Archive for June, 2009

Are White Collar Sentences Too Harsh Now?

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

dilbert-wcc.pngPrison Farm

When we started law school back in ’93, we felt that white-collar criminals just weren’t punished that harshly in this country. The Dilbert strip above, from about the same time, shows that we were not alone in thinking this. It seems that this was a common perception going at least as far back as our early childhood — click on the audio button above to listen to an early ’70s National Lampoon skit called “Prison Farm.”

Like many, we felt that there was some serious injustice going on here. Socioeconomic elites were getting off lightly, even though they may have victimized far more people, far more seriously, than street-level crooks who were doing hard time. A mugger takes one person’s money, and gets a long sentence in a high-security prison. Meanwhile, a Wall Street scammer wipes out thousands of families’ savings, erases their years of labor and planning, and gets a slap on the wrist. It seemed absurd, like something from Alice in Wonderland.

And we weren’t wrong. As late as the early ’90s, we had guys like Mike Milken serving less than two years, even after the sentencing judge (Kimba Wood) had said such things as “You were willing to commit only crimes that were unlikely to be detected…. When a man of your power in the financial world… repeatedly conspires to violate, and violates, securities and tax business in order to achieve more power and wealth for himself… a significant prison term is required.”

The lesser sentences were of course due in no small part to the difficulty of spotting white-collar crime in the first place, and then proving it to a jury. Also, the law itself classified these crimes at the less-serious end of the spectrum. So you had to expect significant plea bargaining in difficult-to-prove cases, and the plea sentences were being discounted from relatively short terms in the first place.

Another important factor was the socioeconomic status of the white-collar defendants. These were not street thugs, they weren’t skeevy bottom-feeders. They were college-educated, productive members of the community, involved in charities and otherwise living “normal” lives. Their crimes weren’t violent, they were almost administrative. Victims weren’t in your face, with visceral injuries and tangible losses; they were anonymous and diffuse, with paper losses of mere money. These middle- and upper-class defendants weren’t people who belonged in prison — their loss of status, their shame, did more to rehabilitate and deter than any time behind bars. Judges felt this, and acted accordingly.

But by the time we graduated law school, this had all started to change. By then, the federal Sentencing Guidelines had gone into effect. The Guidelines had three major effects on federal cases. First, they increased the penalties for white-collar crimes, especially where the dollar amounts were high and there were many victims. Second, judges lost most of their discretion to sentence lightly based on the defendant’s socioeconomic status, and were not all that willing to put such reasoning on the record. Third, the Guidelines took away much of the plea-bargaining leeway, only permitting two or three levels of departure for taking a plea.

The biggest change happened when the tech bubble burst in 2000. In the late ’90s, Americans became investors like never before, with even cops and construction workers becoming day traders at home. Tons of our money went into IRAs, brokerage accounts and 401(k)s. And then the bubble burst, the markets dipped, and the average Joe saw his investments tank. As always happens, this revealed financial frauds that had escaped unnoticed in the up market. The middle class was outraged, and began to demand severe penalties for the fraudsters.

Prosecutors and judges got the message, and the exposed fraudsters got slammed. WorldCom’s Bernie Ebbers got 25 years. Enron’s Jeff Skilling got 24 years and 4 months (Andy Fastow, reported to be the primary Enron fraudster, cooperated and got six years). Adelphia’s John Rigas got 15 years. In state court, Tyco’s Dennis Kozlowski got 8-1/3 to 25 years.

This pattern repeated itself in the recent economic downturn. After several boom years, a credit crunch and market dip exposed many white-collar offenses (most of which we are told are still in the pre-indictment phase). Voters had lost a lot, and their voices were heard.

So now we get yesterday’s 150-year sentence of Bernie Madoff. As we’ve explained before, we’ve avoided writing about the Madoff case, because everyone else is already talking about it, and we don’t feel like we have anything new to add.

But this 150-year sentence… we’re going to go against the grain here and wonder out loud if perhaps it’s too harsh.

* * * * *

Whoa. How can we say that, when we just got done saying how unjust it seemed when white-collar types were getting off lightly? Isn’t this exactly what we wanted?

No, it isn’t. We wanted the punishment to fit the crime, and to fit the policies underlying criminal punishment. This sentence doesn’t do that.

For one thing, Madoff took a plea to avoid trial. And yet he still got the worst sentence that he could have gotten had a jury convicted him. What was the point of taking a plea? This sends a strong message to white-collar defendants now: you might as well just go to trial, because you’re going to get the same sentence if you lose — and juries being what they are, you might just win. The system could see a lot fewer pleas — pleas it relies on to keep working.

For another thing, Madoff got a bunch of consecutive sentences. Normally, even after trial, they’d mostly run concurrently. He’d have gotten about 30 years — still a life sentence for a 71-year-old guy. Judge Chin said he did so for “symbolic” reasons, to make the victims feel better. But is that a valid purpose of sentencing?

Of course it isn’t. The purpose of sentencing is not to make victims feel better, or give them closure, or anything like that. The criminal justice system does not serve the function of making victims whole. That’s the job of the civil courts. A criminal court can order restitution as a condition of sentencing, but that’s about it. The purpose of sentencing is not reparation, but punishment. Punishment is supposed to deter future crimes, retaliate against the offender, rehabilitate the offender so he doesn’t do it again, or remove a threat to society.

But maybe Judge Chin is on to something here. Perception is important. Few of the purposes of punishment work unless there is some perception. Deterrence doesn’t work, unless people get the impression that crimes are probably going to be punished, and that they will probably be punished harshly enough to make them not worth your while. (This raises an interesting thought experiment — would the criminal justice system work just as well if we could give the public the impression that crimes are punished, without actually incurring the expense and hassle of, you know, punishing them? Discuss.)

Another problem we have with this sentence is that his scam wasn’t directed at Joe Retail out there. It was a secretive investment fund that did not disclose what it was doing, as it would have had to if it had been sold to the average person. It could be secretive because it was sold to sophisticated investors. These sophisticated investors saw an unusually high and steady rate of return, and instead of investigating to see what was going on, simply told Madoff to cut them in.

Sophisticated investors have a duty to check these things out. Are we blaming the victims here? Yeah, a little. They had the size or experience to know that something that sounds too good to be true probably isn’t. And yet they shoved their money into the fund anyway. And for those who shoved all of their money into the fund, ignoring basic investment principles of diversification, they were victimizing themselves just as much as if they’d invested in Pets.com. And for those who invested beyond their discretionary income, but actually sent Madoff the money they needed to live on, that’s the epitome of dumb. These weren’t blue-collar workers, these were investors with enough dough to get in the game, and enough savvy to have known better. The law just doesn’t need to afford them the same protections as ordinary folks.

So the law doesn’t need to impose punishments harsher than those imposed on victimizers of ordinary folks.

What is needed is parity. Yes, white-collar sentences should reflect the seriousness of the harm done, just as sentences for violent crimes and street crimes need to be proportionate to the offense. A white-collar offense that causes as much harm as a back-alley mugging probably deserves a similar punishment, all else being equal. Maybe a little less, actually, as there is more likelihood of deterrence or rehabilitation. White-collar crimes are usually calculated, they aren’t crimes of the moment, and offenders usually have the smarts to take punishment into account. And white-collar offenders aren’t as likely to re-offend once they’ve gone through the system. So sure, maybe they don’t need quite as much punishment. But it ought to be about the same.

Giving 150 years here, though, is not at all proportionate. Murderers don’t get that much. Kidnappers don’t get that much. And taking someone’s life or liberty is just not the same as taking someone’s property. White-collar victims only lose money. It’s only money. It’s a big deal, but it should not be punished more severely than crimes that are obviously more severe.

The pendulum has swung too far.

The 7 Most Baffling Criminal Defenses (that sort of worked)

Sunday, June 28th, 2009

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The geniuses over at Cracked.com rescued their “Mad Magazine” ripoff from the dustbin of history, when they went digital and found a unique voice, focusing more on the oddities of real life than on satire. A typical headline will bear the words “badass” or “retarded,” which sums up their worldview. We admit to checking it out almost daily.

Here’s a recent post, which begins:

Let’s face it, people will say anything to get out of going to jail. For instance, stats show that less than one percent of insanity pleas actually work, since for every one guy who truly has something broken in his brain, there are at least 99 scumbags who’re just making shit up.

Here are seven of the most bizarre criminal defenses ever mounted in court… some of which are made even more bizarre by the fact that they actually got off.

It’s not the most complete list. Heck, we can think of plenty more oddball defenses. (The “Twinkie” defense is a popular favorite.) But it’s a good list, nonetheless.

Read the rest at the link.

Lab Report’s Not Enough — Chemist Must Testify

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

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The Supreme Court this morning ruled that it’s a violation of the Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause for the prosecution in a drug case to simply admit a sworn lab report, without the chemist’s testimony, to prove that the drugs were controlled substances.

This is what we predicted, of course, making us 3 for 4 for the final four criminal decisions of the term.

It was no suprise to see that Scalia wrote the majority opinion here in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts. Scalia has long been the Court’s main champion of the Confrontation Clause. But it was surprising to see Kennedy not only rounding out a 4-Justice dissent, but writing the dissenting opinion.

* * * * *

In drug cases, the prosecution needs to prove that the drugs really are controlled substances. So chemists test the drugs, and write lab reports. To make the lab reports evidentiary, they’re sworn to by the chemists. It’s time-consuming to have chemists come to court to prepare or give testimony. So here in New York we typically see chemists testifying only at trial, not in the Grand Jury, where their sworn lab reports are introduced as self-authenticating records. In other states, like Massachusetts, the chemists never even testify at trial, and instead the prosecution relies solely on the lab report to establish that the drugs were drugs.

In the Grand Jury, there is no problem, because there is no right to confront witnesses there. But in the trial setting, there is a Sixth Amendment right to confront and cross-examine witnesses. Lab reports, of course, cannot be cross-examined. So the issue came up as to whether such lab reports are akin to testimony, in which case the Sixth Amendment would require that the chemist actually testify, so that there would be an opportunity for confrontation. Massachusetts believed that lab reports are not testimonial.

In today’s case, Melendez-Diaz was charged with selling cocaine, and at trial the prosecution merely submitted lab reports to show that the substance in question actually was cocaine. By a narrow 5-4 majority, the Supreme Court ruled that this was not enough, and that relying solely on the lab reports violated the Confrontation Clause.

* * * * *

Writing for the majority, Scalia started by hearkening back to the Court’s recent decision in Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004), which held that the Confrontation Clause guarantees the right to confront those who bear testimony against a defendant. If a witness does not appear at trial, then that witness’ other testimony against the defendant is inadmissible unless the defendant had the chance to cross-examine that testimony.

The Court in Crawford explicitly included affidavits and “other pretrial statements that the declarants would expect to be used prosecutorially.” Lab reports, opined Scalia, clearly fit that definition.

Lab reports are something that one would reasonably believe to be used at trial. Not only that, but under Massachusetts law, the sole purpose of the lab reports was to provide evidence for use at trial. “We can safely assume,” Scalia concluded, “that the analysts were aware of the affidavits’ evidentiary purpose, since that purpose — as stated in the relevant state-law provision — was reprinted on the affidavits themselves.”

Therefore, the lab reports are testimonial statements, and are therefore inadmissible unless the chemists testify at trial as well.

* * * * *

That pretty much ends Scalia’s substantive opinion. He’s finished by page 5. There are a lot more pages to come, however, because he’s only now starting to have fun. He opens this next section with a roaring salvo against the Chief Justice and Justices Alito, Breyer and Kennedy:

We must assure the reader of the falsity of the dissent’s opening alarum that we are “sweeping away an accepted rule governing the admission of scientific evidence” that has been “established for at least 90 years” and “extends across at least 35 states and six Federal Courts of Appeals.”

Scalia then demonstrates that every presumption inherent in those statements is simply false. After a few paragraphs of this, he says “we turn now to the various legal arguments raised by respondent and the dissent.”

There simply isn’t time to go into each of the arguments in detail. Suffice it to say that it is entertaining reading. Feel free to look at it yourself here.

Here’s a quick summary, however, of the points he makes:

1) Chemists are too “accusatory” witnesses. Their evidence is used for the purpose of inculpating defendants.

2) Chemists are witnesses like any other witness. They made observations and drew conclusions, which are now being presented in evidence.

3) Chemist reports are not automatically trustworthy and reliable on their face. They are the records of tests and observations made by human beings. Defendants need an opportunity to assess how reliable those tests and obervations happen to be. Chemists sometimes get things wrong.

4) Chemist reports are not automatically neutral or immune from the risk of manipulation. Chemists work for the police, and they also sometimes have pressures to sacrifice appropriate methodology for the sake of expediency. Chemists sometimes get things wrong.

5) Chemist reports don’t fall within the business-record exception to the hearsay rule, because the regularly conducted business activity here is the production of evidence for trial. They don’t have the same reliability as regular business records kept for neutral purposes.

6) Just because the defendant could subpoena and call the chemists as witnesses doesn’t mean the State has any less burden to do so itself. The Confrontation Clause does not shift the burden of proof to the defense.

7) Requiring chemists to testify at trial will not create an undue burden on states. States with large caseloads already do so, without any undue burden.

Most of these conclusions were telegraphed at oral argument, but it’s fun to read Scalia deal with each one in his own way.

* * * * *

It’s also fun to read the dissent fight back against Scalia here. But again, we’ll let you read it yourself.

No More Strip Searches in Schools

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

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In a groundbreaking unanimous decision this morning, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for school officials to perform a strip search of a student suspected of possessing prohibited drugs. And school officials who do this in the future will have to pay damages.

Writing for the Court in Safford Unified School Dist. #1 v. Redding, Justice Souter stated that the search was unconstitutional because there was no reason to believe that the suspected drugs presented a danger — they were prescription-strength Advil, not heroin — and because there was no reason to believe that the drugs were concealed in the student’s underwear in the first place.

However, because the law wasn’t clear on this at the time, the school officials have qualified immunity protecting them from civil liability for the search. In other words, they don’t have to pay damages this time, but any school official who does this from now on will be liable.

School officials being the over-reacting sort, as a rule, it is a safe prediction that strip searches are going to drop nearly to zero. A line has been drawn that still permits many, if not most, strip searches in schools. But no vice principal is going to risk being personally liable for damages if a jury thinks they crossed that line. So no vice principal is going to go anywhere near that line. Strip searches in schools are probably over.

* * * * *

We previously blogged on this case here and here, and predicted pretty much this exact outcome. As we put it:

[The Court’s rule] will be fact-specific, whether the officials have evidence that is sufficiently credible to justify an articulable suspicion that contraband will be found during a strip search. And it will require a balancing, to ensure that the invasiveness of the search is proportionate to the danger of the contraband sought. A strip-search to find an explosive is one thing; but examining a young girl’s private parts to find Advil is another thing entirely.

It’s nice to be right once in a while.

* * * * *

This case started when school officials found prescription-strength Advil in the possession of junior-high student, who immediately blamed someone else. That someone else was a 13-year-old girl named Savana Redding.

The vice principal, Kerry Wilson, walked into Redding’s math class and made her come to his office. He confronted her with the pills, and she denied knowing anything about them. She consented to a search of her belongings. Wilson and an assistant searched Redding’s backpack, and found nothing.

Instead of letting Redding go back to class, Wilson ordered the assistant to take her to the school nurse’s office, to search her clothes for pills. The assistant and the nurse made Redding take off all her clothes, except for her panties and bra. No pills were found in her clothes.

Instead of letting Redding go back to class, they made her pull out her bra and panties, exposing her breasts and vagina for search. No pills were found.

Instead of letting Redding go back to class, the officials made her sit in Wilson’s office for hours afterwards, without contacting even her parents.

Not surprisingly, Redding’s mom sued the school, Wilson, his assistant and the nurse for conducting a strip search in violation of Redding’s Fourth Amendment rights.

* * * * *

Writing for the Court, Justice Souter acknowledged that school searches are held to a lesser level of suspicion than the probable cause ordinarily required, per New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325 (1985). And the facts that can give rise to this suspicion depend on the circumstances of the particular case, per Ornelas v. U.S., 517 U.S. 690 (1996). The standard for a school search could be described, he said, “as a moderate chance of finding evidence of wrongdoing.”

Wilson had enough suspicion to search Redding’s backpack and outer clothing, Souter held, because Redding was friends with Marissa Glines, the girl who’d been caught with the pills. Glines had Redding’s day planner on her when she was caught. Glines and Redding were part of a group of girls who had been rowdy at a dance, and who were tied to alcohol and cigarettes found in the girls’ bathroom at that dance. Redding had thrown a pre-dance party where alcohol had been served. And Glines said that Redding had given her the pills. All of that was enough, concluded Souter, to give Wilson reasonable suspicion that Redding had given out the pills.

That reasonable suspicion logically led to a reasonable suspicion that Redding possessed more pills. That certainly justified a search of her backpack and outer clothing in the privacy of Wilson’s office. “If Wilson’s reasonable suspicion of pill distribution were not understood to support searches of outer clothes and backpack,” opined Souter, “it would not justify any search worth making.”

But the strip search (and Souter took time to say that this search was indistinguishable from a full strip search, based on both subjective and objectively reasonable societal expectations of personal privacy)…

Subjectively, Redding had an expectation of privacy against such a search, which to her was “embarrassing, frightening, and humiliating.” Objectively, that expectation was reasonable, as like other adolescents her emotional vulnerability only intensified the intrusiveness of a strip search, which “can result in serious emotional damage.”

Indignity alone doesn’t make a search unconstitutional, of course. But the intrusiveness must be proportionate to the suspicion, taking into account the age and sex of the student, along with the nature of the suspected offense.

Here, the suspicion was that Redding had pills that were the equivalent of two Advil, or one Aleve. Wilson had to know that the threat from such pills was negligible, and he had no reason to suspect that anyone had such pills in large enough quantities to harm anyone. So the suspected threat was minimal.

Also, Wilson had no reason to suspect that Redding “was hiding common painkillers in her underwear.” General “common knowledge” that kids sometimes hide contraband in their underwear is not enough. He had to have some actual reason to think that Redding was doing that, and there was no reason to think that at all. Wilson hadn’t even bothered to find out when Glines claimed to have received the pills from Redding — it could have been days before.

So Wilson had no reason to believe that any students were in danger. And he had no reason to believe that Redding had any pills in her underwear. For those reasons, the search was unreasonable, and therefore unconstitutional.

* * * * *

Justices Stevens and Ginsberg would not have granted qualified immunity to the school officials in this case. Their take was that this law was not unsettled, but was in fact clear. “Nothing the Court decides today alters this basic framework,” wrote Stevens. “It simply applies [existing caselaw] to declare unconstitutional a strip search of a 13-year-old honors student that was based on a groundless suspicion that she might be hiding medicine in her underwear.”

Ginsberg, who had given reason to believe she doubted that the male Justices fully appreciated how this would affect a 13-year-old girl, wrote that “Wilson’s treatment of Redding was abusive, and it was not reasonable for him to believe that the law permitted it.”

Justice Souter felt that the law really was unsettled, however, as the Sixth and Eleventh Circuits had permitted such strip searches in the past, and there were numerous decisions in the lower courts drawing similar and reasoned conclusions. So this case settled the issue, but it would be wrong for school officials to be personally liable for damages in light of the lack of uniformity in the law till now.

Still, he said, “parents are known to overreact to protect their children from danger, and a school official with responsibility for safety may tend to do the same. The difference is that the Fourth Amendment places limits on the official, even with the high degree of deference that courts must pay to the educator’s professional judgment.”

* * * * *

Justice Thomas also wrote a separate opinion. It was technically a concurring opinion, but he only agreed that the school officials were entitled to qualified immunity here. As to the big issue, Thomas flatly concluded that there was no Fourth Amendment violation.

Thomas felt that it was “an unjustifiable departure from bedrock Fourth Amendment law in the school setting” to require a search to be proportionate to the danger to other students, and that there be reason to suppose that the pills would be found in the private areas searched.

All that was needed, according to Thomas, is that the officials search in a location where the pills could have been located. If there is reason to suspect that a student had contraband, which all the Justices agree Wilson had, then the officials should be allowed to search any place where the student might have hidden the pills. The strip search here, therefore, ought to have been considered reasonable in scope.

In a long and carefully-argued 22-page opinion, Justice Thomas made a good point that today’s decision actually changes the law — it does not merely clarify it. The law till now has afforded school officials great deference to act in loco parentis, and the courts have wisely stayed out of substituting their own judgment for that of the school officials entrusted with the safety of our children. Today’s decision now opens up school searches to second-guessing by the courts. And, as we ourselves predicted above, this is going to have a chilling effect on even those searches which the law would have allowed.

Today’s decision, warned Thomas, means that the judiciary is “essentially seizing control of public schools,” and teachers will not now be able to “govern their pupils, quicken the slothful, spur the indolent, restrain the impetuous, and control the stubborn, by making riles, giving commands, and punishing disobedience without interference from judges.”

“By deciding that it is better equipped to decide what behavior should be permitted in schools,” concluded Thomas, “the Court has undercut student safety and undermined the authority of school administrators and local officials. Even more troubling, it has done so in a case in which the underlying response by school administrators was reasonable and justified.”

* * * * *

We actually agree with Thomas that the Court has changed the rules, and that it will have a chilling effect. But we still think the Fourth Amendment requires precisely the justifications that the Court has now imposed.

It’s a balancing of interests. We happen to think that society would rather protect the privacy interest that adolescents won’t be strip searched in school, without proportionate concern for safety and without reason to believe the search will actually find anything. Thomas thinks that it’s more important to society to get the evidence that would come from searching anywhere that suspected contraband might be found, once it is suspected.

Thomas’ underlying principle here, we believe, is just not in sync with the general principles of our society. So although his predictions are probably true, the risks he suggests are simply those that society is willing to accept in exchange for the privacy rights protected by the Constitution.

Does Half-Right Count?

Friday, June 19th, 2009

No time to post on this yesterday or today, but it’s pretty clear we were 100% wrong with our prediction for the Osborne case. It wasn’t unanimous or a big majority — it was 5-4. It wasn’t in favor of the defense — got that wrong, too. And the Supremes didn’t touch the issue of whether there is a right to make a freestanding claim of innocence. We got it entirely wrong.

Good opinion though, worthy of substantive comment. More to come.

At least we called Yeager… mostly. Surprised a little that Scalia dissented, but it’s a good dissent. More on that to come as well.

Happy Friday!

Defense to Win All Remaining Supreme Court Cases

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009

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With only two more decision dates remaining in this Supreme Court term, we’ve got our eyes on four criminal cases yet to be decided. Either next Monday (June 22) or the following Monday (June 29), we should expect to hear from the Supremes.

We’re going to make a prediction right now that all four cases will be decided in favor of the defense. Furthermore, we predict large majorities or unanimous decisions in each case. (Go ahead and laugh, we’ll wait for you.)

The four cases are:

Safford USD v. Redding, No. 08-479. We talked about this one before (see here). A public school had an absurd zero-tolerance policy (surprise, surprise), this time prohibiting prescription Advil. A girl got caught with some. She blamed someone else (surprise, surprise). School authorities confronted the other girl, Redding, who denied being involved. They searched her backpack, and found nothing. They searched her clothes, and found nothing.

Now at this point, a reasonable person might have figured out that the girl who was caught with the actual pills was trying to pull a fast one here. But these were not reasonable people — they were public school officials. So they had Redding — a 13-year-old girl — expose her breasts and vagina. They found no pills. Then they shook out her underwear, and found nothing. Then both the school nurse and another school official physically searched the girl’s body. They found nothing.

Now at this point, a reasonable person would have surely figured out that there was nothing to see here. But these bright bulbs instead stuck the girl in the principal’s office alone for a few hours, didn’t contact her folks, and didn’t bother searching anyone else.

The girl sued, claiming (surprise, surprise) that her Fourth Amendment rights had been violated.

The Supreme Court has now been asked to decide whether public school officials are permitted by the Fourth Amendment to perform a warrantless strip search of a student whom they merely suspect of possessing forbidden contraband.

The school wants the Court to say yes, schools can perform strip searches any time they have reason to suspect that a student has forbidden contraband. They want a rule that doesn’t let judges second-guess the judgment of school officials.

Our prediction is that the Court isn’t going to grant such a bright-line rule. For the reasons we set out in our previous post, we predict that the Court will require a case-by-case analysis. It will be fact-specific, whether the officials have evidence that is sufficiently credible to justify an articulable suspicion that contraband will be found during a strip search. And it will require a balancing, to ensure that the invasiveness of the search is proportionate to the danger of the contraband sought. A strip-search to find an explosive is one thing; but examining a young girl’s private parts to find Advil is another thing entirely.

* * * * *

The next case we’re looking for is Yeager v. United States, No. 08-67.

The issue in Yeager is collateral estoppel after a hung jury. Specifically, a jury acquitted on some counts, and hung on other counts, all sharing a common element. Perhaps the only explanation for the acquittals is that the jury decided that common element in the defendant’s favor. So is the government prevented from re-trying the hung counts, by collateral estoppel?

Yeager was an executive with Enron’s telecom unit, charged with 176 white-collar crimes. After a three-month-long trial, the jury acquitted him on the counts of conspiracy, securities fraud and wire fraud. But the jury hung on the counts of insider trading and money laundering.

The Fifth Circuit said that one explanation for the acquittals is that the jury found that Yeager had no inside information. That was also an element of the insider trading count. But the Circuit said it was impossible to determine “with any certainty what the jury” actually must have decided. So that meant there could be no collateral estoppel precluding a new trial.

At oral argument, Justice Souter honed in on the real issue here, which is a conflict between two underlying principles of our current jurisprudence. On the one hand, once a jury has determined a fact, the government doesn’t get a second chance to prove it. On the other hand, the government is permitted a full opportunity to convict, so it is allowed to re-try counts where a jury hung. Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy and Breyer explored the conflicting principles in greater depth. Although the government’s attorney was more deft at handling the philosophical argument, and Yeager’s attorney seemed to be stuck in a surface argument, it seemed by the end that the Court was siding with Yeager.

What seems to have killed the government’s position here was its assertion that acquittals should not affect retrials if they are not “rational” — meaning they are inconsistent with the jury’s remaining outcomes — and that a hung count is an outcome that can be used to determine whether the actual verdicts were rational. That not only conflicts with precedent that permits inconsistent verdicts, but also defies common sense by treating the absence of a decision as an affirmative determination.

This one’s a tossup, but we’re going to predict a ruling in favor of Yeager here.

* * * * *

The third case to watch for is District Attorney’s Office v. Osborne, No. 08-6.

Osborne was convicted 14 years ago for kidnapping and sexual assault. The victim was brutally assaulted and raped in a remote area in Alaska. Osborne was alleged to have used a blue condom. A blue condom was found at the scene, containing semen. Osborne now wants to get discovery of the semen, and have DNA testing done at his own expense, in the hopes that it will demonstrate his innocence. The State of Alaska refused.

Osborne brought a 42 U.S.C. §1983 civil rights suit, arguing that Alaska’s refusal violated his Due Process rights. The district court dismissed the suit, saying he should have brought a Habeas claim instead.

The Ninth Circuit issued two decisions. The first was that a §1983 suit is fine here, because the outcome would not necessarily undermine the state-court conviction. The DNA evidence could potentially prove his guilt, or be inconclusive. It would only require Habeas if the evidence would have to demonstrate innocence. And he could still bring a Habeas later if the §1983 action fails.

In its second decision, the Ninth Circuit forced the Supreme Court’s hand. The Supremes have long taken pains to avoid deciding whether a convict can overturn his conviction based only on a claim of innocence, rather than on pointing out defects in the way the trial was conducted. But the Ninth assumed that this is permissible.

Then, based on that assumption, the Ninth said that in circumstances like that — in fact, only in circumstances like that — where a convict could later use the evidence in a freestanding innocence claim, then Brady gives a post-conviction right to access potentially favorable evidence.

The Supreme Court is now deciding both issues: whether the §1983 suit is appropriate for accessing DNA evidence post-conviction, and whether Due Process requires such access if it could establish innocence.

