Thursday, December 08, 2011

Split Eighth Circuit panel affirms 10-year-max sentence despite guidelines range of 0 to 6 months

Today brings a fascinating split sentencing decision from the Eighth Circuit in US v. Richart, No. 10-1167 (8th Cir. Dec. 8, 2011) (available here).  The majority opinion starts this way:

After a jury found Wanda Richart guilty of one count of conspiracy to make a false statement in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371 and one count of making a false statement in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1001, the district court sentenced her to sixty months' imprisonment on each count, to be served consecutively, and three years' supervised release.  Richart appeals her sentence, arguing that the district court committed procedural error in imposing a two-level adjustment for her role in the offense, in imposing an upward departure, and in running the two sentences consecutive to each other.  Richart also contends that the district court abused its discretion by imposing a substantively unreasonable sentence and by imposing special conditions of supervised release. For the reasons stated below, we affirm.

Though this starting description from the majority does not make the Richart case sound too exciting, these passages from the start of Judge Bye's dissent highlight why the Richart decision makes for an intersting read:

The district court here varied upward from the 0 to 6 months Guideline range and sentenced Richart to 120 months’ imprisonment—the statutory maximum—for making, and conspiring to make, false statements to an FBI agent....

The record demonstrates the district court’s decision to vary upward from the 0 to 6 months Guideline range, and impose a 120-month sentence, rested largely, if not exclusively, on the court’s desire to correct what it perceived to be an inadequate state sentence for Richart’s second-degree murder conviction. Specifically, the court gave significant weight to the nature of Richart’s state conviction, the length of her state sentence, and the uncertain amount of time she would actually serve in state prison.

December 8, 2011 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

"Ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich sentenced to 14 years"

The title of this post is the headline of this local story reporting on the outcome of the highest-profile federal sentencing proceeding in recent months.  Here is how the piece starts:

Disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was sentenced Wednesday to 14 years in prison after he made a final plea for leniency, acknowledging his guilt and saying, “I am unbelievably sorry.”

“I believe he did, in fact, accept [responsibility],” U.S. District Judge James Zagel said in announcing how long Blagojevich should spend in prison after being convicted of 18 corruption charges that included attempting to sell or trade an appointment to fill the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by the election of President Barack Obama.

But the judge said the entire state suffered from his actions.  “When it is the governor who goes bad, the fabric of Illinois is torn and disfigured and not easily or quickly repaired,” Zagel said.  “You did that damage.”

Blagojevich slightly sunk his head after the sentence was read.  Wife Patti put her hand up to her mouth, but did not cry, as she has done in previous hearings.  Blagojevich walked up to her and asked, “You OK? Stay strong.”  After court was over, the two embraced in the courtroom and she buried her head in his chest.

Blagojevich will have to surrender Feb. 16.  Under federal sentencing rules, Blagojevich will have to serve 85 percent of his sentence, or just under 12 years in prison, at a minimum.  The ex-governor turns 55 on Saturday.

In deciding the sentence, the judge said he had given credit to Blagojevich for accepting responsibility for his crimes in remarks made Wednesday morning.  “It’s clear he is not blaming” the people around him, said Zagel, adding that he also gave Blagojevich credit for his work on behalf of children while governor in creating the state’s All Kids health-care program.

Referring to comments from Blagojevich’s lawyers in asking for a sentence of no more than 3½ years, Zagel said:  “I don’t doubt his devotion to children, but this is not ... exceptional, in my own experience.  I see case after case where good fathers are bad citizens.  There is no question that the innocent children of felons suffer.  This is tragic, but, as he admits, the fault of this lies with the defendant alone.  Now, it is too late.  “If it is any consolation to his children, he does not stand convicted of being a bad father.”

But Zagel noted the damage caused by Blagojevich “is not measured in the value of money and property.  The harm is the erosion of the public trust in government; [people’s] confidence in and trust in government.”

UPDATEThis press release from the US Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Illinois provides a bit of (curious?) explanation for the application of the guidelines by Judge Zagel:

During the sentencing hearing, Judge Zagel agreed with the government that the properly calculated advisory federal sentencing guidelines provided for a sentencing range of 30 years to life.  He also agreed with the government that the range was not appropriate within the context of this case, and found an “effective” guideline range of 188 to 235 months in prison, which was proximate to the government’s recommended sentence of 15 to 20 years.  The judge further reduced the range to 151 to 188 months after finding that Blagojevich accepted responsibility for his crimes at sentencing.

I hope through future media coverage of this case that I come to better understand just how and why Judge Zagel "agreed with the government that the [30 year to life calculated guideline] range was not appropriate within the context of this case, and found an 'effective' guideline range of 188 to 235 months in prison."   Specifically, I wonder (1) if Judge Zagel formally justified this decision on a "traditional" departure ground or on 3553(a) variance concepts (or both), and (2) just how Judge Zagel decided to move down six offense levels on the USSG Sentencing Table in order to settle on the range of 151 to 188 months.  

I also find notable and interesting that, after giving Blago this six-level downward adjustment under the guidelines AND giving him an extra two-point reduction by giving him (surprising?) credit for acceptance of responsibility, Judge Zagel than decided he should give Blago a sentence in the middle of the then-applicable guideline range.  (For those of you math-challenged like me, I used a calculator to figure out that a 14-year sentence equals 168 months.)

December 7, 2011 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

"Rezko gets 10.5-year sentence; 'Enough is enough,' says judge in ruling that may bode ill for Blagojevich"

The title of this post is the headline of this Chicago Tribune article reporting on a high-profile sentencing that took place in a federal district court on Tuesday.  The article gets started this way:

Even before Antoin "Tony" Rezko's long-awaited sentencing began Tuesday, his teenage daughter appeared anxious, her arms clutching her stomach and her face already in a pained expression. Two hours later, when a judge sentenced Rezko, once a top adviser to former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, to 10.5 years in prison, his daughter, Chanelle, broke down in sobs and collapsed into her mother's arms.

The sentence — one of the toughest ever handed out in the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse for a public corruption conviction — would appear to be bad news for Blagojevich, who is scheduled to be sentenced in two weeks by a different judge.

"Blagojevich could not have been happy when he heard the prison time that Rezko will serve," said former federal prosecutor Jeffrey Cramer. "He could reasonably get 12 to 15 years in prison."

About 40 relatives and friends attended Rezko's sentencing to show their support. At times during the hearing, some bowed their heads or placed their hands over their hearts.

In brief comments to U.S. District Court Judge Amy St. Eve, Rezko apologized and spoke of the guilt and shame he felt for what he has put his family through. "I come to ask for God's forgiveness and the court's mercy," said a pale and thin Rezko.

But St. Eve was not swayed, saying that "the sentence will send a message that enough is enough."

Rezko, 56, made a name for himself as a powerful insider and fundraiser, earning a position as one of Blagojevich's top advisers and confidants from early in his administration. He had a knack for cultivating up-and-coming politicians, including state Sen. Barack Obama, who would become president.

Prosecutors portrayed Rezko as a key member of Blagojevich's "kitchen cabinet" who exercised influence over the appointments made by the governor to state boards and commissions. In return, he expected campaign contributions to be made to Blagojevich, the government alleged.

A jury convicted him in 2008 of using his clout with Blagojevich and scheming with Stuart Levine, a longtime Republican political insider, to extort millions of dollars from firms that were seeking state business or regulatory approval.

November 23, 2011 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (21) | TrackBack

Thursday, November 17, 2011

"Post-Booker Judicial Discretion and Sentencing Trends in Criminal Intellectual Property Cases: Empirical Analysis and Societal Implications"

The title of this post is the title of this new piece on SSRN authored by Aaron B. Rabinowitz.  Here is the abstract:

As a result of the Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in Booker v. United States that rendered the United States Sentencing Commission’s Sentencing Guidelines non-mandatory, district courts now enjoy significant discretion in determining the appropriate sentence for convicted offenders and can.  Based on data for federal sentencing cases from 1997-2011, this article presents an empirical analysis of how the Booker decision has changed the way in which district courts imposes sentences on offenders convicted of intellectual property crimes, as well as a discussion of how sentences imposed on intellectual property offenders reflect more societal views of intellectual property crimes in general.

The empirical analysis reveals, inter alia, that sentences imposed on intellectual property offenders deviate from the advisory Guidelines in two out of every three cases; prosecutors seek and judges reduce sentences for intellectual property crimes more frequently than for other comparable crimes; and judge-initiated deviations occur after Booker about twice as frequently for intellectual property offenders than for other offenders, whereas such judge-initiated deviations before Booker occurred less frequently than for crimes in general or for other economic crimes.  These findings suggest that prosecutors’ and judges’ views of intellectual property crimes do not align with the sentences prescribed by the Guidelines for intellectual property crimes, and this article accordingly proposes solutions for harmonizing the advisory Guidelines sentences for intellectual property offenders with the sentences that are actually being imposed based on prosecutors’ and judges’ discretion.

November 17, 2011 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, November 07, 2011

Tenth Circuit elaborates on authority to vary from guidelines based on fast-track disparity

A Tenth Circuit panel has today issued a details opinion discussion a district court's authority to vary from the guidelines based on fast-track disparities.  The opinion in US v. Lopez-Macias, No. 10-1494 (10th Cir. Nov. 7, 2011) (available here), gets started this way:

In the 1990s, federal prosecutors handling large numbers of illegal re-entry and other immigration offenses developed early disposition or “fast-track” programs in states along the United States border with Mexico.  In 2003, Congress endorsed such programs, apparently for border districts and elsewhere, in a broadly-worded provision of the Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to End the Exploitation of Children Today Act (“PROTECT Act”). Pub. L. No. 108-21, 117 Stat. 650 (2003).  Congress specifically instructed the United States Sentencing Commission to promulgate “a policy statement authorizing a downward departure of not more than 4 levels if the Government files a motion for such departure pursuant to an early disposition program authorized by the Attorney General and the United States Attorney.”  Pub. L. No. 108-21, § 401(m), 117 Stat. at 675.  In response, the Sentencing Commission promulgated U.S.S.G. § 5K3.1: “Upon motion of the Government, the court may depart downward not more than 4 levels pursuant to an early disposition program authorized by the [Attorney General] and the United States Attorney for the district in which the court resides.”

This sentencing appeal presents us with two questions related to the presence of fast-track programs in some federal districts, but not others. The first question is whether a sentencing court in a non-fast-track district has the discretion to consider sentence disparities caused by the existence of fast-track programs in other districts, and, based thereon, vary from the applicable guideline range for a defendant charged with an immigration offense. If so, the second issue is whether the apparently nebulous eligibility requirements for fast-track programs relieve a defendant charged with an immigration offense in a non-fast-track district of the burden of showing entitlement, at least in some sense, to sentencing consistent with a fast-track program. We hold that (1) where the circumstances warrant, a district court in a non-fast-track district has the discretion to vary from a defendant’s applicable guideline range based on fast-track sentence disparities, but (2) a defendant bears the initial burden of showing entitlement, in some sense, to a variance based on fast-track sentence disparities. Given the facts presented here, however, we need not now decide the precise extent of a defendant’s burden.

