Friday, August 29, 2014
Based on additional 3553(a) justifications, Eighth Circuit affirms "profound downward variance to a sentence of probation" in multi-million dollar fraud
Especially in the years right after after Booker, the Eighth Circuit garnered a (seemingly well-deserved) reputation as one of the circuits most likely to reverse below-guideline sentences as too lenient. But after a number of those reversals were thereafter reversed by the Supreme Court in cases like Gall and Pepper, it seemed the Eighth Circuit became somewhat more willing to uphold below-guideline sentences, and today in US v. Cole, No. 11-1232 (8th Cir. Aug. 29, 2014) (available here), a unanimous panel has upheld a probation sentence in a high-loss, white-collar case that in the past I would expect to see reversed based on the government's appeal.
The Cole decision from the Eighth Circuit is relatively short, and it is today's must-read for any and all white-collar practitioners. Here are snippets that help highlight why:
A jury found Abby Rae Cole guilty of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, tax evasion, and conspiracy to commit tax fraud. The district court sentenced Cole to three years probation, a downward variance from the advisory Guidelines range of 135 to 168 months imprisonment. The government appealed the sentence as substantively unreasonable, and Cole cross-appealed her convictions. We affirmed the convictions but declined to reach the issue of whether the sentence is substantively unreasonable, finding procedural error in the lack of an adequate explanation by the district court for the sentence and the substantial downward variance. We remanded the case to afford the district court a chance to supply an adequate explanation....
In our previous opinion, we noted that before reaching the substantive reasonableness of a sentence “‘[w]e must first ensure that the district court committed no significant procedural error,’” such as “failing to adequately explain the chosen sentence—including an explanation for any deviation from the Guidelines range.” Id. (quoting United States v. Feemster, 572 F.3d 455, 461 (8th Cir. 2009) (en banc)). We noted that Cole and her co-conspirators’ convictions were based on the theft of approximately $33 million from Best Buy over a four-year period and the evasion of over $3 million in taxes, Cole’s sentencing Guidelines range was 135 to 168 months imprisonment, and Cole’s co-conspirators, her husband and a Best Buy employee, received sentences of 180 and 90 months respectively. Despite these facts, the district court provided scant explanation for the profound downward variance to a sentence of probation.
On remand, the district court received additional briefing from the parties, conducted a hearing in which it heard additional argument with respect to sentencing, and then announced its reasons for the downward variance and the probationary sentence in a lengthy and comprehensive analysis concluding with the observation that this is an “unusual, extraordinary case in which a sentence of three years probation was appropriate.” In the additional analysis, the district court touched on all of the section 3553(a) factors in explaining the rationale behind the sentence it imposed upon Cole. The district court recognized the numerous restrictions Cole endured while on probation and the “lifelong restrictions” she faces as a federal felon, see 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(2)(A)&(B); the court stressed that, with the probationary sentence, Cole would be less likely to commit further crimes as she “has a far greater likelihood of successful rehabilitation with family support and stable employment,” see 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(2)(C). The court also explained that while “[t]his was one of the largest corporate frauds in Minnesota history and was also a significant tax fraud,” Cole served a more minor role as, in the court’s judgment, she was “mostly a passive, although legally responsible, participant.” See 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(1). The court focused on Cole’s history and characteristics, emphasizing that she had no prior contact with law enforcement and was “markedly different” than “most of the fraudsters who appear before th[e] Court” in that Cole “is not a consummate fraudster, she is not a pathological liar.” See 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(6). Finally, the district court explained that the probationary sentence would allow Cole to work and earn money to make restitution to the victims of the fraud. See 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(7).
The United States persists in its appeal, contending that the district court improperly based the sentence on Cole’s socioeconomic status, her restitution obligations, and her loss of criminally derived income. However, the facts of Cole’s fall from an industrious and highly successful entrepreneur to convicted felon and the loss of the bulk of her legitimately acquired assets cannot be denied. We find no error in the district court’s reference to these events....
While we do not minimize the seriousness of the crimes perpetrated by Cole and the staggering nature of the fraudulent scheme in which Cole was a participant, the district court here, unlike in Dautovic, has adequately explained the sentence and appropriately considered the section 3553(a) factors in varying downward to a probationary sentence, making “precisely the kind of defendant-specific determinations that are within the special competence of sentencing courts.” Feemster, 572 F.3d at 464 (quotation omitted). For instance, the district court noted that Cole’s role in the offense was mostly as a passive participant and Cole was not the typical white collar defendant the court had observed in similar criminal schemes. We find no error in the weighing of the section 3553(a) factors, and thus the district court did not abuse its substantial discretion in sentencing Cole to probation.
This ruling strikes me a one-in-a-million outcome: I cannot recall another case (out of the nearly million cases that have been sentenced in the federal system since Booker) in which the defendant faced a guideline range of 11 to 14 years and received a sentence of probation. This outcome seems all that much more remarkable given that this huge (and now declared reasonable) variance was in a case in which the defendant did not plead guilty or provide substantial assistance to the government and involved "one of the largest corporate frauds in Minnesota history and was also a significant tax fraud."
Because this Cole case seems remarkable in many ways, and because it likely will be (and should be) cited by nearly every white-collar offender facing federal sentencing in the months and years ahead, it would not shock me if the Justice Department seriously considers pursuing an appeal up to the Supreme Court.
August 29, 2014 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 (7) | TrackBack
Thursday, August 28, 2014
At third federal sentencing, elderly child porn defendant gets one year in prison and lawyer pledges SCOTUS appeal
Regular readers and hard-core federal sentencing fans are familiar with the long-running dispute over the sentencing of child porn downloader Richard Bistline. The latest chapter of this saga, but apparently not the last, unfolded in federal district court yesterday as reported in this Columbus Dispatch article, headlined "Child-porn possessor finally gets harsher sentence: 1 year in prison." Here are excerpts:
A Knox County man at the center of a fight about prison sentences for people convicted of possessing child pornography won’t be out of the spotlight anytime soon. Richard Bistline, 71, was sentenced yesterday to a year and a day in federal prison by U.S. District Judge George C. Smith, who also ordered 10 years of supervised release. Bistline also must register as a sex offender.
Bistline’s attorney, Jonathan T. Tyack, immediately said he will appeal the case in the hope that it eventually will be considered by the U.S. Supreme Court....
It was the third time that Bistline, of Mount Vernon, had been sentenced for his 2009 conviction on one count of possession of child pornography. Sentencing guidelines set Bistline’s prison term at five to six years, although judges have discretion.
His case pingponged from district court to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals twice after federal Judge James Graham refused to sentence Bistline to lengthy prison time. Instead, he sentenced him in 2010 to one day in prison, 30 days of home confinement and 10 years of supervised probation.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Deborah Solove appealed, arguing that prison time was needed, and the 6th Circuit ordered Graham to resentence Bistline. In 2013, Graham ordered the same sentence with three years of home confinement. Solove appealed again, and the 6th Circuit ruled that the sentence still was not adequate.
Graham was removed from the case, paving the way for Smith’s sentence yesterday. “The 6th Circuit has clearly spoken and is requiring me to impose a custodial sentence,” Smith said. “I hope my colleagues and the sentencing commission continue to shed light on these very important policies.” Smith then stayed the sentence and said Bistline could remain out on bond until his appeal is decided.
Tyack had asked Smith to sentence his client to one day in prison and 10 years of supervised probation. “At the end of the day, the Court of Appeals is attempting to dictate to this court what sentence it should impose,” Tyack said. “It’s inappropriate.”
Tyack said he hopes the Supreme Court will arrive at that conclusion in Bistline’s case. “He’s caught up in a legal fight that will ultimately define the boundaries between the court of appeals and district court,” Tyack said.
Bistline, a former Michigan schoolteacher with no criminal record, was arrested after a task force investigating online crimes against children downloaded images of child pornography that had come from Bistline’s home computer. A search of the computer revealed 305 images and 56 videos of children posing naked or involved in sex acts with adults. Solove said Bistline sought out child pornography for more than a year for sexual gratification. She asked for a five-year prison sentence.
Tyack said in court documents in May that “a 71-year-old inmate with Mr. Bistline’s health problems is likely to suffer greater punishment than the average inmate because the Bureau of Prisons often fails to provide adequate or even necessary medical treatment.” Bistline has a pacemaker, high blood pressure and hearing loss, among other medical problems.
Graham has been outspoken about Bistline’s case and about the federal sentencing guidelines for defendants who have been charged with possession of child pornography. He wrote a lengthy law-review article about the case that was published in December, and he has spoken about the guidelines at court hearings for other defendants charged with child-porn possession.
Wednesday, August 27, 2014
"Rebellion: The Courts of Appeals' Latest Anti-Booker Backlash"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new essay about federal sentencing and appellate practices by Alison Siegler available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
For over twenty-five years, federal courts of appeals have rebelled against every Supreme Court mandate that weakens the United States Sentencing Guidelines. Since the Court made the Guidelines advisory in United States v Booker, the rebellion has intensified, with the appellate courts consistently ensuring adherence to the Guidelines by over-policing sentences that fall outside the Guidelines and under-policing within-Guidelines sentences. The courts of appeals are now staging a new revolt, creating appellate rules — carve-outs — that enable them to reject meritorious challenges to within-Guidelines sentences.
Part I describes the previous rebellions. Part II introduces the current rebellion. Part II.A discusses what I term the “stock carve-out,” an appellate rule that violates the sentencing statute and the Sixth Amendment by allowing sentencing judges to ignore mitigating arguments regarding defendants’ personal characteristics. Part II.B discusses the “§ 3553(a)(6) carve-out,” a rule that similarly violates the statute and precedent by allowing sentencing judges to ignore disparity arguments. Part III concludes.
August 27, 2014 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 (3) | TrackBack
Tuesday, August 26, 2014
Though guidelines recommend two years or less, feds request 10-year max for woman who bought guns for killer
An interesting and challenging federal sentencing is scheduled this week in upstate New York, and one of many reasons the case is noteworthy is because federal prosecutors are requesting a statutory maximum sentencing term of 10 years in prison when the applicable guideline recommend only 18 to 24 months for the offense. This recent local article, headlined "U.S. asks for Nguyen to get 10 years," provides the context and details:
Federal prosecutors want a judge to ignore sentencing guidelines and sentence Dawn Nguyen to 10 years in prison. While Nguyen likely did not know that firearms she bought for William Spengler Jr. would be used in an ambush of volunteer firefighters, she did "place two tactical military-style weapons in the capable hands of a man who she knew had already killed his own grandmother," say court papers filed Thursday by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Noto.
Nguyen is scheduled to be sentenced in U.S. District Court on Thursday for her conviction in three federal crimes: lying on a federal firearms transaction when she bought a shotgun and semiautomatic rifle in June 2010; passing those weapons onto a man — Spengler — whom she knew was a convicted felon; and possessing the guns while she was a marijuana user.
The request for a 10-year sentence sets up a rare occurrence in federal court — a decision by a judge as to whether the crimes were so extraordinary that the guidelines should be bypassed. The guidelines, while only advisory, are designed to ensure comparable punishments for comparable crimes. A judge has the discretion in unusual cases to sentence up to the maximum, which for Nguyen is 10 years for each crime.
To make his decision, U.S. District Judge David Larimer will have to weigh the question that has long been central to Nguyen's offenses: Should she be held responsible for the Christmas Eve 2012 violence spree during which Spengler killed his sister and two volunteer firefighters?...
Nguyen has pleaded guilty to the federal crimes. She also was convicted in state Supreme Court of lying on the firearms purchase form when she said the guns were for her. State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Moran sentenced her to 16 months to four years in state prison.
In June 2010, Nguyen and Spengler went to Gander Mountain in Henrietta where she bought the weapons for Spengler, who could not own guns because of his past crimes. On the morning of Christmas Eve 2012, Spengler fatally shot his sister, Cheryl, then started a blaze that largely destroyed his Lake Avenue home and others along the Lake Road strip. He then lay in wait for firefighters, ambushing them with the guns bought by Nguyen. He fatally shot West Webster volunteer firefighters Michael Chiapperini, 43, and Tomasz Kaczowka, 19.
The 10-year sentence "is what the victims have asked for," U.S. Attorney William Hochul Jr. said Friday of the families of the slain firefighters. "It's absolutely critical that the judge keep in mind the chain of events started by Dawn Nguyen," Hochul said.
In a letter to the court, Nguyen, now 25, said that Spengler told her he wanted the guns for hunting, and she did not know enough about guns to find that unusual. She wrote that she knew Spengler had been imprisoned for the death of his grandmother, but she did not know exactly what he had done.
Her attorney, Matthew Parrinello, said Friday that the request by prosecutors for a 10-year sentence is a "media grab."
"She committed a crime and she has already been punished," he said, noting Nguyen's state prison sentence. Parrinello wants Larimer to use the sentencing guidelines, and have the federal sentence run concurrent with her state sentence.
Prosecutors are asking that the federal sentence not be served until after Nguyen completes her state sentence, which would further increase the time she has to spend in prison.
The 25-page sentencing brief submitted by federal prosecutors in this notable case is available at this link and it make for an interesting read.
August 26, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Thursday, July 31, 2014
Sixth Circuit panel finds one-day prison sentence unreasonable for white-collar defendant
The Sixth Circuit today has reinforced its reputation as one of the circuits most likely to declare a below-guideline sentence unreasonable with a unanimous panel ruling in US v. Musgrave, No. 13-3872 (6th Cir. July 31, 2014) (available here). Because post-Booker appellate sentence reversals are rare, this relatively short opinion is a must read for everyone who following federal sentencing law and policy closely. In addition, at a time when debates over white-collar sentencing rules and practices remain hot, all those who follow white-collar crime and punishment will want to be sure to check out this opinion as well.
Here is how the Musgrave opinion starts and finishes:
A jury found Paul Musgrave guilty of one count of conspiracy to commit wire and bank fraud and to make false statements to a financial institution; two counts of wire fraud; and one count of bank fraud. The district court sentenced him to one day of imprisonment with credit for the day of processing — a downward variance from his Guidelines range of 57 to 71 months’ imprisonment and below the government’s recommendation of 30 months’ imprisonment. On appeal, the government asserts that Musgrave’s one-day sentence is substantively unreasonable. For the following reasons, we vacate the district court’s sentence and remand for resentencing....
A defendant’s sentence must reflect the seriousness of the offense, promote respect for the law, and provide just punishment. 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(2). In imposing a sentence, the district court must explain, based on permissible considerations, how its sentence “‘meshe[s] with Congress’s own view of the crimes’ seriousness.’” United States v. Peppel, 707 F.3d 627, 635 (6th Cir. 2013) (quoting United States v. Davis, 537 F.3d 611, 617 (6th Cir. 2008)). The collateral consequences of the defendant’s prosecution and conviction are “impermissible factors” when fashioning a sentence that complies with this directive. Peppel, 707 F.3d at 636. A district court’s reliance on these factors “does nothing to show that [the defendant’s] sentence reflects the seriousness of his offense. Were it otherwise, these sorts of consequences— particularly ones related to a defendant’s humiliation before his community, neighbors, and friends—would tend to support shorter sentences in cases with defendants from privileged backgrounds, who might have more to lose along these lines.” United States v. Bistline, 665 F.3d 758, 765–66 (6th Cir. 2012). Thus, when a district court varies downward on the basis of the collateral consequences of the defendant’s prosecution and conviction, the defendant’s sentence will not reflect the seriousness of the offense, nor will it provide just punishment. See Peppel, 707 F.3d at 636; Bistline, 665 F.3d at 765–66.
Impermissible considerations permeated the district court’s justification for Musgrave’s sentence. In imposing a sentence of one day with credit for the day of processing, the district court relied heavily on the fact that Musgrave had already “been punished extraordinarily” by four years of legal proceedings, legal fees, the likely loss of his CPA license, and felony convictions that would follow him for the rest of his life. “[N]one of these things are [his] sentence. Nor are they consequences of his sentence”; a diminished sentence based on considerations does not reflect the seriousness of his offense or effect just punishment. Bistline, 665 F.3d at 765. On remand, the district court must sentence Musgrave without considering these factors....
In the context of white-collar crime, we have emphasized that “it is hard to see how a one-day sentence” would “serve the goals of societal deterrence.” Davis, 537 F.3d at 617. “‘Because economic and fraud-based crimes are more rational, cool, and calculated than sudden crimes of passion or opportunity, these crimes are prime candidates for general deterrence.’” Peppel, 707 F.3d at 637 (quoting United States v. Martin, 455 F.3d 1227, 1240 (11th Cir. 2006)); see also Davis, 537 F.3d at 617.
Consideration of general deterrence is particularly important where the district court varies substantially from the Guidelines. See, e.g., Aleo, 681 F.3d at 300 (explaining that the greater the variance, the more compelling the justification based on the § 3553(a) factors must be). This is even truer here, given that the crimes of which Musgrave was convicted are especially susceptible to general deterrence and the fact that there is a general policy favoring incarceration for these crimes. Indeed, “[o]ne of the central reasons for creating the sentencing guidelines was to ensure stiffer penalties for white-collar crimes and to eliminate disparities between white-collar sentences and sentences for other crimes.” Davis, 537 F.3d at 617. More importantly, Congress understood white-collar criminals to be deserving of some period of incarceration, as evidenced by its prohibition on probationary sentences in this context. Id. Where a district court’s view of a particular crime’s seriousness appears at odds with that of Congress and the Sentencing Commission, we expect that it will explain how its sentence nevertheless affords adequate general deterrence. Id.; Camiscione, 591 F.3d at 834. The district court failed to do so here.
Musgrave must be resentenced. The district court relied on impermissible considerations and failed to address adequately how what amounted to a non-custodial sentence afforded adequate general deterrence in this context. Nevertheless, it bears repeating that “[w]hile appellate courts retain responsibility for identifying proper and improper sentencing considerations after Booker, it is not our task to impose sentences in the first instance or to second guess the individualized sentencing discretion of the district court when it appropriately relies on the § 3553(a) factors.” Davis, 537 F.3d at 618 (citing United States v. Vonner, 516 F.3d 382, 392 (6th Cir. 2008) (en banc)). The district court’s sentence is vacated, and the case is remanded for the district court, in its discretion, to impose a sentence sufficient but not greater than necessary to serve the § 3553(a) factors.
I view the main message of this Musgrave case, along with other cited cases in which the Sixth Circuit has reversed similar one-day sentences on appeal, that the Sixth Circuit generally believe that at least a short period of incarceration is nearly essential for any serious crime for which the guidelines recommend years of incarceration even if the defendant is a relatively sympathetic first offender not likely to re-offend.
July 31, 2014 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, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
Tuesday, July 22, 2014
Within-guideline sentences remain below 50% according to latest quarterly USSC data
As reported in this post a few months ago, US Sentencing Commission First Quarter FY14 Quarterly Sentencing data included some big news: for the first time, less than half of all federal sentences imposed were technically "within-guideline" sentences. To be exact, in that quarter, only around 49% of the 18,169 sentences imposed were within-guideline sentences.
Today, the USSC released, via this document, its Second Quarter FY14 Quarterly Sentencing data, and it remains the case that a slight majority of federal sentences are being imposed outside the guidelines. But, as Table 4 on this latest data run reveals, this reality is partially a product of the fact that in the second quarter of FY14 there was a record-high percentage of above-guideline sentences (2.5%) and a record-high percentage of government-sponsored below-guideline sentences (28.6%). In this last quarter, notably, there was actually a small downtick in the number of below guideline sentences imposed by federal district judges (from 20.7% of all federal cases down to 20.1%).
As I have said before, I believe all the recent talk about the need for federal sentencing reform is likely finding expression in the way both federal prosecutors and federal judges are now using their sentencing discretion. The data from the last few quarters suggest that, as we hear ever more public policy groups and politicians on both the right and the left echoing AG Eric Holder's call for less reliance on long terms of incarceration, more federal prosecutors and federal judges feel ever more justified in seeking/imposing more sentences below the guidelines.
Thursday, July 17, 2014
Divided en banc Third Circuit announces new approach to preserving procedural sentencing error claims
Yesterday the Third Circuit issued a relatively short en banc ruling in US v. Flores-Mejia, No. 12-3149 (3d Cir. July 16, 2014) (available here), which reverses its previously-articulated approach to how objections to claimed procedural sentencing error must be preserved. Here is how the majority opinion, per Judge Roth, gets started:
Jose Luis Flores-Mejia appeals the sentence imposed on him for his conviction of the offense of reentry after deportation. His appeal raises the issue of what a defendant must do in order to preserve a challenge to the procedural reasonableness of a sentence. At the sentencing hearing, Flores-Mejia made a mitigation argument, based on his cooperation with the government. Flores-Mejia contends that his initial presentation of this argument is sufficient, without more, to preserve his claim that the District Court committed procedural error by failing, when it pronounced sentence, to give meaningful consideration to this argument. The government counters that Flores-Mejia’s failure to object, at a time when the District Court could have promptly addressed it, did not preserve the issue for appeal and leaves his claim subject to plain error review.
We have decided that, to assist the district courts in sentencing, we will develop a new rule which is applicable in those situations in which a party has an objection based upon a procedural error in sentencing but, after that error has become evident, has not stated that objection on the record. We now hold that in such a situation, when a party wishes to take an appeal based on a procedural error at sentencing — such as the court’s failure to meaningfully consider that party’s arguments or to explain one or more aspects of the sentence imposed — that party must object to the procedural error complained of after sentence is imposed in order to avoid plain error review on appeal. Our panel holding in United States v. Sevilla, 541 F.3d 226 (3d Cir. 2008), differs from our holding today and is superseded.
A group of five Third Circuit judges signed on to a spirited dissent authored by Judge Greenaway, and here is how it gets started:
In our system of jurisprudence, we examine our principle, consider the facts and the law and make decisions. The venerable principle of stare decisis requires reexamination not when we come up with a better mouse trap but when there is a principled basis for change. See Arizona v. Rumsey, 467 U.S. 203, 212 (1984) (“[A]ny departure from the doctrine of stare decisis demands special justification.”); Planned Parenthood of Se. Pennsylvania v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833, 854 (1992) (“The obligation to follow precedent begins with necessity, and a contrary necessity marks its outer limit. . . . At the other extreme, a different necessity would make itself felt if a prior judicial ruling should come to be seen so clearly as error that its enforcement was for that very reason doomed.”). Indeed, “the very point of stare decisis is to forbid us from revisiting a debate every time there are reasonable arguments to be made on both sides.” Morrow v. Balaski, 719 F.3d 160, 181 (3d Cir. 2013) (Smith, J., concurring).
Our Court, in a unanimous precedential opinion, adopted a procedure for district courts to follow at sentencing a scant six years ago. See United States v. Sevilla, 541 F.3d 226, 230 (3d Cir. 2008). Now, without intervening Supreme Court precedent and without a majority of our sister courts, we not only reexamine but indeed create a new procedure that flies in the face of Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 51, with no compulsion or mandate to do so.
In its attempt to promote judicial economy, the majority ignores the plain language of Rule 51, misreads the state of the law of our sister circuits, and invokes a fundamental change to our sentencing procedures that is both unwarranted and difficult to square with the Supreme Court’s post-Booker jurisprudence. For this reason, I respectfully dissent.
Friday, July 11, 2014
Second Circuit finds unreasonable probation sentence based on "cost of incarceration"
A helpful reader made sure I did not miss while on the road an interesting Second Circuit opinion in US v. Park, No. 13‐4142 (2d Cir. July 9, 2014) (available here), concerning reasonableness review and a sentenced reduced based on the cost of imprisonment. Here is the heart of one part of the per curiam panel decision:
After a review of the record, we conclude that the District Court committed procedural error in imposing a term of probation in lieu of imprisonment for two reasons. First, the only sentencing factor the District Court deemed relevant was the cost of incarceration to the government and the economic problems allegedly caused by the government shut‐down. As the Court clearly announced, “I am not going to put him in jail only because of the economic plight that we are facing today.” After emphasizing that its sentencing decision was based solely upon this consideration, the Court then rebuffed defense counsel’s suggestion to “supplement the record,” asserting, “[i]f we have to resentence him, we will later.” The Court also stated that if the Court of Appeals were to reverse, it would “consider all of these factors” at resentencing, clearly indicating that it did not consider the relevant factors in the first instance. The Court therefore committed procedural error by refusing to consider the § 3553(a) factors in deciding what is an appropriate sentence.
Second, and equally problematic, is that the cost of incarceration to the government—the Court’s sole justification for imposing a term of probation rather than incarceration — is not a relevant sentencing factor under the applicable statutes. We agree with the Eighth Circuit that, based on the plain language of § 3553(a), no sentencing factor can reasonably be read to encompass the cost of incarceration. Nor does the statute permit the sentencing court to balance the cost of incarceration against the sentencing goals enumerated in § 3553(a).
Park is a must-read for post-Booker sentencing fans because it includes lots of important phrases about both procedural and substantive reasonableness review. The Park opinion also talks up the importance of deterrence in one white-collar sentencing, noting "general deterrence occupies an especially important role in criminal tax offenses, as criminal tax prosecutions are relatively rare."
Sunday, July 06, 2014
Interesting account of guidelines accounting facing former NOLA mayor at upcoming federal sentencing
This lengthy local article, headlined "Emotions aside, Nagin sentence likely to come down to math," effectively reviews some of the guideline (and other) factors likely to impact the federal sentencing of former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin this coming week. Here are excerpts:
Under the rules, Nagin starts with a base “offense level” of 20 because he was an elected official who took multiple bribes but otherwise has no criminal history — facts that, with the jury verdict, are now undisputed.
The other major factors that will add points to his offense level include the financial “loss” the court assigns to his actions, the court’s judgment as to whether he was an “organizer or leader” in “criminal activity” that involved at least five people, and whether Nagin is found to have obstructed justice by lying to investigators and to the court.
There is some gray area in all of these questions. For instance, the monetary loss can be calculated to include not only bribes paid and received, but also the proceeds of any contracts that resulted from bribes. At a minimum, however, Berrigan will almost certainly find that the loss was greater than $200,000, as the jury convicted Nagin of taking more than that amount in bribes. That would bring his offense level to 32, but it could go significantly higher depending on whether Berrigan decides to include the profits of some or all of the contracts Nagin signed....
Experts say the question of financial loss is among the thorniest in calculating guidelines. The amount of bribes paid is an imperfect measure, for contracts awarded on the basis of bribes are presumed to be inflated to cover the cost of the payoffs. At the same time, the contractor usually completes the work outlined in the contract, making it unfair to count the entire value of the contract as a loss. In Nagin’s trial, the government did not present evidence to show that those who bribed Nagin failed to perform....
Other questions are similarly nuanced. If Berrigan finds Nagin obstructed justice by lying to investigators and to the jury, as prosecutors say he did on more than 25 occasions, the offense level would jump another two points. And if she finds he took a leadership role in a scheme involving five or more people, that would add as many as four more points. Though it’s clear that Nagin’s criminal conduct involved more than five people, experts say there may be wiggle room in that question, too....
Depending on how the judge rules on those questions, Nagin’s final offense level could be as low as 32, or as high as 40 or more. Based on those numbers, the guidelines would call for a sentence ranging from 10 years at the low end to as much as 30 years or even life. A filing by Nagin’s lawyer, Robert Jenkins, suggests that probation officers came up with an offense level of 38, which translates to a range of 20 to 24 years.
Jenkins asked Berrigan to consider a downward departure from that figure based on Nagin’s lack of a criminal history and an argument that the crimes of which he was convicted constituted “aberrant” behavior for an otherwise upstanding citizen. But prosecutor Matt Coman argued in an opposing motion that the guidelines already take into account the mayor’s unblemished past, which they do. Meanwhile, Coman said it was laughable to consider Nagin’s criminal conduct as an aberration, considering that he was convicted of multiple bribery and fraud schemes that unfolded over a period of years....
Apart from applying her own analysis of the guidelines, Berrigan also has some ability to go outside the recommended range, experts said. She could grant a “downward variance” on some basis she deems appropriate, provided that she explains it and the variance is not too great. Federal law spells out a number of factors a judge may consider, from the need to protect the public from further crimes to the deterrent effect of the sentence.
Thursday, June 26, 2014
Effective review of debate over federal fraud guidelines in preview of another high-profile insider trading sentencing
Newsweek has this lengthy and effective new article on federal fraud sentencing, headlined "Nonsensical Sentences for White Collar Criminals," which seems prompted in part by the upcoming sentencing of hedge fund trader Mathew Martoma of SAC Capital Advisors LP following his conviction of insider trading. Here are a few excerpts:
[A]s the government’s probation department recommends a sentence [for Martoma] that would be the longest ever for insider trading — anywhere from 15 to 20 years — U.S. judges, federal public defenders, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the U.S. Department of Justice and the American Bar Association are increasingly calling into question the nation’s sentencing guidelines, which, in the words of one federal judge, “are just too goddamn severe.”...
The biggest quibble judges have with white-collar sentencing guidelines is the fact that prison terms are heavily weighted toward how much money is made or lost on a financial crime, regardless of the circumstances of the offense, whether it is insider trading, embezzlement, a Ponzi scheme or some other type of financial fraud....
The problem, says federal Judge John Gleeson, who represents the Eastern District of New York City, has built up over time, as congressional directives and statutes—often pushed by public pressure to treat offenders more aggressively and rigorously—have acted as what he calls a “one-way ratchet,” boosting the austerity and length of sentences ever higher....
The concerns come at a time when insider-trading cases — a subsection of the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s broader financial fraud category — have nearly tripled over the past three years (2011 to 2013), compared with the prior three years (2008 to 2010), according to commission data.
In sum, insider-trading cases are on the rise, with the money involved and the prison sentences growing even as judges continue to abandon federal sentencing guidelines to minimize sentences they believe to be too punitive. Sentences are “diverging, that’s for sure, and, to some extent, that reflects an absence of respect for the guidelines,” Gleeson says.
Sunday, June 01, 2014
Could video kill the sentencing brief?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable Wall Street Journal article headlined "Leniency Videos Make a Showing at Criminal Sentencings: Some Lawyers Supplement Letters of Support With Mini-Documentaries; Effectiveness Is Debated." Here are excerpts:
Randy Ray Rivera, formerly of Springfield, Mass., and now a resident of the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, is the subject of a documentary film that was made for a very limited audience: the federal district judge who held Mr. Rivera's fate in his hands.
It tells the story of a young man who began dealing drugs as a teenager to support his siblings and his heroin-addict mother, who died of AIDS in 2004. The 26-minute video includes emotional interviews with Mr. Rivera's brothers and sisters, daughters and son, current and ex-girlfriends and a social worker, as well as with Mr. Rivera himself, in white-and-gray prison garb.
