Archive for January, 2009

African Union Asks Security Council to Quit on Darfur

Friday, January 30th, 2009

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As previously reported, the ICC prosecution of Sudan’s leader Omar al-Bashir has had its share of challenges. Yesterday, the African Union threw another monkey wrench into an already shaky machinery.

The African Union is an international organization of all African nations except Morocco. The organization, which is expected to name Libyan head Muammar Khaddafi as its new chairman next week, lacks significant authority to do much more than scold or impose mild trade sanctions. But it does have a peacekeeping force in the Sudan. After the force ran out of funds a couple of years ago, the United Nations stepped in to run the operation in a joint effort known as UNAMID.

Yesterday, the AU formally called on the UN Security Council to suspend the ICC indictment of al-Bashir. The leadership fears that any arrest would cause violent uprisings by al-Bashir’s supporters. They also claim that al-Bashir is a necessary party to ongoing peace mediations in the region, and indicting him would derail the peace process.

The Security Council has authority to defer the prosecution under Article 16 of the Rome Statute, which established the ICC in 2002.

The Security Council’s permanent members already have incentives to stall the prosecution. The Sudan is a major oil supplier to China, and the two regimes are very tight. China also opposes any action that would create a precedent of interference in domestic affairs. Russia also has strong economic ties, particularly as the supplier of Sudan’s weapons and attack helicopters. The U.S. wants to avoid any precedent of having leaders held to “international” standards of conduct. Britain and France would prefer any solution that calms the ongoing violence, rather than causing more.

So the AU’s plea is certain not to fall on deaf ears. It’s almost as if the AU is preaching to the choir.

But the suspension of prosecution on these grounds would actually cause a much worse precedent for the AU and the UN. The position essentially boils down to “we’d better leave thugs alone, because if we try to enforce the rules then they’ll act like thugs.”

In other words, if the Security Council goes along with this, its policy will essentially be to stay out of situations like Darfur. This is contrary to the stated policies and desires of the UN and its membership. It would be a mistake from a policy point of view, and it would create an undesirable precedent from a legal standpoint.

The ICC should just get it over with. Exercise its authority, hold a civilized trial, and act accordingly. That would demonstrate to the world that it exists for a reason. Delay would only fan widespread belief in the ineffectiveness and injustice of international law, as crimes go unprosecuted and unpunished for years and years. If there’s sufficient evidence, then there’s no reason not to proceed. If there’s insufficient evidence, then let that come out too. Either way, let the world move forward.

But to refuse to act because of a fear that people might riot as a result… well, that just takes authority away from the civilized bodies and hands it back to the lawless types that law is supposed to protect against in the first place. It would be an act of cowardice masking itself as prudence, and would be despicable.

Supreme Court Expands “Stop and Frisk” Authority

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

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On Monday, a unanimous Supreme Court reiterated its rule that a police officer may pat down the passenger of a car that was stopped for a traffic infraction, if the officer has reason to believe the passenger is armed and dangerous. The Court also added that the authority to conduct a patdown doesn’t end when police start asking about matters unrelated to the traffic stop.

Writing for the Court in Arizona v. Johnson (No. 07-1122), Justice Ginsburg pointed out that this is not exactly new law. Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106, held that police are allowed to ask the driver of a car to get out, after a lawful traffic stop. The interest in officer safety outweighed the “de minimis” additional intrusion of having the driver exit the car. Then, once the driver is out of the car, Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, says he can be patted down if there’s reason to believe he’s armed and dangerous.

Maryland v. Wilson, 519 U.S. 408, said that the Mimms rule applies to passengers the same as to drivers. Passengers and drivers both have the same incentive to avoid being arrested for more serious crimes than the traffic violation, and have the same incentive to use violence to avoid such arrest. The interest in officer safety again outweighed the “minimal” additional intrusion of being asked to exit the car. Everyone’s already been seized, essentially, by the car stop.

Here, Officer Maria Trevizo, of Arizona’s gang task force, was part of a car stop for driving with a suspended registration. At the time of the stop, she had no reason to suspect any of the passengers of a crime. However, on approaching the car, she saw that the passenger Lemon Johnson wore Crips clothing, and had a police scanner sticking out of his pocket. When asked to identify himself, Johnson said her was from Eloy, Arizona, which Trevizo knew was a Crips gang location. Johnson also said he’d done prison time for burglary.

