There are many big policy changes happening in Washington these days and they receive appropriate press coverage. But, there are also many smaller changes that can have literally life changing effects on citizens, which are not generally reported in the media. One of those smaller changes is whether the Trump administration will revive a clemency program for federal inmates that effectively concluded with the end of the Obama administration.
In 2014, the Obama administration developed a clemency program to encourage non-violent drug inmates to apply for presidential clemency, provided they have served at least 10 years of their original sentence and met other guidelines. The Department of Justice program was aimed at inmates that were sentenced under the mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses that were established in the 1980’s, and, who would have received a lesser sentence if sentenced under the current sentencing guidelines. This clemency program was important because nearly half of all federal prisoners are serving time for drug-related offenses.
In order to implement this program, the Department of Justice program partnered with The Clemency Project 2014, a pro-bono effort by lawyers throughout the United States, to efficiently process clemency applications on behalf of inmates. The Clemency Project consisted of approximately four thousand lawyers from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the American Bar Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, and many others. Ifrah Law also participated in Clemency Project 2014 and represented several defendants that were granted clemency.
This clemency program effectively concluded with the end of the Obama administration and it appears unlikely that President Trump- who campaigned on a “law and order” principle- would be inclined to revive it.
Further, although neither President Trump nor Sen. Jeff Sessions (the attorney-general nominee) have made direct statements with regard to continuing the clemency program, their past comments indicate that they do not support it. For instance, during the campaign, President Trump commented on the clemency program saying, “Some of these people are bad dudes…And these are people who are out, they’re walking the streets. Sleep tight, folks.”
Moreover, back in 2014, when the Obama administration first announced its intention to initiate the clemency program, then-Senator Sessions issued a statement condemning the use of presidential pardons to grant clemency as “an alarming abuse of the pardon power,” protesting that “While the pardon power has been interpreted broadly, the Framers never intended for it to be used in this manner.” Sen. Sessions’ statement also noted that, “In addition to these serious constitutional concerns, there are serious policy concerns”, and, “it sends the message that the United States government is not serious about combating drug crimes”. So, assuming Sen. Sessions is confirmed as the next Attorney General, he does not seem predisposed to reviving the clemency program in any form.
Even so, and notwithstanding the prior negative comments by President Trump and Sen. Sessions, there is some hope of a bi-partisan push by Congress to amend the current federal sentencing structure and address a clemency program. The Congressional momentum comes from a joint interest by members focused on criminal justice reform and members interested in reducing the fiscal costs borne by the prison system. Federal prison costs account for nearly a third of the entire Department of Justice’s $27 billion annual budget; incarceration of one individual costs the Bureau of Prisons approx. $80/day (or $29,000/year), while probation supervision costs only $10/day (or $3,500/year).
This fiscal concern has paved common ground between criminal justice reform advocates and fiscal conservatives, which provides a glimmer of hope that a compromise can be reached to provide meaningful reform that reduces the federal inmate population in a responsible manner, without compromising our nation’s “law and order,” and possibly reviving the Clemency Program to do so.
Finally, in his recent interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, President Trump was asked about pardoning a Navy sailor imprisoned for taking photos inside a submarine. President Trump responded that he was “looking at it right now” and that “I think it’s very unfair in light of what’s happened with other people.” We think that same sentiment would apply to the Clemency Program, which was focused on inmates that received sentences that were “unfair in light of what’s happened with other people” and would urge the President to consider reviving the Clemency Program.
It sits in your house, passively recording everything you say. It knows what you like. It knows what you listen to. It knows what you buy. It knows who’s in the room with you. And now, it might tell the police all about it.
“It” is the Amazon Echo, a revolution in the “internet of things.” The Echo is a smart speaker that connects directly to Amazon’s cloud-based personal assistant service, Alexa. It can play music; give you the traffic, weather, and news; handle your shopping; put things on your calendar; play games; and even respond appropriately to a wide array of cultural references, all in response to voice commands. If you have the right add-ons, Alexa can even control your entire home, dimming your lights, adjusting the thermostat, and locking the doors.
It does this by passively listening for a given activation phrase—the default is “Alexa.” Generally, Alexa does not record anything else (although it may store up to sixty seconds at a time in a buffer). Once it hears its name, Alexa will begin recording and will send what follows to Amazon for processing—both to respond to a given request, and to store to improve responsiveness later. On one hand, this means that Amazon is not actually recording everything you say, but only those specific commands directed to Alexa. On the other hand, it means that Alexa is always listening.
This became relevant in a recent murder case in Bentonville Arkansas, in which police obtained a warrant for recordings from Amazon of commands given to the suspect’s Echo. It is far from clear what police hope to gain from these recordings; they have a large amount of traditional evidence and, unless the murderer specifically asked Alexa for help, the recordings are unlikely to be incriminating. Nevertheless, an attempt by police to seek recordings from a device that is virtually always listening to us in our homes is extremely disturbing.
These efforts are made even more concerning by recent court rulings on cell phone location data. According to two federal appellate courts, because cell phones send this information to a third party (that is, to cell phone and app providers), it is not considered sufficiently private for protection from searches and seizures. That means that police can access this data—which often allows an individual to be physically tracked from moment-to-moment—without even requesting a warrant.
If this principle is upheld by the Supreme Court (which, so far, has refused to consider the issue), it would mean that police could access daily recordings from the privacy of your own home on little more than a hunch and an informal request. Though many may say they have nothing to hide, I doubt most of us would be comfortable knowing a police officer was looking over our shoulder twenty-four hours a day.
There is one barrier to that terrifying outcome, which is that Amazon has refused to comply with the Bentonville warrant and officers there have decided not to press the issue. Like Apple, Amazon has taken it upon itself to protect its customers’ privacy. But a private company cannot be expected to be the defender of its customers’ civil rights forever.
But until the law catches up to the state of technology, every one of our devices is capable of being turned into an informant against us. And though Alexa can do a lot, it has yet to learn how to invoke its Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. Until it does, you might want to think twice before inviting Alexa–and potentially the police–into your home.
‘Tis the Season of Giving: Supreme Court Expands Insider Trading Liability to Recipients of “Gift” Stock Tips
Just in time for the holiday season, the Supreme Court has ruled that gift-giving is truly its own reward. But far from embodying the spirit of generosity that typically goes with that saying, the Court has ruled that the warm feeling one gets from giving to others can give rise to criminal insider trading liability. This ruling will extend insider trading liability for the recipients of tips, who were previously thought to be protected where they obtained information from an insider that was not the result of a quid pro quo exchange.
The case, Salman v. United States, dealt with a defendant who had received tips second-hand from a friend, Michael Kara, whose brother Maher was a trader at Citigroup. Maher had initially turned to his brother for help understanding technical issues he encountered in his job but, eventually, began to share inside information with Maher with knowledge that Maher intended to trade on it. Unknown to Maher, Michael shared some of these tips with his own friends, including Bassam Salman. After making a significant amount of money trading on those tips, Salman was charged with insider trading and convicted following a jury trial.
Under a major 2014 ruling from a federal court in New York, Michael and Salman would have been protected from liability because they did not buy any stock tips from Maher or give him a share of their gains. That 2014 case, United States v. Newman, emphasized the legal requirement that an insider receive a “personal benefit” from the recipient of a tip before the tippee could be charged with insider trading. This requirement offered powerful protections for innocent parties who traded on tips they received without doing anything wrong.
But the Supreme Court ruled today that the personal gratification that a tipper enjoys when giving free information as a gift to a friend or relative is enough of a “personal benefit” to satisfy insider trading laws. This all but does away with the personal benefit requirement, since it presumes that an insider benefits even when he receives nothing for information that he shares with another.
At one level, this may seem to make sense on the facts of Salman’s case. One of the Court’s concerns was that a free stock tip may be no different from an insider trading on his own behalf and then giving the money away. And that concern applied with particular force to Maher and Michael, since on one occasion Maher actually offered his brother money but was asked to give him inside information instead.
But the Court easily could have ruled narrowly on that basis; it did not. Instead, by ruling that “the benefit one would obtain from simply making a gift of confidential information to a trading relative” is sufficient to satisfy insider trading laws, it has essentially removed one of the key limitations to the scope of insider trading laws, allowing for even an unthinking tip to a friend or relative to be the basis for criminal prosecution. And although the Court left open the possibility that some gifts may not be meaningful enough to give rise to criminal liability, the breadth of today’s ruling suggests that exception is likely to be both small and difficult to prove.
