Posts Tagged ‘criminal procedure’

Getting Particular

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

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There’s a great post today on the New York Criminal Defense blog, explaining the history and proper use of the Bill of Particulars in NY criminal practice.  Our readers are encouraged to check it out here.

This has long been a pet peeve of ours.  An astounding number of prosecutors just don’t get the concept of a Bill of Particulars in this state.  And far too few defense attorneys and judges hold the People to their obligations here.

Which is bizarre, because it’s really quite simple.  All the Bill needs to do is specify what facts the People intend to prove which make out the elements of the crimes charged in the indictment, without explaining how the People intend to prove those facts.

For example, a buy-and-bust with stash and cash might have a Bill that states, at such-and-such time and place, “the defendant handed to an undercover police officer two bags containing crack cocaine in exchange for money.  Twenty-four bags containing crack cocaine were recovered from the ground where the defendant threw them.”  That’s all that’s needed.  No mention is required of how the People will prove the stuff is crack, or anything about the money that was recovered, or anything else.

And yet prosecutors keep doing it wrong.  We routinely get Bills of Particular that contain nothing more than bare conclusions of law, such as “the defendant sold crack cocaine to a police officer and possessed crack cocaine with the intent to sell it.”  Or worse than that, just a recitation of the time, date and location, and an assurance that the indictment contains all the information that is needed.

Failure to provide a sufficient Bill renders the indictment defective.  We’re amazed that more defense counsel don’t pursue this aggressively, and educate their judges who may be a little complacent given the lack of rigor by many attorneys.

Once again, we highly recommend this article to our readers.  It was written, by the way, by Jill Paperno of the Monroe County Public Defender’s office, so kudos to Jill.

Defense Wins by Losing: Supreme Court Overrules Michigan v. Jackson

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

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In a perhaps not-all-that-important decision this morning, the Supreme Court overruled a landmark case involving the Sixth Amendment right to counsel. Although it seems like a big deal, today’s decision doesn’t really seem to change anything. Criminal procedure is not likely to change. The upshot is that the police still can’t initiate questioning after you’ve asserted your right to counsel.

Interestingly, both sides probably saw it as a loss. The government clearly lost, no question about that. Technically, the defendant won, as he got the government’s win reversed and remanded. But the defendant lost in his bid to get the Supreme Court to announce a new rule imposing an indelible right to counsel that attaches automatically at arraignment.

* * * * *

In Michigan v. Jackson, 475 U.S. 625 (1986), the Burger Court ruled that police cannot start questioning a defendant after that defendant has appeared in court and requested a lawyer. “If police initiate interrogation after a defendant’s assertion, at an arraignment or similar proceeding, of his right to counsel, any waiver of the defendant’s right to counsel for that police-initiated interrogation is invalid.”

This morning, a 5-4 Supreme Court overruled Jackson.

Writing for the majority, Justice Scalia found that the Jackson rule is simply unworkable. And anyway, the existing rule of Edwards v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477 (1981) already provides the necessary protections, so the Jackson rule is unnecessary in the first place. Scalia summed it up this way:

This case is an exemplar of Justice Jackson’s oft quoted warning that this Court is “forever adding new storeys to the temples of constitutional law, and the temples have a way of collapsing when one storey too many is added.” Douglas v. City of Jeannette, 319 U.S. 157, 181 (1943)(opinion concurring in result). We today remove Michigan v. Jackson‘s fourth storey of prophylaxis.

The defense got the reversal it wanted, but not the rule it sought. The defense didn’t want Jackson overruled — it wanted the case to be interpreted as meaning the police can never seek to interrogate a defendant once counsel is assigned, whether the defendant asked for it or not.

Instead, the Court said we already have “three layers of prophylaxis” that protect defendants here, and we don’t need another one. Under the rules of Miranda, Edwards and Minnick, a defendant can tell the police he doesn’t want to speak to them without a lawyer present, and that shuts down any questioning. And the police cannot re-start it later by trying to Mirandize him again in the hopes that this time he waives the right to counsel. These protections already exist without Jackson, so the overruled case “is simply superfluous.”

The overruling wasn’t really a surprise. Sure, the briefs didn’t really talk about it, but it was strongly hinted at during oral argument back in January. More on that in a minute.

The state of Louisiana clearly lost, and its high court got reversed. But the defense didn’t get the outcome it wanted, and the Court isn’t about to make that rule any time soon, now. The defendant does get a second bite at the apple, however — the defense relied understandably on Jackson and not Edwards in its appeal below, so the Court felt it was best to remand and give the defense the chance to argue based on the Edwards rule.

* * * * *

In today’s case, Montejo v. Louisiana, Jesse Montejo was suspected of the robbery and murder of his former boss. Montejo waived his Miranda rights, and admitted killing the victim during a botched burglary. He indicated that he’d thrown the murder weapon into a lake.

This happened in Louisiana, which requires a preliminary hearing called a “72-hour hearing,” the purpose of which is the appointment of counsel. At that hearing, Montejo was charged with the murder, and the court ordered the appointment of a lawyer. Shortly after the hearing, but before the Indigent Defender was assigned, the police Mirandized Montejo again, and took him out to help them find the murder weapon. During the trip, Montejo wrote a letter of apology to the victim’s widow.

At trial, the letter of apology was admitted into evidence over the defense’s objection. Montejo was convicted and sentenced to death.

Montejo appealed, arguing that Jackson required that the letter be suppressed. The Louisiana Supreme Court said no, the Jackson rule only protects defendants who actually requested a lawyer at the hearing — it doesn’t shield defendants from questioning if, like Montejo, they just stand mute and the court orders the appointment of counsel sua sponte. The court felt that the real issue was whether he’d waived his right to have counsel present during the excursion, and Montejo had done so when he was Mirandized that second time.

Montejo filed for cert, arguing that the right to counsel, guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment, goes into effect upon the appointment of counsel, whether the defendant affirmatively asked for it or not. The other four states which had considered this, as well as the 11th Circuit, had ruled his way. And it made more sense to have a bright-line rule like this than to have a case-by-case analysis to determine whether a defendant said the magic words at arraignment which would grant him the right to counsel. A rule requiring defendants to affirmatively accept the appointment of counsel would simply not be administrable, he argued. One thing the briefs did not request was that Jackson be overruled.

During oral arguments, however, Scalia, Roberts and Alito asked whether the Jackson rule ought to be overruled. They suggested that the rule was overbroad, in that it would not allow defendants to voluntarily waive their Sixth Amendment right to counsel after getting a lawyer.

The state, which had submitted very thin briefs relying largely on dicta, didn’t do well at oral argument. Scalia and Kennedy quickly pointed out the absurdity of requiring “a formality on top of a formality” here, and the state only compounded the absurdity by seeming to suggest that defendants would have to keep requesting counsel every time the police sought to question them after arraignment.

The state also made the classic blunder of arguing with a Justice who had lobbed a softball question, in the attempt to help out the lawyer. Alito and Roberts both offered softballs to get the state to point out that Jackson prevents the police from initiating contact without the presence of counsel, but allows the defendant to initiate discussions. Instead, the state’s lawyer fought them, insisting that Jackson is only supposed to make sure the police don’t “badger” defendants who have a lawyer. The state then made the absurd argument that the Sixth Amendment protections ought to vary from state to state — states that make defendants ask for counsel would have Sixth Amendment protections, but states that appoint counsel whether a defendant asked for it or not would not have Sixth Amendment protections.

* * * * *

Given what happened at oral argument, today’s decision is hardly suprising. Writing for the majority, Scalia said “we agree that the approach taken [by the Louisiana Supreme Court] would lead either to an unworkable standard, or to arbitrary and anomalous distinctions between defendants in different States. Neither would be acceptable.”

Louisiana’s distinction between defendants who assert their right to counsel and those who do not “is extremely hazy when applied to States that appoint counsel absent request from the defendant. . . . How does one affirmatively accept counsel appointed by court order?”

Requiring some sort of questioning at every preliminary hearing would be impractical. Those hearings are typically rushed, aren’t even transcribed in many states, and it would be unworkable to try to monitor each defendant’s reaction to the appointment of counsel, if the defendant is even present (which isn’t always the case). Furthermore, how would the police be expected to know what the defendant’s reaction had been, as they can’t be expected to attend these proceedings. Courts would then have to adjudicate whether the police ought to have been able to approach a defendant, which simply adds to the impossibility. So this solution just could not work.

