Tuesday, September 24, 2013
Through the Guideline looking glass, where a prior misdemeanor is really an "aggravated felony"An oft-quoted passage from the famous Lewis Carroll novel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There came to mind as I was reading a recent Fifth Circuit's sentencing ruling. Here is the passage I have in mind:
This first paragraph from the unanimous panel ruling in United States v. Ramirez, No. 13-10473 (5th Cir. Sept. 23, 2013) (available here), should make plain why this literary reference seems apt:
"When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master — that's all."
Efrain Hernandez Ramirez pled guilty to one count of illegal reentry following removal and at his sentencing, the district court applied an eight-level enhancement based on a prior conviction for an aggravated felony. The aggravated felony in question was a New York state misdemeanor conviction for third-degree sexual abuse of a fifteen-year-old girl. Ramirez appeals, arguing that his misdemeanor conviction cannot be an aggravated felony. For the following reasons, we AFFIRM.
Wednesday, September 18, 2013
US Attorney defends fraud guidelines while others urge reform in USSC eventToday notable events in the federal sentencing reform arena were not confined only to today's U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on federal mandatory minimums (discussed here and here). Also starting today was a two-day event in NYC in which the U.S. Sentencing Commission is discussing potential reform to the federal fraud guidelines. This Reuters report, headlined "U.S. prosecutor cautions against white-collar sentencing revamp," provides a few notable highlights from the events in NYC:
The U.S. Justice Department opposes a wholesale revamping of white-collar criminal sentences that defense lawyers and some judges have urged, a top federal prosecutor said on Wednesday.
But Melinda Haag, the U.S. attorney in San Francisco, said the department was open to limited changes in white-collar sentencing that could reduce sentences in some fraud cases. The comments came as the U.S. Sentencing Commission is weighing revisions to advisory sentencing guidelines used by judges for securities, healthcare, mortgage and other fraud offenses.
Defense lawyers, the American Bar Association, some judges and others have criticized the guidelines, saying they emphasize financial losses caused by crime over all other factors, sometimes resulting in sentences that are too severe.
Haag, speaking at a symposium on white-collar sentencing in New York, said the Justice Department believes the current guidelines "result in tough but fair sentences in the vast majority of the cases." But she suggested that the department may be open to some changes, saying certain categories of cases, such as securities cases involving frauds on the market, warrant "careful study" by the commission. "Despite our questions and concerns, however, we do agree that in some cases, loss may overstate the seriousness of the offense," Haag said.
A growing number of judges have imposed terms less than prescribed by the guidelines, which became advisory rather than mandatory following a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2005.
U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska, sitting on a panel with Haag, cited the case of Joseph Collins, a former partner at the law firm Mayer Brown, who was convicted for his role in a fraud at commodities broker Refco Inc. With losses calculated at $2.4 billion, Preska said under the guidelines Collins faced life in prison. She instead sentenced him in July to a year in prison, citing his community service and the fact he didn't financially benefit from the scheme. "This was absurd, absolutely absurd," she said.
Haag said the Justice Department recognized there "may be issues in some high-loss cases." But she said the department didn't believe a wholesale change was needed to the fraud sentencing guidelines or the loss table used to calculate sentences. She said it was a relatively small number of cases that had caused judicial concern. Citing commission statistics, she said 54 percent of economic crime cases involve less than $120,000 in losses and 83 percent involve less than $1 million.
Haag also argued that in some big cases involving investment fraud like Ponzi schemes, judges "don't seem to hesitate in imposing lengthy prison terms, noting the devastation these fraud schemes wreak on other people and the greed that motivated most of the defendants before them."...
In the last 18 months, federal prosecutors have handled investment fraud cases involving 800 defendants and more than $20 billion, she said. For the FBI, investment fraud is now 60 percent of its white-collar case load, she said.
Nonetheless, she said "certain categories of cases warrant careful study by the commission and potentially narrowly tailored amendments" to the fraud sentencing guidelines. Among the suggestions she gave would be for the Sentencing Commission to review how the guidelines treat loss in certain securities fraud cases where a drop in stock value by a few dollars per share can turn into a billion dollar loss.
Friday, September 13, 2013
Corporate official gets above-guideline sentence for conspiracy to hide safety violationsA helpful reader alerted me to this federal sentencing story from West Virginia which provides a useful reminder that federal judges sometimes use their increased post-Booker sentencing discretion to impose sentences above recommended guideline ranges (and may do so even for a defendant who has pleaded guilty and cooperating with authorities). Here are the notable particulars from a lengthy article about a notable white-collar sentencing that followed a high-profile workplace disaster:
A former longtime Massey Energy official will spend 3 1/2 years in prison for his admitted role in a decade-long conspiracy to hide safety violations from federal safety inspectors. David C. Hughart, 54, of Crab Orchard, was sentenced Tuesday afternoon to 42 months in jail and three years of supervised release after he pleaded guilty to two federal charges as part of an ongoing federal probe of Massey's safety practices.
U.S. District Judge Irene Berger ordered Hughart to serve a full year more than the high end of the 24- to 30-month recommended under advisory federal sentencing guidelines. The judge said the stiffer sentence was needed to account for the safety risks Hughart's crimes created and to serve as a warning to other mining officials not to put production before safety. "This sentence will promote respect for the law," Berger said.
The Hughart sentencing is another step forward as U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin and his top assistant, Steve Ruby, continue what is likely the largest criminal investigation of a coal-mine disaster in modern times. The probe started with the deaths of 29 miners on April 5, 2010, in an explosion at Massey's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, and has so far prompted four convictions and expanded well beyond Upper Big Branch....
Hughart is cooperating with prosecutors, having pleaded guilty to one felony count of conspiracy to defraud the government by thwarting U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration inspections and one misdemeanor count of conspiracy to violate MSHA standards.
During a plea hearing in February, Hughart had implicated former Massey CEO Don Blankenship in the conspiracy, and Hughart's family has said Hughart is being wrongly scapegoated while Blankenship and other top Massey executives have faced no criminal charges. "He was a slave to this industry, and Don Blankenship will never see the inside of a courtroom," Hughart's son, Jonathan Hughart, told reporters after Tuesday's sentencing hearing.
Through his lawyer, Blankenship has denied any wrongdoing. And on his blog, Blankenship has said Hughart lied about him and was fired from Massey for drug use and stealing from the company.
Prosecutors have said that former executives and board members of Massey "may be, or may become" targets in the ongoing federal criminal investigation....
Earlier Tuesday, Hughart's $10,000 personal recognizance bond was revoked by U.S. Magistrate Judge R. Clarke VanDervort after Hughart was arrested on Aug. 30 on charges of possession of painkillers and anti-anxiety medication without a valid prescription. Hughart's bond required him to comply with all local, state and federal laws....
While Hughart hasn't been convicted of the drug charges, the arrest increased his recommended sentence under federal advisory guidelines by nine months. Hughart's lawyer, Michael R. Whitt, had urged Berger to issue a lighter sentence, arguing that Hughart's crimes could not be linked to any mining injury -- let alone to the Upper Big Branch Disaster -- and that his client was caught up in the "corporate culture" at Massey.
Whitt told Berger that Hughart's life has been ruined, with him going from an affluent lifestyle and a six-figure mine official salary to losing his home and becoming essentially destitute. "I think he has the message already," Whitt said. "He already knows without spending another day in jail."
Prosecutors, though, had asked for a stiff sentence, noting the "risk to human life and health" created by the conspiracies that Hughart participated in at Massey. "The defendant risked the lives and health of hundreds of coal miners," Ruby told Berger during Tuesday's hearing.
Previously in the Upper Big Branch probe, a former miner at the operation, Thomas Harrah, was sentenced to 10 months in jail after he admitted to faking a foreman's license when he performed key mine safety examinations at the mine between January 2008 and August 2009, and then lied to investigators about his actions.
Berger sentenced a former Upper Big Branch security director, Hughie Elbert Stover, to 36 months in jail after Stover was convicted of two felonies: making a false statement and obstructing the government probe of the mine disaster.
And in January, the judge sentenced former Upper Big Branch superintendent Gary May to 21 months in jail and a $20,000 fine after he pleaded guilty to plotting to skirt safety rules and cover up the resulting hazards....
During Tuesday's hearing, Hughart apologized for his actions and told Berger he had learned from his early days as a miner that "advance notice" of inspections was the way things were done. "I accepted that as the practice, and I understand now it is a serious issue, and it is against the law," Hughart said.
Berger noted previous evidence in the Upper Big Branch cases that suggested MSHA inspectors knew about -- and perhaps even cooperated with -- mine operators having pre-inspection notice. "Advance notice was apparently a common practice in the industry," Berger said. "It's difficult to believe that the only people who were unaware of these practices were the MSHA inspectors."
Terry Ellison, whose brother, Steve Harrah, died at Upper Big Branch, attended Tuesday's court proceedings. "I came for the 29 miners," Ellison said. "I don't want them to be forgotten. There was no reason they should have been killed that day."
September 13, 2013 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack
Thursday, September 12, 2013
US Sentencing Commission releases more documents in its great new "Quick Facts" seriesI am so very pleased to see and to be able to report that the US Sentencing Commission is continuing to produce a steady stream of documents as part of its terrific new series of reader-friendly "Quick Facts" publications. (Regular readers may recall from this prior post that the USSC describes these publications as a way to "give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format.)
As I have said before, I think this is a very valuable new innovation coming from the USSC, and I have already learned a lot and benefited greatly from these latest two publications in the series:
- Marijuana Trafficking Offenses (September 2013)
- Methamphetamine Trafficking Offenses (September 2013)
September 12, 2013 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
Tuesday, September 10, 2013
You be the federal sentencing judge: "Newlywed Admits to Pushing Husband off Cliff"The title of this post is drawn from the headline of this notable new local "real crime" story that is all the buzz this morning in lots of national media outlets. Based on the reported facts reprinted below, I am very interested in hearing reader instincts about what might be a fitting federal punishment for this killer bride (who is in federal custody because she committed her crime at a national park):
The wife of a 25-year-old Kalispell man, who was found dead in Glacier National Park in July, is now charged with his murder. Jordan Linn Graham, 22, appeared in federal court in Missoula on Monday on a charge of second degree murder in the death of her husband, Cody Lee Johnson.
Court documents allege the newlywed wife pushed her husband off a cliff in Glacier National Park during an argument just a week after they were married. Charging documents reveal Jordan Linn Graham told a friend she was having second thoughts about getting married to Cody Lee Johnson. Graham then told her friend she intended to discuss the matter with Johnson that night, Sunday, July 7. She followed up with a text message that read, "But dead serious. If you don't hear from me at all again tonight, something happened."
The next day, Monday, July 8, Johnson was reported missing when he failed to show up for work. Around 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, July 11, a Glacier National Park ranger was dispatched to the Lake Mcdonald Camp Store for a visitor reporting a dead body. The affidavit states that Graham was identified as the person who told the ranger she found a dead body.
Johnson's body was recovered the next day below a popular viewpoint on the Going-to-the-Sun Road called "The Loop." Graham was interviewed by FBI special agents on July 16, which was nearly one week after the disappearance of her new husband. It was then that she admitted to law enforcement that she lied about Johnson's death.
She told the FBI agent she and her husband were arguing on July 7 as they walked the Loop Trail. Documents say at one point, she turned to walk away, but Johnson grabbed her arm. Graham said she turned around and removed his hand from her arm. She went on to say that "she could have just walked away, but due to her anger, she pushed Johnson with both hands in the back and as a results, he fell face first off the cliff." During an initial interview with law enforcement, Graham said that Johnson left the house late with friends in a dark-colored car late on the night in question.
Graham faces a federal charge of second degree murder. If convicted, she could face life in prison.
The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines provide a base offense level of 38 for second-degree murder in section 2A1.2, which corresponds to an advisory guideline sentencing range of just under 20 to 25 years (assuming no significant criminal history). But I would expect a guilty plea here which alone, thanks to an acceptance of responsibility downward adjustment, could reduce the advisory range to 14 to 18 years. That said, the defendant's prior lies about the crime could lead to an obstruction of justice enhancement, and it is especially interesting to consider whether federal prosecutors could or should also argue for another offense level upward adjustment here based on abuse of a position of private trust.
Of course, the defendant might be able to secure a guilty plea to only a voluntary or involuntary manslaughter charge, which could and would alone dramatically reduce the applicable guideline sentence range (as evidenced here and here), perhaps even to a guideline level so low that the advisory range might even permit a within-guideline sentence involving an alternative to incarceration. And, of course, with the federal sentencing guidelines only advisory, a federal sentencing judge could surely develop under various 3553(a) factors various arguments to justify a sentence perhaps as high as life and as low as straight probation.
Though I am not teaching my upper-level sentencing course until next semester, I sincerely hope (and somewhat expect) that this case will stay in federal court and stay in the headlines for some time. As the discussion above is meant to highlights, this case serves as an interesting and accessible example of just how much discretionary sentencing play there is in the "joints" of the modern federal sentencing system for both litigants and judges.
UPDATE: The FBI affidavit which provided the basis for charges in this case is now available via this link.
September 10, 2013 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (22) | TrackBack
Friday, September 06, 2013
"McSentencing: Mass Federal Sentencing and the Law of Unintended Consequences"The title of this post is the title of this provocative new paper by Melissa Hamilton now available via SSRN. And this abstract suggests the content of the article is as delicious as the title:
The law of unintended consequences conjectures that any legislative act will yield unanticipated, and likely undesirable, outcomes. Federal sentencing law is no exception. Federal sentencing reforms enacted in the 1980s were designed to achieve uniformity and proportionality in meting out punishments. Congress expected that the creation of a presumptive guidelines system and the frequent imposition of mandatory minimum sentencing laws would effectively operate to provide federal judges with a consistent and uniform set of rules to follow, while substantially curbing judicial discretion. The emergent sentencing system relies substantially on a mechanized system of assembly-line justice in which judges are demoted to merely terminal actors in issuing sentences. This Article posits that the system is a form of McDonaldization of society, a popular concept that recognizes the model of fast food consumerism is an ideal type of the bureaucratization of a modern rational system in America today. The federal sentencing system is intended by the reform legislation to comprise a sort of McSentencing in that the outputs — sentences — are produced through an automated process involving discrete quantifications of harm. The result is mass sentencing based on an extensive and refined rules and procedures manual, i.e., the guidelines, and relevant mandatory minimums.
As with the fast food chain, McSentencing offers such benefits as predictability, calculability, efficiency, and control. Theoretically, McSentencing should beget consistent, uniform, and normative punishments. Yet, as with any rational system, unintended consequences necessarily follow purposive legislative action. This Article explains how the federal sentencing system earns the McSentencing label and then addresses significant unanticipated consequences which have ensued. The actors in the proposed assembly-line of sentencing — the sentencing commission, prosecutors, probation officers, judges — have reacted to the reforms and to each other in ways that have biased the ability for the sentencing reforms to achieve the intended objectives. The federal sentencing system is in crisis as a result. This Article offers a unique perspective by utilizing the theoretical constructs of McDonaldization and the law of unintended consequences as orienting devices for a case study on federal sentencing law. Statistical measures derived from various government datasets supplement the analysis with empirical perspectives.
Tuesday, August 27, 2013
In praise of the US Sentencing Commission's new "Quick Facts" series
I am very pelased to see and to be able to report that the US Sentencing Commission has launched a notable new series of reader-friendly publications. This posting from the USSC's webpage explains:
The Commission presents a new publication series called "Quick Facts." These publications will give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format.
I think this is a terrific new innovation coming from the USSC, and I have already learned a few things from these first two publications in the series:
Thursday, August 15, 2013
How should the US Sentencing Commission's priorities and work be impacted by AG Holder's recent sentencing speech and actions?
The question in the title of this post is prompted in part by the fact that, as I write this post, the US Sentencing Commission is in the midst of a formal public meeting in DC which has as its final agenda item "Vote on Final Policy Priorities for 2013–2014." It is also motivated by the fact that the Attorney General Eric Holder's potent remarks to the ABA earlier this week, covered lots of federal sentencing ground, made the profound claim that our "criminal justice system ... is in too many respects broken," ordered lots of sentencing-focused reforms to the policies and practices of federal prosecutors, and yet did not make a single mention of the U.S. Sentencing Commission (though he did reference a bit of USSC research).
The USSC has usefully posted on this helpful webpage many of the informed and copious comments it received over the summer, and that includes this detailed 18-page letter to the Commission from AG Holder's Department of Justice which actually previewed back in July many of the themes and ideas stressed in AG Holder's speech. (That USSC page also has posted my own little four-page contribution discussing what I think should now be priorities for the Commission.)
But, of course, all the July comments sent to the US Sentencing Commission came before Holder's big speech a few days ago. And I am certain my own recommendations to the USSC might have been at least stated somewhat differently if I had the AG's text and policy changes in hand when I authored them. More broadly, I suspect lots of different folks may have lots of different views about just how the USSC ought to consider and respond to what AG Holder did and said earlier this week. I would really like to hear some of these views in the comments.
Some recent and older related posts about AG Holder's speech the new federal politics of sentencing:
- "With Holder In The Lead, Sentencing Reform Gains Momentum"
- AG Holder to announce new charging policies to avoid some drug mandatories
- More reporting on (and now seeking reactions to) AG Holder's big sentencing speech
- Some sentencing-related highlights from AG Holder's remarks today to the ABA
- Key follow-up documents from AG Holder's big sentencing speech
- Shouldn't AG Holder's speech impact federal judges at sentencing ... such as Jesse Jackson Jr.'s?
- Lots of (mostly positive) reactions to AG Holder's big sentencing speech
UPDATE: Following its public meeting today, the USSC released this press release which starts this way: "The United States Sentencing Commission today unanimously voted on its list of priorities for the coming year, including consideration of federal drug sentences and continued work on addressing concerns with mandatory minimum penalties." Here is more from the release:
The Commission 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 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 as an important new priority reviewing the sentencing guidelines applicable to drug offenses, including consideration of changing the guideline levels based on drug quantities. Drug offenders account for nearly half of all federal inmates, and an adjustment to the Drug Quantity Tables in the sentencing guidelines could have a significant impact on sentence lengths and prison populations.
“With a growing crisis in federal prison populations and budgets, it is timely and important for us to examine mandatory minimum penalties and drug sentences, which contribute significantly to the federal prison population,” Judge Patti Saris, Chair of the Commission, said. “These reviews are key components of the Commission’s ongoing work to further the goals of the Sentencing Reform Act that the federal sentencing scheme and the guidelines be flexible, certain, and fair.”
The Commission noted in its priorities a focus on fulfilling its statutory mandate to work to reduce overcapacity in federal prisons. “The Commission is looking forward to a serious and thoughtful reconsideration of some of the sentencing guidelines which most strongly impact the federal criminal justice system,” Judge Saris said. “I am glad that members of Congress from both parties and the Attorney General are engaged in similar efforts.”...
The Commission annually identifies policy priorities in accordance with its statutory authority and responsibility to periodically review, analyze, and revise federal sentencing guidelines. The Commission published tentative priorities and invited public comment in May and received more than 14,000 letters of public comment in response.
Thursday, August 01, 2013
Senators Durbin and Lee come together to introduce "Smarter Sentencing Act"As reported via this press release from the offices of Senator Dick Durbin, another notable pair of Senators from the two parties have put aside other differences to come together to support and promote federal sentencing reform. (Since the press release comes from Senator Durbin's office, I have Senator Lee's picture posted.) Here are the basics:
With federal prison populations skyrocketing and nearly half of the nation’s federal inmates serving sentences for drug offenses, Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-IL), Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) have introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act, to modernize our drug sentencing polices by giving federal judges more discretion in sentencing those convicted of non-violent offenses. Making these incremental and targeted changes could save taxpayers billions in the first years of enactment.
“Mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses have played a huge role in the explosion of the U.S. prison population,” Durbin said. “Once seen as a strong deterrent, these mandatory sentences have too often been unfair, fiscally irresponsible and a threat to public safety. Given tight budgets and overcrowded prison cells, judges should be given the authority to conduct an individualized review in sentencing certain drug offenders and not be bound to outdated laws that have proven not to work and cost taxpayers billions.”
“Our current scheme of mandatory minimum sentences is irrational and wasteful,” Lee said. “By targeting particularly egregious mandatory minimums and returning discretion to federal judges in an incremental manner, the Smarter Sentencing Act takes an important step forward in reducing the financial and human cost of outdated and imprudent sentencing polices.”
The United States has seen a 500 percent increase in the number of inmates in federal custody over the last 30 years, in large part due to the increasing number and length of certain federal mandatory sentences. Mandatory sentences, particularly drug sentences, can force a judge to impose a one-size-fits-all sentence without taking into account the details of an individual case. Many of these sentences have disproportionately affected minority populations and helped foster deep distrust of the criminal justice system.
This large increase in prison populations has also put a strain on our prison infrastructure and federal budgets. The Bureau of Prisons is nearly 40 percent over capacity and this severe overcrowding puts inmates and guards at risk. There is more than 50 percent overcrowding at high-security facilities. This focus on incarceration is also diverting increasingly limited funds from law enforcement and crime prevention to housing inmates. It currently costs nearly $30,000 to house just one federal inmate for a year. There are currently more than 219,000 inmates in federal custody, nearly half of them serving sentences for drug offenses.
The bipartisan Durbin-Lee-Leahy bill is an incremental approach that does not abolish any mandatory sentences. Rather, it takes a studied and modest step in modernizing drug sentencing policy by:
• Modestly expanding the existing federal “safety valve”....
• Promoting sentencing consistent with the bipartisan Fair Sentencing Act: The bipartisan Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 – which was authored by Senator Durbin and unanimously passed the Senate before it was signed into law – reduced a decades-long sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses. Unfortunately, because of the timing of their sentences, some individuals are still serving far-too-lengthy sentences that Congress has already determined are unjust and racially disparate. The Smarter Sentencing Act allows certain inmates sentenced under the pre-Fair Sentencing Act sentencing regime to petition for sentence reductions consistent with the Fair Sentencing Act and current law....
• Increasing individualized review for certain drug sentences: The Smarter Sentencing Act lowers certain drug mandatory minimums, allowing judges to determine, based on individual circumstances, when the harshest penalties should apply. The Act does not repeal any mandatory minimum sentences and does not lower the maximum sentences for these offenses....
The bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act is supported by faith leaders from the National Association of Evangelicals to the United Methodist Church. It is supported by groups and individuals including Heritage Action, Justice Fellowship of Prison Fellowship Ministries, the ACLU, Grover Norquist, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the NAACP, the Sentencing Project, Open Society Policy Center, the American Bar Association, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the Constitution Project, Drug Policy Alliance, Brennan Center for Justice, and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
I am going to need to see the text of this new bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act before opining about whether it is a terrific reform proposal or just a very good one. But, even without seeing the specifics, I can note and praise the willingness and ability for these Senators, who likely do not agree on too many issues, coming together to give effect to their shared view that the federal sentencing system need to be made smarter.
Some recent and older related posts about the new federal politics of sentencing:
- "Right on Crime: The Conservative Case for Reform" officially launches
- "NAACP, right-wing foes get friendly" when it comes to prison costs
- "Conservatives latch onto prison reform"
- NAACP head recognizes Tea Party favors some progressive criminal justice reforms (and sometimes more than Democrats)
- "Prison-Sentence Reform: A bill to give judges flexibility to impose shorter sentences deserves conservatives’ support."
- Wall Street Journal pitch for the Prez to get behind the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013
- Justice Safety Valve Act gets bipartisan introduction in House of Representatives
- "Bipartisan Legislation To Give Judges More Flexibility For Federal Sentences Introduced"
- Rand Paul begins forceful pitch in campaign against federal mandatory minimums
- Another notable GOP member of Congress advocating for federal sentencing reform
- "As Prisons Squeeze Budgets, GOP Rethinks Crime Focus"
- Could significant federal criminal justice reforms become more likely if the GOP wins Senate in 2014?
August 1, 2013 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (20) | TrackBack
Thursday, July 25, 2013
Waaaaay below federal guideline prison sentences (but big fines) for UBS bid-riggersAs reported in this Wall Street Journal, headlined "US set back on bid-rig sentencing," a federal district judge in NYC yesterday handed down a set of white-collar sentences that were far below calculated guideline ranges and far below the sentences being sought by federal prosecutors. Here are the details:
US District Judge Kimba Wood of the Southern District of New York handed Peter Ghavami, the former co-head of UBS' municipal-bond reinvestment and derivatives desk, an 18-month sentence. Prosecutors had sought at least 17½ years and as long as 21 years, 10 months for Ghavami, who also served as the Swiss bank's head of commodities at one point.
The much harsher sentence proposed by the government would have been longer than the 11-year term given in 2011 to Galleon hedge-fund founder Raj Rajaratnam for his insider-trading conviction.
But Judge Wood, a one-time nominee to become US attorney general who also sentenced former Drexel Burnham Lambert executive Michael Milken to 10 years in prison, raised questions about the government's method of calculating losses in the case, which it had pegged at about $25 million.
She also praised Ghavami's "admirable history" and noted that he faces other penalties including a $1 million fine and deportation to Belgium, where he is a citizen. Because Ghavami, 45 years old, is not a US citizen, he also has to serve in a "low security" prison instead of a "miminum security" camp.
One of Ghavami's former colleagues, Gary Heinz, 40, a former vice president on UBS' municipal-bond reinvestment desk, was given a 27-month sentence Wednesday, while Michael Welty, 49, another former vice president, got 16 months. Prosecutors had asked for at least 19½ years for Heinz and about 11 years or more for Welty.
Last summer, a New York jury found the three former UBS employees guilty of leading a scheme that caused municipalities to pay millions of dollars more for bond deals than they needed to pay. The case dealt with an obscure corner of the bond market in which local governments raise money from investors through bond deals, then invest the proceeds in investment products that banks and others are supposed to sell in a competitive process....
In the UBS bond-rigging case however, prosecutors sought stiff penalties for actions that took place before the financial crisis, from 2001 to 2006. The three former UBS employees caused cities, states and other municipalities to lose $25 million, the government alleged. "For years, these executives corrupted the competitive bidding process and defrauded municipalities," said Scott D. Hammond, deputy assistant attorney general in the Antitrust Division's criminal-enforcement program, in a statement.....
"We're extremely pleased with the sentence," said Charles Stillman, a lawyer for Ghavami. Ghavami intends to start serving his sentence as soon as possible, instead of waiting to see how his appeal of the case turns out, Stillman added. Ghavami's fine of $1 million was five times greater than the maximum suggested by the government.
Heinz and Welty were fined $400,000 and $300,000, respectively, both more than the government suggested. Marc Mukasey, Heinz's lawyer, said "We're happy that the government's outrageous sentencing request was soundly rejected." Welty's lawyer, Gregory Poe, said that the jury acquitted Welty of wire fraud and said he will appeal the conspiracy convictions, and "we hope to clear his name." He added that his client is grateful that Judge Wood rejected the government's sentencing position.
Over the past half-decade, the Justice Department has pursued the muni-bond cases as part of an effort to punish Wall Street banks for shortchanging cities and states. Prosecutors have enjoyed some victories, so far gathering six convictions and 13 guilty pleas. Several were sentenced before Wednesday, with prison terms ranging from six months to four years. Firms affected by the investigation have paid $745 million in restitution, penalties and disgorgement....
It remains to be seen whether this week's sentencing setback will affect the government's strategy in the other pending sentencing hearings. Two former JP Morgan Chase. employees, two former Bank of America employees and three others involved with the case await sentencing. One case remains pending and awaiting trial.
Last year, three former employees of General Electric were convicted for their roles in conspiracies related to bidding for municipal-bond-proceeds reinvestment. Two were sentenced in October to three years in prison and the third received a four-year term.
At the hearing Wednesday, prosecutors argued that the former UBS officials deserved more prison time than the former GE employees, while Judge Wood said she didn't see the cases as that different. She also expressed doubt that anyone could accurately quantify losses in cases where the bidding process had been corrupted. In the case of the three UBS officials sentenced Wednesday, federal prosecutors also sought fines of $20,000 to $250,000 in the case. Prosecutors called their actions a "sophisticated financial fraud" that went on for years and "victimised municipalities and other bond issuers".
There are obviously lots of interesting aspects to this sentencing story. I am especially eager to praise Judge Wood for using big financial penalties — which make the government money and seem especially fitting for crimes of greed — while refusing to use big imprisonment terms — which cost the government money and seem unlikely to impact public safety for non-violent white-collar criminals. Relatedly, given that this article suggests that all other comparable big-rigging defendants have received sentences ranging from 6 to 48 months, I find stunning and deeply troubling that federal prosecutors were advocating in these cases for sentences ranging from more than 130 months to 260 months. Nice effort to avoid unwarranted sentencing disparities via your advocacy here, DOJ. (Not!)
July 25, 2013 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Wednesday, July 24, 2013
"Critical Analysis of Acquitted Conduct Sentencing in the U.S.: 'Kafka-Esque', 'Repugnant', 'Uniquely Malevolent' and 'Pernicious'?"The title of this post is the title of this paper recently posted on SSRN and authored by Orhun Hakan Yalincak. Here is the abstract:
The use of acquitted at sentencing is a highly contested practice in sentencing theory and policy. In federal court and many state courts across the United States, once a defendant is convicted, judges are routinely permitted, in fact, required to increase a defendant’s sentence based on relevant conduct, of which he was acquitted at trial, or conduct for which he was never charged. This essay highlights the issues that arise from the use of acquitted conduct sentencing under the now advisory U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. The use of acquitted conduct under the relevant conduct provisions of the Guidelines has resulted in substantially longer prison sentences with a disparate impact on racial and ethnic minorities. Acquitted conduct sentencing treats the offence admitted by a defendant, or proven to a judge or jury’s satisfaction beyond a reasonable doubt as simply a starting point in calculating a defendant’s sentence; the modified real offense approach, which incorporates relevant conduct and mandates consideration of acquitted conduct, determines the end sentence.
This essay concludes that use of acquitted conduct should be prohibited both on constitutional and normative grounds. While it is outside the scope of this essay to offer a comprehensive solution or alternative to the use of acquitted conduct at sentencing, the key observation is that, since the common thread linking the constitutional and normative issues arise from the fragmented nature of U.S. sentencing policy, the solution must start with re-conceptualizing the theories underlying sentencing in the U.S.
Tuesday, July 23, 2013
Second Circuit finds stat max white-collar sentences procedurally unreasonableThe Second Circuit panel has today handed down a significant reasonableness ruling in US v. Juncal, No. 10-1800 (2d Cir. July 23, 2013) (available here), which should be of special interest to all white-collar sentencing practitioners. The last seven pages of the per curiam panel opinion and the entire nine pages of the concurrence by Distict Judge Underhill (sitting by designation) are must reads for sentencing fans, and the few paragraphs I will reprint here help highlight why.
The per curiam panel opinion find procedurally unreasonable 20-year sentences given to defendants who were part of a conspiracy "which involved a scheme to obtain a three billion dollar loan supposedly intended to finance construction of a pipeline across Siberia [that] resulted in no actual loss." Here is part of the panel opinion's explanation for why these sentences were procedurally unreasonable:
Here, appellants’ lawyers highlighted significant issues with the intended loss calculation both in their briefs and at sentencing. Given the low risk that any actual loss would result — what hedge fund would fall prey to a purported coalition of Buryatian nationals and Yamasee tribesmen using AOL email accounts to offer five billion dollars in collateral for a loan to build a pipeline across Siberia? — counsel argued that a 30 point mega-enhancement vastly overstated both the seriousness of the offense, and the danger of appellants to their community. The Guidelines acknowledge that potentiality; application note 3(C) to U.S.S.G. § 2B1.1 indicates that a downward departure may be warranted where the offense level resulting from a loss calculation overstates the seriousness of an offense. But the sentencing court never resolved appellants’ significant arguments. At Sampson’s hearing the District Court did draw a comparison between other financial crimes and this case, but it never resolved the question raised by the appellants — whether treating intended loss like actual loss under all the circumstances of this case leads to a sentence consistent with the dictates of section 3553(a).
The concurring opinion by Judge Underhill is even more potent as it advocates for a broader ruling that the sentences here are substantively unreasonable, and here is how it gets started
In my view, the loss guideline is fundamentally flawed, and those flaws are magnified where, as here, the entire loss amount consists of intended loss. Even if it were perfect, the loss guideline would prove valueless in this case, because the conduct underlying these convictions is more farcical than dangerous. If substantive review of sentences actually exists other than in theory, it must be undertaken at least occasionally. This would have been an appropriate case in which to do so, because it raises so starkly the problems with the loss guideline. Until this Court weighs in on the merits of the loss guideline, sentences in high-loss cases will remain wildly divergent as some district judges apply the loss guideline unquestioningly while others essentially ignore it. The widespread perception that the loss guideline is broken leaves district judges without meaningful guidance in high-loss cases; that void can only be filled through the common law, which requires that we reach the substantive reasonableness of these sentences.
Thursday, June 20, 2013
"White-Collar Sentences Get a Fresh Look"The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Wall Street Journal article, which gets started this way:
A hearing scheduled for Friday in a Houston federal court on whether to substantially reduce former Enron Corp. Chief Executive Jeffrey Skilling's 24-year prison sentence comes at a time of growing debate about the rules for punishing white-collar criminals.
Individuals convicted of federal crimes are sentenced using a set of guidelines in which "points" are added or subtracted relating to various aspects of a person's conduct and the crimes involved. Over the past several decades, the potential penalties for a range of crimes have greatly increased in severity, with particularly large increases in certain types of fraud cases, according to legal experts.
Critics of the guidelines in white-collar cases contend that they have come to rely too much on financial-loss calculations, which can quickly mushroom when the crime involves a public company whose stock price falls in connection with the misdeeds. In certain cases, a public-company executive could face life in prison, said James Felman, a Tampa, Fla., defense attorney and member of a recently formed American Bar Association task force looking at proposing revisions in the guidelines for economic crimes.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission, the guideline-writing body created by Congress in the 1980s, has identified possible revision of the economic-crime rules as a priority. The commission has scheduled a September symposium in New York to get input on possible changes.
The guidelines "should be scrapped in their entirety," said Jed Rakoff, a New York federal judge and member of the new ABA Task Force, in a speech earlier this year. For instance, putting heavy emphasis on the calculated loss in determining fraud sentences "does not fairly convey the reality of the crime or the criminal," said Judge Rakoff, a Clinton appointee and longtime critic of aspects of the guidelines. He recommended replacing the arithmetic calculation system with one where judges could use a broad set of factors, none of which would automatically carry extra weight.
More judges seem to be departing from the guidelines. A Sentencing Commission study issued last December found that the percentage of fraud cases in which federal judges gave sentences below the guideline recommendation jumped to 23% of cases for 2007 to 2011 from 9.6% for 1996 to 2003. These percentages don't include cases where the Justice Department recommended a below-guideline sentence for reasons that included cooperation by the defendant in an investigation.
The increasing gap between the guideline calculations and actual sentences was a factor in the Sentencing Commission's decision to look at revising the economic-crime rules, said one person familiar with the matter.
June 20, 2013 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack
Wednesday, June 19, 2013
Guest post with more thoughtful perspectives on PeughI am very pleased to have received and to now have time to post the following "quick thoughts" of Professor Todd Haugh concerning last week's SCOTUS Puegh decision (basics here):
First, Justice Sotomayor is really establishing herself as the Court's current sentencing scholar, particularly as to Guidelines issues. By my quick tally, since taking her seat in 2009, she has drafted or significantly contributed to seven or eight important sentencing cases, while others are at two or three. I imagine her status as the Court's only member to have regularly sentenced defendants as a trial court judge has something to do with this -- she often seems to be the voice expressing the practicalities of sentencing (both from the defendants' and judges' standpoints), which has carried the day in Peugh and some of her other recent opinions (Pepper and Southern Union come to mind, as does the Alleyne concurrence). Scalia's and Breyer's overall impact may prove to be greater, but Sotomayor appears to be asserting herself in this area (and willing to spar with Alito).
Second, following that thought and in line with some of the comments [to this prior Peugh post ], the Peugh opinion is about the actual practice of federal sentencing versus how the system operates in theory. The dissent was sunk by its first argument -- that the Guidelines do not constrain district court discretion. While in theory, based on the language and structure of 3553(a) and the Court's reasonableness review jurisprudence, that may be true (and every defense attorney argues in the hopes of making it true), the realities of in-the-trenches sentencing demonstrate that increased Guideline ranges equal increased sentences (and thus risk of increased punishment under ex post facto analysis). This fact is well-documented by the Commission's recent Booker report, it's yearly data, it's survey of judges; and a host of academic articles concerning the psychological process of judges when sentencing (i.e., anchoring and adjustment, etc. -- see footnote 1 in Judge Calabresi's concurrence in Ingram [discussed here]). It's why DOJ advocates to members of Congress and the Commission for additional sentencing enhancements -- increased risk to defendants of higher punishments means more bargaining power for prosecutors. Query whether the majority's argument weakens if variance rates climb both in number and, most importantly, length.
Third, while I don't think this opinion is going to have huge practical effects on federal sentencing because the Seventh Circuit was an outlier (and there is likely harmless error in many of those cases), the opinion may have a lot of rhetorical value. Defendants basically got a win-win here -- assurance that they will be sentenced under the most favorable Guidelines per the majority and lots of juicy language to quote when they argue for a variance per the dissent. I would expect to see Peugh cited in a lot of future federal sentencing memos.
Judges, however, may have gotten the short end of the stick because they now face even more complexity when they determine sentences (a trend that has continued since Booker). Before Puegh, they had to calculate the Guidelines, then decide on departures, then consider a 3553(a) variance (seven factors; four purposes of punishment). Now, Peugh suggests courts should also consider how the evolution of the Guideline at issue (pre- and post-offense) weighs on the sentence. That could mean at least two more Guideline calculations (1987 version if Doug Berman is your defense counsel and the current, harsher version of the Guidelines if you are facing a prosecutor who reads this blog), but it could mean even more (what about Guideline ranges before and after major changes by the Commission, e.g., before and after SOX or Dodd-Frank, to demonstrate that evolution?).
Recent related posts:
- SCOTUS concludes Ex Post Facto Clause still limits application of new guidelines after Booker
- Guidelines are "the lodestone" of federal sentencing (as well as "the starting point and the initial benchmark")
- Lots of reasonable debate over the guidelines and reasonable review from Second Circuit judges
Tuesday, June 18, 2013
Seeking comments on what to say in comments to the US Sentencing Commission about its prioritiesA wise colleague wisely suggested to me that this year might be an especially wise time to convert all my ideas and concerns about the work of the US Sentencing Commission into formal comments for formal submission to the USSC as a formal response to this formal statement of the USSC's proposed priority policy issues for the amendment cycle ending May 1, 2014.
The USSC's six-page Federal Register statement of tentative priorities lists just about every topic that has consumed the recent work of the Commission, ranging from mandatory minimums to post-Booker sentencing patterns to the child porn guidelines to the drug guidelines to economic crimes and lots of stuff in between (including even some back-end sentencing stuff like the compassionate release guidelines). Nevertheless, there are still plenty of topics not mentioned that I think should be high on the Commission's agenda, ranging from the impact of sequester on the operation of the federal criminal justice system to the enduring need for serious guideline simplification to the overwhelming problem of undue sentencing severity.
Here is the official statement of the official rules for submitting official public comments to the USSC:
The Commission hereby gives notice that it is seeking comment on [its] tentative priorities and on any other issues that interest ed persons believe the Commission should address during the amendment cycle ending May 1, 2014. To the extent practicable, public comment should include the following: (1) a statement of the issue, including, where appropriate, the scope and manner of study, particular problem areas and possible solutions, and any other matters relevant to a proposed priority; (2) citations to applicable sentencing guidelines, statutes, case law, and constitutional provisions; and (3) a direct and concise statement of why the Commission should make the issue a priority.
Appropriately, the final line in the USSC's notice includes this fitting kicker: "Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 994( g), the Commission also invites public comment that addresses the issue of reducing costs of incarceration and overcapacity of prisons, to the extent it is relevant to a proposed priority."
So, to the extent practicable, I would love to hear from readers about what they think I should make sure to put into my formal comments to the USSC. I have until July 15 to get this done, but I would very much like to have a document ready to send out not long after I enjoy the rocket's red blare this coming Independence Day.
Friday, June 14, 2013
Lots of reasonable debate over the guidelines and reasonable review from Second Circuit judges
With thanks to the readers who alerted me, I wanted to alert everyone else to todays Second Circuit opinion in US v. Ingram, No. 12-1058 (2d Cir. June 14, 2013) (available here). The per curiam opinion, which affirms a below guideline drug sentence, is not at all notable (and runs only 3 pages).
But the concurring opinions are both must reads: the first is by Judge Calabresi and runs 14 pages, the second is by Judge Raggi and runs 17 pages to explain why she thinks the prior 14 pages are all washed up. As a reader put it, the two Second Circuit jurists here "have at it on various psychological, philosophical, and practical matters concerning sentencing under the Guidelines."
Wednesday, June 12, 2013
Bipartisan House Overcriminalization Task Force schedules first hearing for June 14I learned via this NACDL press release that Representative Jim Sensenbrenner Chairman Sensenbrenner has scheduled the first hearing of the Overcriminalization Task Force for this Friday, June 14, 2013, at 9:00 a.m. at 2237 Rayburn House Office Building." Here is more background and details via the release:
On May 7, 2013, The House Committee on the Judiciary voted unanimously to create the “Overcriminalization Task Force of 2013.” At a press briefing that day, Judiciary Committee and Overcriminalization Task Force leaders expressed agreement on the need to address several important issues, including the erosion of the mens rea (or criminal intent) requirement in federal criminal law, the often unnecessary duplication of state law in the federal code, overincarceration, and the explosion of regulatory offenses that some estimate may now number as high as 300,000, among other issues. Members also expressed the need to address mandatory minimum sentences.
According to Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), “The task force will be authorized for six months and will be led by Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner and Ranking Member Bobby Scott.” It will “conduct hearings and investigations and issue a report on overcriminalization in the federal code, as well as possible solutions.” The task force is made up of five Democrats and five Republicans, and will include Judiciary Committee Ranking Member John Conyers (D-MI) and Chairman Goodlatte as ex-officio members....
The topic of this first hearing is “Defining the Problem and Scope of Overcriminalization and Overfederalization.” [And here are the scheduled witnesses:]
Mr. Steven D. Benjamin, President, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
Mr. John Malcolm, Rule of Law Programs Policy Director, The Heritage Foundation
Mr. William N. Shepherd, Chair, Criminal Justice Section, American Bar Association
The Honorable George Terwilliger, III, Partner, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP
A webcast of the hearing as well as the written testimony of the witnesses will be made available [at this link].
"What the Sentencing Commission Ought to Be Doing: Reducing Mass Incarceration"The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Judge Lynn Adelman available via SSRN. With three new members of the US Sentencing Commission, the piece is especially timely, and here is the abstract:
The United States presently incarcerates about 2.3 million people. We imprison people at a higher rate than any other country and now house more than a quarter of the world’s prisoners. Incarcerating so many people raises important moral issues because the burden of incarceration is borne largely by minorities from impoverished inner city communities. Further, those incarcerated suffer detriments that go far beyond the legislated criminal penalty and doom many offenders to a continuing cycle of re-incarceration. Over-incarceration is also very costly.
The federal government contributes significantly to this problem. Every week it locks up a record number of people, presently about 216,000. While some states have recently reduced their prison populations, the federal prison population continues to increase. The principal reason for this is federal sentencing law. Since Congress enacted the Sentencing Reform Act (“SRA”) creating the Sentencing Commission and directing it to establish sentencing guidelines, the average federal sentence has more than doubled. Federal prisons are now at 138% of capacity and consume an ever-increasing share of the federal criminal justice budget.
There are only two ways that we can reduce the prison population: by sending fewer people to prison and imprisoning people for shorter lengths of time. Many observers believe that the sentences called for by the federal sentencing guidelines, which were mandatory until 2005 when the Supreme Court decided United States v. Booker and made them advisory, are too severe and could be significantly reduced without endangering public safety. The Commission, however, has shown no interest in making guideline sentences less harsh. Rather, its principal concern is that since Booker judges are imposing too many below guideline sentences and thereby creating disparity. Thus, it recently asked Congress to require sentencing judges to give additional weight to the guidelines and provide additional justification for sentences varying substantially from the guidelines, and to require appellate courts to presume the reasonableness of guideline sentences and to strictly scrutinize sentences based on policy disagreements with the guidelines. These restrictions would, of course, increase the federal prison population.
My essay argues that it serves no useful purpose for the Commission to continue to make its top priority curtailing judicial discretion in the name of reducing disparity. I contend not only that the system created by the SRA and the guidelines failed but that any system principally designed to reduce disparity will fail. I argue that, instead of attempting to curtail judicial discretion, the Commission should focus on the problem of over-incarceration. The Commission is statutorily authorized and institutionally well-positioned to address this problem and, by doing so, it could have a positive impact on the entire American criminal justice system. I propose that the Commission take such actions as modifying the guidelines to expand the use of probation, reducing the severity of numerous guidelines, developing a release program for elderly prisoners, lobbying Congress regarding mandatory minimum sentences, calling public attention to over-incarceration and others. I also contend that if the Commission is intent upon reducing disparity, the best way to do so is by making the guidelines less severe and thus making it more likely that judges will follow them.
Some recent related posts:
- Prez Obama makes three great new nominations to the US Sentencing Commission
- If (and when?) confirmed, will Judge William Pryor champion federalism concerns within the US Sentencing Commission?
- "How can a member of the US Sentencing Commission promote federalism?"
- Senate confirms new USSC Commissioners Barkow, Breyer and Pryor
Monday, June 10, 2013
Guidelines are "the lodestone" of federal sentencing (as well as "the starting point and the initial benchmark")The title of this post is drawn from the key word in a key paragraph that captured my attention in what is otherwise a straight-forward opinion by the Supreme Court today in Peugh (basics here). Here is the context from a paragraph that effectively summarizes the conclusions of the Peugh majority opinion per Justice Sotomayor:
Major kudos to Justice Sotomayor for adding a fitting new term to the post-Booker federal sentencing lexicon. Kudos also to the majority Court for stressing these enduring modern federal sentencing realities in the course of reaching its conclusions:
"The federal system adopts procedural measures intended to make the Guidelines the lodestone of sentencing. A retrospective increase in the Guidelines range applicable to a defendant creates a sufficient risk of a higher sentence to constitute an ex post facto violation."
When Peugh committed his crime, the recommended sentence was 30 to 37 months. When he was sentenced, it was 70 to 87 months.... Such a retrospective increase in the measure of punishment raises clear ex post facto concerns. We have previously recognized, for instance, that a defendant charged with an increased punishment for his crime is likely to feel enhanced pressure to plead guilty. See Carmell, 529 U.S., at 534, n.24; Weaver, 450 U.S., at 32. This pressure does not disappear simply because the Guidelines range is advisory; the defendant will be aware that the range is intended to, and usually does, exert controlling influence on the sentence that the court will impose....
On the Government’s account, the Guidelines are just one among many persuasive sources a sentencing court can consult, no different from a “policy paper.” Brief for United States 28. The Government’s argument fails to acknowledge, however, that district courts are not required to consult any policy paper in order to avoid reversible procedural error; nor must they “consider the extent of [their] deviation” from a given policy paper and “ensure that the justification is sufficiently compelling to support the degree of the variance,” Gall, 552 U.S., at 50. Courts of appeals, in turn, are not permitted to presume that a sentence that comports with a particular policy paper is reasonable; nor do courts of appeals, in considering whether the district court’s sentence was reasonable, weigh the extent of any departure from a given policy paper in determining whether the district court abused its discretion, see id., at 51. It is simply not the case that the Sentencing Guidelines are merely a volume that the district court reads with academic interest in the course of sentencing.
And kudos also to Justice Thomas for providing a slightly competing vision of the post-Booker world via passages in his dissent like the following that, I suspect, will end up in many more defense sentencing submissions than government ones:
[T]he Guidelines do not constrain the discretion of district courts and, thus, have no legal effect on a defendant’s sentence. Second, to the extent that the amended Guidelines create a risk that a defendant might receive a harsher punishment, that risk results from the Guidelines’ persuasive force, not any legal effect....
Petitioner next argues that the Guidelines limit district court discretion because sentences falling outside the Guidelines are more likely to be reversed for substantive unreasonableness. Brief for Petitioner 25. I doubt, however, that reversal is a likely outcome when a district judge can justify his sentence based on agreement with either of two Guidelines — the old or the new. If a district court calculated the sentencing range under the new Guidelines but sentenced the defendant to a below-Guidelines sentence that fell within the range provided by the old Guidelines, it would be difficult to label such a sentence “substantively unreasonable.” To do so would cast doubt on every within-Guidelines sentence issued under the old Guidelines.
I have long suggested that defense attorneys regularly and in every case calculate, and submit to a sentencing court prior to sentencing, the "old" sentencing ranges that would have applied under the original 1987 version of the federal sentencing guidelines which were first promulgated by the original US Sentencing Commission. The above-quoted passages from Justice Thomas now would enable sentencing courts to feel confident that a sentence within the range suggested by the 1987 guidelines should nearly always be deemed reasonable.
June 10, 2013 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack
SCOTUS concludes Ex Post Facto Clause still limits application of new guidelines after BookerThanks to the fine folks live-blogging at SCOTUSblog, I can provide this summary report (with a few edits) of the one big sentencing ruling handed down by the US Supreme Court this morning:
Justice Sotomayor for the Court in Peugh v. United States....
The decision of the Seventh Circuit is reversed, the case is remanded. The Court is splintered. Justice Sotomayor delivers the opinion of the Court except for one part. The Ex Post Facto Clause is violated when a defendant is sentenced under guidelines promulgated after he committed his acts, and the new version of the guidelines provides for a higher sentence than the one in effect at the time he committed his act.
Justice Sotomayor's opinion is for the Court except for a discussion about the policies underlying the Ex Post Facto Clause. It's another case where Justice Kennedy joins the more liberal members of the Court.
Justice Thomas dissents, joined by the Chief and Scalia and Alito. Justice Alito dissents, joined by Justice Scalia. Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan join all of the Sotomayor opinion; Justice Kennedy declines to join Part III-C.
The big fight in the case was whether the Sentencing Guidelines are important enough to trigger Ex Post Facto review given that they are no longer binding -- the majority says they are....
The part of the Sotomayor opinion that Kennedy does not join is a response to the argument by the government and the dissent that the Ex Post Facto Clause is not implicated by this case. The ruling will be significant to the ability of courts to apply tougher new sentencing guidelines to pending cases. It is also a strong reaffirmation of the Ex Post Facto Clause.
The full opinions in Peugh are available here. The opinion for the Court per Justice Sotomayor runs 20 pages, and the main dissent per Justice Thomas is 14 pages.
Kudos to the Court in keep this one relatively brief, as I suspect every sentence from the Justices in this case could end up having some impact on the operation of the post-Booker federal sentencing world. And once I get some time to read these opinions, I will do some follow-up posts on whether Peugh passes the smell test (get it..., I know, pretty lame).
June 10, 2013 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack