The Rush to Criminal Remedies

A series of recent prosecutions has me thinking about the proper role of criminal remedies. There seems to be a trend in recent years for the public – and some prosecutors – to leap to criminal prosecution as the first option in response to various kinds of misconduct.  Don’t get me wrong — as a former prosecutor I have no problem with criminal remedies when appropriate. But as I tell my students on the first day of class: there’s a lot of conduct that is immoral, unethical, or just downright sleazy, but isn’t criminal and doesn’t need to be. I think we may be losing our sense of when prosecution is the right response and when some alternative, less severe sanction might be appropriate.

The Gray Areas

 In my white collar crime class we routinely discuss the availability of other remedies for conduct that potentially could be prosecuted. This is particularly important in white collar criminal law. After all, if you have a violent crime like a homicide or robbery, there’s little question that criminal prosecution is the appropriate response. We’re not going to respond to a homicide by saying, “Well, let’s just let the victim’s family file a civil suit.”

White collar cases, by contrast, often involve misconduct that falls into a gray area. The cases involve fuzzier criminal concepts like fraud and corruption, where criminality may be less clear-cut. There generally is no victim of physical violence; most harms are economic. For such misconduct there is usually a wide range of alternative remedies available: civil penalties and fines, private civil lawsuits, administrative sanctions, professional discipline (loss of professional licenses or loss of a job or career), even just the sanction of public disgrace and humiliation. In cases involving political misconduct, voters can respond at the ballot box by throwing the offender out of office.

Non-criminal remedies and sanctions almost always are much more efficient. Criminal sanctions are cumbersome and difficult to impose. Grand jury investigations and trials are time consuming and resource-intensive. They require the government to meet the highest burden of proof in the law: guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, found by a unanimous jury. By using civil proceedings the government may obtain many of the same remedies faster and with a lower burden of proof. Society as a whole often may be better served by resolving much misconduct with non-criminal sanctions.

Criminal prosecution should be reserved for the most extreme misconduct, the most severe violations of society’s rules. Criminal convictions may result in the harshest sanctions society can impose: the loss of liberty. Many other types of penalties are available in both civil and criminal proceedings, but only in a criminal case can the offender be sent to jail. The hammer of criminal penalties therefore should be reserved for those cases that truly deserve it.

There is a lot of play in the joints with concepts like fraud and corruption, and white collar statutes are notoriously broad. It is far easier to stretch those statutes to argue they should apply to particular misconduct that, unlike a homicide or burglary, on its face may not be obviously criminal. That’s why prosecutorial discretion plays such a crucial role in white collar crime. In a white collar case it’s often unclear whether criminal sanctions are necessary and appropriate. Making that decision requires good judgment and the sound exercise of discretion.

A number of recent cases and investigations have me questioning whether at least some prosecutors are losing sight of these principles. In some cases, I don’t think the conduct was criminal at all. With others, even if it’s possible to come up with a creative criminal theory, I think the misconduct would have been better addressed through non-criminal remedies.

The NCAA Corruption Case

Exhibit one is the NCAA corruption case, which I’ve written about several times (on the blog here and here, and in the Washington Post here). The defendants are aspiring sport agents and representatives of the sportswear company Adidas. They engaged in a scheme to pay the families of star high school athletes $100,000 or more in exchange for an agreement to attend and play basketball at particular universities whose athletic programs were sponsored by Adidas. They were convicted of fraud in New York and are currently appealing to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

The remarkable thing about this prosecution is that in the absence of the NCAA rules, there would be no fraud theory at all. There was nothing illegal about the payments; it’s not a crime to pay someone to induce them to attend a particular school. The defendants did not want to harm the universities – just the opposite. They would only succeed and profit if the universities did as well. And the evidence indicated that the coaches at the universities knew this scheme was going on, or at the very least willingly looked the other way.

But the payments violated NCAA rules, which prohibit college athletes from receiving any kind of compensation. Having ineligible athletes on their rosters exposed the universities to potential sanctions from the NCAA – a private organization that the universities voluntarily joined. Prosecutors charged that the defendants defrauded the universities by secretly paying the athletes, thus exposing the universities to those potential sanctions.

It’s a very odd fraud case where the defendant has no intent to harm the victim and the senior representatives of the supposed victim are in on the scheme. It’s even more odd when violating the rules of a private, voluntary association through otherwise lawful behavior can be leveraged into a criminal fraud theory.

This did not need to be a criminal case. The NCAA needs to clean house, but federal prosecutors don’t need to do it for them. People shouldn’t go to jail for violating the rules of a private organization by behavior that was otherwise lawful.

Appropriate sanctions for violating the NCAA rules: the Adidas representatives lose their jobs. The universities get fined or otherwise disciplined by the NCAA. The coaches who participated get fired. Maybe Adidas loses the right to sponsor some athletic programs. And players who took part in the scheme are declared ineligible for NCAA play – and probably go on to play in the NBA and make a fortune.

The Varsity Blues Case

 The college admissions scandal known as “Varsity Blues” is more complicated, because the dozens of different defendants are culpable to different degrees. I’ve written about this case on the blog here and here and in the Post here. The case features two different kinds of schemes involving parents cheating to help their students gain admission to elite universities. The mastermind at the center of both schemes was college counselor Rick Singer.

In the entrance exam scheme, parents paid to have someone correct their child’s answers on admissions tests like the ACT, or take the test for them, to improve their score. In the sports recruiting scheme, parents made much larger “donations” to the university to have their students admitted as recruited athletes. Sometimes this money went to bribe the coaches, who agreed to admit students even though they didn’t play the sport in question. Sometimes some or all of the money went to the athletic programs at the schools. Some of the cases also involved the parents and Singer creating phony athletic profiles falsely indicating that the student was a star athlete in the relevant sport.

As with the NCAA case, in the Varsity Blues investigation there often was no discernible harm to the supposed “victims.” The universities received tuition dollars from the students who were admitted. In many cases the athletic programs received substantial sums of money as well.  In fact, in a recent ruling related to sentencing (where the dollar amount of the loss is important to calculating the sentencing guidelines), the judge recently found there was no loss to the universities. If there is no discernible financial harm to the “victims,” it should at least make you stop and question whether you have an appropriate criminal fraud case.

But what about the truly deserving students who were not admitted – aren’t they the true victims here? Well, yes, but not for criminal purposes. These defendants had no relationship to any such unidentified applicants and owed them no duty. The criminal charges are structured as a fraud against the universities and the testing companies, not against other students. The non-admitted students are victims of the defendants’ cheating in a societal sense, but not in a criminal one.

As I mentioned, the facts of these cases vary widely. For Singer and for the coaches who accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to admit unqualified students in violation of the duties they owed to their university employer, I’ve got no problem with criminal sanctions. But for many of the parents, the picture is more complicated. It’s not clear all of them had the kind of intent we normally would require for a criminal conviction.

Consider one example: actress Felicity Huffman, who pleaded guilty and was recently sentenced to fourteen days in prison. Her case is relatively simple. She was not involved in the sports recruiting scheme. She simply paid $15,000 (a relatively modest amount, in this investigation) to have someone help her daughter cheat on the ACT.

That conduct is deplorable. But if you boil it down, it means Huffman was prosecuted and sent to jail for cheating on a test. It’s expensive and sophisticated cheating, to be sure, but that’s still all it is. If a future student manages to sneak in some unauthorized notes to the testing center and cheats on the ACT, are we now going to prosecute that student for fraud when she applies to college? What about a student who “embellishes” his entrance application – claiming he was captain of the debate team, for example, when in fact he was only a minor participant. How about a student who, once admitted, cheats on a calculus test? Are all of these now “fraud” and subject to criminal prosecution?

The conduct in the Varsity Blues case is reprehensible. It rightly caused widespread outrage based on the sense of privilege and entitlement demonstrated by the wealthy parents. But it’s not at all clear that a federal criminal prosecution is the appropriate response in all the cases.

Appropriate sanctions for cheating on your child’s college admissions test: your child gets kicked out of school. You forfeit any tuition dollars that you paid. The school gets to keep any other “donations” you made in connection with the cheating. You are publicly humiliated and disgraced, and your career suffers as you lose your acting gigs. And – perhaps the most severe sanction — you have to spend a lifetime trying to explain to your child why you did what you did and trying to remedy that breach of trust.


 The “Bridgegate” prosecution is another example of the expansive and inappropriate use of criminal remedies. (See my blog post here and Post article here.) The defendants engaged in a scheme to close inbound lanes on the George Washington Bridge, causing four days of massive traffic gridlock in Ft. Lee, NJ.  They falsely claimed they did it to conduct a traffic study, but in fact they did it to punish the mayor of Ft. Lee for refusing to endorse governor Chris Christie for re-election.

There was tremendous public outrage over this political stunt. Ultimately the defendants, who were Christie appointees, were prosecuted and convicted for fraud. The government’s theory is that the defendants defrauded the Port Authority of the salaries of the employees who were ordered to carry out the sham traffic study and the lane closures.

The Supreme Court recently agreed to review those convictions, and I expect the Court will throw them out. This “fraud” theory has no limiting principle, because almost every case of political misbehavior will result in some public employee time being expended. The defendants were not lining their own pockets. There was no law or regulation that mandated a certain lane configuration, and they had the authority to order the change. There was nothing inherently improper about the work they ordered the other employees to do – the only thing improper was their motive. They essentially were prosecuted for engaging in New Jersey hardball politics and lying about their true reason – the kind of thing that politicians, for better or worse, do all the time. This did not need to be a criminal case.

Appropriate sanctions for political mischief that is otherwise lawful: The career of the politician involved suffers from the public backlash. (This actually happened — Christie’s political career took a major hit from the scandal. He left office in disgrace and his presidential ambitions quickly withered.) The employees involved should be fired. (This also happened.) There could be possible civil suits if anyone was injured as a result of the traffic gridlock. And all involved are publicly disgraced and humiliated.

The Curse of Binary Thinking

 Part of what I think is going on with many scandals these days is a kind of binary thinking when it comes to misconduct: either something is criminal or it’s basically OK. Consider, for example, the Mueller report.

On the Russian “collusion” question, Mueller did not find evidence of a criminal conspiracy between the Russians seeking to influence the election and members of the Trump campaign. There were lots of contacts with the Russians, and the Russians were eager to help, but there was insufficient evidence of an actual criminal agreement to work together.

Many on the left reacted to this conclusion with something close to outrage. Look at all the contacts between the campaign and Russians! How could there not be a crime? But again, behavior can be reprehensible without being criminal. The Trump campaign knew that Russia was trying to help them win by using, among other things, emails stolen from their opponent. They welcomed and encouraged that help and did not report the various outreach efforts from the Russians. Even if not criminal, this is not OK.

The Trump administration’s response to the Mueller report has exhibited the same binary approach: “no crime – so nothing to see here.  Let’s move on.” But just because something isn’t criminal doesn’t mean it’s not a problem. Our standards for our elected officials should be higher than simply that they managed to avoid indictment. And it doesn’t mean there should not be some other kind of serious non-criminal consequences — whether that’s impeachment or just the results of the next election.

The same thing applies to these other scandals. Saying it’s not criminal doesn’t mean that the conduct of the defendants in those cases was okay. It just means that criminal sanctions are not necessarily the right response to the misconduct.

The Loss of Social Control

 I had a professor in law school who defined law as organized social control. His thesis was basically that the more other connections, norms, and informal means of responding to misbehavior you have in a society, the less law you need – and vice versa. If your neighbor is playing their music too loud and you know your neighbors and have ties within your community, you go talk to them and ask them to turn it down, maybe enlisting other neighbors to help. If you don’t know them, you call the cops – relying on the law to impose some social control.

Maybe that’s part of what is going on here. We see fewer alternative means of effective social control and so turn to criminal law for a solution. Many of the norms and informal controls that used to govern social and political behavior seem to be disregarded or shattered more and more routinely, with no apparent consequences. The super-wealthy and privileged seem to cheat, whether on taxes, college admissions, or elsewhere, and get away with it. Politicians lie repeatedly and pay no apparent political price. The Trump administration defies subpoenas and resists traditional congressional oversight, with few apparent consequences. The president himself calls for the investigation and jailing of his political opponents, and chants of “lock her up” are still a feature at his rallies. If people feel like nothing else is working, they may reach for criminal sanctions as a first resort rather than a last resort, looking for the law to impose some order in our lives.

I don’t know what the solution is, but we need a societal re-set on the appropriate use of criminal remedies. We can’t prosecute our way out of the current chaos.

Like this post? Click here to join the Sidebars mailing list

3 thoughts on “The Rush to Criminal Remedies

  1. Interesting and important analysis. Just worth to note, that in many states in the world ( like Canada ) there is a residual offense, titled indeed as ” breach of trust”.Residual in that sense, that it doesn’t prescribe specific factual and mental configuration, constituting and offense. But rather, leaves it abstract, and one wrongdoing is observed in an ad hoc manner, whether, the concrete conduct, of one public officer, hurts or did offend the public trust, and as such, bears criminal sentence or proceedings. Here I quote:

    Breach of trust by public officer

    122. Every official who, in connection with the duties of his office, commits fraud or a breach of trust is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years, whether or not the fraud or breach of trust would be an offence if it were committed in relation to a private person.

    End of quotation:

    So, no specific offense, but potential list of misbehavior.That is very efficient solution. Although, doesn’t define clearly, criminal conduct and in advance. Vague and unconstitutional one may argue. Yet, very efficient, and skillful judge, knows how to do it. Also:

    That societal theory of ” I don’t know you, I rush to call the cops ” is really baseless with all due respect. For, it doesn’t take to account, that syndrome of “dirty laundry ” washed inside the house or system. So, because of social or family ties, criminal offenses occur, while the inner circle silence it, and causing victims to suffer as hell. See the outrage, all over the US, with those priests,sexually abusing children. Really baseless.

    For the rest, we won’t stay young here no more…..


Comments are closed.