Archive for December, 2010

Self Defense Law for Dummies

Monday, December 27th, 2010

Quite a few people have asked us about self defense, lately.  Must be something in the water.  Whatever the reason, it’s a question that a lot of people seem to be asking, so we figured we’d save ourselves from repeating the same conversation over and over, and just post the main points here.  (Of course, every state’s rules are different, but this is pretty much how it works.)

It’s really no different than the rules we gave our firstborn at the start of this school year, when he started coming home with tales of older kids trying to bully him.  (And by bullying, we don’t mean the modern usage, things like teasing or depriving one of self esteem.  We mean physically trying to injure our first-grader.)  Our rules were simple.  If some kid started bullying him, we said:

(1) Leave.  Go somewhere else.  If that’s impossible or they follow you, then…

(2) Get a teacher or some other grownup to stop it.  If that’s not working, and they really mean to hurt you, then…

(3) Hit first.  Hit hard.  And don’t stop hitting until they can’t hit you back any more.  There are no unfair moves.  Here’s some things you might try…

It seems to have worked.

Well, those are pretty much the rules that the law recognizes.  We didn’t think of it that way at the time, but those playground rules are the same rules we grownups are supposed to be playing by as well.  If someone’s trying to hurt you, then:

(1) Leave.  Go somewhere else.  (If you’re in your own home, then you don’t have to leave.  The law recognizes that it’s your last refuge.)

(2) If you can’t escape, then try to get the authorities to protect you.  (Yeah, we live in the real world too.  Fat chance.  But if it happens to be a possibility, then do it.)

(3) If that’s not going to work, then stop the attack.  Be reasonable — don’t use a gun if you’re not in mortal danger, but go ahead and use deadly force to save a life if you need to (and you can probably assume that someone breaking into your home poses a mortal threat).  The point is to stop the bad guy from doing bad things to you.  Whatever is necessary is, well, necessary.  Stop him.  Period.  Just don’t use more force than the situation calls for.  Don’t YOU be the bad guy.

If at any time you can escape, or get help, then of course go back to step 1 or 2.  That’s just common sense.

It’s really nothing more than avoiding overkill.  Be reasonable.  Nobody expects you to just let a bad guy hurt you or your loved ones.  But don’t go overboard.

Again, every state’s rules are slightly different.  But this is pretty much it.

If you were planning on writing in, we hope this answers your question.  (And if you have an actual real-life scenario, please call a lawyer where you live.  This ain’t legal advice.  It’s just a summary of the general rule.  Real life is not general.)

Is New York City’s Gun Law Unconstitutional?

Thursday, December 23rd, 2010

The short answer is yes.  Yes, it is.

One of the lovely ironies of criminal defense is that most of the things we fight for are conservative values — individual liberties, constitutional rights, defending actual people from the insane might of the State — even though the defense attorneys themselves tend to be fairly liberal.

Needless to say, gun control is a wedge issue on which conservatives and liberals in this country tend to have strong, and strongly divergent, views.  Our own personal position on gun control is that it’s best to use two hands when aiming, take your time, and hold your breath while smoothly squeezing the trigger.  But only a fool would claim that public safety is not a legitimate governmental concern.  If anything, it is the number-one job of government at every level.  And only a fool would claim that guns do not affect public safety.  There is certainly some legitimate scope of governmental involvement in who gets to own a gun, and how you’re allowed to use it.

But New York State, and the City of New York, do it wrong.  And in light of the recent Second Amendment decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, it is now clear that their restrictions are unconstitutional.

We’ve got a case pending where this has become the key issue.  As always, briefing it for the court really forced us to go deep into the competing policies and laws, the history and precedent that got us here.  It’s one of the things that we absolutely love about being a lawyer.  We’re not going to go into any of that here, however.  Instead, we’re just going to focus on the basics.

First of all, gun possession is presumptively illegal here.  There are only narrow exceptions where someone might get a license to own one.  Just applying for the license is prohibitively expensive and takes a very long time.  The licensing decision is purely at the discretion of a bureaucrat, who also has complete discretion to revoke the license later.  A statistically insignificant number of licenses actually get granted.  Of the few licenses that are granted, the vast majority are extremely limited in scope.  And even with a license, one’s gun must be kept disassembled or locked up, with any ammunition stored separately.  Except when  the weapon is actually in one’s grasp, it must be rendered inoperable.  There’s also a presumptive ban on ammunition.

These laws effectively ban gun possession for all but a few people and the police.  To date, New York’s courts have justified this by saying it’s only a privilege to bear arms, and not a right.  So the licensing scheme is perfectly within the state’s authority.  And any review of decisions made by licensing authorities is limited to an arbitrary-and-capricious, abuse-of-discretion analysis.  In other words, you can’t have a gun, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

At the end of the ’08 term, the Supremes issued their decision in (more…)

White-Collar Wiretaps

Friday, December 17th, 2010

This’ll be quick, because we’re pretty busy working on a wiretap case, which is always time-consuming if done right.  But as our mind’s on that topic anyway, we thought we’d quickly point out that the latest round of insider-trading cases is again largely derived from wiretaps.  Here’s a roundup over at the WSJ’s law blog.

We just wanted to jump in and point out that just because there were wiretaps, by no stretch of the imagination does that mean the case is a slam dunk.  There are all kinds of ways that agents and prosecutors can and do screw up wire cases.  If properly challenged, the recordings and all evidence gotten as a result of them can get thrown out, which pretty much kills the case.  Don’t go saying this can’t happen, because we happen to see it plenty.  (The one we’re working on right now is a prime example of how not to conduct a wiretap investigation, for example.)

But even if the evidence doesn’t get suppressed, that doesn’t mean it can’t be successfully attacked at trial.  Cross-examining taped evidence isn’t the easiest skill to master, but it’s definitely doable.

If you’re really interested, you can go take our CLE lecture on how to defend these kinds of cases over at West Legal Ed Center (shameless plug).  Or if you prefer, here’s a quick cut-and-paste from a longer post we put up the first time this happened, when the Galleon case broke (original post here):

Wiretap evidence is anything but a sure thing. We know. We did wires for years in the Rackets Bureau of the Manhattan DA’s office, and now we defend them. We’ve taught a nationwide CLE on how to successfully defend them for West LegalEdCenter. Wiretaps are not a sure thing.

They can be defeated with technicalities. Eavesdropping is probably the greatest invasion of privacy that the government can inflict, and so we make law enforcement jump through all kinds of hoops before they are allowed to get an eavesdropping warrant. There are so many i’s to dot and t’s to cross, that the feds hardly use wiretaps in the first place. You’d think otherwise, but (more…)

Right for the Wrong Reasons: Why terrorists and enemy combatants don’t belong in civilian criminal courts

Friday, December 17th, 2010

Last week, the House passed a bill that would prevent the federal government from prosecuting Guantanamo detainees in civilian courts (by cutting off the funds to do so).  The Senate is now considering it as part of the 1,900-page omnibus spending bill.  This is largely seen as a reaction to the acquittal of Ahmed Ghaliani — the first Guantanamo detainee to be tried in civilian court — of more than 280 charges stemming from the bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa.

The Obama administration is fighting against it, with AG Holder writing a (fairly lame, in our eyes) letter insisting that we absolutely must use civilian courts to deal with terrorists and captured combatants.  Essentially, his argument is that civilian courts are a tool that has worked before, so why deny that tool to the executive branch and make it fight the bad guys with one hand tied behind its back?

Ignore the ham-handed attempt to co-opt a common complaint about the left’s frequent insistence on soldiers doing actual fighting with one hand tied behind their backs, lest they rile someone’s sensibilities.  It’s a dumb argument.  Guantanamo detainees didn’t commit crimes within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.  Their acts are acts of war, or of transnational combat that is more like war than anything else.

Congress is gearing up to do the right thing, but for the wrong reason.  The principle should not be “we can’t do this because we might lose in court” — that’s not even a principle.  It’s just a weakling’s worry.  The principle should be “we can’t do this because it’s wrong.”

First off, soldiers are (more…)

Why Become a Lawyer?

Monday, December 13th, 2010

In today’s environment, where law schools are churning out way more lawyers than the market really wants, plenty of law students and recent grads are wondering if it’s really worth it.

We’re asked this question, in various forms, all the time.  And we see it asked every day on various internet fora.

Our answer is always a resounding YES! …if you’re going into law for the right reasons.  It’s worth it.  Oh yes, it surely is worth it.

Now, if you’re going into law just for a nice paycheck and some prestige, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.  And it’s probably not worth it unless you’re so smart and accomplished that you can be hired by a big firm (and yet not quite bright enough to figure out that, except for a few awesome firms, doing so is essentially trading your life for a living, and putting off any further accomplishments for the next several years).  If you’re not already a superstar at what you’ve been doing with your life thus far, odds are you’re not going to morph into one during law school.

And if you’re doing it because you can’t think of anything else to do, it’s so obvious that you’re doing it for the wrong reasons that it’s a waste of space to even explain it here.

So what are the right reasons?

It’s going to be different for each person, because the right reasons are always personal.  It’s something about you, who you are, what purpose you want your life to have.  But if you’re doing it for the right reasons, you don’t have to be the smartest person in the room.  You don’t have to graduate in the top third of your class at a top-tier school.  All you need to do is bust your ass in school to master the material and learn how to think like a lawyer, then bust your ass once you’ve got that JD and make sure you goddamn well fulfill your purpose.

Again, the reasons are going to be different for each person.  We can’t describe what the right reasons for you might be.  But we can tell you what our reasons were.  Maybe that will help illustrate what we’re talking about.


Why did we go to law school?

Two words: Frank Johnson.

Most of you have never heard of the guy.  He’s not in the (more…)

Excellent Con Law Exam

Monday, December 13th, 2010

A quick link to start your Monday morning.  The exam question is either incredibly trite, or incredibly profound.  Enjoy.

Happy Human Rights Day

Friday, December 10th, 2010

To celebrate, go here.  Read stuff.

States Consider Ending Capital Punishment Because It’s Too Damn Expensive

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

Last year, we posted an analysis of capital punishment as practiced in the U.S., and concluded that it ought to be scrapped.  Not for the usual “killing is wrong” or “what about the innocent” reasons, but because as practiced it fails to serve the purposes of punishment.  It doesn’t deter anything, rehabilitate anyone, and even removal only occurs after insane expense and delay.  The unbelievable delay and its ancillaries only undermine faith in justice, while imposing absurd societal costs, for no marginal benefit.

Now it seems that some states are thinking along the same lines.  Over at he WSJ Law Blog, Ashby Jones reports that the administration of capital punishment is being seen as not worth the extra expense.  37 states now are just spending too much money to deal with years and years of appeals (25-year average in California, something like 14 years nationwide) and the associated incarceration and litigation and facilities.  With budgetary concerns becoming ever more critical, the exorbitant costs are becoming a significant reason for legislatures to get rid of capital punishment.

Sounds good to us.

Defending Assange

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

Now that Julian Assange has been arrested in the U.K., his fight for the moment is to prevent extradition to Sweden, which wants to arrest him for questioning about allegations of sexual misconduct.  But given the comparative laxity of any punitive measures Sweden might impose even in the worst case scenario, a more troubling concern is the possibility of extradition to the United States for criminal prosecution for espionage.

If that happens,  however, he might have a pretty good shot at winning.

The Espionage Act of 1917, 18 USC §§792-799, is what he’d have to deal with (there are reports that the DOJ is already preparing these charges).  Here are the parts that are most likely to apply:

§793(c) gets you up to 10 years in prison for receiving anything pertaining to U.S. national defense, if you did it while having “reason to believe” that it was illegally obtained, and that it would be used either to the injury of the U.S. or to the advantage of another country.

§793(e) gets you up to 10 years in prison if you’re in possession of such stuff, and you have “reason to believe” that it “could be used” either to the injury of the U.S. or to the advantage of another country, and you go ahead and disseminate it or cause it to be disseminated.

Well, wait, you say.  Those sound pretty much exactly like what Assange freely admits to having done.  A private in the U.S. Army apparently downloaded a whole bunch of confidential documents, and provided them to Wikileaks.  Assange ordered the documents to be released, publicized what he was doing, and publicized that it would likely injure the United States.  Forget all of Assange’s bluster about the harm being minimal.  His actions seem to hit all the statutory elements.  So how can he win?

