Plea Agreements

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….

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* Congrats to Weil Gotshal and Fenwick & West for getting in on Facebook’s $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp, the biggest Internet deal in a decade. [The Recorder]

* In South Carolina, you can get arrested for crimes that aren’t even things any more. Like “failure to return a VHS tape.” [Lowering the Bar]

* Drunk lawyer at heart of alleged insider trading scheme. [Dealbreaker]

* Did LBJ colossally screw up the Supreme Court? [Concurring Opinions]

* Were you curious about who would be on the Mount Rushmore of Tax Law professors? No? Well, here they are anyway. [TaxProf Blog]

* The so-called “trial penalty” is really a myth and empirical data confirms that defendants who reject plea deals and go to trial actually garner a “trial discount.” Yep, prosecutors aren’t overreaching at all. [PrawfsBlawg]

* President Obama called for patent law reform in the State of the Union address. Now we have some insight into what he’s thinking about. [Patently-O]

* Congratulations to Matthew Skinner, the next executive director of the LGBT Bar Association of Greater New York! [LeGal]

It’s a lamentable fact that very few white-collar cases in federal court go to trial. Most plead. Many of those that plead also involve someone providing evidence to the government against someone else; the people involved cooperate (or flip, or snitch, depending on who is talking about what happened).

White-collar cases, at least after an indictment, are often litigated with an eye toward the sentence that will come out at the end. And, with significant sentences in white-collar cases, that makes sense.

Most people plead rather than go to trial because a plea generally locks in some certainty about what will happen at sentencing. (True, in a world where the sentencing guidelines are discretionary, a judge may have a lot of power to decide a sentence that defeats a party’s expectations, but, generally, either by creative use of a statutory maximum — the government agreeing to make certain recommendations — or the simple fact that pleading guilty is a recognition that you aren’t going to spend a lot of the judge’s time sitting in trial, a plea can give a reason to think that the sentence at the end of the case will be lower. Though, of course, there’s always a Madoff exception.)

The flip side, of course, is that there’s a penalty for folks who decide that they would like to go to trial. Indeed, a recent report said that it’s a huge problem in drug cases.

And, on the trial penalty, there is some very interesting litigation in the federal courthouse in DC right now.

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Rick Perry is so sad.

* Rick Perry’s primary ballot election law suit in Virginia was unsuccessful, but maybe the Fourth Circuit will help him out on appeal. Or not. At least Huntsman’s out of the race, right? [Bloomberg]

* That didn’t take too long. The National Federation of Independent Business has officially popped the cherry on filing lawsuits challenging Obama’s recess appointments. [Businessweek]

* Even if law schools changed their teaching methods to include more experiential learning opportunities, would anyone care? To that, the latest hiring patterns say: “LOL, srsly?” [National Law Journal]

* Joran van der Sloot has been sentenced to 28 years for the murder of Stephany Flores. Parents will now be able to allow their college-aged kids to spend spring break in Aruba until 2038. [CNN]

* Protip for child predators: claiming that you don’t remember pleading guilty will bring you as much success as your career in children’s balloon entertainment and law — not a lot. [Orlando Sentinel]

* The lawyers at this small firm might quality for senior citizen discount specials, but they’re working hard to put their 161 years of experience to good use. P.S. they’re hiring! [New York Times]

If you spend any time around criminal defense lawyers, progressive lawyers, or people in a black barber shop, you’ll hear the claim that African-American criminal defendants receive harsher sentences than their white counterparts. People have done studies about this, people have written reports about this, people have held conferences about this institutional expression of discrimination.

Rarely do we see anybody trying to do anything about it. There are many reasons this fundamental unfairness persists, but only one of those reasons makes any sense: at the end of the day, nobody wants to be more lenient on a convicted criminal just because that criminal is black. And nobody wants to be more harsh towards a white criminal just because he’s white. So while we have these wide variations in sentencing outcomes, judges can’t re-balance the system from the bench. They have to sentence the criminal in front of them.

But that doesn’t mean judges are blind to the racial injustice of the system. And it doesn’t mean that judges can’t do what they have to in order to make sure that a particular punishment fits the crime.

I’m sure that Judge Joseph Williams of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, will be making all of those arguments shortly. Because he just threw out a plea on the grounds that the prosecutor had been too lenient on the young criminal, just because the criminal is white.

And to be clear, this wasn’t a passing or offhand remark from Judge Williams. Instead, he really laid into the prosecutor in this case…

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