However, even though the Louisiana Supreme Court’s application of Jackson “is unsound as a practical matter,” Scalia couldn’t go along with Montejo’s proposed rule that, once a defendant is represented by counsel, police would not be allowed to initiate any further interrogation. “Such a rule would be entirely untethered from the original rationale of Jackson.”

What Jackson did was to apply the rule of Edwards v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477 (1981) to the Sixth Amendment. (Edwards involved a defendant who asked for a lawyer when he was Mirandized, so the police stopped questioning, but then the police tried to Mirandize him again, and this time the defendant confessed. The Edwards rule says the police can’t badger the defendant into waiving his rights after he’s asserted them.) All together, the cases mean that if a defendant asserts his right to counsel, and he later waives that right in a subsequent interaction with the police, then that waiver is presumed to be involuntary.

In a situation like Montejo’s, where the defendant was appointed counsel without ever asking for it, this rule simply doesn’t apply. There was no initial assertion of the right to counsel, so there can be no presumption that a subsequent waiver is involuntary. There is no initial decision that is being changed. There is no indication that the police are overriding the defendant’s free will.

So Montejo’s proposed rule just doesn’t fit with the purpose of the existing law. Instead, it “would prevent police-initiated interrogation entirely once the Sixth Amendment right attaches, at least in those States that appoint counsel promptly without request from the Defendant.”

Instead, wrote Scalia, the existing law we already have under Miranda, Edwards and Minnick is sufficient:

These three layers of prophylaxis are sufficient. Under the Miranda-Edwards-Minnick line of cases (which is not in doubt), a defendant who does not want to speak to the police without counsel present need only say as much when he is first approached and given the Miranda warnings. At that point, not only must the immediate contact end, but “badgering” by later requests is prohibited. If that regime suffices to protect the integrity of “a suspect’s voluntary choice not to speak outside his lawyer’s presence” before his arraignment, Cobb, 532 U. S., at 175 (KENNEDY, J., concurring), it is hard to see why it would not also suffice to protect that same choice after arraignment, when Sixth Amendment rights have attached. And if so, then Jackson is simply superfluous.

* * * * *

SO WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

Here’s a comparison of how the law looked yesterday, and how it looks today:

The right to counsel is triggered…

Yesterday — when you’ve been formally charged, are being interrogated, and now invoke your right to counsel.
Today — when you’ve been formally charged, are being interrogated, and now invoke your right to counsel.

If you invoke your right to counsel…

Yesterday — further discussions are per se excluded, unless you initiate the new contact (Jackson).
Today — further discussions are per se excluded, unless you initiate the new contact (Miranda-Edwards-Minnick).

Supreme Court Undoes Belton, Dramatically Limits Car Searches

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

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In a stunning 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court today reversed its longstanding bright-line rule which had permitted warrantless car searches after an arrest, even when there was no concern for officer safety or the preservation of evidence. The case is Arizona v Gant.

Writing for the majority in this important decision, Justice Stevens held that the police may only search the passenger compartment of a vehicle, pursuant to the arrest of a recent occupant, if it is reasonable to believe that the arrested person might access the car while it’s being searched, or that the car contains evidence of the crime for which that person was arrested.

Interestingly, the votes were contrary to common stereotype. The majority, which limited police powers, included the two most right-wing justices in the popular mind, Scalia and Thomas. The minority, which would have expanded police powers, included two fairly liberal justices, Kennedy and Breyer.

Rodney Gant was arrested for driving with a suspended license. After he was arrested, the police handcuffed him and locked him in the back of their cruiser. Once he was secured, the police then searched his car and found a jacket on the back seat. In a pocket of that jacket, they found some cocaine.

The trial judge in Arizona denied the motion to suppress, saying that the police are allowed to conduct such a warrantless search of a car incident to arrest. The police had seen Gant driving without a license, so the search was incident to a lawful arrest, and that was enough for the trial court. The Supreme Court, after all, had ruled in New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981) that a warrantless vehicle search incident to lawful arrest was proper. At the suppression hearing, one of the officers explained that the search was done “because the law says we can do it.”

This is actually the common interpretation of Belton. It is widely regarded (and reviled) as a bright-line rule. Stevens pointed out in today’s opinion that it “has been widely understood to allow a vehicle search incident to the arrest of a recent occupant even if there is no possibility the arrestee could gain access to the vehicle at the time of the search.” He added that “the chorus that has called for us to revisit Belton includes courts, scholars, and Members of this Court who have questioned that decision’s clarity and its fidelity to Fourth Amendment principles.”

The bright line has seemed only brighter in the past decade, however, especially after Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806 (1996), which held that the police could seize evidence in plain view within a car even after an arrest for a mere traffic violation, regardless of whether there was an ulterior motive in making the traffic stop. So the trial court’s ruling was not a surprise.

Despite the common interpretation, Gant appealed, arguing that Belton shouldn’t be read so broadly as that. It shouldn’t permit a search of the car when the arrestee poses no present threat to the officers. And it shouldn’t permit a search of the car when there is no way it could contain evidence of the crime for which he’d been arrested. There was simply no exigency that satisfied the policy underlying the Belton rule.

The Arizona Supreme Court agreed, and reversed. The Arizona Supreme Court found that Belton only had to do with how much searching could go on during a vehicle search incident to arrest, and did not have to do with whether such a search was permissible once the scene was secure. The Supreme Court of the United States had explained its underlying policy back in Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752 (1969), saying that the reasons justifying warrantless search incident to arrest is for the safety of the officers, and for the preservation of destructible evidence. In this case, those justifications did not exist at the time of the search.

The State of Arizona filed cert, arguing that the bright-line rule of Belton permitted the search, and that the common interpretation is the right one.

Writing for the majority, Stevens said that the bright-line rule, though the common interpretation, is the wrong interpretation. He saw that this came about because of an inappropriate reliance on Brennan’s dissent in Belton. Brennan had felt that the Belton rule created a legal fiction that the interior of a car is always within the immediate control of an arrestee, even when that person is no longer near the car at the time of the search.

Stevens acknowledged that this reading leads to absurd outcomes, including searched “incident to arrest” after the arrestee had long since left the scene.

To avoid such absurdity, the Court rejected the bright-line interpretation, and held that the underlying Chimel policy only authorizes vehicle searches incident to arrest “when the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search.”

The Court added a second condition when such searches are permissible, derived not from Chimel but from Scalia’s concurring opinion in Thornton v. United States, 541 U.S. 615, 632 (2004). (Yet another example of a concurring or dissenting opinion later becoming law of the land.)

This second condition is when, based on the individual circumstances, it would be reasonable to believe there is evidence relevant to the particular crime for which the suspect was arrested.

The bright-line rule has clearly been demolished, and replaced with a case-by-case analysis of the facts.

Now bright-line rules aren’t necessarily a bad thing, in and of themselves. There is a tradeoff between the necessity to account for the vagaries of real life, and the necessity for an easily-understood rule that police can follow. Both considerations are necessary for the protection of individual liberties. If the line is too bright, then law enforcement can ignore common sense and violate rights just because they can. But if the rule is too convoluted, to take into account all the vagaries of real life, then law enforcement won’t understand it, and risks violating rights by accident (or on purpose).

Stevens came up with a rule here that we think is easy enough to understand. The police can conduct a warrantless vehicle search incident to arrest if:
(1) the arrestee can still reach into the passenger compartment, or
(2) there’s reason to believe that the car contains evidence relevant to the crime he was arrested for. That’s not going to cause any confusion. Police officers and trial judges won’t have a hard time applying it.

- – -

There has been a movement in American jurisprudence away from formalism and bright lines, toward balancing. Instead of emphasizing bright-line rules requiring warrants, or dispensing with the need, the courts have been leaning more towards whatever is reasonable under the particular circumstances. A judicial, backward-looking approach, rather than a legislative one.

This ruling clearly fits that trend.

Well, except for Scalia’s concurring opinion. This ruling is in large part a result of his Thornton concurrence, but his focus is still a legislative, forward-looking approach, at least with respect to the process of judicial interpretation. His first sentence begins: “to determine what is an ‘unreasonable’ search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, we look first to the historical practices the Framers sought to preserve…”

We find this concurrence to be almost as good a read as his dissents. He lays plain the absurdities of the bright-line rule, only hinted at by the majority opinion. He does acknowledge that the Founders weren’t thinking of this stuff at all. And he tears the dissent of fellow conservative Alito to shreds. But we’ll let you read it all for yourself.

For now, suffice it to say that a major case was decided today, and the ruling is a good one for defendants and law enforcement both.

Supreme Court Messes Up — Fails to Clarify Misunderstood Miranda

Monday, April 6th, 2009

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We admit it: we like to skip to the Scalia dissent.

Not because we necessarily agree with his philosophy of jurisprudence. But because it’s a good bet to be an entertaining read. Whether he’s dissenting from an expansive activist or a fellow limited-role jurist, he’s good for a bit of snark while mercilessly pointing out flaws and internal inconsistencies in the other fellow’s opinion.

So when we saw that Alito, and not Scalia, wrote the dissent in this morning’s Corley v. United States decision on the exclusion of statements, we sighed a little and took in the majority opinion first.

Well, we learned our lesson. Alito can give good dissent.

At issue is 18 U.S.C. § 3501. The statute was passed by Congress back in the 60s, in an attempt to undo some of the aggressive jurisprudence of the Warren Court. Particularly, Congress was trying to nullify the Court’s perceived expansion of the Exclusionary Rule with respect to statements. Miranda made statements inadmissible if suspects weren’t advised of their rights before custodial interrogation, and McNabb and Mallory excluded confessions during extended detention prior to arraignment. §3501(a) tried to nullify Miranda by saying that, notwithstanding any warnings, if the statement was voluntary, then it was admissible. §3501(c) similarly said that custodial confessions weren’t automatically inadmissible because of delay, if they were voluntary. Congress flatly said that voluntary statements were going to be admissible.

Now, all this shows is that Congress didn’t understand Miranda or the McNabb-Mallory rule. At heart behind both rules is the concept of voluntariness. If someone voluntarily inculpated themselves, then the Court has never had a problem with admitting that statement into evidence. The only thing that the Court has ever had a problem with — no matter who was on the bench — is involuntary statements being used against people.

Seriously, the single policy that explains all of the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on the exclusion of statement evidence is this: “We won’t allow the government to convict somebody by overriding that person’s free will.”

So if the defendant was forced to incriminate himself out of his own mouth, then we won’t let that in. We won’t let the government beat confessions out of suspects, and this is all of a piece.

By the same token, we have no problem with taking blood or DNA samples without the suspect’s permission, because we’re not forcing him to convict himself. We’re just taking already-existing physical evidence, not forcing the suspect to create evidence to be used against him.

Hence the rule of Miranda and its progeny: If a reasonable person wouldn’t feel free to leave, and he’s being quizzed by the government, then incriminating response is by definition involuntary. The only way the government can cure that is to make sure the suspect knew his rights against self-incrimination, and knowingly waived those rights.

And hence the rule of McNabb-Mallory: The longer you’re being held by the government without being informed of the charges against you, the less likely anything you say will be voluntary. At some point, your statement is going to be by definition involuntary, unless the government has taken some affirmative action to ensure it really was voluntary.

Given this, §3501 is really a dead letter. Oh, there have been those who argue that its effect is what Congress intended, the nullification of the case law (see, e.g., U.S. v. Dickerson, 166 F.3d 667 (4th Cir. 1999)). But all §3501 says is that, if a statement was really voluntary, then it is admissible. And that is precisely what the case law also says.

So we come to today’s case, Corley v. U.S. The decision was 5-4, split right down the (jurisprudentially) liberal/conservative line. Souter wrote for the majority, joined by Stevens, Kennedy, Ginsburg and Breyer. Alito fired off the dissent, joined by Roberts, Scalia and Thomas.

And Souter — whom we like immensely — messed it up. Of all Justices, he was the one we expected to really get it, and lay out the real policy and uphold the majesty and wisdom of the law. Instead, he made a hash of it.

All he had to do is say, “yes, §3501 means what it says. But it does not do what Congress meant. The plain language of the statute does not affect our case law in the slightest.” We are willing to bet money that Scalia would have joined the majority if he had said that. And he might have taken the others with him for a Roberts-pleasing unanimous decision.

But instead, Souter said §3501 meant what it said as to Miranda, but it did not mean what it said as to McNabb-Mallory. His internally-inconsistent, self-contradictory interpretation required 18 pages of justification. At the end, he concluded that Congress didn’t mean to nullify McNabb-Mallory while trying to nullify Miranda, and so a Mirandized confession is still excludable if made during an extensive pre-presentment delay.

Souter’s reasoning was unnecessarily convoluted, and required a patchwork of equally risible arguments to fill in the obvious gaps. In dissent, Alito seems to gleefully dissect each one in turn. You just know he was grinning like a fool while writing (or directing) some of these passages. Oh sure, he tries for a veneer of objectivity with phrases like “the Court cites no authority for a canon of interpretation that favors a ‘negative implication’ of this sort over clear and express statutory language.” But that can’t conceal the snark within. Although Scalia might have had more fun with the point that “although we normally presume that Congress means in a statute what it says there, the Court today concludes that §3501(a) does not mean what it says,” it’s obvious that Alito was enjoying himself too.

Interestingly, the dissent does not disagree with the majority’s result, but only with its analysis. We really do think that if Souter had thought it through, he could have had a unanimous opinion clearing up this misunderstood line of cases for posterity.

That’s okay, we just did it for you.

Assigned Counsel are Not Government Actors? This is News?

Tuesday, March 10th, 2009

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The Supreme Court ruled today that defense attorneys assigned by the state are not government actors, merely because the government assigns and pays them. They are attorneys for the defendant, and their actions are actions of the defense, not the government.

This seems like a no-brainer. Every defense attorney knows that his obligations are to his client, regardless of who is paying the bill. But apparently the Vermont Supreme Court needed to be reminded of this fact by a 7-2 decision of the Supreme Court.

Michael Brillon was arrested in 2001, and had at least six different lawyers over the next three years, before finally being convicted after a jury trial and sentenced to 12-20 years. Before trial, Brillon moved to dismiss for speedy trial violations.

The trial court said the delay was caused by Brillon, and denied the motion. The Vermont Supreme Court reversed, saying that at least two of the three years should be charged against the state, because those delays were caused court-appointed defense attorneys. The remaining year, where delays were caused by retained counsel for the defense, was not chargeable against the state.

Writing for the majority in Vermont v. Brillon, Justice Ginsburg stated that the Vermont Supreme Court’s error was in thinking that assigned counsel are state actors in the criminal justice system. Assigned counsel, just like retained counsel, act on behalf of their clients, so delays they seek are ordinarily attributable to the defense.

The Vermont court had tried to assess whether the delay was to be blamed more on the government or on the defense. Because assigned counsel were paid by the government, Vermont felt that they were government actors, so their delay should be charged to the government. But the Supreme Court was obliged to point out that an attorney is the defendant’s agent, regardless of whether the attorney is privately retained or publicly assigned.

This is such a fundamental point, it is amazing that it got this far. Justice Ginsburg took the time to explain that Vermont’s error was such a fundamental misapplication of Barker v. Wingo that the Supreme Court had to step in to correct it.

Justice Ginsburg did leave open the possibility for public defender delays to be chargeable against the state, but only when such delays are caused by a “systemic breakdown” in the public defender system, some sort of institutional problem actually attributable to the government. That wasn’t the case here.

Justices Breyer wrote a very interesting dissent, in which Justice Stevens joined, highlighting some of the unspoken realities of how the Supreme Court works. They did not disagree with the ruling itself, but rather believed that certiorari had been improvidently granted. The issues turned out to be not as clearly defined as originally presented, and there were ambiguities in the Vermont Supreme Court’s decision, so that it did not necessarily misapply Barker v. Wingo unless one wanted to read it that way. Justice Breyer basically said the Court accepted and decided this case because the majority justices wanted to, so very badly.

More Allegations of Prosecutorial Misconduct in Sen. Ted Stevens Case

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

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First, a recap: Last July, former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens was indicted on seven counts of failing to report gifts he’d received, including renovations to his house in excess of what he’d paid for, but mostly goods and services from oil tycoon Bill Allen. Sen. Stevens pled not guilty, and with an election coming up he demanded a speedy trial to clear his name. The trial began on September 25.

Soon after the trial began in Washington, D.C, the prosecutors came under fire for sending one of their witnesses home to Alaska without letting the judge or the defense know. The witness, Rocky Williams, then contacted the defense team and told them that he’d spent a lot less time working on Stevens’ home than the renovation company’s records indicated. That severely weakened the prosecution’s argument that the company had spent its own money doing the renovations.

Then it came out that the government had withheld Brady material. FBI records containing prior statements of a witness had been handed over to the defense, but the prosecutors — Brenda Morris, Nicholas Marsh and Joseph Bottini (pictured) — had redacted parts of the statements that were potentially exculpatory. This wasn’t affirmatively exculpatory material, but it was impeachment material, and should have been turned over.

A memo from Bill Allen was discovered during trial, in which Allen stated that Sen. Stevens probably would have paid for the goods and services, had he been asked to. The prosecution claimed that their failure to disclose it beforehand was an inadvertent oversight.

The judge was reportedly angered by all this, stating with respect to the Brady material that “it strikes me that this was probably intentional. I find it unbelievable that this was just an error.” Nevertheless, the judge did not declare a mistrial, and on October 27 the jury convicted Stevens on all seven counts.

Then in late December, FBI agent Chad Joy went public with the accusation that the prosecutors really had intentionally withheld exculpatory evidence, and had intentionally sent Rocky Williams back to Alaska to conceal him from the defense.

Now, as the New York Times reports, Joy has come forward with additional allegations of prosecutorial misconduct.

In his latest whistleblower filing, Joy claims that another FBI agent conspired with the prosecutors “to improperly conceal evidence from the court and the defense,” as the Times puts it.

“I have witnessed or learned of serious violations of policy, rules and procedures, as well as possible criminal violations,” Joy stated in his affidavit.

With respect to Rocky Williams, Joy stated that the witness was sent back to Alaska not because of ill health (the reason given by the prosecution), but because after preparing him for testimony, the prosecutors decided that his testimony would help the defense case. Joy stated that Nicholas Marsh came up with the idea, after Williams fared poorly in a mock cross-examination.

Joy stated that the prosecution team also tried to hide the Bill Allen memo that stated that Sen. Stevens would have paid for the items if he’d been asked to. Rather than an accident, as prosecutors claimed at trial, Joy now alleges that it was intentionally withheld.

In addition, Joy claims that fellow FBI agent Mary Beth Kepner had an inappropriate relationship with the star witness, Bill Allen. She almost always wore pants, he said, but on the day that Bill Allen testified, Joy says she wore a skirt, which she described as “a present” to Allen. Joy also states that Kepner went alone to Allen’s hotel room. Although Joy’s redacted affidavit doesn’t say it specifically, the defense team now claims that Kepner and Allen appear to have had a sexual relationship.

Joy also claims that FBI agents received gifts from Allen, including help getting a job for a relative.

The judge, Emmet Sullivan, has ordered a hearing to be held in two days, this Friday the 13th, on whether a new trial is warranted. If the judge determines that Sen. Stevens did not receive a fair trial, he could very well scrap the conviction and order a do-over. It would be anyone’s guess, at that point, as to whether the prosecutors would actually try the case again.

Watch this space for future developments.

Gang Crime Rising, So More… White-Collar Prosecutions?

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009

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Gang crime is on the rise, the FBI reports. The politicians and prosecutors, however, are focusing on white-collar crime these days. Here’s a look at why this is happening.

Gang crime seems to have increased, ironically, as a result of improved anti-gang law enforcement in the big cities.

According to the 2009 National Gang Threat Assessment, street gangs have started expanding more rapidly from urban centers into suburban and rural areas. This has spurred new membership, as fresh populations are opened to gang recruitment. By the end of last year, about a million people were estimated to belong to gangs within the U.S.

One might think that the burbs lack the same social pressures that drive gang membership. Gangs are products of the inner cities, after all, where kids lack fathers to lead them, involved communities to belong to, competent schools to teach them, and opportunities for money and glory. We expect gangs to arise in the inner cities of single moms, apathetic neighbors, dysfunctional schools, government welfare and hopelessness. Suburbia’s not like that, right?

Well, according to the NGTA, drugs drove the expansion. During the 1980s, the suburbs began to become a profitable new market for drug dealers who had previously focused on the urban market. During the 1990s, the huge profits from suburban drug sales caused the street gangs to physically expand their territory, often resulting in violence as urban gangs clashed with local toughs and with each other in the race to occupy the burbs.

Meanwhile, law enforcement started cracking down on gang and drug crime in the cities. It was getting dangerous to operate in NYC, LA and Chicago. Suburban cops, however, just weren’t as much of a concern. The burbs were also seen as safe places to hide from unsuspecting law enforcement, unused to dealing with a gang element.

The combination of weaker opposition from law enforcement, and higher profits from suburban drug users paying “white boy prices,” was a clarion call for gang expansion. It was an irony that improved law enforcement actually resulted in the spread of gang-related crime.

There were other reasons for the spread of gangs into suburban and rural communities, not detailed by the NGTA report. From the author’s own interviews with drug traffickers in the New York area, gangs sometimes followed inner-city populations that had moved out there first. People on government assistance began moving out to places such as Lancaster, Pennsylvania and various towns Upstate along the Hudson River, because a person on welfare could have a nicer quality of life there. Many of them brought with them the quality of life that they were trying to avoid, unfortunately. And those who were drug users brought their demand with them. And so the dealers followed, the gangs followed, and the forces that spurred gang recruitment never went away.

Despite the spread of violent crime and drug trafficking, however, the FBI is focusing more on white collar crime. White collar crimes certainly are on the rise lately, especially fraud cases.

“We may not be doing as many drug enterprise operations,” Special Agent in Charge Richard Lambert recently said, “so we can focus more on mortgage fraud and corporate fraud problems.”

In just the past month or so, 3000 new FBI positions have been created to combat white collar crime. On top of those new hires, the Senate Banking Committee is preparing a $110 million fund that would hire 500 new FBI agents, 50 new AUSAs, and 100 new SEC agents.

Bill co-sponsor Chuck Schumer (D-NY) stated in the accompanying press release that “our white collar crime divisions are under-staffed, under-funded, and overwhelmed. When a wave of violent crime sweeps through a city, the immediate response is to beef up the police forces, putting more cops on the beat, extending overtime, and making sure the city returns to safety. Our reaction to the financial crisis and the massive and complex financial fraud investigations that loom should be no different.”

Why the rise in white collar cases? It’s not just the economy, stupid.

Sure, people may be tempted to commit crimes in an economic downturn. But this usually applies to people who are on the bottom rungs of the economy. Wall Street types and CEOs don’t start robbing banks just because their net worth slipped a bit.

Instead, white collar crime goes on all the time. What’s changing now is not the number of crimes being committed, as the number of cases being prosecuted. There’s a difference. As Anne van Heerden, head of forensics at KPMG Switzerland told Swissinfo, “I do not believe that the number of cases is growing, but rather the detection rate is increasing.”

Sophisticated financial crimes have always been sexy for law enforcement. What prosecutor didn’t want to convict the next Ivan Boesky, Andy Fastow or Michael Milken? The problem is, they’re hard to catch. The crimes take place on paper, in back rooms, and on golf courses. Not places frequented by cops or detectives. Evidence is often hard to find, and even harder to comprehend if found.

But the new economic downturn — which many see as the direct result of white collar crime — has led to new political pressure to “do something about it.” (At a function last week, we joked with a prominent judge that our white-collar defense practice was recession-proof, to which the judge responded “yes, but your clients caused the recession.”) Elected officials feel that pressure to “do something,” and they start rewarding successful prosecutions, and funding more of them.

So the word has come down from above that white-collar prosecutions are what the chiefs want. And that’s what they’re getting.

Expect to see more.

African Union Asks Security Council to Quit on Darfur

Friday, January 30th, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supreme Court Expands “Stop and Frisk” Authority

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re Not Alone

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

 

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

Here are some points from the article:

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

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

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

The New York Times also had some similar observations:

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh well, more work for us defense attorneys.

Second Circuit Refuses to Limit Corporate Criminal Liability

Friday, January 23rd, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Justices Miss the Point of the Exclusionary Rule

Thursday, January 15th, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh well, better luck next time guys!

Supreme Court: Failure to Surrender ≠ Escape

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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