North America

Disability has been Added on Twitter’s User Reporting Form

By Sarah Purtill
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

North Carolina, USA – Twitter has added a new word for when people want to submit a report about inappropriate behavior on their platform. The word disabled as been added to the list of reasons for reporting someone. This change has been a long time coming according to some. In early April, Twitter revised its’ reporting form so that those who were being targeted for their disability could more accurately report it.

“It’s against our rules to directly attack or threaten someone based on their protected category, including disability,” Twitter stated in a tweet that was posted April 2. “You asked us to clarify this in our reporting flow, and we’ve updated it to be more specific.”

Natalie Weaver, her husband Mark and their children Sophia, Lyla and Alex. Photo Courtesy of the Weaver family.

Twitter brought about the change after Natalie Weaver suggested they revise their reporting form. Natalie Weaver called on Twitter after her daughter’s photo was used in an offensive tweet that promoted eugenics. Weaver’s daughter, Sophia, has Rett Syndrome. Sophia is only nine years old. Rett Syndrome is a genetic brain disorder that effects a person’s language, walking and coordination. Weaver said she faced some opposition from Twitter by them refusing to take down the offensive tweet, but then they removed the account completely.

“People with disability experience hate and discrimination every single day just because they are disabled,” Weaver said to Today. “It is very important to have that distinction.”

Weaver said to The Mighty, “Many people with medical conditions and/or disabilities receive hate and harassment every day on Twitter and no violations are found. I am hopeful that this change will create a safer environment for people with medical conditions and disabilities. I hope that Twitter support will be more consistent now in finding violations. I will continue my work to ensure that Twitter support follows through on this”

Melissa Blake, a freelance writer says the change has been a long time coming. “Disabilities may make people uncomfortable. I’m sure my disability and my wheelchair has made people uncomfortable in the past. But that doesn’t give people the right to use it against me and vilify me for it. Twitter’s change in policy gives me hope. Hope that perhaps, finally, we’ve moved the needle of dismantling centuries of negative misconceptions surrounding people with disabilities,” Blake wrote in an article for CNN.

Weaver took on a social media platform and called them out for not protecting disabled individuals. By getting Twitter to respond by changing their reporting form, she won.

For more information, please see:

CNN – On Disability, Twitter is Better Late Than Never – 13 April 2018

Today – Mom Fights Twitter After Cruel Troll Mocked Child’s Appearance – 5 April 2018

Mighty – Twitter Changes Reporting Form to Include Hate Against People with Disabilities – 3 April 2018

Two Women Stole More Than $800k From Elderly Woman

By: Sarah Purtill
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

CONNECTICUT, U.S.A. – Two women from Terryville Connecticut have been arrested for stealing from an elderly woman who passed away April 5, 2018. 71-year-old Sandra Pelkey and 60-year-old Mary Jeannie Benedetto have been stealing from the victim for over 10 years totaling more than $800,000 USD.

Pelkey was the woman’s caregiver and Benedetto was hired to do the interior design of the victims home. They were described as a mother daughter duo in one article and a pair of sisters in another. But the pair raised eyebrows of a banker and the victims Merrill Lynch wealth management advisor. The victim no longer wished to discuss finances with her wealth management advisor. The bank and the Merrill Lynch employee noticed that some checks were being written for large amounts to the two women and notified police.

Sandra Pelkey and Mary Jeannie Benedetto were arrested for stealing more than $800,000 from an elderly woman. Photo Courtesy of New Haven Police Department.

Police visited the home and the door was answered by the victim who was very confused. She indicated to them that Pelkey was her caregiver and Benedetto was hired to redo the inside of her home. Questions also came about over the purchase of a BMW because the victim no longer drives. The victim was under the impression that the car was just waiting to be delivered but it had been sold by Pelkey and Benedetto.

It was discovered that a hand written power of attorney was used to buy and sell the car. The victims daughter stated that the signature was in fact her mothers, but that the rest of the document was not in her handwriting. The victim has an alcohol abuse problem and her daughter believes that she was being encouraged to drink by the two women who used this to their advantage.

