Did President Trump Obstruct Justice? A Prosecution Analysis

Did President Trump obstruct justice? On May 9, 2017, the President fired FBI Director James Comey. This unexpected move immediately raised questions about the President’s motives. Critics charged that Trump was seeking to derail the FBI investigation into possible Russian ties to the Trump campaign.

Then, a week after Comey was sacked, substantial fuel was added to the obstruction fire. The New York Times reported that in a private meeting in February President Trump asked Comey to drop the investigation of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Comey apparently prepared a memo memorializing this meeting. Comey wrote that Trump told him Flynn was a “good guy” who didn’t do anything wrong, and said , “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.” Comey himself confirmed this account of the meeting during his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Jun 8.

There are additional facts as well. On May 19 the New York Times reported that in a meeting in the Oval Office with Russian officials the President told them, “I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job.” Trump also reportedly told the Russian officials, “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

Then on May 22, the Washington Post reported that Trump had asked the director of national intelligence and the director of the National Security Agency to publicly deny there was any evidence of collusion between Russian officials and the Trump campaign. Both refused to do so because they felt the request was inappropriate. Later in the same story, the Post reported that senior White House officials also had approached top intelligence officials to ask whether it was possible to ask Comey to shut down the FBI investigation.

“Obstruction of justice” is a term that gets tossed around fairly loosely. The op-ed pages and Twitter have been pronouncing Trump guilty for days. But the crime of obstruction of justice has specific requirements that can be difficult to prove. A federal prosecutor analyzing this as a criminal case would face some hurdles, although the case grows stronger with each new revelation. But in the end, political remedies — including potential impeachment — are more likely than criminal ones.

The Criminal Obstruction Statutes

Several different criminal statutes prohibit obstruction of justice. There are other options, but if I were considering this case I would focus on 18 U.S.C. § 1512(c)(2). This catch-all provision applies to anyone who “corruptly obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding, or attempts to do so.” The maximum penalty is twenty years in prison.

Obstruction is a crime independent of the merits of any underlying case. Even if an investigation doesn’t result in criminal charges, you can get in trouble for obstructing that investigation – just ask Scooter Libby or Martha Stewart. As the old saying goes, sometimes the cover-up is worse than the crime.

The statute applies to attempts to obstruct a proceeding even if they are unsuccessful. If the investigation into Russian ties continued unimpeded, that would not be a defense to any attempted obstruction.

What Is the Relevant Proceeding?

In any obstruction case, the first task is to identify the proceeding the defendant was allegedly trying to obstruct. There is no such thing as “obstruction in the air.” The government must prove the defendant had a particular proceeding in mind, even if that proceeding had not yet begun. (The prosecution’s failure to prove the link to a specific proceeding is what led the judge in the Bob and Maureen McDonnell case to throw out her obstruction conviction.)

Under § 1512 a proceeding may be a matter before any of the three branches of the federal government. A trial or other court proceeding, a Congressional investigation, or a proceeding before a federal agency all may qualify.

Doe an FBI investigation alone qualify as an “official proceeding” that may be obstructed? The courts and legal authorities are divided, but the better answer appears to be no. A different obstruction statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1519, could apply if Trump destroyed documents or records (or Oval Office tape recordings?) to impede the FBI investigation. But firing Comey or urging him to drop the case would not fall within that prohibition.

Even if an FBI investigation is not a “proceeding,” that does not mean Trump is necessarily off the hook. Removing the FBI director might have some tangential effect on the ongoing Congressional investigations, which do qualify as proceedings. But the most likely theory would be that Trump, by urging Comey to drop the investigation and then firing him when that didn’t happen, was attempting to impede the pending grand jury investigation into possible Russian connections to his campaign.

There were recent news reports that a federal grand jury has issued subpoenas for records related to Michael Flynn. There appears to be an active grand jury investigation, and there is probably little doubt the President was aware of it. A grand jury investigation is a “proceeding” for purposes of 1512.

This is a link made in many obstruction cases. The FBI investigates, but it can’t file charges and prosecute on its own. In a criminal case the FBI typically is working with federal prosecutors conducting a grand jury investigation. Often when people speak of obstructing an FBI investigation, what they really mean is obstructing the underlying grand jury proceeding in which the FBI is involved.

Prosecutors could charge that Trump sought to impede the grand jury investigation by persuading Comey to drop the case and, when that failed, by firing him. The government would bear the burden of proving Trump  had the grand jury investigation in mind when he took those actions.

Did President Trump obstruct justice by firing Comey?

Former FBI Director James Comey

Did President Trump Obstruct Justice?

As in so many white collar cases, the critical issue would be proving intent. Corrupt intent is the key to obstruction of justice. It means the defendant acted with the deliberate and dishonest purpose of interfering with the proceeding. In other words, wrongfully obstructing the proceeding is what he set out to do. It isn’t enough if the proceeding is affected as a collateral or unintended consequence of the defendant’s actions.

How would a prosecutor prove the President’s intent? One remarkable aspect of this case is the significance of the President’s own statements. During his recent interview with Lester Holt of NBC news, the President admitted he was thinking about the “Russia thing,” which he called a “made up story,” when he decided to fire Comey. This admission could get prosecutors over what is sometimes a significant hurdle: proving the defendant at least had the relevant proceeding in mind.

The day after firing Comey, the President reportedly told Russian officials that he had faced “pressure” over Russia and that firing Comey had removed that pressure. The defense would dispute exactly what the President meant by this, but at a minimum it is further evidence that Comey’s firing was linked in the President’s mind to the Russia investigation.

Building a Circumstantial Case

Prosecutors often prove corrupt intent by circumstantial evidence. In this case, there is no shortage of it. First, the timing of Comey’s firing is suspicious. Most of the misdeeds for which he allegedly was fired have been known for months. But the President chose to remove him only when the Russia investigation was reportedly heating up.

Reasons for the firing also seem suspect. The White House claims Comey was fired over his handling of  the Hillary Clinton email scandal. But as many have noted, the President previously praised Comey for those same actions, often while his crowds chanted, “Lock her up!” The claim the President fired Comey now for actions he took six months ago is perhaps implausible. But the notion that this President fired Comey because Comey was unfair to Hillary Clinton is laughable.

The White House also claimed the firing was necessary because Comey had lost the support and confidence of the rank and file members of the FBI. This was flatly contradicted by the now-acting director and Comey’s former chief deputy, Andrew McCabe, in testimony before the Senate Intelligence committee.

Then there is the shifting narrative about how the decision was made. The White House originally claimed the President acted based on a recommendation from newly-appointed Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. When Rosenstein apparently objected (and perhaps threatened to resign), the President began saying he had decided to fire Comey on his own, prior to any recommendation.

Conflicting, shifting, and apparently untrue explanations for the President’s actions could provide compelling circumstantial evidence of corrupt intent. Often such evidence suggests the truth is something more sinister that the defendant wants to conceal.

The news that Trump asked Comey to drop the investigation provides significant additional circumstantial evidence of corrupt intent. The narrative then becomes that Trump first urged Comey to back off, and when that failed, he fired him. Reports that Trump asked others to leave the meeting before he spoke to Comey further suggest he knew he was doing something improper.

This theory is bolstered by the reports that senior White House officials had asked intelligence officials about intervening with Comey to see if they could ask him to shut down the Russia investigation. If those reports could be substantiated they would provide further evidence that the purpose of firing Comey was not to remove an ineffective leader or help the FBI but to thwart the Russia investigation.

The Defense: Lack of Corrupt Intent

Despite all of the above, this would not be a slam-dunk prosecution. When I first wrote this post after Comey was fired, I thought a potential criminal case would be very challenging. The news that has come out since then — including the Holt interview, the Oval Office meeting with the Russians, and the White House inquiries about possibly asking Comey to shut down the investigation — has made the case considerably stronger.

Proving to a unanimous jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the President acted with corrupt intent would still be challenging. If the information in all the press reports could be verified and translated into admissible evidence, I think a prosecutor could build a pretty decent case. But the defense would have a lot to work with as well.

First there’s the fact that the President clearly has the right to fire the FBI director. Comey himself, in his letter to FBI personnel following his dismissal, noted his belief that the President could fire him at any time and for any reason. That’s not an ironclad defense, of course. If something you have the right to do is done for a corrupt purpose it can still be obstruction. But unlike a case where a defendant threatened a witness or fabricated evidence, prosecutors could not raise an inference of corrupt intent based solely on the nature of the President’s actions.

In addition, as the President has already pointed out, many people, both Democrats and Republicans, believed there were good grounds to fire Comey based on his actions over the past year. This would help raise a reasonable doubt about corrupt intent.

The President’s defense also would claim that his actions were too remote from the Russia investigation to constitute obstruction. The Supreme Court has held that acts are not obstruction unless they would have the “natural and probable effect” of influencing the proceeding if successful. In an institution as large as the FBI, removing the director may be unlikely to derail any one investigation. Indeed, acting director McCabe assured Congress this was the case and that the investigation will proceed unimpeded.

