Monday, June 27, 2016
It was the last decision issued by the US Supreme Court this term, and an important one for many. The Supreme Court vacated and remanded former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell's conviction (see here). It was a unanimous decision - a strong statement with which to end the Court's term. The key issue was what constitutes an "official act" to meet the bribery statute. The issue arose, as so many issues do, from the district court's giving of a jury instruction -
Chief Justice Roberts issued the 28 page decision vacating and remanding the lower court's decision -
- Setting up a meeting, hosting an event, or contacting officials - without more - is not an "official act".
- The Court uses a straightforward statutory definition analysis to define what constitutes an "official act".
- The precedent offered in Sun Diamond supports the Governor's arguments that "hosting an event, meeting with other officials, or speaking with interested parties is not, standing alone, a 'decision or action' within the meaning of section 201(a)(3), even if the event, meeting, or speech is related to a pending question or matter."
- "[S]omething more is required: section 201(a)(3) specifies that the public official must make a decision or take an action on that question or matter or agree to do so."
- "[A]n 'official act' is a decision or action on a 'question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy."
- The government's "expansive interpretation" of what is an "official act" raises significant constitutional concerns.
- "[W]e cannot construe a criminal statute on the assumption that the Government will "use it responsibly."
- The Court notes three deficiencies in the district court's instructions from this case.
- The Court sends it back to the district court to determine if there is sufficient evidence to meet the Supreme Court's definition of "official act" and if the district court finds that there is - a new trial should be held using this standard.
More commentary to follow on whether this case should be retried. This case was tried by Hank Asbill (Jones Day).
Monday, June 20, 2016
Yes, The Supreme Court's opinion here looks at whether RICO has extraterritorial application in the civil context. And in that regard it limits its extraterritorial application. But there is some important language in this opinion for both civil and criminal practitioners, especially since much of RICO is premised on a criminal statute, and all of RICO is located in Title 18, the Criminal Code.
- There has been much confusion as to whether one should look at the predicate acts or the enterprise in determining extraterritoriality and the Court provides significant guidance here.
- In deciding RICO's extraterritorial application, the Court divides it into two issues: a) "do RICO's substantive prohibitions, contained in sec. 1962, apply to conduct, that occurs in foreign countries;" b) "does RICO's private cause of action, contained in sec 1964(c) apply to injuries that are suffered in foreign countries?" It is this first issue that one needs to examine for criminal cases.
- The Court reaffirms in statutory construction the premise that there is "presumption against extraterritoriality."
- The Court describes the two-step process - "Morrison and Kiobel reflect a two-step framework for analyzing extraterritoriality issues. At the first step, we ask whether the presumption against extraterritoriality has been rebutted—that is, whether the statute gives a clear, affirmative indication that it applies extraterritorially. We must ask this question regardless of whether the statute in question regulates conduct, affords relief, or merely confers jurisdiction. If the statute is not extraterritorial, then at the second step we determine whether the case involves a domestic application of the statute, and we do this by looking to the statute’s 'focus.' If the conduct relevant to the statute’s focus occurred in the United States, then the case involves a permissible domestic application even if other conduct occurred abroad; but if the conduct relevant to the focus occurred in a foreign country, then the case involves an impermissible extraterritorial application regardless of any other conduct that occurred in U. S. territory."
- The Court says to look first at the predicate act, asking - is it one that applies extraterritorially ("Although a number of RICO predicates have extraterritorial effect, many do not.")
- With respect to 1962 (b) and (c) the Court states, "[w]e therefore conclude that RICO applies to some foreign racketeering activity. A violation of sec. 1962 may be based on a pattern of racketeering that includes predicate offenses committed abroad, provided that each of those offenses violates a predicate statute that is itself extraterritorial."
- With respect to 1962(a) the Court states, "arguably sec 1962(a) extends only to domestic uses of the income."
- In dicta, with respect to 1962(d), the conspiracy section, the Court states, "[w]e therefore decline to reach this issue, and assume without deciding that sec 1962(d)'s extraterritoriality tracks that of the provision underlying the alleged conspiracy."
- The Court is less focused on whether the enterprise element is domestically based. But it does note that "[e]nterprises whose activities lack that anchor to U.S. commerce cannot sustain a RICO conviction."
