Tuesday, January 28, 2014
The degree of causation necessary to impose legal blame is an interesting philosophical, policy and, of course, legal issue. It is an issue that probably arises more often in tort than criminal cases, but is nonetheless important in criminal law in several areas, including sentencing considerations.
In Burrage v. United States, ___ U.S. ___ (12-7515, January 27, 2014), the Supreme Court considered the meaning of the term "result from" in a case where the district court imposed a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence upon a defendant for the sale of one gram of heroin since a buyer's death had "result[ed] from" the use of the heroin as one of several drugs he consumed that contributed to the death.
Burrage was convicted of distribution of narcotics to Banka, who died after imbibing the heroin and several other drugs. Medical experts at trial could not rule out that Banka might have died from using the other drugs even if he had not taken the heroin, but opined that the heroin use was a contributing factor to his death.
The district court declined to accept the defense contention that the statutory term "result from" required a "but-for" standard. Instead, it construed the phrase to mean that the drug sold had only to be a "contributing cause" of the death and so charged the jury. The Eighth Circuit affirmed.
In a unanimous opinion, written by Justice Scalia (who has authored some of the most innovative and pro-defense decisions by the Court in recent years), the Court reversed, ruling that the term "result from" should be construed in its "ordinary meaning" to require a "but-for" standard of causation -- that the harm would not have resulted "but for" the defendant's conduct. It was, therefore, the Court found, not enough for the trier of fact to find that the drug transfer was merely a "contributing factor" to the death. The opinion discussed the Model Penal Code, the Restatement of Torts, baseball, and the rule of lenity, as well as the Court's recent restrictive reading of the term "because of" in discrimination cases, a discussion which triggered a special concurrence by Justice Ginsberg (which she apparently would not have felt the need to write "but for" that discussion).
The government, not untypically, made a doomsday argument that defining "result from" as the Court did would "unduly limit criminal liability" and "cannot be reconciled with sound policy." The Court disagreed, doubting that the opinion would prove to be a "policy disaster."
Although very unlikely to be a "disaster," the opinion may have ramifications beyond drug cases. The issue of what consequences resulted from the defendant's conduct arises frequently in homicide and assault cases, and also occasionally in white-collar cases, for instance in determining the amount of loss or harm for sentencing purposes. At the least, it appears that in federal criminal law the term "result from" now will have a more narrow meaning than previously.
Thursday, January 16, 2014
One of the increasing incursions into constitutional rights in the white-collar area is the expansion of the "required records" exception to the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. In general, that doctrine provides that an individual or entity required by law to maintain for regulatory purposes certain records has no Fifth Amendment right to refuse to produce them to the government.
The Second Circuit last month, in affirming a contempt finding against an individual for failing to produce to a grand jury records of foreign bank accounts mandated to be kept by regulations promulgated pursuant to the Bank Secrecy Act, 31 CFR 1012.420 ("BSA"), held, in accord with prior rulings by other circuits, that the "required records" exception to the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination pertains to the production of such records. In Re Grand Jury Subpoena Dated February 2, 2012, (13-403-CV, Dec. 19, 2013).
The individual contended that he had a Fifth Amendment right to refuse to comply with a grand jury subpoena for foreign bank records. He claimed that the subpoena put him in a Catch-22 position: produce documents that might incriminate him or confirm that he failed to maintain records of his foreign bank accounts, which also might incriminate him. The court essentially said "tough," and affirmed the contempt order.
The court first considered whether the "act of production" doctrine (see United States v. Hubbell, 500 U.S. 27 (2000)) applied to "required records." Under that doctrine, generally a person could on Fifth Amendment grounds resist a subpoena for the production of records unless the government could demonstrate it was a "foregone conclusion" that the person actually possessed such records. Although the contents of the records, as in the case of "required records," might not be privileged, by producing them the individual essentially incriminated herself by its production by admitting, among other things, that she possessed such records. The court held that the Fifth Amendment did not apply to required records, either as to the content of or production of such records, and thus the "act of production" privilege, a form of Fifth Amendment protection, did not apply.
The court then applied the three-prong test of Grosso v. United States, 390 U.S. 62 (1968), to determine whether the required records doctrine applied to the BSA regulation. That test provides, first, that the purpose of the legal requirement must be "essentially regulatory;" second, that the information sought must be of a type "customarily kept;" and third, that the records must have "public aspects" which make them at least analogous to public documents. The court then held that the regulation, although it was designed in part to facilitate criminal prosecutions, was "essentially regulatory" in that it did not target only those suspected of criminal activity since possession of foreign bank accounts by itself was not unlawful. Second, it held that the records were "customarily kept" since holders of bank accounts are likely to be aware of or have records of the details of their accounts. Third, the court held that "records lawfully required to be kept" for purposes of constitutional analysis by definition have "public aspects." Practically, such a finding eliminated this third prong as an independent prerequisite for application of the exception.
In sum, the court essentially ruled that any records ordinarily kept by individuals that are required to be made available to governmental authorities pursuant to a law not primarily designed to detect criminal activity lack Fifth Amendment protection.
