D.C. Circuit Vacates Officer’s ‘Gratuity’ Conviction
Washington, DC (February 9, 2007) -- After a 6-year struggle, a veteran D.C. police detective has been cleared of wrongdoing by the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in a case that could affect overzealous public corruption prosecutions nationwide.
Metropolitan Police Detective Nelson Valdes’ conviction for accepting an illegal gratuity was vacated for the second time today on a vote of 7-5 in an en banc decision. A panel of the court reversed Valdes’ conviction last year on a 2-1 vote, but the government requested that the full 12-member court rehear the case.
Valdes, a decorated officer, was working security at a D.C. nightclub when he was befriended by an FBI undercover agent posing as a federal judge, who asked him to retrieve publicly available information from his police department computer. The phony judge insisted on tipping Valdes for the favors, but the detective demurred. When Valdes reluctantly accepted $300 in gifts from the “judge,” the FBI pounced.
Valdes was fired from his job, indicted, endured a lengthy trial, and even served his sentence, before a federal appeals court threw out his conviction last year. The case is United States v. Valdes No. 03-3066.
“A good cop lost six years of his life on a case that should never have been brought,” says Valdes’ lawyer, Paul Zukerberg. “We have been fighting this case for six years, and are thankful it is finally over.”
Not satisfied that Valdes had already served his sentence when he was cleared last spring, the government appealed again--this time to the full 12 judge federal appeals court.
On en banc review, Blair G. Brown and Barak Cohen, of Zuckerman Spaeder LLP, filed a friend of the court brief for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) on Valdes’ behalf. The brief argued that in a prosecution of a public official for accepting an "illegal gratuity" under 18 U.S.C. § 201, the definition of "official act" should be narrowly construed. NACDL argued that a broad application of § 201 would criminalize de minimus ethical lapses, burdening the criminal justice system and possibly leading to the absurd result of criminalizing innocent gift-giving between citizens and public servants, an argument with which the majority agreed.
On February 9, 2007 the appeals court again threw out Valdes’ conviction, holding that he committed no crime.
Paul Zukerberg, counsel for Nelson Valdes, can be reached at (202) 232-8484. NACDL amicus brief authors Blair Brown and Barak Cohen may be reached at (202) 778-1800