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).
Thursday, February 13, 2014
Feds to appeal probation sentence given to tax-dodging Beanie Babies billionaire
As reported in this new AP article, the "U.S. attorney's office in Chicago said Thursday that it's appealing a sentence that included no prison time for the billionaire creator of Beanie Babies for hiding at least $25 million from U.S. tax authorities in Swiss bank accounts." Here is more:
At H. Ty Warner's sentencing last month, Judge Charles Kocoras heaped praise on the toymaker for his charitable giving, declaring society was better served by letting him go free and giving him two years' probation instead of sending him to prison. Warner had faced up to five years in prison.
Warner, 69, of Oak Brook, Ill., was one of the highest profile figures snared in a long-running investigation of Americans concealing funds in Swiss bank accounts. Others convicted of squirreling away less money in Switzerland than Warner have done prison time. Warner, who grew up poor, created the animal-shaped Beanie Babies in the mid-'90s, triggering a craze that made Warner spectacularly rich. Forbes recently estimated his net worth at $2.6 billion.
A one-page notice of appeal signed by U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon was filed with the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, and a full brief will be submitted later. Justice officials in Washington still must OK the appeal, but that's usually considered a formality.
At a Jan. 14 sentencing hearing, Kocoras spent most of his 20-minute explanation of the sentence expressing admiration for Warner. He also said the businessman had already paid a price in "public humiliation." In addition to probation, Kocoras ordered Warner to do 500 hours of community service at Chicago high schools. Earlier, Warner agreed to pay $27 million in back taxes and interest, and a civil penalty of more than $53 million....
During sentencing, assistant government attorney Michelle Petersen urged Kocoras to put Warner behind bars for at least a year. "(Without prison time), tax evasion becomes little more than a bad investment," she told him. "The perception cannot be that a wealthy felon can just write a check and not face further punishment."
This should be a VERY interesting sentencing appeal to watch in the months ahead, and I am already super stoked to read the coming Seventh Circuit briefs from the parties concerning what will surely be differing views on what federal sentencing law demands in a case of this nature.
Prior related post:
February 13, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack
Sunday, January 19, 2014
"More than a Formality: The Case for Meaningful Substantive Reasonableness Review"
Appellate review of sentencing is under assault. When the Supreme Court rendered the Federal Sentencing Guidelines nonbinding in United States v. Booker, it established appellate review of federal sentences for reasonableness to cabin sentencing judges’ newly acquired discretion. The substantive component of this review — which authorizes appellate courts to vacate those sentences that reflect clear errors in judgment or that are excessively disproportionate — is a fundament of the post-Booker sentencing regime, but one that courts have struggled to implement. Indeed, a troubling consensus is emerging that substantive reasonableness review is unworkable or even undesirable. Such views neglect unwarranted disparities in sentences and threaten to disrupt the feedback loop between courts and the U.S. Sentencing Commission (the Commission) that appellate review was intended to serve. If sentencing is to be fair, appellate courts must do better. This Note argues that they can.
This Note proceeds in five parts. Part I surveys the history of appellate review of federal sentences. Part II relies on case law and recent statements by a variety of stakeholders to examine the state of substantive reasonableness review in the circuit courts. Part III defends meaningful substantive reasonableness review as essential to promoting fairness and uniformity in federal sentencing. Part IV identifies ways in which the courts and the Commission can work toward a more effective and stable system of substantive review. Part V concludes.
January 19, 2014 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in the Circuits, Kimbrough reasonableness case, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
Monday, November 11, 2013
"Sentence Appeals in England: Promoting Consistent Sentencing through Robust Appellate ReviewThe title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Briana Rosenbaum now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Unlike in most areas of the law, federal courts of appeals in the United States defer to trial courts on many issues of sentencing law and policy. As a result, the power to decide sentencing law and policy is often at the discretion of individual district court judges. Law reform scholars have long decried the disparity, lack of transparency, and legitimization concerns that this practice raises. These concerns are heightened in the post-Booker sentencing regime, where the advisory nature of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines undermines those Guidelines’ ability to further sentencing consistency.
The deferential approach to federal sentence appeals is in sharp contrast to the approach in England, where the appellate court conducts de novo review of sentencing law and policy to develop a common law of sentencing that is independent of the English sentencing guidelines. The English model of appellate review suggests a new way to design the role of appellate courts in the federal system: from bodies that merely enforce guidelines to further consistency of sentencing outcomes, to bodies that develop sentencing law to further consistency of sentencing approach.
In this paper, I explore the primary functional, institutional, and normative arguments behind the resistance to robust appellate review in the federal appellate courts and study the English model as a means of evaluating these critiques. Ultimately, I suggest that the federal courts of appeals borrow England’s “mixed deference approach” to sentence appeals, including de novo review of sentencing law and principles. Doing so will promote greater sentencing consistency without either over-enforcement of the Guidelines or unwarranted encroachment of sentencing discretion.
Wednesday, October 09, 2013
District Judge Graham gets in a final word on child porn sentencing despite Sixth Circuit reversals
I am about to head off line for the bulk of the day in order to head down to the Queen City in order to watch the full en banc Sixth Circuit consider crack sentencing modification rules in Blewett. (I hope late tonight to report on what I see in the argument, perhaps with a prediction as to the outcome.)
For my last word before I go to watch the Sixth Circuit in action, I am pleased to post a recent opinion by US District Judge James Graham that provides its own kind of last word about the Sixth Circuit's recent sentencing work in a child pornography downloading case that the Sixth Circuit took out of Judge Graham's hands. The opinion in US v. Childs (which can be downloaded below) is relatively brief, and it starts and winds down this way:
This is a disturbing case. Defendant is charged with one count of possession of child pornography. I am called upon to decide whether to accept a plea agreement which requires me to impose a sentence which is roughly only one sixth of the lowest sentence recommended by the United States Sentencing Guidelines (“the Guidelines” or “U.S.S.G.”). This is disturbing not because I disagree with the sentence, but because I am convinced that under the law of the Sixth Circuit announced in United States v. Bistline, 665 F.3d 758, 761-64 (6th Cir. 2012)(“Bistline I”), I would not have been free to select such a sentence without the government’s agreement....
The Sixth Circuit's decision in Bistline I blurs the distinction between mandatory and advisory by requiring more deference to congressionally created guidelines than that accorded to Sentencing Commission-created guidelines. Just what implications this might have under Apprendi was not discussed by the Sixth Circuit.
There have been some very important developments since the Sixth Circuit's decision in Bistline I. In its Report to Congress: Federal Child Pornography Offenses (Dec. 2012), www.ussc.gov/Legislative_ and_ Public_ Affairs/ Congressional_ Testimony_ and_ Reports/ Sex_ Offense_ Topics/ 201212_ Federal_ Child_ Pornography_ Offenses/ (visited October 1, 2013), the Sentencing Commission publicly declared that the existing guidelines for child pornography offenses were flawed and in need of repair. In a letter to Judge Patti B. Saris, Chair of the Commission, dated March 5, 2013, Anne Gannon, National Coordinator for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction, responded to the Commission’s report on behalf of the Department of Justice. See Letter from Anne Gannon, Nat’l Coordinator for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction, Office of the Deputy Attorney General, U.S. Dep’t of Justice, to Honorable Patti B. Saris, Chair, U.S. Sentencing Comm’n (Mar. 5, 2013), available at http://sentencing.typepad.com/files/doj-letter-to-ussc-on-cpreport. pdf (visited Sept. 30, 2013). The Department expressed its agreement with many of the Commission’s conclusions, noting that the report “reflects a significant amount of detailed research and thoughtful analysis" and thanking the Commission for "undertaking the important task of laying the foundation for reforming sentencing practices involving non-production child pornography offenses." Id. at 1.
Nevertheless, on June 27, 2013, four months after the Commission’s report, the Sixth Circuit filed its opinion in United States v. Bistline, 720 F.3d 631 (6th Cir. 2013)(“Bistline II”) reaffirming it's holding in Bistline I, with no mention whatsoever of the Commission’s findings or the extent of the Department of Justice's concurrence. As a judge who has regularly sat on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals by designation for more than two decades, I find this inexplicable. Many of the Commission’s criticisms of the child pornography guidelines, including criticisms which the Justice Department concurred in, are identical to the ones I expressed in my sentencing colloquy in Mr. Bistline’s case. The Sentencing Commission’s criticism of the crack cocaine guidelines was cited as a reason for diminished deference for those guidelines in Kimbrough, and that part of the Kimbrough decision was cited by the Sixth Circuit in Bistline I to explain why the Supreme Court decided that the crack cocaine guidelines were entitled to less deference. See Bistline I, 665 F.3d at 763. In light of the fact that, in the interim, the Commission had spoken on the child pornography guidelines, why would the court not revisit the applicability of Kimbrough when it decided Bistline II? It seems clear to me that under Kimbrough, the child pornography guidelines should be accorded less, not more, deference than others.
It is a tragic irony that sentencing judges in the Sixth Circuit are required to give enhanced deference to guidelines which the independent Commission, relied upon so heavily by the Supreme Court in upholding the Guidelines, has now declared flawed and in need of reform. It is even more tragic that offenders in this circuit will have to rely on prosecutorial discretion, not judicial discretion, in order to receive a just and fair sentence in these cases.
October 9, 2013 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Kimbrough reasonableness case, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack
Monday, October 07, 2013
Fifth Circuit panel declares substantively unreasonable (and plainly erroneous) an above-guideline child porn sentenceI am always pleased to see examples of post-Booker reasonableness review being given some more teeth in the circuits, and a panel ruling released today by the Fifth Circuit in US v. Chandler, No. 12-30410 (5th Cir. Oct. 4, 2013) (available here), shows that even defendants convicted of child porn offenses can sometimes benefit from appellate judges taking reasonableness review seriously. Here are excerpts from the start and heart of the of the panel opinion in Chandler:
Richard Chandler pleaded guilty to engaging in a child exploitation enterprise. At sentencing, the district court varied upward by 127 months over the recommended Guidelines range to impose 420 months of imprisonment. We find that the district court erred by increasing Chandler’s sentence based on the fact that he was a police officer. We remand for re-sentencing....
The parties agree that the district court correctly calculated Chandler’s Guidelines range as 240-293 months. In the PSR, the probation officer stated that he had not identified any factors warranting a departure or variance from the Guidelines range. Chandler did not file objections to the PSR, but he filed a Motion for Deviation from Sentencing Guidelines, arguing that a significant downward departure from the Guidelines was justified in his case because the sentencing scheme for possession of child pornography is unfair and the circumstances of his offense warranted leniency. The district court rejected Chandler’s motion, noting that Chandler was not a “mere possessor” because he had repeatedly posted child pornography. The district court ultimately imposed a sentence of 420 months of imprisonment, an upward variance of 127 months from the top of the Guidelines range. The district court found that the non-Guidelines sentence was justified by the nature and circumstances of the offense, particularly Chandler’s abuse of his public office as a law enforcement officer, his use of other people’s internet connections to attempt to hide his participation in the scheme, and the fact that he posted child pornography 117 times, mostly with children 8 to 14 years of age. Chandler did not object to the sentence. Chandler filed a timely notice of appeal....
Some of the comments made by the district court here, such as those stating that by being a police officer Chandler has placed himself in a different category and should be held to a higher standard, are similar to those in Stout and could be interpreted to cross the line into impermissible reliance on Chandler’s socioeconomic status as a police officer.
To the extent that the district court’s comments regarding Chandler’s position are findings that Chandler abused his position of trust or that the offense was more serious because of Chandler’s position, the district court likewise erred. Though we are mindful that our review in this case is only for plain error, our circuit precedent is clear that a defendant’s status as a police officer, standing alone, is not a justifiable reason to increase a sentence....
[T]hough the district court stated multiple times that it was varying upwards because Chandler abused his position, the district court did not rely on any facts showing that Chandler acted in his capacity as a police officer in posting child pornography on the internet. There is no evidence in the record that he used or exploited his position as a police officer, or used any knowledge or skills he gained from that position, to commit the offense or attempt to hide it.
The district court’s error was compounded by its mischaracterization of the conduct involved in Chandler “stealing” other people’s “identities” or “internet addresses.” The only description of this conduct in the record is in a sentencing memorandum filed by the government, which states that Chandler used other people’s unsecured wireless connections. Though the government refers to this as “stealing,” it essentially amounts to logging onto an open wireless network. While we agree with the government that such activity could have caused innocent people to be subject to investigation, it clearly is not equivalent to identity theft or any sort of skilled hacking activity, though the district court discussed it as if it required highly technical knowledge that Chandler acquired as a police officer.
