Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Spotlighting who profits from "Piling on Criminal Fees"

Professors Ronald Wright and Wayne Logan have this important new Huffington Post article summarizing the important themes from their important article titled "Mercenary Criminal Justice." Here are excerpts:

Criminal courts sometime function as fee-generating machines....  The problem here is not any single criminal fee; the problem is how they stack up to create injustice.  That's why we are calling for a statewide Commission on Criminal Fees.

In a recent law review article, "Mercenary Criminal Justice," we chronicled the historically central role of fee-generation in U.S. criminal justice systems, a tendency that became even more pronounced as a result of the recent fiscal crisis.  We call this system "mercenary" because the revenues affect the enforcement decisions of actors in the justice system, who start to depend on that revenue, and put their own job security above the job of doing individual justice.  As the Justice Department's report on Ferguson noted, city officials there asked the police and courts to increase ticket collection, explicitly to increase their revenue, basically treating minor criminal offenders as ATM machines.  This mistreatment is all the more troubling when the fees and fines land most heavily on racial minorities and the poor, as they routinely do...

The beneficiaries of the revenue hail from diverse and powerful institutions. Courts, crime labs, prosecutors, and even public defenders all see the dollar signs and make their requests.  What's the harm, after all, in asking for another $100 from an arrestee, convict, or probationer?

And it is not only government employees who have their hands out: private sector actors (with profit motives) have increasingly gotten a piece of the action. Courts, for instance, ask private contractors to collect fees and fines, allowing them to add their own service charges to the total bill.  Private companies, moreover, have been active in probation services. More recently, the American Legislative Exchange Council (or ALEC) started promoting a variation on this theme -- called "post-conviction bail" -- that empowers private bail bond dealers to monitor defendant compliance with post-release conditions. If the released inmate does not comply, the dealer tracks him down and collects a new financial penalty.

Any one of these fees or fines might be a reasonable part of a non-prison punishment, promoting public safety and the interests of defendants alike.  The trouble comes when nobody minds the total effects of all these fees on individuals.  Taken together, even the most modest and well-justified fees can trap the indigent in the control of criminal courts, always paying but never paying their debt down to zero.  We believe that a statewide Commission on Criminal Fees can see the big picture and prevent this piling-on effect. Before authorizing a new fee to support the state crime lab, for instance, the Commission would ask how that fee interacts with the public defender's application fee, the probation supervision fee, and all the other fees currently imposed on individuals ensnared in the justice system.

May 20, 2015 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, April 27, 2015

Is US push for sentencing reform progressive enough to embrace progressive "day fines"?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable New York Times article about fine punishment for speeding in Finland.  The piece is headlined "Speeding in Finland Can Cost a Fortune, if You Already Have One," and here are excerpts:

Getting a speeding ticket is not a feel­good moment for anyone. But consider Reima Kuisla, a Finnish businessman.  He was recently fined 54,024 euros (about $58,000) for traveling a modest, if illegal, 64 miles per hour in a 50 m.p.h. zone.  And no, the 54,024 euros did not turn out to be a typo, or a mistake of any kind.

Mr. Kuisla is a millionaire, and in Finland the fines for more serious speeding infractions are calculated according to income.  The thinking here is that if it stings for the little guy, it should sting for the big guy, too.  The ticket had its desired effect. Mr. Kuisla, 61, took to Facebook last month with 12 furious posts in which he included a picture of his speeding ticket and a picture of what 54,024 euros could buy if it were not going to the state coffers — a new Mercedes.  He said he was seriously considering leaving Finland altogether....

The Nordic countries have long had a strong egalitarian streak, embracing progressive taxation and high levels of social spending.  Perhaps less well known is that they also practice progressive punishment, when it comes to certain fines.  A rich person, many citizens here believe, should pay more for the same offense if justice is to be served. The question is: How much more?...

At the University of Helsinki, Jussi Lahti, 35, a graduate student in geography, said that he could understand why Mr. Kuisla was upset, but that he considered the principle of an equal percentage fair. And, he added, Mr. Kuisla “had a choice when he decided to speed.”

The size of Mr. Kuisla’s ticket nonetheless drew considerable attention here as television shows and newspapers debated the merits of Finland’s system, which uses a complex formula based on income to calculate an individual’s fines.  Some wondered whether the government should stop imposing such fines for infractions at relatively low speeds. Some suggested that a fine so big was really a form of taxation.  But the idea that the rich should pay heavier fines did not seem to be much in question. “It is an old system,” said Pasi Kemppainen, chief superintendent at the National Police Board. “It may lead to high fines, but only for people who can afford it.”

In fact, the Finnish “day fine” system, also in use in some other Scandinavian countries, dates to the 1920s, when fines based on income were instituted for all manner of lesser crimes, such as petty theft and assault, and helped greatly reduce the prison population. The fines are calculated based on half an offender’s daily net income, with some consideration for the number of children under his or her roof and a deduction deemed to be enough to cover basic living expenses, currently 255 euros per month.

Then, that figure is multiplied by the number of days of income the offender should lose, according to the severity of the offense.  Mr. Kuisla, a betting man who parlayed his winnings into a real estate empire, was clocked speeding near the Seinajoki airport.  Given the speed he was going, Mr. Kuisla was assessed eight days.  His fine was then calculated from his 2013 income, 6,559,742 euros, or more than $7 million at current exchange rates.

Someone committing a similar offense and earning about 50,000 euros a year, or $54,000, none of it capital gains, and with no young children, would get a fine of about 345 euros, or about $370.  Someone earning 300,000 euros ($322,000), would have to pay about 1,480 euros ($1,590).  When the “day fine system” was devised for petty crimes, Finland did not even have any speed limits on its roads. Those did not arrive until the 1970s....

Until he was issued the speeding ticket, Mr. Kuisla used his Facebook page largely to post pictures of his winning horses or the lobbies and bars of the hotels he owns.  But the ticket seemed to focus his attention on Finnish policies that he said discouraged entrepreneurs, apparently a reference to the country’s progressive tax system and its high inheritance taxes. High earners can face an income tax rate of more than 50 percent.  “Finland is now an impossible country to live in for people with a large income and wealth!” he posted on March 2.

But online comments in newspapers suggested a strong showing for the other side. “This says a lot about the times when the stinkingly rich can’t even take their fines for crimes, but are immediately moving out of the country.  Farewell, we won’t miss you,” said one post in The Helsingin Sanomat, a daily newspaper and website....

Mr. Kuisla’s $58,000 ticket is not even the most severe speeding ticket issued in recent years.  According to another daily newspaper, Ilkka, Mr. Kuisla himself got an even bigger fine in 2013 when he was going about 76 m.p.h. in a 50 m.p.h. zone.  That ticket was for 63,448 euros, about $83,769 at the time.  Bigger yet was the ticket issued to a 44-­year-­old Nokia executive in 2002, when he was caught blowing through Helsinki on his Harley motorcycle and was hit with a $103,600 fine, based on a $12.5 million yearly income.  

Both tickets were appealed and in the end reduced.  Usually, appeals are based on financial issues, such as a one­-time sale of stock that year. But judges have great leeway, experts said. Mr. Kuisla ended up paying 5,346 euros for the 2013 ticket.

Long-time readers know that I am a huge fan of economic sanctions, and I have long thought that the Scandinavian "day fine" approach to punishment for lower-level crimes to be much more fair and effective than short terms of incarceration. I think it is fair to claim (and perhaps complain) that these kinds of day fine operate more like taxes than like traditional punishments; whatever label is attached, I suspect that defendants (especially rich ones) drive much more carefully in jurisdictions where an infraction is likely to have a real financial bite. Among other potential benefits, a "day fine" approach to certain lower-level "quality of life" offenses might prompt law enforcement to concentrate more of their policing resources in richer rather than poorer neighborhoods.

Perhaps needless to say, I doubt the billionaires who support sentencing reform in the US on both the left (George Soros) and the right (the Koch brothers) are likely to get behind a progressive "day fine" approach to devising effective alternatives to prison. But maybe all the folks now protesting police abuses in Baltimore and elsewhere might consider urging police department to adopt such an approach to police discipline (with the monies, I would urge, going to victim restitution funds).

April 27, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

New York State court concludes multiple mandatory minimum fines constitutionally excessive

Thanks to this post by Eugene Volokh, I discovered an interesting New York trial court Excessive Fine ruling in Pujols v. City of New York, No. 103637/12 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. April 2, 2015) (available here). Here is the heart of the ruling concerning an attack on a $11,175 fine for illegally posting 149 flyers advertising babysitting services:

It is undisputed that petitioner violated the relevant Administrative Code provision and substantial evidence supports ECB's determination that petitioner is liable for violating § 10-119 of the New York City Administrative Code, which generally prohibits the posting or other placement of handbills, posters, notices, signs and other written materials on certain public property.  Nonetheless, this Court finds that under the specific circumstances presented herein, the imposition of the mandatory minimum of $75.00 per violation for a total penalty of $11,175.00, amounts to an unconstitutionally excessive fine, and cannot be viewed as solely remedial.

Moreover, this Court, in considering the seriousness of the offense, the severity of the harm caused to petitioner, and the City's objective to deter posting of materials on public property, we find that the fine imposed is "grossly disproportional" to the gravity of petitioner's offense.

April 15, 2015 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

"Law & Tactics for a Market-Reality Narcotics Policy"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Mark William Osler now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The War on Drugs seems to be ending, leading to a crucial question: What comes next? Legalization of narcotics (marijuana aside) is unlikely, and the pursuit of broad incarceration to create deterrence or incapacitation has been largely disavowed.  However, drug use continues to be a profound social problem that must be confronted.

This article argues for the aggressive use of asset forfeiture to capture cash flow to core sources in order to systemically disrupt narcotics networks.  Importantly, such a project would steer police efforts away from capturing people, drugs, or the profits retained by drug dealers and instead target the lifeblood of the narcotics business, which is proceeds flowing back to mass producers, importers, and major wholesalers of drugs.

This tactic would address the continuing narcotics problem without mass incarceration or the problems associated with seizing small amounts of profit through forfeitures. Fortunately, the necessary tools are already embedded in existing federal statutes; all that is left to do is to use them wisely in a new and more effective way.

March 18, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, February 23, 2015

"What rights do felons have over their surrendered firearms?"

The question in the title of this post is the substance of the title of this helpful SCOTUS argument preview of Henderson v. US authored by Richard Re over at SCOTUSblog.  Here are excerpts which highlight why I think of Henderson as an interesting and dynamic sentencing case:

Tuesday, the Court will hear argument in Henderson v. United States, a complex case that offers a blend of criminal law, property, and remedies, with soft accents of constitutionalism. The basic question is this: when an arrested individual surrenders his firearms to the government, and his subsequent felony conviction renders him legally ineligible to possess those weapons, what happens to the guns?

The petitioner, Tony Henderson, was a Border Patrol agent convicted of distributing marijuana, a felony offense. Shortly after being arrested in 2006, Henderson surrendered his personal collection of firearms and other weapons to federal agents as a condition of release during the pendency of his criminal case. According to Henderson, his weapons collection included valuable items that had long been in the family, as well as an “antique.” Moreover, the collection was and remains Henderson’s lawful property. So, starting in 2008, Henderson asked authorities to transfer his weapons collection to someone else. But prosecutors and courts alike declined. Understandably enough, Henderson didn’t want his collection to escheat to the government like so much feudal property. So he’s pressed his rights to the Supreme Court.

The legal issues start with a conflict between a procedural rule and a federal statute. Under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 41, the government usually has to “return” a defendant’s lawful property. But that can’t happen in Henderson’s case because a federal criminal law (18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1)) prohibits convicted felons, including Henderson, from possessing firearms. So if Rule 41 were allowed to operate according to its terms, Henderson would instantly be in violation of Section 922(g)(1). The courts below recognized that result as contrary to federal law and policy. (In a footnote in its merits brief, the federal government acknowledges that some of Henderson’s long-withheld weapons collection actually doesn’t consist of firearms at all. The government accordingly assures the Court that the “FBI is making the necessary arrangements to return the crossbow and the muzzle-loading rifle to petitioner.”)