The police investigated the situation for nine months before any arrests were made. They discovered the abuse had been going on for ten years. However, they could only charge the pair with what had happened within the last five years because of the statute of limitations. Additionally, the police believe they discovered a second victim in New Haven and alerted the local police.

“Such victims lose faith in the world and the system that was supposed to protect them, for even if the perpetrators are caught and ordered to pay restitution, many offenders use any means necessary to avoid paying, often liquidating their assets and hiding them out of reach or declaring bankruptcy,” said Officer Hartman who worked on the case.

Benedetto and Pelkey are due back in court on May 4.

For more information, please see:

NBC Connecticut – Women Stole $800,000 from Elderly New Haven Woman: Police – 10 April 2018

New Haven Patch – $800,000 Stolen From Elderly Victim Over 10 Years: Ne Haven PD – 10 April 2018

WFSB – New Haven Elderly Woman Scammed of Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars – 10 April 2018

CT Post – Police: Women Stole More Than $800k From Elderly Woman – 19 March 2018

Trial for Domestic Terrorists Continues in Kansas

By: Karina Johnson
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

WICHITA, Kansas — On Monday, March 19, the trial began for the three Kansas militia members who attempted to bomb an apartment complex that houses Somali refugees.

The defendants are alleged to have targeted the Garden City Apartments on Mary Street due to its high concentration of Muslim families. Photo Courtesy of Benjamin Rasmussen, NY Mag. 

Patrick Stein, Gavin Wright, and Curtis Allen—the ‘Crusaders’—each face charges of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction and conspiracy against civil rights for allegedly planning to detonate truck bombs in an apartment complex of Garden City, a small rural town in southwest Kansas, the day after the November 2016 Presidential election.  The ‘Crusaders’ are a splinter group of the militia Kansas Security Force with violent anti-government and anti-Muslim views.

In 2014, the International Rescue Committee opened an office in Garden City, Kansas, to resettle refugees from war-ravaged countries like Somalia, many of whom are Muslim, and many of whom found jobs within the local meatpacking industry.  Witnesses testified that the Pulse Nightclub massacre on June 12, 2016, was the catalyst that shifted the Crusaders’ attitudes from ugly bigotry and complaints of “they’re taking our jobs,” to actual violent ideation and attempts at recruitment of other like-minded individuals.

Curtis Allen, who was in charge of writing the group’s manifesto to frame the terror attacks as a patriotic defense of the US Constitution against Muslim immigrants, also had prior convictions for domestic battery.  On October 11, Allen’s girlfriend called 911 to report he had beaten her, and the arresting agents found him illegally possessing two dozen firearms and thousands of rounds of ammunition in his home.

Patrick Stein sought material support from an undercover FBI agent to acquire materials to make explosives.  He was arrested shortly afterwards by the FBI on October 14, 2016, after delivering to them 300 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer—which is the same raw material that was used by Timothy McVey in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. He regularly referred to Muslims as “cockroaches,” and had nicknamed himself “Orkin-man” in reference to the extermination company.

The alleged plan was to detonate truck bombs around the apartment complex and shoot the survivors afterward in an attempt to do the maximum amount of damage.

The three men were indicted in October 2016 and pled not guilty to the charges.

During the jury selection process, the defense team argued that the pool of jurors for the case was drawn from more urban areas close to the federal courthouse in Wichita, and that this selection would exclude rural and conservative jurors.  The presiding judge informed the defense attorneys that the surrounding area included rural jurors as well.  One of the defense attorneys told the judge that the difference in belief systems between rural jurors around Wichita is substantially different from that of the population of rural southwest Kansas.  The prosecution cited case law that finds groups of prospective jurors are not considered distinctive groups by geographic location.

