Articles Posted in Criminal Justice Issues

A recent state court criminal case here in Atlanta is very similar to a federal criminal case we handled in Savannah last year.  In each case, one person made a demand against another person, and the demand arose out of civil litigation.  Prosecutors in each case alleged that the “demand” was actually the crime of “extortion.”  The recent case here in Atlanta was handled by our friend Brian Steel, who is an excellent lawyer.  Just like in our case last year in Savannah, Brian got the charges dismissed against his client.  You can read about the recent Atlanta case here.

These cases came about because of statutes (which some people refer to as “laws”) that make it a crime to engage in extortion.  Generally, it is illegal to threaten another person and ask that person to pay you money in return for which you will take some action that benefits that other person.  However, (and this is the big exception) it is NOT illegal to make such a threat (or “demand”) if you have every right to make such a claim.  In other words, if someone damages your car, it is OK for you (or your lawyer) to send a “demand” to the person who wrecked your auto, seeking money, and threatening a lawsuit if they do not comply with the demand.  It is NOT OK to send a demand if the person never caused you any damage at all. Continue Reading

We represent many people who are under investigation for (or who later face) federal criminal charges.  In the past week the national news media are having spasms over the fact that the head of the FBI decided to publicly acknowledge that his agents are looking at emails scoured from a laptop sometimes used by the well-named Anthony Weiner, and that these emails may be connected to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (who, in case you have not heard it, is running for President).

I am fascinated by how politics intersects with the criminal justice system.  Over the past 34 years I have represented people involved in politics who either were charged with or investigated for crimes, both federal crimes and state criminal accusations.  While my cases are obviously different from whatever challenges are facing attorneys for Hillary Clinton and others, there are also striking similarities. Continue Reading

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.

Here at Kish & Lietz, we proudly represent individuals who are being investigated for or prosecuted with criminal offenses. A set of recent stories about how drug companies in Europe are refusing to provide the drugs used for executions reminded me about the difference between attorneys who represent individual people, versus those lawyers who mostly work for companies, or a movement, or an ideology. One of the recent death penalty drug stories can be found here.

I have almost always represented individual people during my legal career. It simply fits better with my personality, in that I sort of like the David-versus-Goliath story where it’s me and my client versus the entire system of prosecutors, federal agents and judges. The only things I need to concern myself with are my client and whatever is best for him or her and their family. However, when a lawyer represents a company, or a movement promoting an ideology, the individual person’s interests can sometimes get pushed to the side.
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Politics impacts many of our criminal cases here in Atlanta, throughout Georgia, Florida and Alabama, and in federal cases we do throughout the country. The intersection of politics and criminal prosecutions is especially prevalent in public corruption investigations. Prosecutors often have a political motive in “going after” a particular defendant, and many a prosecutor has made a name for him or herself by bagging a politician. These principles were on full display in the case against Tom Delay, the former Majority Leader of the United States House of Representatives. Last week, the Texas Court of Appeals reversed Delay’s convictions, ruling that he had not committed any crime. The ruling is here.

Delay was known as a hard-charging Republican advocate, whose nickname of “the Hammer” demonstrated his supposedly ruthless tactics. In 2002, Delay wanted to have the Texas Legislature turn solidly Republican, which it did. To accomplish, he asked for a series of corporate political contributions to a campaign committee. Afterwards, that solidly Republican legislature allegedly jiggered the voting districts so that the Texas federal delegation was far more likely to elect Republicans to the U.S. Congress. All well and good, hard nosed politics.
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In any criminal case, whether in Federal Court or one of the State Court systems, prosecutors are supposed to “play fair”. The Fifth Amendment to our dear Old Constitution enshrines this fairness obligation in what we lawyers call the “Due Process Clause.” Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the day in 1963 when the United State Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling of Brady v. Maryland. That was the case in which, for the first time, the Supreme Court said that the Due Process Clause mandates that a prosecutor play fair by telling the defense about any exculpatory evidence, or evidence that tends to show that the defendant was not guilty. However, as basic as this obligation seems to be, I often wonder if our clients are that much better off than 50 years ago.

Like defendants in many famous Supreme Court cases, John Brady was no saint. On June 27, 1958, he and Donald Boblit robbed and killed a man named William Brooks. Boblit quickly confessed that he had strangled Brooks to death, and that he acted alone. However, the prosecutors handling the case against John Brady never informed the defense attorneys about this confession and never turned over the transcript of Boblit’s remarks.
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We handle lots of federal criminal cases. The various rules governing these cases are the same here in Georgia, they are the same when we take cases in Florida or Alabama, and we work under the same rules whenever we take cases in other parts of the country. Every so often, there are proposals to change the rules, and these amendments need to be first approved by the United States Supreme Court before they can be sent to Congress for ratification. Several weeks ago, the Supreme Court approved a series of rule changes that federal court practitioners need to keep up with in order to do the best job possible for their clients. Two of the bigger changes are discussed below.