To get around Section 922(g)(1), Henderson asked the government to transfer his firearms to third parties who are permitted to possess such items – specifically, either his wife or a friend who had promised to pay for them. Those proposed transfers, Henderson points out, wouldn’t result in his own possession of the firearms. And, critically, the proposed transfers would honor Henderson’s continued ownership of the weapons.... While Rule 41 by its terms may authorize only the “return” of property, Henderson argues that the federal district courts have “equitable” authority to direct transfers to third parties....

Without questioning that federal equitable authority operates in this area, the courts below apparently rejected Henderson’s transfer request in part based on the ancient rule of “unclean hands.” Under this venerable maxim, a wrongdoer (whose hands are figuratively dirty) may not seek relief at equity in connection with his own wrongful act. Based on a broad view of that precept, the courts below seemed to say that convicted felons are categorically barred from equitable relief as to their government-held property. Henderson contends that this holding revives ancient principles of “outlawry,” whereby criminals lose the protection of the law, while also running afoul of the Due Process Clause, the Takings Clause, and other constitutional provisions. However, the Solicitor General disputes that the decision below actually rested on this ground and — more importantly — has declined to defend it.

Instead, the federal government defends the result below on the ground that Section 922(g)(1) should be read to prohibit not just felons’ actual possession of firearms, but also their “constructive possession” of such weapons. On this view, impermissible constructive possession occurs when a convicted felon can exert some control over the next physical possessor of a particular item of property. Thus, Henderson would exert constructive possession – barred by federal law – if he could direct the transfer of his firearms to any particular person, including his wife or friend. Such direction, the government contends, would also create an unacceptable risk of letting the firearm find its way back to the felon. A permissible approach, in the government’s opinion, would be for it to transfer weapons to a licensed firearms dealer for sale, with proceeds going to the convicted felon.

Having gotten the federal government to endorse some remedial third-party transfers – a significant development in itself – Henderson asks why a convicted felon can’t at least nominate specific third parties, like a museum or a relative, to receive previously surrendered firearms that double as historical artifacts or family heirlooms....

While the ultimate outcome may turn in part on case-specific facts, the case touches on a number of important public debates. This becomes most obvious when the parties peripherally joust over the Second Amendment. The case has also drawn a number of amici. For instance, the Institute for Justice connects the case to public debate over forfeitures by asserting an aged canon against such forfeitures. Meanwhile, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the National Rifle Association of America respectively argue from the Excessive Fines Clause and, of course, the Second Amendment. The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the government’s only amicus, also joins issue.

February 23, 2015 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Gun policy and sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, February 16, 2015

Senate unanimously passes child porn restitution bill to fix Paroline problems

As report in this article, last week the U.S. Senate finally passed a bill to restructure the standards and procedures for restitution awards for victims of child porn downloading offenses.  This bill made it through the full Senate a little less than year after the Supreme Court issued a split decision on this matter in the Paroline case.  Here are the basics of the response by Congress:

A bill named for two women whose childhood images were turned into heinous pornography was handily passed in the Senate on Wednesday. The Amy and Vicky Child Pornography Victim Restitution Improvement Act was approved by a 98-0 vote.

The measure gives hope to victims that they will finally be able to win major compensation from any single person who illegally viewed, made or distributed their images. Victims of child pornography and other sexual exploitation “ought to have access to full restitution from any single perpetrator for their losses,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican.

The bill establishes a minimum amount for damages for certain child pornography offenses and makes any single perpetrator responsible for the full damages created by a crime that involves multiple perpetrators, Mr. Grassley’s office said. Perpetrators, instead of victims, will have the burden of suing each other to recover damages they paid beyond their offenses. Medical costs, lost income and therapy are included in compensable damages.

The bill responds to a 2014 Supreme Court 5-4 ruling in Paroline v. United States that said people convicted of viewing, making or distributing child pornography should be ordered to pay a nontrivial amount of restitution — but it should fit the scale of the offense....

The Paroline case stemmed from a lawsuit filed by a woman known as “Amy Unknown” against Doyle R. Paroline of Texas, who was convicted of having two images of her in his child pornography collection. When the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Amy’s favor and ordered Paroline to pay $3.4 million in damages to her, Paroline asked the Supreme Court to review his case. Paroline’s court-appointed attorney said after they won last year that he would contest any restitution award against his client.

Amy, now an adult, was sexually assaulted by her uncle when she was about 9 years old. The uncle put pictures of her rape online, and those images have been shared by pedophiles worldwide. “Vicky” is the pseudonym of another victim, whose father raped her as a child and took “orders” from men to make videos of her being bound and sodomized.

I am a bit concerned that, even if this bill makes it through the House and is signed into law, defendants like Paroline and others who have already been prosecuted for child pornography offenses will be able to rely on ex post facto doctrines to still avoid having to pay any significant restitution awards to Amy or Vicky or other victims. Still, this new statue could and should help child porn victims recover significant sums from future offenders.

A few (of many) prior posts on Paroline and child porn restitution issues:

February 16, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (18) | TrackBack

Friday, January 16, 2015

AG Holder announces notable new limits on civil forfeitures to fund local police

As reported in this Washington Post article, headlined "Holder limits seized-asset sharing process that split billions with local, state police," the out-going Attorney General today announce a notable new policy that ought to take some of the economic incentives out of some drug war enforcement activities. Here are the basics:

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Friday barred local and state police from using federal law to seize cash, cars and other property without proving that a crime occurred. Holder’s action represents the most sweeping check on police power to confiscate personal property since the seizures began three decades ago as part of the war on drugs.

Since 2008, thousands of local and state police agencies have made more than 55,000 seizures of cash and property worth $3 billion under a civil asset forfeiture program at the Justice Department called Equitable Sharing. The program has enabled local and state police to make seizures and then have them “adopted” by federal agencies, which share in the proceeds. The program allowed police departments and drug task forces to keep up to 80 percent of the proceeds of the adopted seizures, with the rest going to federal agencies.

