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January 29, 2013

House members ask DOJ to answer lots of questions about Swartz prosecution

As reported in this article from The Hill, "lawmakers on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Monday demanded a briefing from Justice Department officials about the prosecution of Internet activist Aaron Swartz, who killed himself earlier this month." Here are more of the basics:

In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said there are "many questions" about how prosecutors handled the case. They demanded a briefing from DOJ officials by Monday, Feb. 4....

Critics, including Swartz's family and members of Congress, have accused prosecutors of seeking excessive penalties in the case.  The charges carried a maximum penalty of 35 years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million.  Prosecutors reportedly offered Swartz seven to eight months in prison if he pleaded guilty and told him they would seek seven to eight years if the case went to trial.

In their letter, Issa and Cummings asked Holder to justify the charges and penalties that prosecutors sought.  They asked whether Swartz's campaign against the the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) or his association with advocacy groups influenced the prosecution. The lawmakers also asked whether the charges, penalties and plea offers were similar to other cases brought under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

The detailed three-page letter to AG Eric Holder can be found at this link, and it makes for a very interesting read.  Sentencing fans should find these question within the letter especially notable:

3.  What specific plea offers were made to Mr. Swartz, and what factors influenced the decisions by prosecutors regarding plea offers made to Mr. Swartz?

4.  How did the criminal charges, penalties sought, and plea offers in this case compare to those of other cases that have been prosecuted or considered for prosecution under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act?...

6.  What factors influences the Department's decisions regarding sentencing proposals?

7. Why was a superseding indictment necessary?

It is a darn shame that a suicide was needed for some members of Congress to begin asking some questions about how federal prosecutors exercise their charging and bargaining discretion. It is even more of a shame that it is unlikely that these important questions will ever get asked in hundreds of other federal prosecutions that, at least in my view, have been even more extreme than the prosecution of Aaron Swartz.  Nevertheless, it is still nice to an Oversight committee doing some oversight here in a seemingly bipartisan way, and I am already excited to see how DOJ responds next week.

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January 29, 2013 at 10:28 AM | Permalink

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Comments

I predict the feminist inquisitor will be working outside of government before the year is over, after a suitable face saving interval.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 29, 2013 11:17:12 AM

Illegaly hacking into the website of a government commission is the wrong way to get to accountability. This is the right way. I just hope Obama's Justice Department is more forthcoming with information here than it was when Congress asked about Fast and Furious.

I also hope that hotheads won't prejudge the case, but I think that hope is already by the boards.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 29, 2013 12:46:30 PM

"It is a darn shame that a suicide was needed for some members of Congress to begin asking some questions about how federal prosecutors exercise their charging and bargaining discretion. It is even more of a shame that it is unlikely that these important questions will ever get asked in hundreds of other federal prosecutions that, at least in my view, have been even more extreme than the prosecution of Aaron Swartz."

Amen.

Posted by: Thinkaboutit | Jan 29, 2013 1:09:51 PM

The injustice of the action taken by the federal government against Aaron Swartz is on par with the injustice of the action taken by the Russian government against Pussy Riot.

What is it about attaining positions of power in government that turns people into jerks?

Posted by: Sparky | Jan 29, 2013 1:28:04 PM

Before I state a slightly contrarian view let me begin by stating that the exercise of prosecutorial discretion has been allowed to run badly amuck in so many ways for a long time now and Congress and the Judicial Branche have done almost nothing to control it. That said as I understand the circustances this was intended to be an act of civil disobebiance. At reasonable understanding of such acts often includes the willingness-or at least the understanding-that punishment will be imposed. I wish young Mr Swartz who by all accounts was a great contributor to society would have been better prepared to face the consequences..or at least let the case proceed further before his act of ultimate protest.

Posted by: scott tilsen | Jan 29, 2013 2:59:51 PM

Call me a cynic, but nothing will be changed. This is the status quo and business as usual with our gubermint. It will take some serious heads to roll to make a dent in where we are heading.

Posted by: albeed | Jan 29, 2013 3:46:20 PM

Congress, not the DOJ set the max penalty at 35 years. The DOJ reportedly offered him 7-8 months in jail, that does not on its face seem unreasonable. The Deceased was alleged to have stolen millions of computer files. It seems wildly unfair to blame the DOJ for his suicide without knowing more.

Posted by: Dennis Skayhan | Jan 29, 2013 4:34:56 PM

I wish some of his friends would hack into Pacer and post all of the files free on line. Court pleadings should be available free.

Posted by: OldFart | Jan 29, 2013 8:38:57 PM

Dennis, come back and tell us how reasonable the DOJ seems after snarling prosecutors have threatened to put you away for three or four decades for a small-time offense such as downloading boring articles that probably should have been in the public domain anyway. Boast about how cool you remained until you saw how things were going to play out.

It's the black hole between 7-8 months and 35 years into which justice in America has disappeared.

That sort of terrifying, draconian leverage has no place in a system that styles itself as a beacon of justice.

The sad thing is that lots of folks will view Swartz as an oddity...a rare troublemaker the government wanted to use as an example. He's not. Swartz was treated pretty much the same as virtually every citizen who falls into the clutches of the DOJ.

Posted by: John K | Jan 30, 2013 4:23:01 PM

John K --

"The sad thing is that lots of folks will view Swartz as an oddity...a rare troublemaker the government wanted to use as an example."

If you want to use someone as an example, you don't offer a sentencing recommendation of 7-8 months, knowing and accepting that the judge could go down to 0.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 30, 2013 8:11:21 PM

Of course I was referring to the 35 to 50 year prison sentence the DOJ brandished as the draconian alternative to a guilty plea and a few months in a minimum security federal lock-up.

Why does the government get to use that sort of strong-arm leverage to coerce confessions? Put another way, why don't we just have the DOJ beat suspects with rubber hoses and phonebooks until they confess?

Posted by: John K | Jan 31, 2013 1:58:41 PM

LOL who says they are NOT doing that John!

There have been a number of locked up individuals nobody knew shit about till someone grunt in the court sytem screwed up and released the wrong document and suddenly their existance was revealed.

Who knows how many are even now hidden in a classified hidden prison around the world run by the CIA or NSA!

Posted by: rodsmith | Feb 2, 2013 2:59:44 PM

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