Friday, September 07, 2018
You be the federal judge: what sentence for George Papadopoulos after guilty plea to one count of making false statements?
As reported in this Hill article, headlined "Former Trump adviser Papadopoulos to be sentenced Friday," a high-profile defendant is due to be sentenced in federal court this afternoon by Judge Randolph Moss. Here are some of the terms of the sentencing debate:
George Papadopoulos, the Trump campaign adviser who pleaded guilty nearly a year ago to lying about his Russia contacts, is scheduled to be sentenced in federal court on Friday.
His sentencing will mark a milestone in Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation as the special counsel makes headway on several other fronts, including interviewing individuals linked to former Trump adviser Roger Stone and readying for the Washington, D.C., trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
Papadopoulos admitted to lying to FBI agents in October about the extent, nature and timing of his contacts with Russian individuals who he tried to use to broker a meeting between the campaign and the Russian government.
Government prosecutors are asking that Papadopoulos be jailed for up to six months and that he face a $9,500 fine for his crime, arguing in a recent court filing that his false statements “caused damage to the government’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.” “The defendant’s false statements were intended to harm the investigation, and did so,” prosecutors wrote in an Aug. 17 sentencing memorandum.
Papadopoulos’ defense attorneys, meanwhile, are challenging the notion that their client did deliberate harm to the investigation, writing in a filing on Aug. 31 that Papadopoulos “misled investigators to save his professional aspirations and preserve a perhaps misguided loyalty to his master.” They argue he should face one-year probation.
The Papadopoulos case is noteworthy because he was the first Trump associate to plead guilty and cooperate with prosecutors in Mueller’s investigation. There is no indication that he played more than a minimal role during his months as a foreign policy adviser on the campaign. The White House aggressively sought to downplay his involvement last year, with the president dismissing him as a “low-level volunteer” in a tweet following his guilty plea.
The sentencing of Papadopoulos, 31, will tie up one loose end in the special counsel’s sprawling investigation, and signals his cooperation is no longer needed in the investigation. His guilty plea created a media firestorm last October, revealed the same day Mueller charged Manafort and Rick Gates, another former Trump campaign aide, in an elaborate illegal foreign lobbying scheme unrelated to the work they did during for the campaign.
Court filings told the curious story of a young aide who misled FBI agents during a January 2017 interview about his contacts with a professor, later identified as Joseph Mifsud, who claimed substantial connections to the Russian government and who told Papadopoulos that the Russians possessed “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails” – months before hacked Democratic emails began to leak on the web. The New York Times later reported that it was Papadopoulos’ discussions with an Australian diplomat, Alexander Downer, about those emails in May 2016 that helped trigger the FBI’s inquiry into Russian interference the following July.
Papadopoulos also misled FBI investigators about his contacts with other Russians, including a woman believed to be a relative of Putin, who he sought to use to broker a meeting between the Trump campaign and Moscow – lies that the government says were damaging to an investigation in its infancy.
Prosecutors have suggested his cooperation did not bear much fruit, writing in August that he did not offer “substantial assistance” to the investigation and that much of the information he provided “came only after the government confronted him with his own emails, text messages, internet search history, and other information it had obtained via search warrants and subpoenas.”
The Papadopoulos defense attorneys tell a different story. They say that, since his guilty plea, he has provided government investigators with “critical information” about his contacts with members of the Trump campaign. In the recent filing, they referenced a key meeting in March 2016 during which he allegedly broached the subject of arranging a meeting between Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin....
Papadopoulos will be the second individual sentenced in the Russia investigation. Dutch lawyer Alex Van Der Zwaan was handed 30 days in prison and slapped with a $20,000 fine in April after pleading guilty to making false statements relevant to the government’s investigations into foreign lobbing by Manafort and Gates. Papadopoulos’ wife, Simona Mangiante, had signaled in recent weeks that her husband was mulling walking away from the plea deal with Mueller, though she backed down from those suggestions late last week.
Prior related post:
- In second sentencing from special counsel investigation, feds seeking incarceration "within Guidelines range of 0 to 6 months" for George Papadopoulos
UPDATE: This Vox article provides the real outcome in its headline, "Papadopoulos given 14-day sentence as part of the Mueller investigation."
Monday, July 23, 2018
Spotlighting a remarkably thoughtful federal sentence in a remarkably challenging setting
Over at his blog Simple Justice, Scott H. Greenfield has this terrific new post spotlighting a terrific new sentencing opinion by US District Judge John Kane in US v. Jumaev, No. 12-cr-00033-JLK (D. Col. July 18, 2018) (available here). Because Scott's posting provide effective context and commentary concerning the case and sentencing, I will here just quote the first two paragraphs of Judge Kane's 44-page sentencing decision to clarify the core concern of the opinion:
After his co-defendant Jamshid Muhtorov informed him that the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) was in need of financial support, Defendant Bakhtiyor Jumaev mailed Mr. Muhtorov $300. Mr. Jumaev wrote only a single check, and the funds never reached the IJU or any other foreign terrorist organization. Mr. Jumaev had no specific plot or plan and did not intend to further any via his contribution. The idea to aid the terrorist organization was proposed and facilitated entirely by Mr. Muhtorov. Indeed, Mr. Jumaev had no direct contact with the members of any terrorist organization. And, significantly, he never committed any act of violence, nor did he advocate for any particular violent act.
Mr. Jumaev now comes before me for sentencing after having been found guilty by a jury of two counts in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2339B, namely (1) conspiring and (2) attempting to provide material support in the form of $300 to the IJU, a designated foreign terrorist organization. Although his actions certainly are sufficient for the jury to have found him guilty of these two very serious crimes, the above summary illustrates how his guilt rests on far less culpable conduct than that of all other defendants of which I have been made aware who have been convicted under the same statute.
At the risk of turning this matter into a parlor game, I wonder if readers might be inclined to share, before clicking through to the opinion, their predictions as to (a) the defendant's calculated guideline range, (b) the sentence was urged by federal prosecutors, and/or (c) the sentence imposed by Judge Kane. Alternatively, I would also love to hear folks' opinions on just what kind of federal sentence someone should get for simply sending, upon request, a $300 check to support the Islamic Jihad Union.
Monday, July 02, 2018
Notable Sixth Circuit panel reverses as procedurally unreasonable big upward variance in cocaine sentence based on opioid overdoses
On Friday, the Sixth Circuit handed down a notable new sentencing opinion in US v. Fleming, No. 17-3954 (6th Cir. June 29, 2018) (available here). The start of the opinion reviews its essentials:
Marcus Fleming was convicted of a cocaine offense, and the United States Sentencing Guidelines provided for a recommended sentence of 60 months’ imprisonment. At his sentencing hearing, the district court doubled that. It did so based in large part on a brief local news article that described a recent surge in drug overdose deaths, mostly due to powerful opioids like fentanyl. Neither this article, nor the underlying Ohio state report on which it was based, was provided to the parties before the start of the sentencing hearing. Nor was Fleming notified before the hearing that the district court planned to consider the article or the issues it addressed. Because this procedure denied Fleming a meaningful opportunity to comment on information that led to a substantial increase in his sentence, the resulting sentence was procedurally unreasonable.
Here is small part of the Sixth Circuit panel's analysis:
Here, the district court’s reliance on information about mixed cocaine-opioid overdose deaths in the Cleveland.com article was a surprise, and that surprise was prejudicial to Fleming’s sentencing presentation. Therefore, Fleming’s sentence was rendered in a procedurally unreasonable manner.
The district court’s consideration of information about mixed cocaine-opioid overdose deaths was a surprise because, before the sentencing hearing, there was no indication that opioids were relevant to this case, let alone that they would play a prominent role. Fleming was convicted for possession of cocaine, not opioids. Nothing in the record suggested that opioids were found in Fleming’s car, or that Fleming had ever sold or possessed opioids, or even that any cocaine Fleming sold had ever been mixed with opioids. Of course, opioids have been a topic of grave public concern in recent years, as their devastating and tragic effects have been felt across the country. But it was far from apparent that they were relevant to Fleming’s sentence for possession of cocaine.
This ruling strikes me as notable or at least two reasons beyond its substantive particulars: (1) one of jurists on Prez Trump's SCOTUS short list, Judge Raymond Kethledge, was one of the judges on this Fleming panel, and (2) this Cleveland.com report highlights that the erroneous sentencing judge has a history of unreasonably long sentences:
An Akron federal judge who has been criticized by a federal appeals court had a sentence reversed again on Friday -- this time because of his reliance on a cleveland.com article....
Adams has been removed from cases a few times in recent years and has been the target of criticism by the 6th Circuit. Most recently, the appeals court removed him from a case involving two men arrested in Cleveland with more than 200 pounds of cocaine. Both prosecutors and defense attorneys in the case agreed to recommend prison sentences of about three years, but Adams gave them both 10 years and did not give any good reasons for the higher sentences, the 6th Circuit ruled.
July 2, 2018 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)
Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Split Second Circuit panel reverses lengthy child porn sentence for second time; dissent notes "sentence is barbaric without being all that unusual"
I do not tend to blog much any more about circuit opinions conducting reasonableness review because, now more than a decade since the Supreme Court ensured reasonableness review would be very deferential thanks to Rita, Gall and Kimbrough, few circuit sentencing opinions break any new ground. But though a Second Circuit panel opinion yesterday, US v. Sawyer, No. 15-2276 (2d Cir. June 19, 2018) (available here), does not break new ground, it still struck me as blogworthy for both the majority opinion and the dissent.
The majority opinion in Sawyer is well summarized by the preamble to the opinion:
Appeal from a judgment of the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York (D’Agostino, J.) imposing a sentence of 300 months of imprisonment for the offenses of producing child pornography and receiving child pornography. This court previously vacated as substantively unreasonable a sentence of 360 months of imprisonment for the same offenses, identifying specific deficiencies in the district court’s analysis. The district court did not sufficiently address those deficiencies on remand and suggested that it would have difficulty putting aside its previously-expressed views.
The key factor that appears to have driven the original panel opinion and this second reversal was the "the district court’s failure to give sufficient downward weight to the effect of the severe sexual abuse Sawyer endured at home throughout his childhood." Tellingly, even at the second sentencing, the district court stressed that the guidelines called for 80 years in prison(!), suggesting no "failure to afford sufficient weight to the way [the defendant was] raised in determining [his] sentence, looking at the fact that [the original sentence] departed by 50 years from the [80 year] guideline range." In this way in this case, we can and should see how extreme guideline ranges can persistently distort a district court's sentencing decision-making even after a circuit court has concluded that the district court failed to comply with the requirements of the first time around 3553(a).
Beyond noticing the impact and import of broken guidelines even in a case in which everyone agrees they should not be followed, the Sawyer case struck me as blogworthy because of a (casual?) line in the dissenting opinion by Judge Jacobs. Here is the context for the line quoted in the title to this post, with my emphasis added:
In decrying the 25-year sentence, the majority opinion observes (fairly) that this case is not the most heinous or egregious on record. At the same time, however, this is not a case such as United States v. Dorvee, 616 F.3d 174 (2d Cir. 2010), or United States v. Brown, 843 F.3d 74 (2d Cir. 2016), in which decades of imprisonment were imposed solely for looking at images created by others, and in which any harm to a child was inflicted at one or more removes. This defendant was hands-on. He produced the pornography, and he used a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old to do it. For these acts, a 25-year sentence is not a shocking departure from sentences routinely imposed in federal courts for comparable offenses — especially considering that the mandatory minimum is fifteen. The sentence is barbaric without being all that unusual.
I appreciate the candor and yet remain stunned by Judge Jacobs stating simply that the defendant's sentence here is "barbaric" but yet not "all that unusual" and thus ought to be affirmed despite the obligation of circuit courts to review sentences for their reasonableness in light of the requirements of 3553(a).
June 20, 2018 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (7)
Monday, June 18, 2018
Split SCOTUS outcomes for federal defendants: a plain error win in Rosales-Mireles and an explanation loss in Chavez-Meza
In Rosales-Mireles v. United States, No. 16–9493 (S. Ct. June 18, 2018) (available here), Justice Sotomayor writes for the Court ruling in favor of the federal defendant, with Justice Thomas writing the chief dissent joined by Justice Alito. In Chavez-Meza v. United States, No. 17–5639 (S. Ct. June 18, 2018) (available here), Justice Breyer writes for the Court ruling in favor of the federal government, with Justice Kennedy writing the chief dissent joined by Justices Kagan and Sotomayor.
Here is the Court's opening paragraph in Rosales-Mireles:
Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 52(b) provides that a court of appeals may consider errors that are plain and affect substantial rights, even though they are raised for the first time on appeal. This case concerns the bounds of that discretion, and whether a miscalculation of the United States Sentencing Guidelines range, that has been determined to be plain and to affect a defendant’s substantial rights, calls for a court of appeals to exercise its discretion under Rule 52(b) to vacate the defendant’s sentence. The Court holds that such an error will in the ordinary case, as here, seriously affect the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings, and thus will warrant relief.
Here is the Court's opening paragraph in Chavez-Meza:
This case concerns a criminal drug offender originally sentenced in accordance with the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. Subsequently, the Sentencing Commission lowered the applicable Guidelines sentencing range; the offender asked for a sentence reduction in light of the lowered range; and the District Judge reduced his original sentence from 135 months’ imprisonment to 114 months’. The offender, believing he should have obtained a yet greater reduction, argues that the District Judge did not adequately explain why he imposed a sentence of 114 months rather than a lower sentence. The Court of Appeals held that the judge’s explanation was adequate. And we agree with the Court of Appeals.
As regular readers should now come to expect, sentencing cases have a way of producing notable voting patters. Criminal defendants and defense attorneys should be intrigued and encouraged by that both Chief Justice Roberts and the new Justice Gorsuch signed on to the majority opinion in Rosales-Mireles. But defendants and defense attorneys surely will also be troubled that the Chief along with Justices Breyer and Ginsburg were all willing to embrace the "close enough for government work" approach in Chavez-Meza.
Friday, June 15, 2018
Any predictions on sentencing day for Senator Rand Paul's attacker? UPDATE: Boucher got 30 days in jail and 100 hours community service
Friday finally brings judgment day for Dr. Rene Boucher, the neighbor of Senator Rand Paul, who strangely decided to violently tackle Senator Paul while he was mowing his lawn last fall. As reported in this local article, headlined "Defense attorney in Paul tackling case makes pitch for probation," the defendant is hoping to avoid any period of incarceration:
Dr. Rene Boucher, who admitted guilt to a federal crime in a case involving the tackling of U.S. Sen. Rand Paul outside the lawmaker’s home, has formally requested to be placed on probation. Attorney Matt Baker, representing Boucher, filed a 10-page memorandum [last] Friday in U.S. District Court arguing that incarceration for the retired physician would serve no useful purpose.
Boucher, 60, pleaded guilty in March to a count of assaulting a member of Congress resulting in personal injury. His sentencing, before Special Judge Marianne Battani, is set for June 15.
Special Prosecutor Bradley Shepard has recommended a 21-month prison sentence for Boucher, but Baker argues probation is more appropriate “based upon the rather unique nature of the offense” and several extenuating circumstances. “Other than the isolated incident that is in issue, Dr. Boucher has been a pillar of his community, a solid citizen, a family man and a devout Christian,” Baker stated in his memorandum, which also stressed Boucher’s lack of a criminal history and his service in the U.S. Army and in the community as a physician.
A neck injury sustained in a bicycle accident forced Boucher, a specialist in pain management and anesthesiology, to retire from practicing medicine, according to court records. Accompanying the sentencing memorandum are 14 letters supporting Boucher and extolling his character.
Baker’s filing offers context into what led to the Nov. 3 incident in the Rivergreen subdivision, where Paul and Boucher are neighbors. On that date, Paul was tackled outside his residence while doing yardwork. Boucher told law enforcement that he ran onto the senator’s property and tackled Paul after he witnessed Paul stack brush on top of a pile near Boucher’s property.
Baker’s filing makes the case that the roots of the tackling incident could be traced to summer 2017, when Boucher trimmed the limbs on a few maple trees on the property line dividing the Boucher and Paul properties....
The memorandum filed Friday quotes what Baker said is a victim impact statement from Paul filed May 21 in which the senator says he “can only assume that (Boucher’s) deep-seated anger towards me co-mingles with his hatred of my political policies” and states that Boucher must be suffering from a “personality disorder, substance abuse, intense political hatred or all of the above.”
Baker called those allegations “completely unfounded.” “Dr. Boucher has adamantly denied any such political motivations throughout, as even the suggestion of them is completely unfounded and simply not true,” Baker said.
In an emailed statement to the Daily News on Tuesday, Paul's communications director, Kelsey Cooper, took issue with some of Baker's characterizations of the neighbors' relationship. "Before Senator Paul was violently attacked from behind, he had no conversations or discussions with the attacker," Cooper wrote. "There was no 'longstanding dispute.' This description is untrue. It is impossible to have a dispute when no words of disagreement were ever spoken – neither immediately nor at any other time before the attack occurred. In the decade prior to the attack, Senator Paul had no contact with the attacker.
"The attack was a pre-meditated assault that broke six of the Senator’s ribs and was complicated by fluid and blood around the lung and recurrent pneumonia. Any description of this attack that implies a 'yard dispute' justifies such violence and misses the point."
I am inclined to predict that Boucher will get some period of incarceration, but less than the 21 months sought by federal prosecutors. I will guess the term will be somewhere between six months and a year-and-a-day. But this really a guess, especially given that I have not been able to find a copy of the sentencing filings available on-line, nor have I seen any guideline calculations.
In this prior post about this case, I encouraged readers to suggest what sentence they thought fitting for Senator Rand Paul's attacker. I welcome additional comments on what folks think Boucher will and should get.
Prior related post:
UPDATE: This press piece reports on the sentencing outcome, and starts this way:
The neighbor who admitted to attacking U.S. Senator Rand Paul outside his home last fall was sentenced Friday in U.S. District Court in Bowling Green to 30 days in jail. Rene Boucher was also ordered to serve one year of supervised release, perform 100 hours of community service, and have no intentional contact with the Paul family.
Boucher addressed the court and offered an apology to the Republican lawmaker who sustained broken ribs and other injuries after being tackled from behind while mowing his lawn on November 3. "What I did was wrong and I hope he and his family can one day accept my apology," Boucher said.