Thus, the decision essentially gives federal prosecutors the ability to subpoena any person and demand that she produce any foreign bank records she possesses, even absent any knowledge or suspicion that she has such an account. To be sure, in this case, and virtually all other reported cases involving subpoenas of foreign bank accounts, the government appears to have had a considerable basis to believe the person subpoenaed does have a foreign bank account. The Second Circuit's ruling, however, at least implicitly, does not require that such governmental knowledge be a prerequisite for an enforceable subpoena for foreign accounts. "Fishing expeditions" for foreign bank account information appear to be allowed.
I would not be surprised, therefore, to see a considerable increase in the number of governmental subpoenas for records of foreign bank accounts, and perhaps the addition of a boilerplate request for foreign bank records in other subpoenas for financial records. As they say, there's no harm in asking.
Friday, December 27, 2013
In the current New York Review of Books, Judge Jed Rakoff presents the most thoughtful, balanced analysis I have seen to date regarding DOJ's failure to prosecute high-level executives at elite financial institutions in connection with the recent financial crisis. Appropriately entitled, The Financial Crisis: Why Have No High Level Executives Been Prosecuted?, Judge Rakoff is careful not to point fingers, rush to judgment, or even allege that fraud has definitively been established. And that's a big part of the DOJ's problem. How can you establish fraud if the effort to investigate it has been haphazard and understaffed from the outset? Rakoff is someone worth listening to. An unusually thoughtful federal district judge, he has presided over many significant securities and bank fraud cases, served as chief of the Securities Fraud Unit in the SDNY U.S. Attorney's Office, and worked as a defense attorney. Oh yeah. He also hates the Sentencing Guidelines.
Among the many theories Rakoff posits for the failure to prosecute what, it bears repeating, only may have been fraud, are two that I take issue with. These investigations were apparently parceled out to to various OUSA districts, rather than being concentrated in the SDNY. Judge Rakoff believes that the SDNY would have been the more logical choice, as it has more experience in sophisticated fraud investigations. This may be true as a general proposition. But the most plausible historical fraud model for the mortgage meltdown-fueled financial crisis is the Savings & Loan Scandal of the late 1980s, so successfully prosecuted by DOJ into the mid-1990s. The SDNY had very little of that action.
Judge Rakoff also notes the government's role in creating the conditions that led to the current crisis as a potential prosecution pitfall. But this did not stop the S&L prosecutors from forging ahead in their cases. Back then, virtually every S&L criminal defendant claimed that the government had created that crisis by establishing, and then abandoning, Regulatory Accounting Principles, aka RAP. (One marked difference between the two scandals is that the S&L Scandal was immediately met with public outrage and a sustained Executive Branch commitment to investigate and prosecute where warranted. The sustained Executive Branch commitment has not happened this time around, for whatever reason.)
But these are minor quibbles and Judge Rakoff is spot on in most of his observations.
Judge Rakoff is right to reject the "revolving door" theory of non-prosecution. Any prosecutor worth his salt would love to make a name for himself, and would definitely enhance his private sector marketability, by winning one of these cases. Judge Rakoff also correctly notes that these cases are hard and time-consuming to investigate.
The judge's most salient point has nothing to do with the various theories for DOJ's failure to prosecute. Instead, it is his observation that there is no substitute for holding financial elites responsible for their major criminal misdeeds. The compliance and deferred prosecution agreements favored today are simply a cost of doing business for most big corporations. What's worse, in the current environment, DOJ is giving a walk to elite financial actors and simultaneously prosecuting middle-class pikers with a vengeance that is sickening to behold. The elite financial actors may not have committed criminal fraud, but many of them bear heavy responsibility for the ensuing mess. It is so much easier for DOJ to rack up the stats by picking the low hanging fruit.
The one thing Judge Rakoff cannot do, and does not try to do, is answer the question of whether criminal fraud occurred in the highest sectors of our financial world. The answer to that question can only be supplied, at least as an initial matter, by the AUSA in charge of each investigation. And if no prosecution occurs, you and I are unlikely to ever know the reason why.
Wednesday, December 18, 2013
What a marvelous dissent by Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, joined by judges Pregerson, Reinhardt, Thomas, and Watford, in United States v. Olsen. He dissented from the Ninth Circuit's refusal to rehear en banc the panel decision which excused an appalling example of Brady/Giglio error as immaterial. As Judge Kozinski so eloquently put it: "There is an epidemic of Brady violations abroad in the land. Only judges can put a stop to it."