“With this new policy, effective immediately, the Justice Department is taking an important step to prohibit federal agency adoptions of state and local seizures, except for public safety reasons,” Holder said in a statement. Holder’s decision allows some limited exceptions, including illegal firearms, ammunition, explosives and property associated with child pornography, a small fraction of the total. This would eliminate virtually all cash and vehicle seizures made by local and state police from the program.

While police can continue to make seizures under their own state laws, the federal program was easy to use and required most of the proceeds from the seizures to go to local and state police departments. Many states require seized proceeds to go into the general fund. A Justice official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the attorney general’s motivation, said Holder “also believes that the new policy will eliminate any possibility that the adoption process might unintentionally incentivize unnecessary stops and seizures.”

Holder’s decision follows a Washington Post investigation published in September that found that police have made cash seizures worth almost $2.5 billion from motorists and others without search warrants or indictments since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

January 16, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (23) | TrackBack

Friday, December 26, 2014

South Dakota legislator suggests using drug war proceeds to fund public defenders

This local article, headlined "Hickey: Use seized drug money for public defender," reports on some notable public advocacy by a public official concerning public defenders in South Dakota.  Here are the details:

A Sioux Falls lawmaker wants to use seized drug money to help pay the legal defense bills of those who can't afford a lawyer, but the state's attorney general says counties should look elsewhere to save money on court-appointed attorney costs.

Rep. Steve Hickey, R-Sioux Falls, says the money in the state's Drug Control Fund is correctly used to tackle the problem of drug use, but he says he worries about the legal costs counties bear after the arrest. The fund is made up of money seized during drug investigations and money from the sale of seized property, such as vehicles.

"My thought is that we should put some of that money not just into catching more bad guys, but put some of it into the cost of defending them we're stuck with afterward," Hickey said. "We get excited about sobriety checkpoints and saturation patrols, but after those tickets get written, someone has to pick up the tab."

Hickey's bill would ask for a more thorough accounting of the money seized by law enforcement from suspected drug dealers and direct between 25 percent and 50 percent of it toward the legal fees amassed by counties. The fund is administered by Attorney General Marty Jackley's Office, which decides where the seized money is spent. "It seems to me that there's very little oversight," Hickey said....

Counties are legally obligated to offer court-appointed lawyers to the indigent. Local governments can ask that legal fees be repaid, but many bills go unpaid, either because defendants don't earn enough or own enough to pay or because they go to prison or jail.

Hickey's proposal comes alongside growing concerns over court-appointed attorney fees in Minnehaha County. Commissioners want judges to consider income guidelines when deciding whether to appoint a public defender, and they've offered a county employee to check defendants' income statements.

The state's largest county has spent $3.8 million on indigent defense this year, but reimbursements from defendants stand at $824,000. The county also has more than $26 million in liens on defendants who haven't paid their bill.

Commissioner Cindy Heiberger hasn't seen Hickey's proposal, but says any discussion about helping the counties that shoulder the burden of legal defense is welcome. "It sounds really good on the surface. Anything we can use to pay for court-appointed attorneys or court costs is something we should talk about," Heiberger said. But, she cautioned, "when we're taking money from one pot and moving it to another, we need to make sure the logistics make sense for everyone."

The notion of using seized drug money to pay for criminal defense doesn't sit well with Attorney General Marty Jackley. The drug control fund consists of money seized from suspected drug sales and other cash collected from auctioning off seized vehicles and other property. "I do not support using the profits of criminals to defend their activities," Jackley said.

The money pays the drug testing bills for cities and counties, Jackley said, and the remaining money is used to buy vehicles, camera systems and other items for local police and sheriff's departments. Giving some of the money to counties for indigent defense could force local agencies to bear the cost of drug testing and reduce the availability of funds for equipment upgrades and replacements.

In 2013, $70,514 was awarded from the drug control fund for law enforcement and prosecution costs in Sioux Falls and Minnehaha County. Overall in 2013, $643,722 was awarded from the drug control fund to local agencies. Drug control money pays an average of $60,000 per month to local law enforcement for drug testing, according to DCI records.

December 26, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, October 26, 2014

More drug war collateral damage: "Law Lets I.R.S. Seize Accounts on Suspicion, No Crime Required"

The title of this post includes my extra bit of spin on the headline of this notable front-page New York Times article, which gets started this way:

For almost 40 years, Carole Hinders has dished out Mexican specialties at her modest cash-only restaurant.  For just as long, she deposited the earnings at a small bank branch a block away — until last year, when two tax agents knocked on her door and informed her that they had seized her checking account, almost $33,000.

The Internal Revenue Service agents did not accuse Ms. Hinders of money laundering or cheating on her taxes — in fact, she has not been charged with any crime. Instead, the money was seized solely because she had deposited less than $10,000 at a time, which they viewed as an attempt to avoid triggering a required government report.  “How can this happen?” Ms. Hinders said in a recent interview. “Who takes your money before they prove that you’ve done anything wrong with it?”  

The federal government does.  Using a law designed to catch drug traffickers, racketeers and terrorists by tracking their cash, the government has gone after run-of-the-mill business owners and wage earners without so much as an allegation that they have committed serious crimes.  The government can take the money without ever filing a criminal complaint, and the owners are left to prove they are innocent. Many give up.

“They’re going after people who are really not criminals,” said David Smith, a former federal prosecutor who is now a forfeiture expert and lawyer in Virginia.  “They’re middle-class citizens who have never had any trouble with the law.”

On Thursday, in response to questions from The New York Times, the I.R.S. announced that it would curtail the practice, focusing instead on cases where the money is believed to have been acquired illegally or seizure is deemed justified by “exceptional circumstances.”

Richard Weber, the chief of Criminal Investigation at the I.R.S., said in a written statement,  “This policy update will ensure that C.I. continues to focus our limited investigative resources on identifying and investigating violations within our jurisdiction that closely align with C.I.’s mission and key priorities.”  He added that making deposits under $10,000 to evade reporting requirements, called structuring, is still a crime whether the money is from legal or illegal sources.  The new policy will not apply to past seizures.

