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When Cheating is Legal

March 26, 2018

New York State’s “Blindfold Law” is legalized cheating for the DA.  New York’s discovery rules allow prosecutors to withhold discovery and potentially exculpatory evidence for the defendant—evidence that could clear the defendant—until the eve of trial.  This means a defendant (and his attorney) can enter trial unaware of the evidence that may be used against him by the government and without evidence that may be integral to his defense, including the simple fact of his accuser’s identity. Simply put, the defense is blindfolded.   How, you might ask, can someone defend themselves against supposed “evidence” if they don’t even know what that evidence is? Well, for the most part, they don’t, because the prosecution uses this blindfold tactic to pressure defendants into taking guilty pleas. As reported by the New York Division of Criminal Justice Services, an astounding 98% of felony convictions are the result of plea deals. And that is not, I can assure you, because 98% of those defendants are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt (the standard of proof at trial), but instead because they feel the pressure of a system stacked against them and see no other way out than to accept a higher deal than they may deserve. Even if the government’s evidence is weak, the mere fact that they are not obligated to disclose it to the defendant means they can easily fool him into believing that what they have is stronger than it is. This “blindfold law” enables the government to intimidate vulnerable defendants into signing a plea, securing themselves a conviction that may not have resulted if the case had gone to trial. Furthermore, when a case does go to trial, what often ensues is a trial-by-ambush. For perspective, let me tell you about a trial we had in 2015 in New York County. After months of litigation, the day before trial, the prosecutors sent over a stack of discovery documents that would rival the page count of Tolsoy’s War and Peace—not a quick one-night-ready-for-trial-read. We asked the Judge for time to review the documents—a reasonable request seeing that reviewing discovery is necessary to properly defend any client. Our request was denied, the trial proceeded, and the government presented evidence we hardly had time to review, let alone to counter. This was a trial that haunts me to this day because it is a trial we should have won. Had the government sent the discovery documents in the ample time they had to do so, we could have. This ambush would never happen in civil court, where each side is required to comply with the standard of complete transparency. Before either side even steps foot in the civil courtroom for trial, they have each reviewed every document and piece of evidence gathered by the other side and have had the opportunity to depose every witness. A civil lawyer would never dream of settling a suit or taking it to trial without having done so. In fact, if an attorney tried to withhold discovery in civil court, both the receiving attorney and the Judge would be up in arms because it would be considered outrageous, yet this is the norm of criminal court, […]

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The Most Dangerous Man In America

March 7, 2018

The most dangerous man in America doesn’t sit atop the FBI’s Most Wanted list, but instead runs arguably the most powerful institution of our federal government—the Department of Justice.  Jeff Sessions, as United States Attorney General, has virtually unchecked power to cater the policies of the DOJ to fit his own agenda, and these policies affect everyone. The Attorney General is answerable only to the laws passed by Congress and to the President, who has the sole authority to hire or fire him. While the President’s tweeting habits may indicate he is tightening Sessions’ leash, for all of Sessions’ activity that doesn’t pertain to Mueller’s Russia investigation, the President has largely turned a blind eye. This tacit disinterest leaves Sessions with free reign over the DOJ, able to interpret the law however he sees fit. This power, in the hands of Jeff Sessions, is lethal to the last century of our country’s progress. Sessions wishes to reinstate antiquated policies mirroring those in place before the Civil Rights movement and in the heyday of the War on Drugs. History can tell us why this is a bad idea. To do so, despite his purported conservative “small government” policies, Sessions has been quietly, yet significantly, expanding the reach of the federal government, against the wishes of most American citizens. His dogged and irrational pursuit of marijuana-related crime disproportionately targets African-American neighborhoods for criminal activity and increases medical reliance across America on prescription opioids for those who would alternatively utilize the much safer and less addictive medical marijuana for pain management. His emphasis on “violent crime” diverts necessary attention from the prosecution of other prolific criminal arenas such as white-collar and cybercrimes that can and do have devastating consequences on American lives, as well as our democratic system. On top of all of this, his enthusiasm for debtor’s prisons and his call for reduced oversight of police departments, despite repeated documented police shootings and abuses of power by police officers, will lead to an assured curtailment of citizens’ civil rights. Because the American people overwhelmingly disapprove of harsher marijuana restrictions and expanding federal overreach, Sessions’ policies have received inevitable bipartisan condemnation, with criticism spouting from even the notoriously conservative Koch brothers. Recently, a bipartisan group of 54 lawmakers in Congress sent President Trump a letter urging him to direct Sessions to reinstate an Obama-era policy that gave states leeway in allowing marijuana for recreational purposes.  Despite Sessions’ claim that by pursuing strict enforcement of federal marijuana laws he aims to “enforce the laws that were enacted by Congress,” his policies are clearly not in line with the desires of Congress, who, short of changing the law, has little say in how the criminal statutes written by its predecessors are construed. In his Department Charging and Sentencing Policy memo for all federal prosecutors released in May of 2017, Sessions called on prosecutors to “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense.” His primary objective seemed to be that of reversing the directives of his predecessor, former AG Eric Holder, who urged prosecutors to apply discretion when considering what charges to bring against a defendant to avoid unnecessarily harsh sentences disproportionate to the crime committed. Holder recognized a disparity between those offenders who may have made a wrong decision, or were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, as opposed […]

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Vinoo Varghese’s Reflections on NY Times Op-Ed: “Aziz Ansari Is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind Reader.”

January 29, 2018

The writer of this op-ed, Bari Weiss, highlights a critical problem with the #metoo movement: “the insidious attempt by some women to criminalize awkward, gross and entitled sex takes women back to the days of smelling salts and fainting couches.” Boom. As a criminal defense attorney, I see a bigger problem with the attempt by some women like Aziz’s accuser to criminalize that which isn’t—the loss of the presumption of innocence. The presumption of innocence is a nice concept in theory, but not for those ACCUSED of a sexual assault. Then it’s you’re guilty and you should just die. In nearly 20 years of practice, I have seen too many innocent men suffer tremendous damage to their reputation, livelihood, and sanity by false accusations. And, as in this “case” against Aziz, I have seen too many accusers who have embraced the blame culture for their buyer’s remorse instead of holding themselves personally responsible for poor choices. I thought America was the land of the free, but not when you have a bad date. Here’s the link: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/15/opinion/aziz-ansari-babe-sexual-harassment.html

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Terrorists Should Be Read Their Miranda Rights, Too

November 16, 2017

Terrorists who commit crimes on American soil are not foreign soldiers.  To treat them as soldiers is to dignify them in a way they don’t deserve—as part of something larger—a nation state at war with American ideals and America itself.  Instead, they are criminals deserving the same and no more respect than that afforded by the Constitution.  To treat them as soldiers reinforces the false notion that Islam and America are at war, perpetuates rifts that plague our society, and further incentivizes radicals.  We must not buy into the rhetoric of a global religious war—us against them—and sacrifice the very principles and ideals that serve as the very foundation of our nation—including the right to remain silent and the right to counsel in a criminal case.  If we abandon these—our values, our commitment to freedom and fairness—then we might as well give up and let these terrorists win. In the wake of the TriBeCa car attack on October 31st, Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain, along with Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, called for Sayfullo Saipov to be labeled and held as an “enemy combatant.”  To their disappointment the Trump administration didn’t take such action and the Acting U.S. Attorney in Manhattan instead formally charged Saipov under federal criminal law.  When someone is held as an enemy combatant, he is not afforded the same rights as everyone else charged under the federal criminal code, and he may never be formally charged and Mirandized.  Advocates of enemy combatant labeling believe that reading a suspected terrorist Miranda rights, and have him potentially invoke his right to an attorney and remain silent, will impede the United States from properly interrogating him and gathering beneficial information on others.  While there is always the risk of lawyering up, there is  strong evidence to suggest that torture doesn’t work as an interrogation tool. The Bush Administration, after 9/11, held suspected terrorists as enemy combatants as part of the “war on terror” against al Qaeda.  With this policy, President Bush stretched the definition of “war” and manipulated it to suit a dubious agenda that included torture and having White House lawyers attempt to justify it, as well as conducting warrantless searches on Americans, despite having the opportunity to use a secret court, FISA, set up specifically for obtaining warrants without opposition.  By labeling the hostility with al Qaeda as a “war” within the larger context of the “War on Terror,” Bush then claimed that domestic criminal law would not suffice for proper prosecution of al Qaeda’s agents, aka “terrorists.”  President Bush also claimed that the “war” with al Qaeda was a special type of war and therefore adherence to the rules set by the Geneva Convention of 1949, which contain rules limiting the barbarity of war, was unnecessary. The legality of holding suspected terrorists claiming ISIS affiliation, like Saipov, as “enemy combatants” is further questionable because ISIS, unlike al Qaeda, isn’t covered by the 2001 Authorization of the Use of Military Force, which Congress authorized to be carried out exclusively against those involved with the 9/11 attacks and any “associated forces.”  ISIS was not associated with al-Qaeda and had no part in the 9/11 attack, as it didn’t exist in 2001.  The policy of holding suspected terrorists as enemy combatants, however, […]

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Donald Trump and Corporate Greed– Vinoo Varghese Leads CLE Webinar Discussion

August 7, 2017

In the first seven months of his presidency, Donald Trump has created a great deal of uncertainty about the trajectory of our country by undoing or attempting to undo many Obama administration policies. One policy President Trump was particularly vocal about dealt with the regulation of businesses, which he believed were being treated “unfairly.” He promised a more “business-friendly” approach. Will this promise lead to a reduction in corporate corruption prosecution after the emphasis placed on such during the Obama administration? The Knowledge Group  has asked our principal, Vinoo Varghese, to share his views in a live CLE webinar called “Trump Administration’s Priorities on Corporate Wrongdoings: What You Need to Know.” Vinoo will discuss U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ history with corporate prosecution, criminal penalties for corporate greed, provide historical context to enforcement, and consider likely trends under Trump. Tune into the webcast Tuesday, August 8th at 1:00 PM EST by clicking HERE. Registration is free for the first 30 guests with code: Varghese146562. After that, there will be a reduced registration fee of $25. For CLE credit, the price is $49.  The description for the webcast is as follows: Since the issuance of the Yates Memo in late 2015, the US Department of Justice has pursued a policy of seeking accountability from individuals who perpetrate corporate wrongdoing.  It requires that any company under investigation must deliver all proof of wrongdoing by its employees to receive credit for cooperation.  The DOJ policy thus added a heavy burden to any corporation that intends to use an internal investigation as support for leniency or a settlement.  With the avowedly business-friendly Trump administration comes uncertainty over how priorities will change under the new attorney general and reconstituted DOJ staff. In this one-hour live webcast, a panel of thought leaders brought together by The Knowledge Group will discuss the current state of Yates Memo enforcement as it affects inside counsel and internal compliance officers, and further how the preferences of the current administration may translate into refocusing or revision of DOJ policy.  Key Topics discussed will include: Yates Memo Overview Individual Accountability Disclosure Requirements Cooperation Credit Criminal/Civil Liability Enforcement Trends For more information, please visit The Knowledge Group’s website, call 1.800.578.4370, or email info@theknowledgegroup.org.  

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When the Villain Has a Badge

June 13, 2017

In the 1980s and 1990s, Louis Scarcella was the best homicide detective in New York City.  In an era demanding law enforcement to be tough on crime, Scarcella, well-dressed and charismatic, made a name for himself by solving some of the most high-profile murders.  Scarcella charmed witnesses and juries and easily secured confessions and convictions.  Scarcella was said to be able to get things the other detectives couldn’t.  In 1990, one of these investigations led Scarcella to David Ranta, who was convicted for shooting holocaust survivor and Hasidic rabbi, Chaskel Werzberger—Mr. Ranta got a life sentence.  At the time, no one stopped to consider whether his investigations were too good to be true.  After all, the Brooklyn DA’s office needed to demonstrate they were doing something about crime and Scarcella was serving them murderer after murderer on a shiny silver platter.  With each conviction, the DA was one step closer to appeasing the public panic brought about by the crack epidemic plaguing the streets of New York.   Twenty years later, public attitude has somewhat shifted as there has been some focus on wrongful convictions and a push to reform the criminal justice system.  In response, in 2011, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office under Charles Hynes established its “Conviction Integrity Unit” (CIU) to review potentially problematic cases.  Many questions had surfaced surrounding several of Scarcella’s cases and the DA’s office announced it would review over fifty cases in which Scarcella played a chief role in the conviction.  So far, seven of these convictions have been overturned.  Scarcella manipulated the investigations to fit his narrative and send his suspects to prison, guilty or not. In 2013, David Ranta, after 23 years in prison, became the first of the Scarcella defendants freed.  The Brooklyn DA’s office concluded that Scarcella’s investigation did not add up, that Ranta did not belong behind bars, and asked a judge to release him.  Multiple convictions were then overturned.  As it turned out, Scarcella coerced or falsified confessions, and bribed or blackmailed witnesses to lie on the stand.  Some of these defendants said Scarcella beat them until they signed a confession, others that he manufactured it altogether.  Witnesses reported they were threatened with perjury, jail, and even losing their children, if they did not say what Scarcella told them to say.  Notably, Scarcella also relied on the testimony of one crack-riddled prostitute, Teresa Gomez, as his star witness in at least four different murder trials. Mr. Ranta was convicted despite a lack of physical evidence connecting him to the murder; his conviction stemmed instead from witness accounts and a confession, all of which since appear to have been coerced or plainly falsified by Scarcella.  An eyewitness testified that he was told by a detective—Scarcella was the lead detective on the case—to pick the man with “the big nose” out of a lineup, with Ranta being the only one fitting that description.  Two other witnesses admitted to explicitly lying in exchange for clemency in their own unrelated cases, and said that Scarcella had even accommodated them by having them leave jail to smoke crack and have sex with prostitutes in exchange for their testimony.  Mr. Ranta himself steadfastly maintained that Scarcella […]

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A Face of Evil

June 1, 2017

Massachusetts forensic chemist, Annie Dookhan, played God to advance her career.  As she sat in her lab and deliberately mishandled drug samples, she determined the fate of over twenty thousand lives.  Dookhan carelessly and selfishly claimed to be “the best chemist on staff,” leaving little regard for the destruction she left in her wake.  Not only did she send innocent men and women to jail by tainting evidence—a gross injustice for which the Boston DA’s offices refuse to take responsibility—but, she also cost taxpayers millions of dollars to mop up the shattered pieces of the criminal justice system that she broke. Dookhan pleaded guilty to 27 counts of perjury, obstruction of justice, and tampering with evidence.  She marked tests positive without properly testing them, mixed samples to create positive tests, and forged signatures to cover up inconsistent results.  Dookhan was known as Superwoman by her colleagues, yet that nickname couldn’t be further from what she turned out to be.  In the comics, Superwoman saved lives, Dookhan, however, destroyed the lives of over twenty thousand people. Shockingly, Dookhan was sentenced to only 3 years in prison, a sentence shorter than many sentences issued to the innocent people that were wrongfully convicted due to her complete neglect for human life and lack of respect for the criminal justice system.  Dookhan should have been punished with a sentence proportionate to the crimes she committed, yet she wasn’t. Although more than 20,000 cases, around 95%, of the 24,000 tainted by Dookhan have been dismissed, the Boston DA’s offices continue to defend the original convictions.  As quoted in The New York Times, a spokesman for one of the Boston DAs, Daniel Conley, claimed that these convictions were not wrongful, but were rather “cases that could be appealed on procedural grounds.” If the ACLU had not stepped in and filed a lawsuit, Bridgeman v. DA of Suffolk County, most of the “Dookhan defendants” wouldn’t have filed for post-conviction relief.  Before the suit, less than 1,200 of these defendants had filed for such relief. In its defense of this suit, the DA proclaimed that because most of the Dookhan defendants’ convictions resulted from guilty pleas, they were surely guilty of something and, therefore, to dismiss such a high volume of cases would lead to “chaos.”  The DA demonstrated a cavalier indifference to due process and insulted our criminal justice system, which is predicated on innocent until proven guilty.  The “chaos” of this situation does not stem from the rightful dismissal of these 20,000 cases, but is due instead to the deleterious effect that Dookhan’s ego had on the lives of these 20,000 wrongfully convicted individuals. The government, which has the power to strip people of their liberty, must be held to the highest standard of integrity.  Those who take advantage of their position should be punished to the degree of the damage they imposed.  Superwoman Dookhan, playing God, ruined 20,000 lives and should have been punished more severely and a contrite attitude by the DA would go a long way toward repairing the trust between the public and law enforcement.

