Responding to a Grand Jury Subpoena Without a Lawyer: Always a Bad Idea

Here in Atlanta we have a good relationship with the federal prosecutors, and can generally work out some good arrangements when we represent a client who is served with a federal grand jury subpoena. As we explain elsewhere, it is always a good idea to have a lawyer help one through this dangerous process. Yesterday the Eleventh Circuit issued an opinion that demonstrates the dangers of going through this process without at least first consulting with an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer. The case is US v. Merrill.

Mr. Merrill was involved in a company that sold munitions to the Army. The munitions would then be shipped to Afghanistan. There is a federal statute and regulation saying that companies cannot provide any such munitions if the material was manufactured by a company in Communist China. Merrill and others had “old” munitions that had been made by a Chinese Communist manufacturer years before the prohibition went into effect. When they tested the waters, they discovered that the US government would still not allow the use of this “old” Communist material, so they did what any self-respecting international arms dealer would do: they removed all signs of its origin and shipped the stuff to Afghanistan.

The feds eventually got wise, and sent Mr. Merrill a federal grand jury subpoena, telling him to appear in Miami two days before he was supposed to testify in front of a federal grand jury. Merrill apparently showed up with no lawyer helping him. You guessed it, during those two days a federal prosecutor and several agents “dry cleaned” Mr. Merrill, telling him that they had the goods on him, telling him it would be better if he ‘fessed up, and getting him to basically incriminate himself.

They later indicted Mr. Merrill. His defense team argued that Merrill’s statements should be suppressed because a court cannot admit against a defendant “a statement made during plea discussions with an attorney for the prosecuting authority if the discussions did not result in a guilty plea or they resulted in a later-withdrawn guilty plea.” Fed.R. Evid. 410(a)(4). However, there were no charges pending at the time of the interview. Furthermore, the Court of Appeals found it important that Merrill was free to end the interview or to consult with his attorney, and he declined to do either even though he was advised of his rights. And here’s the important part: the trial court “credited the testimony of Agents Vasquez and Perez who testified that any discussions of leniency were general in nature and that no specific promises were made.” As a result, the Court ruled that even if Merrill thought that he was cutting a deal when he made admissions to the prosecutor and the agents, the Court decided to believe the agents who testified that no such deal was discussed.

It is always important to have a lawyer when a person speaks with a federal prosecutor or agent. It is perhaps more important to have another person accompany the Defendant and the lawyer, so that if there is a dispute the Courts cannot always simply rubber-stamp whatever the agents “remember” from such a meeting. This recent case is further proof of why people should consult experienced federal criminal defense lawyers when they get a grand jury subpoena.