Two war stories from legendary civil rights and criminal defense attorney Dennis Roberts on silly prosecutions
From an email sent 7 December 2010 by Dennis Roberts
I was approached by the girlfriend of a guy who was being charged with counterfeiting AUSTRALIAN dollars in the US. Who gives a shit you might ask. Turns out there is a federal statute prohibiting just this crime 18 USC 480. Even funnier is 18 USC 490 which prohibits counterfeiting pennies and nickles. I kid you not. Of course this guy had no intention of passing them in the US but was going to take them back to Australia. I figured it was a dream case. I mean would they prosecute a guy who counterfeited Iranian money here with the intention of passing it in Iran or a guy who counterfeited the currency of one of those African countries where a U S. dollar is worth 23 gazillion dollars of their currency; or a guy who counterfeits Bulgarian or Polish money which is (or at least was) absolutely worthless outside of Bulgaria or Poland I know this from being in Bulgaria in 1968.
Anyhow, the excitement was short lived when I discovered that he also had a cocaine smuggling charge and was represented by a truly excellent Federal Defender. I also told the defendant he couldn’t do better and also notified his girlfriend. So I wrote the Federal Defender congratulating him on getting this great case and sent him my favorite case story about a crime too dumb to prosecute. See below.
OMG was I having fantasies of having an enraged jury carry the AUSA out by his heels
Before I met him, according to his girlfriend, his only case was the 480. OMG was I having fantasies of having an enraged jury carry the AUSA out by his heels. Then I learned about the cocaine charge. Oh well, it was a nice fantasy while it lasted.
Old War Story
Many years ago I had a wonderful case utilizing another idiotic statute Two guys “conspired” to rip off the post office book auction. Several times a year the post office takes all the packages of books that have fallen apart in the mail and dumps them in huge containers (like the ones contractors use for scrap). Anyhow you never know what you can get a lot is shock though often there are great new and used books. These two guys both owned used book stores and divided the spoils between them by bidding the rock bottom bid. Lets say the bottom was $200. Since no one wanted this stuff how high could the bidding go? It was only these two guys who showed up for years. I mean if you didn’t own a used book store what possible use could you have with a bin filled with mostly garbage but a few treasures.
Anyhow there was an AUSA from Main Justice who was out here on some sort of anti-trust or bid rigging case. He loved CA and didn’t want to return to the shitty weather in Washington so he desperately cast about for another case. Somehow the Post Office thugs learned about him and brought him this exciting case. My guy comes into it when he learns about the auction and shows up. No matter what he bids one or the other of these guys outbids him. Finally one comes up to him and says, “you are screwing up our deal. Here’s how it will work. We will give you two containers and not bid against you The other 40 or so belong to us. So my guy goes for it. One day another guy comes along and the same thing happens, he cannot win a bin. So my schmuck, a very sweet and gentle guy, goes up to him to pull his coat. He explains the deal and says that these guys will not give up any more bins but new guy can have one of the two these guys allow him. New guy is, of course, a postal inspector. Now the best part of this deal is that there is no way for the government to get rid of these surplus books. Burn them? Hello Nazi Germany. So aside from the auction (which all the post office guys knew was a fix but didn’t give a shit) if you came in with a letter on charitable stationary you could back your truck to the loading dock and they would fill the truck for you. Like Boy Scouts want to do a book sale, etc Wouldn’t that be a great fact for a jury.
Isn’t it fun to be a lawyer.
I told him if you think an SAN FRANCISCO jury would convict on this silliness you are dreaming. Anyhow all three are indicted. The original two get former AUSAs who are now with big fancy firms. These guys can’t plead them fast enough. No big deal. I think one got 6 months bracelet and the other got half-way house for a short period. So the AUSA from Main Justice starts up with me His best line: “The train is leaving the station; you’d better climb aboard” I told him if you think an SF jury would convict on this silliness you are dreaming. But if the train really is leaving the station I suggest you lie down in front of it and put yourself out of your misery. He finally got called back to DC. It was passed off to a very new AUSA who first tried to bully me into a plea (no time, no fine, no nothing). I told him no deal. After a while yet another AUSA picked it up. He called and I explained how there was no way in the world they could ever get a conviction. He agreed and dismissed the case. Since my guy paid me a few grand and had no more money (he had a bookstore in the ghetto to encourage kids to read – 5 armed robberies in one year convinced him to go “on line”.) Anyhow whenever I learn of a book I want I email him and he delivers the book, FREE. I never ask him for new books as that would cost him too much. He is a wonderful guy and can’t believe his competitors were guilty and he wasn’t. Oh well. Every so often a wonderful case comes along I was hoping it was this new guy with the counterfeit Australian currency and the 480 prosecution until learned about the cocaine case.
After showing this to Dennis Roberts on 27 June, 2016 …
From an email sent 27 June 2016 by Dennis Roberts
Jay, this is great. Now, between us, I have no memory of that Australian counterfeit case but after 51 years it is easy to be forgetful. I did have a wonderful Australian case which I will tell you about in a separate email.
Then he sent another story …
I represented a guy in Marin County on some sort of drug case. I got him a pretty reasonable bail, I think $5000.00 and we posted it in cash. His drug case did not have very good facts, like he was going to lose. The feds had been trying to deport him for quite some time and he kept stalling them off. So I simply went to the INS and told them he was ready to go home. They were thrilled and sent him back to Australia. When the drug case came up in Marin County I explained that he was unavailable because he had been deported. The judge wanted to forfeit bail but I told him that would be wrong. My client desperately wanted to return to the US and fight these scurrilous charges but to return would have him violating a federal law. Since had didn’t want to be charged with yet another crime he had to remain in Australia. The Deputy D.A. started screaming. The judge gave me one of those “I know you pulled this scam, Roberts” but agreed that he couldn’t forfeit the bail if the man was unable to return without violating a federal law. So he released the bail. Of course that made me feel better since the defendant did owe me part of the fee.
I love Dennis.
A brief biography of Dennis Roberts
I spent the summer of ’63 as a law student, then 1964-1966 as a young attorney working with C. B. King in [Albany] All-Benny, Georgia. I returned after I graduated law school at U. C. Berkeley where my then wife started the Albany Georgia Nursery School with C. B.’s wife, Carol King. It was enormously successful as it provided Head Start with living proof that you could run an interracial school in the deep South.
We then moved to NY where I was the first staff employee of the Center for Constitutional Rights (Arthur Kinoy, Bill Kunstler, Morty Stavis) I was there for three years and we returned to Berkeley where I did all the pre-trial work with Michael Tigar in the Chicago 8 and Angela Davis cases.
All written content (c) Dennis Roberts.