Thursday, October 04, 2012

Latest accounting of notable post-Gall reasonableness review decision

A 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.

October 4, 2012 in Booker in the Circuits, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Seventh Circuit affirms 40-year (below-guideline) sentence for child porn producer

Though 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.

September 20, 2012 in Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Fourth Circuit vacates LWOP sentence for illegal gun possession premised on uncharged murder

A 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.

August 30, 2012 in Applicability of Blakely to FSG, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Oh what a higher sentence she received, when found to have pleaded to deceive

With 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:

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.

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.

August 29, 2012 in Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Split Second Circuit upholds reasonableness of 30-year prison term for child porn convictions

A 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.

August 28, 2012 in Booker in the Circuits, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Sixth Circuit panel rejects reasonableness challenge to below-guideline terrorism sentences

A 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.

August 23, 2012 in Booker in the Circuits, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Seventh Circuit talks through reasonableness review of above-guideline sentences

In 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.

August 22, 2012 in Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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

Monday, May 21, 2012

Celebrity federal drug sentencing appeal prompts doctors' brief urging treatment over punishment

This morning's New York Times has this article, headlined "Doctors Seek New Approach for Jailed Addicts," discussing a notable appellate brief filed in a high-profile federal drug sentencing case.  Here are the interesting details:

A group of prominent addiction doctors has mounted a quiet legal campaign on behalf of Cameron Douglas, the troubled son of the actor Michael Douglas, in hopes of finding a sympathetic ear for their view that drug addiction is best handled with more treatment, not more prison time.

In December, Mr. Douglas, who is 33 and already serving a five-year federal sentence for drug distribution and heroin possession, was sentenced to an additional four and a half years after being caught behind bars with heroin and Suboxone, a prescription medication used to blunt the pull of opioid addiction.

And it was that sentence, believed to be one of the harshest ever handed down by a federal judge for drug possession for an incarcerated prisoner, that prompted about two dozen addiction doctors and groups to file a brief on behalf of Mr. Douglas, whose case is under review by a panel from the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

Their argument is that Mr. Douglas, who began injecting heroin daily in his mid-20s, is a textbook example “of someone suffering from untreated opioid dependence” and that more prison time would do nothing to solve his underlying problems.  “My outrage is as a physician for someone who has a medical condition which has been ignored,” said one of the brief’s signees, Dr. Robert Newman, the director of the Baron Edmond de Rothschild Chemical Dependency Institute at Beth Israel Medical Center. “What the judge has imposed has zero benefits for the community and has staggering consequences for society.”

The sentence, handed down by Judge Richard M. Berman of Federal District Court in Manhattan, came after heroin and Suboxone was found in a cell Mr. Douglas was occupying at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York, while testifying against a former drug supplier.  Shortly after that, he pleaded guilty to one count of drug possession by a federal prisoner.

Such charges are unusual; most inmates caught with drugs behind bars are sanctioned administratively with loss of prison privileges, said Daniel N. Abrahamson, the director of legal affairs with the Drug Policy Alliance, the drug reform group that drafted the brief. Those punishments have also been levied on Mr. Douglas, whose penalties have included stints of isolated confinement in his cell and loss of family visits.

At a sentencing in December, prosecutors asked for an additional term of anywhere from 18 to 24 months, according to Mr. Douglas’s appeal.  But Judge Berman made it clear that his patience with Mr. Douglas was done, saying the inmate had been “continuously reckless, disruptive and noncompliant” and had repeatedly squandered opportunities and refused to obey the law.

Mr. Douglas would seem an unlikely candidate for a cause célèbre, as the scion of an acting family.  But Mr. Abrahamson said the case had little to do with Mr. Douglas’s fame, though he acknowledged that few inmates have the resources needed to wage an appeal in federal court.  He said the goal of the brief was not only to help obtain a reduction, or dismissal, of Mr. Douglas’s 54-month sentence, but also to have the appellate panel make a statement on “how the federal corrections systems, in particular, but corrections in general have for a long time ignored the treatment need of their inmates.”

Mr. Douglas’s travails since his arrest, including episodes in which drugs were smuggled to him while he was incarcerated, have been tabloid fodder, something Howard Josepher, another of the brief’s signees, said has probably made efforts at recovery harder.  “A guy like this gets into prison, he’s got star power, so people inside actually they want to get close to him,” said Mr. Josepher, who runs the New York-based Exponents, which offers drug treatment programs.  “And they do that by offering him drugs.”