Trevizo wanted to ask more questions out of earshot of the others in the car, to see if she could get any info about the gang Johnson might have been in. So she asked him to get out of the car. Her observations so far, plus his statements, gave her reason to think he might be armed, so when he got out she started to perform a Wilson frisk. When she found a gun in his waistband, Johnson started fighting with her, and she handcuffed him. Johnson was later convicted at trial of, among other things, possession of a weapon by a prohibited possessor.

The Arizona Court of Appeals reversed his conviction, holding that Trevizo’s authority to pat him down ended when she started asking about matters unrelated to the traffic stop. Yes, he was initially detained pursuant to the traffic stop, but then the encounter devolved into a consensual conversation. As Johnson was no longer technically seized by the car stop, the police no longer had authority to conduct a patdown.

The Supreme Court held that the Arizona court got that wrong. Nothing ever happened that would have given Johnson reason to believe he was free to leave without police permission. He was seized by the car stop, and a reasonable person would understand that throughout the time the car is stopped, he isn’t free to just walk away. The mere fact that Johnson was being questioned about non-traffic-related matters wasn’t something that would change that understanding.

Moreover, the Arizona ruling just didn’t make sense. If it was to stand, then an officer who asked a passenger to step out of the car would have to first give the passenger a chance to walk away, before being allowed to pat him down. “Trevizo was not required by the Fourth Amendment to give Johnson an opportunity to depart without first ensuring that, in so doing, she was not permitting a dangerous person to get behind her.”

Other writers out there are seeing this ruling as a travesty, another nail in the coffin of Fourth Amendment protections. Over at Simple Justice, for example, the mere reiteration of the existing Wilson rule is called “the evisceration of rights by baby steps.” It’s clear that such writers simply disagree with the greater value the courts have placed on officer safety, as opposed to the freedom from being patted down. Those are their values, and we can’t fault that.

But critics such as these are missing the real point of the case, which is that a traffic stop never devolves to a lesser encounter until either the traffic stop is over, or until the police say so. To us, this seems to be a far more troubling bright line. Certainly, situations can be envisioned in which a passenger would reasonably believe that he was free to leave, even though the stop wasn’t over and the officer might disagree.

We, for example, once took a cab to an important meeting across town. The cab driver, playing to type, showed a remarkable ignorance of the workings of a motorized vehicle, as well as the difference between the street and the sidewalk. One of New York’s finest swiftly stopped the cabbie before anyone (including us) got hurt. While the officer dealt with the cabbie, we simply walked away and caught another cab. Under this new ruling, however, it would have been appropriate for the officer to stop us. The officer could then even frisk us, if he thought the wallet in our suit jacket was a suspicious bulge.

That’s what you get with bright-line rules, though. One the one hand, you get the efficiency and most-of-the-time fairness of an easy rule for officers to remember and follow. But on the other hand, you lose case-by-case judgment, and wind up with exceptional situations of authorized injustice. Yet another pair of considerations for the ongoing balancing test that is the law.

We’re Not Alone

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

 

Yesterday, we observed that there have been a lot of Ponzi schemes coming down lately, and asked what gives? Today, the Wall Street Journal made the same observation, and asked the same question.

Here are some points from the article:

* In 2007, the SEC had brought civil actions from 15 alleged Ponzi schemes. In 2008, they brought 23 such cases. So far this month, they’ve already brought 9. And that doesn’t include all the state-level fraud cases that have come down.

* On the criminal side, there have already been 6 multimillion-dollar fraud cases brought this month.

* Experts say these schemes are being discovered now because of the economic downturn. Investors try to cash out their investments, only to learn that the money’s gone. There’s also less money out there being invested, so the source of cash for these schemes dries up, and the house of cards comes crashing down.

The New York Times also had some similar observations:

* “What is causing them to surface now appears to be a combination of a deteriorating economy and heightened skepticism about outsize returns after the revelations about [Bernie Madoff]. That can scare off new clients and cause longtime investors to demand their money back, which brings the charade tumbling down.”

* The Commodities Futures Trading Association has also experienced a doubling of reported Ponzi schemes in the last year.

* On Thursday last week, Senators Chuck Schumer and Richard Shelby introduced a bill to hire 500 new FBI agents, 50 new AUSAs, and 100 new SEC officials to crack down on these crimes.

Yet Another Massive Ponzi Scheme Alleged. What’s that tell you?

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

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Nick Cosmo, the 37-year-old head of Agape World Inc. and Agape Merchant Advance, was arraigned today on charges that he ran a Ponzi scheme that cheated investors out of $370 million since 2006.

The feds allege that about 1,500 investors were promised annual returns of as much as 80%. These huge profits were to come from short-term loans to businesses. Instead of coming from actual profits, however, the complaint states that returns paid to investors actually came from the outlays of subsequent investors.

Investor money went mostly to pay other investors, in a rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul setup similar to the Bernie Madoff and seemingly countless other Ponzi schemes hitting the news these days. About $55 million went to pay brokers who brought in the investors. A bunch of cash was allegedly spent on expensive luxuries for Cosmo himself, as well as to pay the restitution ordered in a previous mail fraud conviction. Only about $10 million actually went to the loans that were supposed to be the core investment. The firm also transferred $100 million since 2003 into Cosmo’s futures-trading accounts, of which $80 million was lost. As of last Thursday, said prosecutors, Cosmo’s firms had less than $750,000 in the bank.

Agape World was listed as #73 in Entrepreneur Magazine’s Hot 100 fastest-growing businesses in America. (See its listing, screenshotted above.)

This is just one more in a series of prosecutions that have been coming down lately. Prosecutors are clearly ramping up their focus on financial crimes in the wake of the Bear Stearns meltdown — it’s definitely the sexy crime of the moment, where the press is throwing a lot of ink, where reputations stand to be made. Of course, crime is only found where it’s looked for, and right now this is a hot (and relatively easy) crime to prosecute. So it makes sense that this is where prosecutors are focusing lots of assets.

But apart from that, what does it mean about the rest of us? Almost all of these Ponzi schemes promised investors stupid-high returns. Wasn’t it obvious to the investors what was going on? Were they just blinded by the go-go stock market, while it was hot? Were they desperate for a winning number after the market soured? Lots of the alleged victims out there were sophisticated investors — one would think they at least would have known the meaning of “too good to be true.” We’d like to hear what you think is going on.

We guess people’s common sense just gets blinded by the prospect of easy gains. And it happens often enough, to enough people who ought to know better, that this crime continues to proliferate nearly a hundred years after it became part of the common lingo.

Oh well, more work for us defense attorneys.

Second Circuit Refuses to Limit Corporate Criminal Liability

Friday, January 23rd, 2009

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White-collar prosecutors and defense attorneys have been keenly awaiting today’s decision in U.S. v. Ionia Management. At oral arguments last November, the court permitted amicus filer Andrew Weissmann (former head of the Enron Task Force) to make a case for limiting the criminal liability of corporations. The fact that he was given oral argument time meant that the court was at least considering the argument, hence the interest in today’s decision.

Weissman’s argument was that, although the doctrine of respondeat superior holds a corporation criminally liable for the acts of an employee, the corporation should not be liable if the employee acted contrary to the corporation’s policies.

In today’s decision, the court flatly rejected this argument. “We refuse to adopt the suggestion that the prosecution, in order to establish vicarious liability, should have to prove as a separate element in its case-in-chief that the corporation lacked effective policies and procedures to deter and detect criminal actions by its employees.”

The court went on to re-state that a corporation cannot be immunized from liability just by having a compliance program, no matter how extensive it may be. The existence of a compliance program would only be relevant to whether an employee was acting within the scope of his authority. But if employees are acting within the scope of their authority, and they break the law, then the corporation is going to be liable.

The court’s decision was a disappointment to many defense attorneys, who believe that the standard for criminal prosecution of corporations is too low. The ability to charge a corporation with a crime is a deadly weapon, as demonstrated by the downfall of Arthur Andersen in 2002. The ease of bringing such charges gives prosecutors a lot of leverage to demand full cooperation from the company when its employees are under investigation. The government can often stiff-arm corporations into making huge concessions, including stiff fines, to avoid prosecution.

But the decision was not exactly a surprise. During oral arguments, Judge Guido Calabresi questioned whether judges even could limit the existing scope of respondeat superior. It was an interesting academic issue, but Congress or perhaps the Supreme Court would have to deal with it.

It wouldn’t be very surprising to see this issue brought before the Supreme Court. Weissmann has been working on changing this bit of law since he left the government. At the heart of the problem, he says, is a misinterpretation of the Supreme Court case New York Central v. U.S., 212 U.S. 481 (1909). That case has been interpreted in such a way that criminal liability is easier to prove than civil liability under respondeat superior. That’s the opposite of how it usually works, of course.

Our prediction is that the Supreme Court won’t make the change, and it will be up to Congress to tighten up the doctrine. If at all. For the time being, nothing is changed.

