Law School Case Brief
United States v. Armstrong - 517 U.S. 456, 116 S. Ct. 1480 (1996)
The requirements for a selective-prosecution claim draw on "ordinary equal protection standards." The claimant must demonstrate that the federal prosecutorial policy had a discriminatory effect and that it was motivated by a discriminatory purpose. To establish a discriminatory effect in a race case, the claimant must show that similarly situated individuals of a different race were not prosecuted.
Defendants: (1) filed a motion for discovery or for dismissal of the indictment; (2) alleged that they had been selected for federal prosecution because they were African-American; and (3) offered an affidavit with an accompanying "study" to the effect that in every one of the 24 cases involving similar drug charges and closed by a federal public defender's office during the prior year, the defendant had been African-American. The district court granted the motion and ordered some discovery from the Government in support of the selective-prosecution claim. When the Government indicated that it would not comply with the discovery order, the district court dismissed the case. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ultimately affirmed the order of dismissal and expressed the view that: (1) for discovery purposes, a defendant was not required to demonstrate that the Government failed to prosecute others who were similarly situated, and; (2) in the case at hand, the district court judge's discovery order was within her discretion. The Government was granted a writ of certiorari on the issue of the appropriate standard for discovery for a selective-prosecution claim.
Was dismissal of the indictment proper?
The Supreme Court of the United States reversed and remanded the appellate court's judgment that affirmed the district court's order of dismissal. The Court held that, on the assumption that discovery from the Government in support of a federal criminal defendant's claim of selective prosecution—on the unjustifiable basis of race, religion, or other arbitrary classification, in violation of the equal protection component of the due process clause of the Federal Constitution's Fifth Amendment—was available to the defendant if the defendant can make the appropriate threshold showing, then in a case that did not involve direct admissions by prosecutors of discriminatory purpose, the defendant is required to produce some evidence that similarly situated defendants of other races had not been prosecuted, in order to satisfy the discriminatory-effect element of the required threshold showing. Under that standard, the Court ruled, defendants in the case at hand failed to satisfy the threshold showing, by failing to show that the Government had declined to prosecute similarly situated suspects of other races.
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