Archive for the ‘Eighth Amendment’ Category

20 Years Sounds About Right for Dreier

Monday, July 13th, 2009

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So Marc Dreier was sentenced today to 20 years in prison, plus forfeiture of $746 million and restitution of nearly $388 million (that’s more than a billion dollars, with a “b”). That’s his punishment for his guilty plea to conspiracy, securities fraud, money laundering and wire fraud. The feds had asked for 145 years in prison, and Dreier’s counsel Gerald Shargel had asked for a sentence in the 10-12.5 year range.

We have to say, we’re not offended by this sentence. It’s high enough to be meaningful, but not so high that it will scare away future plea bargains in white collar cases.

It’s important to have a meaningful sentence, if the justice system is to function properly. If justice is not perceived to be done, then law and order lose their authority. For many years, white collar crimes were seen to be treated unjustly, with sentences too low for the harm done. A massive financial fraud could have many more victims than a violent street crime, and can do far more damage to each victim by taking not just their wallet, but the savings representing a lifetime of labor. But until recently, such frauds were punished far more lightly.

In recent years, however, the pendulum began to swing the other way. From Tyco to Enron to MCI to Madoff, we saw white-collar sentences lurch upward and upward. Madoff’s 150-year sentence earlier this summer was just amazing, and not at all proportionate to the harm done. The pendulum had swung too far.

If that was to be the new par for the course, white collar sentencing would be just as unjust as it was in the days of the old slap-on-the-wrist. In addition to the very real problems of perception, in a world where perception equals reality, there is the separate problem of efficiency.

If people think they’re going to get slammed at sentencing whether they plead guilty or not, as Madoff did, then there is no point to pleading guilty. One might as well take one’s chances with a jury and shoot for the off chance of an acquittal. It happens.

(As an aside, there’s an old story of a band of soldiers in medieval China, who had become lost in a swamp en route to a muster. The penalty for being late was death. The penalty for rebellion was death. So they rebelled. And eventually toppled the government. Extreme punishments have had extreme public reactions throughout history. *Cough*drug laws*cough*)

Here, the government wanted 145 years for Dreier, to punish him for putting one over… not on mom and pop investors, but on sophisticated hedge funds who really ought to have done their homework. That would be just five years less than what Madoff got, for essentially doing the same thing. But it would have been a horrible outcome for our criminal justice system if they actually got their way.

Fortunately, Dreier drew Judge Jed Rakoff, who has been vocal in opposing the recent trend towards ever-higher sentences in white collar cases (in addition to his criticism of the severity of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines). Rakoff is making him give back the money he filched, and forfeit his ill-gotten gains, and serve a prison sentence equal in severity to his crimes.

Nobody can reasonably say Dreier got off light, and nobody should complain that his sentence was unjustly harsh. We think Judge Rakoff nailed this one.

Are White Collar Sentences Too Harsh Now?

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

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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.

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.

Mandatory DNA Sampling Constitutional. Expect Ruling to be Upheld.

Friday, May 29th, 2009

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In a decision sure to be fought before the 9th Circuit, a federal judge in the Eastern District of California yesterday upheld mandatory DNA collection from people merely arrested for federal felonies, regardless of the nature of the crime charged.

Obviously, this raises eyebrows in certain circles. Taking DNA from people who haven’t even been convicted yet? Taking DNA from people who aren’t suspected of committing crimes where DNA would even be relevant? Doesn’t this violate basic principles of our jurisprudence?

Well… and this is a defense attorney talking here… no.

The case is U.S. v. Pool, decided by Judge Gregory G. Hollows. The defendant was charged with possession of child porn, and was released on bond. One of the conditions of release was that he provide a DNA sample.

This requirement was mandatory under two federal laws: the Bail Reform Act, 18 U.S.C. § 3142(b) and (c)(1)(A), which mandates it for pre-trial release; and the DNA Fingerprinting Act of 2005, 42 U.S.C. § 14135a, which mandates it for everyone arrested on a federal felony charge.

DNA is usually collected by dabbing a cotton swab in the person’s mouth or something similar. Rarely, it is collected by a blood test. The DNA is to be used solely by law enforcement for identification purposes.

Pool argued that this warrantless DNA sampling violates the Fourth Amendment. It’s a search, there’s no warrant, and there’s no special need for the testing for nonviolent arrestees.

Judge Hollows rejected that argument, stating that every Circuit to consider the issue has held there to be no Fourth Amendment violation here, and that the criterion is not “special need” but rather the “totality of the circumstances.” The reasonableness “is determined by assessing, on the one hand, the degree to which it intrudes upon an individual’s privacy, and on the other, the degree to which it is needed for the promotion of legitimate governmental interests.”

Pool argued that pre-conviction sampling is improper, based on the Supreme Court cases Ferguson v. City of Charleston, 532 U.S. 67 (2001)(unconstitutional search for law enforcement to use hospital’s diagnostic test of pregnant patient to obtain evidence of drug use), and City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, 531 U.S. 32 (2000)(vehicle checkpoint unconstitutional when primary purpose was to detect evidence of drug trafficking). Those cases relied on the “special need” analysis he suggested.

Judge Hollows rejected that as well, as those searches involved police fishing for evidence, before anyone was formally charged with a crime. The statutes at issue here subject people to DNA testing after a finding of probable cause by a judge or grand jury. After someone’s been indicted, courts can impose all kinds of restrictions on liberty. The situation is much more like that of people who have been convicted, than of people who have not yet been charged with anything, and so the “totality of the circumstances” test is more appropriate.

For more than 45 years, it’s been well-settled that someone who’s been arrested has a diminished expectation of privacy in his own identity. He can be compelled to give fingerprints, have his mug shot taken, and give ID information. DNA is no different than fingerprints — a unique identifier that helps law enforcement find the right suspect, and eliminate the wrong suspect. In fact, DNA is more precise than photos or fingerprints, so the government interest in obtaining it is even stronger.

Meanwhile, the invasiveness is minimal. Even blood tests are considered “commonplace, safe, and do not constitute an unduly extensive imposition on an individual’s privacy and bodily integrity.” Oral swabs are considered no more physically invasive than taking fingerprints.

The judge also rejected arguments that DNA evidence, once taken, might possibly be stolen and put to an impermissible use. That risk applies to everything, and there are criminal penalties to deter it. Just because someone might break the law doesn’t mean the setup is improper.

Judge Hollows pointed out that all the same concerns being raised about DNA were raised in the early part of the 20th Century with respect to fingerprints. And since at least 1932 it’s been understood that the public interest far outweighs the minimal burden to the individual being fingerprinted. The same reasons that justify post-arrest fingerprinting without a warrant justify post-arrest DNA sampling without a warrant.

Pool also argued that this violates Fifth Amendment procedural due process, because it’s mandatory, and thus precludes an opportunity to be heard. But that only applies if the defendant’s privacy rights outweigh the government interest, and it’s the other way around here. Pool argued that there is a risk of erroneous deprivation of his privacy interest, for arrestees who are not ultimately convicted. But the system is set up to expunge DNA records if the person is exonerated or the charges are dismissed. So the risks are minimal, and the government interests are compelling, and that means there is no procedural due process problem.

Pool also argued that this violates the Eighth Amendment protection against excessive bail. Bail conditions have to be proportionate to the perceived government need requiring the condition. But the Supreme Court case that set this rule, U.S. v. Salerno, 481 U.S. 739 (1987), specifically rejected any idea that this “categorically prohibits the government from pursuing other admittedly compelling interests through regulation of pretrial release.” This being nothing more than a booking procedure, and not comparable to conditions of release that actually have to do with the concerns arising from letting someone out on bail, there’s no reason to consider it excessive.

Pool also argued that the statutes violate the Separation of Powers, as Congress has intruded on judicial decision-making in the setting of bail conditions. But here, Congress didn’t direct any judicial findings. It merely directs what the judge needs to do after a certain finding has been made. That’s what Congress is supposed to do. There’s no problem there.

Poole finally argued that this is an unconstitutional extension of power, because the Commerce Clause doesn’t authorize DNA sampling. But the Commerce Clause lets the government make conduct a federal crime. The resulting government powers, such as incarceration and terms of release, have nothing to do with it, and don’t need to be independently authorized under the Commerce Clause.

* * * * *

What to make of this?

Pool’s arguments stem from a presumption that a person out on bail is more like a pre-arrest suspect. Judge Hollows’ decision stems from the opposite conclusion, that a person out on bail is more like a person on post-conviction supervised release. Any arguments before the 9th Circuit will have to focus on which it is, and we are inclined to believe that the Circuit will side with Judge Hollows here.

Central to the distinction is the fact that there has already been a judicial determination here, separating the defendant from the class of unarrested individuals. Either a judge or a jury has found that it is more likely than not that a federal felony was committed, and that this person did it. Once that has happened, a person’s rights are substantially changed. Society has an interest in ensuring that they come back to court to be judged. Society has an interest in ensuring that they don’t cause more harm in the meantime. These interests outweigh a defendant’s interests in liberty and property, to varying degree depending on the individual. That’s why we have bail and bail conditions.

What is odd, however, is that Congress made DNA sampling a mandatory bail condition, when it has nothing to do with pre-trial release.

Judge Hollows correctly points out that, conceptually, DNA sampling is no more invasive than fingerprinting, and is used for the same purposes. It’s a booking procedure, not a release consideration. Congress could just as easily have made DNA sampling a mandatory part of post-arrest processing, along with the mug shot and fingerprints. It would have been just as constitutionally sound.

By calling it something that it’s not, Congress subjected DNA sampling to this exact challenge.

Now, the ACLU differs with us, and calls the ruling “an incredible threat to civil liberties.”

“We think this ruling is incorrect,” ACLU attorney Michael Risher told reporters. “It ignores the presumption of innocence and it does not pay enough attention to the protections of the Fourth Amendment.” He also opined that police now have an incentive to make pretext arrests, just to get people’s DNA to help them solve crimes. How this changes things from the already-existing incentive to make pretext arrests to get fingerprints is unclear to this defense attorney. And anyway, police don’t need to arrest someone to get DNA or fingerprints — they can be collected by pretext in any number of ways, without a warrant, and often are.

With respect to the Fourth Amendment, what is clear here is that this is not a search for evidence. The crime has already been charged. It’s very clearly an administrative tool for establishing the identity of the defendant. Evidentiary consequences are merely hypothetical, if the person should somehow commit a violent crime in the future and leave behind DNA that gets compared to the database. That’s no different from mug shots, and unlike mug shots (where the chances of a false positive are unreasonably and embarrassingly high, given their variety and the innate unreliability of eyewitness recognition) DNA has an insignificant risk of identifying the wrong person. Mug shots aren’t a Fourth Amendment issue, neither are fingerprints, and neither is DNA, really.

* * * * *

One issue, however, is when the DNA is being taken for the purpose of gathering evidence, in the investigation of a crime.

That’s not the case here, and it’s sort of off point, but should a warrant even be involved then?

Well, isn’t it a Fifth Amendment violation then? You’re making someone incriminate himself against his will, right?

Wrong. Self-incrimination doesn’t enter into it, because what’s important there, the underlying policy of the right, is that we don’t want the government overriding people’s free will, and making them convict themselves out of their own mouths. We don’t want another Star Chamber. We don’t want the government using its overwhelming power to extort unwilling confessions, whether by thumbscrews, lead pipes, or simple custodial interrogation.

But taking blood samples has been held not to involve the right against compelled self-incrimination. Nobody’s being forced to say “I did it.” All they are being forced to do is provide physical evidence. There is no free will involved in the creation of that physical evidence — it exists whether the person wants to hand it over or not — but there is free will involved in the creation of confessions and incriminating statements.

But that brings us back to the Fourth Amendment. If someone is being compelled to give a swab or blood sample, then the government is seizing pre-existing evidence just as if they were seizing drugs from someone’s home. So shouldn’t a warrant be required after all?

Yes it should. But that’s only when the evidence is being sought as evidence. Constitutional rights really do depend on what’s going on. An administrative requirement is not the same thing as a criminal investigation. A DNA sample for administrative ID purposes is not the same thing as one taken to identify a potential suspect.

That’s the big difference here. And even given the 9th Circuit’s pro-defendant tendencies from time to time, we have a hard time predicting anything but an affirmation of Judge Hollows’ decision when this comes up on appeal.

The Chutzpah Defense: Should Defendants be Able to Appeal Their Way to an 8th Amendment Violation?

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

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Few would deny that 32 years is a long time to spend in jail. It’s a long time to spend on death row, as well. But is delaying the execution — particularly when the delay is caused by the convict’s own appeals — cruel and unusual punishment violating the 8th Amendment?

This issue has sparked a fierce debate among the justices of the Supreme Court, three of whom put their positions in writing this week. The Court itself punted the issue, which was brought by William Lee Thompson, declining to hear his claim that 32 years on death row was cruel and unusual. But Justices John Paul Stevens, Stephen Breyer and Clarence Thomas took their disagreement out of the conference room and put it on paper.

