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September 23, 2013

In praise of a stat-max fine that hits a federal white-collar defendant (and not the federal taxpayer) where it hurts

Some readers of this blog may come to (wrongly) believe I tend to disfavor most harsh punishments, whereas in fact I tend to favor most harsh punishments if and whenever they prove to be especially efficacious and economical.  Consequently, I tend to be fairly skeptical of punishments in the form of lenghty terms of imprisonment, whereas I tend to be fairly supportive of punishments in other forms. 

This mini backstory on my views is provided here to account for my particular affinity for the sentence imposed and now affirmed (via an unpublished ruling) in United States v. Turner, No. 12-6483 (6th Cir. Sept. 20, 2013) (available here). Here is how the opinion gets started, which provides a summary of the ruling and the facts which led up to the defendant's prosecution:

Arch Turner appeals a $250,000 fine imposed by the district court as part of his sentence for conspiring to buy votes. He argues that the fine is procedurally unreasonable because the court did not provide specific reasons for the variance from the Guidelines range of $4,000 to $40,000, and that it is substantively unreasonable because the court impermissibly considered Turner’s socio-economic status.  We conclude that the court adequately explained its reasoning in open court, that any deficiencies in duplicative explanations did not rise to the level of plain error, and that the court did not impermissibly rely on Turner’s socio-economic status. Accordingly, we AFFIRM Turner’s sentence.

Arch Turner, a superintendent of the Breathitt County, Kentucky schools, led and assisted a group of people to buy votes for a candidate in a May 2010 primary election. He coordinated meetings in which he distributed funds he had received from third parties for the purpose of buying votes, and he withdrew cash from his own bank account for the same purpose.  During the government investigation, Turner lied to an FBI agent, convinced a co-conspirator to lie to a grand jury, and attempted to convince another co-conspirator to lie to FBI agents.  During one such attempt, he told a co-conspirator that the FBI had no evidence against them and that they would not get in trouble if neither of them told on the other.  During another, Turner contacted his codefendant, which was a violation of his bond release, told his co-defendant that he could not tell on anyone because he had not seen cash change hands, and instructed his co-defendant to purchase a phone that could not be traced.  Eventually, Turner decided the jig was up and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the United States through buying votes, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371 and 42 U.S.C. § 1973i(c).

Thanks to a plea deal, this vote-buying scoundral faced "an advisory Guidelines range of 18 to 24 months imprisonment plus 1 to 3 years of supervised release and a $4,000 to $40,000 fine ... [and a] statutory maximum sentence [of] 5 years of imprisonment plus 3 years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine." The district judge thereafter notified In October 2012, the district court issued a notice advising the parties that the court intended to consider an upward variance from the Guidelines range and sought at sentencing to hear arguments concerning an upward variance of “not only time but money.” In the end, the sentencing judge imposed a 24-month prison term (the top of the calculated range) as well as a stat-max fine of $250,000.

I suspect that a number of federal sentencing judges may have shared the view that the defendant in this case deserved to have the "book thrown at him," but I fear that most would have done so by increasing the length of the defendant's imprisonment rather than maxing out his fine. As a federal taxpayer who usually see little obvious public safety benefit from imprisoning a non-violent white-collar offender for more than a few years, I am pleased that the judge in this case concluded that it would be arguably more fair and efficient to punish in this case with a greater deprivation of property rather than a greater deprivation of liberty.

September 23, 2013 at 06:04 PM | Permalink

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Comments

Vote buying? How archaic, not too mention expensive.. How many votes did the prosecution theorize he was buying?

Posted by: Jardinero1 | Sep 24, 2013 12:30:06 PM

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