TIME Laws

The CDC Has Less Power Than You Think, and Likes it That Way

Ebola isn’t likely to lead to a widespread quarantine but it certainly raises interesting constitutional questions

Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Tom Frieden has come under fire in recent days for what some charge is the agency’s stumbling response to the appearance of Ebola in America. This week, reporters and lawmakers alike grilled Frieden over how two nurses in Texas contracted the virus and how one of them was able to board an airplane even after she reported a raised temperature.

Breakdowns in good practice notwithstanding, it’s important to remember that Ebola in the U.S. is largely contained and very unlikely to lead to any kind of significant outbreak. Still, the charges leveled against Frieden raise a question that leads to a surprisingly complicated answer: just what, exactly, can—and should—the CDC do?

Since time immemorial, public health officials’ main weapon against the outbreak of a disease as been to restrict the ability of people to interact with one another, also known as a quarantine. The term comes from the Latin “quadraginta,” meaning 40, and is derived from the 40-day period ships traveling from plague-stricken regions were kept at bay before being allowed to dock in medieval European ports.

Imposing a quarantine—effectively stripping innocent people of the most basic right to move freely in the world—is one of the most serious actions a government can take against its own citizenry. Partly for this reason, in the American federal system (designed from the outset to check the power of the national government) the power to quarantine resides largely with state and local authorities. Should Texas, or any other state, someday face the threat of a true epidemic, the states have broad authority to restrict the movement of people within their own borders. Public health codes granting the state power to impose quarantine orders vary from state to state, of course. Violating a quarantine order in Louisiana is punishable by a fine of up to $100 and up to a year in prison; in Mississippi the same infraction could cost a violator up to $5000 and up to five years in prison.

The federal government does have its own powers. The CDC, as the U.S.’s primary agency for taking action to stop the spread of disease, has broad authority under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution to restrict travel into the country and between states of an infected person or a person who has come in contact with an infected person, according to Laura Donohue, director of the Center on National Security and the Law at Georgetown Law School. Federal quarantine can be imposed, too, on federal property, like a military base or National Forest land. And as the preeminent employer of experts on public health crises, the CDC is always likely to get involved within any affected state in the event of a looming pandemic.

But its power to act is extremely restricted. The agency traditionally acts in an advisory role and can only take control from local authorities under two circumstances: if local authorities invite them to do so or under the authority outlined in the Insurrection Act in the event of a total breakdown of law and order.

And here the picture becomes murkier yet because authority does not always beget power.

“It’s not a massive regulatory agency,” said Wendy Parmet, a professor in public health law at Northeastern University in Boston. “They don’t have ground troops. They don’t have tons of regulators. They’re scientists. Even if the states asked them to do it it’s not clear how they would do it.

Even in the highly unlikely event that the CDC were called to respond to a—let’s reiterate: extremely-unlikely-to-occur—pandemic, quarantine and isolation would be imposed not by bespeckled CDC scientists but by local or federal law enforcement or troops. Most importantly, the CDC is extremely reluctant to be seen as a coercive government agency because it depends as much as any agency on the good will and acquiescence of citizens in order to respond effectively to a public health emergency. When the bright lights of the Ebola crisis are not on it, the CDC will still need people to get vaccinated, to go to the doctor when they get sick, and to call the authorities if they see trouble.

“Our public health system is built on voluntary compliance,” Donohue tells TIME. “If the CDC starts to become the enemy holding a gun to [someone’s] head and keeping them in their house, they lose insight.”

MONEY Opinion

What Congress Should Do to Give Student Loan Borrowers Hope For Relief

141015_FF_LOANBORROWERS
Blend Images - Hill Street Studi—Getty Images/Brand X

Student loans are the only debt that can't be discharged in bankruptcy. Joe Valenti and David Bergeron of the Center for American Progress argue for two law changes to fix this.

Steve Mason’s story could keep any parent up at night.

