Conservative author and speaker Dinesh D'Souza has been indicted in federal court in New York for campaign finance violations. More specifically, the feds have charged D'Souza with what is frequently called donation laundering. They assert that he reimbursed other for their donations to his chosen United States Senate candidate, thereby exceeding the statutory limit on personal donations. They also assert that he caused a false statement to be submitted to the feds, in that as a result of the alleged donation laundering the candidate's Federal Elections Commission statement identifying donors was rendered inaccurate.
Some people are suspicious that D'Souza is being singled out for his strong criticism of the Obama Administration, including his polemical documentary "2016: Obama's America." I hold no brief for D'Souza — I find him to be a crass, Coulteresque, unconvincing bomb-thrower. But I do not find it difficult to believe that the United States Department of Justice would single out an American for prosecution based on political views that are unpopular or offensive to those in power. My view is absolutely not limited to the Department of Justice under this administration. Selection of anyone for prosecution based on their views — whether I like their views or not — is an abhorent abuse of power that could easily be turned upon me or upon people with views I like.
A federal defendant who feels targeted based on protected speech may file a motion to dismiss the case for "selective prosecution." But it's a very difficult motion to win.
Federal prosecutors have extraordinary broad discretion in deciding whom to prosecute. However, they can't target people for prosecution based on constitutionally prohibited factors:
As we have noted in a slightly different context, however, although prosecutorial discretion is broad, it is not “ ‘unfettered.’ Selectivity in the enforcement of criminal laws is … subject to constitutional constraints.” United States v. Batchelder, 442 U.S. 114, 125, 99 S.Ct. 2198, 2205, 60 L.Ed.2d 755 (1979) (footnote omitted). In particular, the decision to prosecute may not be “ ‘deliberately based upon an unjustifiable standard such as race, religion, or other arbitrary classification,’ ” Bordenkircher v. Hayes, supra, 434 U.S., at 364, 98 S.Ct., at 668, quoting Oyler v. Boles, 368 U.S. 448, 456, 82 S.Ct. 501, 505, 7 L.Ed.2d 446 (1962), including the exercise of protected statutory and constitutional rights, see United States v. Goodwin, supra, 457 U.S., at 372, 102 S.Ct., at 2488.
Even though prosecution based on impermissible factors like race or protected speech is prohibited, the standard for proving it is high. The Supreme Court has announced that prosecutorial decisions are cloaked with a "presumption of regularity," and that courts must "presume" they have acted rightly absent "clear" evidence of discriminatory targeting. The Supreme Court explains:
Judicial deference to the decisions of these executive officers rests in part on an assessment of the relative competence of prosecutors and courts. “Such factors as the strength of the case, the prosecution's general deterrence value, the Government's enforcement priorities, and the case's relationship to the Government's overall enforcement plan are not readily susceptible to the kind of analysis the courts are competent to undertake.” Id., at 607, 105 S.Ct., at 1530. It also stems from a concern not to unnecessarily impair the performance of a core executive constitutional function. “Examining the basis of a prosecution delays the criminal proceeding, threatens to chill law enforcement by subjecting the prosecutor's motives and decisionmaking to outside inquiry, and may undermine prosecutorial effectiveness by revealing the Government's enforcement policy.” Ibid.
Sometimes, when you devote so much concern to the state's interest in unfettered prosecution, there's not much concern left for the defendant. Judges are only human, after all.
Under this regime, to show selective prosecution, a defendant must establish by "clear" evidence that "similarly situated individuals" without the prohibited characteristic were not prosecuted, and that the motive in this case was impermissibe. In a case alleging racial selective prosecution the defendant would have to show similarly situated people of a different race weren't prosecuted. In a case like Mr. D'Souza's the defendant would have to show both that (1) similarly situated people who didn't engage in the protected speech weren't prosecuted, and (2) the decision to prosecute was based on animus towards the protected speech. This is a tremendously difficult standard to meet. How is a defendant supposed to know whether other people have committed the same crime and been passed over by the government, particularly when the government's investigations are secret and when the conduct in question is difficult to detect?
A defendant can demand discovery from the government about whether it has passed over other people who committed the crime. But the Supreme Court has set a high bar for entitlement to such discovery. To force the government to produce statistics and other information about its prosecution decisions, the defendant must produce "some" evidence in support of both prongs of the selective prosecution test — that is, some evidence that others similarly situated are not being prosecuted, and some evidence of improper motive. In U.S. v. Armstrong in 1996, the Supreme Court held that it was not enough that defense lawyers in Los Angeles showed that the defendants in federal crack cocaine cases were almost all African-American; to get discovery they also had to supply some evidence that the feds were passing over white defendants.
In short, a mere suspicious appearance — like the indictment of a vigorous critic of the administration — is not enough to show unconstitutionally selective prosecution. D'Souza's attorneys should certainly explore the issue, but it will not be an easy motion to win. The system only nominally protects rights; for the most part the system protects the system.