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Prosecutor Pleads Guilty To Conducting Illegal Wiretaps In Bizarre Love Triangle

April 7, 2017

Every now and then I read something that makes my head shake. This is one of them. Here, a (now former) prosecutor, Tara Lenich, formerly of the Brooklyn DA’s Office, who took an oath to uphold the Constitution, ran illegal wiretaps so she could spy on the other two parts of her bizarre love triangle, another prosecutor and a detective. Fortunately, she was caught, and this week she pleaded guilty to the above in Brooklyn federal court. Photo Credit: New York Law Journal Reading about this reminds me of Lord Acton’s famous quotation which has never rung truer: “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In our society, there are no actors closer to absolute power than prosecutors. While prosecutors are part of the executive branch of government, there are few checks on their power—in fact, there are more on the president himself. This prosecutor forged a judge’s signature because she couldn’t compel the phone company to do the wiretap without such a signature because that is what’s required by Title III. Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, also known as the “Wiretap Act”: 1) prohibits the unauthorized, nonconsensual interception of “wire, oral, or electronic communications” by government agencies as well as private parties; 2) establishes procedures for obtaining warrants to authorize wiretapping by government officials; and 3) regulates the disclosure and use of authorized intercepted communications by investigative and law enforcement officers. According to the DOJ, “Congress passed Title III in response to congressional investigations and published studies that found extensive wiretapping had been conducted by government agencies and private individuals without the consent of the parties or legal sanction. Congress found that the contents of these tapped conversations and the evidence derived from them were being used by government and private parties as evidence in court and administrative proceedings.” Title III was enacted to prevent wiretap above and misuse by government officials. Here, this prosecutor circumvented Title III and used her absolute power to conduct illegal wiretaps. She is a disgrace to the criminal justice system, an insult to all ethical prosecutors, and her actions further erode trust in our system of government. I hope her time in prison will serve as a deterrent to other prosecutors who choose to play fast and loose with the 4th Amendment.

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Preet Bharara’s Spectacular Firing

March 20, 2017

(Photo: Getty Images) VINOO VARGHESE is a criminal defense attorney and a former prosecutor who defended multiple high-profile cases against Preet Bharara. Arrogant. For once, I’m not referring to our 45th President, but instead to Preet Bharara, the man referred to as the “Sheriff of Wall Street” and the “Showman Prosecutor.” He made a spectacle out of the fact that he was fired—though it is normal for a new president to fire sitting US Attorneys. President Clinton did this, so did President (W.) Bush, and so did President Obama. To many, Bharara is a hero for not resigning and instead demanding to be fired. Bharara isn’t a hero, unlike Sally Yates, who President Trump fired because she refused to follow his patently unconstitutional travel ban. Bharara’s demand to be fired while everyone else submitted their resignations was classic Bharara—the Showman. The media classified Bharara’s firing as another example of this President’s awful judgment (which there are plenty)—but this was just normal politics. The US Attorney is an “at-will” job—serving at the will of the sitting president. Here, even if President-Elect Trump had asked him to stay on—President Trump’s will changed—too bad for Bharara but good for the public. Bharara seemed to forget that he worked at-will or simply chose to ignore it since he believed himself bigger than the position he held for nine years. Many of us who believe in criminal justice will not miss Bharara. While he was a media darling, to others, like me, who defended those he chose to go after, he was just a bully. He presided over an office with unlimited resources that could pick and choose his targets with impunity. His press conferences were spectacles, by which he polluted jury pools and created hostile atmospheres, making it nearly impossible for anyone accused to receive a fair trial. He was indeed a Showman. For example, in one such press conference, Bharara, the Showman, claimed that a former client of mine, Rengan Rajaratnam, who he accused of insider trading, shared the same DNA for criminality as his previously convicted brother, Raj Rajaratnam. Bharara had no problem claiming Rengan was predisposed to committing criminal acts, but where was Bharara’s apology to Rengan when a jury found him not guilty of all charges? Don’t hold your breath—it didn’t come. Arrogant. Later, Bharara called Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald, who presided over Rengan’s acquittal, “‘the worst federal judge’ he’d ever encountered.” Arrogant. Sore loser. Another federal judge, Richard Sullivan, questioned whether one of Bharara’s bombastic press conferences served any meaningful law enforcement purpose. In this one, Bharara disparaged another former client of mine, NYC Councilman Dan Halloran. Judge Sullivan said Bharara’s comments announcing Dan’s arrest “sound[ed] like the theme from Mighty Mouse.” “This seems to be designed for tabloid consumption,” Judge Sullivan said, adding, “there should be a question asked that is that appropriate at the preconviction stage.” The judge harkened back to his days as an assistant U.S. attorney, saying there was a time when prosecutors would just state what the charges were and not editorialize on the matter. Bharara had called Dan the “quarterback” of a “smorgasbord […]

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