Signs of the Times
by John Browning    Thu, Aug 30, 2012, 02:49 pm

What better way to mark the end of summer (as we send children back to school, return from vacations, and otherwise face reality) than with an acknowledgment that the litigants and controversies populating the legal system remain just as offbeat as ever?  Here are a few gentle reminders of our system of “law and disorder.”


It Must Have Been a Sign


In Easton, Pennsylvania, Dave Gorczynski learned a lesson about taking things too literally.  The bearded, ponytailed young man was participating in an “Occupy Easton” protest (a far cry from Wall Street) in August at a local branch of Wells Fargo Bank.  Trying to send a message about predatory lending practices, he was holding up signs saying “You’re being robbed” and “Give a man a gun, he can rob a bank.  Give a man a bank, and he can rob a country.”  He later did the same thing at a Bank of America, where a bank employee notified police.  Taking him a little too literally, Easton police arrested Gorczynski and charged him with attempted bank robbery.  He was released on bail, but still faces two felony charges.  Easton Police Chief Carl Scalzo maintains that his officers acted appropriately, evidently not getting the fact that Gorczynski was taking part in a political protest.


I Forgot


Maybe Gorczynski should adopt the “I forgot” defense.  Years ago, comedian Steve Martin joked that the foolproof way to get out of any criminal wrongdoing was to simply maintain that you forgot the act was illegal—the “I forgot” defense, if you will.  Maybe Sydney, Australia lawyer Michael Sullivan remembered that long-ago sketch.  Sullivan recently persuaded a judge that he suffers from “dissociative amnesia” and that the condition caused him to assume the identity of an art thief, yet not remember his actions.  In December 2008, Sullivan was dining at an art gallery restaurant when he made off with two paintings valued at $14,500—an event recorded on the gallery’s security cameras.  Police later found both paintings hanging up at Sullivan’s home, and Sullivan tried to tell them that he had paid a $2,000 deposit for the artwork and planned on paying the gallery the balance.  Acknowledging that this “is a somewhat bizarre case,” defense attorney Tony Bellanto nevertheless produced two psychiatric reports on behalf of his 54 year-old client, claiming Sullivan simply had no memory of committing the theft.  Judge Jennifer English accepted the odd defense, setting Sullivan free on a 2 year good behavior bond.


When Too Much is Just Enough


From being caught red-handed robbing an art gallery to having a bunch of evidence documenting one’s crimes, you’d think that having too much evidence would be a nice problem for most prosecutors to have.  Not according to Stephanie Rose, the U.S. attorney for northern Iowa.  She recently asked a federal judge to dismiss charges against a fugitive doctor charged in what was the country’s largest internet pharmacy prosecution.  Over a 9 year investigation, prosecutors had accumulated over 400,000 documents and two terabytes of electronic data in their case against Dr. Armando Angulo, a Miami-based doctor who fled to his native Panama after his 2007 indictment for selling prescription drugs to patients he never saw or examined.  The evidence in the case—which helped close down two internet pharmacies and helped convict 19 other doctors as well as other defendants who had illegally sold some 30 million pills—was simply too voluminous.  The two terabytes of data—the equivalent of the text of 2 million novels—was taking up 5% of the DEA’s worldwide electronic storage.  Since Panama doesn’t usually extradite its citizens, maintaining the government’s case against Dr. Angulo constituted “an economic and practical hardship” for the DEA, according to Ms. Rose.  A federal judge agreed and dismissed the case—not for lack of evidence, but in this case, too much evidence.


Two Expensive Words


I’ve written before about how failure to proofread legal documents carefully can result in expensive mistakes.  As it turns out, city officials in Santa Clara, California may have made a $548 million mistake, all over two words.  A proposed ballot measure to renew a $548 million tax allowing the local water district to maintain the city’s water supply featured a 77 word summary—a violation of election laws mandating no more than 75 words.  When the water district board realized its mistake, it was hastily corrected—perhaps too hastily, as it turns out.  Apparently, the meeting at which the corrected summary was approved missed the requisite notice period required under California’s open meetings law by less than an hour.  Oops!  Now a local taxpayers group is threatening a lawsuit unless the measure is taken off the ballot.  Sounds like two little words and what city officials call a “minor technicality” may have a half-billion dollar impact.


Don’t Like the Weather?  Sue the Weatherman


What ever happened to the concept of “don’t kill the messenger?”  City officials in the Belgian seaside resort town of Knokke plan to sue private weather service Meteo Belgique for incorrectly predicting bad weather in August.  Mayor Leo Lippens says the flawed forecast hurt the town’s tourism trade.  He says the weather service should be “financially responsible” for such “public disinformation.”


Making Too Much Noise?


Jessica Angel and Colin MacKenzie of Adelaide, Australia love each other—perhaps a bit too much.  The couple is facing a $4,000 fine for violating South Australia’s Environmental Protection Act of 1993, which includes noise pollution.  It seems the couple have been having noisy sex—and lots of it—to the point where police have made 20 visits to their apartment.  At one point, an “Emergency Environmental Protection Order” was served on Angel and MacKenzie, decreeing no noise for 72 hours—an order reportedly ignored by the couple.  Mr. MacKenzie blames his girlfriend.


Nanny State Run Amok?


Finally, if you had any doubt that the political correctness police running all too many of our schools have taken things way too far, consider what’s going on in Grand Island, Nebraska.  Grand Island public school administrators have a district rule banning anything in the school that looks like a weapon; apparently they interpret this to include children making a “stick ‘em up” sign with their fingers.  As if this wasn’t ludicrous enough, school officials want 3½ year old Hunter Spanjer (who is deaf) to change his name because of this “zero tolerance” policy.  It seems that in Signing Exact English (S.E.E.) language, Hunter signs his name by crossing his forefinger and index finger and moving his hand up and down.  School officials, worried that this could be taken to mean something threatening (from a 3½ year old?), reportedly have asked Hunter’s parents to change their child’s sign language name.  Lawyers for the National Association of the Deaf have already been in touch with Hunter’s parents about protecting their son’s right to sign his name.


It looks like school officials could use a remedial course of their own—in common sense.

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