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March 30, 2018

Texas woman sentenced to five years in prison (!?!?!) for voting illegally

When I first saw the basics of this state sentencing story out of Texas, reported under the headline "Tarrant County woman sentenced to five years in prison for illegally voting in 2016," I did not really believe it. Even after reading the details excerpted below, I am still not quite sure I believe that a judge decided it was just and effective to send someone to prison for half a decade for casting a vote illegally:

A judge sentenced a Rendon woman to five years in prison Wednesday for voting illegally in the 2016 presidential election while she was on supervised release from a 2011 fraud conviction. Crystal Mason, 43, waived her right to a jury trial and chose to have state District Judge Ruben Gonzalez assess her sentence.

J. Warren St. John, her defense attorney, said after the verdict was rendered that an appeal had already been filed and he is hopeful his client will soon be released on bond. "I find it amazing that the government feels she made this up," St. John told the court. "She was never told that she couldn't vote, and she voted in good faith. Why would she risk going back to prison for something that is not going to change her life?"...

During her testimony, Mason — who served just shy of three years in federal prison — told the court that she was assigned a provisional ballot after she arrived at her usual polling place and discovered that her name was not on the voter roll.

Gonzalez, who questioned Mason during her testimony, asked why she did not thoroughly read the documents she was given at the time. The form you are required to sign to get the provisional ballot is called an affidavit, Gonzales told Mason. "There's a legal connotation to that, right?" Gonzales asked.

Mason responded that she was never told by the federal court, her supervision officer, the election workers or U.S. District Judge John McBryde, the sentencing judge in her fraud case, that she would not be able to vote in elections until she finished serving her sentence, supervised release included. She also said she did not carefully read the form because an election official was helping her.

During cross-examination by Tarrant County prosecutor Matt Smid, Mason was reminded that she had jeopardized her freedom in the past by violating federal tax laws. Sacrificing her freedom to vote was not something she would knowingly do, Mason told Gonzales. "I inflated returns," Mason said. "I was trying to get more money back for my clients. I admitted that. I owned up to that. I took accountability for that. I would never do that again. I was happy enough to come home and see my daughter graduate. My son is about to graduate. Why would I jeopardize that? Not to vote. ... I didn't even want to go vote."

Mason was taken to jail after the conclusion of her trial on Wednesday as a chorus of small children leaving the courtroom waved and said, "Bye-bye, Big Mama."

Mason, who was known as Crystal Mason-Hobbs at the time, pleaded guilty to fraud in 2011. As part of her plea agreement, she was ordered to pay $4.2 million in restitution, according to court documents. The fraud charge stemmed from a tax preparation business Mason and her ex-husband, Sanford Taylor Hobbs III, owned and operated in Everman in which they submitted inflated tax refunds to the Internal Revenue Service on behalf of clients.

Mason later divorced her husband, who received a similar sentence after he also pleaded guilty. Mason testified Wednesday that she has remade herself since her release from prison, including getting a degree in a new field and getting a new job.

She had gone to vote at her mother's insistence and brought her driver's license as identification, according to her testimony. When poll workers could not find her name on the list of registered voters, Mason said, she obtained a provisional ballot and was coached through the process by a worker. Mason testified that she did not remember the form saying anything about people on supervised release being prohibited from voting.

To register to vote in Texas, a person must be 18 and a U.S. citizen and cannot be a convicted felon or have been declared mentally incapacitated by a court. In Texas, convicted felons can have their voting privileges restored after fully completing their sentences.

I really cannot fully wrap my mind around the notion that the crime of voting once illegally, even if done with great malice, is the sort of offense that should or even could lead to multiple years in prison. Of course, one might think this is a story about how tough Texas is with all criminals.  But a quick Google new search produces these recent stories of seemingly much worse crimes resulting in probation sentences in Texas:

"Hallsville man sentenced to probation in online solicitation of minor case"

"Woman who made up story about being raped by black men is sentenced to probation"

"Jury gives Waco man probation in deadly drunken driving crash"

March 30, 2018 at 10:32 AM | Permalink

Comments

A person who broke the law, it seems by mistake though that isn't legally an excuse, to vote for her recently deceased mom (a Trump supporter) was not prosecuted in NC:

http://www.morganton.com/news/da-cites-compassion-for-not-prosecuting-voter-fraud-case/article_766b15cc-2ad8-11e7-abfa-8f9665252d92.html

Repeatedly, the few cases that arise in these in person cases are mistakes, though that doesn't always result in the person not being charged. The person in NC was treated correctly given the facts. This act in Texas is cruel.

Posted by: Joe | Mar 30, 2018 10:49:34 AM

This is not a person walking off the street, and voting without authorization. This is a person still under supervision, for a prior felony. So, for example, a person smoking dope might get a fine. A person under supervision, would go back to prison.

Posted by: David Behar | Mar 30, 2018 11:43:26 AM

My gut reaction to the headline is that it seems like an excessive sentence, but just from reading the article linked I get the feeling there is some spin going on here with regards to the case. The defendant is on parole for defrauding the U.S. government and while on parole she again defrauded the government. If the headline were "woman on parole for defrauding the government is sentenced to 5 years for again defrauding government" then my gut reaction would be different. Both headlines are true, but both are incomplete.

So this woman was a tax accountant of some sort and managed to defraud the government for $4.2 million. This leads me to infer she knows how to read government forms and knows how to read the fine print and legalese. I find it hard to believe a person who pulled off that type of fraud is helpless when confronted with a government document and needs coaching. Also, she claims she has taken responsibility for her prior conduct but in the same breathe defends her prior actions on the grounds that she was trying to get more money back for her clients. Her defense attorney should have told her that is not "taking responsibility" in the eyes of a judge, its giving a justification. She does the same thing with this offense, claiming she didn't even want to vote; hadn't been told she couldn't vote; and didn't read the election affidavit because someone was helping. She again seems oblivious to the fact that she actually makes choices in her life.

Part of being on parole is the need to be overly cautious when make choices given that you have to abide by conditions that others do not. Additionally, the stakes are quite high should you get to close to the line of infraction. Additionally, you may not want to sign your name on an affidavit without reading it, especially when your prior offense likely involved filing fraudulent tax returns with your signature swearing they were accurate. And if you do in fact mess-up out of negligence, you may want to leave out how its other peoples fault and just say "I really messed-up by not reading the form before I signed it. I have no one to blame but myself for not knowing whether I was allowed to vote." Sheesh, even you don't believe that you should at least know its what a judge wants to hear.

Even with all that, I still would not personally hand down a sentence of 5 years. But I won't pretend like the judge was somehow completely irrational.

Posted by: Anonuser879 | Mar 30, 2018 6:53:50 PM

This also doesn't reflect on the defendant:

From the article: "Mason responded that she was never told by the federal court, her supervision officer, the election workers or U.S. District Judge John McBryde, the sentencing judge in her fraud case, that she would not be able to vote in elections until she finished serving her sentence, supervised release included."

From the federal court transcript when Mason entered her guilty plea, presided by Judge John McBryde: "The offense which you propose to plead guilty is a felony. An adjudication of guilt of such an offense may deprive a defendant of valuable rights, such as the right to vote, to hold public office, to serve on a jury, to possess any kind of firearm, and other rights."

From the federal court transcript when Mason was sentenced, presided by Judge John McBryde: "While she is on supervised release, she will comply with the standard conditions that will be set forth in the judgment of conviction and sentence and the following additional conditions. She shall not commit another federal, state, or local crime."

It seems impractical to expect the judge to list every every federal, state, and local crime. If voting in Texas while on supervised release is a crime, and if she was told not to commit another crime while on supervised release, then she was effectively told that she could not vote. This is in addition to the fact that she was explicitly told that the offense she was pleading guilty to may deprive her of her right to vote.

From the article: ""I inflated returns," Mason said. "I was trying to get more money back for my clients. I admitted that. I owned up to that. I took accountability for that. I would never do that again."

From the sentencing transcript, "Mason-Hobbs admits that she and Sanford Hobbs, III, prepared and filed income tax returns for tax years 2005 through 2008 with Schedule C business income and expenses for businesses that did not exist, exemptions and credits for fictitious dependents, falsely claimed earned-income and education credits, and various other false statements, all with the aim of fraudulently inflating the tax refunds claimed on behalf of client taxpayers. Mason-Hobbs further admits that she and Sanford Hobbs, III, extracted fees from clients far in excess of fees charged by legitimate tax preparers."

To my claim in my previous post, it comes off as insincere when she says she was trying to get more money back for her clients, but that she was doing so by fabricating tax credits, businesses, and dependents AND was charging fees in excess of what other preparers were charging. That she profited off of the scheme, but says that she was trying to get money back for her clients, leads one to infer she has not accepted responsibility.

Not surprisingly, a motion has already been filed with the district court that she has violated the terms of her release by being convicted of a state crime. Even if her state sentence is reduced on appeal, she is still going to have to deal violation in federal court.

Posted by: anonuser879 | Mar 30, 2018 8:16:35 PM

A picture is worth a thousand words.

http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/national/article207301314.html

Posted by: David Behar | Mar 30, 2018 11:14:29 PM

anonuser879: I share you sense that there is a lot more surrounding this story about the nature and circumstances of Crystal Mason's criminal history and this latest crime. But I sincerely wonder if you or others think of this version of "defrauding government" to be the sort of crime that should ever result in 5 years in prison.

If I stay parked in an overtime meter or "steal" a pen from the DMV, I have "defrauded government." But I do not think you or anyone else would assert that 5 years in prison is a just or effective punishment for this crime no matter what my criminal history. And arguably my hypos are worse crimes because I have cost the taxpayer a little bit of money (and I know I am costing the taxpayer money), whereas Mason's wrongful voting had no obvious economic consequence.

It is important to try to prevent people from voting illegally, but I consider it even more important to encourage everyone who is allowed to vote to participate in our democracy. Punishing wrongful voting so severely seems unlikely to deter those eager to vote illegally as much as it will deter even more people from making an effort to vote. (And there are reports every election cycle of efforts to depress the vote in certain neighborhood by falsely asserting it is illegal to vote in all sorts of circumstances.)

In the end, I surmise your views here are influenced by the conclusion that Mason really has not yet been punished enough for her prior tax fraud. Perhaps, but state overpunishment on this voting offense is not the proper way, as I see it, to seek to rectify any problems identified with an earlier punishment for a distinct (and more serious) crime.

Posted by: Doug B | Mar 31, 2018 10:16:41 AM

Doug,

As I mentioned in my first post I would personally not hand down a sentence of 5 years, even based on the limited information I have about the situation. If sentencing in this cases were left to a jury, and I were on that jury, I would probably lean somewhere around 2-4 months as a sentence, and that is largely because I find Mason's story unbelievable based solely on the article I read.

Because I would sentence the defendant so much lower than the judge did I sought to try and dig deeper to try and understand how the judge may have reached his decision. Otherwise, I'm just criticizing someone because I differ in my view, and anyone can do that. Understanding takes time and effort, but I find it more rewarding.

Posted by: anonuser879 | Mar 31, 2018 2:25:21 PM

I appreciate the effort and comments, anonuser879, but that very effort returns my to my puzzlement here: how can and should a seemingly minor crime of illegal voting --- something that seems to me on par with a small traffic violation --- ever, under any person's understanding of fair and effective sentencing, justify a carceral sentence of five years for a person who poses seemingly no real threat to the community?

And I guess my real point is that this outcome is a symptom of what I see as a much broader and bigger problem with our justice system --- namely that imprisonment and ever longer terms of imprisonment is the fist and primary "solution" to a public problem. And I suppose I am especially troubled here because, as I see it, we as a democracy have a MUCH bigger problem with too few people voting than with too many people voting.

Posted by: Doug B | Apr 1, 2018 10:55:20 AM

Knowing Tarrant County (Fort Worth), I am wondering if the elected prosecutor was trying to make a big deal out of a voter fraud case. Also the article says nothing about her federal supervised release. I can easily see the defendant serving more time on any supervised release sentence than she will in Texas on a non-violent five-year sentence.

Posted by: tmm | Apr 2, 2018 11:21:53 AM

In the case of Meek Mills, prosecutor did not request prison time for a violation. The judge appeared to want an ex parte relationship, which was rebuffed. Nothing is being done, despite the celebrity of this cause. I have also described long prison sentences for lateness to court, showing up the wrong day, and the ubiquitous, missing a child support payment.

To those who decry mandatory sentencing guidelines, they work both ways, to produce adequate incapacitation and to restrain excessive retaliatory sentencing. All sentencing should be done by algorithms owned and programmed by the legislature.

Posted by: David Behar | Apr 3, 2018 7:08:35 PM

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