Wednesday, September 17, 2014
Woman who bought guns for killer gets (way-above-guideline) eight-year federal prison sentence
As reported in this post last month, a high-profile federal gun case in upstate New York involved federal prosecutors seeking a statutory maximum sentencing term of 10 years in prison when the applicable guideline recommend only 18 to 24 months for the offense. This new local article, headlined "Woman tied to firefighter ambush sentenced to 8 years," details that the feds today were successful in securing a way-above-guideline federal gun sentence in the case:
The woman convicted of buying guns for a man that were used to kill two firefighters on Christmas Eve 2012 was sentenced to eight years in prison on federal charges Wednesday. The sentence, imposed by U.S. District Judge David Larimer, will run concurrent with a state sentence Dawn Nguyen is now serving of 16 months to four years.
On June 6, 2010, Nguyen bought the semiautomatic rifle and shotgun that William Spengler Jr. used when he fatally shot two volunteer firefighters Dec. 24, 2012. She claimed on a federal firearms transaction form that the guns were for her, when she was purchasing them for Spengler.
"I'm sure Miss Nguyen wishes she could take back that decision she made on that June day, but life is not like that," Larimer said in federal court Wednesday morning. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Noto in court Wednesday had argued that Nguyen's actions directly led to the Christmas Eve killings. "She should have foreseen the possibility of serious harm," said Noto....
Spengler had previously served 17 years in prison for fatally beating his grandmother with a hammer in 1980.
Larimer on Wednesday said he believed Nguyen knew of Spengler's dangerousness, and that she likely knew the facts behind Spengler's killing of his grandmother. Speaking of Spengler's past crime, Larimer said, "that should raise not one but hundreds of red flags that maybe this is not the kind of person who you want to be giving guns to."
Nguyen's lawyer Matthew Parrinello maintained that Nguyen did not know the specifics of Spengler's earlier crime. "This was a quirky, weird, crazy neighbor that she knew," said Parrinello. "But he was very nice, very kind and he did things for her family."
Dawn Nguyen on Wednesday faced the court room — which was packed with police officers, West Webster, N.Y., volunteer firefighters and her relatives — and told the crowd that she was sorry for her actions.
Related prior posts:
- Fascinating federal "gun control" criminal charges in wake of NY ambush murder-suicide
- Though guidelines recommend two years or less, feds request 10-year max for woman who bought guns for killer
Tuesday, September 16, 2014
Terrific collection of materials on-line as USSC's "Annual National Seminar Goes Paperless"
Though not nearly as historic or controversial as Bob Dylan going electric, I was still excited and intrigued to see a new item on the US Sentencing Commission's website announcing that this week's upcoming USSC Annual National Seminar "is going paperless." What this means, as the notice explains, is that all of the USSC's Seminar materials are now available online at this link.
I recommend that everyone interested in federal sentencing data and developments take the time to click through and scroll down through the USSC's Seminar agenda. One can find lots of interesting articles, data runs and presentation materials that provide information and insights about modern federal sentencing that would be hard to find anywhere else. Kudos to the Commission for going paperless and for enabling folks like me who cannot make it to this year's event to still access a lot of the materials that are to be presented.
Monday, September 08, 2014
Intriguing concurring sentiments about federal child porn downloading cases from Judges Noonan and Reinhardt
Late last week, two judges on the Ninth Circuit made noteworthy an otherwise forgettable decision in US v. Hardrick, No. 13-50195 (9th CIr. Sept. 4, 2014) (available here), through their concurring opinions in a run-of-the-mill affirmance of federal conviction of a child pornography downloader. Here is the text of Judge Noonan's Hardrick concurring addition:
I write to underline the need for further action to discourage a crime whose actual extent is unknown but whose commission is increasingly prosecuted as a serious federal offense. As pointed out in a thoughtful communication by Alexandra Gelber, Assistant Deputy Chief, Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section of the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice: Those convicted of the crimes of possessing, receiving, or distributing child pornography typically have no criminal record but “include professors, teachers, coaches, fathers, lawyers, doctors, foster parents, adoption agency owners, and more.” See Alexandra Gelber, Response to “A Reluctant Rebellion” 7 (July 1, 2009), http://www.justice.gov/criminal/ceos/downloads/ReluctantRebellionResponse.pdf. Obviously, lack of criminal history is not a defense. It is equally obvious that this kind of defendant is normally law-abiding and, unless suffering from some psychological impairment — the probability Judge Reinhardt effectively develops — could be expected to obey the law in this area if aware of its provisions and especially if aware of its sanctions. Why should the government not advertise the law and its penalty? Better to stop a crime’s commission than mop the consequences.
Judge Reinhardt's comment are a bit more extended, and here are excerpts:
Like Judge Noonan, I concur in the unanimous opinion of the court. Also, like Judge Noonan, I am disturbed about the practical impact of the child pornography laws upon otherwise law-abiding individuals. I do not agree, however, that advertising the legal consequences is a solution to the problem. Rather, it is my view that “psychological impairment” is in most, if not all, cases the cause of the criminal conduct. Whether psychiatric treatment rather than incarceration would be the proper response by state authorities is a matter that I would hope would be given more serious consideration than it has until now. Surely sentences of five to twenty years for a first offense of viewing child pornography are not the solution. See 18 U.S.C. § 2252(b)(1). Nor are mandatory sentences of fifteen to forty years for a second. See id.....
I do not profess to know the solution to the problem of how to cure the illness that causes otherwise law-abiding people to engage in the viewing of child pornography. I know only that lengthy sentences such as the one in this case, ten years (and below the guidelines at that) for a first offense, cannot be the answer.
There is nothing new in what I say here, but it is a problem that I believe deserves more attention than we have given it thus far. Many lives of otherwise decent people have been ruined by psychological problems they are not presently capable of controlling. Incarcerating them will not end the horror of child pornography or the injury it inflicts on innocent children. All it accomplishes is to create another class of people with ruined lives — victims of serious mental illness who society should instead attempt to treat in a constructive and humane manner.
September 8, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack
Thursday, September 04, 2014
Former Virginia Gov McDonnell (and wife) now facing high-profile federal sentencing after jury convictions on multiple charges
As detailed in this FoxNews report, headlined "Ex-Virginia governor, wife found guilty on corruption charges," a high-profile federal criminal trial is now over and a high-profile federal sentencing process is about to begin. Here are the basics:
Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen were convicted Thursday on a range of corruption charges in connection with gifts and loans they accepted from a wealthy businessman, marking a stunning fall for the onetime rising Republican star.
A federal jury in Richmond convicted Bob McDonnell, 60, of 11 of the 13 counts he faced; Maureen McDonnell was convicted of nine of the 13 counts she had faced. Both bowed their heads and wept as a stream of "guiltys" kept coming from the court clerk. The verdict followed three days of deliberations, after a five-week trial.
Sentencing was scheduled for Jan. 6. Each faces up to 30 years in prison. After the verdict was read, FBI agent-in-charge Adam Lee said the bureau will "engage and engage vigorously in any allegation of corruption." Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell, head of the Justice Department's criminal division, said the state's former first couple "turned public service into a money-making enterprise."
The former governor, up until his federal corruption case, was a major figure in national politics and had been considered a possible running mate for presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012. The couple, though, was charged with doing favors for a wealthy vitamin executive in exchange for more than $165,000 in gifts and loans. They also were charged with submitting fraudulent bank loan applications, and Maureen McDonnell was charged with one count of obstruction.
The former governor testified in his own defense, insisting that he provided nothing more than routine political courtesies to former Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams. Maureen McDonnell did not testify. His testimony and that of others exposed embarrassing details about Maureen McDonnell's erratic behavior and the couple's marital woes as the defense suggested they could not have conspired because they were barely speaking....
Prosecutors claimed that the McDonnells turned to Williams because they were grappling with credit card debt that once topped $90,000 and annual operating shortfalls of $40,000 to $60,000 on family-owned vacation rental properties. Two of the loans totaling $70,000 were intended for the two Virginia Beach rent houses. Williams said he wrote the first $50,000 check to Maureen McDonnell after she complained about their money troubles and said she could help his company because of her background selling nutritional supplements.
My (way-too-quick) rough review of likely applicable sentencing guidelines suggests that the McDonnells are likely facing guideline sentencing ranges of 10 years or even longer based on the offense facts described here. I presume they should be able to get some top-flight attorneys to make some top-flight arguments for below-guideline sentences. But, at least for now, I am inclined to urge former Gov McDonnell to expect to be celebrating his 65th (and maybe also his 70th) birthday in the graybar hotel.
Tuesday, September 02, 2014
"A 'Holocaust in Slow Motion?' America's Mass Incarceration and the Role of Discretion"
The provocative title of this post is the title of this provocative new article available via SSRN and authored by (former federal prosecutor) Mark W. Osler and (current federal judge) Mark W. Bennett. Here is the abstract:
Numbers don’t lie: America has suffered an explosion in imprisonment that has been fundamentally unrelated to actual crime levels. In this article, a federal District Court Judge and a former federal prosecutor examine the roots of this explosion with a focus on the discretion of Congress, the United States Sentencing Commission, federal prosecutors, and judges. This dark period may be in its twilight, though, and the authors conclude by describing specific actions each of these four groups could take to dismantle the cruel machinery of mass incarceration.
Thursday, August 28, 2014
At third federal sentencing, elderly child porn defendant gets one year in prison and lawyer pledges SCOTUS appeal
Regular readers and hard-core federal sentencing fans are familiar with the long-running dispute over the sentencing of child porn downloader Richard Bistline. The latest chapter of this saga, but apparently not the last, unfolded in federal district court yesterday as reported in this Columbus Dispatch article, headlined "Child-porn possessor finally gets harsher sentence: 1 year in prison." Here are excerpts:
A Knox County man at the center of a fight about prison sentences for people convicted of possessing child pornography won’t be out of the spotlight anytime soon. Richard Bistline, 71, was sentenced yesterday to a year and a day in federal prison by U.S. District Judge George C. Smith, who also ordered 10 years of supervised release. Bistline also must register as a sex offender.
Bistline’s attorney, Jonathan T. Tyack, immediately said he will appeal the case in the hope that it eventually will be considered by the U.S. Supreme Court....
It was the third time that Bistline, of Mount Vernon, had been sentenced for his 2009 conviction on one count of possession of child pornography. Sentencing guidelines set Bistline’s prison term at five to six years, although judges have discretion.
His case pingponged from district court to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals twice after federal Judge James Graham refused to sentence Bistline to lengthy prison time. Instead, he sentenced him in 2010 to one day in prison, 30 days of home confinement and 10 years of supervised probation.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Deborah Solove appealed, arguing that prison time was needed, and the 6th Circuit ordered Graham to resentence Bistline. In 2013, Graham ordered the same sentence with three years of home confinement. Solove appealed again, and the 6th Circuit ruled that the sentence still was not adequate.
Graham was removed from the case, paving the way for Smith’s sentence yesterday. “The 6th Circuit has clearly spoken and is requiring me to impose a custodial sentence,” Smith said. “I hope my colleagues and the sentencing commission continue to shed light on these very important policies.” Smith then stayed the sentence and said Bistline could remain out on bond until his appeal is decided.
Tyack had asked Smith to sentence his client to one day in prison and 10 years of supervised probation. “At the end of the day, the Court of Appeals is attempting to dictate to this court what sentence it should impose,” Tyack said. “It’s inappropriate.”
Tyack said he hopes the Supreme Court will arrive at that conclusion in Bistline’s case. “He’s caught up in a legal fight that will ultimately define the boundaries between the court of appeals and district court,” Tyack said.
Bistline, a former Michigan schoolteacher with no criminal record, was arrested after a task force investigating online crimes against children downloaded images of child pornography that had come from Bistline’s home computer. A search of the computer revealed 305 images and 56 videos of children posing naked or involved in sex acts with adults. Solove said Bistline sought out child pornography for more than a year for sexual gratification. She asked for a five-year prison sentence.
Tyack said in court documents in May that “a 71-year-old inmate with Mr. Bistline’s health problems is likely to suffer greater punishment than the average inmate because the Bureau of Prisons often fails to provide adequate or even necessary medical treatment.” Bistline has a pacemaker, high blood pressure and hearing loss, among other medical problems.
Graham has been outspoken about Bistline’s case and about the federal sentencing guidelines for defendants who have been charged with possession of child pornography. He wrote a lengthy law-review article about the case that was published in December, and he has spoken about the guidelines at court hearings for other defendants charged with child-porn possession.
Wednesday, August 27, 2014
"Rebellion: The Courts of Appeals' Latest Anti-Booker Backlash"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new essay about federal sentencing and appellate practices by Alison Siegler available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
For over twenty-five years, federal courts of appeals have rebelled against every Supreme Court mandate that weakens the United States Sentencing Guidelines. Since the Court made the Guidelines advisory in United States v Booker, the rebellion has intensified, with the appellate courts consistently ensuring adherence to the Guidelines by over-policing sentences that fall outside the Guidelines and under-policing within-Guidelines sentences. The courts of appeals are now staging a new revolt, creating appellate rules — carve-outs — that enable them to reject meritorious challenges to within-Guidelines sentences.
Part I describes the previous rebellions. Part II introduces the current rebellion. Part II.A discusses what I term the “stock carve-out,” an appellate rule that violates the sentencing statute and the Sixth Amendment by allowing sentencing judges to ignore mitigating arguments regarding defendants’ personal characteristics. Part II.B discusses the “§ 3553(a)(6) carve-out,” a rule that similarly violates the statute and precedent by allowing sentencing judges to ignore disparity arguments. Part III concludes.
August 27, 2014 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack
Tuesday, August 26, 2014
Though guidelines recommend two years or less, feds request 10-year max for woman who bought guns for killer
An interesting and challenging federal sentencing is scheduled this week in upstate New York, and one of many reasons the case is noteworthy is because federal prosecutors are requesting a statutory maximum sentencing term of 10 years in prison when the applicable guideline recommend only 18 to 24 months for the offense. This recent local article, headlined "U.S. asks for Nguyen to get 10 years," provides the context and details:
Federal prosecutors want a judge to ignore sentencing guidelines and sentence Dawn Nguyen to 10 years in prison. While Nguyen likely did not know that firearms she bought for William Spengler Jr. would be used in an ambush of volunteer firefighters, she did "place two tactical military-style weapons in the capable hands of a man who she knew had already killed his own grandmother," say court papers filed Thursday by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Noto.
Nguyen is scheduled to be sentenced in U.S. District Court on Thursday for her conviction in three federal crimes: lying on a federal firearms transaction when she bought a shotgun and semiautomatic rifle in June 2010; passing those weapons onto a man — Spengler — whom she knew was a convicted felon; and possessing the guns while she was a marijuana user.
The request for a 10-year sentence sets up a rare occurrence in federal court — a decision by a judge as to whether the crimes were so extraordinary that the guidelines should be bypassed. The guidelines, while only advisory, are designed to ensure comparable punishments for comparable crimes. A judge has the discretion in unusual cases to sentence up to the maximum, which for Nguyen is 10 years for each crime.
To make his decision, U.S. District Judge David Larimer will have to weigh the question that has long been central to Nguyen's offenses: Should she be held responsible for the Christmas Eve 2012 violence spree during which Spengler killed his sister and two volunteer firefighters?...
Nguyen has pleaded guilty to the federal crimes. She also was convicted in state Supreme Court of lying on the firearms purchase form when she said the guns were for her. State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Moran sentenced her to 16 months to four years in state prison.
In June 2010, Nguyen and Spengler went to Gander Mountain in Henrietta where she bought the weapons for Spengler, who could not own guns because of his past crimes. On the morning of Christmas Eve 2012, Spengler fatally shot his sister, Cheryl, then started a blaze that largely destroyed his Lake Avenue home and others along the Lake Road strip. He then lay in wait for firefighters, ambushing them with the guns bought by Nguyen. He fatally shot West Webster volunteer firefighters Michael Chiapperini, 43, and Tomasz Kaczowka, 19.
The 10-year sentence "is what the victims have asked for," U.S. Attorney William Hochul Jr. said Friday of the families of the slain firefighters. "It's absolutely critical that the judge keep in mind the chain of events started by Dawn Nguyen," Hochul said.
In a letter to the court, Nguyen, now 25, said that Spengler told her he wanted the guns for hunting, and she did not know enough about guns to find that unusual. She wrote that she knew Spengler had been imprisoned for the death of his grandmother, but she did not know exactly what he had done.
Her attorney, Matthew Parrinello, said Friday that the request by prosecutors for a 10-year sentence is a "media grab."
"She committed a crime and she has already been punished," he said, noting Nguyen's state prison sentence. Parrinello wants Larimer to use the sentencing guidelines, and have the federal sentence run concurrent with her state sentence.
Prosecutors are asking that the federal sentence not be served until after Nguyen completes her state sentence, which would further increase the time she has to spend in prison.
The 25-page sentencing brief submitted by federal prosecutors in this notable case is available at this link and it make for an interesting read.
August 26, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Sunday, August 24, 2014
Will third time be a charm in federal sentencing of child porn defendant Richard Bistline?
Regular readers and those who follow closely federal sentencing of child pornography offender will recall the name Richard Bistline: as detailed in posts linked below, the Bistline's sentencing created a kind of battle royale between US District Judge James Graham and the Sixth Circuit. This coming week, as reported in this Columbus Dispatch article, Bistline is scheduled to be resentenced yet again, this time by a different district judge after Judge Graham's prior sentences were twice found to be substantively unreasonable by the Sixth Circuit. Here are excerpts from the Dispatch article providing the backstory:
Are federal sentencing guidelines for possessing child pornography too harsh? Calling the guidelines “draconian,” U.S. District Judge James L. Graham has become increasingly vocal in his criticism from the federal bench in Columbus.
Possessing child porn is vastly different from distributing or producing it, Graham said in an interview last week. “The purveyors or producers of these images deserve the most severe punishment we can give them. My concern is the people who end up possessing it.”
Richard Bistline, a Knox County man, is to be in federal court on Wednesday to be sentenced for the third time for child-porn possession. His case thrust Graham into the spotlight in 2010 after the judge sentenced Bistline, of Mount Vernon, to one day in prison, 30 days of home confinement and 10 years of probation. The recommended sentence under federal guidelines was five to six years.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Deborah A. Solove appealed Graham’s sentence to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that the penalty did not reflect the seriousness of the offense. The appeals court ordered Graham to resentence the defendant. But a defiant Graham again sentenced Bistline to a single day in prison, although he increased the home confinement to three years. Solove again appealed, and the 6th Circuit court again ruled that Graham’s sentence was too lenient. The court removed Graham from the case.
Judge George C. Smith is to sentence Bistline on Wednesday....
Graham says the guidelines for child-porn possession are outdated. Adding points for looking at child porn on a computer is unjustified, he said, because nearly all of it is accessed that way. Adding points for possession of numerous images is unjustified because “current technology produces numerous images with one key stroke or mouse click,” he said....
In its second Bistline ruling, the appeals court wrote that possessing child porn “is not a crime of inadvertence, of pop-up screens and viruses that incriminate an innocent person.” Possession becomes a crime “when a defendant knowingly acquires the images — in this case, affirmatively, deliberately and repeatedly, hundreds of times over, in a period exceeding a year."
Graham isn’t alone in his contention that the guidelines are outdated. A 2013 U.S. Sentencing Commission report on federal child-porn guidelines noted that many of the sentencing enhancements designed to further punish the worst possessors now apply to most offenders....
Other men who have pleaded guilty to one count of child-porn possession in federal court in Columbus, as Bistline did, have received multiple-year sentences. Among them: former special deputy sheriff Todd R. German of Union County, sentenced last year to four years; former Reynoldsburg teacher Matthew Fisher, sentenced in 2011 to three years; and former Columbus doctor Philip Nowicki, sentenced in 2011 to two years.
Graham said most of the child-porn-possession defendants he sees have no previous criminal record and “are involved in viewing these images as a result of what appears to be a form of addiction I think is becoming more and more prevalent in today’s society, affecting people of all ages.” Just by being found guilty, he said, they face ruined lives, for both themselves and their families. “They need to stop it,” he said. “The men who are doing this are going to get caught.”
Prior related posts:
- Sixth Circuit finds substantively unreasonable a one-day of lock-up for child porn downloading
- District Judge at resentencing continues to resist federal child porn guidelines even after Sixth Circuit reversal
- "Should defendants’ age, health issues be sentencing factors?"
- Sixth Circuit panel, again, finds substantively unreasonable a non-prison sentence for child porn downloading in Bistline
Thursday, August 14, 2014
US Sentencing Commission finalizes its policy priorities for coming year
As detailed in this official press release, the "United States Sentencing Commission today unanimously approved its list of priorities for the coming year, including consideration of federal sentences for economic crimes and continued work on addressing concerns with mandatory minimum penalties." Here is more from the release:
The Commission once again set as its top priority continuing to work with Congress to implement the recommendations in its 2011 report on federal mandatory minimum penalties, which included recommendations that Congress reduce the severity and scope of some mandatory minimum penalties and consider expanding the “safety valve” statute which exempts certain low-level non-violent offenders from mandatory minimum penalties....
The Commission also set out its intention to consider potential changes to the guidelines resulting from its multi-year review of federal sentences for economic crimes. “For the past several years, we have been reviewing data and listening to key stakeholders to try to determine whether changes are needed in the way fraud offenses are sentenced in the federal system, particularly in fraud on the market cases,” Saris said. “We look forward to hearing more this year from judges, experts, victims, and other stakeholders on these issues and deciding whether there are ways the economic crime guidelines could work better.”
The Commission will continue to work on multi-year projects to study recidivism comprehensively, including an examination of the use of risk assessment tools in the criminal justice system. The Commission will also consider whether any amendments to the guidelines or statutory changes are appropriate to facilitate consistent and appropriate use of key sentencing terms including “crime of violence” and “drug trafficking offense.”
The Commission is undertaking new efforts this year to study whether changes are needed in the guidelines applicable to immigration offenses and whether structural changes to make the guidelines simpler are appropriate, as well as reviewing the availability of alternatives to incarceration, among other issues.
The official list of USSC priorities is available at this link, and I found these items especially noteworthy (in addition to the ones noted above):
(4) Implementation of the directive to the Commission in section 10 of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, Pub. L. 111–220 (enacted August 3, 2010) (requiring the Commission, not later than 5 years after enactment, to “study and submit to Congress a report regarding the 3 impact of the changes in Federal sentencing law under this Act and the amendments made by this Act”)....
(10) Beginning a multi-year effort to simplify the operation of the guidelines, including an examination of (A) the overall structure of the guidelines post-Booker, (B) cross references in the Guidelines Manual, (C) the use of relevant conduct in offenses involving multiple participants, (D) the use of acquitted conduct in applying the guidelines, and (E) the use of departures.
Wednesday, August 13, 2014
Noting the push for reforming the fraud federal sentencing guidelines
This lengthy new AP article, headlined "Sentencing Changes Sought for Business Crimes," discusses the on-going push to reform the federal sentencing guidelines for fraud offenses. Here are excerpts:
The federal panel that sets sentencing policy eased penalties this year for potentially tens of thousands of drug dealers. Now, defense lawyers and prisoner advocates are pushing for similar treatment for an arguably less-sympathetic category of defendants: swindlers, embezzlers, insider traders and other white-collar criminals.
Lawyers who have long sought the changes say a window to act opened once the U.S. Sentencing Commission cleared a major priority from its agenda by cutting sentencing ranges for nonviolent drug dealers. The commission, which meets Thursday to vote on priorities for the coming year, already has expressed interest in examining punishments for white-collar crime. And the Justice Department, though not advocating wholesale changes, has said it welcomes a review.
It's unclear what action the commission will take, especially given the public outrage at fraudsters who stole their clients' life savings and lingering anger over the damage inflicted by the 2008 financial crisis.
Sentencing guidelines are advisory rather than mandatory, but judges still rely heavily on them for consistency's sake. The discussion about revamping white-collar sentences comes as some federal judges have chosen to ignore the existing guidelines as too stiff for some cases and as the Justice Department looks for ways to cut costs in an overpopulated federal prison system....
The commission's action to soften drug-crime guidelines is a signal that the time is ripe, defense lawyers say. Just as drug sentences have historically been determined by the amount of drugs involved, white-collar punishments have been defined by the total financial loss caused by the crime. Advocates hope the commission's decision to lower sentencing guideline ranges for drug crimes, effectively de-emphasizing the significance of drug quantity, paves the way for a new sentencing scheme that removes some of the weight attached to economic loss.
A 2013 proposal from an American Bar Association task force would do exactly that, encouraging judges to place less emphasis on how much money was lost and more on a defendant's culpability. Under the proposal, judges would more scrupulously weigh less-quantifiable factors, including motive, the scheme's duration and sophistication, and whether the defendant actually stole money or merely intended to. The current structure, lawyers say, means bit players in a large fraud risk getting socked with harsh sentences despite playing a minimal role....
No one is seeking leniency for imprisoned financier Bernie Madoff, who's serving a 150-year sentence for bilking thousands of people of nearly $20 billion, or fallen corporate titans whose greed drove their companies into the ground. But defense lawyers are calling for a sentencing structure that considers the broad continuum of economic crime and that better differentiates between, for example, thieves who steal a dollar each from a million people versus $1 million from one person.
Any ambitious proposal will encounter obstacles. It's virtually impossible to muster the same public sympathy for white-collar criminals as for crack-cocaine defendants sentenced under old guidelines now seen as excessively harsh, which took a disproportionate toll on racial minorities. The drug-sentencing overhaul also was promoted as fiscally prudent, because drug offenders account for roughly half the federal prison population. Tea Party conservatives and liberal groups united behind the change.
In comparison, the clamor for changing white-collar guidelines has been muted. The Justice Department, already criticized for its paucity of criminal prosecutions arising from the financial crisis, has said it's open to a review but has not championed dramatic change. "I don't think there's a political will for really cutting back or retooling the guidelines," said Columbia University law professor Daniel Richman.
Tuesday, August 12, 2014
Eleventh Circuit finds probation sentence for public corruption substantively unreasonable
All federal sentencing fans and white-collar practitioners will want to be sure to check out a lengthy opinion today from the Eleventh Circuit in US v. Hayes, No. 11-13678 (11th Cir. Aug 12, 2014) (available here). This start to the majority opinion in Hayes highlights why the substance of the ruling is noteworthy:
“Corruption,” Edward Gibbon wrote more than two centuries ago, is “the most infallible symptom of constitutional liberty.” EDWARD GIBBON, THE HISTORY OF THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, Vol. II, Ch. XXI, at 805 (David Womersley ed., Penguin Classics 1995) . And so, although unfortunate, it is perhaps not surprising that, even today, people continue to pay bribes to government officials with the expectation that they will make decisions based on how much their palms have been greased, and not what they think is best for the constituents they serve.
In this criminal appeal involving corruption in Alabama’s higher education system, we consider whether the district court abused its discretion by imposing a sentence of three years of probation (with a special condition of six to twelve months of home confinement) on a 67-year-old business owner who — over a period of four years — doled out over $600,000 in bribes to a state official in order to ensure that his company would continue to receive government contracts, and whose company reaped over $5 million in profits as a result of the corrupt payments. For the reasons which follow, we hold that such a sentence was indeed unreasonable.
Adding to the fun and intrigue of the ruling, Judge Tjoflat has a dissent that runs almost twice as long as the extended majority opinion. Here is how it gets started (with footnotes omitted):
I fully agree with the court that the sentence of probation Hayes received in this case of massive public corruption is shockingly low and should not have been imposed. In appealing the sentence, the Government treats the District Court as the scapegoat, as if placing Hayes on probation was all the court’s doing. The truth is that it was the Government’s doing. To ensure that Hayes was given adequate credit for cooperating in its investigation, the Government deliberately led the District Court to abandon the Sentencing Guidelines, which called for a prison sentence of 135 to 168 months, and then to ignore the Supreme Court’s explicit instructions, in Gall v. United States, 552 U.S. 38, 128 S. Ct. 586, 169 L. Ed. 2d 445 (2007), on the procedure to use in fashioning an appropriate sentence. This set the stage for the court’s adoption of a fictitious Guideline range of 41 to 51 months and its creation of a downward variance to a sentence of probation.
In appealing Hayes’s sentence to this court, the Government deliberately avoids any discussion of the District Court’s procedural error. To the contrary, it accepts the fictitious Guideline range the court adopted. All it complains of is the variance from that fictitious range to a sentence of probation, arguing that it is substantively unreasonable. Because it invited the procedural error, which, in turn, led to the complained-of substantive error, the “invited error doctrine” precludes the Government from prevailing in this appeal. Yet the court fails to acknowledge that a procedural error has occurred. Instead, it assesses the substantive reasonableness of Hayes’s procedurally flawed sentence — something the Supreme Court prohibits — and thereby avoids the need to grapple with the Government’s invited error. I dissent from the court’s failure to invoke the doctrine and to send the Government hence without day.
In part I of this opinion, I briefly recount the facts giving rise to Hayes’s conviction and sentencing. In part II, I describe how the Guidelines are supposed to operate and will show how the Government and the District Court misapplied the Guidelines and set the stage for the sentence at issue. Part III outlines the role the courts of appeals play in reviewing a defendant’s sentence, pinpoints the procedural errors in this case, and explains why the invited error doctrine precludes the Government from capitalizing on its induced error and obtaining relief. Part IV concludes.
August 12, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack
Monday, July 28, 2014
Fascinating Fourth Circuit split over how federal sentencing problems should inform guideline interpretation
I just noticed a notable ruling by a split Fourth Circuit panel from late last week in US v. Valdovinos, No. 13-4768 (4th Cir. July 25, 2014) (available here). The precise legal issue concerning guideline interpretation in Valdovinos is not all that compelling, but how the judges dispute the right way to resolve the issue surely is. Here is how the panel majority opinion (running 18 pages) concludes:
For the foregoing reasons, we hold that North Carolina’s legislatively mandated sentencing scheme, not a recommended sentence hashed out in plea negotiations, determines whether an offender’s prior North Carolina conviction was punishable by more than a year in prison. Because Valdovinos’s offense of conviction was indeed punishable by imprisonment exceeding one year, it qualifies as a predicate felony under Section 2L1.2(b)(1)(B) of the Guidelines [thereby enhancing his sentence]. We appreciate the fervor and policy arguments of our friend in dissent. Indeed, we can agree with many of the latter. What we cannot agree with is that “application of relevant precedent” does not require the result here. Carachuri and Simmons do just that. The judgment of the district court is affirmed.
Here is how Judge Davis's remarkable dissenting opinion (running 30 pages) gets revved up and concludes (emphasis in the original):
Our disagreement as to the outcome in this case stems, I think, less over the content and application of relevant precedent and more from a fundamental disagreement regarding our role as arbiters of a flailing federal sentencing regime. Where, as here, we have been presented with a choice in how to interpret the interstices of federal sentencing law, and where one choice would exacerbate the harmful effects of over-20 incarceration that every cadre of social and political scientists (as well as an ever-growing cohort of elected and appointed officials, state and federal, as well as respected members of the federal judiciary) has recognized as unjust and inhumane, as well as expensive and ineffectual, this insight can and should inform our analysis. I deeply regret the panel’s failure to take advantage of the opportunity to do so here....
Here, in a tiny corner of the chaotic morass that is federal sentencing law, Mr. Valdovinos has offered us a measured approach, to a novel issue of federal sentencing law, that adheres to Supreme Court and our relevant circuit precedents and is consistent with our values. If accepted by this panel, his argument, which is surely more than merely “clever”, see ante, at 8, would affect a tiny number of federal cases drawing legal relevance from North Carolina’s historical (and now superseded) sentencing regime. And Mr. Valdovinos’s sentence in this case likely would be reduced to a bottom guideline of 15 months, instead of the bottom guideline sentence he received, 27 months. He’d soon be on his way home to Mexico, if not already arrived.
That the majority declines the opportunity to decide this case on the foundations discussed herein is regrettable, a choice that not only ignores the growing wisdom informed by widespread acknowledgement of our unjust federal sentencing jurisprudence, but actually hinders its progress. Would that my friends could see that it’s a new century, complete with a host of profound and valuable insights at our avail. I discern no compelling reason why, in the performance of our adjudicative responsibilities, which every member of the panel has unfailingly carried out to the best of our ability in this case and in full accordance with our solemn oath to “administer justice,” 28 U.S.C. § 453, we ought not to draw on these insights.
One of them is that sometimes, in our shared quest for justice under law, it requires so little of us to achieve so much. Respectfully, I dissent.
July 28, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
Tuesday, July 22, 2014
Within-guideline sentences remain below 50% according to latest quarterly USSC data
As reported in this post a few months ago, US Sentencing Commission First Quarter FY14 Quarterly Sentencing data included some big news: for the first time, less than half of all federal sentences imposed were technically "within-guideline" sentences. To be exact, in that quarter, only around 49% of the 18,169 sentences imposed were within-guideline sentences.
Today, the USSC released, via this document, its Second Quarter FY14 Quarterly Sentencing data, and it remains the case that a slight majority of federal sentences are being imposed outside the guidelines. But, as Table 4 on this latest data run reveals, this reality is partially a product of the fact that in the second quarter of FY14 there was a record-high percentage of above-guideline sentences (2.5%) and a record-high percentage of government-sponsored below-guideline sentences (28.6%). In this last quarter, notably, there was actually a small downtick in the number of below guideline sentences imposed by federal district judges (from 20.7% of all federal cases down to 20.1%).
As I have said before, I believe all the recent talk about the need for federal sentencing reform is likely finding expression in the way both federal prosecutors and federal judges are now using their sentencing discretion. The data from the last few quarters suggest that, as we hear ever more public policy groups and politicians on both the right and the left echoing AG Eric Holder's call for less reliance on long terms of incarceration, more federal prosecutors and federal judges feel ever more justified in seeking/imposing more sentences below the guidelines.
Monday, July 21, 2014
How many of nearly 50,000 federal prisoners need a lawyer to help with drug sentence reduction efforts? How many will get a lawyer?
The questions in the title of this post are my first "practical aftermath" questions in the wake of the US Sentencing Commission's big, important vote late Friday to make its new reduced drug offense guidelines fully retroactive (basics here). As hard-core federal sentencing fans likely already know, most lower federal courts have ruled that federal prisoners do not have a Sixth Amendment right to counsel applicable at the sentence modification proceedings judges must conduct to implement reduced retroactive sentencing guidelines. Consequently, none of the nearly 50,000 federal drug offense prisoners who may soon become eligible for a reduced sentence have any right to legal assistance in seeking this reduced sentence.
Fortunately for many federal prisoners seeking to benefit from previous guideline reductions, many federal public defender offices have traditionally made considerable efforts to provide representation to those seeking reduced sentences. But even the broadest guideline reductions applied retroactively in the past (which were crack guideline reductions) applied only to less than 1/3 of the number of federal prisoners now potentially eligible for reductions under the new reduced drug guidelines. I suspect that pubic defenders are unlikely to be able to provide significant legal help to a significant number of drug offenders who will be seeking modified sentences under the new reduced drug guidelines.
I raise this point not only to highlight the legal services need created by the USSC's big, important vote late Friday to make its new reduced drug offense guidelines fully retroactive, but also to wonder aloud whether lawyers who have been gearing up to help with clemency applications might be now usefully "detailed" to help with retroactive application of reduced drug sentences. In contrast to clemency petitions, in which legal arguments are somewhat less important than equitable claims, the proper application of new reduced drug offense guidelines can involve various legal issues that may really need to be addressed by sophisticated legal professionals.
Some recent related posts on reduced drug guideline retroactivity:
- Big US Sentencing Commission hearing on reduced drug guideline retroactivity
- DOJ advocates for "limited retroactivity of the pending drug guideline amendment"
- Commentary on drug guideline retroactivity asks "Who's Afraid of Too Much Justice?"
- US Sentencing Commission releases two significant research reports concerning drug sentencing reform and retroactivity
- Some new posts highlighting the "tough-on-crime" take on federal drugs sentencing reform
- Two thoughtful criticisms of DOJ's request for only limited retroactivity of proposed lower drug guidelines
- Huge reduced drug guideline retroactivity decision expected from US Sentencing Commission on 7/18
- USSC votes for full (though slightly delayed) retroactivity of new reduced drug guidelines
Friday, July 18, 2014
USSC votes for full (though slightly delayed) retroactivity of new reduced drug guidelines
I just received this early report via a credible source as to what the US Sentencing Commission did this afternoon on the issue of making its new lower guidelines retroactive:
The Commission just voted unanimously to make the "drugs minus 2" amendment retroactive with a single limitation -- no order reducing a sentence can take effect until Nov. 1, 2015. This is later than the Judicial Conference recommended (they proposed that it effect in May 2015 to give courts and probation time to prepare)....The Commission predicts that more than 46,000 will be eligible to seek a reduction. Part of the reason for the delayed effective date is to make sure each inmate is released with a re-entry plan and the opportunity for transitional steps such as halfway houses or home confinement.
UPDATE: Here is a link to the USSC's official press release about its vote, which starts this way:
The United States Sentencing Commission voted unanimously today at a public meeting to apply a reduction in the sentencing guideline levels applicable to most federal drug trafficking offenders retroactively, meaning that many offenders currently in prison could be eligible for reduced sentences beginning November 2015.
The Commission voted unanimously in April to amend the guidelines to lower the base offense levels in the Drug Quantity Table across drug types, which may mean lower sentences for most drug offenders going forward. Today the Commission decided that judges could extend that reduction to offenders currently in prison, but with a requirement that reduced sentences cannot take effect until November 1, 2015. Under the guidelines, no offender would be released unless a judge reviews the case to determine whether a reduced sentence poses a risk to public safety and is otherwise appropriate.
“This amendment received unanimous support from Commissioners because it is a measured approach,” said Judge Patti B. Saris, chair of the Commission. “It reduces prison costs and populations and responds to statutory and guidelines changes since the drug guidelines were initially developed, while safeguarding public safety.”
Congress has until November 1, 2014 to disapprove the amendment to reduce drug guidelines. Should Congress choose to let the guideline reductions stand, courts could then begin considering petitions from prisoners for sentence reductions, but no prisoners could be released pursuant to those reductions before November 1, 2015.
ANOTHER UPDATE: Here is a link to the official statement in response to this vote from AG Eric Holder, which runs this single paragraph:
“The department looks forward to implementing this plan to reduce sentences for certain incarcerated individuals. We have been in ongoing discussions with the Commission during its deliberations on this issue, and conveyed the department's support for this balanced approach. In the interest of fairness, it makes sense to apply changes to the sentencing guidelines retroactively, and the idea of a one-year implementation delay will adequately address public safety concerns by ensuring that judges have adequate time to consider whether an eligible individual is an appropriate candidate for a reduced sentence. At my direction, the Bureau of Prisons will begin notifying federal inmates of the opportunity to apply for a reduction in sentence immediately. This is a milestone in the effort to make more efficient use of our law enforcement resources and to ease the burden on our overcrowded prison system."
Thursday, July 17, 2014
Huge reduced drug guideline retroactivity decision expected from US Sentencing Commission on 7/18
As this official public notice reports, on July 18, 2014 at 1pm EDT, the US Sentencing the Commission will hold a public meeting at which "the Commissioners will vote on whether or not to retroactively apply, in whole or in part, [its recent guideline] amendment reducing the drug quantity table by two levels." At the risk of overstating the importance of this vote, I am inclined to assert that it may be the most practically consequential USSC decision in nearly a decade. The (slightly misleading) headlines of these two media discussions of the coming vote helps to highlight why:
It is likely hard for anyone who has not followed federal sentencing very closely for decades to fully appreciate all the dynamic challenges that this vote presents for the US Sentencing Commission (as well as for the US Department of Justice and for all those who work day-to-day the federal sentencing system). Helpfully, this extended BuzzFeed article by Evan McMorris-Santoro provide a primer on some of the issues swirling around this important USSC vote. The article's headline highlights its themes: "Despite Rhetoric, Obama Administration Pushes To Keep Thousands Of Felons In Jail Under Old Rules: The Justice Department announced major changes to the way federal drug crimes are punished this year. But the rules for existing convicts might be different — and many White House allies are angry."
Some recent related posts on reduced drug guideline retroactivity:
- Big US Sentencing Commission hearing on reduced drug guideline retroactivity
- DOJ advocates for "limited retroactivity of the pending drug guideline amendment"
- Commentary on drug guideline retroactivity asks "Who's Afraid of Too Much Justice?"
- US Sentencing Commission releases two significant research reports concerning drug sentencing reform and retroactivity
- Some new posts highlighting the "tough-on-crime" take on federal drugs sentencing reform
- Two thoughtful criticisms of DOJ's request for only limited retroactivity of proposed lower drug guidelines
July 17, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Monday, July 14, 2014
Are federal drug sentences for mules now too short?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable and fascinating new article in the New York Times headlined "Second Thoughts on Lighter Sentences for Drug Smugglers." Here are excerpts:
For years, a steady parade of drug smugglers have tried all sorts of ways to ferry contraband into the United States through Kennedy International Airport in Queens, posing a challenge not only to Customs and Border Protection officers, but also to federal prosecutors.
To avoid clogging up the court, the United States attorney’s office in Brooklyn has embraced a strategic approach that allows couriers to plead guilty and offer information in return for lighter sentences. The policy reflected a view among many prosecutors that the mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses — which require prison terms of five years and higher in these smuggling cases — were too harsh on defendants who were typically nonviolent and disadvantaged.
But in recent months, changes in drug sentencing have served to further lower punishments for these couriers. A year ago, drug couriers regularly faced three years in prison; now they might face guidelines starting at only a few months, or no prison time at all.
The changes are raising questions of whether the pendulum has swung too far. Some prosecutors say that couriers have little to no incentive to cooperate anymore. Border patrol officials grumble that they are working to catch smugglers, only to have them face little punishment. And judges who once denounced the harsh sentencing guidelines are now having second thoughts....
The debate over what constitutes a fair sentence for drug crimes has persisted for decades. Critics — many of them judges in this court — have said that sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum punishments had become hugely problematic. Nonviolent drug offenders, like couriers or people selling marijuana on the street, could face longer guideline sentences than an underground gun dealer. And until recently, possession of five grams of crack warranted a minimum five-year sentence. To get the same sentence for powdered cocaine possession, 500 grams would be required.
Various reforms have been instituted to address the inequities in sentencing. In 1994, a “safety valve” provision allowed nonviolent first offenders on drugs — which describes most couriers — to avoid mandatory minimums if they admitted to all prior criminal conduct. And in 2010, Congress passed legislation toward balancing the crack versus cocaine disparity....
In August, the United States attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., ordered prosecutors nationwide to charge couriers and other low-level drug offenders who met certain criteria in a way that did not result in mandatory-minimum sentences. (Guideline sentences must still be considered, but they are not mandatory.)
Then, in April, the United States Sentencing Commission voted to reduce sentencing guidelines for drug crimes by two points, or several months. The reduced guidelines go into effect in November, pending congressional approval, but prosecutors in many districts have agreed to apply them now.
The changes made things more difficult in Brooklyn, where prosecutors still wanted to give low-level couriers an incentive to avoid trials and to assist in prosecutions against larger drug distributors. Believing they had to further sweeten the deal, prosecutors agreed to give an additional four points off those reduced sentences for couriers who agreed to cooperate.
As a result, drug-courier defendants can now face sentencing guidelines that suggest no prison time.
My first reaction to this piece is to suggest that it's a nice change of pace for federal judges to now view at least some federal sentencing guidelines to be too lenient and that any problems this creates can and should be addressed through judicial discretion to sentence above the guidelines, case-by-case, as needed and appropriate. But I imagine this viewpoint is not very satisfying for federal prosecutors and investigators who depend on the threat of severe sentences to get mules to cooperate to their satisfaction.
For additional intriguing and diverse reactions to these intriguing new drug sentencing realities, check out these posts from other informed bloggers:
From Simple Justice here, "The Pendulum and the Mule"
From Hercules and the Umpire here, "Should Interstate 80 be treated like JFK airport in New York?"
Sunday, July 06, 2014
Interesting account of guidelines accounting facing former NOLA mayor at upcoming federal sentencing
This lengthy local article, headlined "Emotions aside, Nagin sentence likely to come down to math," effectively reviews some of the guideline (and other) factors likely to impact the federal sentencing of former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin this coming week. Here are excerpts:
Under the rules, Nagin starts with a base “offense level” of 20 because he was an elected official who took multiple bribes but otherwise has no criminal history — facts that, with the jury verdict, are now undisputed.
The other major factors that will add points to his offense level include the financial “loss” the court assigns to his actions, the court’s judgment as to whether he was an “organizer or leader” in “criminal activity” that involved at least five people, and whether Nagin is found to have obstructed justice by lying to investigators and to the court.
There is some gray area in all of these questions. For instance, the monetary loss can be calculated to include not only bribes paid and received, but also the proceeds of any contracts that resulted from bribes. At a minimum, however, Berrigan will almost certainly find that the loss was greater than $200,000, as the jury convicted Nagin of taking more than that amount in bribes. That would bring his offense level to 32, but it could go significantly higher depending on whether Berrigan decides to include the profits of some or all of the contracts Nagin signed....
Experts say the question of financial loss is among the thorniest in calculating guidelines. The amount of bribes paid is an imperfect measure, for contracts awarded on the basis of bribes are presumed to be inflated to cover the cost of the payoffs. At the same time, the contractor usually completes the work outlined in the contract, making it unfair to count the entire value of the contract as a loss. In Nagin’s trial, the government did not present evidence to show that those who bribed Nagin failed to perform....
Other questions are similarly nuanced. If Berrigan finds Nagin obstructed justice by lying to investigators and to the jury, as prosecutors say he did on more than 25 occasions, the offense level would jump another two points. And if she finds he took a leadership role in a scheme involving five or more people, that would add as many as four more points. Though it’s clear that Nagin’s criminal conduct involved more than five people, experts say there may be wiggle room in that question, too....
Depending on how the judge rules on those questions, Nagin’s final offense level could be as low as 32, or as high as 40 or more. Based on those numbers, the guidelines would call for a sentence ranging from 10 years at the low end to as much as 30 years or even life. A filing by Nagin’s lawyer, Robert Jenkins, suggests that probation officers came up with an offense level of 38, which translates to a range of 20 to 24 years.
Jenkins asked Berrigan to consider a downward departure from that figure based on Nagin’s lack of a criminal history and an argument that the crimes of which he was convicted constituted “aberrant” behavior for an otherwise upstanding citizen. But prosecutor Matt Coman argued in an opposing motion that the guidelines already take into account the mayor’s unblemished past, which they do. Meanwhile, Coman said it was laughable to consider Nagin’s criminal conduct as an aberration, considering that he was convicted of multiple bribery and fraud schemes that unfolded over a period of years....
Apart from applying her own analysis of the guidelines, Berrigan also has some ability to go outside the recommended range, experts said. She could grant a “downward variance” on some basis she deems appropriate, provided that she explains it and the variance is not too great. Federal law spells out a number of factors a judge may consider, from the need to protect the public from further crimes to the deterrent effect of the sentence.
Sunday, June 29, 2014
Yet more ACCA messiness out of Maryland
I noted in this post last week this lengthy Baltimore Sun article discussing how the multi-dimensional jurisprudential mess that is application of the Armed Career Criminal Act is messing with federal courts in Maryland. Now this new Baltimore Sun article, headlined "Federal appeals court ruling could lead to more reduced sentences; Court rules that Maryland burglary convictions should not be used to increase sentences," reviews the latest chapter to rhis saga courtesy of the Fourth Circuit. Here are the basics:
A federal appeals court ruling could add to the number of inmates with legal grounds to seek reduced sentences because of a shifting interpretation of sentencing guidelines and what constitutes a violent crime. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated last week a 3.5-year sentence for Jose Herbert Henriquez, an El Salvadoran who pleaded guilty to illegally re-entering the United States. The lengthy sentence was based in part on a previous burglary conviction.
"A Maryland conviction of first-degree burglary cannot constitute a crime of violence," Judge James A. Wynn Jr. wrote for the majority, remanding the case to a lower court for Henriquez to be resentenced.
The finding follows a Supreme Court decision that gave judges new instructions on how to determine which state laws should count as violent. That finding and a subsequent appeals case has led to dozens of federal inmates from Maryland challenging their sentences, and Wynn's decision raises the possibility of further challenges.
Prosecutors say the technical rulings threaten to undermine efforts to impose long sentences and keep the public safe, but inmate advocates say prisoners who have been unjustly locked away for too long are finding hope in the string of court victories....
The federal sentencing guidelines call for longer sentences in unlawful re-entry cases for defendants previously convicted of a violent crime. Among those crimes, the guidelines include "burglary of a dwelling." Maryland's first-degree burglary law defines the crime as breaking into a dwelling with the intent to commit a crime of violence or a theft.
Wynn, joined by other 4th Circuit judges, found that Maryland law does not sufficiently define dwelling to ensure it's in keeping with a Supreme Court ruling that burglary only includes breaking into a building — and not, for example, a houseboat or an RV.
The Fourth Circuit ruling in US v. Henriquez, No. 13-4238 (4th Cir. June 27, 2014), is available here.
Recent related post: