Crime in the Suites: An Analyis of Current Issues in White Collar Defense
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May 15
2017

DOJ’s New Charging and Sentencing Policy Will Disproportionately Impact Vulnerable Populations

On May 10, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memorandum that expressly rescinds previous Department of Justice (DOJ) policy and directs federal prosecutors to “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense” against federal defendants.

The likely result of this harsher approach to the enforcement of federal drug laws is a return to mass incarceration, with disparate impacts on communities of color and victims of the opioid epidemic.

In addition to this express directive to charge the most serious offense, the policy also requires prosecutors to disclose to sentencing judges “all facts that impact the sentencing guidelines or mandatory minimum sentences” in a given case. For drug-related crimes, such facts include drug quantity and prior convictions, both of which can trigger minimum sentences that judges must impose.

Sessions’ memorandum does allow for exceptions in limited cases. If prosecutors conclude that strict application of the charging policy is not warranted in a particular case, the prosecutor should consider whether an exception is justified. Any decision to depart from the policy must be approved at the highest levels of the Justice Department and documented in the defendant’s case file.

With respect to sentencing, prosecutors are expected to recommend a guidelines sentence in most cases. Prosecutors may recommend a guidelines departure or variance in certain cases, but the recommendation must be approved and documented in the case file.

During the last election cycle, then-Senator Jeff Sessions campaigned on behalf of the self-described “law and order” candidate, Donald Trump. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that, as Attorney General, Sessions implemented this harsher policy for the charging and sentencing of federal crimes, or that he repudiated the previous administration’s approach.

In expressly rescinding “any inconsistent previous policy” of the DOJ related to charging and sentencing, Sessions’ memo targets the policies of his predecessor, former-Attorney General Eric Holder, concerning mandatory minimum sentences and recidivist enhancements against non-violent drug offenders.

In contrast to Sessions’ approach, the Justice Department under the Obama Administration pursued a “Smart on Crime” initiative that sought to promote fairer enforcement of federal laws and, importantly, alleviate disparate impacts of the criminal justice system—particularly on vulnerable populations.

Federal prosecutors were directed to make charging decisions in drug cases based on case-specific factors, such as the defendant’s conduct and criminal history, circumstances related to the offense, the needs of the community, and federal resources and priorities. They were also directed to avoid charging decisions that would trigger mandatory minimum sentences in the cases of low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. Prosecutors had discretion at sentencing and discouraged recidivist enhancements for low-level, non-violent drug offenders.

The Obama Administration’s clemency initiative applied these same standards, and resulted in the granting of clemency to hundreds of federal inmates serving lengthy sentences for low-level drug crimes.

Holder wanted the Department to be smart on crime, Sessions wants it to be tough. Under the current new policy, federal prosecutors must take a harsher approach to enforcement of federal drug laws. The likely result will be a return to mass incarceration with high costs to the tax payer and disproportionate impacts on communities of color and victims of the opioid epidemic—populations that candidate Trump promised to help.

The Justice Department’s new charging and sentencing policy shifts leverage back to prosecutors. Defendants in drug cases are more likely to negotiate a plea deal than contest federal charges and risk being sentenced to a mandatory minimum. Defendants not subject to a mandatory minimum may be just as likely to contest their charges. If they do, their best hope for leniency will be the sentencing courts; prosecutors now have limited discretion to cut any slack.

May 18
2015

Cell Tower Location Data Privacy Decision Reversed

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Last July, we reported on United States v. Davis, an Eleventh Circuit decision in favor of privacy rights. In that case, a three-judge panel held that cell phone users have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their cell phone location data. If the government wants to collect the data, it must first obtain a probable-cause warrant, as required by the Fourth Amendment.

The groundbreaking decision seemed a clear victory for privacy rights, but the victory proved to be ephemeral. Last year, the en banc court agreed to revisit the question and, weeks ago, declared that subscribers do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their cell tower location data. As a result, the government can collect such data from third-party service providers if it shows reasonable grounds to believe the information is relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.

In February 2010, defendant Quartavius Davis was convicted on multiple counts for robbery and weapons offenses. Davis appealed on grounds that the trial court admitted cell tower location data that the prosecution had obtained from a cell phone service provider in violation of Davis’ constitutional rights. An Eleventh Circuit panel agreed with Davis. Speaking for the court, Judge Sentelle explained that Davis had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the aggregation of data points reflecting his movement in public and private places. The government’s collection of the data was a warrantless “search” in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

To reach that decision, the panel leaned heavily on a 2012 Supreme Court case called United States v. Jones. In Jones, the Court announced that the government must have a probable-cause warrant before it can place a GPS tracking device on a suspect’s car and monitor his travel on public streets. The Court so held based on a trespass (or physical intrusion) theory. Absent probable cause, the government could not commandeer the suspect’s bumper for purposes of tracking his movement, even if each isolated movement was observable in public. Several Justices went further, suggesting that the same result should obtain even without a trespass. They hinted that location data might be protected because individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the sequence of their movements over time. It was this persuasive but nonbinding privacy theory that guided the Eleventh Circuit’s panel decision.

On rehearing, the en banc court rejected the panel’s approach. The court noted that Davis could prevail only if he showed that a Fourth Amendment “search” occurred and that the search was unreasonable. He could show neither. To demonstrate a search, Davis had to establish a subjective expectation and objective expectation of privacy in his cell tower location data. But this case involved the collection of non-content cell tower data from a third-party provider who collected the information for legitimate business purposes: the records were not Davis’ to withhold. According to the court, Davis had no subjective expectation of privacy in the data because cell phone subscribers know (i) that when making a call, they must transmit their signal to a cell tower within range, (ii) that in doing so, they are disclosing to the provider their general location within a cell tower’s range, and (iii) that the provider keeps records of cell-tower usage. But even if Davis could claim a subjective expectation of privacy, he could not show an objective expectation. In the court’s view, Supreme Court precedent made clear that customers do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in non-content data voluntarily transmitted to third-party providers. Because there was no “search,” there could be no violation of Davis’ constitutional rights.

The en banc court explained further that Jones did nothing to undermine the third-party doctrine. For one, Jones involved a government trespass on private property. But the records in Davis were not obtained by means of a government trespass or even a search, so Jones did not control. Additionally, Jones involved location data that was first collected by the government in furtherance of a criminal investigation. By contrast, Davis involved location data that was first compiled by a service provider in the ordinary course of business. Simply put, “[t]he judicial system does not engage in monitoring or a search when it compels the production of preexisting documents from a witness.”

Sep 24
2014

The Road to True Threats is Paved with Intimidating Intentions

Looking For A Fight

Recently, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals considered the dividing line between free speech guarantees and the state’s authority to criminalize threat speech. In United States v. Heineman, the court held that the government must prove specific intent in true-threat cases: to obtain a conviction, prosecutors must prove not just that the defendant intended to communicate a threat, but that he intended for the recipient to feel threatened.

The underlying case was brought against Aaron Heineman, a white supremacist from Utah. Several years ago, he composed a “poem” and e-mailed it to a professor at the University of Utah. The writing addressed the professor by name and opened with the statement, “Come the time of the revolution[,] we will convene to detain you [a]nd slay you . . . .” Fearing for his safety, the professor notified authorities, who traced the e-mail back to Heineman. Heineman was charged with one count of sending an interstate threat in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 875(c).

At trial, Heineman claimed that he suffered from Asperger’s Disorder and, therefore, could not foresee that the professor would feel threatened by the poem. But the trial judge signaled that Heineman could be convicted on proof that he meant to send the communication, regardless of whether he intended a particular result.

After a bench trial, Heineman was convicted based on findings that he knowingly transmitted a communication containing a threat and that his poem was a “true threat” because it would cause a reasonable person to conclude that he intended to cause bodily injury.

On appeal, the Tenth Circuit reversed. Speaking for the court, Circuit Judge Harris Hartz explained that the district court’s “reasonable person” standard was not sufficiently protective of free-speech rights, especially given the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Black v. Virginia. In Black, the Court upheld Virginia’s authority to ban cross burnings carried out with the intent to intimidate, but prohibited the state from treating cross burning itself as prima facie evidence of that intent. The Court explained, “‘[T]rue threats’ encompass statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals.” The Court continued, “Intimidation . . . is a specific type of ‘true threat’ where a speaker directs a threat to a person or group of persons with the intent of placing the victim in fear of bodily harm or death.”

