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?
Thursday, September 3, 2015
Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal ran an interesting story about several cases in which U.S. courts refused to recognize the attorney-client privilege for communications between in-house counsel and overseas companies. The article focused on two cases in particular – Wultz et al. v. Bank of China Limited and Anwar et al. v. Fairfield Greenwich Limited.
Just recently, Janet Levine, Gail Zirkelbach, Derek Hahn, and Danielle Rowan wrote an article in the Summer 2015 edition of the ABA CJS Criminal Justice magazine on the topic of The Evolving Landscape of Legal Privilege in Internal Investigations. Along with the Bank of China case, the article provides summaries of three other cases involving the privilege issue during internal investigations – In re Kellogg Brown & Root, Inc. (KBR) (previously discussed on this blog here and here), Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Ind. Elec. Workers Pension Trust Fund IBEW (previously discussed on this blog), and Paterno v. NCAA).
As an update to the above excellent reads, it is important to note that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia recently released another opinion in the KBR matter. This opinion vacated additional orders by the District Court that would have required KBR to turn over the materials at issue in the case. See In re Kellogg Brown & Root, Inc., -- F.3d –, 2015 WL 4727411 (August 11, 2015).
According to the appellate court in the new KBR opinion:
More than three decades ago, the Supreme Court held that the attorney-client privilege protects confidential employee communications made during a business’s internal investigation led by company lawyers. See Upjohn Co. v. United States, 449 U.S. 383, 101 S. Ct. 677, 66 L. Ed. 2d 584 (1981). In this case, the District Court denied the protection of the privilege to a company that had conducted just such an internal investigation. The District Court’s decision has generated substantial uncertainty about the scope of the attorney-client privilege in the business setting. We conclude that the District Court’s decision is irreconcilable with Upjohn. We therefore grant KBR's petition for a writ of mandamus and vacate the District Court's March 6 document production order.
The issue of attorney-client privilege in the internal investigation context is one that is growing in both complexity and significance. Keep an eye out for more court decisions on this issue in the future as companies, attorneys, and courts struggle to find a balance in today’s complex legal and business environment.
Wednesday, July 22, 2015
John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay can rest quietly in their graves. Their "corrupt bargain" would not be considered a federal crime today. The same goes for Ike and Earl Warren. In United States v. Blagojevich, decided yesterday by the Seventh Circuit and discussed here by contributing editor Lucian Dervan, the panel vacated five counts of conviction based on partially faulty jury instructions. Under those instructions, the jury could have convicted the former Illinois Governor based on his attempt to obtain a Cabinet seat in the incoming Obama Administration in exchange for appointing Valerie Jarrett to President Obama's soon-to-be-empty Senate seat. This was just logrolling and Judge Easterbrook and his colleagues were having none of it. "It would be more than a little surprising to Members of Congress if the judiciary found in the Hobbs Act, or the mail fraud statute, a rule making everyday politics criminal." The same was true of the Government's efforts to shoehorn the Cabinet seat/Jarrett offer into 18 U.S.C. 666--the notorious mark of the beast. Altogether a sound public policy decision, although the statutory analysis is not as clear cut.
Tuesday, July 21, 2015
The Seventh Circuit has overturned five of 18 counts against former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. While the government could pursue a third trial on the overturned counts, it is more likely that the former Governor will simply be re-sentenced on the remaining convictions. It is unclear whether the ruling will result in a different sentence for Blagojevich, who was sentenced to 168 months in prison after his conviction in 2011. Judge Frank Easterbrook, writing for a unanimous three judge panel, wrote, "It is not possible to call the 168 months unlawfully high for Blagojevich's crimes, but the district judge should consider on remand whether it is the most appropriate sentence." Blogojevich will not be released awaiting his re-sentencing on the counts. The Appellate Court stated, "Because we have affirmed the convictions on most counts and concluded that the advisory sentencing range lies above 168 months, Blagojevich is not entitled to be released pending these further proceedings."
Tuesday, June 9, 2015
Three years ago, I wrote a lengthy blog piece about U.S. v. Daguerdas, a case in which a SDNY judge ordered a new trial for three of four defendants because of juror misconduct. ("Lying Juror Requires New Trial in Tax Fraud Case," July 12, 2012). The judge denied a new trial for the fourth defendant, Parse, because his lawyers, said the judge, knew or should have known of the juror's misconduct and chose not to report it to the court, and thus Parse waived the misconduct. On appeal to the Second Circuit, U.S. v. Parse (13-1388, June 8, 2015)), the Court, with Judge Amalya Kearse writing the majority opinion, reversed Parse's conviction and remanded for a new trial as to him also.
