The Justice for All Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush on October 30, 2004. The Act contained four major sections related to crime victims and the criminal justice process. Some purposes of the Act are to protect crime victims' rights, to eliminate the substantial backlog of DNA samples collected from crime scenes and convicted offenders, and to improve and expand the DNA testing capacity of federal, state, and local crime laboratories. As to the Crime Victims’ Rights Act, the CVRA enumerates eight specified rights for crime victims. Generally, the CVRA requires prosecutors to let victims know that they can seek the advice of an attorney about the rights established by the CVRA; it allows victims to file motions to reopen a plea or a sentence in certain circumstances; and mandates that victims have the right to be reasonably heard at any public proceeding involving release, plea, or sentencing. Either the victim or the government may assert the victim's rights in the district court and may file a petition with the court of appeals if not satisfied. The CVRA requires the Attorney General to designate a USDOJ administrative authority to investigate complaints about violations of crime victims' rights and to create sanctions for DOJ employees who fail to meet obligations to victims. However, the CVRA does not create a separate cause of action allowing victims to bring suit against the Federal government, nor is it intended to impair prosecutorial discretion in a case. The CVRA creates no attorney-client relationship between the victim and a representative of the USDOJ.
Why is any of this relevant to the Environmental Crimes Blog?
On March 23, 2005, there was an explosion at the BP Products refinery in Texas City, Texas. Fifteen workers were killed, and more than 170 others were seriously injured. With permission from a federal judge to avoid notifying victims of plea discussions, federal prosecutors and BP worked out a deal and then submitted it to a District Court for approval. The agreement has a BP subsidiary pleading guilty to a violation of the Clean Air Act, calls for a $50,000,000.00 fine and sentences the oil giant to three years' probation. Twelve of the injured victims joined in a challenge to a plea bargain. The victims were ultimately granted a hearing, and filed 134 impact statements. The victims even made comments on the date BP entered its guilty plea. The District Court denied the victims’ request to reject the agreement, and the victims’ filed a mandamus petition with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Fifth Circuit granted the mandamus, in part because the Fifth Circuit was under a seventy-two (72) hour deadline. The Fifth Circuit ultimately held that the plea agreement violated the CVRA for two reasons: 1) the government filed sealed, ex parte motions when it should have conferred with the victims; 2) the District Court’s rationale of protecting BP from prejudicial media coverage was not sufficient to waive the victims’ rights under the CVRA. But, the Fifth Circuit did not grant the writ of mandamus because the victims had all been granted an opportunity to be heard: on the date in which BP entered its plea and through their supplemental briefs. An important, underlying factor in this case is the Fifth Circuit’s admonition that it leans very heavily upon the District Court to consider the victims rights. The Fifth Circuit expressed confidence that the District Court would “carefully consider [the victims’] objections and briefs as this matter proceeds” as the District Court now has to decide whether or not to accept the plea agreement.
The victims then asked the Supreme Court to delay the action on the plea agreement and contended that the plea deal is too lenient, and that it was worked out without any input from the victims in violation of the CVRA. What was at issue in the stay application was the standard of review to be applied by federal appeals courts when crime victims seek an order to compel a judge to uphold their rights under the CVRA.
On Wednesday, July 2, 2008, the US Supreme Court denied a request by the victims to stop a settlement in the case. The US Supreme Court's action means that the federal judge in Houston can now decide whether to give final approval of the plea deal.
You can read more about it at http://www.scotusblog.com/wp/a-plea-on-crime-victims-rights/
As always, feel free to call me or e-mail me with any questions at [email protected].