Thursday, July 9, 2009

Another Travesty from Federal Courts

In response to my recent piece on the federal criminal courts, I have received this interesting email. A reader asked an attorney the question, "Can the federal courts be this bad?" Here was the answer:

There's a bit of hyperbole in here (my article), but basically, yes, it can be.

I handled the appeal for a client who lived in a house that was owned by his aunt. His driver's license was at that address.

His aunt got cancer. He and his wife temporarily moved in with his aunt to help take care of her. His aunt temporarily rented out the other house -- the client's regular address -- without a lease, month to month, while he and his family stayed with her. After all, no need to let it stay empty. The Client's furniture and property remained, for the most part, in the garage of the house. He was going back there, after all.

He bought some guns (okay, a lot of guns.) He gave his regular address as his "residence," even though he was temporarily living with his aunt. He paid cash for the guns. Of course, this got the Fedlings' notice.

The fedlings indicted him for giving a false residence address on the application forms. He explained that, even though he wasn't living there RIGHT THEN, that the house at issue WAS his residence. The whole situation was explained.

He was, of course, convicted. The judge refused to define the term "residence" for the jury. The prosecutor told the jury that a residence is "where you live right then," and that you can only have one. Nothing in the law supported that: if I travel to Michigan for three weeks, the hotel I stay at is not my sole "residence."

The Court of Appeals refused to reverse, saying that the error was "harmless." The error was that the law on the sole issue in the case (what is a residence) was not presented to the jury. How can this be harmless?

It is, essentially, a conviction factory. I am proud of the fact that we win far more federal cases than most law firms do -- however, it is still a small, small percentage of the total. Most of the time, the best we can do is minimize the damages to the defendant.

And they wonder why criminal defense lawyers suffer from burnout???

Notice that the prosecutors and the judge managed to throw out the mens rea standard for criminal law. At very best, this would have been a "technical" violation, although it is no different than a college student putting down his or her home address as one's domicile.

The problem here also is the jury. Once upon a time, an American jury would have recognized the falseness of the charges, but no more. So, we have someone going to prison who did not commit a crime, and a jury refusing to do its duties.

As you can see, if someone can be convicted on this kind of charge, and if the courts sign off on it, then there really is not hope for the federal criminal system. It is a travesty, and an evil travesty at that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bill, you should post this to the blog. It deserves a wider audience.