snitch
US v. Singleton Excerpts from the Tenth Cicuit Court of Appeals opinion July 1, 1998 (some citations and footnotes omitted) Written by <b>Circuit Judge Paul J. Kelly Jr.

If justice is perverted when a criminal defendant seeks to buy testimony from a witness, it is no less perverted when the government does so. Background

In April 1992, a detective of the Wichita Police Department contacted local Western Union agents to determine if drug dealers were using Western Union services to transfer drug money. He found a large number of wire transfers over $1,000 which bore similar identifiers, including similar names of recipients, and similar names, addresses and phone numbers of senders. The records led authorities to a group of people whom they believed were involved in a conspiracy to sell drugs. Further investigation indicated the drug business was begun by men who had moved from California to Wichita. They recruited local women to wire proceeds of drug sales back to California to pay for more cocaine; some of these women also received wire transfers on behalf of the conspiracy and transported cocaine from California to Wichita. Ms. Singleton was identified as one who transferred and received money for the conspiracy. She was the common-law wife of Eric Johnson, who regularly bought, packaged, and sold drugs, and she was listed as either the sender or recipient on eight wire transfers suspected to have been sent on behalf of the conspiracy. Handwriting experts confirmed that her handwriting was present on paperwork accompanying the eight wire transfers.

Ms. Singleton and others were charged in a superseding indictment with multiple counts of money laundering and conspiracy to distribute cocaine. Before trial she moved to suppress the testimony of Napoleon Douglas, a coconspirator who had entered into a plea agreement with the government. The basis for her motion was that the government had impermissibly promised Mr. Douglas something of value--leniency--in return for his testimony, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 201(c)(2) and Kansas Rule of Professional Conduct 3.4(b), which prohibits offering unlawful inducements to a witness. The district court denied the motion, ruling that § 201(c)(2) did not apply to the government.

At trial Mr. Douglas testified against Ms. Singleton. He stated that the government, through an assistant United States attorney, had promised to file a motion for a downward departure if he testified truthfully. His testimony of the government's promise in this regard is somewhat confused, however, and in Mr. Douglas's written plea agreement the government made no firm promise to file a motion for a downward adjustment. The agreement merely stated the government would file a motion under USSG § 5K1.1 or 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e) if, in its sole discretion, Mr. Douglas's cooperation amounted to substantial assistance. Both the testimony and plea agreement make clear Mr. Douglas understood that the actual grant of any downward adjustment was entirely within the purview of the sentencing court.

The plea agreement does, however, state three specific promises made by the government to Mr. Douglas in return for his explicit promise to testify. First, the government promised not to prosecute Mr. Douglas for any other violations of the Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act stemming from his activities currently under investigation, except perjury or related offenses. Second, it promised "to advise the sentencing court, prior to sentencing, of the nature and extent of the cooperation provided" by Mr. Douglas. Third, the government promised "to advise the Mississippi parole board of the nature and extent of the cooperation provided" by Mr. Douglas. Id. Mr. Douglas agreed, "in consideration of the items listed in paragraph 2 above . . . [to] testify[] truthfully in federal and/or state court . . . ."

Discussion

I. Statutory Construction of 18 U.S.C. §210(c)(2)

A. The Language and Plain Meaning

The issues before us are (1) whether the government's conduct was prohibited either by § 201(c)(2) or Kansas Rule of Professional Conduct 3.4(b); (2) if it was, whether Mr. Douglas's testimony should have been suppressed; and (3) whether the record contains sufficient evidence to remand for a new trial...

[The portion of the transcript exerpted here addresses only the issues of the bribery statute, 18 U.S.C. § 201(c)(2)]

Section 201(c)(2) could not be more clear. It says:

Whoever . . . directly or indirectly, gives, offers or promises anything of value to any person, for or because of the testimony under oath or affirmation given or to be given by such person as a witness upon a trial, hearing, or other proceeding, before any court . . . authorized by the laws of the United States to hear evidence or take testimony . . . shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for not more than two years, or both.

18 U.S.C. § 201(c)(2). We note at the outset that § 201 is to be broadly construed to further its legislative purpose of deterring corruption.

The class of persons who can violate the statute is not limited. "Whoever" completes the following elements commits a crime. First, the statute requires a gift, offer, or promise, either direct or indirect, to a person. Second, the gift, offer, or promise must be "of value." Third, the gift, offer, or promise must be made "for" or "because of" the person's sworn testimony at a trial or other proceeding before an authorized court. The state of mind required to violate the statute is knowledge that the thing of value is given for or because of testimony.

The first issue facing us is whether the assistant United States attorney, acting on behalf of the government, is within the statutory class "whoever." The Supreme Court has recognized a limited canon of construction which provides that statutes do not apply to the government or affect governmental rights unless the text expressly includes the government. The canon applies only to two classes of cases, however. The first class in which the government is presumptively excluded from general statutory language involves statutes which would deprive the sovereign of "a recognized or established prerogative title or interest." A classic example is the exemption of the sovereign from statutes of limitation. The second class is comprised of those statutes which would create an absurdity if applied to the government, as, for example, a speed limit applied to a policeman pursuing a suspect.

Even if § 201(c)(2) could be said to deprive the sovereign of an established prerogative, two further exceptions remove § 201(c)(2) from this class of statutes. First, the presumption that the sovereign is excluded unless named does not apply "where the operation of the law is upon the agents or servants of the government rather than on the sovereign itself." In the case before us, § 201(c)(2) does not restrict any interest of the sovereign itself; it operates only upon an agent of the sovereign, limiting the way in which that agent carries out the government's interests. ...

The second exception provides that the government is subject to a statute, even if it infringes upon a recognized government prerogative, if the statute's purpose is to prevent fraud, injury, or wrong. ... The anti-gratuity provision of § 201(c)(2) indicates Congress's belief that justice is undermined by giving, offering, or promising anything of value for testimony. If justice is perverted when a criminal defendant seeks to buy testimony from a witness, it is no less perverted when the government does so. Because § 201(c)(2) addresses what Congress perceived to be a wrong, and operates to prevent fraud upon the federal courts in the form of inherently unreliable testimony, the proscription of § 201(c)(2) must apply to the government. Further, the interests of the United States as sovereign militate in favor of applying § 201(c)(2) against federal prosecutors. The sovereign's interests are in the enforcement of its laws and the just administration of its judicial system; applying § 201(c)(2) to all parties in that judicial system advances both interests.

Having escaped the first class of cases in which the canon applies, we determine whether our case falls within the second: cases in which "public officers are impliedly excluded from language embracing all persons" because such a reading would "work obvious absurdity." A brief overview of legal principles and the common law will confirm the rationality of the statute's result and indicate the scope of the tradition behind its application to the government.

One of the very oldest principles of our legal heritage is that the king is subject to the law. King John was taught this principle at Runnymede in A.D. 1215, when his barons forced him to submit to Magna Carta, the great charter that imposed limits on the exercise of sovereign power. ... Justice Brandeis expounded as follows on the principle:

Decency, security and liberty alike demand that government officials shall be subjected to the same rules of conduct that are commands to the citizen. In a government of laws, existence of the government will be imperilled if it fails to observe the law scrupulously. Our Government is the potent, omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example. Crime is contagious. If the Government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy. To declare that in the administration of the criminal law the end justifies the means--to declare that the Government may commit crimes in order to secure the conviction of a private criminal--would bring terrible retribution. Against that pernicious doctrine this Court should resolutely set its face.

Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438, 485 (1928) (Brandeis, J., dissenting).

This venerable principle will not give way to the expediency of the government's present practices without legislative authorization.

The policy expressed in § 201(c)(2) has long been enforced at common law. The public policy against payments to fact witnesses is expressed in the majority of states in both the law of contracts and in ethical rules, which we address below. The policy is weighty enough that contracts to pay fact witnesses are void as violative of public policy ... .

The judicial process is tainted and justice cheapened when factual testimony is purchased, whether with leniency or money. Because prosecutors bear a weighty responsibility to do justice and observe the law in the course of a prosecution, it is particularly appropriate to apply the strictures of § 201(c)(2) to their activities.

The United States Attorney is the representative not of an ordinary party to a controversy, but of a sovereignty whose obligation to govern impartially is as compelling as its obligation to govern at all; and whose interest, therefore, in a criminal prosecution is not that it shall win a case, but that justice shall be done. As such, he is in a peculiar and very definite sense the servant of the law, the twofold aim of which is that guilt shall not escape nor innocence suffer ... .

II. The Law Enforcement Justification

The government asserts, without argument or authority, that agreements for testimony between the government and a witness are not contemplated by this statute. Its position is that its agreement in return for testimony was justified and legitimate, and that Congress could not have intended § 201(c)(2) to hamper the punishment of crime by bringing within its sweep this government practice. Even assuming such a practice, our answer is that the matter was one of policy for Congress to decide. ...

To answer the government's vague argument that some overriding policy should prevent application of this statute to the government's conduct, we will raise sua sponte the justification of law enforcement authority. ... The justification can be generally described as follows: a peace officer, prison guard, or private citizen authorized to act as a peace officer may, to the extent necessary to make an arrest, prevent an escape, or prevent the commission of a crime, violate a criminal statute if the conduct which constitutes the violation is reasonable in relation to the gravity of the evil threatened and the importance of the interest to be furthered. ...

The Supreme Court's more general statement of the rule that "[c]riminal prohibitions do not generally apply to reasonable enforcement actions by officers of the law," embraces field enforcement activity. The Court has held, for example, that the government's limited undercover participation in an unlawful drug operation is "a recognized and permissible means of investigation." United States v. Russell, 411 U.S. 423, 432 (1973) ... .

