United States v. Armstrong
517 U.S. 456 (1996)

Annotate this Case





No. 95-157. Argued February 26, 1996-Decided May 13, 1996

In response to their indictment on "crack" cocaine and other federal charges, respondents filed a motion for discovery or for dismissal, alleging that they were selected for prosecution because they are black. The District Court granted the motion over the Government's argument, among others, that there was no evidence or allegation that it had failed to prosecute nonblack defendants. When the Government indicated it would not comply with the discovery order, the court dismissed the case. The en banc Ninth Circuit affirmed, holding that the proof requirements for a selective-prosecution claim do not compel a defendant to demonstrate that the Government has failed to prosecute others who are similarly situated.

Held: For a defendant to be entitled to discovery on a claim that he was singled out for prosecution on the basis of his race, he must make a threshold showing that the Government declined to prosecute similarly situated suspects of other races. Pp.461-471.

(a) Contrary to respondents' contention, Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 16, which governs discovery in criminal cases, does not support the result reached by the Ninth Circuit in this case. Rule 16(a)(I)(C)-which, inter alia, requires the Government to permit discovery of documents that are "material to the preparation of the ... defense" or "intended for use by the government as evidence in chief"applies only to the preparation of the "defense" against the Government's case in chief, not to the preparation of selective-prosecution claims. This reading creates a perceptible symmetry between the types of documents referred to in the Rule. Moreover, its correctness is established beyond peradventure by Rule 16(a)(2), which, as relevant here, exempts from discovery the work product of Government attorneys and agents made in connection with the case's investigation. Respondents' construction of "defense" as including selective-prosecution claims is implausible: It creates the anomaly of a defendant's being able to examine all Government work product under Rule 16(a)(I)(C), except that which is most pertinent, the work product in connection with his own case, under Rule 16(a)(2). Pp. 461-463.

(b) Under the equal protection component of the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause, the decision whether to prosecute may not be based


on an arbitrary classification such as race or religion. Oyler v. Boles, 368 U. S. 448, 456. In order to prove a selective-prosecution claim, the claimant must demonstrate that the prosecutorial policy had a discriminatory effect and was motivated by a discriminatory purpose. Ibid. To establish a discriminatory effect in a race case, the claimant must show that similarly situated individuals of a different race were not prosecuted. Ah Sin v. Wittman, 198 U. S. 500. Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U. S. 79, and Hunter v. Underwood, 471 U. S. 222, distinguished. Although Ah Sin involved federal review of a state conviction, a similar rule applies where the power of a federal court is invoked to challenge an exercise of one of the core powers of the Executive Branch of the Federal Government, the power to prosecute. Discovery imposes many of the costs present when the Government must respond to a prima facie case of selective prosecution. Assuming that discovery is available on an appropriate showing in aid of a selective-prosecution claim, see Wade v. United States, 504 U. S. 181, the justifications for a rigorous standard of proof for the elements of such a case thus require a correspondingly rigorous standard for discovery in aid of it. Thus, in order to establish entitlement to such discovery, a defendant must produce credible evidence that similarly situated defendants of other races could have been prosecuted, but were not. In this case, respondents have not met this required threshold. Pp. 463-471.

48 F.3d 1508, reversed and remanded.

REHNQUIST, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which O'CONNOR, SCALIA, KENNEDY, SOUTER, THOMAS, and GINSBURG, JJ., joined, and in which BREYER, J., joined in part. SOUTER, J., post, p. 471, and GINSBURG, J., post, p. 471, filed concurring opinions. BREYER, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, post, p. 471. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 476.

Solicitor General Days argued the cause for the United States. With him on the briefs were Acting Assistant Attorney General Keeney, Deputy Solicitor General Dreeben, Irving L. Gornstein, and Kathleen A. Felton.

Barbara E. O'Connor, by appointment of the Court, 516 U. S. 1007, argued the cause for respondents. With her on the brief for respondents Martin et al. were Maria E. Stratton, Timothy C. Lannen, by appointment of the Court, 516 U. S. 1007, David Dudley, Bernard J. Rosen, and

Full Text of Opinion

Official Supreme Court case law is only found in the print version of the United States Reports. Justia case law is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect current legal developments, verdicts or settlements. We make no warranties or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained on this site or information linked to from this site. Please check official sources.