“Not With Me, They Don’t” – Race Not a Factor in Sentence, Says Judge

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009

 

District Court Judge Percy Anderson sentenced Jeanetta Standefor to more than 12 years in prison on Tuesday, for running an $18 million Ponzi scheme that preyed on middle-class black investors.

Standefor, who is also black, solicited investments from 650 people around Pasadena who thought the money would go to buying properties about to go into foreclosure. To maintain the illusion of profits, Standefor transferred $14 million of the invested money to early investors. She also spent about a million per year on herself, according to AUSA Stephanie Yonekura-McCaffery. The operation was run through her company Accelerated Funding Group — a name that is practically probable cause in itself.

At the sentencing hearing in the Central District of California, victims told Judge Anderson how they had trusted Standefor with their savings, often their life savings, after she first befriended them. Investors were told that they could make 50% profits in the first month.

Standefor’s attorney, federal defender Charles Brown, argued for leniency. “She is not a serial killer,” he said. “She is not a drug dealer. This is not a person who needs to be thrown in jail and locked up to learn her lesson.” He added that she was a foster child “who worked her entire life to prove her worth. . . [but] she took shortcuts, and started taking from Peter to pay Paul, and that’s how we got here.”

Judge Anderson disagreed with the defense attorney’s characterization, telling Standefor that even if this was just a white-collar crime, she was just as guilty “as if you’d taken a gun out and held it to the victims’ heads.”

Judge Anderson then ruled on sentence. Shortly before he imposed the sentence, however, Brown made one last attempt for leniency. Urging the judge to reconsider, Brown pointed out that the sentence was not consistent with those for similar cases around the country. Brown argued that it seemed to him that blacks get harsher sentences, even when they are convicted of white-collar crimes.

“Not with me, they don’t,” interrupted the judge, who is also black. “This isn’t about being black.”

Standefor was then sentenced to 151 months in prison and almost $9 million in restitution.

Justices Miss the Point of the Exclusionary Rule

Thursday, January 15th, 2009

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The Bill of Rights, notably Amendments 4-6, protects accused individuals from improper action by the police. The typical remedy for police violation of these rights is suppression of the evidence that would not have been gathered but for the violation. This Exclusionary Rule protects the justice system, by ensuring that the maximum lawfully-gathered evidence is available, while ensuring that defendants aren’t prosecuted with unlawfully-gathered evidence. Police officers and departments are not punished for violations, because that would create an incentive to avoid borderline situations where evidence could have been obtained lawfully. Rather than do that, the Exclusionary Rule lets officers go right up to the line of what they’re allowed to do, and only takes away what they shouldn’t have been allowed to get.

The Exclusionary Rule is not an individual right, but is rather a remedy that has been crafted over generations of thoughtful jurisprudence. It simultaneously maximizes protection of the individual’s rights, and society’s interest in law enforcement. It balances two powerful and competing interests, and it does the job elegantly. As such, it is a beautiful rule, but one that is nevertheless criticized — both by law-and-order types and by defendant-rights types — when its role is misunderstood. Unfortunately, it is misunderstood all the time.

So it was no surprise to see plenty of misunderstanding of the Exclusionary Rule in yesterday’s Supreme Court decision in Herring v. United States (No. 07-513). Split 5-4 (and with delightful sniping in the footnotes), the justices on either side of the ruling tried to clarify what the Exclusionary Rule means, but only demonstrated that they’re missing the point. All of them. In their attempt to clarify the rule, all they did was muddy the waters.

That’s right, we just said that we understand the Exclusionary Rule better than the Supreme Court. Modesty is not our strong suit.

The Herring case arose in Coffee County, Alabama. Bennie Dean Herring was someone who’d had his share of run-ins with law enforcement over the years. His truck was impounded, and he went to the Sheriff’s Department to get something out of it. When one of the Sheriff’s investigators found out, he had the Coffee County warrant clerk check to see if Herring had any outstanding warrants. There weren’t any in Coffee County. Then they called neighboring Dale County to check. The Dale County computers showed an active arrest warrant for failing to show up in court on a felony charge. Based on that information, the Coffee County officer pulled Herring over as he left the impound lot, arrested him, and recovered methamphetamines and an illegal gun.

In the meantime, the Dale County warrant clerk went to get a copy of the warrant, to send to the Coffee County officer. But there wasn’t one in the file. So the clerk checked with the court, and found out that the warrant had been recalled. For whatever reason, the information never got from the Dale County court to the Dale County warrant database. The warrant clerk called the Coffee County warrant clerk immediately, and the warrant clerk immediately called the officer, but the arrest and search had already taken place.

