Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

You Shouldn’t Be Criminally Liable If You Don’t Have a Guilty Mind

Todd Farha, CEO of WellCare Health Plans, was convicted of knowingly executing a fraud by submitting false expenditure reports to the state. However, the district court decided that “knowingly” didn’t actually have to mean that Farha knew that the reports were false, but only that in submitting the reports Farha acted with “deliberate indifference” as to whether they were accurate. Essentially, a non-lawyer was convicted for being insufficiently cautious in adopting an interpretation of an ambiguous regulatory statute.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit upheld Farha’s conviction even in the absence of the required statutory mental-state element (what lawyers call mens rea). The appellate court decided, in agreement with the district court, that deliberate indifference toward falsity may stand in for knowledge of falsity. The practical implication is that the court lowered the mens rea standard and used a civil standard of liability to a criminal case. (You can be liable in a civil lawsuit even if you’re not guilty for criminal-punishment purposes.)

Cato has now filed a brief supporting Farha’s request that the Supreme Court review his case. The lower court’s holding is out of step with precedent, with bedrock principles of statutory interpretation regarding the mental-state elements of a criminal offense, and with common sense notions of justice. The most egregious aspect of the ruling is that mens rea elements are seen as so crucial to the criminal law that the Supreme Court has been willing to read them into a statute when the statute is silent regarding necessary mental state.

Yet the Eleventh Circuit took the opposite approach and read out of the statute mental-state elements that make the crime too hard to prosecute. This decision is especially troubling in an era of over-criminalization, with an estimated 300,000 separate federal crimes. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that many of the crimes are inherently complex, leading to ambiguity in underlying regulatory-compliance requirements that makes it incredibly challenging for people to understand what they must do to avoid liability.

Unfortunately, instead of attempting to rectify some of this ambiguity, the court here added more ambiguity—because arguably any crime can have a lower mental-state requirement added by the court at trial. This ruling has given prosecutors more weapons and made it even harder for businesses to comply with rampant regulations and made their owners and officers subject to arbitrary legal jeopardy. Many people will now be stripped of their liberty simply on the grounds of an incorrect interpretation of complex and ambiguous statutes. With the deck already stacked in favor of the government—and with myriad civil remedies available—there’s no logical reason to add the weapon of a diluted mens rea to the government’s arsenal.

For further discussion of Farha v. United States and other issues attending regulatory crimes, tune into this Federalist Society teleforum today at 3pm ET (and the audio recording should appear at that link later).

Trump’s Executive Orders on Crime

Yesterday, President Trump’s pick for Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, was sworn into his office. Trump used the occasion to sign three executive orders relating to crime.  In this post, I want to briefly scrutinize these orders and explain what impact they may have on our criminal justice system.

One order calls for the creation of a task force on crime reduction.  The new Attorney General will appoint people to the task force and they will meet and discuss ideas and make recommendations for Trump. A second order is titled “Preventing Violence Against Federal, State, Tribal, and Local Law Enforcement Officers.” This order is also about exploring new ideas and strategies to “enhance the protection and safety” of law enforcement officers.  The third order concerns enforcing federal law against transnational criminal organizations that employ violence and derive revenue “through widespread illegal conduct.”  Working groups will be established to discuss ideas and make recommendations to Attorney General Sessions and President Trump.

Police Executive Order Invites Overfederalization

Yesterday, President Trump signed three executive orders to focus federal resources on fighting drug cartels, increasing overall public safety, and preventing violence against law enforcement officers.

Perhaps the most worrisome of these is the directive to “pursue appropriate legislation…that will define new Federal crimes, and increase penalties for existing Federal crimes, in order to prevent violence against Federal, State, tribal, and local law enforcement officers.”

While law enforcement officer safety is important, there is no evidence that local or state officials have been reluctant to capture and punish those who commit violence against police. Moreover, there is little empirical evidence that more punitive sentences deter crime generally.

Court Ruling on Executive Order: Bad Legal Work All Around

This is a dog’s breakfast of a ruling on a dog’s lunch of an executive order. Somehow the Ninth Circuit judges manage to write 29 pages without discussing the heart of the matter: whether the Immigration and Naturalization Act, specifically section 1182, gives the president the power to do what he did. Nebulous discussions of due process may be nice (or not) but they’re superfluous if the president went beyond his statutory authority. But apparently the court didn’t care about that. 
 
And of course this whole mess could’ve been avoided if the executive order had gone through proper interagency review in the first place, as well as being more narrowly tailored. As it stands, it’s both over- and under-inclusive. It’s over-inclusive because it sweeps in green card and other visa holders who’ve already gone through “extreme vetting,” as well as non-threatening graduate students and sick kids. It’s under-inclusive because it doesn’t even attempt to target the actually risky pool of nationals from non-covered countries (including European ones) who may have become radicalized—and doesn’t offer any concrete reforms to the visa- or refugee-vetting systems that could actually diminish the risk of terrorism on U.S. soil.
 
In short, this is a judicial failure that compounds an executive one. Perhaps it’s time for the legislative branch (Congress) to step in and fix our broken immigration system once and for all. 
 
The second paragraph was edited to clarify the over/under-inclusivity point.

The Right to Hope for Jury Nullification

Jae Lee came to the United States legally as a child but never became a citizen. In 2009, he pled guilty to a drug crime after his lawyer assured him that he could not be deported as a result. The lawyer was wrong, because the conviction made Lee subject to mandatory removal.

When Lee learned of this mistake, he asked the court to vacate his plea so he could instead face trial, arguing that his counsel’s assistance was ineffective. The district court denied this motion because of the overwhelming evidence against Lee, ruling that his conviction at trial was so certain that his counsel’s bad advice didn’t actually harm him, particularly given the much longer prison sentence he would receive if convicted after trial.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit agreed that a jury wasn’t needed to determine Lee’s guilt and that denying the “chance to throw a Hail Mary at trial is not prejudicial” and therefore doesn’t violate Lee’s Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. The court reasoned that that the only chance Lee had was acquittal by “jury nullification” and thus such a gambit was so irrational—and the idea of nullification so antiquated—that it is not to be allowed.

Lee is now pressing the matter at the Supreme Court, which has agreed to hear his argument, which Cato is supporting with this amicus brief. The idea of an independent jury’s nullification power is encompassed in the original meaning of the Sixth Amendment. Colonists frequently viewed juries as a shield against the crown, as juries frequently protected defendants against unjust and oppressive laws.

Independent juries were important enough in the American colonies that a section in the Declaration of Independence was devoted to assailing the King for depriving them of that right. The importance of an independent jury, and what such a jury meant at the time, informed the creation and adoption of the jury-trial right in the Bill of Rights. The meaning is made clear by Alexander Hamilton, who argued as defense counsel in 1804 that it is up to the jury to decide facts and the law, and it is in the deciding of the law that the nullification power comes from. The meaning is further solidified by John Adams’s statement that it is the duty of a jury “to find the verdict according to his own best understanding, judgment, and conscience, though in direct opposition to the direction of the court.”

The Sixth Circuit actually admits in this case that the power of juries to acquit, despite strong evidence for conviction, was central to the decision to enshrine the jury right in the Constitution. In spite of the incontrovertible evidence that the right to seek an acquittal by nullification was enshrined in the Sixth Amendment, Jae Lee had this right revoked simply because it was considered irrational or unwise.

The Supreme Court must now protect the right to pursue a risky trial strategy; it may not be wise to seek acquittal by nullification, but Lee should be able to decide that the risk is worth facing as against the certainty of deportation. It is not up to courts to pick which strategy is best for criminal defendants to follow, but judges should protect the right to choose a jury trial even when they might not make the same choice under the same circumstances.

The Supreme Court hears argument in Lee v. United States on March 28.

Stingray: A New Frontier in Police Surveillance

I’ve written previously on this blog regarding stingray devices: powerful surveillance tools which allow law enforcement agents to spy on the cell phones of unsuspecting Americans, often without judicial or legislative oversight.

For a deeper dive into the subject, I’ve put together a policy analysis detailing the past history, present issues, and future prospects of stingray devices and police surveillance more generally.

From the executive summary:

Police agencies around the United States are using a powerful surveillance tool to mimic cell phone signals to tap into the cellular phones of unsuspecting citizens, track the physical locations of those phones, and perhaps even intercept the content of their communications.

The device is known as a stingray, and it is being used in at least 23 states and the District of Columbia. Originally designed for use on the foreign battlefields of the War on Terror, “cell-site simulator” devices have found a home in the arsenals of dozens of federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies.

The Masked Agitator Veto

The leaders of the University of California at Berkeley lacked power to prevent Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking on their campus yesterday. A subset of the university’s faculty urged their Chancellor to do just that. His spokesman replied, “Our Constitution does not permit the university to engage in prior restraint of a speaker out of fear that he might engage in even hateful verbal attacks.

Most protesters opposed the event peacefully. Some did not: “security officials claim about 150 ‘masked agitators’ joined the demonstration, setting fires, throwing molotov cocktails and rocks and attacking some members of the crowd.” Yiannopoulos’ speech was cancelled in the interest of public safety.

The faculty members seeking to censor Yiannopoulos did not cover themselves with glory, but the people resorting to violence were the true villains in this narrative. They achieved through violence what could not be achieved by law.

Of course, it is possible the university did not try very hard to hold the event. But the Chancellor faced down a part of his own faculty, and the Berkeley College Republicans thanked the university police and the administration “for doing all they could to ensure the safety of everyone involved.” It does not appear the administration came up short. To the contrary, they appear to have fulfilled their obligations. They deserve praise.

This morning President Trump tweeted “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view — NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”

Notice U.C. Berkeley is the subject of both actions. But the Berkeley Chancellor supported the speech, and we have no evidence that he or any other person acting on behalf of Berkeley incited violence yesterday.

I do not see how attacking people who have observed constitutional norms will encourage others to also respect free speech.

Walter Olson has more on the federal funds aspect of all this.

On Friday, February 3, at noon, Cato will host a discussion of President Trump and free speech. You can register here or walk in tomorrow.