Articles Posted in Federal Criminal Trials

I have often enjoy re-telling the old joke about how there are three kinds of lies: 1) Lies, 2) Damn Lies, and 3) Statistics.  Many of my federal criminal cases here in Atlanta and elsewhere involve one or more of these three types of “incorrect” information.  Some government witnesses tell little lies, while others tell big whoppers that are flat-out lies designed to help the liar and hurt my client.  On some other day I will pontificate about how the system of rewarding “cooperating witnesses” is a perversion of our justice system that leads to some its greatest failures.  But today, I want to talk about how statistics and their analysis and manipulation can sometimes be the greatest lie of all.

Now remember, most lawyers are not “numbers people.”  That’s the reason we went to law school, because some teacher or school just flat-out insisted that we needed to learn calculus. For the most part, attorneys are not at their strongest when dealing with mathematic or scientific issues.  While most good trial lawyers are bright and can quickly pick up new concepts, this is not our main area of expertise.

So, we have a system where most of the main participants are not all that great with numbers or science, and then we have cases that are chock full of both types of information. Here is what usually happens.  A prosecutor hears about a new type of evidence, such as DNA analysis and comparisons to see if the person on trial had some connection with the victim or crime scene.  It’s only been 30 years since this evidence was first accepted into court, and in the early years virtually all prosecutors and defense lawyers simply deferred to whatever the “experts” claimed.  Then as time progressed, more and more lawyers got comfortable with the basic science behind DNA analysis, and began poking holes in the claims, leading to the far too many cases where DNA analysis has actually exonerated previously convicted Defendants.

Casual readers of this blog (are there any other kinds) know that we handle various types of criminal cases here in Atlanta, throughout Georgia, and in federal court throughout the country.  More and more of these cases in these various courts involve crimes that relate in one way or another to use (or misuse) of computers.  One issue that comes up a lot in these cases concerns how much “damage” a person truly caused when he or she got into a website without authorization.  A case in the Eastern District of California, discussed in this post here, has some valuable lessons,  and also some contrasts with a matter I am handling now in a Georgia court.  First to the California case, then we’ll pivot over to the comparisons to my case.

A journalist named Matthew Keys was charged with giving login credentials to hackers with the group Anonymous.  Those online saboteurs supposedly went on the website of the Los Angeles Times newspaper, and changed a headline.  It was about 40 minutes or so before anyone noticed the hack, and the headline was changed back to the original form.  The feds took the case, and charged Mr. Keys with one count of conspiring to make changes to Tribune’s website and damage its computer systems, one count of transmitting damaging code and one count of attempting to transmit damaging code.  The jury found him guilty.

As we talk about all the time on this blog and on our own website, the sentencing process in federal court is very formalized, arising from the wickedly complex Federal Sentencing Guidelines.  First off, a Federal Probation Officer (or “USPO”) interviews the Defendant, gets information from the prosecutor, and then files the first version of the very important “Presentence Report”, sometimes called the “PSR”.  In the PSR, the Probation Officer makes recommendations as to how the sentencing judge should apply the Sentencing Guidelines.  If either side is unhappy with the Probation Officer’s recommendations, that party can file Objections, which the Judge then has to hash out and rule on at the final sentencing hearing, unless the Probation Officer agrees to change the final PSR in a manner acceptable to the objecting party.

We have been following some recent developments in federal criminal prosecutions brought against people who operate  businesses that prepare federal and state income tax returns for their clients.  First,  the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit yesterday affirmed a conviction and lengthy sentence imposed on an Atlanta-based tax preparer who had apparently stolen the identities of her own clients and used that information to file bogus requests for tax refunds.  The case is United States v. Ford, and can be accessed here.  Second, I recently finished a case where I was able to convince the federal judge to impose a somewhat lower sentence on another tax preparer because of some upcoming changes in the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.  An earlier post about this sentencing tactic is here.  Finally, I have been representing other tax preparers who are battling with the IRS over issues concerning the operation of their businesses.

In the recent Ford case in the Court of Appeals, the Defendant was convicted after a trial.  During the investigation of the case, and Atlanta-based TV station got wind that Ms. Ford was supposedly engaging in some kind of fraud, so they sent in an undercover reporter wearing a secret camera.  The camera caught Ms. Ford saying and doing some things that were very harmful, and the TV station then aired the typical “gotcha” story, replete with the seemingly angry reporter who was “shocked” that crime happens.  Before trial, Ms. Ford’s attorney argued that putting an incendiary TV show in front of the jury was excessively prejudicial.  The Court of Appeals rejected  this argument, mostly because the prosecutors wisely agreed to take out just about everything from the TV story except the part where Ms. Ford was talking with the undercover reporter.  One lesson for attorneys who represent people accused of fraudulent activities is to always be aware that in this modern media-frenzy culture there always might be a TV story or something on social media you need to be prepared for when defending the case.

As I mentioned in my earlier post on using changes to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines as a method for trying to get a lower sentence, the concept of “loss” and the number of “victims” are two crucial factors that go into the sentencing range that every federal judge faces when starting the process of figuring out the correct sentence for a person convicted of a crime involving fraud.  In the Ford case from yesterday, the defense team argued that the sentencing judge made mistakes when calculating the amount of loss and whether certain people were victims.  While the Court of Appeals rejected these arguments, it is important to remember to object to rulings in such areas so that the Defendant at least has the chance of appealing to a higher court when the sentence is longer than anticipated.  We unfortunately sometimes have clients come to us after another lawyer represented them at the sentencing hearing and failed to remember that it is important to object when the Judge makes a decision that could lead to a higher range under the Sentencing Guidelines.

I write often about criminal defense lawyers, and regularly point out how defending a client against federal crimes is a rare speciality that requires an attorney who keeps up on the law and who will fight for his or her client. In private practice, it is expensive to hire the rare lawyer who has all these qualities. Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled that it is OK for prosecutors to tie up all the Defendant’s assets pretrial with seizure of bank accounts that prevent the Defendant from hiring the specialist he or she has chosen to defend himself. The case is Kaley v. United States, you can read it here. I previously posted about this important case here and here.

Reduced to the basics, Ms. Kaley and her husband were suspected of crimes. They hired an amazingly good lawyer, and set aside the money needed to let this specialist do his job. The Feds got an indictment, and also got an order freezing the money Ms. Kaley had put aside to pay the attorney. Kaley eventually took the case to the Supreme Court, arguing that she at least had the right to a hearing to challenge whether there was enough evidence to justify tying up her assets even before a trial. She probably has a pretty good chance, in that a trial against a CoDefendant charged with the same crime resulted in an outright acquittal. However, Ms. Kaley did not fare so well in the Supreme Court, which ruled that she has no right to a hearing to challenge the seizure of her money even before a trial.
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A major federal criminal investigation is apparently brewing in the San Diego area. According to news reports, like this one, there are allegations and criminal charges being alleged against some high-ranking Navy officers, and the owner of a major Asia-based supplier of fuel for US ships. While this is still very early, the charges seem to imply that Navy officials took bribes that helped the fuel supplier get more business. According to the charges, the supplier then gouged the Navy with higher prices. At least one Navy officer is also alleged to have kept the owner of the fuel supply company apprised on the internal investigation into all this “fuelishness”.

I always read such stories with a jaundiced eye. The press if often captive to the prosecution at these early stages of a criminal case. Reporters often do nothing other than paraphrase whatever charging document is filed in court or parrot back the government’s press release.
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I write and think a lot about how federal criminal cases, and all criminal matters for that matter, intersect with the technological explosions we’ve seen in our lifetime. For example, in earlier posts like this one I’ve written about how courts are grappling with how to apply the principles from the 18th Century enshrined in our Fourth Amendment (no search and seizure unless based on probable cause and a warrant from a Judge) with the 21st century fact that cell phones can be searched and followed from just about anywhere. A few days ago, we heard about another instance where the modern world of the internet intersected with a federal criminal case, resulting in the dismissal of all charges when the Judge concluded that prosecutors violated the Constitution by anonymously posting about the case on a newspaper’s web site.

The basic story goes like this. In the havoc following Hurricane Katrina, there were reports that police officers shot victims of that natural disaster. There was an internal investigation. Cops were interviewed, and were told that they had to answer questions, and that their answers could not be used against them in any subsequent case (we call this “immunized testimony”). State prosecutors thereafter got indictments and convictions. The state appellate courts overturned the convictions, because the immunized testimony WAS used against the cops.
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Recent publicity about airline passengers accused of federal crimes while on airplanes (such as the executive accused of hitting a crying child while on a Delta flight arriving here in Atlanta) got me to thinking about how flying has changed over the years. It’s much less fun, that’s for sure. The recent publicity reminded me also that over the years I have represented many people accused of crimes while on airplanes. The federal prosecutors are bringing more and more criminal cases based on actions of passengers in airplanes. Such cases are challenging, even though on occasion we have been able to get good results for our clients.

I recall one case where our client was accused of basically “touching himself” while sitting next to a couple of teenage girls. We had a long trial, a challenging sentencing hearing, but all along I had hope that we might prevail. We lost, but not until we made the other side work very hard. Here is the final ruling by the Court of Appeals. I still think we were right.
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We have represented executives who worked years ago in businesses that are now under federal investigation for supposedly committing fraud and other white collar offenses. Because our clients left the business many years ago, we are closely following a case that might have a big impact on how we handle the matter. As most people know, crimes almost always are subject to what most people refer to as “the Statute of Limitations,” or “SOL”. In a few weeks the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a fascinating case involving the SOL. The main issue is whether a defendant who was in jail for more than the past 20 years can be forced to prove that he was no longer a member of and withdrew from a conspiracy that continued past the year 2000. The case is Smith v. United States.

The SOL means that once the limitations period has passed, prosecutors can no longer bring a case against a defendant. The general SOL in federal criminal cases says that the prosecutors must get an indictment within 5 years of a crime.
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Demarick Hunter is serving a sentence of 15 years and 8 months in federal prison for possessing a firearm. The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) provides for a minimum sentence of 15 years for career criminals who carry firearms. Mr. Hunter’s prior convictions do not qualify him as a career criminal under the ACCA. The Eleventh Circuit acknowledged that he is serving an illegal sentence, but refused to allow him to appeal it.

The ACCA applies to people with at least 3 prior convictions for violent felonies or drug offenses. Mr. Hunter was sentenced as a career criminal under this act because in addition to one conviction for a drug offense, his two prior convictions for carrying a concealed weapon were considered violent felonies. Last year the Eleventh Circuit acknowledged that carrying a concealed weapon may not be a violent felony. In the Hunter case last month, the Eleventh Circuit agreed that Hunter was erroneously sentenced, but denied his request for a certificate of appealability because “a sentencing error alone does not amount to a substantial showing of the denial of a constitutional right.” The miscarriage of justice in this decision for Mr. Hunter is maddening in and of itself.

However, there is an even more infuriating aspect to this decision. The Court notes at the end of this decision that Mr. Hunter can’t show ineffective assistance of counsel because his lawyers didn’t argue at sentencing or direct appeal that carrying a concealed weapon was not a violent felony under the ACCA. Most lawyers wouldn’t have done so. At the time of Mr. Hunter’s sentencing and direct appeal, binding case law held that carrying a concealed weapon was a violent felony.

Some prosecutors are a little like complaining children, they are never satisfied unless they get their way, and they will continue to whine for a long time until they do. This past Friday, in an appeal involving a white collar federal criminal prosecution the Supreme Court took a case to answer whether federal prosecutors can get a second bite at the apple when at the first trial the defendant was acquitted of the major counts, the jury hung on other counts, and in finding the defendant not guilty the jury must have resolved the facts in the defendant’s favor. (Defendant’s Petition here)

The defendant was involved in the Enron mess. He was charged with conspiracy, mail and wire fraud, securities violations, insider trading and for laundering the money related to the insider trading. The jury found him not guilty of everything except the insider trading and money laundering, and on these charges, they were unable to reach a verdict. The prosecutors tried to crank up a new set of charges based on the areas where the jury did not reach a verdict. The defendant pointed to the Double Jeopardy protection which includes what we call “collateral estoppel”. This is the issue the Supreme Court will address in the case.

The collateral estoppel question is both a technical legal issue, along with being a common-sense concept that the average man or woman on the street can figure out (think “Joe the Plumber” gets prosecuted a second time when the first jury found him innocent on basically everything charged). Here’s the technical description. Under the rule of collateral estoppel, when a first jury necessarily decides a certain fact against a party, that same party is prevented (or what as we lawyers say, is “estopped”) from again trying to litigate that same fact at a later trial. However, what happens when a first jury rules for the defendant, but the jury for some reason is unable to reach a verdict on other charges that have the same basic factual underpinnings? Some of the federal courts say that the hung counts prevent the courts from being certain that the facts underlying the acquitted counts were necessarily found in the defendant’s favor. Other federal courts rule in the complete opposite direction: saying that it makes no sense to even consider the charges where the jury was unable to reach a verdict when deciding whether certain facts were necessarily found in the defendant’s favor. These inconsistent rulings were likely the major reason the Supreme Court agreed to take the case involving the Enron defendant.