That means that we should all be particularly careful as we get together with our families this December, particularly if a relative in the finance industry—or, indeed, in the corporate sector at all—offers up a stock tip at a family gathering. Because the joy of giving can now lead to criminal exposure for the whole family.
When you grant access to a $ 4 billion fund and give fund participants relative autonomy in how they use those funds, ne’er-do-wells will sniff their way to the honey pot. Keeping them out can be a challenge. So goes the story of the federally administered Schools and Libraries Program, better known as E-Rate.
Established by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, E-Rate is a federal subsidy that helps schools and libraries–particularly those in disadvantaged areas–pay for telecommunications services (e.g., Internet access). The program runs a $3.9 billion fund today.
Schools and libraries that want to take advantage of E-Rate simply need to follow the program’s bid and approval process. Participants oversee the bidding process and choose their service provider. While participants are required to choose the most cost effective provider, there isn’t much of a check on whether they actually do: they need only self-certify that they chose the most cost effective bid.
E-Rate participant autonomy has been a problem as the program regularly faces allegations of fraud and abuse. These concerns prompted a GAO study and senate hearings in the early 2000s. Former Rep. Jim Greenwood (R-PA) told the New York Times, “You couldn’t invent a way to throw money down the drain that would work any better than this.” After the GAO reported its findings (2004), U.S. Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), Chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, said, “Unscrupulous vendors … fleeced the program while underserved communities and telephone customers pay the price.” Over the past decade, there have been a number of investigations and enforcement actions, resulting in civil as well as criminal penalties, including jail time for a few program profiteers.
Some noteworthy fleecing includes:
- The Atlanta Public School system misspent nearly $73 million in E-rate dollars giving contracts to vendors without requiring they go to the lowest bidder. The former technical director who ran the APS E-rate program, was sentenced to 37 months in federal prison for accepting nearly $300,000 in bribes from vendors.
- Puerto Rico wasted more than $100 million in program funds and its secretary of education was sentenced to three years in prison and fined $4 million.
- In the Chicago Public School system, some $8.5 million in equipment was stockpiled (better yet, the CPS and E-Rate were essentially paying twice for equipment that was never installed!).
- A company in the San Francisco Unified School District was required to pay $20.7 million in fines and restitution.
More recently, schools and libraries in the Chicago and New York City areas have been investigated for violating the competitive bidding process and taking E-Rate funds without actually providing E-Rate services. Those investigations are still underway, with dramatic raids last March.
Adding to the temptation for ne’er-do-wells are the millions of dollars left on the table in E-Rate funds each year. According to EducationDive, some $245 million in funds went unclaimed in 2014. It is almost hard to blame profiteers for seeking out what they perceive as free money, especially when they have so much control over the process.
There may be a lot of good intentions behind E-Rate. But in its current form and function, E-Rate is but one more example of a poorly administered federal funds that attract those able to game the system.
What a difference two words can make. Just ask the Center for Competitive Politics (CCP) or Americans for Prosperity (AFP), two organizations that filed separate lawsuits against the same defendant, California Attorney General Kamala Harris, over the same issue: whether Harris’s office had the right to access the organizations’ donor information. (The cases are Center for Competitive Politics v. Harris and Americans for Prosperity v. Harris.)
The plaintiffs’ arguments in each case were basically the same: the state’s request to access donor information would violate the first and fourteenth amendments of the U.S. Constitution. But there the similarities stopped: the CCP never got to trial, whereas the AFP did—and won! Was the CCP the victim of a miscarriage of justice? Nah. It all came down to two words: “as applied.”
You know the saying “go big or go home?” Well, unfortunately the CCP did both: it tried to get the court to rule that Harris’s probe of donor information would be unconstitutional for all organizations. The AFP took a different approach: it asked the court to call the probe unconstitutional “as applied” to the AFP alone.
The AFP’s narrower approach enabled the court to provide relief without upsetting Harris’s authority and potentially affecting thousands of other organizations. Courts generally hesitate to invalidate a state’s actions when they can provide individual relief to the plaintiff instead. If the CCP had taken this course, it might have had a flying chance. But now it had the added burden of proving how the state’s actions would adversely affect all organizations subject to the same request.
