FBI Respects Affluenza
Judge Wilkins' reaction is why I'm glad we just got a public defender on the Supreme Court. You get a different reaction when it's your client's door (defender) vs your target's door (prosecutor.)The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit heard oral arguments yesterday in United States v. Abou-Khatwa, an insurance fraud case. While most of the argument focused on D.C. insurance broker Tarek Abou-Khatwa's appeal of his 2019 conviction, toward the end Judge Patricia Millett brought up an aspect of the case that troubled her: When FBI agents served a search warrant at Abou-Khatwa's home in Kalorama Heights, a swanky D.C. neighborhood "favored by diplomats and power brokers," there was no answer at the door. But instead of breaching the front door, the agents went around the back to preserve "the aesthetics" of an "affluent neighborhood."
While that issue was not part of Abou-Khatwa's appeal, Millett said, "I found this deeply disturbing." When it became clear that a forced entry was necessary, an FBI agent testified, "the decision was made, since it was an affluent neighborhood," to do it inconspicuously. "Due to the aesthetics of the neighborhood," he said, "we decided to use a rear entrance so as to maintain the integrity of the front of the residence."
Judge Robert Wilkins thanked Millett for raising the issue. "I was a public defender here for 10 years," he said. "I can't tell you how many times my clients had their front doors bashed in. I don't remember a single time where any agent or police officer was worried about the aesthetics of what their house would look like after they executed a search or arrest."
the agent's concern about neighborhood "aesthetics," if it reflects a broader practice, means that people who can easily afford to fix the damage caused by an FBI raid are apt to have lower bills than people of modest means who would struggle to cover the expense. It also means that rich people are less likely to be humiliated by a conspicuous front-door entry because it would bother the neighbors.
Tessier, the Justice Department lawyer, did not try to defend the FBI's wealth-based distinction between criminal suspects. "I will pass that on to my management," she said. "I understand the court's concern. I understand why it's upsetting to the court."