Sunday, June 16, 2013

Great Falls

Yesterday I visited the Great Falls National Historic Park in Paterson, New Jersey. I thought it was pretty nice and worth seeing if you live nearby. It reminded me a bit (on a greatly reduced scale of course) of Niagara Falls. We have gotten some rain recently so the Falls may have been a bit more impressive than usual. There was some spray or mist from the Falls at some of the viewing locations which was fine on a hot day but might not have been as pleasant in colder weather. There is no charge to view the Falls and parking was no problem yesterday.

I took the picture near the parking area.  With a little walking you can get a closer view of the Falls from the bridge in the background and from a viewing area on the other side.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Maryland v. King

Monday the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in the case Maryland v. King that it is constitutional for Maryland to extract (via a cheek swab) DNA samples from people arrested and detained for serious crimes.  I agree with the majority.  As a general matter I support crime fighting measures when the benefit to society clearly outweighs the costs imposed on innocent citizens.  Here the costs seem trivial and the benefits significant so I would be reluctant to find Maryland's law unconstitutional.  And I see no legal requirement to do so, the Fourth Amendment just requires that such searches and seizures be reasonable and there were no obviously controlling precedents so the Court was basically free to as it felt best.

Incidentally while Scalia's dissent accuses Kennedy's majority opinion of slanting the facts to support his argument the dissent does not appear to be perfect in this regard.  In footnote 2 Scalia claims:

By the way, this procedure has nothing to do with exonerating the wrongfully convicted, as the Court soothingly promises. See ante, at 17. The FBI CODIS database includes DNA from unsolved crimes. I know of no indication (and the Court cites none) that it also includes DNA from all-or even any-crimes whose perpetrators have already been convicted.
While Scalia is correct that DNA from "solved" crimes is not routinely checked against the offender database wrongfully convicted people have been exonerated after special checks.  A Westchester case with which I am familiar is that of Jeffrey Deskovic.  A somewhat weird kid he was convicted based on a false confession of the rape murder of a high school classmate despite that fact that he was not a match for DNA found on the victim (on the unsupported theory that the DNA was from a boyfriend).  After many years in prison he convinced a new DA to run the DNA against the offender database.  This hit against a prisoner serving a life term for a different murder.  The prisoner confessed and Deskovic was exonerated.  Now in this case the prisoner had already been convicted so under Supreme Court precedent it was okay to extract his DNA regardless of the outcome of King v. Maryland which concerns taking DNA samples from people who are accused but not yet convicted of serious crimes.  Still it should be clear that people in Deskovic's unfortunate situation are more likely to be exonerated when broader criteria are used to build the offender database.

Sunday, June 2, 2013


Back in March I spent a week in Maryland on a business trip.  I drove down in a rental car provided by my employer. When I picked the car up I was a bit disappointed to see it was a Yaris  hatchback since the only things I knew about the Yaris were that it was a low end Toyota and that Consumer Reports didn't like it.  Given these low expectations the car was a bit of a pleasant surprise although it did have some features that might explain why Consumer Reports didn't rate it highly.  The trunk was tiny (although adequate for my single suitcase) and the engine was noisy (although not in a way that bothered me).  On the plus side the car has plenty of headroom, a couple of inches more than my Toyota Solara which has barely enough for me.  It also felt more responsive and agile than my Solara.  I was also impressed that the radio continued to receive my favorite New York City stations.  This isn't really an endorsement, like Consumer Reports I might well like competitive small cars more and there is no reason to buy a good product if excellent ones are available at a similar price.  But it wasn't as bad as I expected.

Incidentally I could have used my personal car and received a mileage reimbursement.  This probably was the better option but I was deterred by the fact that my employer's insurance would not cover any damage to my personal vehicle.  But given the low value of my car and average driving ability the expected value of such damage was likely under $20 which would have been covered by the generous mileage allowance.  Also using my personal car would have meant I could have left from and returned to my house instead of from my work location (where I picked up and dropped off the rental) saving some time and hassle.  And I could have paid the tolls with EZ Pass instead of with cash again saving a bit of time and trouble.  And finally although I liked the Yaris well enough as with driving any unfamiliar vehicle there was a bit of a learning curve which meant I was probably at a bit higher risk of getting into an accident.