Such films, while rare, have caught on in some federal public defenders' offices. Now, some private lawyers and investigators are attempting to unlock the potential of video in the sentencing phase of criminal cases, supplementing the memorandum and letters of support that are typically used to plead for leniency.
"The sentences are almost always better than they would otherwise be," said Doug Passon, a veteran assistant federal public defender in Arizona who is considered by his peers to be a pioneer of so-called sentencing-mitigation videos. For the past five years, he has held a sentencing film festival at an annual training conference for federal public defenders....
Judge William Sessions III, who sits on the federal district court in Vermont, gave Mr. Rivera 12 years in prison, after viewing the video Mr. Rivera's legal team put together. It captures the rundown buildings in Springfield that Mr. Rivera's family occupied, sometimes as squatters. At one point, Mr. Rivera's teenage daughter, through tears, calls him "one of the best dads ever."
Judge Sessions, speaking generally about sentencing videos, said, "When you have a video of either a defendant's life or a victim's life, it provides context for that life." But he said videos weren't a substitute for a good legal argument in a sentencing memorandum. "They are supplementary," he said....
Proponents say the videos fall within the scope of a federal rule that allows people convicted of a crime to "speak or present any information to mitigate the sentence" to the courts. But some courts have rejected sentencing videos, after prosecutors protested they weren't given an opportunity to question the witnesses who appeared in the videos, investigators said.
While investigators and lawyers say such videos are used in a small fraction of the tens of thousands of federal cases that end in a criminal sentence each year, the word appears to be slowly spreading. Susan Randall, a former documentary filmmaker who now works as a private investigator in Vermont, said she has created more than 20 sentencing videos for a range of white-collar and drug defendants, including Mr. Rivera....
Katrina Daniel, a former television news reporter who covered crime, started her own production company in 2012 and has made about 10 sentencing videos, charging anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000.Some are simply interviews with the defendants, while others draw on family, friends, co-workers and others. Ms. Daniel said she tries to convey the defendant's remorse and acceptance of responsibility.
Mr. Passon said he got the idea for sentencing videos from an attorney he clerked for in 1995, while he was law student at Washington University in St. Louis. They were representing a man charged with a drug crime whose wife was dying of lupus, and the defendant was her sole caretaker. "We were trying to show how desperately he was needed at home," Mr. Passon said. They went to the client's home with a clunky, tape-fed video camera and recorded the man as he cared for his wife. "It was very, very powerful," said Mr. Passon.
Pop culture fans will know that the title of this post is a bit of an homage to the very first video ever played on MTV and a song which may be my all-time favorite one-hit wonder. And long-time readers will know I cannot resist this excuse for a mini-song parody based on the start of the lyrics to Video Killed the Radio Star:
I heard you sold some drugs back in '92
Bad criminal intent will keep haunting you
Your criminal history points keep coming through
You now get credit for singing like a symphony
And will be helped by machine on new technology
And now I understand the post-Booker scene
We met your children
What will we show them?
Video killed the sentencing brief
Video killed the sentencing brief
Pictures came and eclipse my words,
We can't mitigate down too far
Friday, May 16, 2014
Federal judge splits the difference in sentencing former SAC money manager to 3.5 years
As reported in this Wall Street Journal article, a federal district judge in a high-profile white-collar sentencing today imposed a prison term roughly half-way between what federal prosecutors and the defense sought. Here are the basics:
A federal judge sentenced former SAC Capital Advisors LP portfolio manager Michael Steinberg to three and a half years in prison Friday, saying he hoped Wall Street would learn from this case. The term was well below what prosecutors had sought.
U.S. District Judge Richard Sullivan called the former senior SAC employee "a basically good man," citing evidence of his character supplied in 68 letters sent by his family and friends. But he also pointed to the seriousness of Mr. Steinberg's insider trading. "They are crimes that go to the heart of living in an honest society and having a market system," he said during a hearing in Manhattan federal court. Wall Street, he hoped, would "derive lessons."
Mr. Steinberg, 42 years old, is SAC's most senior former employee to be convicted of insider trading. Prosecutors had asked for a sentence of 5¼ to 6½ years to send a strong deterrent message to the market. Mr. Steinberg's lawyers had requested less than half that amount.
Mr. Steinberg was convicted in December on four counts of securities fraud and one count of conspiracy for trading on confidential information, handing prosecutors the first verdict from a federal jury to back up their allegations that there was insider trading at SAC. There is a chance Friday's sentence won't stick. A pending appeal in a related insider-trading case could bolster Mr. Steinberg's chances to overturn his conviction.
Wednesday, May 14, 2014
"Federal Judges Are Cutting Rich Tax Cheats Big Sentencing Breaks"
The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy and interesting new piece at Forbes by Janet Novack. Here are excerpts:
Increasingly, federal judges are going easy on tax cheats, or at least easier than the U.S. Sentencing Commission’ s guidelines say they should. The trend has been quietly building since 2007, but was given a high profile Forbes 400 face in January when a Chicago federal judge let billionaire H. Ty Warner off with probation for hiding as much as $106 million in UBS AG and a smaller Swiss bank for more than a decade and evading at least $5.5 million in tax on his secret accounts. According to the sentencing guidelines, the 69-year-old Warner, who made his fortune by creating Beanie Babies, should have gotten 46 to 57 months in the federal pen. Prosecutors have appealed Warner’s sentence, asserting, among other things, that the judge was unreasonably impressed by his “not so extraordinary” charity and by gushing letters from employees, and business associates....
[I]n 2005, the Supreme Court ruled in U.S. v Booker that the guidelines were merely advisory. Subsequent Supreme Court and appellate decisions have made it clear that trial judges have broad discretion to depart from the guidelines and will only be overturned if they’ve failed to properly consider the guidelines or their decision is clearly unreasonable. “Once they make the noises about calculating the guidelines, they can come up with their own numbers, and they can base it on anything they want,” says Scott A. Schumacher, a professor at University of Washington Law School who has written a new paper on tax-sentencing post-Booker that is being published in the Villanova Law Review. While the percentage of all sentences that fall within the guidelines has steadily declined since Booker, the change in tax sentences has been particularly dramatic, he adds.
For example, in fiscal 2013, judges gave below guideline sentences, without buy-in from prosecutors, to 45% of those sentenced for tax crimes, but just 28% of those sentenced for embezzlement; 26% of those sentenced for fraud; and 22% of those sentenced for forgery or counterfeiting. (Another 20% of tax offenders got sentence reductions which prosecutors sponsored, usually as a reward for providing “substantial assistance” to the government.)
While the light sentencing of some offshore cheats has gotten attention, the larger leniency-for-tax crimes trend has been mostly obscured by Internal Revenue Service reports, which show the average prison term for “tax and tax related crimes” rising from 21 months in 2004 to 31 months in 2013. The IRS numbers, however, are skewed by the long prison sentences (some more than 10 years) being meted out to those convicted in the recent epidemic of identity theft refund fraud — a crime Kathryn Keneally, U.S. Assistant Attorney General for the Tax Division described at an American Bar Association Tax Section meeting last week as “more like street crime.”
The Sentencing Commission’s statistics, by contrast, count only pure tax crimes and not those in which identity theft, public corruption, drug dealing or some other charge is considered the primary offense and tax evasion is thrown in. By the USSC’s figuring, the average sentence for a tax convict last year was just 14 months, with a median of 12 months. In those cases where sentencing judges handed out a downward departure citing the Booker decision, the commission’s data shows, the median sentence was cut by 78.5%; in such cases the most lenient within-guideline sentence would have been a median of 16 months and the lucky convicts got a median sentence of just four months. (A side benefit: such short sentences can be served in community facilities, instead of the federal pen.)
Surprisingly, the average sentence for tax crimes hasn’t changed much, even as the percentage of tax cheats getting a sentencing break has risen. The likely explanation is found in the way the sentencing guidelines work, ratcheting up prison terms as the amount of tax the government was cheated out of rises. As prosecutors have focused more on wealthier tax cheats and bigger dollar cases involving both onshore and offshore evasion, the sentences tax offenders are supposed to get have risen too. Last Friday, for example, a federal judge sentenced Patricia Hough, a 67-year-old Fort Myers, Fla. psychiatrist, to 24 months in jail. That might sound like a lot, except her guideline sentence was 80 to 100 months....
These days, sentencing judges routinely give lip service to that need for general deterrence, but still seem sympathetic to the argument that by being prosecuted, individual defendants have already suffered more than their chiseling peers. In offshore cases, defendants’ lawyers never fail to point out that tens of thousands of people (the last count released by the IRS was, 43,000) with undeclared foreign accounts have escaped prosecution through the Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program....
Sentencing judges also tend to be sympathetic to other arguments typically made by wealthy and successful convicts: that they have given a lot to charity; have already been publicly humiliated; have paid heavy fines (in Warner’s case a $53 million penalty for failing to file required reports of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts ); and even that they are simply too valuable as either job creators or community volunteers to be sitting in jail. Chicago Federal District Court Judge Charles P. Kocoras, before giving Warner probation, cited all those considerations....
[S]ince the Supreme Court’s Booker decision, only one tax sentence has been reversed on appeal. In that case a sentencing judge gave probation to Frederick L. Engle, who had evaded his taxes for 16 years using shell corporations. According to sentencing guidelines, he should have gotten 24 to 30 months. The sentencing judge’s stated reason for the leniency was that Engle, a high earning sales rep for shoemaker Nine West who had relationships with Wal-Mart, Target and J.C. Penny, would be able to earn good money to pay back the IRS if he was kept out of jail and allowed to travel abroad.
In overturning the sentence, a three judge panel of Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals wrote: “Reduced to its essence, the district court’s approach means that rich tax-evaders will avoid prison, but poor tax-evader will almost certainly go to jail. Such an approach, where prison or probation depends on the defendant’s economic status, is impermissible.”
After Engle failed to appear for his new sentencing hearing and continued to evade tax, he was sentenced in absentia to 60 months in jail. When U.S. Marshals caught up with him, he got an additional year for failure to appear. Now 73, Engle is serving his time at the Butner, N.C. federal correctional institution and is not scheduled for release until October 2015.
Wednesday, May 07, 2014
Elderly coke dealer, on his 90th birthday, gets 3-year prison sentence
As reported in this local piece, headlined "90-Year-Old Drug Mule Sentenced To 3 Years For Part In Major Drug Scheme," a unique drug dealer got a pretty standard drug sentence in federal court in Michigan today. Here are the details:
Leo Sharp learned that he would spend three years in federal prison for his role in a major drug operation in which prosecutors say Sharp transported more than 2,000 pounds of cocaine to across the country before being caught in Michigan. Sharp was running bricks of cocaine from Tucson, Arizona, to Detroit when he was pulled over near Chelsea, 60 miles west of Detroit, after making a bad lane change in 2011.
Outside the courthouse Sharp cried that he was “heartbroken” and didn’t feel that his age had anything to do with the length of his prison sentence. When a state trooper approached, Sharp was upset and declared, “Just kill me and let me leave this planet.”...
Prosecutors were recommending a five-year prison sentence — urging the judge to look beyond Sharp’s age and health issues and lock him up for delivering more than a ton of cocaine. Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Graveline, noted that there’s video of Sharp — known as “grandpa” and “old man” — joking and laughing with others charged in the drug conspiracy.
Graveline said Sharp received at least $1.25 million from his handlers for hauling more than 2,750 pounds of cocaine to Michigan from the Southwest in 2010 and 2011. He’s one of 19 people under indictment in a case connected to Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel. Graveline said the cartel “literally flooded the streets of southeast Michigan and Fort Wayne, Indiana, with kilograms of cocaine.”
Sharp, of Michigan City, Indiana, had hoped to stay out of prison. Defense attorney Darryl Goldberg said Sharp has dementia and other issues, and would be a burden for the prison system. “Of course I respectfully disagree with the judge’s sentence but she is a very experienced jurist and I hope that Leo can survive the sentence,” said Goldberg....
During sentencing Judge Nancy Edmunds said Sharp was in the middle of a huge operation and transported cocaine six different times and was paid more than a million dollars.
Recent related post:
- You be the federal sentencing judge: what prison term for massive drug courier ... who is a 90-year-old WWII vet?
Within-guideline sentences dip below 50% according to latest USSC data
Due to a busy end-of-the-semester schedule, I only just this week got a chance to look at US Sentencing Commission's posting here of its First Quarter FY14 Quarterly Sentencing data. And, as the title of this post highlights, there is big news in these USSC data: for the first time, less than half of all federal sentences imposed were technically "within-guideline" sentences. To be exact, only 48.8% of the 18,169 sentences imposed during the last three months of 2013 were within-guideline sentences.
In this post following the previous quarterly USSC data release, I noted a small uptick in the number of below guideline sentences imposed by federal district judges (from around 18.5% of all federal cases to 19.3% in the last quarter of FY13). At that time, I hypothesized that perhaps a few more judges were willing to impose below-guideline sentences in a few more federal cases after Attorney General Eric Holder's big August 2013 speech to the ABA lamenting excessive use of incarceration in the United States. Now, in this latest quarterly data run, the number of judge-initiated, below-guideline sentences has ticked up again, this time to 20.4% of all sentenced federal cases. I now this this data blip is evidence of a real "Holder effect."
Though still more time and data are needed before firm causal conclusions should be reached here, I do believe all the recent talk about the need for federal sentencing reform is likely finding expression in the way federal judges are now using their post-Booker discretion. The data from the last six month suggest that, as we hear ever more public policy groups and politicians on both the right and the left echoing AG Holder's call for less reliance on long terms of incarceration, more federal judges feel ever more justified in imposing more sentences below the guidelines.
Monday, April 28, 2014
Feds in NYC corruption sentencing argue 105 and 80 years necessary for white-collar defendants
An interesting white-collar sentencing scheduled for today in Manhattan is previewed in this New York Times article last week which ran under the headline "Decades in Prison Sought for CityTime Scheme." Here are the details that prompt the title of this post:
Federal prosecutors in Manhattan have asked a judge to impose sentences of 105 years, 80 years and up to 40 years on three men who the government has said became “unbelievably rich” in connection with New York City’s scandal-marred payroll modernization project known as CityTime.
The three men were convicted in a federal corruption trial last fall in Federal District Court and are scheduled to be sentenced on Monday. T he cost of the CityTime project was originally budgeted at $63 million but exploded to about $700 million, with almost all of the more than $600 million that New York City paid to its prime contractor, Science Applications International Corporation, or S.A.I.C., tainted by fraud, a federal indictment charged.
“The CityTime fraud, kickback and money laundering scheme that these defendants orchestrated, managed and operated represents one of the worst, if not the worst, financial crimes against the city,” the office of Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan, said in a memo filed on Sunday night recommending the sentences, which it said were appropriate under the advisory sentencing guidelines. “The need for general deterrence supports severe sentences in this case,” the office added.
The government asked the judge, George B. Daniels, to sentence Gerard Denault, 52, who was S.A.I.C.’s project manager on CityTime, to 105 years in prison. “He used his significant talents to abuse his executive position at S.A.I.C. to an extreme degree,” two prosecutors, Howard S. Master and Andrew D. Goldstein, wrote. “Testimony at trial from witness after witness reflected that he used his power and his intellect to intimidate and sideline anyone at S.A.I.C who stood in the way of his criminal scheme.”
Mr. Denault’s lawyer, Barry A. Bohrer, said his only comment on the government’s request was “not one that is printable.” He has requested a five-year sentence for his client.
Mr. Bharara’s office said in the memo that another defendant, Mark Mazer, 50, a former consultant to the city’s Office of Payroll Administration, had “abused his power as the city’s project manager to line his own pockets to a breathtaking degree rarely seen in any fraud or kickback case,” taking about $30 million over five years. The prosecutors’ office asked that he be sentenced to 80 years.
Mr. Mazer’s lawyer, Gerald L. Shargel, who is seeking a five-year sentence for his client, said in a phone interview on Monday that it was the government’s request that was “breathtaking,” and that such sentences “should be reserved for the worst offenders among us.” Mr. Shargel said that the large amounts of money in the case had helped to inflate the recommended sentences. “Just because the guidelines give the prosecutors the authority to argue for this sentence, it doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing to do,” Mr. Shargel said. “What do you give a murderer — 160 years?”
Without knowing all the facts of these cases, I cannot comment on whether these fraud defendants are really among the truly "worst of the worst" of white-collar criminals. But I can comment that federal prosecutors, at least in this case, seem to not be really committed to helping the district judge here determine what sentence would truly be "sufficient but not greater than necessary" to achieve federal sentencing goals under 18 USC 3553(a).
Given that it would be remarkable if the defendants here would be able to live even half as many years in prison as the prosecutors are urging, it is obviously ludicrous to assert that a 105-year sentence is not greater than necessary for a 52-year-old defendant. But it seems that a representative of the US government is going to stand up in to federal court today and make such a ludicrous sentencing claim.
UPDATE: The headline of this AP article about the now-completed sentencings in this matter reports the basic outcome: "NYC payroll scandal defendants each get 20 years."
Friday, March 28, 2014
Federal judge robustly defends drug guidelines ... after robustly varying from them
Thanks to this post by Paul Cassell over at The Volokh Conspiracy, titled "Are the federal sentencing guidelines for drug dealing unduly harsh?", I have had a chance to see and read a remarkable 70+-page opinion by US District Judge James Browning in US v. Reyes, CR 12-1695 (D.N.M. March 2014) (available here). For any and everyone concerned about federal (or even state) sentencing for drug offenses, this opinion is a must-read. Reyes also provides a remarkable case-specific window into the modern drug trade and the persons who get caught up within it. And the validity and role of various uses of judicial discretion after Booker also is front-and-center in this opinion.
I am going to make all my sentencing students read this opinion, and this openning to the opinion helps highlight why it covers so many important issues:
THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Defendant Kayla Marie Reyes’ Sentencing Memorandum and Motion for a Downward Variance, filed March 21, 2013 (Doc. 45)(“Sentencing Memorandum”). The Court held a sentencing hearing on January 6, 2014. The primary issues are: (i) whether the Court will vary downward to a sentence of 15 months to reflect Defendant Kayla Marie Reyes’ comparatively minimal involvement in an overall drug conspiracy; (ii) whether the Court should vary from the advisory guideline range because of a substantive disagreement, under Kimbrough v. United States, 552 U.S. 85 (2007), with the United States Sentencing Commission’s Guideline ranges for drug trafficking violations, as did the Honorable John Gleeson, District Judge for the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, in United States v. Diaz, No. 11-CR-00821-2, 2013 WL 322243 (E.D.N.Y. Jan. 28, 2013); and (iii) whether the Court should consider the costs of incarceration and supervised release in sentencing.
The Court will vary downward, but not as much as Reyes requests: it will vary to a sentence of 30 months, which the Court concludes best reflects the factors that Congress laid out in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).
The Court concludes that Judge Gleeson’s criticisms of the Commission’s Guideline ranges for drug trafficking lack a sound basis. Accordingly, the Court will not adopt his substantive disagreement under Kimbrough v. United States with the Commission’s Guideline for drug trafficking offenses. The Court varies for reasons tied to the factors in § 3553(a) and to Reyes’ individual circumstances, and not because of a substantive disagreement with the Commission’s ranges for drug trafficking. Finally, the Court will not consider the costs of incarceration and supervised release in sentencing, because the factors in § 3553(a) do not clearly permit the Court to consider costs, and because those concerned about the fiscal implications of criminal justice policy should petition the other branches of government and should not ask the Court to consider such implications in sentencing an individual defendant.
As this introduction hints, I could readily write a few dozen blog posts about this Reyes opinion (and might do a few more in the weeks ahead). But my most fundamental insight about the opinion appears in the title to this post: Judge Browning makes a very forceful argument in support of the federal drug sentencing guidelines, but he is doing so in a case in which he concludes that they should not be followed. If Judge Browning really thinks these guidelines are so sound, I do not quite understand why he feels it necessary (or even legally appropriate) to vary from them.
Thursday, February 27, 2014
Federal judge rejects as too lenient plea deal for Illinois state judge guilty of drug and gun charges
This local sentencing story from Illinois is notable both for its participants and as a rare example of a federal judge rejecting a plea deal in a drug case for calling for a sentence deemed too low. The article is headlined "Judge rejects plea deal for former St. Clair County judge in drug case," and here are just some of the interesting particulars:
A federal judge refused Wednesday to accept terms of a plea agreement that would have sent former St. Clair County judge Michael N. Cook to prison for 18 months on drug-related charges. U.S. District Judge Joe Billy McDade called the sentence “not sufficient” and said the facts of the case supported a longer sentence. But McDade also said that he would not “throw the book at him” just because Cook was a judge. He did not suggest what an appropriate sentence would be.
McDade gave Cook and prosecutors until March 19 to try to strike a new deal. On March 28, Cook is again scheduled to be in court — either to be sentenced on a new agreement or have a date set for trial....
Cook’s plea deal Nov. 8 to a misdemeanor charge of heroin possession and a felony charge of being a drug user in possession of a firearm was made under an unusual provision. It carried an agreed-upon penalty that took the sentencing discretion away from McDade. His only option was to accept or reject the deal. In January, McDade filed an order warning both sides that he disagreed with a pre-sentence report that said there were no reasons to go above sentencing guidelines, which called for six months or less behind bars.
McDade wrote that Cook’s status as a judge, his longtime drug use and the disruption of governmental functions were reasons to go higher. He also ordered a supplemental report on how Cook’s actions may have affected cases in front of him, and whether it had affected public confidence in the judicial system.
Cook resigned after exposure of a drug scandal that cost the life of Associate Judge Joseph Christ, who died of a cocaine overdose March 10 in the Cook family hunting lodge in Pike County, Ill., about 65 miles northwest of St. Louis. The scandal also ensnared former probation worker James K. Fogarty and others. Cook, of Belleville, admitted at his guilty plea that he was a heroin addict. After his arrest in May outside of the house of his heroin dealer, Sean McGilvery, he entered an intensive in-patient treatment facility.
But authorities were investigating rumors of Cook’s drug use long before Christ’s death. Search warrant affidavits released since the guilty pleas accuse Cook of abusing a variety of illegal and prescription drugs. One confidential informer claimed in 2012 that Cook had used drugs for a decade. The affidavits also show frequent and familiar contact between McGilvery and both Cook and Christ....
Cook and McGilvery were arrested May 22. Fogarty was charged May 24. McGilvery is serving a 10-year prison term on charges of conspiracy to distribute, and possession with intent to distribute, more than a kilogram of heroin. Fogarty is scheduled to be sentenced Thursday and faces a five-year term on charges of intent to distribute cocaine and being a drug user in possession of a firearm. He admitted selling drugs to both Cook and Christ. His sentence could be affected if he can be explicitly linked to Christ’s death.
Cook is the son of Bruce Cook, of Belleville, a well-known personal injury lawyer and major behind-the-scenes player in local and national Democratic Party politics. Cook was an assistant public defender and former member of his father’s practice. He was selected as an associate judge in 2007, appointed to a vacancy to be a circuit judge in 2010 and elected to a six-year term, as a Democrat, later that year.
Two men convicted in front of Cook of murder have won retrials after raising concerns about the judge’s drug connections, and some other criminal defendants who appeared before him have been allowed to withdraw guilty pleas.
Monday, February 24, 2014
You be the federal sentencing judge: "tough call" in sentencing former police chief
The title of this post is drawn from the headline of this notable local story about tomorrow's scheduled federal sentencing for Pittsburgh's former police chief. The piece is headlined "Former Pittsburgh police chief's sentencing a tough call for judge Ex-chief Nate Harper's sentencing 'difficult'." Because I am never quite sure whether I think a law-enforcement background justifies a harsher or lighter sentence, I am very interested in hearing reader instincts about what might be a fitting federal punishment for this former cop. Here are some of the details the federal judge must consider in this case:
When former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik -- who once ran the Big Apple lockup Rikers Island -- walked into a federal penitentiary as a prisoner in 2010, it was, he said, like "dying with your eyes open."...
At the Federal Correctional Institution Cumberland, in Maryland, where he served his sentence, he lived among the kinds of people he spent his life locking up. That's what former Pittsburgh police chief Nate Harper could face following his sentencing, set for Tuesday.
Mr. Harper's fate is in the hands of U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon, who rose to that post in late 2011 after three years as a magistrate judge. She faces a decision in which she must weigh Mr. Harper's history, his precise role in the conspiracy to commit theft and the importance of deterring others from similar dips into the public cookie jar.
Though federal guidelines suggest a sentence of 1.5 to two years, she can go as low as probation or as high as five years. "It comes down to a very difficult call for a judge," said Bruce Antkowiak, a former federal prosecutor and now a law professor at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe. "The strongest cards [Mr. Harper's attorneys] have to play are his history with the department, the decades of work he has put in, the numbers of other people from law enforcement who evidently respect him."
Those same factors, though, could count against him. "Either you think this is a fundamentally decent guy who did something wrong, or you think this is a public official who should be held to another standard," said Wesley Oliver, the Criminal Justice Program director at the Duquesne University School of Law.
Mr. Harper could argue that his lawman background puts him at risk in prison. The U.S. Supreme Court found in the case of police sergeant Stacey Koon, sentenced to prison in the beating of Los Angeles motorist Rodney King, that judges can give lighter sentences to defendants who are "unusually susceptible to prison abuse."
In the recent case of former corrections officer Arii Metz, though, prosecutors countered that argument by showing that the federal prisons already house many former police in relative security. As of last month, there were 1,269 former law enforcement officials in federal custody, according to the Bureau of Prisons. "There are guys who are going to hate him because he was a cop," Mr. Kerik said. "There are going to be guys who are going to respect him because he was a cop."
Mr. Harper pleaded guilty in October, confirming that he failed to file tax returns for four years and diverted $70,629 in public funds into an unauthorized credit union account and spending $31,987 on himself. The prosecution has maintained that Mr. Harper told two civilian subordinates to open and handle the account, making him a supervisor in the conspiracy, and subject to a harsher sentence.
The defense has countered that Mr. Harper had no co-conspirators, but also that the unauthorized account wasn't his idea. They haven't yet named the alleged mastermind. "The government's response is going to be: Who cares?" Mr. Antkowiak said. "When you admit that you told two city employees to open these accounts and draw the Visa cards on them, you're a supervisor" of the crime....
Two defendants -- both of whom were given credit for cooperation -- publicly blamed Mr. Harper for a separate bid-rigging scheme in hearings before Judge Bissoon. The former chief has never been charged in relation to the incident, a contract won by Alpha Outfitters -- a company controlled by the chief's long-time friend -- to install and maintain computers and radios in police cars.
The judge shouldn't give much weight to their accusations, Mr. Oliver said, though he noted that the charge "tends to tear down the narrative that the defendant is trying to tell" about a good man with a bad debit card.
With the eyes of the public, and especially of law enforcement, on the case, the judge may carefully weigh the deterrent effect of the sentence. "Look, one of the things a judge always considers is what kind of message [she's] sending with this sentence," said John Burkoff, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. " 'What's the message I'll be sending to police officers who may be tempted to do something bad if I'm lenient?' "
Mr. Kerik, now an advocate for sentencing reform, suggested that the message has already been sent. It could be amplified, he said, if the judge gives Mr. Harper probation but orders him to speak to police recruit classes about his crime and punishment. "They're going to take his pension," Mr. Kerik said. "You've taken his reputation. He's now a convicted felon. He's going to have legal fees he'll have to pay for. That guy has been destroyed."
UPDATE: This local report details the sentencing outcome in its headline: "Former Pittsburgh chief Harper gets 18-month prison sentence."
February 24, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack
Friday, February 21, 2014
Notable New Yorker piece reporting on forthcoming federal judicial sentencing patterns
A helpful reader altered me to this notable new piece about sentencing policies and practices from The New Yorker authored by Columbia Law Prof Tim Wu. The full piece ends by stressing one concern I often express about the challenge of using mandatory sentencing laws to try to deal with concerns about judicial sentencing disparity — namely "that they tend to increase the power that prosecutors have over sentencing, and prosecutors, if anything, vary even more than judges." But the piece caught my attention late on a Friday afternoon mostly because of this discussion of some notable forthcoming research on modern federal sentencing patterns:
Sentencing decisions change lives forever, and, for that reason and others, they’re hard to make. It is often suspected that different judges sentence differently, and we now have a better idea of this. A giant, forthcoming study of the federal judiciary reveals clear patterns: Democrats and women are slightly more lenient. Where you’re sentenced matters even more. Judges in the South are harsher; in the Northeast and on the West Coast, they are more easygoing.
The study’s author is Crystal Yang, a fellow at the University of Chicago Law School, who based it on data from more than six hundred thousand convicted defendants between 2000 and 2009. (Impressively, in certain ways her study exceeds the work of the United States Sentencing Commission.) She writes, “Female judges sentenced observably similar defendants to approximately 1.7 months less than their male colleagues.” In addition, judges appointed by a Democratic President were 2.2 per cent more likely to exercise leniency. Regional effects are more challenging to measure, because, for example, the kinds of crime that happen in New York might differ from those in Texas. But recent data suggest that, controlling for cases and defendant types, “there is substantial variation in the sentence that a defendant would receive depending on the district court in which he is sentenced” — as much as eleven months, on average. The results are all statistically significant, according to Yang — and, if the differences sound relatively small, it is also important to remember that what she is measuring are average differences. In straightforward cases, judges may be more likely to issue similar rulings. It’s the hard cases where judges vary. In a case on the edge, the identity of your judge might make an important difference.
Of course, all sophisticated federal sentencing practitioners know that in all cases, not just those "on the edge," the "identity of your judge might make an important difference." And I regularly tell law students that every federal defendant ought to realize from the moment he or she is subject to a federal investigation, in all cases, not just those "on the edge," the identity of the prosecutor and probation officer and defense attorney also "might make an important difference." Consequently, I am not sure Crystal Yang's "giant, forthcoming study of the federal judiciary" is likely to tell us a lot that we do not already suspect or know.
That all said, I am already jazzed to hear a lot more about what Crystal Yang has collected and analyzed concerning the federal sentencing of "more than six hundred thousand convicted defendants between 2000 and 2009"! That is a whole lot of data, and it spans a remarkable decade in federal sentencing developments which included the passage of the PROTECT Act and the transformation of federal sentencing law and practices wrought by Blakely and Booker and its progeny.
UPDATE: After doing a little research, I think I discovered that an updated version of Crystal Yang's research discussed above is now available here at SSRN, and is soon to be published in the New York University Law Review.