Posts

Don’t Ignore What Trevor McFadden Has to Say about January 6

Tierney Sneed had a good article yesterday summarizing how starkly some of the judges presiding over January 6 cases have described it. For example, Sneed quoted liberally from the comments Randolph Moss made in sentencing Paul Hodgkins, comments that the government and other judges are quoting frequently.

“It means that it will be harder today than it was seven months ago for the United States and our diplomats to convince other nations to pursue democracy,” Judge Randolph Moss said at a July 19 sentencing hearing. “It means that it will be harder for all of us to convince our children and our grandchildren that democracy stands as the immutable foundation of this nation. It means that we are now all fearful about the next attack in a way that we never were.”

[snip]

Moss, a nominee of President Barack Obama, said that the attack “threatened not only the security of the Capitol, but democracy itself,” as he sentenced Paul Hodgkins, a rioter who pleaded guilty to obstructing an official proceeding.

“Our elected representatives from both political parties came together that day to perform their constitutional and statutory duty to declare, in the word of the statute, the person elected president,” Moss said at the July 19 hearing. “The mob’s objective was to stop that from happening. They were prepared to break the law to prevent Congress from performing its constitutional and statutory duty. That is chilling for many reasons.”

She includes judges appointed by Democrats (in addition to Moss, Amy Berman Jackson and Beryl Howell) and Republicans (Reggie Walton and Royce Lamberth).

As someone who thinks January 6 was exceptionally dangerous, it’s comforting to hear some judges agree. But I think that, to make a case about how judges are interpreting January 6, you would need to include the statements of a judge like Trevor McFadden, as well.

Of the District Judges carrying the heavy January 6 case load, four — Carl Nichols, Dabney Friedrich, Tim Kelly, and McFadden — are Trump appointees. Unlike some of Trump’s DC Circuit appointees, they’re all serious judges, with time as prosecutors or in other DOJ roles. Trump appointees aren’t necessarily going to be more favorable for January 6 defendants. While Nichols may have burnished his right wing bonafides clerking for Clarence Thomas, for example, that means he spent a lot of time with a Justice who is generally awful for non-corporate defendants’ rights. Former public defender and Obama appointee Tanya Chutkan has already made decisions (on bail) that are more favorable to defendants than the Trump appointees, for example, and I expect that to continue (the judge presiding over the Oath Keeper conspiracy case, Amit Mehta, has also served as a public defender).

Still, as recent Republican appointees, the Trump judges are an important read and voice on this investigation. Both by disposition and record on the court, Friedrich is probably the Trumpiest judge, but thus far the most interesting case she has been assigned is that of Guy Reffitt, the III Percenter who threatened his kids if they revealed his role in the riot; in that case, she approved an order allowing prosecutors to use his face to open a laptop with pictures from the insurrection. Nichols has a bunch of cases, such as the Pollocks or former Green Beret Jeffrey McKellop, that may get interesting down the road, but thus far his most active cases have involved presiding over the plea deals of a group of people arrested on trespass charges on the day of the attack. Tim Kelly is presiding over the bulk of the Proud Boy cases, which by itself gives him a pretty full docket (but is also why DOJ really fucked up by treating Ethan Nordean’s invocation of the Kavanaugh protests so blithely); his decisions thus far have been totally fair. The decisions of Trevor McFadden, who is presiding over the omnibus Tunnel assault case, have also been fair.

I think McFadden’s statements should be included in any read of what these judges think of January 6 because he has pulled a number of the ones that, because the defendants’ political speech has been implicated in the cases against them, will provide an early read about how a Republican with solid political ties will view the balancing of political speech and threat posed by January 6.

In addition to the Hunter and Kevin Seefried prosecution (the latter of whom was pictured carrying a Confederate flag through the Capitol), McFadden is presiding over the prosecutions of American Firster Christian Secor, Cowboys for Trump founder Couy Griffin, and Neo-Nazi Timothy Hale-Cusanelli.

In these cases, McFadden has expressed a fair amount of nuance in his views as he has presided over some genuinely difficult decisions.

He did take the way Hale-Cusanelli expressed his bigotry into account when he decided to hold him without bail (which was genuinely one of the most difficult detention decisions, in my opinion, and I was leaning towards release before McFadden made the decision), but in significant part because he may have acted on those views in the past and because his promises of action were alarming and intimidating his colleagues.

Having said all of that, we don’t typically penalize people for what they say or think. I think for purposes of my analysis, I need to — I’m trying to figure out whether this well-documented history of violent and racist language does suggest that the defendant poses a danger to the community.

[snip]

I also note the government’s evidence that the defendant appears to have surrounded himself, to a certain extent anyway, with people who have encouraged this behavior and people who may even agree with him. And I agree with the government’s concern regarding potential escalation of violence at this point given all that has occurred. And I am concerned for the safety of the confidential human source. I think given all of the facts here in the government’s motion, I mention it is pretty obvious to the defendant anyway who this person is. And I am concerned given all of the defendant[‘]s — all of the things he said in the past about committing violence against those who he feels are pitted against him. And given the sum evidence that the defendant has been willing to put these thoughts into action in the past, I think I do have a duty to protect that confidential source.

McFadden did, however, release someone with similarly repugnant views, Secor, even though Secor had been arming himself, in part because Secor had third party custodians — his parents — willing to vouch for him and put up a $200,000 bond. McFadden seems to be seeking to separate out hateful speech from where that speech turns violent and, if nothing else, that struggle deserves close attention.

But he’s also not viewing DOJ’s response to January 6 as driven predominantly by First Amendment issues. In a decision rejecting Griffin’s attempt to throw out one of the trespassing charges DOJ has used — which Griffin, because he did not enter the Capitol, was uniquely situated to challenge — McFadden dismissed Griffin’s claims of political discrimination.

The Government moved to detain Griffin before trial. It described Griffin’s political views as “inflammatory, racist, and at least borderline threatening advocacy.” Gov’t’s Mem. in Supp. of Pretrial Detention at 2, ECF No. 3. The Government also highlighted the gun rights advocacy of Cowboys for Trump, as well as allegedly violent statements made by Griffin.

[snip]

Finally, Griffin complains of discriminatory prosecution. He contends that he was targeted and “selectively charged . . . because the government loathed him and his politics.” Def.’s Reply at 3. “Few subjects are less adapted to judicial review than the exercise by the Executive of his discretion in deciding when and whether to institute criminal proceedings, or what precise charge shall be made, or whether to dismiss a proceeding once brought.” United States v. Fokker Servs. B.V., 818 F.3d 733, 741 (D.C. Cir. 2016) (cleaned up). So “the presumption of regularity” applies to “prosecutorial decisions and, in the absence of clear evidence to the contrary, courts presume that prosecutors have properly discharged their official duties.” Id.

Griffin comes up short on providing the “clear evidence” required for this Court to surmount the presumption of regularity—and the separation of powers. He points to “hundreds or perhaps thousands of other individuals ‘remaining’ in the same area” as him on January 6 who have not faced charges under 18 U.S.C. § 1752. Def.’s Mot. at 24. The Court hesitates to credit these unsupported numbers, especially as the Government continues to charge new individuals with offenses related to January 6. Nor is the Court concerned by the Government’s statements about Griffin when seeking to detain him pretrial; detention hearings require the Court to consider the defendant’s history and personal characteristics, as well as his potential dangerousness.

Griffin highlights the Government’s dismissal of charges under 18 U.S.C. § 1752 in “the interests of justice” in United States v. Christopher Kelly, 21-mj-128 (D.D.C. 2021). According to news reports, the Government moved to drop the charges after determining Kelly did not enter the Capitol building. See Feds move to drop charges for Capitol riot defendant, Politico, June 1, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/2021/06/01/feds-capitol-riot-defendant-491514 (“‘Since he was not inside, in the interest of consistency in the investigation, the charges were dropped,’ the official said.”). Even so, the Government could rationally forgo federal prosecution as to most trespassers while deciding that Griffin’s leadership role in the crowd, position as an elected official, and more blatant conduct at the scene merited him different treatment. Not all differences amount to discrimination. In any event, presumably Kelly and the other uncharged protestors surrounding Griffin on the Capitol steps share his “politics,” Def.’s Reply at 3, complicating his complaint of bias here.

Griffin also points to the numerous uncharged protestors who broke through USCP barricades to occupy the Capitol steps on the eve of Justice Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation vote. See Def.’s Notice at 2, ECF No. 39; see also Kavanaugh Protesters Ignore Capitol Barricades Ahead of Saturday Vote, Roll Call, Oct. 6, 2019, https://www.rollcall.com/2018/10/06/kavanaugh-protesters-ignore-capitol-barricades-ahead-ofsaturday-vote/. Disparate charging decisions in similar circumstances may be relevant at sentencing. Cf. 18 U.S.C. 3553(a)(c) (“the need to avoid unwarranted sentence disparities among defendants with similar records who have been found guilty of similar conduct”). But this is not a basis to dismiss the charges. [My emphasis]

McFadden based his decision on this point in part on separation of powers (the basis for some of his decisions that have been deemed pro-Trump) and presumption of regularity, as well as basic facts. He deemed reasonable the possibility that prosecutors viewed Griffin’s leadership role to be more important to prosecute. He suggested he might sentence Griffin (if he were found guilty) leniently based on a comparison with similarly situated protestors against Kavanugh. But he also based his decision on the notion that Griffin’s threats of violence (raised in a detention challenge conducted before Michael Sherwin departed) could pose a genuine concern to the government.

McFadden is not treating this investigation as a witch hunt against people with right wing views.

But at the same time, McFadden has deviated from his colleagues’ more alarmist language to refer to January 6. At least twice in hearings (including on this Griffin challenge), McFadden admonished an AUSA who referred to January 6 as an insurrection. Have you charged anyone with insurrection, McFadden rightly asked. In a court room, these are not empty terms. They are also names of crimes. And DOJ needs to be careful not to accuse these defendants of crimes that — for whatever reason — they haven’t charged.

It’s not that McFadden thinks January 6 was not serious. In the same Hale-Cusanelli hearing, he described, “Obviously, the January 6th riot was a serious and sui generis threat to our country’s body politic.” But thus far (he has not presided over any of the six cases that have been sentenced yet), he has adopted a more moderate tone in discussing the event.

It’s true that, for the moment, some District Court Judges will frame how we think of January 6. In Munchel, the DC Circuit, too, described January 6 in grave terms (albeit in a passage of Robert Wilkins’ majority opinion not joined by Greg Katsas).

It cannot be gainsaid that the violent breach of the Capitol on January 6 was a grave danger to our democracy, and that those who participated could rightly be subject to detention to safeguard the community. Cf. Salerno, 481 U.S. at 748 (“[I]n times of war or insurrection, when society’s interest is at its peak, the Government may detain individuals whom the government believes to be dangerous.” (citations omitted)).

But ultimately, the six Republican appointees on the Supreme Court will have their say about what this event was — at least about whether hundreds of people committed felony obstruction in trying to halt the peaceful transfer of power. And with that in mind, commentators and DOJ would do well to watch carefully for the specific aspects of January 6 that Trevor McFadden finds most troublesome.

The Rebellion Rorschach: The Many Faces of the January 6 Investigation

Four different things happened yesterday to demonstrate how differently judges presiding over the January 6 trial view it, and how little they seem to understand the intersecting nature of this investigation.