October 26, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (21) | TrackBack

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

"Prison bankers cash in on captive customers: Inmates' families gouged by fees"

The title of this post is the headline of this one part of some impressive reporting about the economic realities facing prisoners and their families being done by the Center for Public Integrity and CNBC.  Here is an excerpt from this piece that provides a basic summary:

JPay and other prison bankers collect tens of millions of dollars every year from inmates’ families in fees for basic financial services. To make payments, some forego medical care, skip utility bills and limit contact with their imprisoned relatives, the Center for Public Integrity found in a six-month investigation.

Inmates earn as little as 12 cents per hour in many places, wages that have not increased for decades. The prices they pay for goods to meet their basic needs continue to increase.

By erecting a virtual tollbooth at the prison gate, JPay has become a critical financial conduit for an opaque constellation of vendors that profit from millions of poor families with incarcerated loved ones.

JPay streamlines the flow of cash into prisons, making it easier for corrections agencies to take a cut. Prisons do so directly, by deducting fees and charges before the money hits an inmate’s account. They also allow phone and commissary vendors to charge marked-up prices, then collect a share of the profits generated by these contractors.

Taken together, the costs imposed by JPay, phone companies, prison store operators and corrections agencies make it far more difficult for poor families to escape poverty so long as they have a loved one in the system.

Here are links to additional related reporting as part of this project:

October 1, 2014 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

"Misdemeanor Decriminalization"

The title of this post is the title of this notable and interesting new paper by Alexandra Natapoff now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

As the U.S. rethinks its stance on mass incarceration, misdemeanor decriminalization is an increasingly popular reform. Seen as a potential cure for crowded jails and an overburdened defense bar, many states are eliminating jail time for minor offenses such as marijuana possession and driving violations, and replacing those crimes with so-called “nonjailable” or “fine-only” offenses. This form of reclassification is widely perceived as a way of saving millions of state dollars — nonjailable offenses do not trigger the right to counsel — while easing the punitive impact on defendants, and it has strong support from progressives and conservatives alike.

But decriminalization has a little-known dark side. Unlike full legalization, decriminalization preserves many of the punitive features and collateral consequences of the criminal misdemeanor experience, even as it strips defendants of counsel and other procedural protections. It actually expands the reach of the criminal apparatus by making it easier — both logistically and normatively — to impose fines and supervision on an ever-widening population, a population who ironically often ends up incarcerated anyway when they cannot afford the fines or comply with the supervisory conditions.

The turn to fine-only offenses and supervision, moreover, has distributive implications. It captures poor, underemployed, drug-dependent, and other disadvantaged defendants for whom fines and supervision are especially burdensome, while permitting well-resourced offenders to exit the process quickly and relatively unscathed. Finally, as courts turn increasingly to fines and fees to fund their own operations, decriminalization threatens to become a kind of regressive tax, turning the poorest populations into funding fodder for the judiciary and other government budgets. In sum, while decriminalization appears to offer relief from the punitive legacy of overcriminalization and mass incarceration, upon closer inspection it turns out to be a highly conflicted regulatory strategy that preserves and even strengthens some of the most problematic aspects of the massive U.S. penal system.

September 10, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, August 30, 2014

"The criminalisation of American business"

20140830_cna400The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Economist cover story, which carries the subheadline "Companies must be punished when they do wrong, but the legal system has become an extortion racket." Here are excerpts:

Who runs the world’s most lucrative shakedown operation? The Sicilian mafia? The People’s Liberation Army in China? The kleptocracy in the Kremlin? If you are a big business, all these are less grasping than America’s regulatory system. The formula is simple: find a large company that may (or may not) have done something wrong; threaten its managers with commercial ruin, preferably with criminal charges; force them to use their shareholders’ money to pay an enormous fine to drop the charges in a secret settlement (so nobody can check the details). Then repeat with another large company.

The amounts are mind-boggling. So far this year, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and other banks have coughed up close to $50 billion for supposedly misleading investors in mortgage-backed bonds. BNP Paribas is paying $9 billion over breaches of American sanctions against Sudan and Iran. Credit Suisse, UBS, Barclays and others have settled for billions more, over various accusations. And that is just the financial institutions. Add BP’s $13 billion in settlements since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Toyota’s $1.2 billion settlement over alleged faults in some cars, and many more.

In many cases, the companies deserved some form of punishment: BNP Paribas disgustingly abetted genocide, American banks fleeced customers with toxic investments and BP despoiled the Gulf of Mexico. But justice should not be based on extortion behind closed doors. The increasing criminalisation of corporate behaviour in America is bad for the rule of law and for capitalism (see [companion] article)....

The drawbacks of America’s civil tort system are well known. What is new is the way that regulators and prosecutors are in effect conducting closed-door trials. For all the talk of public-spiritedness, the agencies that pocket the fines have become profit centres: Rhode Island’s bureaucrats have been on a spending spree courtesy of a $500m payout by Google, while New York’s governor and attorney-general have squabbled over a $613m settlement from JPMorgan. And their power far exceeds that of trial lawyers. Not only are regulators in effect judge and jury as well as plaintiff in the cases they bring; they can also use the threat of the criminal law.

Financial firms rarely survive being indicted on criminal charges. Few want to go the way of Drexel Burnham Lambert or E.F. Hutton. For their managers, the threat of personal criminal charges is career-ending ruin. Unsurprisingly, it is easier to empty their shareholders’ wallets. To anyone who asks, “Surely these big firms wouldn’t pay out if they knew they were innocent?”, the answer is: oddly enough, they might.

Perhaps the most destructive part of it all is the secrecy and opacity. The public never finds out the full facts of the case, nor discovers which specific people—with souls and bodies—were to blame. Since the cases never go to court, precedent is not established, so it is unclear what exactly is illegal. That enables future shakedowns, but hurts the rule of law and imposes enormous costs. Nor is it clear how the regulatory booty is being carved up. Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, who is up for re-election, reportedly intervened to increase the state coffers’ share of BNP’s settlement by $1 billion, threatening to wield his powers to withdraw the French bank’s licence to operate on Wall Street. Why a state government should get any share at all of a French firm’s fine for defying the federal government’s foreign policy is not clear....

In the longer term, two changes are needed to the legal system. The first is a much clearer division between the civil and criminal law when it comes to companies. Most cases of corporate malfeasance are to do with money and belong in civil courts. If in the course of those cases it emerges that individual managers have broken the criminal law, they can be charged.

The second is a severe pruning of the legal system. When America was founded, there were only three specified federal crimes — treason, counterfeiting and piracy. Now there are too many to count. In the most recent estimate, in the early 1990s, a law professor reckoned there were perhaps 300,000 regulatory statutes carrying criminal penalties—a number that can only have grown since then. For financial firms especially, there are now so many laws, and they are so complex (witness the thousands of pages of new rules resulting from the Dodd-Frank reforms), that enforcing them is becoming discretionary.

This undermines the predictability and clarity that serve as the foundations for the rule of law, and risks the prospect of a selective — and potentially corrupt — system of justice in which everybody is guilty of something and punishment is determined by political deals. America can hardly tut-tut at the way China’s justice system applies the law to companies in such an arbitrary manner when at times it seems almost as bad itself.

August 30, 2014 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Friday, August 22, 2014

"The Debt Penalty: Exposing the Financial Barriers to Offender Reintegration"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new paper authored by Douglas Evans with the Center for Research and Evaluation at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.  Here is the paper's summary:

Financial debt associated with legal system involvement is a pressing issue that affects the criminal justice system, offenders, and taxpayers.  Mere contact with the criminal justice system often results in fees and fines that increase with progression through the system.  Criminal justice fines and fees punish offenders and are designed to generate revenue for legal systems that are operating on limited budgets.  However, fines and fees often fail to accomplish this second goal because many offenders are too poor to pay them.

To compound their financial struggles, offenders may be subject to other financial obligations, such as child support payments and restitution requirements.  If they do not pay their financial obligations, they may be subject to late fees and interest requirements, all of which accumulate into massive debt over time.  Even if they want to pay, offenders have limited prospects for meaningful employment and face wage disparities resulting from their criminal history, which makes it even more difficult to pay off their debt.

An inability to pay off financial debt increases the possibility that offenders will commit new offenses and return to the criminal justice system.  Some courts re-incarcerate offenders simply because they are unable to settle their financial obligations.  Imposing financial obligations and monetary penalties on offenders — a group that is overwhelmingly indigent — is not tenable.  States often expend more resources attempting to recoup outstanding debt from offenders than they are able to collect from those who pay.  This report explores the causes and effects of perpetual criminal debt and offers solutions for encouraging ex-offender payment.

August 22, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Third Circuit finds "reprehensible" conduct regarding victim restitution not grounds for revoking supervised release

A Third Circuit panel yesterday handed down an interesting ruling in US v. Bagdy, No. 13-2975 (3d Cir. Aug. 21, 2014) (available here), reversing the revocation of supervised released despite calling the defendant's conduct "reprehensible." Here is how the Bagdy opinion starts:

At issue on this appeal is whether supervised release may be revoked and an offender sent to prison based upon a District Court’s finding that the offender acted in bad faith in relation to his obligation to make restitution to the victims of his criminal conduct.  In this case, although Appellant David Bagdy complied with the letter of the District Court’s restitution order by ultimately paying more than one-third of a $435,000 inheritance he had received while on supervised release, he engaged in a lavish spending spree that dissipated the balance of the inheritance while delaying the proceedings intended to modify the restitution order.  Like the District Court, we find Bagdy’s conduct reprehensible.  We conclude, however, that the District Court could not revoke supervised release for such bad faith conduct because Bagdy did not violate a specific condition of supervised release in relation to the restitution obligation.  Accordingly, we will vacate the judgment and remand for further proceedings.

August 22, 2014 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Victims' Rights At Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Pennsylvania Supreme Court declares $75K mandatory fine constitutionally excessive for $200 theft

Images (2)Thanks to How Appealing, I just saw this fascinating new unanimous ruling by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in Pennsylvania v. Eisenberg, No. (Pa. Aug. 19, 2014) (available here). Here is how the lengthy opinion gets started:

The controlling issue in this unusual direct appeal from a conviction arising under the Gaming Act is whether imposition of a mandatory minimum fine of $75,000 for a conviction of a first-degree misdemeanor theft of $200 violates the prohibition of Article I, Section 13 of the Pennsylvania Constitution against excessive fines.  For the reasons set forth below, we conclude that, under the circumstances, the fine imposed indeed is unconstitutionally excessive. Accordingly, we vacate that portion of the judgment of sentence involving the mandatory fine and we remand to the trial court to determine, in its discretion, the appropriate fine to be imposed commensurate with appellant’s offense.

The full ruling is worth a full read by anyone interested in constitutional review of sentences, especially because the ruling turns in part on the fact that the punishment here involved a statutory mandatory term.  Here is an excerpt from the heart of the opinion's analysis:

In our view, the fine here, when measured against the conduct triggering the punishment, and the lack of discretion afforded the trial court, is constitutionally excessive. Simply put, appellant, who had no prior record, stole $200 from his employer, which happened to be a casino.  There was no violence involved; there was apparently no grand scheme involved to defraud either the casino or its patrons.  Employee thefts are unfortunately common; as noted, appellant’s conduct, if charged under the Crimes Code, exposed him to a maximum possible fine of $10,000. Instead, because appellant’s theft occurred at a casino, the trial court had no discretion, under the Gaming Act, but to impose a minimum fine of $75,000 – an amount that was 375 times the amount of the theft....

The Commonwealth argues that the mandatory fine is not constitutionally excessive because a fine serves both to punish and to deter, and in the Legislature’s judgment, the amount here was necessary to accomplish both in light of the public perception of the gaming industry and the significant amount of money exchanged in casinos.  We acknowledge that all fines serve the twin purposes of punishment and deterrence.  At the same time, however, we note that the extension of the mandatory fine to this offense was adopted in 2010, and it was accompanied by no separate legislative statement of purpose. The only statement of purpose is that attending the initial Gaming Act legislation, i.e., the general statement of purpose to protect the public through regulation of the gaming industry.  The Commonwealth cites nothing in the later legislation, its legislative history, or logic to explain the sheer amount of this fine for this particular added offense, and the reason for making the offense subject to a mandatory fine....

