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January 17, 2017
Extended dissent laments First Circuit panel's rejection of Eighth Amendment attack on 160-year sentence for stash house participant
I just notices a lengthy and blog-worthy opinion issued by the First Circuit late last week in US v. Rivera-Ruperto, No. 12-2364 (1st Cir. Jan 13, 2017) (available here). The start and final substantive paragraphs of the majority opinion provides the factual background for the Eighth Amendment claim and its formal fate:
This case arises out of a now-familiar, large-scale FBI investigation known as "Operation Guard Shack," in which the FBI, in an effort to root out police corruption throughout Puerto Rico, orchestrated a series of staged drug deals over the course of several years. For his participation in six of these Operation Guard Shack drug deals, Defendant- Appellant Wendell Rivera-Ruperto stood two trials and was found guilty of various federal drug and firearms-related crimes. The convictions resulted in Rivera-Ruperto receiving a combined sentence of 161-years and 10-months' imprisonment.....
At oral argument, counsel for Rivera-Ruperto argued that we should be swayed by the fact that, in this case, the crime involved fake drug deals. A near two life-term punishment where no real drugs and no real drug dealers were involved, he contended, is a punishment that is grossly disproportionate on its face. But in coming to this sentence, the judge below was guided by and correctly employed a sentencing scheme that is written into statute -- a statute that makes no distinction between cases involving real versus sham cocaine. At each of the six stings, in fact, Rivera-Ruperto repeatedly and voluntarily showed up armed and provided security services for what he believed to be illegal transactions between real cocaine dealers. The crime of possessing a firearm in furtherance of such a drug trafficking offense is a grave one, and Congress has made a legislative determination that it requires harsh punishment. Given the weight of the case law, we see no Eighth Amendment route for second-guessing that legislative judgment.
We thus cannot conclude that Rivera-Ruperto has established that his sentence, which is largely due to his consecutive sentences under § 924(c), is grossly disproportionate to the crime, so as to trigger Eighth Amendment protections.
The start and end of Judge Torruella's 35+-page dissent provides a much fuller primer on the Eighth Amendment and one judge's concerns about its application in this case:
The majority today affirms a sentence of 160 years and one month without the possibility of parole for Rivera-Ruperto. The transgression for which Rivera-Ruperto was punished in such an extreme manner was his participation as a security guard in several fake transactions, while the FBI duped Rivera-Ruperto into believing that the composite was actually illegal drugs. The FBI ensured that more than five kilograms of composite moved from one agent's hands to another at each transaction; the FBI also made sure that the rigged script included Rivera-Ruperto's possession of a pistol at each transaction. This combination -- more than five kilograms of composite, a pistol, and separate transactions -- triggered the mandatory consecutive minimums of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), which make up 130 years of Rivera-Ruperto's sentence.
In a real drug transaction, all participants would be guilty of a crime. And, in general, the greater their knowledge of the crime would be, the harsher the law would punish them. In the fictitious transaction we are faced with today, however, only the duped participants, who had no knowledge of what truly transpired, are punished. The other participants are not only excused, but indeed rewarded for a job well done.
If Rivera-Ruperto had instead knowingly committed several real rapes, second-degree murders, and/or kidnappings, he would have received a much lower sentence; even if Rivera-Ruperto had taken a much more active role in, and brought a gun to, two much larger real drug deals, he would still have received a much lower sentence. For these and many other crimes Rivera-Ruperto would have received sentences that would see him released from prison during the natural term of his life. For the fictitious transgressions concocted by the authorities, however, Rivera- Ruperto will spend his entire life behind bars -- a sentence given to first-degree murderers, 18 U.S.C. § 1111, or those who cause death by wrecking a train carrying high-level nuclear waste. 18 U.S.C. § 1992.
From the majority's approval of the draconian sentence imposed in this case, I respectfully dissent. Rivera-Ruperto's sentence is grossly disproportionate to his offense, and therefore violates the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. While some seemingly excessively harsh sentences have withstood Eighth Amendment challenges, such harsh sentences have been sanctioned only in the context of recidivists or those who otherwise dedicated themselves to a life of crime -- a context that explained the severity of the sentences. But Rivera-Ruperto has no criminal record, nor has he dedicated himself to a life of crime. Not even under the infamous § 924(c) has a first-time offender like Rivera-Ruperto ever been condemned to spend his entire life in jail....
Never before has a first-time offender who has not dedicated his life to crime been condemned to spend his entire life in prison for a transgression such as Rivera-Ruperto's, not even in cases in which the transgression was real -- and Rivera's-Ruperto's transgression is fictitious.
The Government has effectively asked this court to pronounce the Eighth Amendment dead for sentences for a term of years. I respectfully refuse to join in this pronouncement. "Unless we are to abandon the moral commitment embodied in the Eighth Amendment, proportionality review must never become effectively obsolete." Graham, 560 U.S. at 85 (Stevens, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, JJ., concurring).
January 17, 2017 at 06:01 PM | Permalink
another case crying out for supreme court reversal and presidential pardon or commutation. Any and all sentences that are factually declared at beyond natural life should automatically be set aside, and judges forced to justify a whole life sentence against the test of "the worst of the worst". Those that sit in ivory towers need to revisit the human concepts of humility and mercy.
Posted by: peter | Jan 18, 2017 5:04:28 AM
My friend Sholam Weiss is serving a sentence of 835 years for white collar crimes that did not involve either drugs or guns. Many of us are praying that he will receive a Commutation before President Obama leaves office. Notably, the Chancellor of Austria (from which Mr. Wiss was extradited, based upon assurances from the DOJ and the State Department that have not been fulfilled) has personally asked President Obama to grant the commutation.
Posted by: Jim Gormley | Jan 18, 2017 11:41:09 AM
160 years let's see. "At oral argument, counsel for Rivera-Ruperto argued that we should be swayed by the fact that, in this case, the crime involved fake drug deals. A near two life-term punishment where no real drugs and no real drug dealers were involved, he contended, is a punishment that is grossly disproportionate on its face."
Now that is truly frivolous defense argument. X murders 5 people and gets 160 years. Y pretends to murder 5 people. Of course Y should get the same sentence as X. Obvious is it not.
That the defense counsel had the temerity to argue otherwise is quite unbelievable.
Posted by: anon | Jan 19, 2017 10:58:20 PM