Articles Posted in Federal criminal defense

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

I’ve made my living the past three decades plus representing people charged in federal criminal cases, mostly here in Atlanta.  The news the past couple of days has been dominated by three other federal criminal matters, the case in Virginia against Paul Manafort (as I’ve mentioned previously, this man is in an unfortunate situation but has a great first name), the guilty plea yesterday by attorney Michael Cohen, and the sentencing hearing a few hours ago where the Judge imposed 63 months on the unfortunately named Reality Winner for releasing secret information to a news organization.

The internet has gone wild over the jury trial and partial verdict involving Mr. Manafort, and anyone who has wasted time reading this blog knows about federal sentencing hearings and trials, and likely understands that Manafort’s sentence can be calculated as if he was found guilty of all the charges.  That’s right troops, the hung jury on 10 of the crimes makes no difference because under the foolish experiment called the Sentencing Guidelines the Judge can sentence Paul based on conduct that he was even found not guilty of committing!  I remember a case I handled around 20 years ago where I won most of the charges but the prosecutor, referring to the rule authorizing use of acquitted conduct, asked for a much longer sentence.  The judge agreed with me, pointing out that Mr. Kish “cheated them fair and square at trial.” That Judge always made me laugh, at least until he ruled against me or gave my client a lengthy sentence.  Continue reading

Although I am in Atlanta and tend to handle federal criminal cases here in Georgia and nearby states, I also work on cases throughout the country when asked to do so.  As a result, I also try to keep up with federal criminal matters arising in other “circuits.”  Yesterday a Federal Court of Appeals (the Sixth Circuit) that deals with cases out of Kentucky affirmed some health care fraud convictions for doctors and others who operated labs that tested patient urine samples.  The case is called United States v. Bertram.  18-5002-2018-08-20.  This decision is yet another lesson as to how complicated these cases can be, and how issues can be missed by even the best lawyers and judges.

The Defendants were some small-town doctors and business people who were in an area where the opioid scourge has caused so much pain and agony.  A couple of the doctors operated addiction clinics and needed labs to test patient urine samples for drug use and other information.  They formed their own test lab, but test samples began to back up when the equipment did not operate at first.  The samples were frozen for up to 10 months before being tested.  The lab then sent requests for payment to private insurance companies.  The government said this was health care fraud, because the lab operators failed to disclose that they had waited up to 10 months to test the frozen urine samples, and this constituted a “scheme to defraud.”  The jury rejected most of the prosecutors’ case, but each Defendant was found guilty of some charges related to bills submitted to Anthem Insurance.  The judge imposed what to my eye seemed to be rather modest sentences, ranging between 13-21 months.  Reading the case yields two observations.

First, the sentencing part of the case is exceedingly similar to my recent securities fraud matter where we had the two-day sentencing hearing, whittling down the Guideline range from close to 30 years to point where the judge imposed 10 years on my client.  Federal criminal sentencing proceedings for these white collar criminal matters often involve the same common issues: calculation of “loss,” whether to bump the Defendant’s score up for “sophisticated means”, did the Defendant abuse a “position of trust”, and what was his or her “role in the offense.”  Anyone facing such a case needs an attorney well-versed in these complex sentencing subjects.

I have tried around 100 federal criminal cases here in Atlanta over my 35 year career. A recent report from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“NACDL”) demonstrates that trials in federal criminal cases are almost “extinct.”  The report shows that a mere 3% of Defendants take their cases to trial, mostly because of the mismatch in bargaining position between the defense and the prosecution.   Some people want to react to this by saying” Why have trials for guilty people anyway?” For those who might have such a reaction, I can only hope that it is never you or your family who finds themselves facing a federal investigation or prosecution.  Furthermore, if we think it through a little bit, we will see that letting the prosecution have excess power, resulting in virtually no trials, is almost like the situation that led to the enactment of the Endangered Species Act. 

For starters, everybody is entitled to a trial on criminal charges, it says so right in the Sixth Amendment.  However, the almost unmatched power of federal prosecutors brought about by various statutes enacted by Congress, along with the draconian Sentencing Guidelines, means that even innocent people are now pleading guilty.  The report sets out what I already know, those who plead guilty get far less punishment.  The report notes two seemingly equal Defendants, one who “flipped” and cooperated against the other who went to trial.  You guessed it, the flipper gets a couple of years, the Defendant who had the gall to assert his Constitutional right to trial got 45 years! My own recent experience is the same, my client got ten years while the far more culpable co-Defendant who pled guilty and testified got a mere 24 months!

The NACDL report concluded that guilty pleas have replaced trials because anyone who exercises his or her right to take the case to a jury is facing “exponentially higher sentences.” Defense lawyers and prosecutors now spend most of their time “negotiating”.  Judges rarely preside over trials, and therefore have no or very little experience when such a case comes before them.  However, when just about every case ends after a long negotiation instead of a public trial, we all lose.  The public no longer sees the facts of a case.  Prosecutors no longer have to prove their allegations beyond a reasonable doubt.  And, most importantly, some clearly innocent people will “take a plea” instead of taking the chance that their life will be ruined by an excessively long sentence.  Like the Endangered Species Act, we need a new law to prevent the extinction of the right to trial.