February 2012 Archives

February 28, 2012

Judge Posner On Harboring, the Dictionary, and Trusting the Government

Deanna Costello's love knew no boundaries. Literally. For years she had a romantic relationship with a man who was not in the United States lawfully. It led to a strong judicial slapdown of the Department of Justice by one of our nation's leading jurists, in United States v. Costello.

Ms. Costello's Boyfriend

Ms. Costello lived in Cahokia, Illinois, perhaps five miles from St. Louis. She lived with a man from Mexico for a year ending in July 2003. That time ended when he was arrested on a federal drug charge. He plead guilty and was sent back to Mexico after his prison sentence.

1378507_heart_shaped_flower_petal.jpgIn March of 2006, Ms. Costello picked her boyfriend up at the bus station in St. Louis. She drove him to her house, where they lived until October 2006. Sadly, he was then arrested on new drug charges, and the couple were again separated. As the court of appeals noted, he "was given a stiff prison sentence."

Ms. Costello was charged with harboring an alien. She went to a stipulated facts trial - basically a trial where she and the government agree what happened, they simply disagree about whether what happened was a crime.

She was convicted. The district court sentenced her to two years probation and a $200 fine.

The Appeal

She appealed. Judge Posner, writing for the Seventh Circuit, reversed, in an opinion as critical of the government as any I've read in a very long time.

Judge Posner concluded, basically, that harboring an alien does not include having a person in the country unlawfully as a live-in boyfriend.

Judge Posner started by noting that "[t]here is no evidence that the defendant concealed
her boyfriend or shielded him from detection" and that, indeed, since he was arrested at her house several times, it's more likely that law enforcement would find him if he was there than, say, at a relative's house.

Or, alternatively,

The defendant in the present case was not trying to encourage or protect or secrete illegal aliens. There is no suggestion that she prefers illegal aliens as boyfriends to legal aliens or citizens. She had a boyfriend who happened to be (as she knew) an illegal alien, and he lived with her for a time.

A Car Ride Is Not Harboring

The district court made much of Ms. Costello having driven the man from the bus station to her house. Judge Posner wasn't impressed with this fact, noting that

the distance was so short--about six miles--that in a pinch he could have walked. And had he wanted to take public transportation he could have used the St. Louis metro transit system; the price of his ticket would have been $2.75. (That is the price today; it probably was lower in 2006.) There is nothing to suggest that the two of them had prearranged the pickup, or that, had she not picked him up, he would have returned to Mexico. (We don't know how long he had been in the United States.)

A car ride is not harboring an alien.

Judge Posner spent considerable time considering the meaning of "harboring" in the statute criminalizing harboring an alien. Judge Posner considered the way "harboring" is used, and the breadth of the anti-harboring statute if "harboring" covers Ms. Costello's conduct.

The Government's View of Harboring Is Absurd

Judge Posner was concerned that the government's view of what counts as harboring sweeps lots and lots of conduct into the criminal law. In perhaps the most awkward - yet at the same time still awesome - sentence he's ever written, Judge Posner asks:

is it likely that Congress intended that parents whose child invites an immigrant classmate who, as they know, is illegally in the country to a sleepover might be branded as criminals even if he didn't accept the invitation, since the statute criminalizes attempts?

The court of appeals also points out the absurd consequences of the government's statutory interpretation,

an illegal alien becomes a criminal by having a wife, also an illegal alien, living with him in the United States; if they have children, born abroad and hence illegal aliens also, living with them, then each parent has several counts of criminal harboring, on the government's interpretation of the statute.

Judge Posner Doesn't Trust The Government

The government tells us not to worry: we judges can rely on prosecutors to avoid bringing cases at the outer margin of the government's sweeping definition of "harboring." But this case is at the outer margin. No doubt it was brought because the Justice Department suspects that the defendant was involved in her boyfriend's drug dealings, but cannot prove it, so the Department reaches into its deep arsenal (the 4000-plus federal crimes) and finds a crime that she doubtless never heard of that it can pin on her. She was sentenced only to probation and to pay a fine but now has a felony record that will dog her for the rest of her life if she loses this appeal.

Down with the Dictionary

In perhaps my favorite section of the opinion (though there are many) Judge Posner criticizes the government's use of the dictionary -

"Dictionary definitions are acontextual, whereas the meaning of sentences depends critically on context, including all sorts of background understandings A sign in a park that says "Keep off the grass" is not properly interpreted to forbid the grounds crew to cut the grass.

To try to learn how "harboring" is normally used, Judge Posner turned to Google:

a search based on the supposition that the number of hits per term is a rough index of the frequency of its use--reveals the following:

"harboring fugitives": 50,800 hits
"harboring enemies": 4,730 hits
"harboring refugees": 4,820 hits
"harboring victims": 114 hits
"harboring flood victims": 0 hits
"harboring victims of disasters": 0 hits
"harboring victims of persecution": 0 hits
"harboring guests": 184 hits
"harboring friends": 256 hits (but some involve
harboring Quakers--"Friends," viewed in
colonial New England as dangerous heretics)
"harboring Quakers": 3,870 hits
"harboring Jews": 19,100 hits

It is apparent from these results that "harboring," as the word is actually used, has a connotation--which "sheltering," and a fortiori "giving a person a place to stay"--does not, of deliberately safeguarding members of a specified group from the authorities, whether
through concealment, movement to a safe location, or physical protection.

Because Ms. Costello was not keeping her boyfriend from the authorities - rather she was just keeping him to herself - she was not harboring. She was merely entertaining.

And entertaining an alien is not against the law.

February 27, 2012

An Internet Child Pornography Sting In The Eleventh Circuit, Obstruction of Justice Has More Stringent Pleading Requirements

As the internet has made it easier for people to share information - from snarky comments about published criminal cases in the federal circuits, to snarky comments about politics or the Academy Awards - it has made trading child pornography much easier.

Twenty years ago, to trade child pornography, you had to use the mail or meet someone with the same interest. Now, just about any person with an internet connection can find this contraband in less than an hour.

533138_law_and_order.jpgThe easy flow and production of child pornography is a serious social problem. My concern is that the only solution we seem to be thinking about is to criminalize the market for it and make the punishments for participating in this market draconian.

A Very Large Opinion

The Eleventh Circuit's opinion in United States v. McGarity is a glimpse into the world of child pornography.

Law enforcement learned of a massive online collective of child pornography users. The ring used a sophisticated web of encryption, changing bulletin boards, and membership tests to weed out law enforcement and communicate with each other.

It had leaders - using names such as "Yardbird" "Helen" "Soft" and "Tex" who enforced security and internal discipline. They also decided who was able to join.

After an investigation into the group, fourteen people were arrested. None of the people arrested was a leader in the child pornography ring - though "Helen" was prosecuted in Britain.

The men prosecuted in the United States received sentences ranging from twenty years to fifty years. The leader of the ring, "Helen," was sentenced in Britain to 12 and a half years.

The court of appeals opinion in McGarity is a massive 130 pages. Much of the case in the district court was affirmed, though there were some defense victories of note.

Obstruction of Justice

All the men charged were also charged with obstruction of justice under 18 U.S.C. 1512(c). The superseding indictment, following the language of the statute, accused the men of trying to obstruct an official proceeding. It did not say what that proceeding was.

The Eleventh Circuit held that this was insufficient. Following an opinion from the First Circuit, the court of appeals held that if the government is going to charge obstruction of an official proceeding, it has to say what official proceeding was obstructed.

This is a neat exception to the general rule that a prosecutor has to merely parrot the statute in order to adequately allege an offense. The Eleventh Circuit said that an indictment that doesn't say what official proceeding was obstructed doesn't provide enough notice of how the law was broken. This is fair enough - it's just also true of, say, 75% of the indictments that come out of a federal grand jury.

It's a step in the right direction at least.

Those convictions were vacated and that count of the superseding indictment was vacated.

CEE Requires Three

Finally, all of the men accused were convicted of a violation of statute that criminalizes participating in a Child Exploitation Enterprise under 18 U.S.C. § 2252A(g). A CEE charge requires that the jury finds that a person participated in a series of at least three other child pornography offenses.

Yet one of the men accused was convicted of the CEE charge and was only convicted of two underlying child pornography charges. His CEE conviction was vacated.

Conspiracy is a Lesser Included Offense of CEE

Many of the men were also convicted of conspiracy to do things relating to the distribution of child pornography. They were also convicted of the CEE charge. They argued that the conspiracy charge was a lesser included offense of CEE. For that reason, the conspiracy charge should be vacated, under double jeopardy principles. (see this post for a more thorough explanation of the double jeopardy principles involved).

As luck would have it, the guy who had his CEE conviction vacated because he was only convicted of two underlying acts was also convicted of conspiracy. His conspiracy conviction stands.

February 23, 2012

The Fifth Amendment Protects You From Being Compelled To Unencrypt Your Hard Drive, According to the Eleventh Circuit

The Eleventh Circuit held, today, that a person cannot be compelled to unencrypt encrypted files under the Fifth Amendment in In re Subpoena Duces Tecum issued March 25, 2011.

John Doe [FN1] is a man who knows how to keep quiet. He came to the government's attention in the worst of ways. In March of 2010, the government found that someone was uploading child pornography to You Tube. [FN2]

965843_computer_bit.jpgLaw enforcement tracked the IP addresses of the person who did the uploading. The IP addresses led them to a series of hotels. The only person common to all the hotels where things had been uploaded from was John Doe.

The government tracked John Doe to a hotel room in California. It got a search warrant to go into his room.

Inside the room, law enforcement found a number of computers and hard drives, capable of storing more than 5 terabytes of data.

The government sent the hard drives to the FBI. The FBI, however, was not able to search it all because much of it was encrypted with TrueCrypt technology. [FN3]

The government issued a grand jury subpoena to John Doe to come and open the encrypted files.

John Doe told the government that he would assert his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination and refuse to testify under the "act of production" privilege.

Generally, the production of documents or evidence that already exists can't be blocked for Fifth Amendment reasons. (Yes, the government can generally get your diary). However, the act of production privilege allows a person to assert a Fifth Amendment privilege if the act of producing evidence would, itself, incriminate that person.

The United States Attorney's Office, aware of this, sought statutory immunity under 18 U.S.C. 6002. As the Eleventh Circuit summarized the government's immunity position:

The Government stated in its letter served on Doe on April 7, 2011, and before the district court on April 19, 2011, that it would not use Doe's act of production against him in a future prosecution; but it would use the contents of the unencrypted drives against him.

At a hearing on the immunity order, the district court went along with the government's request. It decided that Mr. Doe would be immunized from a prosecution based on his act of revealing the documents, but he would not be immunized if the government could link him to any contraband, say child pornography, found on the hard drives through another means, such as the fact that it was found in his hotel room when they executed a search warrant.

John Doe was unsatisfied with this protection.

He refused to unencrypt the hard drives and was held in contempt and taken into custody. He then appealed that contempt order. [FN4]

The Eleventh Circuit reversed the contempt finding, holding that Mr. Doe was allowed to assert the Fifth Amendment since the statutory immunity he was granted was not as broad as his Fifth Amendment protection.

Basically, the Eleventh Circuit held that the Fifth Amendment protects a person from being compelled to unencrypt a hard drive under the act of production doctrine.

The court of appeals held that the act of production is not testimonial, and thus not subject to Fifth Amendment protection, only if two conditions are met:

First, the Fifth Amendment privilege is not triggered where the Government merely compels some physical act, i.e. where the individual is not called upon to make use of the contents of his or her mind. The most famous example is the key to the lock of a strongbox containing documents, see Hubbell, 530 U.S. at 43, 120 S. Ct. at 2047 (citing Doe v. United States, 487 U.S. 201, 210 n.9, 108 S. Ct. 2341, 2347 n.9, 101 L. Ed. 2d 184 (1988)), but the Court has also used this rationale in a variety of other contexts. Second, under the "foregone conclusion" doctrine, an act of production is not testimonial--even if the act conveys a fact regarding the existence or location, possession, or authenticity of the subpoenaed materials--if the Government can show with "reasonable particularity" that, at the time it sought to compel the act of production, it already knew of the materials, thereby making any testimonial aspect a "foregone conclusion."

Here, unencrypting does require some sort of mental work - it requires a person to recall and use his password. So the first exception doesn't apply.

The second exception is a little more interesting - and this is the part that serves as an ad for TrueCrypt.

The court of appeals explained that when a document encrypted with TrueCrypt, a scan of the hard drive doesn't tell you whether there's something there. Blank hard drive space shows up the same as data.

So, for example, child pornography looks the same as blank hard drive space through TrueCrypt.

Because of that, there is no way for the government to know if there is any contraband in the hard drive which is encrypted. Which means that there is no "foregone conclusion" that there's evidence a crime in those hard drives.

Because neither exception applied, the Fifth Amendment protected Mr. Doe from having to unencrypt his hard drives.

[FN1] - Not his real name.

[FN2] - Seriously? You Tube?

[FN3] - This whole opinion reads like an ad for TrueCrypt, in a sense.

[FN4] - In fact, Mr. Doe was held in custody until he was ordered released after oral argument by the Eleventh Circuit.

February 15, 2012

Proving the Measure of Things At Sentencing - The Fourth Circuit Remands For More Explanation

Nancy Bell had serious health problems. Because of those health problems, she was prescribed pain medicine - OxyContin.

When a person is prescribed oxycodone, which is the generic version of OxyContin, she is required to be tested through pill counts and urine screens to make sure she's actually using it. Ms. Bell was tested, her treatment center said that she had an "outstanding record" of compliance.

494517_calculator_1.jpgThe Market For Oxycodone

The reason people taking oxycodone are tested is because there is a tremendous illicit market for the drug.

Ms. Bell was no stranger to that market, unfortunately. She, and her daughter, Iris Gibson, were discovered by law enforcement to be selling oxycodone to others. The "others" decided they liked the government enough to help them prosecute Ms. Bell and Ms. Gibson.

Ms. Bell and Ms. Gibson were charged with conspiracy to distribute oxycodone. They pled guilty without a plea agreement. They went to a sentencing hearing.

The Quantity of Oxycodone

The biggest issue in the sentencing of Ms. Bell and Ms. Gibson was the quantity of oxycodone that was sold illegally.

The sentencing guidelines - specifically section 2D1.1 - suggest longer sentences for people who are involved in a greater quantity of drugs being distributed. Similarly, in a fraud case, the guidelines - specifically section 2B1.1 - suggest a longer sentence for people who are involved in a greater amount of money being taken.

Here, the government introduced the records of the quantity of pills that Ms. Bell was prescribed. They wanted to use that as the basis for the drug quantity.

The government also introduced lengthy testimony from the others who were involved in the drug distribution scheme with Ms. Bell.

Ms. Bell introduced her records from the pain management center to establish that she actually took a lot of these pills. As a result, she argued that the quantity that should be attributed to her should be reduced by the reasonable amount of medicine that she took, under her legitimate prescription for the medicine.

The district court, after listening to what appears to have been a lot of testimony, punted. The sentencing court decided that about 104.5 grams of oxycodone. The court didn't explain how much Ms. Bell consumed herself, or how much was sold to the others, or anything else. The court just asserted that 104.5 was the right number.

The district court then sentenced Ms. Bell and Ms. Gibson based on guidelines ranges based on that number.

The Fourth Circuit Appeal

Ms. Bell and Ms. Gibson appealed. They argued that the judge has to do more to explain how he arrived at the drug quantity.

In United States v. Bell, the Fourth Circuit agreed. Writing for the panel, Judge Andre Davis wrote that, "the district court's explanation for how it calculated that quantity is insufficient to allow for meaningful appellate review."

The court of appeals remanded the case for resentencing for the district court to explain how it arrived at the amount that it used to impose sentencing.

Footnote 8

All of this is relatively uncontroversial, as for as appellate decisions go. Except for the very odd disagreement between the panel about footnote 8 of the opinion.

In the main text, the opinion lists a number of questions that were unanswered by the district court - things like how much oxycodone each witness testified to, how much Ms. Bell used personally and legally, and the time period over which the illegal pill distributing spanned.

After listing these factors, Judge Davis dropped a footnote - footnote 8 - which started,

I hasten to make two observations. First, I do not suggest that any one or more of the specific queries listed above is or should be either a necessary or a sufficient basis for a permissible finding of drug quantity in any particular case. Like relevant conduct in any case, the district court approaches its task based on the facts and circumstances presented. Second, I recognize that some of these queries, such as the quantity Bell herself consumed, may be more difficult for the government to prove than others. But that does not relieve the government of proving such facts by a preponderance of the evidence at sentencing.

The rest of the panel - Judges Hamilton and Floyd - refused to join this footnote. The rest of the (lengthy) footnote takes these judges to task for failing to sign on to these relatively benign legal propositions.

Really - it's controversial that proving things at sentencing is a "task based on the facts and circumstances presented"? Or that some facts are harder to prove than others?
After reading the footnote and the concurrence by Judge Hamilton, I really don't see the issue, except, perhaps, that Judge Hamilton seems less likely to accept an invitation to a cocktail party for criminal defense lawyers.

Ms. Gibson's Challenge

Ms. Gibson raised a separate challenge. She argued that the government failed to prove that the drugs were attributable to her. Judge Davis was sympathetic, and provided guidance on remand,

the district court will have the opportunity in any event to revisit the evidence of the extent and timing of Gibson's involvement in the conspiracy. We note, however, that the district court's rejection of Gibson's argument turned on its finding that Gibson "had full knowledge of the scope of the conspiracy and quantity of drugs involved." J.A. 427. Gibson's "knowledge" of the scope of Bell's drug sales, however, is only part of the analysis; under the Guidelines the full amount of oxycodone sold or transferred by Bell is only attributable to Gibson for drug weight purposes if that full amount was reasonably foreseeable to Gibson and within the scope of the criminal activity that she jointly undertook with Bell. See U.S.S.G. § 1B1.3 cmt. n.2. Moreover, if Gibson did not join the conspiracy until May 2008, oxycodone distributed by Bell or other conspiracy members before that date could not be considered "relevant conduct," even if Gibson knew of that conduct. Id.

Ms. Gibson, it appears, will have a better time at resentencing as well.

Related Links:

February 14, 2012

Bad Forms And Bankruptcy Fraud - The Fifth Circuit Vacates A Conviction Based On An Ambiguous Form

Today, of course, is Valentine's Day. And, so, today's post is a story of marriage, love (presumably), and bankruptcy fraud.

Scott and Debra Spurlin

Scott and Debra Spurlin had a number of assets and bank accounts.

1221951_to_sign_a_contract_2.jpgThey owned Golden Athletics LLC, which, in turn, owned their three cars. They owned Golden Choice Financial, which owned the house they lived in. They owned International Oil, Gas, and Mineral Management, Inc., which owned an account from which Mr. Spurlin wrote checks to Mrs. Spurlin.

They also had a number of bank accounts.

When it came time to file for bankruptcy, however, the Spurlins said that they had one bank account - with $157 in it; that their assets were only $3,364; and that they owned only one company, Spurlin and Associates. Spurlin and Associates filed for bankruptcy the day after the Spurlins did. The Spurlins did not disclose the other companies that the owned, which, in turn, owned their house and cars.

During the course of the bankruptcy, they also answered a form about Mrs. Spurlin's father. More on that below.

The Spurlins Are Charged With Bankruptcy Fraud

The Spurlins were indicted for bankruptcy fraud under 18 U.S.C. §152(1) for not disclosing their other assets, and for making a false statement in a bankruptcy proceeding under 18 U.S.C. 152(3). Mr. Spurlin was also indicted under, 18 U.S.C. §157(1), for filing for bankruptcy to hid a separate fraud scheme.

After trial, the Spurlins were convicted on all counts. In United States v. Spurlin, the Fifth Circuit reversed Mr. Spurlin's conviction for making a false statement in bankruptcy.

The rest of their convictions stand, however.

The Form

The Spurlins' conviction for making a false statement was based on three questions on a form that the bankruptcy trustee created.

They were asked:

4. Are your parents living? Father _______ Mother _______ Are your spouses' parents living? Father _______ Mother ____

5. If not, was any property left by your parent(s) at the time of death? _________

6. Do you understand that should you inherit anything during the next 6 months it will be necessary for you to advise me (your Trustee) in writing within 10 days? ______

The Spurlins answered that Mrs. Spurlin's father had died, and answered "no" to question 5 - indicating that he did not die with any property.

In fact, Mrs. Spurlin's father did have property when he died. He just didn't leave any property to the Spurlins.

The government argued that they filed out line 5 incorrectly - and thereby made a false statement in bankruptcy. The jury agreed, apparently.[FN1]

Making A False Statement In Bankruptcy

As the Fifth Circuit explained, to prove a violation of 18 U.S.C. 152(3) the government must prove:

(1) there was a bankruptcy proceeding;

(2) defendant made a declaration or statement under penalty of perjury in relation to the proceeding;

(3) the declaration concerned a material fact;

(4) the declaration was false; and

(5) defendant made the declaration knowingly and fraudulently.

Here, there was no question that elements (1), (2), and (3) were met. There was a bankruptcy proceeding and the form indicated clearly that it was filled out under penalty of perjury. The standard for materiality is very weak - as the Fifth Circuit said, quoting the district court,

The court described a material fact as one that "has a natural tendency to influence or is capable of influencing the decision of the decision maker to whom it was addressed." The assets available in bankruptcy will influence how the trustee handles the bankruptcy, because bankruptcy is about distributing the available assets.

What Did The Form Ask?

The Spurlins and the government disagree, however, about whether the statement was false.

The Spurlins argued that that, given the context in which it was asked, question 5 really means "Did the deceased parent leave any property to you?" not just whether they left any property at all.

The Fifth Circuit agreed. Very few people die without any property of any kind - if you adopted the government's reading of the question it wouldn't get any useful information. Moreover, the whole point of the question is to find out about assets of the people in bankruptcy - why would the Trustee care about other assets that people's parents left?

And, so, Mr. Spurlin's conviction on this count was reversed for insufficient evidence - because the statement wasn't clearly false, there was not enough evidence for a jury to convict him.

Mrs. Spurlin's Testimony

Mrs. Spurlin, however, did not fare as well.

Mrs. Spurlin testified at trial. On cross, the government asked her how she interpreted question 5 of the form that she filled out.

Here's the exchange:

Q. And the question did not ask whether or not you owned any property following your parents' death, did it?

A. No.

Q. It simply asked: Was there any property left by your parents at the time of death?

A. Correct.

Q. And the answer given here is no?

A. Correct.

Q. And that wasn't accurate, was it?

A. No. I did not fill this out, ma'am.

The Fifth Circuit found this concession to be fatal. Because she admitted that the answer to question 5 was false, the court of appeals determined that the jury had enough evidence to decide that the answer was false, as to her.[FN2]

This strikes me as odd. If the answer is false, it's false, and if the answer is true it's true. I could see Mrs. Spurlin's answer being relevant to whether she intentionally made a false statement, but that's not what's up for debate.

I think, rather, that this is simply an example of why it's very bad for a person to admit to an element of a crime - it gets very hard to undo that later.

[FN1] - Though, frankly, there's so much going on in the rest of this case I think there's reason to doubt how much the jury actually thought about how to interpret this question.

[FN2] - Mrs. Spurlin's defense was that she didn't fill out the form. The Fifth Circuit rejected that as a defense, since she still said everything was accurate under penalty of perjury. In other words, it isn't an element of making a false statement in bankruptcy that you fill out the form yourself.

February 10, 2012

If You're Going To Hit A Cop, It's Better To Wait Until After The Cop Finds Your Gun (though it's better still not to hit a cop in the first place)

It's now almost unremarkable that the Fourth Circuit had a defense-friendly published opinion. Yet, on that fact, I will now remark, since the Fourth Circuit recently decided United States v. Gaines.

Driving in Baltimore

Travis Gaines was sitting in the back of a white Crown Victoria, traveling down the streets of Baltimore City. The Crown Vic drove past a police car, with three cops inside.

699486_downtown_baltimore.jpgThe police car followed the Crown Vic. The police turned on their car's lights and pulled over the car.

Mr. Gaines, in the back seat, started shuffling around. The police said they could see him moving in the back of the car.

When the Crown Vic stopped, they pulled Mr. Gaines out of it. One of the officers did a pat down, found a gun, and yelled "gun" to the other officers. Mr. Gaines hit the cop and tried to run away. (for what it's worth, he was convicted of assault in Maryland state court for this)

To Federal District Court We Go

Mr. Gaines was caught, and charged in federal court with being a felon in possession of a firearm.

His attorney filed a motion to suppress the gun. He argued that the car was not pulled over for a good reason and that the search of Mr. Gaines, as a result, violated his rights.

The government countered that the Crown Vic was pulled over for a good reason - that there was reasonable articulable suspicion to pull the car over.

Why was the car pulled over?

The police testified at a motions hearing that the Crown Vic was pulled over because there was a crack in the windshield.

One of the police officers, sitting in the back of the police car, testified that when he saw the Crown Vic, he noticed a small crack in the Crown Vic's windshield from the other side of the intersection.

To put this in context, the federal district judge who decided the motion to suppress described the crack as very small and "in the lower right portion of the Crown Victoria's windshield."

The police said that once the first cop saw the crack, they started following the Crown Vic. Through the entire car - including the seats in the car - the other officers said that they, too, saw the crack.

The police testified that they only pulled the car over when they had all three confirmed that they saw the crack.

The district court said, in a word, hogwash. The judge refused to credit this testimony and found that there was simply no credible way to determine that the police would have been able to see that crack in the windshield. In essence, the district court decided that the cops lied. [FN1]

It appears that the police pulled the Crown Vic over, then looked for a reason why they did. Happily, the federal court rejected that approach to law enforcement.

Intervening Acts

The government, presumably wanting to stand behind police tactics even when they are based on a lie, did not stop there.

The government argued that Mr. Gaines' assault and resisting arrest were an intervening act that were an independent basis to find the gun.

Generally, if the police pull you over when they don't have a reason to, and you then give them a reason, you don't get to complain about the first traffic stop.

So, to make this more concrete, assume that you get pulled over for driving the speed limit. Let's say the police just find that suspicious. While they're pulling you over, the passenger in your car starts shooting off fireworks out the window of the car at people walking by. You can no longer complain (successfully) about being pulled over for driving the speed limit, because your passenger gave them a good reason to pull you over.

Here, the government argued basically the same thing happened. The government argued that because Mr. Gaines assaulted the officer, they could arrest him for that and search him for the gun. If that works, then the lie-based windshield-crack search doesn't matter.

The trouble is, Mr. Gaines hit the cop after they found the gun. So, the gun was found not as a result of Mr. Gaines' assault, but only of the bad search.

A Side Note

It's worth noting that this is the second Fourth Circuit opinion that's come out this year where (a) a defendant won; (b) the case involved a Fourth Amendment issue; (c) based on police tactics by Baltimore City Police; and (d) the case was argued for the government by Maryland's United States Attorney, Rod Rosenstein. Here's my commentary on the other opinion.

[FN1] - I wonder how that perjury prosecution is going. Oh, right.

February 2, 2012

Business Crimes Can't Be Proven Just By The Company You Keep; The Sixth Circuit Reverses For Insufficient Evidence

One of the most disturbing trends in federal law enforcement, is the way the criminal law is being used to regulate business practices.

If someone commits a substantial fraud - that's an appropriate basis for a prosecution. But we shouldn't put people in prison just because something bad happens in business.[FN1]

1370543_business_corner_house.jpgThe Sixth Circuit's opinion in United States v. Parkes is a good example of why prosecution shouldn't be the best option for a bad business decision (as opposed to, say, regulatory enforcement action, or a civil suit).

Remington Industries

Timothy Parkes and Mark Mourier had a vision. They wanted to start a company that would manufacture and distribute floor mats for automobiles.

They started the company in Canada, but soon moved it to Benton, Tennessee. It grew to become one of the largest employers in Benton.

Of course, any business needs a relationship with a bank. Mr. Parkes and Mr. Mourier developed a relationship with the President of Benton Bank - Jim Goddard.

At one point, Parkes and Mourier had an idea - a fantastically bad idea. They would change their manufacturing process, and make floor mats using untested chemicals. It required them to redesign and upgrade their manufacturing process - a massively expensive proposition.

The end result of the upgrade was that Remington made floor mats that would melt in the summer heat.

This change cost the company more than $1.5 million from 2000 through 2002. They retooled their company, and shut down the new manufacturing line. They started buying floor mats made in China - converting from being a manufacturer to a distributor. This transition was going well, but they needed money to keep going.

As a result, the company had to go to Mr. Goddard to borrow more money from Benton Bank.

Benton Bank

Benton Bank was a small bank, with less than $10,000,000 in capital. The FDIC wouldn't let Benton Bank lend more than 25% of its capital to any one customer.

Remington's loans exceeded these limits. As a result, Mr. Goddard asked Remington to borrow money from someone else.

Remington did. They borrowed from a private equity firm, and repaid Benton Bank. As a part of the deal, Benton Bank had to agree to issue an irrevocable line of credit to Remington.[FN2]

Remington then defaulted on the private equity firm's loan, and the private equity firm forced Benton Bank to honor its line of credit.

Things were a little hairy at that point. Benton Bank honored its line of credit, but was then in violation of the FDIC's requirements. Then, Mr. Goddard had a very clever idea.

Mr. Goddard

Mr. Goddard was, as it happens, already embezzling sums of money from Benton Bank. He was a man who knew his way around the fraudulent booking of a loan.

Faced with a need to make the FDIC think that his bank's position was not in violation of their regulations, he simply booked ten small loans to non-existent entities, then took the total of those loans and gave the money to Remington.

Problem solved. Sort of.

Mr. Goddard Gets In Trouble

As the court of appeals noted, "[e]ventually Goddard's years of wrongdoing unraveled and he left the Bank."

After he left, and as things were starting to move to federal law enforcement's attention, someone found a fax in Mr. Goddard's office, which was a printed email to the lawyer for Remington. The email that was faxed was from Mr. Parkes, and copied Mr. Mourier, and listed ten new companies that Mr. Parkes sought to have the lawyer create.

The ten company names were the same companies that Mr. Goddard used to create the fake accounts on Benton Bank's books.

Mr. Parkes and Mr. Mourier Get Into Trouble

This was enough for the FBI. Mr. Parkes and Mr. Mourier were indicted for bank fraud.

Though Mr. Goddard was a government cooperator, he was not called by the government as a witness. Instead, the government relied heavily on the fax as evidence that Mr. Parkes and Mr. Mourier knew what Mr. Goddard was doing.

This was enough for the jury. Or, at least it was as to Mr. Parkes. After trial, Mr. Parkes was convicted of ten counts of bank fraud. Mr. Mourier was acquitted.

The Sixth Circuit

This evidence, however, was not enough for the Sixth Circuit. Its not often to see a court of appeals reverse a conviction for sufficiency of the evidence, but they did. In a lovely turn of phrase, the court concluded that,

Even viewing the record in the light most favorable to the government, there was insufficient evidence to connect Parkes to Goddard's fraud, much less to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Parkes intended that fraud. Surprisingly, the government offered no testimony from Goddard to establish that Parkes cooperated in, or even knew of, the scheme, even though Goddard had already pleaded guilty with an agreement requiring him to testify "completely and truthfully . . . if called upon by the United States to do so." While that failure does not directly impact the sufficiency of the evidence, it does leave the evidentiary cupboard nearly bare.

Not content to stop there, the court of appeals then went on to criticize the district court for not allowing the defense to introduce evidence of Mr. Goddard's prior embezzlement, and to criticize the prosecutor for an inappropriate argument in closing.

The inappropriate argument was particularly bad. The prosecutor told the jury that an acquittal would let Parkes and Mourier keep $4 million dollars. But the prosecutor already knew that the money had been paid back to the bank. Indeed, the prosecutor had argued - successfully - not to let that evidence get to the jury.

This is a fantastic case - it's a lovely rebuke to the government for assuming that everyone who deals with a bad apple is, herself, bad.

[FN1] - Relatedly, the idea that any time there's a recession someone on Wall Street should go to prison radically misunderstands the proper function of a system of criminal justice. Sure, if you want to form an angry mob and attack the people who caused something bad, sending executives to prison for bad decisions makes sense. But a more enlightened view is that the government ought to first prove that a person did something that she knew was a crime before she is sent to prison, not just that she worked on Wall Street shortly before the economy took a nosedive.