Monday, May 18, 2015
DC Circuit on child porn and sentencing manipulation and nonfrivolous arguments (aka departures and variances and Booker, oh my!)
I sometime consider Washington DC to be a land like Oz where weird, and sometimes magical, sometimes scary, sometimes bizarre, events can transpire. Thus, when reading the DC Circuit's recent opinion in US v. Bigley, No. 12-3022 (DC Cir. May 15, 2015) (available here), I kept hearing Dorothy's voice as the opinion twisted and turned through a variety of notable sentencing issues in the dark Booker forest. Here is how the per curiam opinion gets started:
Before United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005), rendered the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines advisory, we forbade district courts from relying on sentencing manipulation as a basis for mitigation. See United States v. Walls, 70 F.3d 1323, 1329–30 (D.C. Cir. 1995). But Booker and its offspring fundamentally changed the sentencing calculus, requiring courts to now consider any mitigation argument related to the sentencing factors contained in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) when imposing a sentence within the statutory range of punishment. See Pepper v. United States, 131 S. Ct. 1229, 1241–48 (2011); Kimbrough v. United States, 552 U.S. 85, 101–02 (2007); Rita v. United States, 551 U.S. 338, 357 (2007). A sentencing court, post-Booker, must consider nonfrivolous arguments for mitigation, even if those arguments were previously prohibited under the mandatory guidelines regime. Because the district court failed to consider a nonfrivolous claim of sentencing manipulation when it pronounced its sentence, we vacate the sentence and remand.
Notably, the full opinion for the DC Circuit panel here does not quite say that a district court always has an obligation to address expressly a nonfrivolous argument raised by the defendant. Judge Rogers concurs separately to advocate such a holding by the circuit:
“Sentencing is a responsibility heavy enough without our adding formulaic or ritualized burdens.” United States v. Cavera, 550 F.3d 180, 193 (2d Cir. 2008). I am not indifferent to concerns about saddling busy district courts with more procedural loads and I appreciate this court’s reluctance. But the burden of providing a brief explanation is small and the advantages great. “Most obviously, [an explanation] requirement helps to ensure that district courts actually consider the statutory factors and reach reasoned decisions.” Id. at 193; see also In re Sealed Case, 527 F.3d 188, 192 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (“The requirements that a sentencing judge provide a specific reason for a departure and that he commit that reason to writing work together to ensure a sentence is well-considered.”). It also promotes the “perception of fair sentencing,” Gall, 552 U.S. at 50, and “helps the sentencing process evolve by informing the ongoing work of the Sentencing Commission,” Cavera, 550 F.3d at 193. When a sentencing court responds to a defendant’s arguments, it “communicates a message of respect for defendants, strengthening what social psychologists call ‘procedural justice effects,’ thereby advancing fundamental purposes of the Sentencing Reform Act.” See Michael M. O’Hear, Explaining Sentences, 36 FLA. ST. U. L. REV. 459, 472 (2009). The requirement also assures an adequate record with which we can conduct “meaningful appellate review.” Gall, 552 U.S. at 50. I would join the majority of circuits in holding district courts should address a defendant’s nonfrivolous argument for a variance from the Guideline range.
Though the formal ruling and the discussion of sentencing procedural are surely the most consequential aspects of this Bigbey ruling, I cannot overlook or fail to comment on the case facts and on how the remarkable severity of the federal child porn guidelines shaped the entire sentencing dynamic of this case. Here is the sad and remarkable (guideline) tale: The defendant in this case was charged and pled guilty to "one count of interstate travel with intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct with a minor" after he drove to DC to hook up with a (fictional) 12-year-old daughter of a friend of an (undercover) agent chatting on-line. At the suggestion of the agent, the defendant bought a digital camera with him on his trip to DC for taking pictures of the girl, which had this impact in the calculation of the guideline range:
When the probation office calculated his advisory sentencing guideline range, it employed the Section 2G1.3(c)(1) cross-reference guideline provision, which requires the application of Section 2G2.1 when an offense involves “causing, transporting, permitting, or offering . . . a minor to engage in sexually explicit conduct for the purpose of producing a visual depiction of such conduct.” U.S.S.G. § 2G1.3(c)(1). By applying Section 2G2.1, Bigley’s base offense level increased from 24 to 32, which, when the other guideline calculations were made, boosted his sentence guideline range from 46 to 57 months to 135 to 168 months of imprisonment.
In other words, because (and only because) the defendant was talked into bringing a digital camera on his illegal child booty-call trip, his recommended guideline sentence shot up from 4-5 years to 12-14 years. I have heard of some severe gun-possession sentencing enhancements, but I have never seen such a severe camera-possession sentencing enhancement. Perhaps the NRA (the Nikon Rights Association) should consider filing an amicus brief at the resentencing.
May 18, 2015 in Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack
Thursday, April 30, 2015
Ninth Circuit finds procedural error in teen's 30-month federal sentence for laser beam prank
A Ninth Circuit panel today handed down a notable sentencing opinion in US v Gardenhire, No. 13-50125 (9th Cir. April 30, 2015) (available here). This unofficial summary of the ruling provided by court staff highlights why federal sentencing fans will want to check out the full ruling:
The panel vacated a sentence imposed for knowingly aiming the beam of a laser pointer at an aircraft in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 39A, and remanded for resentencing, in a case in which the district court applied an enhancement for reckless endangerment under U.S.S.G. § 2A5.2(a)(2)(A).
The panel held that the district court erred in concluding that the defendant acted recklessly when he aimed his laser beam at the aircraft, where the record is devoid of evidence, let alone clear and convincing evidence, that the defendant was aware of the risk created by his conduct.
The panel could not say that the error was harmless, and instructed that the matter be assigned to a different district judge on remand. The panel observed that the district court’s statements show its commitment to the idea that, regardless of the evidence presented, the defendant’s conduct was reckless, and that it would likely impose the same sentence on remand, regardless of this court’s rulings.
In light of the extremely steep sentencing regime dictated by the recklessness enhancement for wide-ranging conduct covered by § 2A5.2, the panel wrote that it is particularly important that the government is held to its burden of proof and that the enhancements are supported by clear and convincing evidence.
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
Tuesday, February 10, 2015
Two notable Second Circuit opinions upholding aggravated sentencing decisions
A helpful reader alerted me to two Second Circuit sentencing decisions handed down this morning. Though neither seems all that ground-breaking, both still strike me a blogworthy. Here are links to the rulings along with an excerpt from the start of the opinions:
United States v. Morrison, No. 14-485 (2d Cir. Feb. 10, 2015) (available here):
Defendant-Appellant Shane Morrison appeals from a February 6, 2014 judgment of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Wexler, J.) sentencing Morrison to, inter alia, eighteen months’ imprisonment following his guilty plea to one count of conspiracy to distribute cocaine. Morrison argues that 18 U.S.C. § 3153(c) bars the district court’s reliance on positive results on drug tests administered by the Pretrial Services Agency (“pretrial services”) to enhance his term of imprisonment. Because the district court did not violate § 3153(c) by relying on the information from pretrial services in determining Morrison’s sentence, we affirm the judgment.
United States v. Cramer, No. 14-761 (2d Cir. Feb. 10, 2015) (available here):
Defendant Thomas Cramer appeals from a judgment of conviction and sentence of 360 months’ imprisonment and 15 years of supervised release, entered on February 21, 2014 by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York (Geraci, J.), following his guilty plea to four counts of sex trafficking of a minor in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1591(a)(1) and (b)(2). On appeal, Cramer argues that his sentence was procedurally unreasonable because he received a two-point enhancement under U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual section 2G1.3(b)(3) for use of a computer in the commission of the crimes. This case presents two issues of first impression in this Circuit: First, does the computer-use enhancement under Guidelines subsection 2G1.3(b)(3)(A) apply to a defendant who begins communicating and establishing a relationship with a minor by computer, but then entices the victim through other modes of communication? Second, is Application Note 4 to Guidelines section 2G1.3 plainly inconsistent with subsection 2G1.3(b)(3)(B) and therefore inapplicable to that subsection? We answer both questions in the affirmative.
Monday, December 08, 2014
Seventh Circuit affirms, over government complaints, way-below-guideline sentence for child porn producer
Regular readers are familiar with my tendency to lament the failure of circuit courts to scrutinize rigorously post-Booker claims by defendants that within or above-guideline sentences are unreasonably high. But a recent opinion from a Seventh Circuit panel in US v. Price, No. 12-1630 (7th Cir. Dec. 5, 2014) (available here), prompts me to note that there can be occassions when circuit courts seem a bit too willing to approve way-below-guideline sentences that the government asserts are unreasonably low. Here are the basics of the defendant's crime and sentencing in Price:
Jeffrey Price took numerous sexually explicit photographs of his daughter R.P. when she was between the ages of 10 and 12. He put some of them on the Internet, and they have been implicated in at least 160 child-pornography investigations across the country. Price also kept a large stash of child pornography depicting other children, which he stored on two computers.
