Posts Tagged ‘Evidence’

Q&A Roundup Part 4

Friday, September 18th, 2015

The officer gets his overtime. The defendant gets his freedom. But the victim doesn’t get his property back. If someone steals all of the money in my bank account, the police find a paper trail that shows who did it, but the courts suppress the evidence because the evidence was acquired unlawfully, then can I still sue them in civil court to get my money back or does the money become the thief’s property for all intents and purposes? Or is there a third option that I do not know about?

The victim’s reaction is irrelevant to criminal law.

Criminal law is about whether the state can punish an offender. The victim isn’t a party to the case, but is merely a source of evidence. The prosecutor doesn’t represent the victim’s interests in restitution, but the state’s interest in punishment. Restitution may be ordered as part of a sentence, but it doesn’t have to be.

But just as the victim’s rights aren’t part of the criminal case, whether the criminal case pans out or not has little bearing on the victim’s rights. Even if the criminal case gets dropped or dismissed, the victim can still exercise his rights. He seeks justice, not in criminal court where he is not a party, but in civil court.

It is civil court, not criminal court, that is about righting wrongs. If someone harms you, you can sue them in civil court for money damages to “make you whole” and compensate you for the harm. If someone stole a particular thing, you can ask for a court order compelling them to give that thing back.

The outcome — or even existence — of a criminal case doesn’t have much effect on exercising your rights in civil court. Different rules apply, they have different standards of proof, and they really are like apples and oranges, so what happens in one court doesn’t really carry over to the other one. It would be unjust to deny people their right to civil justice just because a prosecutor exercised her discretion not to prosecute someone, or because evidence strong enough for a civil case wasn’t enough to meet the higher burden in a criminal one. That’s how someone like O.J. Simpson can be acquitted and unpunished by the criminal courts, and found responsible and liable for money damages for the same act in civil court.

In the example you’re responding to, the guy apparently stole a coin collection. We don’t know that the collection itself was ever recovered by the police. If it was, it was probably saved to be used in evidence. Regardless of the outcome of the case, police departments typically have a procedure for property owners to reclaim their stuff afterwards. If the thief had already sold the coins, however, there’s nothing for the police to return, so the victim would have to sue the thief for the value of what was stolen.

People do forget sometimes that civil law and criminal law are two entirely different and separate things (heck, I never knew this myself until after I started law school). That can lead to confusion when they expect the criminal law to enforce their rights against the offender. In criminal law it is the offender who has rights, not the victim. The only “justice” a victim typically gets from a criminal case is a sense of retribution — the offender got harmed, too. For the more meaningful justice of being restored or at least compensated, you need to take it to civil court. That’s what it’s for.

Lie-Detecting MRI to be Used at Trial?

Thursday, May 6th, 2010

brain scan

We’ve written about the lie-detector uses of fMRI exams before (see here and here).

Now it looks like Brooklyn attorney David Zevin is trying to get it introduced for the first time in a real life court case. (The previous attempt, aimed at using it during sentencing in a San Diego case, was later withdrawn.) It’s an employer-retaliation case, which has devolved into a “he-said/she-said stalemate.” Zevin’s client says she stopped getting good assignments after she complained about sexual harassment. A co-worker says he heard the supervisor give that order, and the supervisor says he never did. So at Zevin’s request, the co-worker underwent an fMRI to see if he’s telling the truth when he says he heard that order.

Needless to say, there is opposition to letting this kind of evidence come in. There’s a pretty good discussion of the whole thing, believe it or not, over at Wired.

(H/T Neatorama)

[P.S. – We were almost about to type something like “We find ourselves strangely attracted to these kinds of stories. But we understand if you may be repulsed.” Fortunately, we have refrained from doing anything like that. You’re welcome.]

Supreme Court Smackdown

Monday, January 25th, 2010

300 supreme court

“Why is this case here, except as an opportunity to upset Melendez-Diaz?”

So wondered Justice Scalia during oral argument a couple weeks back in the case of Briscoe v. Virginia. For some background, see our previous post on this case here. Briefly, the Supreme Court held last year in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts that, in a drug case, the prosecution cannot prove the existence of a controlled substance by merely introducing the lab report — the chemist has to testify, or else the Confrontation Clause is violated. There was a huge outcry from prosecutors’ offices across the country. It would be too much of a burden to get chemists to testify at every drug trial. There was a concerted effort to get around this new ruling, or better yet to get the Supremes to reverse themselves.

So in Briscoe, Virginia tried to get around the rule by saying the prosecution only needs to introduce a lab report, and if the defense wants to confront the chemist then the defense can subpoena the chemist as a witness.

More than half the state attorneys-general filed an amicus brief, arguing that the expense and administrative burden of getting chemists to testify at trial would just be (more…)

Ninth Circuit Bungles Math, Can the Supremes Fix It?

Tuesday, September 1st, 2009

Prosecutor's Fallacy

The “Prosecutor’s Fallacy” is one example of why we think Statistics should be a required course in college. Let’s say the police have the DNA of a rapist. Only 1 in 3,000,000 people chosen at random will match that DNA sample. Your DNA matches. At your trial, the DNA expert testifies that you have only a 1 in 3,000,000 chance of being innocent. That is not correct, however. That’s an example of the Prosecutor’s Fallacy.

Yes, there is a very small chance that someone’s DNA would match if they were innocent. But that is not the same as saying there’s a very small chance that someone is innocent if their DNA matches.

This is basic conditional probability. And if you think about it, it’s just common sense. What you’re doing is switching the conditions around, and leaving the result unchanged. You can’t expect to change the conditions and not change the result.

To illustrate with an extreme example, we drew the picture you see above. A black circle indicates a DNA match. All guilty people are going to have a DNA match, obviously. And a tiny fraction of innocent people are going to have a DNA match, as well. But if the number of innocent people is large enough, then the number of innocent people whose DNA matches could actually be larger than the number of guilty people. Someone whose DNA matches is actually more likely to be innocent in that scenario.

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Prosecutors and DNA experts aren’t the only ones who get this wrong. Courts do, too. The Ninth Circuit recently made a hash of it in their decision in McDaniel v. Brown, which will now be one of the first cases to be heard by the Supreme Court at the start of this year’s October term.

In McDaniel v. Brown, Troy Brown was prosecuted for the alleged rape of a little girl. The facts are pretty gruesome, but irrelevant here. What’s relevant is that, at his trial, the DNA expert testified that Brown’s DNA matched the DNA in the semen found on the girl, that there was a 1 in 3,000,000 chance that someone’s DNA would match, and that therefore there was a 1 in 3,000,000 chance that Brown was innocent.

Brown got convicted. He later brought a habeas petition to the District Court. He introduced a professor’s explanation of how the prosecution had screwed up. The District Court expanded the record to include the professor’s explanation, and found that the DNA expert had engaged in the Prosecutor’s Fallacy. In part because of that (there was also a chance it could have been his brother’s DNA), the District Court found there wasn’t sufficient evidence to convict.

The government appealed to the Ninth Circuit.

Now, the Ninth is known for being touchy-feely. It’s not known for its analytical prowess. Posner, they ain’t. But they bravely tackled this statistical conundrum. And they screwed up.

In trying to deal with the prosecution’s error, the Ninth swung too far in the other direction, finding that the DNA evidence at Brown’s trial couldn’t establish guilt, period. No jury could have found Brown guilty.

So the government took it to the Supreme Court, making two arguments. One is procedural — that the habeas court shouldn’t have been able to consider the professor’s explanations, but only the trial record, in determining the sufficiency of the evidence before the jury. The other argument is that even though the chances of Brown being innocent weren’t 1 in 3,000,000 they were still pretty damn low, and the DNA evidence is still plenty sufficient.

Brown’s lawyers, to their credit, don’t seem to be arguing that the Ninth Circuit did it right. Instead of characterizing the decision below as ruling on the sufficiency of the evidence, Brown’s attorneys argue that it was really a Due Process ruling. The testimony wasn’t so much insufficient as it was incorrect. It was unreliable. This is bolstered by the fact that the Ninth Circuit ordered a new trial (which Double Jeopardy would preclude after a finding of insufficient evidence, but which is standard after a Due Process finding of unreliable evidence.)

That’s not the way the Ninth characterized its ruling, however, so Brown wisely suggested that the Supreme Court might simply kick the case back for the Circuit to explain its ruling better.

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Oral arguments are scheduled for October 13. We haven’t made any predictions yet about the upcoming term, so we’ll start here.

We think the state will convince Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsberg and Alito of the following:

(1) The Ninth Circuit improperly remanded for a new trial, which is improper after a finding of insufficiency; and

(2) At any rate, the Circuit improperly found the evidence to be insufficient, when there was plenty of evidence of guilt.

We think that Justices Stevens and Breyer (we have no clue about Sotomayor) will dissent, arguing that the jury was totally thrown by the DNA expert’s mischaracterization, that this was a Due Process violation at the very least, and that the DNA evidence probably should have been thrown out entirely, so the Ninth Circuit should be reversed and the District Court’s original ruling should be reinstated.

What are the odds that we’re really right? Who wants to do the math?

First Attempt to Admit MRI Lie Detector Evidence in Court

Wednesday, March 18th, 2009

brain scan

In October, we reported that functional magnetic resonance imaging (better known as fMRI) is being touted as an honest-to-goodness lie detector. Unlike a polygraph, which required interpretation of physical bodily reactions, an fMRI looks at real-time brain activity to see if brain areas associated with lying are activated during any given answer.

The issue, of course, was whether such evidence would be admissible in court. Polygraphs aren’t admissible (except in New Mexico) because they’re more art than science. But fMRI is all science, and brain scans are already widely admissible at sentencing. They are now de rigeur in capital cases, and the Supreme Court based its ruling precluding execution of adolescents on brain scan evidence.

When we wrote about it, the issue was purely hypothetical. Nobody had yet tried to introduce such evidence in court. But now, a court in San Diego is going to have to decide that very issue.

The case is a child protection hearing. The defendant is a parent accused of committing sexual abuse. Defense counsel is seeking to introduce fMRI evidence for the purpose of proving that the defendant’s claims of innocence were not lies.

If admitted, this will be the first time fMRI evidence will be used in an American court.

The fMRI in this case was performed by a San Diego company with the somewhat uninspiring name “No Lie MRI.” The company’s name isn’t so much an issue, however, as the actual reliability of these tests on an individual basis.

Although general regions are known to be associated with lying, logic, decision making, etc., their specific location in each individual varies. So some baseline analysis would be required for any person, so that his brain activity during questioning can be compared to a valid exemplar of his own actual brain.

fMRI basically measures oxygen levels in the brain’s blood vessels. When a part of the brain is being used, that part of the brain gets more blood. Studies have indicated that, when someone lies, more blood is sent to the ventrolateral area of the prefrontal cortex.

Only a few studies have been done on how accurate fMRI is at identifying specific lies, though their figures range from 76% to 90% accuracy. (For more info, see Daniel Langleben’s paper Detection of Deception with fMRI: Are we there yet? Mr. Langleben owns the technology licensed by No Lie MRI.) Ed Vul of MIT’s Kanwisher Lab told Wired.com that it’s too easy to make fMRI data inaccurate, because a defendant who knows what he’s doing can game the procedure too easily.

Of course, the big challenge to the defense in this case will be establishing that fMRI lie detection is generally accepted within the relevant scientific community. As with any other novel scientific evidence, if the relevant community is defined narrowly enough, it can come in. The trick would be in determining how narrow the relevant scientific community is in this case. If it includes researchers like Mr. Vul, for example, the defense is going to have a hard time. Even Mr. Langelben, who owns the technology used here, is on record saying that not enough clinical testing has been done to establish how reliable it really is.

We predict that the evidence will not be admitted. Down the road, sure, this stuff will come in on both sides. But right now it’s too new. Courts just don’t go out on a limb for truly novel evidence like this.

And besides, they’re trying to admit it to prove the truth of the defendant’s own statement. The issue is not whether he was lying when he declared that he believed himself to be innocent, however. The issue is whether he committed the acts of which he is accused. Whether he thinks he did or not isn’t really the point. It might be relevant at the sentencing phase of a criminal trial, but not at the fact-finding phase here.

Food Fraud Prosecutors Caught Selling Snake Oil

Friday, March 13th, 2009

snake-oil.png

Judge Posner issued a scathing decision yesterday for the 7th Circuit, reversing a jury’s fraud conviction and directing an acquittal. Why? Because the only fraudulent misrepresentations were those of the prosecutor.

The decision is great, and we plan to use some of it in our own future arguments. Sadly, it is just the latest in a string of recent cases where federal prosecutors — uncharacteristically — have far overstepped the bounds. We hope it’s not becoming a trend.

In U.S. v. Farinella, the government accused Farinella of fraudulently misleading consumers by slapping a new label over the “best when purchased by” date. The Justice Department alleged that this altered the dates on which “the dressing would expire.”

But the Justice Department was itself misleading when it said so. The dressing had a very long shelf life indeed — in fact, it has no expiration date. There is no time after which one shouldn’t eat it. The “best when purchased by” date was merely a marketing ploy. “For all we know,” Posner wrote, “the date is determined less by a judgment about taste than about concern with turnover.” Nevertheless, the government consistently referred to the date as the “expiration date,” routinely misleading the jury and the court.

Posner made an outstanding observation during his discussion of the government’s expert testimony. They had called an FDA employee, whose testimony strongly implied that changing food labels requires FDA approval. But though that may be the expert’s understanding, it wasn’t actually a requirement.

For it “to be a lawful predicate of a criminal conviction,” Posner wrote, it would “have to be found in some statute or regulation, or at least in some written interpretive guideline or opinion, and not just in the oral testimony of an agency employee.”

He then gave us white-collar defense attorneys a wonderfully quotable ruling: “It is a denial of due process of law to convict a person of a crime because he violated some bureaucrat’s secret understanding of the law. The idea of secret laws is repugnant. People cannot comply with laws the existence of which is concealed.”

There was no evidence of misbranding, and so the defendant had to be acquitted. However, even if there had been evidence, the Circuit would have reversed and ordered a new trial, because the Justice Department’s misconduct was beyond the pale.

As already pointed out, the prosecution repeatedly misrepresented the facts, referring to the “best when purchased by” date as the “expiration date.” In her closing argument alone, the prosecutor substituted that phrase 14 times.

The prosecutor further misled the jury when she told them that the “best when purchased by” date “allows a manufacturer to trace the product if there is a consumer complaint, if there is illness, if there is a need to recall the product.” That’s not remotely true, and there was no public safety issue with what the defendant did.

She made several more arguments hinging on implied threats to public safety: “If what he did was business as usual in the food industry, I suggest we stop going to the store right now and start growing our own food. . . . In spite of all this talk about the quality of the dressing, I don’t see them opening an of these bottles and taking a whiff. . . . [The defendant was indifferent to] safety. . . . The harm caused by the fraud was to public confidence in the safety of the food supply.” She called the still perfectly fine bottles “truckfulls of nasty, expired salad dressing.” She said that after the “expiration date” the dressing was no longer “fresh,” so the defendant “had to convert the expired dressing into new, fresh product.”

During rebuttal arguments, the prosecutor said “Ladies and gentlemen, don’t let the defendant and his high-paid lawyer buy his way out of this.” Then she went on to say “Black and white is our system of justice, ladies and gentlemen. You have to earn justice; you can’t buy it.” The implication that the defendant might be trying to bribe his way to an acquittal should have resulted in a warning of mistrial, but only resulted in sustained objections.

The Justice Department repeated its misrepresentations in its brief, using the phrase “expiration date” and hinting at public safety concerns. But the trial prosecutor’s misconduct alone was sufficient for the Circuit to order a new trial, and the only reason they didn’t do so was because there was no evidence in the first place, resulting in a directed acquittal.

“That does not detract from the gravity of the prosecutor’s misconduct and the need for an appropriate sanction,” Posner was quick to point out, however. “The government’s appellate lawyer told us that the prosecutor’s superior would give her a talking-to. We are not impressed by the suggestion.”

Posner finished his opinion with a nice kicker: “Since we are directing an acquittal on all counts, the sentencing issues are academic and we do not address them, beyond expressing our surprise that the government would complain about the leniency of the sentence for a crime it had failed to prove.”

Ouch.

More Allegations of Prosecutorial Misconduct in Sen. Ted Stevens Case

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

prosecutorial-misconduct-2.png

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.

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!

Can Skilling Get a New Trial?

Friday, January 9th, 2009

Jeff Skilling

On Tuesday, the Fifth Circuit ruled on Jeff Skilling’s appeal from his conviction in the Enron case, upholding the conviction, but sending the case back for re-sentencing. Skilling may be able to raise a Brady issue on remand, as well, so the case doesn’t seem to be over. The opinion is 106 pages long, so we will summarize the ruling and its meaning for you here.