The Court spent a considerable time reviewing the record to conclude that the district court's factual findings (by Judge William Pauley) that prior to the verdict the lawyers knew about the misconduct or failed to exercise due diligence to determine whether it had occurred was "clearly erroneous" and "unsupported by the record." This ruling, with which Judge Chester Straub, while concurring in the reversal, disagreed, I am sure gave some measure of relief to the trial lawyers, from the firm of Brune and Richard, whom Judge Pauley had chastised. Those lawyers appeared to have been faced with the difficult dilemma of whether and when a lawyer is obliged to report suspected misconduct by a trial participant that is likely to be favorable to her client and to have chosen not to report something that would have diminished his (and their) chance of winning. (It is also possible that during the heat and travail of trial the lawyers never focused on the reporting issue.)
This ethical/practical dilemma arises, for instance, when an attorney suspects or believes - but lacks actual knowledge - about trial misconduct, whether minor misconduct such as a juror engaging a defendant in casual conversation outside a courtroom despite a court admonition, or major misconduct such as a witness or defendant perjuring himself. Reporting the misconduct would likely result in removing a potentially favorable juror in the first example and in striking favorable testimony and severely limiting the defense in the second, in both cases lessening the client's (and attorney's) chance of a favorable outcome.
The Court declined to adopt a general rule, as requested by the defendant and amicus New York Council of Defense Lawyers, that lawyers (including prosecutors presumably) need not bring juror misconduct to the attention of the court unless counsel actually knew that such misconduct had occurred. Nonetheless, I suspect lawyers will cite the case for that specific proposition and the broader proposition that lawyers need not report any trial misconduct unless they have actual knowledge.
Interestingly, the extensive, case-specific factual analysis about the extent of the attorneys' knowledge of the juror's misconduct was unnecessary to the Court's decision, as both the two-judge majority and concurring opinions demonstrated. Even assuming the district court was correct in its negative evaluation of the attorneys' conduct, the Court found the denial to Parse of his basic Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury by the improper presence of the lying juror was so significant that it could not be, as the district court had found, "waived" by the lawyers' conduct, and warranted reversal.
Wednesday, April 22, 2015
An en banc decision of the Ninth Circuit, United States v. Bonds, reverses the obstruction of justice conviction against then professional baseball player Barry Bonds finding insufficient evidence of materiality under the statute, 18 U.S.C. s 1503. The decision is per curiam, with several concurring opinions, and one dissent.
Hon. Kozinski, joined by Judges O'Scannlain, Graber, Callahan, and Nguyen commence with a single question - "Can a single non-responsive answer by a grand jury witness support a conviction for obstruction of justice under 18 U.S.C. s 1503? In answering this question, they speak about how "[s]tretched to its limits, section 1503 poses a significant hazard for everyone involved in our system of justice, because so much of what the adversary process calls for could be construed as obstruction." They continue to state that "[b]ecause the statute sweeps so broadly, due process calls for prudential limitations on the government's power to prosecute under it." The limitation they place is a requirement of materiality. They find materiality lacking here.
The next concurring opinion also speaks to a requirement of materiality, finding that "a single truthful but evasive or misleading statement can never be material." Hon. Reinhardt's concurring opinion simply says that a single non-responsive answer by a grand jury witness cannot support a 1503 conviction.
And although Hon. Fletcher disagrees with the rationale, focusing on the word corruptly in the statute finds it insufficient here.
Only Hon. Rawlinson does not want to second guess the jury decision and doesn't want to rely on perjury law as some of the concurrences did. The jury was instructed on materiality and that should be sufficient.
What fascinates me about this case is whether everyone is in the same ballpark. For all the reasons provided by everyone other than the dissent, one should not have an obstruction conviction based on this limited statement. But most imply that materiality is an element of obstruction. I have argued in a past Article that it should be - here. And it is wonderful to see so many on this court adhering to that position and taking this point as a given. But the statute may not be as clear and the law as consistent as it should be. This case is important for taking this important step and demonstrating the absurdity of a conviction that fails to have materiality as a key component.
Tuesday, April 14, 2015
Earlier this month, the Second Circuit, as expected (at least by me), denied Southern District of New York U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's request for reargument and reconsideration of its December 2014 ruling in United States v Newman which narrowed, at least in the Second Circuit, the scope of insider trading prosecutions. I would not be surprised if the government seeks certiorari, and, I would not be all that surprised it cert were granted.
In Newman, the defendants, Newman and Chiasson, were two hedge fund portfolio managers who were at the end of a chain of recipients of inside information originally provided by employees of publicly-traded technology funds. The defendants traded on the information and realized profits of $4 million and $68 million respectively. There was, however, scant, if any, evidence that the defendants were aware whether the original tippors had received any personal benefit for their disclosures.
The Second Circuit reversed the trial convictions based on an improper charge to the jury and the insufficiency of the evidence. Specifically, the court ruled that:
1) the trial judge erred in failing to instruct the jury that in order to convict it had to find that the defendants knew that the corporate employee tippors had received a personal benefit for divulging the information; and
2) the government had indeed failed to prove that the tippors had in fact received a personal benefit.
Thus, at least in the Second Circuit, it appears that the casual passing on of inside information without receiving compensation by a friend or relative or golf partner does not violate the security laws. "For purposes of insider trading liability, the insider's disclosure of confidential information, standing alone, is not a breach," said the court. Nor, therefore, does trading on such information incur insider trading liability because the liability of a recipient, if any, must derive from the liability of the tippor. To analogize to non-white collar law, one cannot be convicted of possessing stolen property unless the property had been stolen (and the possessor knew it). Those cases of casual passing on of information, which sometimes ensnared ordinary citizens with big mouths and a bit of greed, are thus apparently off-limits to Second Circuit prosecutors. To be sure, the vast majority of the recent spate of Southern District prosecutions of insider trading cases have involved individuals who have sold and bought information and their knowing accomplices. Although Southern District prosecutors will sometimes now face higher hurdles to prove an ultimate tippee/trader's knowledge, I doubt that the ruling will affect a huge number of prosecutions.
The clearly-written opinion, by Judge Barrington Parker, did leave open, or at least indefinite, the critical question of what constitutes a "personal benefit" to a provider of inside information (an issue that also might impact corruption cases). The court stated that the "personal benefit" had to be something "of consequence." In some instances, the government had argued that a tippee's benefit was an intangible like the good graces of the tippor, and jurors had generally accepted such a claim, likely believing the tippor would expect some personal benefit, present or future, for disclosing confidential information. In Newman, the government similarly argued that the defendants had to have known the tippors had to have received some benefit.
Insider trading is an amorphous crime developed by prosecutors and courts - not Congress - from a general fraud statute (like mail and wire fraud) whose breadth is determined by the aggressiveness and imagination of prosecutors and how much deference courts give their determinations. In this area, the highly competent and intelligent prosecutors of the Southern District have pushed the envelope, perhaps enabled to some extent by noncombative defense lawyers who had their clients cooperate and plead guilty despite what, at least with hindsight, seems to have been a serious question of legal sufficiency. See Dirks v. S.E.C., 463 U.S. 646, 103 S.Ct. 3255 (1983)(test for determining insider liability is whether "insider personally will benefit, directly or indirectly"). As the Newman court refreshingly said, in language that should be heeded by prosecutors, judges, and defense lawyers, "[N]ot every instance of financial unfairness constitutes fraudulent activity under [SEC Rule] 10(b)."
As I said, I would not be shocked (although I would be surprised) if Congress were to enact a law that goes beyond effectively overruling Newman and imposes insider trading liability on any person trading based on what she knew was non-public confidential information whether or not the person who had disclosed the information had received a personal benefit. Such a law, while it would to my regret cover the casual offenders I have discussed, would on balance be a positive one in that it would limit the unequal information accessible to certain traders and provide a more level playing field.
Friday, April 10, 2015
District of Columbia Court of Appeals Makes It Official: Prosecutor's Duty To Disclose Exculpatory Evidence Is Broader Than Brady
Kline was prosecuting Arnell Shelton for the shooting of Christopher Boyd. Shelton had filed an alibi notice and "the reliability of the government's identification witnesses" was the principal issue at the 2002 trial, according to the Report and Recommendation of Hearing Committee Number Nine ("Report and Recommendation").
Kline spoke with Metropolitan Police Department Officer Edward Woodward in preparation for trial. Kline took contemporaneous notes. Woodward was the first officer at the scene of the crime and spoke to victim Boyd at the hospital shortly after the shooting. According to the Report and Recommendation, Kline's notes of his conversation with Woodward were, in pertinent part, as follows: "Boyd told officer at hospital that he did not know who shot him–appeared maybe to not want to cooperate at the time. He was in pain and this officer had arrested him for possession of a machine gun."
At trial Boyd identified Shelton as the shooter. According to Bar Counsel, Kline never disclosed Boyd's hospital statement to the defense despite a specific Brady/Giglio request for impeachment material. The other identification witnesses were weak and/or impeachable. The case ended in a hung jury mistrial and the alleged Brady material (that is, Boyd's hospital statement to Woodward) was not revealed to the defense until literally the eve of the second trial, even though DC-OUSA prosecutors and supervisors had known about it for some time.
The court offered defense counsel a continuance, but she elected to go to trial as her client was then in jail. The second trial ended in Shelton's conviction. You can consult my earlier posts for a more detailed factual and case history background.
Rule 3.8(e) of the DC Rules of Professional Conduct states in pertinent part that: "The prosecutor in a criminal case shall not . . . intentionally fail to disclose to the defense, upon request and at a time when use by the defense is reasonably feasible, any evidence or information that the prosecutor knows or reasonably should know tends to negate the guilt of the accused...except when the prosecutor is relieved of this responsibility by protective order of the tribunal."
The District of Columbia Court of Appeals upheld the position of D.C. Bar Counsel and the Board that Rule 3.8(e) is not synonymous with Brady v. Maryland. The Court declined to import Brady's materiality test into Rule 3.8(e), making it clear that at the pre-trial and trial stages of a case, no prosecutor is fit to make a speculative materiality analysis. The rule is now clear. Any evidence that tends to negate the guilt of the defendant must be disclosed under the D.C. Rules of Professional Responsibility.
The Court overturned the Board's 30-day sanction imposed against Kline, given the confusion engendered by the Commentary to Rule 3.8(e). The Commentary states in part that: "The rule...is not intended either to restrict or to expand the obligations of prosecutors derived from the United States Constitution, federal or District of Columbia statutes, and court rules of procedure." Courts in other jurisdictions, as well as the ABA, have construed the D.C. Rule as including the Brady materiality standard, based on this Commentary. Additionally, at the time of Kline's actions, DC-USAO's training taught that Rule 3.8(e) was synonymous with Brady. The Court held that even if the Commentary was inconsistent with the Rule, the plain language of the Rule, and its legislative history, prevailed.
"However, while clear and convincing evidence has been presented that Kline violated Rule 3.8 when he failed to turn over the Boyd Hospital Statement to the defense prior to trial, we are mindful of the fact that our comment to Rule 3.8 (e) has created a great deal of confusion when it comes to a prosecutor’s disclosure obligations under Rule 3.8. Thus, Kline's understanding of his ethical obligations, while erroneous, does not warrant an ethical sanction."
The Board originally found that the suppressed exculpatory statement was material, even though a subsequent jury in possession of the material convicted the defendant. I don't know if that finding was ever revisited. I mention it because the Court's opinion nowhere discusses this point and seems to assume that the withheld statement was immaterial.
The opinion by Chief Judge Washington is extremely well-crafted and enormously significant.
Hat Tip to Charles Burnham of Burnham & Gorokhov for informing me of this ruling and sending a copy.
Tuesday, March 31, 2015
Practice Notes: First Circuit Cases Yield White Collar Rulings on Materiality and Upward Variance/Departure
Two white collar decisions emerged last week from the First Circuit, both related to the Rwandan genocide.
United States v. Kantengwa reinforces an old truth for white collar practitioners. If you don't win on materiality at trial, you are totally screwed on appeal. According to the First Circuit, the appellant was "a member of a prominent political family allegedly involved in the Rwandan genocide." Katengwa was indicted for perjury under 18 U.S. Code 1621 (1) for false statements she told under oath in an asylum application and subsequent removal proceedings. Katengwa argued, among other things, that the government was precluded from bringing perjury charges against her because an immigration judge had already ruled that her false statements did not "go to the heart" of her asylum claim. Assuming, without deciding, that an administrative finding of fact can preclude later criminal charges, the First Circuit rejected Katengwa's collateral estoppel claim, because "materiality" under 1621 (1) and the "heart of the matter rule" in immigration law involve two distinct standards. "The heart of the matter rule from immigration law prohibits basing an adverse credibility determination on inconsistencies in an applicant's testimony that do not go to the heart of [her] claim." (Internal quotes and citations omitted.) But, "a statement is material in a criminal prosecution for perjury under § 1621(1) if it is 'material to any proper matter of the [decisionmaker's] inquiry.' United States v. Scivola, 766 F.2d 37, 44 (1st Cir. 1985) (emphasis added)." The First Circuit made clear, through a litany of examples, that this test can cover a multitude of subsidiary matters to the decisionmaker's overall inquiry. Translation: In all but the rarest cases, materiality is an argument you make to the jury. It can serve as a nice hook for jury nullification. Don't expect it to lead to victory on appeal.
In United States v. Munyenyezi, Katengwa's sister was indicted on "two counts of procuring citizenship illegally by making false statements to the government. See 18 U.S.C. §§ 1425(a) and (b)." The jury hung in her first trial, but the second trial produced convictions. She raised several issues on appeal, but the one that concerns me here is the sentence of 120 months, the statutory maximum. Munyenyezi's Guidelines Range was 0-6 months, and she attacked the sentence on appeal as substantively unreasonable. The First Circuit called this, "a tough sell," reiterating its abuse of discretion standard of review and precedent that "as long as we see 'a plausible sentencing rationale' that reaches 'a defensible result,' the sentence stands. United States v. Martin, 520 F.3d 87, 96 (1st Cir. 2008)." The trial judge imposed the 120 month sentence under alternative theories. He granted an upward departure under Guidelines Section 5K2.0 for an aggravating circumstance of a kind or degree not adequately taken into accoount by the Guidelines. He also upwardly departed under 18 U.S.C. Section 3553 (a). As every schoolboy knows, and as the First Circuit reminds us, "Section 3553(a) lets a judge vary upward based on factors listed there, like the defendant's background (including her criminal history), the circumstances of the offense, the seriousness of the offense, the need to protect and deter others, the need to promote respect for the law and to provide a just punishment, and the need to eliminate unjustified sentencing disparities." And the First Circuit also reminds us, albeit in a footnote, that "[u]nder certain circumstances a judge can also vary downward using section 3553(a)." You don't say!
Interestingly, the trial judge did not upwardly depart/vary because of Munyenyezi's alleged "participation in genocidal conduct." He sentenced her to the statutory maximum because, "'lying about participation in genocide when specifically asked,' the judge explained, knowing full well 'that such conduct is automatically disqualifying with respect to immigration and citizenship seriously undermines the integrity of this country's immigration standards in the most offensive way' imaginable." The judge later noted that if he had sentenced Munyenyezi for her alleged genocidal conduct, he would not have imposed concurrent sentences.
There are often silver linings in decisional clouds. An appellate court that uphold a 3553 (a) upward variance of ten years can also uphold a 10 year downward variance. The precedent cuts both ways.
Saturday, March 28, 2015
Christine Wright-Darrisaw was found guilty of threatening the President under 18 U.S. Code Section 871(a). Ms. Wright-Darrisaw experienced a negative result in her local Family Court. She called the White House switchboard and, after two and one-half minutes of incoherent barnyard gibbersih, threatened to fornicate and kill President Obama. She was entitled to a four point reduction in her offense level under Guidelines Section 2A6.1(b)(6) if the sentencing court found that "the offense involved a single instance evidencing little or no deliberation." The trial judge refused to grant the reduction, noting that the very act of contacting the White House involved deliberation. According to the Second Circuit, "the explanation provided by the district court suggests that the court may have been too sweeping in its consideration of what constitutes deliberation cognizable under U.S.S.G. § 2A6.1(b)(6)." The "deliberation" to be considered under 2A6.1(b)6) "is deliberation related to the communication of the threat itself. Only if a defendant's course of conduct leading up to and following the time the threat was made is closely tied to the communication of the threat, or if the defendant makes any effort to carry out the threat, may the conduct then provide a basis for inferring deliberation sufficient to reject the four-level reduction." Although the call here was deliberate, the threat may not have been. Since it appears that the district court conflated the two concepts, the Second Circuit remanded for re-analysis of the deliberation issue. Examining holdings in sister circuits, the Second Circuit focused on two critical factors in determining whether deliberation is present: "(1) whether, and under what circumstances, the threat itself has been repeated and (2) whether there is evidence of planning or some effort to carry out the threat." In Wright-Darrisaw's case, it is undisputed that the threat against President Obama was not repeated. (However, there were abundant past threats against neighbors, strangers, President Bush, and other officials.) Thus, the only question on remand is whether "there is sufficient evidence of planning or some effort to carry out the threat." The case is United States v. Wright-Darrisaw.
Wright-Darrisaw's challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence against her was deferred pending the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in United States v. Elonis, 730 F.3d 321 (3d. Cir. 2013), cert. granted, 134 S.Ct. 2819 (2014).