Monday, December 03, 2012

Notable (and very unusual?) Third Circuit order vacating (unpublished) sentencing affirmance

The-Crew-the-sopranos-449813_1024_768Today 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 I tracked down the November opinion, which was unpublished and available at this link, at it is itself notable for both its facts and the issue on appeal.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.

December 3, 2012 in Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Judge Bright (in dissent) assails fraud guidelines and rote recitation of 3553(a) factors

Dissenting 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.

November 7, 2012 in Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Third time around, "Millenium Bomber" gets (reasonable?) longer term of 37 years in prison

As 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:

October 24, 2012 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Split Sixth Circuit opinion addresses range of child sex offense sentencing issues

The 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.

October 11, 2012 in Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Interesting Third Circuit ruling addresses state-federal and federal-federal sex offense disparity claim

The 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.

October 9, 2012 in Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

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:

October 6, 2012 in Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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