Sneaking Suspicions
 
Archives-- December 15-21, 2002

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This page includes posts from December 15-21, 2002 in the usual reverse order. Each week's postings on the home page are perma-linked to these pages.

December 21, 2002
Reality television has its limits

Years ago Senator Joe Biden made a very funny speech about the interesting ways that some police departments will spend federal grants for law enforcement assistance. He said a downstate police agency used their allotment to purchase riot gear, complete with helmets, shields, and other implements used for mass crowd control.

As I recall, there were maybe three cops on the entire force.

Today’s statewide newspaper includes a story that reminded me of Biden’s speech.

Milford, Delaware is a nice small town. It’s growing a bit now, both as a bedroom community for the state capital and as a retirement haven for refugees from high-tax places such as northern New Jersey and Long Island. Nonetheless, when asked to name the calmest, quietest towns in the state, Milford will be among the leading responses.

The town government is thoroughly up-to-date, however. The Milford P.D. has now installed three surveillance cameras to help them observe what passes for crime in the community.

Police dispatchers monitor the cameras and alert officers if they see something suspicious. The dispatchers can control what the cameras are looking at from their stations. If something seems amiss, the dispatcher can zoom in on the spot and check what is happening on a larger monitor above their station.

Since the cameras were activated [eleven months ago], police have used them to make 15 arrests for offenses such as vandalism, disorderly conduct and assault.

The new program used $40,000 in combined state grants and city funds to set up the cameras and recording equipment.

I can certainly appreciate the interest in setting up this system, at least at one level. The Milford dispatchers now have a viable alternative to normal daytime TV and the infomercials that fill the airwaves in the middle of the night, while handling their calls.

In addition, the police genuinely believe the new cameras are helping them, and I have no reason to doubt their assessment.

Even so, I really doubt that the scenes displayed on the Milford surveillance cameras will be showing up on COPS or the other police video programs any time soon.

I'm also sure that Milford doesn't mind.

This screen shot was taken just after 2 pm, a few hours before Milford's "rush" hour, when traffic is twice as bad as what's shown here.

The three cars on the left are parked..

December 20, 2002
Perhaps it was a matter of divine inspiration

I appreciate the fact that Senator Lott finally took the suggestion made here and many other places that he should not be the Senate Majority Leader in the next session of Congress.

What may not be fully appreciated is the possible role of divine inspiration in convincing the Senator to do the right thing.

After all, Lott is reportedly a religious man, with a Church of Christ heritage on his mother’s side.

The many calls for his SML resignation, despite Lott’s attempts to apologize his way out of the increasingly deeper hole in which he placed himself, obviously increased in volume and intensity over the last two weeks. Still, Lott’s public pronouncements gave every indication of his intent to hang on to his post, even as late as yesterday.

Nonetheless, I can’t help but notice that his resignation announcement followed quickly on the heels of a major tornado that ripped through Mississippi.

For some folks, a really nasty twister like that one qualifies as a genuine Wrath-o-GodTM moment.

I’m in no position to confirm whether Senator Lott "took the hint," as it were. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that those in a position of worldly authority received a humbling reminder of their real importance.

I’m just saying, is all.

December 19, 2002
More than one reason for local notoriety

Will Vehrs wrote a great piece today about how a normally bucolic ferry ride across Virginia’s James River could provide a valuable reminder of the need for vigilance against terrorist threats.

A nuclear power plant is nearby, and some folks in an SUV recently acted a bit peculiar while riding the ferry. According to local news reports:

The two men paced the length of the boat but would not answer questions about their activity when the crew asked what they were doing, according to a report filed by the Surry County Sheriff's Office.

The two female passengers were asking questions about the responsibilities of the captain if the ferry were hijacked and if he had keys to the control room. They also asked for the depth of the water at the entry point of the canals for the power plant and the manpower for security at the plant.

Will says that the police are now investigating, and also made the following points:

Hijacking a slow moving, large ferry and diverting it toward the plant for some sort of attack, however bizarre or far-fetched that might seem, is a possible terrorist plot. We have already seen terrorists try things we couldn't imagine; we can't afford a failure of imagination in preparing for contingencies…. If the people in the Ford Explorer turn out to be innocents, they may have done Virginia and Homeland Security a huge favor.

I have my own story involving that ferry, on a far less serious subject. 

A long time ago (pre-children), my wife and I traveled to Williamsburg with several of her friends for a short vacation. The tourist literature at the motel made reference to two related items that were equally tempting.

We could take this ferry ride, and then ride the short distance to a restaurant that was apparently a local favorite. The advertisements stressed how this place served the best version of Surry County’s famous Smithfield Ham.

The whole group agreed to try it out, and we piled into our cars to go to Jamestown.

The ferry ride in the early evening was very pretty. It reminded my wife and me of the similar Oxford-Bellevue Ferry on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, though on a larger scale. 

The drive to the local restaurant was uneventful, and we were seated quickly. Nearly all of us ordered the Smithfield Ham platter. Several of us also ordered the hot peanut soup, another local delicacy. 

As the waitress served our entrees, we were duly impressed by the ham slices. 

Unfortunately, the impression wasn’t quite what the restaurant probably intended.

Each serving was a single slice, about as thick as what we’d expect as part of a lunchmeat order at our neighborhood deli. 

The ham wasn’t see-through thin, but close. 

Tasted good, though.

On the other hand, the hot peanut soup was a much bigger hit among our crowd.

December 18, 2002
A tip for the convicted con man

Here's a tip for the con man seeking a reduction in his sentence after conviction in federal court:

When the judges refer to senior citizens on fixed incomes in only the third paragraph of the opinion, that's not a good thing.

This week the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals provided a useful example.

Peter J. Rumsavich is a former office manager for Dean Witter. He also tried and failed to make his fortune in a series of business ventures, including a company called Goo-Cheese Pizza. (The name alone should have been a warning about its prospects.)

In addition, Rumsavich is a scumball. 

And I don’t mean that in a good way.

Facing imminent financial disaster, Rumsavich embarked on a scheme to defraud a targeted group of unsophisticated people in the Chicago area. 

He mailed out over 150,000 brochures 

in neighborhoods known as being inhabited with an unusually large number of senior citizens with fixed incomes. 

He held “financial seminars” at area hotels and libraries, using several questionnaires to cherry-pick the most promising victims among those who attended. After analyzing the responses, Rumsavich then invited his dupes to one-on-one sessions, and sold a large number of fake zero-coupon bonds “issued” by one of his businesses.

Rumsavich used the money to pay off personal debts and to give himself and his wife some pleasantly large salaries.

As the Seventh Circuit described it, the investments were bogus:

In reality, Rumsavich was “borrowing from Peter to pay Paul,” for his “investments” operated like a pyramid scheme funded entirely by the sale of bonds to other investors rather than any growth in corporate revenue or contributions from outside sources.

The scheme fell apart eventually, and Rumsavich went to trial on several counts of mail fraud and perjury. After he was found guilty, the trial judge sentenced him to an enhanced punishment of 75 months in prison, 3 years of supervised release, along with required restitution of $571,700 to the victims.

The court justified the enhanced sentencing by reference to the fact that he took advantage of “vulnerable victims” and committed an “abuse of trust” as an alleged financial planner.

Showing a continuing streak of chutzpah, Rumsavich appealed his sentence, arguing that his victims included relatively sophisticated investors.

The appellate panel would have none of it, however. They cited one particular example in turning down the appeal:

… Ms. Gladys Paine… qualifies as a “vulnerable victim” within the meaning intended by the [Sentencing] Guidelines…. Rumsavich piqued Paine’s attention, lured her to one of his seminars, and preyed upon her fears of bankruptcy.... Rumsavich convinced Paine to fill out a selected number of questionnaires in an attempt to gain a wealth of information.…

[H]e determined that Paine was, in his words, a “suitable” target for his investment scheme, and … invited her to meet with him for a second, personal, one-on-one interview…. During their tête-a-tête, Paine confirmed that she was “not very knowledgeable” in financial affairs and that her now-deceased husband had managed the family’s entire investment portfolio. Rumsavich gained Paine’s confidence by misrepresenting the nature of his investment scheme and convincing Paine he was concerned about her financial well-being. He further promised Paine that he would offer her financial security and mischievously recommended that she purchase an $18,000 bond at a price that coincided exactly with the amount of money she had received from her husband’s insurance policy upon his death....

[F]ollowing their first meeting…, Rumsavich relieved Paine of her retirement nest egg and all of the monies he could get his hands on.

Based on this history, the appellate panel had no difficulty agreeing that the trial judge used his discretion wisely when he sentenced Rumsavich to a nice bit of extra time in the Federal correction system.

Good for the trial judge, and good for them.

Now take the next step. Talk about this case with your parents, grandparents, and other senior citizens you know. A reminder about the kinds of thieves that prey on the elderly might just help prevent similar crimes.

December 17, 2002
Trying to make a federal case out of trash collection

Very few policy disputes rise to the level of a constitutional crisis.