Meanwhile, the AFP coasted without having to prove any such thing. All it had to show was how the state’s request had already affected the organization and could continue to do so. This was no fun task, though. Several individuals testified that they suffered reprisals, assaults, and even death threats due to their association with the AFP—a strongly conservative organization. Clearly, being publicly linked to the AFP could lead to serious fallout. For her part, Harris tried to argue that the state would keep donor information confidential, but the AFP was able to show how this had failed before, citing over one thousand instances of donor information being improperly disclosed on the AG’s own website!
The AFP showed that the risk of scaring, and therefore discouraging, would-be donors was real. The chilling effect on individuals’ freedom of association would be too steep a price to pay for a nominal benefit to the state.
It was a strong case—unlike the defendant’s. Harris claimed that accessing donor information was in the state’s best interest; reviewing the findings would help uncover potential irregularities tied to fraud, waste, or abuse. Maybe it would—but it doesn’t pass the “exacting scrutiny” test, which requires states to protect their interests by the least restrictive means in situations like this. More importantly, Harris could not produce any evidence or testimony to corroborate her argument that access to donor information was important to state law enforcement. Although several state-employed investigators and attorneys took the stand, none could claim that they needed, or even used, donor information to do their work—and if they did need it, they could generally get it elsewhere. This evidentiary failure undercut Harris’s arguments and called into question the state’s overall scheme.
In the end, it was not a tough decision: with so strong a case by the plaintiff, and so weak one by the state, the court sided plainly with the plaintiff. It could have gone a step further and declared the state’s actions broadly unconstitutional, but instead it judged the state’s actions to be improper as applied to the AFP alone. This was a good idea, because Harris will have a harder time challenging the decision on appeal.
So the AFP trial didn’t set a huge precedent for everyone—but that’s kind of the point. If you’re going to file suit, and there’s a path of least resistance, take it. Those sweeping courtroom victories you see in the movies are rare. In real life, justice takes baby steps.
Rather than confront accusations of baseless zeal and prosecutorial overreach, New York federal prosecutor Preet Bharara would rather spend his energy dodging accountability.
In 2010, Bharara launched a crusade against Wall Street, prosecuting several hedge funds he suspected of insider trading. Highly publicized raids followed. In the wake of the financial meltdown, Bharara was hailed as a hero. A Time cover story proclaimed, “This Man Is Busting Wall St.”
But many of those prosecutions went nowhere. A federal appellate court rejected the legal theory that the prosecutions were built on, and many cases were simply dropped. The SEC even agreed to return some of the money it had seized from several hedge funds.
This was cold comfort to people like David Ganek, the manager of Level Global—one of several hedge funds shut down by Bharara’s inquisition. Even while the case was pending, Bharara all but acknowledged that he meant to shutter Level Global, without regard for the presumption of innocence.
Sadly, even when defendants are harmed by prosecutorial overreach, broad immunity doctrines make it nearly impossible for the wrongly prosecuted to get justice.
But Ganek’s case involved more than just excessive zeal: the warrant used to raid Level Global depended on a false statement. A former employee of Level Global had told federal agents that Ganek did not know he was using information from corporate insiders, but the warrant application falsely said that Ganek did know. That gave Ganek a rare opportunity: federal agents can be shielded for overreaching, but there is no protection for lying.
Ganek sued officials from both the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI (Ganek v. Leibowitz), claiming that the use of the false statement to prosecute him had violated his constitutional right against unreasonable searches and his due process rights. In March, a federal judge ruled that Ganek’s claim could go forward, rejecting claims of governmental immunity.
In most civil cases, overcoming this initial step is a big deal. It would allow Ganek to conduct discovery—that is, to investigate the facts behind his case by methods that can include obtaining documents from prosecutors and the FBI and depositions of federal officials under oath. This process can be extremely onerous—the cost of document production and the risks of laying bare a defendant’s inner workings to a hostile adversary have forced many defendants into settling dubious lawsuits. In addition to uncovering misrepresentations tied to his own case, Ganek also could investigate the conduct of federal officials more generally and, perhaps, even the supervisory practices of prosecutors and the FBI.
In a typical case, there would be no way to avoid this except by an expensive settlement—likely including a premium for avoiding discovery. But this is no typical case, and Preet Bharara is no typical litigant. Although most of us in Bharara’s position would have to wait until the end of a federal case before filing a single, final appeal, Bharara has relied on a narrow legal doctrine that allows him to appeal the court’s decision immediately, based on his claims of immunity. As a result, the court has delayed discovery and other proceedings indefinitely. Instead of accepting the need for transparency and letting Ganek be made whole for his wrongful prosecution, Bharara’s office will get a second bite at the apple by rearguing the issue of immunity in front of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
It is hard to imagine that Bharara will prevail on appeal—immunity does not cover outright lies by federal agents. Yet by belaboring a weak immunity argument, Bharara can postpone having to answer for the actions of his office for months, if not longer, while creating additional costs and burdens for Ganek.
This case goes beyond Ganek’s personal quest for justice. Civil suits like this are important for holding public officials accountable and can provide a window into how they operate. Bharara’s resistance sends a discomforting message: however merciless he may be towards his suspects, he should bear no consequences for his actions.
We’ll see if Ganek can prove him wrong.
Data breaches are as common as the common cold—unfortunately, just as incurable. Run a news search on “data breaches” and you’ll find that all kinds of institutions—major retailers, tech companies, universities, even government agencies—have been vulnerable at some point. Now run a search on “data breaches,” but include the word “lawsuit.” You’ll find that many of these cases are going to court, but ultimately getting dismissed. What’s going on?
First, you should look at some of these lawsuits more closely: are they filed against the alleged perpetrators of the data breach? Many of them aren’t; those perpetrators are usually hackers who live outside the country or are unable to pay a money judgment. (In legal parlance, that’s known as being judgment proof.) Faced by those limitations, individual victims of data breaches frequently settle for the next best thing: going after the institutions that endured the breach.
Often, this isn’t fair—the institutions are victims too. The point here is that although going after the institutions looks like an easy win from “deep pockets,” that seldom turns out to be the case.
It’s with the third and final point—demonstrating injury—that plaintiffs have the most trouble. Why? Because courts view injury in fiscal terms; you need to show that you actually lost something, not simply that you might. So even if you were the victim of a data breach, as long your data hasn’t yet been compromised, it doesn’t really count as injury.
There have been exceptions, when the court greenlit cases based mainly on speculative injury, but these usually ended in a settlement before a legal precedent could be set. (See cases against Home Depot, Target, Adobe, and Sony.) For the most part, the fiscal view of injury has prevailed—reinforced in 2013, when the Supreme Court, weighing in on Clapper vs Amnesty Int’l, determined that a plaintiff cannot proceed with a data breach lawsuit unless he or she can demonstrate actual injury or at least imminent threat of injury, each one measurable in economic loss. Otherwise, mere perception of injury is too tenuous to establish legal standing, which a case requires to go forward, and the lawsuit will probably get tossed.
The challenge of establishing legal standing recently made its way to the Supreme Court in Spokeo v. Robins. In that case, a plaintiff filed suit against the “people search engine” Spokeo for publishing false information about him. The issue before the Court was this central question of how much injury must be shown for a case to go forward. Prospective plaintiffs were optimistic that the high court would affirm a lower court’s decision that speculative injury was indeed enough. Alas, the Supreme Court sidestepped the issue and punted it back to the lower court for further review. The Court nonetheless reinforced the general tenets that, for a plaintiff to have standing to bring a case, he must allege an “injury in fact” that is both “concrete and particularized.” There is still room for the lower court to broaden the approach to what constitutes an injury, but the Supreme Court’s ruling keeps the status quo in place.
For now, individuals whose data has been compromised generally must be satisfied with what the institutions offer them after a breach occurs: free credit checks and/or access to credit monitors. Do checks and monitoring seem inadequate? Not if you think about what type of harm people face after a data breach. Individuals can detect and report problems in the event someone actually misuses their data. If they keep on top of it, their credit scores will not be impacted. Moreover, credit card companies and other financial institutions will bear the cost of any unapproved charges. In the event of further problems, plaintiffs can then take their injury to the legal system and have their day in court. But at this point, the courts are right to keep this type of class action litigation at bay.
Public schools and libraries in the U.S. can save a lot of money on Internet service by applying for the Schools and Libraries Program, a federal subsidy better known as E-Rate.
E-Rate funding, capped yearly at $3.9 billion, helps eligible institutions cover costs of Internet service. Participants can save anywhere from twenty to ninety percent of their Internet expenses—the precise amount being dictated by the economic standing of both the participating institution and the school district where it is located.
E-Rate and three other programs are part of the Universal Service Fund (USF), a system of subsidies born out of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 as a way to ensure affordable telecom rates across the country. Although the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) oversees the USF, the fund is managed by a nonprofit corporation called the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC).
Detailed information on how to apply for E-Rate can be found in the Schools and Libraries Program overview. Basically it works as a bidding process. An applicant fills out FCC Form 470, requesting specific services, and submits it to the USAC. The USAC then issues an RFP for telecom providers who want to bid for the requested services. After 28 days, the applicant can study the bids. When it selects one, it requests E-Rate funding by filing FCC Form 471 within a deadline set by the FCC (for FY2016 it is May 26).
The discount rate is generally determined by the size of the population, in the applicant’s school district, that qualifies for the National School Lunch Program. The applicant must also file Form 486, listing services for which funds are requested and ensuring compliance with the Children’s Internet Protection Act.
There are limits to what E-Rate can cover. The applicant is solely responsible for end-user equipment, like hardware and software, and also for any non-discounted portions of Internet services.
While it is a great opportunity to save money, E-Rate isn’t a free-for-all. To discourage abuse and misuse of the program, the FCC requires applicants to comply with a series of rules, notably:
- Compliance with state and local law. It’s not enough to follow the FCC standards only.
- Applicants cannot seek discounts for services not requested. In other words, services listed on Form 471 must match (or not exceed) services requested on Form 470.
- Fair, competitive bidding. Applicants are responsible for ensuring an open, fair, and competitive bidding process to select the most cost-effective provider.
- Document retention. Applicants must save all competing bids for services to demonstrate they selected the most cost-effective bid, with price being the primary consideration. Records should be kept for at least ten years after the last date of service delivered.
- CIPA compliance. Applicants must confirm compliance with the Children’s Internet Protection Act, which requires schools and libraries that receive federal funding to employ Internet filters that protect children from harmful content.
In spite of these rules, the wealth of funds in the E-Rate program can attract abuse. In response, the FCC created the USF Strike Force in 2014 and tasked it with combatting waste, fraud, and abuse of the USF programs. Federal agents have shown that they are serious about investigating alleged abuses. One widely publicized case in Ramapo, NY, recently led to several raids. We will look at that case and others like it in upcoming posts.
Does the federal government have the right to seize a domain name without notice? With growing frequency, the feds have seized the domain names of thousands of websites for alleged criminal wrongdoing. The latest example is the seizure earlier this week of 67 website domain names for the alleged illegal sale and distribution of counterfeit and prescription drugs.
There still is little information publicly available on the recent seizure. The Justice Department issued a short new release with a statement from U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles, in which he noted,
It’s important for consumers to understand the significant risks involved in purchasing pharmaceutical drugs from these websites. The generic versions of these prescription drugs are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration and cannot be distributed in the United States legally. To be safe and effective, prescription drugs must be taken under the care and supervision of appropriate health care professionals; not purchased off the internet from unknown and unregulated foreign sources.
Whether or not the sites facilitated the alleged criminal behavior remains to be decided by a judicial proceeding (if the case ever gets to that point). Federal agents can obtain a seizure order based merely upon probable cause set forth in an affidavit. That’s a relatively low bar considering the consequences of domain name seizures.
The only recourse for the sites at this point is to file a petition with a federal court to contest the forfeiture. Contesting a forfeiture is an uphill—and oftentimes protracted—battle. In the meantime the businesses operating through those domain names are effectively shut down, if the seized websites were their main channel of business. Once the feds carry out a domain name seizure, the “offending” sites will show a seizure banner notifying any visitors that the domain name has been seized by federal authorities for violations of federal laws. No business can be done on the site and the chances of visitors returning are slim.
So how is it okay for a domain name to be seized based on the allegation of a crime, before proper notice and hearing? The feds are taking advantage of a process known as an in rem proceeding, whereby they can file suit against the offending property itself for its alleged role in facilitating criminal conduct. Typically in rem proceedings are filed against tangible assets like a car involved in a drug deal or a bank account used to funnel illegal funds. But in recent years, in rem proceedings have been used by both state and federal agencies against domain names in order to crack down on alleged criminal behavior carried out through the websites. Examples include (1) the Justice Department’s “In Our Sites” operation in which it seized the domain names of thousands of sites accused of violating U.S. copyright laws and (2) the state of Kentucky’s attempt to seize 141 domain names of online poker sites.
Despite the increasing use of pretrial domain name seizures, the legality is still hotly debated by civil liberties groups, free market advocates, and international organizations. These groups raise constitutional concerns, such as due process and restraint on free speech, as well as jurisdictional concerns, such as federal or state authority to reach domain names owned by foreign individuals or entities. The biggest issue is that an in rem proceeding is inappropriate against domain names because a domain name is not property – it is a contractual right that, as such, should not be subject to seizure. We will discuss these concerns in more detail in a coming post once we learn more about the Justice Department’s recent actions against the 67 pharmaceutical domain names.
There are limits to what the government can take from you. The Supreme Court recently ruled that the Constitution forbids the government from freezing a defendant’s “untainted” assets in advance of prosecution. The ruling is a significant victory for those caught in the government’s crosshairs. It is also a significant victory for a traditional concept of justice, which prefers to err on the side of the accused over government agents.
In its decision in Luis v. U.S., the high court agreed with a criminal defendant who argued that her Sixth Amendment right to counsel was violated when the government froze assets unrelated to allegedly criminal behavior. Without access to those funds, the defendant would be unable to retain the attorney of her choice.
The Court considered the government’s interest in preserving funds to pay restitution and criminal penalties, but concluded that a defendant’s right to counsel is “fundamental,” outweighing any interest the government mightultimately have: “[The government’s] interests are important, but — compared to the right to counsel — they seem to lie somewhat further from the heart of a fair, effective criminal justice system.”
In a 5-3 ruling, the Court based its decision on this balancing test, as well as on traditional understandings of common law, which distinguish between assets directly related to alleged criminal behavior and assets considered “innocent” or untainted. The Court found no legal precedent to authorize “unfettered, pretrial forfeiture of the defendant’s own ‘innocent’ property.” Moreover, the Court highlighted concerns that the government’s position has no obvious stopping point and could erode defendants’ right to counsel considerably.
Encroaching on the Sixth Amendment is but one of the several concerns posed by the government’s growing love of forfeiture — it has become too handy of a tool in prosecutors’ pockets — but it is perhaps the gravest concern, as it threatens an individual’s ability to effectively defend him or herself. It puts defendants at a significant disadvantage: they want to obtain the best representation they can afford in order to defend themselves, but they may not be able to afford any if the government freezes all their assets in the hope of confiscating them after a conviction. They may be left begging friends and family to help fund their defense or relying upon overburdened public defenders to represent them. The government’s tactic is the courtroom equivalent of inviting an opponent to a boxing match and then tying one hand behind his back.
The criminal defense bar has decried government’s overuse of asset forfeiture for years. While the government has argued that pre-trial asset seizure is justified in order to preserve its ability to recover funds and penalties, the process has been used to try to deter behavior by making an example of people. Moreover, pre-trial asset seizure looks a lot like presumed guilt, as opposed to presumed innocence. The occasional constitutionally minded congressional representative has tried to curb forfeiture overuse through legislative initiatives, but these bills keep getting left to die in committees and subcommittees. It is nice to see some effective limits placed on the practice by the Court.
Justice Thomas, in a concurring opinion, took issue with Justice Breyer’s opinion “balancing” the state’s interest against individuals’ constitutional rights. He argued the Sixth Amendment prevents the government from seizing untainted assets, period; there is no need to consider a balancing approach. But at least the plurality of the Court recognized that, when balancing the government’s interests in the outcome of a case against the individual’s right to adequately defend him or herself, you should err on the side of the individual.
If that means the state sometimes loses out on full satisfaction of a monetary judgment, that is preferable to defendants being prevented from mounting an effective defense. More wrongful convictions would result from that policy, and the seizure of a few more dollars from the truly guilty would be no consolation. If there is any question whether historically we have favored individual rights over the state’s interests in criminal prosecutions, look only to the Bill of Rights. Justice demands that if anyone’s hand is to be tied in the courtroom, it should be the hand of the government.