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In my federal criminal defense practice here in Atlanta, I regularly file Pretrial Motions that challenge, in one way or another, the criminal indictment that alleges that my client did something illegal.  There are several such cases I am currently working on, and the process of thinking about, and then creating, challenges to the indictments made me reflect on some things that attorneys should do, along with a few items they should avoid.

Federal crimes are all created by “statute”, meaning laws passed by Congress.  There is no “common law” of federal crimes, which means that virtually all indictments are based on language in a particular statute.  So, the obvious beginning point is to compare the statute’s  language with the words found in the indictment.  Seems clear, right, but I am reminded of several cases over the years where none of the lawyers (on either side) noticed that there was a disconnect between the statutory language and the words in the indictment. Continue reading

As part of my work being a criminal defense lawyer in Atlanta and elsewhere, I recently gave a speech to some attorneys about civil asset forfeiture, which is the legal proceeding through which the police seize and then “forfeit” property.  The seizure is often part of or accompanies and is parallel to a criminal investigation.  Some recent matters made me think more about this whole process, and how myself and other criminal defense attorneys need to do a better job in protecting not only our client’s freedom, but their property as well.

The first matter is a recent article that discusses the Supreme Court case from a month or so ago in which all nine justices agreed that the Constitutional protections against “excessive fines” means that there needs to be some proportion between the crime and the property seized by the police even if the case is in the state court system.  That was the now-famous Timbs case in which the police took a $40,000 Range Rover that Mr. Timbs had bought with the proceeds from his parent’s estate.  The State of Indiana decided to seize the vehicle through the forfeiture process simply because Mr. Timbs foolishly had a relatively small amount of drugs in his possession when he was stopped.  The article points out how the case merely means that the constitutional protection against an excessive seizure applies to all the States.  The Timbs decision did not says what is, or what is not, excessive.  The article points out that question that will be left to future rulings.  The author quotes lawyers on both sides, prosecutors and defense counsel.  A prosecutor who was quoted claimed that she gave up on seizing some property because the value of the seized item was so small that it did not justify the amount of work she was going to have to put into the forfeiture process.  As a result, she supposedly let the defense attorney get the property back for his client.   Apparently, fairness, justice and equity do not matter all that much to this prosecutor, for she is simply worried about how many hours she works. Continue reading

The morning Atlanta paper had a story about an investigation regarding alleged securities fraud in which a very good local attorney who I know was quoted.  That lawyer basically said that his client had not done anything wrong.  Good for him, sometimes an attorney needs to be proactive in defending his or her client, both from the investigation and from adverse publicity.

However, I have another matter where we convinced the government that they should not seek criminal charges against my clients, we worked out a civil settlement in which my clients agreed to pay money but did not agree they did anything wrong, and the prosecutors just issued a lengthy and over-the-top press release announcing the civil settlement.  My clients and I are trying to decide whether to make a public statement in light of this press release.

I have written previously on how the modern “press” often avoids its responsibility in such matters by simply repeating whatever press release is issued by law enforcement agencies and prosecutors offices.  Old-fashioned journalists used to try and get both sides of a story prior to publication, and a few of those reporters still exist.  However, in modern times that is becoming more and more rare.

I am handling a criminal appeal that arose out of a high-profile murder prosecution here in beautiful Atlanta, Georgia.  The case was brought to me long after the trial and “direct appeal”, at a point when the client was down to his last “post-conviction” effort, which in some jurisdictions is called a “habeas corpus petition.”  I took over the case, convinced the Judge to let us re-work the issues, and then appealed the revised claims up to the United States Court of Appeals, whose main office is a few blocks from where I sit at my desk most days, also in Atlanta. The Court of Appeals just announced that they granted my request for “oral argument”, which they grant in very few cases nowadays.  The underlying murder was a very high-profile matter handled in the Fulton County court system many years ago.  After the direct appeals, the case worked itself in the federal court systems for a final effort to obtain post-conviction relief for my client.  I want to talk for a little bit about handling these high-profile matters on appeal or in the post-conviction arena many years after the crime took place.

I get calls and messages on a regular basis from family members who, years later, want me to challenge the conviction or sentence imposed on a person serving a lengthy prison sentence.  This is often very difficult, because the court systems have erected rules over the years that make it increasingly difficult to bring such challenges.  First, most courts now have time limits that severely limit when such challenges can be raised.  Furthermore, even if we get the challenge into court within these timelines, we then have the problem that previous lawyers on the case might not have raised or preserved the best issues.  If the better claims were not properly preserved by the earlier lawyers on the case, the prosecutors will respond to my efforts with all kinds of rules for kicking such issues out, rules called “waiver”, “default” and the always-difficult “harmless error” principle. Continue reading

Some good attorneys here in Atlanta recently won a federal criminal case, so being the nosy person that I am (and formerly their so-called “boss”) I had lunch with these very accomplished attorneys to find out how they happened to get the far too rare “two word verdict” (meaning “not guilty”).  I posted a few weeks back about a case I did this summer where the jury also found my client not guilty, so I wanted to compare what these other attorneys experienced with cases I have won.  Some common themes arise in cases where a person accused of a crime is acquitted, and I wanted to see if any of those themes were a part of the case my friends recently handled.

The case that my friends defended was one of the increasingly complicated federal white collar criminal matters that I handle on a regular basis.  As I’ve discussed other places, white collar matters involve not only complex business transactions, the law and the evidence is often exceedingly dense.  In many such cases, emails are often the most damaging evidence. An email (or text) is a less formal manner of communicating,  and people often are far less careful in these electronic messages than they otherwise would be if they were writing a formal letter or document.  Many times, we all respond to an email or text late at night before going to bed, and perhaps don’t think about how the message will appear to someone else who is not so tired.  Not only do electronic communications often provide an unfiltered view into how someone is approaching a transaction, the messages are located all over the place, and number in the hundreds of thousands in a complex business deal.  Wading through all this is a chore, but it has to be done.  My friends who told me about their recent victory did the hard work, plowing through the tens of thousands of messages, identifying those that could be damaging, and locating the materials to be used when cross-examining government witnesses.  Good results always are preceded by lots of hard work.

Another thing that my lawyer friends talked about was the effort to streamline and simplify the defense so that the jury could more easily understand the case and the reasons why there was reasonable doubt as to their client’s guilt or innocence.  They kept reminding themselves about the “themes” of the case, and the need to repeat and reiterate these themes with each and every witness if possible.  In the end, the goal is to make the defense themes easily understood and recalled, the themes must be based on the evidence, and the themes must be part of the case from beginning to the end.

I posted recently on questions people should ask themselves and potential attorneys when anyone feels they need to hire a federal criminal defense lawyer.  The earlier post focused on questions dealing with the attorney’s qualifications, and whether he or she would be the right “fit” for the client and that case.  Today, we talk about what is often the bigger issue for many people; money.

OK, here’s the first point, and it is painful.  Lawyers are expensive.  Lawyers who specialize in federal criminal defense are very expensive.  And, lawyers who are among the best at handling federal criminal cases are sometimes extraordinarily expensive.   There are several reasons why really good criminal defense lawyers handling federal cases are so expensive.  I’ll talk about that in a minute.  However, just because the top federal criminal defenders usually charge a lot of money, that does not mean a good defense is too expensive for most people.

For starters, there is the nationwide system funded by the Criminal Justice Act, or “CJA”.  Under the CJA, there is a “public defender” in every federal judicial district.  Furthermore, qualified private lawyers handle overflow work and cases where the public defender might have a conflict of interest.  The vast majority of federal public defenders and CJA private counsel are capable lawyers, and a few are very good.  Therefore,  if someone is “indigent”, it is possible to have the court appoint a “free” lawyer, and these attorneys are often better than some attorney who says he or she will take a federal case for far less than the fees most attorneys are charging.  People should be wary and suspicious of an attorney who says she or he can handle a federal criminal case for less than $10,000 (most cases are far, far more expensive than this amount).  These matters are usually so complex that the lawyer who charges such a fee will have a very big incentive to not work hard and to try and convince the client to plead guilty without every assessing the merits of the case. Continue reading

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.

Swear to God, same thing happened to me!  Go to a party on a Saturday night, cops bust in,  homeowner claims to “know nothing”, everybody gets busted and goes down to the police station.  Officers make arrests for trespassing, since the homeowner dummies up.  That is basically the fact pattern from District of Columbia v. Westby, to be argued in the Supreme Court soon.  However, there is no crime of “trespassing” if there is nothing to suggest that that the partygoers knew or should have known that they were entering against the owner’s will.  The arrested folks brought a lawsuit against the arresting officers for false arrest, they won a judgment, and the DC police brought the case to the Supreme Court, arguing that its officers had probable cause under the Fourth Amendment to make the arrests.

Westby is a bit more interesting, and salacious, than my aborted party that one Saturday eons ago.  First, there was someone named either “Peaches” or “Tasty” identified by some of the partiers as the person who told them about the shindig.  Also, when the cops arrived, some of the women were selling lap dances, some had money hanging out from their undergarments, and most shockingly, the officers smelled marijuana.   Continue reading

Like the swallows returning each year to Capistrano, we are in the midst of the annual flight to Justice, when the U.S. Supreme Court decides which cases it will review at the beginning of its new year.  On the first day when they announced several cases for review, the Supreme Court demonstrated that this “Term” will have a big impact on the type of constitutional issues that we regularly face when representing people or companies under investigation or being prosecuted for alleged crimes.

I will do a series of posts about the new cases.  These subsequent posts will give more detail and some of the juicier aspects of the case to show that these are not just dry legal disputes, but instead involve real people and lawyers fighting for our rights.  But today, I’ll just do brief reviews of the 3 big criminal justice cases announced today that will be on the Supreme Court’s plate this upcoming Term. Continue reading

Here at beloved K&L we do a fair number of appeals in criminal cases, mostly in federal court but occasionally in the state court system. Winning an appeal in a criminal case is always hard, it takes lots of work to understand what happened in the lower court, it takes even more time and energy to figure out all the potential legal issues, and then it takes more time still to write, revise, refine and get the arguments down in a manner that is both correct yet easily understood. Even when we do all that, we face one more hurdle before we can get relief for our clients; the “Harmless Error” rule. A case decided last week by all 11 Judges on the federal Court of Appeals here in Atlanta clearly shows this difficulty. The decision is United States v. Roy, and can be found here.

First, the “harmless error” rule. For a long time, courts reversed criminal cases whenever the trial judge made an error or mistake, such as allowing a prosecutor to use inadmissible evidence, or failing to properly instruct the jury on the elements of a crime. About 50 years ago the courts began using a rule that looks to whether the error or mistake “harmed” the Defendant, or if the mistake was just a “technicality” and had no impact on the overall result. If the trial judge made a mistake, under the harmless error analysis the court of appeals then looks to whether the error contributed to the jury’s verdict. The beneficiary of the error (meaning the prosecutors in criminal cases) had the burden on appeal to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the error did not contribute to the conviction. So far, so good. Continue reading