DC Circuit ignores its own language about co-conspirators and abettors

The final event was the reversal, by a per curiam panel including Karen Henderson, Judith Rogers, and Justin Walker, of Thomas Hogan’s decision to hold George Tanios pretrial.

As a reminder, Tanios is accused of both conspiring and abetting in Julian Khater’s attack on three cops, including Brian Sicknick, with some toxic substance.

I’m not going to complain about Tanios’ release. By way of comparison, Josiah Colt has never been detained, and he pled out of a conspiracy with Ronnie Sandlin and Nate DeGrave in which they, like Tanios and Khater, planned to arm themselves before traveling to DC together, and in which Sandlin and DeGrave, like Khater, are accused of assaulting cops that played a key role in successfully breaching the Capitol. The main difference is that Khater’s attack injured the three officers he targeted using a toxic spray purchased by Tanios.

It’s how the DC Circuit got there that’s of interest. Tanios had argued that Hogan had used the same language from the Munchel decision everyone else does, distinguishing those who assault or abet in assaulting police which the DC Circuit has returned to in upholding detention decisions since, and in so doing had applied a presumption of detention for those accused of assault and abetting assault.

In assessing Tanios’s risk of danger, the District Court placed too much emphasis on this sentence from Munchel: “In our view, those who actually assaulted police officers and broke through windows, doors, and barricades, and those who aided, conspired with, planned, or coordinated such actions, are in a different category of dangerousness than those who cheered on the violence or entered the Capitol after others cleared the way.” Id. at 1284.

This is only one line in a ten-page opinion written by Judge Wilkins. It is dicta. It was not quoted or adopted by Judge Katsas’s separate opinion. This line does not create a new approach for evaluating detention issues in this Circuit. It does not mandate that defendants be placed in two separate categories. It does not require a separate, harsher treatment for defendants accused of specific violent offenses. Critically, it does not create a presumption of future dangerousness and should not create a presumption of detention. Rather, it seems that the line is merely intended to remind district court judges that violence is one factor to consider in making a determination about dangerousness. [my emphasis]

The DC Circuit specifically ruled against Tanios on his claim that Hogan had misapplied Munchel.

[A]ppellant has not shown that the district court applied a presumption of detention in contravention of the Bail Reform Act and precedent, see United States v. Khater, No. 21-3033, Judgment at *2 (D.C. Cir. July 27, 2021)

They had to! As their citation makes clear, just two weeks ago, a per curiam panel of Patricia Millet, Robert Wilkins, and Ketanji Brown Jackson upheld the very same detention order (which covered both defendants), holding that the same line of the Hogan statement that Tanios pointed to did not do what both Tanios and Khater claimed it had, presume that assault defendants must be detained.

Appellant contends that the district court misapplied our decision in United States v. Munchel, 991 F.3d 1273 (D.C. Cir. 2021), by making a categorical finding, based solely on the nature of the offense charged (assaultive conduct on January 6), that no conditions of release could ever mitigate the per se prospective threat that such a defendant poses. If the district court had proceeded in that fashion and applied some sort of non-rebuttable presumption of future dangerousness in favor of detention, it would have been legal error. See id. at 1283 (“Detention determinations must be made individually and, in the final analysis, must be based on the evidence which is before the court regarding the particular defendant. The inquiry is factbound.”) (quoting United States v. Tortora, 922 F.2d 880, 888 (1st Cir. 1990)). However, while the district court stated, “Munchel delineates an elevated category of dangerousness applied [to] those that fall into the category that necessarily impose a concrete prospective threat,” the district court also explained, “I think Munchel does not set a hard-line rule. I don’t think that the categories are solely determinative, but it creates something like a guideline for the Court to follow . . . .” Detention Hr’g Tr. at 42:21-24; 43:11-13, ECF No. 26 (emphasis added). In making its ruling, the district court discussed at length the facts of this case, and expressly noted that “we have to decide whether the defendant is too dangerous based upon that conduct to be released or is not,” “every circumstance is different in every case, and you have to look at individual cases,” and that “the government may well not overcome the concrete and clear and convincing evidence requirement.” Id. at 43:8-10, 43:16-18, 43:20-21. Based on our careful review of the record, we find that the district court made an individualized assessment of future dangerousness as required by the Bail Reform Act and that appellant has not shown that the district court applied an irrefutable presumption of mandatory detention in contravention of the statute and our precedent.

Yesterday’s panel cited the earlier affirmation of the very same opinion that detained Tanios.

It’s in distinguishing Tanios where the panel got crazy. The panel could have argued that the evidence that Tanios conspired with or abetted Khater’s assault was too weak to hold him — Tanios made a non-frivolous argument that in refusing to give Khater one of the two canisters of bear spray he carried, he specifically refused to join in Khater’s attack on the cops. But they don’t mention conspiracy or abetting charges.

Instead, the DC Circuit argued that Hogan clearly erred in finding Khater’s accused co-conspirator to be dangerous.

[T]he district court clearly erred in its individualized assessment of appellant’s dangerousness. The record reflects that Tanios has no past felony convictions, no ties to any extremist organizations, and no post-January 6 criminal behavior that would otherwise show him to pose a danger to the community within the meaning of the Bail Reform Act. Cf. Munchel, 991 F.3d at 1282-84 (remanding pretrial detention orders where the district court did not demonstrate it adequately considered whether the defendants present an articulable threat to the community in light of the absence of record evidence that defendants committed violence or were involved in planning or coordinating the events of January 6).

Munchel isn’t actually a precedent here, because that decision remanded for further consideration. The DC Circuit ordered Hogan to release Tanios. Crazier still, in citing the same passage from Munchel everyone else does, the DC Circuit edited out the language referring to those who abetted or conspired with those who assaulted cops, the language used to hold Tanios. It simply ignores the basis Hogan used to hold Tanios entirely, his liability in a premeditated attack he allegedly helped to make possible, and in so doing argues the very same attack presents a danger to the community for one but not the other of the guys charged in it.

If this were a published opinion, it would do all kinds of havoc to precedent on conspiracy and abetting liability. But with two short paragraphs that don’t, at all, address the basis for Tanios’ detention, the DC Circuit dodges those issues.

Beryl Howell has no reasonable doubt about January 6

Earlier in the day, DC Chief Judge Beryl Howell grew exasperated with another plea hearing.

This time, it was Glenn Wes Lee Croy, another guy pleading guilty to a misdemeanor “parading” charge. The plea colloquy stumbled on whether Croy should have known he wasn’t permitted on the Capitol steps — he claimed, in part, that because this was his first trip to DC, he didn’t know he shouldn’t have been on the steps, even in spite of the barricades. Croy was fine admitting he shouldn’t have been in the building, though.

Things really heated up when Howell started asking Croy why he was parading (Josh Gerstein has a more detailed description of this colloquy here).

Under oath, pleading to a misdemeanor as part of a deal that prohibits DOJ from charging Croy with anything further for his actions on January 6, he made some kind of admission that Howell took to mean he was there to support Trump’s challenge to the election, an admission that his intent was the same as the intent required to charge obstruction of the vote count.

When she quizzed AUSA Clayton O’Connor why Croy hadn’t been charged with felony obstruction for his efforts to obstruct the vote certification, the prosecutor explained that while the government agreed that contextually that’s what Croy had been doing, the government didn’t find direct evidence that would allow him to prove obstruction beyond a reasonable doubt, a sound prosecutorial decision.

O’Connor is what (with no disrespect intended) might be deemed a journeyman prosecutor on the January 6 cases. He has seven cases, five of which charge two buddies or family members. Of those, just Kevin Cordon was charged with the obstruction charge Howell seems to think most defendants should face, in Cordon’s case for explicitly laying out his intent in an interview the day of the riot.

We’re here to take back our democratic republic. It’s clear that this election is stolen, there’s just so much overwhelming evidence and the establishment, the media, big tech are just completely ignoring all of it. And we’re here to show them we’re not having it. We’re not- we’re not just gonna take this laying down. We’re standing up and we’re taking our country back. This is just the beginning.

O’Connor is prosecuting Clifford Mackrell and Jamie Buteau for assault and civil disorder. But otherwise, all his cases are trespass cases like Croy’s (including that of Croy’s codefendant Terry Lindsey).

This was the guy who, with no warning, had the task of explaining to the Chief Judge DOJ’s logic in distinguishing misdemeanor cases from felonies. Unsurprisingly, it’s all about what the government thinks they can prove beyond a reasonable doubt, based on evidence like that which Cordon shared with a journalist or, just as often, what people write in their social media accounts. This process has made sense to the few of us who have covered all these cases, but like O’Connor, Howell is dealing primarily with the misdemeanor cases and my not see how DOJ appears to be making the distinction.

Howell also demanded an explanation from O’Connor in Croy’s sentencing memo why DOJ is not including the cost of the National Guard deployment in the restitution payments required of January 6 defendants.

Both according to its own prosecutorial guidelines and the practical limitations of prosecuting 560 defendants, DOJ can’t use a novel application of the obstruction statute to charge everyone arrested in conjunction with January 6 with a felony. It’s a reality that deserves a better, more formal explanation than the one O’Connor offered the Chief Judge extemporaneously.

Trevor McFadden believes a conspiracy to overthrow democracy is not a complex case

Meanwhile, the Discovery Coordinator for the entire investigation, Emily Miller, missed an opportunity to explain to Trevor McFadden the logic behind ongoing January 6 arrests.

In advance of a hearing for Cowboys for Trump founder Couy Griffin, prosecutor Janani Iyengar submitted a motion for a 60-day continuance to allow for the government to work through discovery. She brought Miller along to a status hearing to explain those discovery challenges to McFadden, who had complained about them in the past and refused to toll the Speedy Trial Act in this case. Because Iyengar recently offered Griffin a plea deal, his attorney Nick Smith was fairly amenable to whatever McFadden decided.

Not so the judge. He expressed a sentiment he has in this and other cases, that the government made a decision to start arresting immediately after the attack and continues to do so. “There seems to be no end in sight,” McFadden complained, suggesting that if DOJ arrested someone in three months who offered up exculpatory evidence that affected hundreds of cases, those would have to be delayed again. In spite of the fact that several prosecutors have explained that the bulk of the evidence was created on January 6, McFadden persists in the belief that the trouble with discovery is the ingestion of new evidence with each new arrest.

Miller noted that the government could start trials based on the Brady obligation of turning over all exculpatory evidence in their possession, so future arrests wouldn’t prohibit trials. The problem is in making the universe of video evidence available to all defense attorneys so they have the opportunity of finding evidence to support theories of defense (such as that the cops actually welcomed the rioters) that would require such broad review of the video.

McFadden then suggested that because Griffin is one of the rare January 6 defendants who never entered the Capitol, Miller’s team ought to be able to segregate out an imagined smaller body of evidence collected outside. “Were that it were so, your honor,” Miller responded, pointing out that there were thousands of hours of surveillance cameras collected from outside, the police moved in and outside as they took breaks or cleaned the bear spray from their eyes so their Body Worn Cameras couldn’t be segregated, and the Geofence warrant includes the perimeter of the Capitol where Griffin stood.

McFadden then said two things that suggested he doesn’t understand this investigation, and certainly doesn’t regard the attack as a threat to democracy (he has, in other hearings, noted that the government hasn’t charged insurrection so it must not have been one). First, he complained that, “In other cases,” the government had dealt with a large number of defendants by giving many deferred prosecutions or focusing just on the worst of the worst, a clear comparison to Portland that right wingers like to make. But that’s an inapt comparison. After noting the data somersaults one has to do to even make this comparison, a filing submitted to Judge Carl Nichols in response to a selective prosecution claim from Garret Miller explained the real differences between Portland and January 6: There was far less evidence in the Portland cases, meaning prosecutions often came down to the word of a cop against that of a defendant and so resulted in a deferred prosecution.

This comparison fails, first and foremost, because the government actually charged nearly all defendants in the listed Oregon cases with civil-disorder or assault offenses. See Doc. 32-1 (Attachments 2-31). Miller has accordingly shown no disparate treatment in the government’s charging approaches. He instead focuses on the manner in which the government ultimately resolved the Oregon cases, and contrasts it with, in his opinion, the “one-sided and draconian plea agreement offer” that the government recently transmitted to him. Doc. 32, at 6. This presentation—which compares the government’s initial plea offer to him with the government’s final resolution in 45 hand-picked Oregon cases—“falls woefully short of demonstrating a consistent pattern of unequal administration of the law.”3 United States v. Bernal-Rojas, 933 F.2d 97, 99 (1st Cir. 1991). In fact, the government’s initial plea offer here rebuts any inference that that it has “refused to plea bargain with [Miller], yet regularly reached agreements with otherwise similarly situated defendants.” Ibid.

More fundamentally, the 45 Oregon cases serve as improper “comparator[s]” because those defendants and Miller are not similarly situated. Stone, 394 F. Supp. 3d at 31. Miller unlawfully entered the U.S. Capitol and resisted the law enforcement officers who tried to move him. Doc. 16, at 4. He did so while elected lawmakers and the Vice President of the United States were present in the building and attempting to certify the results of the 2020 Presidential Election in accordance with Article II of the Constitution. Id. at 2-3. And he committed a host of federal offenses attendant to this riot, including threatening to kill a Congresswoman and a USCP officer. Id. at 5-6. All this was captured on video and Miller’s social-media posts. See 4/1/21 Hr’g Tr. 19:14-15 (“[T]he evidence against Mr. Miller is strong.”). Contrast that with the 45 Oregon defendants, who—despite committing serious offenses—never entered the federal courthouse structure, impeded a congressional proceeding, or targeted a specific federal official or officer for assassination. Additionally, the government’s evidence in those cases often relied on officer recollections (e.g., identifying the particular offender on a darkened plaza with throngs of people) that could be challenged at trial—rather than video and well-documented incriminating statements available in this case. These situational and evidentiary differences represent “distinguishable legitimate prosecutorial factors that might justify making different prosecutorial decisions” in Miller’s case. Branch Ministries, 211 F.3d at 145 (quoting United States v. Hastings, 126 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 1997)); see also Price v. U.S. Dep’t of Justice, 865 F.3d 676, 681 (D.C. Cir. 2017) (observing that a prosecutor may legitimately consider “concerns such as rehabilitation, allocation of criminal justice resources, the strength of the evidence against the defendant, and the extent of a defendant’s cooperation” in plea negotiations) (brackets and citation omitted).

3 Miller’s motion notably omits reference to the remaining 29 Oregon cases in his survey, presumably because the government’s litigation decisions in those cases do not conform to his inference of selective treatment. [my emphasis]

McFadden ended with one of his most alarming comments. He said something to the effect of, he doesn’t feel that the January 6 investigation was a complex type of case akin to those (often white collar cases) where a year delay before trial was not that unusual.

This was a fairly breathtaking comment, because it suggests that McFadden sees this event as the magical convergence of thousands of criminals at the Capitol rather than the result of a sustained conspiracy to get a mass of bodies to the building, a conspiracy that started at least as early as the days after the election. While McFadden’s highest profile January 6 case is a sprawling assault case against Patrick McCaughey and others (the one that trapped Officer Daniel Hodges in the Capitol door), this view seems not to appreciate some larger investigative questions pertinent to some of his other defendants. For example, what happened to the laptops stolen from various offices, including the theft that Brandon Fellows may have witnessed in Jeff Merkley’s office. Did America First engaged in a conspiracy to gets its members, including Christian Secor, to the Capitol (and did a huge foreign windfall that Nick Fuentes got days before the insurrection have anything to do with that). What kind of coordination, if any, led a bunch of Marines to successfully open a second front to the attack by opening the East Doors also implicates Secor’s case. One of the delays in Griffin’s own case probably pertained to whether he was among the Trump speakers, as members of the 3-Percenter conspiracy allegedly were, who tied their public speaking role to the recruitment of violent, armed rioters (given that he has been given a plea offer, I assume the government has answered that in the negative).

It has become increasingly clear that one of the visible ways that DOJ is attempting to answer these and other, even bigger questions, is to collect selected pieces of evidence from identifiable trespassers with their arrest. For example, Anthony Puma likely got arrested when he did because he captured images of the Golf Cart Conspiracy with his GoPro. He has since been charged with obstruction — unsurprisingly, since he spoke in detailed terms about preventing the vote certification in advance. But his prosecution will be an important step in validating and prosecuting the larger conspiracy, one that may implicate the former President’s closest associates.

This is white collar and complex conspiracy investigation floating on top of a riot prosecution, one on which the fate of our democracy rests.

Melody Steele-Smith evaded the surveillance cameras

A report filed yesterday helps to explain the import of all this. Melody Steele-Smith was arrested within weeks of the riot on trespass charges, then indicted on trespass and obstruction charges. She’s of particular interest in the larger investigation because — per photos she posted on Facebook — she was in Nancy Pelosi’s office and might be a witness to things that happened there, including the theft of Pelosi’s laptop.

At a hearing last week, the second attorney who has represented her in this case, Elizabeth Mullin, said she had received no discovery, particularly as compared to other January 6 defendants. So the judge in that case, Randolph Moss, ordered a status report and disclosure of discovery by this Friday.

That status report admits that there hasn’t been much discovery, in particular because, aside from the surveillance photos used in her arrest warrant, the government hasn’t found many images of Steele-Smith in surveillance footage.

The United States files this memorandum for the purpose of describing the status of discovery. As an initial matter, the government has provided preliminary discovery in this case. On or about June 4, 2021, the government provided counsel for defendant preliminary discovery in this matter. This production had been made previously to the defendant’s initial counsel of record. Counsel for defendant received the preliminary production that had been provided to previous counsel. This preliminary production included the FBI 302 of defendant’s sole interview, the recorded interview of defendant which formed the basis of the aforementioned FBI 302, over one thousand pages of content extracted from defendant’s Facebook account, and thirty-nine photographs confiscated from defendant’s telephone.

The government is prepared to produce an additional discovery production no later than August 13, 2021. The production will include additional items that have been obtained by the government from the FBI. These items include, additional FBI investigative reports and the Facebook search warrant dated January 21, 2021. The FBI has provided the government with the full extent of the materials in its possession. While these items are few in number, the government is continuing to review body worn camera footage in an attempt to locate the defendant. Camera footage will be provided if it is located. The government has been diligent in its efforts to obtain all discoverable items in possession of the FBI.

That still leaves a thousand Facebook pages and 39 photos, some of them taken at a key scene in the Capitol a scene that — given the evidence against Steele-Smith and in other cases — is a relative blind spot in the surveillance of the Capitol. The interview described here is not reflected in her arrest warrant, and so may include non-public information used to support the obstruction case.

Beryl Howell might argue this is sufficient evidence to prove the government’s obstruction case. Trevor McFadden might argue that this case can’t wait for more video evidence obtained from future arrestees of what Steele-Smith did while “storm[ing] the castle” (in her own words), including the office of the Speaker of the House. But the theft of the Pelosi laptop — including whether Groypers like Riley Williams were involved — remains unsolved.

If a single terrorist with suspect ties to foreign entities broke into the office of the Speaker of the House and stole one of her laptops, no one would even think twice if DOJ were still investigating seven months later. But here, because the specific means of investigation include prosecuting the 1,000 people who made that break-in possible, there’s a push to curtail the investigation.

I don’t know what the answer is because the Speedy Trial issues are very real, particularly for people who are detained. But I do know it’s very hard for anyone to get their mind around this investigation.

“Darkened Plazas with Throngs of People:” The Government Debunks the Portland – January 6 Comparisons

The government just responded to January 6 defendant Garret Miller’s claim of selective prosecution. Miller is charged with assault and civil disorder, obstruction, and — for threats against AOC and the officer who shot Ashli Babbit — interstate threats.

On January 15, 2021, MILLER admitted in a Facebook chat that he is “happy to make death threats so I been just off the rails tonight lol,” and is “happy to be banned now [from Twitter].” When asked whether the police know his name, he responded, “[I]t might be time for me to …. Be hard to locate.”

Last month, Miller filed two motions claiming selective prosecution (for discovery, to dismiss). He argued that Portland defendants were treated differently than he is being treated, because many of the Portland cases involving (some but not all of) the same crimes he was charged with are being dismissed or resulting in plea deals.

UndersignedCounsel has undertaken an extensive review of pleadingsfiled on PACER, press releases issued by the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Oregon, and various news accounts as they relate to the Portland riots. From that review, it appearsthat approximately 74 persons were charged with criminal offenses arising out of the riots. 5 Of those 74 persons, to date, approximately 30 persons have had their cases dismissed (often with prejudice) upon motion of the government, 12 persons appear to have been offered dismissals upon completing a pre-trial diversion program, and at least 3 persons have been allowed by the government to plead guilty to significantly reduced charges.6

Most of the Portland rioters were charged with a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 231(a)(3) (civil disorder) and/or a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 111 (assault on a federal officer). These are the same charges brought against Mr. Miller in Counts One, Two and Four of the Superseding Indictment based upon his participation in the Washington, D.C. riots.

Given the right wing efforts to compare the two events, this was an inevitable legal challenge. And as such, it will be one of the few times where the government is asked to compare their prosecutorial decisions between the two events.

The government responded to the motion for discovery today. It argues, generally, that Miller hasn’t presented any similarly situated people.

Miller fails this showing. A selective-prosecution claim requires the defendant to identify “similarly situated” individuals who “have not been prosecuted,” Irish People, Inc., 684 F.2d at 946 (citation omitted), and Miller has pointed to no such individual. He instead cites 45 cases (from a sample of 74) where the government charged the defendant with federal offenses arising from riots around the federal courthouse in Portland, Oregon, and where the government subsequently dismissed the charges, entered a deferred-prosecution agreement, or acceded to the defendant’s guilty plea on reduced charges. Doc. 32, at 7.2

2 Miller’s motion further references pleadings from 31 of these cases where, in his view, the defendant’s conduct in Portland mirrored his actions on January 6, 2021. Doc. 32, at 8-16; see also Doc. 32-1 (Attachments 1-31).

This is how most selective prosecution claims die: the precedents require coming in with proof of an almost exactly similar case getting differently treated, and then proving it was differently treated for some kind of bias.

It then points out the obvious: Miller is not claiming selective prosecution, he’s claiming that the outcomes of those prosecutions are different than his is likely to be.

This comparison fails, first and foremost, because the government actually charged nearly all defendants in the listed Oregon cases with civil-disorder or assault offenses. See Doc. 32-1 (Attachments 2-31). Miller has accordingly shown no disparate treatment in the government’s charging approaches. He instead focuses on the manner in which the government ultimately resolved the Oregon cases, and contrasts it with, in his opinion, the “one-sided and draconian plea agreement offer” that the government recently transmitted to him. Doc. 32, at 6. This presentation—which compares the government’s initial plea offer to him with the government’s final resolution in 45 hand-picked Oregon cases—“falls woefully short of demonstrating a consistent pattern of unequal administration of the law.”3 United States v. Bernal-Rojas, 933 F.2d 97, 99 (1st Cir. 1991). In fact, the government’s initial plea offer here rebuts any inference that that it has “refused to plea bargain with [Miller], yet regularly reached agreements with otherwise similarly situated defendants.” Ibid.

3 Miller’s motion notably omits reference to the remaining 29 Oregon cases in his survey, presumably because the government’s litigation decisions in those cases do not conform to his inference of selective treatment.

You can’t claim selective prosecution when those other defendants were also charged, especially not after you, yourself, have been offered the same “significantly reduced charges” you’re complaining Portland protestors got.

But then the government goes into specifics about what distinguishes Miller: generally, there’s far better evidence against Miller, and, specifically, he committed other crimes as well.

More fundamentally, the 45 Oregon cases serve as improper “comparator[s]” because those defendants and Miller are not similarly situated. Stone, 394 F. Supp. 3d at 31. Miller unlawfully entered the U.S. Capitol and resisted the law enforcement officers who tried to move him. Doc. 16, at 4. He did so while elected lawmakers and the Vice President of the United States were present in the building and attempting to certify the results of the 2020 Presidential Election in accordance with Article II of the Constitution. Id. at 2-3. And he committed a host of federal offenses attendant to this riot, including threatening to kill a Congresswoman and a USCP officer. Id. at 5-6. All this was captured on video and Miller’s social-media posts. See 4/1/21 Hr’g Tr. 19:14-15 (“[T]he evidence against Mr. Miller is strong.”). Contrast that with the 45 Oregon defendants, who—despite committing serious offenses—never entered the federal courthouse structure, impeded a congressional proceeding, or targeted a specific federal official or officer for assassination. Additionally, the government’s evidence in those cases often relied on officer recollections (e.g., identifying the particular offender on a darkened plaza with throngs of people) that could be challenged at trial—rather than video and well-documented incriminating statements available in this case. These situational and evidentiary differences represent “distinguishable legitimate prosecutorial factors that might justify making different prosecutorial decisions” in Miller’s case. Branch Ministries, 211 F.3d at 145 (quoting United States v. Hastings, 126 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 1997)); see also Price v. U.S. Dep’t of Justice, 865 F.3d 676, 681 (D.C. Cir. 2017) (observing that a prosecutor may legitimately consider “concerns such as rehabilitation, allocation of criminal justice resources, the strength of the evidence against the defendant, and the extent of a defendant’s cooperation” in plea negotiations) (brackets and citation omitted)

More importantly (and a point that Trevor McFadden made when Couy Griffin tried to claim he was being picked on because he got charged with the same trespassing charge virtually everyone else got charged with), the government notes that Miller hasn’t been treated differently than any of the 500 others who’ve been charged in January 6.

[H]e is one of more than 500 defendants already charged for participating in the riot, and he does not suggest that he has been treated differently than any of those similarly situated defendants.

This is a response to a guy who, though his assault charges are not as serious as the assaults charged against others, then went on Twitter and bragged about committing crimes, and then threatened several people, including a Congressperson. Other January 6 defendants might raise more interesting selective prosecution challenges, which will likely fail for the general comments laid out about the quality of evidence involved. But this challenge was doomed from the start. Miller’s alleged crimes were so well documented — on camera and in his own words — that he was never the person to bring this challenge.

More importantly, the government raises one big reason why the January 6 defendants will be prosecuted and some Portland defendants will not (setting aside the 29 cases Miller tried to pretend didn’t exist), even assuming their alleged crimes are just as bad: because there weren’t tens of thousands of others filming their actions, because they didn’t try to occupy a building full of CCTV, and because they didn’t brag about their crimes after the fact.

This may not end the comparisons between January 6 and Portland. But it does lay out for the court very practical reasons why throwing the book at January 6 defendants is easier to do than Portland defendants: because January 6 defendants committed alleged crimes in bright spaces covered by CCTV and then went on social media and bragged about doing so, whereas many Portland defendants did so in “darkened plazas.”

Accused Terrorist* Leader Ethan Nordean Complains He Got Charged with Trespassing

The biggest advantages that Ethan Nordean and the other men charged in the Proud Boys Leadership conspiracy have are a judge, Tim Kelly, who is very sympathetic to the fact that they’re being held in jail as the government fleshes out the case against them, and the 450 other January 6 defendants who have been charged with one or another of the same charges the Proud Boys were charged with. The biggest disadvantages are that, as time passes, the government’s case gets stronger and stronger and the fact that seditious conspiracy or insurrection charges not only remain a real possibility, but are arguably are a better fit than what they got charged with.

That’s why it baffles me that, minutes after Judge Kelly noted that every time Nordean files a new motion, Nordean himself tolls the Speedy Trial clock, Nordean’s lawyer, Nick Smith, filed a motion to dismiss the entirety of the indictment against Nordean.

Don’t get me wrong; I think Smith is a good lawyer and I’m grateful for the January 6 defense attorneys who are making aggressive challenges to the charges against their clients; it’s an important check on the First Amendment risks of this prosecution. And I imagine the filing was all ready to go before yesterday’s status hearing, where Kelly kept repeating that he is sympathetic to the plight of the defendants, but noted that the last motion Smith filed — a motion for a Bill of Particulars, a kind of motion that, in general, rarely succeeds — probably tolls the Speedy Trial clock whether or not Kelly were prepared to rule against prosecutors’ request for more time.

But tactically, trying to throw out every single crime, up to and including his trespassing charge, charged against one of the key leaders of a terrorist attack that put our very system of government at risk trades away the two biggest advantages Nordean has on legal challenges that won’t eliminate the prosecution against Nordean.

The 66-page motion goes one by one, arguing that every charge against Nordean is vague or wrongly applied. Obstruction — 1512 — only applies for Congress when it is engaged in an investigative function, not what Nordean claims (notwithstanding the questions that sympathetic members of Congress raised about the vote count) was just a formal technicality. Leading an insurrection also doesn’t have the requisite corrupt nature, because threatening the Vice President and the Speaker of the House with assassination would not have the effect of influencing members of Congress to do what the mob wanted. Civil disorder — 231 — was designed to jail civil rights leaders and so (it suggests) shouldn’t be used against a guy trying to invalidate the votes of 81 million Americans. A riot affecting a vote count that affects every state and shut down much of DC did not affect interstate commerce. There were other police, in addition to the Secret Service at the Capitol, and so the specific terms of 1752 — the trespassing charge — don’t apply here. Plus, poor Ethan Nordean had no way of knowing that barriers that were clearly in place when he started the approach to the Capitol were barriers meant to keep him out. And, finally (though this comes off as half-hearted), Nordean has no idea what property his conspiracy depredated even though it has been discussed ad nauseum in past hearings.

Along the way, Smith shades the case in ways that prosecutors will easily rebut, as when he suggests Nordean, whom the indictment cites invoking revolution as early as November 27 (and so even before the states certified their votes), was motivated out of a sincere belief that the election was stolen because of voter fraud.

Nordean did so, the government alleges, in the misguided belief that the legislature should refuse to certify the vote upon a review of evidence that he mistakenly contended showed voter fraud.

[snip]

Instead, it contends he allegedly obstructed the session in support of the sincerely held political belief that the 2020 presidential election was not fairly decided.

He lays out the legislative history for many of these laws. He provides the entire history of the Executive Mansion. He falsely represents that the only people who are being charged with 1512 are gang members like Nordean. More ridiculous still is the claim that hundreds or thousands of other people aren’t being charged with 1752 and so Nordean’s charge must solely stem from his gang membership, when in fact, virtually every person who is being charged, is being charged with 1752.

Some of these arguments have merit. For example, I’ve repeatedly raised concerns about the way the government has hung all its felony counts on a fairly novel reading of obstruction (basically, the argument that the insurrectionists were obstructing the official proceeding of certifying the vote). But other defendants — albeit mostly Proud Boys — are already bringing these challenges (and more are likely to now that Paul Hodgkins’ plea has made it clear that the government will insist defendants plead to that count). The DC Circuit is far more likely to assess those arguments on their legal merits if someone like business owner Jenny Cudd, who actually attended Trump’s rally before heading to the Capitol, and who didn’t preassemble a mob of 100 gang members to attack the Capitol even before Trump’s speech (that said, Cudd’s challenges thus far have been motions to change venue and to sever).

I would like the 231 challenge to succeed, but similar challenges have thus far failed when launched by people in actual states rather than the nation’s capital that by its geographic nature can carry out little commerce without transit through Maryland and/or Virginia, and in protests that would have been prosecuted solely by state cops if Billy Barr didn’t bigfoot on the events

Even Smith’s challenge to the trespassing charge was genuinely interesting when he made the same argument for another of his clients, Couy Griffin, who attended Trump’s rally and is not alleged to have entered the Capitol itself. But it works very differently for a guy who, rather than attending Trump’s rally, instead spent the morning of January 6 preparing a mob to march on an event that was important precisely because Mike Pence, along with his Secret Service detail, would be there conducting official business.

That’s the thing about being charged along with 450 other people: Where a claim has legal merit, other defendants are going to make such challenges. Those other defendants will be taken more seriously by the DC Circuit (the detention case for Chris Worrell has already shown that the DC Circuit sees the Proud Boys’ role in this as distinct from the unaffiliated defendants). And most of those defendants, if they succeed, won’t be promptly charged with insurrection or seditious conspiracy to sustain the prosecution.

And if any of these challenges brought by others succeed, then at that point, Nordean could point to the appellate decision and get his charges dropped along with hundreds of other people. But launching the challenge now, and in an omnibus motion claiming that poor Ethan didn’t know he was trespassing, is apt to get the whole package treated with less seriousness. Meanwhile, Nordean will be extending his own pre-trial detention. The government will be given more time to try to flip other members of a famously back-stabbing group, possibly up to and including Nordean’s co-conspirators (whose pre-trial detention Nordean will also be extending). And Judge Kelly will be left wondering why Nordean keeps undermining Kelly’s stated intent to limit how much the government can draw this out.

The worst thing about this motion, though, is that both the substance of it and that it was filed by one of the key terrorist leaders of this attack serves as the single best argument I’ve seen for passing a domestic terrorism statute. I don’t want January 6 to lead to passage of a domestic terrorism statute so the government has a way to criminalize membership in the Proud Boys. But claiming that Ethan Nordean shouldn’t even be held accountable for trespassing is a good way to ensure that one is passed.


*I believe it is legally accurate to use the term “terrorist” with Nordean because the government has charged him with a crime that can carry a terrorist enhancement — and in fact the government laid that out explicitly in the superseding Front Door indictment. I also believe the January 6 attack was a classical case of terrorism: the use of political violence to achieve a political goal.