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.