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Amy Berman Jackson Gets a Two-Page Footnote in for the Appeal of Carl Nichols

DOJ announced its long-awaited appeal of Carl Nichols’ ruling rejecting DOJ’s application of 18 USC 1512(c)(2) to January 6 today (he has granted three motions to dismiss the charge, and DOJ is appealing all three). (Initial ruling; Denial of reconsideration)

Just in time, Amy Berman Jackson joined fifteen of her colleagues in upholding DOJ’s application of obstruction to January 6. Here’s the footnote she included, responding to Nichols’ opinion.

13 One court in this district has come to the opposite conclusion, and it dismissed the 1512(c)(2) count in a January 6 indictment. In United States v. Miller, the court found that “there are two plausible interpretations of [18 U.S.C. § 1512(c)(2)]: either § 1512(c)(1) merely includes examples of conduct that violates § 1512(c)(2), or § 1512(c)(1) limits the scope of § 1512(c)(2).” 2022 WL 823070, at *15. The more plausible interpretation, the court reasoned, is the latter, and therefore it found that the indictment failed to allege a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1512(c)(2). Id.; see also Fischer, 2022 WL 782413, at *4 (“The Court recently concluded [in Miller] that the word ‘otherwise’ links subsection (c)(1) with subsection (c)(2) in that subsection (c)(2) is best read as a catchall for the prohibitions delineated in subsection (c)(1).”).

The Miller court relied heavily on Begay v. United States, 553 U.S. 137 (2008), abrogated on other grounds by Johnson, 576 U.S. 591 (2015), and Yates v. United States, 574 U.S. 528 (2015) (plurality opinion). In Begay, the Supreme Court considered whether drunk driving was a “violent felony” for the purposes of the sentencing provision imposing a mandatory minimum term on an offender with three prior convictions “for a violent felony,” as that term was defined in 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B)(ii) (“the term ‘violent felony’ means any crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year . . . that– . . . is burglary, arson, or extortion, involves use of explosives, or otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another”). The Court concluded that the examples listed before “otherwise” limited the scope of the residual clause to similar crimes, and that drunk driving fell “outside the scope” of the ACCA. Begay, 553 U.S. at 142–48.

The Miller court reasoned that, because “the Begay majority opinion rejected the government’s argument ‘that the word ‘otherwise’ is sufficient to demonstrate that the examples [preceding ‘otherwise’] do not limit the scope of the clause [following ‘otherwise’],’” Miller, 2022 WL 823070, at *9 (alterations and emphasis in original), section 1512(c)(1) most likely also limits the scope of section 1512(c)(2). Id. at *9–11.

This Court is not basing its determination on a finding that the mere appearance of the word “otherwise” is sufficient to answer the question and establish that the first clause, section 1512(c)(1), was not meant to serve as a limit on the second clause, section 1512(c)(2). Rather, the Court considered the language and structure of the statute, and it agrees with the reasoning in the other decisions in this district denying motions to dismiss section 1512(c)(2) counts and rejecting the Miller court’s application of Begay. See McHugh II, 2022 WL 1302880, at *5–6; Bingert, 2022 WL 1659163, at *8.

For one thing, the structure of section 1512(c)(2) does not parallel the structure of the ACCA, and “otherwise” in section 1512(c)(2) does not immediately follow a list of examples. And sections 1512(c)(1) and (c)(2) – which prohibit different types of conduct – do not overlap in the same way that the ACCA clauses overlapped, rendering a conclusion that what follows the term “otherwise” is an extension of the prior provision less likely. Compare 18 U.S.C. § 1512(c), with 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B). Indeed, the Supreme Court noted in Begay that “the word ‘otherwise’ can (we do not say must . . .) refer to a crime that is similar to the listed examples in some respects but different in others . . . .” Begay, 553 U.S. at 144 (emphasis in original). As the court observed in McHugh II, the way Congress drafted the two provisions indicates that they were intended to target different conduct:

Rather than a continuous list with a general term at the end, § 1512(c) contains two separately numbered paragraphs, with a semicolon and a line break separating the “otherwise” clause in paragraph (c)(2) from the preceding terms in paragraph (c)(1). Furthermore, paragraph (c)(2) is grammatically distinct from paragraph (c)(1). Although the two provisions share a subject and adverb (“whoever corruptly”), paragraph (c)(2) contains an independent list of verbs that take a different object (“any official proceeding”) from the verbs in paragraph (c)(1) (which take the object “a document, record, or other object”). . . . In short, rather than “A, B, C, or otherwise D,” section 1512(c) follows the form “(1) A, B, C, or D; or (2) otherwise E, F, or G.”

2022 WL 1302880, at *5.

As for Miller’s finding that “[r]eading § 1512(c)(2) alone is linguistically awkward,” 2022 WL 823070, at *6, this is not the case if “otherwise” is read to “‘signal[] a shift in emphasis’ . . . from actions directed at evidence to actions directed at the official proceeding itself.” Montgomery, 2021 WL 6134591, at *12, quoting Tex. Dep’t of Hous. & Cmty. Affs. v. Inclusive Cmtys. Project, Inc., 576 U.S. 519, 520 (2015). This is also not the case if “otherwise” is taken to mean “in a different way.” See McHugh II, 2022 WL 1302880, at *4. Under either interpretation, the meaning of the statute is clear: a person can violate section 1512(c)(2) through means that differ from document destruction, and the term “otherwise” does not limit the prohibition in section 1512(c)(2) to conduct described in section 1512(c)(1).

On a quick read, there’s nothing otherwise exceptional in this opinion. She did address Williams’ complaint that others haven’t been charged with obstruction.

  1. Dabney Friedrich, December 10, 2021, Sandlin*
  2. Amit Mehta, December 20, 2021, Caldwell*
  3. James Boasberg, December 21, 2021, Mostofsky
  4. Tim Kelly, December 28, 2021, NordeanMay 9, 2022, Hughes (by minute order), rejecting Miller
  5. Randolph Moss, December 28, 2021, Montgomery
  6. Beryl Howell, January 21, 2022, DeCarlo
  7. John Bates, February 1, 2022, McHughMay 2, 2022 [on reconsideration]
  8. Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, February 9, 2022, Grider
  9. Richard Leon (by minute order), February 24, 2022, CostianesMay 26, 2022, Fitzsimons (post-Miller)
  10. Christopher Cooper, February 25, 2022, Robertson
  11. Rudolph Contreras, announced March 8, released March 14, Andries
  12. Paul Friedman, March 19, Puma
  13. Thomas Hogan, March 30, Sargent (opinion forthcoming)
  14. Trevor McFadden, May 6, Hale-Cusanelli
  15. Royce Lamberth, May 25, Bingert
  16. Amy Berman Jackson, June 22, Williams

Politico Claims It Embarrasses Joe Biden that Non-Violent Civil Disobedience Merits Little or No Jail Time

Last week, Politico reported as news that non-violent January 6 trespassers might get little to no jail time which — it further claimed — might embarrass the Biden Administration.

Many Capitol rioters unlikely to serve jail time

The cases could embarrass the Biden administration, which has portrayed the Jan. 6 siege as a dire threat to democracy.

I have tremendous respect for the reporters involved, Josh Gerstein and Kyle Cheney. Yet the fact that experienced DOJ beat reporters could claim, as news, that non-violent civil disobedience might get no jail time made me really rethink the reporting on January 6, including my own. It’s crazier still that reporters might claim — generally, or in this situation — that a Democratic President might be embarrassed by DOJ treating civil disobedience as a misdemeanor offense.

In fact, Gerstein and Cheney are reporting on a subset of all the January 6 defendants, fewer than 60 of the 230 who had been formally charged by the time they wrote this, which they nevertheless describe as “many” of them.

A POLITICO analysis of the Capitol riot-related cases shows that almost a quarter of the more than 230 defendants formally and publicly charged so far face only misdemeanors. Dozens of those arrested are awaiting formal charges, even as new cases are being unsealed nearly every day.

Then, four paragraphs later, Politico explains why (they say) this might embarrass the Biden Administration: because both Biden himself and Merrick Garland called the larger event — in which 1,000 people, including 200 for assault and 100 for roles in a militia conspiracy, many still at large, must now be suspects — as a heinous attack.

The prospect of dozens of Jan. 6 rioters cutting deals for minor sentences could be hard to explain for the Biden administration, which has characterized the Capitol Hill mob as a uniquely dangerous threat. Before assuming office, Biden said the rioters’ attempt to overturn the election results by force “borders on sedition”; Attorney General Merrick Garland has called the prosecutions his top early priority, describing the storming of Congress as “a heinous attack that sought to disrupt a cornerstone of our democracy, the peaceful transfer of power to a newly elected government.”

Nowhere in the article do they provide any evidence that the assault on the Capitol wasn’t a heinous attack.

They base their claim that Biden might be embarrassed on expectations that DOJ prosecutors set, without noting that the first charges were filed before Biden was inaugurated and long before Garland was confirmed.

Justice Department prosecutors sent expectations sky-high in early statements and court filings, describing elaborate plots to murder lawmakers — descriptions prosecutors have tempered as new details emerged.

Jacob “QAnon Shaman” Chansley was arrested on January 8 and indicted on January 11. Eric “Zip Tie Guy” Munchel was arrested on January 10 and indicted, with his mother, on February 12. Thomas Caldwell was arrested on January 19 and indicted along with Oath Keepers Jessica Watkins and Donovan Crowl on January 27. They (including Caldwell but not Watkins and Crowl) are the main defendants, of more than 350, about whom prosecutors can fairly be said to have tempered “sky-high” expectations. Their arrests and that expectation-setting happened under Jeffrey Rosen and Michael Sherwin, not under Biden and definitely not under Merrick Garland (under whom DOJ referred Sherwin to OPR for investigation after he did some expectation-setting on 60 Minutes). Even still, for all four (as well as other edge cases about whom the press set high expectations, like Riley June Williams), the investigation remains ongoing and there are reasons, including ties to the militia conspiracies, to believe there was some basis for the original suspicions about these people.

Likewise, the decision to arrest first and investigate later, a decision that led to the flood of arrests before prosecutors really knew who had done the most egregious things during the attack, also occurred under the prior Administration.

Indeed, under Garland (though not necessarily because of Garland or the departure of Sherwin), DOJ seems to have focused more of their ongoing misdemeanor arrests on suspects who might have video footage of interest to prosecutors or defense attorneys, with far more of a focus in recent weeks on arresting assault and militia suspects. And one of the reasons for the delays described in the story is that after Garland came in, DOJ asked for 60 days to catch up on discovery. We may yet learn that he and his subordinates decided to change the “arrest first, investigate later” approach adopted before he came in.

Sure, the press has claimed that the government has backed off some of its claims in the militia conspiracies. They did so, for example, when prosecutors backed off certain claims solely for the purpose of an Ethan Nordean detention hearing that, filings submitted weeks later suggested, may have been an effort to protect a pending conspiracy indictment and, probably, a cooperating witness. They’ve done so with the Oath Keepers, even though recent developments suggest even Jessica Watkins’ lawyer may now understand her role in what appears to be a larger conspiracy coordinated in Signal leadership chats is more damning than Watkins originally claimed. If anything, the Oath Keeper and Proud Boy conspiracies may be more sophisticated tactically than originally claimed, and that’s before any explanation about things like who paid for vans of Proud Boys to travel from FL and what happened at twin events in DC and Florida in December, in which conspirators (and key Trump figures) played central roles. That’s also while the person who laid a pipe bomb the night before the the attack remains at large.

To further back its claim that Biden might be embarrassed, Politico implies that all the plea deals expected in weeks ahead will be misdemeanor pleas without jail time, which will be “awkward” for DOJ to defend.

Prosecutors have signaled that plea offers for some defendants will be coming within days and have readily acknowledged that some of the cases are less complicated to resolve than others.

“I think we can work out a non-trial disposition in this case,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Emory Cole told Judge Dabney Friedrich last week in the case of Kevin Loftus, who was charged with unlawful presence and disrupting official business at the Capitol, among other offenses that have become the boilerplate set lodged against anyone who walked into the building that day without authorization.

The Justice Department will soon be in the awkward position of having to defend such deals, even as trials and lengthy sentences for those facing more serious charges could be a year or more away. [my emphasis]

Politico makes this claim even though at least some of the expected pleas may be cooperation agreements. For example, Ryan Samsel — who breached the west side of the Capitol in coordination with Proud Boys Dominic Pezzola and William Pepe, knocking out a cop along the way — asked for a continuance to discuss a plea. One of the main Oath Keeper prosecutors, Ahmed Baset, asked for a continuance before indicting Oath Keeper associate Jon Schaffer, who was among the worst treated defendants and who agreed to the continuance in spite of remaining in pre-trial detention. Kash Kelly, currently charged with trespassing but also someone raised in discussions between Proud Boys affiliate James Sullivan and Rudy Giuliani, got a continuance to discuss a plea. Bryan Betancur, a Proud Boy who got jailed for a probation violation after he lied to his probation officer to attend the event, also got a continuance to discuss a plea to resolve his trespassing charges. The aforementioned Riley Williams, who was charged with obstructing the vote count and stealing a laptop from Nancy Pelosi, was filmed directing movement inside the Capitol, and has ties with Nick Fuentes, also got a continuance to discuss pleading before indictment. All five of these people likely have information that would be of use to prosecutors. All could limit their prison time (which would likely be significant for Samsel, who is accused of assault, played a key role in the insurrection, and has a criminal record) by cooperating with prosecutors. If any of these people sign plea deals — especially Samsel — it will likely provide new insight into how the conspiracy worked. Even with a plea deal, Samsel may still face a stiff sentence.

In other places, Politico conflates the discussions about the fate of misdemeanor defendants with discussions about detention (which prosecutors have only requested with a few accused trespassers), discussions about discovery, and Speedy Trial, all different things, many more urgent issues for misdemeanor defendants not included among those the story is purportedly about.

After I went on a rant about this story on Twitter, Gerstein defended the story by saying that people (none of whom were quoted in the story) seem to be surprised.

I agree with Gerstein that people have certain expectations. But that was clear before the end end of January. The record laid out here shows that such expectations did not come from Garland or Biden. Even Sherwin, with his totally inappropriate 60 Minutes interview, also explained from the start that DOJ was arresting the low hanging fruit at first while further investigating more serious suspects.

The fault, instead, lies with journalists, myself and these Politico journalists included, for not consistently and repeatedly explaining the various different roles people played on January 6, including that there were a number — though currently a shrinking fraction of the total set of defendants — who neither pre-meditated any effort to stop the vote count nor assaulted cops. I have tried to engage in this nuance (I included a list of such posts below), but given the sheer amount of court filings, much of the focus is currently on the militia conspiracies, suggesting a gravity that the MAGA tourists don’t merit. But in this article, rather than simply laying out the full range of defendants, describing how the MAGA Tourists played a key role in the success of the more serious conspirators (explicitly so for the Proud Boys, who talked about getting “normies” to do stuff they otherwise wouldn’t have done), describing how violence spread among participants and often as not among people who aren’t militia members, this Politico piece further distorts the record, not least by using this subset of “MAGA Tourists” — calling them “many” even though they represent just a quarter of defendants who have been formally charged — to stand in for the larger investigation, while minimizing the import of those charged with obstruction (likening that role to a CodePink interruption of a congressional hearing) because, evidence shows, they premeditated an attempt to undermine the election outcome.

So even while the piece describes how both judges and prosecutors understand that the mob as a whole posed a grave threat while some individual defendants did no more than provide cover for the more dangerous defendants (and many of the DC judges presiding over these cases have made such comments), Politico claims that there’s some embarrassment to this, including some kind of political risk for Biden.

Judges are also attempting to reckon with separating the individual actions of rioters from the collective threat of the mob, which they have noted helped inspire and provide cover for violent assaults, property destruction and increased the overall terror and danger of the assorted crimes committed.

That reckoning is coming sooner rather than later, lawyers say, putting prosecutors in the position of wrist-slapping many participants in the riot despite framing the crimes as part of an insurrection that presented a grave threat to American democracy.

If the MAGA tourists provided cover and helped overwhelm cops, thereby serving a useful role in the plans of those who had a more nefarious and organized purpose, then that’s the story that should be told, not some kind of both-sides political spin, particularly one that pits Biden’s claims about the seriousness of this on the footing as Trump’s outright lies about it. In spite of the overwhelming number of defendants, the record shows, DOJ is still assessing each one on the merits, which is what should happen. Declaring that politically embarrassing is an abdication of fair reporting on the legal system.

I believe DOJ has gotten it wrong, in both directions, in some cases. In addition to those listed above, I think DOJ has gone too harshly on some people who have openly supported far right, even Nazi views. But I also think DOJ has only considered whether militia members were members of premeditated conspiracies, focusing less on localized activist networks that have been implicated in violent (often anti-mask) pro-Trump actions in the past, taken on leadership roles at the riot, and engaged in ongoing communications about plans to shut down the vote, just like militias did. I think DOJ hasn’t come to grips with the organizational import of QAnon even while arguing that individual adherents of the cult must be jailed because they are delusional. And until DOJ decides how it will treat Trump’s actions and those of some close associates — something they likely cannot do without more investigation and cooperation deals from key participants — parts of this investigation will remain unsettled.

There are definitely things DOJ has reason to be embarrassed about: Gerstein has written more than any journalist about the unforgivable delays in moving defendants around the country and getting them arraigned. This piece also focuses on one of the handful of misdemeanor defendants who has been detained since being charged. While I understand the complexity of an investigation in which so much of the evidence — both exculpatory and inculpatory — remains in the hands of participants, defendants have a right to complain about the delay, especially those in detention. Defendants — particularly those in detention — are entitled to a Speedy Trial, even if DOJ moved too quickly to arrest them. While many of these things were exacerbated by COVID, they also largely arise from a decision to arrest first on those trespassing charges, and investigate later (which also has led to more defendants being charged with obstruction after the fact).

But none of those things have to do with Biden or Garland’s views about the investigation, or even the prosecutors who made decisions that created some of these problems in the first place (in part, probably, to avoid their own embarrassment at missing all warning signs, in part because they hadn’t investigated these threats aggressively enough and so had to make mass arrests to mitigate any immediate follow-on threats).

In short, this piece is an (uncharacteristic) mess, shoehorning complexity into a simplistic claim of political conflict, one inventing embarrassment out of thin air for Biden. If Politico has evidence that this wasn’t an unprecedented disruption to Congress, one that could have had a far worse outcome, including a threat to our democracy, or that this right wing violence is less of a threat than FBI says it is, by all means they should present that. At the same time, they can reveal the identity of the pipe bomber and the role (if any) that person played in the plot, without which no one can claim to actually know how serious this was.

Until then, they and all experienced DOJ beat reporters would be far better off by simply laying out a description of the different kinds of defendants we’re seeing, the different roles they played in disrupting the vote count and assaulting or undermining law enforcement, and explaining how those defendants are the same or different from defendants that have gone before them, on a spectrum of severity that stretches from CodePink to ISIS terrorists.

If people are going to be surprised when the subset of participants in January 6 who engaged in non-violent civil disobedience are treated as misdemeanor offenders, it’s not Joe Biden’s fault. It is a failure of journalism, my own included, for not making that more clear starting in January and reiterating it since then.

Update: Meanwhile, Jon Schaffer just agreed to two more weeks in jail.

Update: Corrected Munchel’s arrest date, which was January 10.

Update: Christopher Kelly (no relation to Kash) is another person with a consent continuance to discuss what would almost certainly be a cooperation agreement. He drove to and from the insurrection with some Proud Boys.


Posts attempting to contextualize the investigation

Here are some past attempts I’ve made at explaining how the parts of the January 6 investigation fit together:

The Selfie Cops: Obstructing an Official Proceeding

Yesterday, DOJ unsealed an indictment against the two selfie cops, Thomas Robertson and Jacob Fracker. The two were originally charged on January 12 — among the first to be charged — after they shared pictures of their exploits with colleagues at the Rocky Mount, VA police department, who in turn alerted the FBI.

Both are military veterans and Fracker remained in the VA National Guard when he was arrested.

The two were originally charged with two trespassing charges, 18 USC 1752 and 40 USC 5104. But the indictment adds the more serious obstruction charge DOJ has used against other more dangerous defendants, 1512(c)(2), along with an aiding and abetting charge for the same, 18 USC 2. That’s a felony that, if they’re convicted, will mean the two men will no longer be able to own guns (and probably won’t work in law enforcement anymore).

I want to look at how DOJ seems to be using that charge, because I expect more people will have it added as their case move to indictment.

The charge is an unusual application of what is normally treated as a witness tampering statute, which most people think of in conjunction with investigations and prosecutions. But the certification of the vote is every bit as much an “official proceeding” as an investigation or trial is. The standard boilerplate being used in insurrectionist charging documents establishes that the vote certification was suspended from 2:20PM, literally minutes after rioters first breached the Capitol, until shortly after 8PM.

Shortly thereafter, at approximately 2:20 p.m. members of the United States House of Representatives and United States Senate, including the President of the Senate, Vice President Mike Pence, were instructed to—and did—evacuate the chambers. Accordingly, the joint session of the United States Congress was effectively suspended until shortly after 8:00 p.m. Vice President Pence remained in the United States Capitol from the time he was evacuated from the Senate Chamber until the sessions resumed.

Up until the indictment against the cops was unsealed, DOJ had used the 1512 charge primarily with people who, in their charging documents, were shown to have done more (there were around 28 before these cops were charged with it). They include:

  • The Oath Keeper defendants
  • Many of the Proud Boy defendants
  • Some, but not all the people, who were accused of assault, damaging property, or interfering with cops
  • Those — like Gina Bisignano and Riley Williams — who were organizing traffic
  • People — like William Calhoun — whose promise of violence and intent to interfere with vote counting was explicit
  • People — like Leo Kelly — who got to the Senate or Speaker’s lobby (though not all who did were charged with 1512)

Aside from serving as a way to bring felony charges against a defendant, perhaps because the government believes the person to be a greater threat, there’s no clear rhyme or reason to this.

The primary hint of the Selfie Cops doing something like that came, after the fact, in boasts from Robertson claiming to have “attacked the government.”

“CNN and the Left are just mad because we actually attacked the government who is the problem and not some random small business … The right IN ONE DAY took the f***** U.S. Capitol. Keep poking us.” He also stated that he was “proud” of the photo in an Instagram Post that was shared to Facebook, because he was “willing to put skin in the game”

But it is also the case that the initial complaints seemed to function as a kind of triage, a way to get participants in the insurrection into the legal system to allow more focused investigation of them. Undoubtedly, the FBI continued to investigate after the initial charges.

And such an investigation — especially for people whose initial arrest didn’t rely on search warrants and who were arrested before the shape of the attack became more clear — might reveal evidence that these two cops had something more in common with the others charged with 1512, such as explicit plans to shut down the vote count or ties to a militia organization. And unlike the arrest affidavits, which put so much evidence in a few pages, we shouldn’t expect to see any of that evidence for a charge in an indictment until a litigation leading up to a trial. Indeed, that may be why DOJ feels free to include the charge in order to raise the stakes on the prosecution: because they can do so without having to tip their hand to other coup conspirators.

I expect we’ll see more 1512 charges, which will separate the people DOJ is truly concerned about from those who stupidly trespassed in support of their idol Donald Trump.

Update: DOJ did the same thing with Richard “Bigo” Barnett. In his case, he’s facing enhancements on some of these charges because he had a stun gun walking stick with him.