The Tenth Circuit applied these definitions in Heineman’s case and concluded that, under the First Amendment, he could only be convicted of making a true threat if he intended the professor to feel threatened. In Judge Hartz’s view, when the Black Court said the speaker must “mean[ ] to communicate,” the Court was saying that the speaker must intend to communicate threatening words and to instill fear. Indeed, the plurality in Black criticized the prima facie rule precisely because it failed to distinguish between cross burning for purposes of stoking anger and resentment, on one hand, from cross burning for purposes of threatening or intimidating a victim, on the other. The former was considered protected speech, whereas the latter was proscribable as a “true threat.”

The Tenth Circuit is one of two federal appellate courts to interpret Black as requiring subjective intent. Six others have rejected that approach. One such decision has already made its way to the Supreme Court. By next summer, we should know whether the Tenth Circuit got it right.

Aug 12
2014

Bitcoin Equal to Money According to District Court Ruling

Young businessman opening his shirt and showing bitcoin currency

Is it possible to commit money laundering with virtual currency? At least one federal judge thinks so. Last month, U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest refused to dismiss a money laundering charge premised on the use of a Bitcoin-based payment system. She is the first federal judge to hold that the federal money laundering statute is broad enough to encompass the use of Bitcoin in financial transactions.

In February 2014, a grand jury in the Southern District of New York returned an indictment charging Ross William Ulbricht on four counts for participation in a narcotics trafficking conspiracy, a continuing criminal enterprise, a computer-hacking conspiracy, and a money-laundering conspiracy. The charges stemmed from Ulbricht’s alleged creation and operation of an underground website known as Silk Road. Prosecutors alleged that Ulbricht designed, launched, and administered the online marketplace to facilitate the anonymous sale of illegal drugs, malicious computer software, and other illicit goods and services. Two features of the site allegedly protected buyers and sellers from government surveillance and tracking. First, Silk Road operated using Tor—software and a network that allows for anonymous, untraceable Internet browsing. The site also required all purchases to be made in Bitcoin, an anonymous, untraceable form of payment.

Ulbricht asked the court to dismiss all four counts, including the charge for participation in a money-laundering conspiracy. Ulbricht argued that the money-laundering charge should be dismissed on grounds that Bitcoin transactions are not “financial transactions,” as defined under the statute.

The federal money laundering statute prohibits “financial transactions” involving the proceeds of illegal activity when conducted by a person who intends to further the illegal activity or who knows the transaction is designed to conceal material information about the proceeds, such as their source or location. The “financial transaction” requirement may be satisfied by: (i) a transaction involving the movement of funds by wire or other means; (ii) a transaction involving a monetary instrument; or (iii) a transaction involving the transfer of certain types of property. To fall within the second definition, the transaction must involve a “monetary instrument”—i.e., U.S. or foreign coin or currency, checks, money orders, investment securities, or negotiable instruments.

Ulbricht argued for dismissal of the money-laundering charge based on the second definition. Specifically, he contended that Bitcoins do not meet the statutory definition for monetary instruments, so the alleged transactions cannot form the basis for a money-laundering conviction.

But according to Judge Forrest, Ulbricht missed the mark by focusing exclusively on the second definition of “financial transaction.” She prefaced her analysis by acknowledging that anonymous financial transactions are not per se criminal. But in Ulbricht’s case, Bitcoins were problematic because they were alleged to be the medium of exchange for commercial transactions related to illegal activity—narcotics trafficking and computer hacking. The prosecution had ample support for its claim that Ulbricht chose Bitcoin as Silk Road’s exclusive payment system in order to conceal the nature of those transactions.

The court also explained that the government had alleged the necessary elements for a money-laundering conspiracy regardless of whether Bitcoin was deemed to be a “monetary instrument.” The statute defines “financial transaction” more broadly to include any transaction involving the movement of funds by wire or otherwise. Bitcoins were deemed to fit this broad definition because they are used as funds to pay directly for things or as a medium of exchange and can be converted into currency which can pay for things. As Judge Forrest noted, “the only value of Bitcoin lies in its ability to pay for things . . . . The money laundering statute is broad enough to encompass the use of Bitcoins in financial transactions. Any other reading would – in light of Bitcoins’ sole raison d’etre – be nonsensical.”

