Judge Declares He’s Not Potted Plant, Asserts Right to Supervise Deferred Prosecution Agreements

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A recent decision by U.S. District Judge John Gleeson in the Eastern District of New York may be the harbinger of new limits on the government’s ability to use a prosecutorial tool of which it has become very fond lately – the deferred prosecution agreement. Judge Gleeson’s assertion that a district court has a right to approve or disapprove the use of a DPA in a criminal case has the potential to change entirely the way in which the government uses these agreements.

The government frequently uses DPAs in criminal cases against large companies as a means of leveraging the threat of criminal conviction to get the company to correct practices that the government believes to be illegal.

A DPA is a formal written agreement that customarily provides that criminal proceedings against the company will be held in abeyance for a period of years during which the company agrees to take steps, subject to monitoring, to correct its past misdeeds. The DPA is commonly filed along with a criminal information that commences a criminal case, and the parties then request that the court stay any proceedings in the case for the period defined in the DPA. If the company complies with the terms of the DPA, the government will dismiss the case at the conclusion of that period.

Because the government implements a DPA through the commencement of a criminal proceeding, however, it must contend with the application of the speedy trial statute during the period of deferral. The parties usually request jointly that the time period be excluded from the calculation of the 70-day period within which the trial must otherwise commence pursuant to statute. 18 U.S.C. § 3161(c)(1).

In United States v. HSBC Bank USA, N.A., 12-CR-763 (E.D.N.Y.), the government filed an information on December 11, 2012, charging HSBC Bank USA, N.A. with violations of the Bank Secrecy Act, 31 U.S.C. § 5311 et seq. (including, among other things, willfully failing to maintain an effective anti-money laundering policy) and with willfully facilitating financial transactions on behalf of sanctioned entities in violation of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, 50 U.S.C. §§ 1702 & 1705 and the Trading with the Enemy Act, 50 U.S.C. App. §§ 3, 5, 16. On that same day, the government also filed a DPA, a Statement of Facts, and a Corporate Compliance Monitor agreement. The government filed these documents as exhibits to a letter requesting that the court hold the case in abeyance for five years in accordance with the terms of the DPA and that the court exclude that time from the speedy trial clock.

In responding to this request, Judge Gleeson surprised the parties by asserting that he had the authority not only to rule on the request to exclude time from the speedy trial clock, but also to accept or reject the DPA itself. In a written opinion issued on July 1, 2013, Judge Gleeson acknowledged that the court’s authority did not stem from Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(c)(1)(A) (dealing with plea agreements to predetermined sentences) or from Section 6B1.2 of the United States Sentencing Guidelines (which addresses policy statements on the acceptance of such pleas). Rather, Judge Gleeson concluded that the court’s general supervisory power over criminal cases – to ensure that the integrity and fairness of those proceedings – vested the court with authority to approve or reject the DPA.

In so concluding, Judge Gleeson noted that the government retains “absolute discretion not to prosecute,” and noted that a non-prosecution agreement “is not the business of the courts.” Judge Gleeson further noted that the government “has near-absolute power under Fed. R. Crim. P. 48(a) to extinguish a case that it has brought.” But once the government and the defendant chose to build into their DPA the filing and maintenance of a criminal prosecution – albeit one expected to be held in abeyance – the government gave up its largely unfettered discretion. “There is nothing wrong with that,” Judge Gleeson observed, “but a pending federal criminal case is not window dressing.”

“Nor is the Court,” Judge Gleeson noted, using Brendan Sullivan’s famous observation from the Iran-Contra hearings, “a potted plant.” If the parties chose to seek the court’s imprimatur on the DPA by involving the court in the process, they also subjected the DPA to the review and approval of the court pursuant to its supervisory authority over its proceedings.

Judge Gleeson’s self-described “novel” application of the court’s supervisory powers in this context is part of a pattern of increased judicial scrutiny of certain tools used in obtaining the cooperation of companies that are the focus of criminal investigations. Judge Gleeson noted the recent history of cases in which efforts to gain corporate cooperation had run afoul of companies’ attorney-client privilege and work product protections or its employees’ Fifth or Sixth Amendment rights, and noted that there are other hypothetical situations in which a company’s obligation to cooperate could be used in an improper manner.

Ultimately, Judge Gleeson approved the DPA in this case but also noted that the court’s approval was subject to continued monitoring of its execution and implementation.

If other judges follow Judge Gleeson’s lead, this may signal a change in the way in which prosecutors use DPAs. Historically, a DPA permitted the government to retain virtually unlimited discretion in its dealings with the party that entered into that agreement. To the extent that courts will now be more alert to potential abuses of cooperation arrangements, DPAs may be fairer to companies but may also become less attractive to prosecutors.

In asserting authority to approve or reject a DPA, Judge Gleeson readily acknowledged the broad discretion of the Executive Branch in exercising prosecutorial discretion. But if DPAs continue to incorporate the filing of criminal informations that are then held in abeyance, the courts may indeed be more than just drop-boxes for those filings – or more than just potted plants.