Ross Parker was chief of the criminal division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit for 8 years and worked as an AUSA for 28 in that office. He is the author of the book “Carving Out the Rule of Law: The History of the United States Attorney’s Office in Eastern Michigan 1815–2008″.
By Ross Parker
The mind numbing opiate epidemic is not news, but the number of overdose deaths keeps climbing, and DEA agents say that we are still on the uphill side of the worst drug crisis in U. S. history. Until the opiate epidemic invades you or your family or friends, it is easy to underestimate the intransigence of the scourge.
Emergency room physicians and nurses have to cope with the unending tide of hopeless and desperate patients who are wheeled into the ER every day. These are stories from a typical urban hospital where all classes, ages and races end up unconscious on their front door step. The fact that the stories are so unexceptional illustrates the extent to which the drug has a death grip on the country.
One ER doc relates that at the beginning of his twelve-hour shift a young woman comes in close to death in an opiate overdose. The medical team uses their best efforts to revive her, and they are successful. The doctor and a nurse both advise her strongly that the next incident may not have a good outcome and that she needs to remain in the hospital for a full medical work-up by an internist as well as counseling and treatment. But she signs herself out of the hospital AMA (Against Medical Advice) before he or anyone else in the hospital can do anything to prevent her from leaving.
The ER doc’s shift proceeds with other patients. An hour before the shift ends, the same young woman is wheeled into the hospital with her second overdose. Again she is revived. Physicians are trained to make no moral judgments about their patients’ lifestyles, but frustration pervades the atmosphere of the facility. What’s the point?
At a different hospital an ER physician tells a story that is going around ERs about a practice of opiate addicts driving to the hospital parking lot, leaving the car in drive with their foot on the brake and taking their drug of choice. If they remain conscious during the “high,” they keep that foot on the brake until they can drive away to another destination. If they overdose and lapse into unconsciousness, their foot slips off the brake, and the car crashes into something stationary, another car, a wall or such. Hospital security then finds the overdosed driver and rushes him or her into the ER for emergency treatment.
How Much Is Too Much?
A third doctor relates a post-overdose conversation she had with a chronic user. The problem, the user explained, is that the most euphoric effect comes only when he is close to slipping into unconsciousness. So users, at least the ones who want to live, must gauge what amount will reach this point without unintentionally going too far. Could the doc give him a little advice on this problem?
Each drug, used legally or not, has a Therapeutic Toxic Ratio or Therapeutic Index, which is a comparison of the amount of drug that causes the effect sought to the amount that causes toxicity. There is a safety continuum between effectiveness and a lethal side effect. The user who was seeking advice was saying that the best high is one which occurs as close to the toxicity point as possible without going too close to a lethal overdose.
The problem with this over simplistic analysis is that there are so many factors and unknowns in the context of illegal drugs that predicting this point is impossible. Using recreational drugs doesn’t happen in the hospital laboratory. The unknown mixture of different drugs (e.g., heroin and fentanyl) prevents this assessment by a user. Also the strength and purity of the drug(s), user tolerance, and contaminants affect the reaction to the drug and change the safety continuum.
So, even if the doctor was inclined to have this discussion, it would have been impossible to do so. Instead the answer was that any time the user took a drug he was spinning a deadly roulette wheel. The unknown factors were the ones which could kill him or her. Even the same dose of a single drug can be effective one time and kill the user another time. The practice is inherently and unpredictably dangerous.
These are stories of a public emergency sliding toward a cataclysm, one not being addressed by policymakers and politicians. Appreciating its grim tenacity is only the first step to finding an answer to the epidemic.
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By Ross Parker
It was a tough year for law enforcement officers. Line of duty deaths, especially intentional killings of police, were up dramatically. Several categories of violent crime, including homicides, rose significantly after two decades of steady decline in crime statistics. Recruitment of new officers is becoming difficult, and officers confronting deadly situations are justifiably wary about the public (and media) second-guessing life or death decisions that had to be made under pressure within seconds.
