Aaron Swartz's Death Leads To Public Attention Towards Prosecutorial Overreach
from the about-time dept
While we’re already seeing things like Rep. Zoe Lofgren’s attempt to reform the CFAA, and Rep. Darrell Issa’s plan to investigate the DOJ, one interesting thing that has come out of the tragedy of Aaron Swartz’s suicide is sudden public interest in prosecutorial overreach. Many criminal defense attorneys have been screaming at the top of their lungs that the pressure put on Swartz is nothing new — it’s how the game is played. And they’re right (which is, in part, why I’ve suggested people check out the documentary Better This World which covers a very different type of case, by very clearly lays out similar efforts by prosecutors who want to win at all costs, and use threats and intimidation to force people into a plea bargain they think is unfair, because it’s better than the alternative. The movie is heart-wrenching).
Perhaps one good thing coming out of all of this however, is that more and more press outlets are suddenly paying attention to the wider issue of prosecutorial overreaction:
By and large, American prosecutors no longer fight their cases at trial. The new dispensation is justice by plea bargain. The more savage the penalties prosecutors can threaten, the more likely the defendant (guilty or innocent) is to speed things along by pleading guilty and accepting a light penalty. According to the Wall Street Journal, Swartz was offered the choice of pleading guilty and going to jail for six to eight months, or else going to trial and taking his chances. The multiple counts and their absurdly savage sentences are best seen, just as the family said, as instruments of intimidation.
The prosecutor’s bottom line, apparently, was that Swartz had to go to jail. In my conception of criminal justice, the prosecutor’s role is to establish guilt, not pass sentence. Juries have already been substantially dispensed with in this country. (By substantially, I mean in 97 percent of cases.) If prosecutors are not only going to rule on guilt unilaterally but also, in effect, pass sentence as well, one wonders why we can’t also dispense with judges.
In recent years, as the Wall Street Journal has documented in a disturbing series of articles, Congress has enabled prosecutorial intimidation by criminalizing ever more conduct, passing laws that provide for or require extreme sentences, and reducing the burden of proof (through expanded application of “strict liability”, where lack of criminal intent is no defense).
That same article goes on to note: “And if a prosecutor should turn his righteous all-powerful gaze on you, you’re done for.” That’s it, end of story. The likelihood of winning a case after federal prosecutors take you to court is minimal. And that’s waking people up to the fact that the criminal justice system is insane:
Notwithstanding the anger that has been unleashed at Ortiz following Aaron Swartz’s death, she should not be regarded as an anomaly. As the noted civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate points out in his 2009 book, Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent, federal prosecutors have been given vague, broad powers that have led to outrages against justice across the country.
“Wrongful prosecution of innocent conduct that is twisted into a felony charge has wrecked many an innocent life and career,” writes Silverglate, a friend and occasional collaborator. “Whole families have been devastated, as have myriad relationships and entire companies.”
…whatever opinion one has of Swartz’s politics, the American criminal justice system, in its relentlessness and inflexibility, it’s unduly harsh sentencing guidelines, requires serious reexamination.
Part of that, of course, is getting the DOJ to stop focusing solely on “winning,” and get them to start actually look at what is real justice. Instead, it now is clear that the prosecutors on Aaron’s case were looking for a “juicy” case so they could get their names in headlines.
Heymann was looking for “some juicy looking computer crime cases and Aaron’s case, sadly for Aaron, fit the bill,” Peters said. Heymann, Peters believes, thought the Swartz case “was going to receive press and he was going to be a tough guy and read his name in the newspaper.”
So, now is the time to get beyond just reforming the CFAA or copyright laws or whatnot, but to also look at what can be done to change the situation:
But Swartz’s suicide may be the first to generate widespread sorrow and outrage over common prosecutorial tactics that put ordinary as well as extraordinary citizens at risk. The increasingly voluminous federal criminal code, the vagueness of its individual offenses (numbering about 4,500 in 2007), and its harsh mandatory minimum sentences — combined with failures of Justice Department leadership — regularly expose law-abiding Americans to prosecution for activities they have no reason to consider illegal.
This kind of prosecutorial overreach impacts everyone in serious ways, generating lots of headlines, but doing little to nothing to actually help stop crime.