The Redlands, Calif. pastor co-signed $100,000 in private student loans for his daughter Lisa to attend nursing school. But Lisa died suddenly at age 27.

Now, the loans intended to ensure her financial future are threatening to impoverish her parents and their three young grandchildren because Mason remains on the hook for the loans. He is struggling to provide for his family while trying to negotiate with lenders to settle on his daughter’s debt which, with interest and penalties, now totals about $200,000.

If he had co-signed a car loan for his daughter, or if his family had racked up credit card debt, or nearly any other kind of debt, the Masons would have had a way out: bankruptcy. Our Founding Fathers, appalled by British debtors’ prisons, created bankruptcy courts to give Americans that are struggling with debt a chance to reduce or even erase those financial burdens, and gain a fresh start.

Unfortunately, Congress has carved out an exception to this American promise: student loans.

The student loan exception to bankruptcy laws ignores tragic life situations of students, parents, and grandparents alike. And it should be changed. A common-sense approach to bankruptcy reform would help struggling families like the Masons while promoting a better student loan system for everyone.

How Student Loans Became the Exception to the Rule

Until 1976, all types of loans were treated equally under bankruptcy law. But that year, Congress passed the first exception, declaring that bankruptcy judges could only dismiss federal student loans under the direst of circumstances.

In 2005, Congress expanded the exception to include private student loans—those made by banks and credit unions.

Now, bankruptcy judges are only allowed to discharge the student loans of those who have proven they have “undue hardships,” which generally means never being able to work again.

The death or disability of a borrower discharges federal student loans. But private loans—such as those the Masons took out—don’t have those provisions. So private student loans plague those who are disabled as well as the survivors of those who have passed away, such as the Masons.

All together, under current law, it is next-to-impossible to get rid of any kind of student debt in bankruptcy.

How to Fix the Problem

Here are two simple steps that would help make student loans fairer and more bearable:

1) Allow judges to wipe out the private student loans of any private lender that fails to:

A) Discharge loans in the cases of death and disability, as the federal government does.

B) Charge reasonable interest rates.

C) Allow borrowers repayment flexibility, such as deferment and forbearance options for those in financial difficulties.

2) Allow judges to wipe out any student loans—including federal loans—taken out for colleges that:

A) Have high dropout rates.

B) Have high student loan default rates.

Lenders who charge reasonable rates, allow flexible repayment and wipe out the debts of the disabled and deceased could be considered “qualified” for the current tough bankruptcy rules. Bankruptcy would remain the narrow path of last resort it was designed to be for borrowers. But lenders who don’t meet these standards—basically, those that don’t give borrowers any way out—would be subject to the same bankruptcy laws as other lenders.

Schools, too, would need to earn the bankruptcy exemption for the programs they offer. If students are not likely to complete the programs they’re borrowing for, or generally don’t earn enough to pay back the debt, their federal or private student loans would be dischargeable. There is no sense in penalizing students, parents, and grandparents lured by false promises of success.

Indeed, a study two decades ago by the U.S. General Accounting Office found that low-income borrowers who dropped out of poor-performing schools were the borrowers who most frequently defaulted on their loans—not successful young grads simply trying to walk away from their obligations.

It is economic circumstances, rather than moral failings, that often brings families to bankruptcy as a way to deal with difficult and unforeseen situations. Surely the Masons could not have anticipated their current situation. And it’s probably a situation that no member of Congress anticipated either when they closed the doors of bankruptcy court to virtually all student loan debtors.

These are doors that Congress, and Congress alone, can reopen for students, parents, and grandparents who have fallen on hard times to have equal access to the same courts that the wealthy and corporations have used to make a fresh start. And these doors can be opened strategically to make sure bankruptcy remains a last resort.

Otherwise, families like the Masons will continue to struggle needlessly.

Joe Valenti is the Director of Asset Building at the Center for American Progress. David Bergeron is the Vice President of Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress and former assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the U.S. Department of Education.

