Judge Posner issued a scathing decision yesterday for the 7th Circuit, reversing a jury’s fraud conviction and directing an acquittal. Why? Because the only fraudulent misrepresentations were those of the prosecutor.
The decision is great, and we plan to use some of it in our own future arguments. Sadly, it is just the latest in a string of recent cases where federal prosecutors — uncharacteristically — have far overstepped the bounds. We hope it’s not becoming a trend.
In U.S. v. Farinella, the government accused Farinella of fraudulently misleading consumers by slapping a new label over the “best when purchased by” date. The Justice Department alleged that this altered the dates on which “the dressing would expire.”
But the Justice Department was itself misleading when it said so. The dressing had a very long shelf life indeed — in fact, it has no expiration date. There is no time after which one shouldn’t eat it. The “best when purchased by” date was merely a marketing ploy. “For all we know,” Posner wrote, “the date is determined less by a judgment about taste than about concern with turnover.” Nevertheless, the government consistently referred to the date as the “expiration date,” routinely misleading the jury and the court.
Posner made an outstanding observation during his discussion of the government’s expert testimony. They had called an FDA employee, whose testimony strongly implied that changing food labels requires FDA approval. But though that may be the expert’s understanding, it wasn’t actually a requirement.
For it “to be a lawful predicate of a criminal conviction,” Posner wrote, it would “have to be found in some statute or regulation, or at least in some written interpretive guideline or opinion, and not just in the oral testimony of an agency employee.”
He then gave us white-collar defense attorneys a wonderfully quotable ruling: “It is a denial of due process of law to convict a person of a crime because he violated some bureaucrat’s secret understanding of the law. The idea of secret laws is repugnant. People cannot comply with laws the existence of which is concealed.”
There was no evidence of misbranding, and so the defendant had to be acquitted. However, even if there had been evidence, the Circuit would have reversed and ordered a new trial, because the Justice Department’s misconduct was beyond the pale.
As already pointed out, the prosecution repeatedly misrepresented the facts, referring to the “best when purchased by” date as the “expiration date.” In her closing argument alone, the prosecutor substituted that phrase 14 times.
The prosecutor further misled the jury when she told them that the “best when purchased by” date “allows a manufacturer to trace the product if there is a consumer complaint, if there is illness, if there is a need to recall the product.” That’s not remotely true, and there was no public safety issue with what the defendant did.
She made several more arguments hinging on implied threats to public safety: “If what he did was business as usual in the food industry, I suggest we stop going to the store right now and start growing our own food. . . . In spite of all this talk about the quality of the dressing, I don’t see them opening an of these bottles and taking a whiff. . . . [The defendant was indifferent to] safety. . . . The harm caused by the fraud was to public confidence in the safety of the food supply.” She called the still perfectly fine bottles “truckfulls of nasty, expired salad dressing.” She said that after the “expiration date” the dressing was no longer “fresh,” so the defendant “had to convert the expired dressing into new, fresh product.”
During rebuttal arguments, the prosecutor said “Ladies and gentlemen, don’t let the defendant and his high-paid lawyer buy his way out of this.” Then she went on to say “Black and white is our system of justice, ladies and gentlemen. You have to earn justice; you can’t buy it.” The implication that the defendant might be trying to bribe his way to an acquittal should have resulted in a warning of mistrial, but only resulted in sustained objections.
The Justice Department repeated its misrepresentations in its brief, using the phrase “expiration date” and hinting at public safety concerns. But the trial prosecutor’s misconduct alone was sufficient for the Circuit to order a new trial, and the only reason they didn’t do so was because there was no evidence in the first place, resulting in a directed acquittal.
“That does not detract from the gravity of the prosecutor’s misconduct and the need for an appropriate sanction,” Posner was quick to point out, however. “The government’s appellate lawyer told us that the prosecutor’s superior would give her a talking-to. We are not impressed by the suggestion.”
Posner finished his opinion with a nice kicker: “Since we are directing an acquittal on all counts, the sentencing issues are academic and we do not address them, beyond expressing our surprise that the government would complain about the leniency of the sentence for a crime it had failed to prove.”