Heather MacDonald, in her recent book The War On Cops, blames these developments on an anti-law enforcement movement led by groups like Black Lives Matter, accentuated by media attention, and facilitated by the policies of the Obama Administration. Whether you buy all of her conclusions, she does make a persuasive case that the current atmosphere in some segments of the public about law enforcement has resulted in officers being less aggressive in discretionary policing and that is a factor in a new crime wave, especially in the nation’s cities.
Into this troubling and dangerous situation, a potential boost in law enforcement confidence came this month from an unlikely source, a per curiam opinion by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Per curiam (Latin: by the Court) decisions are judgments by appellate courts as a whole in which no particular judge or Justice is identified as the author. In the Supreme Court per curiam opinions are almost always unanimous and usually represent brief rulings on non-controversial subjects. They tend to be short. They seldom set an important precedent or alter the rule of law.
But there are exceptions. In 1972 the per curiam opinion by the Court in Furman v. Georgia turned capital punishment upside down when it struck down every death penalty law and practice in the country as arbitrary and capricious under the 8th Amendment. It took four years for the states to re-institute death penalty statutes and, in many ways, the case began to diminish the role of the supreme penalty which continues to this day.
Bush v. Gore
In Bush v. Gore (2000) the Court issued a per curiam opinion in one of the most controversial cases in the Court’s history. The Court upheld the razor-thin Florida vote which gave the presidency to George Bush by a single electoral vote over Al Gore. The 5-4 vote followed party lines with the Republican appointed Justices in the majority, but the ruling was brief and unauthored. Harvard Professor Alan Dershowitz called it the “single most corrupt decision in Supreme Court history,” but others thought it was a profile in courage which preserved the republic.
Earlier this month the Court decided another per curiam opinion which has gotten much less attention but which could have profound implications, especially to law enforcement officers on the front line. White v. Pauly was an appeal from a civil ruling by a federal district court against New Mexico State Police Officer Ray White, who had shot and killed Samuel Pauley in a police confrontation outside of Santa Fe.
Witnesses had called 911 to report Pauley as a drunk driver. Two police officers went to his residence where he lived with his brother Daniel Pauly in a secluded area to talk with Pauly. They ordered him to open the door. It was asserted in the complaint that the brothers had not heard the officers identify themselves. The Paulys got their firearms.
A few minutes after the initial confrontation, Officer White arrived at the scene outside of the Pauly residence. The Paulys yelled that they had guns and Daniel fired two shotgun blasts outside the back door. Samuel stuck his handgun outside a window in the front of the house and pointed it in the officers’ direction. All three of the officers took cover, White behind a stone wall. One of the initial two officers fired his gun at Pauly and missed. Officer White fired and killed Samuel Pauly.
In the civil suit the three officers asserted qualified immunity, But the plaintiffs responded that the defense was not available since court opinions in other circumstances had stated that a warning was required before the use of deadly force even under the threat of serious harm. Officer White could not reasonably assume that this warning had taken place before his arrival. The district court agreed and the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling and ordered the case to go to trial. Officer White appealed to the Supreme Court.
The Court unanimously vacated this decision without oral argument in a brief per curiam opinion. Officer White had violated no clearly established law requiring a police officer facing an occupant pointing a firearm at him to identify himself and shout a warning before firing his weapon.
The Court pointed out that qualified immunity for law enforcement officers is important to society as a whole. Pre-existing law must give them fair and clear notice of impermissible conduct in order to invalidate the assertion of qualified immunity. Officer White’s conduct under the circumstances, especially his late arrival after the other officers had engaged the subjects, did not violate clearly established law. He could reasonably conclude in an ongoing police action that proper procedures had already been followed.
The case has been criticized as giving police a “license to kill.” But Supreme Court Justices are aware of the issues of the day. They watch TV. Maybe they are sending a signal that the courts should not second-guess law enforcement officers who have to make split second decisions on the use of deadly force by weakening qualified immunity.
Or perhaps they are just tired of the judiciary being asked to make social policy on confrontations between police and potentially dangerous subjects in the context of law suits against police.
Or maybe, like most garden variety per curiam opinions, the case represents a narrow ruling on a unique set of facts with little or no policy-making implications.
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By Ross Parker
The fight against the opioid epidemic has targeted two new recreational drugs being used on the streets as substitutes for heroin and fentanyl. Both U-4700 and Kratom have been on DEA’s radar screen, as well as US Poison Control Centers, in the last few months because of their increased use in 2016, their potential for abuse and health dangers.
U-4700, a synthetic opioid, is known on the streets as “44,” and “pink” and until recently has been easily available on the internet. It has been reported that it contributed to the death of rock star Prince last summer. It was originally developed for use in the 1970s as an analgesic, but it has many times the strength of morphine.
Last month DEA classified it under Schedule I as presenting an imminent hazard to the public safety.
Kratom, known on the streets as “Ketum,” thang” and other names, is actually an herb that has been used as a recreational drug for several years. Poison Center calls about overdoses have greatly increased this past year. The drug continues to be freely available on the internet and has no age restrictions on purchasing.
However, Kratom has increasingly been found in combinations with opioids in cases of overdoses, and it can independently produce symptoms such as tachycardia, nausea, and hypertension.
DEA’s journey toward its regulation in the last few months presents an interesting study in the agency’s frustrations over getting drugs that are contributing to the opioid epidemic off the streets. DEA originally announced its intention to classify it under Schedule I, but physicians and scientists complained to Congressmen that it has legitimate medical value. These members urged DEA to delay the ban for a period of public comment, which is presently under way. DEA placed it on the Drugs of Concern List and is continuing to consider its appropriate classification.
This report relied on articles from Medscape Internal Medicine (12/9/16), Forbes (8/22/16), and the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association (12/16).
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By Ross Parker
One out of five voters said that the Supreme Court was the most important issue of the Presidential campaign. They voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump. The President-elect has published two lists of about 20 possibilities for his Supreme Court appointees.
“Appointees” plural since there is one vacancy and three of the eight Justices are over or near 80 years old. Two are considered in the “liberal” wing (Ginsburg, Breyer) and one is a swing vote who sometimes votes with that group (Kennedy).
Since the pool of Trump picks are characterized as “conservative” or “libertarian,” the speculation by the pundits is that the effect of the appointments will be immediate and a strong re-direction to the right. Not that many of us put much faith in the predictions of the pundits and pollsters after the election. But in this case they are probably right. At least as to the hot-button issues like abortion, immigration, climate change, LGBTQ, gun rights, and affirmative action.
But what about cases involving criminal and law enforcement issues? This requires an assessment of how the current 8 Justices on these cases have voted.
In the 2015-2016 term, the Court handed down opinions in 28 cases involving these issues out of 81total cases. Categorizing each Justice’s vote as Pro-Government or Pro-Defendant results in the following order, from highest percentage of Pro-Government votes to the lowest:
Another interesting survey counted the percentage of time that each Justice voted with the majority in criminal cases, as opposed to voting with the dissent, or filing a concurrence with an entirely different rationale than the majority. That list from highest adherence to the majority to the lowest was as follows:
Before the analyses, the caveats. These 28 cases were from a single term, not the entire history of a Justice’s votes. Some involved just following the Justice’s interpretation of precedent, as opposed to how he or she would have voted if not bound by precedent. Some of the cases were very complex, and there was some subjectivity in a few cases in deciding which box to put each of the votes in. But there is something to be learned from the exercise even with these limitations.
Looking at the Pro-Government listing, the two Justices at the top (Alito and Thomas) are considered to be the most “conservative” on the bench. The two on the bottom are considered to be in the “liberal” wing. But the four in the middle do not follow these labels. The list proceeds: swing vote (Kennedy), liberal (Breyer), conservative (Roberts), liberal (Kagan). Thus in criminal cases at least, the label does not determine the voting pattern for most Justices.
This conclusion is made even more apparent by a look at individual criminal cases even at the top and bottom of this ranking. For example Justice Thomas, rightly considered the dissenter on the bench, either dissented or concurred in the defendant’s favor in six cases, about a quarter of the criminal docket. This may well be because of his libertarian views on cases like those involving Second Amendment right to bear arms or the federal Hobbs Act, which he may perceive to invade states rights. On the other end of the list, Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg each dissented in favor of the Government in two cases.
On a great many cases, it was difficult to predict how a Justice would vote on criminal cases. Voting groups on each side sometimes involved surprising voting buddies. On the great majority of cases, reading the opinions left the conclusion that the Justices more often voted their views on the applicable law rather than a particular ideology.
Also the overall Government win percentage in criminal cases is 57% to 43% for the defendants. Not too shabby for the guys and gals wearing the white hats. Moreover, in 77% of the time the Justices agree with the opinion of the Court. So the present group has not been a hotbed of rancorous disagreement.
These numbers can be parsed and speculated about in other ways. But back to the original question—how will Trump appointees affect the Court’s criminal and law enforcement-related cases? For the first appointment, to replace Justice Scalia, the answer is probably not much. Justice Scalia regularly, but not always, voted for the government in these cases. And as shown above, most cases are not decided by the ideological label put on each Justice by the media.
The second appointee, and there will be another one for President Trump, will have a greater impact, particularly in categories like abortion, affirmative action, gun rights, business regulation, gay rights, campaign spending, and racial discrimination. However, a Justice’s views can change on the bench and can greatly disappoint the appointing President, like Chief Justice Warren, Justice White, and Justice Souter, to name a few.
In criminal cases, the effect of a second “conservative” like those mentioned by the President-elect will not be as great as these categories, but it will probably move the dial for some future columnist’s analysis toward the Government’s benefit. A more law and order bench, if you will. Justice Brennan, if he stays on the bench, would not be the swing vote. The Chief Justice may well get that label.
One category in criminal cases where such a development may be significant is death penalty cases, where the Court appears to have been sensing the population’s growing doubts about the efficacy and cost effectiveness of the ultimate penalty. Even the few states regularly employing the death penalty seem to be increasingly ambivalent. The recent trend seems to be to decide these cases in ways that lessen the prospect of execution. But that could change with two or more new Justices.
Finally there is, depending on your perspective, another good development in President-elect Trump’s plans. We will no longer be judged by the eastern elite from Harvard and Yale, raised on the coasts, especially New York. The Trump list comes from all over the country and from non-Ivy League law schools, which is good news for those of us who live in the wilderness of “fly over” states and for the lawyers who went to Midwest and southern law schools. Also good news for a more diverse and representative point of view on the highest court in the land.
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Supreme Court’s November Cases and the Continued Search for the Evolving Standards of Decency in Criminal Punishment
Ross Parker was chief of the criminal division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit for 8 years and worked as an AUSA for 28 in that office.
By Ross Parker
With only a pair of criminal cases on the Oral Argument docket in November, the Court will primarily focus on civil and administrative cases. One of the criminal cases, Beckler v. United States, involves a question of interest probably only to some prosecutors and judges: whether the career offender sentencing guidelines defining a “crime of violence” warranting a sentence enhancement is unconstitutionally vague. The Court last year invalidated a similar clause (violent felony) in the Armed Career Criminal Act on that ground.
The other case, Moore v. Texas, involves yet another 8th Amendment Cruel and Unusual Punishment issue on the permissible medical standards for intellectual disability regarding a defendant’s fitness for execution. The case involves another question which will probably not be resolved because of the absence of a Justice to fill Antonin Scalia’s seat. That question is whether long term solitary confinement on death row is itself unconstitutional as cruel and unusual.
In 1980 Bobby James Moore, age 20, shotgunned a grocery clerk to death in a robbery attempt. He was convicted and sentenced to death. Since that time he has spent more than 35 years in solitary confinement in a 60 square foot iron cell for 22 and ½ hours a day. He has no TV or association with other inmates. The medical and psychological effect of this kind of incarceration has been studied extensively, and some of the results show a deterioration ranging from mild mental disability to psychosis. In short some experts consider this to be a modern version of torture.
But can the time expended on repeated postponements caused by the defendant’s own pursuits in the Byzantine appeals process in capital cases be equated with government “torture?”
It is a gruesomely fascinating exercise to trace the evolution of torture as a means to punish. Four thousand years ago the Code of Hammurabi codified punishments for particular crimes. Various penalties were prescribed, including an “eye for an eye,” ripping tongues out for false testimony, and skinning perpetrators alive.
A few centuries later the ancient Hebrews employed crucifixion, being thrown off cliffs, stoning, being burned alive, and being sawn in half. The classical Greeks used the Rack, the Wheel, and an early version of the Iron Maiden as forms of punishment. In their time the Romans imposed punishments of whipping, strappado, and a very inventive one involving being placed in a bag with poisonous snakes and dropped into the water. Trials by ordeal were encouraged by the Roman Catholic Church during the Middle Ages, as well as water boarding and mutilation by various specially designed tools.
During the 1700s almost all forms of torture were abolished in most European countries, but as late as a decade ago Human Rights Watch and the United Nations reported that dozens of countries still use torture as punishment. Today over three dozen nations have abolished the death penalty, but about 60 countries still include the ultimate punishment. Some of them, however, use it sparingly.
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By Ross Parker
The Journal of the American Medical Association reported recently about a forty-year study in Australia about the effect on gun-related crime by the 1997 major gun law reform. The study compared the number of mass fatal shooting incidents, rates of fatal shooting incidents, firearm deaths, and firearm-caused suicides for the periods 1979 through 1996 (before the reform) with those of 1997 through 2013 (after the reform).
In 1997, after 13 fatal mass shootings (more than 5 victims) and a high rate of firearm-related fatalities, the federal and state governments in Australia enacted sweeping new gun laws. The triggering event was a massacre in 1996 in which a man used two semi-automatic long guns to kill 35 people and wound 19 others. Rapid-fire long guns were banned as part of the reform, and the guns were subject to a mandatory buy-back program. Over one million firearms were purchased and destroyed.
The conclusions of the study were that the statute greatly reduced mass shootings, as well as the homicide rate from the use of firearms. In the 20 years since the statue Australia has not suffered a single mass firearm killing. Deaths due to firearms plummeted from 3.6 per 100,000 population to 1.3, by a factor of over 3% decline per year. The rate of firearm suicides declined by a factor of 4.8% annually. The study pointed out that part of the rate of decline on these last two categories may have been due to causes other than the gun reform law.
The study was conducted by two professors from the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney and a psychology professor at Macquarie University, both in Sydney, Australia.
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By Ross Parker
Have the frenzied media coverage of incidents involving police shootings of African Americans and the protests of Black Lives Matter activists affected the Supreme Court? The Court has not addressed a case involving race and the criminal justice system in some time, but two such cases are scheduled for oral argument this month.
Coincidence or a legitimate attempt to weigh in on a crisis jeopardizing law enforcement lives and the faith of minority Americans in the fairness of the criminal process?
The Court exercises discretion in at least three ways: what cases to accept for hearing (only about 1% are heard), the timing of oral argument (these cases were set for the first month of the 2016-2017 term), and in the individual votes and opinions of the Justices). The first two seem to demonstrate a special sensitivity to this subject which is embroiling race relations in America.
However, the other related question is whether the open seat on the Court from the death of Justice Scalia will affect the Court’s ability to decide these cases and to resolve conflicts in the lower courts. A 4-4 vote will mean that the lower court decision will stand. In these two cases the lower courts both rejected the petitions of minority defendants on racial issues.
The first of the two cases is Buck v. Davis, a death penalty appeal which has bounced around the Texas state courts, the federal district court in Houston and the 5th Circuit since Buck’s sentence of death in 1996. Buck was convicted of capital murder of his ex-girlfriend and a man at her house in a jealousy-fueled shooting spree. During the penalty hearing his defense attorney, who had a notoriously bad record in capital cases, called a psychologist to testify on the subject of Buck’s likelihood of posing a danger in the future.
In Texas the jury must unanimously conclude that the defendant poses a danger of violence to warrant the verdict of death. The defense psychologist testified that the fact that he was Black made him statistically more likely to be dangerous. Ultimately, however, the psychologist was of the opinion that he was at a lower probability of being dangerous. His report, which included the race analysis, was admitted as a defense exhibit. The prosecutor reiterated this race opinion in cross-examination and the witness’s conclusion in his closing argument.
On the most recent appeal, the 5th Circuit concluded that, although racial appeals had long been unconstitutional in criminal trials, the defendant had not met the standard of a substantial showing of prejudice to justify a Certificate of Appeal. There had been no proof that the result would have been different without the expert’s testimony in view of the defendant’s callous actions and his lack of remorse. The defense showing on appeal was not extraordinary and the prejudice de minimis.
This particular psychologist had repeated this race-based statistical opinion in six other capital cases, and the Texas Attorney General announced in a press conference that it would not oppose re-sentencing in all of those cases. However, a new Attorney General reneged on this promise as to Buck’s case.
In addition to the race-based issue, the case illustrates the tension in capital cases between two important principles. In cases involving the death penalty errors in the trial are painstakingly reviewed and appellate opinions often reach to achieve due process. On the other hand, there is a need for finality in the resolution of criminal cases. The length of time capital defendants sit on death row today is considered by some to be a failure of finality in the system.
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By Ross Parker
The Supreme Court opens the 2016-2017 term on Monday with only 8 Justices because of the death last spring of Justice Scalia. The conventional wisdom is that the Court will do its best to avoid the confusion of 4-4 voting splits by postponing controversial cases another Justice is confirmed. Of course that is not always possible, particularly when the case had already been accepted while the Court was at full strength or when a case is unavoidable. An example of the latter would be a voting controversy after the Presidential election such as the 2000 case which confirmed George W. Bush’s election. God forbid the only thing that could make this election any crazier.
The Court has broad discretion in deciding what cases to accept for decision. Certiorari is granted in only about 80 of the 8,000 odd petitions that are filed. Oral arguments occur about 5 or 6 days a month from October to April. After the argument the Justices meet privately and take a preliminary vote. If the Chief Justice is in the majority, he will assign the author of the opinion. If he is in the minority, the senior Justice does so.
October’s case selections are somewhat unusual in that of the 8 cases scheduled for argument, 6 of them are criminal. Moreover, one of the two civil cases involves an issue of the liability of law enforcement agents who are sued for unconstitutional searches. Usually criminal cases comprise a third or less of the full opinion docket, about half that number of oral arguments in a month.
The first case scheduled for oral argument in the term, Bravo-Fernandez and Martinez-Maldonado v. US, involves a Puerto Rican Senator and businessman convicted of bribery in connection with gifts (Las Vegas boxing match tickets) provided to the Senator who then proceeded to vote in favor of legislation which benefitted the businessman. However, during the same prosecution, the jury also acquitted the two of other charges directly related to the issue of bribery. The verdict was irreconcilably inconsistent. On appeal the substantive bribery convictions were vacated due to erroneous instructions. The government seeks to re-try the vacated counts.
The issue before the Court is whether the factual conclusions underlying the acquittals should work to preclude the retrial under the Collateral Estoppel doctrine of the Double Jeopardy Clause. That is, should the jury’s acquittals prevent the government from retrying the defendants a second time on the charges of the vacated convictions?