At oral argument, Justice Souter barely let the Alaska A.G. get a word out before launching a lengthy debate over whether Osborne merely sought evidence that might or might not allow him to establish a claim later, or whether he sought evidence that he affirmatively believes will be the basis of a claim of innocence. By the end, both Scalia and Ginsburg had gotten involved, and the Chief Justice was wondering whether the State even had the evidence any more. Breyer got everyone back on track, pointing out that §1983 was appropriate when you didn’t know what the evidence was yet, and Habeas is appropriate when you do know. And here, nobody knows what the DNA evidence is, yet. So how come the State doesn’t have a constitutional obligation to give him the DNA?

The AG gave a terrible response, saying that Osborne simply followed the wrong procedure. Half the bench jumped in to interrupt him, dumbfounded at the assertion, given that Alaska doesn’t have a statutory procedure in the first place. The one statute out there (as Scalia pointed out) first requires an assertion that the evidence establishes innocence, which is the one thing nobody can say yet, because it hasn’t been tested yet. Souter and Scalia tag-teamed the AG on that mercilessly. At one point, Scalia had the audience laughing at the AG. For the rest of the oral argument, the Justices would refer to the fact that they “must have missed” this procedure being mentioned in any of the briefs.

By the end of the AG’s time, nobody had even gotten to the juicy issues yet. Breyer tried to give the AG a chance to talk about it, but the AG just went back to his procedural claim that had used up his time already. This only frustrated the Justices.

The U.S., as amicus to Alaska, started off better, getting to the heart of the issue — the issue the Supreme Court has so long avoided — arguing that prisoners do not have the right to challenge their conviction based on a freestanding claim of actual innocence. But Souter suggested that the right may be found, “not in procedural, but in substantive Due Process,” and asked a hypothetical about letting counsel speak to another prisoner who claims to have exonerating evidence. The Deputy S.G. floundered, and got laughed at as well. They never even got to the constitutional issue (as Souter repeatedly pointed out), and got mired in whether the government even has an interest here in the first place. And then time was up.

Osborne’s lawyer did much better. He deflected the Court’s concerns that at trial the defense had chosen not to test the DNA, and thus must have believed it would show guilt, by pointing out that both sides chose not to test it, because the tests available would have destroyed all of the evidence, precluding later testing.

The Justices across the board expressed concern that they were being asked to create a new constitutional right here. Shouldn’t a prisoner have to make a claim, under penalty of perjury, that he is actually innocent first? Shouldn’t there be a requirement of due diligence, so that claims aren’t made years and years after they could have been brought? Osborne’s attorney admitted that those are fine ideas, and wouldn’t be an obstacle here.

Then Scalia tipped his hand a little. Osborne’s lawyer observed that this is the first case where a prosecutor conceded that DNA would be “absolutely slam-dunk dispositive of innocence,” but doesn’t let the prisoner access it. Scalia thought out loud, “you know, it is very strange. Why did they do that, I wonder?” “Well, it’s very…” Scalia interrupted, “there was a lot of other evidence in the case, wasn’t there?” “Well, that’s…” Scalia cut in, “I don’t know what they thought they were doing.”

Scalia, for one, is not likely to side with the DA’s office here.

Souter came back to his conclusion that this is a substantive Due Process issue, which would require that the prisoner first claim that he is actually innocent. This conflicted with the sworn testimony before the Parole Board admitting guilt. But Breyer pointed out that prisoners often wisely admit guilt before such Boards, because they’re not getting out otherwise. (As defense lawyers like to say, forget guilt or innocence, “out is out.”) So relying on Parole Board admissions would be an arbitrary basis for withholding DNA evidence. So “suppose we said that the rule is non-arbitrary, with illustrations. Send it back to the states. And of course, when they apply their own statutes, by and large they’re not being arbitrary.” Osborne’s counsel agreed, “I think that’s a very sound approach to this.” Breyer responded, “well, it does help you win.”

I don’t think Breyer or Souter are siding with Alaska here, either.

The Chief Justice wondered if the right would be depend on the accuracy of the testing available. No, said Osborne’s lawyer, it has nothing to do with it — the right would just prohibit the state from arbitrarily preventing access to evidence. So long as there’s a reasonable probability that the test will demonstrate evidence, then that should be enough.

On rebuttal, the AAG got maybe three words in edgewise.

So just going from the oral argument, we’re going to predict a loss for Alaska.

Now whether that means a whole new constitutional right or not, well we’re not so sure. This only affects a handful of defendants whose convictions came before the Federal Innocence Protection Act in the mid-1990s.

The trick, though, will be whether the Court can continue to avoid the elephant in the room, the issue of whether one can assert a freestanding claim of innocence. The Ninth Circuit made it a prerequisite, and both the liberal and conservative Justices seemed to put a lot of weight on whether the prisoner first asserted innocence.

We predict that the Court is going to go all the way here. And as long as we’re going out on a limb, we’ll also predict a unanimous decision.

* * * * *

The final criminal case yet to be decided is also the oldest: Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, No. 07-591.

The issue is straightforward: Is a lab report, by itself, a form of testimony for Confrontation Clause purposes, per Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004)?

Crawford says you can’t introduce earlier statements of a government witness, if they hadn’t been subject to cross-examination.

Well, a police lab report wasn’t subject to cross-examination when it was created. But they are often admitted into evidence without live testimony from the chemist or forensic expert who made the report — they’re self-authenticating. If lab reports are testimonial, then Crawford would preclude this practice. If they are not testimonial, but merely a record, then they could continue to be admitted without live testimony.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court looked at this conundrum a couple times, and decided that drug analysis reports were simply records of “primary fact, with no judgment or discretion,” by the chemist who prepared them. So they weren’t testimonial, and there was no Confrontation Clause problem.

Melendez-Diaz was the defendant in the second such case, which affirmed the first one.

It’s a sure bet that Scalia is going to side with the defendant here. He has long been a champion of the Confrontation Clause, and his contributions at oral argument were true to form.

The Massachusetts AG was frankly an embarrassment, making inaccurate assertions (and being corrected by the Court), resting heavily on the lame argument that nobody’s made this particular claim before, and claiming that requiring chemists to testify would be an “undue burden,” even though it’s no such burden to California or New York or any other state where it’s routinely done at trial. Kennedy even coached the AG with arguments that she ought to have been making, and scolded her when she still didn’t make them.

Justices Kennedy, Scalia and Stevens had little patience for the amicus Assistant S.G., whose argument was that machine-generated reports aren’t testimonial. There’s a difference between an automated record and a computerized document created for the purpose of proving an element of a crime at trial. And they’re different from computerized documents reflecting the observations and conclusions of a human being.

Based on how the oral argument went, we’re going to predict yet another win for the defendant.

The Prosecutor’s B.S. Meter

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

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I love reading Scott Greenfield’s blog Simple Justice. He posted a good one the other day called “Another Prosecutor Loses Her Virginity,” about a former prosecutor, Rochelle Berliner, now a defense attorney, who just came to the realization that cops sometimes lie.

Her epiphany was published in Saturday’s New York Times, in an article headlined “Drug Suspect Turns Tables on NYPD With Videotape.” A pair of defendants had actual video evidence that the cops had totally fabricated the entire basis for their arrest, and they gave the video to Rochelle.

”I almost threw up,” she said. ”Because I must’ve prosecuted 1,500, 2,000 drug cases … and all felonies. And I think back, Oh my God, I believed everything everyone told me. Maybe a handful of times did something not sound right to me. I don’t mean to sound overly dramatic but I was like, sick.”

Scott has a typical defender’s take on this.

What is disturbing about Berliner’s exclamation is not that she spent 14 years prosecuting people without having realized that maybe, just maybe, her cops weren’t perfect. That’s to be expected of career prosecutors, who often spend their entire careers with their heads deeply embedded in the cops’ derrière. It tends to give one a poor view of reality. It’s that she spent four years since leaving Special Narcotics as a defense lawyer and yet, not until now, was aware of the fact that cops, sometimes, fabricate crimes out of whole cloth. That’s four years of defendants represented by someone who was certain that they wouldn’t have been arrested if they weren’t guilty.

. . .

Rochelle Berliner now knows better. Welcome to the ranks of criminal defense lawyer, where we don’t have all the answers but we do know that the prosecution doesn’t either. You’re lucky that you’ve joined in the age of pervasive video, or you still wouldn’t believe this possible. Imagine how many times before the age of video Dominican immigrants like the Colon brothers were convicted for crimes that never happened, with someone like you feeling awfully good about it. I can understand why this would make you sick.

So congratulations on losing your virginity. I hope it didn’t hurt too much. I’m sure it didn’t feel very good for Jose and Maximo Colon, and I hope Police Officer Henry Tavarez loses his soon.

We didn’t want to comment on this, at first, because it so happens that we worked with Rochelle for a few years in Special Narcotics, and we knew and liked her. And frankly, she is well-equipped to defend her own self if she so desires.

But Scott’s piece, and a couple of the comments posted to it, kept nagging at us. There are some things we think really ought to be said here. So here’s our two cents’ worth:

First of all, a quick and unnecessary defense of Rochelle. We’ve known a whole array of prosecutors in our time, and Rochelle was one of the good ones. There certainly are prosecutors out there who are so misguided as to believe that their job — we kid you not — is to fight to convict anyone the cops bring in. We once walked out of an interview (with Dade County) where that exact philosophy was espoused. And there are plenty others who just put in their time to do a workmanlike job, without pushing themselves too hard one way or the other. But there are a significant number who truly believe their job is to achieve a just outcome, taking everything into consideration. Rochelle always struck us as being one of the latter.

And yet her bullshit meter seems not to have been working properly for nearly 18 years. What gives?

Speaking for ourselves, we like to think our own B.S. meter was working just fine — at least a lot of the time. We pissed off a lot of cops in our day. And there are some ex-cops who probably still rue the day that they lied to us. But there’s no way our B.S. meter was on all the time. It’s impossible.

We worked with a lot of the same detectives, over and over. You get to know the teams pretty well. They’re almost friends, some of them. You learn which ones are straight arrows, which ones are clowns, which ones are unscrupulous or lazy, and which ones are just along for the ride. You learn that most of them are happily gaming the system to make as much overtime as possible. You also learn that most of them couldn’t care less whether someone gets convicted after the arrest is written up. And hopefully you’re able to listen to each individual with the appropriate level of disbelief.

But when you’ve worked with someone for a while, and gotten to know them, it’s natural to let your guard down. How skeptical are you likely to be of someone who’s been pretty straight with you for as long as you’ve known them? And even if you do retain some skepticism, so what? There has to be a reason to suspect that the facts are not what you’re being told, and most of the time there’s no reason to do so.

Part of this is the randomness of real life. Maybe there’s a little detail that’s not right — or perhaps too right. But that’s life. The truth is rarely ideal. So it’s not easy to tell when any particular glitch in the matrix is a clue to something more sinister.

Part of this is the sheer routineness of drug cases. There are only so many ways these crimes happen, and the facts don’t vary too much from case to case. When the story you just heard happens to fit the pattern of the past thousand cases you’ve handled, it would be strange to be skeptical.

So even with a fully-functioning B.S. meter, there’s no way you’re going to catch everything. You just do the best you can.

The irony is that, the longer one serves, even as one’s knowledge of street reality grows from rookie ignorance to near-expert mastery, one’s ability to sense bullshit decreases dramatically, for all the reasons just mentioned. You’ve known the cops forever, you’ve handled this same kind of case countless times before, and the story just rings true.

This is where we defense attorneys have an obligation.

I’ll give my defender readers a moment to recover. Yes, I actually suggested that we are obliged to do something here.

You okay? Good. Yes, we defense attorneys have an absolute duty to ensure that prosecutors are given all the tools necessary to flush out the bullshit. This isn’t burden-shifting, it’s an imperative of our role.

For street crimes, the only facts an ADA or AUSA has in any given case are those provided by the cops or agents involved. If those facts fit together, there is no reason to believe the truth is otherwise.

It is so rare as to be remarkable for a defense attorney to come to a prosecutor with new facts, or a new way of looking at the facts. But most of the time, whenever it happened to us or we’ve done it ourselves, it was most assuredly worth it.

In any given case, the prosecutor has already made up his or her mind about guilt, innocence, and the appropriate plea, based on the facts provided by the cops. No amount of whining or cajoling or begging is going to change their mind. And yet that is precisely the idiotic strategy used by so many defenders out there. The only way to change someone’s conclusions is to present new facts that change the conclusion.

This isn’t burden-shifting, it’s a defender’s duty. Our job is to protect our clients, period. If the prosecutor is holding all the cards, and is going to make the biggest decision of our client’s life, we need to do what we can to make sure the right decision is made. We have an obligation to extract from our (yes, probably unwilling) client and other witnesses the facts that will make a difference.

And you know what? When a defense attorney came to us with new facts, or a new way of looking at them, we listened. We didn’t listen to the whiners, but we did listen to those who truly advocated, who had something we needed to hear. And more often than not, at least in our experience, such advocacy resulted in a dramatically improved outcome for the defendant. We were known to even dismiss indictments, if the new facts warranted.

* * * * *

We can’t end this without revealing a dirty secret, however. Prosecutors are only human, after all, and even the best are subject to incentives that reduce the likelihood that their bullshit meter is on full power.

Some people just want to be liked, and so they go along with whatever the cops tell them. These people are patsies and pushovers, and tend not to last long as prosecutors.

Some people befriend the cops, and so become not the advocates of the People, but of the officers. They go to bat for their cops — and yes, “their” cops is how they’d phrase it — even against the cops’ own supervisors. Friendship and loyalty are powerful human traits, and it’s the exceptional person who can act in spite of, rather than in keeping with, such emotional forces.

And some people are ambitious. A prosecutor without ambition is something of an oddity, and one is never quite sure about them. Ambitious prosecutors want good cases. They want big cases. They want that one case that makes them feel like they’re actually making a difference, and not just holding back the tide with a teaspoon.

Well, the big cases don’t just land in your lap. They are brought to you. And they are brought to you by the cops. And the cops won’t bring them to you unless they like you, feel like they can work with you, and trust you do prosecute the case the way they’d want it to be prosecuted.

Are the cops going to bring their big cases and investigations to the ADA who’s always giving them a hard time? The ADA who busts their balls over every little glitch? The ADA who doesn’t go to bat for that RDO overtime once in a while? Hardly.

So this is a real, albeit unspoken incentive. (Actually, it’s not unspoken. We were told this plainly and clearly by multiple prosecutors and cops during our time with Special Narcotics. Sometimes as a warning of what to watch out for, but also sometimes as instructions on how to act if we wanted to start getting those juicy investigations.)

So an ambitious prosecutor has an incentive to act in such a way as to increase the chances of bagging the big cases. Does that mean such prosecutors are necessarily turning off their B.S. meters? That they’re consciously avoiding knowledge of the truth, or knowingly deciding not to challenge the story they’re getting. No, not at all.

It’s not a conscious process. It’s a perfectly human, unconscious thing. The decision is probably not passing through the frontal lobes. It just happens that way.

* * * * *

So there are all kinds of reasons — some justifiable, some not — for prosecutors to believe tales told by cops that may not be exactly truthful.

Knowing this to be the case, what should we defense attorneys do about it? Should we throw up our hands and bemoan the injustice of it all? That wouldn’t accomplish anything. Should we fight to change the system, so that it minimizes the inevitable injustices occasioned by its administration by human beings? Of course, and that’s been the role of our jurisprudence since Magna Carta, but it’s hardly useful on a case-by-case basis.

What we need to do is acknowledge that this is a phenomenon that occurs. That there are reasons why it occurs. And then take the necessary action on our own part to minimize the injustice. If we have facts that the prosecutor ought to know, then share them! Better to persuade one lawyer now than to hold on to the facts and seek to persuade twelve random jurors a year from now. If we have a perspective about what the facts mean, then persuade the prosecutor. Don’t whine or plead, just make a rational argument from shared principles. It works often enough.

And if push comes to shove, and you have a fight on your hands, then goddammit fight. But don’t just complain that the system is unfair.

Good defense attorneys like Scott Greenfield get this. Good prosecutors get it, too.

No Org Chart Required: RICO “Enterprise” Needn’t Be Distinct from its Activities

Monday, June 8th, 2009

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In a solid 7-2 decision this morning, the Supreme Court ruled that jurors in a RICO case can infer the existence of a racketeering enterprise simply based on its activity, and don’t need evidence of any separate structure or hierarchy.

This clears up some misconceptions that have been floating around for a while about what the RICO statute actually says. We’ve always thought that the language was fairly straightforward, but have been amazed at the variety of interpretations we’ve heard from prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges.

Writing for the majority in Boyle v. United States, Justice Alito ruled that an enterprise must have a structure of some kind, but not necessarily one that is separate and distinct from that “inherent in the pattern of racketeering activity in which it engages.”

Boyd was one of several people who took part in dozens of bank robberies across several states in the early 1990s. There was a “core group” of conspirators, and others would be brought in as needed. The crimes followed a pattern, but the offenders weren’t formally organized. It was a loose and informal association, without any hierarchy or long-term arrangement.

At trial, Boyd’s judge told the jurors that the government had to prove the existence of a RICO enterprise by proving that:

(1) There [was] an ongoing organization with some sort of framework — formal or informal — for carrying out its objectives; and

(2) The various members and associates of the association function[ed] as a continuing unit to achieve a common purpose.”

The judge also told the jury that it could:

find an enterprise where an association of individuals, without structural hierarchy, [had been formed] solely for the purpose of carrying out a pattern of racketeering acts;

[and that]

Common sense suggests that the existence of an association-in-fact is oftentimes more readily proven by what it does, rather than by abstract analysis of its structure.

Hewing to a common misconception about what RICO requires, Boyd’s counsel wanted instead an instruction that the government had to prove that the enterprise had:

a) An ongoing organization;

b) A core membership that functioned as a continuing unit; and

c) An ascertainable structural hierarchy distinct from the charged predicate acts.

But the judge’s instruction came almost straight out of the Supreme Court’s decision in U.S. v. Turkette, 452 U.S. 576 (1981), which held that “an enterprise includes any union or group of individuals associated in fact,” and that RICO targets “a group of persons associated together for a common purpose of engaging in a course of conduct.” Such an enterprise could be “proved by evidence of an ongoing organization, formal or informal, and by evidence that the various associates function as a continuing unit.”

The newly-clarified rule of this case is that:

(1) An enterprise must have a structure. This essentially means that there have to be different parts that make up the whole, as well as a pattern of relationships among the members of the group.

An association-in-fact enterprise (one that exists without having been formally established as a legal entity) must have at least three structural features (though the word “structure” is not necessary in jury instructions). These features are: (1) A purpose; (2) Relationships among those associated with the enterprise; and (3) Longevity sufficient to permit the associates to pursue the enterprise’s purpose.

There is no requirement that a structure must have a hierarchy. Nor need there be role differentiation, a unique modus operandi, a chain of command, professionalism and sophistication of organization, diversity and complexity of crimes, membership dues, membership rules and regulations, uncharged or additional crimes aside from predicate acts, an internal discipline mechanism, regular meetings regarding enterprise affairs, an enterprise name, or induction/initiation ceremonies and rituals. All that is required is a continuing unit that functions with a common purpose, no more.

(2) It is redundant and misleading to require a jury to find the existence of an “ascertainable structure.” If a jury finds that there was a structure beyond a reasonable doubt, then of course it was ascertainable, because they found it. Requiring this extra verbiage implies that the structure be something more than what is required.

(3) The existence of an enterprise is, of course, a separate element to be proved. That does not mean, however, that the existence of the enterprise must be separate from the racketeering activity in which it engaged.

This stuff isn’t rocket science. It’s not even Logic 101. But we’ve heard prosecutors, judges and defense counsel mangle this often enough that the Court’s clarification today is refreshing.

* * * * *

Speaking of mangling, however, two Justices did dissent. Stevens was joined by Breyer in opining that an “enterprise” refers only to “business-like entities that have an existence apart from the predicate acts committed by their employees or associates.”

This is the most common of the misconceptions we’ve come across regarding RICO. Still, it is surprising to hear it come from two such respected jurists. We think Stevens and Breyer do know better.

Stevens has been doing a lot of forceful dissenting in this term, and that has long led us to believe he’s putting the finishing touches on his legacy before retirement. If anyone had announced their retirement this term, we’d have certainly expected Stevens rather than Souter, for this reason alone. We still believe, however, that he’s preparing for retirement, and wants to get his jurisprudence out there.

On this matter, however, we don’t see this particular dissent coming back to form the basis of a new rule somewhere down the road. He focuses on an interpretation of Congress’ intent when it drafted the statute, an interpretation that is dubious at best. And he makes the unfortunate mistake of conflation: the existence of an enterprise is a separate element of the offense, and so therefore the enterprise must exist separately from its activities.

In other words, an enterprise that does nothing else but work to achieve its criminal ends cannot be a RICO enterprise. That’s just absurd. And that is certainly not what Congress intended.

Following the Law = Pro-Prosecution? Since When?

Thursday, June 4th, 2009

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The Washington Post has a nice article on Sonia Sotomayor’s early years as a lawyer in the Manhattan D.A.’s office. The article, online here is more substantial than your typical puff piece, giving a fairly accurate gloss on what life might have been like for the young prosecutor. We spent nine years in that office ourselves, so it’s nice to see an article about the place that rings true for a change. So it’s a good article.

But we choked on our bagel when we read the following quote about the Supreme Court nominee:

“She toes the line in terms of following what the law is, and in that respect [her opinions] come out as more pro-government,” said Ellen S. Podgor, a law professor at Stetson University who has reviewed about 100 of Sotomayor’s appellate rulings in white-collar cases.

So let’s get this straight. If your judicial opinions follow the law, then you are a pro-government judge. Really? Since when?

Now it’s true that most appeals are brought by defendants, not by the prosecution. Prosecutors rarely can appeal, and even when they can they rarely choose to do so.

And it’s also true that most appeals brought by defendants are losers from the get-go. The law simply does not support their claims on appeal. Too bad, so sad, but that’s the way it is.

So necessarily most criminal appeals are going to result in a win for the government. And as the quote above indicates, simply following the law will result in more opinions siding with the prosecution.

But how does that make a judge pro-government? And does this mean that a pro-defendant judge must ignore the law? It’s nonsense.

It is perfectly reasonable for a judge to be highly skeptical of cops and prosecutors, and still apply the law evenhandedly and fairly, to rule in their favor most of the time. And it is perfectly reasonable for a judge to be pro-government and still apply the law to rule in favor of defendants when the law is on their side.

Perhaps we’re over-reacting to the professor’s quote. But it seems to us that there is too much of this touchy-feely attitude that a really just person would have a slant in favor of defendants and against the government on appeal. Of course the power and might of the state must be balanced by a judiciary that gives every benefit of the doubt to the accused. But that does not mean we want judges to ignore the law so that a defendant will walk.

Because if we allow that, then we’re also allowing judges who ignore the law so that the state can abuse its might, and allow injustice against defendants. It cuts both ways.

The strength of our society rests on the rule of law. And those who would have judges ignore the law in favor of some feel-good notion really do society a disservice.

Seriously, it’s hard enough defending people as it is. To all the touchy-feely types out there who would impose their sensibilities on standards of judicial fairness: Don’t do us any favors, please.

Supreme Court Smackdown: Sixth Circuit Gets Lectured on Double Jeopardy

Monday, June 1st, 2009

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In a unanimous decision today, the Supreme Court held that the Double Jeopardy Clause doesn’t prevent Ohio from re-litigating a capital defendant’s mental retardation, after the state’s highest court had opined that he had “mild to borderline” mental retardation.

The case is unique, in that the defendant was sentenced to death before the Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, which outlawed execution of mentally retarded offenders. So the mental capacity of the defendant was taken into consideration at sentencing, but was held to be outweighed by the horrific facts of the crime (the aggravated murder, kidnapping and attempted rape of a ten-year-old boy). Evidence of borderline mental retardation was presented, but no factual finding was reached as to his capacity. On appeal, the Ohio Supreme Court upheld the conviction, and made a passing observation that the defendant had mild to borderline mental retardation, but agreed that its mitigating value was outweighed by the crime.

But then the Supreme Court rendered its Eighth Amendment decision in Atkins, so the trial court ordered a new hearing to make the factual finding of the defendant’s mental capacity, for the purpose of determining whether his death sentence should be commuted to a life sentence.

The defendant, Michael Bies, challenged that on habeas, and the federal District Court said the new hearing shouldn’t be held, and the defendant’s death sentence should be vacated, because the Ohio high court’s observation amounted to a finding of fact that Bies was retarded.

The state appealed that order, but the Sixth Circuit upheld it, holding that the Ohio high court had made a definitive determination of fact, and that determination entitled Bies to a life sentence. Any new hearing would violate Double Jeopardy, by putting Bies at risk of a death sentence again.

Writing for the unanimous Supreme Court today, in Bobby v. Bies, Justice Ginsburg stated that the Sixth Circuit didn’t understand what Double Jeopardy means. The Circuit “fundamentally misperceived the application of the Double Jeopardy Clause and its issue preclusion (collateral estoppel) component.”

Bies was not “twice put in jeopardy,” wrote Ginsburg. Ohio took no action to seek further prosecution or punishment. The new efforts were entirely of the defendant’s doing — rather than serial prosecutions, we have “serial efforts by the defendant to vacate his capital sentence.”

Also, the issues to be litigated aren’t identical. The first time around, the issue was whether his mental capacity mitigated the criminal offense. This time around, the issue is whether he is mentally retarded for the purposes of Atkins, which has not yet been decided.

Also, the Sixth Circuit failed to understand that “issue preclusion” is not a claim that the loser gets to bring. It’s only a claim that winners get to bring, so they don’t have to keep litigating determinations that were necessary to the outcome of a prior proceeding. Here, the Ohio high court did recognize Bies’ mental capacity as a mitigating factor, but that observation was not essential to the death sentence he got — it was the opposite, something that “cut against” it. “Issue preclusion, in short,” wrote Ginsburg, “does not transform final judgment losers, in civil or criminal proceedings, into partially prevailing parties.”

So the upshot is that “the federal courts’ intervention in this case derailed a state trial court proceeding designed to determine whether Bies has a successful Atkins claim.” And the state hearing is exactly what the Supreme Court intended to happen when it wrote Atkins.

* * * * *

Interestingly, in the briefs and arguments, the defense made a point of showing that Ohio wasn’t making much of an argument on AEDPA grounds (the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996). The Supreme Court dismissed the entire issue in a footnote:

This case, we note is governed by the [AEDPA]. Bies plainly fails to qualify for relief under that Act: The Ohio courts’ decisions were not “contrary to, or . . . an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law,” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1), and were not “based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.” §2254(d)(2).

* * * * *

Although it may seem at first glance that the defendant got a raw deal here — he has to re-litigate an issue he already thought he’d prevailed on — the Court’s reasoning is sound. Double Jeopardy happens when the same sovereign tries to get a second chance to punish you for the same offense.

Here, the state wasn’t trying to do that at all. All Ohio was trying to do was determine whether new caselaw permitted it to let the original punishment stand, or whether the new law required it to reduce the original punishment.

You can see how easy it is to make the Sixth Circuit’s error, of course. It appeared as though the Ohio high court had made a factual determination that, by operation of the new caselaw, automatically required commutation of the death sentence here. So ordering the new hearing looks like the state trying to get a second shot at it. But really, as the Court pointed out, the issues are not the same. There never was any finding of fact that the defendant actually was mentally retarded for Eighth Amendment purposes, and that was precisely what needed to happen.

* * * * *

And Ginsburg is the last person on the Supreme Court to rule otherwise, if there was any chance that the defendant ought to have prevailed.

We recall a case we worked on back in 1995 with the famed Carter Phillips. We worked through our holiday with him, well into the night, trying to get the Supreme Court to commute the death sentence of a mentally retarded convict. But this was pre-Atkins, and the Court rejected our application. Only Justice Stevens and Justice Ginsburg would have granted it. The case was Correll v. Jabe, No. 95-7283, and Mr. Correll became the last mentally retarded person to be executed in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Justice was not done then, and the case has since become the stuff of plays and campaigns, but had Ginsburg had her way then, we might now be discussing the Correll rule instead of the Atkins rule. So it would be dishonest to claim that she is callous to this defendant’s situation.

All in all, this is a good opinion. The clarification of what Double Jeopardy and issue preclusion mean was absolutely necessary. And while Mr. Bies’ situation cannot worsen, it actually stands a good chance of improving after his upcoming hearing.