Bank of Nova Scotia v. United States
In Bank of Nova Scotia v. United States, 487 U.S. 250 (1988), the Supreme Court held, "as a general matter," that a federal court "may not dismiss an indictment for errors in grand jury proceedings unless such errors prejudiced the defendants."
The Court in Bank of Nova Scotia distinguished two classes of cases in which a court is asked to dismiss an indictment. The first class, which is very limited, consists of those cases in which "the errors are deemed fundamental," id. at 256 -- that is, cases "in which the structural protections of the grand jury have been so compromised as to render the proceedings fundamentally unfair, allowing the presumption of prejudice." Id. at 257 .
In such a case, an error of constitutional magnitude has occurred, and any remedy short of dismissing the indictment would be inadequate. The two specific cases within this category cited by the Court involved racial or gender discrimination in the selection of the grand jury. See Vasquez v. Hillery, 474 U.S. 254, 88 L. Ed. 2d 598, 106 S. Ct. 617 (1986) (racial discrimination in selection of grand jury); Ballard v. United States, 329 U.S. 187, 91 L. Ed. 181, 67 S. Ct. 261 (1946) (women excluded from jury pool).
The second and larger class includes those cases in which dismissal is sought for other violations which do not give rise to a presumption of prejudice. In such a case, a court must conduct a harmless-error inquiry, applying a special standard for determining prejudice:
Under this standard, dismissal of the indictment is appropriate only "if it is established that the violation substantially influenced the grand jury's decision to indict," or if there is "grave doubt" that the decision to indict was free from the substantial influence of such violations. (Bank of Nova Scotia, 487 U.S. at 256.)
The errors alleged in Bank of Nova Scotia involved violations by the prosecutor of FED. R. CRIM. P. 6, a witness immunity statute, and constitutional provisions governing grand jury proceedings, as well as matters of general practice which affected the quality and reliability of the evidence presented. In reviewing the district court's findings of prosecutorial misconduct, the Court concluded that none of the violations warranted dismissal of the indictment. 487 U.S. at 260-262.
The Court concluded that "those violations that did occur do not, even when considered cumulatively, raise a substantial question, much less a grave doubt, as to whether they had a substantial effect on the grand jury's decision to charge." Id. at 263. In future cases, the Court declared, "errors of the kind alleged in these cases can be remedied by means other than dismissal"-- for example, a contempt citation, disciplinary proceedings, or simply chastising a prosecutor in a published opinion. "Such remedies allow the court to focus on the culpable individual rather than granting a windfall to the unprejudiced defendant." Id.
The U.S. Supreme Court also discussed the appropriate standard to determine whether particular misconduct has been prejudicial: when employing their supervisory power in response to prosecutorial misconduct when dealing with a grand jury, lower courts remain bound by Rule 52(a) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure and the balance that rule strikes between social costs and the rights of the defendant. 487 U.S. at 255.
In determining whether a given error has been harmless, the focus is on the effect, if any, of the error or misconduct on the grand jury's decision to indict: dismissal is appropriate "'if it is established that the violation substantially influenced the grand jury's decision to indict,' or if there is 'grave doubt' that the decision to indict was free from the substantial influence of such violations." Bank of Nova Scotia, 487 U.S. at 256.