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House passes bill on NSA phone records program

The House voted 338-88 Wednesday to pass a bill that would end the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of phone records, the Washington Post reports.

Supporters say the USA Freedom Act would keep phone “metadata” out of government hands and make other changes to surveillance practices; some critics say that it goes too far, others that it doesn’t go nearly far enough. The Senate still must take up the bill amending Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which without congressional action will expire June 1.

Sam Farr, D-Carmel; Mike Honda, D-San Jose; and Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, voted against the bill Wednesday, while the rest of the Bay Area’s all-Democrat delegation supported it.

“Congress may have changed the name but the USA Freedom Act is just a watered-down version of the Patriot Act,” Farr said in a news release. “I commend the bipartisan effort to adhere to the 2nd Circuit Court’s ruling and to develop more safeguards to protect our civil liberties. Unfortunately, this bill still contains too many provisions that threaten the privacy of American citizens.

“I cannot vote for a bill that does not protect the privacy rights enshrined in the 4th Amendment,” Farr added. “The risk of faulty information collection is not a risk I am willing to take with any American’s privacy. Upholding the Constitution is non-negotiable.”

But Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, issued a statement saying “our government has a responsibility to respect people’s civil liberties and protect our national security. This legislation does both.

“It ends the government’s bulk collection of metadata, it strengthens oversight and improves accountability, and it allows our intelligence community to continue their brave work to keep Americans safe,” Thompson said.

Records of phone numbers, call dates, times and durations would be kept by telecommunications companies under this bill, not by the government. Company employees could still search such records under a court order specifying a particular person, account or address, but not an entire phone or Internet company or a broad geographic region, such as a state, city or Zip code.

The bill has the rare combined support of House Republican leaders and President Obama.

“In order to stay secure in these dangerous times, we must have the tools to track terrorists and spies. But the American people have strong concerns about a big government watching over our phone calls, collecting our metadata, and possibly invading our privacy,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, said in a news release.

“So the House has looked at the facts on the ground and recalibrated our approach to keep America safe while protecting civil liberties,” he said. “The USA FREEDOM Act stops bulk data collection while still making sure those fighting terrorism have access to what they need so they can do their job and prevent future terror attacks. That’s what makes it a good, bipartisan bill.”

But in the wake of last week’s 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that struck down the NSA’s phone-records collection program as illegal, civil libertarians aren’t happy with this bill.

“Last week’s historic court decision makes clear that this bill must be strengthened to protect privacy rights,” Michael Macleod-Ball, acting director of the ACLU’s Washington legislative office, had said in a statement issued Tuesday.

“Following the court’s ruling, the House should have amended the bill to prevent the government from amassing and keeping the information of innocent Americans. The Senate should not make the same mistake and instead remedy the bill’s many deficiencies, which have been criticized on both sides of the aisle,” he said. “Letting Section 215 expire would be preferable to passing the current version of this bill, which fails to adequately protect Americans’ information from unwarranted government intrusion.”

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Clinton taps Kamala Harris’ sister as policy advisor

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has named California Attorney General Kamala Harris’ younger sister, civil rights attorney Maya Harris, to help lead her campaign’s policy team.

Maya HarrisMaya Harris – who also is the wife of former Associate Attorney General Tony West, who stepped down last year from his third-in-command post at the U.S. Justice Department – most recently was a senior fellow at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress. Before that, she was vice president for democracy, rights and justice at the Ford Foundation; before that, she was executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, based in San Francisco.

Harris, 48, is one of three senior policy advisers Clinton named Tuesday to lead the development of her campaign’s agenda, Politico reported. The others are Ann O’Leary, a former legislative director to Clinton when she was in the Senate; and Jake Sullivan, a top aide to Clinton while she was Secretary of State and a former national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden.

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ACLU, LWV sue Debra Bowen over voting rights

Former inmates on post-release community supervision and mandatory supervision should be eligible to vote, civil-rights groups argue in a lawsuit filed Tuesday against California Secretary of State Debra Bowen.

Bowen issued a directive in 2011 that people in these categories – which were created under the prison realignment plan pursued by Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature – were ineligible to cast ballots.

But the lawsuit – filed in Alameda County Superior Court by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area on behalf of the League of Women Voters of California, the All of Us Or None inmate-rights group, and several individuals – notes the state constitution specifies that every adult Californian has a right to vote except while “imprisoned or on parole for a conviction of a felony” or mentally incompetent.

More than 58,000 people have been wrongly disenfranchised by Bowen’s “administrative fiat,” the lawsuit claims.

“Voting is a civic duty, and prohibiting people who are living in the community under these new forms of community supervision from participating in this critical part of our democracy serves no useful purpose and is likely to impede re-integration and rehabilitation into civil society,” the lawsuit says.

Also, Bowen violated the California Administrative Procedure Act by issuing her directive without giving any public notice or allowing comments, the suit claims. “These requirements are meant to ensure that people who will be affected by a government rule or policy can have a voice in its creation and to provide, as our supreme court has put it, some security against ‘bureaucratic tyranny.’”

UPDATE @ 11:47 A.M.: A similar lawsuit was filed in 2012, but the state Court of Appeal and Supreme Court both declined to review the case, so Bowen’s interpretation of the law stood. Bowen won’t comment on pending litigation, a spokeswoman said Tuesday.

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Assembly passes drug sentencing reform bill

The Assembly approved a bill Wednesday that would reform California’s sentencing laws for simple drug possession, a move supporters say would reduce costly jail populations, get more people into rehab and let authorities focus on more serious crimes.

SB 649 by state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, would give county prosecutors flexibility to charge low-level, nonviolent drug crimes either as misdemeanors or felonies – making them what’s known as “wobblers.” It also would give judges discretion to deem a non-violent drug possession offense to be either a misdemeanor or felony after consideration of the offense and the defendant’s record.

This wouldn’t apply to anyone involved in selling, manufacturing or possessing drugs for sale. SB 649 now returns to the Senate for a concurrence vote before heading for Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk.

Mark Leno“We know we can reduce crime by offering low-level offenders rehabilitation and the opportunity to successfully reenter their communities, but we are currently doing the opposite,” Leno said in a news release Wednesday.

“We give non-violent drug offenders long terms, offer them no treatment while they’re incarcerated, and then release them back into the community with few job prospects or options to receive an education,” he said. “SB 649 gives local governments the flexibility to choose reduced penalties so that they can reinvest in proven alternatives that benefit minor offenders and reserve limited jail space for serious criminals.”

The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates reduced penalties for drug possession will save counties about $159 million per year. Leno notes that 13 states, the District of Columbia and the federal government treat drug possession as a misdemeanor, but don’t have higher drug-crime rates.

Though introduced earlier, the bill moves California in the same direction as the new federal policy U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced last month in San Francisco: Federal prosecutors will stop seeking longer mandatory sentences for many nonviolent drug offenders, part of a broad new effort to focus on violent crimes and national security while reducing the nation’s gigantic prison population.

Margaret Dooley-Sammuli – senior criminal justice and drug policy advocate for the ACLU of California, which is among the bill’s sponsors – said Wednesday that SB 649 “is just the kind of common sense solution to California’s incarceration crisis that voters have been demanding, and the legislature deserves credit for choosing to be smart on crime.”

“Felony sentences don’t reduce drug use and don’t persuade users to seek treatment, but instead, impose tremendous barriers to housing, education and employment after release – three things we know help keep people out of our criminal justice system and successfully reintegrating into their families and communities,” said Lynne Lyman, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, another sponsor of the bill. “I was heartened to see some Assembly Republicans standing in favor, or at least not opposed, to this common sense solution.”

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Bill would force police to get warrants for emails

A Bay Area lawmaker’s new bill would require California law enforcement agencies to get a search warrant before asking service providers to hand over a private citizen’s emails.

SB 467 by state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, is sponsored by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based civil liberties group. Leno introduced a place-holder version of the bill last month, but rolled out its operative language today.

go get a warrant“No law enforcement agency could obtain someone’s mail or letters that were delivered to their home without first securing a search warrant, but that same protection is surprisingly not extended to our digital life,” Leno said in a news release.

“Both state and federal privacy laws have failed to keep up with the modern electronic age, and government agencies are frequently able to access sensitive and personal information, including email, without adequate oversight,” he said. “SB 467 repairs the existing holes in California’s digital protection laws, ensuring that electronic communications can only be accessed by law enforcement with a warrant.”

Some law enforcement agencies have claimed investigators don’t need a warrant to obtain any email that has been opened or has been stored on a server for 180 days. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Policy recently announced it would support changes to federal law that would require a warrant in such cases.

“California, the home of many technology companies, should be a leader in protecting the privacy of people’s electronic communications,” EFF staff attorney Hanni Fakhoury said in Leno’s release. “Many of the state’s technology companies have already indicated that they require a search warrant before disclosing the contents of communications. With SB 467, the warrant requirement becomes the status quo for all electronic communication providers and all law enforcement agencies across the state.”

The American Civil Liberties Union also supports the bill, which “would ensure that content stored in the cloud receives the same level of protection as content stored on a laptop or in a desk drawer,” said Nicole Ozer, the Northern California ACLU’s technology and civil liberty policy director.

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Bills would end federal marijuana ban, levy taxes

Even as states keep chipping away at marijuana prohibition, some House members keep trying to change the federal law.

A bill being introduced by Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., would end federal marijuana prohibition, letting states decide their own policies; it also would set up a regulatory process like the one for alcohol for states that choose to legalize the drug. Commercial marijuana producers would have to buy a permit, as commercial alcohol producers now do, to offset the costs of oversight by the newly renamed Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Marijuana and Firearms.

And a bill by Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., would establish a 50 percent federal excise tax on the first sale of marijuana, from the producer to the next stage of production, usually the processor. It also would impose an occupational tax on those operating in marijuana, with producers, importers and manufacturers facing an occupation tax of $1,000 per year and any other person engaged in the business facing an annual tax of $500 per year.

“Absolutely, there’s an opportunity for us to make at minimum a $100 billion difference over the next 10 years,” Blumenauer said on a conference call with reporters this afternoon, as the nation moves away from high law enforcement and prison costs and marijuana starts generating public revenue.

Polis said November’s successful legalization ballot measures in his state and Washington mark “an enormous evolution of American opinion on the issue.”

Most Americans now believe the war on drugs has failed and “enough is enough, let’s try a new way,” he said. “It’s an idea that’s time has come.”

Jesselyn McCurdy, senior counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington legislative office, said the war on drugs has had disproportionate impact on communities of color. Students for Sensible Drug Policy executive director Aaron Houston said young people are disproportionately impacted as well.

“It’s clear that we’ve reached the tipping point,” said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. “The American people are demanding reform, and members of Congress are starting to give it to them.”