TIME Crime

NYPD Confrontation With Pregnant Woman is Latest Police Video to Go Viral

The recording of an NYPD officer shoving a pregnant woman to the ground belly first is part of a shift in the relationship between the public and police

It was another disturbing video of a heated police encounter: As New York Police Department officers attempted to arrest a suspect, a pregnant woman is taken down by one of them, her swollen stomach hitting the pavement. And like an increasing number of police incidents, it was recorded by bystanders and widely shared on social media.

This one began early in the morning on Sept. 20 in the Sunset Park section of Brooklyn, when police tried to arrest 17-year-old Jhohan Lemos for carrying a knife. The footage shows his mother, Sandra Amezquita, trying to intervene, then getting shoved to the ground belly first by an NYPD officer and later given a summons for disorderly conduct.

“The first thing I thought was they killed my baby and they’re going to kill my wife,” Ronel Lemos, Amezquita’s husband, told The New York Daily News.

Amezquita filed an excessive force complaint, prompting an investigation by the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau. Her lawyer, Sanford Rubenstein, said in a news conference Wednesday that Amezquita was suffering from vaginal bleeding.

The significance of the footage goes far beyond the borders of this Brooklyn neighborhood. The video from Sunset Park is the latest in a string of recorded confrontations between the police and the public that have fundamentally changed the relationship between the two.

Since a bystander captured Los Angeles Police Department officers assaulting Rodney King on a camcorder in 1991, ever-more-accessible recording devices have added layers of eyes and evidence to encounters with law enforcement that were once unthinkable. The fatal shooting of Oscar Grant by Oakland police in 2009 was documented by commuters at the train station where it happened. The death of Eric Garner during an arrest on Staten Island, N.Y. launched a national debate on the use of force by police after cell phone video of the confrontation went viral. And in the tense aftermath of Michael Brown’s shooting death in Ferguson, Mo., an organization called We Copwatch has provided citizens with cameras to document the actions of local police.

“The police are often the only people at a scene without cameras,” says John DeCarlo, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

That, too, is changing. Dozens of police departments are now testing or considering adopting body-worn cameras for officers. Police in Ferguson are now using cameras and the NYPD is testing two types of officer recording devices. Law enforcement agencies in Miami Beach, Washington, D.C., and Colorado Springs all plan to start wearing cameras by October.

The effect of all this surveillance can make it seem like the police are increasingly heavy-handed, but the numbers say otherwise. “There may be fewer incidents of abuse of force nowadays than there had been during the 1960s and ‘70s and earlier than that, but because we see them more commonly now because of the advent of cameras, people think they’re going up,” says DeCarlo.

Earlier this month, New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton released statistics showing that only 2% of the 400,000 arrests last year involved use of force by officers, a decrease of 8.5% from 20 years ago. The figures have been challenged by city council members who questioned the way the police department defined use of force, but the drop mirrors a similar decline in departments around the nation. In 2008, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 1.4% of people who had contact with police reported that an officer had used force or threatened to do so, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, down from 1.5% in 2002 and 1.6% in 2005.

But there is no doubt that recordings can elevate local incidents into national issues. And for many of the people behind the cameras, that’s just the point. The video of Amezquita was released by El Grito de Sunset Park, a community watch group. Its leader, Dennis Flores, has his own history with the NYPD: After filming police arresting a teenager in the neighborhood in 2002, Flores says the cops destroyed his camera, assaulted and arrested him. He says he later received a six-figure settlement that allowed him to form the group and buy dozens of cameras for neighborhood citizens to record officer incidents. One of those cameras, he says, was used to film Saturday’s altercation.

“We don’t interfere or obstruct,” Flores says. “We’re just trying to help prevent abuse. Citizens now with their cell phones are able to document and upload these videos for all the world to see. They’re balancing power.”

TIME poverty

Parking Meters Aren’t Going to Fix Homelessness

Real Change Movement
An example of one of the Real Change Movement's meters Real Change Movement

The converted parking meters have mixed results around the U.S.

It’s an eye-catching way to raise money and awareness about homelessness: 14 parking meters around Pasadena, Calif., all converted to collect change for those living on the streets.

In the last few weeks, Pasadena has joined several large cities around the U.S. that have set up what are essentially “homelessness meters.” They’re retrofitted parking meters that allow passersby to donate money by depositing coins or even swipe debit or credit cards. That money then goes to homelessness charities and organizations rather than directly to the homeless themselves.

“This is a clear alternative where people contributing know that all the money will go to effective services,” Bill Huang, the Pasadena housing director, told The Los Angeles Times.

Supporters say the money goes to organizations like the United Way or local homeless groups that know how to effectively use the funds for food, support and shelter and get around the possibility of that money going to drugs or alcohol. Two of Pasadena’s meters, painted bright orange and affixed with smiley faces, have reportedly raised $270 in their first three weeks. But elsewhere around the U.S., the meters have decidedly mixed results. In Orlando, for example, 15 homelessness meters have brought in just $2,027 in three years, and that was after the city spent $2,000 getting them up and running.

“I don’t know that these meters have been very effective anywhere, certainly not in Orlando,” says Jim Wright, a University of Central Florida professor who studies homelessness. “The concept was, I believe, oversold by the advocates and too rapidly embraced by politicos trying to create the impression that they were doing something significant about the homeless problem.”

Andrae Bailey, chief executive officer of the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness, which collects the money from Orlando’s meters, says they were installed in 2011 without a comprehensive homeless strategy focusing primarily on housing those in need.

“We tried to do meters without having a plan to house veterans and those with mental illness and disabilities,” Bailey says. “Anything other than a housing solution for the chronic homeless is a recipe for disaster.”

In Denver, 50 homeless meters bring in around $3,000 to $6,500 total each year, according to Denver’s Road Home, which launched the Donation Meter Program in 2007. The money goes to support services like housing, shelter, mental health and support services, says Denver’s Road Home executive director Bennie Milliner.

But some housing advocates criticize the meters as merely an attempt to reduce panhandling. Paul Boden, director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, a collective of various West Coast homeless organizations, says that the installation of meters is often in conjunction with either increased enforcement of panhandling laws or additional legislation. Both Denver and Atlanta, which installed meters several years ago, have also worked to crack down on panhandlers.

“It’s a way to possibly reduce panhandling,” says Dennis Culhane, a University of Pennsylvania psychiatry professor who studies homelessness, adding that he doesn’t see much substantive impact from the meters on truly solving the problem of homelessness in those cities.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: August 29

1. We must confront the vast gulf between white and black America if we want to secure racial justice after Ferguson.

By the Editors of the Nation

2. As ISIS recruits more western acolytes, it’s clear military might alone can’t defeat it. We must overcome radical Islam on the battleground of ideas.

By Maajid Nawaz in the Catholic Herald

3. Kids spend hours playing the game Minecraft. Now they can learn to code while doing it.

By Klint Finley in Wired

4. One powerful way to raise the quality of America’s workforce: Make community colleges free.

By the Editors of Scientific American

5. Restrictions on where sex offenders can live after prison is pure politics. They do nothing to prevent future offenses.

By Jesse Singal in New York Magazine’s Science of Us

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Laws

Why It’s Legal for a 9-Year-Old to Fire an Uzi

Gun Show Held At Pima County Fairgrounds
People shoot their guns at the Southwest Regional Park shooting range near the Crossroads of the West Gun Show at the Pima County Fairgrounds in Tucson, Ariz. Kevork Djansezian—Getty Images

Questions after the death of a shooting instructor

The deadly shooting in which a nine-year-old girl accidentally killed her firing range instructor with an Uzi on Monday is the kind of incident that seems almost inconceivable. How can someone so young be allowed to fire such a high-powered weapon? The answer: Because she was accompanied by an adult.

“I think you’ll find that state laws provide for those under a certain age, usually 18, to shoot when under adult supervision or instruction,” says Michael Bazinet, a spokesperson for the National Shooting Sports Foundation. “Youth shooting sports are generally extremely safe activities, enjoyed by millions of Americans.”

Bazinet says he knows of no federal legislation that restricts minors from shooting range activities, leaving it up to the states and the ranges themselves to determine who’s too young to shoot.

Bullets and Burgers, a shooting range in the Arizona’s Mojave Desert where the incident took place Monday morning, allows children as young as eight to shoot as long as they’re accompanied by a parent or legal guardian. Under Arizona law, minors as young as 14 can shoot at a range without adult supervision.

The fatal shooting occurred about 10 a.m. Monday morning when Charles Vacca, a 39-year-old firearms instructor, was demonstrating how to fire the gun. The nine-year-old, whose name hasn’t been released but was accompanied by her parents, can be seen taking an initial shot in a video released by authorities. Vacca then appears to switch the gun to automatic. The video shows the gun recoiling as it points toward Vacca, who was shot in the head according to the Mohave County Sheriff’s Office. (That portion is not seen in the video.)

Vacca was pronounced dead Monday evening.

Below is the video released by police, and while it does not depict the moment of the shooting, it may still be disturbing to some viewers; caution is advised.

TIME justice

Two Killed in Georgia Rampage, Including Shooter

Authorities are still trying to piece together why a man shot up a house before stealing and car

A man in northwest Georgia went on a shooting rampage, killing two people including himself.

The man, whose name has not been released by police, is accused of shooting three people at a house in Cartersville, about 40 miles outside Atlanta. One victim was declared dead at the scene and the other two were transported to a nearby hospital. Police say the shooter then fled in a car, which he crashed into a house, the Associated Press reports.

He then broke into the house, shot occupant in the hand, carjacked a vehicle from an elderly man and his grandson and crashed into a truck, police said. The collision caused a fire, whereupon police say the shooter turned the gun on himself. Neither the elderly man nor his grandson were injured in the incident.

Bartow County Sherriff Clark Millsap said the shooter knew his victims and police are investigating the cause of the shootings.

[AP]

TIME politics

Colorado Tightening Regulations on Marijuana Edibles

Colorado officials are tightening the rules governing marijuana edibles in an effort to reduce the risk of accidental overdoses. Regulators were not only concerned about overdoses, but also wanted products to have more child resistant packaging.

Officials drafted an emergency rule on Thursday making it easier to tell how much THC, the active ingredient in cannabis, would be in the edibles for sale. The result of this action will be weaker edible products and new packaging.

Similar regulations have been implemented in Washington, the only other state where edible sales are legal.

TIME Culture

What Do Kansas and Nebraska Have Against Small Libraries?

Little Library Evicted
A newly built Little Free Library stands on an area between the sidewalk and the street near Southminster United Methodist Church in the Indian Village neighborhood of Lincoln, Neb., July 8. The city of Lincoln says it can'’t sit in a public right of way. Matt Ryerson—Journal-Star/AP

These birdhouse-size book bins are causing unexpected controversy

The tiny library started out innocently enough. Built outside a church in Lincoln, Neb., it was one of about 25 free, barely-bigger-than-a-birdhouse-size book dispensaries that have sprung up in this Great Plains city. But that was before public officials said this particular library was a public hazard that violated a city ordinance. The city’s verdict: get rid of the library or we’ll do it for you.

“We were all envisioning the mayor pulling up in a Subaru and taking an axe to it,” says Barbara Arendt, who spearheaded the library’s construction. “We didn’t realize we were behaving egregiously.”

Mini libraries have been popping up around the country since 2009, when Todd Bol of Hudson, Wisc., built a model of a one-room schoolhouse and filled it with books to honor his mother, a former teacher. Rick Brooks, a former manager of continuing studies programs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, saw the tiny library and teamed up with Bol to build more of them as a way to promote literacy. Their mission was to build 2,509 of what they called Little Free Libraries, the same as the number of normal-sized libraries endowed by the book-minded philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. The small libraries typically offer about two dozen titles, ranging from kids’ books to science texts. The only rule is that you can’t take a book without leaving one.