There is an inescapable irony here. While proponents of Bitcoin favor recognition of the currency as a financial instrument, large operators like Ulbricht argue the opposite.

 

Jul 02
2014

U.S. Court of Appeals Decision: Cell Location Data is Protected Under Individual’s Expectation of Privacy

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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit recently considered whether cell site location data is protected by the Fourth Amendment. On June 11, 2014, the court issued its decision in favor of privacy rights: the court held that cell site location information is within the cell phone subscriber’s reasonable expectation of privacy. If officers want the data, they must obtain the subscriber’s consent or a judicial warrant supported by probable cause.

The court’s decision in United States v. Davis pertained to Quartavius Davis, a federal defendant who was convicted in Florida on multiple counts of robbery, conspiracy, and possession of a firearm. For his crimes, Davis was sentenced to roughly 162 years in prison.

On appeal, Davis argued that his convictions and sentence should be reversed. Among other things, Davis argued that the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress cell site location data, which the prosecution used to place Davis near the various crime scenes. Investigators were able to obtain the data without a probable-cause warrant. They did so under a provision of the Stored Communications Act, which states that a court may order production of non-content cell phone records based on reasonable grounds to believe the records are material to an ongoing criminal investigation. Davis objected that the evidence in his case should be suppressed because it was the product of a warrantless search conducted in violation of his constitutional rights.

The Eleventh Circuit agreed with Davis, holding that cell site location information is within the subscriber’s reasonable expectation of privacy. Speaking for the three-judge panel, Judge Sentelle discussed two distinct views of the interests subject to Fourth Amendment protection: property interests and privacy interests. The court determined that the privacy theory applied to Davis’ case. Because Davis had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his cell site location information, the government’s warrantless collection of that data violated Davis’ Fourth Amendment rights.

The Davis opinion is arguably the most protective of individual rights as compared to similar appellate decisions. In September 2010, the Third Circuit held that officers can obtain cell site data under the Stored Communications Act as long as they meet the reasonable-grounds standard. But the court also added that, in exceptional cases, a judge may impose a warrant requirement for data that can be used to track an individual’s movements in a private location, such as the home.

In July 2013, the Fifth Circuit issued a less-protective decision. In that case, the court held that individuals do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in non-content cell site data. Therefore, the court must order the production of such information when the government meets its burden of proof under the Stored Communications Act.

The Supreme Court has yet to decide the issue. But past Fourth Amendment cases suggest that no fewer than five sitting Justices favor the privacy theory that Judge Sentelle relied on. They are likely to agree that cell phone subscribers have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their cell location data.

Jun 26
2014

Court: Police Need Warrant to Search Phone. But Guess What? They Get to Keep Your Phone While They Get One.

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Will cops still get access to cell phone data post arrest? You bet. Today’s Supreme Court decision just means they need to get permission from a judge before they start searching who you have been texting. And odds are very good, that permission will be granted.

In a unanimous decision authored by Chief Justice Roberts, the United States Supreme Court held that law enforcement officers may not conduct warrantlesssearches of cell phones that are seized incident to an arrest. But just because police cannot immediately search mobile phones, doesn’t mean they cannot immediately seize them in connection with an arrest. Indeed, the benefit of today’s decision by our country’s highest court may be limited to the two defendants who brought the case (and of course any similarly situated defendants).

The named defendant in Riley v California is David Riley. After Riley was stopped for a traffic violation, he was arrested and the police officer seized his cell phone incident to that arrest. When the officer accessed the data on the phone (without a search warrant), he noticed the repeated use of an identifier associated with the Bloods street gang. Later, a detective reviewed the cell phone records and noticed gang-related content, including a photo of Riley standing in front of a car that was used in a shooting weeks earlier. Riley was convicted of multiple crimes related to that shooting and received a sentence of 15 years to life.

The second case resolved today involved Brima Wurie, who had been arrested in connection with a drug sale. After Wurie’s arrest, police took him to the police station where officers confiscated his flip phone. A few minutes later, Wurie’s phone showed an incoming call from “my house.” The officers opened the phone, accessed the call log to determine the number of the incoming call, and then traced the number back to Wurie’s apartment, which they secured. After obtaining a search warrant, the officers searched the apartment and seized drugs, a gun, ammunition, and cash. At trial, Wurie was convicted on three drug-related counts and sentenced to more than twenty years in prison.

The key here to note is that in neither case did law enforcement obtain prior permission to search the cell phones belonging to Riley and Wurie. The narrow question presented to the Court therefore was whether it is permissible for law enforcement to search cell phone data incident to an arrest where no court has authorized such a search. In holding that such a search violates the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution, the Court considered but rejected as not relevant prior cases where so-called “warrantless” searches passed constitutional muster. For example,

· In Chimel v. California, the Court recognized that the Fourth Amendment permits warrantless searches of the arrestee and areas within his immediate control if necessary to protect officer safety or to preserve evidence.

· In Arizona v. Gant, the Court held that officers may search a car incident to arrest if the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment or if the officer reasonably believes evidence of the crime of arrest may be found.

Because there were no such exigent circumstances present in Riley or Wurie’s arrest, the Court concluded that the need for cell phone data searches does not outweigh the corresponding intrusion on individual privacy, and thus a warrant was required. This of course is the right result. Digital cell phone data does not, by itself, of course, threaten officer safety. And a warrantless search of cell phone data is not necessary to preserve evidence. The Court recognized an individual’s privacy interest in digital cell phone data is considerable: cell phones have immense storage capacity, collect many types of records in one place, and often contain years’ worth of data.

In this regard, today’s decision is a victory for privacy rights. Law enforcement officers will not be permitted to conduct warrantless searches of cell phones for digital evidence. But if you are arrested, don’t assume law enforcement will let you keep your phone. Today’s decision may not allow for a warrantless search of your phone, but there is nothing prohibiting law enforcement from securing a phone post-arrest and seeking permission from a court to search it. And the chances that a court will grant such a request are close to 100%.

May 08
2014

Ifrah Law Report: Johns Hopkins Symposium on Social Costs of Mass Incarceration

On April 28, 2014, Ifrah Law attorneys Jeff Hamlin and Casselle Smith attended a symposium on incarceration presented by The Johns Hopkins University and its Urban Health Institute. The day–long program focused on adverse impacts of mass incarceration and potential strategies for mitigating them and reversing trends toward continued prison growth. Throughout the day, panels comprised of medical professionals, sociologists, legal scholars, and ex–offenders took the stage to address issues bearing on their areas of expertise.

Panelists discussed the effects of over–incarceration on individual liberty, family cohesion, and economic inequality, among other things. Many speakers emphasized the critical importance of upstream intervention. To this point, House Representative Elijah Cummings (D-Md) challenged communities to provide children with opportunities in sports, scouts, band, and other activities that can offer a positive sense of belonging. Others emphasized the value of post-incarceration solutions, including decarceration, education, and re–entry assistance.

Much of the afternoon discussion revolved around underreported effects of incarceration, including the lifelong consequences of a felony record. Too often, criminal defendants serve their time only to face a new set of challenges upon their release. Ex–offenders typically lack meaningful options for lawful employment outside of prison. The structural barriers to prosperity erected in the aftermath of incarceration can be as confounding as the time served—especially for those stationed on the lower rungs of socioeconomic stratification. This lack of opportunity is a catalyst for recidivism and ends up perpetuating the cycle of crime.

In his keynote address, Rep Elijah Cummings lamented that the real sentence is not the incarceration, but the criminal record that follows you until you die. The day after Cummings’ address, the Baltimore City Council passed legislation to address that problem. The “Ban the Box” bill—named for the criminal history checkbox that has become commonplace on job applications—makes it a crime for private businesses (with at least 10 employees) to “require an applicant to disclose or reveal whether he or she has a criminal record” before a conditional job offer has been made. The bill has teeth. Failure to comply is a misdemeanor violation that can result in fines up to $500 and up to ninety days in jail.

According to local reports, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake strongly supports the bill. It will take effect 90 days after she signs it into law. The next test will be effective implementation and enforcement to ensure its success.  We will continue to monitor its evolution and report on major developments.

The Urban Health Institute plans to upload video clips of the panel discussions and speeches. Video clips of panel discussions and speeches can be viewed at the Urban Health Institute’s YouTube channel.