November 7, 2011 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

"Guidelines Gone Awry"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new commentary by Alan Vinegrad and Jason Levine. It appears in today's New York Law Journal and gets started this way:

On Oct. 12, the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security held its first hearing on federal sentencing since March 2006.  The title — "Uncertain Justice: The Status of Federal Sentencing and the U.S. Sentencing Commission Six Years After U.S. v. Booker" — apparently reflects the subcommittee majority's views on post-Booker1 sentencing.  Representative James Sensenbrenner, chairman of the subcommittee, stated that he is "deeply concerned" with federal sentencing due to the "increasing frequency of downward departures."  Those who commit child pornography or fraud offenses "are in luck," he added, explaining that these crimes have seen particularly high rates of below-guideline sentences.

Proposals to address these concerns have run the gamut.  One witness recommended that the Sentencing Reform Act be repealed and the Sentencing Commission abolished.  Another proposed that sentencing guidelines once again be presumptively applicable, circumventing Booker by relying on juries to make findings on aggravating factors.   And Judge Patti Saris, chair of the Sentencing Commission and Massachusetts district judge, testified about the problems sentencing courts have encountered in the post-Booker sentencing regime and recommended a more robust system of appellate review.

The commission's proposals, although understandable, did not address the real culprit — the guidelines themselves.  In several areas, the guidelines, primarily as a result of congressional directives, no longer fairly reflect the varied purposes for which they were created.

Some recent related posts about the House Booker hearing: 

November 7, 2011 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Feds want a lot more prison time for corrupt state pol Vincent Fumo

Sentencing briefs for the upcoming resentencing of former Pennsylvania State Senator Vince Fumo were filed yesterday.  Comically, as detailed below, the headlines from various news sources reporting on the filings indicate quite different sentences purportedly being sought by federal prosecutors:

From the Philadelphia Inquirer here, "Prosecutors want Fumo jailed for 15 years"

From Newsworks here, "Prosecutors: Fumo should get at least 17 years for 'astonishing' corruption"

From the Philadelphia Daily News here, "Feds: Fumo should serve up to 21 years"

From Reuters here, "Former Pa. politician should serve up to 27 years: prosecutors"

Here is how the first of these pieces gets started:

Prosecutors Tuesday urged a federal judge to resentence former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo to at least 15 years in prison, more than triple his current penalty, to properly punish him for "detestable" crimes that cost taxpayers and charities $4 million.

But in a rival filing, Fumo's defense team urged U.S. District Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter to simply reinstate the controversial 55-month sentence he imposed two years ago.  They said Buckwalter should again grant Fumo a break for what the lawyers called his "extraordinary level" of public service, as well as for private acts of generosity.  His attorneys described the 68-year-old Fumo as in poor health, facing the "real chance" of dying in prison, yet still mentoring fellow inmates.

In August, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ordered Buckwalter to resentence Fumo.  Without specifying what new sentence should be imposed, it said Buckwalter's legal reasoning had been shot through with errors, including a badly underestimated figure for the cost of Fumo's crimes.  Buckwalter is to decide after a resentencing hearing Nov. 9.

October 19, 2011 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Additional written testimony submitted at House Booker hearing

At the tail end of yesterday's hearing of the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security of the House Judiciary Committee, titled "Uncertain Justice: The Status of Federal Sentencing and the U.S. Sentencing Commission Six Years after U.S. v. Booker," the members of the committee entered into the record submitted written testimony submitted by some public policy groups.  I hope to be able to provide links to all this submitted testimony, and already available at this link is testimony authored by Testimony of Mary Price, the Vice President and General Counsel of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM).  I believe a number of defense groups also submitted testimony, which I will post if/when I can find it.

UPDATE:  Here is a link to testimony from the ACLU submitted to the house subcommittee.

Some recent related posts about the House hearing:

October 13, 2011 in Advisory Sentencing Guidelines, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Early reactions to the (too) quick House hearing on post-Booker sentencing

Less than two hours after it started, today's hearing of the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security of the House Judiciary Committee, titled "Uncertain Justice: The Status of Federal Sentencing and the U.S. Sentencing Commission Six Years after U.S. v. Booker," has come to a close. As detailed in prior posts linked below, a lot happened in the 100 minutes of this hearing, though I seriously doubt that much is going to happen legislatively as a result of what just transpired.  Without too much reflection, here are a few quick reactions:

1.  There is clearly lots of bad blood among members of this subcommittee as reflected in a shouting match that broke out between Rep. Jackson Lee and Rep. Sensenbrenner

2.  Other than a precious few members, it is not obvious that many even on this subcommittee care too much about this subject.  Only about one-quearter of the 20 members of the subcommittee appeared to be in attendance and only a precious few asked questions suggesting they even understood how modern federal sentencing works.

3.  The absence of a Justice Department representative was both telling and disappointing, especially because it is very hard to predict how federal prosecutors would view proposals to abolish the US Sentencing Commission or to have a Blakely-compliant mandatory guideline system.

4.  The USSC's apparent recommendations to Congress to give reasonableness review more bite via statutory reform is very sound and very important and very constitutionally challenging, all of which in turn leads me to predict/fear that it is very unlikely to happen anytime soon.

5.  A lot of worrisome "smaller" federal sentencing issues that could benefit most from congressional oversight and legislative reform — the application of the Armed Career Criminal Act, child porn victim restitution awards, fast-track departures, the persistent growth of the federal criminal docket — did not even get mentioned.

6.  We desparately still need refined and consistent nomenclature to describe different potential kinds of federal guideline systems other than just advisory, presumptive and mandatory.  I especially urge readers to help me come up with a labels other than "presumptive" to describe the kind of revised advisory guideline systems — advisory with bite? advisory with great weight? — to describe what the USSC now seems to be advocating Congress to enact.

I could go on and on and on, but I have now said more than enough and need to get off the grid for awhile just to make sure my head does not explode as I have flash-backs from some of the worst moments of this morning's House hearing.

Some recent related posts about the House hearing:

October 12, 2011 in Blakely in Legislatures, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Webcast of House hearing on federal sentencing after Booker available

As reported in this prior post, this morning  the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security of the House Judiciary Committee is conducting a hearing to examine the post-Booker federal sentencing system.  The hearing is titled "Uncertain Justice: The Status of Federal Sentencing and the U.S. Sentencing Commission Six Years after U.S. v. Booker," and a webcast can be accessed via this calender entry  [Update: Written testimony from the witnesses are now linked here].  I will do a little live-blogging as I follow along.

10:04:  Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) has begun the hearing and is reading a prepared statement in which he complains at great length about sentencing disparities and says that Booker, in his view, "destroyed the guidelines."  He is also complaining that the US Sentencing Commission has not proposed a "Booker fix" in the last six years, and also complaining about the USSC making its new lower crack guidelines retroactive, and also complaining about the USSC's operating budget going up.

10:06:  Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) has begun his opening statement and says that Booker was the fix, not something that needs fixing.  He also is noting that the number of judicial variances from the guidelines went down in the last quarter of FY11 and that prosecutors sponsor and/or do not object to the vast majority of non-guideline sentences.

10:10 Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) says a few things off the cuff that do little more than make Rick Perry seem eloquent by comparison.

10:20: USSC Chair Judge Patti Saris (very detailed written testimony here) begins witness testimony by stressing how Supreme Court Booker caselaw has impacted federal sentencing.  She says the guidelines exert a "demonstrable gravitation pull" on sentencing, but also says that USSC recognizes "weaknesses" in the advisory guideline system.  Chair Saris says USSC recommends these legislative changes by Congress:

  1. Congress should make reasonableness review tougher, especially for non-guideline sentences
  2. Congress should clarify statutory directives that are in tension
  3. Congress should clarify and codify that guidelines should be given substantial weight

Saris also indicates that three reports are forthcoming from the USSC: one on mandatory minimums, one on child porn sentencing, and one based on the testimony offered today about the post-Booker system.

10:26:  Matthew Miner, White & Case partner (written testimony here), begins his testimony by stressing disparities between sentencing outcomes in Southern and Northern districts of New York.  He urges a "presumptively applicable" guideline system and recognizes that this system needs to comply with Apprendi/Blakely rights and says that it should not be too hard for juries to make special sentencing-related findings. Paraphrasing: "If we can trust juries to make findings in death penalty cases, we can trust them to find aggravating factors for guideline sentencing."  As a first step, making reasonableness review tougher would be a modest reform that would "go a long way" to reducing disparity.

10:31:  William Otis, Georgetown Professor Law (written testimony here), begins his testimony by stressing importance of being a nation of laws, but says sentencing is now not a system of law but "a lottery."  He notes that downward departures, which "favor the criminal," are 20 times more common than upward departures.  He complains that the USSC has "compounded the problem" of Booker by encouraging departures based on offender characteristics, and that it has embraced a system that is "random and watered-down."  

10:36:  James Felman, Kynes, Markman & Felman partner (written testimony here), begins his testimony by saying advisory sentencing system "best achieves" the goals of Sentencing Reform Act.  He stresses that sentences have not gone down since Booker in fraud and child porn cases, but rather have gone up greatly since Booker.  Says Mr. Otis is "incorrect" that the recent trend show continued movement away from guidelines, and he also notes that departures and variances from guidelines are modest.

I will cover follow-up Q & A in a separate post...

October 12, 2011 in Advisory Sentencing Guidelines, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Sunday, October 09, 2011

New AP article perpetuates notion (myth?) that federal sentencing is still about luck of the draw

This new AP article, which provides a partial preview of an upcoming high-profile white-collar federal sentencing, has a headline and a theme that suggests that luck of the judicial draw matters more than anything else in modern federals sentencing.  The piece is headlined "Sentencing is a wildcard in busy NYC courthouse," and here are excerpts:

The prison term awaiting a one-time billionaire hedge fund founder convicted of insider trading charges is unpredictable at best in a Manhattan courthouse where judges vary considerably in their assessment of how justice should be dispersed at sentencing.

Raj Rajaratnam, 54, is scheduled to be sentenced Thursday for his conviction at trial earlier this year.  If federal prosecutors have their way, he'll get between 19½ and 24½ years in prison for what they say were more than $72 million in profits for himself and his Galleon Group of hedge funds.  If defense lawyers are persuasive, he'll face between 6½ and 9 years for what they say was about $7 million in illegal profits.

Regardless of the outcome, his fate may have been decided when Judge Richard J. Holwell was selected to hear the case after the Sri Lanka-born Rajaratnam's October 2009 arrest.

"Welcome to the Southern District of New York," said Rita Glavin, a former federal prosecutor who leads the white-collar crime unit at the Manhattan law firm of Vinson & Elkins.   "The judge you are assigned to is critical," Glavin said.  "Having been on the prosecution side, there were certain judges from a government perspective you loved being in front of whether for trial, sentencing or evidentiary issues.  Now that I've moved to the defense side, it's not necessarily the same judges."...

The tone and result in sentencings have varied widely for those charged in the case against Rajaratnam and two dozen co-defendants, all of whom have been convicted, most as a result of guilty pleas.  Most of the sentencings have resulted in prison terms ranging from a few months to a few years.  Besides the sentencing guidelines, judges are supposed to take into account various other factors, including the defendant's personal history and the need to deter others from committing similar crimes.

The longest sentence handed down — 10 years — came from a stern Judge Richard Sullivan, who last month dispensed some finger-wagging words toward Zvi Goffer immediately after telling him that he viewed Goffer's sentencing as "a tragic day," not a day "for lecturing or finger wagging or table pounding."

He told Goffer that he had a gambler's mentality after his arrest. "You decided to double down and gamble on a trial," Sullivan said, adding that Goffer acknowledged his crimes post-trial.  "Had you made that acknowledgement before trial, you might have shaved almost three years off your guideline's sentence," he said as he gave him a sentence near the lower end of the guideline's range....  He added: "I am not saying you are going to be punished for going to trial, but there are consequences that flow from that.  You don't get the benefit of people who accept responsibility."

A few hours later, Winifred Jiau, 43, of Fremont, Calif., was sentenced to four years in prison after her conviction in an insider-trading probe that focused on Wall Street consultants who matched up public company employees willing to divulge secrets about earnings and mergers with hedge fund managers. The investigation was a spinoff of the Rajaratnam-Galleon probe.

Jiau received half the prison term recommended by sentencing guidelines from Judge Jed Rakoff, who had a different view of the effects of going to trial.   "I know judges vary.  It will never be the policy of this court to make a huge difference in sentence between those who exercised their right to go to trial and those who plead guilty, because at that point I think it becomes no longer a recognition of the credit that should justly be given for acceptance of responsibility, it becomes a veiled price of going to trial," he said.  "There should be no price on going to trial."...

Annemarie McAvoy, a Fordham Law professor, said she learned as a young federal prosecutor in Brooklyn from 1989 to 1992 that the judge assigned to each case "makes a huge difference."

"There were clearly judges who were more favorable to the government.  They did longer sentences.  They didn't make it as easy for defendants," she said.  "And there were other judges always trying to do as much as they can for defendants and always trying to give them the lowest sentence they could.  That was luck of the draw."

October 9, 2011 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (21) | TrackBack

Friday, October 07, 2011

House Judiciary subcommittee to hold hearing on post-Booker realities next week

As detailed in this calender entry, next Wednesday morning (Oct. 12, 2011), the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security of the House Judiciary Committee will be conduction a hearing to examine the post-Booker federal sentencing system.   The hearing has been given this telling title: "Uncertain Justice: The Status of Federal Sentencing and the U.S. Sentencing Commission Six Years after U.S. v. Booker."

Not yet listed are the scheduled witnesses for this hearing, but I assume that someone from the US Sentencing Commission (the Chair?) will be testifying.   Usually these kinds of hearings include an invitation to some representative from the US Department of Justice, though that is less certain, especially given that the House Republicans get to run this show and they may want to spend much of their time beating up on DOJ.

Whomever ends up testifying, I am extremely pleased to see that the House is showing some interest in the current state and potential future of both the federal sentencing system and the USSC.   On so many modern federal sentencing fronts — on issues ranging from mandatory minimums for drug and gun offenses, to crack/powder sentencing after the FSA, to fraud sentencing, to child porn sentencing (and restitution), to reasonableness review, to fast-track departures, to acquitted conduct and on and on — there is uncertainty not only as to whether justice is being served, but also as to just what the USSC is doing in response to all this uncertainty.

Though I doubt many members of the House Subcommittee share my perspectives on all federal sentencing issues issues, their eagerness to try to figure out what is really going on in the modern federal sentencing system merits praise and gets me excited.  I eager to see what comes of this hearing, and will post more about it as more information becomes available.

October 7, 2011 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Sensible sentencing alternatives for high-profile defendant involved low-level fraud

I want to praise the district judge involved in this notable federal sentencing story, headlined "Former UCA president avoids prison time for fraud," for saving taxpayer money on wasteful prison costs.   Here are the details:

Former University of Central Arkansas president Lu Hardin said Monday that he was hooked on the slots the first time he played them more than a decade ago, and that his gambling compulsion and mounting debts led him to lie to school trustees to tap into bonus money he had been promised.

U.S. District Judge James Moody sentenced the one-time rising political star to five years of probation and 1,000 hours of community service, but no prison time.  Hardin, 60, pleaded guilty earlier this year to falsifying a document that persuaded trustees to give him early access to a $300,000 bonus so he could pay off gambling debts.

Moody said he was convinced Hardin was "genuinely remorseful and humiliated" by his own actions.  Federal sentencing guidelines suggested a sentence of nine to 12 months in prison, but Moody was not bound by that recommendation.

A major factor in Hardin's reduced sentence was his cooperation on a separate federal investigation. Hardin has spoken to the FBI and agreed to testify if the investigation, which a prosecutor would not detail, leads to any charges.  An FBI spokesman also declined to comment.

After a career as an Arkansas state senator and the state's higher education director, Hardin became president of the Conway university in 2002.  During a six-year tenure, he oversaw dramatic growth in the university's enrollment, endowment and prestige.  Trustees approved the $300,000 bonus in full public view....

Only his wife knew about the thousands of dollars of gambling debts he racked up, Hardin said. To pay them off, he made what he called a "horrendous mistake" by forging letters to persuade trustees that he could draw early on the bonus, which was supposed to have been paid to him over five years, according to federal court documents....

Hardin's attorney, Chuck Banks, said his client is a "model person" who paid back the almost $200,000 he collected from the scheme on his own.  He argued that Hardin's history of public service and his past medical problems, including a melanoma that left him blind in his right eye, merited leniency.

Moody sided with Banks.  Although Hardin's actions were criminal, he had a history of good behavior and he didn't believe Hardin would commit another crime, Moody said.  As part of his community service, Hardin will be required to continue attending Gamblers Anonymous meetings and to teach classes about fraud.

Hardin was president of UCA for six years before he resigned in 2008 after the scandal broke.  He received a much-criticized $670,000 contract buyout, and became president of Palm Beach Atlantic University in June 2009, but resigned from that job a week before pleading guilty in March....  After pleading guilty, he surrendered his law license and lost his right to vote. 

This is a great example of a low-level white-collar offense in which the direct and collateral consequences of the federal prosecution and conviction are themselves likely sufficient punishment in light of the nature of the crime and history of the offender.  I often believe a very big fine and lots of community service would be both adequate and effective punishment for low-level white-collar frauds, and I wonder if any readers have any problems with a non-prison, below-guidelines sentence in a case like this.

September 27, 2011 in Booker in district courts, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, September 26, 2011

New call for a (long overdue?) legislative and USSC fix to Booker

Matt Miner, who not long ago served as former Republican staff director for the Senate Judiciary Committee (and now is a partner at White & Case), has this notable new commentary on federal sentencing in today's National Law Journal.  The piece is headlined "It's time to fix our sentencing laws; Years after the Supreme Court put the ball in Congress' court, commission can finally spur action."  Here are excerpts:

The U.S. Sentencing Commission is confronting a challenge to its own existence.  Critics of the commission's budget and inaction on sentencing reform have begun to call for massive cutbacks and even full elimination of the commission.  Yet unlike other agencies that face similar crises, the commission has the power to propose reforms to justify and strengthen its role.

For more than six years — since the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated parts of the federal law governing sentencing policy in Booker v. U.S. — courts have increasingly disregarded the federal sentencing guidelines.  At the same time, racial disparities have increased. The Supreme Court called for policymakers to respond, stating, "The ball now lies in Congress' court."  But more than a half-decade later, neither Congress nor the commission has acted.

The time for action is now, and the commission has the opportunity to urge changes to restore order to our system.  Given the impact of the commission's reports on crack-cocaine sentencing — resulting in passage of the Fair Sentencing Act — a commission-led Booker-fix proposal could be a game changer....

Since Booker, courts have drifted farther from guideline-based sentences, with many courts applying the guidelines less than half the time.  Even more troubling, racial disparities in federal sentencing are on the rise.  According to a recent commission report on demographic disparities post-Booker, the difference in sentences given to black versus white defendants has "been increasing steadily since that decision."

Sadly, racial and educational disparities have grown in a system that is increasingly determined by the judge a defendant draws.  Making matters worse, appellate judges find themselves out of the sentencing business due to the lack of a meaningful appellate standard and the broad discretion retained by district courts....

The appetite for reform appears to have returned.  Conservative law professor William Otis has called for a rewrite of the 1984 Sentencing Reform Act to once again make the guidelines mandatory, albeit with certain enhancements decided by a jury.  And past commission chairman William Sessions, a federal judge, has proposed a grand reform to broaden the discretion given judges under the guidelines, while also restoring certainty and consistency to the system by making the guidelines "presumptive" rather than merely "advisory."

Although such reforms may take time, the commission should immediately recommend basic reforms such as codifying an appellate standard to replace the language struck down by Booker.  The Supreme Court made clear that the standard that existed before the 2003 Feeney amendment would withstand constitutional challenge, and that standard is a worthwhile place to start.  More recent Supreme Court decisions, including U.S. v. Rita, provide further components that could be added to the old appellate review standard, including a presumption of reasonableness for properly calculated sentences within the guidelines.  Additionally, the commission should dem­and reforms that require judges to provide a heightened justification for any major departure from the prescribed guideline sentence.

In the absence of congressional action, federal courts will continue to struggle to apply constitutional principles to fill gaps in the sentencing statute.  In essence, courts will be left to legislate from the bench.

I share Mr. Miner's interest in having the US Sentencing Commission and Congress playing a much more active role in managing and bringing greater legal order to the post-Booker sentencing system.  I also think the "lack of a meaningful appellate standard" is a part of the systemic problem with the status quo.  But I think this commentary overlooks at least three critical realities that must play a central role in any future sentencing reform work by the USSC and Congress:

  1. Crime rates are at historic low levels and have been continuing to trend down since Booker (basics blogged here and here);
  2. Federal prison populations are at record high levels, and the resulting overcrowding and costs must be addressed as soon as possible (as the US Justice Department stressed in its recent letter to the USSC);
  3. Before Booker and perhaps now even more after Booker, the defendant's luck in which prosecutor he draws matters a lot more than what judge he draws (which, as noted here, USSC stats always show).

For me, these three critical realities suggest (at least) three essential guideposts for future federal sentencing reform: (1) "Do no harm": we cannot figure out what is "working" with crime reductions, but we should make extra sure any federal sentencing changes do not reverse national crime trends; (2) "Reduce federal incarceration": we cannot afford stuffing a lot more federal prisoners into limited (and expensive) prison space, and thus we should make extra sure any federal sentencing changes do reverse the system's hyper-incarceration tendencies; (3) "Better regulate prosecutors first": initial USSC efforts to limit the impact of prosecutorial discretion have not really worked, and the USSC and Congress ought to start with prosecutorial guidelines/regulations if there is a genuine concern with enduring federal sentencing disparities.

September 26, 2011 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Record-long 50-year prison sentence for Medicare fraud imposed in Florida

As detailed in this Miami Herald article, late yesterday a "federal judge socked a convicted Miami healthcare executive with a 50-year prison sentence, the longest term ever imposed on a Medicare fraud offender."  Here are the notable details:

New York transplant Lawrence Duran once ran a multimillion-dollar mental health company in Miami, lobbied Congress for his industry and tooled around town in a Maserati. His next stop: federal prison — likely for the rest of his life.

On Friday, a federal judge slammed Duran, 49, with a 50-year prison sentence for orchestrating a staggering $205 million scam at his Miami-based chain of mental health clinics.   The sentence may end up being the longest prison term ever imposed on someone convicted of Medicare fraud.

Duran’s lawyer, Lawrence Metsch, had urged the judge to be realistic and give him a sentence between 20 and 25 years, arguing that 50 years means a “death sentence because he would die in prison.”  But the judge, after a three-day sentencing hearing, sided with the government’s push for the extraordinarily high sentence, saying there is a “critical need for deterrence against healthcare fraud” in South Florida, the nation’s capital of Medicare corruption.

Previously, the highest Medicare fraud sentence was 30 years — given in 2008 to a Miami physician, Ana Alvarez-Jacinto, convicted in an HIV-therapy scheme.

After the sentencing, Duran shook his lawyer’s hand and then smiled to tearful relatives, as he shuffled in shackles out of the courtroom escorted by U.S. marshals.  His ex-wife, Carmen Duran, and his only sibling, Kenia Duran Ramirez, said the judge’s sentence was not a “fair assessment” of the former executive’s life, saying his work for the mentally ill was “not all bad.”

This year, Duran and his girlfriend, Marinella Valera, co-owners of American Therapeutic Corp., pleaded guilty to a variety of conspiracy, fraud and money-laundering charges after they failed to reach plea deals with the Justice Department.  

Duran, in custody since his arrest last October, was probably his own worst enemy during the sentencing hearing. Although he showed remorse for running American Therapeutic as a criminal enterprise for eight years, he also admitted he tried to steal as much money as he could from the taxpayer-funded Medicare program.

His company collected $87 million in Medicare payments after submitting $205 million in bogus bills, which he generated by paying kickbacks to recruiters to supply patients suffering from dementia, Alzheimer’s and addictions.  He admitted they could not have benefited from his company’s purported group therapy sessions.  Justice Department attorney Jennifer Saulino called Duran a “cold, calculating man” who exploited both vulnerable patients and the government’s healthcare program for the elderly and disabled....

Duran’s girlfriend, Valera, 40, a therapist, is scheduled to be sentenced Monday. Prosecutors plan to urge the judge to give her a 40-year prison sentence.  A total of 34 people, including American Therapeutic employees, doctors, therapists, nurses and recruiters, have been charged in the massive fraud case, which is being investigated by the FBI and Health and Human Services-Office of Inspector General.

September 17, 2011 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, September 12, 2011

Lawyers spar in briefing before Rajaratnam's sentencing for insider trading

This New York Times piece, headlined "Rajaratnam Lawyers Call Sentence Request ‘Grotesquely Severe’," reports on the last round of briefing before the scheduled sentencing of convicted trader Raj Rajaratnam.  Here are some details:

Federal prosecutors and lawyers for Raj Rajaratnam filed their second round of sentencing briefs on Friday, setting the stage for later this month when a federal judge will announce the former hedge fund manager’s prison term.

Mr. Rajaratnam is set to appear before Judge Richard J. Holwell in Federal District Court in Manhattan on Sept. 27.  The government has requested a term of 19 and a half to 24 and a half years.  “Rajaratnam is arguably the most egregious offender of the insider trading laws prosecuted to date,” federal prosecutors said in their court filing.

Defense lawyers said the government is overreaching by requesting a “grotesquely severe” sentence. “The government asks the court to ignore Raj Rajaratnam the human being and to sentence a caricature instead,” Mr. Rajaratnam’s lawyers said. “This court’s role is not to validate a prosecutorial public relations effort, nor is it to single out one man to serve as the whipping boy for Wall Street misdeeds.”

In May, a jury convicted Mr. Rajaratnam, the co-founder of the Galleon Group hedge fund. He was found guilty of generating illegal gains of $64 million by trading on confidential information about publicly traded companies including Intel and Goldman Sachs.

Mr. Rajaratnam’s lawyers at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld made several arguments in asking Judge Holwell for leniency.  They said that the illegal trades in question accounted for only 1 percent of his trading activity.  They argue that the sentence is disproportionate to the sentences imposed in other insider trading cases, and greater than the average sentence for violent crimes, including kidnapping and sexual abuse.  They also insist that the government’s requested sentence “would guarantee Mr. Rajaratnam’s death in prison” because of the 54-year-old’s medical issues.

The government urged Judge Holwell to reject the arguments presented by Mr. Rajaratnam’s lawyers.  On the issue of the Mr. Rajaratnam’s health, the government challenged the defense to disclose exactly what medical issues would justify a lenient sentence.

I found the defense reply sentencing memo, which runs more than 50 pages, available at this link.  I cannot yet find a link to the Government's filing.

September 12, 2011 in Booker in district courts, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

A Fifth Circuit reminder that not all federal defendants like the guidelines being merely advisory

One (of many) under-discussed aspects of the post-Booker system is that, in percentage terms, the number of above-guideline sentences have gone up more than the number of below-guideline sentences since the guidelines became adviosry.  Roughly speaking, though the number of below-guideline sentences have increased about 50% post-Booker, the number of above-guideline sentences have increased nearly 100% post-Booker.  

Though the absolute number of above-guideline sentences remain relatively small, the decision late last week from the Fifth Circuit in US v. Pizzolato, No. 10-30729 (5th Cir. Sept. 9, 2011) (available here), provides a useful reminder that not all federal defendants benefit from the guidelines now being merely advisory.  Here is how the Pizzolato opinion starts:

Defendant-Appellant Matthew B. Pizzolato pleaded guilty to multiple crimes related to his conduct in running a fraudulent “Ponzi” scheme. The plea agreement recommended an applicable sentencing range of 151 to 188 months under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines (the “Guidelines”).  The district court disregarded the plea agreement’s recommendation and imposed the statutory maximum sentence of 360 months.  Appellant argues that the Government breached the plea agreement by providing the district court with facts and arguments supporting a longer sentence than the parties agreed upon.  We find no merit to defendant’s arguments and affirm.

September 12, 2011 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Newest federal sentencing data run from US Sentencing Commission now available

The US Sentencing Commission has some fresh new federal sentencing data just up on its website. The USSC's latest data report, which can be accessed here, is described this way:

Third Quarter FY11 Quarterly Sentencing Update:  An extensive set of tables and charts presenting fiscal year quarterly data on cases in which the offender was sentenced during the third quarter of fiscal year 2011. The report also provides an analysis of sentencing trends over five years for several key sentencing practices. (Published September 6, 2011)

The new data largely show the continued trend of a very slow migration away from guideline ranges, with federal prosecutors, not federal judges, continuing to be the primary driving force behind below-range sentences.  Indeed, the latest quarter of data reveal a record high percent of government-sponsored below-guideline sentences (27.7%), coupled with a relatively low percentage of judge-initiated below-guideline sentences (16.9%) .  

The changes in the latest quarter of data could merely reflect changes in types of cases sentenced: e.g., the processing of relatively more immigration and non-crack drug cases will likely always drive up the relative percentage of government-sponsored below-guideline sentences because fast-track and cooperation departures are much more common that judge-initiated variance in those types of cases.  Nevertheless, there is still an notable patter reflected in all of the last three quarters of data: government-sponsored below-guideline sentences increased roughly 10% over this period, while judge-initiated below-guideline sentences have decreased roughly 10% over this same period.

September 7, 2011 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Barry Bonds' federal sentencing now set for December

As detailed in this MLB.com report, a "sentencing date of Dec. 16 has been set for Barry Bonds, whose conviction for obstruction of justice was upheld in federal court last week."  Here is more background:

A seven-time Most Valuable Player who set the single-season and career home run records during his 22-year career, Bonds was convicted of obstruction but the jury could not come to a consensus on any of three counts of making false declarations.  The charges were based on Bonds' 2003 testimony before the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) grand jury, in which he denied knowingly using performance-enhancing drugs.

According to the indictment against Bonds, the maximum penalty for the obstruction charge is "10 years maximum imprisonment, $250,000 fine, three years supervised release, $100 special assessment fee."  But federal sentencing guidelines reportedly suggest 15-21 months, and previous BALCO sentences suggest Bonds could be given house arrest.

Illston, who has presided over the cases brought by the BALCO investigation, previously sentenced cyclist Tammy Thomas to six months of home confinement and track coach Trevor Graham to one year of home confinement.  Thomas was convicted of three counts of making false statements and one count of obstructing justice but was acquitted of two perjury charges.  Graham was convicted of one count of giving false statements, and the jury deadlocked on two other charges.

Illston ruled Friday that the record showed Bonds "endeavored to obstruct the grand jury" when he rambled and talked about friendship, fishing and being a "celebrity child" when asked whether trainer Greg Anderson ever had injected him with anything.  The defense still could appeal the conviction.

The government has yet to announce whether it will retry any of the charges that wound up in a hung jury.  While two wound up in favor of acquittal, according to jurors, Count Two -- also relating to whether Bonds received injections from Anderson -- was 11-1 in favor of conviction.

I am going to mark the December 16 date on my calendar in pencil; these high-profile sentencings have a tendency to get postponed for various reasons.  But I am already looking forward to seeing how the parties seek to apply 3553(a) to Bonds in their sentencing submissions. 

Related recent Bonds posts:

August 30, 2011 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, August 11, 2011

"Kids for Cash" judge gets 28-year (way-above-guideline?) federal prison term

As detailed in this local Pennsylvania article, which is headlined "Luzerne ex-judge gets 28-year sentence," a judge at the center of a juve sentencing scandal will now likely spend the rest of his life in prison. Here are the basics:

A disgraced Luzerne County judge was sentenced to 28 years in federal prison Thursday for his conviction on charges of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments in connection with the operation of the counties' juvenile center.  The ex-judge, Mark A. Ciavarella, Jr., 61, was given the harsh sentence after he told the judge that he apologized for unethical behavior but had never taken "cash for kids."

He was found guilty in February of twelve counts of racketeering, conspiracy, fraud and filing false tax returns.  The jury acquitted him on 27 other counts of bribery and extortion, as he pointed out to the judge before he was sentenced.

Ciavarella, for years the head of juvenile court in the county, was charged with the former president judge there in a 2.8 million dollar scheme to enrich themselves through their control of juvenile justice in Luzerne County.

The other ex-judge, Michael T. Conahan, 59, pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing, as are other key conspirators in the plot, including the builder and an owner of a for-profit juvenile detention center that was at the heart of the corruption....

Juvenile justice advocates, in criticism later affirmed by the State Supreme Court, said Ciavarella ran a kangaroo court for teens and children, shipping them to the facility with no regard for fairness.  Prosecutor Gordon Zubrod told the sentencing judge, Edwin Kosik, that Ciavarella had sold kids wholesale and deserved to be sentenced "for the rest of his natural life."

Based on prior reports about the calculated guideline range in this imposed prison term appears to be way above the applicable guideline range.  It wll be interesting to see if an appeal of the sentencing to the Third Circuit is on the horizon.

August 11, 2011 in Booker in district courts, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (24) | TrackBack