The language in this case provides important guidance for criminal practitioners on the extraterritoriality of RICO, and clearly it provides strong arguments that not all of RICO applies abroad.
The Supreme Court ruled today in Taylor v. United States, examining the interstate commerce element of the Hobbs Act. Although it provided a broad interpretation, it limited the decision to "cases in which the defendant targets drug dealers for the purpose of stealing drugs or proceeds." The Court explicitly states that it "did not resolve what the Government must prove to establish Hobbs Act robbery where some other type of business or victim is targeted."
A strong dissent by Justice Thomas argued that there should be a showing that the "defendant's robbery itself affected interstates commerce."
What this opinion means for white collar cases is that a strict interpretation of interstate commerce should be argued in these cases, with a requirement that there be a showing beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused acts affected interstate commerce.
Monday, June 13, 2016
A few weeks ago, in United States v Nesbeth (15 CR-18, EDNY, May 24, 2016) Judge Frederic Block wrote an important opinion on the effect of post-conviction collateral consequences on one convicted of a felony, and as a result of such consequences imposed a one-year probation sentence on a woman convicted of importing cocaine. He wrote that "sufficient attention has not been paid at sentencing by me and lawyers - both prosecutors and defense counsel - as well as by the Probation Department to the collateral consequences facing a convicted defendant." He went on to a history of collateral consequences, efforts at reform, and the breadth of post-conviction statutory and regulatory collateral consequences. He noted the "broad range of collateral consequences that serve no useful purpose other than to punish criminal defendants after they have completed their court-imposed sentences."
The opinion is a call for reform, for mitigation of sentences because of such additional punishment, and for increased awareness of collateral consequences by all participants in the sentencing process. Judge Block specifically called for probation officers "to assess and apprise the court, prior to sentencing, of the likely collateral consequences facing a convicted defendant."
Judge Block recognized an apparent Circuit split as to whether collateral consequences may be a mitigating factor in sentencing. The Sixth, Seventh, Tenth and Eleventh Circuit seemingly have found that collateral consequences may not be considered, while the Second and Fourth Circuits appear to have found that they may. I believe that under 18 USC 3553(a) they may, especially when atypical, be considered.
White-collar defendants obviously face not only the usual collateral consequences applicable to all convicted felons, but often also special ones such as loss of licenses or other professional bars. I personally have had limited success in appealing to judges to mitigate sentences against white-collar defendants because of collateral consequences. Many judges feel that that to consider those factors would favor the rich and well-educated over the poor and less-educated. To be sure, as Judge Block's opinion demonstrates, the poor and less-educated too suffer from such collateral consequences.
Defense lawyers should, as Judge Block writes, be aware of such consequences in order to set them forth as mitigating factors at sentencing. Such knowledge is also necessary to inform defendants of these consequences so that they may make an educated decision whether to plead guilty. As indicated by the flurry of defendants who have claimed they were unaware that their guilty pleas would subject them to deportation, lawyers historically may not have focused on collateral consequences.
Thursday, May 26, 2016
In Luis v. United States, the Supreme Court held that pretrial restraint of untainted assets needed by a criminal defendant to retain counsel of choice violates the Sixth Amendment. But what about pretrial restraint of untainted assets not needed to hire counsel? The Fourth Circuit, alone among federal circuits, permits pretrial restraint of untainted substitute assets, subject to Sixth Amendment concerns. In United States v. Chamberlain, in the Eastern District of North Carolina, the government moved for a post-indictment pretrial restraining order against the defendant's untainted substitute asset pursuant to 21 U.S.C. Section 853(e). Both the defendant and government agreed that the untainted asset in question, a parcel of land, was not needed by Chamberlain in order to secure criminal defense counsel. The defendant opposed the government's motion, arguing that Justice Breyer's language/analysis in Section II.B.1. of Luis foreclosed pretrial restraint of any substitute asset under Section 853, in effect overruling Fourth Circuit precedent. The government maintained that Luis was inapplicable since Chamberlain raised no Sixth Amendment issue. Judge Mack Howard sided with the government. "While the undersigned agrees that the Supreme Court may in fact interpret Section 853 in this way in the future, it has not yet ruled on this issue and has not upset applicable Fourth Circuit precedents governing the instant question presented before this court." Steve West was on the briefs for the government and Elliot Abrams (Cheshire Parker Schneider & Bryan) and Tommy Manning (Manning Law Firm) were on the briefs for Chamberlain. According to Abrams, this all matters at a practical level for the criminal defense bar:
Consider the facts of Luis. There the government established probable cause to believe that the defendant obtained more in illegal proceeds than she currently possesses.
