Monday, June 27, 2016
The Supreme Court vacated and remanded the convictions from former Governor Robert McDonnell's case this morning in a unanimous decision, finding that "hosting an event, meeting with other officials, or speaking with interested parties is not, standing alone, a 'decision or action' within the meaning of section 201(a)(3), even if the event, meeting, or speech is related to a pending question or matter." (see here) In vacating the conviction and remanding it back to the district court, the Supreme Court gives the lower court an option:
- It can find insufficient evidence under the Court's standard - then the charges get dismissed.
- If the lower court finds sufficient evidence under the Court's standard - then the case gets reset for trial for a new jury to properly evaluate this case.
But there really is a third option here. If the lower court decides that there is sufficient evidence for a trial (which there doesn't seem to be), then the government can step in and say - enough is enough and dismiss this case. In the Supreme Court's opinion, it states - "[W]e cannot construe a criminal statute on the assumption that the Government will 'use it responsibly.'"
This is an opportunity for the government to step in and accept the Court's decision and be responsible. And the responsible thing to do here is dismiss!
There are many criminal acts occurring in society that warrant prosecution. Companies are in need of computer laws being enforced. Corruption is without doubt a problem and when someone takes money for doing a specific official act, then prosecution is needed.
But being a nice guy and listening to constituents, trying to promote their businesses, and sticking to one's campaign slogan - "Bob's for Jobs" - should not be crime.
It was the last decision issued by the US Supreme Court this term, and an important one for many. The Supreme Court vacated and remanded former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell's conviction (see here). It was a unanimous decision - a strong statement with which to end the Court's term. The key issue was what constitutes an "official act" to meet the bribery statute. The issue arose, as so many issues do, from the district court's giving of a jury instruction -
Chief Justice Roberts issued the 28 page decision vacating and remanding the lower court's decision -
- Setting up a meeting, hosting an event, or contacting officials - without more - is not an "official act".
- The Court uses a straightforward statutory definition analysis to define what constitutes an "official act".
- The precedent offered in Sun Diamond supports the Governor's arguments that "hosting an event, meeting with other officials, or speaking with interested parties is not, standing alone, a 'decision or action' within the meaning of section 201(a)(3), even if the event, meeting, or speech is related to a pending question or matter."
- "[S]omething more is required: section 201(a)(3) specifies that the public official must make a decision or take an action on that question or matter or agree to do so."
- "[A]n 'official act' is a decision or action on a 'question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy."
- The government's "expansive interpretation" of what is an "official act" raises significant constitutional concerns.
- "[W]e cannot construe a criminal statute on the assumption that the Government will "use it responsibly."
- The Court notes three deficiencies in the district court's instructions from this case.
- The Court sends it back to the district court to determine if there is sufficient evidence to meet the Supreme Court's definition of "official act" and if the district court finds that there is - a new trial should be held using this standard.
More commentary to follow on whether this case should be retried. This case was tried by Hank Asbill (Jones Day).
Tuesday, June 21, 2016
Elkan Abramowitz, one of the best and most-respected white collar crime defense practitioners in the nation, last week received the Robert Louis Cohen Award for Professional Excellence from the New York Criminal Bar Association. At the dinner at which he received the award, Mr. Abramowitz spoke thoughtfully about the pernicious effect of prosecutions of corporations, particularly on the rights corporate employees.
The recent focus on perceived corporate wrongdoing, he said, "has seriously impeded the rights of individual employees caught up in the web of ... corporate investigations." He pointed out that the "simple threat"of a corporate investigation has forced corporations "to conduct internal investigations upon any suspicion of wrongdoing" and, because corporations rarely, if ever, can risk going to trial, they will end up disclosing alleged criminality to the prosecutors to work out the best deal they can. The results as to the corporations themselves are non-prosecution or deferred prosecution agreements "which typically give the prosecutors much more power over the corporation than [they] would have if the corporation were actually convicted of a crime in court." The results as to corporate employees are at the insistence of prosecutors as a condition for a deal with the corporation that "the heads of individual employees be handed to them on a silver platter."
