Monday, August 17, 2015
"Does the Calculation Matter? The Federal Sentencing Guidelines and the Doctrine of Alternate Variance Sentences"
The title of this post is the title of this notable federal sentencing paper available via SSRN authored by James Harlow. Here is the abstract:
The Federal Sentencing Guidelines play a central role in the sentencing of federal criminal defendants. A decade ago, in United States v. Booker, the Supreme Court undercut the original purpose for the Guidelines — to bring binding structure to a previously discretionary sentencing scheme — by declaring that the Guidelines were advisory only.
Even though advisory, the Guidelines remain at the procedural heart of the sentencing process and provide “the framework for sentencing.” All sentencing proceedings in the district court begin with the proper calculation of the advisory Guidelines range. Similarly, on review, the courts of appeals initially determine whether the sentencing process was free of procedural errors, including whether the advisory Guidelines range was correctly calculated.
However, the Guidelines are no longer the beginning and end of a sentencing hearing. A defendant’s advisory Guidelines range is but one of several important factors enumerated in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) that a sentencing court must consider. In a case when other, non-Guidelines considerations clearly steered the sentencing court’s discretion, should it matter whether the advisory Guidelines range was correctly calculated in the first place?
This Article examines the Fourth Circuit’s emergent and evolving doctrine of alternate variance sentences. Under this doctrine, a sentence will not be vacated even if the sentencing court may have erred when calculating the advisory Guidelines range. If it is clear from the record that an advisory Guidelines issue did not influence the ultimate sentence, the appellate panel will assume any Guidelines errors are harmless and proceed to evaluate whether the sentence is substantively reasonable. The doctrine's increasingly frequent application has a significant impact on all actors in the federal criminal sentencing process — prosecutors, defense counsel, defendants, and judges. Moreover, the doctrine implicates important debates about the meaning and effect of the Guidelines after Booker, the distribution of power between district and appellate judges in sentencing, and judicial efficiency.
Friday, July 31, 2015
ABA Journal spotlights continued child porn federal sentencing challenges
This article in the August 2015 issue of the ABA Journal, headlined "Minors Sentence: Courts are giving reduced terms to many child-porn defendants," provides an review of the enduring difficulties federal courts face when sentencing certain offenders convicted of using new technologies to download illegal dirty pictures. Here is an excerpt:
Courts’ reaction to child pornography sentencing is part of a pushback against sentencing guidelines after U.S. v. Booker and U.S. v. Kimbrough, two Supreme Court opinions filed in 2005 and 2007 that found the federal sentencing guidelines advisory, not mandatory. As a result, courts have undercut child pornography sentencing guidelines when the images are taken from P2P programs.
According to one study cited in a 2012 U.S. Sentencing Commission report, 85.3 percent of child pornography distribution convictions in the first quarter of fiscal year 2012 involved P2P programs. Of offenders who used the programs, 55.6 percent distributed images solely with an open P2P program.
The study also found that the rate of known sexual recidivism for nonproduction offenders was 7.4 percent. The agency suggested that Congress revise the nonproduction child pornography sentencing scheme, because crimes stemming from downloads involve less culpability.
If prosecutors think that a child pornography defendant’s mental health contributed to the crime, and that the individual is sincere about rehabilitation and is not a child predator, they will agree to diminished incarceration plea agreements, says Raymond Cassar, a Farmington Hills, Michigan, defense lawyer....
One such case involved Nicholas Dubin, who has Asperger’s syndrome. According to a government sentencing memo, the FBI logged on to a P2P network in 2010 and identified 12 files on Dubin’s computer. More than half contained child pornography. The government obtained a search warrant for his home and found “several hundred to 1,000 images” of child pornography on his computer....
At the time of his arrest Dubin was the dean of students at a high school. In 2013, he pleaded guilty to one count of child pornography possession, and his sentencing range under the guidelines was between 97 and 120 months. The government, however, agreed to sentence Dubin to one day in federal custody, with credit for time served, and five years of supervised release. A 2013 sentencing memo submitted by the Eastern District of Michigan’s U.S. attorney’s office notes that people with autism spectrum disorders often have limited intimate relationships. The document also asserts that Dubin, who had no prior criminal record, was remorseful about his actions and had focused his therapy to understand why his crime was harmful.
“A sentence of one day time served does not, in any way, adequately reflect the seriousness associated with the possession of child pornography,” the government wrote. “However, in this exceptional case, a noncustodial sentence will effectively promote respect for the law and provide just punishment.”
To some, child pornography offenders may not seem as dangerous anymore, because their profile has changed, says Melissa Hamilton. A visiting criminal law scholar at the University of Houston Law Center, her research focuses on violence, sex crimes and sentencing. “Going to a physical location and buying child pornography off the shelf or sending away money to get it by mail,” she says, involves more culpability than searching for it online. The sentencing guidelines, she adds, were written before the uptick in prosecutions involving child pornography from P2P programs, and it’s unlikely that they’ll change in the near future.
“It’s a political hot potato to say that people who view child pornography aren’t that dangerous,” Hamilton says. “I have noticed some instances where very senior judges, who are reflecting [on the defendants they sentence] sometimes write long opinions saying that the child pornography downloaders don’t look as scary and risky, in terms of other violent offenders before them.”
Monday, April 20, 2015
New Sentencing Commission data reveal within-guideline sentences now rarer than non-guideline sentences
The US Sentencing Commission today released on this webpage its latest, greatest federal sentencing data for all of Fiscal Year 2014 and the first quarter of FY 2015. Here are links to these two new data runs:
First Quarter FY15 Quarterly Sentencing Update (Published April 20, 2015)
Final FY14 Quarterly Sentencing Update (Published April 20, 2015)
I thought Fiscal Year 2014 was likely to be a quirky year for federal sentencing data, primarily because (1) in January 2014, the Commission indicated it probably would reduce the drug sentencing guidelines across the board, and (2) in March 2014, the Attorney General indicated that he supported having the new-reduced-guidelines informally applied in on-going drug cases even though they would not become official until November 2014. Because of this big pending guideline change to a big chunk of federal sentencing cases, I was not surprised that throughout much of Fiscal Year 2014, a majority of sentences did not come within calculated guideline ranges.
Sure enough, the complete USSC data now show that, while FY 2013 had 51.2% of all cases sentenced within the guidelines, in FY 2014 that number dropped significantly to 46%. In other words, less than half of all federal sentences throughout FY 2014 were within-guideline sentences, and it seemed likely that the big change in the overall data from just the prior year largely reflected a drug-sentencing-guideline transition dynamic.
But my view on the overall data story has changed somewhat now that the Commission has released its First Quarter FY15 Quarterly Sentencing Update. I am pretty sure (though not certain) that most drug sentences imposed during the first quarter of FY15 should involve the new-and-improved drug guidelines and thus the transition to the new guidelines should not dramatically distort the overall FY 2015 data (although there is a one-month difference between when the USSC fiscal year and its new-guideline year gets going). But, fascinatingly, the new data reveal that, even with the new guidelines in place, still less than half of all sentences at the start of FY 2015 were within-guideline sentences: specifically, only 46.5% of all sentences in the first quarter of FY 2015 were within-guideline sentences.
For various reasons, this too-brief discussion of USSC data perhaps only highlights how hard it is for me in this space to effectively account for and explain basic federal sentencing data. But, as the title of this post suggests, I think the latest data run now provides reason to believe hat a typical federal judge in a typical case (whatever than means) is now typically a bit more likely to impose a non-guideline sentence rather than a within guideline sentence.
Wednesday, February 18, 2015
Yet again, Sixth Circuit reverses one-day sentence for child porn downloading as substantively unreasonable
Regular readers who follow federal sentencing in child porn cases likely recall that the Sixth Circuit and an Ohio-based federal district judge got into a sentencing tug-of-war over the sentencing of child porn downloader Richard Bistline not long ago. And even irregular readers should know that circuits, if they stick with it, will always win these kinds wars. More proof of that reality come from another similar Sixth Circuit case decided today, US v. Robinson, No. 13-230806 (6th Cir. Feb. 18, 2015) (available here), which starts this way:
The government appeals, for the second time, from the noncustodial sentence imposed on Rufus Robinson (“Defendant”) for the possession of more than seven thousand images of child pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252A(a)(5)(B). Defendant’s previous sentence of one day of incarceration and five years of supervised release was held substantively unreasonable by this Court in United States v. Robinson, 669 F.3d 767 (6th Cir. 2012) (“Robinson I”). On remand, the district court again sentenced Defendant to one day of incarceration, with credit for time served. The district court also lengthened the period of supervised release and imposed additional conditions of release. The government’s second appeal raises the question of whether this second sentence is substantively reasonable.
For the reasons set forth below, we VACATE Defendant’s sentence and REMAND the case for reassignment and resentencing.
Prior related posts concerning similar case:
- Sixth Circuit finds substantively unreasonable a one-day of lock-up for child porn downloading
- District Judge at resentencing continues to resist federal child porn guidelines even after Sixth Circuit reversal
- "Should defendants’ age, health issues be sentencing factors?"
- Sixth Circuit panel, again, finds substantively unreasonable a non-prison sentence for child porn downloading in Bistline
February 18, 2015 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack
Wednesday, February 11, 2015
District Judge, to chagrin of feds, relies on jury poll to give minimum sentence to child porn downloader
This fascinating story from the federal courts in the Northern District of Ohio provides an interesting perspective on the input and impact that juries can have in the federal sentencing process in at least one courtroom. The piece is headlined "Cleveland federal judge's five-year sentence in child porn case frustrates prosecutor," and here are excerpts:
A federal judge in Cleveland sentenced a Dalton man convicted of child pornography charges Tuesday to five years in prison, a move that frustrated prosecutors who pushed for four times that length based, at least in part, on a recommendation from the U.S. probation office.
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.
In addition to citing the juror's various jobs and where they lived, Gwin said the poll "does reflect how off the mark the federal sentencing guidelines are." He later added that the case was not worse than most of the child pornography cases that he sees and that five years "is a significant sentence, especially for somebody who has not offended in the past."
Sullivan objected to the sentence, saying it is based on an "impermissible" survey. He also argued before the sentence was issued that 20 years was justified because prosecutors did not show the jury each one of the images found on Collins' computer. Gwin rejected that argument, though, explaining that all of the photos were presented as evidence, even if they were not shown at trial.
Under federal law, either prosecutors or defense attorneys can appeal a sentence if they feel it was improper. It is uncommon for federal judges to issue sentences that go so far below the probation office's recommendations, though, so appeals by prosecutors are rare. Mike Tobin, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, said that prosecutors "will review the judge's sentence and make a decision at the appropriate time."...
Iams also said that even though his client was convicted by a jury, the fact that he went to trial may have helped Collins in the end, since Gwin was then able to poll the jury and get an idea of where the community's feelings were on sentencing. "If he had just pled guilty, that might have not been there. At the end of the day, it may have helped," Iams said.
Collins was taken into custody following his sentencing. In addition to the prison sentence, Collins was also ordered to pay a $5,000 fine and $10,000 in restitution to two girls seen in the pornography Collins downloaded. Once he is released, he will have to register as a sex offender and will be on supervised release for five years.
February 11, 2015 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack
Sunday, December 28, 2014
Former Virginia Gov McDonnell upcoming sentencing sets out white-collar terms of debate
This lengthy local article from Virginia, headlined "U.S. seeks McDonnell sentence of 10 to 12 years," details the competing arguments being set forth in a high-profile federal white-collar sentencing slated for next month. Here are excerpts from the piece:
Prosecutors are asking that former Gov. Bob McDonnell, convicted of 11 corruption charges in September, be imprisoned for at least 10 years and one month to as much as 12 years and seven months when sentenced Jan. 6 by U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer.
In sentencing memorandums filed Tuesday, the U.S. Attorney’s Office asked for a term within the federal sentencing guideline range determined by the probation office, while McDonnell’s lawyers asked for 6,000 hours of community service instead of prison time and argued the guideline range should be 33 to 41 months.
“After serving as a prosecutor and attorney general, this defendant corrupted an office that few bribery defendants achieve, and then falsely testified and shifted blame for his actions before the jury that convicted him,” wrote Dana J. Boente, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. McDonnell, the government wrote, “stands before this court as only the 12th governor in the United States — and the first governor of Virginia — to be convicted of a public corruption offense.”
McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were convicted in a six-week trial in which the marriage and the former first lady were portrayed as troubled. Maureen McDonnell was convicted of nine charges, one later thrown out, and will be sentenced Feb. 20. Bob McDonnell testified on his own behalf, but his wife did not. The McDonnells were indicted in January for accepting more than $177,000 in gifts and loans from Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the then-CEO of Star Scientific, in exchange for promoting a new dietary supplement product. Williams, a key government witness, was granted immunity....
In its 31-page sentencing memorandum, the government urged Spencer to adopt the findings in the presentencing report from the probation office and reject McDonnell’s objections. Prosecutors argued that McDonnell abused his power and violated his duty to the people of Virginia.
“The defendant is fond of pointing out that under Virginia law, no limits on gifts to elected officials existed and that he thus claims that he was merely a ‘part of the culture of unlimited gifts that has permeated Virginia politics,’ ” prosecutors wrote. “But he was not convicted of accepting gifts; he was convicted of accepting bribes. And bribery has always been a violation of state (as well as federal) law,” they added. The government said the presentencing report correctly factored in obstruction of justice based on what it termed McDonnell’s lies from the witness stand....
McDonnell’s 51-page sentencing position, also filed Tuesday, took a very different view of the case. It said: “Bob McDonnell has devoted his life to public service, family, and faith. This offense is a total aberration in what was by all accounts a successful and honorable career.”
McDonnell argued the appropriate guideline range should be 33 to 41 months. “A sentence of imprisonment of any length, however, much less one of 10 years or more, would be a severely disproportionate punishment,” his lawyers contend. “Instead, a variant sentence of probation with a condition of 6,000 hours of full-time, rigorous, unpaid community service at a remote location served over three years is ‘sufficient, but not greater than necessary,’ to provide a just punishment,” they wrote.
“An outcome in which Mr. McDonnell serves any time in prison ... while Mr. Williams suffers no criminal justice consequences at all would neither promote respect for the law nor provide a just resolution to this case,” McDonnell’s lawyers argued.
Much of McDonnell’s sentencing position is taken up with his biography, accomplishments, and service in the military and as a state legislator, Virginia attorney general and governor. Seven appendixes, including hundreds of letters of support, were filed along with the document.
The memorandum notes the outline of the scheme for which he was convicted. “Mr. McDonnell’s actual conduct, however, differs in critical ways from that of others who have been convicted under the same federal bribery laws,” McDonnell’s lawyers argued. “Mr. McDonnell did not demand or receive cash payments from Mr. Williams. He did not take briefcases of money or hide stacks of $100 bills in his freezer,” they wrote. “Rather, the quid that the indictment charges that Mr. McDonnell or his family members received were gifts — a wedding gift to Mr. McDonnell’s daughter and several rounds of golf at Mr. Williams’ country club — as well as three loans at commercial rates that the McDonnells paid back with interest.”
While McDonnell’s decision to accept the items showed poor judgment, Virginia state ethics laws at the time permitted officials to accept unlimited gifts of that nature, McDonnell’s lawyers argued. “Numerous state officials routinely took advantage of these laws and accepted luxury vacations, rounds of golf, sports tickets, dinners, and other things of value from donors and wealthy hangers-on.”...
The defense contends that McDonnell’s trial and conviction already act as powerful deterrents to criminal conduct by others, making imprisonment unnecessary. “No elected official would want to live through the last year of Mr. McDonnell’s life,” his lawyers write. McDonnell and his family “have already suffered tremendously,” the lawyers write. “His once-promising political career is dead,” and “his marriage has fallen apart.”
Defense lawyers wrote that McDonnell’s “sterling reputation in the community has been irreparably damaged,” he has lost his ability to practice law, he is likely to lose his state pension, “and he will have to sell his family home.” The former governor’s lawyers also contend prison is unnecessary to protect the public because there is no risk McDonnell will commit any further crimes. “He is 60 years old and out of politics.”
Relatedly, this Washington Post article reports on some of the notable letters written to the sentencing judge in support McDonnell. The piece is headlined "Former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell’s downfall is wife’s fault, daughter says," and it provides this link to some notable character letters.
Prior related posts:
- Former Virginia Gov McDonnell (and wife) now facing high-profile federal sentencing after jury convictions on multiple charges
- Former Virginia Gov McDonnell facing significant (trial?) penalty in his federal guideline calculation
December 28, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack
Monday, December 15, 2014
Former Virginia Gov McDonnell facing significant (trial?) penalty in his federal guideline calculation
This recent article from the Washington Post, headlined "Early federal sentencing recommendation for McDonnell: At least 10 years in prison," spotlights the seemingly severe sentence recommended by the federal sentencing guidelines for a former Governor's corruption. Among other notbale aspects of this high-profile sentencing story is the fact that former Virginia Gov Bob McDonnell is now facing a guideline sentencing range that is more than three to four times longer than the longest possible sentence he would have faced had he been willing to plead guilty on terms urged by federal prosecutors. Here are the notable details at this stage of a developing high-profile sentencing story:
The guidelines recommended by the U.S. probation office are preliminary, and even if finalized, U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer is not required to follow them. But experts said that Spencer typically heeds the probation office’s advice, and judges in his district have imposed sentences within the recommendations more than 70 percent of the time in recent years. “It’s of critical importance,” said Scott Fredericksen, a white-collar criminal defense lawyer. “The fact is, the vast majority of times, courts follow those recommendations closely.”
The matter is far from settled. The probation office recommended a punishment from 10 years and a month to 12 years and 7 months. Calculating an appropriate range of sentences in the federal system is a complicated, mathematical process that takes into account a variety of factors, including the type of crime, the defendant’s role and the amount of loss. The judge has yet to see the arguments from each side.
McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were convicted in September of lending the prestige of his office to Richmond businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. in exchange for $177,000 in loans, vacations and luxury items. McDonnell is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 6. His wife’s sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 20, and her guideline range is expected to be lower than her husband’s. The probation office has not yet filed a report concerning her.
It is unclear how the probation office determined that the former governor’s crimes necessitate a minimum decade-long sentence. The initial report on the matter is sealed, and people familiar with its contents revealed only the recommended range to The Washington Post.
The range is particularly notable because last December, prosecutors offered to let McDonnell plead guilty to just one count of lying to a bank as part of an agreement that would have meant he could be sentenced to three years in prison at the most and probation at the least. Importantly, though, McDonnell would have been required to sign a statement acknowledging that he helped Star Scientific, Williams’s dietary-supplement company, at the same time the businessman was giving him loot, fully shouldering blame for a relationship he has insisted was not criminal and was driven largely by his wife....
White-collar criminal defense lawyer Matthew Kaiser said McDonnell’s range probably was increased because he was a high-ranking public official, because he took more than one payment from Williams and because the total value of the gifts he received was so high. Kaiser said the probation officer also probably faulted McDonnell because his testimony was contrary to the jury’s verdict.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys will still have an opportunity to argue to the probation officer about whether the range was correctly calculated — although Kaiser said the probation office often “sticks to its guns.” After that, both sides can try to persuade Spencer to modify the recommended range.
Even then, Spencer is not bound by the guideline. Defense attorneys have already begun working vigorously in their bid to sway him toward leniency. This week, they won a legal skirmish with prosecutors so they can file additional pages in their sentencing memorandum — a key document outlining the sentence they believe McDonnell should receive and why. It is unclear whether their efforts to move Spencer away from the probation office’s recommended range will be fruitful.
In the Eastern District of Virginia, where McDonnell is being sentenced, judges imposed sentences within the guideline range more than 70 percent of the time last fiscal year, according to data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission. In about 21 percent of cases, they imposed sentences below the guideline range without a request from prosecutors to do so. Nationally, judges imposed sentences within the guideline range about 51 percent of the time last fiscal year and deviated downward without a request from prosecutors to do so in about 19 percent of cases.
In the McDonnell case, prosecutors are not expected to ask for a sentence below the guideline range.... Brian Whisler, a defense lawyer who used to work as a federal prosecutor in
Richmond, said that Spencer is known to be “largely deferential to the probation office and its sentencing calculations.” Whisler — whose firm, Baker & McKenzie, represented state employees in the McDonnell case — said the judge will likely draw on other cases in the district to inform his conclusion.
The outcome of those might not be to McDonnell’s liking. In 2011, another federal judge in Richmond sentenced former Virginia delegate Phillip A. Hamilton to 9.5 years in prison in a bribery and extortion case. In 2009, a federal judge in Alexandria sentenced former congressman William J. Jefferson to 13 years in prison for accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes — though, notably, that fell well short of the recommended range of 27 to 33 years.
