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August 29, 2017

Third Circuit panel rejects various challenges to severe stash-house sting sentence

A helpful reader made sure that I did not miss yesterday's dynamic discussion by a Third Circuit panel of a set of defense challenges to yet another severe sentence resulting from a stash-house sting.  The start of the majority opinion in US v. Washington, No. 16-2795 (3d Cir. Aug. 28, 2017) (available here), highlights why these cases are so notable:

Defendant-appellant Askia Washington was ensnared by a “stash house reverse sting” operation — one which hit many of the by-now-familiar beats.  Acting on what appeared to be insider information from a drug courier, Washington and his three co-conspirators planned to rob a Philadelphia property where they thought 10 kilograms of cocaine were being stored for distribution.  But as they discovered on the day of the robbery, the “stash house” was a trap set by law enforcement.  Their “courier” was an undercover federal agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (“ATF”), which had developed the scenario from the ground up.  The cocaine did not exist.

Under federal law on conspiracy and attempt, the government could, and did, prosecute the crew as if fantasy had been reality.  Washington, the sole member to take his chances at trial, was convicted by a jury of two Hobbs Act robbery charges and two drug charges (18 U.S.C. § 1951(a) and 21 U.S.C. § 846), although he was acquitted on a gun charge.

Developed by the ATF in the 1980s to combat a rise in professional robbery crews targeting stash houses, reverse sting operations have grown increasingly controversial over the years, even as they have grown safer and more refined.  For one, they empower law enforcement to craft offenses out of whole cloth, often corresponding to statutory offense thresholds.  Here, the entirely fictitious 10 kilograms of cocaine triggered a very real 20-year mandatory minimum for Washington, contributing to a total sentence of 264 months in prison — far more than even the ringleader of the conspiracy received.  For another, and as Washington claimed on multiple occasions before the District Court — and now again on appeal — people of color are allegedly swept up in the stings in disproportionate numbers.

These elements of controversy are bound up in the three claims Washington now raises on appeal.  Two are constitutional claims: Washington challenges his conviction and sentence by arguing that the use of the statutory mandatory minimum term violated his rights to due process, and he also alleges that the attorney who represented him at trial rendered constitutionally ineffective assistance.  While stash-house reverse stings can raise constitutional concerns, the use of a mandatory minimum sentence on these particular facts did not deprive Washington of his right to due process.  And while this is the rare case where a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel was properly raised on direct appeal instead of through a collateral attack, Washington has not shown prejudice sufficient to call into doubt the integrity of his trial.  We thus conclude that both constitutional claims are without merit.

A lengthy and nuanced discussion by the majority follows, and largely concludes that the stash-house sting in this case was, in essence, "good enough for government work."  Judge McKee penned a lengthy partial dissent focused on sentencing issues that has a conclusion including these paragraphs:

This case is the latest illustration of why federal courts across the country continue to find the government’s reliance on phony stash-house sting operations disturbing.  As I have explained, these cases raise serious issues of fairness while destroying the fundamental relationship between culpability and punishment that is so important to sentencing.  The conduct being sanctioned is the direct result of the government’s initiative rather than the defendant’s.

I reiterate that it is exceedingly difficult to conclude that Congress ever considered that mandatory minimum sentences would apply here.  Nevertheless, it just may be that the ultimate systematic resolution of this very troublesome approach to sentencing will have to await clarification by Congress, the Sentencing Commission,or the U.S. Supreme Court.  Meanwhile, it is worth echoing my colleagues’ caution: The Government’s success today should not be interpreted as a clue that “all such prosecutions will share the same fate” in the future.

August 29, 2017 at 11:12 AM | Permalink

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