Tag: prosecutorial misconduct

A Case that ‘Should Never Have Been Prosecuted’

One of last month’s notable legal stories drew surprisingly little attention in the general press. In Maryland, U.S. District Court Judge Roger Titus ordered the acquittal of Lauren Stevens, a former in-house lawyer for drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline, who had been charged with obstructing a federal investigation. In strong language, Judge Titus said Stevens “should never have been prosecuted” and that allowing the case to go forward to a jury “would be a miscarriage of justice.” [White Collar Crime Prof, Main Justice, FDA Law Blog (“stunning… Black Tuesday for the government”)].

The prosecution was part of a wider trend in which the federal government has been more aggressively asserting civil and even criminal claims against lawyers and company employees who resist government charges and investigations. The danger, of course, is that with their own careers, fortunes, and liberty on the line, defense and organizational lawyers and employees will be scared out of taking even legitimate positions the feds may find displeasing.

The Stevens case arose after the Food and Drug Administration investigated GSK’s marketing of the drug Wellbutrin. Lawyers, responding on behalf of the drugmaker, failed to furnish all the information the FDA considered itself entitled to, and federal prosecutors from the U.S. Department of Justice proceeded to “forage through confidential files” (as the judge later put it) in search of some sort of criminality to pin on Stevens, the team’s leader.

In her defense, Stevens said she had at all times relied in good faith on information provided her by company employees and had consulted and followed other lawyers’ advice on doubtful issues. Not good enough: the feds proceeded to charge her with six counts, including making false statements, obstructing justice, and concealing documents.

The flimsiness of the DOJ’s case appears to have disturbed Judge Titus, a law-and-order-oriented jurist who had never ordered a bench acquittal in his seven years as a federal judge. The confidential documents on Stevens’s work, he wrote, “show a studied, thoughtful analysis of an extremely broad request” from the FDA and were based on “good faith,” not an attempt to assist a client in fraud.

After the stunning dismissal, the U.S. Department of Justice was quite unapologetic, a top official suggesting that its prosecutors intended to do nothing differently in future. And unfortunately, there are few incentives for them to learn any lessons.

Especially when it comes to defendants like Fortune 500 in-house counsel, the pressure and the risks of facing off against the federal government are so great that many or most will take a plea bargain, deferred-prosecution agreement, or some other kind of deal rather than resist the onslaught, even if they believe themselves to have done nothing wrong. Lauren Stevens and her colleagues stood up and fought back — for which they deserve our respect and even our gratitude.

More on the Siobhan Reynolds Case

Building on Ilya Shapiro’s post on the sealed grand jury proceedings against Siobhan Reynolds, founder of the Pain Relief Network, and the sealed Reason Foundation/Institute for Justice amicus brief, here is some more background on the Wichita witch hunt:

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Wichita, Kansas, indicted physician Stephen Schneider and his wife, Linda, a nurse, for illegal drug trafficking in December 2007. Reynolds found an eerie parallel between Schneider’s case and the prosecution that denied her husband pain medication, so she took action. Her public relations campaign on behalf of Dr. Schneider so annoyed Assistant U.S. Attorney Tanya Treadway that Treadway sought a gag order to bar Reynolds’s advocacy. The presiding judge denied the gag order.

When the judge denied Treadway’s gag order, Treadway instead subpoenaed Reynolds for records related to Reynolds’s PR campaign against the prosecution of the Scheiders. Ms. Reynolds resisted the subpoena and tried to challenge it in court, but the $200 daily fine intended to ensure compliance with the subpoena has left Reynolds pretty much bankrupt.

This case represents the worst of government excesses in federal overcriminalization and overzealous prosecution. The federal government continues to treat doctors as drug dealers, as Ronald Libby points out in this Cato policy analysis. The grand jury, intended as a check on prosecutorial power, instead acts as an inquisitorial bulldozer that enhances the power of the government. My colleague Tim Lynch examined this phenomenon in his policy analysis A Grand Façade: How the Grand Jury Was Captured by Government.

Cato Adjunct Scholar Harvey Silverglate examined the case of Dr. William Hurwitz in his book, Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent. The DEA turned a few of Hurwitz’s patients into informants and prosecuted Hurwitz. When Hurwitz shuttered his practice, two of his patients killed themselves because they could not get prescriptions for necessary painkillers. Siobhan Reynolds’s husband, another of Hurwitz’s patients, could not get essential medication and died of a brain hemorrhage, likely brought on by the blood pressure build-up from years of untreated pain.

Ninja bureaucrats continue to treat doctors that prescribe painkillers as tactical threats on par with terrorist safehouses. When the DEA raided the office of Dr. Cecil Knox in 2002, one clinic worker “thought she and her husband, who was helping her in the office that day, would be shot. She looked on in horror as an agent put a gun to his head and ordered, ‘Get off the phone! Now!’” Radley Balko chronicles this unfortunate trend in Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America, and the Raidmap has a separate category for unnecessary raids on doctors and sick people (sorted at the link).

Prosecutorial Misconduct

A federal prosecutor’s misconduct tilted the scales of justice against Antonio Lyons, an Orlando businessman. Lyons served three years in prison before his attorney discovered statements from a witness that differed from the testimony given at trial. That was just the tip of the iceberg.

For more than a week in 2001, the jurors listened to one witness after another, almost all of them prison inmates, describe how Lyons had sold them packages of cocaine. One said that Lyons, who ran clothing shops and nightclubs around Orlando, tried to hire him to kill two drug dealers.

But the federal prosecutors handling the case did not let the jury hear all the facts.

Instead, the prosecutors covered up evidence that could have discredited many of Lyons’ accusers. They never disclosed that a convict who claimed to have purchased hundreds of pounds of cocaine from Lyons struggled to identify his photograph. And they hid the fact that prosecutors had promised to let others out of prison early in exchange for their cooperation.

An investigative project by USA Today documented 201 cases from across the nation in which federal judges found that prosecutors broke the rules. It includes a database and interactive map chronicling prosecutorial misconduct. Read the whole thing.

Check out Tim Lynch’s In the Name of Justice: Leading Experts Reexamine the Classic Article “The Aims of the Criminal Law” and Harvey Silverglate’s Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent for more on the criminal justice system.

Cameras, Crime, and Terrorism

The attempted bombing in Times Square brought terrorism and the capabilities of surveillance cameras to the top of the headlines this week. As I pointed out in my Politico piece, cameras have not proven an effective deterrent to terrorist attacks. Cameras are generally useful in piecing together the plot after the attack (not so much in this case, since police were looking for a middle-aged white man and not a young Pakistani male) and helped in this capacity in the Madrid, London, and Moscow commuter system bombings.

I discuss the usefulness of cameras in this podcast:

Whether cameras are helpful enough to justify massive spending to install more of them in New York is another matter. NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly seems to think so, even though it’s already been the site of significant surveillance funding from the federal government. Steve Chapman remains skeptical of them, and former NYPD counterterrorism cop Michael Sheehan is honest enough to admit that their value is in investigating attacks, not deterring them. London has a million cameras, making it the most heavily-surveilled city this side of Pyongyang. Though sold on a joint counterterrorism-crime rationale, they did not deter the 7/7 bombings and roughly 80% of crime in London goes unsolved. Of the cleared cases, roughly one in a thousand is a camera success story.

As Roger Pilon points out, cameras are useful in law enforcement operations outside of blanket surveillance. They can deter excessive use of force and other unlawful conduct by police officers or at least provide a means of punishing those responsible, as they did in the recent beating of University of Maryland student. Police officers realize this, and actively deter filming their questionable activities.

A camera is an honest cop’s best friend. It can provide a defense against groundless claims of brutality. At least eleven states and 500 local jurisdictions require that interrogations be videotaped. Beyond the protection of civil liberties and preventing false or coerced confessions, these videos make for highly probative evidence. The jury gets a window into the interrogation room. The defendant’s mannerisms, demeanor, and a lack of police coercion tied to the defendant’s statements make for good, and more transparent, policing.

Trouble in Georgia: The Tonya Craft Trial

William Anderson has been blogging about a child abuse prosecution underway in Georgia in which  Tonya Craft is accused of abusing her daughter.  The daughter, some of her friends (and their parents), and Ms. Craft’s ex-husband are witnesses for the state — so Ms. Craft needed and obtained a good defense lawyer.  However, there is only so much a defense lawyer can do when the prosecutor and the judge in the case start breaking rules.  

Anderson’s account of the prosecutorial and judicial misconduct is shocking.  Here’s a sampling:

  • A Facebook status update written by the prosecutor, with comments left by witnesses for the pending trial.
  • A mother claiming on the stand that her daughter had never taken acting classes, yet with information on IMDB that suggests she’s taken acting classes in Atlanta (that information was dismissed by the judge).
  • The judge sitting on the case represented the defendant’s husband in their divorce, but refused to recuse himself from the case.

More here.  Some are comparing this case to the Duke lacrosse players who were railroaded by Michael Nifong.  That case — bad as it was — fell apart before the trial got underway.  This case is in trial right now and the judge is compounding the prosecutorial abuses.

Anderson had a recent article in Cato’s Regulation magazine.  For more Cato work on prosecutorial misconduct, go here and here.

The Crusade against Sexting

As my colleague Tim Lynch pointed out in this post, the Third Circuit recently upheld an injunction against a prosecutor who threatened charges against teenagers who engaged in “sexting.” A conviction would have turned these minors into registered sex offenders for flirting via cellphone. Professor Eugene Volokh has more on the decision.

“Sexting” is sending an explicit photo of yourself to your significant other, and is an increasingly common occurrence with high school–aged teens. It’s dumb — those digits don’t ever go away, and they can come back to embarrass you — but it shouldn’t make you a sex offender.

Unfortunately, the laws don’t reflect this sensible distinction between poor teenage judgment (but I repeat myself) and intentional criminality. I don’t think this guy is a threat to society, but he’s a registered sex offender now.

Even staunch conservative Andy McCarthy expressed concern about the heavy mandatory minimums for possession of child pornography over at The Corner. First-time offenders can get 15-year minimum sentences, more than some of the mobsters that McCarthy prosecuted as an assistant U.S. attorney. As McCarthy puts it:

I think that’s nuts. And mind you, compared to the average person (and even the average prosecutor), I am Atilla the Hun: I would not have the slightest problem imposing capital punishment on the people who actually produce and “perform” in these depictions in which young children are sexually abused…

But the mandatory minimums have to be sensible — “Doing it for the children” is not a rationale for failing to distinguish the truly evil from the venial.

This is why Vermont legislators carved out an exemption for sexting so that teens would not be charged as child pornographers and registered as sex offenders. The video at the link shows Vermont State Senator John Campbell making the case for such a legal distinction:

If a 14- or 15-year old girl, let’s say, decides to send a photograph of her breast to her boyfriend who is 15, she has just then become a transmitter of child pornography and he is in possession of child pornography, and as such, then they are now on the lifetime registry, the sex offender registry. So take that a little bit further, and see what’s going to happen. We have a child who now, as a registered sex offender, if they are lucky to get into college, because they have to register when they get to college. If they’re fortunate enough to get there, and they want to, let’s say, go into a teaching profession. Do you think that they’re going to be hired as a teacher when they have been charged with possession of child pornography? The answer is probably not.

Internet safety advocate Donna Rice Hughes responds: “They don’t have to go into a sex offender registry. There is prosecutorial discretion currently in the child pornography laws.”

We should not create a criminal code broad enough to give prosecutors the ability to charge anybody with something, and then leave it to the prosecutors’ good sense to rein themselves in.

It would certainly be dangerous if the legislature could set a net large enough to catch all possible offenders and leave it to the courts to step inside and say who could be rightfully detained, and who should be set at large.”

— Chief Justice Morrison Waite, United States v. Reese, 92 U.S. 214, 221 (1875)

The problem goes beyond sexting. Last year the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security held a hearing on “cyberbullying” legislation that would have criminalized using the internet to hurt someone else’s feelings. Setting aside the First Amendment issues with such a concept, this was a bill directed at making a federal felony out of teenagers’ rude conduct, in spite of the fact that there are no federal juvenile detention facilities to deal with this newly criminalized class of citizens.

Vermont’s sexting fix is a good start, but we have a long way to go before our laws again reflect traditional notions of criminal justice.

Judge Dresses Down Federal Prosecutors

When we hear the phrase “witness intimidation” we’re likely to think of a gang member who is on trial or about to go on trial and, to evade justice, tries to have key witnesses change their story so the case will collapse.  We hardly ever hear about cases where the prosecutors try to intimidate witnesses.  But it happens.  In an extraordinary proceeding this week in Santa Ana, CA, a federal judge reprimanded prosecutors for contemptible conduct toward witnesses.  This story needs telling.

Here’s the gist of the case: William Ruehle was charged with criminal securities law violations.  Mr. Ruehle’s defense was that his actions were always made in good faith – that he did not act with criminal intent.  That’s an important aspect of the case.  To take another example that most people can relate to, we all know the tax code is very complicated.  People (including IRS employees) make honest mistakes about it all the time.  Under the law, the government can only make a case for criminal tax evasion if it can persuade a jury that the person accused knew what the tax law required and proceeded to violate it anyway.  

Crucial to Mr. Ruehle’s defense were three witnesses whom he wanted to call on his behalf at trial.  They were familiar with his business dealings and would support his good faith defense.  That was the plan anyway. 

In preparation for trial,  prosecutors embarked on an outrageous mission to “flip” or  destroy the defense witnesses.  One lady was fired from her job after prosecutors called her employer and spread innuendo.  Prosecutors then pressured her into pleading guilty to some offense that allegedly took place seven years earlier  – a very peculiar prosecution under the surrounding circumstances.  And then her plea deal was contingent upon this lady changing her story to support the prosecution, not Mr. Ruehle.  Taking all this in, the judge said he had ”absolutely no confidence that any portion of [this lady’s] testimony was based upon her own independent recollection of events as opposed to what the government thought her recollection should be on those events.” 

And that’s just one witness.  It gets worse.

Here, in summary, is how Judge Cormac J. Carney viewed the case:

I have a solemn obligation to hold the government to the Constitution.  I’m doing nothing more and nothing less.  And I ask my critics to put themselves in the shoes of the accused. 

You are charged with serious crimes and, if convicted on them, you will spend the rest of your life in prison.  You only have three witnesses to prove your innocence and the government has intimidated and improperly influenced each one of them.  Is that fair? Is that justice?  I say absolutely not.

Judge Carney proceeded to dismiss the case before the jury could begin its deliberations because the government’s conduct was so egregious. 

Some of the defense attorneys in the courtroom said that they had started their careers as prosecutors and that they were well aware that there is a “cloak of credibility” when prosecutors represent events to employers, reporters, and judges.   (Ask yourself what you would think if a prosecutor told you that “Mary Smith is an unindicted co-conspirator in our on-going investigation…”) Watching this judge correct a miscarriage of justice, they said, was one of the most remarkable events they had witnessed in their legal careers.  They hoped the judge’s ruling would be heard “throughout the country.”

The ruling is only about 15 pages, double spaced.  Read the whole thing (pdf).  (Really – do it this time!)  I was obviously not present during the proceedings in this case, but it is an extraordinary move for a federal judge to dismiss a case, with prejudice, during a trial.  It is my view that the conduct  of the prosecution must have been truly blatant. 

This seems like a true scandal.  In a just world, the prosecutors would now be investigated for criminal witness intimidation and for professional misconduct by bar associations.  Judge Carney’s opinion should be reprinted verbatim in law school textbooks to teach future judges to keep their eyes open, to keep an open mind, to be impartial, and to beware of those with a “win-at-all-costs” mentality.

For related Cato work, go herehere, and here.