Supreme Court’s Presumption-of-Innocence Decision Should Inspire Asset-Forfeiture Reformers

supreme courtIn a US Supreme Court term filled with cases that “only a lawyer could love,” the justices did issue at least one decision in October Term 2016—Nelson v. Colorado—that any TV crime-drama viewer can understand. The decision turned on the bedrock principle that the accused is innocent until proven guilty. While Justice Ginsburg’s opinion applies directly to a Colorado law, it could prove highly influential in the ongoing debate over civil-asset forfeiture, a controversial law-enforcement practice. Continue reading

Supreme Court Cert Grant in “Farha v. US” Can Clarify Level of Criminal Intent Needed to Prove “Knowledge”

johnlauroGuest Commentary

By John Lauro, a white-collar defense attorney who represented one of the WellCare defendants at trial and at the Eleventh Circuit.

On Friday, April 21, 2017, the US Supreme Court will meet in conference to consider a pending petition for certiorari in Farha v. United States, No. 16-888, a major white-collar fraud case raising an important issue of concern to the defense bar and their clients: whether “deliberate indifference” is a sufficient level of mens rea for proving “knowledge” with respect to federal criminal statutes.  The High Court should grant review and reverse the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruling holding otherwise.

Farha is a classic case of overcriminalization, where civil and administrative remedies are more appropriate in the regulatory area of complex healthcare and business law. The case was extensively discussed in prior postings at the WLF Legal Pulse (here and here) and a WLF Legal Backgrounder [hot link to Kaiser’s piece]. In brief, following a raid by 200 FBI Agents at the offices of WellCare, a Florida Medicaid health maintenance organization, several executives, including the CEO, CFO, and general counsel, were indicted on healthcare fraud charges based on the government’s interpretation of Florida’s Medicaid law.   Continue reading

After Oral Argument in “Salman v. US,” Will Supreme Court Meaningfully Limit What Counts as Insider Trading?

bainbridgeFeatured Expert Contributor — Corporate Governance/Securities Law

Stephen M. Bainbridge, William D. Warren Distinguished Professor of Law, UCLA School of Law

Over a three-year period from 2004 to 2007, Citigroup investment banker Maher Kara disclosed confidential nonpublic information about upcoming mergers and acquisitions to his brother Michael Kara. In turn, Michael disclosed the information to his close friend Bassam Salman, who then indirectly traded in the affected stocks. When Salman was tried on charges of illegal insider trading, the government offered evidence that he knew the information originated with Maher.

The case presented two issues: First, what is the basis of liability when an insider tips information to an outsider? Second, what must the government prove in order to hold a remote tippee liable when the information is passed down a chain from tipper to tippee to a tippee of that tippee and so on? Continue reading

Feds Should Absolutely, Positively Abandon Bizarre Prosecution of FedEx—Overnight

barsLast term, in the now-infamous Yates case, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the Department of Justice’s outrageous contention that an undersized Red Grouper thrown overboard by a commercial fisherman in the Gulf of Mexico was a “record, document, or tangible object” under the “anti-shredding” provision of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.  By so doing, the Court prevented a law passed in the wake of corporate accounting scandals at Enron and WorldCom from becoming an all-purpose hammer for prosecutors.  Yates quickly became the poster child for the “overcriminalization” phenomenon.

Unfortunately, it appears that DOJ has not learned its lesson.  Although the phrase “tangible object” at issue in Yates was overbroad and ambiguous, in other cases the problem of overcriminalization arises when the government seeks to attribute a new, nonobvious meaning to long-understood, perfectly plain statutory language.  Nowhere is that problem better epitomized than in the federal government’s utterly bizarre ongoing criminal prosecution of FedEx, which is slated for trial next month in federal court in San Francisco. Continue reading

Federal Law Enforcers’ True Intentions: What’s Behind their Opposition to “Mens Rea” Reform?

lynchAmerica’s highest ranking law-enforcement officer, Attorney General of the United States Loretta Lynch, has gotten directly involved in the debate over the proper standard of criminal intent (known in legalese as mens rea) in federal laws. At a March 9 Senate Judiciary Committee oversight hearing, Attorney General Lynch, while generally cautious in her response to Senators’ questions, endorsed the Department of Justice’s use of strict-liability laws to, among other things, “ensure the safety of our food and drugs.” Attorney General Lynch’s statement reflects the federal government’s long-standing belief that criminal prosecution is an appropriate and effective business regulatory tool. The government’s heavy reliance on regulatory crimes is why the Justice Department and other federal agencies oppose such common-sense reforms as a default culpability standard of “willful” or “reckless” for federal laws that lack an intent requirement. Heightened intent standards would complicate regulation-by-prosecution, an outcome the Obama Administration and some elected officials are desperate to prevent. Continue reading

Fifth Circuit Allows Maliciously Prosecuted Company to Sue US Government for Damages

EPAcrimIn 1996, a heavily armed team of EPA criminal investigators raided a facility of Louisiana company Trinity Marine Products, Inc. Three years later, the federal government indicted the company and manager of the raided facility, Hubert Vidrine, for illegally storing hazardous waste without a permit. The U.S. Attorney dismissed the indictment in 2003. On February 8, 2016, 20 years after the EPA raid, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has cleared the path for the company to at last pursue Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) remedies against the government. As we explained in a WLF Legal Pulse post, Mr. Vidrine, with assistance from WLF attorneys, won a $1.7 million malicious-prosecution claim under the same law in 2011. Continue reading

Federal Officials Display Disregard for Due Process in Opposing “Mens Rea” Reform

barsFair notice of the law is a basic principle that separates liberal democracies like the United States from more authoritarian governments. Fair notice is an especially critical due-process check against government’s power to criminally prosecute. Government must not only prove that a person did the unlawful act, but also that he intentionally engaged in wrongful conduct or knew the conduct was illegal—that it, that he had a guilty mind. So why, then, is the Obama Administration and other elected representatives opposing reforms to ensure that federal criminal laws include a clear criminal-intent standard?

The idea being advanced seems far from revolutionary or controversial, which may explain why politicians and interest groups of every ideological stripe support it: Federal laws with criminal provisions must require prosecutors to prove that the accused possessed the mens rea, or culpable mental state, to commit a crime. If a law lacks such language, then a default intent provision will apply, such as showing that the defendant acted “willfully” or “recklessly.” Continue reading