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Mar 17
2014

Supreme Court Expands Whistleblower Protection

The U.S. Supreme Court recently held that Sarbanes–Oxley extends whistleblower protection, not just to employees of public companies, but to employees of private contractors and subcontractors that serve public companies. In a 6-3 decision, the Court rejected the First Circuit’s narrow construction of the statute in favor of the Labor Department’s more expansive interpretation. Now more than ever, affected contractors and subcontractors need to ensure they have robust policies in place for addressing whistleblower complaints.

Congress passed the Sarbanes–Oxley Act in 2002, the year after Enron’s collapse. The Act was intended to protect investors in public companies and restore trust in financial markets. It achieved these goals in part by providing whistleblower protection: 18 U.S.C. § 1514A makes it unlawful for employers to retaliate against employees who report suspected fraud. The provision certainly protects employees of publicly traded companies. It was less clear whether § 1514A protects employees of private contractors that service public companies. The plaintiffs in Lawson v. FMR, LLC, claimed it did.

Jackie Lawson and Jonathan Lang were employees of private companies that serviced the Fidelity family of mutual funds. As is often the case with mutual funds, the Fidelity funds were subject to SEC reporting requirements, but had no employees. Private companies contracted with the funds to provide accounting and investment advisory services. In this case, the private companies were Fidelity-related entities referred to collectively as FMR. Lawson was a 14-year veteran and Senior Director of Finance for her employer, Fidelity Brokerage Services. She alleged that she was constructively discharged after raising concerns about cost accounting methods for the funds. Zang was an 8-year veteran of Fidelity Management & Research Co. He alleged that he was fired for raising concerns about misstatements in a draft SEC registration statement related to the funds. Both plaintiffs sued for retaliation under § 1514A.

FMR responded by asking the district court to dismiss the claims on grounds that § 1514A protects employees of public companies, not employees of privately held companies. The trial judge rejected FMR’s argument, but the First Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. Months later, the Labor Department’s Administrative Review Board issued a decision in another case, making clear that ARB agreed with the trial judge. Last year, the Supreme Court agreed to consider the question.

On March 4, the Court issued its opinion that § 1514A shelters employees of private contractors, just as it shelters employees of public companies served by those contractors. Speaking for the majority, Justice Ginsburg explained that the Court’s broad construction finds support in the statute’s text and broader context. As relevant to the plaintiffs’ claims, § 1514A provides, “‘No public company . . . , or any officer, employee, contractor, subcontractor, or agent of such company” may take adverse action “against an employee . . . because of [whistleblowing or other protected activity].’” Boiled down to its essence, the phrase in question states that “no . . . contractor . . . may discharge . . . an employee.” In ordinary usage, the phrase means that no contractor (of a public company) may retaliate against its own employees. After all, those are the people contractors have power to retaliate against. According to the Court, if Congress had intended to limit whistleblower protections to employees of publicly traded companies, as FMR argued, Congress would have said “no contractor may discharge an employee of a public company.” The statute doesn’t say that because Congress was not attempting to remedy a nonexistent problem. Enron did not collapse because its private contractors retaliated against Enron employees who tried to report the company’s fraud.

The Lawson Court explained further that its interpretation flows logically from the statute’s purpose to prevent another Enron debacle. Often, the first-hand witnesses of corporate fraud are employees of private companies that service a public company—law firms, accounting firms, and business consulting firms, for example. Without adequate protections against retaliation, contractor employees who come across fraud in their work for public companies will be less likely to report misconduct. The Court’s point was particularly relevant with respect to the Fidelity funds. Like most mutual funds, the Fidelity funds had no employees. A narrow reading of § 1514A would insulate a $14 million industry from retaliation claims. Congress could not have intended that result.

Given the Court’s decision in Lawson v. FMR, LLC, privately held companies that service public companies should consider how best to deal with whistleblower complaints. At a minimum, robust whistleblower policies will (i) safeguard whistleblower anonymity to the extent possible; (ii) encourage whistleblowers to exercise discretion without discouraging them from reporting misconduct; (iii) address the preservation of evidence relating to putative fraud; and (iv) establish procedures for the conduct of internal investigations into suspected fraud.

 

Jan 11
2014

Prosecutor’s Tweets May Have Been Improper but Did Not Deprive Defendant of Fair Trial

Last month, the Missouri Court of Appeals published its opinion holding that criminal defendant David Polk is not entitled to a new trial.  Although the prosecutor may have acted improperly by posting trial updates via Twitter, there was no evidence that her updates swayed the jury to convict Polk.  The court’s decision resolves a once-cold case that began in St. Louis more than twenty years ago.

