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Johnny Gibbs has been trying to get a valid driver’s license for 20 years, but he just can’t afford it.

To punish him for high school truancy in 1999, Tennessee officials told him he would not be able to legally drive until he turned 21. He drove anyway, incurring two tickets and racking up more than $1,000 in fines and fees.

Like other low-income defendants in similar situations across the country, Gibbs couldn’t pay and ended up serving jail time and probation. That incurred another cost: a monthly supervision fee to a private probation company.

Rather than risk another arrest, Gibbs, now 38, decided to quit driving, which he said makes it nearly impossible to work. He said he spent several years living in a motel room with his mother, his disabled father and his sister before they all became homeless. In August, the family found housing in a dilapidated trailer, miles from the nearest town or food source.

A growing number of legal groups and nonprofit organizations throughout the U.S. are challenging these practices, but they continue — despite a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found it unconstitutional to incarcerate defendants too poor to pay fines.

In Oklahoma, for example, the Washington-based Civil Rights Corps, which has litigated more than 20 lawsuits since it was founded in 2016 to undo various aspects of “user-funded justice,” is challenging policies that it claims have led to one of the highest incarceration rates in the world.

Counties across the state of Oklahoma refer debt collection to a for-profit company, Aberdeen Enterprizes II, which adds an additional 30 percent fee and threatens debtors with arrest. Many of those who can’t pay are not just thrown in jail; they’re also made to pay for their incarceration, further increasing their debt.

Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Jeffrey Bivens said reforming fees, fines and bail is a priority of the Conference of Chief Justices, a nonprofit organization comprising top judicial officials from each of the 50 states.



A Florida appellate court ruled that the state's approach to regulating marijuana is unconstitutional, possibly allowing more providers to jump into a market positioned to become one of the country's most lucrative.

If the ruling stands, it could force state officials to lift existing caps on how many medical marijuana treatment centers can operate in Florida.

Tuesday's ruling by the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee was another setback for Florida officials trying to regulate the burgeoning marijuana industry more tightly. It mostly affirmed a lower court's ruling that the caps and operational requirements violated the voter-approved constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana in 2016.

Ever since, the law has been a subject of debate in the legislature and courts. It was unclear whether Florida officials would appeal the ruling.

Florida now has more than 240,000 people registered with the state to legally use medicinal marijuana, according to the Office of Medical Marijuana Use. They are served by 142 dispensaries across the state, the majority operated by about a half-dozen medical marijuana treatment centers that grow their own crop, process it and sell it — a business model known as vertical integration.

That business model and the limited number of treatment centers were points of contention for Tampa-based Florigrown, which sued the state after being denied a license.



Internet entrepreneur Kim Dotcom and three of his former colleagues on Monday took their fight against being extradited to the U.S. to New Zealand’s top court.

The Supreme Court began hearing arguments in the seven-year-old case after Dotcom and the others lost several previous court rulings.

But even if the men lose their latest appeal, they have legal options which could keep their case alive in the New Zealand court system and delay any extradition for several more years.

U.S. authorities in 2012 shut down Dotcom’s file-sharing website Megaupload and filed charges of conspiracy, racketeering and money laundering. If found guilty, the men could face decades in prison.

Megaupload was once one of the internet’s most popular sites. U.S. prosecutors say it raked in at least $175 million, mainly from people using it to illegally download songs, television shows and movies.

Ira Rothken, one of Dotcom’s lawyers, said in an interview that if anyone did something illegal in relation to Megaupload, it was the users.

“This case is all about trying to hold Megaupload and Kim Dotcom and the others responsible for the acts of users,” Rothken said. “And we’re saying you can’t do that. You can’t do that in the United States and you can’t do that in New Zealand.”

The Supreme Court has scheduled five days to hear the appeal. After that, it could take them several months to issue their decision.

Should the Supreme Court uphold the earlier court rulings and find the men are eligible for extradition, then New Zealand’s Justice Minister Andrew Little would need to make the final decision on whether the extraditions should proceed. And Little’s decision could also be appealed in the courts.

Dotcom, who was arrested in 2012 during a dramatic police raid on his mansion and incarcerated for a month, was released on bail more than seven years ago.

In addition to Dotcom, who founded Megaupload and was its biggest shareholder, the U.S. is also seeking to extradite former Megaupload officers Mathias Ortmann, Bram van der Kolk and Finn Batato. The indictment was filed in the U.S. District Court in eastern Virginia.

Dotcom did not attend Monday’s hearing, although the other three men did. Rothken said Dotcom was at his home in Queenstown and was being kept informed of developments.



A longtime Utah judge has been suspended without pay for six months after making critical comments online and in court about President Donald Trump, including a post bashing his “inability to govern and political incompetence.”

Judge Michael Kwan’s posts on Facebook and LinkedIn in 2016-2017 violated the judicial code of conduct and diminished “the reputation of our entire judiciary,” wrote Utah State Supreme Court Justice John A. Pearce in an opinion posted Wednesday.

Kwan’s Facebook account was private but could have been shared by friends, Pearce wrote.

“Judge Kwan’s behavior denigrates his reputation as an impartial, independent, dignified, and courteous jurist who takes no advantage of the office in which he serves,” Pearce said.

Kwan has been a justice court judge in the Salt Lake City suburb of Taylorsville since 1998. He deals with misdemeanor cases, violations of ordinances and small claims.

He was first appointed by elected city officials to a six-year term and was retained in the position by voters.

Kwan argued the suspension was inappropriate and an unlawful attempt to regulate his constitutionally protected speech, Pearce wrote in the opinion.

Kwan’s attorney, Greg Skordas, said the judge is disappointed with the severity of the suspension but accepted that he would get some reprimand.

Like many people after the 2016 election, Kwan felt strongly about the results and said some things “in haste,” Skordas said.

He knows judges are held to a higher standard and must be careful, the lawyer said.

“He certainly regrets making those statements and is committed to not doing anything like that again,” Skordas said.

It’s unknown what Kwan’s political affiliation is because he chooses to keep his voter registration private, an option available to any state voter, said Justin Lee, Utah director of elections.

Skordas said he doesn’t know Kwan’s political party but noted the judge has been reprimanded previously during his career for comments critical of politicians from both major parties.

Pearce referred to those past reprimands while justifying the severity of the suspension.



A Russian court on Friday extended the arrest for a former U.S. Marine charged with espionage, who complained in court about abuse in custody.

Paul Whelan was arrested at the end of December in a hotel room in the Russian capital of Moscow where he was attending a wedding. He was charged with espionage, which carries up to 20 years in prison in Russia.

Whelan denies the charges of spying for the U.S. that his lawyers said stem from a sting operation. Whelan’s lawyer has said his client was handed a flash drive that had classified information on it that he didn’t know about.

The court ruled Friday to keep the Michigan resident, who also holds British, Irish and Canadian citizenship, behind bars for three more months.

Whelan told reporters in court that he has been threatened and subjected to “abuses and harassment” in prison.

“I haven’t had a shower in two weeks. I can’t use a barber, I have to cut my own hair,” a visibly agitated Whelan said from the defendant’s dock. “This is typical prisoner of war isolation technique. They’re trying to run me down so that I will talk to them.”

Andrea Kalan, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, said Friday that they are disappointed with the ruling, arguing there is “no evidence of any wrongdoing.”

“The mature, civilized course would be to let Paul go home to his elderly parents, who are wondering if they’ll see their son alive again,” Kalan said.

Rights activist Eva Merkachova, who is authorized to visit Moscow prisons, told the RIA Novosti news agency on Friday that the prison administration at the Lefortovo detention center where Whelan is being kept did not let her speak to the American because they were speaking English.

She said she and another activist were told by a prison guard that they can only speak Russian on the premises and that Lefortovo refused to let in a certified translator.


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