Under Luis, she can use her innocent/substitute assets to pay her attorneys a reasonable fee. But under Billman and its progeny the relation-back doctrine of 853(c) applies to all of those innocent/substitute assets such that, if she is convicted, the government’s ownership interest in all of her assets will be deemed to have vested before she paid her attorneys.
Therefore, if she is convicted, the government can forfeit all funds paid for legal services, despite that a court authorized those payments under the Sixth Amendment.
Section 853(n) does not help because the lawyer’s right vested after the property became forfeitable and because the lawyer had reason to believe that the property was subject to forfeiture. And since forfeiture is mandatory, the court could not exempt those funds from forfeiture.
This would create the same Sixth Amendment problem that Luis solved—people being unable to use their innocent assets to hire counsel. It would also force lawyers to take such cases on contingency, which is ethically improper.
Here are the government and defense briefs and Judge Howard's opinion. U.S. v. Chamberlain - Gov Application Restraining Order, U.S. v. Chamberlain - Response in Opposition to Gov Motion for Restraining Order, U.S. v. Chamberlain-Government's Reply Memorandum, U.S. v. Chamberlain-Defendant's Sur-Reply, U.S. v. Chamberlain-Order Granting Government's Motion.
Judge Howard's Order is being appealed to the Fourth Circuit.
Wednesday, May 4, 2016
As every veteran litigator knows, who the trial judge is not only a major determinant in the ultimate result of a case, but a major factor in how unpleasant and difficult the lawyer's life will be. There are judges, I suspect fewer than in the past, who are so biased to defendants and hostile to their lawyers, more often to defense lawyers than prosecutors, that the case is a nightmare for the lawyers (and obviously their clients). Reversals of judges for intemperate and biased conduct toward lawyers, or even the generally meaningless criticisms in cases that are not reversed, are rare. Defense lawyers, therefore, rejoice when one of those decisions is issued by an appellate court.
Last week, the Ninth Circuit in an unpublished opinion, United States v. Onyeabor, 13-50431 (April 27, 2016), reversed a conviction by a jury before Central District of California Judge Manuel Real primarily because the judge's remarks "devastated the defense, projected an appearance of hostility to the defense, and went far beyond the court's supervisory role" so that they "revealed such a high degree of antagonism as to make fair judgment impossible." This is not the first time the court has admonished Judge Real, who in 2006 was the subject of a Congressional investigation which considered but did not vote impeachment.
Almost every state has a judicial conduct commission which on occasion removes unfit judges. These commissions generally consist of a combination of judges, lawyers, and laypeople. There is no direct federal analog, although there is a somewhat clumsy apparatus whereby the judiciary itself may impose sanctions and recommend that Congress consider impeachment. Sanctions on federal judges for abusing lawyers and litigants are, to my knowledge, virtually non-existent. Although a federal judge apparently may be removed for beating a spouse (as Alabama District Judge Mark Fuller likely would have, had he not resigned) , he or she will likely not be sanctioned at all for beating up lawyers and defendants.
Monday, April 25, 2016
The United States Supreme Court accepted cert this morning in Shaw v. United States here. In 2014 the Court had looked at section 1344(2) of the bank fraud statute. (Loughrin v. United States). In contrast to Loughrin, this new case examines subsection (1), specifically the "scheme to defraud a financial institution" and whether it requires proof of a specific intent not only to deceive. The case comes from the 9th Circuit where the court examined the question of "whether that means the government must prove the defendant intended the bank to be the principal financial victim of the fraud." The Ninth Circuit held that although there needs to be an intent to defraud the bank under section 1, there is no requirement that the bank "be the intended financial victim of the fraud." Other circuits, however, have "held that risk of financial loss to the bank is an element that must be proven under section 1344(1). Stay tuned...
Wednesday, April 6, 2016
The DC Circuit Court of Appeals, Hon. Srinivasan, vacated the district court order in the Fokker case finding that these "determinations are for the Executive - not the courts - to make." The case arose "from the interplay between the operation of a DPA and the running of time limitations under the Speedy Trial Act." The Court of Appeals held "that the Act confers no authority in a court to withhold exclusion of time pursuant to a DPA based on concerns that the government should bring different charges or should charge different defendants." Some key quotes from the decision -
"The Constitution allocates primacy in criminal charging decisions to the Executive Branch."
"It has long been settled that the Judiciary generally lacks authority to second-guess those Executive determinations, much less to impose its own charging preferences."
"Nothing in the statute's terms or structure suggests any intention to subvert those constitutionally rooted principles so as to enable the Judiciary to second-guess the Executive's exercise of discretion over the initiation and dismissal of criminal charges."
"The context of a DPA is markedly different. Unlike a plea agreement - and more like a dismissal under Rule 48(a) - a DPA involves no formal judicial action imposing or adopting its terms."
Wednesday, March 30, 2016
Sixth Amendment Right to Counsel Infringed When Untainted Assets are Frozen, Preventing Payment of Attorney Fees
In Sila Luis v. United States, the Supreme Court rules "[a] federal statute provides that a court may freeze before trial certain assets belonging to a criminal defendant accused of violations of federal health care or banking laws. See 18 U. S. C. §1345. Those assets include: (1) property 'obtained as a result of' the crime, (2) property 'traceable' to the crime, and (3) other 'property of equivalent value.' §1345(a)(2). In this case, the Government has obtained a court order that freezes assets belonging to the third category of property, namely, property that is untainted by the crime, and that belongs fully to the defendant. That order, the defendant says, prevents her from paying her lawyer. She claims that insofar as it does so, it violates her Sixth Amendment 'right . . . to have the Assistance of Counsel for [her] defence.' We agree."
Monday, March 7, 2016
What do Bill Cosby and Whitey Bulger have in common? Both have lost challenges to criminal accusations based on the claim that their prosecutions were barred because they received oral, informal grants of immunity from prosecutors.
Last week, the First Circuit denied the appeal of Joseph (Whitey) Bulger, the notorious Boston mobster who was on the lam for 17 years until his 2011 arrest in California. Bulger was convicted after trial in 2013 for racketeering for participating in eleven murders and other crimes, and was sentenced to two life sentences plus five years. He is now 86.
Bulger's primary claim on appeal was that he was denied his constitutional rights to testify and to present an effective defense by the refusal of the trial judge to allow him to testify before the jury that he was granted immunity for both past and future crimes by a now-deceased high-ranking DOJ prosecutor. Interestingly, Bulger claimed that that the purported immunity grant was not in exchange, as one might suppose, for his providing information to or testifying for the prosecutor, but for his protecting the prosecutor's life. He insisted, contrary to widely-accepted reports, that he was not an informant.
The Court of Appeals upheld the district court's rulings that whether the prosecution was barred because of immunity was to be determined prior to trial by the judge, and not by the jury, and thus Burger could not present to the jury testimony about the purported immunity promise . Although the appeals court ruled that Burger had waived consideration of the issue on the merits by his failure to present the trial judge with any evidence, but only with a "broad, bald assertion from defense counsel lacking any particularized details," it reviewed the judge's merits determination on a "plain error" standard, and found that the judge was not "clearly wrong" in deciding that Bulger had failed to demonstrate either that the promise had been made, or, that if it had been made, that the promising prosecutor had authority to make it..
The government described Bulger's claim that the prosecutor promised him immunity "frivolous and absurd." What did give Bulger's contention an infinitesimally slight possibility of credibility, however, was that there was a demonstrated history (although not presented at the trial) that the Boston FBI had for years ignored Bulger's criminal acts when he served as an informant for them.
To be sure, the similarities between the Cosby and Bulger situations are limited. In the Cosby case the then District Attorney, the prosecutor who, if anyone, had authority to grant immunity, testified that he did promise not to prosecute Cosby. Here, there was no corroboration whatsoever of the purported promise by a now-dead prosecutor, and the Department of Justice strongly contended that even had such a promise been made, the prosecutor had no authority to make it. However, the decision, made by a respected appellate court (although under a different set of procedural rules and no binding or other authority over a Pennsylvania state trial court) does squarely hold that whether a prosecutor has granted immunity is not a jury question. And, should Cosby try to re-litigate the immunity issue before his jury, the decision will likely be cited by the District Attorney.
Wednesday, February 24, 2016
This morning the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals put the final nail in the coffin of former Governor Rick Perry's criminal case. The indictment was returned to the trial court to be dismissed. Here is the majority opinion in Ex Parte Rick Perry.
Friday, January 15, 2016
Thursday, December 24, 2015
Title 18 U.S. Code, Section 1546(a) prohibits a person from using a document prescribed by statute or regulation for entry into the United States if the document was "procured by means of" a false claim and false statement. In U.S. v. Pirela Pirela, out of the Eleventh Circuit, Pirela Pirela obtained a visa to enter the United States from Venezuela and intentionally failed to mention his Venezuelan criminal conviction. Charged with a violation of 1546(a), he argued that the statute requires the government to prove that he would not have obtained the visa but for his false statement. The government argued that it need only prove the materiality of the false statement. The government won.
Wednesday, December 23, 2015
Here is the Ninth Circuit's opinion in U.S. v. Douglas DeCinces. Absolutely no surprise that the district court's exclusion of 404(b) evidence was overturned. Like, duh. Here is the real lesson. There is no such thing as a tentative ruling. You exclude the evidence or you don't. All evidentiary calls are tentative in nature until the parties close. If you sense a favorable ruling but don't want the government to get an interlocutory appeal, ask the judge to carry the motion with the trial. Ask the judge to allow you to approach the bench and argue admissibility. Ask for anything but an actual pre-trial ruling, because, nine times out of ten, you are going to frigging lose on interlocutory appeal. I wouldn't even call this inside baseball. More like Pee-Wee Leagues.
Tuesday, December 22, 2015
Today in U.S. v. Gregory Bell, aka Boy-Boy, the D.C. Circuit denied appellants' consolidated petitions for rehearing en banc, which challenged the sentencing court's use of acquitted conduct to dramatically enhance appellants' sentences. Two separate and outstanding concurrences are worth a view. Judge Patricia Millett incisively critiques current sentencing jurisprudence which condones such horrific results. Judge Brett Kavanaugh agrees with Judge Millett and provides guidance for district courts who find by a preponderance of the evidence that acquitted conduct occurred, but do not want to enhance the sentence. What is the guidance? In a nutshell, utilize Booker to downwardly vary the sentence. Hopefully the Supreme Court will grant certiorari and end this appalling vestige of sentencing law.
Monday, December 21, 2015
Paragraph two of 18 U.S.C. Section 1542 criminalizes the willful and knowing use of a passport secured by reason of a false statement. Long ago, in a galaxy far away, the Supreme Court held that "willfully and knowingly" in the context of paragraph two means "deliberately and with knowledge" and not a damn thing more. The case, as every schoolboy knows, is Browder v. United States. (I was discussing one of Browder's more subtle points just yesterday with my haberdasher.) In U.S. v. Aifang Ye, the Ninth Circuit dealt with the appeal of Ms. Ye, who was convicted under Section 1542, paragraph one, of willfully and knowingly making a false statement in a passport application. The Ninth Circuit held that what's good for paragraph two is good for paragraph one. And what about those pesky intervening Supreme Court decisions seeming to indicate that willfulness requires "bad purpose" and a "knowledge that the conduct was unlawful"? You know, cases like Bryan v. United States and Safeco Insurance Company of America v. Burr? Not to worry. All disposed of in footnote two of the Ninth Circuit's opinion. Since Browder "directly applies" (although it dealt with a different paragraph of a predecessor statute), its ruling controls, even if its reasoning has been rejected in subsequent Supreme Court decisions.
Sunday, December 20, 2015
Last week in U.S. v. James Wendell Brown the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit reversed a Booker upward variance in a child pornography case. The majority found Judge Richard Leon's sentence procedurally unreasonable, even under the plain error standard. The problem? Judge Leon was too general, and generic, in explaining how the four (out of seven) 3553(a) factors that he referenced applied to the defendant and justified an upward variance. As a white collar practitioner I always get nervous when a variance of any kind is sent back. Case law supporting upward and downward variances is substantial, and generally very favorable to the defense, and any chink in the armor of broad district court sentencing discretion is worrisome. Here there should be no great cause for concern. While talismanic recitation of all Booker factors is not required in any federal circuit to justify an upward or downward variance, there has to be some specific effort to link the factors relied upon to the individual conduct or character of the defendant standing before the sentencing court. Making sure that the court performs this linkage is the practitioner's job. Here, Judge Leon was simply too vague in reciting the 3553(a) factors and explaining why they justified a significant upward variance, and no practitioner chose to fill in the details, because the variance was opposed by both the prosecution and defense. In the mine run case, where defense counsel is arguing for a downward variance, it is his or her job to convince the trier of fact and, if necessary, help the court articulate, on the record, the reasons for the variance, such that the sentence will stand up on appeal. To fail is to screw your own case up and create a bad precedent for your peers.
Judge Edwards, writing for the majority, distinguished U.S v. Ransom. In writing about Ransom here last year, I noted that the DC Circuit "rejected appellants' argument that the sentencing court improperly relied on factors in varying upward that the Guidelines had already accounted for. Joining some sister circuits the Court held (internal quotes and citations omitted) that:
It is not error for a district court to enter sentencing variances based on factors already taken into account by the Advisory Guidelines, in a case in which the Guidelines do not fully account for those factors or when a district court applies broader [Section] 3553(a) considerations in granting the variance.
Notice that there are two alternative prongs to this portion of Ransom. The Brown court seems to indicate that the failure of the Guidelines to fully account for certain factors will only occur when the sentencing court sees and identifies special additional factors that exist in a specific defendant's particular circumstance. Thus, in Ransom, although the Guidelines already assessed two points for committing the offense while on probation, the sentencing court stated on the record that the offense of conviction (embezzlement) and the identity of the co-defendant were identical to the violated probationary offense and that this (and other things) justified an upward variance. Contrat this with Brown, where Judge Leon failed to articulate anything about Brown's particular offense/conduct/background that was not fully accounted for in the applicable Guidelines provisions.
The other prong of Ransom is completely undisturbed. A sentencing court can apply broader Section 3553(a) considerations, that is, broader considerations than those contained in the Guidelines, in granting an upward or downward variance. Again, there must be an explanation by the sentencing court. The sentencing court is always free to articulate its disagreement with the Guidelines' approach, and as long as that disagreement is rational and reasonable, the sentence cannot be disturbed. Two classic examples of this are family circumstances and aberrant conduct, both of which are nearly impossible to achieve as grounds for downward departure, but which regularly enter in to downward variance judgments in the post-Booker-Gall-Kimbrough world.
Judge Sentelle, who wrote the majority opinion in Ransom, dissented in Brown, because he did not see plain error.
Saturday, December 5, 2015
Congratulations to the defense team members and their client in U.S. v. Bajoghli. After a 16 day trial, the dermatologist defendant was acquitted on all counts--over 40. Dr. Bajoghli was represented by Peter White and Nicholas Dingeldein of Schulte Roth & Zabel and Kirk Ogrosky and Murad Hussain from Arnold & Porter. The jury was out a day and a half.
There was some interesting motion work during the pre-trial phase, for those of us interested in government efforts to affect witness testimony. Six weeks before the original trial date, the government sent "victim impact notification" letters to several of Dr. Bajoghli's patients. Dr. Bajoghli complained that the patients, many of whom were scheduled to be defense witnesses, were not victims and that the letter was intended to prejudice the patients against him. Judge Gerald Lee granted the motion and issued a corrective letter. Here are the relevant papers: Bajoghli Motion in Limine Seeking Corrective Witness Instructions, Exhibit A Ogrosky Letter to DOJ, Exhibit B to Bajoghli Motion, Order Granting Motion for Corrective Witness Instruction, Court's Corrective Witness Letter.