At trial, Herring moved to suppress the evidence on the ground that the arrest was illegal, as the warrant it was based on no longer existed. The trial court said the evidence was admissible, because the officer did nothing wrong, and acted in good faith on information that the warrant was still outstanding.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit agreed that the Coffee County officer did nothing wrong. Any error was independent of that officer. The error was the result of negligence on someone else’s part, and was moreover a negligent inaction rather than some government action. The Circuit therefore held that the negligence was so attenuated from the officer’s actions that any benefit to be gained by suppression, and so the evidence was admissible under the “good faith” rule of U.S. v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897 (1984).

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roberts pointed out that, even if the search or arrest was unreasonable, the Exclusionary Rule doesn’t always apply. It’s a last resort only. He reiterated that exclusion is not a right of the individual, but is instead a deterrent. The benefits of a deterrent must be weighed against its costs.

Thus, when police have acted in “objectively reasonable” reliance on a warrant that was later held to be invalid, or on a statute that was later declared unconstitutional, or on a court (not police) database that mistakenly stated that an arrest warrant was outstanding, the Supreme Court has held that the evidence was admissible under the “good faith” rule. The Court had held that evidence should be suppressed only when the officer knew or should have known that the search was unconstitutional. Illinois v. Krull, 480 U.S. 340 (1987).

“Objectively reasonable” (or “good faith”) means “a reasonably well-trained officer would have known that the search was illegal, in light of all the circumstances.” It’s not a subjective test of what the officer actually intended, but rather a test of what he should have known. Here, there was no reason to believe that the Coffee County officer wasn’t being objectively reasonable in relying on the information from Dale County’s warrant clerk. So the officer did nothing requiring suppression.

The underlying error didn’t require suppression, either. Here, the clerical error wasn’t the result of a recklessly-maintained system. Nor was it the result of the police planting false information for the purpose of justifying false arrests later on. The kind of clerical error here is not something that the Exclusionary Rule could affect or deter meaningfully.

Roberts concluded by saying “we conclude that when police mistakes are the result of negligence such as that described here, rather than a systemic error or reckless disregard of constitutional requirements, any marginal deterrence does not ‘pay its way.’ In such a case, the criminal should not ‘go free because the constable has blundered.’”

In this opinion, Roberts’ reasoning was certainly sound. However, he amplified the erroneous viewpoint that the proper policy purpose of the Exclusionary Rule is to deter future misconduct. The policy is categorically not to deter. Deterrence is a purpose of punishment, and this is not a rule of punishment. Deterrence gives the police an incentive not to approach the line of impermissibility. That is precisely what the Rule is designed to avoid.

The Exclusionary Rule is not a rule of deterrence or of punishment, but is instead a rule of balancing — balancing individual rights with society’s interests in law enforcement. Roberts does get the concept, as in his discussions of balancing marginal utility against cost. But his repetition of the “deterrence” fallacy just confuses an otherwise clear argument.

Justice Ginsberg similarly the Exclusionary Rule in her dissent (joined by Justices Stevens, Souter and Breyer). Like Roberts, Ginsberg says the purpose is deterrence. But she goes even further to say that the Rule should be used to deter practically all police error.

This is a much more expansive purpose for the Exclusionary Rule (or as Ginsberg puts it, “a more majestic conception”). She goes so far as to say that any arrest based on carelessly-maintained database information would be unlawful, and would require suppression.

If the Rule were to be used as a deterrent, Ginsberg does make an argument that its marginal utility even in cases of carelessness, like this one, is sufficient to justify its use. Suppressing evidence could very well lead to reforms in the data management, to ensure that the same mistake doesn’t happen again. But exclusion is not the only means to that end, and is not even a very suitable means, as there is no actual pressure on the record-keepers to change their ways. The more effective means would be pressure from police leadership and political superiors to fix the process. Also, exclusion of evidence in County A is hardly likely to influence behavior in County B.

Justice Breyer issued his own dissent, joined by Justice Souter. In it, he makes the same error of ascribing deterrent purposes to the Exclusionary Rule, rather than the purpose of balancing interests. And as a result, he falls into the same trap of reasoning as Ginsberg.

Breyer wants a bright-line rule. Because of his focus on deterrence, he would draw the line between the police and the courts — if the error was made by court personnel, then they are not going to be deterred by suppression, so the Exclusionary Rule should not apply. But if the error was made by any police personnel, then the Rule should apply. Breyer fails to explain, however, how police database clerics are in any way deterred from negligent error by the suppression of evidence seized as a result of such error. He similarly fails to explain how court clerks are somehow different, so that they could not have been so deterred by suppression.

Ginsberg and Breyer’s arguments fall apart because they’re looking at suppression as a punishment, a deterrent, rather than as the result of a balancing of competing interests. Roberts gets it, but he too makes the same mistake to some degree. This decision seems to have muddied the waters, instead of clarifying the rule.

Oh well, better luck next time guys!

Supreme Court: Failure to Surrender ≠ Escape

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009

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This morning, the Supreme Court returned from its long break to issue a unanimous ruling in Chambers v. United States (No. 06-1120, Jan. 13, 2009). At issue was the crime of failure to report to jail, and whether that crime is a “violent felony” for the purposes of the Armed Career Criminal Act.

ACCA imposes a mandatory 15-year sentence for a felon who unlawfully possessed a firearm, and who also has three prior convictions for either drug crimes or violent felonies. A “violent felony” is defined by 18 U.S.C. § 924(e) as one that (among other things) “involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”

The government wanted Chambers sentenced to the mandatory 15 years, based on prior convictions that included an Illinois crime of failing to report for weekend confinement.

Chambers said that the Illinois crime was not a violent felony for the purposes of ACCA. The government disagreed, arguing that the crime demonstrates a “special, strong aversion to penal custody,” and therefore was akin to a prison break. And prison escapes by their nature involve conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.

The Court didn’t buy that argument. Unlike a prison break, which is an active crime, failing to report is merely a crime of inaction, the Court said. The Court added that, sure, the defendant must have been doing *something* during his absence from jail, but there is no reason to believe that it was something risky to others. On the contrary, he’s probably less likely to draw attention to his whereabouts by “engaging in additional violent and unlawful conduct.” Aversion to penal custody, no matter how “special, is beside the point.”

The Court added that, of 160 cases involving a failure to report in a 2-year study by the Sentencing Guidelines Commission, “none at all involved violence — not during the commission of the offense itself, not during the offender’s later apprehension.” The government itself could only find three examples in 30 years.

Because of this, the Court held that this particular crime does not count as a violent felony for ACCA purposes, reversed, and remanded.

Can Skilling Get a New Trial?

Friday, January 9th, 2009

Jeff Skilling

On Tuesday, the Fifth Circuit ruled on Jeff Skilling’s appeal from his conviction in the Enron case, upholding the conviction, but sending the case back for re-sentencing. Skilling may be able to raise a Brady issue on remand, as well, so the case doesn’t seem to be over. The opinion is 106 pages long, so we will summarize the ruling and its meaning for you here.

Skilling challenged his conviction, on the grounds that the government’s theory of “honest services” fraud was wrong. The government’s case let the jury decide on three purposes of Skilling’s conspiracy, one of which was to deprive Enron of the honest services of its employees. Because the jury returned a general verdict, if any one of those legal theories was insufficient, then the verdict must be reversed.

Skilling focused on the honest services theory, arguing that it was insufficient because his actions were done to give Enron a higher stock price, so it was in the corporate interest. He didn’t act in secret, and wasn’t self-dealing.

In making this argument, Skilling relied on the Circuit’s previous Enron case, United States v. Brown, 459 F.3d 509. In that case, a loan secured by Nigerian barges was fraudulently booked as revenue. The defendants in that case were specifically ordered by their CFO, Andy Fastow, to carry out the deal. Not only did they believe that Enron had a corporate interest in the scheme, and was a willing beneficiary of it, but their superiors ordered and approved their actions. Furthermore, they were paid more depending on whether they successfully achieved the goal.

The Court held that Skilling’s reliance on Brown was misplaced. The Brown rule absolves low-level employees of liability for honest-services fraud when:

1) the employer creates a particular goal,
2) the employer aligns the employees’ interests with the employer’s interest in achieving that goal, and
3) higher-level management authorizes or orders improper conduct in order to reach the goal.

Here, the first two conditions were met, but the third was not. Condition 1 was met when Enron created a goal of meeting Wall Street earnings projections. Condition 2 was met as Skilling got paid more if Enron met those projections. But condition 3 was not met, as there was no evidence that anyone besides Skilling authorized his conduct. The Board tacitly approved several of the underlying transactions, but never authorized him to engage in fraudulent conduct.

Because the third condition was not met, the Brown rule does not absolve Skilling of his liability. His conviction was therefore upheld.

With respect to sentencing, Skilling argued that the district court got the Guidelines calculation wrong, and that the sentence is unreasonable under §3553. The Court didn’t get to the §3553 issue, because it held that the Guidelines calculation was indeed incorrect, and a court has to do the Guidelines right before the §3553 factors come into play.

Skilling appealed a §3C1.1 two-level enhancement for obstruction of justice, and a §2F1.1(b)(8)(A) four-level enhancement for jeopardizing a financial institution.

The §3C1.1 enhancement was based on a determination that Skilling perjured himself as to his sale of Enron stock right after he resigned from the company. He’d tried to sell his stock while still CEO, but it would have had to be reported. So he resigned, then tried to sell his stock. But then September 11 happened, and he wasn’t able to sell until September 17. Skilling testified to the SEC that his order to sell on September 17 was due to his concerns over the market’s reaction to 9/11. The judge decided that was perjury.

On appeal, skilling didn’t argue that it wasn’t perjury. Instead, he argued that the court should have suppressed his SEC testimony in the first place, because the SEC misled him as to the fact that the investigation was criminal in nature.

The Circuit, however, pointed out that suppressible evidence can still be used at sentencing, and none of the exceptions to that rule apply here. The Court also found no justification for the original perjury. So the two-level enhancement was proper.

The §2F1.1(b)(8)(A) enhancement was based on the finding that Enron’s retirement plans were “financial institutions” for the purposes of that Guideline. Retirement plans aren’t specifically mentioned in the Guideline’s definition, which enumerates a long list of included entities. Various kinds of pension funds are included, however. And the list does include a catch-all “any similar entity.”

With respect to “pension funds,” the Guidelines don’t define the term. But a pension requires more than just employee investment for later payout — a pension has definitely determined payouts. Here, the retirement funds didn’t have specific benefits, they were just there as a pool for funding any benefits that might be given. So the Court decided they didn’t count.

With respect to the catch-all, apart from pension funds, the Guideline definition lists classic financial institutions like banks, investment houses, and the like. The Court did not want to expand the definition to declare every corporate retirement plan to be a financial institution.

Because the retirement plans weren’t financial institutions, the four-level enhancement was improper. So Skilling’s sentence was vacated, and the case was remanded for resentencing.

In addition to these main issues, the Court also rejected Skilling’s other challenges to his trial. Giving a “deliberate ignorance” instruction was at worst harmless error. None of the other jury instructions were problematic. The venue was proper. There was no prosecutorial misconduct.

Interestingly, however, the Court specifically stated that Skilling can raise Brady issues on remand. An FBI interview note showed that Andy Fastow didn’t think he had discussed a certain list with Skilling. This was omitted from the formal “302” report provided to the defense. Skilling claims that Fastow was talking about a list of talking points that Fastow had testified at trial he actually had discussed with Skilling.

The Circuit found this troubling, but the trial court never saw the notes or ruled on this claim, so nothing could be decided on appeal. But the Court instructed that “Skilling must bring this claim to the district court before we can address it.”

Therefore, Skilling might be able to get a new trial! If Skilling can show that there was a Brady violation, this case could be far from over. The government claims that the list in question is unrelated to the case, however, so we’re just going to have to wait and see.

As Technology Improves, Solving Murders Gets Harder (fractal weirdness)

Thursday, January 8th, 2009

Homicide Clearance Rates

In 1963, the first year of comparable recordkeeping, 91% of murders were solved. In 2007, the number was only 61%.

At the same time, the technological ability to solve murders increased dramatically. Scientific crime scene investigation significantly increases the amount of useful evidence that can be found. Digital crime labs and computerized analysis make it easier to interpret that evidence. And of course, modern DNA techniques enable police to make unbelievably accurate identifications from the smallest particle of hair or fluid. Today’s reality would have been a science fiction fantasy twenty years ago.

So what gives?

For one thing, the kinds of murders have changed. In previous generations, murder was almost always a personal matter. The victim and the killer knew each other, had a relationship. Husbands killed wives. Friends killed friends. Rivals killed each other. To begin a successful investigation, a detective would paint a bull’s-eye on the victim. The closer a suspect was to that bull’s-eye, the more likely they were to be the killer. Cases were solved not so much by technology and physical evidence, as by getting people to talk or confess. Acquaintance homicides were, and still are, often solved because the killer contacted the police or surrendered himself.