Boucher, who pleaded guilty to assaulting a member of Congress, expressed embarrassment and described the last seven months as a "nightmare." The 60-year-old retired anesthesiologist said he lost his temper over repeated piles of debris on the property line between his home and Paul's in the upscale Rivergreen subdivision in Bowling Green.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brad Shepherd asked the judge for a 21-month prison term, arguing that Boucher didn't simply lose his temper. "This was a vicious, unprovoked assault," Shepherd said.
Monday, May 28, 2018
Another helpful review of analysis of huge set of federal sentencing outcomes
In this post last week I discussed this amazing new working paper by Alma Cohen and Crystal Yang titled "Judicial Politics and Sentencing Decisions." I am now pleased to giving attention to this research in the New York Times through this latest "Sidebar" column. His piece is headlined "Black Defendants Get Longer Sentences From Republican-Appointed Judges, Study Finds," and here are excerpts:
Judges appointed by Republican presidents gave longer sentences to black defendants and shorter ones to women than judges appointed by Democrats, according to a new study that analyzed data on more than half a million defendants. “Republican-appointed judges sentence black defendants to three more months than similar nonblacks and female defendants to two fewer months than similar males compared to Democratic-appointed judges,” the study found, adding, “These differences cannot be explained by other judge characteristics and grow substantially larger when judges are granted more discretion.”...
It has long been known that there is an overall racial sentencing gap, with judges of all political affiliations meting out longer sentences to black offenders. The new study confirmed this, finding that black defendants are sentenced to 4.8 months more than similar offenders of other races. It was also well known, and perhaps not terribly surprising, that Republican appointees are tougher on crime over all, imposing sentences an average of 2.4 months longer than Democratic appointees.
But the study’s findings on how judges’ partisan affiliations affected the racial and gender gaps were new and startling. “The racial gap by political affiliation is three months, approximately 65 percent of the baseline racial sentence gap,” the authors wrote. “We also find that Republican-appointed judges give female defendants two months less in prison than similar male defendants compared to Democratic-appointed judges, 17 percent of the baseline gender sentence gap.”
The two kinds of gaps appear to have slightly different explanations. “We find evidence that gender disparities by political affiliation are largely driven by violent offenses and drug offenses,” the study said. “We also find that racial disparities by political affiliation are largely driven by drug offenses.”
The authors of the study sounded a note of caution. “The precise reasons why these disparities by political affiliation exist remain unknown and we caution that our results cannot speak to whether the sentences imposed by Republican- or Democratic-appointed judges are warranted or ‘right,’” the authors wrote. “Our results, however, do suggest that Republican- and Democratic-appointed judges treat defendants differently on the basis of their race and gender given that we observe robust disparities despite the random assignment of cases to judges within the same court.”
The study is studded with fascinating tidbits. Black judges treat male and female offenders more equally than white judges do. Black judges appointed by Republicans treat black offenders more leniently than do other Republican appointees. More experienced judges are less apt to treat black and female defendants differently. Judges in states with higher levels of racism, as measured by popular support for laws against interracial marriage, are more likely to treat black defendants more harshly than white ones.
Prior related post:
- Amazing new empirical research in federal sentencing outcomes detailing disparities based on political background
Thursday, May 24, 2018
Amazing new empirical research in federal sentencing outcomes detailing disparities based on political background
This week brought this amazing new working paper by Alma Cohen and Crystal Yang titled simply "Judicial Politics and Sentencing Decisions." I did not want to blog about the paper until I had a chance to read it, and doing so make me want to now do dozens of blog posts to capture all the issues the paper covers and raises. The paper's simple abstract provides a hint of why the paper is so interesting and provocative:
This paper investigates whether judge political affiliation contributes to racial and gender disparities in sentencing using data on over 500,000 federal defendants linked to sentencing judge. Exploiting random case assignment, we find that Republican-appointed judges sentence black defendants to 3.0 more months than similar non-blacks and female defendants to 2.0 fewer months than similar males compared to Democratic-appointed judges, 65 percent of the baseline racial sentence gap and 17 percent of the baseline gender sentence gap, respectively. These differences cannot be explained by other judge characteristics and grow substantially larger when judges are granted more discretion.
Each of these three sentences could alone justify multiple postings on just research particulars: e.g., I believe a database with over 500,000 sentencings might be the largest ever assembled and analyzed; I wonder if the data looks different for Clinton and Obama judges among the Ds, for Nixon and Reagan and others judges among the Rs; I fear many judge characteristics like prior jobs and connections to certain communities are really hard to control for. In other words, just the scope and methods of this research is fascinating.
Moreover and more importantly, there is great richness in the findings of the full paper. For example, the authors find "statistically significant differences in racial gaps in base offense level and final offense level by judge political affiliation." In other word, the authors have discovered worrisome disparities in how guideline ranges are set/calculated, not just in how judges sentence in reaction to a particular guideline range. Some additional notable findings are summarized in this recent WonkBlog piece at the Washington Post headlined "Black defendants receive longer prison terms from Republican-appointed judges, study finds." Here are excerpts:
Federal judges appointed by Republican presidents give black defendants sentences that are, on average, six to seven months longer than the sentences they give to similar white defendants, according to a new working paper from Alma Cohen and Crystal Yang of Harvard Law School. That racial sentencing disparity is about twice as large as the one observed among judges appointed by Democrats, who give black defendants sentences that are three to four months longer than the sentences they give to white defendants with similar histories who commit similar crimes....
They did find, however, that the gap between sentences for black and white defendants was smaller for more-experienced judges than for less-experienced ones. They also found that differences between how Republican and Democratic judges treat black and white defendants grew larger after the Supreme Court's 2005 decision in United States v. Booker, which gave federal judges much more leeway to depart from federal sentencing guidelines.
Importantly, however, they found that growing differences between Democratic and Republican judges in the post-Booker era are due to Democratic judges reducing disparities in how they sentence black and white defendants. Given more discretion, in other words, Democratic judges treated defendants of different races more equally, while Republican judges continued to carry on as they had before.
Cohen and Yang also found one important geographical effect: Black defendants fared particularly poorly in states with high amounts of population-level racial bias, measured here by the percentage of white residents in a given state who believe there should be laws against interracial marriage. These states tend to be clustered in the South, and previous research has shown a similar racial sentencing bias in these states when it comes to capital punishment.
Finally, they also observed an opposite effect in how Democratic and Republican judges treated female defendants: While all judges tended to hand down shorter sentences to women than to men charged with similar crimes, Republican judges were considerably more lenient to women. “Overall, these results indicate that judicial ideology may be a source of the persistent and large racial and gender disparities in the criminal justice system,” Cohen and Yang conclude.
Anyone with any experience in the federal sentencing system knows full well how judicial ideology may be a source of the persistent and large disparities in the operation of the system. But reflecting on my own experiences as a defense attorney and expert in a number of federal sentencing settings, I am eager here to highlight how the impact of judicial ideology may be impacted by the work of other actors involved in the federal sentencing process. I often sense that those judges (perhaps disproportionately Republican Appointees) with an earned reputation as a "by the guideline" type may not consistently receive the same type of mitigating information from probation officers and defense attorneys as do those judges known often to depart or now vary.
If readers are as intrigued and engaged by this new paper as I am, please say so in the comments, and I may try to see if I can encourage some folks to write up some guest-postings about this research.
UPDATE: A helpful reader sent me this link to the full paper in case folks are not able to access it via the NEBR site.
May 24, 2018 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (10)
Sunday, May 20, 2018
US District Judge Bennett explains why meth sentencing guidelines are wrong to treat "drug purity [as] a proxy for culpability"
Long-time readers know that US District Judge Mark Bennett has long made his post-Booker mark with thoughtful opinion explaining why various guidelines ought not merit full respect in light of the purposes of sentencing set forth in 18 USC § 3553(a). Judge Bennett's latest important sentencing work, which a helpful reader made sure I did not miss, comes in US v. Nawanna, No. CR 17-4019-MWB (D. Iowa May 1, 2018) (available here). Like so many of Judge Bennett's opinions, this latest ruling is a must-read for all who follow the federal sentencing system, and it starts and ends this way:
The United States Sentencing Guidelines differentiate between methamphetamine mixture and actual (pure) methamphetamine or "ice." That difference is the primary basis for the defendant's motion for a downward variance. Even though he is a first-time drug offender who has never been in prison, he argues that he faces a "breathtakingly high" Guidelines sentencing range of 360 months to life, where the methamphetamine at issue was treated as actual (pure) methamphetamine or ice. He argues that the harsh methamphetamine Guidelines overstate his culpability and should be rejected on policy grounds. Specifically, his argument, of first impression for me, is that the methamphetamine Guidelines are based on a flawed premise, set out in U.S.S.G. § 2D1.1, cmt. n.27(C), that drug purity is a proxy for culpability.
The prosecution responds that, although I am free to place whatever weight I wish on the various advisory Guidelines, the defendant's advisory Guidelines sentencing range is appropriate in this case, because it reflects the dangerous role the defendant played in dealing pure methamphetamine . Thus, this case requires me, once again, to consider the question of the merits of the advisory Guidelines sentencing range for a defendant convicted of methamphetamine offenses. In United States v. Hayes, 948 F. Supp. 2d 1009 (N.D. Iowa 2013), I followed the lead of two other federal district judges by reducing a methamphetamine defendant's advisory Guidelines sentencing range by one third, on the basis of a policy disagreement with the methamphetamine Guidelines. This sort of variance was for low level, non-violent, addict offenders. This opinion, which supplements my rationale on the record at the defendant's sentencing hearing, explains why I find that a similar reduction, based on a different calculation, is appropriate in this case....
Exercising my discretion to reject the advisory Guidelines sentencing range for methamphetamine offenses on the basis of a policy disagreement, I determined that a downward variance was appropriate in Nawanna's case. The reasons for rejecting the methamphetamine Guidelines, here, were independent of the reasons for rejecting the methamphetamine Guidelines set out in my decision in Hayes. Here, I concluded that the methamphetamine Guidelines are based on a flawed assumption that methamphetamine purity is a proxy for role in the offense, which, like Judge Robert C. Brack of the District of New Mexico, I find "is divorced from reality." Ibarra-Sandoval, 265 F. Supp. 3d at 1255. Nawanna's advisory Guidelines sentencing range of 360 months to life would be greater than necessary to accomplish the purposes of sentencing under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). Instead, for the reasons stated, above, and on the record during Nawanna's sentencing hearing, Nawanna should be sentenced to 132 months incarceration.
Tuesday, April 24, 2018
The challenge of modern federal sentencing: "there are 15 distinct factors in 3553(a)"
The line in quotes in the title of this post is a phrase that was uttered yesterday by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein during Supreme Court oral argument in Chavez-Meza v. United States. (The full argument transcript is available at this link.) Based on my review of the transcript, I think DAG Rosenstein did himself proud before SCOTUS, and I am especially proud of his accounting of the many factors in 18 USC § 3553(a).
Specifically, I am keen on this accounting of the 3553(a) factors because I have long preached that there are four distinct sentence factors packaged in 18 USC § 3553(a)(1), which calls upon courts to consider "the nature and circumstances of the offense and the history and characteristics of the defendant." Often when talking to students about a sentencing problem I give, I stress that plain text of § 3553(a)(1) indicates Congress wants judges to consider distinctly an offense's nature (drugs or fraud) as well as its circumstances (lengthy or limited); to consider distinctly a defendant's history (abused or educated) as well as his characteristics (remorseful or brazen). I think DAG Rosenstein's statement that "there are 15 distinct factors in 3553(a)" is built upon counting § 3553(a)(1) as itself having four factors.
Moving beyond my own quirky affinity for § 3553(a)(1), I wonder if readers can readily think of any other area of federal law that calls upon judges to consider "15 distinct factors" as part of their decision-making. I do realize that many capital sentencing statutes call upon juries and/or judges to balance or weigh even more factors that appear in 18 USC § 3553(a). But I would be especially eager to hear from folks about other areas of law that but a comparable factor burden on federal judges.
Sunday, April 15, 2018
Another federal court reaction to federal sentencing realities of modern drug war
In this post a few weeks ago, I noted an interesting Seventh Circuit ruling which not only explored ineffective assistance of counsel in plea negotiations, but also highlighted how our federal drug laws can functionally operate to turn a seemingly minor crime into an offense carrying a 20-year mandatory minimum. That post generated a lot of thoughtful comments, leading me to think it worthwhile to spotlight another drug war sentencing tale with a different variation in the work of counsel and court.
Specifically, a couple of helpful readers sent me a notable sentencing memorandum and a recently unsealed sentencing opinion in US v. Smith, No. 6:17-cr-147-Orl-31KRS (M.D. Fla. Feb. 27, 2018). In this case, as explained by the sentencing judge, Judge Gregory Presnell, Tyrone Smith faced a huge increase in his sentence range under the career-offender guideline for two prior low-level cocaine sales:
Smith was arrested and charged in Count 2 of the Indictment with distribution of a mixture containing a detectable amount of carfentanil. He pled guilty and appeared before me for sentencing. The PSR (Doc. 80) scored defendant with a base of 24. Subtracting two levels for his minor role in the offense and three levels for his acceptance of responsibility, his guideline score would be 19. With a criminal history score of III, his suggested guideline sentence would be 37-46 months. But the prior state court offenses described above make defendant a career offender as defined by USSG 4B1.1. Application of this enhancement increases defendant’s score from 19-III to 29-VI, resulting in a guideline range of 151-188 months, a 400% increase for selling $120 worth of cocaine ten years ago!
Running through the 3553(a) factors and noting the "growing chorus of federal judges who reject application of the career offender guideline in certain cases," Judge Presnell concluded "that a reasonable sentence in this case is 30 months, which constitutes a modest downward variance from the low end of defendant’s unenhanced guideline score."
I have provided here for downloading counsel's sentencing memorandum for Tyrone Smith as well as Judge Presnell's "Bench Sentencing Opinion":
Tuesday, April 03, 2018
After plea to lying to special counsel, attorney gets 30 days (within-guideline) federal sentence
As reported here via Politico, "Special counsel Robert Mueller obtained the first sentence in his high-profile investigation Tuesday, as a Dutch attorney who admitted to lying to investigators was ordered into federal custody for 30 days." Here is more with an emphasis on sentencing details:
Former Skadden Arps lawyer Alex van der Zwaan, 33, pleaded guilty in February to lying to FBI agents about his contacts with former Trump campaign official Rick Gates and Konstantin Kilimnik, a suspected Russian intelligence operative who worked closely with Gates and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
Attorneys for van der Zwaan pleaded with U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson to forgo any prison time, give him a fine and let him return to his London home by August, when his wife is due to give birth. However, the judge said some time in jail was appropriate given van der Zwaan's offense and the fact that he is a lawyer.
“We're not talking about a traffic ticket,” she said. “This was lying to a federal officer in the course of a criminal investigation...This was more than a mistake. This was more than a lapse or a misguided moment."
In addition to the 30-day sentence, Jackson also imposed a $20,000 fine and two months of probation, but she said she would permit van der Zwaan to reclaim his passport and leave the country as soon as his month in custody is completed. It's not immediately clear where or in what type of facility he will serve the 30 days....
Van der Zwaan's defense asked that he be permitted to serve at a Bureau of Prisons center in Allenwood, Pennsylvania. The judge said Tuesday that she would recommend that, but federal policies usually dictate that a sentence of less than six months be served at a halfway house or at the D.C. jail.
One of van der Zwaan's defense attorneys, William Schwartz, argued that leniency was appropriate given the impact of the episode on the Dutch lawyer's family and on his legal career. He is likely to lose his license as a solicitor in the United Kingdom, Schwartz said.
But Jackson was largely unmoved by those arguments, noting that van der Zwaan came from an upbringing of privilege and lacked any hardship that could have mitigated his actions. Van der Zwaan is married to the daughter of a Ukrainian-Russian energy mogul, German Khan, whom Forbes ranks 138th on its list of billionaires, with a net worth of $9.3 billion.
"This glass was dropped on a very thick carpet, which has cushioned him," the judge said of the defendant. She credited him for supporting himself and his wife in recent years, although she noted that van der Zwaan's father-in-law has provided funds to the couple since the attorney was fired from his job....
The fact that prosecutors are not requiring future cooperation from van der Zwaan suggests that they don't see him as a crucial player in the Trump-Russia saga. Prosecutor Andrew Weissmann said the defendant's reason for lying remains murky. "To be candid, we don't know what was motivating the defendant," Weissmann said. "We count on people to tell us the truth. We count on people to turn over documents that are responsive."
Defense attorneys said he lied to Mueller's team because he feared being fired if Skadden found out he had recorded work-related conversations without permission, including at least one with former Obama White House Counsel Greg Craig, a Skadden partner who oversaw the Tymoshenko report. Van der Zwaan was ultimately fired by the firm late last year, after his inaccurate statements to the Mueller team.
Weissmann said that concern about the consequences at Skadden could have been part of the explanation, but there was "reason to doubt that is simply the sole motive." Mueller's team offered no specific recommendation to Jackson on an appropriate sentence in the case. Weissmann said that was the special counsel office's policy, which he also followed as a federal prosecutor in Brooklyn.
Van der Zwaan spoke to the court only briefly during the sentencing hearing at the federal courthouse near Capitol Hill. "Your honor, what I did was wrong and I apologize to the court for my conduct," he said. He also apologized to his family for his actions.
Later in the hearing, Jackson said she did not detect great remorse. "The expressions of remorse, even those made on his behalf, were somewhat muted to say the least," the judge declared shortly before she imposed the sentence.
Jackson also rebuffed Schwartz's argument that van der Zwaan's freedom was curtailed in recent months as he spent his days at a "residential hotel" awaiting legal proceedings. "I'm not really moved by the complaint that he is in his hotel room with nothing to do," the judge said, saying he was not in custody and could have been doing community service to keep busy.
"This glass was dropped on a very thick carpet" is a quote I am going to have to remember. And though not mentioned in this article, I am pretty sure the calculated guideline range in this matter was 0 to 6 months, so perhaps we ought also remember that the first sentence imposed in this matter emerging from the special counsel was a within-guideline (and not-bottom-of-the-range) sentence.
Thursday, March 29, 2018
Judge Jed Rakoff sentences rapper DMX to one year in federal prison for tax fraud
US District Court Judge Jed Rakoff has long been a vocal advocate against mass incarceration and other problems he seeing is the operation of the federal criminal justice system. But that view did not preclude him from thinking he needed to send a notable white-collar criminal to federal prison yesterday as reported in this local article (which provides a nice short review of the parties' sentencing arguments):
Embattled rapper DMX was sentenced Wednesday to one year in prison for tax fraud — but insisted he wasn’t “like a criminal in a comic book” trying to scheme against the government. DMX, real name Earl Simmons, admitted in November to evading $1.7 million in taxes. He was also given three years of supervised release.