Some folks need to remember this fact.

West Chester Borough, a political subdivision in Pennsylvania, adopted a routine trash collection ordinance. As with many municipalities, West Chester decided that it would provide waste removal services for most of its residential property owners. The cost was worked into the total mix of public amenities paid for through the city's property tax system.

Nonetheless, not everyone was entitled to the "free" service. If a property required removal of more than six thirty-gallon containers of trash per week, it didn't qualify. The ordinance did not extend to multi-unit apartment or condominiums, and mixed commercial-residential buildings also had to pay for private haulers.

In other words, some property owners had to pay their property taxes, but did not receive the same level of city services as other residents.

A group of apartment building owners and other "ineligibles" therefore sued West Chester, claiming that the ordinance violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Not surprisingly, they lost, both in the District Court and on appeal to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

As Judge Gibson wrote for the Circuit panel:

The district court correctly concluded that [Plaintiff's] equal protection challenge to the Borough’s ordinance is subject to the rational basis standard. The ordinance does not draw a distinction based on a suspect classification, nor does it implicate a fundamental right. [citations omitted.]...

In reviewing an ordinance that does not burden a fundamental right or target a suspect class, we are to uphold its constitutionality if it bears a rational relation to some legitimate end.... We presume such an ordinance is valid, ...and in our review we are not limited to considering only the goal stated by the legislative body....We are free to consider any conceivable legislative purpose so long as it reasonably could have been entertained by the legislature. [citations omitted.]

Using the rational basis test, the plaintiffs raised no legitimate equal protection claim.

Both courts recognized the Borough's ordinance as expressing a typical and permissible distinction among its citizens, based on the volume of trash and the cost of providing this service along with all the others demanded of the municipality. Therefore, the multi-unit property owners lost their case.

Constitutionally speaking, I'm not a huge fan of applying different levels of scrutiny to legislation in determining its compliance with the Equal Protection Clause. Limiting a court's reviewing authority under that clause to the application of the rational basis test seems to me to be the most congruent with democratic principles, while still sufficiently protective of political minorities. I understand and appreciate the motives behind the courts' use of strict scrutiny in knocking down race-based distinctions in the law, for example, but I think that approach was not truly necessary to achieve the same result.

In this West Chester decision, of course, there is no real question that the District Court and the Third Circuit applied the appropriate standard of review to this ordinance.

What's unfortunate here is that the Plaintiffs felt that they should file a claim in Federal court over this fundamentally political decision, instead of seeking to change the ordinance through democratic means.

December 17, 2002
Time management

Last night we watched our daughter perform with her high school choir and band in their annual Christmas concert.

Here's a picture:

Of course, going to the two-hour concert meant that we missed watching Trent Lott's performance on BET.

Judging by the comments I heard on Imus this morning and from reading various media and blogging pundits today, we enjoyed ourselves far more than Lott did.

In addition, for all the good it looks like that hour will do for him, it also appears that we chose a much better way to spend our Monday evening than the Senator.

December 16, 2002
A Lincoln Town Car with a hidden compartment is not exactly your normal everyday cash courier. Judges know this.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals last week dealt with a half-million dollar civil forfeiture case that shows a nicely practical application of the way the government can make drug trafficking a bit more painful for those inclined to try their hand at the illegal business.

In late February 2000, Lolita Mondragon drove her Lincoln Town Car west on Interstate 70 near Frederick, Maryland. She decided to change lanes, but neglected to announce her intentions to the folks driving behind her. 

Sergeant Paul Quill of the Maryland State Police happened to notice Mondragon switch across two lanes without signaling, and decided to do something about it.

After stopping her car and receiving Mondragon’s Kansas driver’s license, Quill checked back with the home office, and discovered the license was revoked.

This knowledge caused Quill to request Mondragon to permit a search of her car. She agreed to the search both verbally and in writing.

As sometimes happens with state policemen involved in patrolling the Interstate systems, Sgt. Quill had extensive experience with drug trafficking enforcement. This was not good news, at least from Mondagon’s point of view:

… Quill discovered, behind the back seat, a hidden compartment with electronic spring locks. According to the sergeant, the installation job was of professional quality. He had seen many such secret compartments and knew they were routinely used by drug traffickers to transport large quantities of drugs as well as the cash proceeds from drug transactions.

In the compartment sat 15 plastic bags with nearly $500,000 in cash stuffed inside them. In addition, Mondragon also carried over $5,000 in her purse, more than enough for tolls and the occasional stop at a Bob’s Big Boy.