Justice Stevens has been trying to get the Court to take on this issue since 1995, when he wrote a memorandum statement arguing that, although novel at the time, the proposition was “not without foundation.” Lackey v. Texas, 514 U.S. 1045 (1995). The state’s interest in retribution, he then mused, might be satisfied by the uncertainties a prisoner must suffer during a lengthy delay of execution (though why he felt that retribution was a proper purpose of punishment in a modern civilized society is a whole nother topic). Any deterrent purpose would be negligible after such a delay, he argued, and any penalty with little marginal return would essentially be gratuitous, and therefore cruel and unusual. Stevens also pointed out that other countries’ courts had found similar arguments to be persuasive.

In his statement this week, Stevens pointed out that the average execution happens nearly 13 years after sentencing, adding that “to my mind, this figure underscores the fundamental inhumanity and unworkability of the death penalty as it is administered in the United States.”

However, he went on to say that the delays are mostly the result of judicial process. “Judicial process takes time, but the error rate in capital cases illustrates its necessity. We are duty bound to [ensure] that every safeguard is observed when a defendant’s life is at stake.” He concluded that “our experience during the past three decades has demonstrated that delays in state-sponsored killings are inescapable, and that executing defendants after such delays is unacceptably cruel.”

We’re no fans of the death penalty, but Stevens’ argument is a bit too much of a non sequitur, even for us. His argument is essentially: A) Delay is necessary to ensure justice in capital cases, and B) Delay sucks, if you’re the one on death row, so therefore C) Delay is unconstitutionally cruel and unusual. Which is the opposite of A. It doesn’t follow.

Stevens doesn’t need it to follow, however, because his ulterior motive is to find the death penalty itself unconstitutional. He says as much in his conclusion (quoting a previous opinion of his, which itself echoed his argument in the 1995 statement).

Justice Breyer has been pushing this issue almost as long as Stevens has, joining the cause in 1999 when he opposed denial of cert. in two Florida cases, Foster v. Florida, 537 U.S. 990 and Knight v. Florida, 528 U.S. 990. His statement in this week’s case can be found here.

Like Stevens, Breyer clearly had an ulterior motive for wanting to grant cert. He also agrees that delay is necessary to ensure justice in capital cases, and the defendant caused most of the delay in his case with apparently meritless appeals.

However, critically important to Breyer is the fact that a portion of the delay was spent on a meritorious appeal. The trial judge didn’t allow some evidence at the sentencing hearing, but was compelled to allow it at a new hearing. The defendant got the same sentence of death.

Breyer’s argument is that the delay involved in the meritorious appeal was unconstitutionally cruel and unusual, because the appeal would not have happened but for the sentencing judge’s error, which is state action. The delay involved in the meritless appeals is a necessary safeguard of the criminal justice system, and is just fine.

Seriously, that’s his argument. Read it yourself. What Breyer really wanted was to undo the death sentence itself, which he felt wasn’t really deserved here.

So what about Justice Thomas? He took the other side, arguing the 32 years were spent in appellate litigation brought by the petitioner. He caused the very delay of which he now complains. He used a quote from Mike Luttig to make the point: “It makes a mockery of our system of justice . . . for a convicted murderer, who, through his own interminable efforts of delay . . . has secured the almost-indefinite postponement of his sentence, to then claim that the almost-indefinite postponement renders his sentence unconstitutional.”

Thomas felt that ulterior motives should not undercut the decisions of three separate juries, each of which held that the petitioner should be executed for kidnapping and horribly torturing a woman to death. The Constitution permitted the death penalty, and it was “the considered judgment of the people of Florida” that it was warranted here.

So all three justices seem to tacitly admit that the Supreme Court will take on a case, even if the arguments presented aren’t the right arguments, if it feels there is some other injustice that needs to be cured. Stevens and Breyer wanted to take on this case, because they felt the death penalty shouldn’t have been imposed — Stevens because he thinks it should never be imposed, and Breyer because he thinks the petitioner wasn’t as guilty as his co-defendant, who didn’t get the death penalty. Thomas didn’t see any injustice, so didn’t need to overlook the defendant’s chutzpah, though his dwelling on the merits of the sentence indicate that he might have done so in another case.

As of now, there is still no “Chutzpah Defense.” But don’t be surprised if some enterprising defense attorneys don’t craft some new versions of that argument, inspired by these three opinions.

Prisons Crowded? Don’t Build More, Says Court. Just Release the Inmates.

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

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A panel of three federal judges yesterday essentially ordered the State of California to reduce its prison population by as much as 57,000 people, because crowding is causing violations of prisoner rights. This doesn’t mean that wardens will be releasing thousands of hardened criminals back onto the streets, but it does raise questions of how to do it. In its ruling, the court accepted certain possible solutions, but rejected the one obvious solution of building more prison space.

The panel was made up of U.S. District Court judges Thelton Henderson and Lawrence Karlton, as well as Stephen Reinhardt of the Ninth Circuit. These judges are known for their left-leaning policies, so it’s hardly surprising, perhaps, that they accepted and rejected the solutions that they did. Increasing prisons is not widely regarded as a liberal position.

Although the panel only issued a “tentative ruling” in Coleman v. Schwarzenegger (link from the L.A. Times), this is probably going to be the final ruling, which is why they were confident enough to issue it formally. Unless it’s overturned on appeal, California is going to have to think up and enact some creative methods of carrying out the order, so the judges wanted to give the state time “to allow them to plan accordingly.”

The case, actually two cases, were brought by prisoners who alleged that crowding — not overcrowding, just crowding — was causing violations of their constitutional rights. These aren’t new cases — one has been in the remedy stage since 1995, and the other since 2002.

The dispute now was not over whether crowding exists, or whether care is unconstitutionally inadequate. Gov. Schwarzenegger issued a state of emergency in 2006, still in effect today, because overcrowding was putting prisoners’ and guards’ health and safety at risk. So the fact of crowding couldn’t be in dispute. Also not in dispute is a previous court ruling that the prisons were not providing constitutionally adequate medical and psychological care.

The issue here was whether the crowding was the main reason for the failure to provide adequate medical and psychological care. And if so, then what to do about it.

The court found that there aren’t enough clinical facilities, resources or personnel to accommodate all the inmates who needed them. The risk of the spread of infectious disease is also enhanced by bunking prisoners in gyms and other spaces not intended to be used for housing. Lots of experts testified that crowding was the primary cause of the problems.

That being decided, California wanted a chance to fix the problem without decreasing the prison population. California showed that, under monitoring by a receiver and special master during the past 11 years, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation had already made significant improvements in conditions. So they asked for more time to fix these particular problems.

The court said no. They’ve had 11 years, and haven’t fixed the problem yet, so the court didn’t trust the monitors to fix it now. And anyway, “many of their achievements have succumbed to the inexorably rising tide of population.” Furthermore, California has no money to spare for new facilities, resources and personnel. Remedies for these cases have been tried since 1995, for 14 years now, and any future efforts of the receiver and special master could take many more years to have effect. The court felt that any further continuation of the already lengthy deprivation of constitutional rights would be wrong.

The court couldn’t think of any other relief that would work, other than reducing the prison population. Because scores of remedial orders had so far failed, “we are at a loss to imagine what other relief short of a prisoner release order a court could grant.”

So back to the question of how to do it. The court suggested various methods, such as “parole reform,” which we guess would mean changing parole rules, so that violators don’t necessarily go back to prison. Or “good time credits,” which could include both granting greater time off for good behavior, and letting more bad behavior count as good behavior. Or “evidence-based programming intended to reduce recidivism,” which simply means implementing services that are scientifically proven to actually reduce subsequent criminal behavior, as opposed to trying things that just sound good.

The court felt that building more prison space, the one obvious solution, was not something the court could order California to do, because it “may not be within the court’s general powers under the PLRA.” The PLRA, 18 U.S.C. §3626(g)(4) defines a “prisoner release order” as anything that has the effect of reducing or limiting the prison population. So the examples above would work. But one that merely reduces crowding — the problem to be solved here — doesn’t count, because it doesn’t reduce the number of prisoners.

We think that’s probably wrong. Building more prison space would solve the problem complained of. It may not be within the scope of the PLRA, but that’s not the sole authority that the court has. It has equitable power to order the state to do whatever works to stop the constitutional violations.

The court went on to say that California’s inmate population was about 200% of intended capacity, but reducing that population to about 120% to 145% would be sufficient. The court felt that this was the proper balance between concerns of public safety and prisoner rights.

The state immediately announced that it will appeal, of course. This will be one to watch, as pretty much every state is operating prisons beyond their design capacity, and fixes need to start happening soon. What happens here will influence how other states deal with the problem.