The Significance of Trump’s Own Statements

Some commentators have claimed the President basically admitted to obstruction by telling Lester Holt the “Russia thing”  was on his mind when he fired Comey. This is an overreach. Saying the President was thinking in part about the Russia investigation is not at all the same as saying he acted with the corrupt intent to obstruct that investigation.

This is a fine distinction, but a critical one. The President could fire Comey because he was mad about Comey’s handling of the Russia investigation and still not intend to obstruct that investigation. If the President believed (probably correctly) the investigation would continue unimpeded without Comey, he would lack the requisite intent to obstruct. Even if he was just mad at Comey and didn’t think at all about the effect on the investigation, that too would mean he lacked corrupt intent.

Later in the same NBC interview Trump also said he wanted the investigation to be done properly. Trump could argue that because Comey had become ineffective as a leader, firing him actually made it more likely the investigation would be successful.

Trump’s statements to the Russian officials about relieving “pressure” by firing Comey are also open to more than one interpretation. Based on the White House statements following the story, it appears Trump would argue that Comey’s mishandling of the investigation was disrupting the President’s attempts to forge better diplomatic relations with the Russians. When he referred to relieving pressure, the defense would argue, the President was referring to this interference with his diplomacy, not to the criminal investigation.

Some of these alternative explanations may seem implausible. I can see eyes rolling from here. But remember the President would not need to prove he acted without corrupt intent. The burden of proof always rests with the government. The defense would only need to raise a reasonable doubt about the President’s intent.

Every prosecutor has had the experience of having what seemed like a stone cold admission by a defendant be completely undermined by a plausible alternative explanation. I’m not trying to bend over backwards to provide excuses for the President’s statements. I’m simply acknowledging the difficulties that prosecutors can face when trying to prove guilt based on statements and circumstances that may be open to different interpretations.

Trump’s Alleged Request to Drop the Investigation

The evidence that President Trump asked Comey to drop the Flynn investigation provide significant additional evidence of possible obstruction of justice. But there are still some unresolved questions. First, the White House has denied Comey’s claims. Unless the rumored Oval Office tapes show up, the details of the meeting would be contested. Comey’s contemporaneous notes would carry significant weight, but disputes about the details and precisely what Trump said and how he said it could be important.

The President is the head of the Executive Branch and was Comey’s boss. This would make proving corrupt intent even more challenging. On some level the President does have the right to tell the FBI director what to do, just as he has the right to fire him.

There are long-standing norms and traditions about Justice Department independence and the White House not interfering in DOJ investigations. Trump’s alleged conversation with Comey seems to have trampled all over those norms. But whether breaching those norms amounts to a crime is a different question.

Trump’s private meeting with Comey is the incident that so far sounds the most like true obstruction. But it may depend on further information about Trump’s own involvement in any underlying misconduct. If it turns out Trump wanted the Flynn case dropped because he feared it would lead to him, that sounds like corrupt intent. But if Trump was not implicated and was simply genuinely concerned that his friend was being treated unfairly, that could suggest the conversation was perhaps improper and unwise but not criminal.

In response to reports about the meeting with Comey, the White House responded by saying essentially “this is just the way the President talks.” In other words, it was an offhand remark expressing his concern about Flynn, not a calculated effort to influence Comey. This is a version of a defense of lack of corrupt intent, and it may be perfectly plausible. The President simply may not have appreciated the impact such an offhand statement could have when it comes from the leader of the free world and the FBI director’s boss.

In situations such as the Comey meeting a great deal also depends on things like nuance, tone, and body language. Was the statement made in a menacing way or in an offhand way? How did Comey interpret it? Information like that does not come across in a memo to the file. During his Senate testimony Comey said he interpreted the President’s statement as a directive to him to drop the case. That would certainly be a significant fact in any obstruction case.

There’s Obstruction, and Then There’s Obstruction

In a criminal investigation of possible obstruction a grand jury could subpoena additional witnesses and documents. Perhaps prosecutors could develop stronger evidence of corrupt intent. The case would depend not on any one incident in isolation but on the pattern of the President’s actions. The circumstantial evidence is mounting, but a lot would need to be done to shore up that evidence. Prosecutors would need to establish that some of the things reported in the press actually took place and could be proven at trial.

The reality is that a criminal prosecution of President Trump is unlikely. Although it’s never been officially settled, most authorities – including the DOJ — believe the Constitution prohibits the prosecution of a sitting President. The scene where Trump is handcuffed and perp-walked out of the Oval Office is not going to happen.

But I think when most people accuse Trump of “obstructing justice,” they are not focused on the elements of a specific criminal statute. Through a series of actions (including the events discussed above, a request that Comey pledge his loyalty, asking Comey whether he was under investigation, and his subsequent Tweet about Comey that many interpreted as a threat) Trump appears to have violated fundamental constitutional and political norms concerning the rule of law and limitations on executive power. Trump’s actions may obstruct justice in this broader, structural sense even if not in a strictly legal one.

As with violations of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, the primary remedy for this obstruction would be political. Political remedies include elections, where the voters have a chance to register their disapproval. They also include impeachment, which is available for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” This is generally interpreted to mean misconduct related to public office, not necessarily precise criminal violations. Charges of obstruction of justice were central to the articles of impeachment of both Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.

Impeachment is primarily a political proceeding rather than a legal one. Congress does not need to establish proof beyond a reasonable doubt of all elements of a crime the way a prosecutor does. Disregard of basic constitutional and political norms could fall short of a criminal offense and still justify impeachment. It’s up to the Members of Congress to decide whether misconduct rises to a level that would justify removing the President. For now, a great deal of additional investigation is needed before Congress could make those decisions.

As was true with alleged perjury by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, critics have been quick to accuse the President of a crime. But as I’m always telling my students, there is a lot of sleazy, unethical, and improper conduct that isn’t criminal. Trump’s potential interference with an ongoing investigation raises grave concerns. But the likely remedy lies with the political process, not a criminal prosecution.

Click here to join the Sidebars mailing list and receive e-mail notification of future posts.

Michael Flynn’s Immunity Request: What it Means and How Immunity Works

What does Michael Flynn’s immunity request mean?

President Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn has offered to testify about potential Russia connections to the Trump campaign if he is given immunity from prosecution. This raises questions about why he would seek immunity, how the immunity process works, and the potential implications for Flynn and the Trump administration. So here is a primer on Immunity 101, with a focus on the Flynn case.

Michael Flynn's immunity request raises tough issues for Congress

Does This Mean Flynn Is Guilty of Something?

Many sources have pointed out that when talking about aides to Hillary Clinton, Flynn himself suggested that if you seek immunity it probably means you’re guilty of a crime. President Trump has said the same thing and has also urged Flynn to insist on immunity. If you play that syllogism out the conclusion is pretty clear.

But the truth is usually more complicated. Seeking immunity doesn’t always mean you are guilty of something. It does indicate the witness has at least some reason to be concerned about potential criminal exposure. In a politically-charged investigation a witness could fear an unfair prosecution even if convinced he did nothing wrong. Flynn’s attorney has said that in the current political maelstrom Flynn would be crazy to testify without immunity. That’s probably sound advice.

Even without knowing the details of what Flynn would say, it’s not surprising he would seek immunity at this early stage. That doesn’t necessarily mean Flynn has some huge bombshell to drop into the middle of the investigation. It also doesn’t necessarily mean Flynn has information about wrongdoing by others. He may be concerned only about his personal liability for things such as his foreign lobbying activities or potentially lying to the FBI. Or it may just be that his lawyer is acting out of an abundance of caution and Flynn ultimately will not be implicated in any crime at all.

Flynn has maximum leverage right now. Nobody can force him to speak. There’s little downside for Flynn in remaining silent and little upside to testifying now without a deal. His lawyer has tantalizingly dangled the claim that Flynn “has a story to tell” and would be happy to tell it if he receives immunity. There’s a lot of political pressure to get to the bottom of this controversy. Investigators may be tempted to give a quick grant of immunity in order to get Flynn’s story. That’s no doubt what Flynn’s attorney is hoping. That seems like a smart play.

What Does Immunity Cover?

Immunity comes into play when a potential witness has a Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself. This right to “take the Fifth” applies not just in court but in other proceedings as well, including Congressional investigations. The request for immunity indicates the witness believes that if he testifies truthfully his testimony could potentially implicate him in some kind of criminal activity.

Immunity means only immunity from criminal prosecution. You can’t get immunity to protect yourself from embarrassment, political damage, civil suits, or other non-criminal fallout. A witness who testifies under a grant of immunity is still potentially subject to all of these other consequences — in fact, those other consequences may be more likely once the witness can no longer remain silent.

Immunity also doesn’t protect you from a prosecution for perjury, obstruction of justice, or related charges based on your immunized testimony — just ask Barry Bonds.

The federal immunity statutes,18 U.S.C. 6001-6005, provide what’s known as use and derivative use immunity. That means whatever the witness says can’t be used against him either directly or indirectly in any criminal proceeding. (Transactional immunity – a broader promise never to charge the witness at all – is not provided for by statute. It can only be obtained by agreement with prosecutors and is extremely rare.)

