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Pittsburgh White Collar - Grail Law Firm

Takeaways from the Annual Pennsylvania White Collar Criminal Defense Lawyers’ Conference

Newsflash: the Justice Department is still an insider’s club, criminal practice is not for beginners, and courts still penalize defendants who exercise their constitutional right to have criminal charges against them tried by a jury; Western Pennsylvania is the only judicial district in the country regularly prosecuting doctors who prescribe Suboxone, and everyone’s rekindled interest in the Nixon case as a prediction of Special Counsel Robert Muller’s next move.

That’s our “takeaway” from the annual White Collar Criminal Defense seminar featuring top prosecutors, judges, and federal defense practitioners, hosted by the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in Philadelphia this past month. The annual event brings key Justice Department lawyers from Washington, and practice chiefs from the local and neighboring U.S. Attorneys’ Office, together with judges and defense practitioners, to discuss the Government’s enforcement focus and the strategy and tactics to defend them. The program provides insight into current Government initiatives, and a window onto what has changed in the law; what we learned is that the more things change, the more things remain the same.

This year’s program featured the Eastern District of Pennsylvania Federal Judge Wendy Beetlestone, on sentencing practices for criminal defendants in White Collar Cases. The implicit message in her remarks, as well as in those of appellate lawyers at the program following her address, was the implicit bias of the judiciary against criminal defendants who insist on exercising their constitutional right to trial by a jury of their peers on the charges against them. Of course, this sounds counterintuitive to non-lawyers; the federal United States Sentencing Guidelines, however, place an enormous emphasis on having criminal defendants admit their guilt and show remorse, to the extent of rewarding those who plead guilty with a lesser sentence. Unlike plea bargaining in many states, however, federal criminal procedure does not provide for a plea of “no contest,” where the defendant withdraws their plea of not guilty because they believe that taking the prosecution’s offer without a trial “is in their best interest” (California law provides for this in what is known as an Alford plea; in West Virginia it’s referred to as a Kennedy plea).

Sure, the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution provides that every defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty – but defendants who put the prosecution and the courts through the exercise of a trial are routinely punished for relying on that right.  Since they have not admitted their guilt or shown remorse, this is generally true in practice even if they do not take the stand to testify in their own defense, or present evidence directly disputing that they are guilty of the charge(s), and instead exercise their constitutional right to remain silent.  Indeed, the implicit rule has not changed little: if you must go to trial, be certain that you win because the price of losing is higher than the price of admitting guilt.

And speaking of trials, the overwhelming takeaway from appeals of political trials seems to be that under no circumstances should the defense ever sit quietly while a judge sends an indictment into the jury room, as the “road map” for consideration of the charges. Indictments are in effect the government’s statement of its case, replete with excess and prejudicial allegations which in no instance reflects at all well on the defendant, and further, object strenuously to the judge holding her jury charge conference in chambers, without a court reporter present; there is too much potential to waive legal objections through lack of adequate preservation of the issues. The familiarity and closeness of the government prosecutors and defense lawyers on a personal level emphasized, once again, how many of us as defense lawyers started out as prosecutors, and oftentimes how many prosecutors start out as defense lawyers. 

We hang out together because we speak the same language, we often respect each other, and most of the time we even like each other.  Don’t underestimate the value of personal relationships and familiarity with the system in choosing your criminal defense advocate.  The “Main Justice” Department in Washington and the U.S. Attorneys Office(s), are notorious for being places where “inside baseball” is played, or as we say in Pittsburgh, where only “home cooking” is served.  If your civil lawyer who doesn’t know where the U .S. Attorney’s Office is or who sits in it, tells you they can handle the criminal matter just fine, don’t believe them; this isn’t something you want your attorney to learn at your expense.  

In health care prosecutions, as Buzzfeed recently noted online, the Western District of Pennsylvania seems to remain the only federal judicial district in the country prosecuting doctors who allegedly misprescribed buprenorphine (suboxone).  Doctors beware. 

And finally, what we learned at the White Collar Seminar was that if acting Attorney General Whitaker (or his successor) unseats special prosecutor Mueller, the Chief Judge of the judicial district in the District of Columbia may not maintain an investigation without the Justice Department leading it.  That having been said, former PA Western District U.S. Attorney Harry Littman said just several days ago on TV that, regardless of Special Counsel Mueller’s longevity in office, his plans for the further investigation and possible prosecution of Donald Trump, Jr., the President’s son, Jared Kushner, the President’s his son-in-law, and even the President himself should all be revealed in short order.  Stay tuned!