For this conduct Price was indicted on charges of producing child pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2251(a) and possessing child pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252A(a)(5)(B). A jury convicted him as charged.
Price is more dangerous than the average child-pornography offender because he also has a history of sexually abusing children. He molested R.P. on multiple occasions, and he sexually abused his sister on a regular basis when she was between the ages of 8 and 14. Despite this history, the district judge imposed a sentence well below the 40-year term recommended by the sentencing guidelines: 18 years on the production count and a concurrent 6-year term on the possession count.
Here is the heart of the Seventh Circuit panel's rejection of the government's appeal of this sentence (with my emphasis added):
The government argues in its cross-appeal that Price’s 18-year sentence — less than half the 40-year guidelines sentence — is substantively unreasonable....
The district judge did exactly what she was supposed to do under the advisory guidelines regime. She correctly calculated the guidelines sentence and exhaustively considered the § 3553(a) factors, giving particular emphasis to the aggravated facts of this case. But she also exercised her discretion to consider the scholarly and judicial criticism of the guidelines for child-pornography offenses, as she is permitted to do. She expressed substantial agreement with the Second Circuit’s opinion in United States v. Dorvee, 616 F.3d 174 (2d Cir. 2010), which explained that the guidelines in this area are not the product of the Sentencing Commission’s empirical expertise, but rather reflect directions from Congress to punish these crimes more harshly, id. at 182. Dorvee also notes that § 2G2.2, the guideline for possession of child pornography, calls for the application of multiple enhancements that apply in almost every case, making inadequate distinctions between the worst offenders and those who are less dangerous. Id. at 186–87.
The judge acknowledged that most of the criticism of the child-pornography guidelines is aimed at § 2G2.2, the guideline for the possession offense. But she concluded that § 2G2.1, the guideline for production of child pornography, “presents some of the same problems.” Both guidelines, she said, are vulnerable to the critique that they are not the product of the Sentencing Commission’s empirical study and independent policy judgment. She also noted that both guidelines call for enhancements that apply in nearly every case, exerting virtually automatic upward pressure on sentences and failing to separate less dangerous offenders from those who are more dangerous....
The government objects that Price’s 18-year sentence is only three years above the 15-year statutory minimum. See § 2251(e). Canvassing the aggravated facts of the case and Price’s history of sexually abusing children, the government argues that the sentence strays too far from the 40-year guidelines sentence and is simply too low to be considered substantively reasonable. “At the very least,” the government maintains, the sentences for the production and possession counts should be consecutive, as the guidelines recommend. See § 5G1.2(d).
Price’s crimes are indeed deplorable, and a sentence of 18 years obviously represents a substantial variance from the recommended 40-year term. But there is room for policy-based disagreement with the guidelines even to this extent. The government has not established that the sentence exceeds the boundaries of reasoned discretion. More specifically, the government has not established that an 18-year sentence for Price’s crimes — even in light of his contemptible history and unrepentant nature — is so low as to be substantively unreasonable.
I have been one of a number of academic critics of the severity of the federal child pornography sentencing guidelines, but that criticism has been largely based on the fact that these guidelines often call for decade-long sentences even for those offenders who did no more than download illegal pictures and thereafter showed remorse, pleaded guilty and sought treatment for their criminal activity. In contrast, the defendant in this Seventh Circuit case seemingly has a long history of child rape to go along with producing and possessing child pornography, and the Seventh Circuit recognizes he has both he has an "contemptible history and unrepentant nature."
Though perhaps 18-year in prison is still plenty long enough for this sexual predator (as the district judge apparently concluded), I would have liked to heard a lot more from the Seventh Circuit about how this way-below-guideline sentence appears reasonable in light of all of the 3553(a) factors. Especially for a defendant who has already shown himself to be a significant danger, "close enough for government work" is not all that satisfying an approach to reasonableness review in my view.
Thursday, December 04, 2014
Fourth Circuit find LWOP + 60 month sentence (!?!) for drug offenses substantively unreasonable
Thanks to a few helpful readers, I was alerted to a notable opinion from a Fourth Circuit panel today in US v. Howard, No. 13-4296 (4th Cir. Dec. 4, 2014) (available here). Here are excerpts from the start, middle and end of the lengthy opinion:
In appeal No. 13-4296, a jury convicted Dennis Ray Howard on one count of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance, phencyclidine (“PCP”), nine counts of distribution of PCP, and one count of possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking offense. The district court sentenced Howard to a term of life imprisonment plus 60 months.... For the reasons set forth within, we affirm the convictions, vacate the sentence as substantively unreasonable, and remand for resentencing....
The district court reached its life imprisonment sentence by making an upward departure based on Howard’s de facto career offender status, and by reasoning that the § 3553(a) factors supported a sentence at the top of the Guidelines range determined after the departure. Because we are persuaded that the extent of the upward departure is unwarranted and amounts to an abuse of discretion, and because, in any event, a sentence of life in prison on this record is not justified by consideration of the § 3553(a) factors as articulated by the district court, we conclude that the sentence imposed is substantively unreasonable....
By declaring Howard a serial recidivist dedicated to dispensing “poison” with no hope of redemption, and by basing this judgment on stale criminal history, the bulk of which was non-violent and committed when Howard was a juvenile, the district court failed in its effort to comply with the aims of sentencing prescribed by § 3553(a)(2)....
The district court plainly sought to intone all of the principles underlying § 3553(a)(2) when it announced its sentence. It stated the need for individual and general deterrence, incapacitation, and just punishment. There is no doubt that the sentence sent a “message” of deterrence to the people of Wilson and the Eastern District of North Carolina. The district court made those intentions clear. But we simply fail to see, on the whole record, how the life-plus-60-months sentence reasonably reflects the seriousness of the offense or just punishment. Manifestly, it is a sentence “greater than necessary,” 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), to achieve the purposes of § 3553(a)(2).
Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Seventh Circuit affirms stat-max 90-year sentence for child molester despite ugly childhood
An interesting Seventh Circuit sentencing opinion yesterday in US v. Horton, No. 14-1559 (7th Cir. 2014) (available here), highlights that a horrible criminal offense can (and often likely) will lead to an extremely long prison sentence even when a defendant can presenting evidence of an unusual (and seemingly mitigating) personal history. Here are the basics of the defendant's crime and his personal history as discussed in the Horton opinion:
During a 9-month period while Horton was employed at Three Tigers Karate in Belleville, Illinois, Horton created 37 videos depicting himself engaging in sexually explicit conduct with three of his male students (ages 6,7,and 10),and another video showing himself trying to convince another student (age 7) to display his genitals. Horton created the videos in various places: his home, the karate studio, a public park, and the San Antonio home of one the victims....
During his formative years, Horton recounted to [psychologist] Dr. Cueno, his mother worked as a stripper and escort and would leave pornographic magazines, sex toys, and drug paraphernalia strewn around the house. His father was as an alcoholic and drug abuser. Horton watched a XX-rated movie when he was seven and acted out what he saw in the movie by having oral sex with other children. In first grade he was forced to perform oral sex on a classmate, and he began having consensual intercourse when he was 12. According to Dr. Cueno, the “roots for [Horton’s] difficulties can be traced back to a childhood where he was sexualized at an early age, had little stability, and was raised by a drug abusing, stripper/escort mother who provided him with little, if any stability.”
And here is how the Horton court explains its conclusion that a statutory maximum sentence of 90 years in prison was not substantively unreasonable in light of these facts and factors:
Horton has not demonstrated that his de facto life sentence is unreasonable. Although a sentence that is effectively for life “is not to be ordered lightly,” we have upheld such sentences where the sentencing judge recognized “the likelihood of a defendant’s death in prison, but concluded that other factors warranted the particular sentence.” United States v. Vallar, 635 F.3d271,280 (7th Cir. 2011).... Here,the district court appropriately weighed Horton’s age and difficult upbringing,see 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(1), against the “extremely serious nature of this crime” and the vulnerability of the victims, see id. § 3553(a)(1), (a)(2)(A); New York v. Ferber, 458 U.S. 747, 758–60 & n.9–10 (1982), the need to protect the public from a dangerous child molester, see 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(2)(A),(C), and the availability of sex-offender treatment in prison, see id. § 3553(a)(2)(D). And though Horton would have preferred the district court to have given more weight to his dysfunctional childhood, the court had the discretion to assign it less weight than the other § 3553(a) factors.
Monday, September 22, 2014
Sixth Circuit reverses Ponzi scheme sentence because loss calculation failed to credit monies paid out
This morning a Sixth Circuit panel has handed down a notable ruling about loss calculations in the federal sentencing of a Ponzi schemer. Here is how the panel opinion in US v. Snelling, No. 12-4288 (6th Cir. Sept. 22, 2014) (available here) starts and concludes:
Defendant-Appellant Jasen Snelling appeals a 131-month prison sentence imposed pursuant to a plea agreement. In the agreement, Snelling admitted to charges of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, obstruction of justice, and tax evasion for his part in an investment scheme that defrauded investors of nearly $9 million. Snelling challenges the sentence based on an allegedly faulty Guidelines-range calculation that employed a loss figure that did not take into account the sums paid back to his Ponzi scheme’s investors in the course of the fraud.
For the reasons below, we vacate the sentence of the district court and remand the case for resentencing.....
Admittedly, there is intuitive appeal to the government’s argument that Snelling should not be allowed to benefit from the payments he made “not to mitigate the losses suffered . . . but to create the means to convince new victim-investors to pay him even more money.” We need not reflect, however, on whether it is unseemly for Snelling to benefit from the money he paid out to investors in an effort to perpetuate his Ponzi scheme. Undoubtedly, it is. The only question we must consider is whether the district court correctly applied the Guidelines and whether it used a correct Guidelines range.
An accurately calculated Guidelines range is necessary for a procedurally reasonable sentence — any error in calculating the Guidelines range cannot survive review. See Gall v. United States, 552 U.S. 38, 49 (2007); see also United States v. Bolds, 511 F.3d 568, 579 (6th Cir. 2007) (“[W]e must ensure that the district court correctly calculated the applicable Guidelines range which are the starting point and initial benchmark of its sentencing analysis.”) (internal alterations and quotation marks omitted). As appealing as the government’s argument may be, it does not comport with the text of the Guidelines. Accordingly, the district court was in error when it declined to reduce the loss figure by the value of the payments made by Snelling to his investor victims in perpetuating his Ponzi scheme.
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
Thursday, August 14, 2014
Eighth Circuit reverses 20-month sentence for police abuse and perjury as substantively unreasonable
In the post-Booker sentencing world, reversal of sentences on appeal for being substantively unreasonable are quite rare. But this week has brought two such reversal: as noted in this prior post, an Eleventh Circuit panel on Tuesday declared a probation sentence in a public corruption case to be substantively unreasonable, and today an Eighth Circuit panel declared a 20-month sentence in a police abuse case to be substantively unreasonable in US v. Dautovic, No. 13-1145 (8th Cir. Aug 14, 2014) (available here). Here is the heart of the unanimous panel ruling:
We conclude that the district court imposed a substantively unreasonable sentence in this case. Dautovic’s offense conduct was egregious. A police officer beat an innocent victim with a dangerous weapon, causing serious bodily injury and permanent physical damage. He arrested Bonds and Evans and then wrote a false police report that caused themto be charged with crimes. At Bonds and Evans’s trial, where they were found innocent, Dautovic committed perjury. Dautovic maintained throughout his trial that his actions in the early morning hours of September 13 were reasonable and that his police report was sloppy, not intentionally falsified. A jury, however, found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of using excessive force and obstructing justice, and the district court’s findings atsentencing were consistent with the jury’s verdict. The district court found that Dautovic showed no remorse and that his experience in Bosnia did not relate to his beating of Bonds.
The district court, nonetheless, varied downward from the bottom of the Guidelines range by 115 months. The district court found that Dautovic overreacted during the arrest and beating of Bonds. It disagreed with the Guidelines range because it believed that the color-of-law enhancement added too many months to the sentencing range and because the sentencing range exceeded the statutory maximum term of imprisonment for the excessive force count. It found that a Guidelines-range sentence was inappropriate in light of the fact that Dautovic was a first time offender who had done good things for his community and family. The district court acted within its discretion when it decided to vary downward based on Dautovic’s history and characteristics and on its policy disagreement with the Guidelines, but these considerations do not justify the imposition of a 20-month sentence in this case.
The district court’s justification for the variance fails to support the degree of the variance in this case. To the extent the district court tried to avoid unwarranted sentence disparities by basing Dautovic’s sentence on the average sentence imposed for civil rights violations, we are not convinced that the U.S. Sentencing Commission surveyed defendants whose records and offense conduct were similar to Dautovic’s.... Dautovic’s offense conduct involved aggravating circumstances, including the use of a dangerous weapon, the physical restraint of Bonds during the course of the beating, and the infliction of serious injury. Moreover, acting under the color of law, Dautovic tried to conceal his wrongdoing by falsifying a police report and lying under oath.
When the totality of the circumstances is considered, a variance from the Guidelines range of 135 to 168 months’ imprisonment to a 20-month sentence is unreasonably lenient. The district court erred in weighing the § 3553(a) factors and abused its discretion in varying downward to the extent that it did.
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
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."
Tuesday, July 08, 2014
Notable Third Circuit discussion of revocation of supervised release standards
Hard-core federal sentencing fans eager for some extended summer beach reading should check out today's Third Circuit panel decision in US v. Thornhill, No. 13-2876 (3d Cir. July 8, 2014) (available here). The key facts of the case alone take the Third Circuit more than 15 pages to recite, but the start of the majority opinion efficiently spotlights the legal issue that thereafter gets resolved:
In 1984, Congress enacted the Sentencing Reform Act, a measure which profoundly “revise[d] the old sentencing process.” Mistretta v. United States, 488 U.S. 361, 367 (1989). One of the reforms effected by the Act was the elimination of special parole and the establishment of a “new system of supervised release.” Gozlon-Peretz v. United States, 498 U.S. 395, 397 (1991). The “new system” was codified in 18 U.S.C. § 3583, and included a provision at subsection (g) which mandates the revocation of supervised release and the imposition of a term of imprisonment under certain enumerated circumstances. 18 U.S.C. § 3583(g).
The question we consider is: once § 3583(g)’s mandatory revocation provision is triggered, what guides a district court’s exercise of discretion in determining the length of the defendant’s term of imprisonment? We conclude that this exercise of discretion is guided by the sentencing factors set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).
I do not think there is much groundbreaking in the legal analysis in Thornhill, though a partial dissent by Judge Rendell adds intrigue to the ruling. Here are key paragraphs from the start and ends of the six-page dissent:
I part ways with the majority’s disposition, however, because I would remand so that the District Court can meaningfully consider those sentencing factors in connection with the mandatory imprisonment of Ms. Thornhill upon revocation of her supervised release. The length of her term of imprisonment is squarely at issue, and the § 3553(a) factors should be weighed. This is especially true because the District Court varied upward in giving Ms. Thornhill a sentence of three years....
We simply cannot know how meaningful consideration of the § 3553(a) factors, which we now require, would have affected Ms. Thornhill’s sentence. Speculation on our part as to what the Court might have been considering, and whether those reasons coincide with § 3553(a), cannot be enough to uphold Ms. Thornhill’s above-guidelines sentence. In short, Ms. Thornhill deserves to have the rule announced today applied to her case. I respectfully dissent from the majority’s disposition.
Thursday, June 12, 2014
Sixth Circuit declares unreasonable way-above-guideline sentence for repeat bank robber
It remains rare for federal defendants to prevail on reasonableness appeals absent a mis-calculation of the guidelines, and thus today's Sixth Circuit panel decision in US v. Payton, No. 13-1242 (6th Cir. June 12, 2014) (available here) is a noteworthy ruling for this reason alone. But the decision's reference and incorporation of recidivism data and brain science makes the ruling extra interesting. Here are some excerpts from the start and heart of the opinion for context:
This is a direct appeal from Arthur Payton’s sentence to serve 45 years in prison for organizing a series of bank robberies in Michigan. Payton argues that his sentence is unreasonable. We agree, vacate his sentence, and remand....
Payton turned 46 years old before his sentencing hearing. Taking into account Payton’s criminal record, the seriousness of his crime, and penchant for recidivism, the presentence report recommended a sentence within the Guidelines range of 210 to 262 months, or between 17 and a half to 22 years.... The government urged the sentencing court to impose a more serious sentence of “at least” 300 months, or 25 years. Payton’s counsel requested a sentence within the Guidelines range, arguing that even with a Guidelines sentence Payton would be released as an elderly man — somewhere between 63 to 68 years old — who would present little threat to the public.
After hearing each side, the judge sentenced Payton to 540 months, or 45 years in prison. The judge discussed a number of the sentencing factors listed in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), focusing on Payton’s brazen recidivism and the threat he posed to the public. The court concluded that the 45 year sentence was “the minimum sentence” that was “reasonable and sufficient but not greater than necessary to accomplish the goals of sentencing for this defendant.”...
Payton’s 45 year sentence is a “major departure,” “unusually harsh,” and one that demands a “significant explanation.” Gall, 552 U.S. at 51. A sentence that more than doubles the Guidelines recommendation, stacks twenty years on to the government’s request, and keeps the defendant in prison until he is ninety one years old requires explanation about why such a sentence is “sufficient, but not greater than necessary” to achieve the goals of sentencing. 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).
We find the district court’s explanation lacking in Payton’s case. At minimum, the court failed to adequately respond to Payton’s argument that his advanced age diminishes the public safety benefit of keeping Payton in prison an extra twenty years beyond the recommendation of the Guidelines. Even presuming Payton’s desire to rob banks is insatiable, as the government argues, Payton contends that age will diminish his very ability to rob banks. This argument attacks the foundations of the government’s support for the imposed sentence, and the court’s reasoning that the threat posed by a sixty-eight-year-old Payton makes a longer sentence not simply prudent but necessary.
The court's discussion to this point is notable, but the opinion then takes an especially interesting turn with this paragraph (in which I have eliminated footnote references):
The Sentencing Commission has observed that “[r]ecidivism rates decline relatively consistently as age increases.” Recent analysis from the Bureau of Justice Statistics considering the recidivism rates of released prisoners in 30 states (including Michigan) from 2005 to 2010 supported the Commission’s conclusion, finding decreased recidivism rates as prisoners age. These statistics suggest that past fifty years old there is a significantly lower rate of recidivism. Both the Guidelines and our Circuit’s cases explicitly acknowledge that a defendant’s age, and specifically old age, is a relevant consideration in sentencing. U.S.S.G. § 5H1.1; United States v. Berry, 565 F.3d 332, 341 (6th Cir. 2009); United States v. Davis, 537 F.3d 611, 616-17 (6th Cir. 2008). And observers of the criminal justice system have long acknowledged the “key” argument “that elderly offenders pose so low a risk to the public that long or otherwise harsh sentences have little to no utilitarian benefit.” Indeed, they observe that “because of health or other reasons, elderly offenders have the lowest rate of recidivism of all types of offenders; in fact, only about one percent of elderly offenders ever face a second conviction.” Studies indicate that neurotransmitters affecting aggression supplied at the synapses of brain neurons vary based on age, and may explain the observed decline in recidivism among older prisoners. Such evidence, together with statistical support, suffices to require a sentencing judge to explain carefully why a criminal defendant like Payton remains likely to engage in violent robberies between the age of seventy and ninety. The district court did not address Payton’s argument on this issue, and therefore did not provide an adequate explanation for imposing such a harsh sentence.
Kudos to the Sixth Circuit for giving some real teeth to reasonable review, and especially for its willingness to bring some empirical research into an analysis of means for a sentence to be "sufficient but not greater than necessary."
Wednesday, April 09, 2014
Lots of notable sentencing activity via the Sixth Circuit on this hump day
I have long found that Wednesday seems to be a popular day for circuit sentencing decisions, and today the Sixth Circuit was involved in two notable sentencing actions.
One action involves the decision, noted in this order, to grant en banc review in US v. Mateen, a statutory interpretation case concerning "whether a state sexual offense that does not necessarily involve a minor or ward can trigger the sentencing enhancement under 18 U.S.C. § 2252(b)(2)." The (split) Mateen panel held that the sentence enhancement was not applicable, and the en banc grant suggest a majority of the Sixth circuit judges may not agree.
The other action involves a lengthy decision in a MDMA sentencing appeal, US v. Kamper, No. 12-5167 (6th Cir. April 9, 2014) (available here), which gets started this way:
Defendants-appellants Glenn Kamper and Joe Head appeal their respective 144-month sentences imposed for their roles in a conspiracy to manufacture and distribute MDMA (also known as 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine or “ecstasy”) in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Head and Kamper both appeal their sentences as procedurally and substantively unreasonable. Kamper argues that the MDMA-to-marijuana equivalency ratio underlying his Guidelines sentencing range is based on faulty science, and that the district court erred when it justified its refusal to reject the Guidelines ratio with institutional concerns. We conclude that the district court misunderstood its authority to reject and replace a Guidelines equivalency ratio based on policy disagreements, but conclude that the district court’s error was harmless. We reject Kamper’s other arguments regarding the reasonableness of his sentence as without merit. Head argues that the district court erred in applying sentencing enhancements for his aggravating role in the criminal conspiracy and for obstruction of justice. We conclude that Head’s sentence must be vacated because the district court erred in applying a sentencing enhancement for obstruction of justice. Accordingly, we AFFIRM the judgment of the district court with respect to Kamper, but REVERSE the judgment of the district court with respect to Head and REMAND for resentencing.
Thursday, March 20, 2014
Notable follow-up thoughts on acquitted conduct and the sentencing of Antwuan Ball
I am pleased to see that my discussion of the Antwuan Ball case in this recent post titled "DC Circuit gives disconcertingly short-shrift to Antwuan Ball's many significant sentencing claims," has now generated a pair of thoughtful posts at The Volokh Conspiracy:
Paul Cassell got the ball rolling via this post titled "Should a drug dealer acquitted of running a drug ring be sentenced for running a drug ring?", which ends with this paragraph:
In short, when a judge sentences on the basis of acquitted conduct, he is acting with far more information than is typically available at sentencing. I see no reason to be worried about Ball’s sentence — or, more generally, the fact that judges apply ordinary burdens of proof when resolving factual disputes at sentencing. I am more worried about entangling these sentencing proceedings with ever-mounting procedural requirements that will make it difficult for judges to craft appropriate sentences — lenient, harsh, or somewhere in between. The D.C. Circuit got this one right.
Will Baude chimed in via this post titled "The real constitutional problem with Antwuan Ball’s sentence," which concludes with these thoughts:
As Scalia put it in Rita, “… there will inevitably be some constitutional violations under a system of substantive reasonableness review, because there will be some sentences that will be upheld as reasonable only because of the existence of judge-found facts.” He then reiterated this point in Gall. (“The Court has not foreclosed as-applied constitutional challenges to sentences. The door therefore remains open for a defendant to demonstrate that his sentence, whether inside or outside the advisory Guidelines range, would not have been upheld but for the existence of a fact found by the sentencing judge and not by the jury.”)
This isn’t necessarily to criticize this D.C. Circuit panel; the court concluded that Scalia’s arguments have already been rejected by D.C. Circuit precedent, and maybe that is right. But they haven’t been rejected by the Supreme Court. The court upheld the general use of acquitted conduct upheld in United States v. Watts, but this is a distinct problem (and I’m writing this post because the two problems are often confused).
Sunday, March 02, 2014
Has anyone formally calculated exactly how very few federal sentences are found unreasonable?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by two noteworthy (or perhaps not really noteworthy) circuit opinions from last week in which two way-above-guideline sentences were affirmed as reasonable by the panels of the First and Seventh Circuits in US v. Santiago-Rivera, No. 13-1228 (1st Cir. Feb. 28, 2014) (available here); US v. Castaldi, No. 10-3406 (7th Cir. Feb. 24, 2014) (available here). In both cases, a defendant appealed as unreasonable the imposition of a prison sentence roughly a decade longer than the (already lengthy) prison term suggested by the applicable guidelines. In both cases, the panel found the way-above-guideline sentence procedurally and substantively reasonable (though one Seventh Circuit judge dissented in Castaldi).
At one level, these two rulings highlight how increased district court discretion to sentence outside the guidelines will often be used enhance sentences involving serious and harmful crimes. (Castaldi involved a big Ponzi scheme impacting many persons, Santiago-Rivera involved a police officer shooting.) In addition, both rulings show that circuits may be especially inclined to find way-above-guideline sentences reasonable, even more so than way-below-guideline sentences. (I cannot readily think of one, let alone two, sentences set a full decade below the calculated guideline sentence upheld after an appeal by the government.) But, as the title of this post suggests, perhaps the broader story is how very few federal sentences are even found unreasonable.
Booker has been the federal sentencing law of the land since 2005, but the true era of modern reasonableness review likely should be defined as starting in December 2007 after the Supreme Court handed down the last of the troika of reasonableness review cases via Gall, Kimbrough and Rita. Since those opinions were issued, we have probably had over 500,000 federal sentences imposed, and I suspect that less than 250 have been found procedurally unreasonable on appeal and less than 50 have been found substantively unreasonable. (This federal defender document titled Appellate Decisions After Gall (and updated through early December 2013) provides the most complete accounting of reasonableness rulings that I have seen.)
In other words, based on this very rough assessment of reasonableness review outcomes compared to sentences imposed, it would seem that in only about one of every 2,000 federal sentencings does something go procedurally wrong and in only one of every 10,000 federal sentencings involves some substantive unreasonableness. (Of course, the vast majority of federal sentences are not appealed, in part due to the wide use of appeal waivers in plea agreements, so the outcomes of appeals is not the ideal measuring stick here. Still, I think these numbers are telling.)
For a lot of reasons, the prospect of reasonableness review may do a lot more work and have a lot more influence than the so-very-rare reversal of a sentence as unreasonable would suggest. Still, I have largely given up my prior habit of regularly report notable federal circuit rulings concerning reasonableness appeals in part because affirmances in cases like Castaldi and Santiago-Rivera are, statistically speaking, not really notable.
UPDATE: I just noticed that a Fourth Circuit panel also issued an opinion on the same day as the First Circuit opinion linked above that affirms as reasonable a sentence set about 8 years above the guideline range in US v. Washington, No. 13-4132 (4th Cir. Feb. 28, 2014) (available here).