February 26, 2013
New York Civil Case Allows Exorbitant Pay for Witness Testimony
In Caldwell v. Cablevision, 2013 N.Y. Slip Op. 00783, the New York Court of Appeals two weeks ago unanimously affirmed a trip-and-fall civil defendant's verdict in which an emergency room physician subpoenaed by the defense as a fact witness was paid $10,000 for one hour of testimony to verify an entry he made in the "history" section of the hospital records. That note read that the plaintiff had "tripped over [her] dog while walking in the rain," seemingly contradicting the plaintiff's claim that she tripped because of an unfilled trench dug by the defendant.
The court was "troubled" by what was clearly an exorbitant fee paid to a witness for minimal testimony. The relevant statute provided that a witness was entitled to a fee of $15 per day and $.23 per mile travel, but the court wrote it was not improper to pay a witness "reasonable" compensation beyond those amounts for attending, testifying and preparing. The court noted that a witness, however, could not be paid based on the outcome of the litigation.
The court, disturbed by what it called a "disproportionate fee for a short amount of time" and realizing that an excessive payment tended to influence witnesses to testify favorably for the party that paid them, also stated "[a] line must be drawn." However, it not only failed to draw that line, but did not set forth any criteria for when a payment to a witness becomes a bribe. It did hold that the trial court should have tailored a specific jury instruction for the situation, but found the failure to do so was harmless error.
Initially, I thought the court's opinion might provide some limited protection to a New York criminal defense lawyer to offer a witness in a state case a substantial payment to overcome the typical witness reluctance to testify against the prosecution. After a moment's reflection, however, I concluded that such protection was illusory. A criminal defense lawyer who pays a fact witness $10,000 for an hour of testimony is likely to face indictment for bribery. What is acceptable in civil cases is often not acceptable in criminal cases, especially if one's adversary has the power to prosecute. Further, what is acceptable conduct by a prosecutor in criminal cases is often not acceptable if done by a defense lawyer.
Prosecutors routinely induce testimony from witnesses by offering "something of value" greater than money -- a witness' freedom from incarceration, something a defense lawyer obviously cannot offer. While one federal appellate court shook the foundations of federal prosecution offices by holding that the government could not induce testimony by offering such leniency to a witness, United States v. Singleton, 144 F.3d 1343 (10th Cir. 1998), that case was swiftly and soundly overruled en banc, 165 F.3d 1302 (10th Cir. 1999).
In white collar and other cases, the defense often is hampered by its inability to induce a witness to testify by offering something of value for fear that the defendant or her attorney will be prosecuted for bribing a witness. While the defendant has a Sixth Amendment right to subpoena and call fact witnesses (and to pay witness fees and the "reasonable value of lost time"), that right is considerably limited by the witness' Fifth Amendment right to assert his privilege against self-incrimination and decline to testify. Further, defense attorneys lack a mechanism (such as a grand jury) to test what an unamenable witness will state under oath.
One instance where witnesses are often necessary for a viable defense in white-collar cases is where the defendant claims she acted with a lack of criminal intent, often evidenced by a direction or assurance by superiors of the propriety of her conduct or her openness and expressions to her co-workers. Witnesses who might substantiate the defendant's good faith who were somewhat involved in, or just near, the questioned activity, generally at the direction of prudent counsel will often refuse to testify for fear they will be prosecuted. This foreclosure of potentially favorable testimony is sometimes reinforced by prosecution sabre-rattling, often disingenuous, that the witness himself is a potential defendant. Such a declaration almost always will frighten the witness from testifying and deter a judge from granting the witness immunity over prosecutorial objection. But see here.
Allowing white-collar defendants to "buy" (honest) testimony from a reluctant witness -- that is, to pay the witness to give up his constitutional right not to testify -- conceivably theoretically acceptable under the Caldwell case -- might somewhat level the playing field in which the prosecutor to a considerable extent controls who will testify for either side. However, until a court or legislature "draws a line" that clearly allows it, such a payment is fraught with danger to the defendant and the defense lawyer.