Monday, October 28, 2013

Worst Practices 101: The Composite Interview Report

We live in an age of massive arrogance, misconduct and lawlessness--individual, governmental and corporate. In the realm of federal criminal investigations, as each new outrage reveals itself, a federal law enforcement flak is trotted out to announce that "this program is entirely legal" or "you can trust us not to abuse our power" or my all-time personal favorite, "we have always done it this way."

"We have always done it this way," is particularly pernicious, because, generally speaking, the longer a practice has been engaged in by law enforcement, the more likely it is to be unlawful. This is because such practices typically begin inside of law enforcement agencies without the benefit of legal advice and review by DOJ prosecutors. The prosecutors find out about these practices in after-the-fact, incremental, and desultory fashion and often do not pay attention to, or care about, the unconstitutional or improper nature of said practices.

"We have always done it this way," as an excuse for impropriety, can also be false. What is really meant is "we have always done it this way since 9-11, because now we can pretty much do whatever we want." The original Stellar Wind warrantless wiretapping program and various forms of parallel construction are good examples of this phenomenon. These questionable practices go on until some person with integrity, sanity, and authority, a Jack Goldsmith or a Donald Verrelli, steps forward to remind everybody that the emperor has no clothes.

This post will be the first in an occasional series about current improper and/or "worst practices" taking place within federal law enforcement.

One such practice is the composite interview report. Federal law enforcement agents are required to write interview reports of the witness interviews that they conduct. The most common report is the FBI 302. Prosecutors read and rely upon these reports in conducting their investigations. These reports are often handed over to the defense as potential Jencks material (witness statements, usually of a testifying case agent) or Brady/Giglio material (statements containing exculpatory or impeachment information). The vast majority of such reports are records of a particular interview at a particular place and time.

But a composite interview report purports to document several interviews occurring over an extended time period. A key witness might be interviewed six times during the course of a year. The composite interview report memorializes in one document the information obtained in all of the interviews without revealing what particular statement was made in which distinct interview.

What is wrong with this practice? The accused does not get an accurate picture of the interview subject's story as it evolves, which it inevitably does. Take the following example. Jane Doe, a key government witness in a bank fraud prosecution, is interviewed nine times between 2007 and 2009. The 16-page composite interview report presents an overall narrative of what Jane allegedly told the agents.  According to the composite interview report, Jane said that the defendant told her in 2006: "I am scared about the government's investigation. I don't look good in stripes."

The problem is that Jane did not reveal this tidbit until the seventh government interview. That Jane sat through six government interviews without revealing this highly incriminating statement by the defendant says a lot about her credibility. A good defense attorney will have a field day with this information on cross. But the defense attorney does not know about this information because the composite interview report will not pinpoint when Jane revealed the defendant's bombshell admission. The Giglio material gets hidden through the format of the composite report.

Assume further that Jane's seventh interview occurs two weeks before the new bank managers are about to announce a major layoff. These same managers are cooperating closely, and regularly, with the FBI and FDIC in an effort to avoid having the bank shut down. Perhaps Jane is becoming a better witness, because she wants to become indispensable to the FBI and have the agents put in a good word for her with bank officials. A composite interview report will reveal nothing about the crucial timing of Jane's key disclosure.

In  the above hypothetical, the prosecutor is still duty bound to reveal that Jane did not remember the defendant's admission until her seventh interview. Why? Because the tardy nature of Jane's revelation weakens her credibiltiy as a witness and is therefore impeaching and exculpatory. But what if the prosecutor does not know the precise timing of Jane's bombshell, because he is only looking at a composite report? Or, what if the prosecutor participated in the interview, but does not remember or focus on the tardiness of Jane's recollection, because he is only reviewing the composite report? What happens is that the material exculpatory information gets buried--a constitutional violation.

In reality, the prosecutor may be directing the agents to file a composite report for the precise purpose of limiting exculpatory disclosures. Hiding exculpatory evidence seems to me to be the whole point of the composite interview report. Even if he is not explicitly directing the agents to create a composite 302, the prosecutor implicitly ratifies the composite 302 by tolerating its creation. Any AUSA worth his salt will have no problem directing the case agent to prepare individual interview reports of each interview session. The case agent does not technically work for the prosecutor, but as a practical matter he takes orders from the prosecutor regarding the conduct of the investigation. As an AUSA, I would have never tolerated a composite 302, as described above, for one moment.

Of course, case agents usually take handwritten notes of each interview report. Why can't the prosecutor solve his Brady/Giglio composite interview problem by reviewing these notes and  turning over any Brady/Giglio materials to the defense? Because prosecutors rarely do this. Most of them are under the incorrect impression that handwritten interview reports never need to be turned over to the defense once they are "incorporated" into a final 302. But this is only true if the final interview report includes the Brady/Giglio material contained in the rough interview notes. And the composite interview reports that we have been discussing, by their very nature, hide Brady/Giglio material.

Many prosecutors never even review agent interview notes, simply assuming that the agents will transfer all relevant information from the notes to the final interview report. But agents are not trained or programmed to decipher exculpatory information. Some piece of information that is unimportant to the agent, might be critical to the seasoned criminal defense attorney. For example, the timing of Jane Doe's recollection in relation to her fear of an impending layoff, and the significance of that timing, is not likely to even register with the typical case agent or federal prosecutor. They are simply not hard-wired to look for such impeaching information, and would in all sincerity be shocked to be accused of hiding it. This professional myopia would not be a problem, in our hypothetical case, if there were nine interview reports for Jane Doe's nine interviews. The diligent defense attorney would have learned about the proposed layoff through case investigation and would immediately recognize the added potential significance of Jane Doe's belated bombshell. She not only forgot about the defendant's supposed confession through the first six interviews, but conveniently remembered it in time to help stave off her forced retirement. All of this is lost, if her interviews are compressed into a composite 302 that does not account for the nuanced changes in Jane's story from interview to interview. 

When you step back and think about it, in addition to all of its other problems, the type of composite interview report that I have been discussing is an inherently false and artificial document. It is not in fact a report of a law enforcement interview.  It is a narrative report of several different interviews that distorts those individual interviews by failing to identify what was asked and what was said in each particular interview session.

The composite interview report as I have described it is a sham and a disgrace.  No ethical prosecutor should tolerate it. No ethical FBI SAC should tolerate it. James Comey should not tolerate it. Astonishingly, current FBI policy does not explicitly prohibit the use of composite interview reports. This must change.

(wisenberg)

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