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July 24, 2018
Could Judge Brett Kavanaugh, as a SCOTUS Justice, encourage his colleagues to take up acquitted conduct sentencing?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Marshall Project piece by Joseph Neff headlined "Punished for Crimes Not Proven: Brett Kavanaugh and the case of Gregory 'Boy Boy' Bell." Here is how the piece starts and ends:
After a nine-month trial, a jury convicted Gregory "Boy Boy" Bell of selling crack cocaine, three sales totaling five grams and carrying a sentence in the five-year range. More importantly for Bell, the jury acquitted him of 10 serious charges, including a trafficking conspiracy and a racketeering conspiracy that would have meant decades in prison.
At sentencing, the judge ruled that Bell had engaged in the exact same crack cocaine conspiracies that the jury had rejected. The five grams of crack became 1,500 grams, and the judge sentenced Bell to 16 years, not the expected five.
Critics object that the use of “acquitted conduct” to justify longer sentences empowers prosecutors and judges to ignore the judgment of the jury, to base sentences on facts rebuffed by the citizens in the jury box.
Those critics include one of Bell’s jurors and Court of Appeals Judge Brett Kavanaugh, the current nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court. “Allowing judges to rely on acquitted or uncharged conduct to impose higher sentences than they otherwise would impose seems a dubious infringement of the rights to due process and a jury trial,” Kavanaugh wrote about Bell’s case in 2015 [available here].
Kavanaugh noted that he and his colleagues on the appeals court were powerless to overturn the sentence. They are required to follow the rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court, which has allowed acquitted conduct to be a factor in sentencing. In the meantime, Kavanaugh reminded trial judges that, when asked to use acquitted conduct to increase sentences, they can just say no....
Acquitted conduct and its legal siblings — dismissed conduct and uncharged conduct — are contentious subjects in the arcane world of federal sentencing law. The tension arises from different standards of proof used at trial. Juries convict after finding proof beyond a reasonable doubt. At sentencing, judges use the preponderance of the evidence, a standard requiring more than 50 percent of the evidence to prove something, like the tip of a scale.
The standard makes sense in discretionary sentences, used in varying degrees in all state and federal courts. Legislatures set ranges for criminal sentences: probation to 20 years in prison, for example, or, five years to life. In fashioning a precise sentence within a wide range, a judge weighs aggravating and mitigating factors such as criminal record, education, victim testimony, family life, military service, abuse or neglect as a child and work history.
Dating back at least to 1949, the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed judges to use uncharged conduct to increase sentences. In later rulings, the Supreme Court explicitly allowed federal judges to make findings of fact that include acquitted conduct at sentencing. But the law is muddled. The Supreme Court began to limit the effect of uncharged and acquitted conduct in 2000, but more recent decisions have undercut those cases. In Kavanaugh’s words, the Supreme Court lurched toward sentencing reform only to back away.
The court has since avoided the issue. In 2014, the Supreme Court declined to hear the cases of three Congress Park co-defendants: Joseph “JoJo” Jones, Desmond “Dazz” Thurston, and Antwuan “Big Ant” Ball. Each had his sentence tripled or more based on allegations the jury found unpersuasive. Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg wanted to hear those cases. In a dissent, they said the time had come to confront acquitted conduct: “This has gone on long enough.” It takes four justices to accept a case.
If Kavanaugh tips the balance,it will be too late for Gregory “Boy Boy” Bell, who has been locked up since his arrest in 2005. He is scheduled to be released on Sept. 4.
In this post earlier this month, I asked "Might Justice Kennedy's retirement lead to defendants having stronger Sixth Amendment rights under Apprendi and Blakely?". In that post, I highlighted Justice Kennedy's historic hostility to Apprendi and its Sixth Amendment progeny. The Bell case is properly considered exhibit A to support the possibility that a possible Justice Kavanaugh will have a more rights-protective approach to these issues. (Then again, Judge Kavanaugh has been heard to compliment the late Chief Justice Rehnquist, who authored the Watts opinion blessing acquitted conduct guideline enhancement in the pre-Apprendi world.)
That all said, it is worth remembering that Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kagan and Sotomayor also refused to vote to grant cert in the Ball case in 2014 (details here), even though all three had voted for extensions of Apprendi rights in prior cases like Southern Union. Especially with Justice Kennedy gone and thus only Justices Breyer and Alito being on record as being eager to allow judges to enhance sentences without significant constitutional restraint, it is certainly possible to imagine the newer Justices (Gorsuch and Kavanaugh if conformed) convincing the likes of Roberts and Kagan and Sotomayor to be willing to take up this matter. I sure hope so, but I will not be holding my breath.
A few prior posts with thoughts on a post-Justice Kennedy Court:
- Justice Anthony Kennedy has announced his retirement ... which means a lot for the future of sentencing jurisprudence and so much more
- With Justice Kennedy retiring, overturning Harmelin should become a focal point for criminal justice reformers
- Might Justice Kennedy's retirement lead to defendants having stronger Sixth Amendment rights under Apprendi and Blakely?
- DC Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh nominated by Prez Trump to replace Justice Kennedy
- Quick and helpful look at some of Judge Brett Kavanaugh's criminal justice work
Previous related posts on the DC cases discussed above:
- Extended examination of ugliness of acquitted conduct enhancement
- Latest chapter in notable federal acquitted conduct case from DC
- "When Acquitted Doesn't Mean Acquitted"
- DC Circuit gives disconcertingly short-shrift to Antwuan Ball's many significant sentencing claims
- Notable follow-up thoughts on acquitted conduct and the sentencing of Antwuan Ball
- Rooting for acquitted conduct petition grant from SCOTUS long conference
- Trying not to get too excited about SCOTUS relist in Jones/Ball acquitted conduct case
- Three Justices dissent from denial of certiorari in Jones/Ball acquitted conduct case
- Refusing to take up acquitted punishment, passive virtues, SCOTUS reputation, and cert-denial-deal speculation
July 24, 2018 at 12:11 PM | Permalink
As the linked article notes, while judges may consider acquitted conduct, uncharged conduct and dismissed charge conduct, nothing requires them to do so. Is there any scholarship on which judges are and are not considering those factors?
Posted by: ohwilleke | Jul 26, 2018 1:51:53 PM
Great questions, ohwilleke, and I am not aware of any effort to track outcomes on this front (though there might be some way to mine some data from the US Sentencing Commission on this front).
Posted by: Doug B | Jul 27, 2018 10:37:37 AM