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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

"Robot Lawyer" Takes On Parking Tickets

The Guardian reports that Joshua Browder calls his chatbot, DoNotPay "the world's first robot lawyer." Browder's creation requires users to work their way through a series of questions to determine the viability of appealing a parking ticket. So far, DoNotPay has had a pretty good run:

The results speak for themselves. In the 21 months since the free service was launched in London and now New York, Browder says DoNotPay has taken on 250,000 cases and won 160,000, giving it a success rate of 64% appealing over $4m of parking tickets
“I think the people getting parking tickets are the most vulnerable in society. These people aren’t looking to break the law. I think they’re being exploited as a revenue source by the local government,” Browder told Venture Beat
The bot was created by the self-taught coder after receiving 30 parking tickets at the age of 18 in and around London. The process for appealing the fines is relatively formulaic and perfectly suits AI, which is able to quickly drill down and give the appropriate advice without charging lawyers fees.
The Wall Street Journal reports on the story as well, noting that in addition to Browder's robot lawyer, robots also carry out the work of issuing parking tickets.

Browder's program is not the only robot lawyer on the market, although it appears to be the only robot lawyer that regular folks may use. BakerHostetler is using ROSS, "the world's first artificially intelligent attorney," to perform legal research. According to ROSS's website, you can ask ROSS a question, it searches "the entire body of law" and provides a cited answer and reading suggestions. It sounds similar to this blog, although I only focus on arcane questions that are of interest to me in the moment.

In addition to these robot lawyers, I stand by what I have previously written and hope that one day we will also have robot judges. In an era of complicated laws and expensive attorneys, we may yet see the day when robots end up handling all the legal nonsense. As an attorney, however, I cringe at the prospect of this dismal world without lawyers, and hope that this future is still a long way off.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Airbnb Sues San Francisco, Alleges Violation of CDA Section 230

On June 27, 2016, Airbnb filed a complaint against the City of San Francisco in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California alleging that a recently-enacted ordinance requiring Airbnb hosts to register and post their registration numbers while renting their apartments on the Airbnb platform violates Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), among other laws. On its website, Airbnb states:
Over the last year, we have held eleven town hall meetings to explain the registration process, repeatedly emailed hosts to encourage them to register, and convened scores of meetings with individual hosts to help walk them through the required registration steps. 
But instead of fixing the process, the Board of Supervisors recently passed a hastily-crafted proposal requiring Airbnb to remove all unregistered hosts. This legislation ignores the reality that the system is not working and this new approach will harm thousands of everyday San Francisco residents who depend on Airbnb. It also violates federal law.
Airbnb allows "Hosts" to rent rooms, apartments, or houses to "Guests" for varying periods of time. Hosts post listings for available spaces on the Airbnb platform, and Guests use the platform to locate and select listings.

Airbnb contends that the City's ordinance, which becomes effective on July 24, 2016, is preempted by CDA sections 230(c)(1) and (e)(3), which state:
(c)(1): No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.
(e)(3): Nothing in this section shall be construed to prevent any State from enforcing any State law that is consistent with this section. No cause of action may be brought and no liability may be imposed under any State or local law that is inconsistent with this section. (emphasis added)
The new ordinance is here. Section 41A.5(l)(1)(F) requires apartment owners to register their apartments and include their registration number in any Airbnb (or other platform) listing. Sections 41A.5(c)-(j) permit civil and criminal actions against owners and housing platforms that violate the ordinance. In paragraph 5 of its complaint, Airbnb alleges that:
By requiring Airbnb to verify that each third-party rental listing has a valid registration number prior to posting the listing on their websites, and by imposing criminal and civil penalties for websites’ publishing of unverified third-party listings, the Ordinance violates the CDA, which preempts the enforcement of these provisions against Airbnb.
You can find additional coverage of the lawsuit here and here. G.S. Hans at Center for Democracy and Technology noted that the ordinance would run into problems with the CDA:
This imposition of liability clearly goes against Section 230, which states in (c)(1) that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider” — meaning that, if an information content provider, typically an individual user, posts something illegal, the interactive computer service, typically a website, can’t be held liable for it. Moreover, under (e)(3), “no liability may be imposed under any State or local law that is inconsistent with this section.” States and localities can pass laws that are consistent with Section 230, but anything inconsistent with Section 230 — like the imposition of liability on a website operator for user-generated content — is unlawful. From a logistical perspective, this makes a great deal of sense. If states and cities could enact a variety of conflicting laws, the whole point of Section 230 would be undermined. As a global medium, the internet wouldn’t work if it were subject to piecemeal regulations by every state and city within the US.
If the ordinance were limited to the Hosts renting apartments over Airbnb, the City would have avoided the Section 230 problem. As the ordinance stands, however, it appears to impose civil and criminal liability against Airbnb if Hosts advertise over Airbnb without including the proper registration numbers, Holding the Airbnb platform liable for the content (or missing required content) of its users' posts appears to violate Section 230, and Airbnb's lawsuit will likely succeed as a result.

Voisine and the Significance of Second Amendment Silence

The Supreme Court released an opinion today in Voisine v. United States (full opinion here), a case described by Rory Little of SCOTUSblog as both "arcane" and "unremarkable." But the case involves guns and statutory interpretation, so here I am writing about it.

Voisine concerns 18 U.S.C. §922(g)(9) which prohibits those who have previously been convicted of a "misdemeanor crime of domestic violence" from possessing firearms.  18 U.S.C. §921(a)(33)(A) defines the Section 922(g)(9) prohibition to encompass anybody previously convicted of a misdemeanor against a domestic relation that necessarily involves "the use or attempted use of physical force."  The question before the Court: whether Voisine's prior conviction for misdemeanor assault against his girlfriend in violation of Section 207 of the Maine Criminal Code constituted "the use or attempted use of physical force" under the federal law.  Section 207 of the Maine Criminal Code prohibits a person from "intentionally, knowingly or recklessly caus[ing] bodily injury or offensive physical contact to another person." The central issue: whether "reckless" use of force is sufficient to constitute a prior use of force, or whether the prior crime had to involve knowing or intentional use of force.

In this post, I will first explore Voisine's quirky background, then outline the statutory arguments that constituted the bulk of the Majority and Dissenting opinions. I then turn to the Second Amendment issue, which rears its head only in Justice Thomas's solo dissent, and explore whether the Court's silence on this issue signals how it may address future cases with potential Second Amendment questions.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Reathaford on the Value of Blogging

In the latest issue of the Association of Southern California Defense Counsel's Verdict Magazine, Laura Reathaford writes on the value of legal blogging and how and why lawyers should blog. The article appears on pages 16-17 of the issue.

I especially agree with Reathaford on how a blog can be a repository of information for the blogger. If an author writes multiple, systematic posts on a particular area of law (say...drone law), the author can rely on his or her prior blog posts in subsequent writings on the subject by using previous posts as resources for links or summaries of relevant statutes or cases. Indeed, if one's prior posts are exhaustive enough, it is possible to write a full law journal article in a manner of days.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Is a Parrot's Statement Hearsay?

Fox News reports on this evidence exam hypothetical come to life:

A Michigan man’s wife is now a suspect in his May 2015 murder, newly obtained police reports show, and a winged witness may have heard the dead man’s final plea. 
An African grey parrot might’ve overheard Martin Durham as he pleaded with his shooter before the killer pumped five bullets into Durham’s body. The bird, Bud, was heard saying “Don’t f------ shoot” in a video taken shortly after Durham’s death, WOOD reported. 
“That bird picks up everything and anything, and it’s got the filthiest mouth around,” Duram’s mom, Lillian Duram, told WOOD. 
It’s unclear if police have seen this video, or if the bird’s utterance is even admissible as evidence.
Would the video be admissible as evidence of the victim's last words? Possibly. There are two major evidence law issues I can spot right off the bat. The first is whether this evidence would be unduly prejudicial to a criminal defendant charged with Durham's murder. The defendant may argue that the bird's statement is unreliable or that it could have originated from a source other than the victim. These possibilities, the Defendant may argue, render the bird's statement significantly more prejudicial than probative and warrant exclusion of the evidence.

I'm not sure how a debate over this question would turn out, and I doubt that there is precedent on the issue. The far more interesting (and clear-cut) issue, however, is whether the parrot's statement is hearsay.