Matt Kaiser

Matt Kaiser is a lawyer at The Kaiser Law Firm PLLC, which handles complex civil litigation, white collar investigations, and federal criminal cases. On his blog, The Federal Criminal Appeals Blog, he writes about published opinions in criminal cases in the federal circuits where the defendant wins. He can be reached at mattkaiser@thekaiserlawfirm.

Posts by Matt Kaiser

Conspiracy is probably the most charged offense in the federal courts. At core, its elements are simple (generally). A and B have completed the crime of conspiracy if they (1) have an agreement to do something illegal and (2) some co-conspirator committed an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy. The overt act does not have to be illegal.

So, if Larry says to Doug, “Let’s lie through email to potential investors about how viable our real estate plan is,” then Doug says “That’s a great idea, let’s do it!” and the two put together a letter they would email to potential investors that contains a number of lies about how viable an investment is, they’ve probably conspired to commit wire fraud.

The tricky bit is that the agreement that’s at the core of a conspiracy charge — like many kinds of contracts — can be implied. It’s rare that folks in a conspiracy negotiate the terms of the conspiracy or memorialize it.

So, if Larry and Doug just sit down and work — together — on a letter that lies to investors, one may (depending on the other facts in the case) think that the two have an implied agreement to commit fraud and that they’re guilty of participating in a fraud conspiracy.

The tricky part is when one person says, in essence, it would be really freaking cool to do X (where X is illegal) but doesn’t really mean that she wants to do X.

For example, some people may think that it would be funny to blow a raspberry on Justice Scalia’s belly. But just because Doug tells Larry that it would be cool to blow a raspberry on Justice Scalia’s belly, and Larry then looks up Justice Scalia’s next public appearance, does not necessarily mean that either one of them actually intends to storm Justice Scalia’s security detail just to blow on the Justice’s stomach.

And, of course, a jury is most likely to find that Doug and Larry are guilty the more they’re doing something that the jurors themselves think of as not funny and, in fact, really quite repugnant.

Like kidnapping, killing, and eating women, or trying to foment a jihad….

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “Attempted Cannibalism and Furthering Jihad: Two Views of Intent in a Criminal Conspiracy”

It would be hard to overstate the importance of Riley v. California. Now data on cell phones (and, hopefully soon, other electronic media) requires a search warrant for law enforcement to get access to it during an arrest (generally — check your individual situation; exceptions may apply).

It’s so hard to overstate the importance of Riley that I don’t think a single media outlet has done it yet (which is really saying something in light of the current state of Supreme Court coverage).

As you may dimly remember from the criminal procedure class you took in law school, the “search incident to arrest” doctrine is a little screwy and subject to abuse. The general rule is that police can search things on your person or in the area of your arrest to make sure you don’t destroy evidence or hurt them, but nothing else. Later cases have held that the area you can reach while you’re being arrested (where you could destroy evidence or find something to hurt the police) includes the entire interior area of your car, regardless of how far you can reach or how wedged under the seat cushions that currency counterfeiting machine is.

This body of law is a lovely example of how pro-law enforcement results drive any reasonable understanding of how a test should be applied. Reading these cases in law school is a formatively disheartening experience (“really, that’s the kind of junk judges come up with? Why have laws at all?” etc.).

Riley, though, draws a line around your phone. Sure — the police can look into your pocket to see if that square box is a cell phone or a detonating device, and they can look in the back of your van to see if you could have reached a butterfly knife if you had a 20-foot arm span — but they can’t look inside the phone without first getting a warrant.

Of course, the Court could have decided this in a few ways. It could have written a very narrow doctrinal opinion. Or it could have issued a deeply divided set of opinions where there isn’t a clear statement about the development of the law as much as a resolution of one case. But, instead, the Court issued a 9-0 decision, authored by the Chief Justice, which was a celebration of the importance of electronic privacy and recognizes that we’re in a new world — and need new rules to handle it….

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “Search Warrants To ISPs, The Supreme Court, And Electronic Privacy”

As Lincoln said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

It’s a familiar enough idea. You see it in both Macbeth and the genesis story of just about every Marvel supervillan. It’s true, I think, not just of people but also of institutions. Like governments.

Just about every time I go to federal court for a sentencing hearing — where it seems the AUSA is fighting for each additional month in prison like it will take a point off his mortgage — I think about this quote from Nietzsche:

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “Nietzsche, American Power, And Edward Snowden”

Good bye, sweet Generalist. We hardly knew ye.

I’m a white-collar criminal defense lawyer. I love it. There are times when I think that I’ve won the work lottery. Yet, in this column, I’m going to complain about it.

Normally, I think that being a white-collar defense lawyer means that I represent folks who are under investigation by the Department of Justice, a law enforcement agency that would refer a case to the Department of Justice, or a regulator like the SEC, CFTC, or Office of Inspector General (in some situations — OIG’s both handle debarment and developing a case for DOJ).

But sometimes I’ll do other kinds of work too. Recently, I’ve represented clients in civil litigation. I’ve represented clients in arbitrations. And I’ve negotiated resolutions of disputes where litigation is looming but not yet happening. I’ve gotten really good results for clients in these kinds of cases (and, like any lawyer, I’ve had some cases break bad too). I like to think that if a case comes in that presents a relatively sophisticated litigation problem that doesn’t require a specialist (think of an ERISA case) I would consider doing it. And there are other lawyers in my firm who, to be sure, do primarily civil work.

But, despite that, I identify myself as a white-collar defense lawyer.

Sometimes, even though a potential client is exactly the kind of person I want to represent, presenting myself or being known as a white-collar defense lawyer is a problem.

When is that?

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “The Downside To A Professional Identity; Or The Demise Of The Litigation Generalist”

In the past few columns, I’ve talked about the reasons why white-collar trials are hard in federal court. So few of them go to trial and, of those that go to trial, so few have a win for the defense. One reason is how people accused of crimes are treated as witnesses and Rule 608(b). Another reason is that, especially in white-collar cases it seems, folks who are later accused of crimes are chatty with agents, and that seemingly never fails to break bad.

Another reason is that lots of folks cooperate with the government. When many people realize that there’s going to be someone going to prison (see, e.g., the statistics on plea rates), they reason that they’d rather someone else go to prison instead of them.

Snitches are tricky. Often you don’t know what they’ve said before to the government until late in the game. Their statements are Jencks — so a defense lawyer is supposed to get them, but often federal judges only require that they’re turned over very close to trial.

Snitches are also crafty witnesses….

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “White Collar Trials, Snitches, And Telling The Truth”

Last month, I wrote about the Department of Justice’s case against Nicholas Slatten, a Blackwater employee who was being prosecuted — along with other members of Blackwater’s Raven 23 team — for a shooting incident in Iraq.

As one FBI Agent is reported to have described it, the shooting was “[t]he My Lai massacre of Iraq.”

That’s a really good sound bite. Nice work FBI!

DOJ brought charges based on the shooting against Slatten, which were dismissed by the court because, basically, DOJ failed to notice that the statute of limitations was running against Slatten after a dismissal of his case.

As the New York Times recently described it,

the government suffered another self-inflicted setback in April when a federal appeals court ruled that the prosecution had missed a deadline and allowed the statute of limitations to expire against a second contractor, Nicholas A. Slatten, a former Army sniper from Tennessee who investigators believe fired the first shots in Nisour Square. A judge then dismissed the case against Mr. Slatten.

(for more on this, see last month’s column on the case)

And, of course, the legal fire fight continues . . .

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “A Vindictive Prosecution Motion in the Continuing Saga of Nicholas Slatten”

Last week, I wrote about why so few people go to trial, and I talked about some of the challenges of going to trial in a criminal case in federal court, particularly in a white-collar case.

This week, I’d like to talk about another challenge with going to trial — statements made to law enforcement by the person who is accused of a crime.

After Zachary Warren was indicted in connection with the Dewey implosion, there was a lot of coverage of why, exactly, a smart, educated, fancy lawyer would talk to law enforcement without a lawyer present. (See, e.g., here, and here, and here).

As these prior pieces talk about, there’s a tactical problem with talking to law enforcement in the first place — the agent may say that he or she is just giving you a chance to “tell your side of the story” or “get the truth out” but, really, that person’s interest is in getting a conviction so they get a stat. They’re trying to build a case against you and that has less to do with celebrating the importance of impartial truth seeking, and much more to do with boxing you in so that a trial would be hopeless (see this on one way to think about the agent’s priorities when they’re taking a statement).

There is, though, another problem with talking to law enforcement — one that, hopefully, DOJ is actually making better.

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “The Perils of A Criminal Trial Redux; or, DOJ Belatedly Notices It Has Recording Equipment”

Criminal defense lawyers who practice in federal court bemoan the lack of jury trials these days.

According to the administrative office of the U.S. courts, in the twelve months ended March 31, 2013, in our federal courts, 83,614 people entered a plea of guilty. Only 1,953 went to a jury trial (there were 173 bench trials too, for what it’s worth).

So, around 2 percent of the folks who are charged in federal court go to trial — the rest plead guilty.

The numbers in white-collar cases are a little better. For fraud cases there were 9,925 guilty pleas and 411 jury trials — so about 4 percent of people accused of fraud opt to see a jury. For regulatory offenses there were 1,480 pleas and 47 jury trials — about 3 percent.

There are a lot of reasons why so many people plead guilty and so few go to trial. One reason is that the acquittal rate is low — about 13 percent overall (there were 260 acquittals overall in FY 2013). For what it’s worth, while fraud acquittals were in line with that, regulatory offenses had an acquittal rate that was much higher — 20 acquittals (counting bench and jury trials) out of 55 trials. That’s about 35 percent.

Another big reason is that people accused of a crime are meaningfully prevented from testifying — and if a trial turns on what a person knew, as many white-collar cases do, their ability to put on a defense is compromised by their inability to testify. They can see a bad verdict coming….

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “Why Johnny Can’t Talk: Federal Rule of Evidence 608(b) and the Difficulty of Trial”

A famous criminal defense lawyer was asked about how to hire a lawyer for a criminal defense case. Imagine, he was asked, that a relative was charged with a serious crime in a place where he didn’t know anyone. How would he go about finding a lawyer for his friend?

The answer — hire the best lawyer in the next town over.

A good criminal defense attorney will have relationships with the local prosecutors. She’ll know the local judges. And when you hire a criminal defense attorney, you assume that one thing you’re getting is a favorable presentation to those prosecutors and judges. The trouble is, that lawyer may have more of an interest in her professional standing in the community than in your case.

If you’re really in trouble — life is on the line kind of trouble — that criminal defense lawyer’s advice was to hire someone who knows what they’re doing and is willing to ruffle feathers on your behalf. Everyone is a little beholden to their own community. Find someone from another community.

There’s a nice example of that principle in action in a complex white-collar case in the Wall Street Journal this week.

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “If You Have a FERC Problem, Maybe Don’t Hire a FERC Lawyer”

Raven 23 was a team of Blackwater employees who provided security in Iraq for U.S. government personnel. On September 16, 2007, a car bomb went off, and Raven 23 was called on to secure an evacuation of a diplomat. As a federal court described it later, “a shooting incident erupted, during which [some of the members of Raven 23] allegedly shot and killed fourteen [Iraqi civilians] and wounded twenty others.”

After September 16, the firefight moved to federal district court in the District of Columbia when the U.S. Attorneys Office for the District of Columbia brought charges against some of the members of Raven 23.

And, as legal battles go, what a firefight it is.

There’s been a Kastigar hearing, a direct appeal, a mandamus action, a judicial call for an Inspector General investigation into the State Department’s conduct in the case, a promised request for the government to pay attorneys’ fees for one of the members of Raven 23, posturing about new charges, and threats of motions for vindictive prosecution.

If you find yourself with some time, reading the papers in the case – the case number is 08-360 on D.D.C.’s docket – isn’t a bad way to spend it.

If you find yourself without that kind of time, here’s a blow by blow of some of the most interesting bits.

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “A Battle in Iraq Leads to a Battle in the Federal Courts in D.C.”

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