Prosecutorial Misconduct

Today we have a couple of stories from around the country that will interest those searching for some sanity in American criminal justice.

To start, we have a story from the Federal Criminal Appeals Blog. It turns out that the government believes riding in a car with drugs, even if a defendant had no idea drugs were present, is still a crime worth many years in federal prison. The story goes like this: a construction worker (Mr. Tavera) was riding to Tennessee to do a roofing job.

Prosecutor Hides Evidence of Innocence

Tavera’s driver had lots of construction equipment in the back of the truck, including a bucket of nails and a large quantity of methamphetamine below those nails.

The US Attorney for the case was told by the truck driver that Tavera had no idea the Meth was there, but forgot to mention that at Tavera’s trial which ended up netting him over 15 years in prison.

From the story:

AUSA Taylor never told Mr. Tavera’s lawyer that Mr. Mendoza said Mr. Tavera isn’t guilty.

And, as a result, the jury never heard that the only other guy in the car told the prosecutor that Mr. Tavera didn’t know about the drugs.

As the Sixth Circuit said, “Mendoza’s statements to Taylor were plainly exculpatory.”

The Supreme Court has said that the government has to hand over all information that is exculpatory and that if it fails to do that, the prosecution is fundamentally unfair.

Yet, despite that the law is crystal clear on this, the Sixth Circuit notes that “nondisclosure of Brady1 material is still a perennial problem, as multiple scholarly accounts attest.”

The prosecutor, as the Sixth Circuit explained, figured it was Tavera’s fault for not doing a good enough job on defense. However, US Supreme Court history is very explicit that it is the prosecutors job to be forthcoming with any such evidence to ensure a fair trial.

With the deck already stacked so squarely in favor of the prosecution in federal cases, do they really need to act this poorly? The Sixth Circuit decided that this was so clearly unfair, that it ordered a new trial.

How long will this new trial even last with this evidence on the record for a jury to see? My guess: not long.

  1. Any evidence of innocence possessed by the prosecution, known as exculpatory evidence, is required to be turned over to the defense before trial. Brady material refers to evidence of innocence, from Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963) []

Durbin and Lee Introduce Smarter Sentencing Act

This press release from the office of Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL and then-assistant-majority-leader) gives some pointed details about the Smarter Sentencing Act. Its tagline  states the intent of the bill like this:

“[The] Bill Modernizes Drug Sentencing Policy, Focuses Resources on Violent Offenders and Public Safety Risks, Promotes Consistency with Fair Sentencing Act”

The press release gets started this way:

“With federal prison populations skyrocketing and nearly half of the nation’s federal inmates serving sentences for drug offenses, Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-IL), Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) have introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act, to modernize our drug sentencing polices by giving federal judges more discretion in sentencing those convicted of non-violent offenses. Making these incremental and targeted changes could save taxpayers billions in the first years of enactment.

“Mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses have played a huge role in the explosion of the U.S. prison population,” Durbin said. “Once seen as a strong deterrent, these mandatory sentences have too often been unfair, fiscally irresponsible and a threat to public safety. Given tight budgets and overcrowded prison cells, judges should be given the authority to conduct an individualized review in sentencing certain drug offenders and not be bound to outdated laws that have proven not to work and cost taxpayers billions.”

It seems this bill is a sort of reboot of another sentence reform bill introduced by Senators Patrick Leahy and Rand Paul, which would give sentencing judges discretion on imposing mandatory minimums.

It is currently unclear if these bills will be competing or complimentary (symbiotic, so to speak) with/to each other. The good news, if it can be called that, is that lawmakers are seeing that balooning prison populations which consist of many non-violent crimes is getting noticed as a prime place to reduce budgetary spending.