The conduct of police, investigators, and law enforcement agents is regularly evaluated against the standard of what is legitimate and reasonably necessary to enforce the law. But we have found no case in which prosecutors, in their role as lawyers representing the government after the initiation of criminal proceedings, have been granted a justification to violate generally applicable laws. The government's violation of § 201(c)(2) ... is entirely unrelated to detecting crime. Once the exigencies of field enforcement are satisfied, we can find no policy by which prosecutors may be excused from statutes regulating testimony presented to the federal courts. ... We decline to expand the meaning of "enforcement action" beyond its historical scope of detection, apprehension, and prevention of crime.

Because the government's statutory violation occurred not in a field investigation but in the context of testimony which was to be presented to the court, we further hold its action was not "reasonable." The chasm between the government's present conduct and reasonable law enforcement actions can be illustrated by analogy to the FBI's Abscam operation, under which operatives and undercover agents offered bribes to public officials and arrested those who accepted the bribes. Although Abscam created controversy and dissent in the courts, it was held a legitimate means of detecting public corruption. The government's present inducement for testimony goes much further. Reasonable law enforcement actions stop with detecting crime and observing enough to prove it. The government's statutory violation unreasonably exceeds this purpose, and is the more egregious because the intended product of the violation is testimony presented in court. We conclude the government's violation of § 201(c)(2) was neither "reasonable" nor an "enforcement action." ...

III. Section 201(c)(2) in Relation to Other Statutes

The government argues that several provisions of law authorized it to make its agreement with Mr. Douglas. The government apparently refers to an unwritten agreement with Mr. Douglas to make a sentence reduction recommendation. Although any such agreement is not before us because it is not clear from the record that it was made, we will construe the government's argument as one that it had statutory authorization for the three written promises it did make to Mr. Douglas for his testimony.

The federal criminal sentencing statute, 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e), provides, "Upon motion of the Government, the court shall have the authority to impose a sentence below a level established by statute as minimum sentence so as to reflect a defendant's substantial assistance in the investigation or prosecution of another person who has committed an offense." In addition, 28 U.S.C. § 994(n) instructs the United States Sentencing Commission to ensure that guidelines reflect "the general appropriateness of imposing a lower sentence than would otherwise be imposed, including a sentence that is lower than that established by statute as a minimum sentence, to take into account a defendant's substantial assistance in the investigation or prosecution of another person who has committed an offense." Accordingly, USSG § 5K1.1 provides that the government may move for a downward departure from the guidelines if it determines the defendant has "provided substantial assistance in the investigation or prosecution of another person who has committed an offense . . . ." USSG § 5K1.1. "The appropriate reduction shall be determined by the court for reasons stated that may include . . . the truthfulness, completeness, and reliability of any information or testimony provided by the defendant." Id. at § 5K1.1(a)(2). The government also cites Fed. R. Crim. P. 35(b), which says, "The court, on motion of the Government made within one year after the imposition of the sentence, may reduce a sentence to reflect a defendant's subsequent, substantial assistance in the investigation or prosecution of another person who has committed an offense . . . ."

Each of these provisions of law authorizes only that substantial assistance can be rewarded after it is rendered; none authorizes the government to make a deal for testimony before it is given, as the government did with Mr. Douglas. Consequently the statutes cannot justify the government's promises in this case.

However § 201(c)(2) prohibits even the rewarding of testimony after it is given: it prohibits anything of value to be given, offered or promised "because of" testimony "given." 18 U.S.C. § 201(c)(2). The sentencing provisions may thus appear to conflict by authorizing something of value (a motion for and grant of sentence reduction) to be given "because of" testimony rendered. We believe the statutes can be read together in this way: in light of § 201(c)(2), "substantial assistance" does not include testimony. Congress enacted the sentencing provisions against the backdrop of its general prohibition against giving anything of value for or because of testimony. Against this background, § 994 authorizes the Sentencing Commission to reward all forms of substantial assistance other than testimony.

Our reading of the statutes will not impair the substantial assistance provisions, because a defendant can substantially assist an investigation or prosecution in myriad ways other than by testifying. Nor will our holding drastically alter the government's present practices. The government may still make deals with accomplices for their assistance other than testimony, and it may still put accomplices on the stand; it simply may not attach any promise, offer, or gift to their testimony...

VI. Remedy

In the circumstances before us, the appropriate remedy for the testimony obtained in violation of § 201(c)(2) is suppression of its use in Ms. Singleton's trial. ...

REVERSED and REMANDED for a new trial.

[This decision of a three judge panel of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals was vacated by the full twelve judge panel shortly after it was issued. On January 8, 1999, the full court ruled rejected Singleton's argument and ruled in favor of the government. ]


Read the unedited text of this opinion.

Read the full court's subsequent ruling on this case.


navigation, see below for text

home | two cases | pro/con | primer | inside the mind | ending leniency
the producer | readings | discussion | synopsis | press | tapes & transcripts
frontline online | pbs online

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation
Some Images Copyright © 1999 Photodisc

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

Losing IraqJuly 29th

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS