December 3, 2014

A word worth 10 years in prison: Supreme Court hears arguments in Whitfield v. United States

"Words, words, words, first from him, then from you--is that all you blighters can do?", moaned Eliza Doolittle when tiring of her speech lessons in "My Fair Lady." Ms. Doolittle should be thankful she is not Larry Whitfield. Larry got an extra 10 years in prison for a bank robbery prosecuted in federal court because of a single word. During the crime he forced someone to "accompany" him by moving a grand total of 9 feet from one room to another. this act resulted in 10 years being added to his sentence. The United States Supreme Court heard arguments in the case yesterday. The docket for the case can be found here.

Larry is not only unlucky, he also seems to be like too many criminals, bad at his work. He botched a bank robbery in 2008 in North Carolina. Fleeing the scene, Whitfield entered the home of a 79-year-old woman, telling her he needed a place to hide. He directed the woman, who was upset and crying, to move with him from her living room to another room some nine feet away.

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December 1, 2014

Rules, Silly Rules, and How Judges Sometimes Avoid Justice

All lawyers must deal with rules, whether practicing mostly in Atlanta and Georgia like our firm, or in any other part of the country. Most rules are made by the legislature, but sometimes, judges themselves get to make rules. These judge-made rules control the procedure or process of how a particular case works through the court system. Today, the United States Supreme Court refused to take a case that shows that sometimes these judge-made rules can allow judges to avoid justice. The discussion of the case noting the refusal to hear the matter is found here.

The case involves a man named Patrick Henry Joseph (you'd think the courts would be reluctant to be unfair with someone with such a grand history behind his first two names). Mr. Joseph was convicted of several drug offenses. Using the well-known Federal Sentencing Guidelines, the trial judge imposed a lengthy sentence after deciding that Mr. Joseph was a "career offender." Joseph's very able Public Defender then appealed his case to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. So far, so good.

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October 3, 2014

It Must Be True: It's on the Internet!--Federal Court Reverses Criminal Case Because Russian Social Media Page Not Properly Authenticated

People who have the misfortune of finding this blog know that I like to write about the intersection of the modern tech-filled world with older rules that govern criminal cases, rules like the Fourth Amendment and the like. The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recently reversed a federal criminal case out of New York when the prosecutor convinced the trial judge to let her use a page off what is supposedly the Russian version of Facebook. The prosecutor and the judge essentially said that because the page had the Defendant's picture and some other information related to him he must have been the one to create it. The appellate court took a different view, and reversed the conviction, the ruling can be found here.

Aleksandr Zhyltsou is from the Ukraine, and supposedly is a professional forger. Another Ukrainian con man named Timku was caught in a series of frauds, pretending to be a diplomat and the like. Timku tried to help himself by agreeing to testify against Zhyltsou concerning a bogus birth certificate that Timku used to avoid military service back in the Ukraine (a not unreasonable effort, considering recent events). According to Timku, he saw the Defendant put the birth certificate together on a laptop when they were at a cafe, and noted that the document was sent to him via an email address that the Defendant had previously used. The prosecutor shored up parts of Timku's story with witnesses showing that birth certificates can be used to avoid military service, and that this particular email with the birth certificate did indeed come through this particular email address, However, there was no proof that the human being on trial, Zhyltsou, was the person who created and sent the document, other than Timku's testimony.

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September 30, 2014

Update on DOJ's Decision to Reverse Course on Appellate Waivers

Yesterday, we posted a blog entry concerning an anticipated announcement by Eric Holder involving the Department of Justice's decision to stop requiring appellate waiver provisions in plea agreements in federal court. Although the announcement has not yet been made, a number of individuals with whom we have spoken confirmed that the announcement should indeed be made soon.

Importantly, however, those same individuals have mentioned that the Department's decision to alter its current policy on appellate waivers is going to be limited to the removal of ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC) claims only from those waiver provisions. In other words, it is our understanding that the Department will continue to insist on appellate waivers in plea agreements but it will remove the IAC waiver provisions from those agreements. Accordingly, as we understand it, under the anticipated new policy, individuals will not be required to waive current and future IAC claims.

Most of us that practice in federal court have always been troubled by the Government's appellate waiver policy. To me, though, the most troubling aspect of the current policy has been the inclusion of the provision that requires an individual to waive all IAC claims. Under this policy, except in limited circumstances, at the time an individual enters a guilty plea, he waives his right to file an ineffective assistance of counsel claim. Unbelievably, these waivers have been construed to include waivers on ineffective assistance of counsel claims at a yet-to-be-had sentencing hearing. I have always had difficulty understanding how an individually can logically waive (or give up) the right to challenge deficient performance by his lawyer, months before his lawyer actually performs deficiently.

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September 29, 2014

Department of Justice Expected to End Insistence on Waiver of Appellate Rights

If reports are true, those of us that handle federal criminal cases here in Atlanta and elsewhere received some much welcomed news this morning. It is being reported by Law 360 that within the next week or so, Eric Holder is expected to announce that the Department of Justice will end its longtime policy of requiring individuals who desire to plead guilty to accept plea agreements that include appellate waiver provisions within those agreements. Quite justifiably, these waiver provisions have received a great deal of criticism over the years, and the time for ending this policy is long overdue.

Best I can tell, the DOJ policy of requiring appeal waivers in plea agreements officially began in 1997, when the Department issued a directive requiring prosecutors to include such a provision within plea agreements. Although these provisions are not included in every single plea agreement in federal court, waiver provisions are included within the large majority of federal plea agreements. Under the "standard" waiver provision, individuals are required to waive two statutory rights. First, except for very limited circumstances, an individual is required to waive his statutory right to direct appeal. Second, an individual is also required to waive his right to waive his statutory right to collaterally attack his conviction and sentenced under 28 U.S.C. § 2255.

Federal criminal lawyers have been fighting against and challenging these waiver provisions for many years now. In our District, the Federal Defender Office has been leading the fight, doing everything possible to educate lawyers about the problems with these provisions, as well as coming up with ways in which the pitfalls created with these provisions can be avoided. For example, charge bargaining and appeal waiver exceptions can help cure part of the problem but in most cases, even these solutions do not address all of the risks created by appellate waivers.

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September 26, 2014

Search of Different Cellphone Seven Years After Alleged Crime Called OK by Federal Court of Appeals

Federal criminal cases are no different than cases brought in state courts such as Georgia, Florida or Alabama. The explosion of technology requires courts to balance the needs of law enforcement with the protections for individual liberty enshrined in our Constitution. Sometimes, when the suspect is investigated for a "bad" crime like targeting minors for sex, the courts simply ignore that the protections for individual liberty apply to everybody equally. In an opinion issued today by the United States Court of Appeals here in Atlanta several blocks from our offices, that court permitted the search of a cellphone that had no connection to the alleged crime from seven years earlier. The case is U.S. v. Mathis and can be read here.

In 2004, the Defendant supposedly got a then 14-year old to have sex. Remember, this was 2004, a veritable lifetime ago in the world of cellphones and communication technology. Seven long years later, the young person was by then 21, and decided to tell the police about his encounter with the Defendant back in 2004. The young person said that back in 2004 he and the Defendant had phone calls and exchanged text messages using the Defendant's phone. Now, here's the important part: the police knew that the Defendant, like just about everybody else, had changed cellphones in the intervening seven years.


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September 22, 2014

Illegal Search by Military Investigator in Georgia Causes Reversal of Federal Criminal Case in Washington State

We handle lots of federal cases involving supposedly illegal activity over the Internet, which means some of our clients are far from our offices here in Atlanta. Because of that, we try to pay attention even when a federal criminal case is far away, such as the recent ruling by the Court of Appeals in California that invalidated a federal criminal conviction because of an illegal search. What really piqued my interest is that the case is yet another example of the trend where judges are becoming ever more suspicious of Internet-based surveillance techniques that lead to evidence of a crime. The Court was especially vexed because a military investigator in Georgia used the Navy's vast resources basically to investigate a local crime in Washington State, which led to Michael Dreyer's indictment and conviction in federal court. The opinion is here.

The federal Naval Investigator was working undercover from his office in lovely Brunswick, Ga. He signed on to a large file-sharing network sometimes used by traders in child pornography, using a special computer program called RoundUp. The agent then scanned computer activity by the network’s members in the state of Washington, regardless as to whether the computer was being used by anyone in military. Finding a computer that had child pornography, the agent downloaded some photos and forwarded the material to local investigators who then got search warrants which led to federal criminal charges against Mr. Dreyer.

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July 17, 2014

Reducing Sentences for Federal Drug Crimes: U.S. Sentencing Commission Votes on Making Reductions Retroactive

We handle lots of federal criminal cases. We also occasionally represent people accused of federal drug crimes, both here in Atlanta and around Georgia, Alabama and Florida. Over the past decade there has been a slow recognition that sentences for drug crimes are simply too long. This week, the United States Sentencing Commission votes on an important aspect of the decade-long effort to reduce sentences for federal drug offenses. You can read a paper here that describes the potential reduction and how it would impact people who are already serving sentences for federal drug crimes.

A little history lesson helps to understand this vote and how it can possibly help people already sentenced to federal prison for a drug crime. Back in the 1980's, the media hyped up what it called the crack cocaine explosion. Politicians fell all over themselves in efforts to be "tough on crime." This resulted in a very bad law enacted in 1986 which created mandatory minimum penalties for federal drug crimes. These mandatory penalties caused automatic enhancements to another set of rules for federal criminal sentences called the "Sentencing Guidelines." As a result, an entire generation of offenders were subject to increased sentences, whether or not the Defendant was a young first-time offender or a seasoned long-term criminal. Taxpayers spent billions of dollars on useless and inhumane incarceration.

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June 25, 2014

Hooray for privacy! Unanimous Supreme Court Holds That Police Need Search Warrant to Access Data in Cell Phones After an Arrest

Federal criminal cases, State criminal case, here in Atlanta, throughout Georgia and the rest of the country, are all impacted by this morning's blockbuster ruling from the Supreme Court. The Court held that when a person is arrested, law enforcement cannot simply look through all the data in the arrested person's cell phone, unless they first get a warrant from a judge. This massively important ruling is just the latest example of how the breakneck pace of modern technology runs square into the Eighteenth Century privacy considerations enshrined in the Fourth Amendment to our Constitution. I have written about this in earlier posts like this and this. . Read today's case here.

Back in 1969, the Supreme Court issued a decision called Chimel v. California. Police officers looked through a pack of cigarettes in Mr. Chimel's pocket after arresting him, discovering contraband. The Supreme Court in that case said the search was OK, creating what we call the "search incident to arrest" principle. When a person is arrested, it is basically OK for the cops to look through anything he or she is carrying or has on his or her person, with no need for a warrant.

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June 24, 2014

Supreme Court Issues Opinion in Federal Bank Fraud Case

Those you that handle white collar matters in federal court may want to take a look at the Court's decision yesterday interpreting subsection two of the federal bank fraud statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1344(2). Subsection (2) of § 1344 makes it unlawful to knowingly execute or attempt to execute a scheme or artifice to obtain money, assets or property "owned by, or under the custody or control of, a financial institution by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, or promises."

In the case before the Court yesterday, the defendant attempted to cash fraudulent checks at Target. The checks he attempted to cash were taken from the mailboxes of various individuals and then altered so that they could be presented at Target by the defendant. Ultimately, Target realized that the some of the checks were fraudulent and after doing so, Target declined to present them to the bank. With respect to the one check that was presented to the bank, the bank itself realized the check was fraudulent and refused to pay the check. For these reasons, the record did not conclusively establish that any bank lost money as a result of the scheme.

The Court granted certiorari to resolve the Circuit split on the following question: Whether § 1344(2) requires the Government to show that a defendant intended to defraud a bank. According to the defendant, this really mattered in his case, because although he acknowledged that his scheme intended to deceive Target, he argued that there was no evidence that he ever intended to deceive a bank.

In its opinion, the Court rejected the argument that subsection two of the bank fraud statute requires the Government to prove that an individual intended to defraud a bank. The Court relied on the plain language of the statute, as well as general cannons of statutory interpretation. Most notably, the Court recognized that subsection one of the statute explicitly requires that an individual act with an intent to defraud a bank and that if one read a similar requirement into subsection two, it would render subsection one superfluous.

After dealing with the language of the statute and canons of statutory construction, the Court turned to the more difficult issue raised on behalf of the defendant. According to Loughrin's lawyer, if the Court reads subsection two as not requiring an intent to defraud a bank, the statute's coverage would extend to a vast range of fraudulent schemes, thereby intruding on the historic criminal jurisdiction of the States.

To the Court, the expansion of federal jurisdiction argument had some force and appeal. Indeed, in addressing the argument, the Court noted that it "agree[ed] with "much of what Lougrin argues." For that reason, the Court stated: "Unless the text requires us to do so, we should not construe §1344(2) as a plenary ban on fraud, contingent only on use of a check (rather than cash). As we have often (and recently) repeated, we will not be quick to assume that Congress has meant to effect a significant change in the sensitive relation between federal and state criminal jurisdiction."

Ultimately, although it found the expansion of federal jurisdiction argument appealing, the Court rejected Lougrin's invitation to read subsection two as requiring an intent to defraud a bank. The Court, however, addressed the expansion argument by recognizing "a significant textual limitation on §1344(2)'s reach." According to the Court, it is not enough for a "fraudster"to obtain money from a bank and in doing so make a false statement. Instead, in the Court's view, the defendant must also "acquire (or attempt to acquire) bank property by means of the misrepresentation. And in order to satisfy the Court's "by means of" language, the Government must show that the defendant's false statement is the mechanism naturally inducing a bank to part with money in its control.

There is no doubt that the "by means" test created by the Court in Loughrin will be the subject of litigation in later cases. For that reason, federal practitioners will be well served by reading Lougrhin, which can be found here. While doing so, do not forget to read Justice Scalia's concurrence which, as usual, is entertaining. Although Justice Scalia agreed with the result, he did not join the portion of the majority's opinion involving the "by means" test. Instead, since that issue had not been adequately briefed and argued, Justice Scalia believed that the meaning of "by means" should be left for another day. In his concurrence, though, Justice Scalia challenges the majority's view of "by means" and his argument provides ammunition for later argument concerning the application of what that phase now means.


June 4, 2014

Another Federal Criminal Case Reversed by the Supreme Court

Readers know that federal criminal cases are a large portion of our work, so we pay attention to the laws, reported decisions and news stories about how the "feds" sometimes brings really unfortunate criminal cases. This past Monday, the United States Supreme Court reversed yet another unfortunate federal criminal case, because what the Defendant did was not even a federal crime. The case is a perfect example of how some federal prosecutors will take even the smallest case and try to"make a federal case out of something." The case is Bond v. United States, and can be read here.

A Pennsylvania woman learned that her husband had impregnated her former best friend. The woman put some caustic chemicals on the pregnant woman's door handle. The victim was slightly burned on her hand, which she remedied by washing. Sounds like a state law case, right? Wrong! Some ambitious federal prosecutors brought a federal case against the Defendant for violating a 1998 statute that was designed to implement US treaty obligations concerning chemical weapons. A divided Supreme Court reduced the scope of this statute. The majority ruled that Congress could not have intended to make it a federal crime — with global implications — for a woman to try to poison her husband’s lover.

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April 18, 2014

Good Laws Sometimes Yield Bad Consequences: The Crime Victims Rights Act

Over the past 20 years or so, there has been a real push to protect the rights of victims in the criminal justice system. People who are victims of crime now have the right to speak in court, to receive restitution, and to be informed about all phases of a criminal case against the person who victimized them in the first place. In federal criminal cases, where we do a bulk of our work, this trend to give victims more rights culminated in the 2004 Crime Victims Rights Act (CVRA). I have spoken to lawyer meetings around the country since 2004, pointing out how criminal defense attorneys need to account for the fact that victims are now more heavily involved in federal criminal cases.

A decision issued yesterday by the United States Court of Appeals here in Atlanta shows how even good laws like the CVRA can sometimes lead to bad consequences. The case is Jane Doe #1 and Jane Doe #2 v. Roy Black, et al. You can access the decision here.

A man named Epstein apparently sexually abused two minor girls. Epstein hired Roy Black, a prominent criminal defense attorney in Miami. Epstein faced potential criminal charges in both the local Miami courts as well as in the federal court system. Recall, the under the CVRA, victims have lots of rights, one of which is to be notified about all developments in a case. Victims also own the right to have their opinions heard when prosecutors are considering resolving a case with an agreement of some sort.

The federal prosecutors told the victims that they were considering a case against Epstein. However, they ultimately decided to not prosecute Epstein in return for his plea of guilty in the local court system. Here's the problem: although they properly informed the victims about the state court guilty plea, the feds failed to tell the victims there would not be a federal prosecution, thus potentially violating the victims' rights to be heard as to the fairness of this resolution.

The victims eventually filed a law suit, but the important part of the case is that they wanted all correspondence and communications between Epstein's lawyers and the federal prosecutors. Everybody knows that it is is very important to keep plea negotiations (and just about every other type of negotiation) secret. Lawyers and their clients are far less likely to put their cards on the table if they know that their communications later can be opened up to outsiders. However, that is exactly what happened in the decision issued yesterday. The Court of Appeals ruled that there is no privilege or other reason that prevents the victims from getting access to Epstein's attorneys' confidential communications with the federal prosecutors.

Again, I am mostly in favor of the greater rights we not afford to victims of crimes. This movement has helped regain respect for the criminal justice system. However, I fear that this ruling and others like it will make it far harder for criminal defense attorneys and prosecutors to do their jobs, knowing that somebody down the line one day can pry open an old file and try to use a seemingly private business communication for another purpose.