Lots of questions and hand-wringing about whether the Obama Administration will prosecute Bush Administration officials for war crimes and other corruption. But I’m wondering whether there might be other avenues.
State courts are courts of general jurisdiction: they handle federal claims all the time, most prominently criminal defense attorneys bringing motions to suppress for 4th and 5th Amendments violations. This generates the question of whether state prosecutors are prosecutors of general jurisdiction, i.e. can they prosecute federal crimes.
The answer generally is no — but that is not for constitutional reasons. Rather, it arises because the criminal statutes in question vest absolute jurisdiction in federal prosecutors.
Whoever, having devised or intending to devise any scheme or artifice to defraud, or for obtaining money or property by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, or promises, transmits or causes to be transmitted by means of wire, radio, or television communication in interstate or foreign commerce, any writings, signs, signals, pictures, or sounds for the purpose of executing such scheme or artifice, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both. If the violation affects a financial institution, such person shall be fined not more than $1,000,000 or imprisoned not more than 30 years, or both.
Nope: no jurisdictional limitation there. And for good reason: it’s the oldest federal crime still on the books, and for much of the nation’s history, it was routine for state prosecutors to indict for federal crimes.
I dunno: schemes to violate the law by torturing people, then lying and dissembling about it through electronic media? Maybe. The mail and wire fraud statutes are the most commonly used statutes to indict officials for public corruption.
At some point, it will have to stop. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a court rule favorably on any Obama Administration motion to quash the indictment on public policy grounds. But that’s a far cry from just refusing to prosecute; it would require an affirmative step, which the administration might not want to do.
Just a thought.
Update: After going around on this with some colleagues and some readers, I think that the answer is that state prosecutors wouldn’t be recognized in federal court to prosecute a federal statute. They would have to be in federal court, because 18 U.S.C. 3231 vests exclusive jurisdiction of federal crimes in federal courts. (So it’s there, but not in the substantive criminal statute). And 28 U.S.C. 547(1) gives authority to federal prosecutors to bring charges “except as otherwise provided by law.” It would be too much of a stretch.
That said, a state prosecutor might very well be able to indict federal officials for violations of state statutes, such as New York’s Enterprise Corruption Law (also known as New York RICO). There is precedent for the notion that a state can’t indict a federal officer for taking an action required or authorized by federal law. But the whole point here is that Administration officials were taking actions forbidden by federal law.
The New York statute applies when someone (among other things) “intentionally conducts or participates in the affairs of an enterprise by participating in a pattern of criminal activity.” Defining an “enterprise” is usually a headache for a prosecutor, but it wouldn’t be when the enterprise is the Bush Administration. An important case said that the “enterprise” has to have an “ascertainable structure.” I think that the Executive Office of the President qualifies. The ball is in your court, Mr. Cuomo.
New York lawyers with experience on this are encouraged to write in.