Skilling challenged his conviction, on the grounds that the government’s theory of “honest services” fraud was wrong. The government’s case let the jury decide on three purposes of Skilling’s conspiracy, one of which was to deprive Enron of the honest services of its employees. Because the jury returned a general verdict, if any one of those legal theories was insufficient, then the verdict must be reversed.

Skilling focused on the honest services theory, arguing that it was insufficient because his actions were done to give Enron a higher stock price, so it was in the corporate interest. He didn’t act in secret, and wasn’t self-dealing.

In making this argument, Skilling relied on the Circuit’s previous Enron case, United States v. Brown, 459 F.3d 509. In that case, a loan secured by Nigerian barges was fraudulently booked as revenue. The defendants in that case were specifically ordered by their CFO, Andy Fastow, to carry out the deal. Not only did they believe that Enron had a corporate interest in the scheme, and was a willing beneficiary of it, but their superiors ordered and approved their actions. Furthermore, they were paid more depending on whether they successfully achieved the goal.

The Court held that Skilling’s reliance on Brown was misplaced. The Brown rule absolves low-level employees of liability for honest-services fraud when:

1) the employer creates a particular goal,
2) the employer aligns the employees’ interests with the employer’s interest in achieving that goal, and
3) higher-level management authorizes or orders improper conduct in order to reach the goal.

Here, the first two conditions were met, but the third was not. Condition 1 was met when Enron created a goal of meeting Wall Street earnings projections. Condition 2 was met as Skilling got paid more if Enron met those projections. But condition 3 was not met, as there was no evidence that anyone besides Skilling authorized his conduct. The Board tacitly approved several of the underlying transactions, but never authorized him to engage in fraudulent conduct.

Because the third condition was not met, the Brown rule does not absolve Skilling of his liability. His conviction was therefore upheld.

With respect to sentencing, Skilling argued that the district court got the Guidelines calculation wrong, and that the sentence is unreasonable under §3553. The Court didn’t get to the §3553 issue, because it held that the Guidelines calculation was indeed incorrect, and a court has to do the Guidelines right before the §3553 factors come into play.

Skilling appealed a §3C1.1 two-level enhancement for obstruction of justice, and a §2F1.1(b)(8)(A) four-level enhancement for jeopardizing a financial institution.

The §3C1.1 enhancement was based on a determination that Skilling perjured himself as to his sale of Enron stock right after he resigned from the company. He’d tried to sell his stock while still CEO, but it would have had to be reported. So he resigned, then tried to sell his stock. But then September 11 happened, and he wasn’t able to sell until September 17. Skilling testified to the SEC that his order to sell on September 17 was due to his concerns over the market’s reaction to 9/11. The judge decided that was perjury.

On appeal, skilling didn’t argue that it wasn’t perjury. Instead, he argued that the court should have suppressed his SEC testimony in the first place, because the SEC misled him as to the fact that the investigation was criminal in nature.

The Circuit, however, pointed out that suppressible evidence can still be used at sentencing, and none of the exceptions to that rule apply here. The Court also found no justification for the original perjury. So the two-level enhancement was proper.

The §2F1.1(b)(8)(A) enhancement was based on the finding that Enron’s retirement plans were “financial institutions” for the purposes of that Guideline. Retirement plans aren’t specifically mentioned in the Guideline’s definition, which enumerates a long list of included entities. Various kinds of pension funds are included, however. And the list does include a catch-all “any similar entity.”

With respect to “pension funds,” the Guidelines don’t define the term. But a pension requires more than just employee investment for later payout — a pension has definitely determined payouts. Here, the retirement funds didn’t have specific benefits, they were just there as a pool for funding any benefits that might be given. So the Court decided they didn’t count.

With respect to the catch-all, apart from pension funds, the Guideline definition lists classic financial institutions like banks, investment houses, and the like. The Court did not want to expand the definition to declare every corporate retirement plan to be a financial institution.

Because the retirement plans weren’t financial institutions, the four-level enhancement was improper. So Skilling’s sentence was vacated, and the case was remanded for resentencing.

In addition to these main issues, the Court also rejected Skilling’s other challenges to his trial. Giving a “deliberate ignorance” instruction was at worst harmless error. None of the other jury instructions were problematic. The venue was proper. There was no prosecutorial misconduct.

Interestingly, however, the Court specifically stated that Skilling can raise Brady issues on remand. An FBI interview note showed that Andy Fastow didn’t think he had discussed a certain list with Skilling. This was omitted from the formal “302” report provided to the defense. Skilling claims that Fastow was talking about a list of talking points that Fastow had testified at trial he actually had discussed with Skilling.

The Circuit found this troubling, but the trial court never saw the notes or ruled on this claim, so nothing could be decided on appeal. But the Court instructed that “Skilling must bring this claim to the district court before we can address it.”

Therefore, Skilling might be able to get a new trial! If Skilling can show that there was a Brady violation, this case could be far from over. The government claims that the list in question is unrelated to the case, however, so we’re just going to have to wait and see.

Thought Police?

Monday, October 20th, 2008

brain scan

Guilt or innocence, one might say, is all in the mind. After all, there are very few crimes that can be committed without the requisite mens rea, or mental state. If we’re going to punish someone, their acts cannot have been mere accident. We want to know that they had some knowledge that their actions could cause harm, and we want that awareness to be sufficiently high as to require punishment.

The standard criminal levels of mens rea are “negligence” (you ought to have known bad things could happen), “recklessness” (you had good reason to believe that bad things would probably happen), “knowledge” (bad things were probably going to happen), and “intent” or “purpose” (you wanted bad things to happen). If your foot kicks someone in the ribs while you’re falling downstairs, you’re not a criminal. But if you kick someone in the ribs because you don’t like them, then society probably wants to punish you.

We cannot know what anyone was thinking when they did something, however. So we rely on jurors to use their common sense to figure out what an accused must have been thinking at the time.

In recent years, however, there have been enormous advances in neuroscience. Brain scans, the software that processes the data, and good science have approached levels that would have been considered science fiction as recently as the Clinton years. Experts in the field can see not only how the brain is put together, but also what an individual brain is doing in real time. Experimental data show which parts of the brain are active when people are thinking certain things, with good detail.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), in particular, can act as a super lie-detector. Instead of measuring someone’s perspiration and heart rate while they answer questions during a polygraph exam, fMRI looks at actual real-time brain activity in areas having to do with logic, making decisions, perhaps even lying. Experimental data of large groups is pretty good at identifying what parts of the brain are associated with different kinds of thinking.

Every brain is slightly different, of course. Brain surgeons have to learn the individual brain they’re operating on before they start cutting. So general group data don’t translate to an individual person 100%. So any lie-detector use for fMRI would have to require some baseline analysis before proceeding to the important questions.

The issue is whether it will be admissible in court. Polygraph tests generally aren’t admissible, because they’re more an art than a science. But fMRI is all science. In addition, brain scans are already widely admissible for the purpose of reducing a sentence because the defendant had damage to his brain. As forensic neuroscience expert Daniell Martell told the New York Times in 2007, brain scans are now de rigeur in capital cases. In Roper v. Simmons, the Supreme Court, ruling that adolescents cannot be executed, allowed brain scan evidence for the purpose of showing adolescent brains really are different.

Outside the United States, brain scans have already begun to be used by the prosecution to show guilt. In India, a woman was recently convicted of murdering her ex-boyfriend with the admission of brainwave-based lie detection. There was other evidence of guilt as well, including the fact that she admitted buying the poison that killed him. But the brainwave analysis was admitted.

There are deeper policy issues here. Is reading someone’s brain activity more like taking a blood sample, or more like taking a statement? The Miranda rule is there, at heart, because we do not want the government to override people’s free will, and force them to incriminate themselves out of their own mouths against their will. That’s why the fruits of a custodial interrogation are presumed inadmissible, unless the defendant first knowingly waives his rights against self-incrimination. And because the DNA in your blood isn’t something you make of your own free will, by taking a blood sample against your will the government has not forced you to incriminate yourself against your will.

So is a brain scan more like a blood sample? Is it simply taking evidence of what is there, without you consciously providing testimony against yourself? Or will it require the knowing waiver of your Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights before it can be applied?

We’re interested in your thoughts. Feel free to comment.