Will High Court Consider Key Issue Defining Prosecutorial Misconduct?

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The Supreme Court will soon be considering whether to take up an interesting question involving when monetary sanctions may be imposed for prosecutorial misconduct. More than 50 former federal judges and U.S. attorneys are pushing to get an 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling from last year overturned. In early August, the former judges and prosecutors signed onto an amicus brief that urges the Supreme Court to grant certiorari in United States v. Shaygan. The defendant is appealing the appeals court’s overturning of a lower court’s award of more than $600,000 in attorneys’ fees to him after the unsuccessful prosecution of his case.

Shaygan, a Miami doctor, was charged with trafficking illegal drugs following the overdose death of a patient. Events leading up to his trial demonstrated serious ethical questions about the prosecutors’ handling of the case. For instance, after Shaygan’s counsel moved to suppress testimony that was illegally obtained, in an act of retaliation the prosecution filed a 141-count superseding indictment. The prosecution initiated a collateral witness-tampering investigation in what defendants saw as a bad-faith effort to disqualify petitioner’s counsel on the eve of trial. And, in a “knowing and intentional” violation of court orders and discovery obligations, the prosecution withheld material information from both the court and the defendant. These actions led the trial court to impose sanctions because the prosecutors’ misconduct constituted “conscious and deliberate wrongs that arose from the prosecutors’ moral obliquity and egregious departures from the ethical standards to which prosecutors are held.”

The government appealed to the 11th Circuit, where a sharply divided panel overturned the trial court. The circuit’s rationale was based upon its interpretation of the statute,the Hyde Amendment, that provides for the award of attorneys’ fees and other litigation expenses “where the court finds that the position of the United States was vexatious, frivolous, or in bad faith, unless the court finds that special circumstances make such an award unjust.”

The circuit ruled that sanctions were not appropriate because the superseding indictment was objectively valid. And if the underlying (or superseding) indictment could be deemed objectively reasonable, the prosecution could not be held vexatious or frivolous and thus attorneys’ fees were not merited. See our earlier discussion of this issue in this blog.

The court’s holding raised the eyebrows of many former federal judges and prosecutors as well as scholars. Their main contention appears to be the 11th Circuit’s reading of the clause “vexatious, frivolous, or in bad faith.” The amicus brief filed on behalf of the former judges and prosecutors raised two main arguments for why the 11th Circuit’s decision was wrong: (1) based upon the canons of statutory construction, sanctions under the Hyde Amendment are appropriate when prosecutors act in subjective bad faith, even if an indictment is supported by probable cause; (2) acknowledging a subjective standard helps judges control their courtrooms and provides a necessary tool to address prosecutorial misconduct.

The first argument focuses on the “or” in the Hyde Amendment’s provision for sanctions where a prosecutor’s position is found to be “vexatious, frivolous, or in bad faith.” The amici argue that the disjunctive “or” separates the “bad faith” prong from the “vexatious” and “frivolous” prongs, indicating that bad faith can serve as an alternative basis for relief under the Hyde Amendment. Their reading of the statute, they argue, “comports with our basic principles of criminal justice. Our system’s greatness rests, in part, on our insistence that the process be conducted in a principled, clean manner. Thus, for example, we permit the guilty to go free when the evidence against them was obtained in violation of their Fourth Amendment rights. We suppress coerced confessions, even when they bear every indicia of reliability. And we do not permit the prosecution even of a guilty person on the grounds of that person’s race. ”

The amici’s second argument emphasizes the need to provide judges with control over their courtrooms, and the need to impose appropriate sanctions for prosecutorial misconduct. To rein in the overzealous, overreaching, or rabid prosecutor, the Hyde Amendment sanctions provide an important mechanism to restore control. The amici note that other sanctions, such as complaints with bar associations, have proved ineffective over the years and that prosecutors are immune from most lawsuits relating to their official conduct.

It remains to be seen whether the Court will take up the Shaygan case — the chances of the Court ever granting certiorari are pretty slim. But a strongly-worded amicus brief from more than 50 former prosecutors and judges and a notably sharp divide in the 11th Circuit could persuade the Court.