Department of Justice

  • September 10, 2015

    by Jim Thompson

    In The New York Times, Michael Winerip and Michael Schwirtz detail the violent death of an inmate at the hands of New York prison guards. 

    Michael Biesecker at The Associated Press reports that Judge Rosemary M. Collyer of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled Wednesday that House Republicans can move forward with their claim that the Obama administration’s health care spending has violated the Constitution.

    In The New York Times, Matt Apuzzo and Ben Protess examine new policies from the Department of Justice that prioritize the prosecution of individual Wall Street employees, not companies, directly involved in the 2008 housing crisis and financial meltdown. 

  • March 9, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Thomas Nolan, Associate Professor of Criminology and Director of Graduate Programs in Criminology at Merrimack College

    The report from the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division on the Ferguson, Mo. Police Department is a damning indictment of an out-of-control, lawless, and racist police department gone rogue.  Given the context and history of policing in Ferguson provided in the DOJ investigation, it seemed inevitable that an unarmed African American teenager would be shot dead by a white Ferguson police officer following a confrontation over a “Manner of Walking in Roadway” offense (or theft of cigarillos if that is to be believed).  One is tempted to question how it didn’t happen sooner than August 9, 2014.

    The Ferguson Police Department (FPD) arrested 460 individuals for outstanding warrants between October 2012 and October 2014: 96 percent of those arrested were African American.  According to the DOJ report, from 2011 to 2013, African Americans accounted for 95 percent of Manner of Walking in Roadway charges, 94 percent of Failure to Comply charges, 92 percent of Resisting Arrest charges, 92 percent of Peace Disturbance charges, and 89 percent of Failure to Obey charges.  “Despite making up 67 percent of the population, African Americans accounted for 85 percent of FPD’s traffic stops, 90 percent of FPD’s citations, and 93 percent of FPD’s arrests from 2012 to 2014.”  The race-based enforcement tactics and strategies employed by the FPD have a disparate impact on African Americans that is violative of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

    The DOJ report also found that the FPD has engaged in a “pattern and practice of constitutional violations (that primarily target African Americans) in stopping people without reasonable suspicion, arresting them without probable cause, and using unreasonable force.”  The FPD’s policies and practices were found to routinely violate the Fourth Amendment in racially profiling African Americans and disproportionally singling them out for “pedestrian checks,” “Failure to Comply,” and illegal “Stop and Identify” offenses.  DOJ found that the FPD consistently uses excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment and that African Americans accounted for almost 90 percent of the use of force incidents from 2010 to 2014.  FPD used force involving a canine bite 14 times during this time period and in all incidents the person bitten was African American.   

    The FPD also engages in a standard (and unlawful) practice of arresting individuals for engaging in activities that are protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution: “people are punished for talking back to officers, recording public police activities, and lawfully protesting perceived injustices.” 

  • January 16, 2014
    Guest Post
    by Margaret Colgate Love, former U.S. Pardon Attorney (1990-1997)
    * Ms. Love now represents applicants for executive clemency. Her client Clarence Aaron was one of those commuted by President Obama on December 19.
    On December 19, President Obama commuted the prison sentences of eight people convicted of trafficking in crack cocaine and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.  Each person had spent at least 15 years behind bars, and all but two were serving a mandatory life term.  The President was generally commended for his acts of mercy, the only reservation being that he had not done more to provide relief to thousands of similarly situated individuals still imprisoned under laws he himself characterized as “unjust.”
    One of those whose sentence the President commuted was Clarence Aaron, a college student with no prior record who was sentenced in 1993 to three life terms based on his limited role in two drug transactions for which he was paid $1500.  Another was Stephanie George, described by the sentencing judge as the “bag holder and money holder” for her crack-dealing boyfriend, whose life sentence was based on two prior convictions for selling a total of $160 worth of crack.
    Clarence Aaron is now on his way home, as are Stephanie George and the other members of the December 19 Eight, most of whom thought they would never see home again.  So it is time to consider what happens now for the hundreds of similarly situated individuals still behind bars.
    The President himself acknowledged, in a statement accompanying the grants, that while he had taken “an important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness,” that step “must not be the last.”  He urged Congress to act on “reform measures already working their way through Congress” to provide relief from “a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust.” The specific “reform measure” the President was referring to is the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would make the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act (FSA) fully retroactive.  The impression left by his statement was that passage of this bill, along with policy changes announced by the Attorney General in August 2013, would be sufficient to restore fairness to the legal system, and that the job of doing justice had now passed to Congress.
  • December 10, 2013
    Guest Post

    by David M. Uhlmann, the Jeffrey F. Liss Professor from Practice and Director of the Environmental Law and Policy Program, University of Michigan Law School. For more on deferred prosecution agreements and corporate liability see Professor Uhlmann’s Maryland Law Review article, “Deferred Prosecution and Non-Prosecution Agreements and the Erosion of Corporate Criminal Liability.” Also see his recent post for The CLS Blue Sky Blog.

    The Justice Department announced last month that JP Morgan Chase would pay a record $13 billion for its role in the mortgage crisis that produced the Great Recession of 2008. The Justice Department deserves praise for reaching a civil settlement that will restore billions to investors and homeowners who were misled by JP Morgan Chase and Washington Mutual, the failing savings and loan that JP Morgan Chase bought in the midst of the financial crisis. In addition, if there is sufficient evidence, the Justice Department still can bring criminal charges against the individuals involved in the corporate wrongdoing.

    It is unlikely that JP Morgan Chase will face criminal charges, however, despite causing billions in losses and untold more in collateral damage to the global economy. Instead, if the bank pays anything more, it almost certainly will be the beneficiary of a disturbing shift in corporate prosecution policy that began in the Bush administration and has accelerated during the Obama administration: the increased use of deferred prosecution and non-prosecution agreements to address corporate wrongdoing. Under these agreements, corporations can avoid criminal charges if they pay large penalties, improve their compliance programs, and cooperate in investigations. Yet plea agreements -- the preferred approach to corporate crime before the last decade -- offer the same benefits without making it appear that justice can be bought.

    The Justice Department’s embrace of deferred prosecution and non-prosecution agreements has been dramatic. From 2004 through 2012, the Justice Department entered 242 deferred prosecution and non-prosecution agreements with corporations, after entering just 26 in the preceding 12 years combined (half of which occurred from 2001 to 2004). The use of the agreements has become so routine that the Justice Department’s Criminal Division now resolves most of its corporate criminal cases using “non-criminal alternatives” to prosecution. From 2010 to 2012, the Criminal Division entered more than twice as many deferred prosecution and non-prosecution agreements with corporations (46) as plea agreements (22). 

    Nor are these small cases involving technical violations of the law. The Justice Department agreed to a deferred prosecution with HSBC even though the bank was involved in nearly a trillion dollars of money laundering, much of it from drug trafficking. The Justice Department entered a non-prosecution agreement in the Upper Big Branch Mining disaster even though 29 miners died, and the Labor Department found that Massey, the company that owned the mine, committed over 300 violations of federal mine safety laws and kept a double-set of books to hide its misconduct from safety inspectors.

    The failure to prosecute corporations like HSBC and Massey sends the wrong message about how our society views corporate misconduct and sows doubts about the Justice Department’s commitment to address corporate crime. The Justice Department would never allow individuals who committed such serious crimes to escape prosecution. So why the double-standard for corporate defendants? Why has the Obama administration continued the questionable corporate crime policies of the Bush administration?

  • September 26, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Alex Kreit, Associate Professor of Law, Director, Center for Law & Social Justice, Co-Director, Criminal Law Fellowship Program, Thomas Jefferson School of Law. Kreit is also author of the ACS Issue Brief, “Toward a Public Health Approach to Drug Policy.”

    When Gil Kerlikowske took office as drug czar four years ago, he said he was going to retire the concept of the war on drugs. During Obama’s first term, however, his policies did not live up to the bold rhetoric.  There were a handful of reforms -- perhaps most notably, a reduction (though not elimination) of the disparity between crack and powder cocaine. But at its core, federal drug policy remained almost entirely unchanged between 2009 and 2012.

    In recent weeks, the Obama administration has turned its words into action by tackling one of the most significant and criticized features of the drug war: mandatory minimum sentencing.

    Enacted in the 1980s, the mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws were the embodiment of the “war on drugs” mentality.  Indeed, it’s difficult to think of another federal law or policy as closely linked to the drug war. 

    Last month, Attorney General Eric Holder announced a new charging policy, instructing federal prosecutors not to seek mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases that met certain criteria.  With some of the criteria left open to interpretation, I wrote last month that only time would tell the policy’s true impact. Will the Department of Justice closely monitor local prosecutors to ensure compliance and consistent interpretation of the policy?  Or, will federal prosecutors be given the leeway to circumvent or narrowly apply the new policy?

    While it will take at least a few more months to know the answers to these questions, last week Attorney General Holder issued a second memo that provides reason for optimism. Holder’s most recent memo expands the new policy by applying it to defendants who have already been charged and encouraging prosecutors to follow the guidance even in cases where the defendant has already pled guilty and is awaiting sentencing, where it is “legally and practically feasible.”

    This development is a hopeful sign that the Department of Justice is serious about its new policy.