December 15, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Tuesday, December 09, 2014
Madoff aides finally getting sentenced for their roles in massive Ponzi scheme
As reported in this new AP article, a notable set of fraud sentences are being handed out this week and next in New York federal court. Here are the early parts of a high-profile white-collar sentencing story:
The former secretary for imprisoned financier Bernard Madoff was sentenced Tuesday to six years in prison after she apologized to victims of the multi-decade, multi-billion dollar fraud and berated herself for failing to see past her boss's influence and the riches he bestowed on her.
Annette Bongiorno, 66, was sentenced in Manhattan by U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain, who said she believed Bongiorno's testimony at trial that she was largely duped by Madoff into manufacturing fake trade results for his private investment business. She called her "a pampered, compliant and grossly overcompensated clerical worker who supervised other clerical workers with a ferocious enthusiasm."
The judge said Bongiorno "could and should have recognized that Mr. Madoff's success seemed impossible because it was impossible." Swain added: "Ms. Bongiorno chose to put her life and the life of others in the wrong hands."
One of Madoff's computer programmers was awaiting an afternoon sentencing. Bongiorno was convicted earlier this year along with four others after a six-month trial. Sentencing proceedings resulting from it will conclude on Monday.
On Monday, Madoff's director of operations was sentenced to a decade in prison.
Prosecutors said in court papers that Bongiorno was "at the very heart of the fraud" for decades. They had sought a prison sentence of more than 20 years. The fraud cost thousands of investors nearly $20 billion. Madoff, 76, was arrested in December 2008 and is serving a 150-year prison sentence.
Before she was sentenced, Bongiorno portrayed herself as a loyal worker who was in over her head from the time she was hired at age 19. "Not once in my 40 years there did anyone say to me, 'Annette, this is not the way it's done in the real world,'" she said. "I thought I was doing my job as I thought it should be done."...
The judge, who also ordered forfeiture of $155 billion, said she will recommend that Bongiorno serve the last year of her prison term in home confinement.
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.
Wednesday, February 19, 2014
After she asked for life sentence, Sister Megan Rice gets 35 months' imprisonment and her co-defendants get 62 for sabotage
As reported in this local piece, an "84-year-old Catholic nun will spend nearly three years in federal prison for breaking into one of the U.S. government's most secure facilities and helping deface a uranium-processing building with human blood, a federal judge ruled Tuesday." Here is more about the fascinating sentencing conclusion to a high-profile case of law-breaking civil disobedience:
Megan Rice, who turned 84 on Jan. 31, and fellow anti-nuclear activists Michael Walli, 64, and Greg Boertje-Obed, 58, were convicted in May of sabotaging the plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn. All three are members of the Plowshares movement of Christian pacifists.
U.S. District Judge Amul Thapar in Knoxville, Tenn., sentenced Rice to 35 months in prison for her role in the July 28, 2012, break-in and protest. The judge sentenced Walli and Boertje-Obed both to five years and two months in prison. Previously, Thapar had ordered the trio to pay nearly $53,000 in restitution for damaging U.S. government property. In addition, Walli and Boertje-Obed will have three years of supervised release after their prison terms. The two men received longer sentences based on their past criminal history.
During a four-hour hearing Tuesday, Rice pleaded with the judge not to grant her leniency. "Please have no leniency on me," she said. "To remain in prison for the rest of my life would be the greatest honor you could give me."
Thapar didn't oblige but did say that breaking the law isn't the right way to pursue political goals. He said he hoped that a significant prison sentence would deter others from following the same path and bring them "back to the political system I fear that they have given up on."
The protesters picked late July 2012 to break in to the Y-12 National Security Complex because it was close to the dates when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, during World War II. The three cut through fences and made it through multiple layers of security. They spent more than two hours in a restricted area and had time to splash blood on the outside of the building where the government processes weapons-grade uranium before security personnel apprehended them....
The three have garnered worldwide attention. Thousands of letters of support have poured into the court from around the world. Those include letters from groups such as the Union for Concerned Scientists. While acknowledging the three were convicted of a federal crime, they exposed serious security weaknesses at Y-12, the group said.
Edwin Lyman, a nuclear security expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in January that the protesters did the nation a public service. "We think, even though they were convicted of a federal crime, there are mitigating circumstances and they made the country safer," Lyman said.
The government has taken the case seriously. The three have been in custody since their conviction, and prosecutors recommended sentences of six to nine years.
A key issue Tuesday was how the judge should follow federal sentencing guidelines. Lawyers for the activists that argued the time they already have served is sufficient punishment.... During the hearing, the judge struggled with how to handle the guidelines. "At some point, the law has to command respect, and there is a lawful way to change it," Thapar said. But he also suggested that Rice's past good works should play a role and wasn't sure how to fit those into the guidelines. He called a recommended sentence of 6½ years for Rice "overkill."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Theodore ... contended the trio's actions were "serious offenses that have caused real harm to the Y-12 National Security Complex." [And] "they have shown no remorse for their criminal conduct," he said.
Recent related posts:
- You be the judge: should guidelines be followed in federal sentencing of elderly nun and two other peace activists?
- Sentencing round two for elderly nun and two other peace activists for breaking into a federal defense facility
February 19, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Thursday, February 13, 2014
Feds to appeal probation sentence given to tax-dodging Beanie Babies billionaire
As reported in this new AP article, the "U.S. attorney's office in Chicago said Thursday that it's appealing a sentence that included no prison time for the billionaire creator of Beanie Babies for hiding at least $25 million from U.S. tax authorities in Swiss bank accounts." Here is more:
At H. Ty Warner's sentencing last month, Judge Charles Kocoras heaped praise on the toymaker for his charitable giving, declaring society was better served by letting him go free and giving him two years' probation instead of sending him to prison. Warner had faced up to five years in prison.
Warner, 69, of Oak Brook, Ill., was one of the highest profile figures snared in a long-running investigation of Americans concealing funds in Swiss bank accounts. Others convicted of squirreling away less money in Switzerland than Warner have done prison time. Warner, who grew up poor, created the animal-shaped Beanie Babies in the mid-'90s, triggering a craze that made Warner spectacularly rich. Forbes recently estimated his net worth at $2.6 billion.
A one-page notice of appeal signed by U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon was filed with the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, and a full brief will be submitted later. Justice officials in Washington still must OK the appeal, but that's usually considered a formality.
At a Jan. 14 sentencing hearing, Kocoras spent most of his 20-minute explanation of the sentence expressing admiration for Warner. He also said the businessman had already paid a price in "public humiliation." In addition to probation, Kocoras ordered Warner to do 500 hours of community service at Chicago high schools. Earlier, Warner agreed to pay $27 million in back taxes and interest, and a civil penalty of more than $53 million....
During sentencing, assistant government attorney Michelle Petersen urged Kocoras to put Warner behind bars for at least a year. "(Without prison time), tax evasion becomes little more than a bad investment," she told him. "The perception cannot be that a wealthy felon can just write a check and not face further punishment."
This should be a VERY interesting sentencing appeal to watch in the months ahead, and I am already super stoked to read the coming Seventh Circuit briefs from the parties concerning what will surely be differing views on what federal sentencing law demands in a case of this nature.
Prior related post:
February 13, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack
Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Drug sentencing reform talk already impacting federal sentences in Tennessee (and elsewhere?)
Two recent local sentencing stories from Tennessee reporting on two different federal judges imposing reduced sentences in drug cases suggest that all the on-going talk about significant drug sentencing reform coming from the US Sentencing Commission and the US Senate is already impacting the work of federal judges. Here are the headlines, links and basics:
Federal Judge Sandy Mattice, calling the "War on Drugs" a "dismal failure," on Monday morning varied downward on a sentence for a drug "smurf."
Larry Gertsman had been facing a minimum 121 months in federal prison for his role in obtaining pseudoephedrine pills for a meth cook and for the fact a gun was found at the trailer where the meth was being cooked.
Judge Mattice noted the 121 months was one month more time than he gave to the meth cook, George Alder Jr. He sentenced Gertsman to 90 months in prison.
Judge Mattice said, "When a conspiracy is charged like this, addicts are being prosecuted the same way as the manufacturer." He said some of the sentencing schemes have "outrageous results." He added, "These cases seem increasingly arbitrary."
Federal Judge Curtis Collier, saying that he expects Congress to lower sentences for drug defendants, on Thursday gave reduced time to three Whitwell residents involved in a major marijuana operation.
Judge Collier, focusing on "sentencing disparity," said Congress seems headed for passage of the Smarter Sentencing Act. He said it has the endorsement of the Department of Justice and support from senators from different political backgrounds. He also said the federal Sentencing Commission has issued guidelines for reduced drug sentences. The act would shift the focus to putting away hardcore and violent defendants in federal prisons.
Judge Collier said sponsors of the bill say that under current sentencing all of the Department of Justice budget is going to be eaten up by the cost to operate federal prisons. The act would basically cut drug sentences in half and also increase the use of the "safety valve" to cut time on mandatory sentences. There was also discussion at the sentencing for Jackie Morrison, Sammy Nance and Ollie Frizzell about some states, including Colorado, legalizing marijuana.
The sentencing range for the ringleader, Morrison, was 121-151 months. He got 72 months. Nance faced 37-46 months and was given 24 months. Ms. Frizzell had a sentencing range of 27-33 months and got 30 months. However, she had already gotten a break for cooperating with the government.
In addition to wondering if there is some special reason that these two notable stories emerge from two different Tennessee federal courts over the last few days, I am especially curious to know if similar trends may be emerging in other federal district courts around the nation.
I have previously noted that early statistics from the US Sentencing Commission suggested that the number of judge-sponsored below-guideline sentences may be increasing ever since AG Eric Holder gave his big ABA speech last August about excessive use of incarceration for low-level offenders. And now that the USSC has called for an across-the-board reduction of all the drug guidelines and the Senate Judiciary Committee has moved the Smarter Sentencing Act, I could readily imagine that what these two Tennessee federal judges have done is more the norm than the exception in the thousands of low-level drug cases being prosecuted now in federal courts.
Sunday, December 29, 2013
Latest USSC quarterly data show (thanks to AG Holder?) record number of judge-initiated below-range sentences
I am intrigued to see that, as reported in Table 4 with the Fourth Quarter FY13 Quarterly Sentencing data report posted here at the US Sentencing Commission's website, there was a notable (though still small) uptick in the number of below guideline sentences imposed by federal district judges during the most recent quarter (from July 2013 to September 2013). Specifically, after a full year in which below-guideline sentence were imposed each quarter in just around 18.5% of all federal cases, in the most recent quarter the rate of judge-initiated below-range sentences jumped to 19.1%. This marks, I believe, the highest percentage of judge-initiated below-range sentences in any quarter on record.
As the title of this post hints, I am inclined to hypothesize that a few more judges were willing to impose below-guideline sentences in a few more federal cases in the wake of Attorney General Eric Holder's big early August speech to the ABA lamenting excessive use of incarceration in the United States. When the US Attorney General says "too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason," I surely hope federal judges are listening and thinking even harder about whether to follow harsh guidelines that tend to recommend pretty long prison sentences in most cases.
That all said, the latest new data continue to show the same basic story lines and relatively stability in the operation and application of the advisory federal guideline sentencing system: these data show, yet again, that somewhat more than 50% of all federal sentences are within the calculated guidelines range, and that below-guideline sentences are a result of a prosecutor's request (which occurs in well over 25% of all cases).
Thursday, November 21, 2013
"Have Inter-Judge Sentencing Disparities Increased in an Advisory Guidelines Regime? Evidence from Booker"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Crystal Yang now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
The Federal Sentencing Guidelines were promulgated in response to concerns of widespread disparities in sentencing. After almost two decades of determinate sentencing, the Guidelines were rendered advisory in United States v. Booker. What has been the result of reintroducing greater judicial discretion on inter-judge disparities, or differences in sentencing outcomes that are attributable to the mere happenstance of the sentencing judge assigned?
This Article utilizes new data covering over 600,000 criminal defendants linked to sentencing judge to undertake the first national empirical analysis of interjudge disparities post Booker. The results are striking: inter-judge sentencing disparities have doubled since the Guidelines became advisory. Some of the recent increase in disparities can be attributed to differential sentencing behavior associated with judge demographic characteristics, with Democratic and female judges being more likely to exercise their enhanced discretion after Booker. Newer judges appointed after Booker also appear less anchored to the Guidelines than judges with experience sentencing under the mandatory Guidelines regime.
Disentangling the effect of various actors on sentencing disparities, I find that prosecutorial charging is a prominent source of disparities. Rather than charge mandatory minimums uniformly across eligible cases, prosecutors appear to selectively apply mandatory minimums in response to the identity of sentencing judge, potentially through superseding indictments. Drawing on this empirical evidence, the Article suggests that recent sentencing proposals that call for a reduction in judicial discretion in order to reduce disparities may overlook the substantial contribution of prosecutors.
Tuesday, November 19, 2013
Latest USSC publication highlights remarkable "disparities"(?) in federal FIP sentences
I am pleased to see that the US Sentencing Commission now has up on its website another terrific new data document in its series of reader-friendly "Quick Facts" publications. (Regular readers may recall from this prior post that the USSC describes these publications as a way to "give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format.")
As I have said before, I think this series is a very valuable new innovation coming from the USSC, and I have already learned a lot and benefited greatly from these publications. This latest document, which "presents data on offenses under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g), commonly called 'felon in possession' cases," includes these notable data details:
In fiscal year 2012, 5,768 offenders were convicted of violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)....
One-quarter (25.2%) of offenders convicted under section 922(g) were assigned to the highest criminal history category (Category VI). The proportion of these offenders in other Criminal History Categories was as follows: 11.7% of these offenders were in Category I; 9.3% were in Category II; 21.1% were in Category III; 18.9% were in Category IV; and 13.8% were in Category V.
10.3% were sentenced under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) (18 U.S.C.§ 924(e))...
The average sentence length for all section 922(g) offenders was 75 months; however, one-quarter of these offenders had an average sentence of 24 months or less while one-quarter had an average sentence of 96 months or more.
The average sentence length for offenders convicted of violating only section 922(g) and who were sentenced under ACCA was 180 months.
The average sentence length for offenders convicted of violating only section 922(g) but who were not sentenced under ACCA was 46 months.
The title of this post has the term "disparities" in quotes followed by a question mark because these basic sentencing data about a pretty basic federal crime could be interpreted in many disparate ways. Given that all the offenders sentenced for FIP likely were engaged in pretty similar conduct (simple possession of a firearm) and all of them, by definition, had to have a serious criminal record in order to be subject to federal prosecution, one might see lots of unwarranted disparity among this offender group given the extraordinary outcome variations documented here -- in FY2012, over 10% of FIP offenders are getting sent away for an average of 15 years, but another 25% are going away for only 8 years, while another 25% are going away for only 2 years.
Then again, given the apparently varied criminal histories of the FIP offenders, the sentencing variation here surely reflects various (reasoned and reasonable?) judicial assessments of different levels of recidivism risk for different FIP offenders. I certainly hope that the those being sentenced to decades behind bars for gun possession are generally those with very long rap sheets, and that those getting sent away only for a couple years are those with much more limited criminal histories.
Finally, in addition to noting the profound significance that past crimes clearly have on current sentencing in FIP cases, I must note that it is these past crimes that itself serves to convert the behavior here in to a federal crime. Indeed, if one takes the Second Amendment very seriously (as I do), the actual "offense behavior" in these cases might often be subject to significant protection as the exercise of a fundamental constitutional right unless and until the person has a disqualifying criminal past. Proof yet again that the past, at least when it comes to criminal sentencing and constitutional rights, is often ever-present.
November 19, 2013 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Gun policy and sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
Is sentence disparity reduced if mass murderer Whitey Bulger and drug dealer Sam Hurd get the same LWOP sentence?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by the news of two seemingly very distinct federal sentencings taking place today in which it seems the federal sentencing guidelines are calling for the exact same LWOP sentence.
Regular readers are already familiar with the case involving Whitey Bulger, whose sentencing is taking place today in federal Court in Boston. This new USA Today article, headlined "Victim's son: Mobster Whitey Bulger is 'Satan'," highlights just the latest developments in a case in which I sincerely wonder why there is not more of an effort by pro-death-penalty advocates to have an even tougher punishment than LWOP in the mix.
Somewhat less high profile, except perhaps for hard-core football fans, is the sentencing of former NFL receiver Sam Hurd. This SI.com article, headlined "Former NFL player Sam Hurd hopes to avoid life sentence at hearing," provides some background starting this way:
This afternoon at the Federal courthouse in Dallas, U.S. District court judge Jorge Solis is scheduled to begin the sentencing hearing for former Cowboys and Bears receiver Sam Hurd, who pleaded guilty to a single drug trafficking charge in April. Hurd's attorneys will be allowed to present witnesses and evidence to contest the individual allegations against him. At the end of the hearing Solis will decide whether to take the recommendation of the U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services Department of life in prison without parole or give Hurd a lighter sentence. The only certainty is that Hurd will be going to prison.
Hurd was arrested on Dec. 14, 2011 and indicted on Jan. 4, 2012. For the first 19 months, life in prison was not even in the discussion. Five to 20 years was the sentencing range, with precedent and the informed opinions of more objective onlookers and academics backing up that estimate. Since the life sentence recommendation was made in late July, one comment repeated by sources across the spectrum of partiality has been some version of this reminder: You realize life in prison in the federal system means the next time he comes out of prison it'll be in a coffin.
Hurd, who has been housed in the federal detention center in Seagoville, about a 30-minute drive from the Dallas court building, did not respond to an email from SI Wednesday morning. He may have already been relocated to downtown Dallas and unable to access his prison-controlled email account. He called last Friday night and repeated again that he is "ready to be sentenced for what I did, not this other mess. Our system should not work like this.
I have to assume that Hurd is facing a recommended LWOP sentence because of the quantity of drugs being ascribed to him and a guideline sentencing structure that provides that drugs dealers will often be facing the same guideline sentence as mass murderers.
Hurd is, of course, very fortunate that the federal sentencing guidelines are no longer mandatory, and I think it is unlikely he will get an LWOP term today. But this coincidence of these two very different criminals facing the exact same federal guideline sentence provides a high-profile example of how the guidelines can themselves create disparity and especially revelas how misguided it can often be to assume imposition of within-guideline sentences reduce disparity.
UPDATE: On Wednesday afternoon, as reported here, Sam Hurd received a 15-year federal prison sentence; on Thursday morning, as reported here, Whitey Bulger received two life terms plus 5 years in the federal pen.
November 13, 2013 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack
Thursday, November 07, 2013
"Free at Last? Judicial Discretion and Racial Disparities in Federal Sentencing"The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Crystal Yang now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
The Federal Sentencing Guidelines were created to reduce unwarranted sentencing disparities among similar defendants. This paper explores the impact of increased judicial discretion on racial disparities in sentencing after the Guidelines were struck down in United States v. Booker (2005). Using data on the universe of federal defendants, I find that black defendants are sentenced to almost two months more in prison compared to their white counterparts after Booker, a 4% increase in average sentence length. To identify the sources of racial disparities, I construct a dataset linking judges to over 400,000 defendants. Exploiting the random assignment of cases to judges, I find that racial disparities are greater among judges appointed after Booker, suggesting acculturation to the Guidelines by judges with experience sentencing under mandatory regime. Prosecutors also respond to increased judicial discretion by charging black defendants with longer mandatory minimums.
I am always interested in sophisticated analyses of the post-Booker sentencing system, so I am looking forward to finding time to review this article closely. But, as with lots of "disparity" sentencing scholarship, I worry that this article is among those spending lots of time worrying about and trying to figure out whose sentences may be longer after Booker rather than worrying about and trying to figure out if all sentence remain way too long in the federal sentencing system.
November 7, 2013 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Wednesday, October 09, 2013
District Judge Graham gets in a final word on child porn sentencing despite Sixth Circuit reversals
I am about to head off line for the bulk of the day in order to head down to the Queen City in order to watch the full en banc Sixth Circuit consider crack sentencing modification rules in Blewett. (I hope late tonight to report on what I see in the argument, perhaps with a prediction as to the outcome.)
For my last word before I go to watch the Sixth Circuit in action, I am pleased to post a recent opinion by US District Judge James Graham that provides its own kind of last word about the Sixth Circuit's recent sentencing work in a child pornography downloading case that the Sixth Circuit took out of Judge Graham's hands. The opinion in US v. Childs (which can be downloaded below) is relatively brief, and it starts and winds down this way:
This is a disturbing case. Defendant is charged with one count of possession of child pornography. I am called upon to decide whether to accept a plea agreement which requires me to impose a sentence which is roughly only one sixth of the lowest sentence recommended by the United States Sentencing Guidelines (“the Guidelines” or “U.S.S.G.”). This is disturbing not because I disagree with the sentence, but because I am convinced that under the law of the Sixth Circuit announced in United States v. Bistline, 665 F.3d 758, 761-64 (6th Cir. 2012)(“Bistline I”), I would not have been free to select such a sentence without the government’s agreement....
The Sixth Circuit's decision in Bistline I blurs the distinction between mandatory and advisory by requiring more deference to congressionally created guidelines than that accorded to Sentencing Commission-created guidelines. Just what implications this might have under Apprendi was not discussed by the Sixth Circuit.
There have been some very important developments since the Sixth Circuit's decision in Bistline I. In its Report to Congress: Federal Child Pornography Offenses (Dec. 2012), www.ussc.gov/Legislative_ and_ Public_ Affairs/ Congressional_ Testimony_ and_ Reports/ Sex_ Offense_ Topics/ 201212_ Federal_ Child_ Pornography_ Offenses/ (visited October 1, 2013), the Sentencing Commission publicly declared that the existing guidelines for child pornography offenses were flawed and in need of repair. In a letter to Judge Patti B. Saris, Chair of the Commission, dated March 5, 2013, Anne Gannon, National Coordinator for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction, responded to the Commission’s report on behalf of the Department of Justice. See Letter from Anne Gannon, Nat’l Coordinator for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction, Office of the Deputy Attorney General, U.S. Dep’t of Justice, to Honorable Patti B. Saris, Chair, U.S. Sentencing Comm’n (Mar. 5, 2013), available at http://sentencing.typepad.com/files/doj-letter-to-ussc-on-cpreport. pdf (visited Sept. 30, 2013). The Department expressed its agreement with many of the Commission’s conclusions, noting that the report “reflects a significant amount of detailed research and thoughtful analysis" and thanking the Commission for "undertaking the important task of laying the foundation for reforming sentencing practices involving non-production child pornography offenses." Id. at 1.
Nevertheless, on June 27, 2013, four months after the Commission’s report, the Sixth Circuit filed its opinion in United States v. Bistline, 720 F.3d 631 (6th Cir. 2013)(“Bistline II”) reaffirming it's holding in Bistline I, with no mention whatsoever of the Commission’s findings or the extent of the Department of Justice's concurrence. As a judge who has regularly sat on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals by designation for more than two decades, I find this inexplicable. Many of the Commission’s criticisms of the child pornography guidelines, including criticisms which the Justice Department concurred in, are identical to the ones I expressed in my sentencing colloquy in Mr. Bistline’s case. The Sentencing Commission’s criticism of the crack cocaine guidelines was cited as a reason for diminished deference for those guidelines in Kimbrough, and that part of the Kimbrough decision was cited by the Sixth Circuit in Bistline I to explain why the Supreme Court decided that the crack cocaine guidelines were entitled to less deference. See Bistline I, 665 F.3d at 763. In light of the fact that, in the interim, the Commission had spoken on the child pornography guidelines, why would the court not revisit the applicability of Kimbrough when it decided Bistline II? It seems clear to me that under Kimbrough, the child pornography guidelines should be accorded less, not more, deference than others.
It is a tragic irony that sentencing judges in the Sixth Circuit are required to give enhanced deference to guidelines which the independent Commission, relied upon so heavily by the Supreme Court in upholding the Guidelines, has now declared flawed and in need of reform. It is even more tragic that offenders in this circuit will have to rely on prosecutorial discretion, not judicial discretion, in order to receive a just and fair sentence in these cases.
October 9, 2013 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Kimbrough reasonableness case, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack
Monday, October 07, 2013
Fifth Circuit panel declares substantively unreasonable (and plainly erroneous) an above-guideline child porn sentenceI am always pleased to see examples of post-Booker reasonableness review being given some more teeth in the circuits, and a panel ruling released today by the Fifth Circuit in US v. Chandler, No. 12-30410 (5th Cir. Oct. 4, 2013) (available here), shows that even defendants convicted of child porn offenses can sometimes benefit from appellate judges taking reasonableness review seriously. Here are excerpts from the start and heart of the of the panel opinion in Chandler:
Richard Chandler pleaded guilty to engaging in a child exploitation enterprise. At sentencing, the district court varied upward by 127 months over the recommended Guidelines range to impose 420 months of imprisonment. We find that the district court erred by increasing Chandler’s sentence based on the fact that he was a police officer. We remand for re-sentencing....
The parties agree that the district court correctly calculated Chandler’s Guidelines range as 240-293 months. In the PSR, the probation officer stated that he had not identified any factors warranting a departure or variance from the Guidelines range. Chandler did not file objections to the PSR, but he filed a Motion for Deviation from Sentencing Guidelines, arguing that a significant downward departure from the Guidelines was justified in his case because the sentencing scheme for possession of child pornography is unfair and the circumstances of his offense warranted leniency. The district court rejected Chandler’s motion, noting that Chandler was not a “mere possessor” because he had repeatedly posted child pornography. The district court ultimately imposed a sentence of 420 months of imprisonment, an upward variance of 127 months from the top of the Guidelines range. The district court found that the non-Guidelines sentence was justified by the nature and circumstances of the offense, particularly Chandler’s abuse of his public office as a law enforcement officer, his use of other people’s internet connections to attempt to hide his participation in the scheme, and the fact that he posted child pornography 117 times, mostly with children 8 to 14 years of age. Chandler did not object to the sentence. Chandler filed a timely notice of appeal....
Some of the comments made by the district court here, such as those stating that by being a police officer Chandler has placed himself in a different category and should be held to a higher standard, are similar to those in Stout and could be interpreted to cross the line into impermissible reliance on Chandler’s socioeconomic status as a police officer.
To the extent that the district court’s comments regarding Chandler’s position are findings that Chandler abused his position of trust or that the offense was more serious because of Chandler’s position, the district court likewise erred. Though we are mindful that our review in this case is only for plain error, our circuit precedent is clear that a defendant’s status as a police officer, standing alone, is not a justifiable reason to increase a sentence....
[T]hough the district court stated multiple times that it was varying upwards because Chandler abused his position, the district court did not rely on any facts showing that Chandler acted in his capacity as a police officer in posting child pornography on the internet. There is no evidence in the record that he used or exploited his position as a police officer, or used any knowledge or skills he gained from that position, to commit the offense or attempt to hide it.
The district court’s error was compounded by its mischaracterization of the conduct involved in Chandler “stealing” other people’s “identities” or “internet addresses.” The only description of this conduct in the record is in a sentencing memorandum filed by the government, which states that Chandler used other people’s unsecured wireless connections. Though the government refers to this as “stealing,” it essentially amounts to logging onto an open wireless network. While we agree with the government that such activity could have caused innocent people to be subject to investigation, it clearly is not equivalent to identity theft or any sort of skilled hacking activity, though the district court discussed it as if it required highly technical knowledge that Chandler acquired as a police officer.
Monday, September 30, 2013
How common are DVD submissions as mitigation evidence as part of federal sentencing?The question in the title of this post is prompted by a somewhat amusing discussion toward the end of a Ninth Circuit panel opinion released today in US v. Laurienti, No. 11-50294 (9th Cir. Sept. 30, 2013) (available here). The following passage from the opinion provides the context for the question:
Laurienti claims for the first time on appeal that the district court committed plain error when it did not read the last two pages of his sentencing memorandum or view a DVD he had submitted. We review these contentions under the same plain error standard applicable to his claim that the district court did not listen to his evidence in mitigation. We reject these contentions for two reasons.
First, the court provided Laurienti the opportunity to present the substance of those materials during sentencing. Laurienti did so, and the court listened to his position.[FN7]
Second, and more importantly, the court explained why further considering those materials would not change its decision. The court specifically stated that it had reviewed numerous letters from Laurienti’s family, friends, and business associates. The court did not, however, find these materials persuasive in light of Laurienti’s apparent attempts to avoid making restitution payments. Considering the cumulative nature of the DVD, and the fact that the court allowed Laurienti to discuss his sentencing position at length, Laurienti has failed to establish that the court’s refusal to consider the exhibits amounted to plain error requiring reversal.
[FN7] We note in passing that the time that the attorneys and this court have spent on the issue of the unread two pages and unwatched DVD was, in all likelihood, far more extensive (and, for the parties, expensive) than if the court had simply read and watched what was before it. As Benjamin Franklin astutely observed, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Under the circumstances, I am not suprised or troubled by the Ninth Circuit's resolution of this issue, though I can understand why a defendant might be both surprised and troubled that a judge at sentencing would report that he had not bothered to watch a DVD the defense team had created for the occassion. This, in turn, leads me to wonder if mitigation DVDs are common submissions by the defense in some federal courts or for some sets of defendants (and also whether judicial disregard of such DVDs submissions might also be common).
A few prior related posts:
- Interesting sign of the modern high-tech sentencing times
- "Documentation, Documentary, and the Law: What Should be Made of Victim Impact Videos?"
September 30, 2013 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Advice for the US Sentencing Commission from former USDJ Nancy GertnerI am genuinely unsure if the US Sentencing Commission gets to keep working if we end up having a federal government shut-down this week. But I am sure that the USSC starts an official new fiscal year as of tomorrow morning and that any government shut-down is not going to keep federal defendants from being sentenced and that the USSC will be up-and-running in some capacity both sooner and later. For those reasons, I am pleased right now to be able to post these comments sent my way by former federal district judge (and now Harvard law professor) Nancy Gertner about what the USSC ought to be doing as FY 2014 in the federal sentencing system gets underway:
At a time when the “common law of sentencing,” is being shaped in federal district courts, why does the Sentencing Commission only post Circuit Court decisions on its web site? In 2012, sentences that had been appealed on the grounds of unreasonableness were affirmed 95 percent of the time. And that rate has remained steady on the national level: In 2011, the affirmance rate was roughly 94 percent; in 2010 it was approximately 96 percent; and in 2009, 97 percent affirmances. In my circuit, the First Circuit, not a single sentence was deemed unreasonable on appeal in 2011 or 2012, and only a handful of cases qualified in the immediately preceding years. In effect, as with other areas of law where the standards of review are forgiving (think evidentiary appeals on forensic issues which are reviewed for “abuse of discretion” and rarely overturned), the appellate courts are not defining substantive sentencing standards, and imposing only minimal procedural ones.
Clearly most of the meaningful sentencing developments -- the substantive sentencing standards, the guideline analysis and trenchant critique -- are happening at the district court level in the decisions of judges like John Gleeson and Jack Weinstein (S.D.N.Y.), Mark Bennett (N.D. Iowa), Ellen Huvelle (D.C.), Paul Friedman (D.C.) and Lynn Adelman (E.D. Wisconsin). While not all judges take the time to write formal sentencing opinions, those that do should have their work circulated by our “expert” Commission rather than being ignored.
If the Commission is interested in minimizing disparity in sentencing in a post-Booker world (which should be one of its goals -- hardly the only one), what better way than to make certain that the opinions of district court judges are communicated more broadly to the federal bench? When these judges offer a reasoned analysis of the Guidelines or an alternative way of analyzing the cases, why not ensure that other judges see their work and decide whether to follow it? Other judges can look at their reasoning– not as binding precedent, but as a template for the cases they see, e.g. here’s one approach to firearms cases, non violent drug offenders, white collar cases, etc. If a common law of sentencing is ever to evolve -- supplementing (or in some cases supplanting) the Guidelines -- why not assist in its development? In a common law system, decisional law establishes standards. Uniformity is not enforced from above -- as in civil code countries -- but evolves from reasoned judicial decisions. In effect, with advisory Guidelines, we have a hybrid system -- Guidelines and decisional law.
To look at the Commission web site, there is only one orthodoxy -- the Guidelines, and Appellate Court decisions that rarely say much of anything. In fact, the message conveyed by the web site is that the Commission is not interested in uniformity as a general matter, just one kind of uniformity -- the uniform enforcement of its flawed product, the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. Teach the Guidelines. Describe appellate court decisions affirming whatever the district courts do without meaningful analysis. Ignore the fine work of the judges trying to create meaningful standards where it counts the most, in the sentencing of individuals.
Tuesday, August 06, 2013
Eighth Circuit panel, though requiring more explanation, suggests probation could be reasonable sentence when guideline range was 11-14 yearsBecause the Eighth Circuit has a well-earned reputation for being pretty tough on criminal defendants in sentencing appeals in the post-Booker era, I find especially notable its nuanced ruling today in US v. Cole, No. 11-1232 (8th Cir. Aug. 8, 2013) (available here). The start of the panel opinion in Cole sets out the basics of the ruling:
A jury found Abby Rae Cole guilty of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1349; tax evasion, in violation of 26 U.S.C. § 7201; and conspiracy to commit tax fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371. The mail and wire fraud conspiracy conviction stems from her company’s theft of nearly $33 million from Best Buy over a four-year period. The tax fraud conspiracy and tax evasion convictions stem from understating tax liability by more than $3 million between 2004 and 2007 by using various schemes to conceal her company’s true profitability. Cole’s advisory Guideline range was 135 to 168 months imprisonment, but the district court varied downward and sentenced her to three years probation on each count, with all terms to be served concurrently. The government appeals Cole’s sentence, arguing it is substantively unreasonable. Cole cross-appeals, challenging her convictions. We affirm Cole’s convictions but remand her case to the district court to provide a fuller explanation of her sentence.
Co-conspirators much more responsible than Cole for the big fraud here got lengthy sentences (15 and 7.5 years), which seems to help explain why the district court decided to give this defendant such a big break. And, as this final key paragraph of the sentencing discussion reveals, the panel here thinks such a big downward variance could be justified, but needs to be more fully explained:
Because Cole’s probationary sentence represents a “major departure” from the advisory Guidelines range, the court’s brief and contradictory explanation of Cole’s sentence is not sufficient “to allow for meaningful appellate review and to promote the perception of fair sentencing.” See Gall, 552 U.S. at 50. Consequently, we cannot evaluate the government’s claim of substantive unreasonableness at this time, and we remand for the district court to more fully explain the defendant-specific facts and policy decisions upon which it relied in determining that the probationary sentence is “sufficient, but not greater than necessary,” § 3553(a), to achieve the sentencing objectives set forth in section 3553(a).
August 6, 2013 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Tuesday, July 02, 2013
Does postponement of Jacksons' sentencing suggest big rulings are in the works?High-profile white-collar federal sentencing proceedings always intrigue me, especially when they involve a cocktail of dynamic doctrinal and policy issues as is the case in the upcoming sentencings of former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., and his wife Sandi. But , as reported here by the Chicago Tribune, it now appears we will have to all wait a bit longer for the Jacksons' day of sentencing reckoning:
The South Side Democrats had been scheduled to learn their fates Wednesday, until the delay was announced by U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who is not related to the pair. A court spokesman said neither the prosecution nor defense asked for the postponement.
"The matter was rescheduled to accommodate the court's schedule and workload — neither side requested a continuance," said Jenna Gatski, a spokeswoman for the U.S. District Court.
Jackson Jr. pleaded guilty to misusing about $750,000 in campaign cash. Sandi Jackson, a former Chicago alderman, pleaded guilty to failing to report about $600,000 on income tax returns over several years.
The postponement was announced after a telephone conference call between the judge and the Jacksons, the court said. Bill Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, said the sentencings would not take place this week.
Jackson Jr., 48, faces 46 to 57 months in prison under federal sentencing guidelines, which are not mandatory. His lawyers want a sentence lower than what the guidelines suggest and assert that Jackson Jr., who reportedly has bipolar disorder, could not get proper medical care in prison. Federal prosecutors want him to serve a four-year sentence and to be placed on supervised release for three years after that.
Sandi Jackson, 49, faces one to two years in prison. Her attorneys want her sentenced to probation, saying the couple's two children, ages 9 and 13, need their mother. Prosecutors want her imprisoned for 18 months and put on supervised release for a year.
The question in the title of this post is my reaction to report that neither side sought a postponement and the indication that the change was "to accommodate the court's schedule and workload." I would be very surprised if Judge Amy Berman Jackson had a trial or lots of other litigation matters crop up in the middle of this summer holiday week; reading these latest tea leaves now has me wondering (and weirdly excited) that this postponement is based in part on the judge's plans to issue a significant written opinion on federal sentencing law, policy and practice along with her sentencing ruling. (Or maybe the judge just has tickets to see Bryce Harper back playing again for the Washington Nationals during their homestand this week, and she decided it was more fitting to catch a baseball game than to deprive liberty right before we all celebrate Independence Day.)
- You be the prosecutor: what federal sentence should be sought for Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife?
- Jacksons plead guilty and federal prosecutors recommend significant prison terms for both
- Noteworthy new lawyer and now a new judge for Jesse Jackson Jr. sentencing
- Months before scheduled sentencing, lawyers buzzing about Jesse Jackson Jr.'s mental health
- "Will the Jacksons get a slap on the wrist, or will their heads be mounted?"
UPDATE: This local article now reports that the Jacksons' sentencings have now been set for August 14.
Thursday, June 13, 2013
"The Non-Redelegation Doctrine" with post-Booker sentencing in mindNow available via SSRN is this intriguing new article from F. Andrew Hessick III and Carissa Byrne Hessick, which is titled simply "The Non-Redelegation Doctrine." Here is the abstract, which highlights why this article should be of special interest to sentencing fans:
In United States v. Booker, the Court remedied a constitutional defect in the federal sentencing scheme by rendering advisory the then-binding sentencing guidelines promulgated by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. One important but overlooked consequence of this decision is that it redelegated the power to set sentencing policy from the Sentencing Commission to federal judges. District courts now may sentence based on their own policy views instead of being bound by the policy determinations rendered by the Commission.
This Essay argues that, when faced with a decision that implicates a delegation, the courts should not redelegate unless authorized by Congress to do so. The proposed non-redelegation doctrine rests on both constitutional and practical grounds. Constitutionally, because delegation defines how Congress chooses to perform its core function of setting policy, judicial redelegation raises substantial separation of powers concerns. Practically, judicial redelegation is bound to affect the substantive policies that are adopted because the policies that the agent adopts depend on the agent’s unique characteristics and preferences. Although this Essay uses Booker to illustrate the need for the presumption, the presumption would apply equally to the myriad contexts in which Congress delegates its power to make policy and courts have the opportunity to alter that delegation.
Monday, June 10, 2013
Guidelines are "the lodestone" of federal sentencing (as well as "the starting point and the initial benchmark")The title of this post is drawn from the key word in a key paragraph that captured my attention in what is otherwise a straight-forward opinion by the Supreme Court today in Peugh (basics here). Here is the context from a paragraph that effectively summarizes the conclusions of the Peugh majority opinion per Justice Sotomayor:
Major kudos to Justice Sotomayor for adding a fitting new term to the post-Booker federal sentencing lexicon. Kudos also to the majority Court for stressing these enduring modern federal sentencing realities in the course of reaching its conclusions:
"The federal system adopts procedural measures intended to make the Guidelines the lodestone of sentencing. A retrospective increase in the Guidelines range applicable to a defendant creates a sufficient risk of a higher sentence to constitute an ex post facto violation."
When Peugh committed his crime, the recommended sentence was 30 to 37 months. When he was sentenced, it was 70 to 87 months.... Such a retrospective increase in the measure of punishment raises clear ex post facto concerns. We have previously recognized, for instance, that a defendant charged with an increased punishment for his crime is likely to feel enhanced pressure to plead guilty. See Carmell, 529 U.S., at 534, n.24; Weaver, 450 U.S., at 32. This pressure does not disappear simply because the Guidelines range is advisory; the defendant will be aware that the range is intended to, and usually does, exert controlling influence on the sentence that the court will impose....
On the Government’s account, the Guidelines are just one among many persuasive sources a sentencing court can consult, no different from a “policy paper.” Brief for United States 28. The Government’s argument fails to acknowledge, however, that district courts are not required to consult any policy paper in order to avoid reversible procedural error; nor must they “consider the extent of [their] deviation” from a given policy paper and “ensure that the justification is sufficiently compelling to support the degree of the variance,” Gall, 552 U.S., at 50. Courts of appeals, in turn, are not permitted to presume that a sentence that comports with a particular policy paper is reasonable; nor do courts of appeals, in considering whether the district court’s sentence was reasonable, weigh the extent of any departure from a given policy paper in determining whether the district court abused its discretion, see id., at 51. It is simply not the case that the Sentencing Guidelines are merely a volume that the district court reads with academic interest in the course of sentencing.
And kudos also to Justice Thomas for providing a slightly competing vision of the post-Booker world via passages in his dissent like the following that, I suspect, will end up in many more defense sentencing submissions than government ones:
[T]he Guidelines do not constrain the discretion of district courts and, thus, have no legal effect on a defendant’s sentence. Second, to the extent that the amended Guidelines create a risk that a defendant might receive a harsher punishment, that risk results from the Guidelines’ persuasive force, not any legal effect....
Petitioner next argues that the Guidelines limit district court discretion because sentences falling outside the Guidelines are more likely to be reversed for substantive unreasonableness. Brief for Petitioner 25. I doubt, however, that reversal is a likely outcome when a district judge can justify his sentence based on agreement with either of two Guidelines — the old or the new. If a district court calculated the sentencing range under the new Guidelines but sentenced the defendant to a below-Guidelines sentence that fell within the range provided by the old Guidelines, it would be difficult to label such a sentence “substantively unreasonable.” To do so would cast doubt on every within-Guidelines sentence issued under the old Guidelines.
I have long suggested that defense attorneys regularly and in every case calculate, and submit to a sentencing court prior to sentencing, the "old" sentencing ranges that would have applied under the original 1987 version of the federal sentencing guidelines which were first promulgated by the original US Sentencing Commission. The above-quoted passages from Justice Thomas now would enable sentencing courts to feel confident that a sentence within the range suggested by the 1987 guidelines should nearly always be deemed reasonable.
June 10, 2013 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack
SCOTUS concludes Ex Post Facto Clause still limits application of new guidelines after BookerThanks to the fine folks live-blogging at SCOTUSblog, I can provide this summary report (with a few edits) of the one big sentencing ruling handed down by the US Supreme Court this morning:
Justice Sotomayor for the Court in Peugh v. United States....
The decision of the Seventh Circuit is reversed, the case is remanded. The Court is splintered. Justice Sotomayor delivers the opinion of the Court except for one part. The Ex Post Facto Clause is violated when a defendant is sentenced under guidelines promulgated after he committed his acts, and the new version of the guidelines provides for a higher sentence than the one in effect at the time he committed his act.
Justice Sotomayor's opinion is for the Court except for a discussion about the policies underlying the Ex Post Facto Clause. It's another case where Justice Kennedy joins the more liberal members of the Court.
Justice Thomas dissents, joined by the Chief and Scalia and Alito. Justice Alito dissents, joined by Justice Scalia. Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan join all of the Sotomayor opinion; Justice Kennedy declines to join Part III-C.
The big fight in the case was whether the Sentencing Guidelines are important enough to trigger Ex Post Facto review given that they are no longer binding -- the majority says they are....
The part of the Sotomayor opinion that Kennedy does not join is a response to the argument by the government and the dissent that the Ex Post Facto Clause is not implicated by this case. The ruling will be significant to the ability of courts to apply tougher new sentencing guidelines to pending cases. It is also a strong reaffirmation of the Ex Post Facto Clause.
The full opinions in Peugh are available here. The opinion for the Court per Justice Sotomayor runs 20 pages, and the main dissent per Justice Thomas is 14 pages.
Kudos to the Court in keep this one relatively brief, as I suspect every sentence from the Justices in this case could end up having some impact on the operation of the post-Booker federal sentencing world. And once I get some time to read these opinions, I will do some follow-up posts on whether Peugh passes the smell test (get it..., I know, pretty lame).
June 10, 2013 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack
Tuesday, March 05, 2013
The many (impossible?) challenges of federal child pornography sentencingThe title of this post is inspired in part by the US Sentencing Commission's recent report, which highlights many of the flaws with the current child porn sentencing guidelines and set forth a number of ideas and needs for effective reform (basics here and here). But what is really driving it is this new local article reporting on a federal sentencing in Maine, headlined "‘There will be no more victims,’ judge tells man at child pornography sentencing." First, here are the basics of the sentencing story:
“There will be no more victims of Walter Mosher,” a federal judge told the 65-year-old convicted sex offender Monday in sentencing him to more than a dozen years in prison for possessing child pornography.
U.S. District Judge John Woodcock sentenced Walter A. Mosher Jr. of Hampden to 12 years and seven months behind bars. The judge also ordered him to remain on supervised release for life when he is released.
Mosher is scheduled to be sentenced Wednesday at the Penobscot Judicial Center on one count of gross sexual assault. Mosher reported to police through his attorney that he molested a boy under the age of 14 between Feb. 1, 2011 and March 1, 2012, according to the sentencing memorandum filed in federal court by his attorney, Jeffrey Silverstein of Bangor. Mosher pleaded guilty to the Class A crime Nov. 21 at the Penobscot Judicial Center.
Under the federal sentencing guidelines, Woodcock was allowed to consider Mosher’s recent guilty plea as “relevant conduct” in connection with the possession of child pornography charge, even though the victim was not depicted in the images found on Mosher’s computer. The federal judge focused on the sexual abuse of the child as he directed his comments at Mosher.
“There are some cases in this court that cry out for justice and yours is one of them,” Woodcock told Mosher shortly before sentencing him. “This was an inexplicable and hideous violation of trust. What we’ve seen today is just the tip of the iceberg of pain you have caused.” A parent of the victim told the judge that Mosher needed “to go away, and go away for a very long time.”
Mosher was required to register as a sex offender because he was convicted in 1986 in Aroostook County Superior Court in Houlton in connection with the molestation or abuse of 15 minors, according to the sentencing memorandum. Since serving 11 years on the 1986 charges, Mosher was not charged with another crime until he was indicted by a federal grand jury on March 15, 2012, according to court documents.
In an emotional statement, Mosher described in graphic detail how he was sexually abused as a child by a female relative. He said that when he committed his earlier crimes, he was going through a divorce and drinking heavily. “I am deeply ashamed and sorry for what I have done,” he told Woodcock. “I don’t know why I have done these things. I have no idea how I got to a place to do these horrible things.”
Mosher has been held without bail since his arrest the day after he was indicted. Mosher pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography in June in federal court. According to court documents, Mosher’s computer contained images of child pornography, specifically digital images and videos that were produced using minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct....
Because of his 1986 convictions, Mosher faced a minimum of 10 years in federal prison and a maximum of 20 years and a fine of up to $250,000. On the gross sexual assault charge, Mosher faces up to 30 years in state prison and a fine of up to $50,000.
Even without knowing any more that these most basic details about the defendant in this case or the particulars of his crime, it is easy to see all the tough questions facing Chief Judge Woodcock: e.g., should the defendant's federal child porn sentence here be longer (or shorter) given that he is surely soon to get a lengthy state sentence for gross sexual assault? should the defendant's recidivism at such an advanced age mean that a federal sentence now should try to ensure Mosher dies in prison, or should the sentence at least offer the defendant a glimmer of hope that he might be able to be free again in his 80s? With the facts of the criminal and the defendants criminal history so troublesome, should the defendant get much (if any) credit for pleading guilty and accepting responsibility?
I could go on and on highlighting all these challenges in this one case, but what really caught my attention when reviewing this article was these notably disparate headlines below the piece noting "similar articles":
- "New Gloucester man sentenced to 25 years on child porn charges"
- "Old Orchard Beach man gets 1 year and 1 day for possessing child porn"
In turn, a quick search for headlines from the same local Maine paper (the Bangor Daily News) revealed these additional sentencing headlines concerning the disposition of child porn charges over just the last 24 months:
- "Berwick man gets 7 years for possessing child pornography"
- "Bangor lawyer suspended from practicing gets six months for child pornography"
- "Former Newport man sentenced to 20 years in federal prison for having child pornography"
- "Fort Fairfield man sentenced to five years in federal prison for possessing child porn"
- "Sanford man gets nearly 30-year sentence on child porn charges"
- "Ex-kindergarten teacher gets 16 years on child porn charge"
- "Ex-state prosecutor sentenced to 16 years for child porn offenses"
A quick click through to a number of these article reveals that there are a number of striking parallels as well as a number of striking differences in the offenses and offenders in these cases. Nevertheless, I still find notable and telling that even in a small and seemingly homogeous federal district like Maine, here is an accounting of the number of months in prison given to 10 child pornography offenders (going from lowest to highest sentence):
6 months; 12 months; 60 months; 84 months; 151 months; 192 months; 192 months; 240 months; 300 months; 340 months
The point of my post here is not to assert or even suggest that any of these referenced sentences is right or wrong or should be higher or lower. Without spending a lot more time looking through the facts of all these cases, I think it is extremely hard to reach even a tentative conclusion about this pattern of sentencing result. But that is my main broader point: there is, of course, a pressing interest and enduring goal for everyone involved to try to determine the "right" sentence in federal child pornography cases not only in each individual case, but also across a range of cases. But, these cases all necessarily raise so many important and challenging issues, I wonder and worry if the goal to get federal child pornography sentencing "just right" is a kind of "fool's gold" that many will pursue at a great cost but ultimately with little of value to show from the pusuit.
Recent related posts:
- US Sentencing Commission releases big new report on federal child porn sentencing
- Doesn't the new USSC report necessarily rebut any appellate "presumption of reasonableness" for within-guideline child porn sentences?
March 5, 2013 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (26) | TrackBack
Sunday, March 03, 2013
"Should defendants’ age, health issues be sentencing factors?"The question in the title of this post is the sub-heading of this notable article appearing in my own local Columbus Dispatch, which carries the main headline "Seniors argue for less time in prison." Here are excerpts:
Is prison more of a punishment if a defendant is 50 rather than 20? Some defense attorneys are debating that issue in federal court as they seek to minimize prison sentences for defendants 50 or older.
“We’re seeing it a lot,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Deborah A. Solove said. The issue is at the heart of an unprecedented second appeal that Solove has filed over the prison sentence imposed by U.S. District Judge James L. Graham on a Knox County man, Richard Bistline.
Graham originally sentenced Bistline, 70, of Mount Vernon, in 2010. The sentence, for possessing child pornography, was one day in prison plus 10 years of supervised probation. Solove appealed, saying the sentence was too lenient. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Graham to resentence Bistline, saying the original penalty “does not reflect the seriousness of his offense.”
In January, Graham ordered the same sentence but added three years of home confinement as part of Bistline’s probation. The judge said he didn’t order more prison time because he was concerned about Bistline’s age and health problems, which included two strokes and a heart attack a year ago. He questioned whether Bistline would get adequate medical care in prison.
Solove, who prosecuted the case, had asked for a five-year prison term, which was a bit less than is called for in the sentencing guidelines determined by the court. Graham maintained that would be “a life sentence, or more accurately, a death sentence,” for Bistline.
Graham said last week that judges can consider age and infirmity in sentencing, and he does that if a defendant is not a danger to the public. “I was completely satisfied in this case that he was not. Your job as a judge is to figure out which one of these defendants are the really bad guys you need to put away.”
In another case, Laura E. Byrum, an assistant federal public defender, is arguing that her 64-year-old client should get a prison sentence that’s shorter than the guidelines call for, in part because of his age and health problems. Robert W. Burke of 767 Bracken Court, Worthington, pleaded guilty to one count of receiving child pornography, and the guidelines call for a 20-year prison term.
Byrum has asked for a 10-year prison term followed by 20 years of supervised release. She argues that the life expectancy of a man Burke’s age is 18 years, and his is likely shorter because he has skin cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Twenty years is a “virtual death sentence,” she wrote in her sentencing memorandum.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Heather Hill said the federal prison system can handle most of the typical health problems associated with aging. “Going to prison isn’t easy for anyone, but that is the consequence of breaking the law,” she said. “We’re not sure that being nearer to the grave gives you license to be a criminal.”
According to a 2012 report by Human Rights Watch, state and federal prisons held 124,440 prisoners who were 55 or older in 2010. That was a 282 percent increase from 1995, at a time when the total number of prisoners rose by 42 percent.
Prior related posts:
- Sixth Circuit finds substantively unreasonable a one-day of lock-up for child porn downloading
- District Judge at resentencing continues to resist federal child porn guidelines even after Sixth Circuit reversal
Thursday, February 21, 2013
Jacksons plead guilty and federal prosecutors recommend significant prison terms for bothThis recent post, titled "You be the prosecutor: what federal sentence should be sought for Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife?", engendered a lengthy debate over federal sentencing law and practice as applied to a pair of new high-profile federal defendants. Now, this New York Times article, headlined "Jesse Jackson Jr. Pleads Guilty: ‘I Lived Off My Campaign’," reports that federal prosecutor, apparently parroting the recommendations of the federal sentencing guidelines, have already urged significant prison terms for Jesse and Sandi Jackson. Here are the details:
Jesse L. Jackson Jr., the former Democratic representative from Illinois, pleaded guilty on Wednesday to one felony fraud count in connection with his use of $750,000 in campaign money to pay for living expenses and buy items like stuffed animals, elk heads and fur capes.
As part of a plea agreement, prosecutors recommended that Mr. Jackson receive a sentence of 46 to 57 months in prison. The federal judge overseeing the case, Robert L. Wilkins, is scheduled to sentence Mr. Jackson on June 28....
“Guilty, Your Honor — I misled the American people,” Mr. Jackson said when asked whether he would accept the plea deal. Mr. Jackson’s father, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, his mother and several brothers and sisters accompanied him to the hearing.
Mr. Jackson’s wife, Sandi, also accompanied him, and later in the day she pleaded guilty to a charge that she filed false income tax statements during the time that Mr. Jackson was dipping into his campaign treasury. Prosecutors said they would seek to have her sentenced to 18 to 24 months....
Last summer, Mr. Jackson took a medical leave from Congress and was later treated for bipolar disorder. After winning re-election in November, he resigned, citing his health and the federal investigation into his use of campaign money.
After the hearing, Mr. Jackson’s lawyer, Reid H. Weingarten, said his client had “come to terms with his misconduct.” Mr. Weingarten said that Mr. Jackson had serious health issues that “directly related” to his conduct. “That’s not an excuse, it’s just a fact,” Mr. Weingarten said.
Court papers released by federal prosecutors on Wednesday provided new details about how Mr. Jackson and his wife used the $750,000 in campaign money to finance their lavish lifestyle.
From 2007 to 2011, Mr. Jackson bought $10,977.74 worth of televisions, DVD players and DVDs at Best Buy, according to the documents. In 2008, Mr. Jackson used the money for things like a $466.30 dinner at CityZen in the Mandarin Oriental in Washington and a $5,587.75 vacation at the Martha’s Vineyard Holistic Retreat, the document said.
On at least two instances, Mr. Jackson and his wife used campaign money at Build-A-Bear Workshop, a store where patrons can create stuffed animals. From December 2007 through December 2008, the Jacksons spent $313.89 on “stuffed animals and accessories for stuffed animals” from Build-A-Bear, according to the documents....
Documents released on Friday showed how Mr. Jackson used his campaign money to buy items like fur capes, celebrity memorabilia and expensive furniture. Among those items were a $5,000 football signed by American presidents and two hats that once belonged to Michael Jackson, including a $4,600 fedora.
Because neither Jesse Jr. nor Sandi Jackson would appear to present any threat to public safety whatsoever, I am not quite sure why federal prosecutors believe that imposing a sentence "sufficient but not greater than necessary" to achieve congressional sentencing purposes requires a muti-year prison term for both of them. I fully understand, of course, that the sentences here ought to be severe enough to serve general deterrence purposes. But I am not sure that such extended prison terms are needed, especially if the Jacksons' sentences require them now to pay significant criminal fines and penalities in addition to forfeiting all ill-gotten gains and paying all their tax liabilities.
Former federal prosecutor Bill Otis has said repeatedly in recent threads that federal prosecutors should not have their sentencing recommendations defined by applicable sentencing guidelines. But I surmise that the prosecutors' recommendations here that Jesse Jr. get 46 to 57 months in prison and that Sandi get 18 to 24 months are drawn directly from the guidelines. (We can be quite sure that the defense attorneys in these cases will not draw their recommendations from the guidelines, and I would guess that the defense will end up making full-throated arguments for non-prison sentences for both Jesse Jr. and Sandi.)
Recent related post:
February 21, 2013 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (44) | TrackBack
Tuesday, February 19, 2013
Judicious judicial views from US District Judge Polster when handing down Amish beard-cutting sentences
As regular readers know, the recent federal sentencing proceedings surrounding Amish defendants convicted for hate crimes generated considerable debate and commentary in this space. I was pleased to learn that, among those following some of the blog discussion, was ND Ohio US Attorney Steven Dettelbach. I know this because USA Dettelbach late last week forwarded me a copy of parts of the sentencing transcript from the proceedings before US District Judge Dan Polster for posting. USA Dettelbach also sent along these comments in response to this earlier guest-post about the sentencing (which I have modified slightly for clarity while preserving the substance and which I have received permission to post along with the sentencing transcript):
"The guest post failed to include any mention whatsoever of the comments that the sentencing Judge made. It is possible that the guest columnist missed that portion of the sentencing, but some mention or discussion of the sentencing Judge's reasons and rulings would have been important in any fair analysis -- much less a critique -- of a sentence handed down by that Judge. Indeed, such comments might also be pertinent in fairly analyzing the actions of the government in a case before that Judge as well. In fact, the exercise of such discretion, and the reasons provided, would be particularly pertinent to those who espouse the opinion that judges should be afforded discretion in sentencing cases that they hear as neutrals."
Related prior posts:
- Ohio Amish hair-cutting incidents now a federal hate crimes sentencing matter
- Stark extremes for forthcoming debate over federal sentencing of Amish beard-cutters
- Interesting defense arguments for sentencing leniency in Amish beard-cutting case
- Feds request LWOP for Samuel Mullet Sr., leader of Amish beard-cutting gang
- Are tough sentences sought in Amish beard-cutting case part of a DOJ "war on religion"?
- "Amish beard-cutting ringleader gets 15 years"
- Guest post on Amish sentencing: "A Travesty in Cleveland":
"Doing Kimbrough Justice: Implementing Policy Disagreements with the Federal Sentencing Guidelines"The title of this post is the title of this newly available piece via SSRN authored by Scott Michelman and Jay Rorty. Here is the abstract:
Federal sentencing law is in the midst of a period of profound change. In 1984, responding to concerns about excessive judicial discretion in sentencing, Congress created the United States Sentencing Commission to promulgate the United States Sentencing Guidelines (Guidelines), a complex and mandatory schedule of federal criminal sentences based on a multitude of offense- and offender-specific factors. The Guidelines were introduced in 1987 and governed federal sentencing for nearly twenty years. But in 2005, the Supreme Court held that the Guidelines, by requiring judges instead of juries to find facts that could increase a defendant's sentence, violated the Sixth Amendment. The Court's remedy was to render the Guidelines advisory only -- a starting point but not necessarily the endpoint for sentencing decisions.
Over the past several years, the Supreme Court and the lower federal courts have had to answer a range of questions about how the new advisory Guideline system would work in practice. Among the most consequential were the procedural question of how a district court should apply the now-advisory Guidelines, and the substantive question of whether a court could vary from the Guidelines on the basis of a policy disagreement with the Guidelines themselves rather than the circumstances of an individual defendant.
The Supreme Court answered these two crucial questions in the Gall and Kimbrough cases in December 2007, yet these two decisions seemed to talk past each other in terms of sentencing procedure. Kimbrough authorized policy-based variances. Gall instructed courts how to apply the advisory Guidelines in individual cases. But neither case explained how or when in the sentencing process courts should apply the policy-based variances the Court had just authorized. The result has been a lack of procedural uniformity among district courts applying policy-based variances, with most courts mingling policy and individualized considerations without specifying the role of each factor in determining sentences. Most courts have not even acknowledged, much less attempted to bridge, the gap between the substantive sentencing considerations authorized in Kimbrough and the procedural roadmap laid out in Gall. Academic discourse has likewise left this issue unaddressed.
This Article urges courts to reconcile Kimbrough and Gall by adding an analytical step to the sentencing process through which courts can explicitly apply policy considerations separately from, and prior to, individualized considerations. The blending of policy- and individual-based factors in sentencing adversely affects both the fairness of individual sentences and the development of the Sentencing Guidelines themselves. When courts blend different types of variances together, it is more difficult for them to exercise fully each type of discretion available under the advisory Guideline regime. Additionally, the Sentencing Commission relies on a continuing dialogue with district courts to fulfill its perpetual responsibility of refining the Guidelines based on empirical data and national experience; a clear articulation of courts' grounds for variance, therefore, provides vital information about how the Guidelines can be improved. The creation of an independent analytical step will ensure faithfulness to Kimbrough and due consideration of each facet of the sentencing court's discretion. The result will be a sentencing process that is more precise, more transparent, and ultimately fairer.
February 19, 2013 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Kimbrough reasonableness case, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack