Sunday, August 25, 2013

Case o' The Week: It Pays to Discover - Sedaghaty and Brady Violations

  An embarrassing Brady violation in a high profile and expensive
federal prosecution in the Pacific Northwest will surely send the message, and finally put DOJ on the path of real discovery reform.
   So we said after Ted Stevens.
  Déjà vu all over again. United States v. Pirouz Sedaghaty, 2013 WL 4490922 (9th Cir. Aug. 23, 2013), decision available here.

Players: Decision by Judge McKeown, joined by Judge Schroeder. Dissent by Judge Tallman. Big win by D. Oregon FPD Steven Wax.

Facts: The defendant, known as Pete Seda, lived in Ashland and was active in causes promoting the understanding of Islam. Id. Seda was the secretary of the U.S. branch of a Saudi aid organization, Al-Haramain. Id. at *3. The government suspected that Al-Haramain also funded mujahideen fighters in Chechnya. Id. at *3. At one point, foreign funds were put in Al-Haramain’s account in Ashland, an Al-Haramain officer came to the US, went to an Ashland bank with Seda, and together the officer and Seda withdrew over $140,000 in cashier’s checks. Id. The government argued those funds later went to the mujahideen. Id. at *4. Later, this same officer returned to Ashland and used $300,000 in travelers checks for the purchase of a prayer house. Id.  
  In 2001, Seda signed an IRS Form 990 – required for tax exempt organizations – that inaccurately reported some of the above transactions. Id. Seda was indicted for, among other things, filing a False Form 990. Id. 
  “The central issue at trial was whether the errors on the Form 990 were willful.” Id. at *5. The government characterized one witness, “Barbara Cabral,” as “critical” to its efforts to prove willfulness. Cabral’s was the only direct testimony linking Seda to efforts to fund the mujahideen. Id. at *8. 
  Seda was convicted at trial, and then the government revealed “a significant amount of evidence relating to” witness Cabral. Id. This undisclosed evidence included payments to Cabral’s husband, an offer of payment to Cabral herself shortly before trial, and undisclosed reports, draft reports, and interview notes. Id. 
  The district court found a discovery violation, but held it was not material to the conviction. Id.

Issue(s): “[T]he government concedes . . . that the withheld information is favorable to Seda and that it should have been turned over before trial. Our Brady analysis therefore hinges on materiality.” Id. at *9.

Held:Viewing the suppressed evidence holistically in light of the other evidence, the withheld evidence undermines confidence in the outcome of the trial. . . . We conclude that Cabral's testimony was important enough that a changed perception of her credibility creates a reasonable probability of a different verdict. . . .  In light of the importance of allowing a full and fair cross examination of government witnesses whose testimony is important to the outcome of the case, Seda has established a Brady violation that merits a new trial.” Id. at *12 (internal quotations and citations omitted).  

Of Note: Here are some Sedaghty points gleaned for your next Brady argument.

• Materiality is evaluated “in terms of the suppressed evidence considered collectively, not item by item.” Id. at *9. 
• “Payments to a government witness are no small thing.” Id. at *10.
• The “uncertain nature” of an informal payment promise is particularly material, because it creates a greater incentive to please the promisor. Id.
• Exclusion of other impeachment evidence can increase the materiality of non-disclosed Brady material. Id. at *11.

How to Use: Sedaghty is a long opinion brimming good defense holdings. One important Fourth challenge relates to the overbreadth of computer searches. Judge McKeown asks, “May a broad ranging probable cause affidavit serve to expand the express limitations imposed by a magistrate in issuing the warrant itself?” Id. at *22. The Ninth’s view is clear: “We believe the answer is no. The affidavit as a whole cannot trump a limited warrant.” Id. . . . “We have never held that an affidavit could expand the scope of a legitimate warrant beyond its express limitations nor do we do so here.” Id. It’s a new Ninth rule, and a great one at that – a welcome addition to the line of Fourth Amendment law on overbroad computer searches.
For Further Reading: In an important development, A.G. Holder has warned in an editorial that the impact of sequestration on indigent defense undermines the right to a fair trial. See editorial here.

Steven Kalar, Federal Public Defender N.D. Cal. Website at

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