Direct use would be taking a transcript of the witness’s testimony and introducing it at his criminal trial. Derivative use means using the witness’s testimony to track down other leads and discover new information that is then used against the defendant. For example, if investigators used information learned from the immunized testimony to find new witnesses, those witnesses could not be called to testify against the immunized witness in a criminal trial.

The immunity order is supposed to ensure that, at least as far as criminal proceedings are concerned, the witness remains in exactly the same legal position as if he had never testified at all. Nothing that comes out of the immunized witness’s mouth can lead to evidence used against him in a criminal case.

Congress could choose to grant Michael Flynn's immunity request

Who Can Grant Immunity?

Under the federal immunity statutes immunity can be granted by the Department of Justice or by Congress. Administrative agencies can grant immunity as well, but they need the Attorney General’s approval. Congress does not – it can grant immunity even if DOJ objects.

If immunity is sought in a court or grand jury proceeding, the Department of Justice obtains an immunity order from a district court judge. DOJ will seek the immunity order after determining the public interest in obtaining the testimony outweighs the public interest in potential prosecution of the witness. The judge signs the order but does not review the wisdom of the decision — whether to grant immunity is  up to the Executive Branch.

Congress can likewise seek immunity for any witness called to testify in any Congressional proceeding or committee hearing. In a proceeding before the full House or Senate the request for immunity must be approved by a majority of the members. If the testimony is before a committee, the request must be approved by two-thirds of the members of that committee. Congress must give ten days notice of the request to the Attorney General.

The Attorney General can apply to the court to delay the issuance of the Congressional immunity order for up to an additional twenty days. DOJ can ask Congress not to grant the immunity, but cannot prevent it if Congress insists. Once again, the immunity order is issued by a judge but the court does not review the merits of the decision to grant immunity.

Once a court issues an immunity order, the witness no longer has a Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. The order directs the witness to testify and provides that nothing the witness says can be used against him, directly or indirectly, in a criminal proceeding. If the witness continues to refuse to testify, he is subject to contempt.

News reports refer to Flynn seeking immunity from the FBI, but the FBI itself cannot grant immunity. Immunity in connection with the FBI investigation of the Trump campaign would have to be granted by Department of Justice prosecutors working with the FBI. With Attorney General Sessions recused and calls for an independent prosecutor, there might currently be questions about who exactly within DOJ would make such a decision.

The FBI is investigating but as far as we know no grand jury proceeding has begun. For now, at least, Flynn’s immunity request appears to be primarily in connection with the Congressional investigations. If immunity were granted at this stage it appears Congress would grant it in order to have Flynn testify on Capitol Hill.

News sources on Friday reported that the Senate Intelligence Committee has already rejected Flynn’s request for immunity, calling it premature. Of course, that does not prevent the Committee from reconsidering and granting the request down the road. There have been no reports yet of any decision by the House Intelligence Committee, whose investigation seems mired in partisan gridlock.

How Will Investigators Decide Whether to Grant Michael Flynn’s Immunity Request?

Immunity should only be granted if there is a reasonable basis for the witness’s claim of self-incrimination. Investigators obviously don’t want to run around handing out immunity to every witness who refuses to talk without knowing what the witness will say. This is the “buying a pig in a poke” problem – you don’t want to give someone a free pass on unknown criminal conduct and have him end up confessing to the Kennedy assassination or something.

The most common way to determine whether immunity is appropriate is through a proffer session, either from the witness himself or from his attorney. In such an off-the-record proffer the witness or counsel tells investigators what the witness would say if granted immunity. The investigators, in return, agree not to use anything said during the proffer against the witness.

Before any immunity decision is made, Flynn or his attorney likely would give such a proffer to investigators. They may have already done so.

But the witness is not required to give a proffer. Flynn could remain silent and take the position, “You want to know what I have to say? Give me immunity.” This would be a hardball play by Flynn and his lawyer, but again, at the moment they have the most leverage. Granting immunity under those circumstances would certainly be a high-stakes gamble for Congress.

What If the Fifth Amendment Claim Is Bogus?

If a witness claims he has a Fifth Amendment privilege and investigators don’t believe the privilege claim is valid, they should refuse to grant immunity. They can go ahead and subpoena the witness to testify and see whether he in fact invokes the Fifth. Once actually on the stand the witness may decide to testify after all.

If the witness does refuse to testify, investigators can challenge the Fifth Amendment claim in a hearing before a judge. If a judge determines the privilege claim is valid, the witness may continue to remain silent unless and until he is granted immunity. If the judge finds there is no valid Fifth Amendment privilege, the judge may order the witness to testify. If the witness still refuses, he is subject to punishment for contempt of court or contempt of Congress. He may be jailed for contempt and held until he agrees to comply with the court order and testify.

This all takes a fair amount of time, of course, particularly if either side ends up appealing any court orders. If investigators don’t want to wait and the Fifth Amendment claim is even arguably valid, they may decide just to grant the immunity. That keeps the investigation moving rather than spending months litigating the privilege claim.

Does Getting Immunity Mean Flynn Could Never Be Prosecuted?

Strictly speaking, no. A grant of immunity under the federal immunity statutes doesn’t actually mean there is no way you can ever be prosecuted. The statutes provide only that in the event you are prosecuted your own testimony can’t be used against you directly or indirectly.

Theoretically the government can still prosecute a witness who has testified under a statutory grant of immunity. In such a case the government must establish that none of the evidence it will use is derived in any way from the immunized testimony. If there is a question the court will hold a hearing, and the government must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that it has an independent basis for each piece of evidence.

But practically speaking, if Congress agrees to immunize Flynn he almost certainly will never be prosecuted. Immunized witnesses rarely are. Even if they want to prosecute, it’s usually quite difficult for the government to meet the burden of proving that its case was not tainted by immunized testimony. The most famous example of this problem involves the prosecution of Oliver North.

Oliver North testifies on Capitol Hill

Oliver North testifies on Capitol Hill

Lessons of the Oliver North Case

Oliver North was a member of the National Security Council staff under President Reagan. He was implicated in the Iran-Contra affair, where the U.S. government illegally sold weapons to Iran and used the money to fund the Contra rebel group in Nicaragua. Iran-Contra led to an Independent Counsel investigation, and North was one of the targets of that investigation.

While the criminal investigation was going on, North was subpoenaed to testify before a joint Congressional committee that was also investigating Iran-Contra. Congress granted North immunity, against the wishes of the criminal prosecutors. He subsequently testified for several days and admitted to his role in the scheme, as well as to shredding relevant documents and lying to federal investigators.

North was later indicted and convicted of obstruction of justice and other crimes. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit overturned his conviction on the ground that it improperly relied on the fruits of his immunized testimony.

Prosecutors and agents working on the criminal case had taken great pains to avoid any exposure to North’s Congressional testimony, which was widely televised. But the Court of Appeals held that, for each individual government witness called at trial, prosecutors had to prove the witness had an independent basis to recall every fact about which they testified. The government was required to show that the witness’s recollection had not been influenced in any way by viewing North’s immunized testimony. Prosecutors ultimately were unable to meet that burden and dismissed the case.

The same concerns surround a decision to immunize Flynn. Congress could take steps to minimize any potential exposure to the testimony, such as having Flynn testify only in a closed session, but the risk to any potential future criminal case would still be substantial.

The Congressional grant of immunity in North’s case ended up torpedoing his criminal prosecution. Congress must take great care when considering whether to immunize Flynn, lest it be accused of doing the same thing in his case.

Click here to join the Sidebars mailing list and receive e-mail notification of future posts.

Update: California Appeals Court Overturns Ban on Use of Grand Juries in Police Deadly Force Cases

In a post last year on grand jury secrecy, I wrote about how the state of California had banned the use of grand jury proceedings in cases involving the use of deadly force by police officers. The California state constitution provides that all felony cases shall be prosecuted by either grand jury indictment or by an information following a probable cause hearing before a magistrate. Which method to use is generally left up to the district attorney.

But in the wake of several controversial cases nationwide involving police use of deadly force, California legislators concluded that the secrecy of grand jury proceedings contributed to an atmosphere of suspicion surrounding such cases. They argued that the outcomes of grand jury investigations “can seem unfair or inexplicable” because the secret proceedings lack “transparency and accountability.” They concluded that, due to the intense public interest in and concern about cases involving the police, more openness was necessary. Accordingly, they amended the California Penal Code to prohibit the use of a grand jury to investigate any case involving the use of deadly force by a law enforcement officer. As a result, such cases could be charged only via a public hearing before a magistrate.

In that earlier post, I argued that this legislation was misguided and would likely make it more difficult to conduct fair investigations of cases involving police officers. As the California legislature noted, such cases often involve intense public scrutiny and interest. Whether they support the prosecution or the defense, witnesses in those cases may face tremendous public pressure related to their testimony. Grand jury secrecy allows the witnesses in such high-profile investigations to testify truthfully without fear of becoming the target of a vitriolic social media campaign or finding protestors on their front lawn. The grand jury proceeding provides a confidential forum where representatives of the community — the grand jurors themselves — can explore what happened largely free from the political pressure and social passions that may surround these cases.

The California legislation took effect on January 1, 2016 and was immediately challenged by a group of district attorneys led by Vern Pierson, the DA for El Dorado County. They argued that the law was unconstitutional and inhibited their ability to do their jobs effectively. This week a California Court of Appeals ruled in their favor and held that the legislation violated the California constitution.

The court noted that the law was the “first legislative effort in 167 years to constrict the grand jury’s power under the Constitution to exercise its power of indictment.” The state constitution provides for the potential use of the grand jury in all felonies, and the legislature was not free simply to disregard this mandate for a particular category of cases. If the legislature had that power, the court reasoned, the logical implication would be that it could abolish grand juries altogether, which would plainly conflict with the constitutional mandate.

The court noted that if the legislature wanted to restrict the use of grand juries, it was not powerless. It could pursue a constitutional amendment to alter the current language providing for the option of a grand jury investigation in all felony cases. It could also follow the “less cumbersome route” of modifying the rules of grand jury secrecy, which are not constitutionally mandated, to provide for more openness and public disclosure in grand jury investigations. But given the constitutional language, the legislature was not free simply to ban the use of grand jury proceedings altogether for a particular class of cases.

This is a good result for the people of California. As the prosecutors who challenged the law recognized, they are more likely to achieve a just result in police investigations if they are able to utilize the grand jury and the safeguards that it provides. The irony of the California legislation was always that it potentially sacrificed justice on the altar of transparency.

The opinion is narrow; it focuses only on the fact that the legislation was inconsistent with the state constitution. The court does not discuss the benefits of secret grand jury proceedings, particularly in high-profile cases, and why the legislation may have been a bad idea. That’s understandable, but unfortunate. It would have been nice to see a judicial recognition and discussion of how grand jury proceedings can best serve the interests of justice by providing a dispassionate forum to investigate controversial cases.

The concern now has to be that the legislature will follow the court’s suggestion and pass a law to limit or abrogate grand jury secrecy in police cases, or perhaps in all cases. But secrecy is a fundamental characteristic of grand jury proceedings and provides a number of important benefits. Hopefully cooler heads will prevail and the legislature will recognize that the solution to concerns about the police and use of deadly force is not to start tinkering with the essential nature of the ancient institution of the grand jury.

The case is The People ex rel. Vern Pierson v. The Superior Court of El Dorado County, CA Court of Appeal, Third Appellate District, No. C081603 (Jan. 10, 2017). (Click here to download the opinion.) Hat tip to Patrick O’Toole, a district attorney in California, who was involved in the case from the beginning, co-argued it in the California Appeals Court, and kept me updated on its progress.

Click here to join the Sidebars mailing list and receive e-mail notification of future posts.

In Defense of the Grand Jury (Part 3): Disclosure of Exculpatory Information

During the course of a grand jury investigation, a federal prosecutor may learn information favorable to the defense, perhaps even suggesting that the target of the investigation is innocent of any crime. What are the rules concerning disclosure of exculpatory information to the grand jury?  And beyond what the rules require, what are the best practices a prosecutor should follow?

In my earlier posts on the federal grand jury (available here and here), I discussed how the grand jury, whose proceedings take place in secret, is a frequently misunderstood and sometimes controversial institution. One source of controversy is the one-sided nature of a grand jury presentation.

grand jury door - what are the rules concerning disclosure of exculpatory information to the grand jury?

Disclosure of Exculpatory Information to the Grand Jury

The grand jury generally hears only from the government. The prosecutor presents the witnesses, documents and other evidence and ultimately asks the grand jury to return an indictment if the evidence establishes probable cause. The defense has no right to call witnesses or otherwise present its case. There is no defense attorney to object, cross-examine, or offer contrary evidence. The defendant himself has no right to testify.

This one-sided nature of the proceeding may seem to run counter to our most fundamental concepts of justice. How can the grand jury possibly make the right determination if it only hears one side of the story? But this argument misperceives the grand jury’s function.

The grand jury is merely accusatory, not adjudicatory. Its purpose is not to decide guilt or innocence or to weigh both sides of the case but to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to justify bringing the defendant into court to answer the charges. As such, part of its historic function is to serve as a shield against executive power. The government cannot simply run into court and file criminal charges on its own; it must first convince a panel of citizens in the same community that there is a basis for those charges.

In making that determination the grand jury needs to find only probable cause that the crimes took place, not the far higher standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt that would be required for conviction at trial. And unlike a trial jury, a grand jury does not need to be unanimous; only twelve out of sixteen jurors need to find probable cause in order to return an indictment.

Many of the procedural protections we associate with a trial do not apply in the grand jury. If they did, grand jury proceedings could quickly become bogged down with endless hearings and disputes about the evidence being presented. A grand jury is simply making a threshold determination about whether there is a basis to proceed. It is not supposed to be “trial #1,” where we litigate every dispute and evidentiary issue, to be followed later by “trial #2” where we do it all over again with a higher standard of proof.

Accordingly, the defense generally is not able to challenge the evidence being presented to the grand jury or to present evidence of its own. With few exceptions, any such matters have to wait until pre-trial court proceedings or the trial itself, once the grand jury investigation is over and the case is indicted.

But this system must acknowledge a major caveat: an indictment alone can be devastating. It’s not much comfort to tell a wrongly indicted defendant, “It’s okay, now you can present your side of the case and be found not guilty at trial.” Trial may come only after two years of delay, a million dollars in legal fees, and severe damage to the defendant’s family, business, and reputation. That “not guilty” verdict at the end, even if it comes, is not going to feel like much of a victory. Simply being indicted can ruin someone’s life.

This fact, in turn, highlights the critical importance of the prosecutor’s obligations in the grand jury. Prosecutors, of course, must do everything they can to avoid indicting the wrong people. A fundamental part of the prosecutor’s role is to ensure that the innocent do not suffer. This requires recognition of the gravity of the decision to return an indictment and the potential impact on the person being indicted. The prosecutor’s duty is not to “win” by securing an indictment by any means necessary, but to ensure that justice is done. In the grand jury, the one-sided nature of the presentation makes that duty all the more critical.

Given these obligations and the nature of the grand jury, what should a prosecutor do when she comes across information favorable to the defense during a grand jury investigation?

The Supreme Court ruled that disclosure of exculpatory information to the grand jury is not a constitutional requirement.

The United States Supreme Court

The Supreme Court’s Answer: United States v. Williams

The Supreme Court confronted this issue in 1992 in United States v. Williams. Williams was indicted for bank fraud for allegedly misrepresenting the nature of some of his assets when applying for a loan. After he was indicted, he argued the prosecutor should have disclosed to the grand jury information demonstrating that he had always treated those assets the same way for his tax and other accounting purposes. This information, Williams claimed, would have demonstrated he did not misrepresent his financial position and lacked any intent to defraud the bank.

After a hearing, the trial court agreed with Williams that the prosecutor’s failure to disclose the information rendered the grand jury’s decision to indict “gravely suspect.” The court dismissed the indictment without prejudice (which would have allowed the government to present the case to a new grand jury, this time including the allegedly exculpatory information). The court of appeals agreed and upheld the dismissal.

Given the nature and history of grand jury proceedings, Williams did not claim in the Supreme Court that the Constitution itself required the government to present exculpatory evidence to the grand jury. But he argued the Court should create such a rule on its own, as part of its general supervisory role over the justice system, in order to ensure the fairness of grand jury proceedings.

A divided Supreme Court disagreed. Writing for a 5-4 majority, Justice Scalia discussed the historical independence of the grand jury, which is mandated by the Bill of Rights but is not textually assigned to any one of the three branches of government. As such, it functions as a “constitutional fixture in its own right.” Given the grand jury’s independence, he concluded, the Court does not have a general supervisory power that would allow it to create rules for grand jury proceedings.

The Court also relied on the role of the grand jury, which is “not to determine guilt or innocence, but to assess whether there is adequate basis for bringing a criminal charge.” Williams’ proposed rule, the Court said, would effectively turn the grand jury into an adjudicatory body required to weigh both sides of the case. This would threaten to tie up grand jury proceedings in evidentiary hearings and disputes. It would also run counter to a long history of Court decisions refusing to scrutinize the adequacy of the evidence before the grand jury; such scrutiny would “run counter to the whole history of the grand jury institution.”

The Court concluded that if a rule requiring the disclosure of exculpatory information was good policy, Congress was free to enact a law requiring prosecutors to do so. The Court itself, however, declined to create such a rule on its own. Four dissenting Justices argued that a court should have the power to dismiss an indictment if the prosecutor withheld evidence that would “plainly preclude a finding of probable cause,” and that such a rule was necessary to limit potential prosecutorial misconduct.

Practical Challenges of Legally Mandating Disclosure

Congress has not taken the Williams Court up on the suggestion that it could pass a law requiring disclosure of exculpatory information. If Congress did so, enforcing such a requirement would raise a number of challenges. For example, what would happen when the defense and prosecution don’t agree over whether information is truly exculpatory? (Even the dissenting Justices in Williams agreed there was some doubt whether the proffered information really exculpated the defendant. If he treated the financial information the same way for tax and other purposes, might that not simply mean that he was a consistent crook?)

If the prosecutor didn’t agree that information proffered by the defense was exculpatory and declined to put it before the grand jury, what would be the remedy? Presumably the defense would file a motion with a judge and there would have to be a hearing. But reluctance to bog down grand jury proceedings with hearings and delays is precisely why the Court has consistently held that rules of evidence and procedure that apply during a trial do not apply in the grand jury. In a large, hard-fought white collar investigation, it would be easy to imagine the defense filing multiple motions concerning exculpatory information and potentially grinding the investigation to a halt.

In addition, it would be difficult to litigate such a motion while still preserving grand jury secrecy. How would the government demonstrate information was not truly exculpatory without being forced to reveal confidential information about the investigation? Even if the judge reviewed the papers in camera and did not disclose them to the defense, ruling on such a motion would require the judge to become enmeshed in the details and merits of the grand jury investigation to a degree completely contrary to the grand jury’s historically independent function.

Or suppose the prosecutor agrees that the information is potentially exculpatory, but it is contained in documents that are not self-explanatory. Does the defense then have the right to designate the witness who will explain the documents, to make sure they are properly understood? To write out the examination to make sure it is effective – or to conduct the examination itself? The same questions arise if the evidence consists of testimony from a witness: how does the defense ensure that the testimony is presented effectively without compromising grand jury secrecy? And if there are disputes about how to present the evidence, presumably a judge would again need to get involved.

In short, although creating a legal rule mandating the disclosure of exculpatory information may sound good in theory, it’s not difficult to see why the Court in Williams was reluctant to create such a rule, or why Congress has declined to do so.

DOJ has a policy on disclosure of exculpatory information to the grand jury

DOJ Policy and Prosecutor Best Practices

Simply because disclosure is not legally mandated does not mean it should not take place. The Department of Justice has recognized this in the U.S. Attorneys’ Manual, which provides that if the prosecutor is “personally aware of substantial evidence that directly negates the guilt” of the target, that evidence should be disclosed to the grand jury. USAM 9-11.233.

Of course, although policies in the U.S. Attorneys’ Manual provide important guidance to prosecutors, they do not create enforceable rights. The prosecutor may be subject to discipline for violating a rule, but a defendant cannot move to dismiss an indictment on that basis. Some might also argue that terms such as “substantial evidence” and “directly negates the guilt” leave a fair amount of wiggle room and that DOJ policy should require more fulsome disclosure.

But for the good prosecutor there are many sound reasons to disclose exculpatory information to the grand jury, whether or not the information is substantial enough to require disclosure under the DOJ policy.

The first reason is simply fairness: disclosing such information is the right thing to do. A good prosecutor has no interest in “hiding the ball,” misleading the grand jury, or giving even a perception that the grand jury process was unfair. The U.S. Attorneys’ Manual also provides that a prosecutor must be “scrupulously fair” in the grand jury and ensure that the grand jury is not misled. USAM 9-11.010. That may require disclosing even information that is only marginally or potentially exculpatory.

A prosecutor with a good case should have nothing to fear from disclosing potentially exculpatory information to the grand jury. After all, such evidence will undoubtedly come up at trial. If you as a prosecutor are so concerned about the information that you think it might result in the grand jury not finding probable cause, then how are you ever going to get a trial jury with the same information to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt?

Indeed, if you’re a prosecutor and you have information you fear might cause the grand jury not to indict, then you shouldn’t be thinking merely about whether you should disclose that information to the grand jury. You should be thinking about whether you should pursue the case at all. Certainly if you have “substantial evidence” that “directly negates the guilt” of the defendant, you’d better stop and consider whether the investigation should proceed.

There also are sound tactical reasons to introduce exculpatory information in the grand jury. It allows the prosecutor to probe and explore the evidence completely, through examination of witnesses and possible additional investigation. A full review of the information may lead to additional evidence that further exonerates the defendant, or evidence that demonstrates the information is not truly exculpatory. It is better to explore those details in the grand jury than to wait and potentially be surprised at trial.

Presenting the evidence to the grand jury also allows the prosecutor to see how the grand jurors react to the evidence, to hear what questions they have, and to discuss the evidence with them. Again, all of that can be incredibly useful to guide further investigative efforts, prepare more fully for trial, or to decide that the case should not be indicted and the investigation should be closed.

It All Comes Down to the Prosecutor’s Responsibility

Critics of the grand jury may argue that we need a rule mandating the presentation of exculpatory evidence because most cases never make it to trial. An unscrupulous prosecutor could conceal substantial exculpatory information from the grand jury, thinking that he or she will be able to coerce a guilty plea once the case is indicted and the exculpatory information will never come to light.

There is no doubt, as I’ve noted in other posts in this series, that a prosecutor bent on misconduct can abuse the grand jury process, cause tremendous harm, and perhaps even indict a ham sandwich. But a legal rule that tries to regulate the type of evidence put before the grand jury is probably not the solution.  Good prosecutors are already going to consider themselves bound by DOJ policy and will want to disclose exculpatory information for the reasons I discussed above. Bad prosecutors who intend to abuse the process likely would find the rule easy to avoid. And the rule would raise all of the practical difficulties discussed above and fundamentally alter the nature of the grand jury.

Although concerns about prosecutorial misconduct in the grand jury are valid, the solutions need to focus primarily on the prosecutors themselves; on whom we hire to be prosecutors and how they are trained. Unless we do away with the grand jury entirely or fundamentally alter its centuries-old function, prosecutors in the grand jury are always going to have a great deal of autonomy and power. Given the one-sided nature of grand jury proceedings, it is particularly critical that prosecutors respect their obligations and recognize that with that great power comes great responsibility.

Click here to join the Sidebars mailing list and receive e-mail notification of future posts.

Click here to read part one in this series, “The Guilty Ham Sandwich.”

Click here to read part two in this series, “Grand Jury Secrecy.”

In Defense of the Grand Jury (Part 2): Grand Jury Secrecy

Imagine you are a criminal defense attorney whose client has received a subpoena to testify before a federal grand jury. You investigate the case, talk with the prosecutor, and gather as much information as you can. You spend hours with your client preparing him for his testimony. You drive to the federal courthouse together and proceed to the grand jury room. The door opens, the foreperson steps out and calls your client, he steps in, and the door closes behind him.

grand jury secrecy is fundamental to the grand jury process

And you remain outside, sitting in an uncomfortable government chair and wondering what’s happening behind those closed doors.

I’ve never practiced criminal defense, but I’ve always imagined this must be one of the strangest parts of the job: staying outside the grand jury room while your client is led into the proverbial lion’s den. It seems contrary to everything in an advocate’s DNA. While your client is in there you can’t object, you can’t cross-examine, and you can’t protect him. Sure, he has a right to come out and talk to you, but he may be reluctant to do that if he thinks it makes him look bad, or he may forget.

And while waiting to see whether he will come out and talk to you there’s not much you can do — except maybe work on today’s Sudoku puzzle for hundreds of dollars an hour.

sudoku

One for my defense attorney friends

One of the most distinctive features of the grand jury is secrecy. Grand jury proceedings take place out of public view and generally remain sealed even after an investigation is concluded. When a witness is testifying no one is present in the grand jury room except the prosecutor, the grand jurors, and the court reporter. When the grand jurors are deliberating over whether to return an indictment there is no one else in the room at all, and the deliberations are not even transcribed. Everyone involved in the process (other than the witness) is sworn to secrecy and prohibited from discussing what goes on in the grand jury room.

This secrecy can lead to mistrust of grand jury proceedings. After all, bad things happen in secret, and much of our government is rightly premised on the belief that sunlight and disclosure are good things. Some argue that this secrecy contributes to the ability of prosecutors to manipulate the grand jurors and convince them to do whatever the prosecutor desires, even if that means indicting a ham sandwich.

These concerns have been amplified in recent state grand jury cases involving investigations of police officers for use of deadly force. When grand juries in Ferguson MO and Staten Island NY failed to indict police officers in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, there was widespread criticism and suspicion. Critics claimed that the prosecutors were hiding behind the secret grand jury process and manipulating it in order to avoid indicting police officers with whom they worked closely.

Reacting to such concerns, the state of California last year banned the use of grand juries to investigate cases involving police use of deadly force. California prosecutors in such cases must now decide on their own whether to bring charges.

There’s no doubt that grand jury secrecy contributes to suspicion of the grand jury and to a lack of information and understanding about the grand jury process. But grand jury secrecy is a valuable part of the criminal justice system and serves a number of important goals. Chipping away at that secrecy or prohibiting use of the grand jury in certain types of cases is a bad idea.

shhhh

The Rules Governing Grand Jury Secrecy

In the federal system, grand jury secrecy is spelled out in Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 6(e). Rule 6(e) provides that, with some limited exceptions, no one involved in the grand jury proceeding (other than a witness) may disclose any “matter occurring before the grand jury.” A knowing violation of Rule 6(e) is punishable as contempt of court, the possible sanctions for which include prison.

Grand jury secrecy is not just some aspirational guideline; federal judges take it extremely seriously. Good prosecutors take it seriously as well, not only because it’s their duty to protect 6(e) material but also because of the potential consequences if they don’t. If newspaper articles about a grand jury investigation attribute leaked information to “government sources,” the prosecutor is likely to receive an order from a judge demanding she appear in court to show cause why she and her colleagues should not be held in contempt – never a fun career prospect.

There has been a lot of litigation over what actually constitutes “matters occurring before the grand jury.” At the core of Rule 6(e)’s protection is information about what actually took place inside the grand jury room itself, including the transcripts of testimony, information about exhibits introduced in the grand jury, and the names of witnesses who appeared. Information that would tend to reveal such matters, such as names of witnesses who are slated to testify or the substance of their expected testimony, may also be covered.

On the other hand, it is clear that Rule 6(e) does not shield all aspects of a criminal investigation. Agents may interview ten or a hundred witnesses for each one who actually testifies in the grand jury, and thousands of documents may be reviewed that never end up as grand jury exhibits. Information that exists as part of the broader investigation is not automatically covered by 6(e). Typically the actual grand jury material will be only a small subset of all information gathered during the overall investigation.

But for everything that is covered by Rule 6(e), it is part of the prosecutor’s job to protect the secrecy of that material. She must ensure that confidentiality is maintained, that grand jury materials are appropriately secure, and that access to those materials is controlled. This obligation does not end once an investigation is over; absent a court order, grand jury materials continue to be protected by Rule 6(e) indefinitely.

This secrecy is one thing that makes the grand jury proceeding fundamentally different from a trial, which usually takes place in public view and with the participation of a judge and defense counsel. And it necessarily means that when the grand jury indicts – or particularly when it fails to indict – the public typically has very little information about the basis for that action.

The Benefits of Grand Jury Secrecy

Grand jury secrecy has a number of important benefits. First, it protects the privacy and reputations of those who may be investigated but ultimately not charged. Many grand jury investigations, particularly in the area of white collar crime, end with no charges being filed. The grand jury is an investigative body, and part of its role is to determine whether probable cause exists to justify criminal charges. Sometimes the answer to that question is no, and the investigation is closed down.

Absent grand jury secrecy, those under investigation in such cases could be subject to months of media reports and speculation about their criminal culpability. Grand jury secrecy prevents their names from being unfairly dragged through the mud concerning a matter where ultimately no criminal charges might be filed. Of course, in some high profile cases such as those involving politicians or celebrities – or police shootings — the investigation is known about and widely reported. But grand jury secrecy prevents public disclosure of grand jury investigations from being the norm.

Grand jury secrecy may also protect the integrity of the investigation itself. In some cases there may be concerns that the targets of the investigation will respond to any inquiry by destroying evidence, tampering with witnesses, fleeing the jurisdiction, or otherwise obstructing justice. If the targets of the investigation are not aware it is going on, such dangers are minimized.

Similarly, there may be concerns that potential defendants will collude to “get their story straight” and present a consistent false version of events to the grand jury. If proceedings were public and witness transcripts were readily available, such efforts would be much easier.

Secrecy also protects the privacy and safety of grand jury witnesses. Absent the guarantee of secrecy, some witnesses would be reluctant to come forward or to be fully forthcoming. Witnesses may fear personal or professional retaliation or even violence based on their testimony. A corporate employee may be extremely reluctant to testify against the company if he knows his boss can review the transcript. Officers in a police corruption investigation may be far less likely to provide information against their fellow officers if they know those officers have access to the testimony.

Even when it is known that a certain witness has testified, grand jury secrecy helps to protect that witness. I recall many occasions, dealing with reluctant or frightened witnesses, when I was able to tell them: “Look, I know you don’t want to be here and are nervous/afraid about testifying. But all you need to do is tell the truth. Your boss/fellow officers/ colleagues will not know what you said. In fact, you can walk out of here and tell them whatever you want – tell them you didn’t say anything, or that you told some completely different story. They won’t know the difference.”

The comfort and insulation that grand jury secrecy provides to frightened or reluctant witnesses is probably the greatest benefit of grand jury secrecy. If witnesses routinely had to testify instead at a public preliminary hearing after a prosecutor filed charges, getting information from reluctant or frightened witnesses would be much more difficult.

Grand Jury Secrecy and the California Legislation

All federal felonies will continue to require a grand jury indictment, but the states are free to experiment with their own systems, consistent with their own laws and constitutions. Apparently California prosecutors already had the option of bypassing the grand jury and filing charges on their own in cases involving a police officer. The new law simply means that now using the grand jury in such a case is not even an option. Once the prosecutor files charges, a preliminary hearing before a judge is held to determine whether the case can go forward.

The law was opposed by California prosecutors and law enforcement officials, and with good reason. In general, grand jury secrecy should make investigations of police officers more effective, not less. Witnesses required to testify in a public preliminary hearing are going to face tremendous public pressure. In the grand jury, witnesses can testify as to what they actually observed without worrying about becoming the subject of a vitriolic social media campaign or having protestors picketing outside their home.

The benefits of secrecy in such cases cut both ways. A civilian witness who would testify in favor of the officer need not fear the reaction and outcry from a public outraged about the case. Similarly, a police officer who would testify against his colleague can do so without fearing the reaction from fellow officers. Particularly in cases where the public passions are running high, grand jury secrecy plays a crucial role in allowing witnesses to resist any perceived public pressures and simply testify as to what happened.

The grand jury also serves as the voice and conscience of the community in such high profile, emotional cases. It’s appropriate to have the facts of such cases presented to representatives of the community as embodied in the grand jury, rather than simply have the charging decision made by a prosecutor. Unless one believes (which I don’t) that grand jurors are all just mindless sheep, the members of the community that make up the grand jury are in the best position to bring the perspective and experiences of that community to bear when evaluating a case.

There was a great deal of criticism of the decision of the Ferguson grand jury not to indict officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown. The sponsor of the California legislation said that the failure to indict in that and other cases had fostered an “atmosphere of suspicion” about grand juries. But the grand jurors were members of the same communities that were so outraged by the shootings. And although the grand jury investigation in Ferguson does appear to have been unorthodox in some ways, an independent investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice also concluded that criminal charges against Wilson were not appropriate. There is no evidence that the grand jury process somehow led to an unjust result.

Charging decisions can’t be made in the heat of the moment, or be based on the outrage of persons who were not on the scene and who form their views of the case largely from media reports. The grand jury process and grand jury secrecy help to ensure that decisions are made with time, care and deliberation, largely free from public pressure and media scrutiny, and based on sworn testimony of those actually involved.

It’s hard to see the rationale for singling out a particular category of crimes or potential defendants and denying them the protections afforded by the grand jury process. Police officers under investigation are entitled to the same procedural rights – including, of course, the presumption of innocence – as other suspects. The grand jury process can play an important role in preserving those rights.

The irony of the California law is that, in the name of increasing transparency, it likely will make it more difficult to gather accurate information in police cases and increase the likelihood of bad charging decisions. There is understandable public concern about cases involving police use of deadly force, and broader concerns about law enforcement in general in a number of communities, including Ferguson. But the response to those concerns should not be to prohibit the use of an institution that has been a valuable component of our criminal justice system for centuries.

Update: On January 10, 2017, a California Appeals Court struck down the legislation discussed in this post, holding that prohibiting the use of grand juries in police deadly force investigations violated the California constitution. You can read my update about that case here.

Click here to join the Sidebars mailing list and receive e-mail notification of future posts.

Click here to read part one of this post, “The Guilty Ham Sandwich.”

Click here to read part three of this post, “Disclosure of Exculpatory Information”

In Defense of the Grand Jury (Part 1): The Guilty Ham Sandwich

What is a grand jury? The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution requires that federal felonies be charged by grand jury indictment, unless the defendant waives that right. Most states also use grand juries for at least some criminal cases, although their practices vary.

Absent a constitutional amendment, therefore, the federal grand jury is here to stay. But does it still serve a useful purpose, or is it simply a historical relic?

The grand jury has a pedigree far longer than that of our own Constitution. Its roots extend back to 12th century England, and the requirement that potential charges be presented to a jury of the King’s subjects was part of the Magna Carta. The founders of our own country considered the grand jury a vital part of the common law justice system and enshrined it in the Bill of Rights.

The grand jury is designed to act as both a sword and a shield. As a sword, it is the required process through which the executive brings charges that ultimately could result in a citizen being deprived of his property, liberty, or even his life. As a shield, it guards against abuses of state power, preventing the executive from simply hauling citizens into court for political or other improper purposes without the approval of a representative panel of the community.

Some argue that the grand jury today is simply a powerful tool wielded by the prosecutor and no longer plays any meaningful role as a check on government power. In other words, the critics claim, the grand jury now operates only as sword, not shield. The most famous formulation of this critique came from former New York judge Sol Wachtler, who once said that a prosecutor so inclined could get a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich.”

As someone who spent a lot of time presenting cases to grand juries, I think these criticisms are misplaced. This venerable common-law institution still has an important part to play in our criminal system.

grand jury door - what is a grand jury?

What is a grand jury?

What Is a Grand Jury and How Does it Operate?

The federal grand jury is one of the most powerful institutions in the entire government. Grand juries have brought down titans of industry and the nation’s most powerful political figures. The grand jury has a right to hear every person’s evidence, and can force even the most reluctant witnesses and companies to reveal their most closely-held secrets. No one has the right to defy its demands; those who do risk federal prison.

But despite the grand jury’s tremendous power, the grand jury process itself remains shrouded in mystery. Everyone is familiar with trial juries from seeing them in movies or on television or from serving on jury duty themselves. But most people — including most lawyers — know relatively little about what a grand jury is or how it operates.

(Part of this mystery undoubtedly stems from grand jury secrecy, the requirement that grand jury proceedings take place shielded from public view and remain strictly confidential. I’ll have more to say about grand jury secrecy later in Part II of this post.)

Federal grand juries today consist of between 16 and 23 people who, like trial jurors, are drawn from the local community and selected to serve. Federal prosecutors present sworn witness testimony, documents, and other evidence concerning potential federal crimes to the grand jury. Unlike in a trial, the grand jurors participate in questioning the witnesses. They also decide which witnesses and documents to subpoena, although in practice these decisions typically are made by prosecutors acting on the grand jury’s behalf. Throughout the process the prosecutor also acts as the grand jury’s legal advisor, explaining the charges and answering legal questions from the jurors.

At the end of a grand jury investigation the prosecutor may ask the grand jury to return an indictment, a document drafted by the prosecutor and containing the criminal charges. The vote does not need to be unanimous; only 12 grand jurors (out of a minimum quorum of 16) are required to approve the indictment. The standard for voting to indict is only a finding of probable cause to support the charges, not the much more stringent proof beyond a reasonable doubt that would be required for a conviction at trial. If the grand jury votes to indict (called a “true bill”), the indictment becomes document #1 in the public court file. The criminal trial process, with which everyone is more familiar, proceeds from there.

Subpoena power is the key to the grand jury’s might. Grand jury subpoenas may compel the production of documents and other evidence from corporations and individuals who would never surrender those materials voluntarily. They also may compel sworn testimony, subject to penalty of perjury, from recalcitrant witnesses who might otherwise refuse to cooperate. Those who defy a grand jury subpoena without a valid legal excuse may be jailed for contempt.

Practically speaking, the function of the grand jury differs depending on the type of case involved. In a routine drug prosecution or other simple case, law enforcement officers will do much of the investigative work outside of the grand jury. Witnesses and victims may provide statements voluntarily and there may be little need to compel production of documents or other evidence from reluctant third parties. The entire grand jury presentation might consist of a single law enforcement officer summarizing the evidence for the grand jurors, with a vote on the proposed indictment immediately following. In such routine cases the grand jury still must vote to indict, but it does not play a significant investigative role.

By contrast, in a large white collar, organized crime, or other complex investigation the grand jury proceeding may stretch on for several years and is a much more important part of the process. Reluctant witnesses are compelled to testify and corporate wrongdoers are forced to surrender documents they would otherwise keep secret. The power of the grand jury is what in large part makes the investigation possible. In white collar cases in particular, the investigative power of the grand jury often is critical in order to allow prosecutors not only to unearth what happened but also to determine whether it was a crime at all.

The Grand Jury and Fairness

I’ve always thought it unfortunate that the word “jury” appears in the title of the grand jury. It really would be better if it were called something else entirely. For lawyers and non-lawyers alike, the word “jury” conjures up images of an entire panoply of rights and procedures we associate with a trial, such as the right to confront and cross examine witnesses against you, the right to present your own evidence, adherence to formal rules of evidence, and a neutral judge overseeing the proceedings. These features are absent from a grand jury proceeding.

This is not to say that the grand jury is a sort of Wild West, “anything goes” environment. Prosecutors are still bound by multiple constitutional, legal and ethical principles. Privileges, such as the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, still apply. There are also Department of Justice rules that govern questions such as when prosecutors should provide exculpatory evidence to the grand jury or when they should avoid the use of certain kinds of evidence. But there is no question that a grand jury proceeding and a trial are very different animals.

To make the probable cause determination, the grand jury has always heard only the government’s side of the case. In this regard, it’s not unlike a judge relying upon the sworn affidavit of a government agent to find probable cause to issue an arrest warrant. The judge doesn’t call additional witnesses or bring in defense counsel to cross examine the agent; for purposes of establishing probable cause, the government’s sworn statement of the evidence is deemed sufficient. If there are legitimate challenges to the government’s version of events, they generally will be considered only at later court proceedings.

The one-sided nature of the grand jury proceeding is perhaps its most controversial characteristic. After all, from childhood we are taught that fairness demands hearing both sides of the story. Surely that should be true in the grand jury context as well.

But what is fair in any proceeding depends upon the nature of that proceeding. As the Supreme Court has consistently recognized, the grand jury is accusatory, not adjudicatory; its job is not to decide guilt or innocence. Resolving disputes about the evidence largely takes place at post-indictment proceedings and trial. The grand jury is not intended to be “trial number one,” with hearings and motions to challenge the government’s case, followed later by “trial number two” where we do it all over again. Its role is simply to make certain there is a reasonable basis to proceed.

In other words, the grand jury’s job is not to determine how the story ends, but simply to decide whether the story should begin to be told at all. In making that determination, it has always been deemed sufficient — and fair — for the grand jury to hear predominantly the government’s side of the case.

shield

The Grand Jury as Shield

Those who argue that the grand jury is simply a rubber stamp for the prosecution frequently point out that the grand jury returns an indictment almost every time the prosecutor asks for one. This is true. Out of tens of thousands of federal cases presented in a year, only a handful are dropped because of the grand jury’s refusal to indict (a “no true bill”). This is proof, critics claim, that the grand jury no longer acts as any kind of meaningful check on government power.

But this criticism ignores the screening function performed by the very existence of the grand jury process itself. A fair percentage of grand jury investigations, particularly in white collar cases, end with prosecutors deciding not to seek an indictment. By going through the grand jury process, prosecutors learn about their cases and, in some instances, determine that no provable crime took place. When that happens, the investigation is simply closed down without asking the grand jury to vote. These cases are not reflected in statistics that show how often the grand jury agrees with the prosecutor’s request for an indictment.

Presenting a case to the grand jury requires the prosecutor to investigate, analyze, and organize the case into a thorough and coherent presentation. That discipline brings to light a lot of weaknesses and weeds out bad cases.

Accordingly, the cases where prosecutors end up asking the grand jury to indict are only those where the prosecutors have gone through the grand jury process and have concluded the evidence is likely to sustain a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt. That the grand jury almost always votes to indict those cases demonstrates not that the grand jury is playing no role but rather that the screening process of the grand jury is functioning as it should.

If the grand jury were merely a rubber stamp for prosecutors bringing unjustified charges, you would expect a lot more cases to fall apart once they got past the indictment stage and a judge and defense counsel got involved. But of the cases that are indicted, nearly all result in some kind of conviction; dismissals and acquittals are very rare. This suggests the grand jury is largely doing its job by ensuring the cases that make it through to indictment actually have merit. Turns out that ham sandwich was guilty after all.

The grand jury today still acts as a shield: not primarily by refusing to agree when the prosecutor asks for an indictment, but by forcing the prosecution to go through the discipline of the grand jury process itself. If a prosecutor could simply run off and file charges without going through the grand jury process, I’m convinced many more weak or unjustified cases would end up getting filed. And for prosecutors bent on misconduct, it would be far easier and faster to file frivolous charges for political or other improper purposes if those charges did not have to be vetted first by a panel of citizens.

For a good prosecutor, the grand jurors serve another useful purpose: they act as the community’s reality check on the prosecution. Grand jurors look at the evidence not as government agents (who may have fallen in love with their case), but as members of the same community that will ultimately provide the trial jury. The questions and reactions of grand jurors may help the prosecutor ensure that he or she has a balanced and realistic view of the evidence. This human and often relatively informal interaction with the grand jurors throughout the investigation helps ensure that prosecutors maintain the proper perspective on their cases – another valuable shield function.

Grand Jury and the Risk of Abuse

There’s no doubt the grand jury is an incredibly powerful institution, and I don’t want to downplay the risk of abuse. There’s a reason the U.S. Attorneys’ Manual specifies that the prosecutor in the grand jury is an officer of the court whose job “is to ensure that justice is done and that guilt shall not escape nor innocence suffer,” and that the prosecutor must be “scrupulously fair” in the grand jury. With great power comes great responsibility.

An unjustified indictment can ruin a person’s life. It will be cold comfort to the wrongfully indicted individual to hear, “well, all of your claims can be addressed at trial.” Trial may come only after the defendant’s reputation is dragged through the mud, she pays hundreds of thousands in legal fees, and she spends months or years with the threat of a conviction and prison looming over her. An indictment alone can do tremendous harm, regardless of the eventual outcome.

A prosecutor with bad motives can indeed manipulate the grand jury process. He can conceal substantial exculpatory evidence, mislead the grand jury, and indict innocent people – or even ham sandwiches.

But if such misconduct occurs, the problem lies with the prosecutor, not with the institution of the grand jury itself. If grand juries did not exist, a prosecutor bent on misconduct could still file unjustified charges, conceal evidence, and manipulate any alternative charging system. Indeed, as I’ve argued above, I believe a system without the grand jury would in some ways make such misconduct far easier.

Where there are concerns about misconduct, the answer lies in better screening and training of those selected to be prosecutors, and in prompt and meaningful sanctions for those who abuse their power. But it’s not the much-maligned grand jury that creates misconduct or allows it to take place.

Fortunately, most prosecutors do not have bad motives and cases of deliberate misconduct are rare. For good prosecutors who recognize the grand jury’s proper role and their own responsibilities, the grand jury continues to play a vital role as the voice of the community in criminal investigations, just as it has for more than eight centuries.

Click here to join the Sidebars mailing list and receive e-mail notifications of future posts.

Click here to read part two of this post, “Grand Jury Secrecy.”

Click here to read part three of this post, “Disclosure of Exculpatory Information.”

The Ongoing Legal Saga of Martin Shkreli

When we last checked in on former pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli, he had just been indicted for securities fraud and related charges. Shkreli – a/k/a the “pharma bro” and “most hated man in America” – is best known for purchasing the rights to an anti-cancer drug called Daraprim and promptly raising the price by 5,000%. His defiant attitude in the face of the resulting outcry, along with his insult-laden Twitter feed, only heightened his notoriety.

22129098909_608a132b4b_o

Pharma Bro Martin Shkreli

But Shkreli’s indictment last December had nothing to do with extortionate drug prices. The charges are based on Shkreli’s earlier conduct at two different hedge funds and at a company he founded called Retrophin. Shkreli allegedly defrauded his hedge fund investors by lying to them about their investments, and then defrauded Retrophin by wrongfully using company assets to settle claims from those hedge fund investors. An attorney who worked as Retrophin’s outside counsel, Evan Greebel, was charged with Shkreli in one count of conspiracy. (You can read a more detailed analysis of the indictment in my earlier post here.)

The criminal proceeding against Shkreli and Greebel is still in the early stages, but there have been a couple of interesting related developments in the past couple of weeks.

US_Capitol_west_side

Congressional Testimony – or Lack Thereof

Shkreli was subpoenaed to testify last Thursday, February 4, before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The committee was holding a hearing about skyrocketing drug prices, and the incident where Shkreli raised the price of Daraprim by 5,000% was Exhibit One.

Shkreli’s attorney made it clear in advance of the hearing that Shkreli would invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. That was no surprise. Even though the hearing was not specifically about Shkreli’s criminal case, there would be too much risk that something he said might end up facilitating his own prosecution. Almost any lawyer would likely give him the same advice.

Shkreli’s lawyer asked that his client be excused from attending the hearing, since he was not going to be able to answer questions. But Congress insisted that he appear, threatening him with additional criminal sanctions if he ignored the subpoena. And so, in a familiar Washington theater production, Shkreli sat before the committee, with his attorney in the “I am not a potted plant” seat directly behind him, and repeatedly invoked his right to remain silent in response to every question.

This type of scene unfortunately plays out quite regularly on Capitol Hill. In most legal proceedings, if a witness is going to take the Fifth it is relatively rare for him to be called to the stand. There may be a hearing before a judge to determine whether the assertion of privilege is valid, but if it is, the witness generally will not be forced to appear simply to assert the privilege over and over. For one thing, it’s a waste of everyone’s time if the witness is not going to answer. But more important, it is grossly unfair: repeatedly forcing a witness to assert his right to remain silent can’t help but lead to the impression he is hiding something and must have done something wrong. What should be a constitutional shield is turned into a bludgeon wielded to suggest the witness must be guilty of something – if not, why not answer the questions?

But Congress routinely compels witnesses to appear even when it is perfectly clear they are going to take the Fifth. Then they pepper the witness with speeches masquerading as questions, forcing the witness repeatedly to invoke his or her right to remain silent.

This is a tawdry business. Perhaps the reason it continues is that some Members of Congress are less concerned about actually getting answers and more concerned with trying to create a good video clip that will get replayed on cable news or social media. And indeed Shkreli’s brief appearance was a made-for-TV event, carried live on CNBC and elsewhere.

Shkreli didn’t do his image any good at the hearing. He smirked, rolled his eyes, and generally seemed annoyed that he had to be there. After he was finally excused, he sent out a Tweet calling the Members of Congress “imbeciles.”

But if Shkreli didn’t exactly cover himself in glory, neither did the Members of the committee. I’m no apologist for the pharma bro, but this practice of publicly pillorying a witness who is simply asserting his basic constitutional rights is pretty disgraceful.

Congress may be one of the few things in this country currently held in lower esteem than Shkreli. The spectacle before the House committee last week will do nothing to boost the approval ratings of either.

Attorney-Client Privilege – or Lack Thereof

In another development, we learned a couple of weeks ago that back in December U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein ruled the grand jury investigating Shkreli could have access to emails that Shkreli and his former company had claimed were protected by attorney-client privilege.

One aspect of the fraud charged in Shkreli’s indictment relates to Retrophin, the pharmaceutical company he founded in 2011 and took public in 2012. The indictment charges that Shkreli defrauded Retrophin by using its assets to pay off debts that Shkreli incurred while running his hedge funds.

While acting as CEO of Retrophin and engaging in the alleged fraud, Shkreli had email exchanges with his outside counsel (and now co-defendant) Evan Greebel. Greebel, who is now a partner with Kaye Scholer LLP, was employed at the law firm of Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP at the time.

The grand jury subpoenaed documents from Retrophin, including copies of emails between Shkreli and Greebel. Retrophin produced the emails but redacted many of them, based on a claim by Shkreli’s attorney that the documents were protected by the attorney-client privilege.

Normally, of course, communications between attorney and client would be privileged and would not need to be produced. But the privilege is subject to something called the crime-fraud exception: if the client communicates with the attorney in furtherance of a crime or fraud, the law will not protect those communications.

The exception applies only if the communications are used to further an ongoing or future crime or fraud. If a client communicates with a lawyer about past criminal conduct, that of course is fully protected. Indeed, such communications are at the very heart of the privilege in the criminal context.

But a client will not be allowed to use an attorney’s services to help him commit a crime and then turn around and try to protect the very communications with counsel that made the crime possible. In other words, clients are not allowed to convert the shield of the attorney-client privilege into a sword that affirmatively helps them engage in criminal activity.

The crime-fraud exception can apply even when the attorney doesn’t know about the criminal conduct. I recall one case where I was arguing as a prosecutor that the crime-fraud exception applied to certain communications between a major corporation and its lawyers. Some of those communications were with a very distinguished former DOJ official who was now a partner at the firm. The firm brought him into the courtroom during the hearing to sit in the front row and glower at the judge, while the corporation’s lawyers expressed outrage at the suggestion that this gray-haired pillar of the bar might have been involved in any criminal activity.

It was all for show, of course — more theater —  because the attorney does not need to be involved. The client may be lying to his own counsel, just as he is to the victims of his fraud. If the attorney was deceived by the client and was assisting in the crime or fraud unwittingly, the privilege may still be overridden. The focus is on what the client intended, not on the intent or knowledge of the attorney.

In this case, of course, the government has done more than simply allege the attorney was involved – it has indicted the attorney, Greebel, as a co-defendant. Although it’s not legally required, that the attorney has been charged as a co-conspirator in committing the alleged fraud certainly bolsters the government’s argument for the crime-fraud exception.

The burden is on the government to establish that the exception applies. In support of its claim, the government submitted a 47-page affidavit from an FBI agent involved in the investigation. The affidavit alleges that the emails in question directly relate to fraudulent activities carried out by the co-defendants, including the backdating of documents to deceive the SEC and the creation of other phony documents used to defraud Retrophin.

In a December 3 order that was just recently unsealed, Judge Weinstein agreed with the government that the emails were not privileged. He noted first that to the extent the communications between Shkreli and Greebel related to Retrophin’s business, the privilege belonged to the company, not to Shkreli, and the company had already waived any privilege claims. But even if there were a personal attorney-client relationship, the judge ruled, “exchanges in redacted emails between the attorney [Greebel] and employee [Shkreli] were part of a scheme, conspiracy or fraudulent attempt to commit a securities fraud. The attorney-client relationship and privilege, if any, is voided by the criminal conduct.”

Accordingly, the unredacted emails were produced to the grand jury, were referenced in the indictment, and will undoubtedly play a major role at trial. There’s a reason prosecutors often say that “email” is short for “evidence mail” – it is frequently a rich source of incriminating information.

The fact that Shkreli was unable to shield his communications with his alleged co-conspirator attorney is not particularly surprising, but it nevertheless has to be considered a blow to the defense.

And in other news, Shkreli recently replaced his legal team with a celebrity lawyer who previously defended rappers Jay Z and Sean “Diddy” Combs. It appears this is only going to get weirder. Stay tuned.

Update: On August 4, 2017, a jury found Shkreli guilty of one count of conspiracy and two counts of securities fraud.

Click here to join the Sidebars mailing list and receive e-mail notifications of future posts.