The project took off. As of January, the Little Free Library organization estimated there are some 15,000 tiny libraries around the nation. But as the seeds of this homegrown movement have sprouted, local red tape has become an obstacle.

In Leawood, Kan., 9-year-old Spencer Collins addressed city council members July 7 after the city determined that his little library violated a decade-old city ordinance prohibiting tiny structures in front yards.

“I like checking the little library to see what books have been taken and what new books are left,” Collins told the city council, according to Fox4KC. “I think free little libraries are good for Leawood and I hope you will change the code.”

(One resident called the libraries “eyesores” and said that changing the city’s codes and bylaws would “destroy Leawood.” The city council issued a moratorium until Oct. 20 to reevaluate the ordinance, and Collins has reopened his library.)

In November 2012, Whitefish Bay, a village outside Milwaukee, banned the tiny libraries because of a similar prohibition on front yard structures. After several months of criticism, the village board reversed its decision.

Most of the tiny libraries pop up without incident and Bol says the occasional zoning controversy tends to generate the sort of public outrage that benefits his cause.

In Lincoln, Arendt and the city appear to have reached a middle ground. Arendt has agreed to move the library away from a public right-of-way, defined as the grassy strip between the street and the sidewalk and typically off-limits for private structures. That area is generally left free for mailboxes and utility crews to access underground cables and pipes. In exchange, the city has said it won’t levy what could have been a $500 fine.

Miki Esposito, Lincoln’s director of public works and utilities, says the concern was over liability. Would the city be responsible if the library was damaged by utility workers or snowplows, which are known to knock down mailboxes in winter.

“We love these little libraries,” she says. “We think they’re adorable. We just want them to be placed properly.”

Esposito says the city has given Arendt a couple weeks to move the library. When that happens, she says city officials will have their shovels ready to help.

TIME cities

No, You Can’t Auction Off Public Parking Spaces in San Francisco

A San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency parking control officer writes a parking ticket for an illegally parked car on July 3, 2013 in San Francisco.
A San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency parking control officer writes a parking ticket for an illegally parked car on July 3, 2013 in San Francisco. Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

The City Attorney has demanded that a company facilitating the auction of public assets put the brakes on their business

Correction appended, June 23

San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera sent an immediate cease-and-desist letter Monday to Monkey Parking, a peer-to-peer app that “enables motorists to auction off the public parking spaces their vehicles occupy to nearby drivers.” Though startups often operate in legal grey areas that new laws will eventually flush out, spokesperson Matt Dorsey says that “there is no grey area here.”

Imagine that you snag a parking spot on a busy downtown street where finding a slot is generally the equivalent of winning the lottery. Once your car is in the spot, Dorsey says, the app allows you to “sell” that space to the highest bidder. The winner gets to slide their car in as yours pulls out, paying you perhaps $25 in addition to the actual meter fees. The problem is that those parking spaces, unlike driveways, are clearly public assets that private citizens are forbidden to sell.

“Technology has given rise to many laudable innovations in how we live and work—and Monkey Parking is not one of them,” Herrera said in a statement. “It creates a predatory private market for public parking spaces that San Franciscans will not tolerate … People are free to rent out their own private driveways and garage spaces should they choose to do so. But we will not abide businesses that hold hostage on-street public parking spots for their own private profit.”

The City Attorney is giving Italy-based Monkey Parking, which operates on Apple’s iOS system, until July 11 to cease all activity in the City by the Bay and has vowed to file a lawsuit if that deadline is not met. A state consumer-protection law provides for a $2,500 fine per violation, and Herrera is arguing that means Monkey Parking will be on the hook for that amount for every transaction that has occurred through the app. The drivers using the app, meanwhile, could be paying $300 penalties under a city law that prohibits people from buying, selling or leasing public parking.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the title and name of City Attorney Dennis Herrera.

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