Saturday, April 9, 2016
The New York Times reported on Tuesday, April 5 that Donald Trump, contrary to his asserted practice of refusing to settle civil cases against him, had settled a civil fraud suit brought by disgruntled purchasers of Trump SoHo (New York) condos setting forth fraud allegations that also were being investigated by the District Attorney of New York County ("Donald Trump Settled a Real Estate Lawsuit, and a Criminal Case Was Dismissed"). The suit alleged that Trump and two of his children had misrepresented the status of purchaser interest in the condos to make it appear that they were a good investment.
What made this case most interesting to me is language, no doubt inserted by Trump's lawyers, that required as a condition of settlement that the plaintiffs "who may have previously cooperated" with the District Attorney notify him that they no longer wished to "participate in any investigation or criminal prosecution" related to the subject of the lawsuit. The settlement papers did allow the plaintiffs to respond to a subpoena or court order (as they would be required by law), but required that if they did they notify the defendants.
These somewhat unusual and to an extent daring conditions were no doubt designed to impair the District Attorney's investigation and enhance the ability of the defendants to track and combat it, while skirting the New York State penal statutes relating to bribery of and tampering with a witness. The New York statute relating to bribery of a witness proscribes conferring, offering or agreeing to confer a benefit on a witness or prospective witness upon an agreement that the witness "will absent himself or otherwise avoid or seek to avoid appearing or testifying at [an] action or proceeding" (or an agreement to influence his testimony). Penal Law 215.11 (see also Penal Law 215.30, Tampering with a Witness). Denying a prosecutor the ability to speak with prospective victims outside a grand jury makes the prosecutor's job of gathering and understanding evidence difficult in any case. Here, where it is likely, primarily because of a 120-day maximum residency limit on condo purchasers, that many were foreigners or non-New York residents and thus not easily served with process, the non-cooperation clause may have impaired the investigation more than it would have in most cases.
A clause requiring a purchaser to declare a lack of desire to participate, of course, is not the same as an absolute requirement that the purchaser not participate. And, absent legal process compelling one's attendance, one has no legal duty to cooperate with a prosecutor. It is questionable that if, after one expressed a desire not to participate, his later decision to assist the prosecutor voluntarily would violate the contract (but many purchasers would not want to take a chance). The condition of the contract thus, in my view, did not violate the New York statutes, especially since the New York Court of Appeals has strictly construed their language. People v. Harper, 75 N.Y.2d 373 (1990)(paying victim to "drop" the case not violative of statute).
I have no idea whether the settlement payment to the plaintiffs would have been less without the condition they notify the District Attorney of their desire not to cooperate. And, although the non-cooperation of the alleged victims no doubt made the District Attorney's path to charges more difficult, the facts, as reported, do not seem to make out a sustainable criminal prosecution. Allegedly, the purchasers relied on deceptive statements, as quoted in newspaper articles, by Mr. Trump's daughter Ivanka and son Donald Jr. that purportedly overstated the number of apartments sold and by Mr. Trump that purportedly overstated the number of those who had applied for or expressed interest in the condos, each implying that the condos, whose sales had actually been slow, were highly sought. A threshold question for the prosecutors undoubtedly was whether the statements, if made and if inaccurate, had gone beyond acceptable (or at least non-criminal) puffing into unacceptable (and criminal) misrepresentations.
Lawyers settling civil cases where there are ongoing or potential parallel criminal investigations are concerned whether payments to alleged victims may be construed by aggressive prosecutors as bribes, and often shy away from inserting restrictions on the victims cooperating with prosecutors. On the other hand, those lawyers (and their clients) want some protection against a criminal prosecution based on the same allegations as the civil suit. Here, Trump's lawyers boldly inserted a clause that likely hampered the prosecutors' case and did so within the law. Nonetheless, lawyers seeking to emulate the Trump lawyers should be extremely cautious and be aware of the specific legal (and ethical) limits in their jurisdictions. For instance, I personally would be extremely hesitant to condition a settlement of a civil case on an alleged victim's notifying a federal prosecutor he does not want to participate in a parallel federal investigation. The federal statutes concerning obstruction of justice and witness tampering are broader and more liberally construed than the corresponding New York statutes.
Friday, March 4, 2016
New England Patriot quarterback Tom Brady did not get the reception he wanted at the oral argument of the appeal of the National Football League (NFL) of a district court decision overturning his four-game suspension in the so-called Deflategate case. Brady has been accused of conspiring with Patriot employees to deflate footballs so that they were easier for him to throw in a game in cold weather. The appellate court spent a considerable amount of time questioning Brady's counsel about Brady's destruction of his cellphone shortly before he was to appear before NFL investigator Ted Wells.
In my view the evidence concerning whether the footballs were deflated was equivocal and, even if they were deflated, the evidence that Brady was knowingly involved was largely speculative, and in total, absent an inference of wrongdoing from the unjustified destruction of evidence, probably not sufficient to meet even the minimal 51-49 "more probable than not" standard used in the NFL and most other arbitrations. Evidence of the suspiciously timed destruction of the cellphone, and the lack of a convincing justification for it, however, for me pushes the ball over the 50-yard line and may be the linchpin of an appellate decision upholding the suspension. As Judge Barrington Parker stated at oral argument, "The cellphone issue raised the stakes. Took it from air in a football to compromising a procedure that the commissioner convened." He asked Brady's counsel,"Why couldn't an adjudicator take an inference from destroying a cellphone?," then stated that Brady's explanation - that he regularly destroyed cellphones for privacy reasons - "made no sense whatsoever."
Courts are understandably especially sensitive (sometimes too sensitive and too punitive, in my view) to acts like perjury or destruction of evidence which obstruct investigations or prosecutions. Our justice system relies, at least theoretically, on the basic (although somewhat erroneous) principle that, at least generally, witnesses will not violate the oath to tell the truth. It is therefore no great surprise that the court focussed on Brady's destruction of evidence and his purportedly lying about it. Indeed, Judge Parker appeared to accept that even if Brady had not been involved in tampering with the footballs, his destruction of evidence would justify Goodell's decision. "Let's suppose a mistake was made and the footballs weren't deflated, and then a star player lies in his testimony and destroyed his phone. An adjudicator might conclude the phone had incriminating evidence. Why couldn't the commissioner suspend Brady for that conduct alone?"
Of course, it would be rather perverse if Brady's suspension were upheld when in fact he had actually not been involved in deflating footballs and had destroyed his cellphone as an excuse for not producing it and lied about it for reasons unrelated to the deflating issue, such as that the phone contained wholly unrelated embarrassing information or that he possesses an Apple-like principled view of privacy rights. It calls to mind Martha Stewart, who was convicted and jailed for lying to federal agents and prosecutors in a proffer session even though the underlying insider trading allegation about which she was questioned, was not prosecuted. On the other hand, it would not be perverse if in fact the destroyed cellphone did contain incriminating conversations.
Sometimes a client under investigation asks his lawyer what the client should do with incriminating evidence he possesses. As much as the lawyer in his heart may want the evidence to disappear, he cannot ethically or legally advise the client to conceal the evidence. (The specific advice will vary depending on the facts and circumstances.) The lawyer should frankly explain his ethical and legal obligations. However, generally the client doesn't give a hoot about them. The lawyer should explain that destruction, tampering and concealment of evidence, if discovered by the prosecutor, will undoubtedly eliminate the possibility of non-prosecution, lessen the possibility of a favorable plea deal, strengthen the prosecution's case at trial, and, if there is a conviction, undoubtedly cause a more severe sentence. Just as lawyers sometimes invoke the Stewart case to caution about the danger of voluntary interviews with prosecutors, so might they invoke the Brady case to caution about the danger of destruction of evidence.
The Brady case highlights the danger of destruction of evidence and lying to investigators.
Tuesday, July 14, 2015
Ellen Podgor and I have just released a new article discussing the complexities of defining the term “white collar crime.” The ability to define and identify white collar offenses is vital, as it allows one to track, among other things, the number of these cases prosecuted each year, the frequency with which particular types of charges are brought in these matters, and the sentences imposed on those convicted. This new article begins with a brief historical overview of the term “white collar crime.” The piece then empirically examines several specific crimes to demonstrate that statutory approaches to defining and tracking white collar offenses are often ineffective and inaccurate. The article then concludes by recommending that the U.S. Sentencing Commission adopt a new multivariate definitional approach that recognizes the hybrid nature of many white collar offenses. The final version of the article will appear next year in Volume 50 of the Georgia Law Review.
Ellen S. Podgor and Lucian E. Dervan, “White Collar Crime”: Still Hazy After All These Years, 50 Georgia Law Review -- (forthcoming 2016).
With a seventy-five year history of sociological and later legal roots, the term “white collar crime” remains an ambiguous concept that academics, policy makers, law enforcement personnel and defense counsel are unable to adequately define. Yet the use of the term “white collar crime” skews statistical reporting and sentencing for this conduct. This Article provides a historical overview of its linear progression and then a methodology for a new architecture in examining this conduct. It separates statutes into clear-cut white collar offenses and hybrid statutory offenses, and then applies this approach with an empirical study that dissects cases prosecuted under hybrid white collar statutes of perjury, false statements, obstruction of justice, and RICO. The empirical analysis suggests the need for an individualized multivariate approach to categorizing white collar crime to guard against broad federal statutes providing either under-inclusive or over-inclusive examination of this form of criminality.
Tuesday, June 2, 2015
Yesterday I skimmed through the FIFA indictment referred to by my colleague Lucian Dervan on May 26, 2015 ("FIFA Officials Facing Corruption Charges"), primarily to determine how the government justified jurisdiction over alleged criminal activities that largely, seemingly almost entirely, occurred in other nations, a complaint made by none other than Vladimir Putin. Upon review, I believe the indictment, apparently drafted with that question in mind, facially makes a reasonably strong case for U.S. jurisdiction, based largely, although not entirely, on money transfers through U.S. financial institutions.
There remains, however, the question whether the U.S. Department of Justice should assume the role of prosecutor of the world and prosecute wrongs, however egregious, that were almost wholly committed by foreigners in foreign nations and affected residents of those foreign nations much more than residents of the United States. Our government's refusal to submit to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court is arguably inconsistent with our demand here that citizens of other nations submit to our courts.
On another subject, what struck me as just wrong was a minor part of the indictment, the obstruction of justice charge against Aaron Davidson, one of the two United States citizens indicted (the other, a dual citizen, is charged with procuring U.S. citizenship fraudulently). While the obstruction of justice count itself (count 47) is a bare bones parsing of the statute, the lengthy 112-page preamble to the actual recitation of counts (to me in clear violation of Fed. R. Crim. P. 7(c), which says the indictment "must be a plain, concise and definite written statement")(emphasis added) describes Davidson's allegedly criminal conduct as follows: "Davidson alerted co-conspirators to the possibility that they would be recorded making admissions of their crimes."
Such advice is provided as a matter of course - absolutely properly and professionally, in my opinion - by virtually every white-collar or other criminal lawyer representing a target of a criminal investigation. Since lawyers are given no special treatment different from others, if these facts justify a criminal conviction, a lot of white-collar lawyers will be counting the days until the five-year statute of limitations has passed since their last pre-indictment stage client meeting.
The obstruction of justice statute is so vague that it gives the government the opportunity to charge virtually any effort by lawyers or others to advise persons under investigation to exert caution in talking with others. The applicable statute, the one used against Davidson, prescribes a 20-year felony for "whoever corruptly...obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding, or attempts to do so..." 18 U.S.C. 1512(c)(2). That catch-all statute, which follows one proscribing physical destruction of tangible evidence, to me is unconstitutionally vague, but courts have generally upheld it and left the determination of guilt to juries on the ground the word "corruptly," which itself is subject to many interpretations, narrows and particularizes it sufficiently. I hope that the presiding judge in this case, the experienced and respected Raymond Dearie, does not allow that count to get to the jury.
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.
Wednesday, February 25, 2015
Co-blogger Solomon Wisenberg's post on today's Supreme Court decision in Yates v. United States highlights the plurality opinion that focuses on a straight statutory interpretation analysis. But there is an interesting and important note in the dissent that is worth mentioning.
In Part III of the dissent it states, "That brings to the surface the real issue: overcriminalization and excessive punishment in the U.S. Code." - So even though the dissenters are not willing to toss out the statute with the fish, they are recognizing the overcriminalization movement.
Second, the dissenters state - ". . . , I tend to think, for the reasons the plurality gives, that s 1519 is a bad law -- too broad and undifferentiated, with too-high maximum penalties, which give prosecutors too much leverage and sentencers too much discretion. And I'd go further: In those ways s 1519 is unfortunately not an outlier, but an emblem of a deeper pathology in the federal criminal code."
The recognition by these dissenting justices of the growing problem of overcriminalization in the United States is an important step. In many ways this decision is really a 9-0 decision in that the plurality tossed the fish case out because it did not fit in this sea. The dissenters felt their hands were tied to allow the fish case to stay, but they weren't happy with what Congress was doing and sent their message in the sentences above. Will Congress listen, that is the important question here.
Tuesday, April 22, 2014
18 U.S.C. § 1519, known as the “anti-shredding provision” of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, makes it a crime for anyone who “knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object” with the intent to impede or obstruct an investigation (emphasis added). Congress passed this statute in the aftermath of the Enron debacle. But did they ever envision that a prosecutor would use this statute against a commercial fisherman for allegedly having undersized grouper fish that were thrown overboard following the issuing of a civil fishing citation from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission?
The government’s extension of this SOX statute is the subject of a Petition for Certiorari (Download Yates Pcert_Filed) before the Supreme Court. A key issue is whether “fish” are tangible objects for the purposes of this statute. And even more bizarre is that the fisherman allegedly started with 72 undersized red grouper and when he came to shore there were purportedly only 69 fish. Could this be a federal prosecution under SOX for 3 missing fish? And is this all happening during a time of sequestration with tight funding?
Perhaps the Supreme Court will agree that in the ocean of crime, this one is a bit fishy. Following the filing of the Petition for Certiorari and a distribution for conference, the Court requested a response from the government. Amici filed a couple of briefs and it was again distributed for conference. It is now set for distribution a third time, April 25, 2014 (see here). It's a wonderful case for the Court to examine principles of statutory interpretation and how far afield the government can go in using a statute written and intended to stop one form of criminal conduct but being used in an unintended manner. This case also provides the Court the chance to step to the plate and express a view on overcriminalization. (see NACDL amicus brief of William Shepherd here - Download NACDLYATESAMICUS). There are many other issues in the "fish case" that may also interest the Court, such as how a civil fishing citation became a criminal case with an indictment issued 985 days after the citation. (see Petitioner's Reply Brief - Download Yates Reply to Brief in Opposition). But the real question is whether the Court will order fish this coming Friday at their conference.
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.
Wednesday, September 18, 2013
Move over, Emmet Sullivan and Carmac Carney. Add Kurt D. Engelhardt to the Honor Roll roster of federal district judges willing to speak truth to the U.S. Department of Justice. Willing to speak truth and to do something about it. Here is Judge Engelhardt's Danziger Bridge Mistrial Order, issued yesterday in the Eastern District of Louisiana, and dismissing without prejudice all guilty verdicts obtained by the government in United States v. Kenneth Bowen, et al. This was the federal civil rights prosecution of New Orleans police officers allegedly involved in a horrific shooting of civilians in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
The mistrial was granted primarily due to a secret campaign of prejudicial publicity carried out through social media by members of the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Orleans and a DOJ Civil Rights Division attorney in DC. But Judge Engelhardt's opinion raises several other troubling issues concerning the conduct of the trial, DOJ's post-trial investigation of what happened during the trial, and possible meddling by the Deputy AG's office in that investigation.
I will have more to say about these issues in the coming days. It is clear that Judge Engelhardt does not believe he has received anything like the full story from DOJ. It is clear that appointment of a Special Counsel to investigate the entire affair is in order. And it is clear, if history is any judge, that no such appointment will be forthcoming from this attorney general.
Judge Engelhardt's opinion is lengthy, but one that should be required reading for every criminal defense attorney who practices in federal court and every DOJ prosecutor throughout the land. For now, I leave you with Judge Engelhardt's stirring words, taken from some of the closing paragraphs:
On July 12, 2010, the indictment in this case was announced with much fanfare, a major press conference provided over by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, and widespread media attention. On that occasion, a DOJ representative said that the indictments 'are a reminder that the Constitution and the rule of law do not take a holiday--even after a hurricane.' While quite true in every respect, the Court must remind the DOJ that the Code of Federal Regulations, and various Rules of Professional Responsibility, and ethics likewise do not take a holiday--even in a high-stakes criminal prosecution, and even in the anonymity of cyberspace. While fully appreciating the horrific events of September 4, 2005, and those who tragically suffered as a result, the Court simply cannot allow the integrity of the justice system to become a casualty in a mere prosecutorial game of qualsiasi mezzo.
Some may consider the undersigned's view of the cited rules and regulations as atavistic; but courts can ignore this online 'secret' social media misconduct at their own peril. Indeed the time may soon come when, some day, some court may overlook, minimize, accept, or deem such prosecutorial misconduct harmless 'fun.' Today is not that day, and Section N of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana is not that court.
Friday, June 21, 2013
Despite all the promises and policy iterations we continue to see blatant DOJ Brady violations. These are violations that first year criminal procedure students would know not to commit. The latest to come to light is from the Eastern District of Tennessee.
Yesterday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed Abel Tavera's conviction for conspiracy to distribute meth and possession with intent to distribute meth. Tavera was the passenger in a truck involved in an undercover drug deal. He plausibly claimed no knowledge of the drug transaction, testifying that he thought he was heading to a roofing job. Some of the physical evidence tended to corroborate Tavera's story. The evidence against Tavera was almost entirely bottomed on the testimony of co-defendant Granado. Non-testifying co-defendant Mendoza debriefed. He first told the government that Tavera had no knowledge of the drug transaction. Later the same day Mendoza told the government that Tavera only gained knowledge of the drug transaction upon entering the truck on the day of the transaction. Mendoza also denied that Tavera came along to count money and provide security, and consistently stated that one of the purposes of the truck ride was to work on a roofing job. All of this was contradictory to Granado's ultimate testimony. Mendoza later pled guilty. Mendoza's written plea agreement stated: "Tavera knew that they were transporting methamphetamine from North Carolina to be delivered to another person in Tennessee and agreed to accompany [Mendoza]. Since they were transporting methamphetamine, Tavera told [Mendoza] that they needed to be careful." The prosecutor, AUSA Donald Taylor, failed to disclose Mendoza's earlier debriefing statements to the defense.
Judge Merritt, speaking for the majority, decided to send a message:
"This particular case is not close. Prosecutor Taylor's failure to disclose Mendoza's statements resulted in a due process violation. We therefore vacate Tavera's conviction and remand for a new trial. In addition, we recommend that the U.S. Attorney's office for the Eastern District of Tennessee conduct an investigation of why the prosecutorial error occurred and make sure that such Brady violations do not continue."
Tavera's attorney never tried to interview Mendoza. The government argued that no Brady violation occurred, under Sixth Circuit precedent. because Mendoza was equally available to both sides. The majority disagreed with this contention,and further found it foreclosed by the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Banks v. Dretke, 540 U.S. 668 (2004). Judge Clay accepted the government's position regarding Sixth Circuit precedent and dissented.
The statements were plainly material and exculpatory. So the question remains, why is such conduct continuing to occur and what is the DOJ doing about it when it comes to light? Here, what one branch of the DOJ did was to argue that Brady wasn't violated.
These constitutional violations directly affect the fairness of federal criminal trials. They will never stop, absent legislation with teeth and/or a federal criminal defense bar willing to be fanatical in its intolerance of Brady violations.
Here is the decision in United States v. Tavera.
Thursday, September 13, 2012
Cursing has become a common part of the speech of many Americans, and the f-word is frequently used in its non-sexual meaning as a stronger substitute for "hell" to emphasize the speaker's extreme displeasure or anger, as in "get the f--- off." However uncivil, even if used in inappropriate settings, the mere utterance of the word is unlikely to lead to arrest or imprisonment, in large part because of First Amendment protection.
Apparently, however, using such a word in complaining to a federal court clerk about the judge, even outside the presence of the judge, may be treated more seriously. As reported in the National Law Journal (see here), Robert Peoples, a disgruntled and seemingly difficult pro se plaintiff, after learning that a South Carolina district judge had summarily dismissed one of his cases because of his lateness to court, outside the presence of the judge told a clerk that the judge should "get the f--- off all my cases." The next day the judge initiated a criminal proceeding for contempt.
At a bench trial before a judge from a different district, the defense contended that Peoples' statements did not obstruct the administration of justice. The trial court rejected that argument, finding that Peoples' behavior had affected the administration of justice because "courtroom personnel . . . were temporarily delayed in conducting their routine business" in order to deal with him. Peoples has appealed to the Fourth Circuit, where the matter is sub judice.
It is doubtful that Peoples would have been prosecuted but for his use of a four-letter word. If merely complaining about a judge to a clerk, even vociferously, so that a clerk temporarily abandons her work constitutes contempt, many pro se litigants, and some lawyers, might be doing jail time.
The contempt power is a privilege special to judges, a vestige of the extraordinary ceremonial stature afforded them, as exemplified by the bailiff's order that all rise to honor the judge's entrance into a courtroom, the enthronement of the judge in a seat higher than all others, and the clerical black robe. The contempt power is sometimes used, and not infrequently abused, especially in the lower state courts, to jail summarily a difficult litigant. In my view, it should rarely, if ever, be employed to punish an unruly litigant not engaging in physical violence and if so only after due warning. Indeed, many judges I know proudly claim that they have never held a litigant (or attorney) in contempt.
The limited issues raised by the defendant in his brief to the Fourth Circuit do not concern whether judges deserve this special treatment. Nor does the appeal concern any matter of special or constitutional importance, including any that might free up use of the f-word, or limit punishment for doing so. Lawyers and litigants should still be careful to control their language in complaints about judges to court personnel.
Tuesday, August 28, 2012
In an editorial published July 16, 2012 entitled "Trial Judge To Appeals Court: Review Me" (see here), the New York Times, in the wake of Judge John Kane's opinion discussed here last week (see here), rightly criticized standard plea waivers in federal court, especially those that preclude appeals based on attorney ineffectiveness or prosecutorial misconduct. The editorial, however, in alleging that in order to induce pleas "[p]rosecutors regularly overcharge defendants with a more serious crime than what actually occurred" was largely off-the-mark, as Paul J. Fishman, the respected United States Attorney for the District of New Jersey, claimed in a letter to the Times published on July 26, 2012 (see here).
Federal prosecutors do not, in my view, "regularly" overcharge defendants "with a more serious crime than what actually occurred," at least in white-collar cases (although they often pile on unnecessary if legally justifiable multiple charges). As Mr. Fishman noted, DOJ has directed prosecutors to charge only provable crimes, and in my experience that directive is generally followed. In many districts, notably with respect to white collar cases the Southern District of New York, guilty pleas are to the indicted charges or top count, and rarely only to less serious counts. Since defendants are unlikely to plead guilty to unprovable charges, that practice indicates that the charging decisions are consistent with the law and the facts.
Indeed, there is little incentive for prosecutors to overcharge in order to induce pleas since defense lawyers are aware that the Sentencing Guidelines suggest that the sentencing judge should in any case consider all relevant conduct committed by the defendant, no matter to what crime the defendant has pleaded, and prevailing statutes (and often a conviction of multiple charges) virtually always provide the courts more than ample sentencing leeway. Unlike many state statutory schemes, most federal statutes in the white collar area -- mail and wire fraud, for instance -- are generic and not scaled by degrees according to the amounts of money involved, such as state statutes concerning grand larceny in different degrees. The Sentencing Guidelines levels, but not the statutory crimes, are determined primarily by the dollar loss figure.
This is not to say that most defendants do not face considerable institutional pressure to plead guilty (and, if possible, "cooperate" with the prosecution). Defendants, depending on from which direction one looks, are either "punished" for going to trial or "rewarded" for pleading guilty by the Guidelines provisions for a near-automatic two or three level decrease for pleading (acceptance of responsibility, U.S.S.G. 3E1.1) and a near-automatic two level increase for a convicted defendant who has testified in her defense (obstruction of justice, U.S.S.G. 3C1.1). Additionally, a defendant who pleads guilty usually receives a more generous interpretation of the Guidelines by the prosecutor, probation officer and the court, and a lessened fervor from the prosecution and more lenient attitude by the judge. And, of course, the sweet carrot of a U.S.S.G. 5K1.1 letter for those who cooperate with the government is often, perhaps too often, the difference between a severe sentence and a lenient one.
Friday, May 25, 2012
The Statement of Williams Connolly LLP, through Rob Cary, Brendan Sullivan, and Simon Latcovich, truly speaks for itself. We will have more to come on the DOJ's actions.
Monday, May 21, 2012
Here is the Houston Chronicle's take on today's proceedings in U.S. v. William Roger Clemens. Brian McNamee was allowed to testify on re-direct that he injected three other players with HGH. Judge Walton gave the jury a limiting instruction that the testimony could only be used to bolster McNamee's credibility--not to infer Clemens' guilt. Still, this was a significant break for the government.
I am now batting 0 for 2 in my most recent predictions. I predicted that Judge Walton would strike some of Andy Pettitte's testimony and that the judge would not let McNamee talk about injecting other players. So take this next observation wiht a grain of salt. To me, the jurors' questions at the end of each day show their skepticism regarding the government's case and the credibility of key government witnesses.
Sunday, May 20, 2012
The name says it all. On Friday the Clemens prosecutors filed the Government's Motion to Admit Evidence of Brian McNamee's HGH-Based Interactions With Other Players and His Cooperation Relating to the Same to Rehabilitate the Witness. Call it anything you want, it is nothing more than an attempt to convict Clemens through guilt by association. As Judge Walton said before the first trial, in keeping this evidence out:
"I’m just still having some real problems with this because I can see how even with a cautionary instruction, assuming I could craft one that would be intelligible to the jury, I could see how they could still potentially misuse that evidence. I mean, I don’t know. I mean, I use to get cortisone shots when I was playing football in college. And I had to rely upon what the trainer was giving me. And I would not want to be held responsible for having done something inappropriate based upon what that trainer was giving to other people. And that’s the concern that I have.”
“I fully appreciate that the jury is going to have to assess Mr. McNamee’s credibility, and that his credibility is going to be seriously attacked by the defense. But I don’t think, at least at this point, that the mere fact that they are going to seriously attack his credibility necessarily opens the door to bring in evidence regarding Mr. McNamee’s dealing with other players. Because as I say, my main concern is that if Mr. Clemens’ position, and I understand it is at least in part his position that he did not know what he was receiving, it seems to me that there’s a real danger, that the jury may say, well, if they all knew, and that’s especially I guess true in reference to players who are also on the same team, that why wouldn’t Mr. Clemens know? And I think that would be a problem, for them to in some way use the evidence regarding what he was doing with these other players to impute knowledge on the part [of] Mr. Clemens."
Judge Walton's original ruling, which shocked the government, was provisional:
"I’ll reserve a final ruling until I see what transpires during the trial. And if somehow I feel that the door has been opened, I may be inclined to change my position. But my tentative position is that the evidence is not going to come in.”
Now the government is making its move. Of course the prosecutors would have filed this motion irrespective of how McNamee's cross-examination actually went. They immediately violated the Court's order during opening statement of the first trial by mentioning other Yankee players who received illegal substances.
I'm betting that Judge Walton keeps the evidence out.
Thursday, May 17, 2012
Judge Walton says that the jury is bored at the Clemens trial, and of course he blames the lawyers. Maybe he should look in the mirror. The proceedings would have moved much faster had the Court put a stop to the government's pettifogging objections to cross-examination questions that allegedly strayed beyond the scope of direct.
The judge has also, according to the latest press reports, characterized Rusty Hardin's lengthy cross-examination of Brian McNamee as confusing.
I stopped in on the trial yesterday morning during Hardin's cross-examination of McNamee. Although there was no smoking gun moment, it was an accomplished cross that ably exposed McNamee's shifty, evasive personality. Near the end, Hardin asked a perfectly acceptable question, the point of which was to stress that McNamee would have been valuable to Clemens as a private trainer irrespective of McNamee's ability to provide illegal drugs. The prosecution objected. Rather than simply ruling on the objection, Walton engaged in an unnecessarily lengthy exchange with the attorneys on the finer points of evidentiary law. You would have thought they were discussing the Ex Post Facto Clause or the Magna Carta.
The trial judge has great discretion to move a case along--even a big case. This doesn't mean that the Court should prevent either side from putting on its evidence or vigorously questioning witnesses. The Clemens case would benefit from quicker bench rulings on objections, particularly objections that only serve to break the other side's pace and stride. The government objections that I witnessed on Wednesday did not merit the lengthy treatment they were given by the Court.
Tuesday, May 15, 2012
Few things are more exhilarating to a criminal defense attorney than turning the government's witness into your own. This is exactly what Rusty Hardin did with Yankees GM and Senior VP Brian Cashman to close out last week's testimony in the Roger Clemens trial. It's not as if Cashman provided that much to the government in the first place. He testified on direct that the Yankees acquired Clemens from Toronto after the 1998 season. Clemens contemporaneously asked the Yankees to hire Toronto strength coach Brian McNamee. Cashman declined. There is no evidence that Clemens pressed the matter further at the time. Clemens was injury plagued in 1999, and had his worst ERA ever. After getting shelled in a 1999 playoff game at Fenway Park, Clemens asked Cashman to hire McNamee for the 2000 season. Cashman obliged. In 2000 Clemens rebounded with a great year.
On cross Hardin established that Clemens had experienced a very poor season with the Red Sox ten years previously, yet similarly rebounded the next season with a banner year. Hardin also had Cashman confirm that Clemens never complained when the Yankees ultimately fired McNamee. And Cashman smeared McNamee's character in response to Hardin's questions concerning the circumstances of McNamee's firing. Sprinkled throughout Cashman's responses to Hardin were glowing testaments to Clemens' work ethic, competitive spirit, decency, and sportsmanship.
At the end of the day, the Court accepted proposed questions for Cashman from the jury. One of them was as follows:
"Over the years that you've known Roger Clemens, is it fair to say you admire him as a great player and a leader?"
Judge Walton, who has been needlessly Talmudic in his approach to cross-examination questions veering "beyond the scope" of direct, nevertheless allowed the question, transposing it slightly. He asked Cashman:
"[O]ne of the jurors wants to know what your feelings are about Roger Clemens as a player and as a leader."
Here was Cashman's out of the ballpark response:
"One of the greatest players that I've ever seen, one of the best people, which goes to his leadership abilities. He, you know, he worked harder than everybody. He led by example. So a lot of times, you know, someone like Roger Clemens was given a great deal of ability. But not everybody honors that ability with the work ethic they put behind it. Roger did that.
And Roger at the same time was inclusive. You know despite his, you know, extreme accomplishments and his abilities and therefore celebrity that came from that, you know, his leadership is also shown in the fact that he, you know, treated the 25th man the same way he'd treat maybe the second best player on the team as well as the support staff. So, you know, there's a lot of aspects of being a leader. It's, you know, a true leader leads everybody, you know, the good ones and the bad ones. Roger led them all. So, he was a great player, a hard worker. His work ethic as well as his leadership ability was unquestionable."
Wednesday, May 9, 2012
I mentioned in a recent post that Reggie Walton is a fair judge. That fairness was on display again yesterday in the Roger Clemens trial, when Walton prohibited federal prosecutors from introducing testimony and documents pertaining to Clemens' fat salary as a pitcher. Walton correctly concluded that the prejudicial effect of this evidence outweighed its supposed probative value. It is a very rare federal judge who will bar this kind of "lavish lifestyle" evidence. The government always wants it in, ostensibly to show that a defendant's alleged criminal conduct was part of an effort to maintain a lavish lifestyle. In reality, prosecutors simply want to prejudice the defendant in the eyes of jurors by showing them how rich he is, how "high-on-the-hog" he lives, and how different he is from you and me.
Monday, May 7, 2012
I'd say you had a pretty good week if you got a key government witness to agree there is a 50-50 chance he misheard or misunderstood a purportedly damning admission by your client. That's what happened last week (week one) in the Roger Clemens re-trial, through Mike Attanasio's cross of Andy Pettitte. This morning, team Clemens filed Defendant's Motion to Strike Portions of the Trial Testimony of Government Witness Andy Pettitte. The Motion is an excellent piece of work. The argument?
1. The threshold for establishing admissibility of a preliminary fact question under Federal Rule of Evidence 104 is preponderance of the evidence. Fifty-fifty doesn't cut it.
2. Under Federal Rule of Evidence 401, relevant evidence "means evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence." Fifty-fifty doesn't cut it.
3. Even if relevant, the testimony's probative value is substantially outweighed, under Federal Rule of Evidence 403, by the "danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury." This is particularly true in light of the Government's statement to the jury, during its opening, that Clemens told Pettitte "he had used human growth hormone and that it helped him with recovery." The real-life fifty-fifty version on the stand didn't cut it.
4. Judge Walton specifically warned the parties before trial about making promises they couldn't keep in opening statements. He said that if it occurred here he would "not hesitate to tell this jury that they must totally disregard any such statements of that nature. I'll specifically identify what those statements were and tell them there was no evidence to that effect, and therefore, they cannot consider that in deciding this case." Judge Walton should make good on his promise, because fifty-fifty doesn't cut it.
Team Clemens also noted that the government could have revisited the conversation during re-direct, but deliberately skirted the issue.
My prediction is that this motion will be granted in some form. It certainly doesn't mean that Clemens is out of the woods. Ted Stevens' outstanding trial team won several motions during trial and Judge Sullivan gave Stevens some very scathing anti-government jury instructions--to no avail. (Of course, in the Stevens case, the government was deliberately hiding important exculpatory material.) But such an instruction will undoubtedly greatly benefit Clemens. It will essentially knock-out a key portion of the government's case.
Kudos to the defense team for an outstanding cross and an excellent motion. One of the nice things about this trial is that co-counsel Attanasio is finally getting some of the national media attention he has long deserved.
Friday, May 4, 2012
Nobody messes with Judge Reggie Walton. Here is a great post from Mike Scarcella of BLT (Blog of Legal Times) on recent bench conferences in the Roger Clemens case. Defense attorney Mike Attanasio incited Walton's wrath this week when he ignored Walton's ruling and tried to go "beyond the scope of direct" during the cross-examination of Andy Pettitte.
According to Scarcella, Attansio was questioning Pettitte about a specific Clemens pitching performance that took place in 1999. Attansio wanted to delve into whether "Clemens was so depressed and beaten up then that he would start taking drugs to perform better." Prosecutor Steve Durham objected that this went beyond the scope of direct. Walton sustained the objection.
Attanasio then asked Pettitte whether he had ever seen Clemens "broken and beaten" after a game. This ticked Walton off: “I’m getting sick and tired of making rulings and counsel not listening to my rulings." Walton reminded Attanasio "that the defense does not have a right to build its case during the government’s pitch to jurors."
That's preposterous of course. Every good defense attorney tries to make his case during cross-examination, and Attanasio was allowed to ask other questions that technically went beyond the scope of direct. For example, Attanasio elicited Pettitte's key testimony that Clemens had never appeared to be pitching on steroids. I haven't read the transcripts yet, but it is unclear to me how far out of the strike zone the additional questioning strayed.
As any experienced litigator knows, courts are all over the map on the scope of cross-examination. Most federal judges allow a relatively expansive cross for reasons of judicial economy. Why make the defense call a witness to the stand in its own case, when you can save time by questioning the witness on cross? But a federal judge's ruling on whether to allow narrow or open-ended cross is virtually unassailable on appeal.
Attanasio did what most good defense attorneys would do in this situation. He ignored (sub silentio) a dubious ruling from Judge Walton and attempted to make the same point through a slightly altered question. That will work with many judges who aren't paying close attention, but it didn't phase Judge Walton.
Judge Walton has many fine qualities. He is intelligent, fair, and couragoeus. But he tends toward rigidity.