Thursday, December 3, 2015
The New York Times reported today (Goldstein, "Witness in Insider Trading Inquiry Sentenced to 21 Days, see here) what it called a "surprising" 21-day prison sentence imposed by Judge P. Kevin Castel upon a felony conviction broke "what has been the standard practice" in insider trading cases in the Southern District of New York. Anyone not familiar with the customs of that court's prosecutors and judges might think that such a sentence was out-of-the-ordinary lenient. However, as the article makes clear, that sentence, for a major cooperator, was apparently considered out-of-the-ordinary harsh.
The defendant, Richard Choo-Beng Lee, was a California hedge-fund owner who, after being approached by FBI agents with evidence that he (and his partner, Ali Far, who was later sentenced to probation by a different judge) had broken securities laws, cooperated with the government by recording 171 phone calls with 28 people, including Steven A. Cohen, DOJ's no. 1 target, who has not been indicted (although his firm, SAC Capital Advisers, was and pleaded guilty and paid a multi-billion dollar fine).
New York City is the cooperation capital of the world. As the Times article indicates, cooperators in white-collar (and other) cases in the Southern District of New York are given considerable benefits for cooperating (far greater than in most jurisdictions) and the default and almost uniform sentence for them is probation and not jail. To be sure, cooperators make cases, and many of those cases and the individuals charged would go undetected without cooperators looking to provide assistance to the government to lessen their own potential sentences.
However, the cooperation culture in New York has many deleterious consequences. To the extent that deterrence is achieved by jail sentences (and I believe it is in white-collar cases, but not in many other areas), its effect has been minimized. The clever white-collar criminal (and most but not all are intelligent) knows that he has in his pocket a "get-out-of-jail card," the ability to cooperate against others and get a non-jail sentence. The mid-level financial criminal can commit crimes, enjoy an outrageously lucrative, high-end life style, and, when and if caught, cooperate, stay out of jail and pay back what assets, if any, remain from his wrongdoing.
Knowledgeable white-collar defense attorneys are well aware of the benefits of cooperation. It is often good lawyering to urge cooperation, at times even in marginal cases, to avoid jail sentences. Indeed, more than a a trifling number of those who plead guilty in white-collar cases are actually innocent, often because they lack the requisite mens rea (a difficult, even when accurate, defense). And sometimes, at the urging of their lawyers, they admit guilt and tailor their stories and testimony to what the prosecutors and agents (who usually see only the dark side of equivocal facts and circumstances) believe actually occurred so that others actually innocent are convicted (or also choose to plead guilty and perhaps cooperate against others). The bar for indictment and conviction has been lowered. The adversary system has been turned sideways, if not upside-down.
To many, probably most, lawyers, cooperation is personally easier than going to trial. Cooperation avoids the stress of battle and the distress of (statistically probable) defeat at trial. No longer do lawyers walk around with "no-snitch" buttons. The white-collar bar has become generally a non-combative bar. To the extent it ever had one, it (with notable and not-so-notable exceptions) has lost its mojo. The first (and often only) motion many lawyers make upon being retained is to hail a taxi to the prosecutor's office.
I write about the role of the bar as a lament more than a criticism. I too represent cooperators when I think cooperation is to their benefit. There is a great penalty (or, to put it gently, "loss of benefit") for not cooperating. Those accused who choose not to cooperate, or those whose own scope of criminality and knowledge of wrongdoing of others is so limited that they cannot, receive (in my opinion sometimes, but far from usually, appropriate) severe jail sentences. Those who cooperate, except for the unfortunate Mr. Lee, almost always avoid jail.
Lawyers and professors talk about the "trial penalty," the extra, often draconian, prison time one receives for exercising his right to trial. The principal "penalty" in white-collar cases is not the trial penalty, but the "non-cooperation penalty." Even those who choose not to go to trial and plead guilty are punished much more severely than those who cooperate.
Sunday, September 20, 2015
Guest Blogger - Erin Okuno Foreman Biodiversity Fellow, Institute of Biodiversity Law and Policy, Stetson University College of Law
Recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit overturned convictions under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act ("MBTA") and the Clean Air Act ("CAA") in the case of United States of America v. CITGO Petroleum Corp., Case No. 14-40128 (5th Cir. Sept. 9, 2015). The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas had previously found CITGO Petroleum Corp. and CITGO Refining and Chemicals Company, L.P. ("CITGO") guilty of three counts of violating the MBTA for "taking" migratory birds because birds (including pelicans, ducks, and cormorants) had died in uncovered equalization tanks at CITGO’s petroleum refinery. A jury had also found CITGO guilty on two CAA counts. The district court issued a $15,000 fine for each violation of the MBTA and a $2 million fine for the CAA violations. CITGO appealed, and the Fifth Circuit reversed the MBTA and CAA convictions.
In reversing the MBTA convictions, the Fifth Circuit focused largely on the definition of "take" under the MBTA and concluded that "the MBTA’s ban on ‘takings’ only prohibits intentional acts (not omissions) that directly (not indirectly or accidentally) kill migratory birds." As noted by the court, under the MBTA, it is "‘unlawful at any time, by any means or in any manner, to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, attempt to take, capture, or kill . . . any migratory bird,’ in violation of regulations and permits." The Fifth Circuit reasoned that while Congress had expanded the definition of "take" in both the Endangered Species Act ("ESA") and the Marine Mammal Protection Act ("MMPA"), it had not done so in the MBTA. A "take" under the ESA and the MMPA includes terms ("harm" and "harass") that encompass negligent acts or omissions, but these terms are not included in the MBTA’s "take" definition. Instead, the Fifth Circuit determined that the MBTA applies a more limited common law definition of "take."
Those who violate the MBTA are subject to strict liability, but a circuit (and district) split exists about the scope of liability under the act. The Fifth Circuit joined the Eighth and Ninth Circuits by focusing on the meaning of "take" and concluding that "a ‘taking’ is limited to deliberate acts done directly and intentionally to migratory birds." The court chose not to follow the Second and Tenth Circuits’ broader interpretations, which did not focus on the meaning of "take": the Fifth Circuit disagreed "that because misdemeanor MBTA violations are strict liability crimes, a 'take' includes acts (or omissions) that indirectly or accidently kill migratory birds." It was the Fifth Circuit’s position that the Second and Tenth Circuits had confused mens rea and actus reus. As the court explained, a strict liability crime does not require mens rea, but an actus reus is still required to hold a defendant criminally liable.
The district court had also distinguished this case from other MBTA oil field cases because CITGO’s underlying conduct violated the CAA and state law. The Fifth Circuit rejected this argument, explaining that the MBTA provides no basis for such an argument, but even if it did, the Fifth Circuit held that CITGO had not committed a CAA violation (and CITGO was not charged or convicted of any state law crimes). The court concluded its MBTA discussion by suggesting that a broader interpretation of the statute would lead to absurd results, such that people who own windows, power lines, cars, and domestic cats could be potentially liable for misdemeanors under the MBTA. Interpreting the statute more narrowly and relying on a limited common law meaning of "take," the Fifth Circuit reversed CITGO’s MBTA convictions.
A few thoughts:
- The Fifth Circuit’s decision about the scope of criminal liability under the MBTA further contributes to the split on this issue. The Fifth Circuit may have interpreted the MBTA narrowly, but other circuits have been, and may be, willing to interpret the statute more broadly, which could have serious implications for companies operating in those circuits. The statute’s effectiveness in preserving migratory birds could also vary circuit to circuit.
- What effect might the Fifth Circuit’s interpretation of "take" under the MBTA have on other courts’ interpretations of the term under the ESA and the MMPA? Although the Fifth Circuit distinguished the use of the term in the MBTA from the ESA and the MMPA, it is conceivable (although probably unlikely) that another court could find the Fifth Circuit’s reasoning persuasive and interpret the term under the ESA and MMPA a bit more narrowly. Conversely, a court could also use the Fifth Circuit’s distinction to bolster an even broader interpretation of the term under the ESA and MMPA.
- Will the Fifth Circuit’s reasoning about strict liability and the mens rea/actus reus distinction have any implications for other environmental statutes that contain strict liability provisions, such as the Clean Water Act?