Saturday, July 24, 2010

Certificate of Innocence and Damages for Wrongful Incarceration (7/24/10)

A wrongfully convicted defendant may sue for damages arising from the incarceration under certain very narrow conditions specified in 28 U.S.C. §§ 2513 and 1495. I had never really focused on the provisions before, because they would seem rarely to apply in criminal tax cases, where the standards for bringing a case are generally very rigorous and the sustained conviction rate is very high. (I will perhaps do a later blog on those statistics, but suffice it to say here that they are high, even if possibly misleading.) Notwithstanding, though, this could be a useful in tax case, and indeed in the case I discuss here a tax charge was among the original charges that all of which were ultimately found insufficient (most were so found in the criminal trial and the remainer on appeal).

In United States v. Graham, 608 F.3d 164 (4th Cir. 2010), here, the Court summarized the scope of this relief, so I thought I would just cut and paste the general discussion of the provisions for the readers' consideration. Please note that I substantially edited this cut and paste for readability by omitting case citations and many of the quotations marks where it is clear that the Court adopted the quoted language as its own.
Thus, the plain language of § 2513 requires that one seeking a certificate of innocence (who has not been pardoned) prove three predicates. He must prove that (1) “the record . . . of the court setting aside or reversing” his conviction demonstrates that it did so “on the ground that he is not guilty of the offense of which he was convicted,” § 2513(a)(1); (2) he “did not commit any of the acts charged” or those acts “constituted no crime against the United States, or any State, Territory or the District of Columbia,” § 2513(a)(2); and (3) “he did not by misconduct or neglect cause or bring about his own prosecution,” id.

After setting forth these three requirements, § 2513 specifically characterizes them as “requisite facts.” § 2513 (b). Then, the statute expressly sets forth the only way (again absent pardon) that a person can demonstrate these “requisite facts” in the Court of Federal Claims – by a certificate from the court in which “such facts are alleged to appear.” Id. This intricate statutory scheme renders several conclusions inescapable.

First, Congress clearly did not provide in the unjust conviction and imprisonment act an avenue for monetary compensation to all whose criminal convictions are reversed after incarceration. Rather, the phrasing of the Act and its legislative history proclaim the care with which its framers guarded against opening wide the door through which the treasury may be assailed by persons erroneously convicted. Congress enacted this statute to provide only “certain innocent persons” the ability “to present a claim for financial indemnity” upon “showing their innocence.” Section 2513 compensates only the truly innocent. n2
n2 The legislative history of § 2513 clearly demonstrates a congressional desire to limit the class of persons entitled to relief under the statute. In commenting on the proposed legislation, Attorney General Homer Cummings noted that “[i]deal justice would seem to require that in the rare and unusual instances in which a person who has served the whole or part of a term of imprisonment, is later found to be entirely innocent,” he should “receive some redress.” The Attorney General went on to distinguish the “entirely innocent,” who would merit a certificate of innocence, from those who would not – the “more frequent[ ]” cases in which reversal was based “on the ground of insufficiency of proof or on the question as to whether the facts charged and proven constituted an offense under some statute.” Id. He concluded that any proposed legislation should “necessar[ily] . . . separate from the group of persons whose convictions have been reversed, those few who are in fact innocent of any offense whatever.”
Second, and just as clear as its intent to permit only the “truly innocent” to receive a § 2513 certificate, Congress expressly directed that one seeking the certificate bear the burden of not only “alleg[ing]” but also “prov[ing]” entitlement to the certificate. 28 U.S.C. § 2513(a). Moreover, because it constitutes a waiver of sovereign immunity, the unjust conviction statute has always been strictly construed. Thus, § 2513 imposes a rigorous burden on those who seek a certificate of innocence.

Third, as every court to consider the question has held, the decision to deny a certificate of innocence is committed to the sound discretion of the district court. Accordingly, we review a district court's denial of a certificate of innocence for abuse of discretion, and must affirm that decision unless the court abused its discretion, or unless the findings underlying its decision were clearly erroneous. When a district judge has exercised his substantial discretion to deny a certificate of innocence, we cannot require him to stultify himself by certifying an opinion contrary to his real conviction – no matter what our own view might be – except, perhaps, in a case in which the refusal to certify innocence was completely capricious and without rational basis.

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