Archive for the ‘Due Process’ Category

Is Ray Kelly a Complete Idiot?

Monday, August 19th, 2013

As we all know, Judge Scheindlin ruled that the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program was unconstitutional. This should have come as no surprise.

Our Fourth Amendment law forbids a police officer from stopping you without first having reasonable suspicion to believe that you are up to no good. Police officers were stopping people without any reason to believe they might be up to anything. That this was unconstitutional should surprise nobody.

Once you’ve been stopped, Fourth Amendment law forbids a police officer from frisking you without first having reasonable suspicion to believe that you are armed and dangerous. Police officers were frisking people without any reason to believe they might be armed. That this was unconstitutional should surprise nobody.

It is also unconstitutional for the government to single people out for this kind of treatment based on their race. Police officers were stopping and frisking Black and Hispanic people almost exclusively. On purpose. That this was unconstitutional should surprise nobody.

These were not the random errors of wayward officers, but institutionalized behavior directed and commanded by the police department. It was a program. That the NYPD has been given an injunction to knock it off should surprise nobody.

And yet Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has done nothing but act shocked and offended ever since.

Kelly made the rounds of TV news shows yesterday, angrily asserting Judge Scheindlin doesn’t know what she’s talking about, and claiming that this ruling is going to make violent crime go up. He argued firmly that the stop-and-frisk program is just good policing. It works. It’s effective. And now the NYPD can’t do it any more. It works. It’s effective. And so they should be allowed to keep doing it.

He firmly believes that, just because something is effective, the police should be allowed to do it.

This is the same guy who’s gunning for Secretary of Homeland Security. You thought you were living in a cyberpunk dystopia now? Just you wait until someone like him is in charge.

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Forget whether he’s even correct that this is an effective policing strategy. (I already told you why it isn’t.) Let’s just, for the sake of argument, presume that stop-and-frisk actually worked to keep crime down.

That doesn’t mean the government should be allowed to do it. Effective does not mean constitutional.

The government is a mighty thing, with overwhelming power and force at its disposal. But one of the most beautiful things about America is that our government is constrained. It cannot use its might against you unless the Constitution says it can. There are plenty of things it might like to do, but it isn’t allowed to. (People being people, government folks will try to bend the rules or skirt them or even ignore them. Hoping nobody will notice, hoping nobody will say anything, hoping they’ll get away with it. Very often even believing they’re doing nothing wrong, and believing that in fact they’re doing the right thing. Still, the fact remains that they’re no allowed to do it.)

Of course there is a tradeoff. There’s always a tradeoff. If we gave the government unlimited power to snoop into our homes and search our persons, they would certainly catch a lot more criminals. If we took away the exclusionary rule and rules of evidence, they’d convict more of them, too. Ignore innocents wrongly convicted — let’s presume that the police would be inhumanly perfect about all this. It is a certainty that, without that pesky Bill of Rights, more wrongdoers would get punished, and more severely.

But we have decided that a lot of things are more important than catching and punishing criminals. Privacy is more important. Free will is more important. Fair hearings are more important. We as a society are willing to accept a certain level of crime — even violent and horrific crime — as a consequence of protecting these rights.

And so the government is forbidden from violating those rights, no matter how effective such a violation might be.

Kelly does not get this.

This is not rocket science. This is not obscure ivory-tower theory. This is a basic core principle every rookie police officer should know. Is Ray Kelly a complete idiot, here?

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Kelly defends targeting Blacks and Hispanics because statistically, they commit a disproportionate amount of the crime in this city. And statistically, they do. But that doesn’t justify stopping individuals just because they happen to have been born into those groups.

Just as “effective” does not mean “constitutional,” the statistics of a general population don’t give you reason to stop that particular individual over there. His being Black does not give you reasonable suspicion. You need reasonable suspicion to believe that this guy is up to something. Ours is a system of individual justice. You need a reason to suspect this particular person, not a belief about people like him in general.

Again, this is stuff you learn your first week at the Police Academy. It’s pretty basic.

If the statistics showed that people of Italian descent committed a disproportionate amount of bribery, or that Jewish people committed a disproportionate number of frauds, would that give the police reason to target Italian or Jewish people just because of their heritage? Of course not. It would be as absurd as it would be abhorrent.

And yet that’s essentially what Kelly’s saying about the racial discrimination.

Does he not see how blatantly wrong this is?

Is he a complete idiot?

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You sort of have to hope he is.

Because if he’s not an idiot, then he knows exactly what he’s saying. He knows exactly why he’s wrong. Not just intellectually wrong, but morally wrong and contrary to everything this country stands for. And he’s still saying it. Hoping to convince you he’s right. Hoping you’ll let him continue to have those powers.

Pray he’s only an idiot.

Is Open File Discovery a Cure for Brady Violations?

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Prompted by a tweet from Scott Greenfield this morning, we read a short editorial the New York Times did a couple of days ago, arguing that federal and state prosecutors should adopt open-file discovery policies, in order to limit Brady violations and promote justice. We’d missed it the first time around, because … well, because we never bother to read NYT editorials.

This one is decent enough, so far as it goes. The Times points out that it’s up to the prosecutor to decide whether something is material enough to disclose under Brady, and so defendants very often don’t learn of facts that might have been favorable to them. With full disclosure, perhaps fewer defendants who are over-charged or improperly charged would plead guilty, and perhaps fewer wrongful convictions might result.

Yeah, but …

Here’s the thing: “Open file” policies are rarely that. Prosecutors’ offices with open file policies rarely (if ever) make their complete file available to the defense. More often “open file” just means they comply with their existing discovery obligations without putting up too much of a fight.

Prosecutors in general are unwilling to engage in true open file discovery, and for reasons that are anything but nefarious. It would be like playing high-stakes poker in a game where you and only you have to show all of your cards, all of the time. Unless you have four aces and a joker every hand, that’s a losing strategy. Defendants will be able to see all the weaknesses of the evidence with plenty of time to exploit them. People who “should have been” convicted will go free.

In practice, prosecutors only show their hand if it’s going to make the defendant fold. Or to the extent that it will persuade the defendant to fold. Show the ace, but don’t bother showing the 2, 6, 7 and jack.

Of course, it’s a misplaced concern to worry that people who “should have been convicted” will go free. If the evidence does not establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, then it doesn’t matter whether they did it or not, they don’t deserve to be convicted. It’s not even correct to think of whether they deserve to be convicted — the concern is whether the State is entitled to punish them. If the government’s evidence, all of it, is too weak to convict, then the State doesn’t get to punish. (What the defendant deserves only enters into it when asking how much punishment to inflict.)

The proper concern is whether (more…)

Correct, but Wrong: SCOTUS on Unreliable Eyewitness Identification

Thursday, January 12th, 2012

In this Information Age, it is hard to grasp sometimes that everybody does not know everything. And yet it is so. It is common knowledge, for example, that dinosaur fossils are the bones of creatures that lived scores of millions of years ago, that terrorist hijackers flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and that eyewitness identification testimony is statistically as reliable as a ’78 Chevy. And yet there are tons of people who sincerely believe that fossils are just a few thousand years old, that the U.S. government conducted 9-11, and that an eyewitness I.D. is the be-all-and-end-all of Truth.

Actually, it’s not fair to lump the I.D. believers in with 9-11 conspiracy theorists, Genesis literalists, truthers and the like. The others are sort of fringe-y. But if you put 12 ordinary citizens in a jury box, of good intelligence and sound common sense, and the victim points dead at the defendant and says “there is no doubt in my mind, THAT is the man who raped me…” you can almost hear all twelve minds slamming shut. They’ve heard all they need to hear. So far as they’re concerned, this case is over.

This despite the fact that study after study after study reinforces the fact that eyewitness testimony sucks.

And innocent people go to jail — or worse — because of it.

So you can imagine how keen the legal world was to get the Supreme Court’s decision in Perry v. New Hampshire, which came down yesterday. Perry, identified by an eyewitness as someone she’d seen breaking into cars, argued that Due Process required a judicial hearing on the reliability of that testimony before it could be admitted at trial.

Which was the exact wrong thing to argue.

Due Process requires that the government makes sure that it does not do things that make its identification procedures unreliable. It does not require that a judge do the jury’s job. Particularly when that job — weighing the reliability of a given bit of testimony — is incredibly fact-specific.

And especially given all the evidence of all the various factors that go into making eyewitness testimony unreliable — racial differences, time lapse, focus of attention, lighting, familiarity, stress, presence of a weapon, etc. — what judge in his right mind is going to want to be the one deciding whether this particular eyewitness’s memory is good enough?

So it’s hardly any surprise that the Supreme Court balked at Perry’s Due Process argument. By a vote of 8-1 (former prosecutor Sotomayor as the lone dissenter, none better to know the power of the EW ID) the Supremes held that, unless law enforcement is alleged to have gotten the I.D. under unnecessarily suggestive circumstances, there’s no Due Process issue and certainly no reason for a pre-trial hearing on reliability.

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No, what Perry could have argued for is either (more…)

Exceeding Their Authority: When Bureaucrats Create New Crimes, Justice Suffers

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

One of our bugbears here at The Criminal Lawyer is the excessive number of federal crimes — particularly those that are created by regulators rather than by elected legislators. We’re not alone in this concern, and over the past several months we’ve noticed what can only be called a growing movement for reform.

A particular concern of ours has been the fact that an astonishing number of federal crimes lack any mens rea component. In other words, one can face prison even though their act was perfectly innocent — there was no intent to break the law whatsoever.

Mens rea is an essential part of American criminal justice. We don’t punish people simply because the committed some act or other, or even just because they harmed someone. Even if that harm was grievous. No, before we punish someone, there has to have been some culpability on their part. And culpability is defined by their mental state when they committed the act. There is a spectrum ranging from intentional through accidental, and the closer one was to the intentional end, the more severely we punish them. (If you want to be pedantic about it, there are a couple of other spectra of mental state as well — one’s ability to tell right from wrong, and one’s level of depravity — imagine them as the Y- and Z-axes to the X-axis of mens rea, if you like. But only mens rea is a component of crime itself — the others apply as defenses and as sentencing concerns.)

When defining a crime, here’s how it’s supposed to work: You specify what act you are forbidding, and you specify the mental state required to make it criminal — so bad that it deserves punishment. For example, if you plot to kill your neighbor, and succeed in killing him, then you are going to be punished far more harshly than a careless teenager who kills a family of four when he mistakenly runs a red light. Your act was more intentional, and thus more evil, than that of the teenager. Even though he did far more harm, you are more culpable, and thus your act is more criminal. And a man who accidentally trips on the sidewalk, knocking a little old lady into an oncoming bus? His act isn’t criminal at all. It was purely accidental, and unlike the teen driver he did not deviate from the normal standard of care to any extent that society would punish.

It is true that, as American jurisprudence evolved, there did arise certain “strict liability” crimes that have no mens rea requirement. Things like statutory rape. But those are exceptions to the rule, in the first place. And in the second place, the lack of mens rea is not really applicable — it usually has to do with elements of the crime that your own mental state could not affect one way or the other. For example, in the case of statutory rape, the issue is not whether you knew the girl was under the age of consent, but whether you had sex with someone without their consent — and someone under the age of consent, as a matter of law, cannot have consented to have sex with you. Your mens rea has nothing to do with whether or not she consented. It does not matter whether you knew she was underage, what matters is that she was underage, and thus you had sex with someone without their consent.

But though there were strict liability crimes, they were exceedingly rare.

Until regulators got involved.

Bureaucracy has a way of growing, and of expanding its own authority. Give an agency power to regulate, say, the mouse-pad industry, and they will start writing rules and procedures based on how mouse pads are actually produced and sold. Then they will start writing rules based on how the bureaucrats think mouse pads ought to be produced and sold, perhaps involving idealistic notions or academic fads. Meanwhile, they’ll busily craft tons and tons of rules and procedures micromanaging every aspect of how the main regulations are to be complied with. The number of regulations out there that Americans are expected to follow are uncountable, and nobody knows what’s in all of them. It’s beyond the capacity of the human brain to know what all the rules are.

And all of these rules have the force of law. Even though no elected official ever enacted them. The regulations are imposed, not by elected representatives who speak for (and must answer to) the citizenry, but by unelected government employees answerable to nobody.

That’s all well and good, when (more…)

What Would Plato Do?

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

Wanda: What would an intellectual do?  What would… Plato do?

Otto: Apol-

Wanda: Pardon me?

Otto: Apollgzz.

Wanda: What?

Otto: Apologize!

Well, no.  He probably wouldn’t.  Not Plato.

And certainly not in the case of Troy Davis, whose final clemency request was denied this morning, and who now faces execution tomorrow evening for the killing of a police officer in 1989.  He was convicted at trial 20 years ago, but since then the reliability of that verdict has been called into serious question.  Seven of the nine major witnesses recanted their testimony, many claiming that the police pressured them to give false eyewitness accounts.  No forensic evidence ever tied Davis to the crime, the murder weapon was never found.  In the intervening years, ten new people have come forward to point the finger at another individual known to have been present at the scene.

So it’s possible that Troy Davis might not have shot the officer.  It’s possible that he might have.  Twenty years of second-guessing and changing stories make it uncertain.  But what is certain is that he was convicted, and that the conviction stands.

Should we be troubled by this?

We started pondering this after our kids’ bedtime story the other night.  We were reading to the lads from the Dialogues of Plato [what, you got a problem with that? Shut up, these are not your children.], specifically the Crito.  That’s the one where Socrates has been condemned to death, and his friend Crito shows up to talk him into escaping.  Boiled down to its essence, the Crito runs something like this: (more…)

Insider Trading, Expert Networks, and a Big Honking Due Process Violation

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

 

 

First, a shameless plug: Tomorrow, we’ll be participating in a Dow Jones webinar for Private Equity and VC types, discussing how the current environment of insider-trading prosecutions affects them, and what they might do about it.  (Link here, if you’re interested.)  Of course, those guys aren’t so much the focus these days as, say, hedge funds and the expert networks that help them make investment decisions.  “In the spotlight” doesn’t begin to describe it.  Not a week goes by without some major news about insider trading allegations in the hedge fund world.

With all that reporting, and all the various cases that are going on, one might think the issues are pretty well understood by now.  But they’re not.  Not even by the very people who are doing the prosecuting and investigating, it seems.  It so unclear that a month ago the Managed Funds Association formally asked the SEC for guidance on what is and is not kosher when dealing with expert networks.  “Our industry would like to know where the sidelines are right now so that we can stay well within them,” MFA president Richard Baker said at the time.  “The trouble is the referees aren’t quite clear where those lines are.”

Amen.  Nobody knows where the line is between lawful and unlawful conduct.  The feds themselves admit it.  And yet they are prepared to prosecute people for crimes, when the public has no way of knowing that such conduct was criminal.  Even an investigation is enough to destroy a reputation, wipe out a career, erase a business.  A conviction will take away a real person’s liberty and rights.  Americans don’t allow their government to do that in a gray area.  But it is happening.  How that is not a serious violation of basic due process is beyond us.

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Expert networks are a fairly new thing.  It used to be that research was conducted by analysts who were more akin to investigative journalists than anything else.  They poked around, talked to people, and tried to piece together useful information about a company’s value or where an industry was headed.  The goal was to gain an insight that had value — something that wasn’t obvious to everyone else analyzing the public information.  Then along came Regulation FD, and all that changed.

Reg FD came about in 2000 as an attempt to (more…)

ABA Tells Courts to Provide Detailed Brady Checklists

Monday, February 14th, 2011

We wrote recently on our distaste for those on the defense side who persist in playing games.  It should go without saying that it is far worse for the prosecution to play games.  And yet it happens all the time.

Ideally, when the prosecution has done its job right, it’s going to be holding all the cards.  If those cards are good, there’s little reason not to show them early and convince the defense to fold.  It saves everyone the expense and burden of litigating and trying a case that ought to just plead out.

And if those cards aren’t so good, then fairness requires that they still be shown.  Simple due process requires that a criminal defendant — someone whose life, liberty, reputation and property the government intends to destroy — be told when the government has evidence that might help him defend himself.  If such evidence is in the government’s possession, it’s not realistic to believe that the defense would ever discover that evidence.  Law enforcement is rarely willing to share information with the defense.  And even with evidence from other sources, the defense never has anywhere near the resources and ability of the government to discover that evidence.  Anyone who thinks the two sides are fairly matched in this regard either has no experience, or no active brain cells.

So that’s why we have the Brady rule.  Prosecutors are supposed to give the defense any evidence possessed by the government that might help the defense at trial or at sentencing.  It’s a great rule, but the problem is that prosecutors often have a hard time following it.  And they get away with it plenty, because it’s not like the defense was ever going to learn of the existence of that evidence.  And they have absolute immunity from civil suit for their Brady violations.

