of Hurricane Irma, Floridians took to social media to complain about various airlines escalating their flight prices thousands of dollars for those trying to evacuate before the storm hit. Florida Attorney General, Pam Bondi, Bondi told The New York Times that Floridians logged more than 7,000 price-gouging complaints with her office.

Most states have laws against these unscrupulous practices, resulting in stiff penalties with high fines.

Other immediate fraud practices that may impact storm survivors:

  • The Better Business Bureau warns – beware of unlicensed contractors looking to rip-off homeowners.
  • Be on the lookout for robocalls. According to NPR, some reports from Florida claim that callers are posing as insurance agents demanding immediate payment for continuation of policies.
  • Watch out for charity scammers. Seemingly well-meaning people set up fake GoFundMe donation accounts to rake in money for themselves. Instead, if you wish donate to victims, find a reputable organization that can put your money to work.

Finally, following a declaration of a state of emergency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a federal agency dedicated to helping individuals, businesses, and communities recover and rebuild following a natural disaster, may step in. Unfortunately, according to The Washington Post, this phase of recovery often “brings the largest amount of fraud.”

According to Don Cazayoux, Cazayoux Ewing Law Firm Partner and former U.S. attorney and director of the National Disaster Fraud Center, “Scammers will often steal the identities of others who were actually affected by the disaster, file a claim for relief and divert the funds to themselves instead of the person who actually needs the assistance.”  

And because of the increased cases of identity fraud, federal agencies are “more aggressive in fighting disaster fraud related to identity theft,” Cazayoux said.  These cases often bring stiffer penalties including mandatory minimum sentences.  

People should be vigilant of price gouging, identity theft, and scammers.  If you feel that you are a victim of a scam, you should contact the National Disaster Fraud Center hotline at 866-720-5721 or email disaster@leo.gov.  


Public Corruption Crimes: Charges You Can’t Afford

For most people, the term “public corruption” probably conjures up images of pinstriped politicians in a dimly-lit, smoke-filled room, exchanging promises in exchange for money (more commonly referred to as “bribes”). But public corruption encompasses a broad array of activities, including fraud, bribery and racketeering to name a few, which ultimately pose a threat to our security or way of life. Thus, Congress has passed many statutes to punish and deter corruption of public officials.[1]

And while understanding these statutes is essential to understanding your duties and responsibilities as a person of public trust or as a person or organization that regularly deals with public officials, because the laws are so complex, it is fundamental that you consult with knowledgeable and experienced defense attorneys to protect your rights and interests as well.

Generally, most public corruption crimes are prosecuted by U. S. attorneys’ offices and the Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section. These offices are armed with a wide net to catch—and ultimately charge—both high-profile defendants (like members of Congress and governors) and more innocuous, career-level government or public employees. Courts have broadly construed the title of “public official” to include: an agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF)[2]; a postal employee who had the responsibility of ensuring that bulk mail had the appropriate charge[3]; and a Private in the Army[4]. Thus, it is critical that all public officials and employees remain cognizant of both ethical and legal “red lines.”

Closer to home, recently the Attorney General for the state of Louisiana, Jeff Landry, “has vowed to make ending public corruption a priority statewide as part of his new Administration and to work closely with the FBI and other officials on these efforts moving forward.” And true to word, most recently is the guilty plea of former Homer Mayor on charges of malfeasance, the arrest of former Angola Mayor for misuse of public funds, arrest of former manager of Lafayette non-profit apartment complex for theft of public funds, the arrest of former Pointe Coupee Parish sheriff’s deputy for payroll fraud, and the arrest of former coroner for East Feliciana Parish for conspiracy. According to Attorney General Landry’s website (https://www.ag.state.la.us/Corruption), all aforementioned arrests, charges and indictments have occurred since March 2017. Convictions would mean possible job loss, restitution, probation and/or imprisonment.

While public corruption charges carry significant legal implications, they may also cause a very serious and damaging impact to your reputation as a public servant or politician; therefore, it is imperative that you have experienced and professional advocates on your side to defend your rights.

 

This article is intended for information only and should not be considered legal advice.

[1] Ashley Kircher et. al., Public Corruption, 45 Am. Crim. L. Rev. 825, 826 (2008).

[2] United States v. Gjieli, 717 F.2d 968 (6th Cir. 1983) (holding that an ATF agent was within the statutory definition of “public official” even though he did not have the ability to carry out the target action of the bribe).

[3] United States v. Gelb, 881 F.2d 1155 (2d Cir. 1989) (holding that a postal worker that was responsible for ensuring that bulk mail had the appropriate postage was a “public official” within the meaning of the federal bribery statute).

[4] United States. v. Kidd, 734 F.2d 409 (9th Cir. 1984) (dismissing defendant’s argument that Army Private was not a “public official” because she was an enlisted soldier, rather than an officer).

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