The 47-year-old performer, whose top songs include “Party Up (Up in Here),” stood accused of hiding money from the IRS from 2010 to 2016 — largely by maintaining a “cash lifestyle.” “I knew that taxes needed to be paid,” Simmons said shortly before Manhattan Federal Judge Jed Rakoff handed down his sentence. “I hired people but I didn’t follow up. I guess I really didn’t put too much concern into it.
“I never went to the level of tax evasion where I’d sit down and plot . . . like a criminal in a comic book,” said Simmons, who grew teary at points during the proceeding.
Prosecutors had pushed for Rakoff to hit Simmons with a sentence ranging from four years and nine months up to five years in prison. In their sentencing papers, prosecutors urged Rakoff to "use this sentencing to send the message to this defendant and others that star power does not entitle someone to a free pass, and individuals cannot shirk the duty to pay their fair share of taxes."
Simmons' lawyers, Murray and Stacey Richman, asked Rakoff for a sentence of in-patient rehab. With treatment — and strict supervision — Simmons could keep performing, allowing him to repay his whopping tax debt, they insisted. They also floated the idea Rakoff could appoint a trustee who would oversee Simmons' business dealings — making sure the tax man got paid. They maintained that Simmons' traumatic and impoverished upbringing led him astray as an adult, including toward addiction and bad financial decisions — but that he has a talent to "make beauty out of ugliness."
The Richmans played the music video for Simmons' 1998 song "Slippin'", claiming lyrics such as "If I'm strong enough I'll live long enough to see my kids/Doing something more constructive with their time than bids" indicate his search for redemption through art. "He is the American dream, and sometimes the American dream takes you to court," Stacey Richman said. "He has been able to raise himself from the ghetto."
Rakoff sympathized with Simmons, saying he was another example of how "the sins of the parents are visited upon their children" — but felt prison was necessary to deter would-be tax fraudsters....
Other performers have done time for tax raps.
Former Fugees singer Lauryn Hill got a three-month sentence in federal lockup for not paying taxes on $1.5 million in income from 2005 to 2007.
Fat Joe, whose legal name is Joseph Antonio Cartagena, got four months in federal prison after he didn't file tax returns on more than $3 million in income.
Ja Rule, who is legally named Jeffrey Atkins, received a 28-month sentence for not filing tax returns that ran concurrently with a two-year weapons sentence, according to reports.
Friday, March 09, 2018
Federal judges fives "Pharma Bro" Martin Shkreli (waaaaaay-below-guideline) sentence of 7 years
As reported in this AP piece, "Martin Shrkeli, the smirking “Pharma Bro” vilified for jacking up the price of a lifesaving drug, was sentenced Friday to seven years in prison for defrauding investors in two failed hedge funds." Here is more on what seems like a pretty interesting sentencing hearing:
The self-promoting pharmaceutical executive notorious for trolling critics online was convicted in a securities fraud case last year unconnected to the price increase dispute.
Shkreli, his cocky persona nowhere to be found, cried as he told U.S. District Judge Kiyo Matsumoto he made many mistakes and apologized to investors. “I want the people who came her today to support me to understand one thing, the only person to blame for me being here today is me,” he said. “I took down Martin Shkreli.” He said that he hopes to make amends and learn from his mistakes and apologized to his investors. “I am terribly sorry I lost your trust,” he said. “You deserve far better.”
The judge insisted that the punishment was not about Shkreli’s online antics or raising the cost of the drug. “This case is not about Mr. Shkreli’s self-cultivated public persona ... nor his controversial statements about politics or culture,” the judge said, calling his crimes serious. He was also fined $75,000 and received credit for the roughly six months he has been in prison. The judge ruled earlier this week that Shkreli would have to forfeit more than $7.3 million in a brokerage account and personal assets including his one-of-a-kind Wu-Tang Clan album that he boasted he bought for $2 million. The judge said the property would not be seized until Shkreli had a chance to appeal.
Prosecutors argued that the 34-year-old was a master manipulator who conned wealthy investors and deserved 15 years in prison. His lawyers said he was a misunderstood eccentric who used unconventional means to make those same investors even wealthier. Attorney Benjamin Brafman told Matsumoto Friday that he sometimes wants to hug Shkreli and sometimes wants to punch him in the face , but he said his outspokenness shouldn’t be held against him. He said he deserved a sentence of 18 months or less because the investors got their money back and more from stock he gave them in a successful drug company.”...
Before sentencing him, the judge said that it was up to Congress to fix the issue of the HIV price-hike. And she spoke about how his family and friends “state, almost universally, that he is kind and misunderstood” and willing to help others in need. S he said it was clear he is a “tremendously gifted individual who has the capacity for kindness.”
She quoted from letters talking about generous acts like counseling a rape victim, teaching inmates math and chess, and funding family members. The defense had asked the judge to consider the letters in its case for leniency, including professionals he worked with who vouched for his credentials as a self-made contributor to pharmaceutical advances.
Other testimonials were as quirky as the defendant himself. One woman described how she became an avid follower of Shkreli’s social media commentary about science, the pharmaceutical industry, but mostly, about himself. She suggested that those who were annoyed by it were missing the point. “I really appreciate the social media output, which I see on par with some form of performance art,” she wrote.
Another supporter said Shkreli’s soft side was demonstrated when he adopted a cat from a shelter — named Trashy — that became a fixture on his livestreams. Another letter was from a man who said he met Shkreli while driving a cab and expressed his appreciation at how he ended up giving him an internship at one of his drug companies.
In court filings, prosecutors argued that Shkreli’s remorse about misleading his investors was not to be believed. “At its core, this case is about Shkreli’s deception of people who trusted him,” they wrote.
Prior related posts:
- You be the federal judge: what sentence for "Pharma Bro" after his fraud convictions?
- "Pharma Bro" Martin Shkreli, facing decades under guidelines, seeks prison sentence of 12-18 months
- Federal prosecutors seeking (way-below-guideline) sentence of 15 years for "Pharma Bro" Martin Shkreli
Tuesday, March 06, 2018
US Sentencing Commission releases 2017 Annual Report and Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics
The United States Sentencing Commission’s 2017 Annual Report and 2017 Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics are now available online.
The Annual Report provides an overview of the Commission’s activities and accomplishments in fiscal year 2017.
The Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics presents tables, figures, and charts on selected district, circuit, and national sentencing data for fiscal year 2017. The Commission collected and analyzed data from more than 311,000 court documents in the production of this year’s Sourcebook.
I fear I won't be able to find all the time I would like to churn over all the notable data in these reports. But I can already see from the start of the 2017 Annual Report some noteworthy data points, embedded in this overview of modern federal sentencing realities (with my emphasis added):
The Commission's data collection, analysis, and reporting requirements are impacted by the high volume of cases sentenced in the federal system annually. The Commission received approximately 310,000 documents for the 66,873 individual original sentencings that occurred in FY 2017. To put this caseload in perspective, in FY 1995, the Commission received documentation for 38,500 original sentencings. Select highlights from FY 2017 data are outlined below:
In FY 2017, the courts reported 66,873 felony and Class A misdemeanor cases to the Commission. This represents a decrease of 869 cases from the prior fiscal year.
The race of federal offenders remained largely unchanged from prior years. In FY 2017, 53.2 percent of all offenders were Hispanic, 21.5 percent were White, 21.1 percent were Black, and 4.2 percent were of another race. Non-U.S. citizens accounted for 40.7 percent of all offenders.
Drug cases accounted for the largest single group of offenses in FY 2017, comprising 30.8 percent of all reported cases. Cases involving immigration, firearms, and fraud were the next most common types of offenses after drug cases. Together these four types of offenses accounted for 82.4 percent of all cases reported to the Commission in FY 2017.
Among drug cases, offenses involving methamphetamine were most common, accounting for 34.6 percent of all drug cases.
Drug sentences remained relatively stable across all drug types in fiscal year 2017. The average length of imprisonment increased slightly from FY 2016 in cases involving methamphetamines, from 90 months to 91 months, and also in marijuana cases, from 28 months to 29 months. In fiscal year 2017, 44.2 percent of drug offenders were convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty.
Overall, 79.8 percent of all sentences imposed in FY 2017 were either within the applicable guidelines range, above the range, or below the range at the request of the government. Slightly less than half (49.1 percent) of all cases were sentenced within the guidelines range, compared to 48.6 percent in FY 2016. In FY 2017, 20.1 percent of the sentences imposed were departures or variances below the guideline range other than at the government’s request, compared to 20.8 percent in fiscal year 2016.
Wednesday, February 28, 2018
"Pharma Bro" Martin Shkreli, facing decades under guidelines, seeks prison sentence of 12-18 months
As reported in this Reuters article, "Martin Shkreli, the former drug company executive convicted of defrauding investors in two hedge funds he ran, has asked a federal judge to sentence him to 12 months to 18 months in prison, much less than suggested federal guidelines." Here is more:
Shkreli, 34, has been in jail since September, when U.S. District Judge Kiyo Matsumoto revoked his bail after he offered a $5,000 bounty for a strand of Hillary Clinton’s hair in a Facebook post. Matsumoto is scheduled to sentence him on March 9.
Shkreli’s lawyers said in a court filing on Tuesday that a sentence of 27 years or more calculated using federal guidelines would be “draconian and offensive.” The filing included a letter from Shkreli, asking the judge for leniency. “I accept the fact that I made serious mistakes, but I still believe that I am a good person with much potential,” he said.
In addition to the prison sentence, they proposed Shkreli complete 2,000 hours of community service and undergo court-mandated therapy....
Shkreli, nicknamed “Pharma Bro,” raised the price of anti-infection drug Daraprim by over 5,000 percent in 2015 while he was chief executive officer of Turing Pharmaceuticals. A jury found him guilty last August of unrelated securities fraud charges. They determined that he lied to investors about the performance of his hedge funds, MSMB Capital and MSMB Healthcare. He also was found guilty of conspiring to manipulate the stock price of a drug company he founded, Retrophin Inc.
Shkreli’s investors eventually came out ahead after he paid them in shares of Retrophin, and in some cases through settlement agreements and consulting contracts with the company, according to testimony at trial. However, Matsumoto ruled Monday that he would still be held responsible for defrauding investors out of millions of dollars, because he secured their investments through fraud.
Shkreli’s lawyers said in the filing that he made mistakes when communicating with his investors not because he wanted to steal from them, but because he “could not bring himself to admit failure.” They also tried to counter the view that Shkreli was the “greedy Pharma Bro.” They pointed to his work at Retrophin to develop a drug for a rare childhood degenerative disease called PKAN that was used to treat some patients in Cyprus, as well as online relationships he has maintained with patients. Even the controversial Daraprim price hike was meant to fund research into rare diseases, they said.
The filing included dozens of letters supporting Shkreli, including from family members and a former Turing employee who praised his “altruistic passion.”
Prior related post:
Thursday, February 08, 2018
Should (encouraged!?!) sterilization be a permissible federal sentencing factor in mitigation?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by a remarkable federal sentencing story out of Oklahoma reported in this local article headlined "Woman underwent sterilization procedure at judge’s suggestion." Here are the details:
At a judge's suggestion, an admitted drug user involved in a counterfeit check ring underwent a medical procedure preventing her from having more children.
Summer Thyme Creel, 34, had the elective procedure in November after the judge wrote he could consider it at her sentencing if she chose to do so. Her sentencing is now set for Thursday in Oklahoma City federal court.
U.S. District Judge Stephen Friot made the unusual suggestion in an order last June. He noted in the order Creel had given up her parental rights to six of her seven children and likely had used illegal drugs while pregnant with some of them. "I spoke with her in detail about it and she voluntarily wanted to do it," her court-appointed defense attorney, Brett Behenna, said.
A prosecutor is urging the judge not to consider the procedure as a factor at sentencing. "Creel not only has a fundamental constitutional right to procreate ... but she admits that she had an interest in an elective sterilization procedure even before the court's order of June 16," Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Perry told the judge in a sentencing memo.
"Furthermore, Creel's decision to have (or not have) additional children is sufficiently removed from the type of criminal activity involved in this case that such a factor is irrelevant to determining a sentence," the prosecutor wrote.
Creel has a lengthy criminal record involving theft and counterfeit check crimes. She is listed in court records over the last two years at addresses in Oklahoma City, Checotah and Lawton. She was charged for the first time in federal court in 2016. A federal grand jury alleged she and others participated in a counterfeit ring that relied on mail stolen from mailboxes.
Creel pleaded guilty a year ago to a single count in the indictment for using a $202.22 counterfeit check at a Walmart in Moore in 2014. Her sentencing has been delayed for a number of reasons, the first time because she couldn't show up in court. She was in the Oklahoma County jail for using a counterfeit check at a Hobby Lobby in Midwest City....
In delaying the sentence the first time, the judge made note of both Creel's criminal past and her history as a mother. "By virtue of a series of relationships with various sires over approximately the last 14 years, Ms. Creel has given birth to seven children out of wedlock," the judge wrote in the June order.
"Comparing the dates of Ms. Creel's periods of habitual use of crack cocaine and methamphetamine ... with the dates of birth of her seven children, it appears highly likely that some of Ms. Creel's children were conceived, carried and born while Ms. Creel was a habitual user of these illicit substances," the judge wrote.
"It comes as no surprise, therefore, that, in 2012, Ms. Creel relinquished her parental rights with respect to six of her seven children 'after an Oklahoma Department of Human Services investigation for failure to protect the children from harm.' Her seventh child was born in 2016," the judge wrote.
The judge then pointed out he can consider at sentencing any information concerning the background, character and conduct of an offender. Finally, he told Creel in his order that at her sentencing she "may, if (and only if) she chooses to do so, present medical evidence to the court establishing that she has been rendered incapable of procreation."
The June order referenced in this story, which runs only two pages, can be accessed at this link. It closes by noting that Congress has provided via 18 U,S.C § 3661 that "No limitation shall be placed on the information concerning the background, character, and conduct of a person convicted of an offense which a court of the United States may receive and consider for the purpose of imposing an appropriate sentence." I am inclined also to note that in 18 U.S.C § 3553(a)(1) Congress ordered federal judges to consider "the history and characteristics of the defendant" at sentencing. So there is certainly a statutory basis for Judge Friot to defend his approach to Ms. Creel's case. I am eager to hear readers' thoughts as to whether Judge Friot's approach is sound and wise even if it may be statutorily defensible.
February 8, 2018 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)
Monday, December 04, 2017
Latest trial of Michael Slager for killing Walter Scott taking place during his federal sentencing for civil rights offense
As noted in this post from May, after a state mistrial in December 2016, former South Carolina police officer Michael Slager pleaded guilty to a federal civil rights offense as a result of his lethal shooting of Walter Scott. That resolution all but ensured that continued debate concerning Slager's action would take place during his federal sentencing. And this local article reporting on the first day of that sentencing highlights that this continued debate is in the form of a kind of mini-trial at sentencing. Here are some details:
What Walter Scott did during his fatal confrontation with North Charleston officer Michael Slager and what the policeman said afterward quickly became the focus of the first day of Slager’s sentencing hearing.
Slager, 36, already has acknowledged violating Scott’s civil rights by repeatedly shooting the fleeing black man as a bystander filmed the encounter. He pleaded guilty to that in May, but key facts remain in dispute — a point on full display Monday at the federal courthouse in downtown Charleston.
Before hashing out a penalty, a judge must decide this week what underlying offense Slager committed in depriving Scott of his constitutional right to be free of excessive force: murder or voluntary manslaughter. After listening to three government witnesses, the judge gave no initial indication on how he might rule. The proceeding is expected to resume Tuesday morning, possibly with another prosecution witness before the defense takes over.
Prosecutors said Scott was simply trying to escape a traffic stop, and they called eyewitness Feidin Santana to back up their contention that Slager murdered Scott and lied to cover his tracks. They rejected Slager’s explanation for the shooting: that he fired only after Scott took his Taser. “I saw a man just determined to get away and leave,” Santana said of Scott. “Like I say in the video, it was an abuse — something unnecessary.”
It was the second time Santana publicly testified against Slager, whose murder trial in state court ended a year ago with a hung jury. Portions of his latest account in U.S. District Court were geared toward helping Judge David Norton decide whether Scott’s conduct contributed to Slager’s decision to shoot. Prosecutors said no; it was wrong from the moment the officer first pulled the trigger.
But defense lawyers said Scott could have at any point stopped and surrendered, and lead attorney Andy Savage pressed Santana about whether Scott had ever raised his arms and given up. “If that happened,” Santana responded, “we wouldn’t be here.”
Santana’s video footage of the April 4, 2015, killing brought national scrutiny to North Charleston amid a broader examination of police-involved deaths across the country. It also landed Slager in jail on a state murder charge when the cellphone clip emerged publicly three days later.
But the jurors in the state case were unable to agree whether he had committed a crime. At least one of them sat in the courtroom Monday, this time as an observer....
The hearing resembled a trial without the same rules of evidence and procedures that can slow proceedings. And the ultimate arbiter of justice is Norton, who can pick any sentence between no prison time and up to life behind bars. A pre-sentencing report suggested a term of between 10 and nearly 13 years in prison, but defense attorneys asked the judge Monday for a “significant” departure from those guidelines because of the role Scott played in his own death.
In my prior post about this case after Slager's plea, I calculated based on the government advocating for the court to apply the guidelines for second degree murder and obstruction of justice that Slager would be facing a guideline range of roughly 17 to 22 years of imprisonment. But it would appear that the PSR in this case has urged the court to consider Slager guilty only of voluntary manslaughter for sentencing purposes. Of course, Slager has in fact only pleaded guilty to "a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 242, Deprivation of Rights Under Color of Law," but in the magical world of federal sentencing the offense of conviction still often does not really matter all that much. In this high-profile case, it will be a judge not a jury tasked with both deciding what crime he really committed and what sentence should go with that crime.
Prior related post:
- After his guilty plea to a civil rights offense, what federal guideline range and ultimate sentence will Michael Slager face for killing Walter Scott?
December 4, 2017 in Advisory Sentencing Guidelines, Blakely in Sentencing Courts, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)
As one former member of Congress enjoys release from prison after five years, another one gets sentenced to five years in Florida federal court
I blog here over the weekend about the resentencing hearing on Friday that allowed former US Representative William Jefferson to officially put federal prison behind him after serving five years and five months. Today, as reported in this local article, another former member of Congress got sentenced to prison in another federal courthouse. Here are the details:
Former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown was sentenced Monday to five years in federal prison for fraud and tax crimes that included raising about $800,000 for a sham charity. Brown’s longtime chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, was sentenced to 48 months in prison, and the charity’s founder, One Door for Education President Carla Wiley, was sentenced to 21 months.
U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan said he believed the Democrat used her position in Congress to achieve an “admirable record of service.” However, he also said she abused the trust of that office in order carry out a criminal conspiracy.
“This is a sad day for everyone,” Corrigan told Brown shortly after sentencing her. “I was impressed with all the outpouring of support for you, and I think it’s a tribute to all the work you’ve done over the years. That’s what makes this all the more tragic.”...
Corrigan ordered Brown to report to prison no earlier than Jan. 8 to an as-yet undetermined prison, but allowed her to remain free until then. Brown’s attorney, James Smith of Orlando, argued for probation and said Brown would appeal the sentence.
An appeal may not keep the 12-term congresswoman from going behind bars, however. Federal rules say Brown should begin serving her time while the appeal is pending unless the judge finds the defense is raising substantial issues that are likely to result in a new trial or a sentence shorter than the time he’ll need to decide the appeal.
Prosecutors asked Corrigan for at least five years in prison during a sentencing hearing held last month. A pre-sentencing report from courthouse staff, which the judge isn’t required to follow, recommended a prison term between seven years, three months and nine years.
That term was based on sentencing guidelines for Brown’s convictions on 18 counts at her May trial. Jurors found her guilty of charges involving wire and mail fraud, conspiracy, concealing income and filing false tax returns. Thirteen of the counts Brown was convicted of involved her fundraising efforts for One Door for Education, an organization she falsely described as being a tax-exempt nonprofit supporting projects to help children....
Between 2012 and the start of 2016, One Door received about $800,000 in donations, often from wealthy businesspeople who later said Brown personally approached them and told them One Door would use the money for kids’ causes. In reality, jurors were told during Brown’s trial, only a tiny sliver of the money was spent on real charity, while more than $330,000 went into party-like events like outings to a Beyonce concert, a Jaguars-Redskins game in Washington and the invitational golf tournament One Door sponsored in Brown’s honor at TPC Sawgrass....
Prosecutors’ argument that the fraud had been significant was underscored by their requests for Corrigan to order the three to collectively forfeit more than $650,000 the government labeled as proceeds from the crime. In addition, under a separate part of the law involving repaying crime victims for their losses, prosecutors asked for Brown and Simmons to be ordered to make restitution payments totaling $452,000 to donors who gave to One Door. They also asked for an order making Brown pay $62,000 in restitution to the IRS for lying on her taxes, and an order for Simmons to pay another $91,000 in restitution for a charge involving him alone creating a ghost employee on Brown’s staff payroll....
If Corrigan’s sentence stands, Brown’s imprisonment will end a tumultuous but significant career in which Brown and two others, all elected in 1992, became the first African-Americans that Florida sent to Congress since the 19th century.
Tuesday, November 14, 2017
US Sentencing Commission releases new report on "Demographic Differences in Sentencing"
Via this webpage, the US Sentencing Commission provides a helpful summary and some key findings from its latest data publication titled ""Demographic Difference in Sentencing." The full 49-page report is available at this link, and here is the USSC's summary and accounting of key findings:
For this report [link in] prior two reports, The Commission used multivariate regression analyses to explore the relationships between demographic factors, such as race and gender, and sentencing outcomes. These analyses were aimed at determining whether there were demographic differences in sentencing outcomes that were statistically significant, and whether those findings changed during the periods studied.
The Commission once again updated its analysis by examining cases in which the offender was sentenced during the period following the 2012 report. This new time period, from October 1, 2011, to September 30, 2016, is referred to as the “Post-Report period” in this publication. Also, the Commission has collected data about an additional variable — violence in an offender’s criminal history — that the Commission had previously noted was missing from its analysis but that might help explain some of the differences in sentencing noted in its work. This report presents the results observed from adding that new data to the Commission’s analysis....
Consistent with its previous reports, the Commission found that sentence length continues to be associated with some demographic factors. In particular, after controlling for a wide variety of sentencing factors, the Commission found:
1. Black male offenders continued to receive longer sentences than similarly situated White male offenders. Black male offenders received sentences on average 19.1 percent longer than similarly situated White male offenders during the Post-Report period (fiscal years 2012-2016), as they had for the prior four periods studied. The differences in sentence length remained relatively unchanged compared to the Post-Gall period.
2. Non-government sponsored departures and variances appear to contribute significantly to the difference in sentence length between Black male and White male offenders. Black male offenders were 21.2 percent less likely than White male offenders to receive a non-government sponsored downward departure or variance during the Post-Report period. Furthermore, when Black male offenders did receive a non-government sponsored departure or variance, they received sentences 16.8 percent longer than White male offenders who received a non-government sponsored departure or variance. In contrast, there was a 7.9 percent difference in sentence length between Black male and White male offenders who received sentences within the applicable sentencing guidelines range, and there was no statistically significant difference in sentence length between Black male and White male offenders who received a substantial assistance departure.
3. Violence in an offender’s criminal history does not appear to account for any of the demographic differences in sentencing. Black male offenders received sentences on average 20.4 percent longer than similarly situated White male offenders, accounting for violence in an offender’s past in fiscal year 2016, the only year for which such data is available. This figure is almost the same as the 20.7 percent difference without accounting for past violence. Thus, violence in an offender’s criminal history does not appear to contribute to the sentence imposed to any extent beyond its contribution to the offender’s criminal history score determined under the sentencing guidelines.
4. Female offenders of all races received shorter sentences than White male offenders during the Post-Report period, as they had for the prior four periods. The differences in sentence length decreased slightly during the five-year period after the 2012 Booker Report for most offenders. The differences in sentence length fluctuated across all time periods studied for White females, Black females, Hispanic females, and Other Race female offenders.
These are really interesting (though not especially surprising) findings, and it will be interesting to see how the US Department of Justice and members of Congress pushing for federal sentencing reform might respond. I will need to take a little time to dig into some of the particular because providing my own assessment and spin, but I have always feared (and wrote an article a long time ago) that differences in the resources and abilities of defense counsel may create or enhance disparities in federal sentencing outcomes in ways that can not be easily measured or remedied.
Monday, October 23, 2017
Reviewing publicity's role in federal sentencing decision-making
This new Forbes piece by Brian Jacobs, headlined "The Role of Publicity in Sentencing," reviews how a case's high-profile nature can play a role in a defendant's federal sentencing. Here are excerpts concluding with the author's closing criticism of "any substantial reliance on publicity as a sentencing factor":
Should defendants in cases that attract press coverage be given longer sentences than defendants in cases that pass unnoticed? The knee jerk response of anyone familiar with the basic principle of equality under the law would likely be a resounding “no.” And yet, as some recent cases have starkly demonstrated, courts can and do consider a defendant’s level of notoriety as a factor weighing in favor of harsher punishment.
The ability of courts to take publicity into account at sentencing traces back to Section 3553(a) of Title 18, United States Code, which provides a list of factors that district courts are required to consider in imposing sentence, including “the nature and circumstances of the offense and the history and characteristics of the defendant.” One of the factors district courts must consider is “the need for the sentence imposed— to afford adequate deterrence to criminal conduct.”...
The extent of publicity a case has received and will continue to receive naturally figures into the analysis of whether a given sentence will further the goal of general deterrence. As one commentator wrote some time ago, “[i]f a case has for some reason attracted great publicity, a severe sentence could be expected to have great deterrent effect. If, on the other hand, the publicity is minimal and the sentence probably will be known only to the defendant himself and the officials involved with the case, the judge could let the offender off with a light sentence without sacrificing any general preventive effects.”
As evidenced by some recent cases, courts have generally followed through on this reasoning and have considered the extent of a case’s publicity as one factor weighing in favor of higher sentences. In Ross Ulbricht’s appeal of his conviction for crimes “associated with his creation and operation of an online marketplace known as Silk Road,” the Second Circuit Court of Appeals condoned the district court’s consideration of the extent of the case’s publicity as one factor justifying the life sentence imposed. Specifically, the Second Circuit approved the district court’s reference to the general deterrence that would result from the “unusually large amount of public interest” in the case. (Ironically, it appears that the Ulbricht’s life sentence and the attendant publicity, far from deterring crime, “actually boosted dark web drug sales.”)
By the same token, in sentencing former congressman Anthony Weiner to 21 months’ imprisonment for transferring obscene materials to a minor, U.S. District Judge Denise L. Cote made express reference to Mr. Weiner’s high profile: “Because of the defendant’s notoriety, gained well before he engaged in this criminal activity, there is intense interest in this prosecution, in his plea, and his sentence, and so there is the opportunity to make a statement that could protect other minors,” she said. Judge Cote elaborated that, “[g]eneral deterrence is a very significant factor in this sentence.”...
But even as courts are required to consider general deterrence, the consideration given to a case’s publicity, in particular, should be minimal. The use of general deterrence as a sentencing factor is inherently unfair to an individual defendant, to the extent that the individual defendant’s case is used as a “means for the public good.” To base a defendant’s sentence on the extent of the publicity a case has received or will receive only exacerbates this unfairness, as notoriety has even less to do with the individual defendant’s case, and more to do with the whims of the press corps and the Department of Justice’s media operation. In the long run, any substantial reliance on publicity as a sentencing factor, rather than deterring crime, seems just as likely to increase the risk that people will, as one commentator wrote, “find the system unjust” in violation of “the principle of equality before the law.”
Thursday, September 28, 2017
US Sentencing Commission releases big new report on "Federal Alternative-to-Incarceration Court Programs"
The US Sentencing Commission has this morning released this 100-page report titled "Federal Alternative-to-Incarceration Court Programs." Here is part of the report's introduction:
During the three decades that it has been in existence, the United States Sentencing Commission (Commission) repeatedly has considered the important issue of when an alternative to incarceration is an appropriate sentence for certain federal defendants. The original 1987 Guidelines Manual provided for alternative sentencing options such as probation for certain low-level federal offenders, and the Commission thereafter amended the guidelines on several occasions to increase the availability of alternative sentences as sentencing options. Despite these amendments, the rate of alternative sentences imposed in cases governed by the sentencing guidelines has fallen steadily during the past three decades, including after United States v. Booker, and Gall v. United States, which increased federal judges’ discretion to impose alternative sentences. In recent years, the Commission has prioritized the study of alternatives to incarceration as a sentencing option.
Many federal district courts around the country, with the support of the Department of Justice (DOJ), have begun creating specialized court programs to increase the use of alternatives to incarceration for certain types of offenders, most commonly for those with substance use disorders. These programs have developed independently of policy decisions of both the Commission and the Judicial Conference of the United States. Commentators, including judges who have presided over these court programs, have urged the Commission to amend the Guidelines Manual to encourage such programs and provide the option of a downward departure to a non-incarceration sentence for defendants who successfully participate in them and who otherwise would face imprisonment based on their guideline sentencing ranges.
As part of its recent priority concerning alternatives to incarceration, the Commission has studied these emerging court programs. The Commission’s study has been qualitative rather than quantitative at this juncture because of a lack of available empirical data about the programs. In late 2016 and early 2017, Commission staff visited five districts with established programs, interviewed program judges and staff, and observed proceedings. On April 18, 2017, the Commission conducted a public hearing about such specialized federal court programs, at which the Commission received testimony from experts on state “drug courts” and other “problem-solving courts” as well as from federal district judges who have presided over three of the more established alternative-to-incarceration court programs.
This publication summarizes the nature of these emerging federal alternative-to-incarceration court programs and will highlight several legal and social science issues relating to them. Part II defines key terms and concepts, discusses the history of alternative-to-incarceration court programs, which originated in the state courts nearly three decades ago, and then specifically describes the types of specialized federal court programs that have been created in recent years. Part III discusses legal issues related to the federal court programs, including how they fit within the legal framework created by the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 (SRA) and modified by the Supreme Court in 2005 in Booker. Part IV identifies social science issues related to the programs, including issues related to the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of the federal court programs.
Part V concludes by identifying several questions about the federal court programs that policymakers and courts should consider in deciding whether, and if so how, such programs should operate in the federal criminal justice system in the future.
Sunday, September 24, 2017
On eve of federal sentencing, any final predictions (or desires) for Anthony Weiner's punishment for underage sexting?
As previewed in prior posts linked below and as set up in this new AP piece, the next chapter (and I fear not the last) in the sordid sorry story of Anthony Weiner will play out tomorrow in a federal court in New York. Here are the basics:
It seemed as if Anthony Weiner had hit rock bottom when he resigned from Congress in 2011. "Bye-bye, pervert!" one heckler shouted as the Democrat quit amid revelations that he had sent graphic pictures of himself to women on social media. Time has shown his self-destructive drama had only just begun.
Weiner, 53, is set to be sentenced Monday for sending obscene material to a 15-year-old girl in a case that may have also have played a role in costing Hillary Clinton — former boss of Weiner's wife, Huma Abedin — the presidential election.
Federal prosecutors have asked for a sentence of slightly more than two years behind bars because of the seriousness of the crime, in which Weiner sent adult porn to the girl and got her to take her clothes off for him on Skype. "The defendant did far more than exchange typed words on a lifeless cellphone screen with a faceless stranger," prosecutors wrote to the judge. "Transmitting obscenity to a minor to induce her to engage in sexually explicit conduct by video chat and photo — is far from mere 'sexting.'"
But Weiner's attorneys contend he is a changed man who has finally learned his lesson, calling his compulsive sexting a "deep sickness" best treated without time behind bars. The memo also suggested Weiner himself was a victim of the scandal, saying the North Carolina high school student initiated contact with him because she "hoped somehow to influence the U.S. presidential election" and write a tell-all book.
I have just had a chance to review this short sentencing memo that the government filed a few days ago. I found remarkable both the stupidity of Weiner's decision to "sext" with in an obviously underage girl, as well as the government's conclusion that applicable guideline calculations produce "offense level of 33 [meaning] the resulting Guidelines range would be 135 to 168 months’ imprisonment, but for the statutory maximum of 120 months’ imprisonment." Luckily for Weiner, the "the Government agreed that a sentence within the range of 21 to 27 months’ imprisonment (which would be the applicable Guidelines range without application of the cross-references) would be fair and appropriate under the specific circumstances of this case." And the Government makes this assertion in support of a prison sentence in that range: "Weiner’s demonstrated history of professed, yet failed, reform make it difficult to rely on his present claim of self-awareness and transformation. On this record, a custodial sentence is necessary to truly effect specific deterrence and prevent the defendant from committing this crime in the future."
Meanwhile, in his lengthy sentencing memo includes, in its words, "Anthony’s own deeply personal meditation to the Court on sickness and recovery (Exhibit 1 to this submission) that speaks most powerfully to his progress." It also asserts, I think accurately, that Weiner's "wrongful conduct is on orders of magnitude less egregious than any case involving sexually explicit communications with a teenager that has ever been prosecuted in this district" and that "factors the Court must consider under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) — in isolation and taken together — demonstrate that a sentence of imprisonment is not required here and would result in punishment greater than necessary to achieve the goals of sentencing."
So, dear reader, what do you expect Anthony Weiner will get at sentencing? I tend predict a "split the difference" outcome in cases like this, so I would be inclined to expect a sentence of a year and a day for him. Something even a bit shorter would not surprise me, and I would actually be surprised if Weiner got anything more than 21 months. In the end, at least for me, I have a hard time viewing Weiner's extraordinary stupidity as the involving the kind of evil or danger that really justifies a long federal prison term.
Prior related posts:
- You be the federal judge: what sentence for former Rep Anthony Weiner for "transferring obscene material to a minor"?
- In sentencing filing, Anthony Weiner asks for probation and community service after guilty plea to transferring obscene material to a minor
- Federal prosecutors say Anthony Weiner merits years in prison for his online sexual offense
Thursday, September 21, 2017
Federal prosecutors say Anthony Weiner merits years in prison for his online sexual offense
As reported in this AP piece, headlined "Government: Prison fits Weiner's sex crime on teen victim," federal prosecutors have filed their sentencing recommendation in the Anthony Weiner case. Here are the details:
Former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner is more than a serial digital philanderer — he's a danger to the public who deserves two years in prison for encouraging a 15-year-old girl to engage in online sex acts, prosecutors told a judge Wednesday. A Manhattan judge is scheduled to sentence the New York Democrat on Monday for transferring obscene material to a minor.
The government urged the judge to put Weiner's claims of a therapeutic awakening in a context of a man who made similar claims after embarrassing, widely publicized interactions with adult women before encountering the teenager online in January 2016. Prosecutors said his conduct "suggests a dangerous level of denial and lack of self-control."
"This is not merely a 'sexting' case," prosecutors wrote. "The defendant did far more than exchange typed words on a lifeless cellphone screen with a faceless stranger. ... Transmitting obscenity to a minor to induce her to engage in sexually explicit conduct by video chat and photo — is far from mere 'sexting.' Weiner's criminal conduct was very serious, and the sentence imposed should reflect that seriousness."
Weiner, 53, said in a submission last week that he's undergoing treatment and is profoundly sorry for subjecting the North Carolina high school student to what his lawyers called his "deep sickness." Prosecutors attacked some of Weiner's arguments for seeking leniency and noted his full awareness beforehand of his crime, citing his co-sponsorship in January 2007 of a bill to require sex offenders to register their email and instant message addresses with the National Sex Offender Registry....
The government said Weiner's "widely-reported prior scandals" were not criminal in nature and did not involve minors but should be considered at sentencing because they reveal a familiar pattern. "He initially denied his conduct; he suffered personal and professional consequences; he publicly apologized and claimed reform. Yet, he has, on multiple occasions, continued to engage in the very conduct he swore off, progressing from that which is self-destructive to that which is also destructive to a teenage girl," prosecutors said. They added: "Weiner's demonstrated history of professed, yet failed, reform make it difficult to rely on his present claim of self-awareness and transformation."
Defense lawyers had portrayed the girl as an aggressor, saying she wanted to generate material for a book and possibly influence the presidential election. Prosecutors responded that Weiner should be sentenced for what he did, and his victim's motives should not influence his punishment. A defense lawyer declined to comment Wednesday.
In a plea bargain, Weiner has agreed not to appeal any sentence between 21 and 27 months. Prosecutors said the sentence should fall within that span, and they noted that Probation Office authorities had recommended a 27-month prison term.
Prior related posts:
- You be the federal judge: what sentence for former Rep Anthony Weiner for "transferring obscene material to a minor"?
- In sentencing filing, Anthony Weiner asks for probation and community service after guilty plea to transferring obscene material to a minor
September 21, 2017 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (10)
Monday, September 18, 2017
"Why Did a Federal Judge Sentence a Terminally Ill Mother to 75 Years for Health Care Fraud?"
The question in the title of this post is the headline of this recent law.com article about a notable (and notably harsh) federal sentencing. Here are some of the details, with some commentary to follow:
A federal judge in Texas sentenced a terminally ill woman to 75 years in prison last month for bilking Medicare — an apparent record sentence for the U.S. Department of Justice for health care fraud.
Marie Neba, 53, of Sugar Land, Texas, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon of the Southern District of Texas on eight counts stemming from her role in a $13 million Medicare fraud scheme. Neba, the owner and director of nursing at a Houston home health agency, was convicted after a two-week jury trial last November. At the sentencing on Aug. 11, the government recommended a 35-year imprisonment, said Michael Khouri, who started representing Neba as her private attorney shortly after the trial...
The unusually lengthy sentence for what health care fraud legal experts call a relatively routine case has them scratching their heads, even in this recent era of the federal government’s crackdown on health care fraud. Neba, the mother of 7-year-old twin sons, was diagnosed in May with stage IV metastatic breast cancer that has spread to her lungs and bones, according to Khouri, who has filed an appeal of the conviction and the sentence. She currently is receiving chemotherapy treatments and is in custody in a federal detention center. “Marie Neba is a mother, a wife and a human being who is dying. If there is any defendant that stands before the court that deserves a below-guideline sentence … it’s this woman that stands before you,” Khouri argued before Harmon at the sentencing hearing, according to a transcript recently obtained by ALM....
Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor who heads the government interaction and white-collar practice group at Greensfelder, Hemker & Gale in Chicago, said given the circumstances, he would have expected Neba to receive a sentence of several years in prison. “Nothing is surprising in that she went to jail and not for six months,” he said. “But how you get anything close to 75 years is beyond me and makes no sense at all. In 35 years, I have never heard of the government’s [prison term] recommendation being doubled by the judge, particularly when the government is asking for a tough sentence anyway.”
Gejaa Gobena, a litigation partner at Hogan Lovells and former chief of the DOJ Criminal Division’s Health Care Fraud Unit, concurred. “We prosecuted hundreds of cases and never had a sentence approaching anywhere near this,” Gobena said.
Legally, the answer to how the long sentence came about is not that difficult: Harmon, applying several enhancements under the federal sentencing guidelines, imposed the statutory maximum prison term on each charge, and then ran them consecutively. “I am not a heartless person. I think I am not. I hope I am not,” Harmon told Neba before announcing the sentence. “It must be a terrible experience that you are going through, Ms. Neba, and I don’t want you to think that by sentencing you to what I am going to sentence you to that I’m trying to heap more difficulties on you because I am not. … It’s just the way the system works, the way the law works. You have been found guilty of a number of counts by a jury, and this is what happens.”
Even so, historically, the case is highly unusual, breaking the previous record by 25 years. Since a pair of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in December 2007 that reaffirmed that the federal sentencing guidelines are merely advisory, federal trial judges have much greater latitude to impose what they think are appropriate sentences, even if the guidelines call for higher or lower sentences. The longest health care fraud sentence prior to Neba’s came in 2011, when Lawrence Duran, the owner of a Miami-area mental health care company, was sentenced to 50 years for orchestrating a $205 million Medicare scheme that defrauded vulnerable patients with dementia and substance abuse. The next longest? Forty-five years in 2015 for a Detroit doctor who gave chemotherapy to healthy patients, whom federal prosecutors then called the “most egregious fraudster in the history of this country.”
According to court documents, Neba, from 2006 to 2015, conspired with others to defraud Medicare by submitting more than $10 million in false claims for home health services provided through Fiango Home Healthcare Inc., owned by Neba and her husband and co-defendant, Ebong Tilong. Using that money, Neba paid illegal kickbacks to patient recruiters for referrals and to Medicare beneficiaries who allowed Fiango to use their Medicare information to bill for home health services that were not medically necessary nor provided, and, all told, received $13 million in ill-gotten Medicare payments, the documents said.
Neba was convicted of one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud, three counts of health care fraud, one count of conspiracy to pay and receive health care kickbacks, one count of payment and receipt of health care kickbacks, one count of conspiracy to launder monetary instruments and one count of making health care false statements.
Four co-defendants, including Tilong, have pleaded guilty in the case. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Oct. 13....
Harmon, through her case manager, declined to comment on the case. The transcript, however, reveals several factors that influenced her decision to impose the lengthy prison term, including: “Most importantly,” Neba’s sentencing guideline range of life imprisonment (though Harmon was proscribed by statutory maximums from imposing a life sentence);..... Neba’s attempt to obstruct justice by telling a co-defendant, before arraignment in the federal courthouse, “to keep to her story,” specifically “not to tell anybody that she, [the co-defendant], was paying the patients.”
Neba’s decision to go to trial on the charges, rather than plead guilty and provide some sort of government assistance, also played a role in her sentence. Had she pleaded guilty to one or more of the charges “at the very beginning without obstruction of justice,” and received the highest credit for cooperation for doing so, Neba’s sentencing guideline range would have been 14.5 years, federal prosecutor William Chang told Harmon during the hearing. “Had the same thing happened and she received no [credit] whatsoever, it would be 21.8 years,” he added. “If she had gone to trial and been convicted, but no obstruction of justice, the sentence would have been 30 years on the calculation of the guidelines. So, we want the court to understand the United States’ principal position for what it seeks.”
Khouri, Neba’s attorney, said he plans to challenge on appeal the manner in which the sentencing guideline range was calculated and argue, among other matters, that the sentence is excessive.
I have quoted so much of this press report because the more details it provides, the more perverse the entire federal sentencing system seems along with the perversity of this particularly extreme sentence. For starters, though we supposedly have a federal sentencing system designed to sentence a defendant based principally on the seriousness of her offense, this defendant's guideline range ballooned from less than 15 years imprisonment to life imprisonment essentially because she put the government to its burden of proof at a trial and said the wrong thing to a co-defendant.
Trial penalty guideline calculations notwithstanding, now that the guidelines are advisory, a prosecutor and a judge would need to be able to justify such an extreme functional LWOP sentence based on all the 3553(a) statutory factors. No matter how seriously one regards health care fraud, I cannot fully understand how any of these factors (save the guideline range) can support this extreme sentence in this not-so-extreme case of fraud. If reasonableness review has any substance whatsoever, and if the facts in this article are accurate, it seems to me that this sentence ought to be found substantive unreasonable.
September 18, 2017 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (17)
Wednesday, September 13, 2017
In sentencing filing, Anthony Weiner asks for probation and community service after guilty plea to transferring obscene material to a minor
As reported in this new Bloomberg piece, "Anthony Weiner, the former congressman and New York mayoral candidate whose career and personal life were wrecked in a series of sexting scandals, asked a judge for leniency when he’s sentenced later this month." Here is more about his sentencing filing and what prompts it:
Weiner pleaded guilty in May to sending sexually explicit messages to a 15-year-old girl, admitting to a single criminal count of transmitting obscene material to a minor. The guilty plea capped a stunning downfall that played a major role in the final days of the 2016 presidential election.
In a court filing late Wednesday, Weiner asked for probation and community service. “In sum, a term of imprisonment would bring Anthony’s indisputably successful treatment for the sickness underlying his crime to an immediate and complete halt, and separate Anthony from the son who has motivated his recovery,” his attorneys wrote in the sentencing memo.
“Given the unusual circumstances of this offense and the ability of a sentence without incarceration to impose just and meaningful punishment while permitting continued treatment, a non-incarceratory sentence of the kind proposed above would be ‘sufficient but not greater than necessary’ to satisfy the goals of sentencing.”
Weiner faces as much as 10 years in prison when he’s sentenced Sept. 25. As part of a plea deal, prosecutors will seek a term of 21 months to 27 months, which isn’t binding on the sentencing judge. Weiner must register as a sex offender and will forfeit his iPhone. An FBI investigation into Weiner’s sexually explicit messages turned up emails that had been sent to his wife, Huma Abedin, then a top aide to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton....
Weiner “has already been punished in a meaningful way by the government, just not in a judicially sanctioned manner,” his lawyers wrote in the memo. “What was supposed to be a confidential grand jury investigation into a personal offense was leaked by ‘law enforcement sources’ and then improperly injected into the presidential election by the then-FBI director.”
Prior related post:
- You be the federal judge: what sentence for former Rep Anthony Weiner for "transferring obscene material to a minor"?
Friday, July 07, 2017
Split Third Circuit panel finds numerous problems with short federal sentences for child-abusing Army couple
A remarkable and unusual federal sentencing involving a child-abusing couple led yesterday to a remarkable and unusual federal circuit sentencing opinion in US v. Jackson, No. 16-1200 (3d Cir. July 6, 2017) (available here). Here is how the 80-page(!) majority opinion by Judge Cowen gets started:
John and Carolyn Jackson (“John” and “Carolyn”) were convicted of conspiracy to endanger the welfare of a child and endangering the welfare of a child under New Jersey law— offenses that were “assimilated” into federal law pursuant to the Assimilative Crimes Act (“ACA”). The United States District Court for the District of New Jersey sentenced Carolyn to 24 months of imprisonment (as well as three years of supervised release). John received a sentence of three years of probation (together with 400 hours of community service and a $15,000 fine). The government appeals from these sentences.
We will vacate the sentences and remand for resentencing. Concluding that there is no “sufficiently analogous” offense guideline, the District Court declined to calculate Defendants’ applicable sentencing ranges under the Guidelines. Although we adopt an “elements-based” approach for this inquiry, we conclude that the assault guideline is “sufficiently analogous” to Defendants’ offenses of conviction. Furthermore, the District Court failed to make the requisite findings of fact — under the applicable preponderance of the evidence standard — with respect to this Guidelines calculation as well as the application of the statutory sentencing factors. We also agree with the government that the District Court, while it could consider what would happen if Defendants had been prosecuted in state court, simply went too far in this case by focusing on state sentencing practices to the exclusion of federal sentencing principles. Finally, the sentences themselves were substantively unreasonable.
Here is how the dissenting opinion by Judge McKee gets started:
It is impossible for anyone with an ounce of compassion to read through this transcript without becoming extraordinarily moved by allegations about what these children had to endure. Had the defendants been convicted of assault, or crimes necessarily involving conduct that was in the same “ballpark” as assault as defined under New Jersey law, I would readily agree that this matter had to be remanded for resentencing using the federal guidelines that govern assault. However, the district court held a ten and a half hour sentencing hearing in an extraordinarily difficult attempt to sort through the emotion and unproven allegations and sentence defendants for their crimes rather than the conduct the government alleged at trial and assumes in its brief. I believe the court appropriately did so pursuant to 18 U.S.C. §3553(a). Accordingly, I must respectfully dissent.
Before I begin my discussion, however, I must note that the defendants in this case were acquitted of the only federal offenses with which they were charged: assault with a dangerous weapon, with intent to do bodily harm, and assault resulting in serious bodily injury. As I discuss more fully in Section II, these assault charges seem to drive the government’s argument and the Majority’s analysis. In order to minimize confusion about the precise nature of the charges in this case and the conduct that was proven, a chart listing each of the charges and their outcomes is attached as an addendum to this dissent.
There are lots of lots of interesting elements to this unusual case, but the rarity of reversals of sentences as substantively unreasonable led me to read that part of the majority opinion most closely. The majority here repeatedly finds flaws in how the district court weighed various permissible § 3553(a) considerations. And the discussion begins by noting that the guidelines called for sentences of perhaps 20 or more years for these defendants so that "probation for John and 24 months’ imprisonment for Carolyn represented enormous downward variances, which require correspondingly robust explanations for why such lenience was warranted."
July 7, 2017 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)
Saturday, July 01, 2017
Amish farmer sentenced to six year in federal prison for regulatory offenses and obstruction
This local article reports on a notable federal sentencing that seemed driven, at least in part, by the defendant's disinclination to respect the federal government. The article is headlined "Amish farmer sold herbal health products. He’s going to prison for 6 years." Here are some of the details:
An Amish man was sentenced Friday to six years in prison for obstructing a federal agency and for making and selling herbal health products that were not adequately labeled as required by federal law. Samuel A. Girod of Bath County, a member of the Old Order Amish faith, was convicted in March on 13 charges, including threatening a person in an attempt to stop him from providing information to a grand jury.
U.S. District Judge Danny Reeves repeatedly asked Girod in court if he wished to make a statement but Girod refused. Girod, who represented himself, does not acknowledge that the court has jurisdiction. “I do not waive my immunity to this court,” Girod told the judge. “I do not consent.”
Girod has become a cause for some who see him as a victim of the federal government. More than 27,000 people have signed an online petition seeking to have him released from jail. About 75 supporters of Girod, including many Amish, gathered near the federal courthouse on Barr Street in downtown Lexington before and after the sentencing.
“We still have a country where people still come together to help each other,” said Emanuel Schlabach, 27, an Amish man from Logan County. As assistant U.S. attorneys left the courthouse after the sentencing, Girod supporters jeered them. “Shame on you!” shouted one supporter.
One non-Amish supporter, Richard Mack of Arizona, said after the sentencing that, “This is a national disgrace and outrage. ... He is being punished for being stubborn.” Mack, a former Arizona sheriff and political activist, said he and others will ask President Donald Trump to issue a pardon to Girod. Mack said he has used Girod’s chickweed salve with no ill effects.
Girod operated a business in Bath County that made products to be used for skin disorders, sinus infections and cancer. One product called TO-MOR-GONE contained an extract of bloodroot that had a caustic, corrosive effect on human skin, according to an indictment.
A federal court in Missouri had barred Girod from distributing the products until he met certain conditions, including letting the U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspect his business. But when two agents tried to inspect the plant in November 2013, Girod and others blocked them and made them leave, the indictment charged. Federal prosecutors said in a sentencing memorandum that Girod knowingly and intentionally sold misbranded products to customers and did not tell any of them about the injunction.
At trial, customers testified that they would not have purchased his products if they had known about the injunction. Girod argued that his products weren’t subject to Federal Drug Administration oversight because they were herbal remedies, not drugs. He also argued that requiring FDA approval of his products infringed on his religious freedom. Old Order Amish seek to insulate themselves from the modern world, including modern pharmaceuticals, he said.
Federal jurors rejected Girod’s defense, convicting him of conspiring to impede federal officers; obstructing a proceeding before a federal agency; failing to register with the FDA as required; tampering with a witness; failing to appear before a hearing; and distributing misbranded drugs....
In documents filed June 19, Girod argued that the charges in the indictment “do not apply to me.” “I am not a creation of state/government, as such I am not within its jurisdiction,” Girod wrote. He added later: “The proceedings of the ‘United States District Court’ cannot be applied within the jurisdiction of the ‘State of Kentucky.’”
Girod’s supporters outside the courthouse said his case is an example of overreach by the federal government. “I don’t need the FDA to protect me from an Amish farmer,” read a sign held by T.J. Roberts, a Transylvania University student from Boone County. “I feel what happened here is an example of judges making the law,” Roberts said. “What the FDA did here is an example of executive overreach in which they are choosing what Americans can put in or on their own bodies. I struggle to find where the victim is in this and where the crime was committed.”
But Judge Reeves said Girod brought the trouble on himself “because he steadfastly refused to follow the law.” To Girod, Reeves said, “You refused to follow anyone but yourself.”
I always have a negative reaction to any use of prison time in response to what seem like non-violent regulatory offenses by a person who would appear to present no genuine threat to public safety. And this case especially caught my eye not only because a lot of federal prison time was imposed, but also because this critical report about the sentencing from a political blog indicates that the applicable federal guideline range here was 63-78 months. In other words, the sentencing judge here though the defendant needed and deserved a sentence significantly above the bottom of the applicable guideline range in this case. Also of note, the judge who decided a six year prison term was necessary in this case, U.S. District Judge Danny Reeves, happens to be the newest member of the US Sentencing Commission.
Tuesday, June 20, 2017
Seventh Circuit panel again finds below-guideline sentence for abusive police officer unreasonable
Especially because it can sometimes seem that post-Booker reasonableness review of sentences has little bite, it still seems blogworthy whenever a circuit court finds a federal sentence unreasonable. The work of a Seventh Circuit panel yesterday in US v. Smith, No. 16-2035 (7th Cir. June 19, 2017) (available here), struck me as doubly blogworthy because it represents the second time the same sentence has been reversed and because the defendant here is an abusive local police officer. Here is how the opinion gets started:
A jury convicted Terry Joe Smith, a police officer, of violating 18 U.S.C. § 242, by subjecting two men to the intentional use of unreasonable and excessive force, and violating their civil right to be free of such abuse. The district court sentenced Smith to fourteen months’ imprisonment, less than half the low end of the applicable guidelines range. In the first appeal of the case, we affirmed Smith’s conviction but vacated the sentence and remanded for full resentencing, concluding that the court had failed to justify the below-guidelines sentence. United States v. Smith, 811 F.3d 907 (7th Cir. 2016). On remand, the court again sentenced Smith to fourteen months’ imprisonment and once more failed to adequately explain or justify the below-guidelines sentence. We again vacate and remand for a complete re-sentencing.
Here are the essential basics from the opinion of the defendant's crime and recommended guideline punishment:
Smith was a police officer employed by the Putnam County Sheriff’s Department. In two separate incidents, Smith violently assaulted arrestees who were already under control and not actively resisting arrest. At trial, Smith’s fellow police officers testified against him, describing the unwarranted [and brutal] attacks....
Smith’s guidelines range was thirty-three to forty-one months’ imprisonment. Smith was in Criminal History Category I, based on one prior conviction for misdemeanor battery of a three-year-old child and the child’s mother, who was then Smith’s wife.
The lengthy Smith opinion follows with lots of notable and interesting discussion about how the sentencing court justified a sentence of 14 months and why the circuit panel believe this below-guideline sentence was unreasonable even at a second sentencing with additional evidence. And, as sometimes happens in the post-Booker world, the circuit panel officially ruled the sentence procedurally unreasonable, but it seems pretty clear that the panel was troubled by what it perceived to be a substantively light sentence under these circumstances.
Friday, May 19, 2017
As detailed in this New York Times article, "Anthony D. Weiner, the former Democratic congressman whose “sexting” scandals ended his political career and embroiled him in a tumultuous F.B.I. investigation of Hillary Clinton before the election, is to appear in a federal courtroom in Manhattan on Friday to enter a guilty plea." Here are more of the basics:
As the title of this post is meant to suggest, my mind reels with all the possible "relevant conduct" that could be argued for guidelines calculation purposes as well as with all the ways to characterize Weiner's "history and characteristics" for purposes of the broader 3553(a) sentencing analysis. Until I see some more details about the offense conduct to which Weiner is pleading guilty, I am disinclined to make any prediction or even a guess about what sentence I would expect Weiner will get from a federal district judge. But I can already safely predict this will be a very interesting sentencing to watch and a very challenging one for the judge.
Mr. Weiner will plead guilty to a single charge of transferring obscene material to a minor, pursuant to a plea agreement with the United States attorney’s office in Manhattan, one of the people said. Mr. Weiner surrendered to the F.B.I. early Friday morning. The federal authorities have been investigating reports that, beginning in January 2016, Mr. Weiner, then 51, exchanged sexually explicit messages with a 15-year-old girl in North Carolina.
The plea covers conduct by Mr. Weiner from January through March of last year, the person said. A likely result of the plea is that Mr. Weiner would end up as a registered sex offender, although a final determination has yet to be made, the person added.
The charge carries a potential sentence of between zero and 10 years in prison, meaning Mr. Weiner could avoid prison. The ultimate sentence would be determined by a judge.
Reports of the federal investigation surfaced in September after a British newspaper, The Daily Mail, reported that Mr. Weiner had engaged in an online relationship with the girl, which included explicit messages sent over social media and suggestive texts.
It was during the investigation that the F.B.I. seized Mr. Weiner’s electronic devices, including a laptop computer on which agents found a trove of emails to his estranged wife, Huma Abedin, a top aide to Mrs. Clinton. That discovery led to the surprise announcement in late October by James B. Comey, then the F.B.I. director, that the bureau was conducting a new investigation into Mrs. Clinton’s handling of official email, an inquiry that ended two days before the election, with no charges brought....
The Daily Mail article said that Mr. Weiner began exchanging messages with the girl when she was a high school sophomore and that the messages indicated that Mr. Weiner knew that she was underage. The newspaper, which did not identify the girl, said she did not want to press charges “because she believes her relationship with Weiner was consensual.” The paper said that she and her father agreed to be interviewed “out of concern that Weiner may be sexting with other underage girls.”
Mr. Weiner was forced to resign from Congress, where he represented parts of Queens and Brooklyn, in June 2011, not long after an explicit picture, sent from his Twitter account, became public. Mr. Weiner initially claimed that his account had been hacked but eventually admitted that he had lied and that he had sent the image and had inappropriate online exchanges with at least six other women.
But perhaps readers would not find it very challenging and would like to share their views in the comments. Try to keep it clear and repsectful and perhaps even funny on a Friday.
Wednesday, May 10, 2017
US Sentencing Commission releases first issue in new series "Case Law Quarterly"
Via email, I learned that the US Sentencing Commission has released this first installment of a new publication series going by the name "Case Law Quarterly." Here is how this first publication (which runs six detailed pages) describes itself:
CASE LAW QUARTERLY provides brief summaries of select appellate court decisions issued each quarter of the year that involve the guidelines and other aspects of federal sentencing. The list of cases and the summaries are not intended to be comprehensive. Instead, this document summarizes only a few of the relevant cases, focusing on selected sentencing topics that may be of current interest. The Commission’s legal staff publishes this document to assist in understanding and applying the sentencing guidelines. The information in this document does not necessarily represent the official position of the Commission, and it should not be considered definitive or comprehensive.
Tuesday, May 09, 2017
Dance Mom star Abby Lee Miller gets "a year and a day" for bankruptcy fraud
Today's celebrity federal sentencing news involves former "Dance Moms" reality TV star Abby Lee Miller, whose case is covered in hard-hitting fashion here via E! Online:
Two years after her indictment, Abby Lee Miller has officially learned her legal fate. The reality star, who rose to fame on the Lifetime series Dance Moms, was sentenced to one year and one day in prison followed by two years of supervised release on Tuesday, according to several reporters in the court room. She was also reportedly fined $40,000 and ordered to pay a $120,000 judgment. She has 45 days to report to prison.
"It's a very serious situation when someone who files for bankruptcy isn't truthful with the court," Judge Joy Flowers Conti told the reality star in court.
The 50-year-old dance instructor was initially indicted in 2015 on 20 charges of bankruptcy fraud, concealment of bankruptcy assets and false bankruptcy declarations after the FBI, IRS and postal inspectors conducted an investigation. She allegedly hid more than $755,000 in other bank accounts, income reportedly stemming from appearances on the show in 2012 and 2013....
In June 2016, Lee Miller pleaded guilty to concealing bankruptcy assets, as confirmed to E! News. Miller also pleaded guilty to one count of not reporting an international monetary transaction. In March, she also announced she was walking away from the longtime TV series.
While appearing in court Tuesday, she told the judge she was ashamed to be meeting this way and that she wished the judge could have taken her class. Lee Miller ultimately got teary eyed as she expressed regret for her actions. "I am very sorry for what I've done," she said, according to reporters. "My name has been dragged through the mud."
Prior related post:
- You be the judge: what federal sentence for "Dance Mom" star after her guilty plea to financial crimes?
Monday, May 08, 2017
US Sentencing Commission releases report providing overview of FY 2016 federal sentencing cases
The US Sentencing Commission just released this helpful and relatively brief data report titled simply "Overview of Federal Criminal Cases Fiscal Year 2016." Among other useful realities, this report provides a certain kind of data marker for the end of the "Obama era" for federal caseload and sentencing patterns. (The chart reprinted here from the report shows how the number of persons federal sentenced significantly increased during Obama's first term and significantly decreased during Obama's second term.) Here is the overview of the USSC report and key findings via this USSC webpage:
The United States Sentencing Commission received information on 67,874 federal criminal cases in which the offender was sentenced in fiscal year 2016. Among these cases, 67,742 involved an individual offender and 132 involved a corporation or other “organizational” offender. The Commission also received information on 11,991 cases in which the court resentenced the offender or modified the sentence that had been previously imposed. This publication provides an overview of those cases.
A review of cases reported to the Commission in fiscal year 2016 reveal the following:
The 67,742 individual original cases reported to the Commission in fiscal year 2016 represent a decrease of 21.4% since fiscal year 2011, the year in which the largest number of offenders were sentenced. Drug cases continued to be the most common type of federal case, accounting for 31.6% of all cases.
Methamphetamine offenses continued to be the most common drug cases, representing 30.8% of all drug crimes. The proportion of methamphetamine cases has increased substantially since fiscal year 1994, when those cases accounted for only 6.4% of all drug cases.
Just under half (44.5%) of all drug offenders were convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty; however, this proportion was the lowest it has been since fiscal year 1993.
Immigration cases were the second most common, accounting for 29.6% of the total federal caseload. In fiscal year 2011, immigration cases were the most common federal crime — however, since that year the number of these cases has steadily declined.
Crimes involving firearms were the third most common offense, accounting for 10.8% of the total number of federal criminal convictions in fiscal year 2016. The average sentence imposed in firearms cases was 75 months.
There were 6,517 fraud cases in fiscal year 2016, accounting for 9.6% of the total federal caseload; however, this number represents a 12.2% reduction from the year before.
Thursday, April 27, 2017
"Mandatory Minimum Policy Reform and the Sentencing of Crack Cocaine Defendants: An Analysis of the Fair Sentencing Act"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by David Bjerk just published by the Journal of Empirical Studies. Here is the abstract:
The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (FSA) affected the U.S. federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws for crack cocaine offenders, and represented the first congressional reform of sentencing laws in over 20 years. A primary goal of this legislation was to lessen the harshness of sentences for crack cocaine offenders and decrease the sentencing gap between crack defendants and powder cocaine defendants. While the mean sentence length for crack offenders fell following the implementation of the FSA, these changes appear to primarily reflect the continuation of ongoing sentencing trends that were initiated by a variety of noncongressional reforms to federal sentencing policy that commenced around 2007. However, the FSA appears to have been helpful in allowing these trends to continue past 2010.
April 27, 2017 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, April 24, 2017
An empirical dive into federal "Health Care Fraud Sentencing"
The quoted title of this post is the title of this notable new Note authored by Kyle Crawford. Here is the abstract:
Health care fraud convictions are on the rise, but little is known about how health fraud offenders are sentenced. This Note offers the first comprehensive empirical account of sentencing decisions in health fraud cases based on a new dataset constructed from United States Sentencing Commission data. This analysis shows that there is a large disparity in how health fraud offenders are sentenced compared to other white collar offenders and general crimes offenders. Between 2006 and 2014, health fraud offenders received fewer Guidelines-range sentences and more below-Guidelines sentences than other offenders. This is because: (1) health fraud offenders are older, whiter, more educated, and less likely to have a criminal record than other offenders, which are demographic characteristics associated with lighter sentences; (2) judges are dissatisfied with the loss table, which is used to sentence most health fraud offenders; and (3) judges view the collateral consequences of sentencing health fraud offenders — many of whom are health professionals — as a mitigating factor.
This analysis also shows a stark difference in the number of health fraud cases brought in districts across the country. The ten districts with the highest proportion of health fraud convictions account for nearly a quarter of all health fraud convictions. In addition, health fraud offenders go to trial more often than other offenders. This results from the threat of severe collateral consequences — exclusion from Medicare and Medicaid and possible loss of a medical license. These offenders have a larger incentive to go to trial than other offenders, especially because pleading guilty does not allow health fraud offenders to avoid these collateral consequences.
April 24, 2017 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, April 17, 2017
Split Second Circuit panel declares within-guideline child porn possession sentence of 225 months "substantively unreasonable"
A dozen years after Booker, the reversal of any federal sentence as substantively unreasonable is still quite rare and notable. Today, a Second Circuit panel has issued such a rare and notable decision in US v. Jenkinss, No. 14-4295 (2d Cir. April 17, 2017) (available here). Here are excerpts from the start and heart of the majority opinion:
A jury found Joseph Vincent Jenkins guilty of one count of possession of child pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252A(a)(5)(B) and one count of transportation of child pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252A(a)(1), based on the government’s proof at trial that Jenkins owned a collection of child pornography and brought it across the U.S.-Canada border on the way to a family vacation for his personal viewing.
The United States District Court for the Northern District of New York (Glenn T. Suddaby, Chief Judge) imposed concurrent sentences of 120 months for the possession count, the statutory maximum, and 225 months for the transportation count, just below the statutory maximum of 240 months. The court also imposed a term of 25 years of supervised release. Jenkins challenges his conviction and the procedural and substantive reasonableness of his sentence....
Here, § 2G2.2 yielded a sentence that derived substantially from “outdated” enhancements related to Jenkins’s collecting behavior. Meanwhile, the government has not alleged that he was involved in the production or distribution of child pornography or that he was involved in any child pornography community. In particular, the government did not claim he used peer-to-peer sharing software, distributed images, or participated in chat rooms devoted to child pornography. Nor does the government allege that he contacted or attempted to contact a child or that he engaged in any “sexually dangerous behavior” separate from his crimes of conviction. Thus, here, as in Dorvee, § 2G2.2 cannot “bear the weight assigned it” because the cumulation of repetitive, all-but-inherent, enhancements yielded, and the district court applied, a Guideline range that failed to distinguish between Jenkins’s conduct and other offenders whose conduct was far worse. Cavera, 550 F.3d at 191. It was substantively unreasonable for the district court to have applied the § 2G2.2 enhancements in a way that placed Jenkins at the top of the range with the very worst offenders where he did not belong.
The full majority opinion in Jenkins has lots of substantive sentencing review discussion that defies easy summary and that merits review by anyone deeply engaged in post-Booker sentencing and appeals. In addition, Judge Kearse has a small dissenting opinion which highlights the defendant's aggressive disagreement with his prosecution and concludes this way:
Given this record in which Jenkins, inter alia, disputed any justification or authority for prosecuting him, and argued that instead the children who were victims of the child pornography should have been prosecuted, the district court's concern for the likelihood that, without a lengthy prison term, Jenkins would re-offend was not unreasonable, and I cannot conclude that the imposition of the prison term that was no higher than midway between the top and bottom of the Guidelines range "cannot be located within the range of permissible decisions."
Saturday, April 15, 2017
The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Melissa Hamilton available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
This Article is concerned with disparities in penalty outcomes. More specifically, the study investigates upward departures in the federal guidelines-based sentencing system. No other research to date has explored upward departures in detail, despite their unique consequences to individuals and their effects on the system. Upward departures obviously lead to lengthier sentences and symbolically represent a dispute with the guidelines advice. Upward departures are discretionary to district judges and thus may lead to disparities in sentencing and exacerbate the problem of mass incarceration in this country.
The Article contextualizes the legal, policy, and practical reasons that render upward departures uniquely important decisions. Two theoretical perspectives suggest why judges may assess that an individual deserves an upward departure (the focal concerns perspective) and why upward departures may be more prevalent in some courts (courtroom communities’ perspective).
The study capitalizes on a more sophisticated methodology than utilized in most criminal justice empirical research. The study presents a multilevel mixed model to test the effects of a host of legal and extralegal explanatory factors on the issuance of upward departures at the case level (called fixed effects) and whether those same factors are significant at the group level — i.e., district courts — to determine the extent of variation across districts (called random effects). The results indicate that many of the legal and extralegal factors are relevant in individual cases (i.e., individual disparities) and indicate significant variations across district courts exist (i.e., regional disparities).
Monday, April 03, 2017
Supreme Court unanimously rules for defendant and district court sentencing discretion in Dean
I am intrigued and surprised and ultimately pleased that a unanimous Supreme Court this morning emphasized the significance of federal district court sentencing discretion through its ruling in Dean v. United States, No. 15-9260 (April 3, 2017) (available here). The Chief Justice authored a relatively brief opinion for the Court in Dean that was obviously convincing enough to get even the most pro-prosecution Justices comfortable with ruling against the prosecution. Here are some key parts of the opinion, starting with the first paragraph that signals where the rest is headed:
Congress has made it a separate offense to use or possess a firearm in connection with a violent or drug trafficking crime. 18 U. S. C. §924(c). That separate firearm offense carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for the first conviction and 25 years for a second. Those sentences must be in addition to and consecutive to the sentence for the underlying predicate offense. The question presented is whether, in calculating the sentence for the predicate offense, a judge must ignore the fact that the defendant will serve the mandatory minimums imposed under §924(c)....
The §3553(a) factors are used to set both the length of separate prison terms and an aggregate prison term comprising separate sentences for multiple counts of conviction. Under §3582 a court, “in determining whether to impose a term of imprisonment, and, if a term of imprisonment is to be imposed, in determining the length of the term, shall consider the factors set forth in section 3553(a).”...
As a general matter, the foregoing provisions permit a court imposing a sentence on one count of conviction to consider sentences imposed on other counts....
The Government speaks of Congress’s intent to prevent district courts from bottoming out sentences for predicate §924(c) offenses whenever they think a mandatory minimum under §924(c) is already punishment enough. But no such intent finds expression in the language of §924(c). That language simply requires any mandatory minimum under §924(c) to be imposed “in addition to” the sentence for the predicate offense, and to run consecutively to that sentence. Nothing in those requirements prevents a sentencing court from considering a mandatory minimum under §924(c) when calculating an appropriate sentence for the predicate offense.
Sunday, March 12, 2017
You be the federal sentencing judge: how long a prison term for convicted "Bridgegate" defendants?
As I have often said in this space, I find I find high-profile, white-collar sentencing cases to be among the most interesting and dynamic because they often require a judge (and others) to balance and calibrate competing punishment theories and goals. Because most white-collar offenders are not violent and often had a successful/productive life before getting into trouble, the need for severe punishment to incapacitate or specifically deter an offender from committing future crimes is often diminished. But because potential white-collar offenders are likely influenced by the deterrent impact emerging from the punishment of others like them, and also because white-collar offenders typically have had a relatively advantaged background, one can reasonably believe that crime control and just punishment concerns justify throwing the book at any and all serious white-collar offenders.
Against that backdrop, I am eager to hear various perspective on the upcoming federal sentencing of the two defendants discussed in this local New Jersey article headlined "What's at stake this week when Bridgegate defendants are sentenced." Here are the basics:
On paper, they could face up to 20 years in prison. Bill Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly, once members of Gov. Chris Christie's inner circle who were convicted in November of conspiracy and fraud in connection with the Bridgegate scandal, are due to return to court Wednesday morning for sentencing.
While neither is expected to serve anywhere near the 20-year statutory maximum term under federal sentencing guidelines, the unusual nature of the charges in the case, including civil rights violations for interfering with the ability to travel, could have both looking at nearly four years in prison, say legal experts.
Baroni, 44, the Port Authority's former deputy executive director, and Kelly, also 44, a one-time deputy chief of staff to Gov. Chris Christie, were charged with helping orchestrate the shutdown of several local toll lanes at the George Washington Bridge in 2013 in a scheme of political retribution targeting the mayor of Fort Lee over his refusal to endorse the governor for re-election. After a seven-week trial, the two were found guilty.
Prosecutors, however, not only charged the two with conspiracy and fraud, but with violating the civil rights of those stuck in the massive traffic jams they created--which left Fort Lee frozen in gridlock for days. Those civil rights violations are now driving what could be an unusually harsh sentence, according to legal experts.
"Civil rights violations have always been treated severely by federal courts since historically they were used by the federal government to prosecute crimes that states were either unwilling or unable to prosecute," noted Robert Mintz, former deputy chief of the Organized Crime Strike Force of the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Jersey and a criminal defense attorney at McCarter & English.
The U.S. Attorney's office would not disclose the proposed sentencing range in Bridgegate case and attorneys for both Baroni and Kelly also declined comment, but the federal sentencing guidelines suggest both face upwards of 46 months, in large part due to the civil rights violations. U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton, who presided over the Bridgegate trial, has sole discretion to set punishment.
While crimes carry statutory maximum penalties, federal judges for the most part follow set guidelines that outline a uniform sentencing policy for those convicted in the federal courts, so that individuals convicted of similar crimes generally serve the same sentence no matter where they were tried. "The guidelines are advisory only. But a lot of judges follow them very rigidly," observed Alan Ellis, a former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and a San Francisco attorney who specializes in sentencing and post-conviction matters.
Yet sometimes judges agree to significant departures from those guidelines. At sentencing last Monday, David Samson, the former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey chairman, faced up to 24 months in prison for bribery in connection with a shakedown of United Airlines. Instead, he walked out of court with just a year of house arrest.... Samson's guilty plea earned him a downward adjustment from the sentencing guidelines for his "acceptance of responsibility." A negotiated plea deal with the U.S. Attorney's office further limited the maximum term he faced.
"These two people went to trial," said Ellis of Baroni and Kelly. Those who go to trial are said to "pay rent on the courtroom," because they receive no downward adjustment at sentencing if they are found guilty....
For Baroni and Kelly, who wrote the now-infamous "time for traffic problems" message that served as a smoking gun to prosecutors, the civil rights violations will represent the most serious violations to be addressed at sentencing. "In this case, the facts are so unique that it doesn't fit the typical pattern of these type of violations so it is hard to predict how the court will factor in that violation," said Mintz. "In the end, the sentence that these defendants receive will likely turn more on how the judge views the criminal conspiracy--whether the conduct was a calculated scheme that truly endangered the public or was merely a misguided act of political retribution that went horribly awry."
Whatever the sentence, defense attorneys have already said the plan to appeal the case.
Prior related post:
- "Bridgegate" now a federal sentencing story after two former New Jersey officials convicted on all federal counts after lengthy jury deliberations
- Is the likely federal sentencing guideline range for "Bridgegate" defendants convicted last week at least 3 to 4 years in federal prison?
Tuesday, March 07, 2017
"Booker Disparity and Data-Driven Sentencing"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new article now available via SSRN authored by Joshua Divine. Here is the abstract:
Sentencing disparity among similar offenders has increased at a disconcerting rate over the last decade. Some judges issue sentences twice as harsh as peer judges, meaning that a defendant’s sentence substantially depends on which judge is randomly assigned to a case. The old mandatory sentencing guidelines repressed disparity but only by causing unwarranted uniformity. The advisory guidelines swing the pendulum toward the opposite extreme, and this problem promises to grow worse as the lingering effect of the old regime continues to decrease.
This Article is the first to propose a system — data-driven appellate review — that curbs sentencing disparity without re-introducing unwarranted uniformity. Congress should establish a rebuttable presumption that outlier sentences among similar offenders are unreasonable. The U.S. Sentencing Commission collects data on over 70,000 criminal cases annually. This data provides the tool for defining categories of similar offenders. Culling outlier sentences through data-driven appellate review would increase judicial awareness of sentences issued by peer judges and would therefore curb the increase in inter-judge disparity without resorting to unwarranted uniformity.
March 7, 2017 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)
Sunday, February 26, 2017
SCOTUS considering cases involving sentencing and collateral consequences in coming days
This coming week the Supreme Court hears arguments in three cases that ought to be over interest to sentencing fans. Here are the basics of the cases in the order they are to be consider in the next two days, with descriptions and links to argument previews via SCOTUSblog:
Issue: Whether, under the court’s First Amendment precedents, a law that makes it a felony for any person on the state's registry of former sex offenders to “access” a wide array of websites — including Facebook, YouTube, and nytimes.com — that enable communication, expression, and the exchange of information among their users, if the site is “know[n]” to allow minors to have accounts, is permissible, both on its face and as applied to petitioner, who was convicted based on a Facebook post in which he celebrated dismissal of a traffic ticket, declaring “God is Good!”
Issue: Whether a conviction under one of the seven state statutes criminalizing consensual sexual intercourse between a 21-year-old and someone almost 18 constitutes an “aggravated felony” of “sexual abuse of a minor” under 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(43)(A) of the Immigration and Nationality Act — and therefore constitutes grounds for mandatory removal.
Issue: Whether the Supreme Court's decision in Pepper v. United States overruled United States v. Hatcher and related opinions from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit to the extent that those opinions limit the district court's discretion to consider the mandatory consecutive sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) in determining the appropriate sentence for the felony serving as the basis for the Section 924(c) conviction.
For all sorts of reasons, Packingham seems likely to get the most attention of this bunch. But Dean could provide to be a sleeper post-Booker case for federal sentencing fans.
Monday, February 13, 2017
Major Ponzi schemer gets major break from guidelines ... but still subject to major prison time
This local article, headlined "Lexington Ponzi scheme founder, 70, gets nearly 15-year prison term for ZeekRewards," reports on a notable white-collar sentence handed down this morning in a North Carolina federal courthouse. Here are some details:
A federal judge Monday handed Paul Burks, founder of ZeekRewards.com, a prison sentence of 14 years and eight months for his lead role in the Lexington Ponzi scheme. Judge Max Cogburn Jr. agreed with U.S. attorneys' "fair and generous" sentencing recommendation, a minimum 15 years and eight months and a maximum 19 years and seven months for the 70-year-old Burks. Burks could have been sentenced to up to 59 years under federal sentencing guidelines.
ZeekRewards.com, founded in 2010, was one of the largest Ponzi schemes in U.S. history at $939 million, according to federal regulatory officials and prosecutors. The Lexington companies, which debuted in January 2011, were shut down and their assets frozen in August 2012. There were more than 800,000 victims worldwide.
Cogburn dropped Burks' sentencing by a year so that it would be about double the 90-month prison term handed to Dawn Wright-Olivares. Wright-Olivares and her stepson, Daniel Olivares, pleaded guilty in February 2014 to fraud charges after reaching agreements in December 2013 with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of N.C. Wright-Olivares cooperated with the federal government in its case against Burks. Wright-Olivares served as ZeekRewards' chief operating officer, while Olivares was senior technology officer. Olivares received a two-year prison term.
On July 21, a federal jury found Burks, of Lexington, guilty of wire and mail-fraud conspiracy, wire fraud, mail fraud and tax-fraud conspiracy. Burks has been free on bond for the past 4 ½ years. The wire and mail-fraud conspiracy charge, the mail-fraud charge and the wire-fraud charge each carry a maximum prison term of 20 years and a $250,000 fine. The tax-fraud conspiracy charge carries a maximum prison term of five years and a $250,000 fine.
Burks opted not to speak on his behalf except to say he approved of the case being presented by his attorney, Noell Tin.... U.S. attorneys, citing Burks’ health and his role as caregiver to his wife, Susan, who has breast cancer, recommended 15.5 years to just short of 20 years. Tin asked Cogburn to set a sentence of no more than 11.5 years, also in consideration for the Burks’ health.
Cogburn and Kenneth Bell, the receiver for ZeekRewards, responded to Tin’s request by saying the U.S. attorneys’ sentencing recommendation was “fair and generous” given the level of crime involved in the Ponzi scheme. “This is a huge amount of money, which is why the sentencing guidelines run to such a large extent,” Cogburn said. “He is essentially facing a life sentencing given his health conditions.”
Tin said that among the health issues affecting Burks are hypertension, diabetes, heart illness, chronic renal failure, prostate cancer, the removal of his esophagus and mild dementia. Burks appeared in good health at the sentencing, though he walked with a slight limp.... The likely [prison] facility [for Burks] could be Butner, where fellow Ponzi scheme felony Bernie Madoff resides....
Cogburn and Bell cited the enormity of the Ponzi scheme and how Burks and other ZeekRewards officials misled and mispresented how the company generated money and how it paid “winners.” Cogburn compared Burks’ marketing strategy of capturing hundreds of millions of dollars to the Biblical story of Jesus of turning loaves and fishes into enough food to feed at least 5,000 individuals. “The scheme got out of hand, more than Mr. Burks may have thought was going to happen,” Cogburn said. “But anyone could have seen what was going to occur outside himself and his (marketing) cheerleaders.”
Sunday, December 04, 2016
Second Circuit hints that sentence reduction might well be justified whenever guideline range is increased "significantly by a loss enhancement"
I am grateful to Harry Sandick for alerting me to this seemingly little (and easily overlooked) opinion handed down by a unanimous Second Circuit panel late last week. Stephanie Teplin and Harry Sandick discuss the case in this thoughtful blog posting, and here are key passages from their coverage:
In United States v. Algahaim, No. 15-2024(L), the Second Circuit (Newman, Winters, Cabranes) upheld the conviction of two defendants for misconduct involving the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”), but remanded to the district court for consideration of a below-Guidelines sentence. The Court, in an opinion by Judge Newman, held that the outsize effect of the loss amount enhancement on the defendant’s base offense level — a sentencing scheme for fraud that is “unknown to other sentencing systems” — required the district court to reconsider whether a non-Guidelines sentence was warranted....
Judge Newman acknowledged that it was within the Sentencing Commission’s authority to construct a sentencing scheme that “use[s] loss amount as the predominant determination of the adjusted offense level for monetary offenses.” However, he observed that “the Commission could have approached monetary offenses quite differently. For example, it could have started the Guidelines calculation for fraud offenses by selecting a base level that realistically reflected the seriousness of a typical fraud offense and then permitted adjustments up or down to reflect especially large or small amounts of loss.”
The “unusualness” of the Guidelines system, the Court held, can be considered by a sentencing judge under Kimbrough v. United States. “Where the Commission has assigned a rather low base offense level to a crime and then increased it significantly by a loss enhancement, that combination of circumstances entitles a sentencing judge to consider a non-Guidelines sentence.” The Court did not hold that the sentences were in error, but remanded for the district court’s reconsideration of the sentences....
Judge Newman has long been a skeptic of the Guidelines approach to sentencing. In this short opinion, he cites the pre-Booker decision in United States v. Lauersen, 348 F.2d 329 (2d Cir. 2003), an opinion he authored at a time when the Guidelines were mandatory, except for downward departures. Lauersen held that where the cumulative impact of overlapping Guidelines enhancements (in that case, for loss amount and for defrauding a financial institution of more than $1 million) resulted in an overly long sentence, the district court could downwardly depart....
In Algahaim, Judge Newman carries this concept forward to the more open-ended sentencing regime given to us by Booker, Gall and Kimbrough. Many judges have stated that the Guidelines are not helpful in white-collar cases and that their emphasis on loss can lead to results that are “patently unreasonable.” E.g., United States v. Adelson, 441 F. Supp. 2d 506, 509 (S.D.N.Y. 2006) (Rakoff, J.). Practitioners have also advocated for shorter sentences in cases involving relatively low loss amounts or where the defendant had no prior record. See ABA Criminal Justice Section, “A Report on Behalf of the ABA Criminal Justice Section Task Force on the Reform of Federal Sentencing for Economic Crimes” (November 10, 2014) (last visited December 1, 2016). To the extent that district judges needed any further encouragement, Judge Newman’s decision lets district judges know that a Guidelines sentence need not be imposed where the “significant effect of the loss enhancement” leads to an unduly long sentence.
Because Judge Jon O. Newman was my very first boss as a lawyer (I served as his law clerk from 1993-94 starting just months after my graduation from law school), I am always partial to his opinions and especially as to his opinions about sentencing issues. And, as regular readers know, I am always partial to judicial opinions that thoughtfully explain whether and when the federal sentencing guidelines should or should not be followed. And so, perhaps my partiality is going to bubble over when I assert that Judge Newman is being especially astute and shrewd in his pro-discretion sentencing work in United States v. Algahaim, in part because the particulars of the loss enhancement in Algahaim are actually not all that major.
Specifically, in Algahaim, the two defendants who were appealing their convictions and sentences were subject to offense-level increases for loss of "only" 10 and 12 points under USSG § 2B1.1(b)(1). Though such loss enhancements certainly appear significant when added to a base offense level of 6, in many other fraud cases the loss enhancement under 2B1.1(b) can commonly add 16 or 20 or 24 or even up to 30 points. Despite those realities, the Second Circuit in Algahaim has now called just a 10-level loss enhancement in a fraud case "significant" and also has said this enhancement is alone large enough to merit serious consideration of a below-guideline sentence. For that reason, I would now expect lots of astute and shrewd future white-collar defendants throughout New York and elsewhere to be citing to Algahaim to bolster arguments for below-guideline sentences whenever the guideline range is moved up a lot by loss calculations.
December 4, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)
Sunday, November 06, 2016
Another big NYC white-collar sentencing produces another way-below-guideline sentence
This USA Today article, headlined "Wall Street fraud sentencing prompts tears and debate," provides the highlights of a high-profile federal fraud sentencing that took place in Manhattan on this past Friday. Here are some of the details:
It was an emotional federal court sentencing, with the future of an Ivy League-educated former private equity executive hanging in the scales of justice.
The prosecution said Andrew Caspersen, a scion of a wealthy business family, should get as much as a 15-year-plus prison sentence for executing a Ponzi-like scam that collectively bilked about a dozen of his clients, family members, and his investment company out of roughly $46 million. The defense said Caspersen never intended to steal and betray. Asking for leniency, his attorney, Paul Shechtman presented evidence to show the 40-year-old father of two had been gripped by a pathological gambling addiction.
On the bench in the 14th-floor Manhattan courtroom sat U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff, a renowned legal independent and author of a recent essay that almost seemed to foreshadow the proceeding. "Distinctions of intent frequently determine, as a matter of law, the difference between going to prison and going free," Rakoff wrote in The New York Review of Books in his examination of neuroscience and the law. What ensued was a nearly three-hour debate over whether and how much gambling addiction should factor in the sentence — complete with references to "The Gambler," a short novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
By the end, Caspersen and his wife, Christina, wept as they held one another in the courtroom. Shechtman brushed away tears of his own. And Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara issued a statement that noted Caspersen had been sentenced — but made no comment on the punishment.
The prosecution attacked the gambling addiction defense from the start. Assistant U.S. Attorney Christine Magdo argued that 2014-2016 scam run by the Princeton University and Harvard Law School graduate had been carefully calculated. In a sentencing memo to the court, she noted that Caspersen fooled his roughly dozen victims by incorporating sham entities with names similar to real private equity firms.
The victims lost millions. Some, investment professionals themselves, declined to present victim statements by name, fearing the reputational loss of being fooled. Magdo added that Caspersen used much of the scam proceeds to pay the mortgage and two home equity credit lines on a Manhattan apartment, as well as a $3 million home in Bronxville, a wealthy suburb of New York City....
Shechtman submitted dozens of support letters to the court, including pleas for leniency from Caspersen's wife, friends, and even the doorman of his Manhattan co-op. The defense also turned to scientific and financial trading experts. Dr. Marc Potenza, a Yale University School of Medicine psychiatry professor and mental health expert on addiction, examined Caspersen and reviewed his health records in preparation for testifying at the sentencing hearing. "Mr. Caspersen suffered from a severe gambling disorder, a mental illness, and there is little doubt that it contributed substantially to him losing his own money and seek money by fraud from others to continue on the same destructive path," Potenza wrote in a letter to the court....
Citing the experts' conclusions, Shechtman urged Rakoff to weigh the "tragic dimension" of Caspersen's gambling addiction.... Caspersen fought back tears as he addressed the court before being sentenced. "I have committed serious crimes of fraud, and have no one to blame but myself," he said. "I stand before you asking for mercy."...
After more than an hour of testimony and questioning of Potenza, Rakoff said he deemed it "more likely than not" that gambling addiction existed and could be a mitigating factor. Still, he stressed it must be weighed with other factors in the case. "It was a substantial fraud," said the judge. "It was a fraud that involved the deception of people who had a lot of faith in the defendant."
Ultimately, Rakoff sentenced Caspersen to four years in prison, followed by three years of supervised release, and nearly $28 million in restitution. "No purpose would be served by having him rot in prison for years on end," said the judge. He characterized federal sentencing guidelines that would allow the far longer sentence sought by prosecutors as "absurd." And, referring to the likelihood that some might question the leniency, Rakoff said outsiders didn't know all the facts of the case.
I cannot find any indication that Judge Rakoff has or plans to write up his sentencing conclusions in a formal opinion, but I sincerely hope he does. For consistent and cogent sentencing even after Booker made the guidelines advisory, it is critical in my view not only for federal district judges to consider thoughtfully all the 18 USC 3553(a) sentencing factors, but also for them to produce written opinions to explain how they weighed those factors in high-profile cases in which they significantly deviate from the ranges suggested by the guidelines.
November 6, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)
Wednesday, August 17, 2016
Federal district judge assails prosecutors for not seeking more prison time for cooperators in government corruption cases
This local article from New Jersey, headlined "Judge blasts U.S. attorney during sentencing of Guttenberg contractor in theft," reports on a federal judge expressing concern that federal prosecutors are being too soft in sentencing recommendations in a notable white-collar setting. Here are the details:
A federal judge repeatedly criticized the U.S. Attorney's Office in Newark during a hearing Wednesday, scolding prosecutors for seeking light sentences -- sometimes with no prison time -- for people who plead guilty to corruption and related offenses.
Before sentencing a Guttenberg contractor who conspired with Union City officials to steal federal housing funds, U.S. District Judge William H. Walls spent several minutes upbraiding the U.S. Attorney's Office for a "ridiculous" pattern of bringing corruption cases and then seeking lenient sentences for defendants who plead guilty.
"That is so ridiculous it makes no sense in the context of true law enforcement," Walls said from the bench. "This is sheer legal nonsense." "If you swindle the government, regardless of your status, you should go to jail," he added.
Despite his protests, Walls agreed in the end with prosecutors, who had filed motions to avoid mandatory sentencing guidelines, and sentenced the defendant in Wednesday's case to three years of probation instead of prison.
Walls, a senior judge appointed by President Bill Clinton, is also presiding over the corruption trial of U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez. Attorneys for Menendez, D-Paramus, deny the charges and have sought to quash the indictment. Justice Department officials in Washington are handling that prosecution, not the U.S. Attorney's Office in Newark.
U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman has made corruption cases a hallmark of his tenure and his office is prosecuting Bill Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly, two former associates of Governor Christie's who have been implicated in the George Washington Bridge lane-closure case. Christie, who was U.S. attorney before Fishman, also made corruption cases a highlight of his term.
Since President Obama appointed him in 2009, Fishman has secured convictions for several top officials including the former chairman of the Bergen County Democratic Organization, Joseph Ferriero; a former Trenton mayor, Tony Mack; and the former chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, David Samson, who is also a former New Jersey attorney general.
A spokesman for Fishman, in response to Walls's comments, noted that defendants who cooperate with prosecutors are entitled to "some consideration" at sentencing. “It is firmly rooted in our system of justice that a defendant who admits his own guilt and cooperates in the government's investigation or prosecution of criminal conduct is entitled to some consideration at the time of sentencing," said Fishman spokesman Matthew Reilly. "It is the prosecution's responsibility to bring that information to the attention of the court, and the court has the discretion to determine how much weight to give it.”
Darren Gelber, a lawyer at the Wilentz, Goldman and Spitzer firm and a former president of the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey, said "Judge Walls has a reputation of being a tough sentencer."
"I'm sure he like others has become increasingly frustrated with the perception that corruption is all too prevalent in our state," said Gelber, who was not involved in Wednesday's case.
The U.S. Attorney's Office charged that Leovaldo Fundora, the owner of Falcon Remodeling of Guttenberg, conspired with two public officials in Union City to steal federal housing funds. The two Union City officials instructed Fundora to collude with two other businesses, which are unnamed in court papers.... Prosecutors estimated losses from the scheme between $120,000 and $200,000.
"I deeply regret what I have done," Fundora told the court as his wife and daughter sat behind him. "I know it's going to take a long time to get my reputation back, but I will try my best." His attorney, Raymond Flood, said Fundora was a Cuban immigrant who had been working since he was 12 years old. "He's been a criminal for four years," Walls noted, "four years that he swindled the government."
Fundora pleaded guilty in 2013 and his theft conviction carried a maximum sentence of 10 years and a $250,000 fine. At Fundora's sentencing hearing Wednesday, prosecutors recommended a much lighter sentence and Walls, despite his critical comments, agreed. The U.S. Attorney's Office filed what is known as a "5K1.1" motion, asking the judge to depart from the federal sentencing guidelines to impose a lighter punishment on Fundora. Walls sentenced Fundora to three years of probation, ordered him to pay $73,753 in restitution, and imposed a $2,000 fine.
"This is absolutely ridiculous and I will not do it again," Walls told the assistant U.S. attorney handling the case, Barbara Llanes. Walls said businesses that win contracts from government agencies should hold themselves to a higher standard. He suggested the U.S. Attorney's Office was more interested in getting favorable conviction statistics than pursuing tough punishments. "The society is being swindled, and your office seems to care about notching wins," the judge told Llanes.
Responding to Walls's questions, Llanes noted that the two Union City public officials -- Johnny Garces and Washington Borgono, who both pleaded guilty -- have not been sentenced. Prosecutors would not file "5K1.1" motions for them, she added.
August 17, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, August 09, 2016
Highlighting the notable absence of criminal trials in a high-profile federal district court ... thanks to the modern "trial penalty"
Yesterday's New York Times had this article on the modern reality of negotiated federal criminal justice headlined "Trial by Jury, a Hallowed American Right, Is Vanishing." Here are excerpts:
The criminal trial ended more than two and a half years ago, but Judge Jesse M. Furman can still vividly recall the case. It stands out, not because of the defendant or the subject matter, but because of its rarity: In his four-plus years on the bench in Federal District Court in Manhattan, it was his only criminal jury trial.
He is far from alone. Judge J. Paul Oetken, in half a decade on that bench, has had four criminal trials, including one that was repeated after a jury deadlocked. For Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, who has handled some of the nation’s most important terrorism cases, it has been 18 months since his last criminal jury trial. “It’s a loss,” Judge Kaplan said, “because when one thinks of the American system of justice, one thinks of justice being administered by juries of our peers. And to the extent that there’s a decline in criminal jury trials, that is happening less frequently.”
The national decline in trials, both criminal and civil, has been noted in law journal articles, bar association studies and judicial opinions. But recently, in the two federal courthouses in Manhattan and a third in White Plains (known collectively as the Southern District of New York), the vanishing of criminal jury trials has never seemed so pronounced. The Southern District held only 50 criminal jury trials last year, the lowest since 2004, according to data provided by the court. The pace remains slow this year.
In 2005, records show, there were more than double the number of trials: 106. And decades ago, legal experts said, the numbers were much higher. “It’s hugely disappointing,” said Judge Jed S. Rakoff, a 20-year veteran of the Manhattan federal bench. “A trial is the one place where the system really gets tested. Everything else is done behind closed doors.”
Legal experts attribute the decline primarily to the advent of the congressional sentencing guidelines and the increased use of mandatory minimum sentences, which transferred power to prosecutors, and discouraged defendants from going to trial, where, if convicted, they might face harsher sentences. “This is what jury trials were supposed to be a check against — the potential abuse of the use of prosecutorial power,” said Frederick P. Hafetz, a defense lawyer and a former chief of the criminal division of the United States attorney’s office in Manhattan, who is researching the issue of declining trials.
Julia L. Gatto, a federal public defender, recalled the case of Oumar Issa, a Malian arrested in Africa in a 2009 sting operation on charges of narco-terrorism conspiracy, which carried a mandatory minimum 20-year sentence, and conspiring to support a terrorist organization, which had no minimum. Although Ms. Gatto and her client believed that elements of the case were weak and that there were strongly mitigating circumstances, Mr. Issa concluded that the risk of going to trial was too high. He pleaded guilty in 2012 to material support, with prosecutors dropping the other charge. He received 57 months in prison. “It was the only thing he could do,” Ms. Gatto said. “His hands were tied.”
In 1997, according to federal courts data nationwide, 3,200 of 63,000 federal defendants were convicted in jury trials; in 2015, there were only 1,650 jury convictions, out of 81,000 defendants....
Judge P. Kevin Castel, who helped to organize the court’s 225th anniversary celebration in 2014, recalled taking a friend, Mary Noe, a legal studies professor at St. John’s University, to see an exhibit of courtroom illustrations documenting Southern District trial scenes of past decades. But as they reached the end, Professor Noe observed that the sketches of more recent defendants, like Bernard L. Madoff and the would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad showed them pleading guilty. “I was like, what happened to the trials?” she recalled.
Judge Analisa Torres said she had felt the difference ever since joining the federal bench in 2013. Judge Torres, a former state court judge who handled about two dozen criminal trials a year in Manhattan and the Bronx, said she has since had just a few such trials. “It’s day and night,” she said. On the state bench, she said, she spent her entire day in the courtroom but for the lunch hour. “Now, I am in chambers all day long.”
This article rightfully suggests that the vanishing jury trial is a sentencing story related to the distinctive severity of federal statutes and guidelines and the impact of the modern "trial penalty" in federal courts. Competent defense attorneys have to tell their federal clients that the decision to test the government's evidence at trial will almost always risk adding years, if not decades, to any eventual federal sentence on any charge that produces a conviction.
It is ironic, but not really surprising, that this problem has only gotten worse since the Blakely and Booker SCOTUS rulings a decade ago made much of a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. Had the Booker court adopted a "jury trial" remedy to "fix" federal guideline sentencing rather than the advisory remedy, we likely would have seen an increase in jury trials focused on specific guideline enhancements (especially in fraud and other kinds of high-profile cases more common in the Southern District of New York). In addition, modern federal sentencing doctrines that diminish the need for and significance of jury determinations — like guideline anhancements based on "acquitted conduct" and "uncharged conduct" and "relevant conduct" — would be no more.
It is also disconcerting, but not surprising, that federal district judges are now so quick to lament the lack of jury trials, but are still so slow to explore their powers and opportunities to encourage more trials. Though subject to some legal uncertainty (and sure to generate some federal prosecutorial pushback), federal judges still could today consider requiring limited jury trials to aid the resolution of any major factual disputes that have major guideline sentencing consequences. Notably, in other high-profile settings, especially with respect to the death penalty and fraud sentencings and collateral consequences, SDNY federal district judges have been willing to test the reach and limits of thier judicial authority to move the law forward as they see fit. If these judges really lament the vanishing criminal trial so much, they can and should be more aggressively exploring just what they might be able to do about this problem.
August 9, 2016 in Blakely Commentary and News, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (10)
Wednesday, August 03, 2016
Does the weather and MLB baseball impact federal sentencing outcomes more than racial factors?
The seemingly somewhat kooky question in the title of this post is prompted by this seemingly somewhat kooky empirical paper now available via SSRN and authored by a group of data researchers and titled "Events Unrelated to Crime Predict Criminal Sentence Length." Here is the paper's abstract (with a key sentence emphasized to explain my post title query):
In United States District Courts for federal criminal cases, prison sentence length guidelines are established by the severity of the crime and the criminal history of the defendant. In this paper, we investigate the sentence length determined by the trial judge, relative to this sentencing guideline. Our goal is to create a prediction model of sentencing length and include events unrelated to crime, namely weather and sports outcomes, to determine if these unrelated events are predictive of sentencing decisions and evaluate the importance weights of these unrelated events in explaining rulings.
We find that while several appropriate features predict sentence length, such as details of the crime committed, other features seemingly unrelated, including daily temperature, baseball game scores, and location of trial, are predictive as well. Unrelated events were, surprisingly, more predictive than race, which did not predict sentencing length relative to the guidelines. This is consistent with recent research on racial disparities in sentencing that highlights the role of prosecutors in making charges that influence the maximum and minimum recommended sentence. Finally, we attribute the predictive importance of date to the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case, United States v. Booker, after which sentence length more frequently fell near the guideline minimum and the range of minimum and maximum sentences became more extreme.
Based on a quick scan of the paper, I came to the conclusion that one would need to have a pretty sophisticated understanding of both federal sentencing patterns and empirical methods to assess the soundness of the analysis here. Still, the paper's penultimate paragraph reinforces that this analysis led to some notable conclusions (with my emphasis again added):
A justice system reasonably aspires to be consistent in the application of law across cases and to account for the particulars of a case. Our goal was to create a prediction model of criminal sentence lengths that accounts for non-judicial factors such as weather and sports events among the feature set. The feature weights offer a natural metric to evaluate the importance of these features unrelated to crime relative to case-specific factors. Using a Random Forest, we found several expected crime related features appearing within the top 10% most important features. However, we also found defendant characteristics (unrelated to the crime), sport game outcomes, weather, and location features all predictive of sentence length as well, and these features were, surprisingly, more predictive than the defendant’s race. Further investigating this predictive ability would be of interest to those studying the criminal justice system.
Sunday, July 17, 2016
Ninth Circuit rejects district court's decision to base sentence on drug amount higher than jury's special verdict
A helpful reader made sure I did not overlook the interesting Ninth Circuit panel decision in US v. Pimentel-Lopez, No. 14-30210 (9th Cir. July 15, 2016) (available here), which was handed down on Friday. Here is how the helpful reader helpfully summarized the decison: "Somewhat unusually, the jury returned a special verdict finding the defendant responsible for less than 50 g of meth. The Circuit Court vacated his sentence after the District Court based the guidelines range on 4.5 kg and gave a stat max sentence of 20 years. An interesting variation on using (or not) acquitted conduct at sentencing, I think." And here are a few paragraphs from the decision:
The principal question presented is whether the district judge was entitled to make a drug quantity finding in excess of that found by the jury in its special verdict. The district court believed it was entitled to do so because “[t]here is no increase in the statutory maximum sentence beyond the 20 years or 240 months that is charged in the [i]ndictment.”....
Some of our sister circuits seem to have held that a jury’s special-verdict finding that the quantity of drugs involved in the crime is less than a particular amount did not preclude the judge from finding a greater quantity for purposes of sentencing. [CITES] But those cases did not directly address the argument raised by Pimentel-Lopez — that the affirmative finding by the jury that the quantity of drugs involved was less than a specific amount precluded a contradictory finding by the district judge during sentencing....
Some of our sister circuits seem to have assumed that the juries’ findings merely acquitted defendants of possessing higher quantities of drugs, and that may have been warranted on the record before them.... Here, by contrast, the record is clear that the jury didn’t merely acquit defendant of possessing 50 grams or more of methamphetamine; it made an affirmative finding “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the amount attributable to defendant was “[l]ess than 50 grams.” Our own caselaw, and simple logic, precludes us from vouchsafing sentencing judges the power to make contradictory findings under these circumstances.
Thursday, July 14, 2016
First trader federally convicted for "spoofing" gets significant (below-guideline) prison term
As reported in this local article, headlined "Trader Michael Coscia 1st in nation to be sentenced under 'anti-spoofing' law," a notable new type of federal white-collar offender got a notable old-school type of punishment yesterday in federal court in Chicago. Here are some details:
In the outcome of a closely watched trial that could set precedent, convicted futures trader Michael Coscia was sentenced in federal court Wednesday to three years in prison and two years of supervised release for spoofing and commodities fraud.
Coscia, 54, of Rumson, N.J., was the first defendant in the country to stand trial under new anti-spoofing laws included in the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act. In November, he was found guilty of six counts of spoofing — the use of computer algorithms to rig markets in fractions of a second — and six counts of commodities fraud.
Prosecutors had recommended five to seven years in prison, while the defense had sought probation. Ultimately, U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber settled in the middle, citing Coscia's age and health, as well as the ambiguous amount of financial loss incurred by the victims.
"This is a very serious crime and it has serious consequences. ... (Coscia) has helped a lot of people over the years, not only family and friends, but also fellow traders. But he also engaged in spoofing and had no financial need to do so," Leinenweber said shortly before announcing the sentence.
Federal prosecutors were pleased with the outcome. "There was and has been this sort of suggestion throughout the course of this prosecution that this criminal case is somehow murky or unclear because of technology, because of the use of algorithms. Well, guess what? A lie is a lie. Deceit is deceit. ... The defendant cheated faceless victims out of money through deceit over the internet. Today's result and sentence, I think, is a reflection of that," U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Sunil Harjani added that the sentence of imprisonment would send a message to traders in Chicago and throughout the U.S.
Coscia made about $1.4 million in only about two months by victimizing traders including those at Citadel, the Chicago financial services firm formed by billionaire Ken Griffin, when he manipulated the prices of futures contracts on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, prosecutors have said.
Upon leaving the courtroom, Coscia declined to comment. He smiled as he hugged friends and family who had come to show support. During the hearing, he gave a brief statement asking for leniency and saying that he takes responsibility for his actions.
Stephen Senderowitz, Coscia's attorney, said he will file an appeal. During the hearing, Senderowitz emphasized that it's not clear how much money any individual trader lost because of Coscia's actions. That will be among the issues argued further during the appeal, during which the defense will also challenge the constitutionality of the spoofing law, he said afterward....
The Coscia case is "just the tip of the iceberg" in terms of the government's increasingly active role in such prosecutions, said Renato Mariotti, lead prosecutor on the case before recently joining a private practice. "For years, many people scoffed at the notion that the government could explain high-frequency trading strategies to judges and juries. No one is laughing anymore," Mariotti said in a statement after the sentencing.
Coscia commissioned the design of computer programs, known as algorithms, to manipulate prices in the markets of various commodities, including gold, soybean meal, soybean oil, high-grade copper, Euro FX and Pounds FX currency futures, prosecutors said.
Among Coscia's family, there was some feeling that the sentencing could have gone worse. During the hearing, Anthony Coscia, Michael Coscia's uncle and a counselor at a Catholic high school in Brooklyn, N.Y., quoted passages from Shakespeare and the Bible while speaking on behalf of his nephew's character.... "The judge seemed to show some compassion," the elder Coscia said as he left the courtroom.
Wednesday, June 29, 2016
Sixth Circuit affirms way-below guideline five-year child porn sentence based in part on jury poll urging sentence even lower
A number of helpful readers made sure that, despite being on the road all day, I did not miss the remarkable Sixth Circuit panel decision today in US v. Collins, No. 15-3236 (6th Cir. June 29, 2016) (available here). I first blogged about this case here after initial sentencing, recounting these basic details via a news account:
A jury convicted Ryan Collins in October of one count possessing, distributing and receiving child pornography and one count possession of child pornography. Police found more than 1,500 files on his computer, and he was charged with distributing because he used peer-to-peer file sharing programs.
Under federal law, a judge can sentence a defendant to up to 20 years in prison if he or she is found guilty of child porn distribution. On Tuesday, during Collins' sentencing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan asked U.S. District Judge James Gwin to give the maximum sentence for the charge.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Probation and Pretrial Services said a guideline sentence for Collins, who is 32 and has no criminal history, would be between about 21 and 27 years in federal prison. While higher than the maximum sentence, the office's calculation accounted for several factors in Collins' case -- including the age of the victims and not taking responsibility for his actions.
But Gwin handed down a five-year sentence to Collins, the minimum allowable sentence for a distribution charge. The judge said that after Collins' trial, he polled jurors on what they thought was an appropriate sentence. The average recommendation was 14 months, Gwin said.
Unhappy with this outcome, federal prosecutors appealed the sentence as unreasonable, but now has lost before a unanimous Sixth Circuit panel. The Court's relatively short opinion includes these passages:
The government also argues that the jury poll was an “impermissible factor” for the district judge to consider in crafting an appropriate sentence. Conatser, 514 F.3d at 520. We again disagree. Federal law provides nearly unfettered scope as to the sources from which a district judge may draw in determining a sentence....
District courts also have the authority to “reject the Guidelines sentencing ranges based on articulated policy disagreements in a range of contexts.” United States v. Kamper, 748 F.3d 728, 741 (6th Cir. 2014). Indeed, we have suggested the plausibility of rejecting guidelines ranges in child pornography cases based on policy disagreements. See United States v. Bistline (Bistline I), 665 F.3d 758, 762-64 (6th Cir. 2012) (finding that the district court “did not seriously attempt to refute” the judgments underlying the guidelines).
When establishing the Sentencing Commission, Congress directed it to take “the community view of the gravity of the offense” into account when crafting appropriate criminal sanctions. 28 U.S.C. § 994(c)(4). As reflected in his writing on the subject, and briefly in the sentencing hearing below, the district judge reasons that the Commission fell short of this directive. See Judge James S. Gwin, Juror Sentiment on Just Punishment: Do the Federal Sentencing Guidelines Reflect Community Values?, 4 HARV. L. & POL'Y REV. 173, 185 (Winter 2010)....
Though we reiterate that juries lack “the tools necessary for the sentencing decision,” Martin, 390 F. App’x at 538, they can provide insight into the community’s view of the gravity of an offense. See Gwin, supra at 193-94; see also Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584, 615-16 (2002) (BREYER, J., concurring) (jurors “reflect more accurately the composition and experiences of the community as a whole” and are “better able to determine in the particular case the need for retribution”) (internal quotations and citations omitted). The jury did not determine or impose defendant’s sentence. Rather, the district judge – who does possess the necessary tools for the sentencing decision – was at all times interposed between the jurors’ views of an appropriate sentence and the sentencing guidelines’ § 3553(a) factors. Considering the jury’s sentencing recommendation as part of the sentencing calculus did not conflict with the district judge’s duty or ability to properly weigh the § 3553(a) factors and independently craft an appropriate sentence.
June 29, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4)