The downfall of Prenda Law

Prenda Law has become a byword for shady legal practices over the past few years.  The good people at the legal blog Popehat have been on top of it for a long time.  They’ve published several articles about it, and (I understand) have provided legal assistance to some of those threatened by it.  Now it seems that their persistence in exposing its underhanded ways is about to be rewarded.

More than three and a half years ago I started covering a copyright-troll firm called Prenda Law, which came to my attention because it was filing defamation suits against critics accusing it of wrongdoing. Rarely does the Streisand Effect so utterly annihilate a group of censorious miscreants.

. . .

When people have asked me why these lawyers aren’t in jail, I’ve answered that the wheels turn slowly.

But they turn.

Today federal agents arrested John Steele and Paul Hansmeier, the two lawyers most responsible for this nationwide debacle. They were arrested on a federal indictment brought by the U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota. An indictment is an accusation, not proof: it only signifies that the U.S. Attorney has persuaded a grand jury that there is probable cause, which is not one of the more difficult challenges anyone ever faced. But a federal indictment is a very grave development for any defendant. The feds’ competitive advantage is their ability to pick and choose cases, to develop evidence and witnesses painstakingly over time, and to bring their case only after they’ve amassed what they see as overwhelming odds in their favor.

The indictment … is here. Let’s discuss it, shall we?

The indictment charges Hansmeier and Steele with a raft of federal crimes: conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, mail fraud, wire fraud, money laundering, and conspiracy to suborn perjury in federal court. As usual, if you count up the statutory maximum sentence for all of these crimes, you get a ridiculous number that bears no relation to the probable sentences they face if convicted. However, given the amounts discussed in the indictment, they are facing years in federal prison.

Having covered this story for almost four years, what’s remarkable to me is how comprehensive the federal indictment is. It covers almost every sort of misconduct any judge or commentator has accused Steele and Hansmeier of committing in substantial detail. It therefore serves to demonstrate how broad and flexible federal criminal law is — how it can be brought to bear against a wide variety of conduct.

There’s more at the link.  I highly recommend it, and the other articles about Prenda Law at Popehat, to anyone interested in the US legal system and how shady lawyers try to game it.

I think this case also illustrates another problem with the US legal system:  namely, the proliferation of lawyers.  Think about it.  When US universities are graduating so many lawyers that there isn’t enough work for them, they begin to cast around for any way at all they can use their (expensive) education to make money.  The less ethical among them won’t hesitate to use the law as a blunt instrument to make a living.  Want examples?  Do a simple Internet search on the phrase “legally mugged” and read some of the articles that come up.

Abraham Maslow famously observed in 1966:

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

I submit that, in a society overrun with lawyers desperate to make a living, Maslow’s dictum can be rephrased as follows:

“… if the only solution you have is a lawyer … treat everything as if it were a legal problem.”

That seems to be what led to the Prenda Law saga, at any rate.  One can only wonder how many similarly shady legal practices are out there . . .



  1. "It therefore serves to demonstrate how broad and flexible federal criminal law is — how it can be brought to bear against a wide variety of conduct."

    That sentence should scare the shit out of anyone with the IQ of a popsicle stick as it really means that you don't have to actually
    DO ANYTHING to be put in prison by a federal court.

  2. "you don't have to actually DO ANYTHING to be put in prison by a federal court."

    Welcome to the modern America!
    FWIW these days any police can stop you & take whatever cash you have, call it suspected drug money, give you a receipt & let you hire a lawyer to try and get it back. Look up Civil Asset Forfeiture.

  3. I hadn't heard the term "Streisand Effect".
    Reminds me of 2 things :

    My mother always told me that it's not the original thing, but the coverup of that thing that gets most people (okay, she meant me) in trouble.

    This seems to be a corollary of "The best way to get me to do something is to tell me I can't do it.".

    – Charlie

  4. I have long believed that one of the fundamental flaws in the American political system is how political office seems to be a powerful magnet to lawyers. Lawyers, you see, believe in their hearts that words are maliable things that can be bent and twisted to mean whatever they wish them to. To the lawyer there is no objective truth, only opinion and that is whatever they can manage to convince a jury or the voters to believe it is.

  5. Lawyer is the only skill that defies supply and demand. The costs, especially to society, rise when there are is an excess of lawyers as they do what you suggest, start innovating new ways to prey upon the populace. And worse, they also go into politics in greater numbers.

    From Tips My Dad Says: (

    "My father (a lawyer) told me, "Company culture is driven from the top – if it's the people who make the product, you're good; sell the product, you're ok; if the accountants take over, look for another job; and if the lawyers take over, run as fast as you can!" – Alden Hart

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