Mr. Josepher, 73, an ex-convict and heroin user who said he has been clean for 45 years, said he hoped Mr. Douglas’s case would highlight what he called a contradictory approach to drug abuse by the criminal justice system.  “The various powers that be view addiction as a disease,” he said. “But they treat people who have this illness as criminals.

I will provide a link to this "doctors' brief" if and when I can track down a copy.  This article makes me hopeful that the Second Circuit might issue an important opinion concerning reasonableness review in this case, though it is often hard to predict whether and when high-profile cases will produce truly consequential court rulings.

Prior posts concerning Cameron Douglas's federal sentencings:

May 21, 2012 in Booker in the Circuits, Celebrity sentencings, Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Friday, May 18, 2012

What are the odds SCOTUS grants cert in the (in)famous Rubashkin case?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent commentary by Harlan Protass in the Des Moines Register headlined "Jail sentence doesn't fit the crime." Here are snippets:

Sholom Rubashkin, a first-time, non-violent offender, was convicted in 2009 of bank fraud related to his operation of a kosher slaughterhouse in Postville.  He is no Boy Scout.  He committed financial fraud, was convicted at trial and deserves punishment.  Like any defendant found guilty of having committed a federal crime, Rubashkin also was constitutionally entitled to consideration of all arguments for leniency, an explanation of the reasons for the sentence he received, and review of that punishment by a higher court.

But when Chief District Judge Linda R. Reade of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa disregarded her obligation to consider Rubashkin’s grounds for mercy and instead just sentenced him to 27 years behind bars, she left the appellate judges who examined Rubashkin’s case with no means for determining whether the penalty she imposed was fair, just or reasonable.  That’s why it’s so important for the U.S. Supreme Court to hear Rubashkin’s appeal....

A series of recent Supreme Court decisions prohibit judges from mechanically adhering to federal guidelines.  Rather, judges are supposed to use their own judgment when meting out sentences, including consideration of all factors that might mitigate the sentence suggested by the guidelines. Simply put, judges are required to impose sentences that fit both the offender and the offense and are supposed to jail defendants for only as long as is “sufficient, but not greater than necessary” to reflect a host of penal objectives.

In Rubashkin’s case, Judge Reade paid only lip service to these legal requirements.  She dispatched her obligation to consider factors other than the federal guidelines in a mere four pages of her 52-page sentencing decision.  She essentially gave the back of her hand to the mitigating detail presented by Rubashkin’s lawyers, including his responsibility for 10 children, his extensive charitable activities, the absence of any indication that he was motivated by greed, and, most significantly, the disproportionality of the sentence recommended by federal guidelines as compared to those handed down in fraud cases of similar size and scope.

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit essentially ignored Judge Reade’s omissions, inaccurately stating that she had “explicitly discussed each possible basis” for a shorter sentence than that called for by federal guidelines.  In doing so, that court failed to fulfill its own obligation to ensure that sentences conform with the constitutional standards set by the Supreme Court.

To ensure the promise of a fair and just criminal justice system, it is critical that the Supreme Court, which is currently considering his request for a hearing, review Rubashkin’s case.  It should find that judges must state on the record — in a written statement of reasons or during the sentencing hearing itself — that they considered and how they accounted for each and every mitigating factor.

This is of particular importance to those who receive sentences measured in decades, not years, like the 27-year prison term that Rubashkin received.  The alternative — silence by sentencing judges — is constitutionally unacceptable, not only for the likes of Rubashkin, but also for any other citizen who might one day run afoul of the law.

As detailed in an amicus brief on sentencing issues I authored to support Rubashkin's cert petition (discussed here), I concur with this commentary's advocacy for SCOTUS review in this case focused on sentencing issues.  In addition, as detailed in this ABA Journal report, my amicus brief was one of six filed in support of cert.  One amicus brief, authored by former SG Seth Waxman, concerns recusal issues based on the presiding judge's pre-trial involvement with prosecutors as "was signed by 86 former officials and judges, including former attorneys general and other prior Justice Department officials. They include former FBI directors Louis Freeh and William Sessions, former Attorneys General Edwin Meese and Dick Thornburgh, and former Solicitor General Kenneth Starr." And, other amicus briefs "were filed by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers ..., the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers, a group of 40 legal ethics professors, and the Justice Fellowship. Some of the briefs deal only with the fairness of the sentence, while others deal with recusal issues and the 8th Circuit's new trial standard."