Quill called for a little help from his friends at the Frederick Police Department. They brought along one of their drug-sniffing dogs to the scene. The dog “alerted” upon sniffing the back seat of the Lincoln.

Mondragon received a traffic citation, and was allowed to leave the area.

The money stayed behind, however.

The police gave the cash to the U.S. Customs Service, and several months later the Federal Government filed a lawsuit to claim the money as the proceeds of drug trafficking, under 21 U.S.C. Section 841(a)(1).

To support their claim, the Federal attorneys attached to the complaint affidavits from Sgt. Quill and a Customs Service officer familiar with the case.

In response, Mondragon argued that under the rules that apply to such cases, the formal complaint was insufficiently detailed to provide her with adequate notice of the nature of the claim and the facts to support it.

Neither the District Court nor the Fourth Circuit panel agreed with her. The appellate panel discussed the facts outlined in the affidavits and determined that they provided more than sufficient notice of the basis for the government’s lawsuit: 

[T]he government must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the property is subject to forfeiture….Mondragon was present when the currency was seized. Thus, from the facts alleged in the complaint, which Mondragon also witnessed, she was informed of (1) what currency was seized, (2) how it was packaged, (3) when it was seized, (4) where it was seized, and (5) by whom it was seized….

The court also dismissed an additional argument about the drug-sniffing dog:

Mondragon argues that the dog sniff had no value because a high percentage of U.S. paper currency is contaminated with drug residue….

As an attack on the complaint in this case, the argument falls short. The dog did not alert directly on the sealed plastic bags of currency, but rather on the back seat area of the car. Thus, when the complaint was drafted, the nature of the dog's alert, coupled with the rest of the circumstances, supported a reasonable belief that drugs had been transported in the car, probably in the secret compartment, and that the currency found in the compartment was linked to drug trafficking. [emphasis in original.]

There went the money.

The opinion also notes that during the district court proceedings, the Government took Mondragon’s deposition. There is no discussion of the contents of her testimony. I assume that this is because it mostly consisted of Mondragon taking the Fifth, but as I say, that is just an assumption on my part.

Perhaps an armored car would have been the smarter way to move all that cash.

December 15, 2002
Not the kind of blue light special Kmart had in mind

Last week one of the local weekly newspapers published a remarkable front page story about sex in public bathrooms.

Delaware Coast Press reporter Roger Hillis described two incidents twenty minutes apart that helped confirm the stories he’d heard previously. The first took place at a Rehoboth Mall restroom, and the second occurred at the local Kmart men’s room.

The man who apparently followed him from the first place to the second made no effort to deny his intentions:

Although he declined to identity himself, the man candidly answered a few questions. He said he uses gay Internet chatrooms and message boards to find out which public areas are popular locally. These sometimes include what he called a "glory hole alert," identifying stalls in public bathrooms that have holes in them. The Kmart men's room had such a hole connecting two of its three stalls, but it now has a covering bolted over it, and the door to the middle stall now has a lock on it. The other two stalls are no longer private, as their doors have been removed. When asked how gay men create "glory holes" in metal stalls such as Kmart's, the man replied, "Someone must have brought a cordless drill in there."

Lewd conduct in the area’s public restrooms has been a hot topic on the local radio station’s talk shows. The incidents are not limited to retail store facilities, either. Hillis’ story mentioned that one of the local state parks and at least one of the City of Rehoboth Beach’s public restrooms have also been subjected to this particular form of looking for love in all the wrong places.

I first heard a reference to it while driving home, and later saw the newspaper headline.

Hillis’ story noted the efforts of local store managers to deal with the unwanted activity:

Kmart manager John Sineone said he has been battling the men's room problem for months. "We initially closed the bathrooms altogether, hoping the problem would go away," Sineone said. "When we reopened them a few weeks later, it slowly came back."

It’s a shame that the local businesses and governments have to deal with this abuse of facilities intended to help others. The businesses know they need to provide these restrooms for the sake of their customers. The tourist trade is critical around here, and so the state parks and local governments do what they can to provide a sanitary place for folks who need to go.

Nonetheless, there’s probably not a lot any one person can do to discourage the kind of people who would bring a cordless drill into a bathroom to create a new glory hole. Constant monitoring by the businesses and enlisting law enforcement in making the occasional arrest are probably the best options.

It might also help if all of the local community publications, including the gay papers, join in condemning these acts.


   

Contact Information:

Fritz Schranck
P.O. Box 88
Nassau, DE  19969
USA

fschranck-at-
sneakingsuspicions.com


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© Frederick H. Schranck 2002