Friday, June 17, 2011

NACDL's 1st Annual West Coast White Collar Conference, “Turning The Tables On The Government” – “The Accidental Felon: Challenging The Expansion of the Willful Blindness Doctrine,” Friday, June 17, 2011

Guest Blogger: Darin Thompson, Assistant Federal Public Defender, Office of the Federal Public Defender (Cleveland,OH)

One of two breakout sessions, two speakers (Timothy O’Toole and Professor Ellen S. Podgor) reviewed the ever-broadening scope of the willful blindness doctrine and proposed several defenses and counter-attacks to this brutally successful prosecutorial tactic.

The speakers opened by discussing a recent U.S. Supreme Court case, Global-Tech Appliances, Inc. v. SEB S.A. Though this is a patent infringement case, the Court addresses the scope of the criminal law willful blindness doctrine. The Court notes that the instruction has been applied to a wide variety of cases, but sets forth two universal requirements: (1) the defendant must subjectively believe that there is a high probability that a fact exists and (2) the defendant must take deliberate actions to avoid learning of that fact. The Court affirmed, holding there was sufficient evidence that the patent infringer was willfully blind under the criminal law standard.

Professor Podgor began by reviewing U.S. v. Jewell, the Ninth Circuit case most commonly cited as setting forth the law on willful blindness. Professor Podgor noted that Justice (then Judge Kennedy) dissented in the 9th Circuit decision in Jewell, and that he again found himself (this time alone) in the dissent in Global-Tech.

Mr. O’Toole noted that the use of willful blindness in white collar cases (even though it originated in a drug case) is an excellent example of why white collar defense attorneys should not wall themselves off from other areas of criminal defense.   With respect to Global-Tech, he noted that the second requirement of “deliberate action” appears to narrow the scope of willful blindness in comparison to existing circuit case law. The Supreme Court itself emphasized this requirement in its analysis, noting that the Federal Circuit was in error in not requiring deliberate action.

Professor Podgor emphasized the strength of the language used by the Supreme Court in this case. Powerful jury instructions can and should be crafted based upon the Global-Tech. Mr. O’Toole seconded these comments, pointing out that the willful blindness doctrine is often relied upon by the government in cases where evidence of deliberate actions is non-existent. He questioned whether any circuit’s pattern instruction remains valid in light of a universal failure to include a requirement of “deliberate actions” to avoid learning of the key fact(s). He also noted that the Supreme Court didn’t merely indicate that recklessness or negligence wasn’t sufficient, but actually set forth the definitions of those two mental states, and suggested that proposed jury instructions should do the same.

One questioner asked whether the improvement in the legal standard was so great that defense counsel should ask for this instruction, to allow focus on the absence of deliberate actions. Both speakers cautioned against it.

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Postscript -  Mentioned in this session was a wonderful article by Dane C. Ball (Gerger & Clarke) titled, Improving "Willful Blindness" Jury Instructions In Criminal Cases After High Court's Decision in Global-Tech, published in the BNA Criminal Law Reporter. With many thanks to Dane C.  Ball and the Criminal Law Reporter for allowing us to post it here - Download BNAinsights.Ball2

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