Monday, September 30, 2013
How common are DVD submissions as mitigation evidence as part of federal sentencing?The question in the title of this post is prompted by a somewhat amusing discussion toward the end of a Ninth Circuit panel opinion released today in US v. Laurienti, No. 11-50294 (9th Cir. Sept. 30, 2013) (available here). The following passage from the opinion provides the context for the question:
Laurienti claims for the first time on appeal that the district court committed plain error when it did not read the last two pages of his sentencing memorandum or view a DVD he had submitted. We review these contentions under the same plain error standard applicable to his claim that the district court did not listen to his evidence in mitigation. We reject these contentions for two reasons.
First, the court provided Laurienti the opportunity to present the substance of those materials during sentencing. Laurienti did so, and the court listened to his position.[FN7]
Second, and more importantly, the court explained why further considering those materials would not change its decision. The court specifically stated that it had reviewed numerous letters from Laurienti’s family, friends, and business associates. The court did not, however, find these materials persuasive in light of Laurienti’s apparent attempts to avoid making restitution payments. Considering the cumulative nature of the DVD, and the fact that the court allowed Laurienti to discuss his sentencing position at length, Laurienti has failed to establish that the court’s refusal to consider the exhibits amounted to plain error requiring reversal.
[FN7] We note in passing that the time that the attorneys and this court have spent on the issue of the unread two pages and unwatched DVD was, in all likelihood, far more extensive (and, for the parties, expensive) than if the court had simply read and watched what was before it. As Benjamin Franklin astutely observed, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Under the circumstances, I am not suprised or troubled by the Ninth Circuit's resolution of this issue, though I can understand why a defendant might be both surprised and troubled that a judge at sentencing would report that he had not bothered to watch a DVD the defense team had created for the occassion. This, in turn, leads me to wonder if mitigation DVDs are common submissions by the defense in some federal courts or for some sets of defendants (and also whether judicial disregard of such DVDs submissions might also be common).
A few prior related posts:
- Interesting sign of the modern high-tech sentencing times
- "Documentation, Documentary, and the Law: What Should be Made of Victim Impact Videos?"
September 30, 2013 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Advice for the US Sentencing Commission from former USDJ Nancy GertnerI am genuinely unsure if the US Sentencing Commission gets to keep working if we end up having a federal government shut-down this week. But I am sure that the USSC starts an official new fiscal year as of tomorrow morning and that any government shut-down is not going to keep federal defendants from being sentenced and that the USSC will be up-and-running in some capacity both sooner and later. For those reasons, I am pleased right now to be able to post these comments sent my way by former federal district judge (and now Harvard law professor) Nancy Gertner about what the USSC ought to be doing as FY 2014 in the federal sentencing system gets underway:
At a time when the “common law of sentencing,” is being shaped in federal district courts, why does the Sentencing Commission only post Circuit Court decisions on its web site? In 2012, sentences that had been appealed on the grounds of unreasonableness were affirmed 95 percent of the time. And that rate has remained steady on the national level: In 2011, the affirmance rate was roughly 94 percent; in 2010 it was approximately 96 percent; and in 2009, 97 percent affirmances. In my circuit, the First Circuit, not a single sentence was deemed unreasonable on appeal in 2011 or 2012, and only a handful of cases qualified in the immediately preceding years. In effect, as with other areas of law where the standards of review are forgiving (think evidentiary appeals on forensic issues which are reviewed for “abuse of discretion” and rarely overturned), the appellate courts are not defining substantive sentencing standards, and imposing only minimal procedural ones.
Clearly most of the meaningful sentencing developments -- the substantive sentencing standards, the guideline analysis and trenchant critique -- are happening at the district court level in the decisions of judges like John Gleeson and Jack Weinstein (S.D.N.Y.), Mark Bennett (N.D. Iowa), Ellen Huvelle (D.C.), Paul Friedman (D.C.) and Lynn Adelman (E.D. Wisconsin). While not all judges take the time to write formal sentencing opinions, those that do should have their work circulated by our “expert” Commission rather than being ignored.
If the Commission is interested in minimizing disparity in sentencing in a post-Booker world (which should be one of its goals -- hardly the only one), what better way than to make certain that the opinions of district court judges are communicated more broadly to the federal bench? When these judges offer a reasoned analysis of the Guidelines or an alternative way of analyzing the cases, why not ensure that other judges see their work and decide whether to follow it? Other judges can look at their reasoning– not as binding precedent, but as a template for the cases they see, e.g. here’s one approach to firearms cases, non violent drug offenders, white collar cases, etc. If a common law of sentencing is ever to evolve -- supplementing (or in some cases supplanting) the Guidelines -- why not assist in its development? In a common law system, decisional law establishes standards. Uniformity is not enforced from above -- as in civil code countries -- but evolves from reasoned judicial decisions. In effect, with advisory Guidelines, we have a hybrid system -- Guidelines and decisional law.
To look at the Commission web site, there is only one orthodoxy -- the Guidelines, and Appellate Court decisions that rarely say much of anything. In fact, the message conveyed by the web site is that the Commission is not interested in uniformity as a general matter, just one kind of uniformity -- the uniform enforcement of its flawed product, the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. Teach the Guidelines. Describe appellate court decisions affirming whatever the district courts do without meaningful analysis. Ignore the fine work of the judges trying to create meaningful standards where it counts the most, in the sentencing of individuals.
Monday, September 23, 2013
In praise of a stat-max fine that hits a federal white-collar defendant (and not the federal taxpayer) where it hurts
Some readers of this blog may come to (wrongly) believe I tend to disfavor most harsh punishments, whereas in fact I tend to favor most harsh punishments if and whenever they prove to be especially efficacious and economical. Consequently, I tend to be fairly skeptical of punishments in the form of lenghty terms of imprisonment, whereas I tend to be fairly supportive of punishments in other forms.
This mini backstory on my views is provided here to account for my particular affinity for the sentence imposed and now affirmed (via an unpublished ruling) in United States v. Turner, No. 12-6483 (6th Cir. Sept. 20, 2013) (available here). Here is how the opinion gets started, which provides a summary of the ruling and the facts which led up to the defendant's prosecution:
Arch Turner appeals a $250,000 fine imposed by the district court as part of his sentence for conspiring to buy votes. He argues that the fine is procedurally unreasonable because the court did not provide specific reasons for the variance from the Guidelines range of $4,000 to $40,000, and that it is substantively unreasonable because the court impermissibly considered Turner’s socio-economic status. We conclude that the court adequately explained its reasoning in open court, that any deficiencies in duplicative explanations did not rise to the level of plain error, and that the court did not impermissibly rely on Turner’s socio-economic status. Accordingly, we AFFIRM Turner’s sentence.
Arch Turner, a superintendent of the Breathitt County, Kentucky schools, led and assisted a group of people to buy votes for a candidate in a May 2010 primary election. He coordinated meetings in which he distributed funds he had received from third parties for the purpose of buying votes, and he withdrew cash from his own bank account for the same purpose. During the government investigation, Turner lied to an FBI agent, convinced a co-conspirator to lie to a grand jury, and attempted to convince another co-conspirator to lie to FBI agents. During one such attempt, he told a co-conspirator that the FBI had no evidence against them and that they would not get in trouble if neither of them told on the other. During another, Turner contacted his codefendant, which was a violation of his bond release, told his co-defendant that he could not tell on anyone because he had not seen cash change hands, and instructed his co-defendant to purchase a phone that could not be traced. Eventually, Turner decided the jig was up and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the United States through buying votes, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371 and 42 U.S.C. § 1973i(c).
Thanks to a plea deal, this vote-buying scoundral faced "an advisory Guidelines range of 18 to 24 months imprisonment plus 1 to 3 years of supervised release and a $4,000 to $40,000 fine ... [and a] statutory maximum sentence [of] 5 years of imprisonment plus 3 years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine." The district judge thereafter notified In October 2012, the district court issued a notice advising the parties that the court intended to consider an upward variance from the Guidelines range and sought at sentencing to hear arguments concerning an upward variance of “not only time but money.” In the end, the sentencing judge imposed a 24-month prison term (the top of the calculated range) as well as a stat-max fine of $250,000.
I suspect that a number of federal sentencing judges may have shared the view that the defendant in this case deserved to have the "book thrown at him," but I fear that most would have done so by increasing the length of the defendant's imprisonment rather than maxing out his fine. As a federal taxpayer who usually see little obvious public safety benefit from imprisoning a non-violent white-collar offender for more than a few years, I am pleased that the judge in this case concluded that it would be arguably more fair and efficient to punish in this case with a greater deprivation of property rather than a greater deprivation of liberty.
Thursday, August 22, 2013
Eleventh Circuit finds way-below guideline sentence substantively unreasonable for abusive corrections officersI have long hoped that reasonableness review would have some more teeth in the circuits, and a panel ruling by the Eleventh Circuit today in US v. McQueen, No. 12-10840 (11th Cir. Aug. 22, 2013) (available here), provides a reminder that reasonableness review does seem to have at least a little more bite when prosecutors appeal a sentence they consider way too low. Here are the final paragraphs of the panel opinion in McQueen:
[T]aking the § 3553(a) factors as a whole as well as the district court’s findings, we can only conclude that McQueen’s and Dawkins’s sentences were substantively unreasonable and that the district court abused its considerable discretion in imposing them. Undoubtedly, a district court has great discretion in balancing the § 3553(a) factors. Still, it must afford “some weight to the factors in a manner that is at least loosely commensurate with their importance to the case, and in a way that ‘achieve[s] the purposes of sentencing stated in § 3553(a).’” Id. (alteration in original) (quoting United States v. Martin, 455 F.3d 1227, 1237 (11th Cir. 2006)). If a district court instead commits a clear error of judgment in weighing the sentencing factors and arrives at a sentence beyond the range of reasonable sentences, we are duty bound to vacate and remand for resenten cing. United States v. McBride, 511 F.3d 1293, 1297-98 (11th Cir. 2007) (per curiam). As we see it, the trial court focused virtually exclusively on one factor -- unwarranted disparities -- to the near abandonment of other critical factors and arrived at sentences falling profoundly outside the range of reasonable sentences.
Accordingly, we vacate the sentences imposed on McQueen and Dawkins and remand to the district court for further review and resentencing. In so doing we do not suggest what the sentence should be; nor do we intimate that no variance is justified. We simply hold that downward variances of more than 90% where one corrections officer brutalized more than five young prisoners and then lied about it, and another intentionally sought to conceal these serious crimes are unreasonable.
Tuesday, August 06, 2013
Eighth Circuit panel, though requiring more explanation, suggests probation could be reasonable sentence when guideline range was 11-14 yearsBecause the Eighth Circuit has a well-earned reputation for being pretty tough on criminal defendants in sentencing appeals in the post-Booker era, I find especially notable its nuanced ruling today in US v. Cole, No. 11-1232 (8th Cir. Aug. 8, 2013) (available here). The start of the panel opinion in Cole sets out the basics of the ruling:
A jury found Abby Rae Cole guilty of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1349; tax evasion, in violation of 26 U.S.C. § 7201; and conspiracy to commit tax fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371. The mail and wire fraud conspiracy conviction stems from her company’s theft of nearly $33 million from Best Buy over a four-year period. The tax fraud conspiracy and tax evasion convictions stem from understating tax liability by more than $3 million between 2004 and 2007 by using various schemes to conceal her company’s true profitability. Cole’s advisory Guideline range was 135 to 168 months imprisonment, but the district court varied downward and sentenced her to three years probation on each count, with all terms to be served concurrently. The government appeals Cole’s sentence, arguing it is substantively unreasonable. Cole cross-appeals, challenging her convictions. We affirm Cole’s convictions but remand her case to the district court to provide a fuller explanation of her sentence.
Co-conspirators much more responsible than Cole for the big fraud here got lengthy sentences (15 and 7.5 years), which seems to help explain why the district court decided to give this defendant such a big break. And, as this final key paragraph of the sentencing discussion reveals, the panel here thinks such a big downward variance could be justified, but needs to be more fully explained:
Because Cole’s probationary sentence represents a “major departure” from the advisory Guidelines range, the court’s brief and contradictory explanation of Cole’s sentence is not sufficient “to allow for meaningful appellate review and to promote the perception of fair sentencing.” See Gall, 552 U.S. at 50. Consequently, we cannot evaluate the government’s claim of substantive unreasonableness at this time, and we remand for the district court to more fully explain the defendant-specific facts and policy decisions upon which it relied in determining that the probationary sentence is “sufficient, but not greater than necessary,” § 3553(a), to achieve the sentencing objectives set forth in section 3553(a).
August 6, 2013 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Tuesday, July 09, 2013
Third Circuit affirms record-long insider-trading sentenceAs reported in this Forbes piece, headlined "Inside Trader Matthew Kluger's 12-Year Prison Term Affirmed," a panel of the Third Circuit today rejected a range of arguments against a lengthy federal sentence for insider trading. Here are the basics:
The prison term given to Matthew Kluger by U.S. District Judge Katharine Hayden (New Jersey) represented the longest ever given to a person pleading guilty to charges of insider trading. Upon his arrest in April 2011, Kluger quickly decided to enter negotiations to plead guilty and throw himself on the mercy of the court. That strategy landed him in prison for 12 years.
Kluger was a lawyer (NYU Law) who worked on mergers and acquisitions of publicly traded companies at prestigious law firms, including Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati PC. He then passed that confidential information on to a middle man (Kenneth Robinson), who then passed it on to a trader, Garrett Bauer. The scheme worked for 17 years because there was no direct communication between Kluger, the source, and Bauer, the trader. In fact, the two had only met once at the beginning of their illegal trading. The Securities and Exchange Commission had suspicions of Bauer’s trading activities but could never tie him to a source for the information. However, when Bauer backed out of the trading scheme in 2010, Robinson and Kluger continued … that was when the SEC and the FBI pulled everything together. As David Voreacos (Bloomberg) noted in his excellent profile of Kluger, the scheme succeeded for so long because of its simplicity, the discipline of its limited number of people and its essential amoral nature.
The basis of Kluger’s appeal was that Bauer was supposed to buy only small number of shares, to avoid detection from authorities, and then the three would equally share in the profits. However, Bauer, unknown to Kluger, was trading large blocks of shares for his own benefit, resulting in millions in profits. Whereas Kluger believed that the profits were just around $2 million (a little of $600k each), the total profits from the information he provided to the conspiracy approached $37 million with Bauer receiving the majority of the money. Kluger was sentenced by Judge Haydan according to the Federal Sentencing Guideline based on the amount of the total gain and not the amount he personally realized from the trades. His guideline range at sentencing was 11-14 years … so 12 seemed fair to the judge.
The 3rd Circuit agreed with Judge Hayden, stating that Kluger, “… truly was a career criminal.” Upon being notified of the decision, U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman (District of New Jersey) released a statement, “We argued at sentencing that a severe penalty was appropriate for one of the longest running insider trading schemes ever prosecuted, and are gratified the Court of Appeals saw it the same way.”
Kenneth Robinson, who recruited Bauer and hatched the initial plan with Kluger, did not appeal his prison term of 27 months. Robinson was the first to cooperate with authorities and recorded conversations with both Bauer and Kluger, which sealed their fate. Note to file; It pays to cooperate early.
The full panel opinion in US v. Kluger, No. 12-2701 (3d Cir. July 9, 2013) (available here) runs 48 pages, and this paragraph from the start of the opinion provides an effective accounting of the sentencing issues raised (and ultimately rejected) on appeal:
On June 13, 2012, Kluger filed a timely appeal, raising the following arguments. First, he challenges the District Court's calculation of his sentencing guidelines range. Second, he contends that the Court procedurally erred in imposing the sentence on him by (1) improperly denying him an evidentiary hearing prior to his sentencing; (2) failing to resolve his objections to the presentence investigation report; and (3) not ordering discovery of materials that the govern ment turned over to the probation department for use in preparing the presentence report. Finally, he contends that the District Court imposed a procedurally and substantively unreasonable sentence
Friday, June 14, 2013
Lots of reasonable debate over the guidelines and reasonable review from Second Circuit judges
With thanks to the readers who alerted me, I wanted to alert everyone else to todays Second Circuit opinion in US v. Ingram, No. 12-1058 (2d Cir. June 14, 2013) (available here). The per curiam opinion, which affirms a below guideline drug sentence, is not at all notable (and runs only 3 pages).
But the concurring opinions are both must reads: the first is by Judge Calabresi and runs 14 pages, the second is by Judge Raggi and runs 17 pages to explain why she thinks the prior 14 pages are all washed up. As a reader put it, the two Second Circuit jurists here "have at it on various psychological, philosophical, and practical matters concerning sentencing under the Guidelines."
Monday, June 10, 2013
Guidelines are "the lodestone" of federal sentencing (as well as "the starting point and the initial benchmark")The title of this post is drawn from the key word in a key paragraph that captured my attention in what is otherwise a straight-forward opinion by the Supreme Court today in Peugh (basics here). Here is the context from a paragraph that effectively summarizes the conclusions of the Peugh majority opinion per Justice Sotomayor:
Major kudos to Justice Sotomayor for adding a fitting new term to the post-Booker federal sentencing lexicon. Kudos also to the majority Court for stressing these enduring modern federal sentencing realities in the course of reaching its conclusions:
"The federal system adopts procedural measures intended to make the Guidelines the lodestone of sentencing. A retrospective increase in the Guidelines range applicable to a defendant creates a sufficient risk of a higher sentence to constitute an ex post facto violation."
When Peugh committed his crime, the recommended sentence was 30 to 37 months. When he was sentenced, it was 70 to 87 months.... Such a retrospective increase in the measure of punishment raises clear ex post facto concerns. We have previously recognized, for instance, that a defendant charged with an increased punishment for his crime is likely to feel enhanced pressure to plead guilty. See Carmell, 529 U.S., at 534, n.24; Weaver, 450 U.S., at 32. This pressure does not disappear simply because the Guidelines range is advisory; the defendant will be aware that the range is intended to, and usually does, exert controlling influence on the sentence that the court will impose....
On the Government’s account, the Guidelines are just one among many persuasive sources a sentencing court can consult, no different from a “policy paper.” Brief for United States 28. The Government’s argument fails to acknowledge, however, that district courts are not required to consult any policy paper in order to avoid reversible procedural error; nor must they “consider the extent of [their] deviation” from a given policy paper and “ensure that the justification is sufficiently compelling to support the degree of the variance,” Gall, 552 U.S., at 50. Courts of appeals, in turn, are not permitted to presume that a sentence that comports with a particular policy paper is reasonable; nor do courts of appeals, in considering whether the district court’s sentence was reasonable, weigh the extent of any departure from a given policy paper in determining whether the district court abused its discretion, see id., at 51. It is simply not the case that the Sentencing Guidelines are merely a volume that the district court reads with academic interest in the course of sentencing.
And kudos also to Justice Thomas for providing a slightly competing vision of the post-Booker world via passages in his dissent like the following that, I suspect, will end up in many more defense sentencing submissions than government ones:
[T]he Guidelines do not constrain the discretion of district courts and, thus, have no legal effect on a defendant’s sentence. Second, to the extent that the amended Guidelines create a risk that a defendant might receive a harsher punishment, that risk results from the Guidelines’ persuasive force, not any legal effect....
Petitioner next argues that the Guidelines limit district court discretion because sentences falling outside the Guidelines are more likely to be reversed for substantive unreasonableness. Brief for Petitioner 25. I doubt, however, that reversal is a likely outcome when a district judge can justify his sentence based on agreement with either of two Guidelines — the old or the new. If a district court calculated the sentencing range under the new Guidelines but sentenced the defendant to a below-Guidelines sentence that fell within the range provided by the old Guidelines, it would be difficult to label such a sentence “substantively unreasonable.” To do so would cast doubt on every within-Guidelines sentence issued under the old Guidelines.
I have long suggested that defense attorneys regularly and in every case calculate, and submit to a sentencing court prior to sentencing, the "old" sentencing ranges that would have applied under the original 1987 version of the federal sentencing guidelines which were first promulgated by the original US Sentencing Commission. The above-quoted passages from Justice Thomas now would enable sentencing courts to feel confident that a sentence within the range suggested by the 1987 guidelines should nearly always be deemed reasonable.
June 10, 2013 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack
SCOTUS concludes Ex Post Facto Clause still limits application of new guidelines after BookerThanks to the fine folks live-blogging at SCOTUSblog, I can provide this summary report (with a few edits) of the one big sentencing ruling handed down by the US Supreme Court this morning:
Justice Sotomayor for the Court in Peugh v. United States....
The decision of the Seventh Circuit is reversed, the case is remanded. The Court is splintered. Justice Sotomayor delivers the opinion of the Court except for one part. The Ex Post Facto Clause is violated when a defendant is sentenced under guidelines promulgated after he committed his acts, and the new version of the guidelines provides for a higher sentence than the one in effect at the time he committed his act.
Justice Sotomayor's opinion is for the Court except for a discussion about the policies underlying the Ex Post Facto Clause. It's another case where Justice Kennedy joins the more liberal members of the Court.
Justice Thomas dissents, joined by the Chief and Scalia and Alito. Justice Alito dissents, joined by Justice Scalia. Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan join all of the Sotomayor opinion; Justice Kennedy declines to join Part III-C.
The big fight in the case was whether the Sentencing Guidelines are important enough to trigger Ex Post Facto review given that they are no longer binding -- the majority says they are....
The part of the Sotomayor opinion that Kennedy does not join is a response to the argument by the government and the dissent that the Ex Post Facto Clause is not implicated by this case. The ruling will be significant to the ability of courts to apply tougher new sentencing guidelines to pending cases. It is also a strong reaffirmation of the Ex Post Facto Clause.
The full opinions in Peugh are available here. The opinion for the Court per Justice Sotomayor runs 20 pages, and the main dissent per Justice Thomas is 14 pages.
Kudos to the Court in keep this one relatively brief, as I suspect every sentence from the Justices in this case could end up having some impact on the operation of the post-Booker federal sentencing world. And once I get some time to read these opinions, I will do some follow-up posts on whether Peugh passes the smell test (get it..., I know, pretty lame).
June 10, 2013 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack
Thursday, May 16, 2013
As notable new face joins Eighth Circuit, will court do better with SCOTUS on sentencing issues?Thanks to How Appealing,I just saw this interesting new AP profile of the interesting new judge on the Eighth Circuit. The article is headlined "Jane Kelly's experience rare on US appeals court," and here are excerpts:
As long-time readers and sentencing gurus likely know, many of the most notable modern SCOTUS sentencing rulings involved reversals of Eighth Circuit decisions. In just last few years alone, the defendants in Pepper, Spears, Greenlaw, and Gall all lost on sentencing issues in the Eighth Circuit prior to reverals in the Supreme Court. Indeed, I have long speculated that some Justices take an extra long look at some of the sentencing decisions that emerge from that circuit. I suppose only time will tell if and how these federal sentencing law patterns, and the broader criminal justice jurisprudence of the Eighth Circuit, change at all in the months and years ahead now that a fresh new face with a fresh new perspective has joined that august court.
Jane Kelly will become a federal appeals court judge Friday with an unusual background that supporters say makes her a perfect fit for the job and a potential U.S. Supreme Court candidate someday.
The 48-year-old attorney has spent her career as a public defender representing low-income criminal defendants, a rarity in the ranks of appeals court judges who are often former prosecutors and trial judges. She'll become just the second woman in the 122-year history of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which handles cases in seven states from Arkansas to the Dakotas.
Kelly, who's worked at the federal public defender's office in Cedar Rapids since 1994, graduated from Harvard Law School in the same 1991 class as President Barack Obama. But her appointment was far from patronage. She had so much support that her confirmation received a 96-0 vote in the Senate less than three months after she was appointed, speedier than any other circuit judge nominated by Obama. She also is the survivor of a 2004 beating on a popular jogging trail that left her hospitalized for weeks and shook Cedar Rapids.
Associates say she is a smart legal thinker who has zealously defended the rights of even the most publicly despised clients, including a notorious mailbox bombing suspect and the biggest white-collar criminal in Iowa history. Even prosecutors who disagreed with her in court praise Kelly, who will take the oath of office privately.
"Her story is compelling all the way around," said Debra Fitzpatrick of the University of Minnesota-based Infinity Project, which advocates for more women on the 8th Circuit. "Her credentials and her background and her career sort of set her up to be the right candidate at the right time."
If a Supreme Court justice retires during Obama's second term, Kelly could get mentioned as a potential nominee. Her supporters say they expect her to shine on the circuit, which has 11 active judges and hears 3,500 appeals a year. The lifetime appointment pays $184,500 annually.
Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat, recommended Kelly to Obama to replace retiring Judge Michael Melloy after she rose above an "outstanding" pool. He said she would be the first career public defender on the circuit, bringing "a critically important perspective." Iowa's other senator, Republican Chuck Grassley, ranking member on the judiciary committee, helped convince colleagues to move Kelly's confirmation quickly. Grassley said he supported Kelly because she received a glowing endorsement from respected retired judge David Hansen of Iowa, appointed to the circuit by President George H.W. Bush.
Kelly, Hansen's clerk from 1992 to 1993, was a persuasive writer and debater who often argued opposing viewpoints to help him flesh out cases, Hansen said. "She's a delight to be around, and I predict a very bright future for her in the federal judiciary," Hansen said. "She isn't going to have any trouble intellectually with the work because she has a brilliant legal mind."
Kelly, who did not respond to an interview request, received friendly questions and praise at her confirmation hearing. She said her background gives her a "broader view" of the challenges facing defendants but that she'd need to get up to speed on civil matters. She introduced her partner, Tom Lidd, who has credited Kelly with helping inspire and edit his book about Iowa football legend Nile Kinnick.
A long-distance runner, Kelly's life almost ended when she went for a morning jog on the Cedar River Trail in June 2004. She was tackled and beaten by a male stranger, then dragged to a creek and left for dead. Passersby found Kelly in a pool of blood, in and out of consciousness and struggling to call for help. Speculation swirled that the attack was linked to Kelly's legal work, but no one ever was arrested.
Kelly quickly returned to representing criminal defendants after spending months in recovery. Her colleagues gave her the John Adams Award, which recognizes an Iowa lawyer's commitment to the constitutional right to criminal defense. And hundreds gathered one year later for a "Take Back the Trail" event, where Kelly jogged there again for the first time.
Kelly grew up in Newcastle, Ind., and graduated from Duke University in 1987. She earned a Fulbright scholarship to study in New Zealand before enrolling at Harvard, where she and Obama were acquaintances but not friends. She clerked for U.S. District Judge Donald Porter in South Dakota and then for Hansen.
She taught one year at University of Illinois law school before returning to Iowa as one of the first hires for the new public defender's office. She's been a fixture ever since, often representing "not the most popular person in the room," as she put it in her confirmation hearing, including drug dealers, pornographers and con artists.
Monday, April 15, 2013
Second Circuit finds Cameron Douglas's above-guideline sentence substantively reasonable
The latest (and perhaps final) significant chapter in the federal sentencing saga concerning Cameron Douglas was finished this morning when a Second Circuit panel rejected his claim that his second federal sentence was substantively unreasonableness in US v. Douglas, No. 11-5384 (2d Cir. April 15, 2013) (available here). In addition to thinking the Second Circuit panel came to the right basic outcome here, I am especially pleased that both the majority opinion and the concurrence in Douglas provide an extended discussion of sentencing practice and policy as part of the continuation of a (still nascent, but-not-yet-dormant) post-Booker common law of reasonableness review.
As I have explained in a number of prior posts (which are liked below), I have found the Cameron Douglas story of crime and punishment consistently worthy of attention — in part because the involvement of celebrities at his federal sentencings and in part because of the many legal and social issues raised by the seemingly lenient sentence Michael Douglas's drug-addicted son was given at his first sentencing and the seemingly harsh sentence he got the second time around (some backstory here). The Second Circuit's Douglas opinion tells this story effectively (though leaving out the celebrity part), and then provide a lot of analytical meat for any and all federal sentencing fans to chew on. I highly recommend reading the Douglas opinions in full, though I will here spotlight two notable passages from the opinions concerning the relationship between addiction and drug sentencing.
At the very end of the majority opinion (per Judge Gerard Lynch), we get these notable comments from the Second Circuit panel:
Finally, we take note of the argument, made by Douglas and supported by amici, that punitive sanctions are a less appropriate response to criminal acts by persons suffering from addiction than drug treatment. It may well be that the nation would be better served by a medical approach to treating and preventing addiction than by a criminal-justice-based “war on drugs.” See, e.g., Heather Schoenfeld, The War on Drugs, the Politics of Crime, and Mass Incarceration in the United States, 15 J. Gender Race & Just. 315 (2012); Juan R. Torruella, Déjà Vu: A Federal Judge Revisits the War on Drugs, or Life in a Balloon, 20 B.U. Pub. Int. L.J. 167 (2011). But Congress has made a different choice, and this case is not a vehicle for deciding questions of comprehensive drug policy. For so long as the sale and possession of narcotics remain crimes, courts must struggle with the difficult task of sentencing those who commit such crimes.
We do not hold that district courts may not approach cases of addicted defendants who seek treatment and show promise of changing their lives with compassion and with due consideration of the relative costs and effectiveness of treatment versus long prison sentences. Indeed, that is precisely how the district court approached Douglas’s original sentence in this case. Sentencing courts are not required, however, to turn a blind eye to behavior that can reasonably be understood as demonstrating that a particular defendant has shown himself to be a poor candidate for treatment or for leniency. District courts are in the best position to decide whether the defendant before the court is likely to respond to drug treatment or has spurned chances at rehabilitation and persisted in a life of “reckless, criminal, dangerous, destructive, [and] deceitful conduct.” We therefore cannot say that the district court’s assessment of the sentence appropriate for Douglas was unreasonable.
And, at the very start of the concurring opinion by (my former boss) Judge Guido Calabresi, we get these notable comments:
I join the majority opinion in full because I agree that it is not substantively unreasonable for a district judge, after having given a defendant a number of breaks and second chances, to impose a sentence like this one. I write separately to emphasize my view that a term of imprisonment of between 5 and 10 years ought not to be seen merely as a punishment. It also must represent an expression of some faith that the convict might be rehabilitated within that time. Prisons should have a duty, therefore, not just to keep the convict locked away, but to enhance his ability to become a responsible citizen. When the convict’s crime involves drug addiction, a necessary part of this rehabilitation is enforced, medically monitored withdrawal. Congress has passed a law criminalizing possession of drugs by an inmate in federal prison, and there is no question that Douglas broke that law and manifested, as the majority opinion shows, a high level of culpability. There is also no question in my mind, however, that the incidence of this crime also demonstrates a significant level of culpability on the part of the jailing institution. When a prison cannot protect an addicted inmate from the capacity to relapse, it has failed to perform an essential obligation – an obligation that it owes both to the inmate and to the society that the inmate will someday rejoin.
Prior posts concerning Cameron Douglas's federal sentencings:
- Does having celebrity "a-listers" ask for leniency help a defendant's cause at sentencing?
- Cameron Douglas sentenced to five years for federal drug offense
- "Did Michael Douglas' Son Get Celeb Treatment With Reduced Sentence?"
- Should we care that Cameron Douglas, though sentenced to 5 years in prison, will likely be out in 2012?
- Stiff sentence given to Cameron Douglas for drug possession while in prison
- Celebrity federal drug sentencing appeal prompts doctors' brief urging treatment over punishment
- Celebrity witness for high-profile (and interesting) federal sentencing appeal
April 15, 2013 in Booker in the Circuits, Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack
Tuesday, March 19, 2013
"Fun with Numbers: Gall's Mixed Message Regarding Variance Calculations"The title of this post is the title of this notable new student note by Nicholas Deuschle now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
This Comment seeks to resolve an unaddressed issue stemming from recent developments in the Supreme Court’s sentencing jurisprudence. In Gall v. United States, the Supreme Court required that appellate courts "consider the extent of the deviation" of criminal sentences imposed outside the Sentencing Guidelines range. The Court, however, provided little guidance as to what this requirement means. Specifically, how should appellate courts calculate that deviation from the Sentencing Guidelines?
Thursday, March 07, 2013
DOJ agrees with US Sentencing Commission that child porn guidelines are badly brokenThanks to a helpful reader, I have learned that earlier this week a representative of the US Department of Justice sent a lengthy and detailed letter to the US Sentencing Commission concerning its recent huge child pornography federal sentencing report (basics here and here). Disappointingly, as of this writing, I cannot seem to find a copy of this important and interesting letter on the website of either the DOJ or the USSC. ButI have a pdf copy of the letter, which is dated March 5, 2013, and I have posted the full 7-page letter below.
The lengthy letter needs to be read in full by any and everyone concerning with federal child porn sentencing dynamics. And these sentences from the first page highlights that DOJ agrees with the USSC's basic conclusion that the current child porn federal sentencing guidelines are badly broken:
[T]he Department agrees with the Commission's conclusion that advancements in technologies and the evolution of the child pornography "market" have led to a significantly changed landscape -- one that is no longer adequately represented by the existing sentencing guidelines. Specifically, we agree with the Report's conclusion that the existing Specific Offense Characteristics ("SOCs") in USSG § 2G2.2 may not accurately reflect the seriousness of an offender's conduct, nor fairly account for differing degrees of offender dangerousness. The current guidelines can at times under-represent and at times over-represent the seriousness of an offender's conduct and the danger an offender possesses.
As I suggested in this recent post, now that the US Sentencing Commission has said that the current federal guidelines for child pornography are broken, it not longer seems proper for these guidelines to be given much weight and it seems plainly improper for within-guideline CP sentences to still carry a presumption of reasonableness on appeal. Now that the Justice Department has officially stated that it agrees with the USSC's position on these guidelines, I wonder if federal prosecutors will not be not merely authorized, but actually required, to agree with the common defense arguments in CP cases that the current guidelines should be afforded little or no weight in the broader 3553(a) analysis.
Indeed, in light of this DOJ letter, which details the many ways ways in which the current CP guidelines are broken, perhaps circuit courts should begin to adopt a blanket presumption of unreasonableness for any and every within-guideline child porn sentence. (Of course, that presumption could be rebutted if and when a district judge were to explain how other 3553(a) factors justified a within-guideline sentence in a child porn case. But, in light of what the USSC and DOJ are saying about the flaws of the current CP guideline, it would seem only logical now to view any within-guideline child porn sentence as presumptively flawed rather than presumptively sound.)
Recent related posts:
- US Sentencing Commission releases big new report on federal child porn sentencing
- Doesn't the new USSC report necessarily rebut any appellate "presumption of reasonableness" for within-guideline child porn sentences?
- The many (impossible?) challenges of federal child pornography sentencing
March 7, 2013 in Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack
Sunday, March 03, 2013
"Should defendants’ age, health issues be sentencing factors?"The question in the title of this post is the sub-heading of this notable article appearing in my own local Columbus Dispatch, which carries the main headline "Seniors argue for less time in prison." Here are excerpts:
Is prison more of a punishment if a defendant is 50 rather than 20? Some defense attorneys are debating that issue in federal court as they seek to minimize prison sentences for defendants 50 or older.
“We’re seeing it a lot,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Deborah A. Solove said. The issue is at the heart of an unprecedented second appeal that Solove has filed over the prison sentence imposed by U.S. District Judge James L. Graham on a Knox County man, Richard Bistline.
Graham originally sentenced Bistline, 70, of Mount Vernon, in 2010. The sentence, for possessing child pornography, was one day in prison plus 10 years of supervised probation. Solove appealed, saying the sentence was too lenient. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Graham to resentence Bistline, saying the original penalty “does not reflect the seriousness of his offense.”
In January, Graham ordered the same sentence but added three years of home confinement as part of Bistline’s probation. The judge said he didn’t order more prison time because he was concerned about Bistline’s age and health problems, which included two strokes and a heart attack a year ago. He questioned whether Bistline would get adequate medical care in prison.
Solove, who prosecuted the case, had asked for a five-year prison term, which was a bit less than is called for in the sentencing guidelines determined by the court. Graham maintained that would be “a life sentence, or more accurately, a death sentence,” for Bistline.
Graham said last week that judges can consider age and infirmity in sentencing, and he does that if a defendant is not a danger to the public. “I was completely satisfied in this case that he was not. Your job as a judge is to figure out which one of these defendants are the really bad guys you need to put away.”
In another case, Laura E. Byrum, an assistant federal public defender, is arguing that her 64-year-old client should get a prison sentence that’s shorter than the guidelines call for, in part because of his age and health problems. Robert W. Burke of 767 Bracken Court, Worthington, pleaded guilty to one count of receiving child pornography, and the guidelines call for a 20-year prison term.
Byrum has asked for a 10-year prison term followed by 20 years of supervised release. She argues that the life expectancy of a man Burke’s age is 18 years, and his is likely shorter because he has skin cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Twenty years is a “virtual death sentence,” she wrote in her sentencing memorandum.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Heather Hill said the federal prison system can handle most of the typical health problems associated with aging. “Going to prison isn’t easy for anyone, but that is the consequence of breaking the law,” she said. “We’re not sure that being nearer to the grave gives you license to be a criminal.”
According to a 2012 report by Human Rights Watch, state and federal prisons held 124,440 prisoners who were 55 or older in 2010. That was a 282 percent increase from 1995, at a time when the total number of prisoners rose by 42 percent.
Prior related posts:
- Sixth Circuit finds substantively unreasonable a one-day of lock-up for child porn downloading
- District Judge at resentencing continues to resist federal child porn guidelines even after Sixth Circuit reversal