Ninth Circuit Harshly Scrutinizes Law Enforcement Leak, Threatens Sanctions Against Department of Justice

What the hell is going on in America?

The federal judiciary — which previously could be counted upon to be relatively complacent in the face of a culture of prosecutorial misconduct — has begun to take notice and harumph and even do something about it. In January a Ninth Circuit panel blasted state prosecutors defending a conviction won with perjury. Ninth Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski has started a blunt public and academic discussion of misconduct as a systemic problem. This week the Fifth Circuit cited prosecutorial misconduct — including federal prosecutors commenting on cases online under pseudonyms — in overturning the federal convictions of some murderous New Orleans police officers.

This is a trickle, not a tide. But normally federal judicial recognition of the problem of misconduct is a parched desert; any relief is notable. And in the last two months, judges have even questioned one of law enforcement's most cherished methods of gaming the system — leaks to the press. The situation raises questions not just about government misconduct, but about how the press addresses such misconduct.

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My Bad Use of Force Decision Shows You Shouldn't Second-Guess My Use of Force Decisions

The Blaze, Glenn Beck's tequila-sweat dream-diary, repeats a law enforcement talking point today. The talking point — "scrutinizing use of force will kill cops" — is rarely served this explicitly or uncritically.

The story's about a Birmingham police officer who got pistol-whipped at a traffic stop. A suspect from the car he stopped approached him aggressively, cold-cocked him, and pistol-whipped him. Cold-hearted bystanders took pictures of him bleeding on the ground rather than helping. Thankfully, the officer will recover. But he's saying that he didn't use force in time to defend himself because of fear of how the media might treat him:

"A lot of officers are being too cautious because of what's going on in the media," said the officer, who asked to remain anonymous for the safety of his family. "I hesitated because I didn't want to be in the media like I am right now."

The Blaze pointedly notes:

The suspect in question, Janard Shamar Cunningham, is a black man and was seemingly unarmed during the incident.

Police — eagerly quoted by The Blaze — are using this to complain about media coverage of their actions:

Heath Boackle, a sergeant with the Birmingham Police Department and president of the city's Fraternal Order of Police, said Thursday that cops are "walking on eggshells because of how they're scrutinized in the media."

Police Chief A.C. Roper sees the episode — as well as the reaction, including celebratory and vitriolic comments posted online alongside images of the wounded officer — as symptomatic of a larger problem, in which some don't respect law enforcement.

"The nobility and integrity of policing has been challenged," Roper said. "As a profession, we have allowed popular culture to draft a narrative which is contrary to the amazing work that so many officers are doing everyday across this nation."

Here the typical subtext is closer to plain text: reporting on, scrutinizing, and criticizing officer use of force puts officers in danger by making them hesitate and second-guess themselves.

This is monstrous gibberish.

A cop made a bad use of force call. Thank God he lived. But a bad use of force call is not a good argument for less scrutiny of use of force. "I have trouble making decisions because of fear of how I will be treated in the media" does not convey "I'm capable of good judgment about the use of force, so you should trust me more."

Chief Roper complains about "popular culture" drafting a "narrative." What he means is that he's mad that there has been a mild drift away from the existing narrative — the law and order (and Law & Order), thin-blue-line narrative in which the cop is presumed to be the good guy and force is presumed to be righteous, a necessary tool for discovering truth and punishing evil, thwarted only by dishonest lawyers and publicity-hungry politicians. That narrative has been — and remains — overwhelming.

Police work is not, contra Chief Roper, an occupation of nobility and integrity, any more than any other profession is. It's a profession made up of noble and ignoble people, honest officers and liars, decent folks and utter thugs. It does not deserve the cultural free pass we've given it. The complaints here show how extensive that free pass is. Consider: the officer and his supporters aren't saying that he hesitated using deadly force on a human being because using deadly force on a human being is something to be done with great care. They're saying he hesitated — and that other officers might hesitate — because of how it might look on the news.

If "maybe I shouldn't kill this guy unless I have a good reason" isn't an adequate motivator to govern deadly force — and our history suggests that it isn't — I'm okay with "maybe I don't want to be on the news" stepping in to help.

Edited to add: I took some shots at The Blaze here, but the CNN story linked above is just as cop-deferential.

Lawsplainer: Did Gawker Aid and Abet Extortion? Nah.

tl;dr: nah.

Last week Gawker Media published an unusually vile story about an escort's apparent attempt to blackmail a married entertainment executive. In just one post, Gawker outed a man for an alleged same-sex encounter and acted as the willing instrument of blackmail.

Many Internet Lawyers have suggested that Gawker committed extortion, or acted as accessory after the fact to extortion, and that its writers may be criminally liable.

Are they?

Answer: no, probably not.

Assume For the Moment They Aren't Just Credulous Hacks

Let's set aside for the moment the distinct possibility that the whole incident is the invention of an unbalanced conspiracy theorist who duped Gawker through the intricate method of saying something scandalous that reinforced their worldviews.

Let's also assume, for the sake of argument, that the escort's communications to the victim constituted extortion: that at some point he said something like "use your influence to help me with my legal problem or I will reveal to the media that you sought to hire me for sex." Gawker's post containing some of the alleged communications is down, and we can hardly trust Gawker to have reported them completely or accurately.

Did Gawker Commit Extortion? No.

Title 18, United States Code, section 875(d) makes extortion a felony:

Whoever, with intent to extort from any person, firm, association, or corporation, any money or other thing of value, transmits in interstate or foreign commerce any communication containing any threat to injure the property or reputation of the addressee or of another or the reputation of a deceased person or any threat to accuse the addressee or any other person of a crime, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.

Many courts have defined "other thing of value" broadly enough that it can probably include the victim's use of his influence to assist the extortionist in a legal matter.1

The escort may have violated this statute, but Gawker didn't. So far as we know, Gawker and its writers didn't demand anything of value from the victim. Rather, once the extortionist came to them, they printed his story. They carried out the course of action threatened by the extortionist, but they didn't make the threat or demand the thing of value themselves.

Was Gawker an Accessory after the Fact? No.

Title 18, United States Code, section 3 criminalizes being an accessory after the fact. However, that status is narrowly defined to helping people escape:

Whoever, knowing that an offense against the United States has been committed, receives, relieves, comforts or assists the offender in order to hinder or prevent his apprehension, trial or punishment, is an accessory after the fact.

Gawker didn't do that. If anything, publishing the extortionist's story made it more likely he'd be caught.

Did Gawker Conspire To Commit Extortion? No.

I don't think Gawker conspired to commit extortion, either. The elements of federal conspiracy are "1) an agreement to accomplish an illegal objective, 2) coupled with one or more acts in furtherance of the illegal purpose, and 3) the requisite intent necessary to commit the underlying substantive offense." But here the unlawful objective is demanding something of value (an exercise of influence) in exchange for silence. There's no indication that Gawker did that or agreed to it. If Gawker had said "unless you help this guy, we'll publish," that would be conspiracy to commit extortion. But what Gawker did instead was publish the threatened embarrassing information. There's no indication that they attempted to help the extortionist get anything from the victim.

Did Gawker Aid and Abet Extortion? No.

Someone can also be guilty of extortion if they aid or abet it under Title 18, United States Code, Section 2:

(a) Whoever commits an offense against the United States or aids, abets, counsels, commands, induces or procures its commission, is punishable as a principal.
(b) Whoever willfully causes an act to be done which if directly performed by him or another would be an offense against the United States, is punishable as a principal.

The elements of aiding and abetting are:

(1) that the accused had the specific intent to facilitate the commission of a crime by another, (2) that the accused had the requisite intent of the underlying substantive offense, (3) that the accused assisted or participated in the commission of the underlying substantive offense, and (4) that someone committed the underlying substantive offense.

That's not what Gawker did. Gawker didn't intend to help the extortionist get something of value from the victim in exchange for silence. That's the opposite of what Gawker wanted — a lurid story to draw clicks. Gawker lacked specific intent to extort, so didn't aid and abet extortion.

There Oughta Be A Law

You could imagine a law that, like a prohibition of receiving stolen property, makes it illegal to publish embarrassing facts to help an extortionist carry out their threat. But that law would probably run afoul of the First Amendment, like any law that ascribes to a publisher of information the liability of their source.

Gawker and its writers probably didn't violate federal law.2 Whether they have civil liability is a different (and potentially more complicated) question. And, of course, they have moral liability: they're vermin.

No, Federal Grand Jurors Do Not Issue Federal Grand Jury Subpoenas

Over at the Daily Beast, Nick Gillespie attempts to bring religiosity to the fuzzy-wuzzies by describing what it was like to be hit with a ridiculous grand jury subpoena and unprincipled gag order. In response, several Daily Beast commenters trot out an argument I see now and then: "well, citizens on the grand jury thought that there were grounds to issue a subpoena."

No.

In fact, hell no, or if you prefer, bless your heart, no.

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DoJ's Gag Order On Reason Has Been Lifted — But The Real Story Is More Outrageous Than We Thought

Last Friday the folks at Reason confirmed what I suggested on Thursday — that the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York, after hitting Reason with a federal grand jury subpoena to unmask anonymous hyperbolic commenters, secured a gag order that prevented them from writing about it.

Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch describe how it all went down. Read it.

So, the truth is out — and it's more outrageous than you thought, even more outrageous than it appears at first glance.

What, you might ask, could be more outrageous than the United States Department of Justice issuing a questionable subpoena targeting speech protected by the First Amendment, and then abusing the courts to prohibit journalists from writing about it?

The answer lies in the everyday arrogance of unchecked power.

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Did The Department of Justice Get A Gag Order Silencing Reason About The Grand Jury Subpoena?

On June 8 — ably assisted, as I am now, by my co-blogger Patrick — I reported on a federal grand jury subpoena issued to Reason.com in an effort to unmask commenters who used obnoxious hyperbole about Judge Katherine Forrest, who sentenced Ross "Dread Pirate Roberts" Ulbricht to life imprisonment in the Silk Road case.

In that post, I reported that Assistant U.S. Attorney Niketh Velamoor indicated that he "believed" that there was a gag order prohibiting Reason.com from disclosing the existence of the subpoena. I expressed skepticism about that claim because Mr. Velamoor had just two days before signed a letter telling Reason.com that the Department of Justice asked, but did not require, that the subpoena be kept secret.

Since then, additional factors lead me to believe that there is, in fact, an under-seal gag order purporting to prohibit Reason.com from disclosing or discussing the grand jury subpoena.

This post discusses why I think that, and why such a gag order would be an abuse of the law and a grave abuse of power.

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Department Of Justice Uses Grand Jury Subpoena To Identify Anonymous Commenters on a Silk Road Post at Reason.com

The United States Department of Justice is using federal grand jury subpoenas to identify anonymous commenters engaged in typical internet bluster and hyperbole in connection with the Silk Road prosecution. DOJ is targeting Reason.com, a leading libertarian website whose clever writing is eclipsed only by the blowhard stupidity of its commenting peanut gallery.

Why is the government using its vast power to identify these obnoxious asshats, and not the other tens of thousands who plague the internet?

Because these twerps mouthed off about a judge.

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Dennis Hastert And Federal Prosecutorial Power

This week, federal prosecutors indicted former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert.

Hastert is charged with two federal crimes: structuring financial transactions to evade IRS reporting requirements in violation of 31 U.S.C. section 5324(a)(3) and lying to the FBI in violation of the notorious 18 U.S.C. section 1001. Both charges reflect the breadth of federal prosecutorial power.

The indictment has mostly inspired chatter about what it doesn't say. Hastert is charged with structuring withdrawals of less than $10,000 (so that they would not be reported to the IRS) so that he could pay off an unidentified person for Hastert's unidentified past misconduct. What past misconduct, or threatened accusation of misconduct, could lead Hastert to pay $3.5 million? The indictment doesn't say, but it has been drafted to imply that the allegation of past misconduct relates to Hastert's job as a teacher and coach in Yorkville, Illinois. Hastert isn't charged with doing anything to the accuser, and the accuser isn't charged with extortion.

As Radley Balko has pointed out, structuring (or "smurfing") charges are extremely flexible. They demonstrate the reality of how Americans targeted by the Department of Justice can be charged. We imagine law enforcement operating like we see on TV: someone commits a crime, everyone knows what the crime is, law enforcement reacts by charging them with that crime. But that's not how federal prosecution always works. Particularly with high-profile targets, federal prosecution is often an exercise in searching for a theory to prosecute someone that the feds would like to prosecute. There is an element of creativity: what federal statute can we find to prosecute this person?

We'll learn more about the reasons for Hastert's payments in the course of the case (or through Department of Justice leaks calculated to harm him). I suspect we'll find that the investigation happened like this: the feds heard that Hastert was paying someone off based on an accusation of old misconduct, determined that the misconduct was too old (or out of their jurisdiction) to prosecute, and started subpoenaing records and interviewing witnesses until they found some element of what he was doing that was a federal crime. In other words, they targeted the man, and then looked for the crime.

The problem with this scenario is that federal criminal law is extremely broad. Practically speaking, it gives federal prosecutors vast discretion to determine who among us faces criminal charges. If you think that you're safe because you've never committed a crime, you may learn to your surprise that you're wrong.

The rational response to this situation is clear: don't trust the feds, don't talk to the feds. But Dennis Hastert, like many accomplished people, believed he could talk his way out of the situation. When the FBI came to interview him, he didn't refuse to answer and call his lawyer. According to the indictment, he confirmed in response to an FBI agent's question that he was withdrawing cash in order to store it because he didn't feel the banking system was safe. For that, he's been charged with lying to federal agents.

This is another aspect of the federal government's vast prosecutorial discretion. Hastert's alleged false statement happened in December 2014. When agents interviewed him, I guarantee you that the feds had already made their case. They had already put witnesses before the grand jury, they had already used grand jury subpoenas to get Hastert's bank records, they already knew exactly how they would charge and prove up the structuring charge. When they went to interview Hastert, there were only three possible outcomes: he would refuse to talk, he would confess, or he would lie in a way they could easily disprove. They were looking either for the confession, which would make their case easier, or the lie, that would give them a new theory on which to charge him with a crime. Under Section 1001 a lie must be material to be criminal. But the materiality element is weak. It only requires the government to show that the lie is the sort of statement that could conceivably influence the FBI. It doesn't require the government to show that the lie actually had any impact whatsoever. Thus the FBI can show up with its case ready to indict, fish for a lie that they know is a lie, and pile that charge on top of whatever the substantive charge is. That's why I bring up Section 1001 so often and explain why it means you must shut up. You can be prosecuted for as little as saying "no, I didn't" in response to a already-documented accusation.

The criminal justice system needs to be able to prosecute perjury — lies under oath before a tribunal. And I can see why it needs to be able to punish false statements to the federal government that represent an attempt to commit fraud (say, false statements to get a passport) or that impact an investigation (say, a false accusation that triggers an inquiry).

But ask yourself: what is the legitimate basis for giving the feds the power to prosecute people for exculpatory lies that have no impact whatsoever on their operation?

From the federal government's perspective, the basis is clear: it's a tool to help them charge people they want to charge.

From the citizen's perspective, this situation points to one obvious conclusion: shut up. Never answer a federal agent's questions without a thorough debriefing with a qualified lawyer first.

Two Stories About The Criminal Justice System And Consequences

Dateline, Washington D.C.: The Drug Enforcement Administration, pressed by Congress for answers about its treatment of Andrew Chong, has no answers to give.

I wrote about Andrew Chong before. He's the young man the DEA arrested in San Diego when they caught him smoking dope at a friend's house during a raid. DEA agents handcuffed him, locked him into a room, and left him there five days without food or water. He drank his own urine, eventually attempted suicide, and was close to death when he was discovered. He suffers from post traumatic stress disorder, not surprisingly. DEA agents claimed that he was left there through an oversight and that nobody could hear him shouting for help. An investigation determined that you could very clearly hear someone shouting for help from that room.

The consequences? Four written reprimands, a five-day suspension, and a seven-day suspension.

If I seize someone, handcuff them, lock them in a room, and leave them to die, I will suffer severe consequences. I will lose my job, especially if I acted while performing my duties. I will go to jail. I will suffer catastrophic personal financial losses. My name will be broadcast far and wide.

That's the difference between me and a federal employee.

The DEA agents who arrested Andrew Chong for smoking dope and left him to die got reprimands or suspensions that were shorter than my last tension headache. You and I — the taxpayers — paid Andrew Chong the $4.1 million settlement he secured; the agents did not. They are not named in any of the articles about the incident. They will not go to jail. They will not lose their jobs.

Free of significant consequence, they will continue to exercise their armed authority to inflict consequences on other people who break the law.

Dateline, Texas:

In 2013, Judge Susan Criss presided over the trial of Alisha Marie Drake, who stood accused of the horrific crime of videotaping the rape of a 14-month-old child. During jury selection, a Jehovah's Witness in the jury pool told Judge Criss that he would not view child pornography and that his religion did not allow him to judge others (an issue familiar to anyone who has ever encountered a Jehovah's Witness in a jury pool). Judge Criss berated the juror and belittled his religious beliefs:

So if it grosses you out, then you can take it out on the person in punishment because it can’t possibly gross you out more than it grossed out that child. So that’s what my God tells me.

Eventually Judge Criss ordered the prospective juror arrested:

Juror No. 48: Your Honor, I’m one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and I believe that Jehovah God is a Supreme Judge and it is not in my place to judge anyone else or to have, for that matter, for them to be – –

The Court: All right. I understand that. We have Jehovah’s Witnesses all the time. But you know what? If you get picked on this jury, you get picked on this jury, and Jehovah can visit you in the jail.

Juror No. 48: Okay. Then – –

The Court: Have a seat, sir.

Juror No. 48: I guess they have to visit me.

The Court: All right. Arrest him. Take him into custody. Take him into custody right now. I’m not playing. See you later.

Judge Criss later explained to the thoroughly cowed jury pool that her experience as a sex crimes prosecutor — which she related in detail — taught her it was difficult to find willing jurors in sex crimes cases, and that she would not be excusing people. "And I'm not playing, and I don't care if anybody likes it or not."

Yesterday the Court of Appeals overturned the conviction. Even though Drake's appointed attorney did not bother to object to Judge Criss' actions, the court found that her comments about the case improperly conveyed her opinion of Drake's guilt, and that her arrest of the prospective juror deprived Drake of an impartial jury by intimidating jurors from confessing possible biases.

But the public opinion by the Court of Appeals did not name Judge Susan Criss. That's a matter of tradition and professional courtesy. You'd have to figure out her name by Googling the case, or by getting it from court records or from someone who knows.

Susan Criss is now in private practice, although she enjoys a public life commenting on her past cases. Criss is defiant about her actions in the Drake case. She won't face any State Bar proceeding. She won't face any consequences at all for her conduct.

These stories are not the exception. They are the rule. The rule is this: citizens generally face consequences for breaking the law and violating the rights of others, but those with the power to administer those laws and impose those consequences rarely face any themselves.

That's the justice system.