The theme of the defense team’s argument has been that defendants were swayed to action by fake news on Facebook and undercover FBI involvement.  The defense team has also sought to suppress evidence of 28,000 pages of defendants’ Facebook material, including anti-Muslim posts, pro-Trump memes, and fake news stories.

According to the Huffington Post, one of the defense attorneys cross-examined an FBI agent and asked why the FBI did not inform local police about the possible attack so that the police could have warned the defendants against the attack.  “Hey knucklehead,” the attorney suggested the police say. “We know what you’re talking about. Knock it off.”

On redirect, the prosecution asked the FBI agent if it was standard procedure to respond for law enforcement officers to a plot to bomb buildings and commit mass murder by calling the suspect a “Knucklehead” and asking them to “Knock it off.”  The agent said it was not.

For more information, please see:

Huffington Post – White Militiamen Charged In Plot To Massacre Muslims Argue They’re Just ‘Knuckleheads’ – 11 April 2018

KWCH – Defense begins questioning, manifest read in Garden City bomb plot trial – 11 April 2018

The Philadelphia Tribune – Jury selection starts in bombing plot aimed at Somalis – 23 March

The Washington Post – Trial opens for Kansas men accused of plotting to bomb Muslims – 22 March 2018

Huffington Post – Trump Backers Charged in Anti-Muslim Terror Plot May Argue They’re Just Facebook Warriors – 21 March 2018

KCUR – Trial Starting For Kansas Militiamen Accused of Mosque Bomb Plot In Garden City – 19 March 2018

Chicago Tribune – Attorneys for men in plot to bomb Kansas mosque want Trump voters on jury – 4 January 2018

New York Magazine – The Plot to Bomb Garden City, Kansas – 12 December 2017

Complaint Expected Regarding YouTube Collecting Data From Children

By: Sarah Purtill
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

SAN BRUNO, California – A complaint is expected in federal court on Monday, April 9th, claiming YouTube has been violating a children’s privacy law. More than 20 consumer advocacy groups are expected to come together and file the complaint. The advocacy groups claim that YouTube has been both collecting and profiting from collecting the personal information of children on its main site. YouTube, a subsidiary of Google, says their platform is only meant for those 13 years of age and older.

The advocacy groups contend that YouTube has been violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. The federal law states that companies are supposed to obtain consent from the parents of children younger than 13 before they collect their data. The law is enforced by the Federal Trade Commission and the advocacy groups are asking that the FTC starts enforcing the law on YouTube.

Over 20 advocacy groups are expected to bring a complaint against YouTube for allegedly violating the Children’s Privacy Protection Act. Photo courtesy of Artur Debat/Getty Images.

“Google has been continually growing its child-directed service in the United States and all over the world without any kind of acknowledgment of this law and its responsibilities. It’s living in a world of online fiction and denied that it’s serving children,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.

YouTube defines itself as for viewers of 13 years of age or older and directs those younger than that to YouTube Kids. YouTube Kids has filtered versions of the videos and content that can be found on YouTube. The distinction YouTube gives between its’ main site and YouTube Kids is important in terms of the law. The reason for this is the rules on disclosure and parental consent that kick in for sites with supposed “actual knowledge” that they are dealing in the personal information of children under the age of 13.

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act was passed in 1998 and updated in 2012.  It was updated to accommodate for the development of mobile devices. The update made it clear that companies were still to obtain parental permission before collecting the personal information of children. Some of this information includes identity, contact and location.

But YouTube’s terms of service state that if you are visiting the site, you are affirming that you are at least 13 years of age. By watching a video on YouTube, the policy says, viewers give parent company, Google, permission to collect the data tied to the user’s device, location, browsing habits, phone number and more. The advocacy groups say that this is the kind of information the Act requires parental consent for.

YouTube provided a statement that said they had not yet received the complaint but protecting kids and families has always been a top priority for us.”

For more information, please see:

CBS – YouTube Violates Children’s Privacy, Consumer Groups Claim – 9 April 2018

New York Times – YouTube is Improperly Collecting Children’s Data, Consumer Group Says – 9 April 2018

Verge – Consumer Advocacy Groups Complain That YouTube is Collecting Information From Children – 9 April 2018

US Supreme Court Again Decides in Favor of Qualified Immunity for Law Enforcement in Shootings

By: Karina Johnson
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

WASHINGTON D.C.  — On Monday, April 2, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a 7-2 decision to grant qualified immunity from prosecution to a police officer, Andrew Kisela, who shot a woman, Amy Hughes, for holding a kitchen knife outside her home.

Officers are entitled to qualified immunity as long as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. Photo Courtesy of J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press.

In May 2010, Kisela and his partner responded to a 911 call reporting a woman acting erratically and hacking a tree with a kitchen knife.  They were joined by another police officer and saw Hughes—carrying a large kitchen knife—and her roommate, Sharon Chadwick, exiting their house.  The three officers drew their weapons and ordered Hughes to drop the knife.  When Hughes did not acknowledge the officers’ presence, Kisela shot Hughes four times.  The entire encounter occurred in less than a minute.

While the three officers later testified that they believed Hughes to be a threat to her roommate, Chadwick said that Hughes was speaking to her calmly from six feet away and that Chadwick at no time felt threatened by Hughes.  Kisela was the only officer to shoot at Hughes, and he did so without warning.

Hughes sued Kisela in a §1983 claim for $150,000 in damages, alleging that his use of deadly force was a violation of her Fourth Amendment rights.  Initially, a federal judge had granted summary judgment in favor of Kisela, but that ruling was reversed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Supreme Court’s per curiam decision overturned the Ninth Circuit’s ruling in favor of Hughes without full briefings or oral arguments.  Justice Sotomayor wrote a dissenting opinion and was joined by Justice Ginsberg.

Qualified immunity protects ‘all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.’ To challenge qualified immunity, courts must determine through precedent (1) if the official’s conduct counts as a violation of the plaintiff’s rights; and (2) if the plaintiff’s rights were clearly established.  The Supreme Court determined that Kisela’s conduct, by shooting Hughes four times as she stood still in front of her house, did not violate any of Hughes’ established rights.

In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor wrote that the Supreme Court’s “one-sided approach to qualified immunity transforms the doctrine into an absolute shield for law enforcement officers, gutting the deterrent effect of the Fourth Amendment,” and that “it tells officers that they can shoot first and think later, and it tells the public that palpably unreasonable conduct will go unpunished.”

The Washington Post noted that the Supreme Court has developed a trend of siding in favor of law enforcement officers by reversing lower courts that deny qualified immunity to police.  Police officials applaud the Supreme Court’s broad approach, which they say give officers the benefit of the doubt and protect them from “frivolous lawsuits.”  Critics such as the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute believe this approach virtually absolves law enforcement from accountability for their misconduct.

The majority’s decision comes 15 days after police officers killed Stephon Clark while he was standing in his grandmother’s backyard in Sacramento, California.  It comes 3 days after the Louisiana Attorney General declined to file charges against the two Baton Rouge police officers that shot Alton Sterling at point-blank range outside of a convenience store while they had him pinned to the ground.  As of April 1, there have been 325 reports of people killed by police in the United States since January 1, 2018.

For more information, please see:

NPR – Police Shootings Stir Outrage Among Some, But Not The Supreme Court – 3 April 2018

The Washington Post – Ariz. woman survives police shooting, but Supreme Court says the officer is immune from her lawsuit – 3 April 2018

The Hill – Supreme Court rules police officer cannot be sued for shooting Arizona woman in her front yard – 2 April 2018

The New York Times – Supreme Court Rules for Police Officer in Excessive Force Case – 2 April 2018

SCOTUS Blog – Kisela v. Hughes – 2 April 2018

Slate – The Conservatives vs. Sonia Sotomayor – 2 April 2018

The Washington Post – What is “qualified immunity,” and how does it work? – 14 July 2015