The death of Internet activist Aaron Swartz has generated a lot of discussion about the power of prosecutors -- particularly federal prosecutors. This is a good thing. The conversation is long overdue. But the discussion needs to go well beyond Swartz and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
Prosecutors have enormous power. Even investigations that don't result in any charges can ruin lives, ruin reputations, and drive their targets into bankruptcy. It has become an overtly political position -- in general, but particularly at the federal level. If a prosecutor wants to ruin your life, he or she can. Even if you've done nothing wrong, there isn't a whole lot you can do about it.
There are a number of factors that got us here, and it's worth looking at them in turn.
We have too many laws.
There have been a number of projects that attempted to count the total number of federal criminal laws. They usually give up. The federal criminal code is just too complex, too convoluted, and too weighted down with duplications, overlapping laws, and other complications to come to a definite number. But by most estimates, there are at least 4,000 separate criminal laws at the federal level, with another 10,000 to 300,000 regulations that can be enforced criminally. Just this year 400 new federal laws took effect, as did 29,000 new state laws. The civil libertarian and defense attorney Harvey Silverglate has argued that most Americans now unknowingly now commit about three felonies per day.
But you, citizen, are expected to know and comply with all of these laws. That isn't possible, of course. It would probably take you most of the year to understand them all, at which point you'd have the next year's batch of new laws to learn. You'd probably also need to hire a team of attorneys to help you translate the laws into terms you can understand. After the McCain-Feingold legislation passed in 2003, for example, both parties held weekly, three-hour classes just to educate members of Congress on how to comply with the bill they had just passed. This is a bill they wrote that applied to themselves, and they still had to bring in high-paid lawyers explain to them how not to break it.
Most of us don't have that option. And it's absurd that someone should have to hire an attorney or tax accountant merely to pay their taxes, run a business, run for office, or start a political organization without fear of getting hit with exorbitant fines, or going to jail.
Worse, while we citizens can go to prison for unwittingly breaking laws of which we weren't aware, prosecutors and law enforcement officers who wrongly arrest, charge, and try citizens based on a misunderstanding of the law generally face no sanction or repercussions. Under the doctrine of qualified immunity, a police officer who illegally arrests someone because he wasn't aware of the law can only be held liable if the law in question was "clearly established" at the time he violated it. Prosecutors are protected by absolute immunity, which basically shields them from liability no matter how egregious their mistakes.
We need to move away from the idea that every act we find immoral, repugnant, or unsavory needs to be criminalized. Every new criminal law gives prosecutors more power. Once we have so many laws that it's likely we're all breaking at least one of them, the prosecutor's job is no longer about enforcing the laws, but about choosing which laws to enforce. It's then a short slide to the next step: Choosing what people need to be made into criminals, then simply picking the laws necessary to make that happen.
The laws are too vaguely and broadly written.
Federal laws on matters like conspiracy, racketeering, wiretapping, mail fraud, and money laundering gives prosecutors enormous discretion and leeway. Likewise for many of the post-9/11 laws that address giving aid to designated terrorist organizations, the notoriously awful Honest Services Fraud law (which the Supreme Court narrowed in 2009), and of course the CFAA.
There has also been a trend over the last 20 years or so toward laws that don't require prosecutors to show criminal intent. This means you can be prosecuted for crimes you had no idea you were breaking -- even laws you actively tried not to break. A 2010 study co-authored by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Heritage Foundation found that in its rush to criminalize more and more behavior, Congress has been passing poorly-drafted laws that increasingly lack any requirement at all to show intent. Even when intent is included, the study found, it tends to be vague and open to interpretation (which also means open to abuse) by prosecutors.
At the state and local level, laws against "public nuisance," "disorderly conduct," and "keeping a disorderly house" also typically give law enforcement and prosecutors wide discretion.
Take all of that with the massive total number of laws, and you get a system ripe for abuse. If a prosecutor has it out for you, he can probably find a law he can plausibly argue you've broken. Even if you're acquitted -- in fact, even if the charge is dropped, or if you're investigated but never charged -- you don't get compensated for the time, stress, and expense the whole affair cost you. In federal cases you're supposed to at least be reimbursed for you legal expenses, but that doesn't appear to happen much, either.
Prosecutors have perverse incentives.
At the state level, prosecutors are reelected, move on to higher office, or win prestigious jobs at high-powered law firms for racking up large numbers of convictions -- and for getting high-profile convictions. They're rarely publicly praised or rewarded for declining to prosecute someone in the interest of justice. I'm sure it happens. But it isn't the sort of thing even a well-intentioned prosecutor is going to boast about in a press release.
USA Today recently found that federal prosecutors who commit misconduct en route to wrongful convictions are rarely if ever sanctioned. Other studies have come to similar conclusions about state prosecutors. Often, prosecutors aren't even named in appeals court decisions that overturn convictions due to misconduct. And there's of course the aforementioned absolute immunity, an absurd bubble of protection afforded only to prosecutors and judges that the Supreme Court basically cooked up from scratch.
It isn't difficult to see how we might get unjust outcomes when incentive points toward building an impressive volume of convictions, and seeking out high-profile, publicity-seeking cases that tend to me more driven by politics than justice, while there's rarely penalty for breaking the rules or going too far.
Protections have morphed into weapons.
Grand juries, intended and once used to protect people from the excesses of prosecutors, are today used by prosecutors to harass and intimidate. I wrote about one example a few years ago when Assistant U.S. Attorney used a grand jury investigation to silence pain patient advocate Siobhan Reynolds, who had been criticizing the office's prosecution of doctors. Plea bargaining is often seen as a tool that lets guilty people get off with less punishment than they deserve by pleading to lesser crimes. But too often, it too is used as a weapon. Thanks to the overlapping and duplicitous laws, prosecutors can stack charges to build enormously long potential sentences. This happened with Swartz. The threat of decades in prison can then make pleading to a lesser charge and lesser time enticing, even to an innocent person. This is an everyday thing, but the problem was put on wide display during the scandals in Tulia and Hearne, Texas, where dozens of people pleaded guilty to crimes they didn't commit.
Bringing the hammer down.
The federal government in particular seems to be getting less tolerant of challenges to its authority, and more willing to use more force and more serious charges to make an example of people who defy the law. You see this with the ridiculously disproportionate SWAT raids on medical marijuana dispensaries. No one seriously believes the people running these businesses are a threat to federal law enforcement officers. Sending the SWAT team is about sending a message. The government is sending a similar message when it conducts heavy handed raids on farmers and co-ops that sell raw dairy products, or when it sends paramilitary teams to raid the offices of doctors suspected of over-prescribing prescription painkillers. You see it when the feds throw the book at suspected copyright violators, or at the executives of online poker sites, threatening decades in prison. The goal in these cases isn't to stop and punish someone who is a serious threat to other people. It's to send a message to the rest of us: Defy the government as this person did, and here is what will happen to you.
The politicization of criminality.
When everyone is breaking the law, it becomes rather easy to use the law as a political weapon. We saw this during the Bush administration with a number of targeted prosecutions aimed at prominent members of the other party, or at "sending a message" of some kind. And of course the law and order instinct toward more power for cops and prosecutors has long been more associated with conservatives.
But the left is guilty, too. The rush to publicly convict George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin resulted in an indictment that most defense attorneys have since characterized as absurdly overreaching and aggressive. Yet outside of legal commentators and pundits, most on the left seemed to be okay with it. There have also been credible accusations of prosecutorial misconduct that have received little coverage outside the conservative media (which itself seems suddenly interested in protecting the rights of the accused). When Elliott Spitzer was trouncing the constitution with aggressive tactics in his pursuit of corporate bigwigs, he was largely cheered by progressives and editorial boards who are traditionally more supportive of the rights of the accused. When the Heritage Foundation first undertook its overcriminalization project, the progressive organization Media Matters actually mocked the conservative think tank for being soft on crime.
Too often, criticism of prosecutorial excesses isn't framed as this should never happen, but why isn't this happening to the people I don't like? Until that changes -- until partisans are willing to condemn abuses even by their own, or committed against their political opponents or people they personally find unsavory -- the problem is only going to get worse.
I'd suggest all of these factors (and probably a few I haven't thought of) have increasingly made us a nation ruled not by laws, but by politics (and by aspiring politicians). And once criminality is influenced primarily by politics, we're all just potential criminals.