May 19, 2007
New cert petition on prior conviction exception to Apprendi
As detailed in posts here and here and here, I have long thought it would be only a matter of time before the Supreme Court would have to take up a case addressing head-on the continued validity and precise scope of the Apprendi-Blakely "prior conviction exception." And, though the Court has long avoided a long-established split concerning this exception and juvenile adjudications, a new cert petition filed by SCOTUS gurus Jeff Fisher and Tom Goldstein would seem to present the Court with a great opportunity to return to these important issues.
The new cert petition comes in Sasouvong v. Washington and can be downloaded below. Here is the sole questions presented and the first paragraph of the statement:
QP: Whether a criminal defendant's right to a jury trial under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments is violated when a prior juvenile adjudication – not itself decided by a jury – is used by a judge to impose a longer sentence than otherwise would be permissible.
Statement: This case presents a pressing issue concerning the administration of criminal justice, over which the federal and state courts across the country are openly and deeply split. The question is whether a court may use a prior nonjury juvenile adjudication to impose a longer sentence than otherwise would be permissible. Acknowledging the deep divergence of authority on the issue, a divided Washington Supreme Court has held that a court may do so....
May 19, 2007 in Almendarez-Torres and the prior conviction exception | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack
Two great SCOTUS reads as we wait...
Thanks to How Appealing, I see two great reads for SCOTUS watchers:
- Tom Goldstein at SCOTUSblog has this post which looks at how the 2008 presidential election could impact SCOTUS. (It is equally fun to thinking about how SCOTUS might impact the 2008 presidential election.)
- Brent Kendall has this engaging article in The Daily Journal discussing this year's oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Of course, the big SCOTUS buzz in my brain concerns the possibility that we will get a ruling in Claiborne and Rita soon. I doubt they will come as early as this Monday. But these rulings are surely now only weeks away (if not days).
Criminal law blog survey
Jamie Spencer at Austin Criminal Defense Blog is taking a survey here by asking readers to send him a list of their favorite criminal-law-related blogs. Suggested categories include blogs written by defense lawyers, prosecutors, professors and judges, with both established and new law bloggers encouraged to participate.
Who should be the new leadership at DOJ?
Legal Times has this interesting article entitled "At DOJ, a Hard Job to Fill: Whoever follows in Paul McNulty's footsteps at Justice has some unwelcome challenges ahead." Here is how it begins:
Few in Washington have envied Paul McNulty over the past three months. But with the deputy attorney general's resignation last week amid the scandal over the firings of at least eight U.S. attorneys, there’s one person whose position might be even less desirable: McNulty's yet-to-be-named successor. "I'd rather trade places with Jose Padilla," jokes Viet Dinh, a former senior Justice official under then-Attorney General John Ashcroft.
Of course, the position of Attorney General might also need to be filled if more and more Senators in his own party keep calling for his resignation or if impeachment talks gets real.
So, dear readers, how about offering some suggestions for the top two spots at Justice? I think Viet Dinh would be a good choice, and of course former Deputy AGs like Jim Comey and Larry Thompson come to mind. Any other suggestions?
May 18, 2007
Guideline sentences looking reasonable to the Eighth Circuit
In notable contrast to the recent trend of sentencing wins for defendants that are unpublished (examples come from from the Fourth and Fifth and Tenth and Eleventh Circuits), the Eighth Circuit today publishes two rulings in which panels affirm within-guideline sentence. My friends cut-and-paste allow a quick summary from the Eighth Circuit's official opinion page:
062965P.pdf 05/18/2007 United States v. Scott K. Goldsmith
U.S. Court of Appeals Case No: 06-2965
U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota - St. Paul
[PUBLISHED] [Shepherd, Author, with Riley and Melloy, Circuit Judges]
Criminal case - Sentencing. District court was aware of its authority to grant departure based on defendant's mental health, and its refusal to do so is unreviewable on appeal; sentence was not unreasonable.
063161P.pdf 05/18/2007 USA v. S. Mosqueda-Estevaz
U.S. Court of Appeals Case No: 06-3161
U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri - Kansas City
[PUBLISHED] [Melloy, Author, with Bowman and Gruender, Circuit Judges]
Criminal case - Sentencing Guidelines. Sentence is not unreasonable.
Of course this is really just a dog-bites-man story, since more than 99% of all within guideline sentences get affirmed on appeal. But both rulings provide yet further examples of the general failure of most circuit courts to thoughtfully consider whether within-guideline sentences are truly reasonable in light of the substantive provisions of 3553(a). Neither ruling even mentions to parsimony mandate of 3553(a).
Rulings like these make me very hopeful (though still not especially optimistic) that the Supreme Court will significantly alter the look of reasonableness review through its rulings in Claiborne and Rita.