As several have (more…)

Cross-Examining the He-Said/She-Said Witness: 3 Simple Steps

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010


Plenty of us are familiar with the basic skills of cross-examination: Always lead, Don’t ask that one last question that lets the witness deny the conclusion you want to draw, Don’t ask a question if you’re not pretty sure of the answer, Don’t let the witness explain, Take it one fact at a time, Have a goal, etc.  They’re good rules to follow in pretty much every case.  But they’re not really a blueprint to follow for crafting a useful cross.  Every case is different, and each witness requires a different strategy.

One of the most challenging types of cross-examination comes in the he-said/she-said situation.  That’s not just domestic disputes, but any situation where there are only two people who really know what happened, and one of them is testifying against you.  Maybe it’s a purported victim, telling a story about a date rape that your client insists was consensual.  Maybe you’re a prosecutor in an undercover buy-and-bust, and the defendant is testifying to a story completely different from what your undercover is saying.  It happens in all kinds of cases, to all kinds of lawyers.

The he-said/she-said is especially tough when the other side’s witness is telling a cogent story that makes sense on its face.  Taken at face value, it rings true — though that doesn’t mean it is true.  A false story can be concocted out of pretty much any factual situation, and a lie that fits a juror’s worldview can be more believable than the truth.  A lying witness has lived just like anyone else, and has just as many experiences to test the believability of their stories against.  By the time the witness is testifying, there’s been plenty of opportunity to hone and perfect that story.  (And, of course, they might just be the one telling the truth, or at least the version closest to it.)  It’s hard to even prepare for such a cross.

If all you’ve got to challenge them with is your own side of the story, you’re not going to have a very effective cross-examination.  Q: “Are you telling this jury that my client’s story is wrong?” A: “Yup” — that’s not how to win a case.  But lots of the time, that is all you’ve got.  What can you do?

Well, when all else fails, there are three simple steps to a basic but effective cross-examination here.  When all else fails, and you’ve got nothing else to go with, you can always do these three things.  It may not guarantee you a victory, but if you do these three things, you will have at the very least done a workmanlike job of it.  And often enough, it gets results.


The first thing you do is (more…)

Study Finds Rampant Prosecutorial Misconduct in California

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

The Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University School of Law has released a troubling study of prosecutorial misconduct in California.  The report, “Preventable Error: A Report on Prosecutorial Misconduct in California 1997-2009,” opens by pointing out that of course the majority of prosecutors behave ethically, but then it dives right into more than a hundred pages of statistics and analysis of a systemic and system-wide crisis, and the ineffectual attempts to deal with it.  (For those in a hurry, the 8-page executive summary is here.)

The period of this study coincides with our own career — we got our JD in ’97, and spent the next several years prosecuting before joining the side of the angels.  We were intrigued to see if the results of the California study meshed with our experiences in New York.  (The overwhelming majority of our colleagues at the Manhattan DA’s office were extremely ethical and took such things seriously, but we did have occasion to note and object to certain practices.  On the defense side, dealing with all kinds of state and federal offices, we’ve seen more sloppiness and lack of judgment than actual misconduct, though again there has been the occasional bad act.)

The study reviewed a sample of 4,000 cases during that 12-year span, where an appellate court was asked to make a finding of prosecutorial misconduct — the most in-depth such study anywhere, ever — and found 707 where a court decided there really had been misconduct.  As the summary puts it, that’s about a case a week.  When you consider the simple fact that only the rarest case of prosecutorial misconduct gets appealed — only about 3% of cases even go to trial — plus the fact that a great deal of such misconduct can never be discovered by the defense (such as Brady violations), the true quantity of misconduct must necessarily be a dramatic multiple of the study data.

Most of the prosecutors who commit misconduct, the study found, do so repeatedly.  Why?  Because they get away with it.  They almost never get caught.  And when they do get caught, there aren’t any personal repercussions.  Disciplinary action is so rare as to be practically unheard of.  And civil liability isn’t going to happen, because they have absolute immunity for their official conduct.