Mr. Abramowitz made a distinction between investigations by prosecutors who "hopefully most of the time" investigate without bias toward a particular result and corporations which in an internal investigation "are incentivized to find out and expose criminality." Thus, corporate employees are explicitly made to understand that if they refuse to testify they will be terminated and often told that their legal fees will not be paid if they chose to defend themselves." And, since these individuals accordingly sometimes choose not to hire counsel and to talk to internal investigators, the information presented to prosecutors by corporations often provides "more ammunition" than an investigation conducted by the FBI, police or another federal agency.
The results are, Mr. Abramowitz said, cases against individuals "that might never have been brought without the corporation's coercion." Thus, he believes, "Whatever social utility is believed to be served by this system,..this outsourcing of a purely governmental function is extremely dangerous and [causes] great injustices to individuals working in companies under investigation."
Mr. Abramowitz's observations of the systemic changes, most obviously the role of corporations and their special prosecutors (who, interestingly, he did not mention specifically) as quasi-prosecutors, are right on the mark. And, he is quite correct that the prosecution of individuals coerced into giving up their rights to silence and to counsel in response to their employer's demands "flies in the face of the restraining values of our society as expressed in the Bill of Rights." However, I suspect that most prosecutors and many others (including those liberals and others who like Bernie Sanders are still complaining that no individuals from the big institutions involved in the 2008 financial crisis were jailed) would not say that on balance the addition of corporations to those ferreting out financial crime is a negative one. After all, that addition presumably has or will result in more indictments, convictions, and jail sentences of individuals who have committed financial crimes. While I too bemoan the incursion into fundamental individual rights as a result of corporate prosecutions, I suspect Mr. Abramowitz and I are in the minority.
Monday, June 20, 2016
Yes, The Supreme Court's opinion here looks at whether RICO has extraterritorial application in the civil context. And in that regard it limits its extraterritorial application. But there is some important language in this opinion for both civil and criminal practitioners, especially since much of RICO is premised on a criminal statute, and all of RICO is located in Title 18, the Criminal Code.
- There has been much confusion as to whether one should look at the predicate acts or the enterprise in determining extraterritoriality and the Court provides significant guidance here.
- In deciding RICO's extraterritorial application, the Court divides it into two issues: a) "do RICO's substantive prohibitions, contained in sec. 1962, apply to conduct, that occurs in foreign countries;" b) "does RICO's private cause of action, contained in sec 1964(c) apply to injuries that are suffered in foreign countries?" It is this first issue that one needs to examine for criminal cases.
- The Court reaffirms in statutory construction the premise that there is "presumption against extraterritoriality."
- The Court describes the two-step process - "Morrison and Kiobel reflect a two-step framework for analyzing extraterritoriality issues. At the first step, we ask whether the presumption against extraterritoriality has been rebutted—that is, whether the statute gives a clear, affirmative indication that it applies extraterritorially. We must ask this question regardless of whether the statute in question regulates conduct, affords relief, or merely confers jurisdiction. If the statute is not extraterritorial, then at the second step we determine whether the case involves a domestic application of the statute, and we do this by looking to the statute’s 'focus.' If the conduct relevant to the statute’s focus occurred in the United States, then the case involves a permissible domestic application even if other conduct occurred abroad; but if the conduct relevant to the focus occurred in a foreign country, then the case involves an impermissible extraterritorial application regardless of any other conduct that occurred in U. S. territory."
- The Court says to look first at the predicate act, asking - is it one that applies extraterritorially ("Although a number of RICO predicates have extraterritorial effect, many do not.")
- With respect to 1962 (b) and (c) the Court states, "[w]e therefore conclude that RICO applies to some foreign racketeering activity. A violation of sec. 1962 may be based on a pattern of racketeering that includes predicate offenses committed abroad, provided that each of those offenses violates a predicate statute that is itself extraterritorial."
- With respect to 1962(a) the Court states, "arguably sec 1962(a) extends only to domestic uses of the income."
- In dicta, with respect to 1962(d), the conspiracy section, the Court states, "[w]e therefore decline to reach this issue, and assume without deciding that sec 1962(d)'s extraterritoriality tracks that of the provision underlying the alleged conspiracy."
- The Court is less focused on whether the enterprise element is domestically based. But it does note that "[e]nterprises whose activities lack that anchor to U.S. commerce cannot sustain a RICO conviction."
The language in this case provides important guidance for criminal practitioners on the extraterritoriality of RICO, and clearly it provides strong arguments that not all of RICO applies abroad.
The Supreme Court ruled today in Taylor v. United States, examining the interstate commerce element of the Hobbs Act. Although it provided a broad interpretation, it limited the decision to "cases in which the defendant targets drug dealers for the purpose of stealing drugs or proceeds." The Court explicitly states that it "did not resolve what the Government must prove to establish Hobbs Act robbery where some other type of business or victim is targeted."
A strong dissent by Justice Thomas argued that there should be a showing that the "defendant's robbery itself affected interstates commerce."
What this opinion means for white collar cases is that a strict interpretation of interstate commerce should be argued in these cases, with a requirement that there be a showing beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused acts affected interstate commerce.
Monday, June 13, 2016
A few weeks ago, in United States v Nesbeth (15 CR-18, EDNY, May 24, 2016) Judge Frederic Block wrote an important opinion on the effect of post-conviction collateral consequences on one convicted of a felony, and as a result of such consequences imposed a one-year probation sentence on a woman convicted of importing cocaine. He wrote that "sufficient attention has not been paid at sentencing by me and lawyers - both prosecutors and defense counsel - as well as by the Probation Department to the collateral consequences facing a convicted defendant." He went on to a history of collateral consequences, efforts at reform, and the breadth of post-conviction statutory and regulatory collateral consequences. He noted the "broad range of collateral consequences that serve no useful purpose other than to punish criminal defendants after they have completed their court-imposed sentences."
The opinion is a call for reform, for mitigation of sentences because of such additional punishment, and for increased awareness of collateral consequences by all participants in the sentencing process. Judge Block specifically called for probation officers "to assess and apprise the court, prior to sentencing, of the likely collateral consequences facing a convicted defendant."
Judge Block recognized an apparent Circuit split as to whether collateral consequences may be a mitigating factor in sentencing. The Sixth, Seventh, Tenth and Eleventh Circuit seemingly have found that collateral consequences may not be considered, while the Second and Fourth Circuits appear to have found that they may. I believe that under 18 USC 3553(a) they may, especially when atypical, be considered.
White-collar defendants obviously face not only the usual collateral consequences applicable to all convicted felons, but often also special ones such as loss of licenses or other professional bars. I personally have had limited success in appealing to judges to mitigate sentences against white-collar defendants because of collateral consequences. Many judges feel that that to consider those factors would favor the rich and well-educated over the poor and less-educated. To be sure, as Judge Block's opinion demonstrates, the poor and less-educated too suffer from such collateral consequences.
Defense lawyers should, as Judge Block writes, be aware of such consequences in order to set them forth as mitigating factors at sentencing. Such knowledge is also necessary to inform defendants of these consequences so that they may make an educated decision whether to plead guilty. As indicated by the flurry of defendants who have claimed they were unaware that their guilty pleas would subject them to deportation, lawyers historically may not have focused on collateral consequences.
When I first read the Baylor University Board of Regents FINDINGS OF FACT, it was immediately obvious that these were not factual findings at all, not in any sense that lawyers would recognize. They were normative conclusions almost completely unsupported by detailed facts, particularly with respect to the individuals who have been publicly shamed by the Board. Say what you will about Pepper Hamilton's report on the Penn State Jerry Sandusky debacle, that report at least contained a detailed, chronological factual narrative. Not so with Baylor's findings, which were promulgated by the Regents under Pepper Hamilton's guidance. Want to find out what Ken Starr did to warrant removal? His name is nowhere mentioned in the findings. Is Starr mentioned by title? Yes, the President and Chancellor are referenced exactly three times. "A Special Committee of the Board of Regents, on behalf of the University, accepted the President and Chancellor’s recommendation to engage Pepper in order to ensure objectivity, and Pepper was provided with unfettered access to personnel and data." Wow. What an indictment! It was Starr who recommended, almost immediately after learning about Baylor's problems, that Pepper Hamilton be hired in the first place. "Pepper interviewed witnesses across multiple departments, including the President’s Office..." There you go! Fire the bastard! Pepper Hamilton was given unfettered access to his office. How about Coach Art Briles? Surely his dastardly deeds would be dealt with in the findings. But Briles is not mentioned by name or by his Head Coach title. There are six references to "coaches" in the Findings, but no way of telling if Briles is one of them or even knew or approved of what the others did.
So I was all set to call for releasing the real report, the Pepper Hamilton Report of Internal Investigation. You know what I'm talking about, right? The report that law firms produce after conducting internal investigations of purported misconduct for companies and other entities? The kind of report that companies typically do NOT release except to DOJ, but that universities, such as Penn state, do? But then I read the Board of Regents' Statement posted on Baylor's website and realized that there is no report! That's right folks, the Board met with Pepper Hamilton from time to time and was "updated" with factual findings. "Over the course of the investigation, a special committee of the Board of Regents was periodically updated on Pepper's work. Additionally, in early May, Pepper presented their findings of fact and recommendations to Board leadership in Philadelphia and was onsite to brief the full Board during its May meeting in Waco. While no written report has been prepared, the Findings of Fact reflect the thorough briefings provided by Pepper and fully communicates the need for immediate action to remedy past harms, to provide accountability for University administrators and to make significant changes that can no longer wait." Translation: the Pepper Hamilton investigation was structured in such a way that no written report would be generated. This was obviously done for reasons of litigation and public relations strategy.
Now the Baylor Board can pretend that it has issued detailed findings admitting its sins in the interest of transparency. It isn't true. There is not one fact in the findings justifying the firing of Starr, or even Briles for that matter. There isn't any information about any improprieties that may or may not have been committed by Board members themselves. The conflict of interest here is palpable, as the Board is currently being sued and can probably expect more suits in the future. Do we really think that no member of the Board ever intervened in any manner in Baylor's athletic programs?
There is only one action the Baylor Board can take to assure its students and alumni that the full facts of the scandal, and the justifications for the Board's actions and inactions in the wake of its findings, are set out for all to see. Release the factual materials actually presented to the Board and/or its subcommittee by Pepper Hamilton, with appropriate redactions to protect any victims. Release all interview summaries. Release all PowerPoint presentations. In the alternative, Pepper Hamilton can be directed to draft the report it should have done in the first place. Only then can the Baylor Board say that it has come clean.
Thursday, May 26, 2016
The Supreme Court this week in Foster v. Chatman (14-8349, decided May 23,2016) reversed a Georgia murder conviction because the prosecutors violated the requirement of Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986) that lawyers not use race-based peremptory challenges to remove jurors. The Court, in an exquisitely detailed factual analysis by Chief Justice Roberts, dissected the prosecutors' purported reasons for challenging two prospective African-American jurors and found them disingenuous.
In a Slate article, my friend and colleague, the prolific and invaluable Prof. Bennett Gershman ("How Prosecutors Get Rid of Black Jurors," May 26,2016) writes that, notwithstanding Batson and now Foster, prosecutors will continue to "remove black persons from jury service with impunity simply by concocting purportedly race-neutral reasons." He points out that the Foster reversal occurred only because of the random discovery of the prosecutors' file containing telltale notations and comments about their intentions to strike black jurors.
I agree with Prof. Gershman. Prosecutors will continue to use race as a basis, sometimes the predominant or even only basis, in their determinations which jurors to challenge. And, so will defense lawyers. Given the limited knowledge lawyers have about the predelictions and potential biases of jurors, especially in jurisdictions which prohibit or severely limit lawyer questioning of jurors. a juror's's race is perceived by trial lawyers, reasonably I believe (although not to my knowledge based on any scientific proof), as an indication of how he will vote in the jury room, just as how he will vote in the voting booth.
As Prof. Gershman states with respect to prosecutors (generally applicable also to defense lawyers), "Prosecutors have long believed that striking black jurors improves their chances of convicting a black defendant. Prosecutors assume that black people are more likely than white people to have negative feelings about government, to have had bad experiences with the police, are more likely to have been targeted for arrests and forcible stops than white people, are more likely to have been imprisoned for minor drug crimes, and are more likely to believe that crimes against black victims are prosecuted less aggressively than crimes against whites." Thus, generally, prosecutors (and defense lawyers) believe that, all other things being equal, black jurors are more likely to acquit black defendants than other jurors. (I am not aware of any empirical studies of how race affects jury decisions. Empirical studies of jury verdicts are, it seems, far fewer than analyses of voting decisions.)
Accordingly, prosecutors and defense lawyers, both seeking to win (and believing that jury composition is a major factor as to whether they will), and therefore desiring jurors likely to favor their clients, consider race in their jury selection decisions and, when challenged (as are prosecutors more often than defense lawyers) employ less than candid justifications for their choices. And, since judges are hesitant to call lawyers, especially prosecutors, liars, the lawyers' justifications, if at all plausible, are almost always accepted. Compliance with Batson's dictates therefore is essentially, as Prof. Gershman states, "a charade," commonly violated by prosecutors (and also by defense lawyers).
To be sure, there are some differences between race-based challenges by prosecutors and by defense lawyers. Prosecutors' race-based challenges more often are exercised in order to deprive a defendant from a cross-section of the community and a jury including some of his peers; defense lawyers' race-based challenges are more often designed to reach those goals. Prosecutors' race-based challenges more often deprive black citizens of the right to serve on juries; defense lawyers' challenges enhance that (but diminish the right of whites and others to serve). Additionally, to discriminate - which is what challenging a juror based on race is - is presumably more invidious if done by an agent of the state than a private citizen. But race-based challenges by either side are common, and violate the constitutional principles of Batson.
Batson, therefore, simply does not work. Both sides commonly violate its principles to achieve their own goals. It may be considered a noble experiment with a lofty goal that has failed, or perhaps an example of a short-sighted Supreme Court just not realizing how things are done down in the pits. What can or should be done? I am sure many trial lawyers, both criminal and civil, prosecutor or defense counsel, would prefer it be eliminated. Prof. Gershman mentions a proposal to limit peremptory challenges to situations where attorneys give a "credible reason" for their exercise, what I call a challenge for "semi-cause." Another proposal he mentions is to track carefully all prosecutorial challenges similar to the way police stops are tracked. An obvious way is to eliminate all peremptory challenges, as Justice Marshall had suggested in Batson. And, of course, professional sanctions against lawyers who violate Batson might help enforce its dictates. (However, the history of lack of sanctions against prosecutors for other areas of prosecutorial misconduct suggests increased sanctions would have little effect). Lastly, more lengthy voir dire of jury panels, especially if by lawyers and not judges, would provide the litigants with a greater basis to exercise challenges than racial generalizations.
As Prof. Gershman says, "[Batson] diminishes the integrity of the criminal justice system." The decision in Foster is unlikely to solve that problem.
In Luis v. United States, the Supreme Court held that pretrial restraint of untainted assets needed by a criminal defendant to retain counsel of choice violates the Sixth Amendment. But what about pretrial restraint of untainted assets not needed to hire counsel? The Fourth Circuit, alone among federal circuits, permits pretrial restraint of untainted substitute assets, subject to Sixth Amendment concerns. In United States v. Chamberlain, in the Eastern District of North Carolina, the government moved for a post-indictment pretrial restraining order against the defendant's untainted substitute asset pursuant to 21 U.S.C. Section 853(e). Both the defendant and government agreed that the untainted asset in question, a parcel of land, was not needed by Chamberlain in order to secure criminal defense counsel. The defendant opposed the government's motion, arguing that Justice Breyer's language/analysis in Section II.B.1. of Luis foreclosed pretrial restraint of any substitute asset under Section 853, in effect overruling Fourth Circuit precedent. The government maintained that Luis was inapplicable since Chamberlain raised no Sixth Amendment issue. Judge Mack Howard sided with the government. "While the undersigned agrees that the Supreme Court may in fact interpret Section 853 in this way in the future, it has not yet ruled on this issue and has not upset applicable Fourth Circuit precedents governing the instant question presented before this court." Steve West was on the briefs for the government and Elliot Abrams (Cheshire Parker Schneider & Bryan) and Tommy Manning (Manning Law Firm) were on the briefs for Chamberlain. According to Abrams, this all matters at a practical level for the criminal defense bar:
Consider the facts of Luis. There the government established probable cause to believe that the defendant obtained more in illegal proceeds than she currently possesses.
Under Luis, she can use her innocent/substitute assets to pay her attorneys a reasonable fee. But under Billman and its progeny the relation-back doctrine of 853(c) applies to all of those innocent/substitute assets such that, if she is convicted, the government’s ownership interest in all of her assets will be deemed to have vested before she paid her attorneys.
Therefore, if she is convicted, the government can forfeit all funds paid for legal services, despite that a court authorized those payments under the Sixth Amendment.
Section 853(n) does not help because the lawyer’s right vested after the property became forfeitable and because the lawyer had reason to believe that the property was subject to forfeiture. And since forfeiture is mandatory, the court could not exempt those funds from forfeiture.
This would create the same Sixth Amendment problem that Luis solved—people being unable to use their innocent assets to hire counsel. It would also force lawyers to take such cases on contingency, which is ethically improper.
Here are the government and defense briefs and Judge Howard's opinion. U.S. v. Chamberlain - Gov Application Restraining Order, U.S. v. Chamberlain - Response in Opposition to Gov Motion for Restraining Order, U.S. v. Chamberlain-Government's Reply Memorandum, U.S. v. Chamberlain-Defendant's Sur-Reply, U.S. v. Chamberlain-Order Granting Government's Motion.
Judge Howard's Order is being appealed to the Fourth Circuit.
Thursday, May 19, 2016
This just in from the Supreme Court. The Sixth Amendment's Speedy Trial Clause does not apply to the time between conviction, via trial or guilty plea, and sentencing. Justice Ginsburg wrote the unanimous opinion. The Court noted that petitioner did not base his claim on the Due Process Clause and refused to speak to the issue of whether excessive delay between conviction and sentencing might run afoul of Due Process. The Court reserved the question of whether the Speedy Trial Clause may apply in the case of bifurcated procedures, in which facts that could enhance the prescribed sentencing range are determined during the sentencing phase. The Court also left open whether the Speedy Trial right reattaches upon renewed prosecution of a convicted defendant who has prevailed on appeal. Justice Sotomayor wrote a separate concurrence stating that "in the appropriate case" she would consider applying the Barker v. Wingo test to determine whether delay between conviction and sentencing ran afoul of Due Process. Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Alito, wrote separately to say that the Court should not prejudge the Due Process question, but should wait for a proper presentation, argument, and full briefing "before taking a position on this issue." The case is Betterman v. Montana.
Thursday, May 5, 2016
NACDL and the US Chamber of Commerce have a Law & Policy Symposium on Thursday May 26, 2016 at the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C. The title of the program is "The Enforcement Maze: Over-Criminalizing American Enterprise." The morning keynote speaker will be Chair of the House Committee on the Judiciary Bob Goodlatte, with David Ogden, former deputy AG, doing a keynote address later in the day. For the full program, see here - Download Agenda_NACDL-ILR Law Policy Symposium_External Agenda_5-5-16
Wednesday, May 4, 2016
As every veteran litigator knows, who the trial judge is not only a major determinant in the ultimate result of a case, but a major factor in how unpleasant and difficult the lawyer's life will be. There are judges, I suspect fewer than in the past, who are so biased to defendants and hostile to their lawyers, more often to defense lawyers than prosecutors, that the case is a nightmare for the lawyers (and obviously their clients). Reversals of judges for intemperate and biased conduct toward lawyers, or even the generally meaningless criticisms in cases that are not reversed, are rare. Defense lawyers, therefore, rejoice when one of those decisions is issued by an appellate court.
Last week, the Ninth Circuit in an unpublished opinion, United States v. Onyeabor, 13-50431 (April 27, 2016), reversed a conviction by a jury before Central District of California Judge Manuel Real primarily because the judge's remarks "devastated the defense, projected an appearance of hostility to the defense, and went far beyond the court's supervisory role" so that they "revealed such a high degree of antagonism as to make fair judgment impossible." This is not the first time the court has admonished Judge Real, who in 2006 was the subject of a Congressional investigation which considered but did not vote impeachment.
Almost every state has a judicial conduct commission which on occasion removes unfit judges. These commissions generally consist of a combination of judges, lawyers, and laypeople. There is no direct federal analog, although there is a somewhat clumsy apparatus whereby the judiciary itself may impose sanctions and recommend that Congress consider impeachment. Sanctions on federal judges for abusing lawyers and litigants are, to my knowledge, virtually non-existent. Although a federal judge apparently may be removed for beating a spouse (as Alabama District Judge Mark Fuller likely would have, had he not resigned) , he or she will likely not be sanctioned at all for beating up lawyers and defendants.
Sunday, May 1, 2016
"The article rejects suggestions that the rhetorical and regulatory changes occurred because prosecutorial misconduct has become more prevalent. It identifies other social causes: a public awakening to criminal justice problems for which prosecutors bear responsibility; revelations, in particular, regarding the role of prosecutorial misconduct in wrongful conviction cases; new social science understandings about social and psychological predicates for prosecutorial wrongdoing; and reform organizations’ inclusion of systemic prosecutorial reform on their agenda. The article shows how the internet has served as the essential catalyst for shifting public and judicial attitudes. The article concludes by predicting that the old and new approaches to prosecutorial accountability will coexist into the foreseeable future, and that the implications will include both a more active judicial role in critiquing and overseeing prosecutors and increased self-regulation by prosecutors’ offices."
Thursday, April 28, 2016
A wonderful article appeared in the NYLJ back in March concerning textualism in white collar law. Authors Elkan Abramowitz and Jonathan Sack remark on the broadly worded statutes one finds in the white collar arsenal, and how Justice Scalia was a leader in using a textualist approach in interpreting these statutes. The authors of this article reflect on the "exculpatory no" and obstruction of justice as two examples in demonstrating the use of textualism.
With Justice Scalia no longer with us, it will be interesting to see if others pick up this theme in current cases such as former Gov. McDonnell.
Monday, April 25, 2016
The United States Supreme Court accepted cert this morning in Shaw v. United States here. In 2014 the Court had looked at section 1344(2) of the bank fraud statute. (Loughrin v. United States). In contrast to Loughrin, this new case examines subsection (1), specifically the "scheme to defraud a financial institution" and whether it requires proof of a specific intent not only to deceive. The case comes from the 9th Circuit where the court examined the question of "whether that means the government must prove the defendant intended the bank to be the principal financial victim of the fraud." The Ninth Circuit held that although there needs to be an intent to defraud the bank under section 1, there is no requirement that the bank "be the intended financial victim of the fraud." Other circuits, however, have "held that risk of financial loss to the bank is an element that must be proven under section 1344(1). Stay tuned...
Wednesday, April 20, 2016
Judge Valerie Caproni, the Southern District of New York judge presiding over the case of convicted former New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, has unsealed papers submitted by United States Attorney Preet Bharara alleging that the convicted politician had affairs with two women who allegedly received favorable treatment from him in his professional capacity. The women, whose names were redacted from court papers (but identified, with accompanying photos, by the New York Daily News) were allegedly a prominent lobbyist who dealt regularly with Silver in his official capacity and a former state official whom Silver allegedly helped get a state position.
The government, whose efforts to introduce evidence of the relationships at trial were rebuffed by the judge, argued it should be able to provide such evidence at sentencing, purportedly to demonstrate that these relationships and favors provided by Silver demonstrated a pattern of abuse of power and possibly to rebut any evidence, including Silver's 50-year marriage, of Silver's good character. The judge seemed to accept the first argument, stating that she viewed this information "as a piece with the crimes for which Mr. Silver stands convicted," although "not exactly the same since no one is suggesting a quid pro quo, but of a piece of a misuse of his public office, and that's why I think it is relevant."
Generally, a federal judge has a right to consider virtually any information on sentencing, but I am uneasy about the injection of information of extramarital affairs of a defendant into the sentencing decision. If "no one is suggesting a quid pro quo," as Judge Caproni said, I question its relevance. Unless there is some basis that Silver did something favorable for these women because of their alleged sexual relationships - which I would call a "quid pro quo - I wonder whether his alleged actions constitute a "misuse of public office."
There, of course, is a difference between allowing a party to present evidence or argument at sentencing and factoring that information into the sentencing decision, and, absent specific facts, I am hesitant to say the material should not be considered. I am troubled, however, by the possibility that a defendant's alleged marital infidelity will become a regular part of a prosecutor's sentencing toolbox.
I am relatively sure that my first boss, from almost fifty years ago, Frank Hogan, the legendary and exemplary longtime District Attorney of New York County, would not have proffered such evidence, but Mr. Hogan was a man with a perhaps old-fashioned notion of fair play in a perhaps gentler age in which prosecutors rarely took aggressive (or even any) positions on sentencing (and the press did not publicize the dalliances of public officials).
(I note that Mr. Silver, whom I never met or spoke with, or contributed to, appointed me three times (and failed to reappoint me a fourth) to serve on the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct).
Sunday, April 17, 2016
Last week in a significant opinion involving mens rea and the federal aiding and abetting statute, 18 U.S.C. Section 2(a), the First Circuit threw out a conviction based on faulty jury instructions.
The instruction allowed the jury to convict the defendant if she “knew or had reason to know” that her husband had been previously convicted of a criminal offense punishable by a term of over one year.
The court ruled that the “had reason to know” language impermissibly allowed for conviction on a theory of negligence.
Here is the key language:
“Notwithstanding Xavier and its progeny, we therefore adhere to our view that, in order to establish criminal liability under 18 U.S.C. § 2 for aiding and abetting criminal behavior, and subject to several caveats we will next address, the government need prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the putative aider and abettor knew the facts that make the principal's conduct criminal. In this case, that means that the government must prove that Darlene knew that James had previously been convicted of a crime punishable by more than a year in prison. Having so concluded, and before turning to consider the effect of this holding on this appeal, we add several important caveats.”
The chief caveat imposed by the court was that “knowledge” can be established through a “willful blindness” instruction, if "(1) the defendant claims lack of knowledge; (2) the evidence would support an inference that the defendant consciously engaged in a course of deliberate ignorance; and (3) the proposed instruction, as a whole, could not lead the jury to conclude that an inference of knowledge [is] mandatory."
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.