One of the biggest rule changes concerns criminal cases involving immigration crimes or clients who are not U.S. Citizens Recall that under the landmark case of Padilla v. Kentucky, it is ineffective assistance of counsel if the lawyer does not tell his alien client that a guilty plea can have ramifications on the defendant’s immigration status. Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure discusses what happens when anybody pleads guilty to a crime in federal court. The Supreme Court approved a change which requires the judge, before accepting a guilty plea, to ensure that the defendant understands “that, if convicted, a defendant who is not a United States citizen may be removed from the United States, denied citizenship, and denied admission to the United States in the future.” The rule change seems to provide protection to both defendants (who will be told about what might happen) and prosecutors (who can argue on appeal or habeas that any failure by defense counsel to provide the advice required by Padilla was harmless because the court gave the defendant the required notice).
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Our beloved Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, just down the street here in Atlanta, recently refused to join the ever-growing chorus of other courts that permit expert witness testimony to illuminate the real shortcomings in eyewitness identifications. A 30-year old ruling in the 11th Circuit said that the Court of Appeals can never overrule a trial judge who won’t allow a party to bring in an expert to explain to jurors the many problems with witness identification testimony. A criminal defendant recently asked the entire court to overturn this old decision, but the judges refused to take the case. Judge Rosemary Barkett issued a scathing dissent, which is worth reading. The case is US v. Owens, and can be found here

Judge Barkett first notes her amazement that the 11th Circuit wouldn’t join the majority of courts that allow such testimony. She sets out that all other federal courts of appeal, and 42 out of 50 states permit such testimony.

The many problems with eyewitness identification testimony, and recent social science research in this area, both call out for a new view, according to Judge Barkett. In the 30 years since the 11th Circuit outlawed such expert testimony, there have been over 2000 studies concerning the unreliability of eyewitness identification testimony. Judge Barkett quoted from a decision of another federal appellate court demonstrating that “the conclusions of the psychological studies are largely counter-intuitive, and serve to ‘explode common myths about an individual’s capacity for perception.'”

Earlier this morning the United States Supreme Court issued a unanimous 9-0 decision, holding that the police engaged in a Fourth Amendment “search” when, without the benefit of a valid warrant, they put a GPS tracking device on a suspect’s vehicle. The case is Jones v. United States. This is potentially a huge ruling that we need to assess more fully in the days and weeks to come, but for now, let’s look at the decision itself.

Law enforcement officials in the District of Columbia suspected Antoine Jones of being a large-scale drug trafficker. Among other investigative tools, they wanted to put a Global-Positioning-System (GPS) monitor on a vehicle that Jones regularly drove. The officers got a warrant, but messed up and did not put the monitor on the vehicle within the 10-day window authorized by the judge who issued the warrant. As a result, the monitor was put on the vehicle without the benefit of a valid warrant. The GPS monitor tracked Jones’ travels for about a month, resulting in evidence that tied him to a large drug stash-house, among other information. This evidence was then used to convict Jones.

All nine justices on the Supreme Court agreed that this was an illegal search under the Fourth Amendment. Although they all reached the same result, there is a big difference between the justices as to the underlying rationale for the decision.

Michael Diaz was charged with armed robbery and gun offenses nearly seven years ago. Since the age of 13, he has “changed identities” five times and has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and psychosis. He represented himself during a bench trial in 2006, but the Eleventh Circuit vacated his convictions, holding that he had not knowingly waived his right to a jury trial. He refused treatment for his mental illness and was found incompetent to stand re-trial.

In 2003, the Supreme Court addressed involuntarily medicating criminal defendants for the sole purpose of rendering them competent to stand trial in Sell v. U.S. Last week in Diaz, the Eleventh Circuit explained:

Sell laid out these four standards the government must satisfy for involuntary medication to render a defendant competent to stand trial: (1) important government interests must be at stake, (2) involuntary medication must significantly further the state interests in assuring a fair and timely trial, (3) involuntary medication must be necessary to further the state interests, and (4) administration of the medication must be “medically appropriate, i.e., in the patient’s best medical interest in light of his medical condition.”