Wednesday, June 22, 2011
The appeal of former New York State Senate majority leader Joseph L. Bruno, argued last week before the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, has raised some interesting double jeopardy issues which may or may not be addressed by the court. Bruno was convicted of honest services fraud under 18 U.S.C. 1346 based on an undisclosed self-dealing theory. After Bruno’s conviction and while his case was on appeal, the Supreme Court in United States v. Skilling rejected the undisclosed self-dealing theory under Section 1346 and limited the statute’s application to cases involving bribery or kickbacks (thereby making the statute virtually superfluous since such conduct is usually covered by other statutes). On appeal in Bruno, the government, conceding reversal was required because the court’s instructions to the jury were flawed under Skilling, nonetheless argued that it should be given a second shot at Bruno, this time with a superseding indictment more specifically alleging bribery.
Generally, an appeal of a criminal trial marred by instructions proper under prevailing law at the time given (as they apparently were here) but later found defective by a higher court in that or another case results in a retrial with proper instructions. One underlying justification is that the prosecution cannot be expected to anticipate changes in the law and should be able to rely on current law. This case is somewhat different, however. Here, the government could not, or certainly should not, have failed to realize that the theory it chose to pursue was constitutionally questionable on vagueness and overbreadth grounds. The theory of prosecution had been questioned by courts, scholars, and lawyers and was about to be considered by the Supreme Court pursuant to a grant of certiorari. The government nonetheless chose to go forward on this theory, most likely because it was easier to prove factually, rather than a bribery charge that was less assailable legally but probably more difficult to prove. This case thus appears to be a classic example of a prosecutor deciding to seek the instant gratification of a conviction at trial and not to worry about the appeal until later.
Last week, in Davis v. United States, the Supreme Court held in a search and seizure case that evidence should not be excluded if the evidence was seized pursuant to police procedures compliant with then-binding legal precedent even though that precedent was subsequently overruled. Following that line of reasoning, a court may well rule that there should not be a double jeopardy bar to retrial if the prosecutor’s conduct was compliant with binding legal precedent that was subsequently overruled. A different approach seems appropriate, however, when the law the prosecutor relied on was, as here, up in the air. Indeed, Justice Sotomayor, concurring in Davis, made such a distinction, stating that she would have ruled differently if the law the police relied on was unsettled. It will be interesting to see how the Second Circuit, if it reaches this issue, will decide it.