Monday, March 20, 2017
Over Posnerian dissent, Seventh Circuit panel upholds two-year prison term for elderly, ill fraudster
A Seventh Circuit panel recently issued an interesting set of opinions discussing federal prison care in the course of rejecting a sentencing appeal in US v. Rothbard, No. 16-3996 (7th Cir. March 17, 2017) (available here). The start of the majority opinion by Chief Judge Wood provides the basics of the case and ruling:
Jeffrey Rothbard pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud in connection with his participation in a scheme to defraud companies that were interested in obtaining loans for environmentally friendly upgrades to their facilities. He committed this offense, which yielded more than $200,000 for him, while he was on probation for a felony forgery conviction in Indiana. The district court sentenced him to 24 months’ imprisonment, despite the fact that Rothbard is an older man with serious health problems and the Probation Office thought that incarceration was not necessary. On appeal, Rothbard urges us to find that his sentence is substantively unreasonable, both because he has stayed out of trouble for nearly three years and because he fears that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) may be unable to furnish the medication on which his health critically depends.
Perhaps, had we been the sentencing judges, we would have accepted his arguments. But the district court here gave sound reasons for its chosen sentence. In addition, both the evidence in the record before the district court, and supplemental information that we requested about BOP’s ability to provide appropriate care, satisfy us that the nominal 24-month sentence will not, in reality, spell doom for Rothbard. We therefore affirm the district court’s judgment.
Judge Posner dissented from the majority ruling, citing an array of sources to support his contention and concern that BOP might not adequately attend to the defendant's medical needs. His dissent concludes this way:
To conclude, my inclination would be to reverse the judgment of the district court with directions to impose the sentence recommended by the probation service. But I would be content to reverse and remand with instructions that the district judge appoint neutral expert witnesses drawn both from the medical profession and from academic analysis of prison practices and conditions, with particular emphasis on the federal prison system, and that the judge reconsider his sentence in light of evidence presented by these witnesses as well as any witnesses that the government or the defendant may care to call.
What is clear is that Jeffrey Rothbard is entitled to a more informed and compassionate judicial response to his physical and mental illnesses than he has received from the district court and this court.
Tuesday, March 07, 2017
"Booker Disparity and Data-Driven Sentencing"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new article now available via SSRN authored by Joshua Divine. Here is the abstract:
Sentencing disparity among similar offenders has increased at a disconcerting rate over the last decade. Some judges issue sentences twice as harsh as peer judges, meaning that a defendant’s sentence substantially depends on which judge is randomly assigned to a case. The old mandatory sentencing guidelines repressed disparity but only by causing unwarranted uniformity. The advisory guidelines swing the pendulum toward the opposite extreme, and this problem promises to grow worse as the lingering effect of the old regime continues to decrease.
This Article is the first to propose a system — data-driven appellate review — that curbs sentencing disparity without re-introducing unwarranted uniformity. Congress should establish a rebuttable presumption that outlier sentences among similar offenders are unreasonable. The U.S. Sentencing Commission collects data on over 70,000 criminal cases annually. This data provides the tool for defining categories of similar offenders. Culling outlier sentences through data-driven appellate review would increase judicial awareness of sentences issued by peer judges and would therefore curb the increase in inter-judge disparity without resorting to unwarranted uniformity.
March 7, 2017 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 (2)
Friday, December 30, 2016
Third Circuit reverses (short) sentence based in part on "bare arrest record" ... JAN 3, 2017 UPDATE: Opinion VACATED at "the direction of the Court" ... AND on Jand 9, 2017 the opinion returns
A number of helpful readers made sure I did not miss the significant sentencing opinion handed down by a Third Circuit panel in US v. Mateo-Medina, No. 15-2862 (3d Cir. Dec. 30, 2016) (available here). Here is how the opinion starts:
Maximo Mateo-Medina appeals his sentence of twelve months plus one day imprisonment for illegally reentering the United States, in violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1326(a) and (b)(1). Although Mateo-Medina pled guilty to the offense, he now appeals the sentence, arguing that the sentencing court violated his Due Process Clause rights by impermissibly considering, among other things, arrests that did not result in convictions. The Presentence Investigation Report (PSR) that disclosed those arrests did not contain any of the underlying conduct. For the reasons set forth below, we agree and we will therefore vacate the sentence that was imposed and remand for resentencing.
The opinion includes citations to considerable research regarding "disparities in arrest rates," and it ultimately holds that the district court's sentencing decision amounted to plain error in a final section which notes that "calculating a person’s sentence based on crimes for which he or she was not convicted undoubtedly undermines the fairness, integrity, and public reputation of judicial proceedings."
UPDATE on January 3, 2017: Another helpful reader today sent me this link to a one-page Third Circuit order which reads: "At the direction of the Court, the opinion and judgment entered on December 30, 2016 are hereby VACATED." Hmmm.
ANOTHER UPDATE on January 9, 2017: I was again alerted by a helpful reader that, as evidenced here, US v. Mateo-Medina, No. 15-2862 is back and seemingly as good as ever. Color me confused and curious, but ultimately pleased to learn that this seemingly sensible opinion remains good law.
Sunday, December 04, 2016
Second Circuit hints that sentence reduction might well be justified whenever guideline range is increased "significantly by a loss enhancement"
I am grateful to Harry Sandick for alerting me to this seemingly little (and easily overlooked) opinion handed down by a unanimous Second Circuit panel late last week. Stephanie Teplin and Harry Sandick discuss the case in this thoughtful blog posting, and here are key passages from their coverage:
In United States v. Algahaim, No. 15-2024(L), the Second Circuit (Newman, Winters, Cabranes) upheld the conviction of two defendants for misconduct involving the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”), but remanded to the district court for consideration of a below-Guidelines sentence. The Court, in an opinion by Judge Newman, held that the outsize effect of the loss amount enhancement on the defendant’s base offense level — a sentencing scheme for fraud that is “unknown to other sentencing systems” — required the district court to reconsider whether a non-Guidelines sentence was warranted....
Judge Newman acknowledged that it was within the Sentencing Commission’s authority to construct a sentencing scheme that “use[s] loss amount as the predominant determination of the adjusted offense level for monetary offenses.” However, he observed that “the Commission could have approached monetary offenses quite differently. For example, it could have started the Guidelines calculation for fraud offenses by selecting a base level that realistically reflected the seriousness of a typical fraud offense and then permitted adjustments up or down to reflect especially large or small amounts of loss.”
The “unusualness” of the Guidelines system, the Court held, can be considered by a sentencing judge under Kimbrough v. United States. “Where the Commission has assigned a rather low base offense level to a crime and then increased it significantly by a loss enhancement, that combination of circumstances entitles a sentencing judge to consider a non-Guidelines sentence.” The Court did not hold that the sentences were in error, but remanded for the district court’s reconsideration of the sentences....
Judge Newman has long been a skeptic of the Guidelines approach to sentencing. In this short opinion, he cites the pre-Booker decision in United States v. Lauersen, 348 F.2d 329 (2d Cir. 2003), an opinion he authored at a time when the Guidelines were mandatory, except for downward departures. Lauersen held that where the cumulative impact of overlapping Guidelines enhancements (in that case, for loss amount and for defrauding a financial institution of more than $1 million) resulted in an overly long sentence, the district court could downwardly depart....
In Algahaim, Judge Newman carries this concept forward to the more open-ended sentencing regime given to us by Booker, Gall and Kimbrough. Many judges have stated that the Guidelines are not helpful in white-collar cases and that their emphasis on loss can lead to results that are “patently unreasonable.” E.g., United States v. Adelson, 441 F. Supp. 2d 506, 509 (S.D.N.Y. 2006) (Rakoff, J.). Practitioners have also advocated for shorter sentences in cases involving relatively low loss amounts or where the defendant had no prior record. See ABA Criminal Justice Section, “A Report on Behalf of the ABA Criminal Justice Section Task Force on the Reform of Federal Sentencing for Economic Crimes” (November 10, 2014) (last visited December 1, 2016). To the extent that district judges needed any further encouragement, Judge Newman’s decision lets district judges know that a Guidelines sentence need not be imposed where the “significant effect of the loss enhancement” leads to an unduly long sentence.
Because Judge Jon O. Newman was my very first boss as a lawyer (I served as his law clerk from 1993-94 starting just months after my graduation from law school), I am always partial to his opinions and especially as to his opinions about sentencing issues. And, as regular readers know, I am always partial to judicial opinions that thoughtfully explain whether and when the federal sentencing guidelines should or should not be followed. And so, perhaps my partiality is going to bubble over when I assert that Judge Newman is being especially astute and shrewd in his pro-discretion sentencing work in United States v. Algahaim, in part because the particulars of the loss enhancement in Algahaim are actually not all that major.
Specifically, in Algahaim, the two defendants who were appealing their convictions and sentences were subject to offense-level increases for loss of "only" 10 and 12 points under USSG § 2B1.1(b)(1). Though such loss enhancements certainly appear significant when added to a base offense level of 6, in many other fraud cases the loss enhancement under 2B1.1(b) can commonly add 16 or 20 or 24 or even up to 30 points. Despite those realities, the Second Circuit in Algahaim has now called just a 10-level loss enhancement in a fraud case "significant" and also has said this enhancement is alone large enough to merit serious consideration of a below-guideline sentence. For that reason, I would now expect lots of astute and shrewd future white-collar defendants throughout New York and elsewhere to be citing to Algahaim to bolster arguments for below-guideline sentences whenever the guideline range is moved up a lot by loss calculations.
December 4, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)
Sunday, July 17, 2016
Ninth Circuit rejects district court's decision to base sentence on drug amount higher than jury's special verdict
A helpful reader made sure I did not overlook the interesting Ninth Circuit panel decision in US v. Pimentel-Lopez, No. 14-30210 (9th Cir. July 15, 2016) (available here), which was handed down on Friday. Here is how the helpful reader helpfully summarized the decison: "Somewhat unusually, the jury returned a special verdict finding the defendant responsible for less than 50 g of meth. The Circuit Court vacated his sentence after the District Court based the guidelines range on 4.5 kg and gave a stat max sentence of 20 years. An interesting variation on using (or not) acquitted conduct at sentencing, I think." And here are a few paragraphs from the decision:
The principal question presented is whether the district judge was entitled to make a drug quantity finding in excess of that found by the jury in its special verdict. The district court believed it was entitled to do so because “[t]here is no increase in the statutory maximum sentence beyond the 20 years or 240 months that is charged in the [i]ndictment.”....
Some of our sister circuits seem to have held that a jury’s special-verdict finding that the quantity of drugs involved in the crime is less than a particular amount did not preclude the judge from finding a greater quantity for purposes of sentencing. [CITES] But those cases did not directly address the argument raised by Pimentel-Lopez — that the affirmative finding by the jury that the quantity of drugs involved was less than a specific amount precluded a contradictory finding by the district judge during sentencing....
Some of our sister circuits seem to have assumed that the juries’ findings merely acquitted defendants of possessing higher quantities of drugs, and that may have been warranted on the record before them.... Here, by contrast, the record is clear that the jury didn’t merely acquit defendant of possessing 50 grams or more of methamphetamine; it made an affirmative finding “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the amount attributable to defendant was “[l]ess than 50 grams.” Our own caselaw, and simple logic, precludes us from vouchsafing sentencing judges the power to make contradictory findings under these circumstances.
Monday, July 11, 2016
First Circuit finds sentence enhanced based on a song (and thrice longer than guideline range) substantively unreasonable
Thanks to Howard Bashman at How Appealing, I did not miss the interesting First Circuit panel ruling in Alvarez-Núñez, No. 15-2127 (1st Cir. July 9, 2016) (available here), declaring an above-guideline sentence substantively unreasonable. Here are excepts from an opinion that has a wordy flair that would justify reading in full:
In this case, the sentencing court confused the message with the messenger. That led the court to blur the line between the artistic expression of a musical performer and that performer's state of mind qua criminal defendant. Concluding, as we do, that this line-blurring undermined the plausibility of the court's sentencing rationale (and, thus, rendered the sentence substantively unreasonable), we vacate and remand for resentencing....
Evidence extrinsic to the protected words or conduct may make clear that a performance or artistic work speaks to a defendant's motive, state of mind, or some other attribute in a way that is relevant to sentencing. In the absence of such extrinsic evidence, the mere fact that a defendant's crime happens to resemble some feature of his prior artistic expression cannot, by itself, establish the relevance of that expression to sentencing.
Evidence that might support such an inference is conspicuously lacking in this case. Nothing in the record indicates that the lyrics or music videos had any direct application either to the defendant or to his lifestyle. Nor is there any basis for a claim that they are unlawful in any respect. By like token, there is no hint that the defendant had any prior involvement with illegal firearms, much less with violence or murder. The government did not so much as attempt to prove any uncharged conduct, nor did the district court make any findings about the defendant's involvement in any other criminal activity. To the contrary, the PSI Report — accepted in this regard both by the government and the district court — confirms that, at age 34, the defendant had no adult criminal history.
The district court's conclusions — that the lyrics and music videos comprised "objective evidence . . . that this [crime] was not a mistake," that they reflected that the defendant had a history of involvement "with firearms, with violence, [and] with murders," and that they made it likely that the defendant possessed the gun for nefarious purposes — thus rested entirely on naked inferences drawn from the content of the lyrics and music videos....
Taking the lyrics and music videos as "objective evidence" of factors relevant to sentencing, without an iota of corroborating evidence, results in a sentencing rationale wholly unsupported by the record. Like a house built upon a porous foundation, a sentence built upon a rationale that is unsupported by the record cannot stand.
Wednesday, June 29, 2016
Sixth Circuit affirms way-below guideline five-year child porn sentence based in part on jury poll urging sentence even lower
A number of helpful readers made sure that, despite being on the road all day, I did not miss the remarkable Sixth Circuit panel decision today in US v. Collins, No. 15-3236 (6th Cir. June 29, 2016) (available here). I first blogged about this case here after initial sentencing, recounting these basic details via a news account:
A jury convicted Ryan Collins in October of one count possessing, distributing and receiving child pornography and one count possession of child pornography. Police found more than 1,500 files on his computer, and he was charged with distributing because he used peer-to-peer file sharing programs.
Under federal law, a judge can sentence a defendant to up to 20 years in prison if he or she is found guilty of child porn distribution. On Tuesday, during Collins' sentencing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan asked U.S. District Judge James Gwin to give the maximum sentence for the charge.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Probation and Pretrial Services said a guideline sentence for Collins, who is 32 and has no criminal history, would be between about 21 and 27 years in federal prison. While higher than the maximum sentence, the office's calculation accounted for several factors in Collins' case -- including the age of the victims and not taking responsibility for his actions.
But Gwin handed down a five-year sentence to Collins, the minimum allowable sentence for a distribution charge. The judge said that after Collins' trial, he polled jurors on what they thought was an appropriate sentence. The average recommendation was 14 months, Gwin said.
Unhappy with this outcome, federal prosecutors appealed the sentence as unreasonable, but now has lost before a unanimous Sixth Circuit panel. The Court's relatively short opinion includes these passages:
The government also argues that the jury poll was an “impermissible factor” for the district judge to consider in crafting an appropriate sentence. Conatser, 514 F.3d at 520. We again disagree. Federal law provides nearly unfettered scope as to the sources from which a district judge may draw in determining a sentence....
District courts also have the authority to “reject the Guidelines sentencing ranges based on articulated policy disagreements in a range of contexts.” United States v. Kamper, 748 F.3d 728, 741 (6th Cir. 2014). Indeed, we have suggested the plausibility of rejecting guidelines ranges in child pornography cases based on policy disagreements. See United States v. Bistline (Bistline I), 665 F.3d 758, 762-64 (6th Cir. 2012) (finding that the district court “did not seriously attempt to refute” the judgments underlying the guidelines).
When establishing the Sentencing Commission, Congress directed it to take “the community view of the gravity of the offense” into account when crafting appropriate criminal sanctions. 28 U.S.C. § 994(c)(4). As reflected in his writing on the subject, and briefly in the sentencing hearing below, the district judge reasons that the Commission fell short of this directive. See Judge James S. Gwin, Juror Sentiment on Just Punishment: Do the Federal Sentencing Guidelines Reflect Community Values?, 4 HARV. L. & POL'Y REV. 173, 185 (Winter 2010)....
Though we reiterate that juries lack “the tools necessary for the sentencing decision,” Martin, 390 F. App’x at 538, they can provide insight into the community’s view of the gravity of an offense. See Gwin, supra at 193-94; see also Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584, 615-16 (2002) (BREYER, J., concurring) (jurors “reflect more accurately the composition and experiences of the community as a whole” and are “better able to determine in the particular case the need for retribution”) (internal quotations and citations omitted). The jury did not determine or impose defendant’s sentence. Rather, the district judge – who does possess the necessary tools for the sentencing decision – was at all times interposed between the jurors’ views of an appropriate sentence and the sentencing guidelines’ § 3553(a) factors. Considering the jury’s sentencing recommendation as part of the sentencing calculus did not conflict with the district judge’s duty or ability to properly weigh the § 3553(a) factors and independently craft an appropriate sentence.
June 29, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4)
Wednesday, June 15, 2016
Split Second Circuit panel reverses (on procedural grounds, sort of) 60-year sentence for production and possession of child porn
A few helpful readers helped make sure I did not fail to note the interesting split Second Circuit panel decision handed down yesterday in US v. Brown, No. 13‐1706 (2d Cir. June 14, 2016) (available here). Here area key passages from the majority opinion authored by Judge Pooler explaining its (procedural?) basis for reversal of a 60-year prison term (with most cites omitted) for the production of child pornography:
At sentencing, the district court noted “the trauma to these three children,” the fact that “three children” would have to “worry for the rest of their li[v]e[s]” about the photographs, and that Brown “destroyed the lives of three specific children.” App’x at 100‐01. The district court’s explanation suggests that the 2 individual harm suffered by each of Brown’s three victims played a critical role in the district court’s decision to impose three consecutive 20‐year sentences. But the sentencing transcript also suggests that the district court may have misunderstood the nature of that harm as to Brown’s third victim. Three times the court emphasized the mental anguish that “three specific children” would suffer as a result of Brown’s abuse. App’x at 100‐01. Brown’s third victim, however, has “no knowledge of having been victimized by Brown.” PSR ¶ 35. Her mother declined to submit a victim impact statement specifically because her daughter “was unaware of the abuse” and had experienced “no negative impact.” PSR ¶ 51. To be sure, the district court was entitled to punish Brown for that abuse regardless of whether the victim was aware of it. But given the district court’s repeated emphasis on the fact that Brown had destroyed the lives of “three specific children,” we conclude that it is appropriate to remand for resentencing to ensure that the sentence is not based on a clearly erroneous understanding of the facts.
It is possible that, on remand, the district court will reimpose the same 60‐year sentence that it imposed at the original sentencing. Although we express no definitive view on the substantive reasonableness of that sentence at this time, we respectfully suggest that the district court consider whether an effective life sentence is warranted in this case. We understand and emphatically endorse the need to condemn Brown’s crimes in the strongest of terms.
But the Supreme Court has recognized that “defendants who do not kill, intend to kill, or foresee that life will be taken are categorically less deserving of the most serious forms of punishment than are murderers.” Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 69 (2010)....
The sentencing transcript suggests that the district court may have seen no moral difference between Brown and a defendant who murders or violently rapes children, stating that Brown’s crime was “as serious a crime as federal judges confront,” App’x at 101, that Brown was “the worst kind of dangerous sex offender,” App’x at 102, and that he was “exactly like” sex offenders who rape and torture children, App’x at 100. Punishing Brown as harshly as a murderer arguably frustrates the goal of marginal deterrence, “that is, that the harshest sentences should be reserved for the most culpable behavior.”...
Finally, to the extent that the district court believed it necessary to incapacitate Brown for the rest of his life because of the danger he poses to the public, we note that defendants such as Brown are generally less likely to reoffend as they get older.
Judge Droney authored a lengthy dissent, which gets started this way:
The majority simply disagrees with the length of the imprisonment imposed upon the defendant by the district court, yet it cloaks that disagreement as procedural error. There was no procedural error, and the sentence was well within the discretion of the district court. It was also appropriate. The defendant sexually abused at least three very young girls, recorded that abuse, installed secret cameras in public areas where children changed clothes, and possessed over 25,000 images of child pornography on his computers, including many scenes of bestiality and sadistic treatment. No doubt this was a lengthy sentence, but it was warranted.
I dissent. The district judge committed no error whatsoever— procedural or substantive.
Thursday, June 09, 2016
Seventh Circuit affirms above-guideline child porn sentence given to former Subway pitchman Jared Fogle
A panel of the Seventh Circuit made quick work of the appeal brought by former Subway pitchman Jared Fogle. Readers may recall Fogle received a federal sentence after pleading guilty to various child porn offense of 15 years and eight months, and on appeal Fogle asserted his sentence was unreasonable based on various alleged procedural and substantive errors. Oral argument on Fogle's appeal too place just a few weeks ago, and today this panel opinion affirmed the sentence given to Fogle and winds up this way:
Fogle attacks the district court’s overall reasoning in imposing his sentence. He characterizes the district court’s discussion as “puzzling” and claims that the various factors that the court relied upon cannot reasonably support an enhanced sentence. For instance, he alleges that an enhanced sentence is not warranted because he only engaged in “[o]ne single act” of distribution. He tries to downplay this conduct by claiming that it was a mere “technical” violation of the statute because he only showed the video to “one individual with whom [he] was then involved with romantically and it occurred in the confines of a locked hotel room.”
Fogle’s arguments regarding substantive error are unpersuasive in light of the deference “we must give … to the district court’s determination that the § 3553(a) factors, taken as a whole, justified the extent of the variance” from the guidelines range. Scott, 555 F.3d at 610. The district court provided a thorough explanation for its imposition of an above-guidelines sentence, which is all that was required. And contrary to Fogle’s allegation of double-counting, the district court properly invoked the § 3553(a) factors and explained why the aggravated nature and circumstances of Fogle’s offenses warranted a higher sentence for both counts. Specifically, the district court noted that Fogle knew that his employee was secretly videotaping minors yet never reported this to law enforcement, as well as the fact that Fogle repeatedly acted on his attraction to minors rather than limiting himself to fantasies. The court also discussed how Fogle’s lack of a difficult upbringing failed to mitigate the circumstances of his conviction, and how his celebrity status could be viewed as both a mitigating and aggravating factor.
In light of the district court’s sound exercise of discretion under the disturbing facts of this case, we uphold the aboveguidelines sentence as substantively reasonable.
Prior related posts:
- Subway pitchman and his "Jared Foundation" subject to serious child porn investigation
- What sort of child porn federal plea deal might be in works for Subway pitchman Jared Fogle?
- Even with plea deal, Subway pitchman Jared likely facing at least a decade in federal prison for sex offenses
- Has Jared Fogle gotten a sweetheart plea deal and/or celebrity treatment for sex crimes?
- Federal child porn downloaders complaining to judges about Jared Fogle's (too sweet?) plea deal
- Federal prosecutors seeking plea-deal max sentence of 12.5 years for Jared Fogle
- Jared Fogle given (above-guideline and above-prosecutor-recommend) sentence of 188 months in federal prison for sex offenses
- Does anyone think former Subway pitchman Jared Fogle has any real chance to have his long federal sentence reversed as unreasonable?
Wednesday, May 25, 2016
Making a friendly pitch for SCOTUS to consider constitutional limits on extreme judicial sentencing increase based on uncharged homicide
Regular readers know that I have long been troubled by significant sentence increases by judges based on so-called acquitted conduct, and that I have filed a number of federal appellate briefs articulating my concerns. Building on some of that prior work, I recently had a chance to work on an amicus brief in support of certiorari in Hebert v. US, a case out of the Fifth Circuit involving an extreme sentence increase based on uncharged conduct. The full amicus (which the fine folks at the Jones Day in DC made so fine) can be downloaded below, and here are excerpts from its start providing context and key arguments:
It is difficult to imagine a starker violation of the Sixth Amendment and due process than what transpired below. Mr. Hebert pleaded guilty to a $16,000 fraud that carried a guidelines range topping out at 5 years. After persuading Mr. Hebert to admit responsibility for his fraud and accept punishment for that crime, the Government ambushed him at sentencing by asserting that he had committed an intentional murder along with the fraud to which he had confessed. The Government then asked the district court to find it was more likely than not that Mr. Hebert committed this un-charged, non-admitted, never-convicted, non-federal crime. Then, on the basis of that judicial determination, the district court gave Mr. Hebert a 92-year sentence — a sentence the Government has conceded and the Fifth Circuit recognized “would have been substantively unreasonable under the post-Booker sentencing regime absent a judicial finding of murder,” Pet.App.22a — again, a crime with which Mr. Hebert has never even been charged.
Because Mr. Hebert has never been charged with — much less convicted of — murder, he remains entirely innocent of that crime. If the Government wishes to convict Mr. Hebert of murder, it is welcome to try. But what it cannot do is use Mr. Hebert’s confession to lesser crimes as the springboard for de facto convicting him of a far more serious crime in a judicial proceeding with no jury, the civil standard of proof, and none of the criminal justice system’s fundamental rules and procedures....
There are at least two constitutional provisions that, under this Court’s well-established jurisprudence, forbid this inverted regime. First, this Court has made clear that a criminal defendant has a Sixth Amendment “right to have a jury find the facts behind his punishment.” Hurst v. Florida, 136 S. Ct. 616, 621 (2016). That right reflects the vital role of the jury as the “circuitbreaker in the State’s machinery of justice” — a role that cannot be “relegated to making a determination that the defendant at some point did something wrong [as] a mere preliminary to a judicial inquisition into the facts of the crime the State actually seeks to punish.” Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296, 306–07 (2004). The Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial is a constitutional protection of “surpassing importance,” Apprendi, 530 U.S. at 476, yet the decision below makes a mockery of it....
Second, this Court has long recognized that due process forbids grossly unfair procedures when a person’s liberty is at stake. Specifically, this Court has indicated that (1) judges are sometimes limited from imposing distinct new punishments based on “a new finding of fact that was not an ingredient of the offense charged,” Specht v. Patterson, 386 U.S. 605, 608 (1967) (citation omitted); (2) the “safeguards of due process” in criminal cases are “concerned with substance rather than [any] kind of formalism,” Mullaney v. Wilbur, 421 U.S. 684, 698–99 (1975); and (3) constitutional concerns are raised whenever sentencing findings become “a tail which wags the dog of the substantive offense,” or when the government restructures criminal prosecutions “to ‘evade’ the commands” of the Constitution. McMillan v. Pennsylvania, 477 U.S. 79, 88–89 (1986).
The simple principle that unifies these decisions is fatal to the legal rule embraced below: Due process forbids prosecutors from manipulating the criminal justice system to evade its core protections. Applied here, that principle barred prosecutors from waylaying Mr. Hebert at sentencing with allegations of a far more serious crime for which he has never been indicted or convicted — allegations that depend, moreover, on evidence which the prosecutors were apparently unwilling to subject to the crucible of a criminal trial or test against the burden of proof they must carry there. Due process demands more.
May 25, 2016 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17)
Friday, May 20, 2016
Does anyone think former Subway pitchman Jared Fogle has any real chance to have his long federal sentence reversed as unreasonable?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this local story discussing the high-profile sentencing appeal being heard today by the Seventh Circuit. Here are the basic details:
Former Subway pitchman Jared Fogle is asking a federal appeals court judge to shorten his nearly 16-year prison sentence. A hearing on Fogle's appeal, which is scheduled this morning in the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, comes about six months after U.S. District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt sentenced Fogle to 15 years and eight months in federal prison.
Fogle argued that his sentence was unreasonable and that Pratt abused her discretion when she went beyond the sentence that federal prosecutors had recommended as part of a plea agreement.
The one-time face of Subway sandwiches pleaded guilty to possession or distribution of child pornography and traveling across state lines to have commercial sex with a minor. Prosecutors recommended a maximum sentence of 12.5 years, while Fogle's defense attorneys asked for five years....
On appeal, Fogle argued that the sentence he received is "procedurally flawed" for three reasons. First, Fogle did not plead guilty to production of child pornography, and he played no role in producing the images and videos he received from Taylor, according to court records filed by Fogle's attorney.
Second, the punishment is "erroneously grounded in acts that Fogle didn't do and in Fogle's fantasies," neither of which should have been used to justify an enhanced sentence, court records say. "Notwithstanding any fantasies Fogle may have had, or his discussions with third parties concerning possible sexual contact with children younger than the prostituted minors, these events never ultimately culminated in any chargeable criminal activity," court records say.
Third, the sentence was erroneously based on Fogle collecting and viewing pornography of children as young as 6. Fogle argued that although he viewed pornographic images of children, he neither collected them nor asked Taylor for the images.
The district court also seemed to punish Fogle for seeking treatment after his arrest, court records say, and erroneously rejected a probation officer's recommendation for a less harsh sentence based on the additional stress and collateral damage he will endure because of his notoriety.
Fogle also argued that he never had sex with the minors whom Taylor recorded, and never shared any of the pornographic images and videos with anyone other than on one occasion, when he showed them to a woman with whom Fogle was romantically involved. Although he expressed interest in having sex with minors as young as 14, court records say, he never actually did.
In response to Fogle's arguments, federal prosecutors said Pratt "thoroughly and appropriately explored the unusual nature and circumstances of Fogle's offenses and his history and characteristics." Although Fogle was not involved in the production of child pornography, "he knew where the production took place, knew that it was going to happen, and did nothing, instead waiting for his chance to receive the material," according to court records filed by the U.S. attorney's office.
While prosecutors acknowledged the differences between Fogle and Taylor, they said Fogle rationalized and encouraged Taylor's conduct — and, for several years, benefited from it. "Fogle's fantasies were grounded in reality, in that he fantasized about and sought actively to repeat what he had already done, i.e., pay minors for sex," court records say.
Prosecutors also echoed Pratt's statements during Fogle's sentencing hearing last November. Fogle, unlike many offenders, had a relatively easy childhood, free of abuse and neglect. Although he did seek medical treatment, he did so only after he was caught.
Prior related posts:
- Subway pitchman and his "Jared Foundation" subject to serious child porn investigation
- What sort of child porn federal plea deal might be in works for Subway pitchman Jared Fogle?
- Even with plea deal, Subway pitchman Jared likely facing at least a decade in federal prison for sex offenses
- Has Jared Fogle gotten a sweetheart plea deal and/or celebrity treatment for sex crimes?
- Federal child porn downloaders complaining to judges about Jared Fogle's (too sweet?) plea deal
- Federal prosecutors seeking plea-deal max sentence of 12.5 years for Jared Fogle
- Jared Fogle given (above-guideline and above-prosecutor-recommend) sentence of 188 months in federal prison for sex offenses
Tuesday, May 03, 2016
Eighth Circuit panel (sort of) finds severe erroneous career-offender sentence substantively unreasonable
A helpful reader alerted me to a notable Eighth Circuit panel ruling today in US v. Martinez, No 15-1004 (8th Cir. May 3, 2016) (available here). Here is how the majority opinion gets started and a few notable substantive statements:
Fernando Martinez pled guilty to possession of fifty grams or more of methamphetamine with the intent to distribute. The district court found Martinez to be a career offender based in part on the residual clause of § 4B1.2(a)(2) of the United States Sentencing Guidelines (U.S.S.G.) and sentenced him to 262 months' imprisonment. It indicated, alternatively, it would sentence Martinez as a career offender even if he was not a career offender. Martinez appeals, arguing he is not a career offender and his sentence is substantively unreasonable.
The government concedes Martinez is no longer a career offender under the guidelines following the United States Supreme Court's decision in Johnson v. United States, __ U.S. __, 135 S. Ct. 2551, 2557 (2015), but asserts no remand is necessary because the district court imposed a reasonable alternative sentence that renders any error harmless. Because we conclude otherwise — that the district court's alternative sentence is substantively unreasonable — we reverse and remand for resentencing....
We infer from [a sentencing] statement that the district court believed the escape conviction was a crime of violence — and Martinez was a career offender — whether the guidelines classified it as a crime of violence or not. In other words, the district court sentenced Martinez to an additional nine years because, as a nineteen-year-old, Martinez threw an elbow at a police officer without striking the officer and ran from police for a short distance. This severe variance is unreasonable.
The district court's other justifications do not support the degree of the upward variance either. First, Martinez's convictions do not warrant such a severe upward variance. Martinez's two convictions undoubtedly demonstrate serious, violent behavior, but the guideline range already accounted for these prior convictions, each of which received three criminal history points....
Second, the evidence the government presented relating to Martinez's gang ties does not justify a nine-year upward variance either. The government presented evidence Martinez appeared in music videos along with other members of the East Side Locos prior to his incarceration. He also appeared with other East Side Locos gang members in photographs. While these photos and videosshow Martinez's gang ties, they do not depict Martinez actively engaging in any violent behavior. And, more importantly, they do not depict such egregious, violent behavior that they warrant the substantial upward variance the district court imposed.
Monday, April 25, 2016
Notable dissent from Eighth Circuit panel ruling affirming re-imposed stat-max 10-year sentence for possessing unregistered sawed-off shotgun
A helpful reader alerted me to an intriguing ruling by a split Eighth Circuit panel today in US v. Webster, No. 15-3020 (8th Cir. April 25, 2016) (available here). Here is the key substantive paragraph from the majority per curiam ruling in Webster:
Webster’s challenge to the substantive reasonableness of his sentence is reviewed under a deferential abuse-of-discretion standard. See United States v. Feemster, 572 F.3d 455, 461 (8th Cir. 2009) (en banc). As Webster notes, the district court imposed the same sentence on remand as Webster received in the first sentencing, and this court identified in the first appeal several mitigating sentencing factors that indicated a reasonable probability Webster would have received a shorter sentence but for the sentencing error. See Webster, 788 F.3d at 893. However, the fact that this court “‘might reasonably have concluded that a different sentence was appropriate is insufficient to justify reversal of the district court.’” Feemster, 572 F.3d at 462 (quoting Gall v. United States, 552 U.S. 38, 51 (2007)). While “substantive review exists, in substantial part, to correct sentences that are based on unreasonable weighing decisions,” United States v. Kane, 639 F.3d 1121, 1136 (8th Cir. 2011) (quotation omitted), this court “must give due deference to the district court’s decision that the § 3553(a) factors, on a whole, justify the extent of the variance.” Feemster, 572 F.3d at 461-62 (quoting Gall, 552 U.S. at 51). In reimposing the 120-month sentence, the district court commented in part that the Guidelines did not adequately take into account the seriousness of the offense: Webster had discharged the subject firearm into a fleeing vehicle, narrowly missing the driver. See U.S.S.G. § 5K2.6 (stating that court may depart if weapon was used in commission of offense; extent of increase depends on dangerousness of weapon, manner it was used, and extent its use endangered others; discharge of firearm may warrant “substantial sentence increase”). In short, after careful review, this court cannot say that this is the “unusual case” where the district court’s sentence will be reversed as substantively unreasonable. See Feemster, 572 F.3d at 464.
Judge Bright's dissent from this decision by the majority is what really makes Webster worth a full read by sentencing fans. Here are excerpts that provide a taste for why (with emphasis in the original and some cites omitted):
[O]ur reversal on the basis of substantive unreasonableness is often left to a district court’s decision to vary below the Guideline range. Rarely, if ever, do we hold sentences above the Guideline range substantively unreasonable. The pattern of failing to reverse above-Guideline sentences on the basis of substantive unreasonableness perpetuates our broken sentencing system.
As discussed by Former Attorney General Eric Holder, the problem with the federal sentencing system is the “outsized, unnecessarily large prison population.” See Eric Holder, Attorney Gen. of the U.S., U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Remarks at the Annual Meeting of the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates (Aug. 12, 2013), available at http://www.justice.gov/iso/opa/ag/speeches/2013/ag-speech- 130812 .html. As the Attorney General stated, “too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason.” Id. Our sentencing policy has also resulted in “harsher punishments” for “people of color” throughout the United States. Id. The White House recently highlighted the “decades of overly punitive sentencing policies” through the commutation of numerous prison terms....
Webster is an African-American man with a high school education. At the time of the offense, Webster had no employment record and came from a broken home. In spite of his adverse life circumstances, Webster has a limited criminal record with the lowest category criminal history score. At the resentencing hearing, Webster also informed the district court of his completion of a 14-hour drug treatment program, and attendance at both anger management and victim impact classes. (Resent’g Tr. 11- 12). Thus, in the year between Webster’s original sentence and the resentencing hearing, Webster showed the ability for successful rehabilitation....
Further, Webster was 20-years-old at the time of the offense. Since 2005, the Supreme Court, has consistently held young people are most likely to change during a period of incarceration. In fact, psychological research indicates the human brain does not reach its ultimate stage of development until adolescents reach their mid-twenties....
Based on the current move in this country to shorten federal sentences, coupled with Webster’s age , criminal history, education level, remorse, and efforts to rehabilitate himself, the district court’s punishment may well be excessive “under the totality of the circumstances in this case, judged in light of all of the § 3553(a) factors.” Kane, 639 F.3d at 1136. Therefore, I would vacate Webster’s sentence and remand for reconsideration consistent with this opinion.
Wednesday, April 20, 2016
Lots of interesting post-Booker guideline talk as federal defendant gets another sentencing win from SCOTUS
The Supreme Court today handed down its opinon this morning in Molina-Martinez v. US, No. 14-8913 (S. Ct. April 20, 2016) (available here), a little case about the application of plain error review of guideline calculation errors. Excitingly, because the majority opinion authored by Justice Kennedy has lots of dicta about post-Booker sentencing, and because a concurrence by Justice Alito complains about some of that dicta, Molina-Martinez is now a must-read for all sentencing practitioners.
I will likely have some further commentary about Molina-Martinez after I get a chance to read it thoroughly. In the meantime, here are a couple of key passages from the majority opinion:
This case involves the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. In sentencing petitioner, the District Court applied a Guidelines range higher than the applicable one. The error went unnoticed by the court and the parties, so no timely objection was entered. The error was first noted when, during briefing to the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, petitioner himself raised the mistake. The Court of Appeals refused to correct the error because, in its view, petitioner could not establish a reasonable probability that but for the error he would have received a different sentence. Under that court’s decisions, if a defendant’s ultimate sentence falls within what would have been the correct Guidelines range, the defendant, on appeal, must identify “additional evidence” to show that use of the incorrect Guidelines range did in fact affect his sentence. Absent that evidence, in the Court of Appeals’ view, a defendant who is sentenced under an incorrect range but whose sentence is also within what would have been the correct range cannot demonstrate he has been prejudiced by the error....
The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit stands generally apart from other Courts of Appeals with respect to its consideration of unpreserved Guidelines errors. This Court now holds that its approach is incorrect.
Nothing in the text of Rule 52(b), its rationale, or the Court’s precedents supports a requirement that a defendant seeking appellate review of an unpreserved Guidelines error make some further showing of prejudice beyond the fact that the erroneous, and higher, Guidelines range set the wrong framework for the sentencing proceedings. This is so even if the ultimate sentence falls within both the correct and incorrect range. When a defendant is sentenced under an incorrect Guidelines range—whether or not the defendant’s ultimate sentence falls within the correct range—the error itself can, and most often will, be sufficient to show a reasonable probability of a different outcome absent the error....
In the ordinary case the Guidelines accomplish their purpose. They serve as the starting point for the district court’s decision and anchor the court’s discretion in selecting an appropriate sentence. It follows, then, that in most cases the Guidelines range will affect the sentence. When that is so, a defendant sentenced under an incorrect Guidelines range should be able to rely on that fact to show a reasonable probability that the district court would have imposed a different sentence under the correct range. That probability is all that is needed to establish an effect on substantial rights for purposes of obtaining relief under Rule 52(b).
And here is the start of the concurrence authored by Justice Alito:
I agree with the Court that the Fifth Circuit’s rigid approach to unpreserved Guidelines errors is incorrect. And I agree that petitioner has shown a reasonable probability that the District Court would have imposed a different sentence in his case if his recommended Guidelines sentence had been accurately calculated. Unlike the Court, however, I would not speculate about how often the reasonable probability test will be satisfied in future cases. The Court’s predictions in dicta about how plain-error review will play out are predicated on the view that sentencing judges will continue to rely very heavily on the Guidelines in the future, but that prediction may not turn out to be accurate. We should not make predictions about the future effects of Guidelines errors, particularly since some may misunderstand those predictions as veiled directives.
April 20, 2016 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 (4)
Tuesday, March 01, 2016
Has DOJ decided not to appeal Judge Weinstein's recent notable decision in US v. RV to give no prison time to child porn downloaded?
The question in the title of this post is a follow-up to my speculations here about the post-Booker challenges that face federal prosecutors when a district judge gives a very leinent sentence that they dislike. Specifically, after blogging about US District Judge Jack Weinstein's decision in US v. RV to give a waaaaaaaay-below-guideline sentence in a child porn downloading case, I suggested the Justice Department would struggle with the decision whether to appeal this lenient sentencing ruling to the Second Circuit because of the Second Cicuit's significant 2010 Dorvee ruling which stressed the "irrationality" of the child porn guidelines.
When I posted about US v. RV, my pal Bill Otis seemed to think my appellate speculations here were waaaaaaaay off the mark. Over in this lengthy post at Crime & Consequences, Bill Otis asserted that my speculation revealed that I know "almost nothing about the workings of US Attorneys' Offices." Bill went further even in this post, stating repeatedly that he would eagerly "bet $500 here and now that Weirstein [sic] is again going to get reversed in the Second Circuit, again without garnering a single vote."
I did not take up Bill's bet for a number of reasons: (1) I wanted to read Judge Weinstein's 90+ page sentencing opinion in full before speculating on the fate of the decision in RV, (2) based on what Judge Weinstein wrote, I might be inclined to participate in an amicus effort in the Second Circuit if/when DOJ appealed, and (3) I find it a bit unsavory (and perhaps unethical) to make big cash bets on the fate of a real legal case, especially in an area of law I hope to infuence. But now, as the title of this post hints, I think it may turn out that a lot of us should have taken Bill's bet because it seems, based on my limited research skills, that DOJ has decided not to appeal Judge Weinstein's sentencing decision in RV.
Because I am bad at researching appellate dockets, and also because the process for when and how the Justice Department makes appellate decisions is quite opaque in various ways, I do not yet want to crow about being right here that DOJ did not want to appeal this decision and risk its affirmance by the Second Circuit. But I am hoping, perhaps with the help of readers, I can soon confirm that the Second Circuit will not be reversing RV because federal prosecutors have decided not to appeal the decision. (Needless to say, I am somewhat excited about the possibility of demonstrating that I now actually do know a lot more than Bill Otis "about the workings of US Attorneys' Offices" even though I have never worked in such an office and Bill spent most of his professional life in these offices.) If it does turn out true that DOJ has decided not to appeal in US v. RV, I think this discretionary prosecutorial decision is itself a very interesting and important bit of evidence concerning how post-Booker reasonableness review works (and doesn't work) to iron out sentencing disparties in CP downloading cases and many others.
Prior related posts about recent notable CP cases from the EDNY:
- Judge Jack Weinstein disregards severe federal child porn guidelines again
- Notable report on another EDNY federal judge objecting to harsh provisions of federal child porn laws
- Another federal child porn downloader gets another non-prison sentence in the EDNY
March 1, 2016 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)
Tuesday, February 02, 2016
Second Circuit panel laments the "Statement of Reasons" form used by sentencing judges
A helpful reader made sure I did not miss the interesting sentencing opinion handed down by the Second Circuit yesterday in US v. Pruitt, No. 14‐1921 (2d Cir. Feb. 1, 2016) (available here). Authored by District Judge John Gleeson sitting by designation, here is how the Pruitt opinion gets started:
Kaylon Pruitt appeals from the May 29, 2014 judgment of conviction entered against him in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York (Suddaby, J.). Pruitt was sentenced principally to a 46‐month term of imprisonment on his plea of guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g). He contends that the district court committed procedural error during his sentencing by failing to explain the reasons for the sentence, as required by 18 U.S.C. § 3553(c).
We affirm but write to suggest to the United States Sentencing Commission and the Judicial Conference of the United States that the Statement of Reasons form included within the statutorily‐required form for the entry of criminal judgments ‐‐ Form AO 245B ‐‐ be amended to bring it into conformity with § 3553(c) and Supreme Court precedent. Specifically, a check‐a‐box section of the form, which was checked by the district court in this case, invites sentencing judges to impose a sentence within the applicable Guidelines range simply because the judge finds no reason to depart. Because that both undermines the statutory obligation to state the reasons for every sentence and unlawfully presumes the reasonableness of the advisory Guidelines range, the form should be amended.
In a final notable footnote, the Pruitt opinion takes a notable shot at the US Sentencing Commission:
The form as a whole seems designed to encourage judges to sentence within the range. A path of least resistance is clearly marked, and it is consistent with the Commission’s overall approach to sentencing in the post‐Booker era. In United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005), the Supreme Court held that the mandatory guidelines system was incompatible with the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury, and it accordingly severed the provision of the Act that made the Guidelines mandatory. The Sentencing Commission has since repeatedly asked Congress to enact legislation requiring sentencing courts to give greater weight to the Guidelines range than Booker and its progeny permit. The specific proposals include laws that would require sentencing judges give “substantial weight” to the advisory Guidelines range and require appellate courts to accord a presumption of reasonableness to within‐range sentences. Thus, the objectionable part of Statement of Reasons form may reflect the law as the Commission wants it to be.
February 2, 2016 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 (6)
Thursday, December 24, 2015
"Child Pornography Sentencing in the Sixth Circuit"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new papaer by Carissa Byrne Hessick now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
This Symposium Essay explores and analyzes the Sixth Circuit’s approach to child pornography sentencing. It critiques the Sixth Circuit’s decision to apply heightened scrutiny to below-Guideline sentences for child pornography possession. In addition to presenting a critique of the Sixth Circuit’s cases, the Essay also provides guidance for defense attorneys seeking a below-Guidelines sentence. It notes that there are particular strategies those attorneys should follow in order to secure not only a more lenient sentence from a district court judge, but also a sentence that is more likely to be upheld by the Sixth Circuit on appeal.
During the course of this discussion, the Essay identifies and criticizes three significant features of the Sixth Circuit’s cases in this area. First, it notes that the Sixth Circuit is the only circuit to have adopted heightened appellate review of below-Guideline sentences for child pornography possession. Second, it explains that the Sixth Circuit appears to be developing a common law of sentencing in child pornography cases; such a common law is contrary to the language and the logic of the Supreme Court’s Sixth Amendment sentencing cases. Finally, it explains that the Sixth circuit has failed to give appropriate deference to district court decisions to sentence below the Guidelines based on facts and circumstances of particular cases.
Monday, August 17, 2015
"Does the Calculation Matter? The Federal Sentencing Guidelines and the Doctrine of Alternate Variance Sentences"
The title of this post is the title of this notable federal sentencing paper available via SSRN authored by James Harlow. Here is the abstract:
The Federal Sentencing Guidelines play a central role in the sentencing of federal criminal defendants. A decade ago, in United States v. Booker, the Supreme Court undercut the original purpose for the Guidelines — to bring binding structure to a previously discretionary sentencing scheme — by declaring that the Guidelines were advisory only.
Even though advisory, the Guidelines remain at the procedural heart of the sentencing process and provide “the framework for sentencing.” All sentencing proceedings in the district court begin with the proper calculation of the advisory Guidelines range. Similarly, on review, the courts of appeals initially determine whether the sentencing process was free of procedural errors, including whether the advisory Guidelines range was correctly calculated.
However, the Guidelines are no longer the beginning and end of a sentencing hearing. A defendant’s advisory Guidelines range is but one of several important factors enumerated in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) that a sentencing court must consider. In a case when other, non-Guidelines considerations clearly steered the sentencing court’s discretion, should it matter whether the advisory Guidelines range was correctly calculated in the first place?
This Article examines the Fourth Circuit’s emergent and evolving doctrine of alternate variance sentences. Under this doctrine, a sentence will not be vacated even if the sentencing court may have erred when calculating the advisory Guidelines range. If it is clear from the record that an advisory Guidelines issue did not influence the ultimate sentence, the appellate panel will assume any Guidelines errors are harmless and proceed to evaluate whether the sentence is substantively reasonable. The doctrine's increasingly frequent application has a significant impact on all actors in the federal criminal sentencing process — prosecutors, defense counsel, defendants, and judges. Moreover, the doctrine implicates important debates about the meaning and effect of the Guidelines after Booker, the distribution of power between district and appellate judges in sentencing, and judicial efficiency.
Sunday, July 12, 2015
Seventh Circuit panel affirms as reasonable probation sentence for tax dodging Beanie Babies billionaire
Late Friday, a Seventh Circuit panel rejected the government's claim that a probation sentence given to a high-profile tax cheat was unreasonable. The lengthy opinion in US v. Warner, No. 14 -1330 (7th Cir. July 10, 2015) (available here), gets started this way:
Defendant H. Ty Warner, the billionaire creator of Beanie Babies, evaded $5.6 million in U.S. taxes by hiding assets in a Swiss bank account. He pled guilty to one count of tax evasion, made full restitution, and paid a $53.6 million civil penalty. The Sentencing Guidelines provided a recommended 46- to 57-month term of imprisonment, but the district judge gave Warner a more lenient sentence: two years’ probation with community service, plus a $100,000 fine and costs. The government claims his sentence is unreasonable because it does not include a term of incarceration.
In a typical case, we might agree. But this is not a typical case. The district judge found Warner’s record of charity and benevolence “overwhelming.” Indeed, the judge remarked that Warner’s conduct was unprecedented when viewed through the judge’s more-than-three decades on the bench. In the district court’s opinion, this and other mitigating factors — including the uncharacteristic nature of Warner’s crime, his attempt to disclose his account, his payment of a penalty ten times the size of the tax loss, and the government’s own request for a sentence well below the guidelines range — justified leniency. District courts enjoy broad discretion to fashion an appropriate, individualized sentence in light of the factors in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). The court here did not abuse its discretion. Rather, it fully explained and supported its decision and reached an outcome that is reasonable under the unique circumstances of this case. We therefore affirm Warner’s sentence.
Though the panel stresses unique factors applying only in this case to support its reasonableness ruling, white-collar practitioners (especially those in the Seventh Circuit) will find a lot of broader interest and potential value in this opinion.
Prior related posts:
- You be the federal judge: what sentence should the Beanie Babies billionaire get for tax evasion?
- Feds to appeal probation sentence given to tax-dodging Beanie Babies billionaire
- Feds call probation sentence given to Beanie Babies billionaire substantively unreasonable
- Seventh Circuit panel seemingly unmoved by feds appeal of probation sentence given to Beanie Babies billionaire
July 12, 2015 in Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)
Friday, June 19, 2015
Split Eleventh Circuit panel discusses reasonableness review at great length
More than a full decade after the Supreme Court's Booker decision, federal circuit courts and judges continue to struggle with their post-Booker responsibility to review sentences for reasonableness. That struggle is on full display today in the lengthy Eleventh Circuit panel ruling in US v. Rosales-Bruno, No. 12-15089 (11th Cir. June 19, 2015) (available here). The start of Chief Judge Carnes' opinion for the Court provide a crisp outline of the "sole issue" before the appellate court:
This is the second appeal to come before us involving a sentence imposed on Jesus Rosales-Bruno because of his conviction for illegally reentering the United States in violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1326. In the first appeal we vacated his original sentence after concluding the district court had erred in finding that his prior Florida conviction for false imprisonment qualified as a “crime of violence” conviction for enhancement purposes under United States Sentencing Guidelines § 2L1.2(b)(1)(A)(ii). United States v. Rosales-Bruno, 676 F.3d 1017, 1024 (11th Cir. 2012) (Rosales-Bruno I). That error had increased Rosales-Bruno’s advisory sentencing guidelines range to 70 to 87 months, and the district court had sentenced him to 87 months imprisonment.
On remand, the district court recalculated Rosales-Bruno’s advisory guidelines range without the crime of violence enhancement, which lowered it to 21 to 27 months imprisonment. After considering the sentencing factors in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), however, the court varied upward from the guidelines range, again imposing an 87-month prison term. That sentence was 60 months above the high end of Rosales-Bruno’s revised guidelines range but 33 months below the statutory maximum of 120 months imprisonment. The sole issue in this appeal is whether that sentence is substantively unreasonable.
Chief Judge Carnes thereafter has a 50-page explanation for why he thinks the sentence is substantively reasonable. In turn, Judge Wilson need 40 additional pages to provide a contrary view on the reasonableness of this sentence. The dissent starts this way:
For illegally reentering the United States, a crime with no statutory minimum and a base Guidelines range of 0–6 months, Rosales-Bruno was sentenced to more than 7 years in prison. In imposing this sentence, the district court more than tripled the upper end of the applicable Guidelines range. The justifications supporting this major variance are insufficient, and this sentence — the product of a clear error in judgment — is “greater than necessary to comply with the purposes set forth” in 18 U.S.C. § 3553. See United States v. Irey, 612 F.3d 1160, 1187, 1189 (11th Cir. 2010) (en banc). Therefore, I dissent.
Saturday, June 13, 2015
Citing much research and data, Judge Posner rails against "the problem of the elderly prisoner"
The Seventh Circuit this past week issued an otherwise routine affirmance of a drug conviction in US v. Presley, No. 14-2704 (7th Cir. June 11, 2015) (available here), the opinion end up not at all routine because of Judge Posner's lengthy concluding (dicta?) about problems with exceedingly long federal sentences and the elderly prisoners these sentences create. I would urge all federal sentencing fans to read Judge Posner's work in Presley in full, and these passages help highlight why (even with lots of Judge Posner's great cites and data left out):
The only questionable feature of the judgment is the length of the sentence — almost 37 years, though it is within the applicable guidelines range because of Presley’s very lengthy criminal history. Presley was 34 years old when sentenced... [and if he] earns the maximum possible good-time credit he’ll be almost 64 years old when released. If he earns no good time he’ll be almost 69. And after release he’ll undergo five years of supervised release, which like parole is a form of custody because it imposes significant restrictions on the supervisee....
The judge pointed out that Presley is a career offender, that he began his criminal career when he was 16, that he was a large-scale heroin dealer, and that he had committed disciplinary violations in previous incarcerations. What the judge failed to consider was the appropriateness of incarcerating Presley for so long that he would be elderly when released. Criminals, especially ones engaged in dangerous activities such as heroin dealing, tend to have what economists call a “high discount rate” — that is, they weight future consequences less heavily than a normal, sensible, law-abiding person would....
The sentencing judge in this case ... gave no reason to think that imposing a 37-year sentence on Presley would have a greater deterrent effect on current or prospective heroin dealers than a 20-year or perhaps even a 10-year sentence, or that incapacitating him into his sixties is necessary to prevent his resuming his criminal activities at that advanced age. Sentencing judges need to consider the phenomenon of aging out of risky occupations. Violent crime, which can include trafficking in heroin, is generally a young man’s game. Elderly people tend to be cautious, often indeed timid, and averse to physical danger. Violent crime is far less common among persons over 40, let alone over 60, than among younger persons....
There needs finally to be considered the cost of imprisonment to the government, which is not trivial. The U.S. prison population is enormous by world standards — about 1 percent of the nation’s entire population — and prisons are costly to operate because of their building materials (steel especially is very expensive) and large staffs. If the deterrent or incapacitative effect on criminal propensities fades sharply with time, the expenses incurred in the incarceration of elderly persons may be a social waste....
We are not suggesting that sentencing judges (or counsel, or the probation service) should conduct a cost-benefit analysis to determine how long a prison sentence to give. But the considerations that we’ve listed should be part of the knowledge base that judges, lawyers, and probation officers consult in deciding on the length of sentences to recommend or impose. There is no indication that these considerations received any attention in this case. We do not criticize the district judge and the lawyers and probation officers for the oversight; recognition of the downside of long sentences is recent and is just beginning to dawn on the correctional authorities and criminal lawyers. Neither the Justice Department nor the defendant’s lawyer (or the probation service) evinced awareness in this case of the problem of the elderly prison inmate....
There is much that federal sentencing judges are required to consider in deciding on a sentence to impose — maybe too much: the guidelines, the statutory sentencing factors, the statutory and regulatory provisions relating to conditions of supervised release, presentence reports, briefs and arguments of counsel, statements by defendants and others at sentencing hearings. But in thinking about the optimal sentence in relation to the problem of the elderly prisoner, probably the judge’s primary focus should be on the traditional triad of sentencing considerations: incapacitation, which prevents the defendant from committing crimes (at least crimes against persons other than prison personnel and other prisoners) until he is released, general deterrence (the effect of the sentence in deterring other persons from committing crimes), and specific deterrence (its effect in deterring the defendant from committing crimes after he’s released). A sentence long enough to keep the defendant in prison until he enters the age range at which the type of criminal activity in which he has engaged is rare should achieve the aims of incapacitation and specific deterrence, while lengthening the sentence is unlikely to increase general deterrence significantly if the persons engaged in the criminal activity for which the defendant is being sentenced have a high discount rate; for beyond a point reached by a not very long sentence, such persons tend not to react to increases in sentence length by abandoning their criminal careers.
June 13, 2015 in Booker in the Circuits, Drug Offense Sentencing, Examples of "over-punishment", Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (8)
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).
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.