SCOTUS bans excessive fines

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Visitors wait to enter the Supreme Court as a winter snow storm hits the nation's capital making roads perilous and closing most Federal offices and all major public school districts, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019. The Supreme Court is ruling unanimously that the Constitution's ban on excessive fines applies to the states. The outcome Wednesday could help an Indiana man recover the $40,000 Land Rover police seized when they arrested him for selling about $400 worth of heroin. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Visitors wait to enter the Supreme Court as a winter snow storm hits the nation's capital making roads perilous and closing most Federal offices and all major public school districts, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019. The Supreme Court is ruling unanimously that the Constitution's ban on excessive fines applies to the states. The outcome Wednesday could help an Indiana man recover the $40,000 Land Rover police seized when they arrested him for selling about $400 worth of heroin. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

‘Excessive fines’ ban applies to states, Supreme Court says


Associated Press

Thursday, February 21

WASHINGTON (AP) — Tyson Timbs admitted he’d sold drugs, and he accepted his sentence without a fight. What he wouldn’t quietly accept was the police seizing and keeping the $40,000 Land Rover he’d had when arrested. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court sided with him unanimously in ruling the Constitution’s ban on excessive fines applies to the states as well as the federal government.

The decision, in an opinion written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, could help efforts to rein in police seizures of property from criminal suspects.

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 in other cases last month following lung cancer surgery, but she returned to the bench on Tuesday.

Timbs, of Marion, Indiana, was charged in 2013 with selling $400 worth of heroin. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year of house arrest but faced no prison time. His biggest loss was the Land Rover he had 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 in Indiana had 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 both 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 police seize the property of people accused of crimes, the proceeds from the sale often go directly to the agency that took it, the law firm said in written arguments in support of Timbs.

The Indiana man had been on hand when arguments in the case were heard before the justices last November.

He said back then that his view of the case had changed over time.

“At first it was about getting my truck back because I was mad, and I wanted my stuff back. Now it’s a lot different,” he said. “I was curious to see how often they did this to people. They do it a lot around here, and apparently it’s done all over the country.”

As it did in earlier cases applying parts of the Bill of Rights to the states, the court based its decision on the part of the 14th Amendment that says “no state shall deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law.” That same provision, the due process clause, also was used in cases that established a woman’s right to an abortion and knocked down state laws against interracial marriage and gay sex.

The 14th Amendment was passed after the Civil War to ensure the rights of newly freed slaves.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote separately to say he would have used a different part of the 14th amendment to achieve the same result. Thomas has long been a critic of the court’s application of the due process clause, which also is found in the Fifth Amendment. He wrote that cases that employ the provision “are some of the court’s most notoriously incorrect decisions,” including the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion case and the 1857 Dred Scott case that held that African-Americans were not citizens.

Thomas said he would have relied on the Constitution’s language forbidding states from making or enforcing “any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.”

Justice Neil Gorsuch also expressed his preference for the privileges or immunities clause.

The case is Timbs v. Indiana, 17-1091.

The Conversation

Guyana hopes oil will bring wealth – not corruption and crisis

February 21, 2019

Author: Jennapher Lunde Seefeldt, Visiting Assistant Professor of Politics and International Studies, Centre College

Disclosure statement: Jennapher Lunde Seefeldt does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

When ExxonMobil begins oil production in Guyana next year, mining crude from its seven new deepwater wells, life may change dramatically in this small South American country.

The mega deal is expected to increase Guyana’s gross domestic product from US$3.4 billion in 2016 to $13 billion by 2025. That’s because Guyana, one of the poorest in South America, will receive about half of all ExxonMobil’s oil revenue after the company’s exploration costs are repaid.

Nearly 40 percent of Guyana’s 800,000 people live in poverty. The oil money will provide a remarkable economic boost that could strengthen education, health care and infrastructure.

But oil production brings risks, too. Guyana’s rice and sugar farmers worry that these traditional industries will suffer government disinvestment and neglect, and world history shows that great oil wealth often fuels political corruption.

Guyana has a cautionary tale of the dreaded “resource curse” right next door. Oil-rich Venezuela is in economic and political crisis, with inflation expected to reach 10 million percent in 2019.

A blessing or a curse?

I study natural resource extraction in Latin America. Based on my research in Venezuela, Ecuador and beyond, Guyana is right to fear Venezuela’s fate.

The Guyanese government scores relatively poorly on measures of transparency and public corruption, making it much more prone to the resource curse than a robust democracy like oil-producing Norway. Guyana’s government is also is heavily indebted, so overspending its share of ExxonMobil’s revenue could be tempting.

The “resource curse” is a dangerous spiral of political corruption and economic mismanagement that has frequently driven commodity-rich nations – not just Venezuela but also Angola, Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea – into crisis.

It typically works like this: High oil revenues reduce the need to collect taxes from citizens. This can create a “no representation without taxation” effect, where governments use real or anticipated economic windfalls to fund social programs that placate citizens. That, in turn, reduces popular demand for – and a government’s willingness to provide – actual democratic representation.

Corruption blooms as elected leaders use oil income as their political slush fund, and votes are bought instead of earned. Ultimately, oil-funded governments can become less accountable to their citizens.

Guyana needs its oil to be a blessing, not a curse.

Infant mortality is very high: 26 of every 1,000 babies die at birth. And adult literacy, at 86 percent, is lower than South America’s regional average.

Venezuela’s resource curse

The origins of neighboring Venezuela’s economic crisis are complicated, but mismanagement of its petroleum industry is the central cause.

For the past 15 years, the Venezuelan government has overspent its oil revenue to fund social programs. When global oil prices dropped, as they often do, the government diverted funds for finding new wells to keep popular anti-poverty initiatives running.

Venezuela repeatedly borrowed money to keep the government going. It is now heavily indebted to international lenders, from China, Russia to the U.S. investment firm BlackRock.

Its oil industry has also been debilitated.

In the early 2000s, President Hugo Chávez fired many of the high-level managers who’d previously worked with Exxon, Chevron and other private energy firms in Venezuela, saying they were a foreign threat to Venezuela’s national oil business.

These executives had important technical expertise in extracting and processing Venezuela’s heavy crude that “would take at least 15 years to rebuild,” the government acknowledged at the time.

Venezuela’s oil production in 2018 was the lowest in seven decades. Today in Venezuela, home to the world’s great oil reserves, gasoline shortages occur regularly.

How to beat the resource curse

The resource curse is not inevitable in Guyana. Many resource-rich countries – including Malaysia, Chile, Botswana, Norway and Canada – have all avoided economic and political chaos.

The trick is to use commodity revenues in a responsible and sustainable manner and protect existing industries as a backstop to the volatile oil market.

Guyana has already joined several international coalitions, including the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and the New Petroleum Producers Group, that offer voluntary guidance and transparency requirements to help countries manage their commodity wealth soundly.

One strong recommendation is to create a sovereign wealth fund. Both Norway and Alaska use these investment accounts to grow oil revenue, stabilize government budgets against fluctuations in oil prices and save for a rainy day.

To work as planned, however, these funds require strong oversight and strict management.

Since economic growth usually lags behind official projections in oil states, sovereign wealth funds are often overspent. Volatile oil prices compound that risk. Sovereign wealth funds can also serve as a slush fund for leaders who use the money to buy popular support, fueling corruption.

Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago, and Ghana have all seen their sovereign wealth funds mismanaged or depleted by over-borrowing.

In January, Guyana’s National Assembly approved a bill that would create a sovereign wealth fund, which the finance ministry says is a “national imperative” to avoid the resource curse.

Guyana’s financial governance plan looks promising, says the Natural Resource Governance Institute, a nonprofit that aims to improve countries’ governance and development of natural resources.

The Guyanese government will publish quarterly and annual reports on expenditures from its sovereign wealth fund. All withdrawals from the fund will also be subject to parliamentary approval.

Transparency and civil society

Citizen oversight also helps prevent corruption, especially in resource-rich states.

When governments know that citizens are watching their every move, they are more likely to be accountable and transparent in spending commodity revenue.

Several domestic watchdog groups have emerged in Guyana since the discovery of oil there in 2015.

The website OilNow offers news, updates and podcasts alongside an interactive map of oilfields, offering industry information to Guyanese in accessible layman’s terms.

Guyana’s domestic branch of Transparency International has brought international experts to the country to train other Guyanese civil society organizations to “ensure the scrutiny of the governance of Guyana’s oil and gas sector.”

The Open Society Foundations, financier George Soros’ international human rights philanthropy, has also pressured ExxonMobil to ensure environmentally safe extraction. The philanthropy has also provided funding to train Guyanese journalists to report on the oil sector.

Compared to some neighbors in Latin America and the Caribbean, Guyana is better prepared for its oil boom.

To avoid the resource curse, however, the Guyanese government, people and ExxonMobil must continuously hold each other accountable – and remember the pitfalls they face.

The Conversation

Zebra’s stripes are a no fly zone for flies

February 20, 2019


Tim Caro, Professor of Wildlife, Fish & Conservation Ecology, University of California, Davis

Martin How, Research Fellow in Biological Sciences, University of Bristol

Disclosure statement: The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Partners: University of Bristol provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation UK. University of California provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation US.

Zebras are famous for their contrasting black and white stripes – but until very recently no one really knew why they sport their unusual striped pattern. It’s a question that’s been discussed as far back as 150 years ago by great Victorian biologists like Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.

Since then many ideas have been put on the table but only in the last few years have there been serious attempts to test them. These ideas fall into four main categories: Zebras are striped to evade capture by predators, zebras are striped for social reasons, zebras are striped to keep cool, or they have stripes to avoid attack by biting flies.

Only the last one stands up to scrutiny. And our latest research helps fill in more of the details on why.

What’s the advantage of zebra stripes?

Could stripes help zebras avoid becoming a predator’s meal? There are many problems with this idea. Field experiments show that zebras stand out to the human eye when they’re among trees or in grassland even when illumination is poor – they appear far from camouflaged. And when fleeing from danger, zebras do not behave in ways to maximize any confusion possibly caused by striping, making hypothetical ideas about dazzling predators untenable.

Worse still for this idea, the eyesight of lions and spotted hyenas is much weaker than ours; these predators can only resolve stripes when zebras are very close up, at a distance when they can likely hear or smell the prey anyway. So stripes are unlikely to be of much use in anti-predator defense.

Most damaging, zebras are a preferred prey item for lions – in study after study across Africa, lions kill them more than might be expected from their numerical abundance. So stripes cannot be a very effective anti-predator defense against this important carnivore. So much for the evading-predators hypothesis.

What about the idea that stripes help zebras engage with members of their own species? Every zebra has a unique pattern of striping. Could it be useful in individual recognition? This possibility seems highly unlikely given that uniformly colored domestic horses can recognize other individuals by sight and sound. Striped members of the horse family do not groom each other – a form of social bonding – more than unstriped equid species either. And very unusual unstriped individual zebras are not shunned by group members, and they breed successfully.

What about some kind of defense against the hot African sun? Given that black stripes might be expected to absorb radiation and white stripes reflect it, one idea proposed that stripes set up convection currents along the animal’s back, thereby cooling it.

Again, this seems improbable: Careful experiments in which large water barrels were draped in striped or uniform colored pelts, or were painted striped or unstriped, showed no differences in internal water temperatures. Moreover thermographic measurements of zebra, impala, buffalo and giraffe in the wild show that zebras are no cooler than these other species with whom they live.

The last idea for striping sounds preposterous at first blush – stripes stop biting insects from obtaining a blood meal – but it has a lot of support.

Early experiments in the 1980s reported that tsetse flies and horseflies avoid landing on striped surfaces and has been confirmed more recently.

Most convincingly, however, are data from across the geographic range of the seven living species of equids. Some of these species are striped (zebras), some are not (Asiatic asses) and some are partially striped (African wild ass). Across species and their subspecies, intensity of striping closely parallels biting fly annoyance in Africa and Asia. That is, wild equids indigenous to areas where annoyance from horseflies is prolonged over the year are those most likely to have marked striping patterns.

We think that the reason equids need to be striped in Africa is that African biting flies carry diseases such as trypanosomiasis, African horse sickness and equine influenza which can be fatal to equids. And zebras are particularly susceptible to probing by biting fly mouthparts because of their short cropped coats. Having a fur pattern that helped evade flies and the deadly diseases they carried would be a strong advantage, meaning stripes would be passed on to future generations.

Testing the idea that stripes and flies don’t mix

But how do stripes actually exert their influence on biting flies? We set out to examine this at a livery in Somerset, U.K., where horseflies collect in the summer.

We were lucky enough to work with Terri Hill, the livery’s owner. We could get very close to her horses and tame plains zebras, allowing us to actually watch flies landing or flying past the equids. We also videoed fly behavior around the animals, and put different colored coats on horses.

It is important to remember that flies have much poorer vision than people. We found that zebras and horses received a similar number of approaches from horseflies, probably attracted by their smell – but zebras experienced far fewer landings. Around horses, flies hover, spiral and turn before touching down again and again. In contrast, around zebras flies either flew right past them or made a single quick landing and flew off again.

Frame by frame analyses of our videos showed that flies slowly decelerated as they approached brown or black horses before making a controlled landing. But they failed to decelerate as they approached zebras. Instead they would fly straight past or literally bump into the animal and bounce off.

When we placed black coats or white coats or striped coats on the same horse so as to control for any differences in animal behavior or smell, again flies did not land on the stripes. But there was no difference in landing rates on the horse’s naked head, showing that stripes exert their effect close up but do not impede fly approaches at a distance.

And it showed us that striped horse coats, currently sold by two companies, really do work.

So now that we know that stripes affect horseflies really close up, not at a distance, what is actually going on inches away from the host? One idea is that the stripes set up an optical illusion that disrupts the expected pattern of movement the fly experiences as it approaches the zebra, preventing it from landing properly. Another idea is that flies don’t see the zebra as a solid entity but a series of thin black objects. Only when very close do they realize that they’re going to hit a solid body and instead veer off. We are looking into these possibilities now.

So our basic research on fly behavior is not only telling us why zebras are so beautifully striped, but it has real implications for the horse-wear industry, with the potential to make riding and horse maintenance less painful for horse and rider alike.

Look Up! The Age of the Delivery Drone Is Dawning

By Llewellyn King

Here a drone, there a drone. Everywhere a drone. Drones, the light ones, not the big military ones that chase bad guys around the Middle East and elsewhere, are beginning to do heavy lifting.

Consider: Packages are already being delivered by drone in Canberra, Australia’s capital. In Rwanda — unsophisticated Rwanda, known more for its genocide in 1994 — drones are delivering life in the form of emergency blood supplies. I am told the blood is dropped where it is needed in the landlocked East African country by little parachutes. In Europe, soon drones will deliver packages between Helsinki, Finland’s capital, and Tallinn, the capital of neighboring Estonia.

If you need it quickly and cheaply, call a drone. They are the new frontier of delivery.

When the new age of unmanned civilian aircraft dawned (thanks to better batteries, cheaper computer chips and, most important, good, cheap gyroscopes), the sky became the limit. The sky is big, but not that big, and it is going to become a jungle of drones.

Enter AirMap, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based company. It is working with aviation authorities all over the world to design air traffic systems for drones, which allow them free range in the most crowded airspace.

The platform offered by AirMap, according to chairman and co-founder Ben Marcus, is the system that is being incorporated into drone control systems 85 percent of the time around the world. He tells me that Switzerland is a leader in the drone regulatory interface.

Marcus talks about drones passionately, as though they are a good cause. He wants to enable more drones to fly safely. Millions of them.

The drone control system, which is under development, is like the air traffic control system that allows small private airplanes to fly along with commercial jumbo jets. AirMap is a system that has been designed to welcome all flyers, according to Marcus.

AirMap works with air management agencies, like the Federal Aviation Administration and its equivalent in other countries, to make the drone future safe and effective for all the players who would like to enter the drone market, including recreational flyers; post offices; retailers like Amazon, an early air advocate; Google, a big proponent of the automated future; and Uber, which has big plans for its role in the cities of tomorrow. Can FedEx and UPS afford to be behind?

There is scarcely anyone who delivers anything, who does not dream of the time when drones will take it to the front door, and where you will retrieve the cargo by varying methods, including taking it from a string, as is happening in Australia, according to Marcus.

Early entrants into the commercial use of drones have been electric utilities for line inspections, broadcasters for remote photography, and police departments for a variety of their work.

“That is just beginning,” Marcus told me.

Another drone company seeking to make a place for itself in the drone space, San Francisco-based Starship Technologies, promotes how clean-and-green and quiet drones are. Certainly, as they run on electric batteries, they avoid all the noise and mess of internal combustion.

Last Christmas, the world was reminded of the need for systems of control of drones around airports when Gatwick, London’s second airport, was closed for more than a day on news of the sighting of a drone.

Marcus points out that, as practical matter, aircraft deal with birds all the time and they are not subject to the kind of control — control not limitation, advocates are keen to emphasize — take the randomness out of drone flying and the use of airspace for other things.

When you buy a drone in the United States, you must register it — and more than a million are registered. Control system technology will keep track of each drone and who is responsible without the “turn left, head 130 degrees” control that aircraft have. The control systems will keep drones at safe distances and altitudes from runways, other drones and physical objects. Delivery drones will use sensors to skip over power lines and stay away from other drones on the same mission.

You do not want your new shoes tangling with a pizza, as drones bearing both head for your door.


Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS. His email is He wrote this for

Visitors wait to enter the Supreme Court as a winter snow storm hits the nation’s capital making roads perilous and closing most Federal offices and all major public school districts, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019. The Supreme Court is ruling unanimously that the Constitution’s ban on excessive fines applies to the states. The outcome Wednesday could help an Indiana man recover the $40,000 Land Rover police seized when they arrested him for selling about $400 worth of heroin. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) wait to enter the Supreme Court as a winter snow storm hits the nation’s capital making roads perilous and closing most Federal offices and all major public school districts, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019. The Supreme Court is ruling unanimously that the Constitution’s ban on excessive fines applies to the states. The outcome Wednesday could help an Indiana man recover the $40,000 Land Rover police seized when they arrested him for selling about $400 worth of heroin. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
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