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Supreme Court rejects appeal of prosecutors' misconduct case

People line up for admission at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington October 1, 2012. REUTERS/Gary Cameron
People line up for admission at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington October 1, 2012. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

(Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday refused to consider whether criminal defendants who are acquitted can recover fees from the Justice Department for conducting prosecutions in bad faith.

The high court rejected an appeal brought by Ali Shaygan, a Miami doctor cleared of charges of illegally prescribing pain-killers, who sought to hold federal prosecutors responsible for alleged misconduct in his case.

Shaygan, a pain-management specialist, was accused of trafficking in illegal prescriptions after a patient died of a drug overdose.

A jury acquitted Shaygan and a Miami federal judge later awarded the doctor $602,000 under a federal law called the Hyde Amendment, which allows judges to sanction prosecutors for taking positions that are "vexatious, frivolous or in bad faith."

The judge found that prosecutors acted in bad faith by pursuing new charges and secretly recording Shaygan's defense team. The steps were taken in retribution after Shaygan's attorney tried to keep statements the doctor made to investigators out of evidence, the judge found.

The judge called the prosecution's tactics "profoundly disturbing," adding that they raised "troubling issues about the integrity of those who wield enormous power over the people they prosecute."

But the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta overturned the award, ruling that prosecutors have broad discretion under the doctrines of sovereign immunity and separation of powers.

Regardless of prosecutors' subjective ill will, they had an objectively reasonable basis for their acts, the appeals court found.

Shaygan appealed to the Supreme Court, with the support of close to 70 federal judges and prosecutors who filed an amicus brief in the case. They argued that prosecutors' subjective ill-will should be sufficient to justify sanctions under the Hyde Amendment.

The Supreme Court declined to take the case without comment. Justice Elena Kagan, who previously served as U.S. Solicitor General, did not take part in the decision, the order said.

David Markus, a lawyer for Shaygan, said he was disappointed the court decided not to review the case despite the support from prosecutors, judges, defense lawyers and doctors.

"Despite the decision, no one can ever take away the fact that Dr. Shaygan was found not guilty of 141 counts that never should have been brought in the first place," he said.

A Justice Department spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The case is Shaygan v. United States, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12-44.

(Reporting by Terry Baynes in New York; Editing by Xavier Briand and Dan Grebler)

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