In January 1992, Polk approached an eleven-year old girl on the street, then forced her to the basement of a vacant lot and repeatedly assaulted her.  Soon after, the victim and her mother reported the crime to local authorities, who collected DNA and other evidence.  After that, the case went cold.  But three years ago, authorities were notified of a DNA match linking Polk to the crime.  The investigation was reopened and culminated in Polk’s prosecution for forcible rape and forcible sodomy.  A jury convicted on both counts, and Polk was sentenced to fifteen years on each count.

After trial, Polk asked the judge to dismiss the case or strike the jury panel.  In support of his request, Polk submitted evidence that, during the time frame of the trial, Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce had posted inappropriate comments about the case on Twitter:

  • Prior to jury selection, Joyce tweeted, “David Polk trial next week.  DNA hit linked him to 1992 rape of 11 yr old girl.  20 yrs later, victim now same age as prosecutor.”
  • During trial, Joyce posted two comments.  In the first, she tweeted, “Watching closing arguments in David Polk ‘cold case’ trial.  He’s charged with raping 11 yr old girl 20 years ago.”  In the second, she tweeted “I have respect for attys who defend child rapists.  Our system of justice demands it, but I couldn’t do it.  No way, no how.”
  • During deliberations, Joyce tweeted, “Jury now has David Polk case.  I hope the victim gets justice, even though 20 years late.”
  • Post-verdict, she tweeted, “Finally, justice.  David Polk guilty of the 1992 rape of 11 yr old girl.  DNA cold case.  Brave victim now the same age as prosecutor,” and “Aside from DNA, David Polk’s victim could identify him 20 years later.  Couldn’t forget the face of the man who terrorized her.”

According to the defense, Joyce’s comments not only violated the professional rules of conduct but tainted the jury verdict as well.  But the trial court refused to dismiss the indictment or strike the jury, and Polk appealed.

In a decision published last month, the appeals court affirmed Polk’s conviction, but acknowledged that the Circuit Attorney’s posts were problematic.   The court admitted that her comments may have violated the rules of professional conduct for prosecutors.  The rule in question prohibits prosecutors from making out-of-court statements that stoke public sentiment against the accused unless they serve a legitimate law-enforcement purpose.  Joyce’s tweets may have crossed the line.  They did not appear necessary to inform the public, but highlighted evidence against the defendant, dramatized the victim’s plight, and referred to Polk as a “child rapist,” a term that was likely to arouse heightened public condemnation.

The Court of Appeals also noted that such posts have the potential to taint a jury verdict.  But the law required Polk to show more than potential prejudice—he had to show that the extrajudicial comments “substantially swayed” the jury.  Because he proffered no evidence that jurors were aware of, much less influenced by, the posts, Polk was not entitled to a new trial.

Jennifer Joyce is not the first prosecutor to catch flak for abusing social media.  Cleveland prosecutor Aaron Brockler was fired after he contacted defense witnesses on Facebook and dissuaded them from providing alibi testimony.  But the issue in that case was the prosecutor’s confirmed use of deception to influence trial witnesses.  The issue in Polk’s case was whether the prosecutor’s tweets influenced the jury, as alleged.  There was no evidence to that effect, so the conviction was affirmed.

Dec 20
2013

First Circuit Reverses District Court Order Granting New Trial

Appellate courts do not often reverse a trial judge’s decision to grant a new trial, so we took notice when the First Circuit did so in United States v. Carpenter.  Given the case history, the First Circuit decision should help to answer an important question:  How much leeway do prosecutors have when summarizing evidence in closing arguments?

In 2005, a jury convicted Daniel Carpenter on nineteen counts of wire and mail fraud.  The charges pertained to Carpenter’s operation of Benistar, a company that handled “like kind” exchanges for owners of investment property.  Under federal law, investors may defer capital gains on the sale of investment property if they exchange it for another property of like kind.  In order to qualify, the seller or “exchangor” must complete the exchange within 180 days of the initial sale and must not take possession of sale proceeds in the interim.  To meet the requirements, exchangors usually rely on a qualified intermediary to hold the exchange funds until they are reinvested.  Benistar’s business as a qualified intermediary gave rise to the charges against Carpenter.

The government alleged that Carpenter obtained investors’ exchange funds by fraud.  At trial, the prosecution argued that Carpenter persuaded investors to contract with Benistar by misrepresenting that their funds would be managed conservatively for a modest return of 3 to 6%.  According to prosecutors, Carpenter made the representations knowing full well that the money would be used for high-risk trades.  The jury apparently agreed, returning a guilty verdict on all counts.

Carpenter requested a new trial, which the trial judge granted due to the government’s repeated use of a gambling metaphor in closing arguments.  The court noted that the evidence against Carpenter was sufficient for a conviction, but not overwhelming.  The government may have tipped the scales by arguing that Carpenter had gambled with investors’ money hoping to make millions for himself.  It was possible the jury convicted based on moral disapproval of gambling rather than evidence of fraud.

In a divided opinion, the First Circuit affirmed, largely deferring to the trial court’s assessment.

At the end of the re-trial, the government omitted the gambling metaphor, focusing instead on Benistar’s marketing materials, contracts with investors, and Carpenter’s profit motive.  Again, the jury returned a guilty verdict on all counts having deliberated for roughly two hours.

At Carpenter’s request, the trial judge ordered a third trial, but not for reasons advanced by the defense.  This time, the judge was troubled by the jury’s two-hour deliberation.  He observed that it would be nearly impossible for jurors to walk through the evidence for nineteen different counts in two hours.  They must have taken a shortcut.  Thus, the judge ordered a new trial on grounds that the prosecutor had invited jurors to employ certain presumptions based on mischaracterizations of evidence.  For one, the government implied that Benistar’s marketing materials made express misrepresentations about the safety and security of investor funds.  In reality, the marketing materials supported only an inference to that effect.  The government also invited jurors to presume that qualified intermediaries are prohibited from using exchange funds for high-risk trades, when that is not the case.  Moreover, by emphasizing Carpenter’s profit motive, the government may have encouraged jurors to convict for “greed” rather than fraud.

On appeal, the First Circuit disagreed and reinstated the guilty verdict.  A unanimous panel held that the prosecution’s statements were permissible summations of the government’s theory of the case, not mischaracterizations of record evidence.  The government had argued that Carpenter took in millions based on false pretenses that Benistar would keep the exchange funds safe and secure.  That argument was not improper, as the trial court found, because the prosecution followed it with a discussion of specific evidence supporting that conclusion.  Similarly, the government argued that “like kind” transactions are typically conservative—not so the jury would convict based on some imaginary statutory violation or breach of contract, but to establish that Carpenter knew Benistar’s risky investment strategy differed from investors’ expectations.  And the government’s references to Carpenter’s profit motives were equally permissible.  Those comments went to prove Carpenter’s specific intent for the fraud, which was to make more money.

A comparison of the two appellate decisions suggests that the district court erred because it failed to see the forest for the trees.  By treating each of the government’s questionable statements in isolation, the court found support for a new trial.  But the statements had to be considered in context.  In context, the prosecution’s comments were not mischaracterizations of evidence but main points of the government’s theory, which the prosecution supported from the record.

Given Carpenter’s pro-defense trial judge, it’s unclear why the defense opted for a third jury trial.  In hindsight, Carpenter may have fared better by ditching the jury request in favor of a bench trial.

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About Ifrah Law

Crime in the Suites is authored by the Ifrah Law Firm, a Washington DC-based law firm specializing in the defense of government investigations and litigation. Our client base spans many regulated industries, particularly e-business, e-commerce, government contracts, gaming and healthcare.

Ifrah Law focuses on federal criminal defense, government contract defense and procurement, health care, and financial services litigation and fraud defense. Further, the firm's E-Commerce attorneys and internet marketing attorneys are leaders in internet advertising, data privacy, online fraud and abuse law, iGaming law.

The commentary and cases included in this blog are contributed by founding partner Jeff Ifrah, partners Michelle Cohen and George Calhoun, counsels Jeff Hamlin and Drew Barnholtz, and associates Rachel Hirsch, Nicole Kardell, Steven Eichorn, David Yellin, and Jessica Feil. These posts are edited by Jeff Ifrah. We look forward to hearing your thoughts and comments!

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