Saturday, December 14, 2013
Yesterday, in U.S. v. Under Seal (4th Cir. 2013), the Fourth Circuit, joining several other federal circuits, extended the Fifth Amendment's Required Records Exception to records of foreign bank accounts required to be maintained pursuant to the Bank Secrecy Act ("BSA"). John and Jane Doe received a subpoena to turn over records of their Swiss bank accounts. They responded that complying with the subpoena compelled them to testify against themselves, as they were required to create and maintain such records pursuant to the BSA. They also argued that the long-standing, judicially-created, Required Records Exception did not apply in this case, because the BSA's record-keeping provisions are essentially criminal, rather than regulatory, in nature. The district court disagreed, the Does took civil contempt, and an appeal ensued. Unsurprisingly, the Fourth Circuit sided with the government, accepting its argument that the BSA's record-keeping provisions are essentially regulatory in nature. You are shocked? There's not exactly a strong constituency, public or judicial, for foreign bank account tax evasion.
Thursday, December 12, 2013
Second Circuit Reverses Convictions, Rejecting Government’s Expansive “Continuing Conspiracy” Theory
The Second Circuit recently reversed the convictions of three defendants convicted in a municipal bond bid-rigging scheme, rejecting the government’s attempt to rely on an attenuated theory of continuing conspiracy. The three defendants were immediately released from prison and the indictment was dismissed. The opinion sets a much-needed limit on the government’s unfettered use of the continuing conspiracy theory to avoid the statute of limitations.
Background: The World of Municipal Bond Taxes
The case involves the somewhat esoteric world of municipal bond taxes. Municipalities issue bonds. Because the bond funds are usually used for long-term projects, municipalities often do not spend the bond funds immediately.
To earn additional revenue from the funds, the municipal bond issuer may invest in “guaranteed investment contracts” (“GICs”) provided by financial institutions, such as GE (called a “provider”). GICs pay predetermined interest payments to the municipality, providing an additional source of income. Municipalities must rebate to the Treasury any interest earned over bond interest rate.
The tax code has certain provisions to prevent arbitrage in GICs. Important here, municipalities must determine the “fair market value” of the GIC. This is difficult because, as the Second Circuit noted, “GICs are not regularly traded.”
To ease the burden on municipalities, IRS regulations provide for a safe harbor to the “fair market value” calculation if the municipality holds a competitive bidding process among GIC providers. Third-party brokers solicit blind bids from several providers. The bidders do not know who else is bidding or the rates of interest being offered by their competitors.
The Defendants’ Role
Three defendants worked for a unit of GE that provided GICs. One left in 2001 to work with a company called Financial Security Assurance, Inc. Between 1999 and 2004, “the Defendants (on behalf of their employers GE and FSA) agreed to pay kickbacks to three brokers . . . and the brokers obliged by rigging the bidding process in several ways.” For example, the broker would disclose the amount of other bids or keep other bidders off the bid list.
The kickbacks helped GE and FSA win bids to provide GICs to municipalities at a lower interest rate. This, in turn, potentially affected whether any interest payments would be rebated to Treasury. According to the Second Circuit, “each deal defrauded the municipality, the Treasury, or both.”
On July 27, 2010, a grand jury returned an indictment. A superseding indictment was then returned for one count of wire fraud and six counts of conspiracy.
The defendants moved to dismiss on statute of limitations grounds. The district court granted the motion as to the substantive wire fraud count but refused to dismiss the conspiracy counts. It reasoned that as long as unindicted co-conspirators GE and FSA made interest payments on the GICs, the conspiracy was continuing.
The defendants were convicted after a three week-trial and three days of deliberations.
The Second Circuit’s Reversal
The Second Circuit reversed, in an opinion authored by Judge Jacobs. United States v. Grimm, No. 12-4310. Judge Kearse dissented.
The applicable statute of limitations for general conspiracy is five years and for conspiracy to commit tax fraud is six years. The court noted that although the indictment listed 55 overt acts, the only ones within either limitations period “were the periodic interest payments made by providers to issuers pursuant to the GICs.”
The court explained that only acts within the scope of the conspiracy could be properly considered in the statute of limitations analysis. The indictment alleged two purposes—the defendants sought to (1) “deprive issuers of money by causing them to award investment agreements at artificially determined or suppressed rates . . . “ and (2) to impede the government’s collection of tax revenue.
The court relied heavily on United States v. Salmonese, 352 F.3d 608 (2d Cir. 2003). That case held that a co-conspirator’s receipt of profits from a financial instrument that was part of the fraud was an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy because it was part of the co-conspirators’ “anticipated economic benefits.” But Salmonese also explained that the conspiracy ends if the “payoff merely consists of a lengthy, indefinite series of ordinary, typically noncriminal, unilateral actions . . . and there is no evidence that any concerted activity posing the special societal dangers of conspiracy is still taking place.”
The Second Circuit explained that Salmonese’s list of factors was not exclusive. It provided a more general enunciation of the rule:
[G]enerally, overt acts have ended when the conspiracy has completed its influence on an otherwise legitimate course of common dealing that remains ongoing for a prolonged time, without measures of concealment, adjustment or any other corrupt intervention by any conspirator.
Here, the court concluded, the GIC payments satisfied this rule and therefore were not within the scope of the conspiracy. The payments were indefinite (because they were “prolonged beyond the near future); they were ordinary (part of a commercial obligation); and they were made unilaterally (by the provider).
The court held that the interest payments were the “result of a completed conspiracy” and not “in furtherance of one that is ongoing.” It noted that there was no indication that making the payments prolonged the conspiracy in any way. Because the payments were not overt acts in furtherance of the conspiracy, the government could not rely on them to satisfy the statute of limitations.
Because white collar indictments frequently arise out of complex, long-term financial instruments (and are often the result of lengthy government investigations), the Grimm opinion is of note. The opinion announces a general rule that may be application to other financial fraud cases. And, of course, it is a refreshing change to see a court limit the government’s use of the continuing conspiracy theory. Every minor ripple effect of a conspiracy should not be used to excuse the government’s failure to bring a case within the already lengthy limitations period.
Monday, November 18, 2013
How many federal appellate opinions begin like this?
"An attorney's reputation is her most valuable possession. It forms the basis for her peers' view of her and plays an important role-often a determinative one-in how she advances in her career. This case began with a government attorney's unauthorized filing of a motion for sanctions against Debra K. Migdal, an attorney who has served as an Assistant Federal Public Defender for nearly 25 years. It quickly took on a life of its own, resulting in two district-court orders strongly, publicly, and, we conclude, erroneously reprimanding Migdal. Because the record does not support any basis for these orders, we VACATE the sections of the first order pertaining to sanctions, REVERSE the second order in its entirety, and DISMISS the sanctions proceeding against Migdal."
And how many of them end like this?
"This opinion closes the book on a regrettable chapter in Debra Migdal's career, clears her of all claims that her conduct in this matter was sanctionable, and removes any taint of public censure on her reputation."
As anyone who practices criminal law in the federal court system knows, different districts, and sometimes different judges within a district, have different rules, formal and/or informal, for the issuance of subpoenas demanding early document production pursuant to Fed. R. Crim. Proc. 17(c). Some districts allow prosecutors and defense attorneys to issue the subpoenas, and examine documents, on their own. Other districts require a motion and court order. (Of course, the playing field is uneven, because the prosecution typically has the evidence it needs well before trial through the use of grand jury subpoenas.)
In 2011 Debra Migdal was an Assistant Federal Public Defender in the Northern District of Ohio handling a case in front of U.S. District Judge John R. Adams. At the time, neither the Northern District of Ohio nor Adams had any formal policy regarding the issuance of Rule 17(c) subpoenas. Migdal issued two Rule 17(c) subpoenas on her own, one of which was sent to the custodian of records at the U.S. Border Control, calling for the early production of materials in Judge Adam's court, but on a day she designated that was prior to a scheduled court date. Two previous district court opinions in the Northern District, neither of which were written by Judge Adams, had come to opposite conclusions about the propriety of issuing such subpoenas absent the court's permission. Migdal was unaware of the opinion holding that a court order is necessary.
Migdal used Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts Form AO 89, which commands both the appearance and testimony of the witness and, if necessary, the production of documents. In other words, unless the issuer crosses out the part of the authorized pre-printed form calling on the witness to testify, he/she is always commanded to appear and testify, even though in many cases the issuing party is only interested in obtaining documents. By way of contrast, on the federal civil side, there are two authorized subpoena forms, one calling for documents only and one calling for witness testimony.
AUSA Gregory Sasse told the Border Patrol Agent to ignore the subpoena. Sasse then moved to quash the subpoena and asked the court to impose whatever sanctions it deemed appropriate. Sasse wasn't authorized to move for sanctions and his superiors later withdrew this request. But Judge Adams was clearly not happy with Migdal. He held two hearings and publicly sanctioned Migdal under 28 U.S.C. Section 1927 and his inherent authority.
Section 1927 reads as follows:
"Any attorney or other person admitted to conduct cases in any court of the United States or any Territory thereof who so multiplies the proceedings in any case unreasonably and vexatiously may be required by the court to satisfy personally the excess costs, expenses, and attorneys’ fees reasonably incurred because of such conduct."
The Sixth Circuit, noting that nothing whatsoever in the statute's language authorizes the imposition of non-monetary sanctions, ruled that Judge Adams abused his discretion in sanctioning Migdal under 1927.
The Sixth Circuit then rejected the three rationales Judge Adams relied on for sanctioning Migdal pursuant to his inherent authority. (Any sanctions against Migdal required a showing of bad faith on her part.)
1. Adams had ruled that a criminal defendant is entitled to materials under Rule 17(c) "only after requesting-and not getting-the necessary items from the government via Rule 16 discovery." Incredibly, he believed he had the inherent authority to sanction Migdal for failing to follow this protocol. But as the Sixth Circuit pointed out, no such protocol exists under Rules 16 and 17.
