Posts Tagged ‘prosecutorial misconduct’

Is Open File Discovery a Cure for Brady Violations?

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

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

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

Yeah, but …

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

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

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

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

The proper concern is whether (more…)

Manhattan D.A. has problems. This may be why.

Saturday, July 2nd, 2011

This morning’s WSJ has a short article with a long headline, “Manhattan DA Is Put on Defensive: Vance’s about-face on bail in sexual-assault case follows two high-profile court defeats for office.”  The blurb from the website’s front page summarizes the story pithily: “The newly surfaced problems in the sexual-assault prosecution against Strauss-Kahn represent the latest of several recent high-profile setbacks for Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.”

We’re a proud alum of the office, but lately the office has had a different vibe, one that make us less proud.  Outside the investigative division, which so far as we can tell has remained as professional as ever, there seems to be a distinct shift away from the higher standards of the Morgenthau office towards those of lesser offices.  Although it hasn’t gone quote the way of, say, Nassau County, the change has been clearly noticeable.

In this morning’s article, the DA’s spokeperson tried to defend the office’s handling of the Strauss-Kahn case.  In doing so, she made a key statement that seems to explain what’s going wrong:

“At every step of the way, the district attorney’s office made the right decisions. We pursued an account of a sexual assault that was corroborated by witnesses, electronic evidence and DNA evidence. That evidence was more than enough to present to a grand jury, which indicted the defendant. After the indictment, the district attorney made clear that the investigation would continue and prosecutors would take the case wherever the facts led. Today, we did just that.”

This is a defense?  Cy, if you’re reading this, that statement is an indictment of your office, not a defense.

First of all, if you only have enough evidence for an indictment, you don’t seek an indictment.  We were trained not to write up a case unless it was one we were confident we could prove beyond a reasonable doubt at trial.  The evidence sufficient to obtain an indictment is laughingly slim — one only needs to convince a bare majority of the grand jury that it’s probably more likely than not that the crime could have happened, on the barest evidence that has not been tested or challenged in any way.  If the best you can say of your evidence is that is is “enough to present to a grand jury,” then you need to keep investigating.

Second, “after the indictment, the district attorney made clear that the investigation would continue and prosecutors would take the case wherever the facts led?” Are you shitting us?  You mean you sought an indictment before you’d even completed your investigation?  That’s the kind of amateurish, shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later approach we’ve come to expect of the embarrassingly bad DA’s offices.  It’s not what the Manhattan DA’s office is supposed to do.  No, you’re supposed to complete your investigation first, and only then seek an indictment.  You don’t go to the grand jury until (1) the investigation is complete, (2) the investigation has convinced you that the suspect is guilty and that you can prove this guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at trial, and (3) you’ve made a policy determination that prosecution is the right thing to do in this case.  Ideally, but not required, one also (4) presents the opportunity for a pre-indictment plea, which in our experience often leads to discussions that can shut down a misguided prosecution before it’s gone too far.

We’ve certainly seen more of this reckless prosecution lately, and it’s never been to the credit of the office.  Each time, it’s only made the office look worse.  And we’re not the only ones noticing.  When we speak with other defense colleagues about this, almost all are in agreement that this change under Vance has only damaged the office’s reputation.

It’s a shame for the office, of which we would like to remain proud.  It’s a shame for Vance, whom we genuinely like and want to see succeed.  But it’s worse than shameful to shoot from the hip like this, trying to score points at the expense of the lives of real people.

ABA Tells Courts to Provide Detailed Brady Checklists

Monday, February 14th, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

Study Finds Rampant Prosecutorial Misconduct in California

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Pattern of Misconduct by Federal Prosecutors?

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

When we left the Manhattan DA’s office some years ago, we firmly believed that prosecutorial misconduct was as rare as it was despicable.  We can’t think of a single one of our colleagues for whom it would have even occurred to cut corners, and it certainly would not have been tolerated by the bosses.  Everyone was just… decent.  The culture wasn’t so much a dogfight as a collegial, practically patrician, management of cases.  Admittedly, we didn’t have much contact with prosecutors from other offices, but surely they couldn’t have been that different.  We all had the same job, to seek justice rather than mere convictions.  And as for federal prosecutors… well, they were just like us, right?  If anything, their culture was even more collegial, and even less likely to result in (ick) prosecutorial misconduct.

As any reader of this blog can tell, we’ve been disillusioned by the reality that prosecutorial misconduct is not only more common than we would have believed, but that it is committed with disturbing frequency by federal prosecutors.  A couple of years ago, we were disquieted by what was going on in the Ted Stevens fiasco.  A year and a half ago, we saw that Judge Posner had to direct an acquittal in a case where the feds made fraudulent misrepresentations, and we wrote that we hoped this wasn’t becoming a trend.  A couple more instances later, we were asking what the heck was going on.  The pattern has only continued since then.  (Here’s a roundup link to our posts tagged for “prosecutorial misconduct.”)

So this morning we were sadly not surprised to read (in USA Today, of all places) a lengthy discussion of the growing problem of prosecutorial misconduct by federal prosecutors.  You can read the whole thing here.

What’s going on?  The article posits that (more…)

Another reason to hate NY’s “Hate Crimes” law

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

snake_oil_hate_criminal

“Hate” is not an element of New York’s “hate crime” law.  You don’t have to hate to commit a hate crime.  Instead, the law merely requires that you have “a belief or perception” regarding a person’s race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, religion, religious practice, age, disability or sexual orientation.  (The legislature could have saved a lot of bother by simply saying “a characteristic of a person over which that person has no control.”  That’s the policy they’re pursuing, even if they don’t realize it.)

There’s a list of eligible crimes at PL §485.05(3).  If you commit one of those crimes, and if you either chose your victim or committed the crime because of such “a belief or perception,” then you are guilty of a hate crime in New York, and now face harsher punishment.

This is a pretty vague statute.  You don’t need to have any specific belief or perception about someone, just “a” belief or perception.

The Queens DA’s office — already known more for its zeal than for its sense of justice — has now taken that vagueness to its logical extreme.  They’ve taken the reductio ad absurdum and made it office policy.

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The New York Times reports today that the Queens DA has been going after people who defraud old people, not because of any animus towards old people, but because of a belief about old people.  Namely, that old people are easy to defraud. 

Ordinarily, such frauds do not carry any mandatory jail time.  But if charged as a hate crime, they carry mandatory upstate prison time.  Can it be that the legislature really intended this outcome?

By the Queens DA’s logic, every scam targeted at the elderly is a hate crime, because the scam rests on a belief that old folks are easy to scam. 

By this same logic, any (more…)

Prosecutorial Extortion

Monday, June 7th, 2010

 

Extortion is a kind of threat.  A threat that’s so bad, it’s criminal.  For a threat to be criminal extortion, it needs to be of a kind to make someone do something against his will, that’s adverse to his own interests.

Threatening to kill a child if the parents don’t give you money, for example, would be extortion.  So too would be a civil lawyer’s threat to file criminal charges — even if such charges are warranted — if the other side doesn’t pony up with a settlement.  Another example is when a government official threatens to use his position to do something he’s perfectly entitled to do in the first place, unless the victim does him a favor first.

There are lots of examples of extortionate behavior.  But these last two examples demonstrate that the threatened action doesn’t itself have to be against the law.  The civil lawyer could go ahead and press criminal charges, but threatening to do so is against the law.  Ditto for the government official whose threat to merely do his job is a crime.  The point isn’t whether the threatened action is itself criminal, but whether the threat causes such fear as to override someone’s free will.

This is basic stuff.  Not exactly cutting-edge law here.

So how come nobody seems to have litigated the Queens (New York) District Attorney’s practice of extorting speedy trial waivers from defendants?

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In New York, there are a few different kinds of (more…)

Federal Sentencing: A Long Way to Go

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

guidelines

Tonight, we attended a panel discussion on federal sentencing that was actually worth commenting on. Usually, these things are either so basic or insubstantial as to be a waste of time. But this one had a few choice moments we’d thought we’d share with our readers.

The panelists included John Conyers (Chairman of the House judiciary committee), William Sessions (Chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission and Chief Judge of the District of Vermont), Jonathan Wroblewski (policy director for the DOJ, among other things), Alan Vinegrad (former US Atty for the EDNY and now a white-collar partner at Covington), Tony Ricco (mainstay of the federal defense bar), and Rachel Barkow (NYU professor, didn’t speak much). It was moderated by Judge John Gleeson of the EDNY, and we recognized in the standing-room-only audience a number of distinguished jurists and counsel.

Everyone seems to agree that the Guidelines are in need of a major overhaul. As Judge Gleeson put it, “when even the prosecutors are saying that sentences are too severe… the sentences are too severe.”

But not everyone agrees on what changes ought to be made, how drastic the changes ought to be, or even what’s causing the problems in federal sentencing.

Here’s the take-away: Everyone knows what the right thing to do is. Judges want to do the right thing, regardless of what the Guidelines say. The DOJ forces its prosecutors to do what the Guidelines say, regardless of what they think is just. Congress is incapable of doing the right thing, in its efforts to pander and blame rather than solve. And the Sentencing Commission is afraid to be independent of Congress, preferring instead to make baby steps toward eventually maybe doing the right thing.

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“Unnecessary cruelty”

For as long as we’ve been practicing law, everyone has been complaining bitterly about (more…)

Conviction Rates Matter

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

ruins

On Sunday, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a lengthy article on that city’s abysmal conviction rate for violent crimes. For every three violent-crime arrests in Philadelphia, only one results in a conviction. There are a lot of worse-sounding statistics in that article, but they’re completely meaningless, as they refer only to convictions of the top count, ignoring the reality of plea bargaining. Still, this meaningful stat, the one-in-three conviction rate, is appalling.

Worse than that, about ten thousand violent arrestees walked, no conviction at all, in 2006 and 2007. Only 8% of that number were found “not guilty” after trial. The remaining 92% walked after their cases were dropped or dismissed.

At the same time, FBI stats show that Philadelphia has the highest violent-crime rate of all the big cities.

Coincidence? Of course not.

Violent-crime defendants aren’t getting convicted, and violent crimes are through the roof. There is causation there.

Conviction rates matter. A low conviction rate means the system is broken. If it was working, the rate would be 70% or higher. 33% = broken. Broken means people are being prosecuted for crimes when they shouldn’t have been charged in the first place. Broken means people aren’t getting punished for their violent crimes. And society suffers both ways.

We blame the prosecutors. More on that in a bit.

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The Philadelphia courts have created a public perception that violent crime will not be punished. The odds of getting convicted are minor, and the odds of taking a felony are even lower. It doesn’t take too long for people to figure that out. And the bulk of crimes are committed by people who have frequent contacts with the criminal justice system. This critical demographic repeatedly experiences that the odds are in their favor. The system keeps reinforcing this perception that, if you commit a violent crime, you’ll probably get away with it.

Perception is everything in this system. In order to prevent crimes from happening, our system relies heavily on the deterrent effect of punishment. Deterrence is important. It doesn’t affect crimes of passion in the heat of the moment, but most crimes involve some planning or forethought, and those are the ones we want to make people think twice before committing. Whether they think twice or not depends on what they think might happen.

If people generally believe that a criminal act will probably result in punishment, then they will generally avoid that behavior. This would be true even if such acts were never actually punished (think of the budget savings, increased productivity, and human value society could preserve if we could devise such a system!). And the converse is true — if every criminal act got punished, but nobody realized it, then all that punishment would have zero deterrent effect.

In general, our system tends to fall somewhere between the two extremes. There is an amorphous sense that people can get caught, and that most of those who do get caught wind up getting punished. This perception results in a general background level of deterrence that’s meaningful.

Most law-abiding folks add a huge layer of deterrence on top of that, arising from the morals and ethics ingrained during their socialization and upbringing. But those folks aren’t the ones the criminal law really cares about. The law isn’t designed to deter them; it’s designed to deter those who would gladly commit such crimes if they didn’t they’d get punished.

Such people come from all walks of life. Sure, there are plenty of thugs from anarchic streets, who couldn’t care less about their victims or the rules. But there are also the spoiled suits who are just the same, caring nothing for their victims and thinking the rules don’t apply to them. For every crime, there are opportunists of every stripe.

And if the system fails to create the right perceptions, opportunists are going to take advantage of the perceived opportunities… obviously.

And that’s what’s happening in Philadelphia, it seems.

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How did it happen? The Inquirer has 6 ideas. We think one or two might even be worth considering.

1) First, the Inquirer says that witness intimidation is working. Witnesses and their families are known to get killed in that city. That scares potential witnesses, who decline to come forward. So cases can’t be proven, and get dismissed or result in minimal plea bargains.

The way we see it, the number of such instances is vanishingly small, but the visceral significance of such instances is dramatic, and so the statistics have a lot more weight than they perhaps deserve.

Regardless, we still have a major problem with this explanation: What are the prosecutors thinking? If you don’t have your witnesses lined up, if you are not in a position to prove your case at trial, you have no business filing charges in the first place. You investigate before charging someone with a crime, not after. It is this blog’s position that any prosecutor who files charges before being able to prove them beyond a reasonable doubt is committing misconduct. The better prosecutors’ offices don’t allow such behavior.

But if the Philly prosecutors are having to get rid of cases because they couldn’t round up any witnesses, that means they were charging these cases prematurely and unethically.

So this “witness intimidation” excuse is really nothing more than a symptom of a deeper problem — that the Philly prosecutors are jumping the gun, and then having to deal with the consequences. And the result of their behavior is a public perception that violent criminals can get away with it. Well done, that DA.

2) The caseload is too high. The judges are too busy, says the Inquirer, so they “put a premium on disposing cases” rather than going to trial.

That’s just nonsense, of course. The vast majority of cases everywhere are disposed of before trial. It’s not the judges who make it happen, either. Defendants agree to plea bargains that cut their losses. Prosecutors agree to plea bargains that result in a fair sentence. And both sides avoid the enormous uncertainty, expense and risks of going to trial.

Plea bargaining does not begin to explain how two-thirds of violent arrestees don’t wind up getting convicted, nor does it explain a public perception that violent criminals are probably going to get away with it.

3) The Inquirer points to the statistic that nearly 10,000 violent-crime defendants had their cases dropped or dismissed in ’06 and ’07.

Again, this means to us that the finger must be pointed squarely at the DA’s office. What the heck are they doing, charging 10,000 people with crimes they couldn’t prove? Cases get dropped or dismissed because they shouldn’t have been charged in the first place. This statistic shows an appalling lack of judgment on the part of the Philly prosecutors.

What are they doing, just charging everyone who got arrested? Perhaps. It’s a sad fact that there are some DA’s offices out there who think it’s their job to zealously advocate for the conviction of everyone who got arrested. But of course that is not only not their job, it’s unethical for them to behave that way.

Prosecutors are given enormous power and discretion, and it is an abuse of that discretion not to exercise it in the first place. They’re supposed to first figure out whether the case should and could be prosecuted, before wasting time and treasure on a pointless case, and dragging people through a horrific process. And they’re certainly not supposed to delegate their discretion to the police, who have neither the authority nor the purpose to exercise it. But those DA’s offices that simply take on every arrest are doing precisely that.

Maybe instead they’re just charging people without proof, in the hopes of getting a plea bargain, and hope nobody calls their bluff. That’s nothing short of criminal extortion, if true.

It should be nigh impossible to dismiss a case, unless there is newly-discovered evidence, or the interests of justice demand mercy. Otherwise, there ought to have been enough evidence to take the case to trial before charges were ever filed. This staggering statistic demonstrates that the DA’s office is charging thousands of people with crimes, when they had no business doing so.

4) The Inquirer says the DA’s office doesn’t track how well or how poorly its cases fare, and as a result cannot prioritize the work of its 300 prosecutors.

That’s sort of irrelevant, really. 300 prosecutors is plenty. The Manhattan DA handles way more cases, and better, with not many more ADAs.

And prioritizing who’s working on what isn’t really something the stats ought to affect. A significant number of losses and dismissals are an indicator that a particular prosecutor might need to be reassigned, but wins and losses don’t affect where you focus your manpower. It’s really just a supply-and-demand thing — put the bodies where they’re needed, that’s all.

5) Philadelphia’s courts are uncoordinated. The basic logistics of getting the parties and witnesses together for trial becomes a disorganized fustercluck of delay. Eventually, cases just collapse because they can never be brought to trial. Defense attorneys know this, and take advantage of it.

We can’t speak to how things work in Philly, having never practiced there. But this doesn’t sound too much different from state court in New York. Unlike federal court, where your trial date is your trial date, NY state courts just set date after date until by lucky chance everyone is ready to go at the same time. It’s pointless and inefficient as hell, but it doesn’t seem to be a huge problem. Most cases get there sooner or later. (Our magic number is usually 5 — if we’ve answered ready four times, it’ll usually go on the fifth. YMMV.)

Getting the cops to show up is a hassle for state prosecutors everywhere. Cops think they’re job is done when they made the arrest, court keeps them from making more arrests, and they don’t like being cross-examined any more than the next fellow. But that’s a simple fact of life everywhere, and doesn’t explain why Philly’s any different. Ditto for herding cats and witnesses. And ditto for defense attorneys who take advantage of the government’s inability to get its act together. It happens everywhere. It’s really irrelevant here.

6) Finally, the Inquirer says the courts aren’t enforcing bail. “Defendants skip courts with impunity,” so that there are nearly 47,000 fugitives in that town. “Impunity” means they never forfeit their bail. The city courts estimate “a staggering $1 billion” in supposedly forfeited bail remains uncollected. Fugitives don’t get convicted, because they’re not in court.

That is appalling. The whole point of bail is to ensure a defendant comes back to court, by holding his money hostage. The defendant puts up his cash or gets a loan from a bondsman. If the defendant doesn’t show up when he’s supposed to, he loses his cash or the collateral for the bond.

But if the defendant never forfeits his bail, then bail serves no purpose.

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Whatever the reason, the conviction rate in Philly is so low as to be counterproductive. The DA’s office is acting in ways that increase, rather than decrease, the incentives to commit crimes.

People are being chewed up by the criminal justice machine when they never should have been charged in the first place. Not all of them got dismissed or acquitted. Who knows how many more went through it and went to jail? And criminals are committing more crimes with impunity. Everyone suffers.

This low conviction rate is merely a symptom of a deeper illness. The DA’s office is charging people when it shouldn’t be. It’s either jumping the gun before enough evidence is in, or it’s abusing its discretion and taking on every single arrest, or it’s trying to extort pleas. From the evidence in this article, it looks like the DA’s office is the disease at the root of it all.

There’s going to be a new DA there in January. We’ll see if he does anything about it. In the meantime, on the whole, we’d rather not be in Philadelphia.

We’re Back, Did Ya Miss Us?

Friday, November 20th, 2009

So Much Win

Finally, the trial that would. not. end. is over. Three weeks to try a case that should have taken no more than five days. In the case that just would not end, either. The arrest was more than three years ago — that’s plenty long to have a felony case hanging over your head.

Especially one as over-charged as this one. A responsible prosecution team would have charged maybe 3 counts in this case. But for reasons unknown, the folks who originally brought the case in 2006 went into insane overkill mode, charging 18 counts.

Now, finally, 15 of those original 18 counts have been acquitted or dismissed. A lesser-included thrown in there at trial, to give them a second bite at the top count, was also dismissed. All the big charges got kicked, along with most of the little ones. The jury only said “guilty” to three of the b.s. minor charges that had been tacked on to this bizarrely over-charged indictment.

We’re calling this one a win, because this is precisely the outcome the client wanted on day one. It’s what he’s repeatedly asked for over the three years this case has been going on. And yet, from the get-go, this prosecution team has obstinately insisted on a plea to the charge, from day one. (They did so even after the judge, after their main witness had been pretty much destroyed in a day and a half of cross, firmly suggested that the offer be made.) It took three years, and three weeks of trial, to get to where this case should have been at arraignment. Where it would have been, had these prosecutors done the right thing.

Why didn’t they? Good question.

We come from the Manhattan DA’s office, where this sort of thing just isn’t done. This was not the crime of the century, there were no victims, nobody got hurt. The defendant didn’t commit perjury in a grand jury, not having testified. In a halfway decent DA’s office like Manhattan, the prosecutors would have exercised their prosecutorial discretion, as is their duty, and extended an offer.

But here, the prosecutors abused their discretion, by not exercising it in the first place. If you think that sounds like misconduct, we’re not sure we don’t disagree with you. But we’re still not sure, so we’re not identifying the office in question.

The likely reason is that there was a clash of personalities between the original prosecution team and the original defense team, which then became institutionalized over time.

The official reason, however, is just as unjustifiable. The official reason is that the defendant did not let the prosecutors break the law.

In New York, when a defendant hasn’t made bail and so remains in jail after arrest, we have a “speedy charge” rule. The government has six days to get an indictment, or else he gets released so he can do the rest of the case without posting any bail.

These prosecutors wanted the client to waive that requirement. They wanted him to agree to stay in jail for as long as they needed to get their act together and get an indictment in their own time. Because he didn’t, they said they would never make any plea offer whatsoever.

This is their official office policy, it seems.

And yet that is totally improper. It is nothing more than a policy forbidding the exercise of prosecutorial discretion, in retaliation for the mere refusal to give up one’s rights. That’s wrong on at least three levels.

That retaliatory aspect probably also explains why they over-charged this case so dramatically in the first place. And why they persisted in refusing to make an offer even after it was perfectly clear that they’d never get a conviction on any of the felonies.

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Whatever the reason, they lost big-time here. The jury threw them a bone on some of the little stuff, but they can’t see that as a win. It’s nowhere near what they’ve wanted for three long years, what they got so invested in.

So yeah, we’re calling this a win. Not an epic win, but definitely a win.

-=-=-=-=-

Well, now we’re back, and we’ll have more time to blog on what’s going on out there. Plenty has gone on in the past three weeks — from the Bear Stearns acquittal, to Lynne Stewart starting her prison sentence, to a cop tasing a 10-year-old girl who wouldn’t take a bath. But it’s too late to blog in a timely fashion on those things. Sigh.

Oh well, there’s always more! Criminal law does not disappoint.

(Okay, we can’t resist. The girl who got tased? What’s up with that? We’re not talking about the cop using such extreme force on a little girl. We’re not all that concerned that he only got disciplined for not having a camera on the taser. We’re not even perturbed that he responded to a call of, essentially, “come arrest my kid who won’t take her bath.” We’re angered at the mom who made the call, and all the other moms out there just like her. This is a common symptom of the what Big Government programs and entitlements have done to ruin the very classes of people they were meant to help. We now have had generation after generation of people in inner cities and elsewhere who have been raised to expect government to do everything for them. They never have personal responsibility. Government provides all, does all. It also controls all. It takes charge of everything. When that’s all you know, then you reasonably expect government to take charge all the time. So moms commonly call the cops to make their kids clean their room, go to school, etc. The same moms (almost never raising these kids with a dad), lacking in a certain quale of personal responsibility, seem also to share the inability to properly rear and socialize their offspring. So these kids sometimes wind up getting locked up after the police arrive. And then the moms call their public defender in tears, unable to believe why their kid is locked up. Unable to comprehend the inevitable answer: “Ma’am, you put him there.” This is of a piece with the reasons why projects turn into ratholes, because it’s nobody’s responsibility to take care of them, it’s the government’s job. Why the schools suck, because the single factor affecting the quality of a school, parental involvement, is entirely absent because it’s not the parents’ job to educate, it’s the government’s job. This is a mindset that does not naturally occur in Americans. Maybe in Europe, where they are used to thinking of themselves as subjects rather than citizens, where the government has all the power and thus all the responsibility. But not in America. The only reason this mindset exists is because our well-intended big-government programs and institutionalization first removed the incentive to take care of oneself, and then destroyed the ability to do so. Rant off.)

Yet More Prosecutorial Misconduct by the Feds

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

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We’ve asked it before, but what the heck is going on with some of these federal prosecutors nowadays? There was the whole Ted Stevens fiasco over the winter, when the feds actively withheld exculpatory evidence and witnesses in their rush to convict the former Senator. Then the 7th Circuit directed an acquittal after the feds blatantly misrepresented the facts in a food labeling case. The W.R. Grace case was screwed by federal prosecutors who withheld exculpatory evidence and gave the judge reason to say he has “no faith in anything the Government says” any more.

And now we get yet another case of the feds blatantly misrepresenting the facts. This time, the 9th Circuit reversed and ordered a new trial, though it’s doubtful that there will be another one.

The case is U.S. v. Reyes, decided this morning. This was one of those options backdating cases that were all over the news for a while back in ’06 and ’07. (“Backdating” is when a company retroactively picks an effective date for stock options, so as to maximize the potential value of those options. It’s a crime when the extra value isn’t accounted for as an expense, because then the books give investors a false image of the company’s finances.)

Gregory Reyes was the CEO of Brocade Communication Systems. In August 2006, Reyes was charged with securities fraud and related crimes for backdating options without properly accounting for them. At trial, his defense was that he had no intent to deceive. He just signed off on the options in good-faith reliance on his company’s Finance Department.

High-ranking Finance Department employees had given statements to the FBI, describing how they knew all about the backdating scheme. But they didn’t testify at trial. Instead, the prosecution called a Finance Department employee who said she didn’t know about the backdating.

The prosecutor was well aware of the fact that others in the department knew all about it. But during closing arguments, he told the jury that the Finance Department employees “don’t have any idea” that backdating was going on.

After several days of jury deliberations, Reyes was convicted. He was sentenced to 21 months in prison with $15 million in fines. That was stayed pending appeal.

This morning, in an opinion byJudge Schroeder, the 9th Circuit held that this was prosecutorial misconduct, and reversed the conviction, ordering a new trial. Reyes argued that he didn’t know the Financial Department wasn’t accounting properly for the backdating, and the feds argued that the Financial Department didn’t know about the backdating. So that was a key question for the jury to decide. And the feds had lied to the jury.

And this wasn’t just a simple little throwaway line, either. The prosecutor did not even limit his argument to the testimony of the witness he’d cherry-picked to give the false impression that nobody in the Finance Department knew about it (which might actually have been permissible). No, the prosecutor:

asserted as fact a proposition that he knew was contradicted by evidence not presented to the jury. In direct contravention of the statements given to the FBI by Finance Department executives that they did know about the backdating, the prosecutor asserted to the jury in closing that the entire Finance Department did not know about the backdating, and further that the government’s theory of the case was that “finance did not know anything.”

“Our theory is that those people didn’t know anything. . . . [The cherry-picked witness] says finance didn’t know. Did you need everybody in the Finance Department to come and tell you that they didn’t know?”

The government even displayed for the jury a diagram explaining the prosecutor’s position that the Finance Department did not know of the backdating. The prosecutor asked the jury to assume other employees of the Finance Department would testify that they did not know about Reyes’ backdating procedure, when the prosecutor knew they did.

Federal prosecutors have “a special duty not to impede the truth.” As the 9th Circuit pointed out today, there is good reason to hold prosecutors to a higher standard: Their words carry the weight and imprimatur of the government itself, which can be very persuasive to a jury.

The 9th Circuit didn’t go so far as to direct an acquittal or dismiss the indictment, because the defense had also played it pretty aggressively. Instead, they ordered a new trial. It is anyone’s guess whether the feds will be up to the task of trying the case all over again, years after the fact. But we’ll go out on a limb and predict that this case will never see a jury again.

For crying out loud, feds! And for shame.

DOJ Tries To Sweep Its Ted Stevens Fiasco Under the Rug

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009

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We try not to report here on matters that everyone else in the world is already talking about. That’s why we’ve said nowt on Bernie Madoff and other headline-grabbing stories. For the same reason, we decided yesterday not to mention the DOJ’s request to dismiss the charges in its prosecution of former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens — everyone else was already reporting it. And we’ve already discussed the DOJ’s misconduct at length here and here.

But we wanted to point out a big point that the media seem to be missing. Most reports see this as a vindication of former Sen. Stevens, and a sign that prosecutorial misconduct will not be tolerated by the DOJ. In fact, however, the DOJ’s action means anything but that.

Stevens was convicted last October after a jury trial in D.C., during which the government withheld important Brady material — the judge said the prosecutors did so intentionally, and an FBI agent later confirmed that it was intentional. In addition, the prosecutors had a witness who, when they found out his testimony could clear Stevens of any guilt, they sent home to Alaska to conceal him from the defense. There were also inappropriate dealings between FBI agents and the government’s star witness, including an apparent sexual relationship.

The prosecutors continued to screw up, failing to turn over documents to the defense as ordered by the judge after all this came out. Understandably, the prosecutors were held in contempt, and taken off the case.

The case had gone from a trumpeted victory for the DOJ, to a squalid embarrassment.

So now, yesterday, the DOJ filed a motion to have all the charges against Sen. Stevens dismissed. They’re holding it out as a heroic act, that they’re doing the just and proper thing, that AG Holder is sending a message to prosecutors at the DOJ that further misconduct will not be tolerated.

We call shenanigans.

This dismissal of the charges is nothing more than an attempt to sweep the whole nefarious affair under the rug. The case goes away, so the problem goes away. There will be no further need for the scrupulous investigation of what went wrong at Justice. There will be no need to hold costly and embarrassing internal reviews. There will be no need for further media scrutiny.

The DOJ should not be permitted to escape whipping, by its own unilateral decision to drop a case. That’s not good enough.

This prosecution of this case was bizarre from the get-go. It was rushed to indictment hastily, mere days before the primaries in an important election (in violation of DOJ rules prohibiting indictments that could affect the outcome of an election, by the way). The prosecutors intentionally withheld evidence that seems to show the Senator didn’t commit the crime he was accused of. They violated court orders. They tried to hide a key witness from the defense. And ironically, these were prosecutors in the Public Integrity unit, of all things.

Now they want to make it all go away. Here’s hoping that Congress, the courts and the media see through this little ploy, and keep on investigating just what the heck is going on in the DOJ these days.

Supreme Court: If Prosecution Breaches Plea Deal, OBJECT!

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009

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Voting 7-2, the Supreme Court today ruled that a defendant cannot appeal when the prosecution reneged on a plea bargain, unless the issue was preserved before the trial court.

In his majority opinion for Puckett v. U.S., Justice Scalia cleared up a split among the circuits. There had been differing opinions on whether this situation was one of the exceptions to the general rule requiring that issues be preserved below. He sort of signaled his take on the issue with his first sentence: “The question presented by this case is whether a forfeited claim that the Government has violated the terms of a plea agreement is subject to the plain-error standard of review set forth in Rule 52(b) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.”

The facts of the case are going to sound familiar to anyone who’s been doing criminal law for very long. The defendant was indicted for armed robbery, and negotiated a plea deal. As part of the deal, the prosecutors promised to tell the court that he “has demonstrated acceptance of responsibility and thereby qualifies for a three-level reduction…” But then, after the plea but before sentencing, the defendant got in trouble again, this time for a scheme to defraud the Postal Service. The prosecutors changed their mind, in light of this new information, and told the sentencing court that the defendant should *not* get credit for accepting responsibility.

The defense attorney called foul, and reminded the court of the terms of the plea agreement. The judge turned to the prosecutor, who dismissed it as having been written a long time ago, and the new crime changed the situation. The judge decided that he couldn’t grant a reduction, and wouldn’t even if he could, given the new crime. He did impose a sentence at the low end of the range, however.

“Importantly,” to Scalia, “at no time during the exchange did Puckett’s counsel object that the Government was violating its obligations under the plea agreement by backing away from its request for the reduction. He never cited the relevant provision of the plea agreement. And he did not move to withdraw Puckett’s plea on grounds that the Government had broken its sentencing promises.”

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit held that error had occurred, and it was obvious, but it did not cause prejudice, so it was not “plain error.” Basically, the defendant couldn’t demonstrate that his ultimate sentence would have been any different, whether the prosecution had recommended the reduction or not, given the judge’s disinclination to grant it in the first place.

But there was a conflict among the circuits as to whether the plain-error test applies to unpreserved claims of breached plea agreements. So the Supreme Court granted cert.

In finding that Rule 52(b) does apply to unpreserved claims of breached plea agreements, Scalia started with the principle that plain-error review is rightly the norm for unpreserved errors, because “anyone familiar with the work of courts understands that errors are a constant in the trial process, and that a reflexive inclination by appellate courts to reverse because of unpreserved error would be fatal.” Exceptions to the normal rule do exist, of course. But should this situation be one of them?

Everyone took it as given that the government had broken its agreement. The issue is whether, in the absence of an objection below, anything could be done about it on appeal here.

The defendant first argued conceptually that the government’s breach of the plea agreement made that agreement void, and so voided the guilty plea. Scalia pointed out that breaching a contract does not make the whole contract void and invalid from the first; the contract remains enforceable.

The defendant next argued that there was precedent in *Santobello*, where a broken plea promise was grounds for reversal in the interests of justice, even though the breach did not affect the judge’s decision and thus the error was harmless. Scalia countered that whether or not an error is harmless is not the issue here, which is whether the error can be subjected to plain-error review. In *Santobello*, moreover, the issue clearly had been preserved below.

The defendant then argued that applying Rule 52(b) makes no sense, because objecting to a plea breach is futile; the prosecution’s wrongful action cannot be undone. The judge will have heard the improper recommendation, and can’t unhear it. Scalia stated that requiring an objection prevents defendants from “seeking a second bite at the apple” after waiting to see if they like the outcome or not. Also, some breaches are curable. And those that aren’t can be remedied by the trial court, such as by withdrawal of the plea, or by resentencing before a different judge.

The biggest point the defendant raised was that plea breaches fall within “a special category of forfeited errors that can be corrected regardless of their effect on the outcome,” so that even if there was no prejudicial effect, there still ought to be a reversal.

Scalia responded by categorizing the exceptions that do exist: errors that “necessarily render a criminal trial fundamentally unfair or an unreliable vehicle for determining guilt or innocence,” or that “defy analysis by harmless-error standards by affecting the entire adjudicatory framework,” or which involve “difficulty of assessing the effect of the error.”

None of those considerations applied here, so Scalia decided that this situation just didn’t fit as an exception to the general rule.

Justice Souter, joined by Justice Stevens, dissented. Although the defendant wasn’t terribly sympathetic, and although they agreed that the plain-error test is the right one to apply here, the dissenters felt that the Court was looking at the wrong effects.

The majority (and apparently the parties, too) looked at the effect of the error as merely being the length of the sentence, which probably wasn’t affected here. Souter, in contrast, saw the effect as being “conviction in the absence of trial,” or in the absence of “compliance with the terms of the plea agreement dispensing with the Government’s obligation to prove its case.”

The criminal conviction itself, not the length of sentence, is the effect on substantial rights according to Souter. Due Process and fundamental fairness require, “before the stigma of conviction can be imposed,” either a trial or a plea agreement honored by the Government. “It is hard to imagine anything less fair,” he stated, “than branding someone a criminal… because he entered a plea of guilty induced by an agreement the Government refuses to honor.” Sentencing after the prosecution breached a plea agreement would always, by definition, be plain error.

Justice Souter’s approach is, of course, attractive to those who value the fairness and integrity of jurisprudence. However, it is hard even for this defense attorney to agree that all such sentences are necessarily plain error, especially when an adequate remedy (getting to take one’s plea back) is available if the defense attorney is paying attention.

Food Fraud Prosecutors Caught Selling Snake Oil

Friday, March 13th, 2009

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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.

Sen. Stevens Prosecutors Held in Contempt, Taken Off the Case

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

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We took an unexpected trip out of state until yesterday, and so haven’t had a chance to catch up on the latest in the ongoing saga involving allegations of prosecutorial misconduct in the Sen. Ted Stevens case. When last we left off, District Judge Emmet Sullivan had ordered a status hearing for last Friday, the 13th.

In Friday’s status hearing, Judge Sullivan held four DOJ lawyers in contempt, for failing to turn over 33 documents to the defense. These documents pertained to December’s whistleblower claims of FBI agent Chad Joy, which had raised concerns of prosecutorial misconduct.

The judge had ordered these documents turned over on January 21. At first, the prosecutors said the documents were protected by the work-product doctrine. But then, even though they later determined that the doctrine did not apply, they still didn’t hand them over to the defense. At the hearing, the DOJ couldn’t give a good reason for the non-production, and so the judge held the lawyers in contempt.

The contempt order was imposed against William Welch II, the chief of the Public Integrity Section of the DOJ which had prosecuted Sen. Stevens. Also held in contempt were Brenda Morris, the section’s deputy chief and the lead prosecutor at trial; Patricia Stemler, chief of the Appellate Section of the Criminal Division; and Kevin Driscoll, a trial attorney with the Public Integrity Section. The order against Driscoll was revoked the following day, however, as he had only recently joined the prosecution team, and had not been a party to the relevant pleadings. Judge Sullivan stated that he would not impose sanctions until the case was over.

On Monday, Welch announced that the trial team of Brenda Morris, Nicholas March and Edward Sullivan were off the case, and would have no further role in the litigation of the charges of prosecutorial misconduct. This only makes sense, as they are necessarily witnesses to their own conduct, and will probably need to testify themselves. What is surprising is that the DOJ waited so long to take this simple action.

Welch added that the government will now turn over internal DOJ documents related to agent Joy’s allegations of misconduct, including memos and emails of the trial prosecutors. Again, what is surprising is not that this material is being disclosed, but that it took so long to do so. This notwithstanding Welch’s statement that the DOJ “understands that the interests of the parties and the public will be advanced by a prompt airing of these claims, and that additional delay relating to the whistleblower-status issue does not advance that cause.”