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Many Americans assume that white-collar criminals get off lightly, but many do not. Granted, they may be hard to catch and can often afford good lawyers. But federal prosecutors can file many charges for what is essentially one offence. For example, they can count each e-mail sent by a white-collar criminal in the course of his criminal activity as a separate case of wire fraud, each of which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years. The decades soon add up. Sentences depend partly on the size of the loss and the number of people affected, so if you work for a big, publicly traded company, you break a rule and the share-price drops, watch out. |
Jim Felman, a defence lawyer in Tampa, Florida, says America is conducting “an experiment in imprisoning first-time non-violent offenders for periods of time previously reserved only for those who had killed someone”. One of Mr Felman’s clients, a fraudster called Sholam Weiss, was sentenced to 845 years. “I got it reduced to 835,” sighs Mr Felman. Faced with such penalties, he says, the incentive to co-operate, which means to say things that are helpful to the prosecution, is overwhelming. And this, he believes, “warps the truth-seeking function” of justice.
Innocent defendants may plead guilty in return for a shorter sentence to avoid the risk of a much longer one. A prosecutor can credibly threaten a middle-aged man that he will die in a cell unless he gives evidence against his boss. This is unfair, complains Harvey Silverglate, the author of “Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent”. If a defence lawyer offers a witness money to testify that his client is innocent, that is bribery. But a prosecutor can legally offer something of far greater value—his freedom—to a witness who says the opposite. The potential for wrongful convictions is obvious.
Badly drafted laws create traps for the unwary. In 2006 Georgia Thompson, a civil servant in Wisconsin, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for depriving the public of “the intangible right of honest services”. Her crime was to award a contract (for travel services) to the best bidder. A firm called Adelman Travel scored the most points (on an official scale) for price and quality, so Ms Thompson picked it. She ignored a rule that required her to penalise Adelman for a slapdash presentation when bidding. For this act of common sense, she served four months. (An appeals court freed her.)
The “honest services” statute, if taken seriously, “would seemingly cover a salaried employee’s phoning in sick to go to a ball game,” fumes Antonin Scalia, a Supreme Court justice. The Supreme Court ruled recently that the statute was so vague as to be unconstitutional. It did not strike it down completely, but said it should be applied only in cases involving bribery or kickbacks. The challenge was brought by Enron’s former boss, Jeff Skilling, who will not go free despite his victory, and Conrad Black, a media magnate released this week on bail pending an appeal, who may.
There are over 4,000 federal crimes, and many times that number of regulations that carry criminal penalties. When analysts at the Congressional Research Service tried to count the number of separate offences on the books, they were forced to give up, exhausted. Rules concerning corporate governance or the environment are often impossible to understand, yet breaking them can land you in prison. In many criminal cases, the common-law requirement that a defendant must have a mens rea (ie, he must or should know that he is doing wrong) has been weakened or erased.
“The founders viewed the criminal sanction as a last resort, reserved for serious offences, clearly defined, so ordinary citizens would know whether they were violating the law. Yet over the last 40 years, an unholy alliance of big-business-hating liberals and tough-on-crime conservatives has made criminalisation the first line of attack—a way to demonstrate seriousness about the social problem of the month, whether it’s corporate scandals or e-mail spam,” writes Gene Healy, a libertarian scholar. “You can serve federal time for interstate transport of water hyacinths, trafficking in unlicensed dentures, or misappropriating the likeness of Woodsy Owl.”
“You’re (probably) a federal criminal,” declares Alex Kozinski, an appeals-court judge, in a provocative essay of that title. Making a false statement to a federal official is an offence. So is lying to someone who then repeats your lie to a federal official. Failing to prevent your employees from breaking regulations you have never heard of can be a crime. A boss got six months in prison because one of his workers accidentally broke a pipe, causing oil to spill into a river. “It didn’t matter that he had no reason to learn about the [Clean Water Act’s] labyrinth of regulations, since he was merely a railroad-construction supervisor,” laments Judge Kozinski.
Such cases account for only a tiny share of the Americans behind bars, but they still matter. When so many people are technically breaking the law, it is up to prosecutors to decide whom to pursue. No doubt most prosecutors choose wisely. But members of unpopular groups may not find that reassuring. Ms Thompson, for example, was prosecuted just before an election, at a time when allegations of public corruption in Wisconsin were in the news. Some prosecutors, such as Eliot Spitzer, the disgraced ex-governor of New York, have built political careers by nailing people whom voters don’t like, such as financiers.