2. Adams had ruled that Migdal violated her duty of candor to to the court by commanding production at a hearing that had not been scheduled or requested. (He referred to it as a "fabricated" hearing.) Migdal acknowledged that the subpoenas were defective in this regard, apologized to the court, and argued that she had not acted in bad faith. The Sixth Circuit agreed, emphasizing that: a) AO Form 89 lacks clarity; b) Migdal called for production in Judge Adams' courtroom, so she was obviously not trying to hide anything from the court; c) the longstanding practice in Migdal's office and in many Federal Public Defender Offices, was to issue Rule 17(c) subpoenas without prior court approval; and d) Migdal relied on a prior Northern District of Ohio opinion specifically authorizing issuance of Rule 17(c) subpoenas without prior court approval. Judge Adams noted that he preferred the contrary judicial opinion. "But Judge Adams' inclination to side with one judge's view over that of another obscures the point that Migdal did not act in bad faith when she hewed to at least one judge's reading of the controlling rule."
3. Adams had ruled that Migdal "utterly disregarded Rule 17(c)'s implicit requirement that the court must approve and order early-production subpoenas." (internal quotations omitted). The Sixth Circuit carefully pointed out that reasonable people could disagree on this point, as evidenced by the conflicting district court opinions. That Migdal chose to take a view of Rule 17(c) at odds with Judge Adams' position, at a time when there was no clear controlling authority, could hardly amount to bad faith.
Throughout Judge Jane Stranch's opinion, for a unanimous Sixth Circuit panel, there runs a tone of incredulity at Judge Adams' actions in "branding a blemish on Migdal's reputation." It should never have happened. It should never happen again.
Here is the Sixth Circuit Migdal Vindication Opinion.
Tuesday, November 5, 2013
The defendant was charged with two counts of allegedly mailing threatening communications (18 U.S.C. § 876) and two counts of intentionally conveying false and misleading information (18 U.S.C. § 1038(a)(1)). The defendant challenged the "government's introduction of testimony by a handwriting expert pursuant to Federal Rules of Evidence 702 and 403." In this case it was a report and expert testimony of a US Postal Service handwriting analyst. The district court found that under the Daubert and Kumho standards "that the science or art underlying handwriting analysis falls well short of a reliability threshold when applied to hand printing analysis." This case was handled by Stephen J. Meyer (Madison, Wisconsin).
Thursday, October 31, 2013
The opinion is in United States v. Kyle. Although not a white collar prosecution, the ruling applies to all federal criminal cases in the Ninth Circuit. The Ninth Circuit noted that when a district court goes beyond giving the reasons for its rejection of a plea agreement and starts discussing hypothetical agreements that it might accept, "it crosses over the line establsihed by Rule 11."
Wednesday, October 30, 2013
In United States v. Miller, the Sixth Circuit today reversed three of four counts of conviction in a mortgage fraud prosecution. The court held that appellant Miller did not unlawfully "use" a means of identification within the meaning of 18 U.S.C. Section 1028A, the Aggravated Identity Theft statute, when he falsely stated that two named individuals had given him authority to act on behalf of an LLC. Since Miller did not steal their identity, pass himself off as them, or purport to be acting on their behalf as individuals, he is not guilty of violating the statute. The government had argued for a broader construction, but the Sixth Circuit applied the rule of lenity.
The court also reversed a Section 1014 count, because it was bottomed on Miller's signing of a loan renewal and modification agreement. Since the modification and renewal agreement did not repeat the false statement contained in the original loan papers, Miller could not be guilty under Section 1014. The court indicated that Miller had engaged in fraud and false pretenses during the loan modification process. But this was not enough to support a Section 1014 conviction, which requires a knowingly false statement.
Tuesday, October 22, 2013
Last week in United States v. Willena Stargell, the Ninth Circuit declared, in effect, "we are family with our sister circuits" in interpreting the federal wire fraud statute. Stargell, a tax preparer, was charged and convicted under 18 U.S.C. Section 1343 with wire fraud "affect[ing] a financial institution." Based on her filing of false tax returns, Stargell obtained Refund Anticipation Loans ("RALs") from financial institutions. Even though three of the four loans involved in Stargell's convictions did not result in a loss to any bank, the Ninth Circuit held that the statute was violated because, "[t]he increased risk of loss presented by fraudulent terms is sufficient to 'affect' a financial institution." The Ninth Circuit joined "our sister circuits in defining such term to include new or increased risk of loss to financial institutions." In fact, the only circuits the Ninth joined were the Seventh and Tenth. "The banks were affected because the risk of loss on the RALs was increased by the fraudulent nature of the related returns." The opinion takes a sledgehammer to the rule of lenity.
Tuesday, October 15, 2013
In what appears to be a case of nationwide first impression, the Third Circuit ruled today that federal district courts may require a defendant's sentencing allocution to be sworn, without violating Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 32 or the U.S. Constitution. The textual Rule 32 discussion seems particularly weak as the rule itself nowhere requires the allocution to be sworn. The case is United States v. Ward. The opinion is here.
Thursday, September 5, 2013
Yesterday the Seventh Circuit, sitting en banc, reversed and remanded (7-2) a Section 1014 (and Section 317) conviction connected to the mortgage meltdown crisis. Judge Posner wrote the majority opinion. Chief Judge Easterbrook (joined by Judge Bauer) dissented. The opinion is United States v. Lacey Phillips and Erin Hall.
Section 1014 prohibits making any false statement or report for the purpose of influencing in any way a federally insured bank. Longstanding case law requires the government to prove that the defendant knew the statement was false at the time it was made. Phillips and Hall were an unmarried couple who applied for a home loan and were rejected. Hall then contacted his friend Bowling, a mortgage broker, who began advising Hall and Phillips and ultimately led them to a different bank, Fremont Investment & Loan, which granted a home loan to Phillips. Hall was not listed as a borrower. This was a stated income loan, also known in the industry as a liar's loan.
Phillips and Hall could not keep up with the payments and lost their home. A prosecution ensued. There were several false statements on the loan application, but Phillips and Hall testified that they only were aware of one of the statements, which was as follows. Under the Borrower's Income line, Phillips put down the couple's combined income.
Phillips and Hall wanted to testify that Bowling told them: 1) Phillips should be the only applicant for the stated-income loan, because her credit history was good while Hall's was bad because of the recent bankruptcy; 2) Hall's income should be added to Phillips' on the line that asked for borrower's gross monthly income; and 3) adding the incomes together was proper in the case of a stated income loan, because the bank was actually asking for the total income from which the loan would be repaid, rather than just the borrower's income.
The government wanted to keep this testimony from the jury and U.S. District Court Barbara Crabb (I kid you not) agreed. The Seventh Circuit, per Posner, reversed, in an unnecessarily complicated opinion, but one that is nevertheless fun and instructive to read.
I see it this way. According to Phillips and Hall, Bowling told them that, to Fremont Investment & Loan, Borrower's Income meant the total income from which the loan would be repaid. They were in essence informed that Borrower's Income was a term of art for Fremont. If Phillips and Hall believed that Borrower's Income meant (to Fremont) Combined Income of the People Repaying the Loan, then Phillips and Hall were not making a statement to Fremont that they knew was false. Their state of mind on this point was directly at issue. Theirs may have been be an implausible story, but the jury was allowed to hear it. Judge Posner's opinion has some important things to say about terms of art and interpretation of seemingly simple terms.
This case reminds me of a home loan I took out while I was an AUSA. The bulk of the down payment was being paid through my Thrift Savings Plan. That is, I was loaning myself money out of my government retirement fund. At the time, all of the standard loan applications required the borrower to state that no part of the down payment was coming from a loan. I asked my real estate agent and the mortgage broker whether that language applied to a Thrift Savings Plan Loan. They assured me that it did not. So, when I wrote down on the application that no part of my down payment came from a loan, I knew that in one sense this might be considered false, but to the bank, and presumably to any bank, it would be considered true, because the bank did not consider a Thrift Savings Plan Loan to be a loan. Had I defaulted and been prosecuted, I would have liked to present this as a defense, and it is hard to believe that any competent judge would have prevented me from doing so. But Judge Crabb did not allow this kind of evidence in, and Judge Easterbrook cheers her on.
Judge Easterbrook points out that the jury, in finding Phillips and Hall guilty, already determined that the couple knew several statements on the loan application were false. This is back-asswards and misses the point. This is not a sufficiency of the evidence case. If the jurors had heard the excluded testimony, they may well have been more likely to believe Phillips' and Halls' testimony that the rest of the false statements were made and submitted by Bowling without their knowledge. According to Posner, there was evidence to the effect that Phillips and Hall were naive, while Bowling (who pled guilty and cooperated) and Fremont (a bank that Posner deems disreputable) were sophisticated.
Of course, it is appalling and embarrassing that any self-respecting U.S. Attorney's Office would prosecute a case like this, but it is all part of DOJ's Piker Mortgage Fraud Initiative. Even more embarrassing was the government's contention on appeal that the excluded statements were hearsay. Posner called this a "surprising mistake for a Justice Department lawyer." I'm not so sure. Maybe it wasn't a mistake.
Wednesday, September 4, 2013
In United States v. Russell, the First Circuit pays lip service to the materiality requirement in 18 U.S.C. Section 1035 (a) (2), prohibiting false statements in connection with the payment of health care benefits, but in reality reads this element out of the statute. After losing his job, appellant applied for and received health care benefits under a state-subsidized health care program in Maine. He was charged with making false statements/omissions to Dirigo Health Care Agency in order to obtain these benefits, by omitting the extra cash income he earned through work he performed at a friend's business. Appellant argued, to the jury and on appeal, that the government failed to prove the materiality of his statements/omissions, since he would have qualified for the subsidy even if he had accurately reported his income. In rejecting appellant's argument, the First Circuit correctly stated the standard materiality definition. But in describing the evidence presented by the government as to materiality, the Court stated the following:
None of this establishes that the amount of unreported income omitted by Russell could have affected the subsidy he received. The trial judge, though rejecting appellant's Rule 29 argument, assessed zero amount of loss and refused to order restitution, because appellant's unreported cash earnings could not be determined and there was no evidence that he earned enough to be disqualified from the subsidy program. As the trial judge put it, "if he had told the truth, the result would have been the same."
"At trial, the jury heard testimony from Dirigo's director that there was a limit on the income an applicant could earn in 2008 and 2009 to be eligible for an 80% health care subsidy like the one Russell was awarded. The jury learned that Dirigo does not employ investigators to verify statements made by applicants on subsidy applications and that the agency therefore has to rely on applicants' statements in determining eligibility. The agency requires the applicant to sign a certification to help it ensure that all the representations made by the applicant are true. Russell was awarded a $7,500 subsidy in 2008, and a $4,100 subsidy in October 2009, based on his representation in his application that he was neither employed nor receiving income. He signed the accompanying certifications attesting to the truthfulness of his statements in those applications."
The First Circuit analyzed the issue this way:
The Court's analysis seems to shift the burden of proof. The evidence, at least as specifically described in the Court's own opinion, fails to show what the unreported income was and whether it could have affected the subsidy amount. This is the government's burden to prove, not Russell's. If the unreported income did not reach a certain threshold, it simply was not capable of influencing the decision to grant Russell a subsidy. Russell is under no legal burden to prove the precise amount of unreported income he earned. If the evidence was there, the First Circuit should have clearly set it out in its opinion. The materiality element is easy enough to prove as it is. There is no reason to read it out of the statute entirely.
"Whether Russell's statements were material was ultimately a question for the jury. But the record clearly supports a finding that Russell received income in the amount he reported, plus some additional sums that he did not disclose. Had he forthrightly stated on his application that he had unspecified amounts of undocumented cash income above the precise amounts he reported, it is reasonable to believe that Dirigo might well have determined that he failed to meet his burden of proving eligibility. As we said, the government need only prove that the false statement had a 'natural tendency to influence, or [is] capable of influencing, the decision.' Neder, 527 U.S. at 16 (quoting Gaudin, 515 U.S. at 509) (alteration in original). Given the evidence presented at trial, we believe that a rational fact finder could conclude that they were material."
Monday, September 2, 2013
In United States v. Vilar, the Second Circuit examined a post-Morrison decision with an issue of whether Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 applies to extraterritorial criminal conduct. The government had argued that the Supreme Court's decision in Bowman allowed for an extraterritorial application and that civil and criminal conduct should be treated differently and thus Morrison should not apply. The Second Circuit disagreed with the government saying that the Bowman decision was limited to conduct that was "aimed at protecting 'the right of the government to defend itself.'" In contrast, statutes such as 10(b) have as its "purpose [ ] to prohibit 'crimes against private individuals or their property,'" and therefore "the presumption against extraterritoriality applies to criminal statutes, and Section 10(b) is no exception."
The court also noted that "[a] statute either applies extraterritorially or it does not, and once it is determined that a statute does not apply extraterritorially, the only question we must answer in the individual case is whether the relevant conduct occurred in the territory of a foreign sovereign." Despite this legal analysis and ruling, the court found that there was no plain error with respect to territoriality on the counts here and thus no need to reverse on this issue.
Other issues raised by the defendants, such as those relating to a search warrant, jury instructions, and the admission of statements were found not to be in error. The court did, however, remand the sentence.
Wednesday, August 28, 2013
United States v. Orthofix, Inc was an important decision for several reasons. First, the Memorandum Opinion issued by Judge Young (D. Mass), on July 26, 2013, takes a turn in what typically happens when there is a corporate plea arrangement. Second, the judge explains at length policy considerations for sentencing corporations. The case also raises questions for the future of corporate plea agreements.
This decision involves two cases involving corporate pleas where the court rejected the pleas. The court notes the importance of considering the "public interest" in accepting pleas. Hon. Young states:
"Just as the Court must take account of the public interest when it exercises its discretion to fashion its own sentence, so too the Court must take account of the public interest when called upon to review a sentencing recommendation attached to a plea bargain."
The court considers the history behind plea bargains and contract law and notes the problem of considering it as a prosecution-defense relationship as opposed to a triadic relationship. Hon. Young states, that "this Court makes no attempt to question the policy choices of executive administrative agencies; it merely seeks to ensure that the sentence imposed upon Orthofix fosters (1) the protection of the public, (2) specific and general deterence, and (3) respect for the law."
The court states that "[o]rganizational criminals pose greater concerns than natural persons for two important reasons." One of the concerns raised in the case of Orthofix, by the court, was that the plea of five years failed to impose the Corporate Integrity Agreement as part of the probation.
This Memorandum decision raises other interesting questions that were not discussed here, and perhaps not relevant to these matters. But one has to wonder whether courts should also be examining plea agreements that place undue pressure on corporations and individuals to plea because the risk of going to trial is too severe? In a post-Arthur Andersen world do corporations have the choice of risking a trial or is the necessity of entering a plea too great to avoid the repercussions of an indictment and possible conviction? Should oversight of pleas go beyond the sentencing aspect to also scrutinze the bargaining position of the parties and the fairness of the general bargain?
See also Doug Berman's Sentencing Law & Policy Blog here, Jef Feeley & Janelle Lawrence, Bloomberg's, Orthofix’s Settlement of Medicare Probe Rejected by Judge
Tuesday, August 27, 2013
The Fourth Circuit has issued a rare and stern rebuke to the Eastern District of North Carolina U.S. Attorney's Office, for what the panel describes as repeated failures to disclose exculpatory evidence on the part of some of the office's prosecutors. Judge Floyd also directed that the opinion be sent to AG Holder and DOJ's OPR. This is remarkable. EDVA District Court Judge Henry Hudson was on the panel, sitting by designation, and concurred in the opinion. The Raleigh News & Observor has the story here. The opinion, U.S. v. Bartko, is here. The pertinent pages are 24-30.
Wednesday, August 21, 2013
In an unpublished opinion by the 11th Circuit, the court in United States v. Reddy reversed and remanded a conviction coming out of a 7 day trial that started with a 37 count Indictment and had convictions for all but five wire fraud counts. This health care case included counts of mail fraud, wire fraud, health care fraud, and falsifying records in a federal investigation. At the heart of the reversal is a Daubert claim. Looking at the proposed expert's qualifications, reliability of the methodology, and relevance, the cout found that the error was not harmless in that what the expert "had to say about his peer review and accuracy of the work performed by" the accused "was highly probative and would have likely been helpful to the jury."
The court did note that the Indictment should not have been dismissed premised upon another argument made by the defendant. The court said that Section 1347 is a federal offense and "the underlying conduct must have an interstate nexus or other 'jurisdictional hook.'" But the court noted that the "Indictment's language generally tracks the statutory language" and therefore "is sufficient to withstand a motion to dismiss."
The defense in this case was handled by the Altanta, Georgia law firm of Kish and Lietz.
Monday, July 22, 2013
Lawyers frequently talk about which judges are pro-defense and pro-prosecution but, perhaps out of fear of upsetting the judiciary, few have made any statistical effort to determine which judges fit where.
Richard Levitt, the imaginative Renaissance man of the criminal defense bar, and Peter Schmidt, the dedicated publisher of the illuminating Punch & Jurists newsletter, did a painstaking analysis of the complete reversal rates of those judges currently sitting in the Second Circuit. The result, while enlightening, was not particularly surprising. The complete reversal rates (determined by the percentages of cases in which the judge voted to reverse all counts of conviction after trial) of the court's sitting judges who heard over fifty cases ranged from 0% (Judge Gerard Lynch) to 8.79% (Judge Barrington Parker). (The article, entitled "What Are the Odds of Complete Reversal After Conviction in the Second Circuit?," appeared in the New York Law Journal on June 27, 2013, and is available online at www.newyorklawjournal.com but only to those with premium access.)
The authors concluded, "The results of our survey strongly suggest that an appellant's odds of winning a complete reversal in a close case brought in the Second Circuit are largely determined by which three-judge panel hears the appeal. By any yardstick this seems random and unfair."
I broke down the complete reversal rates of the judges by party line, depending whether the judges were appointed by Democratic or Republican presidents. Contrary to what many would expect, the reversal rates for those judges appointed by Republican presidents (4.26%) exceeded the reversal rates by those appointed by Democratic presidents (3.55%). While there are several explanations for this finding, including that Judge Lynch is a Democratic appointee and Judge Parker a Republican appointee, it tends to indicate that one cannot reliably predict, at least in a Second Circuit criminal trial appeal, how a judge will rule based on her political party background.
Wednesday, July 17, 2013
In a major blow to the government, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has reversed the convictions of each and every defendant in U.S. v. Douglas C. Adams, et al. This was a high-profile RICO public corruption prosecution (premised on an alleged vote-buying scheme) brought by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Kentucky. The Sixth Circuit vacated and remanded based on the following evidentiary errors: 1) admitting testimony from three cooperators regarding their drug-dealing activities with some of the defendants, which activities occurred 10 years prior to the alleged vote-buying scheme; 2) admitting an Inside Edition video that also discussed drug-dealing activities in the community; 3) admitting evidence of witness intimidation that could not be tied to any of the defendants; 4) the trial court's making of unprompted, substantive changes to the government's tape transcripts; 5) permitting use before the jury of the inaccurate transcripts that resulted from the unprompted changes; 6) admitting un-redacted, and highly prejudicial, versions of state election records which contained statements implicating the defendants in vote-buying schemes. This appears to be a case of government overkill in the presentation of its evidence, as the Sixth Circuit had no problem affirming the sufficiency of the evidence. The unanimous panel opinion was written by Judge Karen Nelson Moore. John Kline, Trevor Wells, and Jason Barclay argued the case for Appellants. With them on the various briefs were: Larry Mackey, Marty Pinales, Candace Crouse, Kent Westberry, Elizabeth Hughes, Jerry Gilbert, Robert Abell, Scott White, and Russ Baldani. Congratulations to all.