Misguided Prosecutions and Washington “Gaffes”

There’s a well-known saying in Washington that the definition of a “gaffe” is when a politician inadvertently tells the truth. Assistant Attorney General Leslie R. Caldwell is not a politician, but she had her own “Washington gaffe” moment earlier this month while speaking on a panel sponsored by the Federalist Society (YouTube video available here).

Caldwell, who serves (for a few more weeks, at least) as the head of the Criminal Division at the U.S. Department of Justice, appeared on the panel with four white collar defense attorneys on December 8 at the Washington Press Club. The topic was overcriminalization – not as in too many criminal statutes being on the books, but overcriminalization in the form of federal prosecutors bringing cases that never should have been pursued as criminal matters.

The defense attorneys on the panel had represented corporate and individual defendants in recent major cases involving FedEx, a medical device company called Vascular Solutions, and pharmaceutical company Warner Chilcott. Those cases ended either in acquittals or, in the case of Fed Ex, with the government dismissing the case mid-trial. Each defense attorney told a version of the same basic story: the prosecution was an outrageous miscarriage of justice, criminal charges never should have been filed or even considered, and no one within the relevant prosecutor’s office had been willing to give the defense a fair hearing about why the case should not be indicted.

When AAG Caldwell took the podium as the final speaker, she appeared to throw her colleagues in the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices under the proverbial bus. She went out of her way to distinguish the Criminal Division at Main Justice in DC from the ninety-four U.S. Attorney’s Offices around the country. She said that while the attorneys in the Criminal Division operate with professionalism and integrity, she has seen “wide variation around the country” in the U.S. Attorney’s Offices in terms of their level of experience and quality of supervision.

Although not commenting on the specific cases discussed by the other panelists, AAG Caldwell agreed that sometimes cases get filed that should not have been filed; “I’m not going to dispute that.” She discussed a couple of additional examples where U.S. Attorney’s Offices had proposed misguided prosecutions. In one instance, prosecutors wanted to indict two partners at a law firm for obstruction of justice for seeking additional time to respond to a grand jury subpoena; in another, prosecutors proposed to charge all the adult residents of a small town in a RICO conspiracy. Because RICO cases and indictments of attorneys — unlike most cases — require review by Main Justice, those cases were able to be quashed by the Criminal Division.

Finally, Caldwell encouraged defense lawyers who believe prosecutors are pursuing inappropriate cases to seek review by Main Justice if they cannot get their concerns addressed. She said the Criminal Division recognizes that “not all U.S. Attorney’s Offices are created equal,” and that defense attorneys should not hesitate to go over the U.S. Attorney’s head and appeal to Washington in appropriate cases.

Caldwell’s suggestion that prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Offices around the country do not always measure up to those in her own Criminal Division apparently did not sit well with her Justice Department colleagues. Two days later she issued a letter of apology to all DOJ attorneys. She wrote that while speaking at the panel she had defended the Department “in a way that inappropriately suggested that the care taken by U.S. Attorney’s Offices and others in making prosecutorial decisions was less than that taken by attorneys in the Criminal Division.” She said she deeply regretted the remarks, which she called “a mistake.”

doj seal

Caldwell’s Comments: Mistake or D.C. Gaffe?

For AAG Caldwell to make her points in that particular forum and format may indeed have been a mistake – but was she wrong?

Before considering that, a couple of observations about the panel discussion. First, the Federalist Society’s agenda was pretty transparent, and the ratio of four defense attorneys to one prosecutor was not exactly an attempt to be “fair and balanced.” The defense attorneys were naturally presenting the details of their cases from their own perspective. They did prevail, so no doubt their claims have some merit. But there are always two sides to such stories, and I think it would be surprising if the facts were indeed so black and white. The panel would have been more interesting if prosecutors in some of those cases could have been persuaded to participate and explain why they believed the case was justified.

Second, as one of the panelists pointed out, there are between eighty and ninety thousand criminal defendants prosecuted each year by the Department of Justice and all but a relative handful end up with either a guilty plea or a conviction at trial. So while talking about a few high-profile cases where the defense prevailed is interesting and worthwhile, it would be wrong to conclude that those cases represent anything close to the norm. As they say in journalism, no one writes stories about all the planes that don’t crash. Examples where the prosecution’s case falls apart are interesting and newsworthy in part because they are so unusual.

But back to AAG Caldwell’s comments. It really shouldn’t be controversial to admit that occasionally cases get filed that should not be filed. Law is a human enterprise and thus inherently flawed. There are thousands of prosecutors working for the Department of Justice across the country on tens of thousands of case each year. People sometimes are going to screw up.

It also should be relatively uncontroversial to observe that the U.S. Attorney’s offices vary in terms of their levels of experience and quality. Those offices operate with a great deal of autonomy, and are staffed by individuals with varying backgrounds and experiences from different parts of the country with different legal communities and traditions. Obviously some offices are going to be better run and more experienced than others.

With relatively few exceptions, AUSAs are free to investigate and indict their cases with no oversight from D.C. I don’t know whether the average line attorney in the Criminal Division in Washington is smarter than the average AUSA around the country, but I do know the attorney in Washington is going to have his or her cases supervised and reviewed by veteran prosecutors who have seen many similar cases and issues in the past. That level of seasoned review and quality control is not always available within every U.S. Attorney’s Office, where they may not see nearly as many large or complex cases.

It’s not fair to suggest that Main Justice itself is immune from making mistakes or bringing bad cases, but I think it’s perfectly fair to suggest that such cases are more likely to originate in the U.S. Attorney’s offices.

So although I’m sure she wishes she had phrased them differently, I think AAG Caldwell’s comments were basically correct. And they highlight an issue I think DOJ needs to take seriously: a need for renewed focus and training nationwide on the sound exercise of prosecutorial discretion.

Emphasizing the “Discretion” in Prosecutorial Discretion

There have been a number of high-profile examples recently of cases that appear to have involved bad charging decisions. If the government loses, as in the cases discussed during the Federalist Society panel, that is generally the end of it — other than providing great war stories for defense counsel. But when the defendant in such a case is convicted, the government is faced with defending its charging decisions on appeal. As I wrote in this recent post, that has led the U.S. Supreme Court recently to question whether prosecutors can be trusted to exercise their discretion appropriately.

For example, in Bond v. United States a woman who was angry at her husband’s lover sprinkled a caustic chemical on her doorknob and mailbox, which caused a minor skin irritation easily treated with cold water. Federal prosecutors responded by charging Bond with a felony aimed at punishing the use of chemical weapons. In Yates v. United States, a commercial fisherman received a civil citation for catching several dozen undersized red grouper and was ordered to take the fish back to port to be seized by authorities. When instead he threw the fish overboard, he was indicted for obstruction of justice under a statute that carries a maximum twenty-year penalty. Both these cases made it to the Supreme Court, and in both cases the Court expressed incredulity that prosecutors had chosen to bring the charges.

Cases where inappropriate charges are filed do not cast the Department of Justice in a favorable light. For the individual defendants, of course, they can result in tremendous injustice, which is contrary to DOJ’s fundamental mission. And if courts lose faith in the judgment and charging decisions of prosecutors, they will try to find ways to rein the government in – even if, as in Yates, that means adopting an interpretation of a statute that seems contrary to its plain language and common sense. This can make it more difficult for all prosecutors to do their jobs.

Members of the Federalist Society panel also talked about prosecutor myopia, where prosecutors could only see the facts a certain way and remained convinced, up to the end, that their cause was righteous. I think this is a real phenomenon; those who are trained in criminal prosecution may tend to see criminal remedies as the best option. As the saying goes, when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. But particularly when it comes to white collar crime and regulatory offenses, it’s critical for prosecutors to recognize there are many possible alternative remedies and that criminal prosecution may not be the best solution.

Cases like Yates, Bond, and those discussed at the Federalist Society panel, along with AAG Caldwell’s observations about the varying levels of experience within the U.S. Attorney’s Offices, suggest that DOJ could benefit from a renewed emphasis on the proper exercise of prosecutorial discretion. Washington may not be able to review all proposed indictments, but Main Justice could ensure that all prosecutors around the country are thoroughly trained in the “discretion” aspect of their jobs.

Prosecutors need to know the criminal law, of course, but they also need to have hammered into them, from day one, that deciding when not to apply criminal law is a huge part of their jobs. All prosecutors know this on some level, but there’s a difference between knowing it and having it ingrained and repeatedly stressed as a part of your professional identity and institutional culture. If there is too much emphasis on indictment numbers and “stats,” prosecutors may lose sight of the fact that often they are doing their jobs by declining to file charges, even after a lengthy investigation.

It’s not unheard of for prosecutors and investigators who have worked on a case for months or years to “fall in love” with their case or their witnesses and lose some ability to evaluate it objectively. That’s where some level of review by experienced and uninvolved prosecutors could be particularly useful.

I think it would be interesting if DOJ established some more formal mechanism whereby defense attorneys like those who appeared at the Federalist Society panel could obtain Main Justice review of proposed major indictments they feel are misguided. Currently defense attorneys can try to seek such a review, but there is no official process and no guarantee that anyone will listen. It would be easy for such a system to be abused, of course, and so setting up guidelines might be tricky. But if there were some official avenue for review of major cases, perhaps some mishaps such as those discussed by the panel could be avoided.

If inappropriate cases get filed it isn’t good for anyone: certainly not for those charged, not for the Department of Justice that ends up with a black eye, and not for the justice system as a whole. The culture within any institution is set at the top, and the Department of Justice needs a culture that emphasizes the importance of the sound exercise of prosecutorial discretion. If DOJ recognizes, as AAG Caldwell observed, that not all U.S. Attorney’s Offices are created equal and some lack appropriate expertise and experience, it would be wise to take some nationwide steps to remedy that situation and provide some safeguards.

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

One thought on “Misguided Prosecutions and Washington “Gaffes”

  1. Not surprising that the Federalist Society would choose to have an event such as this highlighting those relatively few cases (out of 80 – 90 thousand annually) that suggest prosecutorial overreach. I’d like to see if they have a similar event toward the end of President-elect Trump’s tenure in office. That said, good blog and sensible suggestion for mitigating the problem (or non-problem depending on your perspective).

Comments are closed.