Does the Supreme Court still believe in prosecutorial discretion? A string of cases over the past few years has to make you wonder.
Prosecutorial discretion – the power to decide whether to bring criminal charges, who to charge, what crimes to charge, and how ultimately to resolve the case – is a fundamental component of the criminal justice system. The legislature enacts the laws but the executive branch enforces them, which includes making judgments about when and how to bring a criminal case.
On the macro level, this means setting national and local law enforcement priorities and making decisions about the deployment of finite prosecutorial resources. Different administrations at different times have declared areas such as health care fraud, narcotics, illegal immigration, or terrorism to be top priorities and have allocated resources accordingly. Such decisions necessarily mean other areas will not receive as much attention; a dollar spent fighting terrorism is a dollar that can’t be spent investigating mortgage fraud.
On the micro level, prosecutorial discretion involves deciding whether to pursue criminal charges in a given case and what charges to pursue. Factors such as the nature of the offense, strength of the evidence, the nature and extent of any harm, adequacy of other potential remedies, any mitigating circumstances or remedial efforts by the accused, and prosecutorial resources and priorities all may come into play.
For federal prosecutors, policies governing how they should exercise this discretion are set forth in the U.S. Attorneys’ Manual, and in particular in the Principles of Federal Prosecution. The Principles contain detailed guidance concerning when to bring charges, what kind of charges to bring, and how to handle criminal cases, in order to “promote the reasoned exercise of prosecutorial discretion by attorneys for the government.” USAM 9-27.110.
Prosecutorial Discretion and White Collar Crime
Prosecutorial discretion is particularly important in white collar crime. With non-white collar, or “street” crimes, the parameters of the offense tend to be more clearly defined and charging decisions often are more black and white. If there is a body on the street with nine bullets in it, you pretty clearly have a homicide. If authorities can identify who did it, that person will almost certainly be charged. The prosecutor is not likely to say, “Due to our limited resources and other priorities, we’ll take a pass on this one and let the victim’s family file a civil suit instead” – not if the prosecutor wants to keep her job, anyway.
But white collar crime is full of gray areas. White collar prosecutors deal with sometimes nebulous concepts such as “fraud” and “corruption,” and white collar statutes are written in notoriously broad and general terms. As a result, it often falls much more to the prosecutor to determine whether something is a crime at all and to decide what kind of conduct merits a prosecution.
For example, suppose a hedge fund goes belly-up, and the investors who lost their money claim they were misled about their investment. Was it fraud, or was it merely aggressive – maybe even sleazy – sales tactics followed by incompetence, mismanagement, or just bad luck? Unlike a homicide, robbery, or drug case, at the outset it may not be clear that a crime has been committed. A prosecutor might well conclude, “If I investigated this for two years, perhaps at the end I would have a provable criminal fraud case – but perhaps not. Given my resources and priorities, I’m going to focus on other cases and let the SEC and private plaintiffs pursue civil and administrative penalties in this one.”
Given these potential gray areas, what’s the best way to deter and prosecute white collar crime? Imagine two different regimes. In System #1, Congress drafts broad statutes that proscribe conduct such as fraud in general terms, in order to encompass as much potentially criminal conduct as possible. It is left to the Executive Branch, through prosecutors, to enforce those statutes and determine which cases to pursue – with that discretion tempered, of course, by the oversight of the courts.
In System #2, Congress tries to write very precise and detailed statutes that are as specific as possible in defining the prohibited conduct. Such white collar statutes would leave fewer gray areas and less room for prosecutorial discretion – in other words, they would be more like street crimes. The downside of such a system would be that it necessarily creates loopholes: the more precisely you define criminal concepts like fraud, the greater the opportunity for individuals engaged in what should be criminal conduct to skirt the law’s prohibitions.
Historically, white collar criminal law has been closer to System #1: broad statutes prohibit things like fraud or corruption, and prosecutors are entrusted to exercise their discretion to determine how to apply those laws. But in a series of decisions over the past few years, the Supreme Court has signaled it is becoming increasingly uncomfortable with such a system. These decisions have limited several significant white collar statutes, moving us closer to System #2 – although with laws narrowed by the Court rather than by Congress. In the process, the Court has removed discretion from the hands of prosecutors while also making it more difficult to prosecute some criminal conduct.
The Supreme Court Limits Prosecutorial Discretion
The first such case was Skilling v. United States in 2010. Skilling involved the proper interpretation of 18 U.S.C. § 1346, which prohibits schemes to deprive another of the “intangible right of honest services.” Honest services fraud, a species of mail and wire fraud, has been around for decades. Most cases of honest services fraud have involved relatively straightforward allegations of corruption such as bribery, kickbacks, and conflicts of interest.
But prosecutors in some cases stretched the boundaries of the theory, using honest services fraud to prosecute, for example, a university professor who helped students plagiarize work to obtain degrees to which they were not entitled; an IRS employee who improperly browsed through certain tax returns but did nothing with the information; state officials who awarded public sector jobs based on political patronage; and a state official who failed to disclose a potential conflict of interest when state law did not require disclosure. Some of these schemes seemed wrong or dishonest but were far from traditional criminal corruption. The confusion over what actually qualified as a deprivation of honest services led Justice Scalia to argue in 2009 that the law was in a state of “chaos.”
The Supreme Court finally attempted to bring some order out of this chaos in Skilling. The defendant, former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling, argued that the honest services statute should be struck down as unconstitutionally vague, but the Court disagreed. Instead, it limited the law to what it deemed the core of honest services fraud: cases involving bribery and kickbacks.
The holding in Skilling dramatically narrowed the scope of honest services fraud. This successfully removed prosecutors’ ability to use the theory in innovative ways to charge more unusual schemes. But the limitation also created safe harbors for certain conduct, such as self-dealing by elected officials, that is plainly corrupt but may no longer be charged as a violation of honest services.
In 2014, the Supreme Court decided Bond v. United States. (Although not really a white collar case, Bond is instructive as part of the same trend at the Court.) In Bond a jilted wife tried to injure her husband’s lover by sprinkling some caustic chemicals on her mailbox and doorknob. The chemicals caused only a slight skin irritation on the woman’s thumb that was easily treated with cold water. Federal prosecutors subsequently charged Bond using a felony statute that prohibits the use of chemical weapons and carries a penalty of “any term of years” in prison.
The Court ultimately held that the statute did not apply to Bond’s conduct. But an undercurrent of the case was the Court’s obvious concern over the government’s decision to apply a federal law aimed at preventing the horrors of chemical warfare to such a trivial incident. During oral argument, Justice Kennedy told the Solicitor General that it “seems unimaginable that you would bring this prosecution.” Justice Alito remarked, “If you told ordinary people that you were going to prosecute Ms. Bond for using a chemical weapon, they would be flabbergasted.”
This trend continued in 2015 with Yates v. United States. Yates was a commercial fisherman working in the Gulf of Mexico. A fish and wildlife officer boarded his boat to conduct a routine inspection and ended up citing him for having several dozen red grouper on board that were slightly smaller than the legal limit – a civil violation. The officer told Yates to keep the fish until he returned to port, where they would be seized and destroyed. Once the officer left his boat, however, Yates instructed a crew member to throw the undersized fish overboard and replace them with larger ones.
When this ultimately came to light, prosecutors charged Yates with three crimes including obstruction of justice under 18 U.S.C. § 1519, a twenty-year felony. That law prohibits the destruction of “tangible objects” in an effort to obstruct a federal investigation. Captain Yates argued before the Supreme Court that fish were not “tangible objects” within the meaning of this statute. The Court ultimately ruled in his favor, but only by adopting what I believe was an unnatural and strained interpretation of the law.
But Yates is actually more significant for what it revealed about the Court’s views on prosecutorial discretion and charging decisions. During oral argument, the Justices were clearly disturbed by the application of a twenty-year felony to this fish-dumping episode. Justice Scalia asked what kind of “mad prosecutor” would charge Yates with a twenty-year offense, and sarcastically suggested perhaps it was the same prosecutor who had charged Bond with a chemical weapons violation. Later in the oral argument Justice Kennedy remarked, “It seems to me that we should just not use the concept [prosecutorial discretion] or refer to the concept at all anymore.”
The Court’s skepticism about prosecutorial discretion surfaced again this past spring in McDonnell v. United States. In reversing the corruption convictions of the former Virginia governor, the Court adopted a narrow definition of “official act” for purposes of federal bribery law. At oral argument and in its opinion the Court imagined federal prosecutors targeting elected officials for simply attending a lunch where a supporter bought them a bottle of wine, or for attending a ballgame as the guest of homeowners who earlier had sought the official’s help.
The narrow definition of “official act,” the Court concluded, was necessary to prevent politically-motivated prosecutions and the criminalization of routine political courtesies. But critics of the Court’s decision – including me – argue that the result is to shield a great deal of corrupt conduct that is precisely what the law of bribery aims to prevent.
The Future of Prosecutorial Discretion
In these recent cases, when faced with the interpretation of white collar crimes such as bribery, honest services fraud, and obstruction of justice, the Court’s approach has been to interpret the statutes narrowly and consequently to remove charging discretion from federal prosecutors. A moment during the Yates oral argument is particularly illuminating. The Justices asked Assistant Solicitor General Roman Martinez what guidance prosecutors followed when deciding what kind of charges to bring, and that led to this exchange:
MR.MARTINEZ: Your Honor, the . . . my understanding of the U.S. Attorney’s Manual is that the general guidance that’s given is that the prosecutor should charge once the decision is made to bring a criminal prosecution, the prosecutor should charge the the offense that’s the most severe under the law. That’s not a hard and fast rule, but that’s kind of the default principle. In this case that was Section 1519.
JUSTICE SCALIA: Well, if that’s going to be the Justice Department’s position, then we’re going to have to be much more careful about how extensive statutes are. I mean, if you’re saying we’re always going to prosecute the most severe, I’m going to be very careful about how severe I make statutes.
MR. MARTINEZ: Your Honor, that’s . . .
JUSTICE SCALIA: Or how much coverage I give to severe statutes.
MR. MARTINEZ: That’s – that’s not what we were saying. I think we’re not always going to prosecute every case, and obviously we’re going to exercise our discretion. . . .
As Martinez attempted to point out, the real-world exercise of prosecutorial discretion is far more nuanced than Justice Scalia suggested. It’s true that the Principles of Federal Prosecution provide as a general rule – as they have for decades – that once a decision to bring charges is made a prosecutor generally should charge “the most serious offense that is consistent with the nature of the defendant’s conduct, and that is likely to result in a sustainable conviction.” USAM 9-27.300. But the Principles also recognize the need for prosecutors to consider the nature and circumstances of a particular case, the purpose of criminal law, and law enforcement priorities. What charges are “consistent with the nature of the defendant’s conduct” is also a matter of judgment and discretion. And of course considerable discretion also is involved earlier in the process, when deciding whether to bring charges at all.
But this exchange suggests the Court may believe it needs to interpret criminal statutes more narrowly because it cannot always trust prosecutors to exercise sound judgment when enforcing broadly-written statutes. As Justice Kennedy suggested during the Yates argument, it may be that the Court no longer thinks of prosecutorial discretion as a viable concept.
Of course, some critics of federal prosecutors will welcome this development and suggest it is long overdue. And some will point out that, for prosecutors, this may be considered a self-inflicted wound. The charging decisions in cases like Yates and Bond in particular may be what led the Justices openly to question whether prosecutors should continue to be entrusted with the same degree of discretion.
But it would be unfortunate if the Justices truly come to believe they cannot rely on prosecutors to exercise sound judgment in charging decisions. One can always argue about the merits of particular cases, but overall our system of broadly-written statutes enforced by the sound exercise of prosecutorial discretion has worked pretty well. If the Court continues to chip away at those statutes due to concerns about controlling prosecutors, it will continue to create safe harbors for some conduct that is clearly criminal.
It’s particularly inappropriate for the Court to limit these statutes based on hypotheticals that have no basis in reality, as it did in McDonnell. When we start seeing widespread prosecutions of politicians for accepting legal campaign contributions and attending Rotary Club breakfasts, then maybe we can talk about the need to curb prosecutorial discretion. But simply because we can imagine a parade of horribles based on the broad terms of a white collar statute does not mean that prosecutors are actually marching in that parade.
At the McDonnell oral argument, Justice Breyer noted that narrowing the definition of bribery might mean that a certain amount of corrupt conduct will go unpunished. Unfortunately, for now that appears to be a risk the Court is willing to take.
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