[T]he Commonwealth’s reliance on cases in which courts have upheld substantial criminal administrative penalties in light of the Legislature’s dual objectives of punishment and deterrence, is misplaced. In those cases, the fines were tailored, scaled, and in the strictest sense, calculated to their offenses.  It is undoubtedly within the Legislature’s discretion to categorize theft from a casino differently than other theft crimes in Pennsylvania, and, in turn, to fashion different penalties.  However, the prohibition against excessive fines under Article I, Section 13 requires that the Legislature not lose sight of the fact that fines must be reasonably proportionate to the crimes which occasion them.  We hold that, as imposed here, the mandatory fine clearly, palpably and plainly violates the Pennsylvania Constitution.

August 20, 2014 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Thursday, July 24, 2014

"Paying for Gideon"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new essay by Beth Colgan now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

To protect the “noble ideal” that “every defendant stands equal before the law,” Gideon v. Wainwright guaranteed the right to defense counsel for those who cannot afford it. Gideon’s concept is elegantly simple: if you are too poor to pay for counsel, the government will provide.  The much more complicated reality, however, is that since Gideon, courts have assigned counsel to millions of American defendants too poor to pay for an attorney, have required those defendants to pay for their counsels’ services, and have punished those unable to do so.

This essay examines how we moved from Gideon’s guarantee to this reality.  I assert that Gideon’s protection against recoupment for those with no ability to pay has remained hidden in plain sight due to misinterpretations in two lines of cases.  The first line involves a series of cases in which the Court held that the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment required the waiver of financial barriers to accessing the courts.  The second line involves the misapplication of the Fifth Amendment’s collateral consequences doctrine to the Sixth Amendment’s effective assistance of counsel jurisprudence, leading to a misunderstanding that to be constitutionally effective, counsel need not advise a client about collateral consequences.

I posit that the intersection of these two lines of cases has obscured the unconstitutional nature of today’s recoupment schemes, pushing Gideon out of the picture.  The more or less successful attempts by advocates, academics, and the courts to squeeze recoupment into a due process/equal protection/effective assistance of counsel frame misses the fact that today’s version of recoupment is itself a Gideon problem.

July 24, 2014 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, June 27, 2014

A 22-year-old driving his parents' RV from Colorado to Wisconsin with $50K, pot and a pit-bull gets pulled over in Nebraska...

The title of this post might make for the start of a great joke about modern America circa 2014.  But, in fact, it is the factual basics of a fascinating little ruling today by the Eighth Circuit in US v. Nelson, No. 13-1902 (8th Cir. 2014) (available here).

In an effort not to "give away the joke," I am not going to say anything more about this case others that to suggest that those concerned about excessive police powers will be pleasantly surprised by the ending to this story provided by the Eighth Circuit panel's opinion.

June 27, 2014 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack

Thursday, June 26, 2014

"What Is Criminal Restitution?"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Cortney Lollar now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

A new form of restitution has become a core aspect of criminal punishment. Courts now order defendants to compensate victims for an increasingly broad category of losses, including emotional and psychological losses and losses for which the defendant was not found guilty. Criminal restitution therefore no longer serves its traditional purpose of disgorging a defendant’s ill-gotten gains. Instead, restitution has become a mechanism of additional punishment. Courts, however, have failed to recognize the punitive nature of restitution and thus enter restitution orders without regard to the constitutional protections normally attaching to criminal proceedings.

This Article deploys a novel definition of punishment to situate restitution alongside other forms of punishment. Like all forms of punishment, restitution is imposed subsequent to a criminal allegation, pursuant to a statute motivated by morally condemnatory intent, and resulting in a substantial deprivation or obligation. Because restitution has become a form of punishment, this Article argues that judges should recognize criminal restitution for what it is — victim compensation imposed at the state’s request as condemnation for a moral wrong — and extend to defendants in restitution proceedings all the constitutional protections they enjoyed in earlier criminal proceedings. This means submitting restitution to a jury for determination pursuant to the Sixth Amendment, and subjecting it to the excessive-fines analysis of the Eighth Amendment.

June 26, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, May 29, 2014

"Funding Favored Sons and Daughters: Nonprosecution Agreements and 'Extraordinary Restitution' in Environmental Criminal Cases"

The title of this post is the title of this recent article authored by Paul Larkin that a helpful reader altered me. Here is the abstract:

Over the past eight years, the federal government has entered into more than two hundred nonprosecution agreements with corporations in white-collar crime cases.  In such agreements the government promises to cease its investigation and forego any potential charges so long as the corporation agrees to certain terms.  And there’s the rub: given the economic realities of just being charged with a white-collar crime these days, corporations are more than willing to accept nonprosecution agreements.

Prosecutors are cognizant of this willingness, as well as of the fact that these agreements are practically insulated from judicial review.  This results in the prosecution possessing a seemingly unfettered discretion in choosing the terms of a nonprosecution agreement.  The breadth of this discretion is nowhere more apparent than in environmental criminal cases. Nonprosecution agreements in such cases have begun to require corporations to donate monetarily to a nonprofit of the government’s choosing.  Indeed, in 2012 British Petroleum agreed to pay more than $2.394 billion to nonprofit agencies.

This Article critiques this practice by highlighting the inconsistencies between nonprosecution agreements and plea bargaining — the latter are subject to judicial review while the former are not — and unearthing the differences between these payments and any common-law understanding of restitutionary principles.  The Article then suggests that the practical result of these nonprosecution agreements is that prosecutors are diverting money that ought to be paid to the Treasury to government-chosen nonprofit agencies, a power constitutionally granted to legislative actors.  Finally, the Article concludes by suggesting a modest reform: judicial review by a United States magistrate judge, so as not to run into any Article III concerns, to ensure that prosecutors do not take advantage of the nonprosecution agreement process.

May 29, 2014 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, May 26, 2014

California DA tries to make sure marijuana crime does not pay by making the criminals pay for reduced charges

La-me-g-mendocino-potwebThe Los Angeles Times has this fascinting new article on a fascinting drug war innovation being utilized by a local districy attorney in California.  The article is headlined "Mendocino County D.A. takes a new approach to marijuana cases," and here are excerpts: 

When David Eyster took over as Mendocino County district attorney, felony marijuana prosecutions were overwhelming his staff and straining the public coffers.

With hundreds of cases active at any one time, taking an average 15 months to resolve, there were few victories to show for all the effort. "The system hadn't broken yet," Eyster said, "but it was dangerously close."

That was a little over three years ago. These days marijuana cases clear in about three months and the Sheriff's Department is flush with cash, thanks to what some are calling "the Mendocino model." To others, it's the Mendocino shakedown.

The transformation began when Eyster dusted off a section of the California health and safety code, intended to reimburse police for the cost of cleaning up meth labs and pot grows, and retooled it for a modern Mendocino County. In exchange for paying restitution, which Eyster sets at $50 per plant and $500 per pound of processed pot seized, eligible suspects can plead to a misdemeanor and get probation. (The law says restitution is reimbursement for actual enforcement costs, but defendants waive an itemized accounting and state the amount owed is "reasonable.")

The relinquishing of allegedly ill-gotten gains seized in separate civil forfeiture actions — cash, trucks and the occasional tractor — also might be part of the deal offered under Eyster's "global resolutions."

The restitution program is available only to those without troublesome criminal backgrounds who have not wildly overstepped California's somewhat gray laws on medical marijuana. Those who trespass, grow on public lands or degrade the environment need not apply.

Eyster said it's a complex calculation that he jots out himself, by hand, on the back of each case file. The size of a grow is not necessarily the deciding factor: In one current case, the defendants have records indicating they are supplying 1,500 medical users, Eyster said. Another case involved just four pounds of processed marijuana, but evidence indicated the defendant was selling for profit. Participants must agree to random searches while on probation, comply with medical marijuana laws and grow only for personal use.

Restitution funds, which have topped $3.7 million since early 2011, go directly to the investigating agencies. Asset forfeitures — the $4.4 million in cash and goods seized in 2013 was nearly double the previous year — are shared by the state, the district attorney's office and local law enforcement.

Among those who have criticized the program is Mendocino County Superior Court Judge Clay Brennan, who during a restitution hearing last year for a man with an 800-plant grow blasted it as "extortion of defendants."

A federal grand jury investigating county programs that derive revenue from marijuana enforcement has subpoenaed accounting records on the restitution program, Eyster confirmed. The reason is unclear, as the U.S. attorney's office declined to comment on the probe.

Legal analysts also have raised concerns about the potential for unequal treatment of defendants and the incentive for officers to focus on lucrative targets at the expense of those more menacing to public safety....

Eyster teamed with Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) in 2011 to try to make pot cultivation a "wobbler," prosecuted as either a felony or misdemeanor. The effort failed, but he had devised another way to thin the caseload.

He drew on past experience with welfare fraud, where considering restitution before making a filing decision was routine. Convinced that not all defendants were created equal — the mastermind behind a for-profit grow is more culpable than hired trimmers — he decided to evaluate each case, consider potentially exculpatory evidence and cut deals as he saw fit.

He offers defendants guidance on how to stay within the law, and said paying restitution "shows a step toward rehabilitation." "A month doesn't go by when someone doesn't say: 'Thank you for handling it this way,'" Eyster said.

Since he took office, 357 defendants have decided to pay restitution. About 20 of those violated their probation, resulting in 180-day jail stints and new charges. (On a second round, a straight misdemeanor charge is off the table.)

Eyster never accepts seized cash as payment of restitution, but his approach does throw such assets into the bargaining mix. It is unclear how many probationers paid restitution and forfeited seized cash or goods, but Eyster conceded the practice is common. "One hundred percent of the time, the defense wants to do a global resolution," he said. "It's saving a lot of time and costs."...

Defense attorney Keith Faulder, who practices in Mendocino County, is circumspect when discussing Eyster's program.  The district attorney, Faulder said, is "an innovator" who he believes is "operating in good faith when it comes to settling marijuana cases." However, Faulder said, Eyster "has a real policy of settling cases for civil forfeiture ... I think it gets a lot of dolphin with the tuna." That program has exploded in recent years, with law enforcement officials attributing the increased seizures to a pot trade that permeates the county....

Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said his deputies do not have the time or inclination to police for profit: "If I wanted to use this as a business plan, I'd have 12 people on my eradication team," he said.  He has two.  But he credits restitution and forfeitures for a sheriff's budget that is $600,000 in the black, and said he has also been able to expand a resident deputy program and purchase a new fleet of cars.

Despite the criticism, Eyster said he was confident in the legality and effectiveness of his approach. He said that he had offered Melinda Haag, U.S. attorney for the Northern District, "first dibs on the prosecution of all marijuana cases in Mendocino County" but that she declined.  So "they should please leave us alone and let local enforcement tackle our own marijuana problems."

Regular readers should not be at all surprised that I am inclined to praise Mendocino County DA for engineering a seemingly more efficient and perhaps more effective way to wage the modern drug war. Indeed, given the muddled mess that is both California's medical marijuana laws and the opaque federal enforcement of prohibition in that state, this "Mendocino model" for modern marijuana enforcement for lower-level marijuana cases strikes me as a very wise way to use prosecutorial discretion and triage prosecutorial resources.

I would like to believe that the federal grand jury investigating the "Mendocino model" is focused on seeing if a local success story can be turned into a national program. But I fear that the feds are looking into what DA Eyster is doing because they fear even the prospect of somebody inventing any better drug war mousetraps.

Finally, though I suppose I should be concerned about the potential for prosecutors extorting criminal defendants in this setting, this form of extortion troubles me much less that when prosecutors demand that defendants give up various rights to avoid a crazy-long mandatory prison sentences in traditional plea bargaining. When DA Eyster seeks money from marijuana defendants as part of the plea process, it seems he is only seeking to have them relinquish what were likely ill-gotten gains (much of which might end up going to defense attorneys' pockets without such a deal available); when other prosecutors seek pleas and cooperation from other defendants facing extreme prison terms, these prosecutors are demanding that defendants relinquish constitutional and statutory rights created specifically to limit and check the power of government officials.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

May 26, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack