Thursday, January 10, 2013
Extended discussion of fast-track sentencing realities in new Seveth Circuit opinionI have not followed closely of late data or discussions of fast-track sentencing policies in the federal district court, but a new Seventh Circuit opinion brings this always-interesting post-Booker issue to mind again. Today in US v. Anaya-Aguirre, No. 11-3675 (7th Cir. Jan. 10, 2013) (available here),the Seventh Circuit covers lots of notable ground in the course of rejecting the defendant's complaint he did not prevail on his fast-track disparity argument for a reduced sentence. Here is how the opinion gets started:
Appellant Jose Manuel Anaya- Aguirre violated 8 U.S.C. § 1326(a) by illegally reentering the United States after a prior deportation that had followed a felony conviction in the United States. He pled guilty and was sentenced to 48 months in prison. Anaya-Aguirre argued in the district court that he should receive a below-guideline sentence because the Northern District of Illinois did not have a “fast track” program. Fast-track programs in some districts offer certain categories of defendants — including many in immigration cases — shorter sentences in exchange for very prompt guilty pleas, the waiver of nearly all trial and appellate rights, and other conditions. While the district court imposed a sentence that was below the guideline range, it is clear that the downward variance was not based on the lack of a fast-track program. Anaya-Aguirre has appealed his sentence, arguing that the district court erred by rejecting his fast-track mitigation argument. We affirm. [FN1]
[FN1] At the time of Anaya-Aguirre’s sentencing, none of the districts in the Seventh Circuit had fast-track programs. In January 2012, however, the Department of Justice changed its policy and now requires all districts prosecuting § 1326 violations to institute fast-track programs. See Memorandum from Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole to All United States Attorneys, Department Policy on Early Disposition or “Fast-Track” Programs (Jan. 31, 2012), available at www.justice.gov/dag/fast-track-program.pdf.
Wednesday, December 19, 2012
Celebrity witness for high-profile (and interesting) federal sentencing appeal
I have blogged a good deal about the long-running federal criminal travails of Cameron Douglas, in part because the involvement of celebrities at sentencing is intriguing and in part because of the many legal and social issues raised by the seemingly lenient sentence Cameron Douglas was given at his first federal sentencing and the seemingly harsh sentence he got the second time around (some backstory here).
Today, all these travails came before the Second Circuit for oral argument. This new AP article about the argument hints that a notable reasonableness ruling might be in the offing:
Michael Douglas was among spectators Wednesday as an appeals court panel heard attorneys argue whether his son was treated too harshly when he was sent to prison for nearly 10 years for drug crimes. The actor sat in the back of a Manhattan courtroom the size of a basketball court as three judges from the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard attorney Paul Shechtman complain that Cameron Douglas got the stiffest sentence ever — 4 1/2 years in prison — for being caught with drugs in prison. The time was added last year to a five-year prison sentence Cameron Douglas was already serving....
The appeals panel, unlikely to release a written opinion for weeks or even months, did not indicate through its questions whether it will order a resentencing. Like the sentencing judge, it seemed troubled by crimes Cameron Douglas, 34, committed after he was given leniency in return for cooperating against two of his former drug suppliers. Without the benefit of cooperation, he would have faced a mandatory 10-year prison term after he pleaded guilty to narcotics distribution charges on Jan. 27, 2010.
Shechtman said only 2 percent of inmates are prosecuted when they are caught with drugs behind bars. And he said the Bureau of Prisons had already punished Cameron Douglas with 11 months in segregation and by taking away nearly three months of good behavior credit.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Justin Anderson said Judge Richard M. Berman properly considered the unique characteristics of Cameron Douglas' crimes. Cameron Douglas has admitted that he had a girlfriend sneak drugs to him after he was first arrested and was staying at his mother's place under tight bail conditions and that he convinced a female lawyer who had a romantic interest in him to sneak drugs to him in prison. He also has admitted continuing to use drugs in prison. "Extraordinary cases require extraordinary sentences," Anderson said....
Judge Guido Calabresi asked Anderson why Berman was not entitled to impose a sentence that was double what prosecutors were requesting and was nearly five times what the Probation Department recommended after he became disappointed with the number of chances Cameron Douglas had squandered. Judge Gerard Lynch said it was understandable that Berman would think: "This guy got a big break and he screwed up."
Shechtman called Cameron Douglas' behavior "purely the conduct of an addict." Lynch asked whether Berman was entitled to say drug offenders "have to clean up their act and I'm not going to see addiction as a justification."
Shechtman said he was not suggesting his client should not be punished but rather "54 months is an unreasonable sentence."
Prior posts concerning Cameron Douglas's federal sentencings:
- Does having celebrity "a-listers" ask for leniency help a defendant's cause at sentencing?
- Cameron Douglas sentenced to five years for federal drug offense
- "Did Michael Douglas' Son Get Celeb Treatment With Reduced Sentence?"
- Should we care that Cameron Douglas, though sentenced to 5 years in prison, will likely be out in 2012?
- Stiff sentence given to Cameron Douglas for drug possession while in prison
- Celebrity federal drug sentencing appeal prompts doctors' brief urging treatment over punishment
December 19, 2012 in Booker in the Circuits, Celebrity sentencings, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
Tuesday, December 18, 2012
Fascinating Judge Posner concurrence concerning carceration costsAn otherwise unremarkable per curiam Seventh Circuit panel opinion in US v. Craig, No. 12-1262 (7th Cir. Dec. 18, 2012) (available here), affirming a 50-year sentence for the producer of child pornography is blogworthy thanks to a lengthy concurrence by Judge Richard Posner. The full opinion is today's must-read, and here are snippets from the start and end of Judge Posner's opinion (with cites omitted):
I write separately merely to remind the district judges of this circuit of the importance of careful consideration of the wisdom of imposing de facto life sentences. If the defendant in this case does not die in the next 50 years he will be 96 years old when released (though “only” 89 or 90 if he receives the maximum good-time credits that he would earn if his behavior in prison proves to be exemplary). Maybe 50 years from now 96 will be middle-aged rather than elderly, but on the basis of existing medical knowledge we must assume that in all likelihood the defendant will be dead before his prison term expires.
Federal imprisonment is expensive to the government; the average expense of maintaining a federal prisoner for a year is between $25,000 and $30,000, and the expense rises steeply with the prisoner's age because the medical component of a prisoner’s expense will rise with his age, especially if he is still alive in his 70s (not to mention his 80s or 90s). It has been estimated that an elderly prisoner costs the prison system between $60,000 and $70,000 a year.
That is not a net social cost, because if free these elderly prisoners would in all likelihood receive Medicare and maybe Medicaid benefits to cover their medical expenses. But if freed before they became elderly, and employed, they would have contributed to the Medicare and Medicaid programs through payroll taxes — which is a reminder of an additional social cost of imprisonment: the loss of whatever income the prisoner might lawfully have earned had he been free, income reflecting his contribution to society through lawful employment.
The social costs of imprisonment should in principle be compared with the benefits of imprisonment to the society, consisting mainly of deterrence and incapacitation. A sentencing judge should therefore consider the incremental deterrent and incapacitative effects of a very long sentence compared to a somewhat shorter one....
Sentencing judges are not required to engage in cost-benefit analyses of optimal sentencing severity with discounting to present value. Such analyses would involve enormous guesswork because of the difficulty of assessing key variables, including one variable that I haven’t even mentioned, because I can’t imagine how it could be quantified in even the roughest way — the retributive value of criminal punishment. By that I mean the effect of punishment in assuaging the indignation that serious crime arouses and in providing a form of nonfinancial compensation to the victims.
But virtually all sentencing, within the usually broad statutory ranges — the minimum sentence that the judge could have imposed in this case, by making the sentences on all four counts run concurrently, as he could have done, would have been 15 years, 18 U.S.C. § 2251(e), and the maximum sentence, by making them all run consecutively, as he could also have done, would have been 120 years — involves guesswork. I am merely suggesting that the cost of imprisonment of very elderly prisoners, the likelihood of recidivism by them, and the modest incremental deterrent effect of substituting a superlong sentence for a merely very long sentence, should figure in the judge’s sentencing decision.
December 18, 2012 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack
Wednesday, December 12, 2012
Fourth Circuit affirms (stat-max) five year sentence for dog-fighting when guideline range at 0-6 monthsIn part because so very few sentences get reversed (or even seriously engaged) under modern reasonableness review, I rarely blog on rulings concerning the post-Booker standards of appellate review. But both the facts and the ruling today by a Fourth Circuit panel in US v. Hargrove, No. 11-4818 (4th Cir. Dec. 12, 2012)(available here), struck me as blog-worthy. Thes snippets highlights why:
The government describes Hargrove as being a "legend" in the dogfighting community. By Hargrove’s own admission, he has been involved in dogfighting activity for over four decades, and at one time he had approximately 250 fighting dogs on his property. Information in the record shows that offspring from one of Hargrove’s fighting dogs, Midnight Cowboy, sold for large sums of money across the country because of its aggressiveness and propensity for fighting. Hargrove advertised his dogs in various dogfighting-related publications, and he is famous in the dogfighting industry for his dogfighting, his breeding activities, his training regimen, and his ability to produce aggressive fighting dogs. His prior criminal history includes a 1983 Georgia felony dogfighting conviction, a 1993 North Carolina animal fighting misdemeanor conviction, and a 2001 North Carolina animal cruelty misdemeanor conviction.....
The district court announced that it was prepared to sentence Hargrove both under the guidelines and with an upward departure and upward variance. The court expressed its dissatisfaction with the "irrationality" of the dogfighting guideline provision, noting with respect to the guideline calculation of 0-6 months that Hargrove advocated: "I would say that other than the criminal dog fighters in America, every other person in America would be shocked beyond belief that you could do what [Hargrove] did and come out with a federal sentence of zero to six months. . . . No one could defend that. No judges. No legislators. No president." J.A. 135.
The court then heard from Hargrove’s counsel, who emphasized that Hargrove was a highly decorated military veteran who had been changed by his experience in Vietnam. Counsel also noted that in cases cited by the government involving similar activities, the defendants received imprison- ment sentences of between 12 and 24 months....
The court then announced that its guidelines calculations led to a sentencing range of 41-51 months, and it stated that it would sentence Hargrove to 51 months if imposing sentence under that range. However, the court further stated that an upward departure and an upward variance to 60 months were appropriate....
In short, the court made abundantly clear that even if Har- grove’s sentencing guideline range was 0-6 months, it believed a 60-month sentence was necessary to accomplish the objectives of sentencing. Given the record before us, we cannot conclude that the court’s exercise of its sentencing discretion in imposing a 60-month sentence is unreasonable.
Tuesday, December 04, 2012
Seventh Circuit rejects claims that district judge should reject new 18:1 guideline crack ratioThe Seventh Circuit handed down an interesting decision today in US v. Matthews, No. 11-3121 (7th Cir. Dec. 4, 2012) (available here), in response to a defendant's claim that he should be sentenced based on a 1:1 powder/crack cocaine ratio rather than the 18:1 ratio now reflected in the revised sentencing guidelined. Here is a key section of the start of the panel's discussion in Matthews:
On appeal Matthews challenges two aspects of his sentence. First, he argues that the district court committed procedural error by treating the 18:1 crack-topowder sentencing ratio in the guidelines as binding. Second, he claims that the court’s decision to adhere to that ratio created unwarranted sentence disparities because other judges in the same district used a 1:1 ratio in like cases. See 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(6) (instructing district courts to consider whether a sentence results in “unwarranted sentence disparities”).
We reject these arguments and affirm. The district court commented on the drug-quantity ratio in direct response to Matthews’s argument that the court should follow the lead of other judges in the district and impose a belowguidelines sentence based on a 1:1 crack-to-powder ratio. The judge declined to do so, deferring instead to the 18:1 policy adopted in the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 and the corresponding amendments to the guidelines. Although the judge adopted a highly deferential stance toward the judgment of Congress and the Sentencing Commission, there is no indication that he misunderstood his discretion to use a different ratio. Matthews’s argument to the contrary is implausible this far removed from United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005), Kimbrough v. United States, 552 U.S. 85, 109 (2007), and Spears v. United States, 555 U.S. 261 (2009). Moreover, the judge’s decision to adhere to the ratio endorsed by Congress and the Commission does not make the resulting withinguidelines sentence unreasonable merely because other judges in the district exercised their discretion to use a different ratio. A sentence disparity that results from another judge’s policy disagreement with the guidelines is not “unwarranted” under § 3553(a)(6).
December 4, 2012 in Booker in the Circuits, Drug Offense Sentencing, Kimbrough reasonableness case, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, New USSC crack guidelines and report | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Monday, December 03, 2012
Notable (and very unusual?) Third Circuit order vacating (unpublished) sentencing affirmanceToday in this one-page pubslihed order in United States v. Passalaqua (No. 11-4244), the Third Circuit had this to say: "At the direction of the Court, the opinion and judgment filed November 29, 2012 are hereby vacated. The case will be submitted to a reconstituted merits panel for disposition." It struck me as notable to see an opinion and judgment in a criminal case filed just two business days earlier getting vacated and resubmitted to a new panel. I tracked down the November opinion, which was unpublished and available at this link, at it is itself notable for both its facts and the issue on appeal. Here is a bit of the story from the original (and now vacated) panel decision in Passalaqua:
In this appeal we are asked to consider the substantive reasonableness of Joseph Passalaqua’s sentence of 190 months for conspiracy to commit robbery in violation of the Hobbs Act. For the reasons set forth below, we will affirm....
At the time of his sentencing, Passalaqua was a 57-year-old college graduate, former champion gymnast, and owner of a gymnastics, dance, and karate school.
Between December 2008 and September 2009, Passalaqua was a leader of a conspiracy that was responsible for a string of armed robberies and burglaries in New Jersey and New York. Passalaqua was arrested on September 23, 2009, after he was recorded by a confidential source agreeing to murder three individuals in exchange for a cash payment. Soon after his arrest, Passalaqua began cooperating with the Government, which led to the arrest of several of his co-conspirators. The information that Passalaqua provided revealed his involvement in multiple robberies and burglaries, all of which involved restaurants or the homes of restaurant owners. In each robbery, masked intruders entered at night, bound the victims at gunpoint, and stole money and valuables totaling approximately $215,000. Passalaqua did not enter the premises, handle firearms, or restrain victims, but he identified the victims, planned each of the robberies, and served as the getaway driver in three robberies. Passalaqua chose each restaurant-victim based on a personal vendetta against its owner, such as an unpaid debt or personal conflict. However, Passalaqua initially lied about his involvement in the armed robbery of Barolo Restaurant in New York, later contending that he believed the restaurant “was connected to the mob and [had] fear of retribution.” (App. 120.) The lie damaged the Government’s case and prevented it from using Passalaqua as a witness against his co-conspirators....
At his sentencing hearing, which began in June 2011, Passalaqua requested a reduced weapons-based enhancement, which would lower the total offense level to 30. The Government agreed that an offense level of 30 was appropriate based on the facts stipulated in the plea agreement. Passalaqua also requested a downward departure based on imperfect cooperation and argued about unreasonable disparity between his own and his co-defendants’ sentences. The Government, on the other hand, requested an upward variance to the statutory maximum sentence of 20 years based on the violent nature of the offenses and the understated criminal history calculation. The District Court rejected Passalaqua’s arguments about unreasonable disparity, finding Passalaqua’s conduct more serious than that of his co-conspirators and that he had been a leader of the conspiracy. The Court also rejected Passalaqua’s request for an imperfect cooperation departure, finding insignificant benefit for the Government from his cooperation.
There was a lengthy colloquy between the District Court and both parties about the propriety of the Government’s request for the upward variance given the initial plea agreement, in which the Government agreed to not request an upward variance. The District Court continued the sentencing hearing for three months in order to hear from the Assistant U.S. Attorney who had agreed to the November plea agreement. Ultimately, the District Court found the Government’s request was appropriate and provided Passalaqua an opportunity to withdraw his plea, which he declined. The Court also emphasized prior to imposing its sentence that it would have imposed the same sentence regardless of whether the Government had requested an upward variance....
[After] considering the § 3553(a) factors...[t]he District Court then varied from the Guideline range and sentenced Passalaqua to 190 months and three years of supervised release.
I found this matter blogworthy in part because the underlying facts seem a bit like the script from some lost episode of The Sopranos. And, pop culture references aside, I am now very curious about the back-story leading the Third Circuit so quickly to vacate its opinion and judgment affirming the substantive reasonableness of Joseph Passalaqua's sentence and resubmit this matter to a new panel. I would guess (and probably hope) that there is an innocent explanation here. The again, who knows what might lead Paulie Walnuts to go a little crazy and try to exert some sway on a circuit ruling he does not like.
Wednesday, November 07, 2012
Judge Bright (in dissent) assails fraud guidelines and rote recitation of 3553(a) factorsDissenting from an Eighth Circuit panel opinion today in US v. Spencer, No. 11-3463 (8th Cir. Nov. 7, 2012) (available here), Judge Myron Bright has lots to say about the harshness of the guidelines and about the failure of district judges to adequately explain their sentencing decisions. Here is an excerpt (with most cites omitted) from a lengthy dissent worthy of a full read:
The fraud guidelines have been heavily criticized because they no longer provide a reasonable starting point for sentencing. Adjustments based on the amount of loss lead to astronomical sentences that have little connection to criminality. The much-below guidelines sentence imposed on Spencer suggests that the guidelines simply did not apply here. No reasonable judge would have imposed a sentence of over 20 years. Spencer had zero criminal history points. But even if the guidelines should not apply to a particular offender and his crime, a sentencing judge should not have unlimited discretion to impose a sentence without some proper basis. A sentencing judge should be guided by § 3553(a). In order to adequately review a sentence, we need the sentencing judge to perform an analysis under § 3553(a) and to explain this analysis on the record. Here, we do not know which § 3553(a) factors the sentencing judge relied on. Saying simply, “This sentence is appropriate under § 3553,” is no different than an opinion stating “I hold for Party A because my findings are in his favor.”...
A district court is not required to provide “a mechanical recitation of the § 3553(a) factors when determining a sentence.” United States v. Feemster, 572 F.3d 455, 461 (8th Cir. 2009) (quotation omitted). However, I believe the converse is also true — a mechanical recitation that the sentence complies with the requirements of § 3553(a) is insufficient. It is impossible for an appellate court to meaningfully review a sentence without the underlying rationale. This is especially true in areas like fraud, where the guidelines have been consistently and repeatedly disregarded by sentencing judges....
To ensure that criminal defendants receive fair sentences, this dissent urges that sentencing judges always engage in a meaningful analysis of the § 3553(a) factors — the process should not devolve to be rote, mechanical, and artificial. Whether imposing a sentence within, above, or below the guidelines, the touchstone should always be the standard in § 3553 of a sentence sufficient but not greater than necessary and judges should verify the sentence pursuant to § 3553(a), explaining for the record “(1) the nature and circumstances of the offense and the history and characteristics of the defendant; (2) the need for the sentence imposed… (6) the need to avoid unwarranted disparities.” Id.
I acknowledge that conducting a § 3553(a) analysis in every case may be more work for a sentencing judge. But this worthwhile endeavor could lead to great improvement in our current system. Now sentencing courts have virtually unlimited discretion because appeals courts such as the Eighth Circuit will uphold a sentence as long as the sentencing judge says nothing more than, “I have…considered the other factors described in§ 3553(a)…. I find that the sentence imposed on [the defendant] is reasonable in light of the factors.” United States v. Hernandez, 518 F.3d 613, 616-17 (8th Cir. 2008) (upholding a sentence because the district court “expressly stated” it considered the § 3553(a) factors without further analysis); see also United States v. McGlothen, 556 F.3d 698, 702 (8th Cir. 2009) (“[T]here is no need to recite each § 3553 factor.”); United States v. Dieken, 432 F.3d 906 (8th Cir. 2006) (“[W]e do not require a district court to categorically rehearse each of the section 3553(a) factors on the record.” ). I strongly disagree with the comments stated above in these appellate cases.
Wednesday, October 24, 2012
Third time around, "Millenium Bomber" gets (reasonable?) longer term of 37 years in prisonAs reported in this AP piece, the so-called "Millenium Bomber" was sentenced for a third time today after his first two sentences had been reversed by the Ninth Circuit as unreasonable. Here is what happened:
Algerian terrorist Ahmed Ressam was sentenced Wednesday to 37 years in prison for plotting to bomb Los Angeles International Airport around the turn of the new millennium. Ressam was arrested in December 1999 as he drove off a ferry from Canada into Washington state with a trunk full of explosives. U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour had twice ordered him to serve 22-year terms, but both times the sentences were reversed on appeal.
Ressam's attorneys had conceded that he should face at least three decades to satisfy the appeals courts, but no more than 34 years. The Justice Department had sought life in prison because of the mass murder he intended to inflict, and because he recanted his cooperation with federal investigators....
Ressam's case has been vexing because he started cooperating after he was convicted and was interviewed more than 70 times by terror investigators from the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Spain, Italy, Germany and France. Information he provided helped convict several terror suspects; prompt the famous August 2001 FBI memo titled "Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.;" and contribute to the arrest of suspected Osama bin Laden lieutenant Abu Zubaydah, who remains in custody without charges at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
However, Ressam subsequently recanted all of his cooperation when it became clear that the prosecutors weren't going to recommend that he serve less than 27 years in prison. The recanting forced the Department of Justice to drop charges against two suspected co-conspirators, Samir Ait Mohamed and Abu Doha.
In previously sentencing Ressam, Coughenour noted that before he went to trial, the government offered him a 25-year sentence if he would plead guilty -- no cooperation necessary. Ressam refused, but Coughenour said that any discount for Ressam's cooperation, while it lasted, should start from that 25-year offer. The appeals court rejected that rationale.
I suspect that federal prosecutors will be disinclined to appeal yet again, even though based on time already served and time off for good behavior Ressam could possibly be free again not long after 2030. At this stage, I suspect prosecutors recognize it might be very hard to convince the Ninth Circuit that a sentence now 15 years longer is still unreasonable.
A few prior posts on the Ressam sentencings:
- Millennium bomber gets 22 years
- Notable terrorism resentencing results in same sentence
- Ninth Circuit panel reverses "millenium bomber" sentence again
- En banc Ninth Circuit finds Millennium Bomber sentence substantively unreasonable
- After too much previous sentencing success, lawyers for "Millenium Bomber" propose longer prison term
Thursday, October 11, 2012
Split Sixth Circuit opinion addresses range of child sex offense sentencing issuesThe Sixth Circuit has a lengthy split opinion today in US v. Zobel, No. 11-3341 (6th Cir. Oct. 11, 2012) (available here), which covers a lot of sentencing issues that seems to arise a lot in the all-too-common setting of adult men luring girls to engage in illegal sexual activity. Here is how the majority opinion gets started:
Defendant–appellant David Zobel appeals his sentence for knowingly coercing and enticing a minor to engage in sexual activity, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2422(b). After Zobel pled guilty, the district court imposed a sentence of 150 months of imprisonment, which represented a 15 month upward variance from the upper-end of the Guidelines range. The district court also imposed several special conditions of supervised release for life, which prohibit Zobel, inter alia, from having contact with minors absent prior judicial approval, loitering in areas where children tend to congregate, and possessing or viewing pornography or materials that are “sexually explicit or suggestive.” Zobel argues that his sentence — both the term of incarceration and several special conditions — was both procedurally and substantively unreasonable.
For the reasons that follow, we vacate the part of the special condition that bans possessing or accessing “sexually suggestive” materials, affirm the remainder of the sentence, and remand for resentencing proceedings consistent with this opinion.
A brief dissent by Judge Moore follows the lengthy majority opinion, and it gets started this way:
A district court must state in open court and in a written statement of reasons the specific reason it is imposing an outside-guidelines sentence on a defendant. 18 U.S.C. § 3553(c)(2). Because the district court failed to state a specific reason for its fifteen-month upward variance both in open court and in its written statement of reasons, the district court committed plain error. The majority, however, nonetheless affirms. I respectfully dissent.
Tuesday, October 09, 2012
Interesting Third Circuit ruling addresses state-federal and federal-federal sex offense disparity claimThe Third Circuit has an intriguing little federal sentencing decision today in US v. Begin, No. 11-3896 (3d Cir. Oct. 9, 2012) (available here). Here his how the majority opinion starts:
Michael Eugene Begin appeals from a final judgment of conviction and sentence on charges related to his use of the internet and a cellular phone to send sexual messages and photographs to a minor in order to persuade her to have sex with him. Begin pled guilty and was sentenced to 240 months' imprisonment, representing a 30-month upward departure from the top of his advisory Sentencing Guidelines range. On appeal, Begin argues that his sentence is unreasonable because the District Court failed to consider his request for a downward variance based on the asserted disparity between his sentence for attempting to induce statutory rape and the lower maximum sentences for actually committing statutory rape under state and federal law. We will vacate Begin‟s sentence and remand for the District Court to consider his request.
And here is how the partial dissent by Judge Roth gets started:
I concur with the majority’s conclusion regarding the issue of federal/state sentencing disparities. I disagree, however, with the majority’s decision to vacate the sentence and remand to the District Court for consideration of the alleged federal/federal sentencing disparity. I would hold, as a matter of law, that the disparity between the two federal statutes raised here is irrelevant to the consideration of sentence disparities under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(6). I would, therefore, affirm the sentence imposed.
Saturday, October 06, 2012
Has the First Circuit blessed disregarding loss in some white-collar sentencings?The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy new piece in the New York Law Journal by attorney Laura Grossfield Birger, which is headlined "The Impact of First Circuit's 'Prosperi' Decision: Does appellate review constrain district courts to follow Sentencing Guidelines?". Here are a few excerpts from the piece:
The recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in United States v. Prosperi, 686 F.3d 32 (1st Cir. 2012), affords great discretion to sentencing courts to deviate from the Sentencing Guidelines, despite expressing palpable discomfort with the extent of deviation at issue in this particular case. For this reason, the opinion is likely to be cited often in the First Circuit and elsewhere, and its analysis and approach warrants examination....
[I]n reviewing the substantive reasonableness of the sentences, the First Circuit initially focused on whether the district court had offered a plausible explanation for minimizing the impact of the loss amount. The court reviewed the reasons articulated by the district court in detail ... [and] found that the findings and conclusions constituted "plausible" explanations for the district court's refusal to give significant weight to the loss amount it calculated pursuant to the Sentencing Guidelines.
The relaxed review applied by the First Circuit to this aspect of the district court's rationale is significant. As the court recognized, the strength of the justification required to support a variance from a Sentencing Guidelines range fluctuates with the degree of that variance; the greater the deviance from the applicable Sentencing Guidelines range, the more significant the justification required to support it. Here, the government's principal complaint boiled down to the huge extent of the variance — from a more than seven-year sentence to probation. By accepting the district court's decision not to give the loss amount much weight, the First Circuit essentially approved a reduction in the spread; once the loss amount is removed as the pivotal factor driving the sentence, the government's argument that the breadth of the variance between zero and 87 months is unjustifiable loses traction.
The balance of the First Circuit's analysis of the district court's rationale reflects its acceptance of its key tenet — the disregard of the loss amount as the determinative factor. The court reviewed the government's other objections to the district court's proffered justification ... and swiftly rejected them....
Like most sentencing decisions, Prosperi is highly dependent on its facts, yet the opinion is likely to reverberate in white-collar sentencing jurisprudence. The willingness of the district court not just to mitigate the impact of the loss amount on the sentence, but essentially to disregard its effect entirely, will be an attractive precedent to defendants facing staggering sentences driven largely by loss amounts. And while the government will surely strive to limit Prosperi to its facts, it will not be difficult for defense lawyers to analogize other fraud cases to at least some of the factors present in Prosperi. Fundamentally, the Prosperi opinion also signals to district courts that, at least in the First Circuit, there are few restraints on their discretion to impose sentences far below the applicable Guidelines range in fraud cases; as long as they explain why they did so, citing lawful considerations, the sentences will not be disturbed on appeal even when the Court of Appeals plainly disagrees with the result. If embraced by district courts, this may galvanize a trend away from the uniformity that the Guidelines seek to impose, particularly in white-collar cases, and toward a return to the flexibility and discrepancy in sentencing often associated with the pre-Guidelines era.
Related prior post:
Thursday, October 04, 2012
Latest accounting of notable post-Gall reasonableness review decisionA helpful reader alerted me to this updated list of significant circuit reasonableness decisions since Gall, a list assembled by the Sentencing Resource Counsel of Federal Public and Community Defenders. here is how the list is summarized from an e-mail I received:
The cases are divided by circuit. There have been 38 sentences reversed as substantively unreasonable: 5 within-guideline senteces, 12 above- or below-guideline sentences on D's appeal, and 21 below-guideline sentences on govt's appeal.
There have been 138 reversals for procedural error: 81 within-guideline sentences all on D's appeal; 40 above- or below-guideline sentences on D's appeal; and 17 below-guideline sentences on govt's appeal.
To obtain reversal for procedural error, obviously you have to make the argument, and support it with evidence (so that it is nonfrivolous). See this lengthy report. And, when a sentence is reversed for procedural error, the sentence is different on remand more than half the time. Id.
The list does not include reversals where (1) it is clear that the district court did not address an argument because, at the time of sentencing, circuit precedent precluded it from doing so, but now it is allowed; (2) cases reversed because the district court treated the guidelines as mandatory or presumed the guidelines to be reasonable; (3) reversals of sentences imposed upon the revocation of probation or supervised release.
Thursday, September 20, 2012
Seventh Circuit affirms 40-year (below-guideline) sentence for child porn producerThough not especially ground-breaking, a Seventh Circuit panel opinion today in US v. Chapman, No. 11-3619 (7th Cir. Sept. 20, 2012) (available here), covers a lot of ground that arises in a lot of federal child pornography sentencing cases. Here is how the extended opinion begins:
Rondale Chapman pleaded guilty to producing child pornography, a crime punishable by no less than 15 years in prison. See 18 U.S.C. § 2251(a), (e). For several years Chapman, now 46, lured kids as young as 12 to his home with marijuana and alcohol and filmed them, usually through “peepholes,” engaging in sexually explicit conduct. Chapman faced a guidelines range of life imprisonment and was sentenced to a total of 40 years. On appeal he contends that the district court did not fully evaluate his arguments in mitigation, and also failed to adequately explain its choice of sentence. On the surface the first of these contentions seems plausible, but only because Chapman exaggerates the evidence presented at sentencing about his background. When we look beyond his embellishment, it becomes clear that the “mitigating” factors he cites lacked evidentiary foundation or amounted to “stock” arguments that required no response from the judge. For that reason we affirm Chapman’s sentence.
Thursday, August 30, 2012
Fourth Circuit vacates LWOP sentence for illegal gun possession premised on uncharged murderA Fourth Circuit panel handed down an an intricate set of opinions today in US v. Horton, No. 11-4052 (4th Cir. Aug. 30, 2012) (available here). The ruling provides yet another reminder that, despite the Supreme Court's work in Blakely now more than 8 years ago, federal defendants still frequently face much longer sentences based on questionable judicial fact-finding by a perponderance of evidence under the federal sentencing guidelines. In Horton, however, the defendant got a break thanks to the Fourth Circuit view of how the guidelines should be applied, as this first paragraph from the majority opinion reveals:
Timothy Tyrone Horton appeals his conviction for possessing a firearm while a convicted felon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(1) and 924, and also appeals the district court’s imposition of a sentence of life imprisonment. For the reasons set forth herein, we affirm Horton’s conviction. We conclude, however, that the district court erred in applying the murder cross-reference provision in United States Sentencing Guidelines Manual ("USSG" or "Guidelines") § 2K2.1(c)(1) and in treating as relevant conduct a murder that occurred during the course of an unrelated and uncharged offense, which error substantially increased Horton’s advisory Guidelines range. Accordingly, we vacate Horton’s sentence and remand for resentencing.
Wednesday, August 29, 2012
Oh what a higher sentence she received, when found to have pleaded to deceiveWith apologies to Sir Walter Scott, but I could not help but think of his famed quote about tangled webs upon reading the Seventh Circuit's work today in US v. Grigsby, No. No. 11-2473 (7th Cir. Aug. 29, 2012) (available here). Here is how the lengthy opinion, which covers lots of notable sentencing issues thoroughly, gets started:
Especially because two of the defendant's co-conspirators received sentences of 18 months or lower in this case, it would appear that the defendant's foolish decision to lie during her plea colloquy about her role in the offense might well have resulted in her serving at least two or three extra years in federal prison. That is certainly what I would call a costly lie.
Over the course of seven months, Jeanette Grigsby and several coconspirators planned and executed two bank heists, stealing more than a halfmillion dollars from the bank where Grigsby worked as a teller. After federal agents uncovered the inside jobs, Grigsby was indicted on two counts of entering a federally insured bank for the purpose of committing a felony. See 18 U.S.C. § 2113(a). She pleaded guilty without a plea agreement to the first count and later stipulated through counsel that she committed the second crime as well. With that, the government moved to dismiss the second count.
In her sworn statement to the court, however, Grigsby minimized her role in the offense, trying to pin most of the blame on her coconspirators. So at sentencing the district court applied a two-level sentencing guidelines enhancement for obstruction of justice, see U.S.S.G. § 3C1.1, and a three-level enhancement to account for her supervisory role in the offense, see id. § 3B1.1(b). The resulting guidelines range was 46 to 57 months, and the court chose a sentence of 57 months, the top of the range. Grigsby appeals, arguing that the court erroneously applied the two enhancements, and also that her sentence is procedurally defective and substantively unreasonable under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).
We affirm. Both enhancements were based on the court’s factual finding that Grigsby lied during her plea colloquy in an intentional effort to mislead the court by understating her role in the offense. Although this finding was based largely on documentary evidence — the grand-jury testimony and plea agreements of two of Grigsby’s coconspirators — our review remains deferential; we will reverse only for clear error. See 18 U.S.C. § 3742(e). The court’s factual finding that Grigsby lied about her role in the offense because she did in fact supervise the scheme is well-supported by the evidence and specific enough to withstand clear-error review. The court also sufficiently considered the § 3553(a) sentencing factors and was not required to specifically address Grigsby’s routine arguments for a below-guidelines sentence. Finally, Grigsby’s within-guidelines sentence — 57 months for an inside bank-robbery scheme that caused a significant loss — is not unreasonable.
Tuesday, August 28, 2012
Split Second Circuit upholds reasonableness of 30-year prison term for child porn convictionsA number of helpful readers have help make sure I did not miss today's must-read opinion from a split Second Circuit panel in US v. Broxmeyer, No. 10-5283 (2d Cir. Aug. 27, 2012) (available here). Because I expect I will have subsequent posts commenting on this Broxmeyer ruling (in which the majority opinion runs 63 pages and the dissent another 20), I will start here by just posting the start of the majority opinion:
In 2008, former high school athletic coach Todd J. Broxmeyer was found guilty after a jury trial in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York (Thomas J. McAvoy, Judge) of two counts of producing child pornography, see 18 U.S.C. § 2251(a) (Counts One and Two); one count of attempting to produce child pornography, see id. § 2251(a), (e) (Count Three); one count of transporting a minor across state lines with the intent to engage in criminal sexual activity, see id. § 2423(a) (Count Four); and one count of possessing child pornography, see id. § 2252A(a)(5)(B) (Count Five). The victims of all these crimes were teenage girls under Broxmeyer’s purported tutelage and care.
On Broxmeyer’s first appeal, this court reversed his convictions on Counts One, Two, and Four. See United States v. Broxmeyer, 616 F.3d 120 (2d Cir. 2010). As to the first two counts, the court concluded that the evidence was insufficient as a matter of law to permit the jury to find that Broxmeyer had solicited the production of — rather than simply received — the two images of child pornography at issue. See id. at 124–27. As to Count Four, the court, by a divided vote, concluded that Broxmeyer’s interstate transportation of a 15-year-old girl after compelling her to engage in sodomy could not support a conviction for interstate transportation of a minor with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity, that object already having been achieved before the defendant crossed any state border. See id. at 128–30; see also id. at 130 (Wesley, J., dissenting in part). Vacating Broxmeyer’s original 40-year prison sentence, this court remanded for resentencing on the remaining two counts of conviction for possession and attempted production of child pornography. See id. at 130.
Broxmeyer now appeals from so much of the amended judgment entered on December 29, 2010, as sentenced him to concurrent prison terms of 30 years on Count Three’s attempted production charge and 10 years on Count Five’s possession charge. He argues that the sentence is infected by various procedural errors and, in any event, that 30 years’ incarceration is substantively unreasonable in his case. Indeed, Broxmeyer maintains — and our dissenting colleague agrees — that any sentence higher than the minimum 15-year prison term mandated for Count Three, see 18 U.S.C. § 2251(e), would be substantively unreasonable. We reject both arguments as without merit.
Thursday, August 23, 2012
Sixth Circuit panel rejects reasonableness challenge to below-guideline terrorism sentencesA unanimous Sixth Circuit panel today affirmed in a lengthy opinion the conviction and sentences given to a groups of terrorism defendants in US v. Amawi, et al, No. 09-4339 (6th Cir. Aug. 23, 2012)(available here). This snippet from the start of the majority opinion highlights why sentencing fans will want to be sure to check out at least part of the panel's work:
This appeal arises from a jury trial in which the three defendants were convicted of conspiracy to kill and maim persons outside the United States, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 956(a)(1), and of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists in furtherance of the killing of U.S. nationals, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2339A. In addition, Amawi and El-Hindi were each convicted of two counts of distributing information regarding the manufacture of explosives, destructive devices, and weapons of mass destruction, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 842(p)(2)(A). Amawi, El- Hindi, and Mazloum were sentenced to below-Guidelines-range terms of 240, 144, and 100 of months of imprisonment, respectively.
There are ten issues on appeal.... Ninth, the government cross-appeals the sentences imposed, contending that they are both procedurally and substantively unreasonable.....
We affirm all opinions and judgments of the district court.
Wednesday, August 22, 2012
Seventh Circuit talks through reasonableness review of above-guideline sentencesIn part because it is an opinion by Judge Posner, and in part because it concerns an issue that arises with relative frequency, federal sentencing practitioners will want to be sure to check out the Seventh Circuit's work today in US v. Castillo, No. 11-2792 (7th Cir. Aug. 22, 2012) (available here). Here are excerpts from the panel opinion (with most cites omitted):
We write to clarify an ambiguity concerning the scope of appellate review of an above-guidelines sentence. We have said that “the farther the judge’s sentence departs from the guidelines . . . the more compelling the justification based on factors in section 3553(a) that the judge must offer in order to enable the court of appeals to assess the reasonableness of the sentence imposed.” United States v. Courtland, 642 F.3d 545, 550 (7th Cir. 2011).... The ambiguity is in the word “farther.” It can be conceived of in either relative or absolute terms. A sentence of 60 months is 30 percent longer than a sentence of 46 months (the top of the applicable guidelines range in this case); and a 30 percent increase is large in relative terms. But in absolute terms, given the severity of federal criminal punishments, it is a smallish 14 months; the average federal prison sentence in 2009 was 57 months.
It seems to us that the relative is generally more important than the absolute, as is implicit in a number of our previous decisions. The guidelines range is the Sentencing Commission’s estimate of the reasonable range of punishments for the defendant’s offense. Usually (an important qualification, as we’re about to see), a judge who imposes a sentence far above the top or far below the bottom of that range is challenging the Commission’s penal judgment, and given that the Commission’s knowledge of penology exceeds that of most judges, the judge needs to provide more in the way of justification than if he were departing incrementally.
Guidelines ranges are inherently arbitrary, so had the judge in this case sentenced the defendant to 47 months instead of the guideline maximum of 46 it would not have been a significant challenge to the Commission’s penal judgment and so would not have required much in the way of justification. A 30 percent departure requires more; “substantial variances from the Sentencing Commission’s recommendations require careful thought.” United States v. Kirkpatrick, supra, 589 F.3d at 415. Yet less thought is necessary when the applicable guideline is “not the product of the Commission acting in ‘its characteristic institutional role,’ in which it typically implements guidelines only after taking into account ‘empirical data and national experience.’ ” United States v. Reyes-Hernandez, 624 F.3d 405, 418 (7th Cir. 2010), quoting Kimbrough v. United States, 552 U.S. 85, 109 (2007).
We acknowledge that focus on the sentencing judge’s percentage deviation from the guidelines range can mislead, at least when the sentence is below rather than, as in this case, above the sentencing range.... But it’s hard to see how a court can carry out the command of Gall to require a justification “sufficiently compelling to support the degree of the variance,” 552 U.S. at 50 (emphasis added) — “degree” being a relative rather than absolute measure — without at least considering the percentage deviation.
Monday, July 16, 2012
First Circuit affirms (way-)below-guideline sentence for Big Dig white-collar offenders
Because I am on the road throughout July, I fear I may miss some notable circuit sentencing opinions. Thus, I am especially grateful that a helpful reader alerted me to the especially noteworthy opinion handed down by the First Circuit late last week in US v. Prosperi, No. 10-1739 (1st Cir. July 13, 2012) (available here). Here is how the lengthy Prosperi opinion starts:
The United States challenges the sentences imposed on appellees Robert Prosperi and Gregory Stevenson after their conviction of mail fraud, highway project fraud, and conspiracy to defraud the government. Both appellees were employees of Aggregate Industries NE, Inc. ("Aggregate"), a subcontractor that provided concrete for Boston's Central Artery/Tunnel project, popularly known as the "Big Dig." The government charged that over the course of nine years Aggregate knowingly provided concrete that failed to meet project specifications and concealed that failure by creating false documentation purporting to show that the concrete provided complied with the relevant specifications. Several employees of Aggregate, including Prosperi and Stevenson, were convicted of criminal offenses for their roles in the scheme.
At sentencing, the district court calculated the guidelines sentencing range ("GSR") for Prosperi and Stevenson as 87- to 108-months incarceration. Then, explaining fully its rationale for a below-guidelines sentence, the court sentenced Prosperi and Stevenson to six months of home monitoring, three years of probation, and 1,000 hours of community service. The government now appeals, arguing that under Gall v. United States, 552 U.S. 38 (2007), the sentences imposed by the district court were substantively unreasonable and that the appellees' crimes warrant incarceration.
We affirm. Although the degree to which the sentences vary from the GSR gives us pause, the district court's explanation ultimately supports the reasonableness of the sentences imposed. The district court emphasized that its finding on the loss amount caused by the crimes, the most significant factor in determining the GSR, was imprecise and did not fairly reflect the defendants' culpability. Hence it would not permit the loss estimate to unduly drive its sentencing decision. Relatedly, it found that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that the defendants' conduct made the Big Dig unsafe in any way or that the defendants profited from the offenses. The court then supplemented these critical findings with consideration of the individual circumstances of the defendants and concluded that probationary sentences were appropriate. We cannot say that it abused its discretion in doing so.
As this introduction suggests, the (unanimous) Prosperi opinion discusses lots of loss issues and ultimately affirms the district court's desire and decision to give little weight to what it saw as an inflated loss calculation. For this reason and others, Prosperi is a must-read not just for white-collar federal sentencing practitioners, but for all those still unsure about the scope of sentencing discretion in the post-Booker world.
July 16, 2012 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
Thursday, June 28, 2012
Second Circuit panel now affirms Lynne Stewart's (way below guideline) 10-year prison sentence
One of many noteworthy legal developments today sure to be overshadowed by the Supreme Court's health care ruling is today's Second Circuit panel opinion upholding the 10-year prison sentence of (in)famous defense lawyer Lynne Stewart. The lengthy unanimous opinion in US v. Stewart, No. 10-3185 (2d Cir. June 28, 2012) (available here), covers a lot of interesting sentencing ground, though the most extensive discussion concerns Stewart's claim that enhancement of her sentence due to her initial post-sentencing public comments violated the First Amendment. Here are a few paragraphs from the start and end of the panel ruling:
Appellant Lynne Stewart appeals from a judgment of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (John G. Koeltl, Judge) sentencing her principally to 120 months' imprisonment following our vacatur on grounds of procedural error of her previous sentence of 28 months and remand of the district court's previous judgment insofar as it imposed that sentence. The details of this case were recounted at length in our prior opinion, United States v. Stewart, 590 F.3d 93, 100-08 (2d Cir. 2009) ("Stewart I"). We repeat them here only insofar as we think it necessary to explain our judgment [of affirmance]....
Finally, Stewart argues that her sentence is substantively unreasonable, principally because of the more than fourfold increase from her original sentence of 28 months' incarceration to the currently imposed sentence of 120 months. She asserts that aside from her public statements, "no change in circumstances or information available to the sentencing court . . . supported increasing Ms. Stewart's sentence by this magnitude." Def.'s Br. at 101. She also contends that the district court was not permitted to increase the sentence in response to suggestions that it do so in the dissent from our panel opinion, and in the dissents accompanying the denial of rehearing en banc. Def.'s Br. at 103. And she urges that in light of her personal characteristics, the sentence imposed on her was so "shockingly high" as to render it substantively unreasonable....
It is the "rare case" in which we will find a sentence substantively unreasonable, and we place "great trust" in a sentencing court. Rigas, 583 F.3d at 123. In Stewart I, we expressly recognized and were "impressed by the factors that figured in Stewart's modest sentence -- particularly her admirable history of providing, at no little personal cost to herself, proficient legal services in difficult cases to those who could not otherwise afford them." Stewart I, 590 F.3d at 147-48. But, nonetheless, she engaged in severe criminal conduct in aid of a terrorism conspiracy, and she did so by abusing the trust that the government had placed in her as a member of the bar. When confronted with these transgressions, she lied repeatedly under oath.
From the moment she committed the first act for which she was convicted, through her trial, sentencing, and appeals, Stewart has persisted in exhibiting what seems to be a stark inability to understand the seriousness of her crimes, the breadth and depth of the danger in which they placed the lives and safety of unknown innocents, and the extent to which they constituted an abuse of her trust and privilege as a member of the bar. We cannot agree with her that the sentence imposed on her was "shockingly high" so as to warrant a finding of substantive unreasonableness.
June 28, 2012 in Booker in the Circuits, Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack