Posts Tagged ‘crime and punishment’

Elizabeth Warren on white-collar prosecution — and what to do instead

My new piece at Cato, citing Carissa Byrne Hessick and Benjamin Levin at Slate, discusses Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to lower the standard for criminal culpability in many white-collar prosecutions to simple negligence. It begins:

Presidential candidate and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) wants to see more business people behind bars, and she’s not fussy about how to make that happen. In a Washington Post op-ed last week she unveiled a new Corporate Executive Accountability Act, which in her words would expand “criminal liability to any corporate executive who negligently oversees a giant company causing severe harm to U.S. families.” She says she wants top executives to know that they can be (again in her own words) “hauled out in handcuffs for failing to reasonably oversee the companies they run.”

And ends:

The civil courts already hear many thousands of cases seeking damages over claims that serious harm arose from industry conduct that falls short of being reckless or deliberately wrongful. Not infrequently – as with claims over supposed “sudden acceleration” in cars, cancer from Roundup, and autoimmune disease from silicone breast implants – large sums get paid even when science finds no basis for concluding the products caused the harms alleged, such is our legal system’s tendency to tilt against business defendants as unsympathetic. Under the Warren standard, complaints that driverless cars have gotten into avoidable accidents or vaccines have caused side effects – maybe even that cheeseburgers, supersize sodas, and margaritas have worsened the harms of obesity – will put business people at risk for long prison terms. To her backers, will this count as a bug? Or a feature?

Aside from the propriety of criminalizing simple negligence, the issue is not so much that individuals as such are the wrong target for white-collar prosecution — as Stephen Bainbridge has argued, holding them personally culpable will often make more sense than prosecuting the corporate entity — as that notions of collective guilt must not be used to impute criminal culpability to others within an organization not proved to have committed wrong acts or acted with wrong mind. While the Warren proposal would march off in the wrong direction, in the Cato Handbook for Policymakers two years ago,
I contributed a chapter on white-collar prosecution with the following recommendations:

Congress and state lawmakers (and where appropriate, the president and executive branch law enforcement officials) should

  • review existing law with an eye toward rolling back overcriminalization and replacing criminal penalties with civil sanctions where feasible;
  • enact reforms such as the model Criminal Intent Protection Act to bolster recognition of mens rea (punishment should ordinarily require a guilty state of mind, not inadvertent noncompliance) as well as the related mistake of law defense in criminal law;
  • codify the common law rule of lenity (ambiguity in law should be resolved against finding guilt), as Texas joined other states in doing in 2015;
  • devise safe harbor provisions that enable economic actors to avoid criminal liability by behaving reasonably and in intended compliance with the law;
  • limit agency discretion to create new crimes without an act of the legislature;
  • enact guidelines to strengthen judicial oversight of deferred prosecution agreements and nonprosecution agreements (explicit court approval, not the unilateral say-so of government prosecutors, should be required for appointment of corporate monitors or the extension of time under supervision);
  • enact asset forfeiture reforms such as Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner’s (R-WI) Due Process Act, including requiring that conviction be a prerequisite for forfeiture; review and, where appropriate, reduce or coordinate per offense fines and sanctions to avoid levying penalties disproportionate to the gravity of misconduct;
  • prohibit, as a proposed New Mexico law would do, the allocation of settlement moneys (cy pres) to charities, nonprofits, or advocacy groups not themselves injured;
  • assign penalties, forfeitures, and settlement proceeds to the public treasury or, where appropriate in certain cases, to private parties who can show specific individual injury from the offense (penalties should not fund particular government agencies in ways that incentivize zealous enforcement or insulate the agencies from appropriations oversight);
  • prohibit the payment of public lawyers and forensics experts on contingency, that is, in ways dependent on case outcome or the magnitude of penalties (this principle should apply alike to career prosecutors, other staff public lawyers, experts, and outside law firms); existing contingency arrangements should be terminated; and
  • impose transparent principles of selection and payment on outside contracting for legal services.

Crime and punishment roundup

  • Bloodstain analysis convinced a jury Julie Rea killed her 10-year-old son. It took four years for her to be acquitted on retrial, and another four to be exonerated. Has anything been learned? [Pamela Colloff, ProPublica] Forensics’ alternative-facts problem [Radley Balko] The chemists and the coverup: inside the Massachusetts drug lab scandal [Shawn Musgrave, Reason, earlier here, here, here, etc.]
  • “I would say, you know, as a parting gift, if you’d like to throw in some iPhones every year, we would be super jazzed about that…. So, you know, a hundred, 200 a year.” A window on the unusual business of prison-phone service [Ben Conarck, Florida Times-Union, state Department of Corrections]
  • Should juries be forbidden to hear any evidence or argument about their power of conscientious acquittal? [Jay Schweikert on Cato amicus in case of U.S. v. Manzano, Second Circuit; related, David Boaz on 1960s-era jury nullification of sodomy charges]
  • This hardly ever happens: prosecutor disbarred for misconduct [Matt Sledge, Baton Rouge Advocate; Louisiana high court revokes license of Sal Perricone following anonymous-commenting scandal]
  • “Cultural impact assessments”: Canadian courts weighing whether race should play role in sentencing minority offenders [Dakshana Bascaramurty, Globe and Mail]
  • “The Threat of Creeping Overcriminalization” [Cato Daily Podcast with Shon Hopwood and Caleb Brown] “Tammie Hedges and the Overcriminalization of America” [James Copland and Rafael Mangual, National Review]

“Why Doesn’t the FBI Videotape Interviews?”

For the FBI to videotape the interviews it conducts would presumably allow an improvement in accuracy over note-taking, an important issue when statements can lead to criminal conviction (either on underlying charges or on charges of lying to the government). They would also permit improved oversight of how well the FBI does its work. So why did FBI guidelines forbid the practice until 2014, and even now establish a presumption of recording only for custodial interviews? [Alex Tabarrok citing Michael Rappaport, Law and Liberty and Harvey Silverglate 2011]

First Step Act becomes law

President Trump has signed into law, Congress having passed by wide margins, the First Step Act, which will make substantial changes to incarceration practices at the federal level and lesser but still significant changes to sentencing practices. Joe Luppino-Esposito of the Due Process Institute responds to five criticisms that some conservatives have leveled against the bill in its later stages. Jonathan Blanks has more. Families Against Mandatory Minimums has a FAQ. And Caleb Brown interviews Shon Hopwood about the law for the Cato Daily Podcast.

On coercion and plea bargaining

This fall the Cato Institute held a policy forum on plea bargaining featuring Clark Neily, vice president for criminal justice at Cato, Scott Hechinger of Brooklyn Defender Services, Bonnie Hoffman of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and Somil Trivedi of the ACLU. Description:

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has observed that “criminal justice today is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials.”

Although nowhere mentioned in the text of the Constitution, plea bargaining has become the default mechanism for resolving criminal charges in the United States. Indeed, some 95 percent of criminal convictions today are obtained through plea bargains, which raises a number of serious concerns, including why so few people choose to exercise their hallowed and hard-won right to a jury trial. When one considers the many tools available to prosecutors to encourage defendants to accept plea offers, together with the incentive to resolve as many cases as efficiently as possible, one cannot help but ask how many plea agreements are truly voluntary and how many are the result of irresistible coercion. Are there constitutional or ethical limits on coercive plea bargaining, and if so, are they being properly enforced? And what should we make of an institution that has practically eliminated the criminal jury trial and with it the Framers’ painstaking efforts to ensure citizen participation in the administration of justice?

The Federalist Society also held a recent panel on the subject of plea bargaining, which David Lat covers here. More here and here.

A traveling Chinese executive is arrested

Urged by the U.S., Canada recently arrested Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou. “Meng was traveling in Canada, switching planes using a Chinese passport, when she was taken into custody.” For Tyler Cowen, the “procedural normality of the arrest is precisely what scares me. There are so many international laws, and so many are complex or poorly defined, and there are a couple hundred countries in the world. Arguably most multinational corporations are breaking some law in some manner or another, and thus their senior executives are liable to arrest. If I were a top U.S. tech company executive, I would be reluctant to travel to China right now, for fear of retaliation.” [Bloomberg] See also the FIFA (soccer) controversy, 2015, and related: our series of 2006 posts about the arrest of traveling British executives on charges of remotely violating U.S. online gambling laws.

For more on the scope of white-collar crime laws, see my chapter on white-collar prosecution in last year’s Cato Handbook for Policymakers 8th Edition.

Crime and punishment roundup

  • Sorry, Denver cops, but you can’t keep a journalist from photographing an arrest on the street by telling her she’s violating the health-privacy law HIPAA [Alex Burness, Colorado Independent on handcuffing of editor Susan Greene]
  • Conor Friedersdorf interviews Scott Greenfield, criminal defense blogger and longtime friend of this blog, at the Atlantic;
  • Claim in new article: “extremely broad criminal statutes, no less than vague and ambiguous criminal statutes, are constitutionally problematic for depriving ordinary people of ‘fair notice’ about how the legal system actually works” [Kiel Brennan-Marquez guest series at Volokh Conspiracy: first, second, third]
  • “We Cannot Avoid the Ugly Tradeoffs of Bail Reform” [Alex Tabarrok; Scott Greenfield] New York should learn from Maryland on risks of unintended consequences [New York Post, and thanks for mention] And a Cato Daily Podcast on bail reform with Daniel Dew of the Buckeye Institute and Caleb Brown;
  • In Little Rock and elsewhere, police use of criminal informants creates disturbing incentives that can challenge both probity and accountability [Jonathan Blanks, Cato on Radley Balko account of Roderick Talley raid episode]
  • Call to scrap juries in UK rape trials (because they acquit too often) is met with criticism [Matthew Scott, Spectator]