Around the blogosphere
Aided by a lunch break during this very interesting research conference, I have seen a number of new posts worth checking out at Crime and Consequences and Crime & Federalism and Corrections Sentencing and Ohio Death Penalty Information.
Important (but unpublished!) Tenth Circuit reversal of within-guideline sentence
A favorite reader alerted me to an unpublished sentencing opinion from the Tenth Circuit in US v. Mahan, No. 05-1518 (10th Cir. May 16, 2007) (available here), which reverses a within guideline sentence because it was procedurally unreasonable. Here is the heart of a significant (even though unpublished) ruling:
District courts must consider the 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) factors in applying a sentence that is "sufficient, but not greater than necessary" to fulfill the aims of those factors. Among other factors, § 3553(a)(1) requires the court to consider "the nature and circumstances of the offense" when developing an appropriate sentence. Following Mr. Mahan's description of how and why he came to possess the gun, the district court said "the reasons why you had the weapon ... aren't something the Court can consider," because possession of a firearm by a felon is a strict liability offense. The district court further labeled as "extraneous factors" Mr. Mahan's reasons for possessing the gun and acknowledged such information would have no bearing on its determination of Mr. Mahan's sentence.
The district court was correct that mens rea is not relevant in determining if an individual is guilty of a strict liability crime. However, in determining the appropriate sentence for one guilty of such a crime, the court must consider the factors set forth in § 3553(a), including the nature and circumstances of the offense. We find nothing in § 3553(a) to suggest that the "circumstances of the offense" factor exclusively applies to crimes requiring a mens rea or that this factor is to be specially excluded when arriving at a sentence for a strict liability crime. In fact, we have previously stated that the district court is required to consider all § 3553(a) factors when sentencing an individual for the same strict liability crime presented in this case.
Should AG Gonzales be impeached?
My colleague and FSR co-editor Frank Bowman has been calling for Congress to conclude its investigation of the US Attorney firings by impeaching AG Alberto Gonzales. Writing from Slate, Frank now has this essay entitled "The Icing Is Iglesias: His firing is reason alone for Congress to impeach Gonzales." Here is how it begins:
Congress could and should impeach Alberto Gonzales. One ground for doing so, as I have previously suggested, is the attorney general's amnesiac prevarication in his testimony before the Senate and the House. But if Congress wants more, it need look no further than the firing of David Iglesias, former U.S. attorney in New Mexico. The evidence uncovered in Gonzales' Senate and House testimony demonstrates that he fired Iglesias not because of a policy disagreement or a management failure, but because Iglesias would not misuse the power of the Department of Justice in the service of the Republican Party. To fire a U.S. attorney for refusing to abuse his power is the essence of an impeachable offense.
May 17, 2007
Third Circuit (unthinkingly?) applies pre-Booker ex post facto rules
In my view, the implications of Booker for pre-Booker ex post facto doctrines has been woefully under-examined. The Seventh Circuit has given this important issue fitting attention in its Demaree opinion (details here), but other district and circuit courts (improperly) have taken for granted that Booker does not change the pre-Booker rules.
A decision today from the Third Circuit, US v. Wood, 06-1372 (3d Cir. May 17, 2007) (available here), provides the latest troublesome example of this dynamic. The Wood panel, citing only pre-Booker precedents, decides that it was plain error for the district court, sentencing under so-called "advisory guidelines" in January 2006, to consider an enhancement that had been amended in 2004 because the defendant's crime occurred before the amendment. But, as the Demaree opinion effectively explains, this only makes sense if the guidelines have the force of law rather than just serving as advice.
I doubt the Claiborne or Rita opinions will address this intricate little issue, but for me it provides yet another example of how most courts and litigants have never fully come to terms with the real significance and import of Booker.
Take me out to the ball game....
A gorgeous day for baseball in Chicago brought a good result for the White Sox, and I had a grand time sitting in the afternoon sun. The Yankees looked even more pathetic in person than in box scores; it may be time for Yankee fans (like Justice Scalia) to get on the fire Torre bandwagon. (Notably, the other diamond battle between the first and second cities had an eventful finish.)
To maintain the "when in Rome" attitude, I'll be pulling hard for the Chicago Bulls to force a Game 7 with a win tonight in their series with the Detroit Pistons. Nice sports day to be in the Windy City.
To Chicago to go "Back to the Future of Legal Research"
I am about to head to Chicago to participate tomorrow in this conference at the Chicago-Kent College of Law entitled "Back to the Future of Legal Research." The very interesting conference schedule can be found at this link, and I am on an afternoon panel titled "Web 2.0: New Tools for Doing & Teaching Legal Research." I am heading to Chicago a bit early with tentative plans to indulge my inner Howard Bashman by attending the final game of this big-city series. Blogging likely will be light over the next two days.
State constitutional restrictions on non-capital sentences
This article from my local Columbus Dispatch discusses the Ohio Supreme Court's decision to hear an appeal from a "man sentenced to 134 years in prison for three home-invasion robberies [arguing] that his sentence was cruel and unusual." Because so few non-capital sentences have been found unconstitutional under the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, the defendant in this case should not get too excited about his chances. However, the Ohio Supreme Court has a history of thoughtfully applying its own state constitutional standards differently than the federal constitutional standards.
I have long thought that state constitutional limits on punishment ought to be applied much differently (and perhaps much more expansively) than the Eighth Amendment. I know that many state have, in death penalty cases, interpreted state constitutional provisions dynamically, but there are far fewer examples of this in non-capital cases. Do readers have any favorite examples?
Viewing a prison crisis as a human rights abuse
I am please to see that Jonathan Simon is guest-blogging at PrawfsBlawg, where he gets started with this great post entitled "Golden State Guantanamo." Here is the heart of his start:
One of the least covered and most important areas of California's socio-legal landscape is its bloated and inhumane prison system that now holds approximately 80,000 prisoners more than the 100,000 its 30+ prisons were designed to house. While Guantanamo has rightly been a subject of constant attention in the main stream media and the legal blogosphere, California's prison crisis constitutes a human rights abuse of equal if not greater significance.
May 16, 2007
SCOTUS stats from SCOTUSblog
As detailed here, SCOTUSblog has an exciting new feature: "each week from now until the end of the Term, we are going to make available a comprehensive 'Stat Pack' with information about cases yet to be decided this Term along with the Court's docket for OT07." The first "Stat Pack" can be accessed here, and it lists Claiborne and Rita among the highest priority cases outstanding.
If SCOTUSblog would just add a few more fun stats (e.g., words per opinion, law review cites per opinion author), it might become even easier to start the SCOTUS fantasy league I have long dreamed about.
UPDATE: Speaking of stats, this newspaper article dissect SCOTUS oral argument transcripts and reports total words spoken this Term at oral argument. Not surprisingly, Justices Breyer and Scalia are in lead.
Intriguing state-federal drug sentencing realities
The US Sentencing Commission's new crack report (basics here, reactions here) is fascinating (and also mind-numbing) is so many ways. Especially intriguing is Chapter 5, which focuses on state sentencing realities and has a final section on the interaction of federal prosecutorial decisions and state penalties. That section begins with these insights:
Federal law enforcement and judicial resources are too limited to process all drug trafficking offenses at the federal level. Only a small minority of all drug offenses are prosecuted federally. During the last decade, there have been between one and one and one-half million arrests for drug violations annually, and state courts have imposed sentence for about one-third of a million drug convictions annually. By contrast, 25,013 federal offenders were sentenced under the primary drug trafficking guideline in fiscal year 2006. In fact, one of the stated goals of the 1986 Act was to "give greater direction to the DEA and the U.S. Attorneys on how to focus scarce law enforcement resources."
Because the states generally have not adopted the federal penalty structure for cocaine offenders, the decision whether to prosecute at the federal or state level can have an especially significant effect on the ultimate sentence imposed on an individual crack cocaine offender. Differences in federal prosecutorial practices nationwide occur for a number of reasons. For example, federal resources in a specific jurisdiction may be prioritized toward a specific drug type that is particularly problematic for that jurisdiction. The Department of Justice reports that the comparative laws in a jurisdiction also play an important role in determining whether a particular case is brought in federal or state court.
The last sentence of this quote is especially notable given that the Justice Department regularly argues against district judges considering comparative state realities at federal sentencing. Apparently DOJ thinks it is "important" for federal prosecutors to consider comparative state dynamics (behind closed doors and without any kind of judicial review), and yet argues that it is wholly improper for federal sentencing judges to even consider comparative state dynamics (on the record and subject to judicial review).
Another indication residency restrictions imperil public safety
Thanks to Corrections Sentencing, I saw this news article from Oklahoma in which state law enforcement types are advocating against sex offender residency restrictions because they drive sex offenders underground. Here are the basics:
A law that was intended to restrict where sex offenders live is driving them underground, Tulsa police say their records show. About two years ago, the number of sex offenders registered in Tulsa peaked at 540. Now, Tulsa has 372 offenders registered, said Sgt. Gary Stansill, supervisor of the Police Department's Sex Crimes Unit.
When will SCOTUS address Booker retroactivity?
Amidst lots of thoughtful sentencing work by Sixth Circuit judges recently (examples here and here), Judge Martin's dissent in Valentine v. US, No. 04-2116 (6th Cir. May 14, 2007) (available here) stands out as an extraordinary tour de force making the case for Booker retroactivity.
As highlighted before, Judge Martin effectively documents that the Teague rule for retroactivity is driven in part by federalism and comity concerns not fully applicable to federal criminal cases. And this closing flourish from Judge Martin's opinion reminds me why the the Apprendi-Blakely five (or Cunningham six) might possibly be moved by arguments for Booker retroactivity:
[T]he Apprendi line of cases means much more than how long the government can send a defendant to jail — it speaks volumes about how we, as a democratic society, are able to follow the strictures that represent the very backbone of our legal and Constitutional system. Apprendi and its offspring — Blakely and Booker — recognize a critical, constitutionally mandated check on the sentencing process, through the grounding of sentencing determinations in facts that have been proved to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Our modern federal judiciary has been reluctant to recognize this Sixth Amendment limitation, probably due to the primacy of the mandatory sentencing guidelines that has been ingrained in our approach to sentencing for seventeen years. Although this is an innate and natural way for anyone to think, federal judges included, our personal experience over seventeen years clearly must take a backseat to the fundamental guarantees of the centuries-old Bill of Rights, with the benefit of the Supreme Court's reinvigoration of these values through Apprendi and its progeny (i.e. Booker).
For various reasons, the Valentine case appears to present a particularly good vehicle for the Supreme Court to consider Booker retroactivity issues. I hope the defendants in Valentine will seek cert, and I hope the Justices and their clerks recognize that these issues merit a place on the court's ever-shrinking docket.
More reactions to the USSC crack report
Public policy groups that have long assailed harsh crack sentencing terms have issued press releases in response to the US Sentencing Commission new report on federal cocaine sentencing (basics here):
- Families Against Mandatory Minimums has a press release that includes this line "FAMM strongly supports [the USSC's] recommendations and looks forward to working with members of Congress to implement these reasonable and long-overdue reforms to crack cocaine sentencing."
- The ACLU has a press release with these sentiments:
The current sentencing structure has had a disproportionate and unfair impact on African-American and low income communities," said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, "and we’re encouraged that the U.S. Sentencing Commission has once again acknowledged this fact.... We urge Congress to put aside politics and act now to fix this discriminatory federal drug sentencing policy."
These reactions are not surprising or especially noteworthy. For the future of federal drug sentencing, it will be much more important how policymakers and courts, rather than long-time advocates, react to the report. On that front, I was very encouraged by this effective NPR piece on the new USSC report, which includes this quote from Republican Senator Jeff Sessions:
"It's past time [to reduce the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences] actually," Sessions says. "Because the penalties on crack cocaine are extraordinarily heavy — too heavy to be justified as public policy." Sessions said his colleagues should be open to reducing penalties downward when the sentencing commission recommends it.
UPDATE: I just saw a copy of an article on the USSC report in the Daily Journal, and it has these additional reactions from key players:
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, welcomed the report's findings Tuesday, describing them as "an important first step" in correcting the disparity. "For far too long, the federal crack/powder sentencing laws have created an injustice in our nation," he said. Leahy said he hopes that federal prosecutors will focus more on drug kingpins....
The Justice Department historically has opposed making changes to the sentencing guidelines. Justice Department spokesman Bryan Sierra said the agency is "willing to discuss the disparity in the ratio for sentencing between crack and powder cocaine," but he added that the department believes that "it should be done in the broader context of sentencing reform."
Coverage of the new California execution protocol
How Appealing has collected here all the major media coverage of California's new lethal injection protocol (basics here). These snippets from this Los Angeles Times article highlights the practical realities of these new developments:
On Tuesday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's legal affairs secretary, Andrea L. Hoch, and James Tilton, director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said the new protocol addressed all the issues U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel raised in finding that the state's previous procedures violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. And Schwarzenegger issued a statement saying, "I am committed to doing whatever it takes to ensure that the lethal injection process is constitutional so the will of the people is upheld."
But lawyers for Michael Morales, the condemned killer whose challenge to lethal injection led to Fogel's ruling, made it clear they will challenge the new protocol in court....
Judge Fogel has scheduled a June 1 status conference in the Morales case. It's unclear when the judge will rule on the state's plan, and until he does, there will be no executions in California.
I might add that, even if Judge Fogel approves the state's new protocol, this issue will surely come before the Ninth Circuit. I would be shocked if there is an execution in California this year (or next for that matter) because of the lethal injection litigation.
An initial reaction to the USSC crack report
Fellow sentencing guru Mark Osler sent via e-mail this first-cut reaction to the Sentencing Commission new cocaine report (basics here):
A federal defender, one of the smartest people I know in sentencing, called me this afternoon to talk about the proposed crack guideline amendments. He got my voice mail, and left this provocative message: "What's going on?! These things are all over the place!"
He's right, and the Sentencing Commission's report on "Cocaine and Federal Sentencing Policy" (released about the same time as that call) does not do much to clear things up. The USSC's report is chock-full of great data and analysis. However, when the rubber hits the road, the Commission makes just three recommendations to Congress, on page 8: First, increase the amount needed to trigger mandatory minimums for crack; second, repeal the mandatory minimum for simple possession; and third, don't solve the problem by lowering the thresholds for powder cocaine which trigger mandatory minimums.
I'm all for these recommendations. However, they leave open a key question: If we leave behind the 100-to-1 ratio, what will take its place? This crucial question is more complex than it may at first appear — what is at issue is not just what other ratio we should employ, but whether we should tie crack sentencing to powder cocaine at all.
Which brings us back to the call I received from my friend the public defender. He was very happy that the proposed guidelines lowered the crack ranges, but noticed that they were no longer tied to any ratio at all relative to powder cocaine. For example, at level 28 of those proposed guidelines, the ratio is 17.5-to-1, at level 26 it is 25-to-1, and at level 24 it shoots up to 80-to-1. Obviously, the sentencing commission is comfortable not just with adjusting the ratio, but with throwing out the idea of a ratio altogether. In keeping with this new outlook, the key recommendations of the new report to Congress do not suggest 20-to-1 or any other ratio to direct Congressional reforms, unlike the 2002 report.
It is a brave new world, if we might be free not only from the 100-to-1 ratio, but the idea of ratios controlling the way we think about crack sentencing.
May 15, 2007
Latest filings in California lethal injection scrummage
A helpful reader just sent me copies of two filings today by the state of California in its on-going legal battle concerning its lethal injection protocol. The filings (which can be downloaded below) indicate that California has decided to "substantially revise" its three-drug lethal injection protocol.
Only with the help of experts like Debby Denno will I be able to figure out if the state's revisions to its lethal injection protocol really are that significant. Whatever the medical reality, these filings suggest that California remains eager to return to executions. Time will tell if the federal courts will let the state have its capital way.
Some recent related posts:
- Florida ready to get back to executions
- Split Sixth Circuit panel lifts Tennessee execution stay
- Academic insights on the lethal injection scrummages
- A new study assails lethal injection protocols
UPDATE: The state of California provides a "virtual tour of the existing lethal injection facility and the proposed lethal injection facility" at this link.
Should SCOTUS now just remand Claiborne in light of the new USSC report?
The new USSC cocaine report provides so much to discuss (basics here), I am not sure where to start. In the hope generating a lawyerly debate, I'll start with these provocative questions:
1. Should the Justices now just simply remand the Claiborne case — which concerns the reasonableness of a below-the-old-crack-guideline sentence — to the Eighth Circuit for reconsideration in light of the new USSC report and amendments?
2. Should the Justices request letter briefs on this issue from the parties and/or should Claiborne's lawyer or the Solicitor General request a remand?
Put simply, the new report and amendments from the USSC provides powerful new evidence about the reasonableness of crack sentences, especially for low-level offenders like Mario Claiborne. Though I thought that Claiborne's below-guideline sentence was reasonable before the USSC latest analysis, the USSC report provides a lot of new information and perspective on any decision to give a below-the-old-crack-guideline sentence.
As question 2 suggests, this issues seems lively enough to justify soliciting input from the parties. And, in my view, some (or all) of the lawyers might reasonably decide their client's interests would be best served by a simple remand without SCOTUS consideration on the merits.
(Of course, I would be greatly disappointed if the Supreme Court does not fully address post-Booker sentencing realities this term. But SCOTUS can and will speak to many post-Booker issues in Rita even if it were to remand Claiborne without any discussion of the merits.)
Fascinating article about serving white-collar federal time
In the latest issue of The American has this fascinating piece discussing the imprisonment experience of white-collar offenders. The piece is entitled "Enter a 'Hellish Place,'" and has this teaser: "Tougher rules and longer sentences mean that prison for white-collar inmates is no longer Club Fed. Prisoner No. 20532-050 tells his eyewitness story to Luke Mullins." The long article covers lots of interesting ground and justifies the time needed for a full read.
The new USSC cocaine report is here, the new USSC cocaine report is here....
I feel a bit like Navin R. Johnson (from the Steve Martin classic "The Jerk") to be so excited about the release of a huge report with lots of numbers. Still, the release of the US Sentencing Commission's "fourth report to Congress on the subject of federal cocaine sentencing policy" is a bit more exiting than a new phone book, and you can now access all 200+ pages of the new USSC report at this link.
The first chapter of the new report provides an overview of all the essential basics, and here is one of many findings from that chapter that ought to ripple through post-Booker sentencing developments:
Current data and information continue to support the core findings contained in the 2002 Commission Report, among them:
(1) The current quantity-based penalties overstate the relative harmfulness of crack cocaine compared to powder cocaine.
(2) The current quantity-based penalties sweep too broadly and apply most often to lower level offenders.
(3) The current quantity-based penalties overstate the seriousness of most crack cocaine offenses and fail to provide adequate proportionality.
(4) The current severity of crack cocaine penalties mostly impacts minorities.
Based on these findings, the Commission maintains its consistently held position that the 100-to-1 drug quantity ratio significantly undermines the various congressional objectives set forth in the Sentencing Reform Act.
Related posts on the USSC new crack work:
- USSC provides (yummy?) half-a-loaf crack amendment
- Why the USSC's new crack work is soooooo significant
- How will the new USSC crack work impact present (and past) cases?
- Previewing the (quite unpredictable) new federal politics of crack sentencing
- Conclusive proof old crack guidelines unreasonable
- Time to get crackin' on crack sentencing reform
Clear proof SCOTUS should ....?
Crime & Consequences reports here on a new Gallup Poll, which finds that "a bare majority of the public approves of the job the Supreme Court is doing, and that compared with last fall, the court's approval ratings are down among Democrats, independents, and Republicans alike." The poll is intriguing, but the graph showing significant migration of recent approval/disapproval rates perhaps shows that these poll numbers do not really show much.
I would be intrigued and grateful if any readers can find something significant in these poll numbers. Of course, I read the recent dip as clear proof that the public is getting increasingly concerned that the Justices are taking such a long time to decided Claiborne and Rita.
Sixth Circuit reverses below-guideline sentence in child porn case
The Sixth Circuit this morning, in an interesting split 2-1 ruling, has reversed a below-guideline sentence in US v. Borho, No. 06-5288 (6th Cir. May 15, 2007) (available here). Here are the basics from the start of the opinion:
Norman Borho pled guilty to three counts of distributing child pornography in interstate commerce, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252(a)(1), and to one count of receiving child pornography that had traveled in interstate commerce, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252(a)(2). The applicable United States Sentencing Guidelines called for a sentence of between 210 and 262 months of imprisonment, but the district court imposed a sentence of only 72 months. On appeal, the government argues that the sentence should be vacated and remanded for resentencing because such a large downward variance from the Guidelines range in this case is substantively unreasonable. We agree.
Judge Rogers' dissents, with this paragraph at the start of his thoughtful dissenting opinion:
I dissent because it was substantively reasonable for the district court to sentence a defendant to six years in prison for contributing in a small way to the market for pictures of despicable and revolting crimes against children. While the sentence is not what my colleagues or I, or the United States Sentencing Commission, would have imposed, our duty under Booker is nonetheless to uphold the trial court's sentence if it is reasonable.
It will be interesting to see what might become of all the recent debatable reasonableness rulings that have been recently coming from the circuit courts once we get further guidance from the Supreme Court in Claiborne and Rita.
Fifth Circuit give short-shrift to reasonableness review
The Fifth Circuit on Monday affirmed a set of within-guideline sentences in US v. German, No. 06-30013 (5th Cir. May 14, 2007) (available here), and the ruling demonstrates the failure of many circuit courts to thoughtfully considering whether within-guideline sentences are truly reasonable in light of 3553(a). Specifically, here is the complete analysis in German of the sentencing appeal of one defendant sentenced to nearly 25 years in prison for what appears to be a non-violent first drug offense:
Felicia Smith's challenge is the most compelling, but fails. She was sentenced to 292 months, the bottom of the advisory guideline range. As she notes, her role in the offense, largely chauffeuring and buying baking soda, was significantly less than that of her co-defendants. At sentencing, her counsel pointed out that Smith was "just a kid," without so much as a traffic ticket in her past, who refused repeated plea offers to avoid hurting the father of her three-year-old child.
The district court considered these arguments and was unmoved. The court ruled that "the guidelines adequately take into account the seriousness of the offense for which she was found guilty, which is also one of the concerns under Section 3553(a)." The district court properly calculated Smith's guideline range, and her resulting sentence is accordingly entitled to a presumption of reasonableness.
Well, that's really convincing analysis, isn't it?. Essentially the German court says simply that, because the guidelines were properly calculated, the within-guideline sentence is reasonable. Hmmm. This ugly ruling provides a strong reason for the Supreme Court to blow up the presumption of reasonableness in Rita in order to require circuit courts to take seriously their responsibility to review sentences in light of 3553(a) and not just in light of the guidelines.
(Also, it appears that Smith's guideline range was based on the old crack guidelines, which now should be considered presumptively unreasonable based on the Sentencing Commission's latest analysis.)
Tenth Circuit reverses below-guideline sentence
The Tenth Circuit on Monday reversed a below-guideline sentence in US v. Hildreth, No. 06-3070 (10th Cir. May 14, 2007) (available here). The opinion essentially asserts that a substantial variance was unreasonable because the factors emphasized by the sentencing judge "were already part of the calculation of the sentence under the Guidelines."
The Hildreth opinion was authored by Chief Judge Deanell Tacha, who just happens to be a former member of the US Sentencing Commission. Tellingly, the Hildreth opinion makes much of the wisdom of the guidelines, but has no mention of the parismony mandate of 3553(a).
May 14, 2007
Number 2 at DOJ to resign
Perhaps it is not fair to compare Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty to the fictional character Number 2 that Robert Wagner played in the Austin Powers franchise. But with the breaking news that McNuty has submitted his resignation to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, I cannot resist wondering whether he got tired of having to deal with his boss's big bag of "sh!"
UPDATE: How Appealing collects major press coverage here.
Time to get crackin' on crack sentencing reform
Tomorrow the US Sentencing Commission is scheduled to send its new cocaine sentencing report to Congress (background here and here) I have been disappointed (though I suppose not surpised) that the USSC's new crack guideline sentencing amendment has gotten very little attention so far. I am hopeful that the USSC's report, which should be much more media-friendly, will get these issues into the public dialogue.
Helpfully, the USSC has this reader-friendly version of all its new proposed guidelines amendments, and pp. 66-67 of the document provides helpful background on the reasons for the crack amendment. Among other details, these reasons provide this account of exactly what the practical result of the new amendment should be:
The Commission's prison impact model predicts that, assuming no change in the existing statutory mandatory minimum penalties, this modification to the Drug Quantity Table will affect 69.7 percent of crack cocaine offenses sentenced under §2D1.1 and will result in a reduction in the estimated average sentence of all crack cocaine offenses from 121 months to 106 months, based on an analysis of cases sentenced in fiscal year 2006 under §2D1.1 involving crack cocaine.
In other words, roughly 70% of crack sentences will be reduced, on average, from just over 10 years to just under 9 years. This many not seem like much of a tangible change, but I have explained here why the USSC's actions here are potentially so significant.
Related posts on the USSC new crack work:
- USSC provides (yummy?) half-a-loaf crack amendment
- Why the USSC's new crack work is soooooo significant
- How will the new USSC crack work impact present (and past) cases?
- Previewing the (quite unpredictable) new federal politics of crack sentencing
- Conclusive proof old crack guidelines unreasonable
Big interesting First Circuit opinion on the federal death penalty
Thanks to this amusing post at AL&P, you can get the highlights of the First Circuit's big opinion affirming a federal death sentence in US v. Sampson, No. 04-6001 (1st Cir. May 7, 2007) (available here). Real capital afficionados will want to take the time to read all 81 pages of Sampson, which covers lots of intriguing death penalty issues. Here are the basics of the ruling from the opinion's introduction:
This is a landmark case; for the first time in its history, this court must review a sentence of death imposed by a federal judge. To that extent, we are writing on a pristine page. We are guided in this pathbreaking endeavor, however, by a variety of reliable sources, including Supreme Court precedent, decisions of other courts of appeals in capital cases, and legal principles of general application....
We begin this opinion by sketching the background of the case. We then discuss Sampson's arguments about the constitutionality of the FDPA and the death penalty itself. Finally, we address the myriad claims of trial-related error. In the end, we reject Sampson's asseverational array in its entirety and affirm his capital sentence.
I may have some substantive reactions to this opinion after I get a chance tonight to review it more closely. Substance aside, the Sampson ruling raises some interesting procedural questions, such as
- Might the Supreme Court take cert on this case?
- Will Sampson have anything left to argue in habeas after this copious ruling?
The need to treat treatment better
Legal Times has this interesting new article detailing the limited number of opportunities for drug treatment for DC probationers and parolees. Here is an excerpt:
With more than 2,000 former inmates returning from prison each year to the District, the shortage of drug treatment threatens public safety by contributing to more street crime. Many studies across the country have shown that expanded and well-managed treatment programs for offenders reduce rates of recidivism. Many parolees also get sent back to prison for drug-related violations even though they never received treatment to help them conquer their addictions.
CSOSA Director Paul Quander Jr. says the limited substance-abuse funds force difficult decisions about which offenders will get treatment. The agency received $2.8 million for the new center this year and is seeking an additional $2.1 million from Congress in CSOSA's $190 million budget request for the 2008 fiscal year. "We have to triage it," Quander says. "The issue has always been one of limited resources. We're a criminal justice agency. We’re not a treatment agency."
Another murderer getting all the attention
I cannot find much (if anything) of broad jurisprudential significance in the Landrigan decision from the Supreme Court today (basics here). Though others may see something important in this ruling, Landrigan strikes me as another example of the Court simply deciding to be in the business of error correction in a capital case.
For this reason, I cannot help but yet again express my frustration about how much energy and judicial resources federal courts devote to state capital cases and to state defendants who have committed the most awful of crimes. Here is how courts have described the defendant at issue in today's ruling: "before he was 30 years of age, Landrigan had murdered one man, repeatedly stabbed another one, escaped from prison, and within two months murdered still another man."
Not surprisingly, and seemingly justifiably under applicable state law, this behavior landed Landrigan on Arizona's death row. But, after state court review, Landrigan's federal habeas action prompts hordes of federal judges to give his case copious attention. Seeking some finality, the district court denied Landrigan an evidentiary hearing trying to extend his attack on the state court outcome; a Ninth Circuit panel unanimously affirmed this decision. But, apparently with nothing better to do, the full Ninth Circuit decided to review Landrigan's case en banc and ordered the district court to conduct an evidentiary hearing. Thereafter, rather than leave well enough alone, the Supreme Court decided this case was so important that it merited cert, full argument and lengthy opinions to determine that, in the end, the district court acted within its discretion when denying an evidentiary hearing.
Meanwhile, as dozens of federal judges and lawyers obsess over the whether double-murderer Landrigan should get an evidentiary hearing to extend his attack on the state court outcome, thousands of non-violent federal offenders languish in prison without being able to get even a trio of circuit judges to explore thoroughly their non-capital sentencing arguments.
Thoughtful work from the Sixth Circuit on Booker retroactivity
Continuing its tradition of thoughtful (and often divided) post-Booker work, the Sixth Circuit today in Valentine v. US, No. 04-2116 (6th Cir. May 14, 2007) (available here), has an extended discussion of Booker retroactivity issues. Valentine holds, in a 2-1 opinion, that Booker is not retroactive.
Judge Martin dissents in a terrifically interesting opinion which, among other insights, highlights that the Teague rule for retroactivity is driven in part by federalism and comity concerns not fully applicable to federal criminal cases. Here is one of many thoughtful parts of Judge Martin's dissent:
These quotations clearly reveal that the standard new rule inquiry and its reference to opinions of reasonable jurists is largely based on concerns with federalism and comity, and demonstrates deference to reasonable state court interpretations of the law. Even where the “reasonable jurists” to whom we look for guidance are federal judges, their opinions can serve as a proxy for whether a similar state court decision was reasonable. So long as state courts are applying Supreme Court case law in good faith, there is diminished justification for burdening their quasi-sovereign judicial machinery with the retroactive application of new rules in cases that have become final.
In a section 2255 case, however, where comity and federalism are irrelevant, there is much less need to defer to the divergent views of federal judges who, in hindsight, did not correctly apply existing precedent to a new case. We are, after all, members of inferior courts established by same sovereign (unlike state court judges), and if the Supreme Court says we were wrong, we should take our medicine and gladly apply the correct rule retroactively, rather than clinging to vacated misapplications of the law to prove that a Supreme Court rule is “new” (which conveniently allows us to convince ourselves that we could not have been wrong in the first place).
Another 5-4 SCOTUS ruling in a criminal case
No Claiborne or Rita from the Supreme Court today, but the did issue one decision and it is yet another 5-4 ruling in a criminal case. Here is the initial report from Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog:
The Supreme Court on Monday granted no new cases. It issued one ruling -- Schriro v. Landrigan (05-1575), reversing the Ninth Circuit. The Court divided 5-4 in ruling that a federal judge did not err in refusing to grant a state prisoner an evidentiary hearing on a claim of inadequate legal advice from his lawyer.
In a term marked by split ruling, it seems that nearly every notable criminal law case is coming down 5-4. This fact perhaps makes it even more remarkable that Cunningham was a 6-3 decision, and perhaps also suggests we should not expect unified opinions in Claiborne or Rita.
UPDATE: The opinion in Landrigan is available at this link.
May 13, 2007
Taking stock of prison nation
This commentary in the Huntsville Times provides a global perspective on the affinity for incarceration in the United States. Here are highlights:
Alabama's rate puts Pakistan, China and even Libya to shame. Myths have a way of hiding what we don't want to see. Americans, for example, are quick to charge third world dictators with abusive prison policies. But prison incarceration rates tell a different story. Recent reports show that 45 of the 50 democratically elected state governments in the US, including Alabama, imprison their citizens at a faster pace than any of the foreign governments headed by dictators.
Rulers in Libya, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, China and Pakistan made Parade Magazine's 2005 world's worst dictators list. And the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, located in Oakland, Calif., has issued a report titled, "US Rates of Incarceration: A Global Perspective," showing the incarceration rates for these five dictatorships — the number of persons in prison for every 100,000 population — ranging from a low of 57 in Pakistan to a high of 207 in Libya.
By comparison, prison policies made in Montgomery locked up 591 state citizens for every 100,000 population in 2005. In other words, Alabama imprisons its people at a rate almost three times faster than Muammar al-Qaddafi's Libya and 10 times faster than Pakistan under Gen. Pervez Musharraf. If inmates held in local jails in Alabama were added in, the spread would be even wider.
Only five states — Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Minnesota and North Dakota — have prison incarceration rates less harsh than Libya's. All other states enforce prison policies that put dictators around the world to shame, including more than 600 inmates per 100,000 population in Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas.
The report by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency referenced in this article can be accessed at this link.