On Wednesday, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, ruling en banc, overturned former San Francisco Giant Barry Bonds’ felony conviction for obstruction of justice, also forbidding the feds to retry Bonds on the same count.
Last year, a three-judge panel of the 9th didn’t give Bonds a reversal, so his attorneys petitioned for an en banc rehearing—meaning they wanted the whole court. Bonds and his lawyers got it, and the new ruling—as we learned on Wednesday—went in a very different direction.
The court found, in a 10 to 1 decision, that Bonds’ meandering obfuscation in answer to the one of the prosecutors’ questions did not “materially” get in the way of the government’s investigation into the illegal distribution of steroids. In other words, the baseball star’s dodging of a question he didn’t want to answer wasn’t all that, you know, obstruct-y.
Moreover, Judge Alex Kozinski, who wrote a concurring opinion, seemed to be chiding the prosecutors for stretching the definition of obstruction the point that, the judge suggested, practically anyone in the vicinity of a federal investigation could get charged.
For instance, here’s a clip from Kozinski’s opinion:
Because the [obstruction of justice] statute sweeps so broadly, due process calls for prudential limitations on the government’s power to prosecute under it. Such a limitation already exists in our case law interpreting section 1503: the requirement of materiality. Materiality screens out many of the statute’s troubling applications by limiting convictions to those situations where an act “has a natural tendency to influence, or was capable of influencing, the decision of the decisionmaking body.” Put another way, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the charged conduct was capable of influencing a decisionmaking person or entity — for example, by causing it to cease its investigation, pursue different avenues of inquiry or reach a different outcome.
And there’s this:
We have no doubt that United States Attorneys and their Assistants would use the power to prosecute for such crimes judiciously, but that is not the point. Making everyone who participates in our justice system a potential criminal defendant for conduct that is nothing more than the ordinary tug and pull of litigation risks chilling zealous advocacy. It also gives prosecutors the immense and unreviewable power to reward friends and punish enemies by prosecuting the latter and giving the former a pass.
SO-O-O-OOO… DOES THE BONDS RULING IN ANY WAY AFFECT THE 7 PANDORA’S BOX OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE CASES THAT ARE GOING TO BE HEARD BY THE 9TH CIRCUIT IN THE FALL?
This is the question that we understand is being tossed around by some of the various defense attorneys representing each of the seven former members of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department convicted of obstruction of justice around the hiding of federal informant Anthony Brown.
On the surface we would imagine that the actions of the six former LASD folks convicted last summer, and those of former LA County Sheriff’s deputy James Sexton convicted in the fall, are quite different from the on-the-stand phumphering of Barry Bonds. On the other hand, if the 9th is feeling less-than-friendly toward prosecutors’ use of obstruction as a charge in general, suggesting—as Kozinski seems to do in some of the verbiage above—that the feds are overreaching with their use of the statute, will their cranky view extend far enough to cause any of the seven convictions to be similarly overturned?
And if that is any kind of possibility, could it also cause the feds to hold their collective fire on any new indictments that we keep hearing rumored could be coming this spring?
(cough) Tom Carey and Paul Tanaka (cough, cough)
We don’t pretend to know the answers to any of these queries, but we thought you’d like to know that the questions are, in certain quarters, in the air.