Articles Posted in Federal criminal defense

I left my Atlanta criminal defense law office this morning and drove to the federal building where I met my client for what is called a “proffer” session.  Basically, this is the first step in the process by which my client will agree to cooperate with investigators and prosecutors, with the hope that his assistance will lead to no charges or charges with a potentially reduced sentence.  A proffer is when the client goes to the prosecutor’s office and answers questions from the prosecutor and investigating agents.  My client and I already made this decision for him to cooperate after a lot of discussion.  However, while today was just the first step in going down the cooperation road, it made me think more about the decisions the attorney and the client need to make when deciding whether to fight the charges or give in and make the best of a bad situation.

Many people consult a criminal defense attorney after they learn they are under investigation for some possible crime.  A few people come to see me because they know they did something that could lead to an investigation, even if the investigators have not yet contacted the person. In these early stages, the key for the criminal defense lawyer is to fully understand what happened.  When, early on, the lawyer has a very good grip on the facts, potential crimes,  and possible defenses, the attorney is often in a position to do a lot of good for the client.  At this early phase,  investigators and prosecutors are sometimes just looking into whether they should, or should not, bring charges against a person or company.  If the defense lawyer feels he or she can talk the prosecutor out of charges against the client, it is often easier to do so early rather than later.  But, this strategy is not always the best course of action, especially if the attorney feels that there is a chance that the client could be convicted if the prosecutor does decide to bring a charge.  Going in to see the prosecutor too early can be a signal of weakness.  Some situations call for a “wait and see” tactic.  No two cases are alike, and the experienced criminal defense lawyer needs to consider what happened and whether this particular prosecutor seems to have the appetite for this particular type of case. Continue reading

I am getting ready for some hearings in a federal criminal case I am working in in Gainesville, Georgia.  My preparation caused me to think about and want to put down some thoughts on the strategies that sometimes impact such matters, plus the tactics we use to implement the strategy in a particular case.  That’s a fancy way of saying I try to plan ahead for what I want to accomplish when I file a pretrial motion in a federal criminal case.

First, we often are able to convince a federal Judge that we are entitled to a “pretrial evidentiary hearing” concerning one or more of our Pretrial Motions.  Most defense lawyers relish such a hearing.  To begin with, it is always a benefit to get one or more of the government witnesses under oath before the trial.  At such a hearing, the defense attorney can sometimes try to “lock in” the government witness.  This means the lawyer will get the witness to thoroughly accept and adopt a certain version of the facts.  When the lawyer locks the witness into this specific story, it means that same witness will have a hard time changing or modifying his or her version when the trial comes along.  The attorney will have the transcript from the pretrial hearing.  It is always an enjoyable sight to see an accomplished criminal defense lawyer armed with a pretrial hearing transcript whipping up on a witness who decided to change his or her version.

In addition to locking the witness into his or her story, the pretrial hearing is also valuable because the attorney gets to kind of measure the witness, to see if the person is going to be a difficult at trial.  Cross examining a government person at trial when the lawyer has never previously encountered the witness can sometimes be frightening.  Having a pretrial hearing where the lawyer more or less gets a free whack at the witness can reduce the fright factor at the later trial.

I just got a call from my client in a recent federal criminal case here in Atlanta.  My client was outside the gates of the federal prison, and gave me one last call before he went inside to begin serving his sentence, or as some inmates call it, “doing time.”  I always feel bad for my clients and their families when anyone is separated from society and their loved ones because they are incarcerated.  In the big picture, this man received a very favorable sentence, considering the facts of his situation on the day when I first met him.  Still, it’s a sad feeling to get such a call.  The call made me want to put down a few thoughts about what I have learned over the years concerning the experience for clients who are  “doing federal time.”

For starters, the federal prison system is operated by a huge organization called, oddly, the “Bureau of Prisons.”  Regular practitioners usually call it “BOP.”  The BOP operates throughout the entire country.  There are various “security levels” amongst the many federal prisons, and these fall into three basic categories, High, Medium and Low.   Continue reading

In Atlanta I have been asked to give a speech to some lawyers who handle federal criminal cases.  The organizers of the seminar asked that I talk about criminal forfeitures.  A lot of lawyers are not well acquainted with this ancient form of punishment that is becoming more and more common in modern federal criminal law.  Here is the paper that is the basis for my speech.   Criminal Forfeiture

Forfeiture is a very old concept we inherited (like so many legal principles) from ancient English law.  The basic idea is that if property is used in or obtained from criminal conduct, the King could take the property.  They created a legal fiction by which title to the property actually turned over to the King at the point when the crime happened.

Fast forward to our incredibly bad War on Drugs beginning back in the 1970’s. Congress began re-tooling the ancient forfeiture concepts to let federal prosecutors go after dope dealers’ assets.  That is all fine and good, in theory.  However, many readers know that law enforcement and government officials began taking these rules to the extreme, taking property barely associated with a crime or taking money far greater than what was involved in any crime.  The United States Supreme Court recently heard arguments in a case out of Indiana exemplifying this issue.  Justin Timbs carried some drugs in his Range Rover and got caught.  The maximum fine for the crime was $5,000, but the state prosecutors seized and forfeited the $42,000 vehicle.  Oh yeah, Mr. Timbs proved that he bought the Range Rover with the money he got from his Dad’s life insurance policy.  Here is the usual excellent analysis from Scotusblog.com describing the case and the issues involved.   Continue reading

I am taking a break from going through discovery materials in one of my current federal criminal cases that happens to be here in Atlanta.  I posted the other day about how the actual practice of federal criminal law is far different than the constitutional “rules” created in some cases from the United States Supreme Court.   Here’s a little more on the differences between theory and practice.

First, let’s talk about the timing of when we get the materials that the prosecution is supposed to turn over to defense counsel.  For example, here in the Northern District of Georgia, we have a Local Rule that says discovery “shall” be turned over at the arraignment.  Don’t take my word for it, read Local Criminal Rule 16.1, it flatly says the prosecutors are supposed to make all this stuff available to the defense on Day One of the case.  This is a Rule that makes a lot of sense.  Prosecutors get to decide when they bring a case, and since they are presumed to be ready on Day One, it makes a lot of sense to require that they produce everything to the defense on that date.  Ah, but the reality is far different.  In my current case, they took five weeks to produce materials.  In another case it took 3.5 months to get me the evidence that I knew they had all along.  They rarely give any excuses, they just give it to me late, and ignore my repeated complaints.

Second, we should also talk a bit about the type of materials that are turned over.  I sound like a very old lawyer when I remind people about how discovery in most federal criminal cases consisted of a small folder with 100-200 pages of material when I began practicing law.  Everything is far different in the digital age.  Most of the time, we now need to provide at least a hard drive to hold all the materials that a prosecutor turns over as the discovery in a federal criminal case.  You would think that larger volume of material would help the defense, more is better, right?  Ah, but as I have mentioned before, the government likes to hide the meaningful stuff among the forest of irrelevant data.  More information actually results in more work for the already harried criminal defense lawyer handling a federal case.

I am about to go to federal court this afternoon here in Atlanta for a criminal case involving sex over the internet (sometimes referred to by the over-encompassing term “child pornography”).  Some lawyers shy away from these cases. I do not.  These cases are often disturbing and emotionally draining, but I always welcome the opportunity to help a person and his family through one of these exceedingly difficult matters.  However, over the years I’ve discovered a number of “secrets” in this type of federal criminal case.

One secret is that a vast number of people who commit sex crimes over the internet lead basically “normal” lives.  Many of my clients are happily married men with grown children.  Their families all report that the client was an exemplary father, never did anything remotely improper with the kids, their friends or with their spouse.  But, these men all seem to have some sort of mid-life crisis where their existence goes off the rails.

A second “secret” in these troubling cases is that many of my clients seems almost compelled to commit their crimes. We’ve all seen the news stories about the guy who comes to a sting operation and says to the undercover camera, “I sure hope you aren’t a cop.”  The clients often recognize in advance that they are engaging in illegal conduct, that they likely will get caught, yet they still keep going toward the “bait.” It is almost as if they are living a double life, with the “normal” rational part of their brain telling them that this is a crime and they could get caught, but the other part is driven forward to engage in the illegal conduct by some very deep part of their consciousness.  After they are arrested, many clients have commented that it seems as if it was another person doing the crime. Continue reading

The media and “the Internets” are all agog over yesterday’s filing in the Mueller Investigation by which the Office of Special Counsel said that one of its cooperating witnesses in that federal criminal case, former General and National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, has provided “substantial assistance”.  I’ve been handling federal criminal cases for over 35 years, and have been on the “giving” and “receiving”end of substantial assistance.  Despite the furor in the media, I wanted to talk a little about how these things work in the real world.

For starters, the idea that those who cooperate with prosecutors get a better “deal” is not exactly news. This practice of trading info for jail time is probably as old as crimes and criminal justice systems.  However, the absolutely horrible 1984 Comprehensive Crime Control Act, inter alia, wrote this practice into federal criminal law.  For the first time, this law created specific statutes, Guidelines and Rules of Procedure that encapsulated the practice of rewarding someone for “snitching.” Continue reading

Here is a photo of one of the bookshelves of my Atlanta officer where I handle lots of federal criminal cases. IMG_0658  If you look closely you will see row after row of Federal Sentencing Guidelines Manuals, stretching from the current version back to the slim original 1987 Guidelines.  I just got done ordering the newest version.  Each year, like clockwork, the United States Sentencing Commission issues a new and amended version of the Guidelines.  Each year, this annual version comes into effect on November 1.  Just like the New Year celebrations make people take stock and consider their lives, the yearly issue of the Sentencing Guidelines caused me to reflect on this three-decade experiment in using “Guidelines” to impose a federal criminal sentence. I will write several posts about the Guidelines, their changes, and how all of this impacts lawyers and clients involved in a federal criminal case.

Let’s start by discussing the increased complexity of the Sentencing Guidelines.  My original 1987 version was a slim 557-paged tome, while the most recent version is a two-volume set that exceeds 2100 pages total.  One reason that the materials are more lengthy is that every year, the Sentencing Commission also publishes all the earlier amendments as part of the current year’s issue.

Many lawyers do not appreciate the importance of having all of the earlier amendments.   I like to keep all of my old books just so that I can trace back the lineage of the current Guideline and its predecessors.  Sometimes, researching the Guidelines is a bit of an archeological expedition, with the attorney peeling back layers of history in order to figure out the reasoning behind the current version of a particular rule.

Well, it’s Monday, and the phone is ringing (thank goodness) with calls from people who over the weekend decided that they or one of their loved ones REALLY needs a good federal criminal defense lawyer.  I am always glad to talk with people about actual or potential federal criminal cases, whether the matter is here in Atlanta, up in North Carolina (where the first caller’s case is from), New Hampshire (this morning’s second call) or somewhere else in the country where I sometimes go to help my clients.  When I had a few moments later today, I decided to put down some thoughts about this process and questions that people should ask lawyers (and themselves) when trying to decide whether to hire a particular federal criminal defense lawyer.

For starters, the first is not always the best.  Just because the first lawyer sounds good (or actually returned your call), that does not mean this is the right attorney for your case.  Also, clients need to remember that lawyers are like many doctors, we sometimes specialize.  Potential clients need to remember that just because an attorney calls him or herself a “criminal defense attorney”, that does not mean that this lawyer is the best fit for your case.  As I’ve written and spoken about on numerous occasions, there are many excellent attorneys who work in the State Court systems but who rarely take federal criminal matters.  There are many reasons for this, but potential clients facing a federal case likely are better served with someone who does federal cases as the majority of his or her work. Continue reading

In some of my federal criminal cases, my client decides to plead guilty in order to reduce his or her exposure to a harsher sentence.  This happens in cases all around the country, Atlanta to Anchorage, no surprise.  However, in the past 36 years I’ve come across some problems and pitfalls that can make a guilty plea actually worse than fighting the charge.

In the federal criminal justice system, we all know about the Sentencing Guidelines.  This is a point-based system that leads to a range of punishments.  Most issues add points to the calculation, but pleading guilty can lead to a 2 or 3-point reduction for “acceptance of responsibility.”  One pitfall is when the Defendant does or does something that leads the Judge to feel that the Defendant has not really accepted responsibility, even though the person plead guilty to the crime.  Such a client loses on both ends, they still get a longer sentence and lose their right to fight the case.  That is why it is so important to go over in detail everything that happens leading up to, during, and after the guilty plea proceeding.  The lawyer and the client need to be on the same page and script, so to speak.  While I never want to tell my clients exactly what to say, it is important that they know what will happen so I can advise them how to answer certain questions. Continue reading