An expanded tool for law enforcement — increased access to Skype

Changes in technology are now making it easier for law enforcement to eavesdrop — with a court order — on Skype chats, though not on audio and video calls.  

This Washington Post article gives the details on expanded access by law enforcement to chats and user data, as well as some of the privacy issues.  According to the article, surveillance of the audio and video feeds still isn’t practical. I wonder how long it will take for that to change.

How will your fictional law enforcement officers use this expanded access? How will your other characters — and not just the bad guys —  respond?

Pressure your characters with the law — criminal charges aren’t the only option

I haven’t commented much on the child sex abuse convictions of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, although the issues offer the fiction writer much fodder. The case illustrates a deep irony in the law–and no doubt in medicine and psychology as well: the most interesting issues tend to arise in the cases with the most horrific facts. That conflict offers the fiction writer and reader terrific opportunities for page-turning tension.

Today, the NCAA announced its sanctions on the Penn State football program, for a years-long pattern of secrecy that tolerated horrible abuse and allowed it to continue. That action–which I applaud–prompts me to comment on other legal means to pressure your characters–because it’s pressure that forces both the good guys and the bad guys to act. It’s pressure that reveals their true nature, creates further conflict that advances the story, and keeps the reader up past her bed time.

The criminal system itself is a great pressure cooker. But it’s not the only one. Give your character a professional license that’s at risk if she can’t clear her name. Lawyers convicted of felonies are all but automatically disbarred, and in some situations, may be ineligible for reinstatement. Lesser discipline such as a temporary suspension may damage, even destroy, a lawyer’s practice and professional reputation, as well as his livelihood, self-esteem, marriage, health, and more.

As I wrote last week, a judge convicted of a felony will likely be removed from the bench. A state court judge may face other discipline that could trigger a resignation, or feel forced to resign because he or she can no longer be effective. It’s hard to restore community trust once it’s betrayed.

Social workers, doctors, and other health care professionals also need professional licenses to work. What will they do in your story to protect them?

Heck, even a house cleaner may need a business license to work. What if she loses it–or fears she will? Many an employee has paid a judgment rather than have his wages garnished and lose his employer’s trust. What other action might that fear prompt?

Use a hint of scandal to raise the stakes. Is your bad guy a city councilman or a deputy sheriff? A teacher or a school administrator? What institutional pressures will he feel? What administrative procedures and internal discipline could stop him in his tracks–or send him down a different road? How will he strike out, try to lay blame elsewhere, misdirect both professional investigators and your amateur sleuth?

What about public safety? A restaurant or market must pass regular health department inspections. While it’s not easy to close a place down, lesser sanctions have a great impact. (My county requires all food service establishments to the certificate showing the letter grade received on their last inspection near the front door and publishes the grades in the paper–a mighty incentive to raise that C+ to an A. But there’s still one owner who just doesn’t seem to get it. …) Many factories, mills, and other employers are subject to regular inspections, heightened after an accident. What might a routine or special inspection uncover? How will your characters respond?

Civil claims are another great option. Remember the Goldman family’s lawsuit against OJ Simpson?

The NCAA, of course, is not a government agency–it’s a private body. But it does have great power over its members. Is there a similar entity that could influence your characters?

Just the hint of trouble, a whiff of an investigation, can be a powerful motivator. How will those sources of tension weigh on your characters, and increase story conflict?

The Saturday Writing Quote

“For me, the writing life doesn’t just happen when I sit at the writing desk. It is a life lived with a centering principle, and mine is this: that I will pay close attention to this world I find myself in. ‘My heart keeps open house,’ was the way poet Theodore Roethke put it in a poem. And rendering in language what one sees through the opened windows and doors of that house is a way of bearing witness to the mystery of what it is to be alive in this world.”

– Julia Alvarez, author of In the Time of the Butterflies and How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents

Judicial misconduct = good story options

Last week, I shared articles about two judges and what made them great and kept them going. But judges do go bad, and make big mistakes. Ethical lapses, even criminal mistakes. (They make mistakes about the law, too – retired Missouri state court judge and mystery writer Bill Hopkins will talk about that here this fall, when his first mystery, Courting Murder, debuts.)

A state court example: A Montana justice of the peace developed a drug addiction. Worse, he went “doctor shopping,” getting methadone prescriptions from three doctors in different communities. News accounts in the Billings Gazette report that he resigned from the bench after being charged with 34 felony counts of fraudulently obtaining dangerous drugs.

34 counts. Criminy.

State court judges can be disciplined for misconduct on and off the bench. State court judges are disciplined by the Judicial Standards Commission (or local equivalent – remember, terms and procedures vary state by state), typically a regulatory commission under the auspices of the state Supreme Court. Most commissions include a mix of members from the judiciary, the bar (lawyers), and the public. A complaint triggers an investigation, which will be dismissed if the judge is exonerated. If not, the judge may be disciplined for committing willful misconduct in office, or violating the state’s Canons of Judicial Ethics. In Montana, those Canons expressly prohibit “conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice which brings the judicial office into disrepute, or impropriety.”

There’s a range of possible discipline, from private admonition to forced retirement. Local options vary, of course, and will depend on the severity of the conduct, any prior incidents, and aggravating or mitigating factors.

What will happen in this case? Anybody’s guess. The judge’s defense lawyer, a hard-hitting fellow, hints at a plea agreement. The judge has already resigned. If he hadn’t, and is convicted, he’d likely be removed from office. If he’s convicted after trial, or pleads guilty to any felonies, he’ll be disbarred as well. Felony convictions, of course, are Very Bad, and result in all but automatic disbarment. (Lawyer discipline is discussed in detail in Books, Crooks & Counselors.)

A federal court example: A federal judge used his official email account to forward a racist joke about the president. He acknowledged his inappropriate behavior, but rejected calls to resign. Federal judges are appointed for life. The incident is being investigated for potential misconduct, which could lead to impeachment. If tried and convicted, he would be removed from office. But as the law professor quoted in this Reuters story  notes, that’s highly unlikely. His behavior was incredibly stupid–and calls his judgment into question–but isn’t the type of misconduct likely to result in removal. On the other hand, if a state court judge had done the same thing, local reaction might force his resignation.

Judges are as human as the rest of us. If a judge is a major or minor character in your story, you can use major or minor misconduct in many ways. Use it make the judge more human, to lead to more crime, or to trigger a cover-up. Use it to make her vulnerable to blackmail, if her actions are discovered. Use it to put your lawyer, cop, or PI protagonist in a quandary, unsure what to do with the information. The possibilities are, like all human failings, endless.

Update: The federal judge initially announced that he would take senior status, but the Billings Gazette reported in April 2013 that he would retire fully on May 3, following a March 15 order in the judicial conduct investigation, which is confidential pending an appeal.

The Saturday Writing Quote

“I think you find your voice when you quit censoring yourself. It isn’t external. It’s inside you. The reason [you aren’t] using it is the voice is being suppressed, usually because of some kind of decorum. … What are you keeping out of your writing? Allowing those things into your writing is ultimately how you find your voice.”

– Billy Collins, U.S. Poet Laureate 2001-03

Thinking Like a Judge

Although judges tend to be secondary characters in the novels they appear in, readers and writers alike are fascinated by them. Books, Crooks & Counselors includes a chapter on thinking like a judge, and I’ve continued to get questions about how judges might rule or respond in particular situations.

So today I’m linking to an issue of The Montana Lawyer, the monthly magazine published by the Montana State Bar, that highlighted the careers of two prominent Montana judges who died late last year, and some aspects of their jobs that bothered, motivated, and cheered them. The article on state Supreme Court Justice John Harrison starts on p. 5, and a former law clerk’s appreciation of Judge Joe Gary starts on p. 14. 


 (Image of the original Flathead County, Montana courthouse, now the main county office building, from the Montana Historical Society.)

Thanks, Mystery Scene!

In the new issue of Mystery Scene, Jon Breen calls Books, Crooks & Counselors “a legal equivalent to D.P. Lyle’s books on medical issues in mysteries,” and says “[t]horough, well-organized, and authoritative, this excellent reference also has touches of humor.”

A novelist as well as an Edgar-winning critic, Breen particularly likes my favorite lawyer joke: “Did you hear the one about the lawyer who quit his practice to wrote a novel, because he wanted to make a lot of money?”

Thanks, Mystery Scene and Jon Breen!

The Saturday Writing Quote — Becoming a Mapbuilder

“Every writer has those stories and books that make you want to cry uncle, that convince you that the stories you want to tell have been told before, and better. I was only halfway through Stuart Dybek’s I Sailed with Magellan when I decided I should just give up on writing altogether; that the intimacy he achieves with childhood and adolescence was more than I could ever imagine accomplishing, and I wanted to leave it to him, a far more lyric, braver writer than I would ever be.

“At these humbling moments, I remember advice I received from Dan Chaon while studying fiction at Oberlin. At the end of a semester, he wrote to me: “There’s a very specific world that only you can write about, a map that only you can make. This is your book: think about the highways, cities, rivers, state lines that you want to add to your atlas, the people you’d like to be, the situations that draw you in, that scare you and compel you.” This way of thinking about our jobs as writers, as mapbuilders, was my first step toward finding my voice, toward gathering the themes that underpin my most successful work.”

— essayist and story writer Danielle Lazarin, in the Glimmer Train bulletin