It’s good to be king.
The government, in a criminal investigation, can issue a grand jury subpoena to collect evidence and put witnesses under oath. It can execute search warrants to go into a home or business and take documents. It can cut deals with people it thinks are involved in a criminal enterprise, so that they’ll spend less time – or no time – in prison if they turn in someone else.
Someone fending off a government investigated can’t do any of this.
Normally, if a person has information that would make someone who hears it think the person is guilty of a crime, that person has a right to refuse to talk about it. It’s a part of the Fifth Amendment. The government has a fix for that problem too – if a witness won’t talk, and won’t play ball by cooperating, the government can ask a court to grant the person immunity. The statute that lets a court grant immunity is at 18 U.S.C. § 6003.
If a court grants a person immunity, that person cannot be prosecuted based on the information he provides. That’s in 18 U.S.C. § 6002. There’s an exception if the person lies or does something similar when immunized, but, beyond that, a person with immunity cannot be prosecuted for what they talk about.
Getting immunity can be a very good deal.
What about defense witnesses though? Surely, there are times when a person who is accused of a crime identifies a witness who he needs for his defense, yet the witness may get himself charged with a crime if he provides information.
For example, imagine that a witness knows a person accused of a crime didn’t commit it, because the witness and the accused were across town counterfeiting money together at the time of the alleged crime. The witness refuses to testify and invokes his Fifth Amendment right not to – he doesn’t want the government to put him in prison for the counterfeiting.
Can the defense ask the court to give immunity to the witness?* If so, when?
That was exactly the situation that the district court dealt with in United States v. Wilkes. The Ninth Circuit issued an opinion on this very question.
Mr. Wilkes was accused of bribing Congressman Duke Cunningham.** The government alleged that Mr. Wilkes made inappropriate gifts to the Congressman – including a trip to Hawaii where they enjoyed the beach, scuba diving, and prostitutes.
In exchange, Mr. Wilkes’ company was alleged to have sold inferior products to the United States government.
A number of people testified against Mr. Wilkes. They worked for his company and the government had asked the district court to grant them immunity. The district court did. They testified against Wilkes.
One of Mr. Wilkes other employees would have told a different story. The district court listened to what Mr. Wilkes lawyer said the witness would say. The court concluded,
I have to tell you the proffer I have as to what this fellow can offer strikes me as material and relevant evidence that the defense would want to present to counter some of what’s been presented by the United States through immunized witnesses.
So, naturally, the trial court ruled that
The court, having fully heard all counsel, denies the motion to convey use immunity.
The district court believed that it could only grant immunity if the prosecutors had intentionally engaged in misconduct. As the court saw things,
unless it’s somehow tethered to the suggestion of prosecutorial misconduct, I don’t think it’s appropriate for the court to make determinations of who gets immunity and who doesn’t. In the first instance, under our system of Government, that’s a prosecutorial decision. And unless I can find that the way in which discretion was exercised was unfair so as to deny the defendant a due process right, then it’s not appropriate for me to substitute my judgment for that of the prosecutor. I do have a concern about the effect of not granting immunity in this case, but I would have the same concern if it was a different privilege implicated over which I’d have no authority to pierce the privilege and order a witness to testify, any number of other privileges. So it’s an effect that the criminal justice system lives with and accommodates.
One can imagine that the court’s regret about this “effect” was not very comforting to Mr. Wilkes.
Straub held that a district court should order immunity when the testimony would be relevant and the prosecutor gave immunity to one witness, but not to another who would have contradicted the one the prosecutor choose, and that choice by the prosecutor
the effect of so distorting the fact-finding process that the defendant was denied his due process right to a fundamentally fair trial
(Keep in mind, friends who aren’t from the left coast, the rule in your part of the country may be different.)
Based on this standard, the court of appeals remanded for a hearing on whether the district court should have immunized the witness under Straub. The appellate court did note, though, that “[t]he district court also repeatedly expressed its concern that not granting Williams immunity would have the effect of distorting the fact-finding process.” So perhaps the court of appeals thought it knew how this would turn out.
The rest of the opinion in Wilkes is a bit bleak. I wouldn’t read it unless you’re a prosecutor or looking to be saddened.
* This is assuming the defense is willing to swallow a conviction on the counterfeiting. There’s probably a better hypothetical out there.
** The opinion says that the total list of charges were “one count of conspiracy (18 U.S.C. § 371), ten counts of honest services wire fraud (18 U.S.C. §§ 1343 and 1346), one count of bribery of a public official (18 U.S.C. § 201), and one count of money laundering (18 U.S.C. § 1956(a)(1)(B)(i)).”