But now, a significant number of murders are committed by gang members. Gang members and drug dealers get killed by their own groups, who aren’t likely to talk lest they be killed themselves. They get killed by members of rival gangs, and may not even know their killers. Killers may even kill completely unrelated, innocent people, through mistaken identity or reckless “drive-by” shootings. Witnesses are intimidated by the threat of being killed themselves if they come forward. So relying on people to talk or confess is not as likely to solve these crimes.

For another thing, technology only gets you so far. DNA only identifies someone if you have a sample of their DNA to compare. Gunshot residue only helps if you have the suspect’s fingers in the first place. Fingerprints are harder to find than people think, and even then can only be compared to known fingerprints. In other words, technology helps you confirm that you have the right suspect, but first you have to get that suspect. And getting the suspect in the first place often means an old-fashioned investment of shoe leather — hitting the streets, talking to possible witnesses, and conducting skilled interrogations.

Because of the advances in technology, acquaintance homicides are truly being solved at a greater rate than they were in previous decades. The suspects are known, or easily found, so the DNA and other scientific tests make identifying the killer much more certain. The scientific identification also helps get confessions.

But stranger-to-stranger homicides have increased dramatically. And despite the technological advances, these continue to have a high probability of never being solved. Motive is hard to figure out. The killings are often part of a planned crime, so that less evidence will be left behind for law enforcement to find. And any connection between killer and victim is going to be hard or impossible to identify.

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So what can be done?

Studies find no correlation between the number of available police officers, or the amount of their budget, and the ability to clear homicide cases. So shoving more officers on the street, or shoveling more money at the problem, is not a solution.

Studies do show, however, that cases get cleared when detectives are ambitious and they are held accountable for the success or failure of their investigations. Cases get cleared more often when the detectives have the necessary time to devote to the investigation, and when they are part of a specialized unit where everybody is focusing on the same kind of crime.

How do you get ambitious detectives? Study after study shows this to be a huge factor. Media attention can help, when there is a lot of pressure to solve a high-profile case. But in urban areas the media is often antagonistic, media praise of police rare, and so is an underdeveloped tool. Better P.R. by the police could improve ambition. Increased internal attention, status and reward for greater clearance rates would help, as well.

Solving stranger or gang-related murders requires witnesses to come forward. They fear retribution, or being punished themselves for their own crimes. Most murders, even stranger murders, are witnessed. So a critical need is to overcome witness fears.

Studies have found that most witnesses were actually involved with the crime. They either took part in some way, they brought the killer and victim together, or they tried to stop the murder from taking place. “Innocent bystanders” only make up 9% of witnesses.

Civic pride is not likely to cause the majority of witnesses to come forward. Gang culture, and the culture of the communities where such gangs flourish, teaches witnesses to do the opposite. Cash rewards sometimes help, but the amounts commonly offered are simply too small to justify the risks a witness would run if he came forward.

Ensured anonymity is a must. But in a judicial system that properly allows the accused to see and confront his accusers, anonymity cannot be ensures. Witnesses know this. Only a real and system-wide practice of concealing the appearance and identity of witnesses to violent crimes is likely to inspire the necessary confidence. And in our legal culture, we as Americans simply value the confrontation rights of the accused more than we value the evidence we might gain by limiting those rights. That’s just the way it is.

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Reducing gangs themselves, and changing the culture in which they flourish, is the long-term solution.

Gangs arise within subcultures where there is little other societal bonding and community for young males, where those young males lack (or do not see) the ability to gain status and women otherwise, and where there is a general lack of control over one’s life. Entertainment media have a huge impact on perceptions of the world. These factors create perverse incentives, so that gang membership and codes of behavior can seem to be the right choice to make.

Common factors of such communities are a lack of value placed on education, a reliance on government or others, a lack of ownership, and a xenophobic relationship with the larger community. Undervalued education minimizes earnings and options in adulthood, as the lack of parental involvement kills schools and a thou-shalt-not-do-better-than-us attitude among peers kills student ambition. Reliance on welfare, the police, programs and others to take care of life’s needs leads to an endemic lack of personal responsibility, which kills family ties and any bond to a larger civic society. Illiteracy, immersion in the skewed reality of television and musical entertainments, and a perception that the rest of society is foreign and irrelevant, further impact perceptions of how the world works.

These problems have often been many generations in the making, and are not susceptible to overnight changes. Policy changes would be required that strengthen the family bond, rather than giving incentives to father children from multiple mothers without requiring any long-term ties and responsibilities. Policy changes would be required that lead community members to see themselves as part of the larger society, and not separate from it, subject to separate rules. Policy changes would be required that create incentives for parental involvement in schools, and pave the way for cultural views of education as the means to success.