As a general rule the government cannot re-litigate fact issues resolved against it in a previous prosecution. However, an exception to this rule is made in the case of inconsistent verdicts. The question is whether vacated convictions can be considered under double jeopardy to decide if the verdicts were inconsistent.
Four amicus briefs have been filed in support of the defendants’ arguments. The appeal is a prime example of why amicus briefs should be read to fully understand the issue and what is at stake in the case. One of them in particular filed on behalf of the Cato Institute is a good example of this practice ignored by most lawyers who follow Supreme Court cases. It was authored by Cato’s counsel on the appeal, David Debold, and it presents a thoughtful and erudite discussion on why the history of double jeopardy should preclude the re-trial on the vacated counts. Those of us who have worked beside Mr. Debold can only smile appreciatively at his use of an obscure theory of quantum physics to explain his point that a vacated conviction does not exist legally and so cannot be used to support the proposition that the verdicts are inconsistent.
However persuasive the theory of the defense argument, the fact remains that juries in the United States have always been able to render inconsistent verdicts based on irrational considerations, compromises, or desires to reduce the punishment involved. Or just to get the hell out of the jury room. If some part of a jury agrees to vote to return completely inconsistent verdicts out of a desire to end an interminable jury service, to effect a compromise with the other part of the jury, or because they believe they will be cutting the defendant a break, they have always had a historical right and power to do so. Nullification acquittals by juries to avoid a mandatory death penalty by the theft of a loaf of bread only a couple centuries ago are a related example of this time-honored principle.
Prediction: The defendants’ convictions will be affirmed. The defendants have to prove that the jury necessarily decided the factual bribery issue by their acquittals on some counts, but this is impossible when the verdicts are inconsistent. The general authority of prosecutors to retry a conviction after it has been set aside on appeal because of trial error is so entrenched in the criminal justice system that even a skillful argument on the protections of double jeopardy will not persuade the Court to abandon the practice.
The second case, Shaw v. US, also to be argued on Tuesday, involves the question of whether, in the bank-fraud statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1344, subsection (1)’s “scheme to defraud a financial institution” requires proof of a specific intent not only to deceive, but also to cheat, a bank, as nine circuits have held, and as petitioner argues. That seems like it should be a simpler issue than the former case, but it is one which has bedeviled the Courts of Appeals for years.
A minority of the Circuits, 3 of them, hold with the government’s argument that the statute requires only proof of an intent to deceive the bank in connection with something of value, even if the bank suffers no harm, no loss of a monetary value. The defendant counters with the Circuit majority that there must be proof of an intent to improperly obtain property owned by the bank, not just the property of one of its customers. But how should “property rights” be interpreted, narrowly as the bank’s own assets, or more broadly, as assets owned or possessed by the bank, as it holds deposits by its customers?
Both sides argue that the plain meaning of the statute supports their interpretation, but if there is one thing I have learned practicing law, nothing is ever plain when lawyers are arguing.
Shaw openly admitted in his trial that his intention was to cheat one of the bank’s customers out of the $300,000 he stole through a fraudulent Pay Pal scheme and that the government would have gotten a conviction if it had charged under the correct statute. Only the customer and Pay Pal lost money, not the bank. But should the statute require that we parse a thief’s state of mind as to the technical issues of bank law which surround reimbursement by a bank of lost depositor assets?
Prediction: The Court will affirm the defendant’s conviction. But don’t bet the mortgage money on this prediction. Safe money would go the other way as 9 Courts of Appeal have chosen to go. But I have always thought that, once I deposit my meager government pension check, those dollars now belong to the bank subject to its obligation to return part of it at the ATM machine (“hit the buttons” as my friend Jim King is wont to say).
The next column will discuss two of the remaining October oral arguments. Both involve aspects of one of the current important issues of the day—whether African American and Latino defendants can get a fair shake in the American criminal justice system. Were the Justices motivated to decide these cases early in the term, perhaps to weigh in on the controversy?
Who says Justices don’t watch the evening news? The question is, is it Fox or MSNBC?
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