Establishing an Equal Playing Field. for Criminal Defendants in the Aftermath of United States V. Singleton

Article excerpt


On July 1, 1998, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit announced its opinion in United States v. Singleton ("Singleton I"),(1) declaring that federal prosecutors violate the federal gratuity statute when they offer plea bargains to criminal defendants in exchange for testimony against other criminal defendants.(2) Only nine days after this stunning opinion was issued, the Tenth Circuit vacated Singleton I for a rehearing of the case en banc.(3) In January of 1999, the Tenth Circuit issued its opinion in United States v. Singleton ("Singleton II"),(4) overruling Singleton I and holding that federal prosecutors do not violate the federal gratuity statute by exchanging plea bargains for testimony because the statute does not apply to the government or its agents.(5) During the six months between Singleton I and Singleton II, over four dozen courts published opinions on whether exchanging reduced sentences for testimony violates the federal gratuity statute.(6) The high level of judicial activity during this brief period demonstrates the sizable impact that the Singleton I holding had on the legal system.

The federal gratuity statute is part of 18 U.S.C. [sections] 201(c)(2), which proscribes bribery and gratuity. Bribery and gratuity offenses both involve illegally exchanging something of value for some action or behavior, such as payment made to a politician in exchange for her vote in favor of a bill. Bribery and gratuity are distinguished from one another by the intent requirement of each offense. Bribery requires that the person making the offer intend to induce corrupt action or behavior from the recipient.(7) Gratuity involves essentially the same conduct as bribery but is a lesser offense because it does not require that the offeror actually intend to cause corruption.(8) A prosecutor who offers to reduce a convicted felon's prison sentence in exchange for the felon's knowingly false testimony against another criminal defendant is guilty of bribery under subsection 201(c)(1). The question at issue in the Singleton cases was whether a prosecutor commits the offense of gratuity, proscribed by subsection 201(c)(2), by offering a criminal defendant a reduced sentence in exchange for what the prosecutor believes will be truthful testimony against another defendant.

Although the holding in Singleton I was quickly vacated and replaced by the contrary holding of Singleton II, the Singleton I panel opened the door to a line of reasoning and argument--that federal plea bargains are illegal under the gratuity statute--that will likely resurface frequently until the Supreme Court issues an opinion on the appropriate interpretation and application of subsection 201(c)(2).(9) The decision in Singleton II, which accords with most case law interpreting subsection 201(c)(2) subsequent to Singleton I, may be the expedient and simple resolution to arguments based on the Singleton I holding, but in this case that answer is neither a reasonable interpretation of the statute nor an adequate means of maintaining a fair and effective criminal justice system.

A fair and effective criminal justice system is one that affords prosecutors sufficient powers to obtain criminal convictions while preserving for defendants the rights necessary for a just trial. Reading a government exception into subsection 201(c)(2), as did the Singleton II court, is not an adequate resolution of the issue because that interpretation sacrifices the protections the gratuity statute affords to criminal defendants and expands the powers of federal prosecutors. Under the Singleton II interpretation, federal prosecutors are not limited by subsection 201(c)(2), and thus they are not limited in what they may offer potential witnesses to induce them to testify. This gives federal prosecutors unfair bargaining power over defendants, who are constrained by subsection 201(c)(2). Reading the gratuity statute as wholly prohibiting federal prosecutors from exchanging plea agreements with criminal defendants for testimony, as the Singleton I court did, is also unsatisfactory, given how deeply ingrained plea bargaining is in our criminal justice system and how severely its banishment would hamper the ability of prosecutors to obtain criminal convictions against co-defendants. …