What happens often enough, unfortunately, is that prosecutors try to game the rule.  Any (more…)

Registering the Wrong People

Monday, January 3rd, 2011

 

Sex offender registries aren’t necessarily a bad idea.

For whatever reason, there are certain people who get off on molesting little kids or raping people, and who are not likely to be rehabilitated by a stint behind bars.  It’s how their sex drive is wired. If they get caught and go to prison, they’re not any less likely to stop doing it when they get out.  That’s not how sex drives work.  So they often reoffend.  To minimize this, we put their names on a list, make them register with the local police department, impose restrictions on where they can live and what they can do.  They’re basically on extremely limited parole for the rest of their lives.

Their lives are basically over.  The stigma is the worst our society can dish out.  There’s a fat chance of pursuing any meaningful employment or making something useful of one’s life.  The best that can be said for such an existence is that it’s not prison.

Of course, with people who have demonstrated a clear and present danger, for whom there is a real and realistic concern that they will victimize another child if given half a chance… well, their interests don’t weigh so much any more.

But are these people really the ones who get registered?

Here in New York, a 17-year-old kid can wind up on the registry for having sex with his 16-year-old girlfriend.  A jerk can be registered for grabbing someone’s ass.  Stuff that has nothing to do with sex, like even the mildest forms of unlawful imprisonment, gets you marked a sex offender.  A harmless loser will find himself on the registry for calling up a call girl.  There really isn’t any rhyme or reason to it any more.

These are not things that have anything to do with the policy underlying sex offender registries.  There is zero concern that the people who commit such offenses pose a present threat of molesting kids or committing rape.  It’s an (more…)

Decent, law-abiding citizen? Go directly to jail.

Saturday, October 30th, 2010

 

Odds are, if you’re reading this, you’ve lived an admirable life.  You applied yourself in school, got a good job, and worked hard to be a valuable member of your community.  Through your own efforts, you’ve probably earned a position of respect and responsibility.  Maybe you run your own shop, or you’re a partner in a firm, or you’re a military officer.  Your ethics are beyond reproach.  You’re raising your kids to be loyal, kind and brave.  You, dear reader, are doing everything right.

And you, dear reader, can very easily find yourself in the defendant’s seat.  In the crosshairs of a federal or state prosecution.  Facing serious prison time.

For what?  For nothing, that’s what.  You yourself may have done nothing wrong, but our criminal law has devolved so far, so fast, that you can find yourself being prosecuted anyway.

The worst effects can be seen in federal law.  As the regulatory state has expanded, as the “nanny state” has expanded, as the role of the federal government has expanded, the nature of federal criminal law has changed dramatically.  Stuff that nobody in their right mind would consider “criminal” has nevertheless been made into a federal crime, not just by congressional statute, but by regulatory fiat.

Regulatory crimes are the worst, because agency regulations are never (more…)

Skilling Decision: Good for Justice, Bad for Jurisprudence

Thursday, June 24th, 2010

jeff skilling

It looks like we spotted the trend.  Unfortunately.

Last week we noted that, when faced with an ambiguous statute, some on the Supreme Court are now willing to read new language into the statute, rather than toss it back to Congress to do it right.  And we wondered if that might be a harbinger of what was to come in the “honest services” cases of Black, Weyrach and Skilling.

Well, those cases came down this morning, and sure enough the majority decided to read in new language, rather than toss out the statute for being vague.

It’s great for the defendants, whose honest-services convictions got tossed.  But to get there the Court had to change the rules.  Now, judicial invention is a perfectly acceptable method of statutory interpretation… so long as the new language is what “everybody knows” the statute really meant to say.  And that’s bloody dangerous. 

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We’ve been paying close attention to this issue (see other posts here, here, here and here), as have many others, because the feds love charging people with honest services fraud.  It’s so vague and open-ended, that it potentially criminalizes any activity that’s outside one’s job description.  That makes it a great catchall when you can’t prove something more substantive.  But it’s also not at all what Congress intended.

“Honest services” fraud was originally a judge-created law.  There wasn’t any statute criminalizing it, it just sort evolved via common law, accepted in all the Circuits.  But we don’t do common-law crimes in this country, for one thing, and the mail fraud statute didn’t say anything about intangible rights, so in 1987 the Supreme Court threw out the common-law version of honest services fraud.  If Congress wanted to criminalize it, then that was up to Congress.

The idea was pretty simple: If you had a position of trust, and you abused that position for private gain (say, by taking bribes or kickbacks), then you were depriving people of the services you ought to have been giving them had you been honest.  You were getting paid under the table to do your job wrong.  So in 1988 Congress came up with 18 U.S.C. § 1346.

But the language didn’t say anything about abusing a position of trust.  Instead, it just said that (more…)

The Suspense is Killing Us

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

300 supreme court

There are four Mondays left in June.  Four more days in which the Supreme Court is expected to announce its decisions in the 27 or so cases still out there this term.  That’s about one case per day from now till then.  We’re picturing the Justices pulling all-nighters, stacks of empty pizza boxes in the halls at 2 a.m. next to the burn bags (do they still use burn bags there?), and sleepy zombie-like clerks dropping in their tracks every now and then.

Some of those cases have to do with boring old civ pro or shipping or labor law.  But a whole bunch are about the cool stuff, criminal law.  Here are a few of the criminal cases we’re watching particularly closely:

Black v. United States
Weyrauch v. United States
Skilling v. United States

This trio of cases attack the “honest services” fraud law.  18 U.S.C. § 1346 was supposed to prevent political corruption, but Congress wrote it so sloppily that it’s become a catch-all crime for federal prosecutors.  Anyone can get charged with it, and nobody knows what it means.  The Court telegraphed its dislike of the statute during oral arguments of all (more…)

Our Inhuman Response to Domestic Violence

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

witnessed abuse

Last night, we attended a domestic violence forum sponsored by the Children’s Aid Society here in Manhattan. We’ve been involved with the CAS for many years, and they do some pretty awesome things for kids in intense situations. And domestic violence is a deep and complex social issue we come across plenty. So we figured it might be worth checking out, and maybe come away with some new insights.

It was, and we did, but not in the way we’d expected. There was very little discussion of the causes of domestic violence, the various patterns of behavior of abusers and victims, what actions work to stop it and what doesn’t work, and challenges to be overcome in reducing the incidence of domestic violence. Those are sort of the kinds of topics we expected a domestic violence forum to get into, but unfortunately the talks were pretty much surface discussions of what the speakers do in their jobs, and the kinds of things they deal with.

That’s okay, we guess. The speakers were social workers, and most of the audience seemed to be social workers. So it’s probably nice that they got to hear what others in their field are seeing. But for anyone with a passing familiarity with domestic violence issues, there wasn’t much we’d consider enlightening.

Except for one thing. (more…)

The System is Broken: NY Ct. of Appeals Allows Class Action over Indigent Counsel Failings

Thursday, May 6th, 2010

shattered

Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963) guarantees that criminal defendants who cannot afford a lawyer must be provided one by the state. In a groundbreaking decision today, New York’s highest court ruled that “serious questions have arisen in this and other jurisdictions as to whether Gideon‘s mandate is being met in practice.” And these questions are significant enough to warrant a class action against the State of New York by criminal defendants left to suffer the consequences.

In a lengthy opinion (viewable here), Chief Judge Lippman goes out of his way to point out that this is not a Strickland issue about whether defendants are getting ineffective assistance of counsel. The issue is whether the state is denying them counsel, period.

In order to allow the class action to go forward, the court had to find that there’s a basis for that suit, that looked at in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs they actually have a case. So what did the court see here?

Judges are deciding who is or is not “indigent” for the purposes of assigning counsel, and there are no standards for that determination. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. There’s no consistency. People who perhaps should be getting a public defender wind up never getting a lawyer at all. There’s a huge Due Process and Equal Protection violation right here.

Defendants are arraigned without having a lawyer present. Bail gets set in amounts they could never afford. And they wind up languishing in jail without representation, even for minor offenses. They lose their jobs in the meantime, and lose their homes when they can’t pay the rent, and their families suffer enormously.

Defendants appear in significant court appearances without counsel. They enter into pleas without a lawyer. This despite the clear language of CPL 180.10(5) forbidding a court from proceeding without counsel, unless the defendant has knowingly agreed to it.

In instances where lawyers do get appointed, they’re incompetent. They don’t confer with their clients. They don’t learn the case. There’s a different lawyer at each proceeding, just as unfamiliar with the case as the previous one. They don’t respond to client inquiries however urgent. They either miss court appearances, or if they do appear they’re unprepared to proceed.

The appointed lawyers waive important rights, without first conferring with their clients and getting authorization. They make “virtually no efforts on their nominal clients’ behalf,” as the opinion puts it.

“Actual representation assumes a certain basic representational relationship.” The facts here show the opposite, that there are “serious questions as to whether any such relationship may be really said to have existed.” In other words, counsel may have been appointed, but there was never any real attorney-client relationship. This is not ineffective representation — it is the absence of representation. (more…)

Dear HuffPo: Here’s why we have statutes of limitation

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

 

So we took a few minutes just now to check out some headlines with Google’s “Fast Flip” news browser (which, by the way, is super-cool). And this headline totally caught our eye: “Some Sex Crimes Get a Pass – Why?”

That’s a damn good question! What do you mean, some sex crimes don’t get prosecuted — that’s appalling! Either the crime is something society doesn’t think worth punishing, or prosecutors aren’t doing their job! So we checked it out.

What we found instead was a totally inane article on the Huffington Post, leading off with the following lines: (more…)

Criminalizing the Contractual: Have We Finally Seen the End of “Honest Services” Fraud?

Monday, March 1st, 2010

enron annual report 2000

Try this on for size:

For the purposes of this chapter, the term “scheme or artifice to defraud” includes:

(1) a scheme or artifice by a government official whereby the government official’s position is used for the private gain of any person or entity; or

(2) a scheme or artifice by an officer of a corporation, partnership, nonprofit organization or labor union, whereby the officer’s position is used for the private gain of any person or entity and not for the benefit of the officer’s shareholders or members.

If Congress had half a brain, this is what 18 U.S.C. § 1346 would look like. The whole point of the section is to prevent official corruption. A politician or bureaucrat who steers a contract to a buddy, or a corporate CEO who enriches himself instead of his shareholders, or a union boss who mismanages the pension fund — basically anyone who breaches a trust to act on behalf of those he represents.

But instead, Congress wrote this nonsense:

For the purposes of this chapter, the term “scheme or artifice to defraud” includes a scheme or artifice to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services.

For one thing, anyone can commit this crime, not just people who owe a duty to a constituency. Moreover, instead of a straightforward definition, this is hopelessly vague. Nobody knows what “the intangible right of honest services” means. Does it include an employee who’s playing solitaire instead of reviewing a file? Does it include a politician making promises he can’t keep?

Nobody knows.

And that’s just how federal prosecutors like it. Actual corruption charges, like bribery and extortion, are notoriously difficult to prove. But a mail/wire fraud charge, based on deprivation of “honest services” — that could mean anything, and so anything they can prove could count. Actions that don’t fit any particular category get to be called “fraud.”

Unethical behavior is now criminal. Contractual breaches, especially in the employment arena, also seem to count.

The courts have had a hard time applying this statute, differing widely on what counts and on how to instruct juries. Earlier this term, the Justices on the Supreme Court sounded like they have real problems with the statute. They seem even to wonder whether it’s void for vagueness. Criminal laws have to be specific enough to put you on notice that certain conduct could land you in jail, and a law where nobody even knows what it means certainly could be unconstitutionally vague. The Court hasn’t decided those open cases yet, presumably because they were waiting for one more to be argued.

And that gets us to today’s Supreme Court arguments in the case of Enron’s former CEO, Jeff Skilling.

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Enron was the nation’s 7th-largest company in 2001, when it suddenly came to light that its net worth was zilch. Bright people who had no clue what they were doing had created a bizarre house of cards that came tumbling down in an instant. The city of Houston, Enron’s headquarters, was devastated for years to come. Some people had clearly done wrong — CFO Andy Fastow and friends had profited hugely from schemes that broke the rules. It was less clear, however, whether CEO Jeff Skilling had acted improperly, or whether he even knew of any shenanigans. It was hard to say that he or the directors misrepresented anything to investors, as the company’s activities were pretty well documented. (For an excellent account of what happened and didn’t happen, see Kurt Eichenwald’s definitive “Conspiracy of Fools.” Malcolm Gladwell did an excellent piece in the New Yorker, as well, called “The Talent Myth,” about the culture there, and another one called “Open Secrets,” about the paradox of too much disclosure.)

Jeff Skilling was convicted in 2006 by a federal (more…)