United States: The Criminal Analogue To 12(b)(6): Judicial Power To Dismiss Indictments

Last Updated: July 21 2016

Courts routinely dismiss civil complaints for failure to state a claim but seldom dismiss criminal indictments under the analogous Criminal Rule 12 for failure to state an offense. This divergent application of materially identical procedural rules has dramatic consequences for criminal defendants. An effective mechanism to decide legal questions early in criminal proceedings is necessary to redress flawed legal theories that would be ripe for dismissal in the civil context. Encouraging courts to assert their power to dismiss indictments would, if successful, also help address the widespread, systemic problems in federal criminal law.

* * *

Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 12 contains a provision for dismissing indictments that is materially identical to the familiar Civil Rule 12(b)(6) and the standard for dismissing civil complaints. Despite the textual and structural similarity between Civil Rule 12 and its criminal analogue, federal courts are often far less willing to dismiss criminal indictments than they are willing to jettison civil complaints. Motions to dismiss under Civil Rule 12(b)(6) are routinely granted to keep legally unsound civil litigation from wasting everyone's time, but it is rarer for indictments to be dismissed for failure to state an offense under the materially identical Criminal Rule 12(b)(3)(B)(v). As a result, while the civil system has powerful procedural devices to terminate legally baseless claims (motions to dismiss and for summary judgment), it is often far more difficult to get a clean legal decision on the scope of criminal law before the jury has rendered its verdict. This is a serious problem that plays a starring role in federal prosecutors' seemingly never-ending efforts to expand the scope of vague federal criminal laws.

Courts should eliminate this anomalous difference by embracing the federal rules that authorize dismissing indictments for failure to state an offense with the same willingness they have shown in recent years to dismiss complaints under the federal civil rules. This is a particularly timely issue for companies in the United States and their employees given that the U.S. Department of Justice ("DOJ") recently underscored the prosecution of individuals as a major enforcement priority—an emphasis that DOJ expressed in the Deputy Attorney General's September 9, 2015 Memorandum ("Yates Memo").

The Federal Civil and Criminal Rules

The Criminal Rules for dismissing indictments largely mirror the Civil Rules for dismissing complaints, but many courts have been applied the two in very different ways.

Pleading and Indictment Standards. The Federal Rules contain parallel language regarding standards for civil pleadings and criminal indictments:

  • Civil: "A pleading that states a claim for relief must contain ... a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief."1
  • Criminal: "The indictment or information must be a plain, concise, and definite written statement of the essential facts constituting the offense charged."2

Dismissal of Complaints and Indictments. The Federal Rules likewise contain parallel language regarding dismissal of civil complaints and criminal indictments:

  • Civil: Complaints may be dismissed for "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted."3
  • Criminal: Indictments may be dismissed for "failure to state an offense."4

Supreme Court Construction. As most practitioners know, the U.S. Supreme Court issued two decisions in the past decade making clear that civil plaintiffs must do two things to survive a motion to dismiss.5 Plaintiffs must articulate a cognizable legal theory and make sufficient allegations on all material elements of their claims to, if proven, entitle them to recovery. Plaintiffs must also make factual allegations that tell a plausible story of liability under recognized legal standards. These dual requirements—of a sound legal theory and a plausible factual account—are not onerous in the run-of-the-mill case, where the law is clear and the allegations are straightforward. But they are crucial in keeping meritless, adventurous litigation from consuming judicial resources, costing defendants money, ruining the reputations of targeted individuals, and generally undermining public confidence in the criminal justice system.

The Supreme Court has not addressed the standards for dismissing indictments in several decades, but its leading pronouncement on that standard is fully consistent with applying the above-described civil requirements in the criminal context. There, the Court explained that indictments must "fairly inform[ ] a defendant of the charge against which he must defend" and "must be accompanied with such a statement of the facts and circumstances as will inform the accused of the specific offense, coming under the general description, with which he is charged."6 The broad explanation of what indictments must do is fully consistent with applying the Supreme Court's more-recent constructions of Civil Rule 12 in the criminal context, too. And given the serious liberty interests at stake in the criminal system, scrutiny of indictments should, if anything, be more exacting.

Divergent Application. Despite both the similarity in text and structure between the civil and criminal dismissal rules and the Supreme Court's recent guidance on the civil dismissal standard, some lower courts have embraced dismissal of civil complaints without showing similar willingness to dismiss criminal indictments. As noted, in civil proceedings, courts enforce meaningful pleading standards by requiring a plaintiff to advance both sound a legal theory and factually plausible allegations. In criminal proceedings, by contrast, courts are often reluctant to test whether the prosecution's central legal theory is sound or whether the prosecution's factual allegations are plausible. Instead, courts often sustain indictments without scrutinizing the indictment's sufficiency at all.7

This differential treatment has no basis in the federal rules or Supreme Court precedent, and future courts should reject it. Courts should, instead, apply the federal criminal rules in accordance with their text and in harmony with their civil counterparts, as the Supreme Court has construed them. There is no apparent reason why federal prosecutors cannot abide by the same 12(b)(6) pleading standards applied to civil plaintiffs.

A Remedy to Chaotic Criminal Law

Modern federal criminal law is frequently criticized for numerous problems, including: (i) its general overbreadth and vagueness; (ii) its tendency toward overcriminalization; and (iii) the excessive punishment it imposes. These are recurring themes in academic literature, and they featured prominently in Justice Kagan's recent dissent in Yates v. United States, where she described "the real issue" in the case as being "overcriminalization and excessive punishment in the U.S. Code."8 Practitioners of all ideological stripes have likewise recognized these problems, with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Heritage Foundation decrying it with equal urgency.9 The judiciary's assertion of its power to dismiss indictments under Criminal Rule 12(b)(3)(B)(v) would be a significant step toward righting these wrongs without making dramatic changes to the federal criminal system.

Clarifying the Law. The clearest victim of some courts' reluctance to dismiss flawed indictments is clarity in criminal law. Many, perhaps most, judicial decisions expounding on the meaning and limitations of civil statutes come in the context of motions to dismiss (based on a discrete set of assumed facts) or motions for summary judgment (based on a discrete set of undisputed facts). These contexts provide judges with a discrete set of facts and ask those judges to expound on what the law requires in that discrete factual context. Trial and appellate judges are thus able to focus entirely on devising and articulating the appropriate legal rule without trying to referee a host of factual and evidentiary disputes between the litigants. Narrowly focusing the law facilitates straightforward opinions setting clear legal parameters.

While there is no summary judgment mechanism in criminal cases, there are motions to dismiss—yet courts are often reluctant to use that procedural tool. Rather than dismiss legally flawed prosecutions at the outset on the pleadings, courts often preside over lengthy, complex trials without ever meaningfully engaging with the propriety of the prosecutors' legal theory. That puts courts in the position of attempting to articulate the boundaries of federal criminal law in post-trial decisions and appeals on the basis of weeks or months of trial record. That imposes a tremendous burden on judges by requiring them to parse through extensive evidence in order to establish a factual predicate for the legal rule the court will announce. Particularly given that sufficiency-of-the-evidence challenges face a far more daunting standard of review than the de novo standard applied to pleadings-based dismissals—i.e., "the reviewing court must view the evidence presented in the light most favorable to the government and draw all reasonable inferences in the government's favor"10—it is far easier for courts simply to uphold the jury's verdict without meaningfully addressing flaws in the prosecutors' legal theory, even if those same flaws would have led to a pleadings-based dismissal under the civil dismissal standard. The result is a paucity of judicial decisions setting clear limits on criminal law.

Leveling the Playing Field. When courts decline to give indictments the same serious scrutiny they give to civil complaints, it makes it difficult for a criminal defendant to meaningfully challenge the government's legal theory until the close of the government's case at trial. At that late stage, however, there are significant practical consequences that result from overturning the conviction. Overturning a conviction—or dismissing charges for insufficient evidence after the government rests—means that a district judge or appellate court must nullify a trial that has already consumed weeks or months of judicial effort, not to mention imposing substantial inconvenience on the jurors. In other words, as Judge Kozinski has noted, "all of the momentum of the process is to uphold the conviction."11 In recognition of these practical costs of post-trial reversals, courts have developed numerous avoidance doctrines (like "harmless error") that enable them to skirt thorny legal issues without vacating a potentially unlawful conviction. Such doctrines are not available in the motion to dismiss context.

When judges consider or review a motion to dismiss, by contrast, there has been no trial, and comparatively little effort has been expended. This posture frees courts to adopt the best legal rule without erasing the product of a lengthy trial that has consumed tremendous judicial resources. And if prosecutors know that their legal theory will be subjected to serious scrutiny at the outset, they may exercise greater care and caution in adopting theories in the first place.

Reducing Costs. One of the basic benefits of dismissing civil cases on the pleadings is the substantial savings in litigation costs. But those costs are even more acute in the criminal context. While the 12(b)(6) standard protects civil defendants (for whom money is at stake) from defending against legally flawed claims, declining to dismiss flawed indictments leaves criminal defendants (for whom life and liberty is at stake) to fight it out before a jury regardless of the soundness of the prosecutorial theory. Leaving challenges to prosecutors' legal theorizing for the end of every case—rather than permitting meaningful challenges via pretrial motions to dismiss indictments—gives federal prosecutors essentially unreviewable power to subject targeted individuals to full-blown criminal trials.

That is a tremendous power. Individuals who are indicted on incorrect legal theories are innocent people. Dragging those innocent people through a lengthy and traumatic criminal trial imposes significant legal expenses, incalculable emotional hardship, and severe reputational injury, in addition to making substantial demands on the judiciary. These expenditures are unwarranted and wasteful in cases where the government has legally overreached. The far better course is, as explained above, for courts to meaningfully engage with the prosecutors' legal theory at the beginning of the case in deciding whether to dismiss the indictment.

Increased Importance in Light of the Yates Memo

The need for a meaningful dismissal process under Criminal Rule 12(b)(3)(B)(v) is particularly acute in light of DOJ's 2015 Yates Memo, in which DOJ recently announced a heightened focus on prosecuting individuals for corporate wrongdoing. As the Memo explains, DOJ policy now requires that: (i) both "criminal and civil corporate investigations should focus on individuals from the inception of the investigation"; (ii) "absent extraordinary circumstances or approved departmental policy, the Department will not release culpable individuals from civil or criminal liability when resolving a matter with a corporation"; and (iii) "Department attorneys should not resolve matters with a corporation without a clear plan to resolve related individual cases, and should memorialize any declinations as to individuals in such cases."

DOJ's increased emphasis on prosecuting people—rather than just corporate entities—will put pressure on prosecutors to develop more adventurous theories of criminality that ensnare targeted individuals. That could lead, in turn, to more cases that present large targets for motions to dismiss. Encouraging courts to embrace their power to dismiss indictments would, if successful, provide a mechanism for ending such adventurous criminal litigation early, while providing the courts with a clean platform to dictate the contours of the criminal law.


In appropriate criminal cases, lawyers should consider filing pretrial motions to dismiss indictments, and courts should consider granting them under an application of the existing 12(b)(6) pleading standards. Implementing this basic reform requires nothing more than applying the existing Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, and the benefits of doing so would be immense.


1. Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2).

2. Fed. R. Crim. P. 7(c)(1).

3. Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6).

4. Fed. R. Crim. P. 12(b)(3)(B)(v).

5. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009); Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007).

6. Hamling v. United States, 418 U.S. 87, 117-18 (1974).

7. See James Burnham, Why Don't Courts Dismiss Indictments? A Simple Suggestion For Making Criminal Law A Little Less Lawless, 18 Green Bag 2d 347, 356-57 (Summer 2015) (gathering examples).

8. Yates v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 1074, 1100 (2015) (Kagan, J. dissenting).

9. See Criminal Defense Issues, Overcriminalization, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (criticizing overcriminalization and gathering anti-overcriminalization scholarship) (last visited June 22, 2016); Overcriminalization, The Heritage Foundation (same) (last visited June 29, 2016).

10. United States v. Gagliardi, 506 F.3d 140, 149 (2d Cir. 2007).

11. Panel on Evidence Disclosure in Criminal Cases, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (Nov. 17, 2014) (written transcript at 42:54).

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

In association with
Related Topics
Related Articles
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Registration (you must scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of www.mondaq.com

To Use Mondaq.com you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions