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.
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.
“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 . . .