Friday, August 15, 2008

California Supreme Court Expands Measures to Eliminate Jury Bias

On July 24, 2008, the California Supreme Court committed to a position it has resisted for nearly twenty years by holding that evidence supporting the need for a comparative jury analysis must be considered on appeal if relied upon by the defendant, even if the issue was not raised at the trial level. A comparative jury analysis examines the prosecutor’s questions to potential jurors to determine whether the prosecutor eliminated certain jurors based on racial motivations or because of a membership to a particular group.
People v. Lenix, S148029, 2008 WL 2834291 (Cal. July 24, 2008) involved the prosecution of Arthur Lenix, an African-American man. During jury selection, the prosecution made five peremptory challenges, with the fifth challenge eliminating the last remaining black potential juror. Defense counsel challenged the decision, claiming that the strike was based on race. On appeal, the defense sought to compare the answers of potential white jurors who were selected with those of potential black jurors who were dismissed. A comparative jury analysis is the most common way to evaluate a claim made under Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 89 (1986), where the United States Supreme Court held that eliminating jurors based solely on racial affiliation violated the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution.
California has a long history of reluctance to engage in a comparative jury analysis for the first time on appeal. See People v. Johnson, 47 Cal. 3d 1194, 1221 (1989). The United States Supreme Court, however, has embraced this approach to evaluating a Batson claim, and has employed it in three separate cases from Texas and Louisiana in the past five years. See Miller-El v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322 (2003); Miller-El v. Dretke, 545 U.S. 231 (2005); Snyder v. Louisiana, 128 S. Ct. 1203 (2008).
After Miller-El v. Cockrell, the California Supreme Court conceded that when a comparative jury analysis had been conducted at the trial level, it could be part of an appellate review. See People v. Johnson, 30 Cal. 4th 1302, 1321 (2003). After several subsequent California cases revived the issue, the Court finally permitted a comparative jury analysis for the first time on appeal, although it made clear that it was “assuming without deciding” that engaging in this type of analysis for the first time on appeal was required in order for the Court to be able to review the case based on the entire record, as is constitutionally required. See e.g. People v. Huggins, 38 Cal. 4th 175, 232 (2006).
Following the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Snyder, the California Supreme Court finally addressed the issue directly in Lenix. The Court requested a supplemental brief to determine officially whether the court is constitutionally required to perform a comparative jury analysis to evaluate the prosecutor’s reasons for peremptory challenges when defense raises a Batson claim for the first time at the appellate level. The answer was yes, on the rationale that failing to conduct such an inquiry restricts the requirement that the review must be based on the entire record. The Court did maintain, however, that such an analysis is only proper if the record is adequate to permit such a comparison of jury responses. Lenix, S148029, 2008 WL 2834291, at *12 (Cal. July 24, 2008).
Justice Corrigan cautioned, however, that the changes brought on by this decision would be limited. She emphasized that the trial court is best equipped to judge the prosecutor’s explanations for dismissing certain jurors, since prosecutors do not have a chance to explain their actions on appeal. Consequently, “these realities, and the complexity of human nature, make a formalistic comparison of isolated responses an exceptionally poor medium to overturn a trial court’s factual finding.” Id. at *13.
Although the Court issued a groundbreaking decision, the matter is not entirely settled. In a concurring opinion, Justice Baxter and Justice Chin maintained that a comparative jury analysis should be raised and preserved at the trial level if it is to be investigated on appeal. The Court, however, did not include the requirement in its majority opinion that a comparative jury analysis must be conducted at trial level in order to be raised on appeal because there is no guidance from the United States Supreme Court as to whether such a requirement would be constitutional.
In the end, the decision did not afford relief to Mr. Lenix. After conducting a comparative jury analysis, the Court held that there was nothing improper about the prosecutor’s decision to dismiss the last potential black juror. The decision is victorious for defense attorneys, however, who now may have one more jury selection-related issue to raise at the appellate level.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

United States Supreme Court Curtails Federal Money-Laundering Statute

On June 2, 2008 the United States Supreme Court severely limited the reach of the Money-Laundering Control Act (18 U.S.C. § 1956) in two separate decisions. In Cuellar v. United States (2008) 128 S.Ct. 1994, the Court unanimously held that in order to obtain a money-laundering conviction, the prosecution must prove that the defendant specifically intended his actions to conceal or disguise the attributes of the illegally obtained funds.

This interpretation is a sharp deviation from the flexibility that has been attached to the statute since its creation in 1986. A person commits money laundering when he transports illegal funds, “knowing that the transaction is designed…to conceal or disguise the nature, the location, the source, the ownership, or the control of the proceeds of specified unlawful activity.” 18 U.S.C. § 1956. Courts have, however, traditionally interpreted the word “designed” liberally, allowing for convictions when merely the effect, not the intent, of the transportation was to conceal the nature of the funds. The Cuellar decision prevents this use of the statute. In another case, United States v. Santos (2008) 128 S.Ct. 2020, the Court limited the definition of the word “proceeds” in the statute to signify the net profits of the unlawful activity, not the total receipts.

The decisions come as a heavy blow to prosecutors, who have championed the money- laundering statute as a powerful weapon in the war on drugs and organized crime. A money laundering conviction can result in as high as a 20-year sentence. Many defense attorneys have protested, however, that the government improperly used the statute to pressure defendants to plead guilty to other crimes, such as drug dealing. In 2006, the government obtained nearly 1,000 money laundering convictions.

The Money-Laundering Control Act criminalizes certain transfers of money derived from illegal activities. In Cuellar, Mr. Cuellar was stopped by law enforcement attempting to transport large amounts of cash from Texas to Mexico. Although he made substantial efforts to hide the money by bundling it in plastic bags and covering it with animal fur, the Court held that he could not be convicted under the money-laundering statute. Justice Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court, and the ruling turns on the Legislature’s use of the word “design.” The prosecution must prove, the Court held, that Mr. Cuellar knew that transporting the funds to Mexico was designed to conceal or disguise the nature, location, source, ownership, or control of the money. Merely hiding the funds during transportation was not enough to violate the statute; the purpose of the transportation must be to conceal the money’s illegal aspects. The Court distinguished how one moves money from why one moves money, and stated that evidence of the former did not necessarily prove the latter.

The government did win a small victory when the Court rejected Mr. Cuellar’s position that a money-laundering conviction required a defendant to intend to create the appearance of legitimate wealth. However, this small conquest is overshadowed by the reaching implications of the overall ruling.

The second case, a 5-to-4 decision, involved the proceeds of an illegal lottery in Indiana bars and restaurants. In Santos, Mr. Santos was charged with money laundering for the payments he made to his runners and winners, and the case turned on the definition of “proceeds.” The government argued that “proceeds” should include the total receipts of the activity, while the defense argued that it only included the net profits. Justice Scalia delivered the opinion of the Court holding that, by dictionary definition, “proceeds” can mean either receipts or profits. Accordingly, the statute was determined to be ambiguous. The Court thereby held that because ambiguity is read in favor of the defendant, the definition of proceeds must be limited to mean net profit, not total receipts.

The two decisions raise the bar for prosecutors, who can no longer rely on a money-laundering conviction based solely on concealment of illegal funds.

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