Author Archive | Harvey Silverglate

The Thin Line Between Activism and Obstruction

Fifth installment of a five-part series on Silverglate’s book, Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent.

This week, I’ve had the pleasure of guest-blogging on the Conspiracy and expanding upon discussions from my book, Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent. I’ve examined the Supreme Court’s skepticism toward honest services fraud; aggressive prosecutors using malleable terrorism laws to target unpopular lawful expression; unwary businessmen becoming financial scapegoats; and the lack of media scrutiny over the Justice Department’s overreach. And this barely scratches the surface of the problems caused by investigations and prosecutions based on vague federal criminal statutes and regulati­ons that encompass much ordinary and innocent activity.

A Heritage Foundation study published in June 2008 found that over 4,450 federal crimes exist, and there’s no doubt that number has increased since. (Recall the three separate federal statutes criminalizing “material support” of terrorism, and the joint NACDL-Federalist Society letter (PDF) pointing out to Congress the statutory redundancy of the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act of 2009.) With many of these statutes near-impossible for the average citizen (or, I might add, the above-average lawyer) to understand, and many lacking important “mens rea,” or intent requirements that are common to state but not federal law, the average professional going about his or her daily business could become the target of federal authorities.

How do I know this? For one thing, because it nearly happened to me.

In the early 1980s, the Boston United States Attorney’s office launched a top-to-bottom corruption probe into the administration of Boston Mayor Kevin H. White. It was obvious that then-U.S. attorney William F. Weld—who would later serve in both appointed and elected high offices—was gunning for the scalps of as many city hall officials [...]

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How the “Independent” Fourth Estate Has Failed in its Critical Duty

Fourth installment in a five-part series on Silverglate’s book, Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent.

In a discussion on WAMU Radio yesterday, host Kojo Nnamdi noted that vagueness in the federal criminal law has recently made “strange bedfellows” of the political left and right. This same “emerging consensus” was also the subject of an insightful November 23 article by Adam Liptak, The New York Times’ Supreme Court reporter.

What has occasioned this coming together? As I mentioned here on Monday, individuals and organizations of all political stripes are realizing the danger to all when prosecutors are empowered with exceedingly broad and—worse—hard-to-define federal laws. A diverse coalition of groups—including the Heritage Foundation, the Federalist Society, the Cato Institute, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the ACLU, among others—have been sounding a clarion call against this species of executive expansion. They have pointed out that, from webmasters to fund managers, no segment of civil society is safe.

But this phenomenon is not new. As I document in Three Felonies a Day, the proliferation of vague laws—and prosecutions under them—began in the mid-1980s. Why has widespread recognition, especially from the American public, taken so long?

For one thing, the Department of Justice has a very effective public relations machine. With every major indictment, there is a press release and, not infrequently, a press conference that major national media typically attend with bated breath. Flanked by FBI, IRS, DEA, SEC, and members of the other myriad supporting agencies, prosecutors feed reporters the government’s side of the case, often a matter of hours after a hapless defendant has been rousted out of bed and paraded in the infamous “perp walk” (much to the delight of press photographers [...]

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Protecting Investors or Prosecuting Innocents? The Dangers of Vagueness in Financial Fraud Laws

Third installment in a five-part series on Silverglate’s book, Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent.

“As a result of a burgeoning number of fraud investigations and prosecutions, I have become convinced that a concerted interagency effort is needed. We want to bring this additional firepower to bear on behalf of investors who might otherwise lose their confidence in the integrity of these markets.”

The Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force, an interagency effort to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the current economic crisis, was established via executive order on November 17. But the above announcement was made twenty years prior. On January 31, 1989, then-Attorney General Dick Thornburgh touted the creation of a coordinated task force to bring to heel those responsible for the Wall Street scandals du jour.

Indeed, the present response to Wall Street failures seems straight out of a time-tested Washington playbook: Ratchet up enforcement, throw the miscreants in prison, and—voila—the public’s confidence in their markets and in their government is restored.

Arrest rates for “white collar” fraud have surged in the wake of recent well-publicized financial scandals, according to data generated (PDF) from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports. Over a two-year period after the savings-and-loan scandal and the creation of the task force described above (1990-1992), the number of fraud arrests increased 53%; over the same period following the dot-com bust (2000-2002), arrests jumped 26%. Now, with regulatory agencies expanding their probes of alleged insider-trading violations and the Justice Department promising more convictions, a raft of indictments appears inevitable. But do these enforcement efforts reflect true criminal violations? Putting aside the long-term efficacy of such periodic orgies of prosecution, there remains the nagging question of whether the defendants are guilty of any crime.

One’s [...]

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Keeping the Nation Safe, or Making Citizens Vulnerable? The Dangers of Vagueness in Anti-terrorism Laws

Second installment of a five-part series on Silverglate’s book, Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent.

Sami Omar al-Hussayen was a doctoral candidate at the University of Idaho when he was arrested in February 2003. Federal prosecutors alleged that al-Hussayen, a Saudi citizen studying computer science in the United States, provided “material support” and rendered “expert advice or assistance” to terrorists. News reports, on the word of anonymous “federal criminal justice” sources, linked him to Osama bin Laden.

What was his crime? Al-Hussayen used his computer skills to run a number of websites for a Muslim charity dedicated to traditional religious teaching. But if a web-surfer burrowed into links from al-Hussayen’s site, he or she would eventually come across links containing violent anti-American messages. This, prosecutors charged (PDF), was how al-Hussayen aided global terrorism.

District Judge Edward J. Lodge, for one, played the case right down the middle. In his jury instructions, Lodge explained to twelve stalwart Idahoans that the First Amendment protects advocacy, even advocacy to break the law, “unless the speech is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” (Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444, 1969) Of course, it was doubtful that al-Hussayen was even advocating lawlessness, much less violence, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume that there was such a subtext to his website maintenance. Even then, the prosecution was highly dubious.

With Judge Lodge’s clear line separating lawful political speech from unlawful incitement to imminent violence, the jury took little time in acquitting the grad student of the terrorism-related charges. Liberty, which seemed to matter less and less at Main Justice in Washington, remained alive and well in Idaho. (This was due not [...]

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Honest Services Fraud: Your Third Felony Today?

Last week, the Supreme Court heard two cases challenging the scope of so-called “honest services” fraud, a 28-word provision tacked onto the generic federal mail-and-wire fraud statute that makes it illegal to “deprive another of the intangible right of honest services.”

If you’re asking what this statute means, you’re in august company: Justice Antonin Scalia asked the very same question during oral argument in Black v. U.S. (see pg. 45 of the transcript [PDF]). All told, eight of the nine justices expressed skepticism about the “honest services” law, focusing on the vagueness that prosecutors have exploited but defendants and civil libertarians have loathed.

Most pointedly, perhaps, was Justice Stephen Breyer’s observation that almost any professional could inadvertently violate this statute. “[T]here are 150 million workers in the United States. I think possibly 140 [million] of them would flunk your test,” he told Deputy Solicitor General Michael R. Dreeben, who was attempting to posit arguable limiting principles.

Breyer’s observation goes to the heart of the phenomenon about which I’ve written in my book, Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent (Encounter Books, 2009). Because of the vague terminology increasingly used in the ever-expanding federal criminal code, combined with the erosion of intent as a requirement for conduct to be considered prosecutable, the average citizen can easily commit several felonies in any given day. (Interviewers have jostled me for what they deemed my wild overstatement, while I’ve tried to assure them that their own daily conduct probably produces three arguable felonies. Now I have one justice—and perhaps several more—on my side.)

“Honest services” fraud is an instructive example of this trend, but the federal law books are cluttered with countless others. Creative interpretations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, obstruction of justice statutes, and controversial [...]

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