Crime Victims' Rights during Criminal Investigations? Applying the Crime Victims' Rights Act before Criminal Charges Are Filed

By Cassell, Paul G.; Mitchell, Nathanael J. et al. | Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

Crime Victims' Rights during Criminal Investigations? Applying the Crime Victims' Rights Act before Criminal Charges Are Filed


Cassell, Paul G., Mitchell, Nathanael J., Edwards, Bradley J., Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology


TABLE OF CONTENTS  INTRODUCTION  I. THE ISSUE OF RIGHTS FOR CRIME VICTIMS DURING CRIMINAL        INVESTIGATIONS         A. A Brief History of Crime Victims' Rights        B. The Crime Victims' Rights Act        C. An Illustration of the Pre-charging Issue: The Jeffrey            Epstein Case  II. THE CVRA's APPLICATION BEFORE FORMAL CHARGES ARE FILED         A. The CVRA's Purposes        B. The CVRA's Plain Language        C. Courts Recognize That Crime Victims Have CVRA Rights            Before Charging  III. THE JUSTICE DEPARTMENT'S UNPERSUASIVE POSITION         A. OLC's Misreading of the CVRA's Definition of "Victim"        B. OLC's Distortion of the CVRA's Structure and Legislative            History        C. OLC's Ineffective Response to the CVRA's Coverage and            Venue Provisions  IV. WHEN PRE-CHARGING RIGHTS ATTACH UNDER THE CVRA        A. A Test for Determining When Rights Attach       B. Applying the Test to the Epstein Case       C. Current Department Policy on Pre-charging Rights       D. State Law Extension of Pre-charging Rights  CONCLUSION 

INTRODUCTION

In recent years, federal and state enactments have given crime victims extensive rights to participate in criminal cases. Many of these rights apply only after the filing of criminal charges, such as the victim's right to be heard during court proceedings. A crime victim's right to deliver an impact statement at sentencing, for instance, can only be exercised after a prosecutor has filed charges against a defendant and obtained a conviction. Other rights, however, can apply even before the formal filing of charges. As one example, the Crime Victims' Rights Act (CVRA) (1) extends to federal crime victims the right to "confer" with prosecutors. But can victims exercise this right before charges have been filed?

This question has tremendous practical importance. In many cases, prosecutors negotiate pleas well before any charges are ever drafted. If crime victims' rights enactments do not extend rights to victims until the formal filing of charges, then crime victims can be effectively excluded from the plea bargaining process. Yet the exclusion of victims in early stages of a criminal case affects more than just the content of a plea deal. Crime victims will also lose other important rights in the process if the formal filing of charges is the necessary trigger for those rights. If, for example, prosecutors work out a nonprosecution agreement with an offender, they need not notify his victims of what they are doing or of the fact that potential charges will never be filed.

The issue of pre-charging rights has most prominently surfaced in connection with federal cases. In 2010, the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) weighed in on the issue and released a legal opinion arguing that victims of federal crimes have no CVRA rights during a federal criminal investigation. (2) The Justice Department took the position that rights under the CVRA do not apply until prosecutors formally initiate criminal proceedings by filing a complaint, information, or indictment. The Department claims to find support for that limiting interpretation of the statute in its plain language and legislative history.

Shortly after the Department released its opinion, one of the CVRA's congressional sponsors, then-Senator Jon Kyl, sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder strenuously objecting to the Department's conclusions. Senator Kyl directly stated his view that "[w]hen Congress enacted the CVRA, it intended to protect crime victims throughout the criminal justice process--from the investigative phases to the final conclusion of a case." (3) Senator Kyl contested the Department's analysis of the statute and, in particular, its use of statements from him during Congress's consideration of the CVRA.

This Article sides with the CVRA's cosponsor and concludes that crime victims' CVRA rights attach before formal charging. …

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