All this amicus support, together with the fact that former SG (and SCOTUS magician) Paul Clement is representing Rubashkin before the High Court, surely raises significantly the odds of a cert grant.  But, while making a cert grant more likely, it is hard to ever assert that a cert grant in a federal criminal case is "probable."  Indeed, in this effective Slate commentary focused upon the judicial bias issues raised by the case, Emily Bazelon concludes with this sober assessment:

The larger problem here is that, practically speaking, federal judges have enormous leeway in deciding whether to take themselves off a case because of potential bias or perceived bias.  When they make a bad call, there are rarely any consequences. In all likelihood, the Supreme Court will turn Rubashkin down and refuse to intervene this time, too.  The jury who convicted Rubashkin sat for 18 days and reviewed more than 9,000 exhibits, and the justices probably have as little appetite for a do-over as they do for smacking down Judge Reade.  But even if you can’t bring yourself to care much about the fate of Sholom Rubashkin, the oddities of this case don’t sit well.  Judges shouldn’t be able to make up their own rules for policing themselves.

As this Supreme Court docket sheet reveals, the feds will not be filing a response to all the cert advocacy until at least early July, and thus the Justices will not be considering this case directly until well into summer.  To its credit, SCOTUS recently has not shield away from taking up high-profile criminal cases raising high-profile issues (see, e.g., US v. Skilling), and thus I am a bit more optimistic that Bazelon that SCOTUS will take up the Rubashkin case.  But I am eager to hear from readers as to whether they think this might be just wishful thinking on my part.

May 18, 2012 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Gall reasonableness case, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Sixth Circuit panel produces pair of notable opinions in CP sentencing reversal

Judicial administration fans, as well as sentencing fans, will want to find time to check out today's Sixth Circuit panel decision in US v. Aleo, No. 10-1569 (6th Cir. May 15, 2012) (available here). The start of the majority opinion highlights what the opinion covers and what it is notable:

In this case, we deal with two appeals arising out of the criminal conviction and sentencing of Craig Aleo. Craig Aleo appeals his sentence (Part I), and his trial attorney, John Freeman, appeals the sanction imposed upon him by the district court (Part II).

Craig Aleo was sentenced to the statutory maximum sentence of 720 months of imprisonment after he pleaded guilty to one count each of producing, possessing, and transporting and shipping child pornography. His guidelines range was 235–293 months. Because we cannot find a justification within the factors enumerated in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) to justify the variance imposed by the district court, we reverse and remand for resentencing.

Craig Aleo’s trial counsel, John Freeman, was sanctioned $2,000, based on the district court’s inherent power to sanction, because he filed a motion asking the court to compel the government to make a formal motion regarding any victim who wanted to speak at trial pursuant to the Crime Victim Rights Act (CVRA), naming the victim, and providing a preview of the victim’s statement.  Because there is no objective evidence that trial counsel filed this motion in bad faith, we reverse.

And the start of Judge Sutton's concurring opinion highlights why judicial administration aficianados ought also find Aleo of interest:

I join the court’s decision in full, including its conclusion that the district court abused its discretion when it invoked its inherent power to impose sanctions on defense attorney John Freeman for filing a frivolous motion.  I write separately to express skepticism about a lower federal court’s power ever to use inherent authority, as opposed to the contempt power established by statute (18 U.S.C. § 401) and implemented by rule (Fed. R. Crim. P. 42), to punish a defense attorney in a criminal case for filing a frivolous motion.

May 15, 2012 in Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Making a full-throated pitch for SCOTUS to again address reasonableness review

Regular readers may know that I am generally underwhelmed with how some circuits have approached reasonableness review, and I have long been troubled with the disinclination of some circuit to review rigorously within-Guideline sentences. Driven in part by those concerns, I have authored an amicus brief support in cert in the US v. Rubashkin case in which I lament the state of reasonableness review and urge SCOTUS involvement. The full amicus (which I filed aided by the fine folks at the Washington Legal Foundation) can be downloaded below, and here are excerpts from the state of the argument:

Problematically, in the half-decade since this Court’s rulings in Rita, Gall, and Kimbrough v. United States, 552 U.S. 85 (2007), the circuit courts have developed inconsistent and sometimes constitutionally suspect approaches to reasonableness review.  Some circuits now regularly reverse sentences as procedurally unreasonable; others almost never do. Some circuits now regularly engage with the statutory factors of § 3553(a) when reviewing for substantive reasonableness; others almost never do.  Accordingly, reasonableness review is not helping to “iron out sentencing differences” nationwide, but rather is exacerbating these differences.  Tellingly, in recent official testimony, the U.S. Department of Justice has lamented the circuits’ disparate approaches to reasonableness review, and the U.S. Sentencing Commission has urged Congress to amend the SRA to resolve circuit splits over the application of reasonableness review.  And many federal judges and commentators have asserted that appellate review of sentences — and all of modern federal sentencing under advisory Guidelines — would benefit significantly from this Court’s further guidance on the contours of reasonableness review.

Reasonableness review has been distinctly dysfunctional in those circuits that have adopted a so-called “presumption of reasonableness” for reviewing within-Guideline sentences.  Curiously, there has yet to be a single appellate ruling that expounds upon — or, for that matter, even discusses — when and how this “presumption” can be rebutted or the legal consequences of any (phantom) rebuttal.  Rather than function as the true “presumption” this Court outlined in Rita, the “presumption of reasonableness” has been used to convert the Guidelines into a sentencing safe-harbor, making all within-Guideline sentences effectively immune from substantive reasonableness review.  (Indeed, despite the appeal of thousands of within-Guideline sentences since Rita, not one single within-Guideline sentence has been found substantively unreasonable in the “presumption” circuits.)  That some circuits treat within-Guideline sentences as per se reasonable not only conflicts with this Court’s clear holding in Rita and Congress’s instructions in § 3553(a), but also raises serious constitutional concerns in light of this Court’s Sixth Amendment jurisprudence in Booker and its progeny....

[D]ue to the Eighth Circuit’s routine of always affirming within-Guideline sentences, the district court approached the sentencing of Mr. Rubashkin as if only the Guidelines mattered; in turn, the Eighth Circuit affirmed an extreme prison sentence for a nonviolent first offender using the rubber-stamp approach to reasonableness review it has adopted only for within-Guideline sentences.  This case thus highlights how some (but not all) district courts are still disregarding the statutory instructions of § 3553(a) that Booker made central to federal sentencing, and how some (but not all) circuit courts are disregarding this Court’s instructions for reasonableness review set forth in Rita, Gall, an Kimbrough.  Absent this Court’s intervention, the rulings below will stand as a high-profile reminder that district and circuit courts can feel free to treat Booker and its progeny as merely a lengthy “tale told by [the Justices], full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act V, Scene 5.

Download WLF-Rubashkin v United States

May 6, 2012 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Friday, March 30, 2012

Interesting appeal by federal prosecutors of interesting white-collar sentence

This local press report, headlined "U.S. appeals sentence of Michael Peppel, former MCSi executive," reports on federal prosecutors' decision to appeal an interest white-collar sentence that gave a maximum fine but minimum jail time to a corporate criminal.  Here are the basic details: 

Federal prosecutors are challenging the seven-day jail sentence given last year to Michael E. Peppel, former top executive of MCSi Inc., for his guilty pleas to felony crimes related to the company’s 2003 collapse and insolvency.

Peppel’s sentence failed to reflect the seriousness of his offenses, provide just punishment, promote respect for the law or send a message of deterrence for those who would commit similar crimes, U.S. Attorney Carter Stewart argued in his written arguments filed with the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday.

Stewart asked the Cincinnati-based appeals court to throw out the seven-day punishment and order resentencing by U.S. District Judge Sandra Beckwith, who sentenced Peppel on Oct. 24....  Peppel was also fined the legal maximum of $5 million, must disclose his criminal record to all employers, must submit to random drug testing and must do community service, according to his sentencing terms.  He has already served his seven days behind bars.

His lawyer, Ralph Kohnen, said the defense will fight efforts to impose a longer term of incarceration on Peppel, who was MCSi’s president and chief executive officer. “The government’s decision was unfortunate,” Kohnen said Thursday. “Judge Beckwith’s sentence was thoughtful and appropriate. Her sentence was just, proper and fair.”

Under a court-approved agreement that took effect this month, Peppel has committed to pay $3,000 per month toward his $5 million fine.  At that rate, it would take him 50 years to pay $1.8 million of the fine and 100 years to have paid $3.6 million of it.

Peppel, 44, avoided trial in August 2010 by pleading guilty to willful false certification of a financial report by a corporate officer; money laundering, and conspiracy to commit securities fraud. He could have faced up to 50 years in prison. The government said his crimes helped sink MCSi, a Kettering-based computer and audiovisual equipment company. Its failure cost 1,300 employees their jobs, benefits and retirement income and left investors holding worthless stock.

Beckwith initially determined that, under federal sentencing guidelines, a prison term for Peppel of eight to 10 years would be appropriate.   But after the defense presented 113 letters of support from Peppel’s family and friends, and argued that he had already been publicly humiliated and agreed to a lifetime ban on his ever serving again as a corporate chief executive, the judge imposed the seven-day jail term. Beckwith said she does not believe Peppel is likely to repeat his crimes and does not represent a threat to the public.

For a variety of reasons, in cases like this in which there appears to be no threat to public safety, I see as quite reasonable a judge's decision to impose a huge fine (which makes a defendant essentially an indentured servant to federal taxpayers for life) rather than requiring a lengthy prison term (which requires federal taxpayers to pay for a defendant's room-and-board while he catches up on reading at Club Fed).  But, obviously, federal prosecutors have a different view and I will be very interested to see how this appeal ends up playing out in the Sixth Circuit.

March 30, 2012 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Friday, March 16, 2012

Eighth Circuit affirms lengthy (but way below-guideline) prison sentence for "inadvertent" illegal possession of "old hunting ammunition"

An otherwise inconsequential sentencing affirmance from the Eighth Circuit today in US v. Anderson, No. 10-3387 (8th Cir. Feb. 16, 2012) (available here), caught my attention because the facts justifying the federal conviction seem so innocuous and because the sentencing realities the defendant faced seem so remarkable.  Here are snippets from the opinion that made me consider this case blog-worthy:

A jury found Defendant-Appellant Craig Leslie Anderson guilty of being a felon in possession of ammunition in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(1) and 924(a)(2)....

Concluding that Anderson had perjured himself at trial [by testifying he did not know he possessed the ammunition], the district court applied a two-level enhancement to Anderson's offense level pursuant to United States Sentencing Guidelines § 3C1.1, resulting in an adjusted advisory Guidelines range of 84–105 months.  The court then determined that a traditional departure was appropriate based on overstated criminal history pursuant to U.S.S.G. § 4A1.3(b), and adjusted the advisory Guidelines range downward to 77–96 months.  Finally, the court granted a variance and imposed a sentence of 45 months' incarceration....

In the statement of reasons for the sentence, the district court explained ... "Anderson's crime is among the least serious felon-in-possession offenses that I have seen.  Mr. Anderson possessed old hunting ammunition that appears to have been inadvertently overlooked when law-enforcement officers confiscated his firearms and ammunition in 2005.  There is no evidence that Mr. Anderson could have used, or intended to use, the ammunition. I am not aware of any evidence that Mr. Anderson possessed a gun or any hunting gear....  Mr. Anderson's possession can fairly be described as inadvertent."

I also believe Mr. Anderson when he says that he did not know that his possession of the ammunition was illegal.... The State of Minnesota specifically warns felony-level probationers that they may not possess firearms, but the State does not warn that they may not possess ammunition.  There are logical reasons for this that have to do with the difference between state and federal law as well as the difference between criminal laws versus conditions of probation.  But these types of distinctions may be difficult for a layperson to appreciate....

"I do believe that, if Mr. Anderson had known that he could not possess ammunition, he may not be in the situation that he is in today.  For these reasons, I believe that the Guidelines range in this case is too high to serve the purposes of sentencing and that a downward variance is warranted."

In short, the defendant here was convicted of illegal possession of hunting shells, which he inadvertently possessed and likely did not know was illegal for him to possess.  Long-standing criminal doctrines about ignorance of the law means that his lack of knowledge of federal law does not allow him to escape liability, but even more remarkable is that the federal sentencing guidelines called for 7 to 9 years in federal prison(!) for the crime of "inadvertent" illegal possession of hunting shells.  (Importantly, this high sentencing range was driven up by the defendant's criminal history, though the district judge also concluded that these guidelines also were over-inflated in this case.)

To the district judge's sentencing cre"dit, he decided that he should not send Anderson to federal prison for the better part of a decade for the ghastly crime of "inadvertent" illegal possession of hunting shells.  Still, the judge decided that nearly four years in federal prison was necessary for this crime, and the Eighth Circuit panel required merely two sentences at the very end of its opinion to reach the conclusion that the imoposition of this lengthy federal prison term for this crime was reasonable and thus not an "abuse of discretion."

March 16, 2012 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Monday, March 12, 2012

En banc Ninth Circuit finds Millennium Bomber sentence substantively unreasonable

Because I am on the road, I only have time to note without comment until later this big Ninth Circuit en banc ruling in US v. Ressam, which starts this way:

The government appeals the sentence imposed by the district court upon Ahmed Ressam, the so-called “Millennium Bomber,” as substantively unreasonable.  We review a challenge of that nature under what the Supreme Court has described as “the familiar abuse-of-discretion standard of review.” Gall v. United States, 552 U.S. 38, 46 (2007).

Ressam was convicted by a jury on nine counts of criminal activity1 in connection with his plot to carry out an attack against the United States by detonating explosives at the Los Angeles International Airport, commonly known and referred to by its airport code “LAX.” His plan was for the attack to occur on the eve of the new millennium, December 31, 1999.   The advisory Sentencing Guidelines imprisonment range for Ressam’s convictions was calculated by the district court to be 65 years to life.  That calculation has not been challenged by either party.  The district court sentenced Ressam to a term of imprisonment of 22 years, plus five years of supervised release.

Upon our review of the record, we have a definite and firm conviction that the district court committed a clear error of judgment in sentencing Ressam as it did.  As a result, we conclude that the sentence imposed by the district court was substantively unreasonable. We vacate the sentence and remand the case to the district court for resentencing.

The full opinion (which includes a concurrence and a dissent) runs 73 pages and is likely to justify future posts once I am back at my desk.

March 12, 2012 in Booker in the Circuits, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, February 27, 2012

Trio of notable sentencing losses by child porn defendants in Sixth Circuit

The Sixth Circuit has, just in the last two business days, handed down three notable published sentencing opinions in child porn cases.  For a variety of reasons, anyone following this area of federal sentencing ought to find time to review the trio.  But, as explained at the end of this post, such a review will not leave one with much confidence about modern federal sentencing justice in these kinds of cases.

Based on a too-quick review of the trio, the opinion in US v. Robinson, No. 09-1959 (6th Cir. Feb. 27, 2012) (available here), strikes me as the most consequential because it reverses a below-guideline sentence as substantively unreasonable in an opinion that starts this way:

Rufus Robinson pled guilty to knowingly possessing over 7100 images of child pornography on his computer.  Some of the images involved the bondage, torture, and rape of prepubescent children.  Under the Sentencing Guidelines, Robinson’s recommended sentence was 78 to 97 months’ imprisonment.  The district court rejected that recommendation and imposed a sentence of one day in custody, a term of supervised release of five years, and a $100 special assessment.  The United States contends that Robinson’s sentence is both procedurally and substantively unreasonable.  We agree that the sentence is substantively unreasonable, and vacate his sentence.

US v. Cunningham, No. 10-3092 (6th Cir. Feb. 24, 2012) (available here), covers some similar ground in the course of affirming a (within-guideline) sentence in an opinion that begins this way:

Defendant Thomas Cunningham appeals the district court’s judgment sentencing him to concurrent prison terms of 121 months and 120 months after he pleaded guilty to three child pornography offenses, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 2252(a)(2), 2252A(a)(2), and 2252A(a)(5)(B).  Defendant raises assignments of error with several procedural and substantive aspects of the district court’s sentence.  Because the district court’s imposition of Defendant’s sentence was comprehensive and legally sufficient, we AFFIRM.

US v. Ferguson, No. 10-3070 (6th Cir. Feb. 27, 2012) (available here), involves a similar defendant convicted and sentenced for child porn possession, but the sentencing issues raised (and deemed waived) on appeal concerned conditions of supervised release (perhaps because the defendant worked out a plea deal in which he got only a 30-month sentence for his kiddie porn offenses). 

There is so much that might be said individually about each of these cases and what they reveal about the child porn guidelines and/or appellate review for reasonableness.  But I find most remarkable that these opinion create the impression that defendant Cunningham may have been the most mitigated of these three offenders, even though he had the highest guideline range (121-151 months) and received the longest prison term (121 months). 

Based on points discussed by the Sixth Circuit, defendant Robinson arguably is a much more serious offender than defendant Cunningham, but he faced a much lower guideline range (78-97 months) which means that, even after today's reversal of his one-day prison sentence, on resentencing  defendant Robinson is still very likely to get a much shorter prison sentence than defendant Cunningham. 

Finally, because defendant Ferguson's lawyer was apparently able to put together a sweet plea deal, defendant Ferguson is now likely already out of federal prison even though there are facts set forth in his case which might suggest he could well pose more danger to the public than the others.  I am not sure just how or why 30 months was set at the fixed sentence in his case, but the outcome even on appeal provides further proof that "winning" sentencing arguments at the plea bargain stage may prove much more important and even more enduring in these cases than "winning" at the sentencing stage.

Short summary: sentencing in kiddie porn downloading cases are even more of a mess than one can reasonably assess.

February 27, 2012 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (21) | TrackBack

Friday, February 03, 2012

Seventh Circuit reminds federal sentencing judge of obligation to judge at federal sentencing

The Seventh Circuit handed down an intriguing little panel opinion resolving a sentencing appeal yesterday in US v. Pennington, No. 11-1257 (7th Cir. Feb. 2, 2012) (available here). Here is how the opinion in Pennington gets started:

Richie Pennington pleaded guilty to selling a firearm to a felon, distributing ecstasy, and possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking crime. The government recommended a 68-month sentence, the bottom of the applicable sentencing-guidelines range. Pennington argued that 64 months was enough.  The judge rejected Pennington’s argument because the four-month difference between the sentencing recommendations was so little.  He added that although the sentencing guidelines are not binding, “judges are told that [they] are to be followed.”  The judge imposed the 68-month sentence suggested by the government.  Pennington appeals, challenging the procedure the judge used to reach that decision.

We vacate the sentence and remand for resentencing.  The judge appears to have rejected Pennington’s request for a modest below-guidelines sentence simply because it was modest and below the guidelines.  There may have been other reasons why he did so, but as it stands, we cannot be sure the judge gave adequate consideration to Pennington’s argument.

Among other virtues, the court's opinion in Pennington has this nice passage discussing one of my favorite parts of 3553(a):

The first explanation about the negligible difference between the parties’ sentencing recommendations is troublesome for a couple of reasons. To begin, the so-called parsimony provision of § 3553(a) requires that judges “impose a sentence sufficient, but not greater than necessary” to serve the purposes of sentencing.  The judge need not expressly refer to that provision at sentencing,  Abebe, 651 F.3d at 656, but his explanation of the sentence must be consistent with its meaning, see Johnson, 635 F.3d at 988 n.1 (collecting cases).  By characterizing the difference between the recommended sentences as “de minimis,” the judge implicitly accepted that 64 months was sufficient to serve the purposes of sentencing.  If so, the parsimony principle would ordinarily require the more lenient sentence.

February 3, 2012 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Monday, January 09, 2012

Sixth Circuit finds substantively unreasonable a one-day of lock-up for child porn downloading

An interesting and potentially important reasonableness review decision was handed down by a Sixth Circuit panel this morning in US v. Bistline, No. 10-3106 (6th Cir. Jan. 9, 2012) (available here). Folks concerned with the operation of reasonableness review or with child porn sentencing should be sure to read this thoughtful opinion in full. Here is how the opinion gets started along with one of many notable passages from the heart of the opinion:

Richard Bistline pled guilty to knowingly possessing 305 images and 56 videos of child pornography on his computer. Many, if not a majority, of those images and videos depicted 8- to 10-year-old girls being raped by adult men.   Under the Sentencing Guidelines, Bistline’s recommended sentence was 63 to 78 months’ imprisonment.  The district court rejected that recommendation and instead sentenced Bistline to a single night’s confinement in the courthouse lockup, plus ten years’ supervised release.   The United States contends that Bistline’s sentence is substantively unreasonable, arguing that the district court improperly rejected the relevant sentencing guideline as “seriously flawed” and that Bistline’s sentence fails to reflect the factors recited in the sentencing statute.  We agree, and vacate his sentence....

The district court made a number of observations with respect to the seriousness of this offense.  Many of them served to diminish it.   The court did say that the images on Bistline’s computer were “horrendous,” and that the “production of child pornography and the distribution of it is an extremely serious offense, one which should be punished accordingly.”   But notably omitted from that recitation (and virtually unpunished in this case) was the crime of possession of child pornography.   Indeed, the court said there are “significant differences . . . in the degree of culpability in the chain of events that leads to the display of child pornography[,]” with the “most culpable” persons being “those who are involved in actually performing these acts and photographing them.”   We agree with that statement so far as it goes.   That the producers of child pornography are more culpable, however, does not mean that its knowing and deliberate possessors are barely culpable at all.

January 9, 2012 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (31) | TrackBack

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Fifth Circuit, taking issue with Second Circuit's work in Dorvee, affirms 220-month sentence for child porn downloading

The Fifth Circuit has a lengthy new opinion in discussing federal child porn sentencing in US v. Miller, No. 10-50500 (5th Cir. Dec. 13, 2011) (available here).  Here is how the opinion starts, along with some snippets from what is an extended substantive discussion of the federal child porn guidelines:

Aubrey Miller pled guilty to one count of transportation of child pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252(a)(1).  The district court sentenced Miller to 220 months of imprisonment (18 years and 4 months), a term within the advisory Guidelines range and less than the statutory maximum of 240 months of imprisonment.  The district court also imposed a twenty-five-year term of supervised release. Miller appeals his sentence and elements of his supervised release.  We affirm....

The Second Circuit discussed at considerable length in Dorvee the history of the sentencing Guidelines that apply to child pornography offenses and the role of Congress in that history.  The Second Circuit surveyed writings that have expressed disapproval of these Guidelines and congressional actions regarding them. That court was highly critical of the child pornography Guidelines, concluding that “[a]n ordinary first-time offender is therefore likely to qualify for a sentence of at least 168 to 210 months, rapidly approaching the statutory maximum, based solely on sentencing enhancements that are all but inherent to the crime of conviction.”  The Second Circuit asserted that “adherence to the Guidelines results in virtually no distinction between the sentences for defendants like Dorvee, and the sentences for the most dangerous offenders who, for example, distribute child pornography for pecuniary gain and who fall in higher criminal history categories.” That court declared, “[t]his result is fundamentally incompatible with § 3553(a).”...

With great respect, we do not agree with our sister court’s reasoning.  Our circuit has not followed the course that the Second Circuit has charted with respect to sentencing Guidelines that are not based on empirical data.  Empirically based or not, the Guidelines remain the Guidelines.  It is for the Commission to alter or amend them.  The Supreme Court made clear in Kimbrough v. United States that “[a] district judge must include the Guidelines range in the array of factors warranting consideration,” even if the Commission did not use an empirical approach in developing sentences for the particular offense.  Accordingly, we will not reject a Guidelines provision as “unreasonable” or “irrational” simply because it is not based on empirical data and even if it leads to some disparities in sentencing.  The advisory Guidelines sentencing range remains a factor for district courts to consider in arriving upon a sentence....

In the present case, the district court expressly considered and rejected reasoning similar to that in Dorvee to the effect that those who “merely” possess or transport child pornography should not receive the same or more severe sentences than those who have actual sexual contact with a child....  The district court considered the policies underpinning the child pornography Guidelines.  It concluded that the sentence imposed, 220 months of imprisonment, was not greater than necessary to accomplish the purposes set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3553.

Miller contends that punishment for his offense should have been mitigated by his personal characteristics and history, including his difficult childhood, his service in the Navy (prior to his other-than-honorable discharge), and the empathy for child pornography victims and remorse he attained after he was raped in prison. The district court considered each of these factors.  Miller’s disagreement is with the weight that the court gave to each.  The district court did not fail to give sufficient weight to Miller’s characteristics and history.

Some related posts on related rulings from other circuits:

December 14, 2011 in Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack