Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Selective prosecution claim fails

US v. Venable:  James Venable was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm. Venable moved for discovery and to dismiss the indictment on a theory of selective prosecution, that he, an African American male, had been prosecuted for his race in violation of his Fifth Amendment right to Due Process, while two other individuals, both white, were not prosecuted for the same firearms. The district court denied Venable’s motions, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed.

Venable was prosecuted in a program known as Project Exile, a joint effort of the United States Attorney’s Office and the Richmond Commonwealth Attorney’s Office, which specifically targets convicted felons who possess guns, with the goal of reducing Richmond’s high rates of gun crime, federally. Basically, local law Virginia law enforcement officers will contact the U.S. Marshals whenever they encounter a gun; the U.S. Attorney’s Office will review the case and then determine whether to file federal criminal charges.

In making a selective prosecution claim, a defendant has a high burden, as the government is given wide discretion in its decisions to prosecute. A defendant must present clear evidence that the government has violated equal protection, and was motivated by a discriminatory purpose to adopt a prosecutorial policy with a discriminatory effect. To meet the burden, a defendant must show: 1) that similarly situated individuals of a different race were not prosecuted; and 2) the decision to prosecute was "invidious or in bad faith," as determined by the Fourth Circuit in United States v. Olvis, from 2006.

Here, the Fourth Circuit finds that similarly situated individuals are so only when prosecuted by the same sovereign; Venable’s case originally began in eastern Virginia, whereas the other two individuals involved in his case were prosecuted in state court in western Virginia. Project Exile solely applies in the Eastern District of Virginia. Of the nine factors from Olvis for determining whether the individuals in this case were similarly situated, the Fourth Circuit found that Venable was only able to establish one, to wit, that each of the three individuals were convicted felons not permitted to possess firearms; the Fourth Circuit concluded that these individuals were not similarly situated.

Next, the statistical evidence that Venables presented in support of the position that the prosecutors acted in bad faith, the Fourth Circuit did not find probative of discriminatory intent; holding, instead, that absent an appropriate basis for comparison, statistical evidence of racial disparity alone cannot establish any element of a discrimination claim.

Finally, the Fourth Circuit includes a gem of a footnote here regarding the disrespectful and uncivil language some attorneys, even government ones, have included to their own disservice in their briefs against district courts, parties, opposing counsel and witnesses, and cautions that such briefs "should be stricken from the files." Take heed.

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