In January, the U.S. Congress struck a deal to avert another federal government shutdown by passing an omnibus appropriations bill that will provide funding for federal government agencies through September of 2014. The FY14 omnibus budget bill established discretionary spending at $1.012 trillion and provides $98 billion for defense and disaster relief. With a tight January 15th deadline, Congress moved the bill through both Chambers in just 72 hours. The agreement came after Congress failed to pass a budget last fall which resulted in a 16 day federal government shut down.

Congress Passes 2014 Budget – Includes Funding for Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security Programs

The 2014 omnibus budget bill provides $27.7 billion in funding to the Department of Justice to combat crime and terrorism and provide grant funding for law enforcement initiatives at the State, local, and tribal level of government. Specifically, the bill provides $2.3 billion to provide State and local law enforcement with tools to fight crime, gangs, and terrorism, including $240 for the National Guard Counterdrug Program and $214 million for the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Program. Key operational grant programs were also funded through the bill, including $376 million for Byrne Justice Assistance Grants, $417 million for Violence Against Women Act programs, $255 million for juvenile justice and mentoring grants, and $120 million for research and evaluation initiatives on the best local prevention and intervention strategies.

The bill provides the Department of Homeland Security $46.6 billion in total funding. This is an increase of $1.14 billion above the post-sequestration funding level for fiscal year 2013 and $242 million above the President’s request, after factoring out emergency supplemental appropriations, disaster relief cap adjustments, and funding for overseas contingency operations. The appropriation includes $5.626 billion for FEMA through a disaster relief cap adjustment to sequester cuts. Specifically, the bill provides $1.5 billion for State and Local preparedness grant programs, $100.4 million above the comparable fiscal year 2013 level post sequestration. Included in the total is $587 million for the Urban Area Security Initiative and $411.4 million for State Homeland Security Grants.

Obama Department of Justice Nominee Defeated in Senate

On March 7th, the Senate rejected President Obama’s nominee to lead the Justice Department’s civil rights division in a 47-52 vote in which seven Democrats crossed party lines to defeat the Administration’s pick. The controversy centered on accusations that lawyer Debo Adegbile had represented a “cop killer” during his time as director of litigation for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Opponents to the administration’s nominee considered Adegbile unfit to serve due to his legal work supporting Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of killing Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981.

Congressman Kildee’s (MI-05) Bill Aims to Reduce Violent Crime

In late February, Michigan Congressman Dan Kildee introduced a package of legislation intended to reduce violent crime rates by providing positive opportunities for youth including additional education, job skills and afterschool activities. Prior to introducing the bills, the Congressman sought input from local Michigan residents, law enforcement and local government officials on how best to reduce violence in their communities and increase opportunities for children. One of the bills, the “Help Communities Fight Violent Crime Act”, (H.R. 4088) would provide an additional $25 million per year for the next five years for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to “conduct surge programs in cities like Flint and Saginaw to get criminals off the street and root out violent crime.” The second bill, the “Afterschool for America’s Children Act” (H.R.4086) would preserve $1.15 billion in annual funding for afterschool programs and grant states more options for extracurricular activities, including “physical fitness, health education, art, music, STEM education and drug and violence prevention”. A third bill, the “Empowering Youth Through Summer Employment Act,” (H.R. 4087) would provide an additional $100 million in annual grant funding for five years, to provide summer youth employment programs “directly linked to academic or occupational learning”.

Supreme Court Hears Arguments Regarding “Qualified Immunity”

On March 4th, U.S. Supreme Court Justices considered a case related to a fatal high-speed car chase that ended with police officers shooting and killing the driver, Donald Rickard, and a passenger of the vehicle after occupants led officers from West Memphis, Arkansas into Tennessee. Families of the victims sought money damages arguing that law enforcement officers violated the Fourth Amendment by using excessive force. According to the Court brief, Rickard “wove through traffic on an interstate connecting two states, collided with police vehicles twice, and used his vehicle to escape after being surrounded by police officers, nearly hitting at least one officer.” The officers argued they should be granted qualified immunity as their use of force was not prohibited by clearly established law. Qualified immunity is intended to protect law enforcement officers and government officials from lawsuits where the law they violated is not “clearly established.” In Plumhoff v. Rickard the Court will decide whether the lower court properly denied qualified immunity by distinguishing this case, which arose in 2004, with a later Supreme Court decision from 2007. The Court also will decide whether qualified immunity should be denied based on the facts of this case. A ruling is expected within the next three months.

Obama Administration Releases 2015 Budget Proposal

On March 4th, the Obama Administration sent Congress its Fiscal Year 2015 budget, requesting an additional $122 million in funding for the Justice Department while emphasizing the administration’s goal to reduce gun violence and decrease the nation’s prison population. The plan would appropriate $27.4 billion in discretionary funds to the Justice Department, a slight increase from the comprehensive budget President Obama signed into law this January, which funds the government through the end of the current fiscal year on September 30th.  The budget would provide increases in a variety of areas, ranging from law enforcement to civil rights-related litigation.  Among these spending increases, the Bureau of Prisons would receive $6.8 billion for fiscal 2015, an increase of $35 million over the fiscal 2014 enacted level, amid ongoing efforts by the Department of Justice and Members of Congress to reduce the costly rise in the federal prison population. The Justice Department also noted that it would spend an estimated $1.1 billion to combat gun violence and $273 million on civil rights cases, particularly those related to race and national origin. The Administration also requested full funding for the National Guard Counterdrug Program for FY 2015. In order to fund many of these initiatives, the President’s budget does cut $180 million in funding for the State Criminal Assistance Program, which pays states for the temporary incarceration of undocumented immigrants who commit crimes. However, it is widely speculated that funding will quickly be restored by supporters in Congress.

Firearms Background Check Bill

House Minority Members report they are optimistic there is support in the House to pass legislation expanding background checks to a greater number of gun sales. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) recently stated that  a majority of House Members, from both sides of the aisle, currently support legislation (HR 1565) that would expand background checks to private gun sales made in commercial venues, including sales conducted on the Internet and at gun shows. Michigan co-sponsors of the legislation include Rep. John Conyers (D-MI-13), Rep. Sandy Levin (D-MI-9), Rep. Daniel Kildee (D-MI-5), and Rep. Gary Peters (D-MI-14). Last April, the Senate narrowly defeated a companion bill following the Obama Administration’s efforts to push new gun control laws following the mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school in December, 2012. However, House Majority Leaders have been reluctant to consider any legislation that could place new limits on access to firearms. The Congressional Budget Office noted in a February 21st report that a section of the federal gun background check law that authorizes a grant program that help states and tribes to carry out similar background screenings recently expired and needs to be renewed. Some House Majority Members have stated a willingness to reauthorize the provision, however doing so may be unnecessary given that Congress can still provide grants through appropriations measures, without a reauthorization. Many Members have made clear they are seeking more than a straight reauthorization and want to expand the underlying background checks law to cover more sales.