The study concludes that “the scope and persistence of the problem is alarming.  Reform is critical.”  It’s not a problem just of a few rogue prosecutors.  It’s a problem of the judges who don’t deal with it, a system that doesn’t deter it, offices that don’t stop it.  It’s the problem of the good prosecutors, whose authority and trust suffer by association.  It’s the problem of the innocent, who find themselves convicted time and again because the prosecutor sought a victory rather than justice.  It’s the problem of the guilty, who are denied their rights to due process and constitutional protections.  And it’s the problem of the criminal justice system, which relies entirely on prosecutors doing their job right in order for the system to function at all.

What reforms do they suggest?  Revised ethical rules, for one, to bring them more in line with the ABA’s model rules.  Some actual disciplinary action by the state bar, when the rules are broken.  Replacing absolute immunity with immunity only for official conduct that wasn’t misconduct.  Better reporting of misconduct findings, including the prosecutor’s name and the kind of violation.  Better ethical training for prosecutors, and internal procedures for preventing and dealing with misconduct.  It’s all pretty much common-sense stuff, already in practice in plenty of states.

It’s a shocking report.  The players in California’s criminal justice system need to get their act together, and fast.  This is a wakeup call — let’s hope they heard it.

Grammar Police Fail

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010


So everyone from the Washington Post to Fark is reporting gleefully about the recent acquittal of a Northern Virginia man charged with failing to stop for a school bus picking up kids.  The defense attorney is getting kudos for pointing out that the law, when rewritten 40 years ago, omitted the word “at.”  The resulting language, agreed the judge, only criminalizes a driver who fails to stop a school bus that was stopped.  Absurd, but Virginia doesn’t let judges add words to statutes by interpretation, even if they’re absurd.

So far, so good.  We’re all in favor of forcing the government to do its job properly before being able to impose a criminal punishment.  And one of our pet peeves is poorly-drafted statutes and regulations, many of which seem to have been written by junior high dropouts.  Passing a stopped school bus is incredibly dangerous and richly deserving of criminalization, but we have no problem with someone getting off on a technicality of bad drafting.  A poorly or vaguely drafted statute does not provide the notice of criminal liability that is a basic element of Due Process, and the state shouldn’t be allowed to punish someone for violating it. (See “Honest Services.”)

But on actually reading the statute, we have to say the judge screwed up.  Here’s what it says:

A person is guilty of reckless driving who fails to stop, when approaching from any direction, any school bus which is stopped on any highway, private road or school driveway for the purpose of taking on or discharging children.

The error here is not the omission of the word “at” after the word “stop.”  It’s the inclusion of a gratuitous comma after the word “direction” — a comma which is artless, but nonetheless does not change the meaning of the sentence.

Here’s the sentence with the “at” included:

A person is guilty of reckless driving who fails to stop at, when approaching from any direction, any school bus which is stopped on any highway, private road or school driveway for the purpose of taking on or discharging children.

That reads even worse.  That’s where the “at” was before amendment.  (But the statute also had a lot of other language as well that was deleted or replaced.  It read fine before it was amended.)

Here’s the sentence with the gratuitous comma removed:

A person is guilty of reckless driving who fails to stop, when approaching from any direction any school bus which is stopped on any highway, private road or school driveway for the purpose of taking on or discharging children.

This makes perfect grammatical sense.  It’s still artlessly written, but it scans.  You’re guilty if there’s a bus stopped to pick up or drop off kids, and you don’t stop, no matter whether you’re coming from behind or ahead or the side.

As written, it still says that.  The extra comma (a bane of ancient legal writing) doesn’t change the meaning one way or the other.

Speaking as a card-carrying Grammar Nazi, the judge was simply wrong to think it meant you’re guilty if you fail to stop a school bus you approached.  The same misreading could be used to say you’re guilty if you fail to stop your own car for the purpose of taking on or discharging children.  The Commonwealth cannot appeal from an acquittal, so this case is over, but the defense really was in the wrong here.

How would we have written it?  To convey the same meaning, we’d probably draft something like this:

A person is guilty of reckless driving if he fails to come to a full stop a safe distance away from a school bus that is stopped on any road for the purpose of taking on or discharging children, regardless of the direction in which he is traveling.

Or some such.

Anyway.  Kudos to the defense lawyer — it’s still a perfectly valid victory, and in a way it’s nice to have a foolish judicial decision in the defense’s favor for a change.  But it’s a good thing that driver didn’t hit a kid.  His actions still count as reckless under any definition of the word.