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December 26, 2012

Still more stories of wrongful federal gun convictions and sentences from North Carolina

USA Today has this new piece, headlined "Hundreds of federal prisoners could be freed," which provides further follow-up on the story  first blogged here and well covered by USA Today concerning many persons serving federal time for gun possession crimes that are no longer crimes in the wake of an important Fourth Circuit ruling.  Here are are excerpts (including some links from the story):
A U.S. Justice Department review has identified at least 175 federal prisoners who must be released or resentenced because they have been locked up improperly.  The review, which followed a USA TODAY investigation, found that some of those prisoners shouldn't have been imprisoned because they hadn't committed a federal crime. Others received sentences vastly longer than the law allows.

The problems stem from a misunderstanding about which North Carolina state convictions were serious enough to outlaw gun possession or require extended prison sentences under federal law.  The number of prisoners ultimately freed or given shorter sentences is likely to be higher than 175 because the examination by federal prosecutors was confined to the smallest of North Carolina's three U.S. court districts.  Justice Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said "many more" cases could be upended when all are reviewed....

"That's a huge number," said University of San Francisco law professor Richard Leo.  He said it is uncommon for any federal convictions to be overturned, let alone for so many involving a single issue.

The Justice Department's examination, completed in September but never made public, is the first estimate of just how big that number could be.  Ripley Rand, the U.S. attorney in Greensboro, N.C., whose office conducted the review, said up to a third of gun cases his office prosecuted in recent years could be thrown out.  So many prisoners have filed legal cases challenging their convictions that he has assigned three prosecutors to them full time.

Prosecutors in the state's two other districts did not conduct a similar case-by-case review, and don't yet know how many of their own cases are in jeopardy.  Instead, officials said they are working with defense lawyers to identify cases that should be overturned.

One such prisoner is Travis Dixon, convicted in 2006 of illegally possessing a .44-caliber revolver.  Court records show none of his prior state convictions was serious enough to make firearm possession a federal crime. In September, the Justice Department asked a U.S. court to overturn his conviction and let Dixon go.  But Dixon is still in federal prison in South Carolina while he waits for a judge to act on the request. "I'm just not understanding why they're taking this long," he said in an e-mail.

Another prisoner, Marion Howard, was freed only after he wrote a letter to the judge asking her to "please rule on my case before the holidays" so he could get home to see his family. The judge freed him on Dec. 5.

Federal law bans people from having a gun if they have previously been convicted of a crime that could have put them in prison for more than a year.  In North Carolina, however, state law set the maximum punishment for a crime based in part on the criminal record of whoever committed it, meaning some people who committed crimes such as possessing cocaine faced sentences of more than a year, while those with shorter records face only a few months.

For years, federal courts there said that didn't matter.  If someone with a long record could have gone to prison for more than a year, then all who had committed that crime are felons and cannot legally have a gun, the courts maintained.  But last year, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals said judges had been getting the law wrong, ruling that only people who could have faced more than a year in prison for their crimes qualify as felons.

The decision meant that low-level state convictions should not have been enough to outlaw gun possession or to justify extra-long prison sentences for people who went on to be convicted of federal crimes. 

It will take at least a year to untangle all the cases like those, Rand said.  His office's 20 criminal lawyers have been swamped by so many prisoners challenging their sentences that they have been forced to delay some other criminal prosecutions. "It's definitely been a huge burden," he said.

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Comments

So a bunch of judges and prosecutors in North Carolina have been bending over backwards to sentence hundreds of innocent men to federal prison...

And now they are taking their own sweet time freeing them?

"It will take at least a year to untangle the cases." Untangle? Is that a legal term? These are innocent people who are being imprisoned illegally for goodness sake.

It may not be a great class action to sue over the original, uh, overzealous prosecutions and sentencings -- unless you can find some juicy comments in the transcripts. But I sure hope that a number of plaintiffs' attorneys sue on behalf of a class consisting of the prisoners whom these judges and prosecutors are making such minimal effort to release on a timely basis. Travis Dixon can be their lead plaintiff.

And what percentage of the defendants in question are black? 80%? 90%?

Posted by: James | Dec 26, 2012 11:42:27 PM

Isn't it high time to end all judicial self-dealt tort immunities? They made a mistake at their job of reading the law. So says a higher court. That is negligence per se. Only the damages need be debated in this class action law suit. If the courts are bankrupted, so much the better, to be rid of these careless judges.

All those who seek smaller government should support full tort liability of the courts, of the legislatures, and of the policy makers in the executive. The liability deters the entire enterprise, not just the defendant. The lawyer has done that to manufacturing, to the church, to police aggressiveness in high crime black ghettos. Isn't it high time to feed these land pirates a taste of their own medicine?

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 27, 2012 1:48:32 AM

James: The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that prosecutors have absolute tort immunity, even after exercising bad faith. Such immunity justifies violence in formal logic. One can get injunctive relief. And one may file a Section 1983 constitutional claim, and collect attorney fees. The Eleventh Amendment granted state immunity from the citizens of other states, not from its own citizens. The Supreme Court stretched the English beyond recognition, and granted the states immunity from its own citizens. The system is rigged airtight. Thus violence has full justification.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 27, 2012 1:54:14 AM

One may file a complaint with the Disciplinary Counsel, the lawyer licensing authority. But that is a joke. They dismiss all complaints except those filed by judges against attorneys. If one plans to do so, one should collect all violations, and file a complaint citing the Rule number broken. Then send one in a month, so the lawyer is always under investigation and is driven from his job by harassment. They show no mercy. No mercy should be shown them.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 27, 2012 1:57:34 AM

I agree, Supremacy. The judges should not be immune, especially if they sit on their hands literally for months and years because they are too lazy to correct their own mistakes.

If I were one of these judges, I would clear my calendar and spend however many days or weeks it takes to get every single on of these poor people out of federal prison as quickly as possible. That's what any decent human being would do.

Posted by: James | Dec 27, 2012 3:22:45 AM

hmm

"One such prisoner is Travis Dixon, convicted in 2006 of illegally possessing a .44-caliber revolver. Court records show none of his prior state convictions was serious enough to make firearm possession a federal crime. In September, the Justice Department asked a U.S. court to overturn his conviction and let Dixon go. But Dixon is still in federal prison in South Carolina while he waits for a judge to act on the request. "I'm just not understanding why they're taking this long," he said in an e-mail."

That's easy Travis when you start using your legal right to resist an illegal imprisonment by killilng the kidnappers around you. They might get off thier lazy fat asses and DO their jobs!

as for this.

"James: The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that prosecutors have absolute tort immunity, even after exercising bad faith. Such immunity justifies violence in formal logic. One can get injunctive relief. And one may file a Section 1983 constitutional claim, and collect attorney fees. The Eleventh Amendment granted state immunity from the citizens of other states, not from its own citizens. The Supreme Court stretched the English beyond recognition, and granted the states immunity from its own citizens. The system is rigged airtight. Thus violence has full justification."

Might be time to familiarize our joke of a high court of another Higher Court! and it's Sitting Judge. Judge Hemp!

Hang Em!

Posted by: rodsmith | Dec 27, 2012 9:56:35 AM

|| "to sentence hundreds of innocent men to federal prison...These are innocent people
who are being imprisoned illegally for goodness sake." ||

James,
What is your definition of innocent?
These are all convicts who were officially notified that they were not allowed to possess a gun.

I hope you're satisfied that Travis Dixon will be released and able to once again guard his cocaine with his .44-caliber revolver.

And what percentage of NC state convicts are black?

Posted by: Adamakis | Dec 27, 2012 11:44:38 AM

It should be no surprise to anyone that even though the Justice dept confirms their innocense of a federal crime, that nothing is being done....Look at the the fiscl cliff....How many yrs did it take for the feds to make an attempt to fix disparity of powder and crack cocaine...

Posted by: Midwest Guy | Dec 27, 2012 4:35:23 PM

hmm

"James,
What is your definition of innocent?
These are all convicts who were officially notified that they were not allowed to possess a gun."

Don't you mean Illegally Notified they were not allowed to possess a gun?

If the notification was legal the febs would not have this present mess to clean up.


Plus of course based on the 2nd Amendment i consider any restriciton not based on a mental disability Illegal and Unconstitutional! and pretty much the Entire Country including the USSC agreed up till the mid 1960's

Posted by: rodsmith | Dec 27, 2012 5:18:41 PM

I am a university professor. I teach medicine.

Hold on folks. That prosecutors and judges made a mistake in applying the law does not make them negligent, nor does it make them liable to sanction.

To make the point gentle: everyone makes mistakes, including you.

And, as many law professors might be willing to admit, the law sometimes is murky.

So the 4th Circuit said that the lower courts mis-applied the law. That does not mean that we sanction the prosecutors and district court judges. To do so would mean that in the future you would paralyze the courts, even when it is clear what the right thing to do is, for fear of being punished later (it's not as if the Circuit Court is error-free, after all). Think long-term: we don't want justice paralyzed.

What we DO want now is for prosecutors, district court judges and defense lawyers to work quickly to release the individuals affected by the ruling. That is what 'good faith' and justice require in this situation. If the US attorney in that district lacks the manpower, it's time to call Washington and get some manpower loaned to the office.

Posted by: Steve White | Dec 29, 2012 3:44:35 PM

Sure it does Steve. If someone kidnappes you any number of laws and court rulings give you the legal right to use any force necesary upto and including lethal to escape that illegal confingment.

Sorry Once the court said the state had fucked up and illegally inprisoned these men they had the legal right to leave no matter who they had to hurt or kill to do it.

The agravating factor that the state is now dragging ass in relesing them or even bothering to hold a hearing on one of thems attempt to force them to.. Just makes it worse!

If i was one of these men not only would i have no problem killing to get out. I wouild then be going after the DA and Judge who put me in there.

Posted by: rodsmith | Dec 29, 2012 11:44:51 PM

Of course Steve this would all be moot if on the heels of the high courts decsion the State's Attorney's office had announced that based on this decsion we will be reviewing all cases to find those effected and immediately petiton the court for thier immediate release.

Nobody says govt agent's can't mess up and comitt an honest mistake. But when they hid or try and ignore it then it's not so honest and become a Crime in it's own.

Posted by: rodsmith | Dec 29, 2012 11:49:30 PM

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