White-Collar Motive, Gun Crazy Movie

Gun Crazy (1950)

In 1950, producers Frank and Maurice King released Gun Crazy, a sometimes surreal Bonnie-and-Clyde story with an introverted, pacifist gun lover (Barton Tare, played by John Dall) and an English femme fatale sharpshooter  (Annie Laurie Starr, played by Peggy Cummins).  Carried forward by his lust for and fascination with Annie, the non-violent Bart — without thinking or planning — becomes a robber and, eventually, an accessory to murder.

A classic American film noir, Gun Crazy has merited a book (Eddie Mueller’s Gun Crazy: The Origin of American Outlaw Cinema) and much commentary by film buffs.  It also gives us insight into a common question in white-collar cases: “Why did he [or she, but usually he] do it?”

The question of motive in white-collar cases is not an idle one but, rather, has implications for how prosecutors charge; how juries hear evidence; how defense lawyers defend; and how judges sentence.

But first, a little about this very strange, very cool movie.

The most famous scene is the bank robbery, which is one, long 7-minute shot.  It’s long, so you may want to come back to it:

 According to Wikipedia:

The bank heist sequence was shot entirely in one long take in Montrose, California, with no one besides the principal actors and people inside the bank alerted to the operation. This one-take shot included the sequence of driving into town to the bank, distracting and then knocking out a patrolman, and making the get-away. This was done by simulating the interior of a sedan with a stretch Cadillac with room enough to mount the camera and a jockey’s saddle for the cameraman on a greased two-by-twelve board in the back. [The director] kept it fresh by having the actors improvise their dialogue.

In other words, when actor John Dall hopes aloud that there is parking place, he isn’t kidding: other than the people inside the bank, nobody knew that there was a movie being made or a bank robbery about to be staged, and no parking space had been reserved.

And what is the point of this for us white-collar readers?

The point is that almost nobody starts out to be a white-collar offender, any more than Bart starts out to be a bank robber.  People rarely say on Monday: “Note to self – commit mail fraud by the end of the week.”  The question is less one of “intent” and more one of “motive.”

Academic analysis bears upon the question of motive in ways inconsistent with popular thinking.  Consider Harvard Business School professor Eugene Soltes, from the introduction to his fine volume Why They Do It: Inside the Mind of the White-Collar Criminal (2016):

Many people, federal prosecutors, scholars, and media commentators claim that executives make decisions, including criminal ones, through explicit cost – benefit calculation.  Although such deliberate reasoning is consistent with the way many business decisions are made, this exclamation seems that odds with how these former leaders made the choices that eventually led them to prison.  Mini we’re not mindfully weighing the expected benefits against the expected costs. If they had been, even the remote chance of being caught and sent to prison, upending their otherwise comfortable lives, would have weighed heavily on their conscience.  But I didn’t see this. Instead, I found that they expanded surprisingly little effort deliberating the consequences of their actions. They seem to have reached their decisions to commit crimes with little thought or reflection. In many cases, it was difficult to say that they had ever really “decided” to commit a crime at all.

Business crime?

Soltes goes on to say later in the book:

The prevailing ideas around reducing white – collar criminality rely on the assessment that executives are reasoning and calculative when they decide to commit and illegal act.

The emphasis on viewing cost – benefit analysis as a psychological model of choice rather than as simply a description of behavior has led to a particular notion of why once successful and intelligent executives commit white – collar crime long – namely, that these executives make thoughtful and deliberative calculations to break the law when doing so serves their needs and desires.  They are not making hasty decisions with clouded judgment.  Their personal failure lies in reasoning that the illicit choice is the ” appropriate” one.

 [T]he trouble with this theory is that it doesn’t seem to match especially well with how executives who engage in white-collar crime actually think.

Why does this matter?

After all, many people (and almost all prosecutors) would argue that the “why” of things does not matter in the criminal context.  In other words, they say, although “intent” is relevant, “motive” is not.  The only important question, under this approach, is whether the person charged had sufficient “culpable intent” or a “guilty mind.”  Under this view, “motive” is neither inculpatory nor exculpatory, even though the Federal Rules of evidence do allow, under certain circumstances, evidence to be admitted as proof of motive.  (Consider Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b), which allows bad acts to be offered as evidence of motive).

But motive does matter.  It matters for charging decisions.  It matters for how juries hear evidence in the courtroom and how lawyers speak with them.  And it matters for sentencing.

Closed-door proceedings.

Charging Decisions

Prosecutors have discretion, as they should, with regard to whom to charge (and for what).  If the cost-benefit model that Soltes describes is the governing lens through which a charging decision is made, then it is reasonable to expect that there will be over-charging (or at least more aggressive charging) as compared to an approach that, in a more nuanced fashion, appreciates the way business people actually make decisions.  If I believe that your action is the result of a careful, cold cost-benefit analysis, I will conclude, other things being equal, that a more serious charge is due.  As you sow, so shall you reap.

On the other hand, if I understand that rather than cost-benefit analysis what I am seeing is something more akin to business negligence, I may reasonably decide that a less serious charge (or no charge at all) is due. In Soltes’s words, if what I as the prosecutor see is “little effort deliberating the consequences of [one’s] actions,” I may think differently: after all, negligence, even gross negligence, is not normally the province of the criminal courts.

Maybe a cutaway would help.

How Juries Hear

Motive colors the jury’s intake of evidence, and the prevailing zeitgeist of cost-benefit analysis works against the presumption of innocence (itself a largely extinct species, as I have discussed here and here and here.

Why is this so?

Distrust of business — and especially of large organizations, global institutions and the financial-services industry — is high among jurors across multiple demographics and political orientations.  The caricature of the cold, calculating “fat cat” businessperson fits neatly with popular suppositions — and, sometimes, conspiracy theories — about business and finance.  No amount of pretrial questionnaires or voir dire can address these deep-seated concerns with any regular success.  At trial, the Government understandably seeks to tap into these veins of distrust and fear.  And, once the jury hears at least some evidence confirming its initial biases, it is almost impossible, even for the most skilled defense lawyer, to turn them around.

On the other hand, if the jury rejects “cost-benefit” assumptions and believes that, in general, most white-collar defendants are not “reasoning and calculative” when they act (Soltes again), two things may happen.

First, the near-extinct presumption of innocence may be revived.

Second, if even some members of the jury conclude that the defendant was mindless (or just stupid), the chances increase that evidence offered by the Government will be examined more critically.

Just do the math.


If cost-benefit analysis is a religion in white-collar cases, the fraud tables and the concept of “loss” in the federal Sentencing Guidelines constitute its liturgy.  Were we to adopt a more realistic understanding of business decisionmaking in the context of white-collar offenses, we would reconsider the content and deployment of at least portions of the Guidelines.

The loss table in USSG 2B1.1.(b) is just math, a form of cost-benefit bracketing. The table attempts to impose a “cost” to a victim that it considers (or the Sentencing Commission considers) commensurate with a defendant’s “benefit.”

Laypersons are always surprised to learn that “loss” under the Guidelines does not mean “loss.”  In fact, “loss” can mean “no loss.”  (The dollar amount of loss to someone that the court believes the defendant “intended” to cause can be sufficient, even if there is no actual dollar loss to anyone). In a cost-benefit analytical regime, this idea of notional loss may be tolerable: we assume a calculation on the part of the business defendant and thus are more willing to accept a notional loss.

A more realistic view of business decisonmaking would go a long way towards restoring balance is an unbalanced white-collar system.

And, even if you disagree with me, you really should watch Gun Crazy.

Perhaps, like Annie, we all just “want things, a lot of things, big things.”  The question is: When do we go to prison for it?


Dude, That’s My Lighter: Lacrosse, Suspensions, the Fourth Amendment and the White-Collar Thanatos of Zero Tolerance

Early adopters.

Early adopters.

The relationship between lacrosse and white-collar crime is not obvious, although for much of its 20th century history the sport was powered by mid-Atlantic and New England prep-school products whose high schools also provided several All-American rosters of white-collar defendants.  And even for perfectly lawful activities, there has long been a close relationship between lacrosse and Wall Street, as shown in this 2008 Wall Street Journal article about how On Lacrosse Fields, A Battered Bank Is Still a Player

The story of how these Maryland lacrosse players’ case moves into court  raises some curious insights, though, into matters of compliance and internal policing, not to mention Fourth and Fifth Amendment issues that can figure prominently in white-collar trials:

Families of two former Maryland high school lacrosse players have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against school officials alleging that the teens were suspended for having dangerous weapons after an unconstitutional search of their equipment bags turned up two small knives and a lighter.

The lawsuit alleges that school officials in Talbot County, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, violated the students’ constitutional rights to due process and their protections against unreasonable search and seizure in 2011 when they boarded the team bus to investigate a tip about alcohol and took action against the teenagers for items the students said they used to maintain their lacrosse equipment.

The Leatherman.

The Leatherman.

The items were a lighter and a knife.

Leftover from a Doobie Brothers concert (1978).

Left over from a Doobie Brothers concert (1978).

The suspensions were reversed by the state board of education, and the players filed a federal civil rights action:

The Maryland State Board of Education ruled against the school system in 2012 and ordered that the students’ records be cleared of the incident. The state’s decision was a rare reversal of student punishment and appeared to be in opposition to the zero-tolerance policies that have taken hold in schools across the country.

Lawyers with the nonprofit Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties advocacy firm, filed the lawsuit last month in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, seeking monetary damages from the Talbot County school board and four current or former school officials. It comes at a time when U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has urged that out-of-school suspensions be used as a last resort for school-related incidents.

Before we recoil from the lighter and the knife, and begin to mutter about terrorism, consider this:

No alcohol was found, but during the search, Graham Dennis, then a 17-year-old junior, volunteered that he had a small knife, which he used to fix his lacrosse sticks, inside his gear bag.

School officials took the knife as well as a Leatherman tool they found and called police. The teenager was led away in handcuffs and suspended for 10 days.

A teammate, Casey Edsall, also a 17-year-old junior at the time, was suspended for having a lighter in his gear bag. The teenager said it was used to seal the frayed ends of strings on his lacrosse stick.

In its 2012 ruling, the Maryland board [i.e., the panel that reversed the school’s decision] said knives and lighters don’t belong at school but concluded that “this case is about context and about the appropriate exercise of discretion.”

The state board said the coaching staff had tacitly approved the use and possession of the items and that players had openly used them on the bus.

The facts are relatively obvious; their implications, less so.

High school varsity, but lacking Wi-Fi.

High school varsity, but lacking Wi-Fi.

First, students should not have lighters and knives at school.

Second, knives and lighters are frequently necessary to work on lacrosse heads and their stringing.  For a YouTube video on the subject by a mildly-hungover guide, try YouTube Burning String Tips

Third, the school — through the actions of the coaches — approved the open use of knives and lighters on the bus.

The decision of the Maryland state school board is appropriate.  For us, though, it is the board’s note about “context” and the “appropriate use of discretion” that is pertinent both for the thanatos of internal compliance and for the sometimes over-reaching character of white-collar criminal investigations and prosecutions.

(As a refresher: “Thanatos,” a minor Greek deity and the son of Nyx, was the personification of death.  The word now refers to an impulse towards death or self-destruction).

Whose street?  And, does the defendant live on it?

Whose street? And, does the defendant live on it?

First, both the sport and Wall Street have had bad press that at times have made them targets for politicians, activists and prosecutors of all stripes — sometimes with justification, sometimes not.

No doubt, lacrosse has had a tumultuous recent history, starting with the Duke lacrosse case  in which players were falsely accused of rape.

The burden of proof and a university's shameful behavior.

The burden of proof and a university’s shameful behavior.

That case ended with the prosecutor’s suspension and surrender of his license to practice law after an ethics complaint against him.

Prosecutor Michael Nifong

Prosecutor Michael Nifong

Separately, there was later a murder charge against the woman who falsely accused the Duke players, a charge of which she was convicted.  More recently, a member of the University of Virginia men’s lacrosse team murdered a member of the Virginia women’s team.


Second, “zero tolerance” is an antonym to “context.”  Context — the business, social, cultural and ethical landscape in which a person operates — is precisely what many compliance programs and white-collar investigations lack.  As in the Maryland lacrosse-suspensions matter, a policy of “zero tolerance” is a often a cover for something else (especially the fear of civil, administrative or criminal liability) other than solicitude for the people, institutions or values that are offered in justification of the policy.

Third, an appreciation of “context” would introduce the concept of proportionality, whether externally (for example, in grand jury investigations) or internally (for example, in compliance-program investigations).  The former investigations are distorted by the fact that many (perhaps most) of the folks at the levers of white-collar investigations have little or no experience of the industries, professions and services being investigated.  Without such experience and context, it is understandable that one tends to see a Red under every bed.

"Senator McCarthy, the compliance staff is ready to meet."

“Senator McCarthy, the compliance staff is ready to meet.”

The latter investigations are distorted by the business internal impulses and pressures under which they operate.  A compliance investigation that leaves significant risk on the table is a failed compliance investigation.

In fairness, though, at times the internal compliance investigation can suffer from over-familiarity, and can fail to see the customary as also potentially criminal.

Alger Hiss at the CrossFit breath-holding competition.

Alger Hiss at the CrossFit breath-holding competition.

And, of course, there are plenty of actual criminals, some of them of distinguished pedigree, even if those investigating and accusing them are clumsy.

Fourth, just as we have an odd body of Fourth Amendment law within the schoolhouse door, we have too casual a view within the corporate boardroom of Fourth Amendment protections.  Much as businesspeople shrink from asserting their Fifth Amendment rights, however wise such an assertion might be, they tend to think of the Fourth Amendment as the province of drug dealers, terrorists, pornographers and the faculty of Harvard Law School.  Both views arise from the otherwise common-sense notion that, “if you have nothing to hide,” why not testify, or be searched?  The “nothing to hide” rationale fails in the context of most white-collar crime, however, because what incriminates is intent, rather than the object or statement itself.  A loan application can contain an error, or it can be a false statement.  A check can be a commission or a kickback.

Burn here.  And here.  And there.

Burn here. And here. And there.

Such considerations come into play in most compliance and white-collar investigations, even those less important than burning the ends of the shooting strings on your lacrosse stick.


Good People, Bad Acts and Intent


(The Road To Perdition)

From Professor Peter J. Henning, more on the “why” of white-collar offenses:  When Good People Do Bad Things:

That is the conundrum of many white-collar crime cases: successful business people act in ways that put careers and personal fortunes at risk for seemingly modest gains, and sometimes the misconduct benefits their company but themselves only indirectly.

(See our earlier post: Why’d He Do It?)


(Jimmy Stewart at the end of his rope)

This theme runs through many white-collar situations: employees, officers and vendors rarely see themselves as “criminals,” and often act when they are at the end of a rope (their own or someone else’s).  Before you protest that taking “motive” or “context” is being soft on business crime, remember two things:

First, such considerations are relevant to guilt or innocence only to the extent that a business crime usually turns on intent (in other words, the act may be lawful or unlawful — it simply depends on what the actor meant to do or understood that what he was doing was wrongful).

Second, in sentencing, “motive” in white-collar cases can not only affect the benefit-received analysis, it also touches on the non-likelihood of recidivism.