Category: Criminal law

Manafort Disbarred

Former Trump campaign chair, Paul Manafort, has joined former Trump personal attorney Michael Cohen in a second ignoble distinction. Both are now in prison for felonies. As for today, Manafort is also a disbarred lawyer. While Cohen was belatedly disbarred in New York, Manafort was disbarred in Washington, D.C. That certainly does not speak well for the President’s pledge to bring in the very best people. From the outset, both Cohen and Manafort had dreadful reputations in their respective bars. Cohen was known as a legal thug while Manafort was viewed as a sleazy and reckless lawyer.

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Florida Man Arrested for Profane Bumper Sticker

Free speech cases often require defending obnoxious speech or people. Dillon Shane Webb, 23, appears to be both. Webb is one of those people who think that it is funny to say obscene things and does not care at all about how his speech is impacting children or others. For that reason, Webb thought it was really, really funny to have a window sticker reading “I eat ass.” When he was asked to take down or change the offensive sticker, he refused and was arrested for criminal obscenity. The problem is that obscenity often depends who defines what is obscene. For free speech advocates, it is a standard that invites subjectivity and ambiguity in an area that depends bright line rules. That does not mean however that we cannot and should not denounce Webb for his offensive and careless speech.

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Cohen Goes To Prison After Prosecutors Refuse To Meet With Him

I was hiking on my birthday when Michael Cohen finally went to prison. By the time that he made the walk, few of Michael Cohen’s former clients or associates are likely returning his calls these days. After revealing that he taped clients without their consent and confessing to various felonies, Cohen is radioactive. However, one group of people joining the “lose my number” list is apparently chilling for Cohen: the federal prosecutors. Cohen’s counsel Lanny Davis has confirmed that Cohen has repeatedly tried to arrange meetings to share new information with prosecutors in the hopes of delaying his prison stint beginning tomorrow or securing a reduction in his sentence. They have refused. For a man who has made his career on being willing to do anything for powerful figures, Cohen is in the one place that he most feared: he is alone and out of options. In his final statement as a free man, Cohen again dangled the prospect of his sharing more information — a repeated suggestion that must truly irritate prosecutors and congressional investigators who have been repeatedly told by Cohen that he has shared everything that he knows.

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More Scream Than Substance: Why the Senate Missed The Point Of Barr’s Testimony

Below is my column in The Hill newspaper on Barr hearing and its aftermath. The Democrats continue to focus on Barr rather than the report. Congress now has 98 percent of the original report available to it. Only two percent was redacted from the sealed copy in conformity with federal law barring the release of grand jury material. Less than ten percent of the report is redacted in the public version and only a small percentage in the key obstruction section is redacted. However, the leadership prefers to fight over the remaining two percent and the Barr letter than to commence actual impeachment proceedings against Trump. I wrote back in 2017 that the Democratic leadership has long been opposed to any actual impeachment of Trump. There are obvious reason why the Democratic leaders are opposed to removing Trump. That position has held firm as leaders struggle to assure voters that they want to impeach without actually impeaching. The result is a mutual effort by Congress and White House to run out the clock. The result is political theater at its worst.

Here is the column:

High profile hearings in Congress often look like a casting call for B-Grade actors reading a low budget slasher film script. The key is that look of shock and disgust regardless of what the witness answers. The standout performer is Senator Cory Booker, who has mastered that “I Know What You Did Last Summer” look, even when asking the most mundane or mixed questions. He knows that, in this genre, the script is less important than the optics.

Indeed, the hearing with Attorney General William Barr this week seemed, at times, to involve two scripts for two different movies, with Barr reading from the 2000s “Drag Me To Hell” while Senate Democrats read from the 1970s “I Spit On Your Grave.” Senator Mazie Hirono did not even stop to listen for his responses before denouncing his failure to answer questions.

Some new information was shared, such as the fact that special counsel Robert Mueller slowed the release of his report by ignoring requests from Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to identify grand jury information in advance. There was also Barr stating he and Rosenstein asked Mueller to reach a conclusion on all crimes. Barr effectively shifted the burden over to Mueller on such questions. Claims by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that Barr lied under oath are simply unfounded and unfair.

Yet, Barr stumbled to answer when Senator Kamala Harris asked, “Has the president or anyone at the White House ever asked or suggested you open an investigation of anyone?” Barr got caught up with the meaning of “suggest” then categorically denied that anyone had asked he open any investigation but said, “I’m trying to grapple with the word ‘suggest.’ I mean, there have been discussions of matters out there.” Just like the seasoned former prosecutor she is, Harris pounced on his answer and suggested that someone might have “hinted” or “inferred.”

This is why both compound and vague questions are generally barred in actual cross examination. Barr looked evasive and uncomfortable, even though he explained that his concern was that conversations clearly did cover possible investigations but he was never asked to open one. The distinction makes for bad television but is a legally important point here.

President Trump has repeatedly crossed the traditional line of separation between the White House and the FBI, with his probing of officials like former FBI Director James Comey on the status or direction of the Russia investigation. While I have been critical of Comey, he was absolutely right in his objections to the inquiries from Trump. Past presidents generally avoided meeting alone with FBI directors, much less recklessly pressing them on investigations that touched on political or personal interests.

A demand from the White House for an investigation can raise serious questions of political influence over prosecutorial decisions. However, the line can be blurry. Presidents often call for investigations on issues of national importance. After a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, for example, President Obama held a press conference in which he was heralded for announcing that he had ordered the Justice Department and the FBI to both “independently investigate the death of Michael Brown.”

The Justice Department is part of the executive branch, and there is often discussion of the priorities and controversies involved in its investigations. For that very reason, Democrats were not aghast when former Attorney General Eric Holder publicly proclaimed he was a “wingman” for Obama. Likewise, Democrats applauded Obama when he ordered the Justice Department not to prosecute certain immigration cases. The line that cannot be crossed is the direction or influence of such an investigation.

Anyone can ask the Justice Department to look into allegations of criminal conduct. The Justice Department then makes an independent decision on whether to investigate. This includes members of Congress, who often call upon the Justice Department to investigate individuals despite their interests. Indeed, Harris has repeatedly done so, including calling for the Justice Department inspector general to investigate Barr. There is nothing improper in such a request, even if it has more political than legal merit.

Take the latest request from Senate Democrats for an investigation into Barr and Rosenstein reaching a conclusion on the obstruction evidence after Mueller had refused to do so. They wrote in a letter to the Justice Department inspector general, “It is unclear what statute, regulation, or policy led the attorney general to interject his own conclusion” that the conduct of the president did not amount to obstruction of justice here.

It is a bizarre question since the United States Code says, “All functions of other officers of the Department of Justice and all functions of agencies and employees of the Department of Justice are vested in the attorney general,” with a couple narrow exceptions dealing with administrative judges and prisons. The Justice Department makes the prosecutorial decisions, and the ultimate decision maker here is the attorney general.

What makes the request even more curious is the omission of the more obvious question. Why did Mueller not reach a decision? As I wrote on the day that Barr released his summary of the Mueller report to Congress, it is perfectly incomprehensible that Mueller did not reach a conclusion. After reading his report, his reasons for refusing are even more inscrutable.

The special counsel is mandated to “provide the attorney general with a confidential report explaining the prosecution or declination decisions reached by the special counsel.” While the report references the Justice Department policy not to indict a sitting president, nothing suggests that a special counsel cannot reach a conclusion on the evidence of criminal conduct by a president. If there was any doubt on Justice Department policy, it should have been clarified when Barr and Rosenstein, who oversee Mueller, pressed him to reach a conclusion. Barr still cannot explain the rationale for a special counsel not reaching a conclusion.

He is not alone. Democrats have also called for an investigation of what they view as a “lack of impartiality” under the attorney general. Harris expressed surprise that Barr did not personally review the underlying evidence, consisting of millions of documents and records, collected by Mueller before reaching his conclusion on obstruction. What she ignored is that such an independent review would have negated the work by Mueller. As Barr correctly stated, “We accepted the statements in the report as factual record. We did not go underneath it to see whether or not they were accurate.” Democrats presumably would want him to do that instead of substitute his own facts for those of the special counsel.

Harris was not wrong in pressing Barr on any White House pressure to open investigations. However, there is nothing improper with the White House raising priorities and controversies with the attorney general. What raises serious ethical concerns is when those cases directly impact a president or his campaign. An attorney general should push back on anything he or she views as efforts to influence prosecutorial decisions.

Of course, every good slasher film has a sequel, and there are several in the works in this case with the calls for Mueller, Rosenstein, and former White House counsel Don McGahn to testify. Congress has every right to call on these officials, and the suggestion from Trump that he will block McGahn would be entirely unjustified. But if Congress truly wants answers and not just optics, it might try keeping the jump scares to a minimum.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.

“Psychoooooooo”: Texas Bartender Arrested For Serving Murderer Before Killing Spree

I teach “dram shop” cases in my torts class — cases where bars and bartenders are sued for “over serving” customers who later cause injuries to third parties. This week there is Texas case that involves a criminal charge against a bartender, Lindsey Glass, 27, who was arrested after allegedly violating the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code. The man that she allegedly over-served was Spencer Hight, who killed eight people after leaving the Local Public House in Plano. The bar has also been sued by the families of the victims.

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Revenge Of The Lunch Lady: Pennsylvania Woman Arrested Sniping At Children On Playground With BB Gun

Lunch ladies have been featured regularly on this blog in a variety of controversies (here and here and here and here). Marie McWilliams, 30, however, is not some passive aggressive lunch lady. McWilliams is accused of actually sniping at children on the playground with a BB gun and then pledging to get the children in her own time.

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Sandburg’s Rule: Congress Shifts Attention Away From Mueller’s 400-Page Report To Focus On Barr’s 4-Page Summary

Below is my column in The Hill newspaper on the hearing with Attorney General Bill Barr in the Special Counsel investigation. Barr’s testimony reaffirmed many of the points of the column, including the fact that Robert Mueller was not told that he could not reach a conclusion of obstruction. Indeed, Barr testified that both he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told Mueller that he should reach a conclusion. As Mueller’s superiors, that should have resolved any question of a “policy” of Main Justice. However, according to Barr, Mueller not only did not reach a conclusion but he also disregarded the express request that his staff identify grand jury information to allow for a rapid release of a redacted report.

Notably, Barr also confirmed that just eight percent of the public report was redacted — largely to remove material that could undermine ongoing investigations. The sealed version of the report given to Congress only had two percent redacted. Thus, while the Democratic leadership is insisting holding back impeachment efforts until they can get “the full report,” they already have 98 percent of the report and the remaining grand jury information might ultimately not be released by a federal court. Nevertheless, as predicted in the column, the focus of Congress remains on the four-page summary that preceded the full 408-page report. It is a telling emphasis that highlights what I have previously discussed as the priority of congressional leaders.

Here is the column:

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Israeli Ambassador Calls For The Criminalization of Antisemitic Speech

In the aftermath of another tragic shooting at another synagogue, Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon has again called for the criminalization of antisemitic speech. I have previously written about such international efforts to criminalize speech, including a proposal supported by the Obama Administration. The implications of such laws for free speech are easy to dismiss amidst the sorrow of another attack. However, the free speech community must remain firm that free speech is not the cause of hate, it is solution to hate.

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Barr Testimony: Mueller May Have Some ‘Splainin’ To Do

One of the big takeaways from the first day of the testimony of Bill Barr concerns a number of failures that may be attributed to Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The most significant failure concerns his decision not to reach a conclusion on obstruction, as I discussed in today’s column. With an hour of the release of the Report, I criticized Mueller for his decision not to reach a conclusion which has no basis in law or policy. The only question was whether Mueller had been told not to reach such a conclusion. Barr answered that questions today in no uncertain terms. Not only could Mueller reach a conclusion, both Barr and Rosenstein pressed him to do so. Mueller’s decision remains both unsupported and incomprehensible. And that is not all that Mueller will have to explain.

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“How Come I’m The Only One?” Cohen’s Claims Victim Status Before Heading To Prison

Michael Cohen has never been a figure who generated much sympathy in others. Cohen spent his career as a legal thug for Trump — threatening everyone from college students to journalists with ruin. He ran shady business deals for himself and taped his own clients without their knowledge. For many of us, his three-year prison sentence was incredibly light given his confessed criminal acts. There is however one person who has unlimited sympathy of Cohen: himself. In a pathetic interview, Cohen laments how he has been singled out and unfairly sent to prison. He previously contradicted his prior sworn confessions to crimes.

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The Black Jersey: How Trump And Congress Are Competing For Last Place

Below is my column in The Hill newspaper on a curious aspect to all of the posturing taking place in Washington. Putting aside the bluster on both sides, there is strange alliance coalescing between the Democratic Leadership and the White House in running out the clock for impeachment. The only essential element is that they do not look like they are playing for time. Both sides derive political benefit from stirring up their bases with impeachment talk but neither side actually wants to see an impeachment. The rest is classic D.C. kabuki.

Here is the column:

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“Troll Remorse”: Maryland Man Sentenced For Jumping On Pelican In The Florida Keys

We previously discussed the case of William Hunter Hardesty, 31. Police arrested Hardesty after he was featured in a disturbing video where he jumped on a pelican and manhandled it. He has now been sentenced to a well-deserved 90 days in prison and a $1000 fine.

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WA Appeals Court Allows Necessity Defense For Alleged Vandal In Shutting Down Pipeline As Environmental Protest

By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor

I have been critical of the notion that a defendant may not always be permitted the opportunity to present evidence in their defense, especially the affirmative defenses of necessity and self-defense.  Yet in a case recently before the Washington State Court of Appeals, Division One, The Court held that in a particular case, a defendant charged in shutting down an oil pipeline to draw attention to environmental hazards posed by such industry–he is entitled to argue before the court his actions were necessary to protect the environment and common good of the people. 

While this case received nearly no attention in the recent media, the effects of this ruling can be both of benefit to the defendant and the environmental protection cause, but could also open some doors to those seeking to excuse criminal behavior using specious necessity claims.

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Judge Indicted For Allegedly Aiding Illegal Immigrant Evade Arrest by ICE

We previously discussed the controversy surrounding Judge Shelley Richmond Joseph who allegedly helped an illegal immigrant evade ICE agents in April 2018. Joseph and court officer Wesley MacGregor were charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice, obstruction of justice, aiding and abetting and obstruction of a federal proceeding.

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Michael Cohen Now Claims Innocence Of Charges Despite Sworn Statements

I have previously written about Michael Cohen’s long and uninterrupted history of false statements, crimes, and unethical conduct (here and here and here and here and here). What was particularly impressive is that Cohen was told by Chairman Elijah Cummings that he would immediately be referred to the Justice Department for prosecution if he lied even in the slightest degree. In the view of many, Cohen proceeded to lie and Cummings decided to do nothing. Now Cohen is contradicting the sworn statements that he made in court as part of his sentencing is saying that the charges — and presumably his own statements accepting his guilt — were lies. Cohen reportedly told actor Tom Arnold last month that he is not guilty of the crimes that he told the court that he committed.

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