Thursday, June 30, 2016

Highlighting what brought Justice Thomas and Sotomayor together in Voisine

Noah Feldman has this effective Bloomberg commentary about the recent SCOTUS Voisine ruling headlined "When Opposites Converge Over Domestic Violence." Here are excerpts:

Some two-thirds of the states define assault in a way that includes reckless conduct.  The court was therefore under substantial practical pressure to hold that reckless misdemeanor domestic assaults count for purposes of the federal gun law.  If it had not, the federal law would have had to be changed or else it wouldn't have applied in those states....

Thomas’s vote [in dissent] can be explained partly on the basis that he doesn’t want to infringe gun ownership.  He added a final section to his dissent suggesting as much.  But Sotomayor, who didn’t join that section of Thomas’s dissent, can’t have been actuated by this motive.  So why did the court’s most liberal member join its most conservative?

What Thomas and Sotomayor share in common -- along with being the court’s two members of racial minorities -- is a long-term concern with the overreach of federal criminal law.  Thomas’s worry has to do with federalism and the encroachment of the federal government into state law matters.  Sotomayor’s concern is more with the status of the individual defendant, who may be subject to long federal sentences.

Yet it’s noteworthy that both right and left saw the court’s decision as potentially troubling.  Neither Thomas nor Sotomayor is an apologist for domestic violence.  But both saw the court as extending the reach of federal criminal law unnecessarily under the shadow of concern about the dangers of domestic violence.  In their own way, each tries to be a conscience on a court that often acts pragmatically.  This time, the two consciences converged.

Prior related post:

June 30, 2016 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 27, 2016

By vote of 6-2, SCOTUS upholds broad application of federal prohibition on firearm possession by certain misdemeanants

Confirming that the Second Amendment has far more bark than bite when push comes to shove (puns intended), the Supreme Court this morning rejected a narrow interpretation of the federal criminal statute that forever prohibits any firearm possession by any persons who are convicted of certain misdemeanors. The opinion for the Court authored by Justice Kagan in Voisine v. US, 14-10154 (S. Ct. June 27, 2016) (available here), gets started this way:

Federal law prohibits any person convicted of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” from possessing a firearm. 18 U.S.C. §922(g)(9).  That phrase is defined to include any misdemeanor committed against a domestic relation that necessarily involves the “use . . . of physical force.”  §921(a)(33)(A).  The question presented here is whether misdemeanor assault convictions for reckless (as contrasted to knowing or intentional) conduct trigger the statutory firearms ban. We hold that they do.

Justice Thomas authored a dissent in Voisine, which was partially joined by Justice Sotomayor.  His dissent is nearly twice as long as the opinion for the Court, and it starts and ends this way:

Federal law makes it a crime for anyone previously convicted of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” to possess a firearm “in or affecting commerce.” 18 U.S.C. §922(g)(9).  A “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” includes “an offense that . . . has, as an element, the use or attempted use of physical force . . . committed by [certain close family members] of the victim.” §921(a)(33)(A)(ii).  In this case, petitioners were convicted under §922(g)(9) because they possessed firearms and had prior convictions for assault under Maine’s statute prohibiting “intentionally, knowingly or recklessly caus[ing] bodily injury or offensive physical contact to another person.” Me. Rev. Stat. Ann., Tit. 17–A, §207(1)(A) (2006).  The question presented is whether a prior conviction under §207 has, as an element, the “use of physical force,” such that the conviction can strip someone of his right to possess a firearm.  In my view, §207 does not qualify as such an offense, and the majority errs in holding otherwise.  I respectfully dissent....

At oral argument the Government could not identify any other fundamental constitutional right that a person could lose forever by a single conviction for an infraction punishable only by a fine.  Tr. of Oral Arg. 36–40.  Compare the First Amendment.  Plenty of States still criminalize libel....  I have little doubt that the majority would strike down an absolute ban on publishing by a person previously convicted of misdemeanor libel.  In construing the statute before us expansively so that causing a single minor reckless injury or offensive touching can lead someone to lose his right to bear arms forever, the Court continues to “relegat[e] the Second Amendment to a second-class right.”  Friedman v. Highland Park, 577 U. S. ___, ___ (2015) (THOMAS, J., dissenting from denial of certiorari) (slip op., at 6).

In enacting §922(g)(9), Congress was not worried about a husband dropping a plate on his wife’s foot or a parent injuring her child by texting while driving.  Congress was worried that family members were abusing other family members through acts of violence and keeping their guns by pleading down to misdemeanors.  Prohibiting those convicted of intentional and knowing batteries from possessing guns — but not those convicted of reckless batteries — amply carries out Congress’ objective.

Instead, under the majority’s approach, a parent who has a car accident because he sent a text message while driving can lose his right to bear arms forever if his wife or child suffers the slightest injury from the crash.  This is obviously not the correct reading of §922(g)(9).  The “use of physical force” does not include crimes involving purely reckless conduct. Because Maine’s statute punishes such conduct, it sweeps more broadly than the “use of physical force.”  I respectfully dissent.

June 27, 2016 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Second Amendment issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17)

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Even after Orlando shootings, GOP leaders in Congress unwilling to allow more medical research into gun deaths

Though I generally favor so-called "common-sense" gun regulations, I am not sure that more gun regulations will really help to reduce gun violence.  But I am sure that more research on gun violence and gun-related deaths could and should help us better engineer laws to advance public safety.  Consequently, I was saddened and disappointed to see this recent article in The Hill.  It is headlined "GOP rebuffs doctors on gun research," and here are excerpts:

The American Medical Association’s new push to unfreeze federal funding for gun research is hitting a wall of resistance in the Republican Party. In the wake of the mass shooting in Orlando, the nation’s leading doctors group announced Tuesday it plans to “actively lobby” against a nearly 20-year-old budget rule that has prevented federal researchers from studying gun-related deaths.

The near-unanimous vote, which took place two days after Orlando shooting early Sunday morning, puts the powerful doctor’s lobby at odds with Second Amendment supporters who have argued that gun-related violence is no different from other violent acts.

Dr. Alice Chen, the executive director of the nonprofit Doctors for America, called the move a “game changer” for the long-standing fight to lift the research restrictions. “The strength of the AMA's vast membership, plus that of the over 100 medical and public health groups across the country, will be hard for Congress to ignore,” she said.

But Republicans in Congress, including those in the House Doctors Caucus who are members of the group, are soundly rejecting the AMA’s calls for research into gun-related deaths. “I don’t particularly see the need for it, quite frankly,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who leads health funding for the House Appropriations Committee, told The Hill on Thursday.

Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas), a member of the House Doctors Caucus, said he also opposed the policy change. “Although I’m a member of the AMA, I don’t always agree with the position they take,” Burgess told The Hill on Thursday. “It seems to have worked well. I don’t favor changing it,” Burgess said of federal researchers staying away from the issue of guns....

It’s becoming increasingly unlikely that the gun research will be part of Congress’s response to the Orlando shooting. Cole, the Oklahoma Republican, said GOP leaders are much more likely to boost funding for the FBI to improve background checks. “Research is good, but unfortunately, this administration has used terrorism despicably to advance their gun control issue. It doesn’t shock me to tears that he might use [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] research rules to do the same,” Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) said Thursday.

Democrats this week already forced the GOP-led House Energy and Commerce Committee to vote on the research issue during its markup of a mental health bill. That amendment, from Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.), failed on a party line vote of 23-29.

The moratorium on federal gun research stems from a 1997 budget amendment that prohibits federal funds “to advocate or promote gun control” — language that researchers say has had a chilling effect. Republicans adopted the so-called Dickey amendment, named after Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ga.), in 1997 after strong lobbying from groups such as the National Rifle Association. Gun rights supporters have long argued that government agencies use studies to advance gun control, something researchers deny.

Dickey has since reversed course and is now campaigning to change the wording in the law.  Other gun rights advocates have remained strong in their opposition.  Larry Keane, general counsel for the National Sports Shooting Association, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has “misdiagnosed the issue.”

“Our view is that criminal violence involving firearms is a criminal justice [issue],” Keane said in an interview Thursday. “The CDC should focus on its mission, which is addressing diseases and illnesses like cancer and preventing an outbreak of the Zika virus.”

The renewed push for lifting the federal research restrictions began on Tuesday, after the AMA’s policy-making arm, the House of Delegates, decided by voice vote to “actively lobby” on the issue.  It also officially declared gun violence to be a "public health crisis” for the first time, over the protest of some members.

American Academy of Family Physicians president, Dr. Wanda Filer, who attended the meeting in Chicago, said she heard “very few nay votes” during the vote.  The resolution had been drafted late into the night on Sunday by a group of young doctors who skipped planned conference festivities to draft it.

It was the second year in a row the AMA’s conference was interrupted by reports of a mass shooting. Last year, the AMA held a moment of silence after the shooting at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C., that killed nine people....

Filer said the AMA’s vote adds momentum to the cause that many physician groups, like hers, already supported. “Without research and being brave enough to ask the questions, we’re going to have ill-informed, emotional arguments,” Filer said Thursday. “What we’re saying is, we need research.”

Importantly, I do not disagree with the gun rights advocates' view that "criminal violence involving firearms is a criminal justice [issue]," but accepting that notion does not logically justify precluding medical research on gun-related deaths. If our society is truly committed to reducing gun deaths, we ought to have bright researchers working in all disciplines studying this grave problem to try to discover evidence-based strategies to improve public safety.  But, sadly, it seems that even after the worst mass shooting in recent US history, partisan politics can still preclude sensible policymaking.

June 19, 2016 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Emerging news about two new notable gun control and gun safety efforts

These two recent stories about gun control and gun safety efforts from the folks in California and from the federal government have caught my eye lately:

Long-time readers ikely know I have long thought both governments and others ought to be investing in smart gun technologies to try to cut down on gun violence and related harms. At the very least, I think modern guns ought to have some kind of built in technology that could provide, though could/GPS technology, some kind of digital trace whenever used by someone other than their licensed owner (I have in mind a kind of Lojack system that would only report when the licensed owner is not the user).

April 30, 2016 in Gun policy and sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Death penalty abolition, broadened gun rights, heroin surge, police (mis)conduct, reduced sentences ... so many suspects in Chicago murder spike and NYC murder decline

The headline of this post is my effort to make some sense of this past week's dueling crime news headlines coming from two of America's largest cities:

As the title of my post is meant to suggest, I think there are so many notable legal and social developments that could be referenced in an effort to account for the increased mayhem in Chicago and the increased mildness in New York City.  Indeed, what is so remarkable is the reality that all of the high-profile developments referenced in the title of this post have occurred nearly in parallel in both jurisdictions over the last decade, and yet the potential impact of all these developments seems to be playing out so very differently.

In a number of prior posts in recent years (some of which I have linked below), I have tried to figure out what seems to be working and not working in these two big US cites and various others to reduce or increase violent crime. But, as some of the posts below suggest, it often seems that the only simple explanation for dynamic crime rate data is that they seem to defy simple explanations:

April 9, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Gun policy and sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Unanimous Supreme Court suggests Second Amendment can preclude state felony prosecution for public weapon possession

I wanted a chance to review closely the Supreme Court's notable Second Amendment work yesterday in Caetano v. Massachusetts, No. 14-10078 (S. Ct. March 21, 2016) (available here), before blogging about what strikes me as a significant constitutional ruling.  But even after doing some more review, I am still scratching my head a bit regarding both the Court's brief per curiam opinion and the lengthy and forceful concurring opinion authored by Justice Alito and joined by Justice Thomas.

Caetano strikes me as significant primarily because the Supreme Court has not ruled on the merits in a Second Amendment case since the 2010 McDonald ruling, and also because both McDonald and its landmark precursor, the 2008 Heller ruling, left so much uncertain about the reach and limits of the Second Amendment.  In addition, the merits of the Caetano case seem significant because it involved (1) possession of a weapon other than a traditional firearm (a stun-gun), and (2) a state criminal conviction affirmed by a state Supreme Court based on possession of this weapon outside the home.  Finally, as the title of this post suggests, it seems significant that not a single Justice dissented from the the Caetano per curiam ruling to vacate the judgment of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts based on the Second Amendment.

But Justice Alito's concurrence, which seems like it might have been initially drafted to serve as an opinion for the full Court, reasonably complained that the Court’s per curiam opinion was "grudging" because it seems open to the possibility that the defendant might still have her felony conviction for possession of a stun-gun outside her home affirmed on some other grounds.  Thus, as the title of this post is meant to indicate, I think the Caetano ruling only suggests a broadened application of the Second Amendment to limit a state felony prosecution.

This Lyle Denniston post at SCOTUSblog captures these themes in its title: "The Second Amendment expands, but maybe not by much."  And here is a telling excerpt from that post:

The Court set aside the state court ruling, and told that tribunal to take another look.  The decision left in doubt whether the conviction in the case would stand, and whether the state could come up with other reasons to support its ban.  It is possible that the state’s highest court will call for new legal briefs or a hearing on what to do about the Boston woman in the case, Jaime Caetano.

Her defense lawyer, Boston public defender Benjamin H. Keehn, said after the ruling Monday that he would seek to have her conviction vacated.  Although she was found guilty of a serious crime (a felony) under the Massachusetts procedure used in her case, she was not given a jail sentence or a fine.  Keehn said he was “not positive” what the Supreme Court ruling meant, and said he was studying whether there had been comparable situations in other cases returned to lower courts without specific instructions.

March 22, 2016 in Gun policy and sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Monday, March 14, 2016

Could three seemingly simple laws really reduce US gun deaths by more than 90 percent?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this CNN report from late last week about some recent notable empirical research.  The CNN piece is headlined "Study: 3 federal laws could reduce gun deaths by more than 90%,"  and here are excerpts (with a few links from the original):

Passing federal laws that require universal background checks for firearm purchases, background checks on ammunition purchases and firearm identification could reduce the rate of U.S. gun deaths by more than 90%, according to a new study.  "We wanted to see which restrictive gun laws really work, as opposed to saying 'restrictive laws work,' and figure out if we are pushing for a law which might not work," said Bindu Kalesan, assistant professor of medicine at Boston University and lead author of the study, which was published on Thursday in The Lancet.

Researchers arrived at the projection by looking at the number of gun-related deaths in every state in 2010 and the types of laws that existed in those states in 2009, including restrictive laws, such as background checks and child access prevention laws, and permissive laws, such as stand-your-ground laws.  They took into account differences in rates of gun ownership, unemployment and homicides that did not involve guns deaths.  Out of the 25 existing state laws that Kalesan and her colleagues studied, nine were associated with lower rates of gun-related deaths.
 
The researchers found the largest effects for universal background checks, which were associated with a 39% reduction in death, and ammunition background checks, which were associated with an 18% reduction in death. Laws around firearm identification, which make it possible to determine the gun that fired a bullet, were associated with a 16% reductions in deaths.

Researchers projected that federal laws expanding background checks for firearms purchases would reduce the U.S. gun death rate by 57%, while background checks for ammunition purchases would cut gun death rates by 81% and firearm identification would reduce the rate by 83%. The researchers said it would take many years to lower the rates so far.  Although a federal policy known as the Brady Law requires background checks on individuals who want to buy a firearm from a licensed dealer, it leaves a large gap, as an estimated 40% of firearms are acquired through unlicensed sellers, such as some online and at gun shows....

The researchers found that nine of the 25 laws they analyzed were linked to higher rates of gun-related deaths. Another seven laws did not seem to have an impact one way or the other on gun-related deaths.  Some of the laws that were linked with greater numbers of gun related deaths came as a surprise to the researchers. For example, bans on assault weapons, such as semi-automatic guns, were associated with a 15% increase in mortality....

In an editorial published with the study, Harvard School of Public Health Professor David Hemenway said the study was "a step in the right direction" to understand the scientific evidence about policies to reduce gun violence. But, he said, cutting mortality rates so dramatically is more complicated than simply implementing background checks for firearms and ammunition. "That result is too large -- if only firearm suicide and firearm homicide could be reduced so easily," Hemenway wrote.

Although there is good evidence that state laws requiring universal background checks, as well as handgun-purchaser licensing or permit requirements, reduce homicides and suicides, the current study does not add to the evidence base, said Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, who was not involved in the current study. Webster recently carried out a study in which they found a 1995 Connecticut law requiring firearm purchasers to have a license was linked to a sharp drop in gun-related murders in the state. For that study, he and his colleagues compared murder rates in Connecticut with similar states.

The problem with the current study, Webster said, is that it compared the number of deaths between all states, which could vary in many more ways than the authors accounted for, such as differences in culture, race and ethnic makeup, poverty rates and access to mental health care.  "Not surprisingly, the findings don't make much logical sense when it comes to gun policies other than the finding that universal background checks are protective," Webster said. For example, it is not clear why there would be such a large association, as the study found, between firearm identification laws and reductions in gun-related deaths, he added.

March 14, 2016 in Gun policy and sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, February 29, 2016

"Can you think of another constitutional right that can be suspended based upon a misdemeanor violation of a State law?"

The question in the title of this post is the question I have been asking again and again since the US Supreme Court decided in Heller and McDonald that the Second Amendment secured an individual right to keep and bare arms that was to be enforced in a manner comparable to other rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights. It also happened to be the question that Justice Clarence Thomas asked the federal government during oral argument today in Voisine v. United States

As highlighted by a whole bunch of press coverage spotlighted here at How Appealing, it is notable simply that Justice Thomas spoke up at oral argument after having been silent in that setting for a decade.  But I trust regular readers will not be surprised to hear that I am excited that Justice Thomas decided he had to speak up to ask what I think is the very hard question about the meaning and reach of the Second Amendment that lacks a very good answer if Heller and McDonald are serious about the need to treat the Second Amendment seriously like all other rights enumerated in the US Constitution's Bill of Rights.

Not only did Justice Thomas ask this important question toward the tail end of oral argument in Voisine, he followed up with a First Amendment analogy that I find pretty compelling:

JUSTICE THOMAS:  [L]et's say that a publisher is reckless about the use of children, and what could be considered indecent [placement in an ad] and that that triggers a violation of, say, a hypothetical law against the use of children in these ads, and let's say it's a misdemeanor violation.  Could you suspend that publisher's right to ever publish again?

MS. EISENSTEIN: Your Honor, I don't think you could suspend the right to ever publish again, but I think that you could limit, for example, the manner and means by which publisher...

JUSTICE THOMAS: So how is that different from suspending your Second Amendment right?

Critically, even though I do not believe the government here had any satisfactory answers for Justice Thomas's tough Second Amendment questions, the Justice was not even making his arguments as forcefully as he could have in the context of the federal criminal prosecution at issue in Voisine.  Critically, Voisine is not a case in which someone previously convicted of a state "reckless" misdemeanor is now seeking a legal declaration that he has Second Amendment rights.  Rather, Stephen Voisine is a schnook who was subject to a federal felony prosecution (and as much as 10 years in federal prison) simply for possessing a rifle (while apparently hunting a bald eagle!?!?) because a number of years earlier he pleaded guilty to a Maine domestic violence misdemeanor. 

For the record, I am not a big fan of Maine schnooks who in the past were involved in a domestic incident and years later go out hunting bald eagles.  But I am even less of a fan of the creation of new jurisprudential doctrines that would allow the federal government to bring a felony prosecution of an individual engaged in what might be otherwise constitutionally protected activity simply based on a long-ago misdemeanor violation of a State law.  That is the reality of what is going on in Voisine, and even folks not supportive of Second Amendment rights should be concerned that a case like Voisine could end up casting poor light on other constitutional protections if his conviction gets upheld in this case.

Some prior related posts:

February 29, 2016 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Second Amendment issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Paul Cassell, the former federal judge who sentenced Weldon Angelos to 55 years, writes directly to Prez Obama to support his clemency petition

As reported in this Washington Post article, headlined "Former federal judge to President Obama: Free the man I sentenced to 55 years in prison," former US District Judge (and now Prof) Paul Cassell has now written directly to the President to urge him to "swiftly commute his sentence." Regular readers likely know a lot about the story of Weldon Angelos, whom I once helped represent as he pursued collateral appeals, and the Post article provides some of the details and context behind his current push for clemency:

Calling the sentence “one of the most troubling that I ever faced in my five years on the federal bench,” Paul G. Cassell, now a professor at the University of Utah’s law school, said the mandatory minimum sentence he was required to impose on Angelos was one of the chief reasons he chose to step down as a judge.

“I write you as the judge who sentenced Weldon Angelos to a 55-year mandatory minimum prison term for non-violent drug offenses,” Cassell wrote to Obama. “It appears to me that Mr. Angelos meets all of the criteria for a commuted sentence.” Cassell was appointed to the bench in 2002 by former President George W. Bush.

In December, Obama granted clemency to 95 drug offenders as part of his continuing effort to give relief to drug offenders who were harshly sentenced in the nation’s war on drugs. But Angelos, who is behind bars at the Federal Correctional Institution at Mendota, was not on the president’s list. The president has commuted the sentences of 184 federal inmates, more individuals than the past five presidents combined. But sentencing reform advocates say that hundreds — and potentially thousands — of inmates who meet the Obama administration’s criteria for clemency, including Angelos, are still behind bars....

Angelos, the son of a Greek immigrant and the 36-year-old father of three, is one of the nation’s most famous nonviolent drug offenders and a symbol of the severe mandatory sentences. His case has been widely championed, including by Utah’s Republican Sen. Mike Lee, former FBI Director Bill Sessions, the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums and conservative billionaire Charles Koch. “Judge Cassell’s letter articulates well the grave injustice involved in Weldon’s prison sentence,” said Mark Holden, general counsel and senior vice president of Koch Industries,” who has urged attention to the Angelos case.

Like many inmates, Angelos has missed being with his children as they grew up. His 18-year-old son, Anthony, was six when he was sent to prison. His son, Jesse, was 4. His 13-year-old daughter, Meranda, was an infant. In an interview, Angelos said he had hoped the president would grant him clemency in time for him to see Anthony graduate from high school in June.

Angelos was sentenced to 55 years without the possibility of parole after he sold marijuana to a police informant three times in 2002, each time charging $350. Prosecutors alleged that Angelos, the founder of Utah hip-hop label Extravagant, was a gang member and a drug dealer. Angelos denied the allegations and declined a plea bargain offered by prosecutors. Angelos never used or pulled a gun, but the informant later testified in court that he saw one in Angelos’s car during the first buy. He said that during the second buy, Angelos was wearing an ankle holster holding a firearm. Officers later searched his home and found a gun.

The sentence Angelos received as a nonviolent first-time offender fell under a law called 924(c). Federal drug laws require 5- to 30-year mandatory minimum sentences for possessing, brandishing or discharging a gun during a drug-trafficking crime. For each subsequent gun conviction, there is a mandatory sentence of 25 years that must be served consecutively. This is often referred to as “gun stacking,” which is why Angelos received 55 years without parole. He received five years for the gun in the car; 25 years for the second gun charge, having one in an ankle strap; and another 25 years for a third firearms charge, the gun police found in his home. He got one day for the marijuana.

In 2004, when Cassell sentenced Angelos, he wrote a lengthy opinion, comparing Angelos’s sentence (738 months) with the guideline sentences for the kingpin of three major drug trafficking rings that caused three deaths (465 months), a three-time aircraft hijacker (405 months), a second-degree murderer of three victims (235 months) and the rapist of three 10-year-olds (188 months).

Related prior posts providing some Angelos case history:

February 10, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Examples of "over-punishment", Gun policy and sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Do latest ugly gun crime numbers in Chicago disprove the "more guns, less crime" hypothesis?

The question in the title of this post is what first jumped to my mind as I reviewed this USA Today report on the ugly crime spike in the Windy City recorded in January.  Here are the basics:

The nation's third largest city recorded 51 homicides in January, the highest toll for the month since at least 2000. Gang conflicts and retaliatory violence drove the "unacceptable" increase in homicides, the police department said in a statement. But the rise in violence also notably comes as the Chicago Police Department faces increased scrutiny following the court-ordered release of a police video showing a white police officer fatally shooting a black teenager 16 times, and as the department implements changes in how it monitors street stops by officers.

Chicago routinely records more homicides annually than any other American city, but the grim January violence toll marks a shocking spike in violence in a city that recorded 29 murders for the month of January last year and 20 murders for the month in 2014. In addition to the jump in killings, police department said that it recorded 241 shooting incidents for the month, more than double the 119 incidents recorded last January.

The rise in violence comes after the Chicago Police Department reported 468 murders in 2015, a 12.5% increase from the year before. There were also 2,900 shootings, 13% more than the year prior, according to police department records.

In recent weeks, the police department pushed back against the notion that the rise in homicides could be due to cops becoming less aggressive due to the negative attention the department has received in the aftermath of the release of the police video showing the shooting of Laquan McDonald. The city saw several weeks of largely peaceful protests after the release of the video. The U.S. Justice Department has launched a civil rights investigation of the city.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who faced fierce backlash in the city's African-American community over his handling of the McDonald case, fired his police superintendent, Garry McCarthy, after the video's release. Interim Superintendent John Escalante expressed frustration earlier this month as the homicide toll climbed, but said it was due mainly to gang activity. He also said he was concerned about social media fueling gang disputes, with fatal incidents starting as a war of words on the Internet....

St. Louis saw a dramatic increase in the number homicides following the August 2014 police shooting death of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson, which spurred months of angry protests. And Baltimore saw a spike in homicides following the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore in April, an incident that sparked unrest in the Charm City. In both Baltimore and St. Louis, the rise in violent crime began to increase prior to the high-profile incidents and accelerated afterward.

The department says it has seen a decrease in investigative stops by cops on the streets after new rules went into effect Jan. 1 requiring the police department to bolster the monitoring of stops and protective pat downs known as "stop-and-frisk." The police department entered an agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union to record contact cards for all street stops after the organization criticized the the city's police for disproportionately targeting minorities for questioning and searches. In the past, police officers were required only to fill out cards for stops that didn't result in an arrest. The new contact cards also require police officers to offer greater detail about the stops than they have in the past.

This Chicago Sun-Times article, headlined "Street cops say 'ACLU effect' drives spike in gun violence," provides one account of what might be an importance cause of these latest ugly crime developments.  But the title of this post is intended to flag the possibility that an increase in gun violence might also be attributed in part to an increase of gun availability, both legal and illegal, that seems to necessarily flow from the Supreme Court's recent Second Amendment work and continued controversies over gun control.  For a host of reasons, I have long wished that there was a sound basis to believe (or at least hope) that increased gun availability could actually reduce crime.  This Chicago news would seem to undermine such a hypothesis.

February 2, 2016 in Gun policy and sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Is there any chance any domestic criminal justice issue gets any attention during tonight's GOP debate?

The first big Prez debate of this big Prez election year takes place in South Carolina, and I am already assuming that any number of notable and important domestic criminal justice issues will be largely forgotten as GOP candidates spar again over the now-standard debate topics of immigration, ISIS and terrorism, and economic development.  Still, as this new Marshall Project piece highlights, the location of the GOP debate tonight was the site of a high-profile mass shooting, and that reality might perhaps enhance the (slim) odds we get a question or two about the death penalty or gun violence or the racial dynamics of crime, policing and punishment.  The MP piece is titled "Republican Candidates on Criminal Justice: A Primer," and here is how it sets up a review of what the GOP candidates in the prime-time debate have said so far on the campaign trail about these issues:

Race. Guns. The Death Penalty.

If these issues resounded anywhere in the past year, it was in Charleston, S.C., where Dylann Roof shot and killed nine parishioners in a Bible study class in one of the oldest black churches in the South.  The June massacre, apparently propelled by the gunman’s white supremacist views and coming amid a spate of killings of blacks by the police around the country, underscored a plaintive question being asked more and more: Do black lives matter?

Thursday night, Republicans seeking the party’s nomination for president gather in Charleston for their sixth televised debate, less than three weeks before their first big contest, the Iowa caucuses.  In the weeks after the killings at Emanuel A.M.E. Church, the South Carolina Legislature finally confronted the racially divisive symbol of secession, the Confederate battle flag, and ordered it removed from the state house grounds.  But questions of race, guns and the death penalty have only intensified nationally since then.  Here’s how the candidates (listed in alphabetical order) stand on some of those issues, as reviewed by The Marshall Project.

January 14, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Gun policy and sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (25)

Monday, January 11, 2016

Lots of notable Atlantic reads on range of criminal justice topics

The folks over at The Atlantic always have a lot of worthy criminal justice (and other) reads, and these recent pieces struck me as especially blogworthy:

January 11, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Gun policy and sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

How many fundamental rights in the Bill of Rights can be uniquely regulated for adults under 21?

The answer to the question in the title of this post would seem to be "at least one" in light of an interesting ruling today by the Seventh Circuit in Horsley v. Trame, No. No. 14-2846 (7th Cir. Dec. 15, 2015) (available here). Here is the starting, ending and some in-between key passages from the panel decision:

Tempest Horsley’s application to possess an Illinois Firearm Owner’s Identification Card, commonly known as a “FOID card,” was returned to her as incomplete because she was over 18 but not yet 21 and her application did not contain a parent or guardian signature. Although she could have under Illinois law, she did not seek further review from the Director of the Illinois State Police. We disagree with Horsley that the Illinois statutory scheme violates her rights under the Second Amendment. Illinois does not impose a categorical ban on firearm possession for 18-to- 20-year-olds whose parents do not consent. Rather, when an applicant cannot obtain a parent or guardian signature, he or she may appeal to the Director for a FOID card, and the Director will make a determination. We conclude that this process for 18-to-20-year-olds is not unconstitutional, so we affirm the decision of the district court....

Horsley ... maintains that firearm possession by 18-to-20-year-olds falls within the scope of the Second Amendment. She emphasizes that persons over 18 can vote and serve in the military, get married without parental consent, and own land. Even though the age of majority was for many years 21, it is now 18, and so she argues that presentday 18-year-olds cannot be restricted from possessing firearms based on age alone. She points to historical evidence that she contends favors her position as well. The First Militia Act enacted by the United States Congress in 1792, for example, included 18-year-old men in the scope of those eligible for the militia. Because a minor could be a member of the militia and be armed, she reasons that the Second Amendment gives these persons a right to bear arms. We need not decide today whether 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds are within the scope of the Second Amendment. Cf. Nat’l Rifle Ass’n, 700 F.3d 185 at 204-05 (also declining to resolve issue). Even if they are, our next step would be to turn to means-ends scrutiny of the regulation. Ezell, 651 F.3d at 703.... Significantly, although Horsley’s arguments treat the challenged statute as a categorical ban on firearm possession, the FOID Card Act does not in fact ban persons under 21 from having firearms without parent or guardian consent. Having a parent or guardian signature may speed up the process, but it is not a prerequisite to obtaining a FOID card in Illinois. Rather, a person for whom a parent’s signature is not available can appeal to the Director of the Illinois State Police [and any] denial is subject to judicial review....

The absence of a blanket ban makes the Illinois FOID Card Act much different from the blanket ban on firearm possession present in Heller. That there is not a categorical ban here also distinguishes this case from Planned Parenthood v. Danforth, 428 U.S. 52 (1976), to which Horsley points. There the Supreme Court struck down a “blanket provision” requiring the consent of a parent or person in loco parentis before an unmarried minor could have an abortion during her first 12 weeks of pregnancy unless necessary to preserve the mother’s life. Id. at 74....

The Illinois statute is substantially related to the achievement of the state’s interests. The goal of protecting public safety is supported by studies and data regarding persons under 21 and violent and gun crimes....  Trame also points to scholarly research on development through early adulthood that supports a conclusion that the Illinois FOID card application procedure for persons under 21 fits the state’s compelling interest in public safety....

We conclude that Illinois has shown a sufficient meansend relationship between the challenged statute and an important government interest.  Illinois’s decision to use parents as a first check on firearm possession by persons under 21 is reasonable.  The parent or guardian signature provision provides for an individualized assessment of the applicant’s fitness for possession of a firearm by a person likely to be in the best position to make such an evaluation. That signature also subjects the parent to liability for harm caused by firearm ownership.  The legislature could reasonably conclude that many persons under 21 would not have the financial ability to compensate a person injured in a firearms incident, and the signature provision in the Illinois statute provides a means for an additional source of income in that event.  If no parent or guardian is willing or able to sign the application, the Illinois statute provides that another person can make the individualized assessment — the Director of State Police.  The challenged provisions in the FOID Card Act are substantially related to the state’s important interests, and we do not find the law unconstitutional.

December 15, 2015 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, December 07, 2015

Justice Thomas (with Justice Scalia) dissents from cert denial in Second Amendment challenge to local assault weapon ban

After SCOTUS released on Friday its most list of certiorari grants (including a sentencing case as noted here), the highlight of today's long order list of denials of certiorari comes in the form of this dissent authored by Justice Thomas and joined by Justice Scalia. The dissent from the denial of certiorari in Friedman v. City of Highland Park, Illinois, begins and ends this way (with a few cites removed):

“[O]ur central holding in” District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U. S. 570 (2008), was “that the Second Amendment protects a personal right to keep and bear arms for lawful purposes, most notably for self-defense within the home.” McDonald v. Chicago, 561 U. S. 742, 780 (2010) (plurality opinion).  And in McDonald, we recognized that the Second Amendment applies fully against the States as well as the Federal Government. Id., at 750; id., at 805 (THOMAS, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment). Despite these holdings, several Courts of Appeals— including the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in the decision below — have upheld categorical bans on firearms that millions of Americans commonly own for lawful purposes.  See 784 F. 3d 406, 410–412 (2015).  Because noncompliance with our Second Amendment precedents warrants this Court’s attention as much as any of our precedents, I would grant certiorari in this case....

[The Seventh Circuit's] analysis misreads Heller.  The question under Heller is not whether citizens have adequate alternatives available for self-defense.  Rather, Heller asks whether the law bans types of firearms commonly used for a lawful purpose — regardless of whether alternatives exist.  554 U. S., at 627–629.  And Heller draws a distinction between such firearms and weapons specially adapted to unlawful uses and not in common use, such as sawed-off shotguns. Id., at 624–625.  The City’s ban is thus highly suspect because it broadly prohibits common semiautomatic firearms used for lawful purposes.  Roughly five million Americans own AR-style semiautomatic rifles.  See 784 F.3d, at 415, n.3.  The overwhelming majority of citizens who own and use such rifles do so for lawful purposes, including self-defense and target shooting.  See ibid.  Under our precedents, that is all that is needed for citizens to have a right under the Second Amendment to keep such weapons.

The Seventh Circuit ultimately upheld a ban on many common semiautomatic firearms based on speculation about the law’s potential policy benefits.  See 784 F. 3d, at 411–412. The court conceded that handguns — not “assault weapons” — “are responsible for the vast majority of gun violence in the United States.”  Id., at 409.  Still, the court concluded, the ordinance “may increase the public’s sense of safety,” which alone is “a substantial benefit.”  Id., at 412.  Heller, however, forbids subjecting the Second Amendment’s “core protection . . . to a freestanding ‘interest-balancing’ approach.”  Heller, supra, at 634.  This case illustrates why.  If a broad ban on firearms can be upheld based on conjecture that the public might feel safer (while being no safer at all), then the Second Amendment guarantees nothing.

The Court’s refusal to review a decision that flouts two of our Second Amendment precedents stands in marked contrast to the Court’s willingness to summarily reverse courts that disregard our other constitutional decisions.... There is no basis for a different result when our Second Amendment precedents are at stake.  I would grant certiorari to prevent the Seventh Circuit from relegating the Second Amendment to a second-class right.

As I have noted in prior posts, the Second Amendment has been relegated to status as a "second-class right" primarily due to dicta in Heller suggesting that any person who ever commits a crime can and does forever forfeit the "personal right to keep and bear arms for lawful purposes."  Lower courts since Heller have consistently upheld federal prosecution and severe sentencing of persons who long ago committed nonviolent crimes simply for much later seeking to "keep and bear arms for lawful purposes."  Not a single Justice has said a peep about this extreme restriction on Second Amendment rights even though, to my knowledge, few have ever seriously argued that any other right enumerated in the Bill of Rights is or should be subject to permanent forfeiture forever once a person is adjudicated guilty of a crime.

The significant and enduring pattern of courts upholding laws criminalizing persons with criminal records for gun possession, especially in a nation in which it seems more than a 25% of adults have some kind of criminal record, is what I think truly relegates the Second Amendment to a second-class right.  But, for obviously reasons, I am not expecting any SCOTUS Justices to note anytime soon that a mere local ban on possessing a certain type of firearm is far less consequential than the current federal ban on tens of millions of Americans ever being able to possess any firearm even for self-defense in their home.

December 7, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Gun policy and sentencing, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (13)

Friday, October 30, 2015

SCOTUS grants cert on quirky aspect of federal gun prohibition case

As reported in this SCOTUSblog post, headlined "Court grants review in firearm-possession case," the Supreme Court decided today to take up a federal criminal case involving gun rights. But, interestingly, as Amy Howe explains in the post, the Court did not accept for review the Second Amendment issue lurking in the case:

This afternoon the Court issued an initial group of orders from its October 30 Conference, adding one new case to its merits docket for the Term.  The Justices had considered  Voisine v. United States at two earlier Conferences before granting review today.

At issue are the convictions of two Maine men, Stephen Voisine and William Armstrong, for violating a federal law that prohibits the possession of firearms and ammunition by individuals who have previously been convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.  Both men allege that their convictions under Maine law for simple assault and misdemeanor domestic violence assault, respectively, do not automatically qualify as misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence for purposes of the federal law, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9), because both provisions of Maine law can be violated by conduct that is merely reckless, rather than intentional.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit rejected that argument, and the federal government urged the Court to deny review, but the Justices today disregarded that recommendation.

Notably, however, the Court agreed to review only the recklessness question; it declined to review a second question presented by the petition, which asked the Justices to rule on whether the ban on possession of firearms by individuals convicted of domestic violence violated their rights under the Second Amendment.

October 30, 2015 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

"Why the U.S. is No. 1 -- in mass shootings"

In light of sad and tragic news of yet another multiple-murder shooting in Virginia (CNN report here), I found especially notable this Los Angeles Times article about some sociology research on high-profile crimes in the United States.  The piece has the headline given to this post, and it gets started this way:

The United States is, by a long shot, the global leader in mass shootings, claiming just 5% of the global population but an outsized share -- 31% -- of the world's mass shooters since 1966, a new study finds.

The Philippines, Russia, Yemen and France -- all countries that can claim a substantial share of the 291 documented mass shootings between 1966 and 2012 -- collectively didn't even come close to the United States.

And what makes the United States such a fertile incubator for mass shooters? A comprehensive analysis of the perpetrators, their motives and the national contexts for their actions suggests that several factors have conspired to create in the United States a potent medium for fostering large-scale murder.

Those factors include a chronic and widespread gap between Americans' expectations for themselves and their actual achievement, Americans' adulation of fame, and the extent of gun ownership in the United States.

Set those features against a circumstance the United States shares with many other countries -- a backdrop of poorly managed mental illness -- and you have a uniquely volatile brew, the new study says.

With those conclusions, University of Alabama criminologist Adam Lankford set out to illuminate the darker side of American "exceptionalism" -- the notion that the United States' size, diversity, political and economic institutions and traditions set us apart in the world. Lankford's paper is among those being presented this week at the American Sociological Assn.'s annual meeting, in Chicago.

Perhaps no single factor sets the United States apart as sharply as does gun ownership, wrote Lankford. Of 178 countries included in Lankford's analysis, the United States ranked first in per-capita gun ownership. A 2007 survey found 270 million firearms in U.S. civilian households -- an ownership rate of 88.8 firearms per 100 people. Yemen followed, with 54.8 firearms per 100 people.

August 26, 2015 in Gun policy and sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (9)

Saturday, August 22, 2015

"Guns and Drugs"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Benjamin Levin now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This Article argues that the increasingly prevalent critiques of the War on Drugs apply to other areas of criminal law.  To highlight the broader relevance of these critiques, the Article uses as its test case the criminal regulation of gun possession.

The Article identifies and distills three lines of drug-war criticism, and argues that they apply to possessory gun crimes in much the same way that they apply to drug crimes. Specifically, the Article focuses on: (1) race- and class-based critiques; (2) concerns about police and prosecutorial power; and (3) worries about the social costs of mass incarceration.  Scholars have identified structural flaws in policing, prosecuting, and sentencing in the drug context; in the Article, I highlight the ways that the same issues persist in an area — possessory gun crime — that receives much less criticism.

Appreciating the broader applicability of the drug war’s critiques, I contend, should lead to an examination of the flaws in the criminal justice system that lessen its capacity for solving social problems.

August 22, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Gun policy and sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, June 13, 2015

How many hundreds (or thousands?) of ACCA prisoners could be impacted by a big ruling in Johnson?

The Supreme Court Term is winding down, and we might get a ruling as early as this coming wee in the (re)argued case Johnson v. US concerning the (un)constitutionality of the Armed Career Criminal Act.  As federal sentencing fans should know, there seem to be a real chance that Justice Scalia will convince enough of his colleagues to strike down ACCA as unconstitutionally vague.

Helpfully, Leah Litman has already authored an article, "Residual Impact: Resentencing Implications of Johnson v. United States’ Potential Ruling on ACCA’s Constitutionality", about some of the legal issues that might follow from a big constitutional ruling in Johnson.  But the question in the title of this post is focused on the practical question of just how many current federal prisoners serving ACCA sentences of 15 or more years could seek to benefit from ACCA.  

This helpful new "Quick Facts" report from the US Sentencing Commission indicates that in Fiscal Year 2014 roughly 10% of 5,500 federal firearm offenders were sentenced under ACCA to an average sentence of 188 months in prison.  Assuming that these numbers are typical for firearm sentencing in each of the last dozen years, we can then extrapolate to estimate that there may be as many as 7,000 current federal prisoners serving ACCA sentencing term.

Critically, though, even if the Supreme Court were to declare ACCA's residual clause unconstitutionally vague, that ruling alone would not necessarily impact all (or perhaps even most) of current ACCA prisoners.  Sentencing judges in many (maybe most) cases sentenced under ACCA likely did not rely on the residual clause of the statute to find enough triggering prior offenses to require the application of the severe ACCA sentence.  Among the uncertainties which could flow from a big ACCA ruling in Johnson  is whether other parts of the ACCA statute and prior convictions based on other parts of the ACCA statute are still valid if one ACCA clause is struck down as unconstitutionally vague.

Some related prior posts:

June 13, 2015 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, June 08, 2015

SCOTUS grants cert on a federal case concerning restraining assets for hiring defense counsel and denies cert in notable gun case

The Supreme Court started its work this morning with this order list that include a grant of certiorari in one federal criminal case, Luis v. US.  This SCOTUSblog page provides this account of the issue the case presents:

Whether the pretrial restraint of a criminal defendant's legitimate, untainted assets (those not traceable to a criminal offense) needed to retain counsel of choice violates the Fifth and Sixth Amendments.

In addition, at the end of the orders list, the Justices denied cert in a gun case from San Francisco, which prompted a lengthy dissent by Justice Thomas (joined by Justice Scalia). Here is how that dissent begins:

“Self-defense is a basic right” and “the central component” of the Second Amendment’s guarantee of an individual’s right to keep and bear arms.  McDonald v. Chicago, 561 U. S. 742, 767 (2010) (emphasis deleted).  Less than a decade ago, we explained that an ordinance requiring firearms in the home to be kept inoperable, without an exception for self-defense, conflicted with the Second Amendment because it “ma[de] it impossible for citizens to use [their firearms] for the core lawful purpose of selfdefense.”  District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U. S. 570, 630 (2008).  Despite the clarity with which we described the Second Amendment’s core protection for the right of self-defense, lower courts, including the ones here, have failed to protect it.  Because Second Amendment rights are no less protected by our Constitution than other rights enumerated in that document, I would have granted this petition.

As I have noted in lots of prior posts in the wake of the Heller and McDonald rulings, if it is really true that "Second Amendment rights are no less protected by our Constitution than other rights enumerated in that document," a lot of laws criminalizing and severely punishing mere gun possession by those with a distant criminal past might be constitutionally suspect.  But this dissent from Justice Thomas, which garnered only one additional Justice, confirms my belief that the majority of the Supreme Court does not really agree that the Second Amendment works just like most other rights protected by the Constitution.

June 8, 2015 in Gun policy and sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Canadian Supreme Court declares gun mandatory minimums unconstitutional

A helpful reader alerted me to a notable sentencing ruling from our northern neighbor reported in this press account headlined "Supreme Court quashes mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes: Court upholds Ontario ruling that struck down mandatory minimum sentences of 3 and 5 years." Here are the basics:

The Supreme Court of Canada dealt the Harper government's tough-on-crime agenda a serious blow Tuesday by striking down a law requiring mandatory minimum sentences for crimes involving prohibited guns. The 6-3 ruling, penned by Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, said the statute was unconstitutional as it upheld a 2013 Ontario Court of Appeal ruling that labelled the law cruel and unusual.

The ruling said the mandatory minimum sentence could ensnare people with "little or no moral fault" and who pose "little or no danger to the public." It cited as an example a person who inherits a firearm and does not immediately get a license for the weapon. "As the Court of Appeal concluded, there exists a 'cavernous disconnect' between the severity of the licensing-type offence and the mandatory minimum three-year term of imprisonment," McLachlin wrote for the majority.

Justice Minister Peter MacKay said in a statement that the government will review the decision to determine "next steps towards protecting Canadians from gun crime and ensuring that our laws remain responsive."...

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said there is a place for mandatory minimums in certain situations, noting that past Liberal governments have introduced them for "extreme crimes."

"But I think the over-use of them that the Supreme Court has highlighted, by this Conservative government, isn't necessarily doing a service to Canadians, both by not necessarily keeping us that much safer and also wasting large amount of taxpayers dollars on unnecessary court challenges," he told reporters in Oakville.

Keeping Canadians safe is cited by the government as the reason for its tough sentencing laws. McLachlin took aim at that justification in her ruling. "The government has not established that mandatory minimum terms of imprisonment act as a deterrent against gun-related crimes," she wrote. "Empirical evidence suggests that mandatory minimum sentences do not, in fact, deter crimes."

The court was deciding two appeals involving mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes brought by the Ontario and federal attorneys general. The top court upheld the appeal court's quashing of both the three-year mandatory minimum for a first offence of possessing a loaded prohibited gun, as well as the five-year minimum for a second offence.

The Ontario and federal governments argued that the minimums do not breach the charter protection against cruel and unusual punishment. The new sentencing rules were enacted in 2008 as part of a sweeping omnibus bill introduced by the federal Conservatives.

The full ruling from the Supreme Court of Canada is available at this link.

April 15, 2015 in Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | 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

Sunday, January 18, 2015

"Smart Guns Save Lives. So Where Are They?"

18kristof-articleLargeThe question in the title of this post is one that long-time readers know I have been asking on this blog for nearly a decade.  Today the question also serves as the headline for this Nicholas Kristof op-ed in the New York Times.  Here are excerpts: 

About 20 children and teenagers are shot daily in the United States, according to a study by the journal Pediatrics. Indeed, guns kill more preschool-­age children (about 80 a year) than police officers (about 50), according to the F.B.I. and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This toll is utterly unnecessary, for the technology to make childproof guns goes back more than a century. Beginning in the 1880s, Smith & Wesson (whose gun was used in the Walmart killing) actually sold childproof handguns that required a lever to be depressed as the trigger was pulled.  “No ordinary child under 8 years of age can possibly discharge it,” Smith & Wesson boasted at the time, and it sold half-­a-­million of these guns, but, today, it no longer offers that childproof option.

Doesn’t it seem odd that your cellphone can be set up to require a PIN or a fingerprint, but there’s no such option for a gun?  Which brings us to Kai Kloepfer, a lanky 17­year­old high school senior in Boulder, Colo. After the cinema shooting in nearby Aurora, Kloepfer decided that for a science fair project he would engineer a “smart gun” that could be fired only by an authorized user....

Kloepfer designed a smart handgun that fires only when a finger it recognizes is on the grip. More than 1,000 fingerprints can be authorized per gun, and Kloepfer says the sensor is 99.999 percent accurate.  A child can’t fire the gun.  Neither can a thief — important here in a country in which more than 150,000 guns are stolen annually.

Kloepfer’s design won a grand prize in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Then he won a $50,000 grant from the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation to refine the technology.  By the time he enters college in the fall (he applied early to Stanford and has been deferred), he hopes to be ready to license the technology to a manufacturer.

There are other approaches to smart guns.  The best known, the Armatix iP1, made by a German company and available in the United States through a complicated online procedure, can be fired only if the shooter is wearing a companion wristwatch.

The National Rifle Association seems set against smart guns, apparently fearing that they might become mandatory.  One problem has been an unfortunate 2002 New Jersey law stipulating that three years after smart guns are available anywhere in the United States, only smart guns can be sold in the state.  The attorney general’s office there ruled recently that the Armatix smart gun would not trigger the law, but the provision has still led gun enthusiasts to bully dealers to keep smart guns off the market everywhere in the U.S.

Opponents of smart guns say that they aren’t fully reliable.  Some, including Kloepfer’s, will need batteries to be recharged once a year or so.  Still, if Veronica Rutledge had had one in her purse in that Idaho Walmart, her son wouldn’t have been able to shoot and kill her.

“Smart guns are going to save lives,” says Stephen Teret, a gun expert at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “They’re not going to save all lives, but why wouldn’t we want to make guns as safe a consumer product as possible?”  David Hemenway, a public health expert at Harvard, says that the way forward is for police departments or the military to buy smart guns, creating a market and proving they work....

Smart guns aren’t a panacea.  But when even a 17­year­old kid can come up with a safer gun, why should the gun lobby be so hostile to the option of purchasing one?  Something is amiss when we protect our children from toys that they might swallow, but not from firearms.  So Veronica Rutledge is dead, and her son will grow up with the knowledge that he killed her — and we all bear some responsibility when we don’t even try to reduce the carnage.

Among other potential benefits, I think a sophisticated commitment by gun rights advocated to smart gun technologies could in some ways expand gun rights to people now too often denied their rights by overly broad federal firearm restrictions.  

Right now, for example, anyone convicted of any felony is forever criminally precluded from ever even possessing a firearm.  In a world with more technologically sophisticated guns, some kind of microchip might be installed in certain hunting rifles so that they only work at designated times in designated areas and perhaps then persons guilty of nonviolent felonies could be exempted from broad felon-in-possession prohibitions in order to be able to use these kinds of guns for sport.  Or, perhaps technology might allow all persons after completing their formal punishment to still be able to exercise their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms: ex-cons might be permitted only access to smart guns with GPS tracking/reporting technology (something comparable to the internet tracking/screening software now regularly required to be on sex offenders' computers) so that authorities can regularly follow when and how former felons are exercising their gun rights.

A few recent and older related posts:

January 18, 2015 in Gun policy and sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Investigation reveals "mandatory" Minnesota gun sentence not imposed in majority of cases

635518507863570129-sent-5This interesting local investigative press report from Minnesota provides further evidence that mandatory minimum sentencing schemes are rarely applied consistently or evenly.  The article is headlined "Mandatory sentences not always the case for Minnesota gun crimes," and here are excerpts:

Hennepin County judges have come under fire recently for their sentencing habits. Several top Minneapolis leaders are claiming some judges are soft on gun crimes, allowing dangerous criminals back on the streets when they could be in prison. To separate fact from fiction, KARE 11 Investigators analyzed every sentence for every felony gun crime during the past three years. We found that judges do not hand down mandatory minimum sentences in the majority of gun crime cases.

Under Minnesota law there is a mandatory minimum amount of time criminals who use a gun should be sentenced to serve in prison. But our KARE 11 investigation found the amount of time they are sentenced to prison, if they get prison time at all, varies greatly from court to court and judge to judge....

Our analysis of sentencing data provided by the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission reveals in gun cases across all of Minnesota, judges give less than the mandatory minimum sentence 53% of the time. In Hennepin County, that jumps to 56%. Judge Richard Scherer, Judge Susan Robiner, Judge Mark Wernick, Judge Joseph Klein and Judge Daniel Moreno downward depart from mandatory sentencing in felony gun cases in more than two thirds of the cases they oversee. "And that's too much" said Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman.

Freeman's office routinely butts heads with district judges when it comes to sentencing in gun cases, especially when the conviction is for a felon being in possession of a handgun. On average in Minnesota, prosecutor's object to a judge's reduced sentence in gun cases only 12% of the time. But in Hennepin County, it happens in nearly 30% of gun cases. "I think the numbers speak for themselves. There's a different climate on this bench than there is elsewhere in this state," said Freeman.

But 4th District Chief Judge Peter Cahill disagrees. He says judges cannot be a rubber stamp for police and prosecutors, and the most important thing for them is to be fair and impartial. "We can't worry about stats," said Cahill. When KARE 11 Investigative reporter A.J. Lagoe asked Chief Judge Cahill if mandatory did not mean mandatory in Minnesota, Cahill responded, "not really." He says calling the state's mandatory minimum sentences mandatory is a "bit of a misnomer."

Cahill said the issue is very complex, and added "If you read the statute specifically, the legislature gave the court the ability to depart from the gun sentencing scheme." There is a section in Minnesota's minimum sentencing law that allows judges to disregard mandatory sentencing in gun cases if there are "substantial and compelling" reasons to do so. “If you read the statute specifically, the legislature gave the court the ability to depart from the gun sentencing scheme.”

Are there truly "substantial and compelling reasons" to hand down a lesser sentence in the majority of gun cases? It depends on who you ask. In the wake of a series of deadly summer shootings, Minneapolis's Police Chief Janee Harteau said, "we are arresting people who should have been kept in jail." Harteau and City Council President Barb Johnson began publically calling out Hennepin County judges for being soft on gun crimes and allowing dangerous criminals back on the street unnecessarily. "I am calling to them publicly this time to take gun crime seriously," said Johnson. "The penalties are there, impose them! When someone is arrested with a gun they need to do time!"

Minnesota sentencing statutes have a section referred to by the legal community as "mandatory mandatory sentences." If you're convicted a second time for a gun offense, judges are given no wiggle room. The law requires them to hand down at least the mandatory minimum. "Those are what we call hard 'mandatories' where there's no leeway for the court and we do impose those," said Chief Judge Cahill.

But KARE 11's investigation found that's not always the case. Take for example the rap sheet of Khayree Copeland. Copeland was busted in 2008 as a juvenile for possession of a short barreled shotgun. In 2011, now an adult, he was caught again with a gun. As a felon in possession, the mandatory minimum sentence he was facing was five years in prison. However Judge Robiner sentenced him to probation. Later that same year, Copeland was arrested again while carrying a handgun. His second offense as an adult, this time the law requires he get the "mandatory- mandatory" five years. But court records show Judge Richard Scherer gave him only four years in prison. "Members of my office protested both times and rightly so," said Freeman....

NOTE: While Hennepin judges see far and away more gun crime cases than any other jurisdiction, Carlton County judges are the most likely to cut a defendant a break. Judges there gave less than the mandatory minimum 100% of the time in the past three years.

November 18, 2014 in Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, November 16, 2014

"The Quiet Army: Felon Firearms Rights Restoration in the Fourth Circuit"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper by Robert Luther III now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This article discusses the restoration of firearm rights for felons and specifically addresses the methods by which individuals convicted of felonies under state law may be relieved of collateral federal firearms disabilities in the Fourth Circuit, with a particular emphasis on the practice in Virginia. It concludes by calling on the Fourth Circuit to make clear in an appropriate case that “a defendant’s ‘civil rights’ have been restored under state law for purposes of 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(20) if the state has also restored the defendant’s right to possess firearms.”

Due to the Supreme Court of Virginia's interpretation of the Virginia Constitution in Gallagher v. Commonwealth, which concluded that the governor lacked the authority to restore firearm rights and that only the state trial court could do so, the Fourth Circuit’s failure to construe 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(20) as suggested will have the unintended and disparate effect of failing to relieve all state-convicted felons in Virginia from their collateral federal firearm disabilities. To read 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(20) not to remove a federal firearms disability when the felon has received the unrestricted restoration of his firearm rights by a Virginia trial court would yield a perverse result because the purpose of this statute was to redirect the restoration process to the states.

November 16, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Gun policy and sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, September 29, 2014

District Court embraces as-applied Second Amendment limit on federal felon-in-possession prohibtion

As long-time readers know, ever since the Supreme Court's Second Amendment Heller ruling, I have long thought federal criminal law's threat of severe sentences on any and all felons in possession of any and all firearms is constitutionally questionable. Now, thanks to this post by Eugene at The Volokh Conspiracy, I see that one federal district court has finally held that there are as-applied Second Amendment problems with the federal felon-in-possession criminal statute.

The notable Second Amendment ruling comes in Binderup v. Holder, No. 13-cv-06750 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 25, 2014) (available here).  Interestingly (and perhaps not surprisingly),  Binderup is a civil rights suit brought by a relatively sympathetic individual with a minor criminal past, not a case involving a federal criminal defendant claiming the Second Amendment precludes his prosecution.  And here are excerpts from the start and end of the lengthy opinion:

As further discussed below, plaintiff distinguishes himself from those individuals traditionally disarmed as the result of prior criminal conduct and demonstrates that he poses no greater threat of future violent criminal activity than the average law-abiding citizen. Therefore, he prevails on his as-applied challenges to § 922(g)(1) on Second-Amendment grounds under the framework for such claims set forth by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in United States v. Barton, 633 F.3d 168 (3d Cir. 2011)....

Because plaintiff’s statutory claim fails, I reach his alternative constitutional claim asserted in Count Two. For the reasons expressed above, I conclude that plaintiff has demonstrated that, despite his prior criminal conviction which brings him within scope of § 922(g)(1)’s firearm prohibition, he poses no greater risk of future violent conduct than the average law-abiding citizen. 

Therefore, application of § 922(g)(1) to him violates the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution under the framework set for the by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in United States v. Barton, 633 F.3d 168 (3d Cir. 2011). Accordingly, plaintiff is, and defendants are not, entitled to summary judgment on plaintiff’s as-applied constitutional challenge asserted in Count Two of the Complaint.

It now will be real interesting to see if the feds will appeal this ruling to the Third Circuit or instead just leave it be.

September 29, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Gun policy and sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Woman who bought guns for killer gets (way-above-guideline) eight-year federal prison sentence

As reported in this post last month, a high-profile federal gun case in upstate New York involved federal prosecutors seeking a statutory maximum sentencing term of 10 years in prison when the applicable guideline recommend only 18 to 24 months for the offense.  This new local article, headlined "Woman tied to firefighter ambush sentenced to 8 years," details that the feds today were successful in securing a way-above-guideline federal gun sentence in the case:

The woman convicted of buying guns for a man that were used to kill two firefighters on Christmas Eve 2012 was sentenced to eight years in prison on federal charges Wednesday. The sentence, imposed by U.S. District Judge David Larimer, will run concurrent with a state sentence Dawn Nguyen is now serving of 16 months to four years.

On June 6, 2010, Nguyen bought the semiautomatic rifle and shotgun that William Spengler Jr. used when he fatally shot two volunteer firefighters Dec. 24, 2012. She claimed on a federal firearms transaction form that the guns were for her, when she was purchasing them for Spengler.

"I'm sure Miss Nguyen wishes she could take back that decision she made on that June day, but life is not like that," Larimer said in federal court Wednesday morning. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Noto in court Wednesday had argued that Nguyen's actions directly led to the Christmas Eve killings. "She should have foreseen the possibility of serious harm," said Noto....

Spengler had previously served 17 years in prison for fatally beating his grandmother with a hammer in 1980.

Larimer on Wednesday said he believed Nguyen knew of Spengler's dangerousness, and that she likely knew the facts behind Spengler's killing of his grandmother. Speaking of Spengler's past crime, Larimer said, "that should raise not one but hundreds of red flags that maybe this is not the kind of person who you want to be giving guns to."

Nguyen's lawyer Matthew Parrinello maintained that Nguyen did not know the specifics of Spengler's earlier crime. "This was a quirky, weird, crazy neighbor that she knew," said Parrinello. "But he was very nice, very kind and he did things for her family."

Dawn Nguyen on Wednesday faced the court room — which was packed with police officers, West Webster, N.Y., volunteer firefighters and her relatives — and told the crowd that she was sorry for her actions.

Related prior posts:

September 17, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Gun policy and sentencing, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, September 15, 2014

Effective commentary on Sixth Circuit panel upholding 15-year ACCA sentence for possession of shotgun shells

I am pleased to see that by LawProf Richard M. Re  now has posted on his (wonderfully titled) Re's Judicata blog some new critical thoughts about the Sixth Circuit panel ruling late last week in US v. Young, No. 13-5714 (6th Cir. Sept. 11, 2014) (available here).  Young rejected an Eighth Amendment claim by the defendant by ruling that a mandatory 15-year federal imprisonment term was not grossly disproportionate for a felon's possession of shotgun shells.  I first blogged about the Young ruling here, and I have not (yet) commented further because I was involved in the briefing and argument to the Sixth Circuit as an amicus representing NACDL.

Helpfully, Prof Re's extended post on Young, which is titled "A 'Shell' Game in the Sixth Circuit?", highlights some of my own deep concerns about the ruling. I recommend everyone check out the full post, which gets started this way:

In US v. Young, the Sixth Circuit recently affirmed a startlingly severe sentence for what seems like innocuous conduct, and the blogosphere has taken note.  As Eugene Volokh put it in his post title, the case involved a “15-year mandatory minimum federal sentence for possessing shotgun shells (no shotgun) almost 20 years after past felonies.”  The case might go to the Supreme Court on the Eighth Amendment question it raises.

Viewed from another angle, Young illustrates two reasons to lament the rarity of executive clemency.  First, whether Young’s sentence is just seems to depend on factors that weren’t pressed in court but that executive officials likely know about.  A robust clemency tradition would bring those factors to light.  Second, in the absence of executive clemency, the Sixth Circuit seems to have reached outside the proven record to do the executive’s job for it — and, in doing so, the court relied on allegations and innuendo instead of judicial findings.

Prior related posts on Young case:

September 15, 2014 in Examples of "over-punishment", Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Sixth Circuit panel finds mandatory 15-year imprisonment term not grossly disproportionate for possession of shotgun shells

Because I filled an amicus brief on behalf of defendant Edward Young and participated in oral argument as well, I am much too close to the Eighth Amendment issue resolved against the defendant today in US v. Young, No. 13-5714 (6th Cir. Sept. 11, 2014) (available here), to provide any objective analysis and perspective.  And rather than provide my biased analysis in this post, let me for now be content to reprint the start the Sixth Circuit panel's per curiam ruling: 

Edward Young received a mandatory fifteen-year prison sentence for the crime of possessing seven shotgun shells in a drawer.  He came into possession of the shells while helping a neighbor sell her late husband’s possessions. When he eventually discovered them, he did not realize that his legal disability against possessing firearms — resulting from felonies committed some twenty years earlier — extended to ammunition. See 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). Under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), Young received a mandatory fifteen-year sentence.

Young now asks this court to conclude that the ACCA, as applied to him, is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment because the gravity of his offense is so low as compared to the harshness of his sentence, and unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment because he lacked notice.  Our precedent compels us to reject these claims and to affirm Young’s sentence.

To its credit, the per curiam decision in Young engages somewhat with some Eighth Amendment principles I sought to stress in my amicus efforts in this case, and Judge Stranch authored an extended concurrence discussing the policy arguments against mandatory minimums. But these aspects of the Young opinion do very little to salve my seething aggravation and frustration with this ruling.

A number of judges on the Sixth Circuit have a (somewhat justified) reputation for going to great lengths to bend and extend Eighth Amendment jurisprudence to block state efforts to execute brutal murderers after a state sentencing jury imposed the death penalty.  Consequently, I was hopeful (though not optimistic) that at least one member of a Sixth Circuit panel could and would conclude the modern Eighth Amendment places some substantive and judicially enforceable limits on extreme application of extreme federal mandatory minimum prison terms.  Apparently not.  Though surely not the intent of this ruling, I think the practical message is that one needs to murder someone with ammunition rather than just possess it illegally for the Sixth Circuit to be moved by an Eighth Amendment claim. (I was hoping to save a screed about this ruling for a future post, but obviously this is already a bit too raw for me to be able to hold my blog tongue.)

I am hopeful that the defendant will be interested in seeking en banc review and/or SCOTUS review, and thus I suspect the (obviously uphill) legal fight against this extreme sentence will continue. I plan to continue helping with that fight, and I would be eager to hear from others eager to help as well.

Prior related posts:

September 11, 2014 in Examples of "over-punishment", Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (25) | TrackBack

Monday, August 25, 2014

Is Chicago now providing more support for the claim that more guns means less crime?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Washington Times article (hat tip: C&C), which carries the headline "Chicago crime rate drops as concealed carry applications surge; City sees fewer homicides, robberies, burglaries, car thefts as Illinois residents take arms."  Here are excerpts:

Since Illinois started granting concealed carry permits this year, the number of robberies that have led to arrests in Chicago has declined 20 percent from last year, according to police department statistics. Reports of burglary and motor vehicle theft are down 20 percent and 26 percent, respectively.  In the first quarter, the city’s homicide rate was at a 56-year low.

“It isn’t any coincidence crime rates started to go down when concealed carry was permitted. Just the idea that the criminals don’t know who’s armed and who isn’t has a deterrence effect,” said Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association.  “The police department hasn’t changed a single tactic — they haven’t announced a shift in policy or of course — and yet you have these incredible numbers.”

As of July 29 the state had 83,183 applications for concealed carry and had issued 68,549 licenses.  By the end of the year, Mr. Pearson estimates, 100,000 Illinois citizens will be packing.  When Illinois began processing requests in January, gun training and shooting classes — which are required for the application — were filling up before the rifle association was able to schedule them, Mr. Pearson said.

The Chicago Police Department has credited better police work as a reason for the lower crime rates this year. Police Superintendent Garry F. McCarthy noted the confiscation of more than 1,300 illegal guns in the first three months of the year, better police training and “intelligent policing strategies.” The Chicago Police Department didn’t respond to a request for comment from The Washington Times.

However, the impact of concealed carry can’t be dismissed.  Instead of creating more crimes, which many gun control advocates warn, increased concealed carry rates have coincided with lower rates of crime.

A July study by the Crime Prevention Research Center found that 11.1 million Americans have permits to carry concealed weapons, a 147 percent increase from 4.5 million seven years ago.  Meanwhile, homicide and other violent crime rates have dropped by 22 percent. 

“There’s a lot of academic research that’s been done on this, and if you look at the peer-reviewed studies, the bottom line is a large majority find a benefit of concealed carry on crime rates — and, at worst, there’s no cost,” said John Lott Jr., president of the Crime Prevention Research Center based in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. “You can deter criminals with longer prison sentences and penalties, but arming people with the right to defend themselves with a gun is also a deterrence.”

I know that all the research concerning relationships between gun laws and crime are controversial, and I am certain that these recent Chicago experience will not come close to resolving these on-going debates.  Still, whatever might account for the good crime news out of Chicago, I hope everyone is inclined to celebrate the reality of greater personal liberty and less crime in the Windy City.

August 25, 2014 in Gun policy and sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Could McCullen's First Amendment scrutiny impact (and strengthen) Second Amendment claims?

I am not a First Amendment expert, and thus I cannot expertly assess all the Justices' First Amendment work today in the SCOTUS abortion buffer-zone ruling in McCullen v. Coakley (available here). But a quick review of the Chief Justice's majority opinion revealed that the Court struck down a Massachusetts regulatory law justified on public safety grounds using intermediate scrutiny because the state had "not shown that it seriously undertook to address the problem with less intrusive tools readily available to it [nor] that it considered different methods that other jurisdictions have found effective." Id. slip op. at 27.   As the title to this post suggests, I wonder if court analysis of Second Amendment challenges to federal, state and local gun regulations might be impacted by the Supreme Court's First Amendment analysis in McCullen.

As of this writing, it is not yet even clear what level of scrutiny courts should be applying to Second Amendment challenges to federal, state and local gun regulations.  But in many settings, many courts have adopted the same basic intermediate analysis that led to Massachusetts' law being found unconstitutional in McCullen.  Of particular interest, therefore, is the language quoted above, in which the Chief Justice assails Massachusetts for failing to seriously explore how to "address the [public safety] problem with less intrusive tools" and to consider "different methods that other jurisdictions have found effective."  I suspect many gun rights advocates, when pressing challenges to federal, state and local gun regulations defended on the basis of public safety, will be quick to quote this language and to assert that a jurisdiction's gun restrictions should be struck down absent evidence the state seriously explored "less intrusive" restrictions and/or considered "different [gun laws] that other jurisdictions have found effective."

June 26, 2014 in Gun policy and sentencing, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, June 16, 2014

Notable split 5-4 SCOTUS ruling against federal defendant shows power of gun politics

When I see that the Supreme Court has split 5-4 in a (non-sentencing) criminal case, I typically expect to see certain usual suspects on each side of the divide with Justice Kennedy serving as the swing vote.  Today, in Abramski v. US, No. 12-1493 (S. Ct. June 16, 2014) (available here), Justice Kennedy is the swing vote joining with the more liberal members of the Court. But they are together upholding a federal conviction  — no doubt, I am prepared to say, because at issue is the broad application of a federal gun control statute.

Here is how Justice Kagan's opinion for the Court gets started in Abramski:

Before a federally licensed firearms dealer may sell a gun, the would-be purchaser must provide certain personal information, show photo identification, and pass a background check. To ensure the accuracy of those submissions, a federal statute imposes criminal penalties on any person who, in connection with a firearm’s acquisition, makes false statements about “any fact material to the lawfulness of the sale.” 18 U.S.C. § 922(a)(6). In this case, we consider how that law applies to a so-called straw purchaser — namely, a person who buys a gun on someone else’s behalf while falsely claiming that it is for himself.  We hold that such a misrepresentation is punishable under the statute, whether or not the true buyer could have purchased the gun without the straw.

Justice Scalia's dissent, which garnered the votes of the Chief, Justice Thomas and even (the usually-consistent friend of federal prosecutors) Justice Alito, gets started this way:

Bruce Abramski bought a gun for his uncle from a federally y licensed gun dealer, using money his uncle gave him for that purpose. Both men were legally eligible to receive and possess firearms, and Abramski transferred the gun to his uncle at a federally licensed gun dealership in compliance with state law.  When buying the gun, Abramski had to fill out Form 4473 issued by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). In response to a question on the form, Abramski affirmed that he was the “actual/transferee buyer” of the gun, even though the form stated that he was not the “actual transferee/buyer” if he was purchasing the gun for a third party at that person’s request and with funds provided by that person.

The Government charged Abramski with two federal crimes under the Gun Control Act of 1968, as amended, 18 U.S.C. §§ 921–931: making a false statement “material to the lawfulness of the sale,” in violation of § 922(a)(6), and making a false statement “with respect to information required by [the Act] to be kept” by the dealer, in violation of § 924(a)(1)(A). On both counts the Government interprets this criminal statute to punish conduct that its plain language simply does not reach. I respectfully dissent from the Court’s holding to the contrary.

June 16, 2014 in Gun policy and sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, May 26, 2014

"Disarming the Dangerous: Preventing Extraordinary and Ordinary Violence"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper by Mary Fan now available via SSRN. Though posted on line a few weeks ago, this piece strikes me as distinctly and depressingly timely in the wake of the mass shooting in California a few days ago. Here is the abstract:

Recent mass shootings at Navy Yard, Newtown, Aurora and elsewhere have jolted Congress and the states into considering gun violence prevention.  More than 1,500 gun-related bills have been introduced since 2013, after the slaughter in Newtown of twenty elementary school children and six adults.  Current legislation and debates are shaped by the specter of a heavily armed, mentally ill individual hunting in public places such as schools, businesses, and workplaces.  In the states, the most successful type of legislation involves firearms restrictions for the mentally ill.  In Congress, the legislation that garnered the most debate was a ban on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines.  While the national attention to firearms violence prevention is salutary, for law and policy to tackle the core of the problem it is important to address two empirical questions: Who are the dangerous individuals committing most firearms homicides and why do the law’s current screens miss them?

This article draws on data from the National Violent Death Reporting System to answer the crucial foundational questions of who poses a danger and why the dangerous slip through existing legal screens.  Presenting data on the most prevalent place of shooting, victim-shooter relationship, and the shooter’s prior history, the article shows that prevention of extraordinarily devastating firearms violence calls for attention to how the nation addresses “ordinary” violence.  By ordinary violence, this article means violence that is often viewed as mundane, such as altercations between family members, friends and intimates in the home.  Many perpetrators of firearms homicide have a history of such prior events -- yet a substantially smaller proportion of these violent episodes have been adjudicated, thereby slipping through existing screens for firearms restrictions.  Based on these findings, the article discusses how discretion in dealing with “ordinary violence” can improve detection of the dangerous regardless of whether proposed firearms restrictions survive the gauntlet for new gun laws.

May 26, 2014 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, May 09, 2014

Applying strict scrutiny, Louisiana Supreme Court upholds facial constitutionality of criminalizing gun possession with illegal drug possession

Thanks to this post by Eugene Volokh, I see that the Louisiana Supreme Court issued an interesting and important unanimous decision earlier this week upholding a state gun crime statute against a facial state constitutional challenge.  Here is how this opinion in Louisiana v. Webb, No. 2013-KK-1681 (La. May 7, 2014) (available here), starts and ends:

We granted a writ to determine whether a recent constitutional amendment involving a fundamental right to bear arms found in La. Const. art. I, § 11 renders a criminal statute related to the possession of a firearm while possessing illegal drugs, facially unconstitutional.

According to the defendant, because the right to bear arms has been recently enshrined as a fundamental constitutional right, notwithstanding the fact the defendant was allegedly carrying illegal drugs while in possession of a firearm, La. R.S. 14:95(E) is facially unconstitutional.  Essentially, the defendant argues that, even assuming he possessed illegal drugs, because La. R.S. 14:95(E) deals not only with illegal drugs but with firearms, the firearm aspect of the statute cannot survive strict judicial scrutiny, and the entire statute must be declared unconstitutional.

We disagree.  Nothing in the recent constitutional amendment regarding firearms requires dismissal of the criminal charges against the defendant for carrying a firearm while in possession of illegal drugs.....

To promote public safety by curtailing drug trafficking, the state of Louisiana has a compelling interest in enhancing the penalty for illegal drug possession when a person engages in that illegal conduct with the simultaneous while in possession of a firearm. Undeniably, the right to keep and bear a firearm is a fundamental right in Louisiana. However, when a person is engaged in the unlawful conduct of possessing illegal drugs, the person’s own unlawful actions have “qualified his right” to engage in what would otherwise be the exercise of that fundamental right. See Helms, 452 U.S. at 420 (indicating “appellee’s own misconduct [in abandoning his child] had qualified his right to travel interstate.”).

Earlier, we observed that in amending Article I, § 11 of the constitution, the electorate tasked this court with applying a very technical legal test to answer a very practical question. From all aspects, we have found the technical points of the law constitutionally allow the state to make it a crime to possess an illegal drug with a firearm. We can now, therefore, answer this practical question: Is the act of possessing a firearm and illegal drugs so essential to the liberties citizens ought to be able to enjoy in an orderly society that a law to the contrary is unconstitutional? “We have held that the function of the court in construing constitutional provisions is to ascertain and give effect to the intent of the people who adopted it. It is the understanding that can reasonably be ascribed to the voting population as a whole that controls.” Caddo-Shreveport Sales and Use Tax Com'n v. Office of Motor Vehicles, Dept. of Public Safety and Corrections of State, 97-2233 (La. 4/14/98), 710 So.2d 776, 780. Nothing in Article I, § 11 of the constitution informs us that the electorate, whose intent is ultimately the intent that governs, believed that possessing firearms with illegal drugs meets the electorate’s expectations of a society whose hallmark is ordered liberty.

We, therefore, affirm the ruling of the district court, finding La. R.S. 14:95(E) is not unconstitutional, and that nothing in Article I, § 11 of the constitution requires the charges against the defendant to be quashed. This case is remanded to the district court for further proceedings.

May 9, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Gun policy and sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Should those who really favor gun rights protest the right to sell and own a safer gun?

The question in the title of this post is a little of my usual topics, but I need to vent a bit about this discouraging story in the Washington Post highlighting that some folks who support gun rights are against the idea of using technology to produce a safer gun.  The article is headlined "Maryland dealer, under pressure from gun-rights activists, drops plan to sell smart gun," and here are excerpts:

A Rockville gun store owner who said he would sell the nation’s first smart gun — even after a California gun store removed the weapon from its shelves to placate angry gun-rights activists — backed down late Thursday night after enduring a day of protests and death threats.

Andy Raymond, the co-owner of Engage Armament, a store known for its custom assault rifles, had said earlier this week that offering the Armatix iP1 handgun was a “really tough decision” after what happened to the Oak Tree Gun Club near Los Angeles. Oak Tree was lambasted by gun owners and National Rifle Association members who fear the new technology will be mandated and will encroach on Second Amendment rights.

Electronic chips in the gun communicate with a watch that can be bought separately. The gun cannot be fired without the watch....

[A]fter hundreds of protests on his store’s Facebook page and online forums — a repeat of what Oak Tree faced — Raymond released a long video on the Facebook page saying he had received death threats and would not sell the gun. He apologized and took responsibility for the decision. He had sold none of the smart guns and would not, he said.

Earlier, Raymond had said he’s on the “right-wing vanguard of gun rights” but is vehemently opposed to gun rights activists arguing against the idea of a smart gun — or any gun. “To me that is so fricking hypocritical,” Raymond had said. “That’s the antithesis of everything that we pro-gun, pro-Second Amendment people should be. You are not supposed to say a gun should be prohibited. Then you are being no different than the anti-gun people who say an AR-15 should be prohibited.”...

Besides reliability in the face of danger, the opponents’ most pressing fear is that sales of the iP1 will trigger a New Jersey law mandating that all handguns in the state be personalized within three years of a smart gun’s going on sale anywhere in the United States. Similar proposals have been introduced in California and Congress.

Raymond said he didn’t want the law to kick in and didn’t think he’d be responsible if it did, because Oak Tree already had the gun for sale. He said the law was not his problem or Armatix’s. “This is not Armatix screwing over the people of New Jersey,” he said. “It’s the legislature screwing over the people of New Jersey. Bushmaster didn’t screw over the people of Newtown. Adam Lanza did. It’s just disgusting to me to see pro-gun people acting like anti-gunners. What is free if it’s not choice?”...

The demand for smart guns is subject to debate. Gun rights advocates, including the National Shooting Sports Foundation, say there seems to be little desire for such weapons at the moment. They point to a survey the group commissioned last year showing that 14 percent of Americans would consider buying a smart gun. “We think the market should decide,” Lawrence G. Keane, general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, told The Post this year.

Gun-control advocates believe that smart guns could reduce gun violence, suicides and accidental shootings. A dream of researchers and politicians for decades, the idea found renewed interest within the federal government following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012. A group of Silicon Valley investors led by Ron Conway recently launched a $1 million contest to encourage smart-gun technology.

Numerous approaches are in development. Armatix uses RFID chips like those in anti-theft tags attached to clothing in stores. Other companies use a ring to enable the gun’s operation. Grips that recognize an owner are being tested, as are sensors to detect fingerprints and voices. The iP1, developed over a period of years by Armatix, a German firm, is the first smart gun to be marketed in the United States.

Increasing gun ownership is what Raymond said he was after in planning to sell the iP1. “If this gets more people, especially those on the fence, to go out and enjoy their Second Amendment freedoms, to go sport shooting and realize how much fun it is, then I am all for it,” Raymond said before changing his mind. “This is really not a bad thing.”

Regular readers know that I am both a supporter of the Second Amendment and of smart gun technology. If developed effectively, smart guns ought be be able to increase gun rights and reduce gun violence: e.g., smart gun technology might be a way to allow a former non-violent felon, who now is prohibited by federal law from possessing any firearm, to own a gun for self-protection that can only operate from his home. And smart gun technology ought to be able to provide effective digital evidence of gun use (and misuse) to be used by police and other law enforcement officials to investigate and prevent crime.

I understand the fears that some gun rights advocates may have about possible "misuse" of smart gun technology, but these folks should realize that these kinds of concerns about the misuse of a good technology (i.e., guns) are exactly what motivates gun control advocates.  Moreover, as smart gun technology improves, I suspect it is only a matter of time before the real issue is how these guns are made and sold, not whether they are available.

A few recent and older related posts:

May 4, 2014 in Gun policy and sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Without much to say about the Second Amendment, SCOTUS gives broad reading to federal firearm possession crime

In a unanimous ruling (with two separate concurrences), the Supreme Court this morning interpreted broadly in US v. Castleman, No. 12–1371 (S. Ct. Mar. 26, 2014) (available here) the federal crime set forth in, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9), prohibiting anyone who has been convicted of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” from ever possessing a gun. Here is how the main opinion in Castleman, authored by Justice Sotomayor, gets started and its final two paragraphs:

Recognizing that “[f]irearms and domestic strife are a potentially deadly combination,” United States v. Hayes, 555 U. S. 415, 427 (2009), Congress forbade the possession of firearms by anyone convicted of “a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.” 18 U. S. C. §922(g)(9).  The respondent, James Alvin Castleman, pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor offense of having “intentionally or knowingly cause[d] bodily injury to” the mother of his child. App. 27. The question before us is whether this conviction qualifies as “a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.”  We hold that it does....

Finally, Castleman suggests — in a single paragraph — that we should read §922(g)(9) narrowly because it implicates his constitutional right to keep and bear arms.  But Castleman has not challenged the constitutionality of §922(g)(9), either on its face or as applied to him, and the meaning of the statute is sufficiently clear that we need not indulge Castleman’s cursory nod to constitutional avoidance concerns.

Castleman’s conviction for having “intentionally or knowingly cause[d] bodily injury to” the mother of his child qualifies as a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.”  The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is therefore reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Notably, there are separate concurrences by Justice Scalia (author of the landmark Heller Second Amendment ruling) and Justice Alito (author of the follow-up McDonald ruling describing gun possession as a fundamental right). But neither Justice seems even a bit concerned by a broadened interpretation of a federal statute that makes forever criminal the possession of a firearm by millions of persons who have been convicted of only a certain type of misdemeanor.

For many of the reasons set forth in the various Castleman opinions (which I need to read carefully before commenting further), I think the Justices are on solid ground with statutory interpretation in this case. But what I think makes the case truly interesting and telling is what short shrift is given to the supposedly fundamental rights protected by the Second Amendment even by all five Justices who have previous spoke grandly about these rights in Heller and McDonald.

March 26, 2014 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (22) | TrackBack

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Intriguing SCOTUS mens rea ruling in Rosemond applying 924(c) gun charge

The Supreme Court handed down one criminal justice ruling this morning in Rosemond v. US, No. 12–895 (S. Ct. March 5, 2014) (available here).  Here is the intriguing composition of the Court in this 7-2 ruling:

KAGAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and KENNEDY, GINSBURG, BREYER, and SOTOMAYOR, JJ., joined, and in which SCALIA, J., joined in all but footnotes 7 and 8.  ALITO, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which THOMAS, J., joined.

Here is how Justice Kagan's opinion for the Court gets started:

A federal criminal statute, § 924(c) of Title 18, prohibits “us[ing] or carr[ying]” a firearm “during and in relation to any crime of violence or drug trafficking crime.”  In this case, we consider what the Government must show when it accuses a defendant of aiding or abetting that offense.  We hold that the Government makes its case by proving that the defendant actively participated in the underlying drug trafficking or violent crime with advance knowledge that a confederate would use or carry a gun during the crime’s commission.  We also conclude that the jury instructions given below were erroneous because they failed to require that the defendant knew in advance that one of his cohorts would be armed.

Here is how Justice Alito's partial dissent gets going:

I largely agree with the analysis in the first 12 pages of the opinion of the Court, but I strongly disagree with the discussion that comes after that point.  Specifically, I reject the Court’s conclusion that a conviction for aiding and abetting a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) demands proof that the alleged aider and abettor had what the Court terms “a realistic opportunity” to refrain from en­gaging in the conduct at issue. Ante, at 13. This rule represents an important and, as far as I am aware, un­precedented alteration of the law of aiding and abetting and of the law of intentionality generally.

March 5, 2014 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

SCOTUS again struggling with state-federal crime intersection in Castleman

The Supreme Court today had oral argument in a challenging federal criminal case today, and SCOTUSblog has lots of great coverage of the issues and today's argument in US v. Castleman thanks to two post today by Amy Howe. Here and links to both SCOTUSblog posts, along with the start of the two lengthy entries:

Argument preview: Court once again considers when prior state convictions result in federal penalties

Some federal laws impose or enhance penalties based on the defendant’s prior criminal convictions. For example, the Armed Career Criminal Act requires a longer sentence for a defendant who has been convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm and has three prior convictions for “violent felonies.” Even though Congress generally defines terms like “violent felonies,” those definitions may not always match up with the elements of a crime under state or tribal law, requiring the courts to determine whether a particular state offense is a qualifying prior conviction for purposes of federal law.

That is the question before the Court this morning in the case of James Castleman, in United States v. Castleman. The federal government charged Castleman with a violation of a federal law, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9), which prohibits someone who has been convicted of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” from possessing a gun. The statute defines “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” as a misdemeanor under federal, state, or tribal law (1) by someone who (as relevant here) has a child with the victim, which (2) “has as an element, the use or attempted use of physical force, or the threatened use of a deadly weapon.”

Argument report: Balancing over- and under-inclusiveness

After first tackling the constitutionality of a Massachusetts law that imposes a thirty-five-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics in that state, this morning the Justices then turned to interpreting the U.S. Code – specifically, a provision that prohibits someone who has been convicted of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” from possessing a gun. At the end of the oral arguments in United States v. Castleman, there seemed to be dissatisfaction with the interpretations advanced by both sides, possibly leaving room for a compromise suggested by Justice Elena Kagan.

January 15, 2014 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, January 09, 2014

"Are there no limits on Second Amendment rights?"

The title of this post is the title of this new entry by Lyle Denniston at the "Constitution Daily" blog of the National Constitution Center.  After I reprint some excerpts, I will explain why I see more limits on Second Amendment rights than any other right in the Constitution:

In only one place in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights is there a provision that flatly bars the government from regulating one of the protected rights. That is in the First Amendment, declaring that “Congress shall make no law respecting” the rights listed in that Amendment. The “right to keep and bear arms” is not one of those rights; it is contained in the Second Amendment.

The Second Amendment’s text, of course, does say that the right it protects “shall not be infringed.” Is that the same thing as saying that government may pass “no law respecting” gun rights?...

The only place that Americans can look for a binding interpretation of what the Constitution’s words mean – other than to the people acting through the amendment process to make a new constitutional declaration – are the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court....

Over the time since 1791, when the Bill if Rights was ratified, the Supreme Court has given its blessing to an entire governing edifice that regulates First Amendment rights: the laws of libel and defamation, limits on publishing secret military strategy, regulation of “obscene” and “indecent” expression, and limits on “hate speech.” Famously, the court has said that one has no right to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Even the right to worship freely sometimes is curbed by laws that regulate conduct that has religious meaning.

In contrast to the First Amendment, there is very little constitutional history about the meaning of the Second Amendment. In fact, until just five years ago, the “right to keep and bear arms” was not generally understand as a personal right to have a gun, even for self-defense. It was only in 2008 that the Supreme Court declared that such a personal right does, indeed, exist.

That decision, in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller, is – so far – the most important decision the court has ever issued on the scope of the “right to keep and bear arms.” But in that very ruling, the Court said explicitly: “Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited.” It went on to say just as clearly that it was not barring the government from imposing “reasonable regulation” on that right.

Is a “reasonable regulation” of gun rights, then, an “infringement” on those rights? If the word “infringement” means to encroach on something, as one does when one “trespasses” on someone else’s private property, that does not support the idea that Second Amendment rights are absolutes. Government can “trespass” on private property to put out a fire, for example....

The Supreme Court, of course, could re-enter into that national debate if it felt a need to clarify just what kind of “regulation” of gun rights is allowed without being found to violate the Second Amendment. Up to now, however, the Court does not seem to sense that need. It has issued only one significant gun rights decision since the 2008 ruling, and that 2010 decision in McDonald v. Chicago expanded the personal right to a gun to exist at the state and local level, as well as at the federal level. The court did not go further to explain what it would allow in gun regulation by state and local governments.

It has been asked, every year since then, to take on a variety of new cases, to answer some of the lingering questions: does the personal right to have a gun extend beyond one’s own home, who can be forbidden to have a gun at all, when can a gun be carried in public in a concealed way, what types of guns or ammunition can be regulated or even banned, what places in a community are too sensitive or too prone to violence to allow guns in them, how can the government trace a gun that has been used in a violent incident, how freely should gun shows be allowed to operate?

However, the Court has resisted giving an answer to any follow-up questions. And what that has meant, in the national conversation over gun rights, is that anyone’s argument about the extent of those rights is just as good as anyone else’s, and neither side needs to listen to the arguments that the other side makes.

As regular readers know, I have long highlighted (and lamented) that so far the Second Amendment has been interpreted by lower courts to mean that, if an American ever does one bad thing once (a felony or certain misdemeanors), she can forever be subject to a criminal convction for exercising Second Amendment rights. I know of no other express right set forth in the Bill of Rights that a person forever forfeits based on a single prior bad act. Thus, from my perspective, the Second Amendment is subject to many more rigid limits than any other constitutional right.

January 9, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Gun policy and sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Friday, December 27, 2013

As fights over John Hinckley's fate continue three decades after his violent crime, what are enduring CJ legacies or lessons?

Reagan_assassination_attempt_3The question in the title of this post is prompted by this interesting recent Politico piece headlined "Hinckley home for the holidays."  Here are the basics:

John Hinckley will almost certainly be home for the holidays, which will bring much joy to his 86-year-old mother but not to the U.S. Justice Department.  No matter whether there has been a Democrat in the White House or a Republican, the Justice Department has argued against letting Hinckley out of the mental hospital where he has been incarcerated since 1982.

His family, lawyers and a number of psychiatrists and psychologists who have treated Hinckley over the years say he has responded successfully to treatment, is no longer a danger to himself and others, and that he should be allowed more and more days outside the hospital.

Hinckley had been allowed 10 days per month to visit his mother in Williamsburg, Va.  He is not allowed to make visits in Washington because the president of the United States lives in Washington and the last time Hinckley came across a president, Hinckley shot him. Hinckley is also not allowed to visit his sister in Dallas, because the home of former President George W. Bush is a 10-minute walk away.  Even in Williamsburg, Hinckley is trailed by Secret Service agents, and he must carry a GPS-enabled phone that tracks his whereabouts.

On average, a person convicted of a violent crime in America serves about five years in prison.  Hinckley has served 31 years in St. Elizabeths Hospital, even though he was found not guilty of any crime because a jury decided he was insane at the time he shot Ronald Reagan, press secretary James Brady, D.C. police officer Thomas Delahanty and Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy....

Last week, a federal judge extended the amount of time Hinckley can spend outside St. Elizabeths to 17 days per month.  The seriousness with which Hinckley’s request for added visiting time was treated is indicative of how seriously the government still takes his case: Over a four-month period, lawyers battled for two weeks, and the judge’s decision was an incredible 106 pages long....

The hearing did provide some droll moments.  In arguing that Hinckley was not fit to be outside of his mental hospital for a longer period of time, the government said one of his girlfriends at St. Elizabeths was “floridly psychotic.”  To which Hinckley’s lawyer replied: “Who is he going to meet at St. Elizabeths?”

Hinckley’s case contains some valuable lessons:  The insanity defense is very rarely used in America and usually fails when it is used.  Hinckley succeeded, but what has it gotten him?  More than three decades in a mental hospital may be better than more than three decades in prison, but unlike a prisoner serving a sentence with a maximum number of years, Hinckley, 58, can be locked up in the hospital until he dies.

Before Hinckley shot Reagan, he had been stalking Jimmy Carter.  In October, 1980, Hinckley was arrested at Nashville’s Metropolitan Airport for concealing three handguns and 30 rounds of ammunition in his carry-on luggage.  He paid a fine of $62.50 and was released from custody.  Four days later, Hinckley, who had undergone psychiatric treatment for depression, went to Dallas, where he bought a gun and six bullets at a pawnshop for $47.  Hinckley used this weapon to shoot Ronald Reagan, James Brady and the two law enforcement officers.

Today’s Brady law, which was enacted in 1993 and requires background checks for some gun purchases, is named for James Brady and might have prevented Hinckley from buying that gun.  In 1988, his last full year in office, Reagan endorsed the Brady Bill, even though Reagan was not a fan of gun-control laws.  His personal affection for Brady might have had something to do with it, but Reagan also said it was a good idea to see if a potential gun buyer had “a record of any crimes or mental problems, or anything of that kind.”  The National Rifle Association condemned Reagan’s statement.

St. Elizabeths, built in 1855 as the Government Hospital for the Insane, once housed 8,000 patients.  As the hospital crumbled from neglect, and as laws and attitudes about mentally ill people changed, the population dropped to its current 300 and a new hospital was built in 2010.   St. Elizabeths no longer needs all of its vast 350 acres, where feral cats still roam, some of which are cared for by Hinckley, who often visits PetSmart on his home visits right after he goes to Wendy’s.  About 176 acres of the property will be used for the new $3.4 billion headquarters complex of the Department of Homeland Security.

As most criminal law professors know, one of the legal legacies of Hinckley's case was a significant retrenchment of insanity doctrines in many states. But as Hinckley's own case may highlight, perhaps that it is ultimately a blessing and not a curse even for mentally unstable criminal defendants. And, as most gun control advocates know, Hickley's crime created a uniquely potent person and symbol in support of gun control laws. But as recent high-profile deadly shootings highlight, there is reason to perhaps fear that the US is unable or unwilling to pursue gun control laws that would be likely able to prevent mentally unstable persons from having access to firearms.

December 27, 2013 in Celebrity sentencings, Gun policy and sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Friday, November 29, 2013

Louisiana Supreme Court at crosshairs of strong gun rights and tough drug laws

Cross-hairAs reported in this effective local article, headlined "Court considering second major gun law: La. drug-gun statute latest to face review," the top court in the Pelican State has a lot of interesting legal issues to sort out in the wake of state voters having last year approved by a gun-rights constitutional amendment backed by the National Rifle Association.  Here are the particulars:

Amid the growing confusion over whether Louisiana’s litany of gun crimes violates its residents’ turbocharged right to bear arms, the state Supreme Court has decided it will try to settle one of the most consequential questions: Does it remain constitutional to charge a person with a high-grade felony for having a gun at the same time as illegal drugs, no matter what kind of drugs or how much?

Rico Webb, a 22-year-old caught in a car with one marijuana cigar and a gun, points to a state constitutional amendment passed last year, applauded by conservatives and the National Rifle Association, that for the first time in American history declared gun ownership a fundamental right in Louisiana, subject to the same level of judicial scrutiny as free speech and voter equality.

The amendment provoked an avalanche of legal challenges to the state’s major gun-crime laws. At least three judges have declared various criminal statutes unconstitutional. The Louisiana Supreme Court is tasked with sorting out the mess.

The high court already is considering the statute that forbids certain felons from possessing firearms. It heard oral arguments last month, and its decision is pending.  In the meantime, the court agreed on Friday to take up Webb’s challenge to the law that punishes the possession of guns and drugs with five to 10 years in prison without the possibility of parole....

The constitutional amendment sailed through the Legislature last year and received overwhelming support from voters at the ballot box. Its proponents, both inside and outside the Legislature, defended the measure as a guarantee of freedom if federal gun protections were to somehow fall.

But critics described it as an unnecessary law that solved no problem.  Louisiana already had among the most liberal gun laws in the nation. All the amendment has accomplished, they say, is widespread constitutional chaos that could endanger public safety and waste hundreds of courthouse hours on the taxpayers’ dime.

The measure was pitched by conservative legislators as a state equivalent to the Second Amendment.  But in practice, it goes far past the protections offered by the U.S. Constitution.  The amendment erased language in the law that allowed the Legislature to prohibit carrying a concealed weapon and specified that, for the first time anywhere in the nation, gun laws would be subject to a “strict scrutiny” test, the highest level of judicial review.

“What the Legislature did is it took discretion away from itself,” said Raymond Diamond, a LSU law professor and Second Amendment scholar.  “This pro-gun Legislature voted to bind itself, and future Legislatures that might not be so pro-gun, from undertaking gun control. It has similarly binded local communities in ways that right now we really don’t understand.”  He has described the amendment as “a can of worms.”

It pushed the Louisiana Supreme Court to become the first in America to analyze criminal gun statutes using a strict scrutiny test.  That test presumes that every person has the right to be armed. Any law that seeks to infringe that right must pass a grueling legal test that kills more than two-third of the laws that come up against it.  The state must show that the law serves a compelling government interest, and that it is so narrowly defined that there is no less restrictive way of achieving that interest.

The arguments against the current statutes are similar, in that they equally dole out “heavy-handed penalties” to vast groups of people.  The drug statute treats people caught with small amounts of marijuana the same as those with large amounts of more serious drugs.  The felon-with-a-gun statute equates burglars with murderers. It includes a list of 150 felony offenses, characterized as drug or violence crimes, and says that anyone convicted of any of them is barred from possessing a firearm for 10 years after being released from prison.

The state supports that law by arguing that those with a demonstrated capacity to break the law are more dangerous when armed. Its position on the drugs-and-gun statute is the same: Drugs beget violence and guns make volatile situations deadly.

But Webb’s attorney, New Orleans public defender Colin Reingold, argues that the state cannot prove, under a strict-scrutiny test, that a single marijuana blunt makes him more dangerous when armed than anyone else, particularly since the possession of alcohol and guns is not equally restricted.  “The true danger of a firearm comes not from the manner in which its owner keeps or bears it, but rather from how the citizen uses the weapon,” Reingold wrote in his appeal to the Supreme Court.

Webb, who has no criminal record, was arrested on Sept. 10, 2012, when police pulled over his girlfriend for having a broken taillight.  He confessed to police that he had the blunt in his backpack and said the gun on the floorboard was his, too.  The gun was legal and the marijuana alone would have amounted to a misdemeanor, prosecuted in Municipal Court and typically punished with a fine and probation.  But combined, the gun and pot became a felony with a minimum sentence of five years and a maximum of 10 years, without the possibility of parole.

Webb appealed his charge to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which announced on Friday it would hear the case.  Over the years, the courts will have to sort out which of the 80 other gun crimes on Louisiana law books remain constitutional under the new amendment.

The state has become an experiment. “This is an exciting time because there is some risk that some of the laws will be declared unconstitutional,” Diamond said.  “Everybody’s very interested to see what the court’s going to do with it.”

Various prior Second Amendment and gun policy posts:

November 29, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Latest USSC publication highlights remarkable "disparities"(?) in federal FIP sentences

I am pleased to see that the US Sentencing Commission now has up on its website another terrific new data document in its 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 series is a very valuable new innovation coming from the USSC, and I have already learned a lot and benefited greatly from these publications.  This latest document, which "presents data on offenses under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g), commonly called 'felon in possession' cases," includes these notable data details:

In fiscal year 2012, 5,768 offenders were convicted of violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)....

One-quarter (25.2%) of offenders convicted under section 922(g) were assigned to the highest criminal history category (Category VI). The proportion of these offenders in other Criminal History Categories was as follows: 11.7% of these offenders were in Category I; 9.3% were in Category II; 21.1% were in Category III; 18.9% were in Category IV; and 13.8% were in Category V.

10.3% were sentenced under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) (18 U.S.C.§ 924(e))...

The average sentence length for all section 922(g) offenders was 75 months; however, one-quarter of these offenders had an average sentence of 24 months or less while one-quarter had an average sentence of 96 months or more.

The average sentence length for offenders convicted of violating only section 922(g) and who were sentenced under ACCA was 180 months.

The average sentence length for offenders convicted of violating only section 922(g) but who were not sentenced under ACCA was 46 months.

The title of this post has the term "disparities" in quotes followed by a question mark because these basic sentencing data about a pretty basic federal crime could be interpreted in many disparate ways. Given that all the offenders sentenced for FIP likely were engaged in pretty similar conduct (simple possession of a firearm) and all of them, by definition, had to have a serious criminal record in order to be subject to federal prosecution, one might see lots of unwarranted disparity among this offender group given the extraordinary outcome variations documented here -- in FY2012, over 10% of FIP offenders are getting sent away for an average of 15 years, but another 25% are going away for only 8 years, while another 25% are going away for only 2 years.

Then again, given the apparently varied criminal histories of the FIP offenders, the sentencing variation here surely reflects various (reasoned and reasonable?) judicial assessments of different levels of recidivism risk for different FIP offenders.  I certainly hope that the those being sentenced to decades behind bars for gun possession are generally those with very long rap sheets, and that those getting sent away only for a couple years are those with much more limited criminal histories.

Finally, in addition to noting the profound significance that past crimes clearly have on current sentencing in FIP cases, I must note that it is these past crimes that itself serves to convert the behavior here in to a federal crime.  Indeed, if one takes the Second Amendment very seriously (as I do), the actual "offense behavior" in these cases might often be subject to significant protection as the exercise of a fundamental constitutional right unless and until the person has a disqualifying criminal past.  Proof yet again that the past, at least when it comes to criminal sentencing and constitutional rights, is often ever-present.

November 19, 2013 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Gun policy and sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, November 18, 2013

Ninth Circuit rejects Second Amendment attack on federal crime of gun possession by certain misdemeanants

In a lengthy panel opinion coupled with a notable concurrence, the Ninth Circuit today in US v. Chovan, No. 11-50107 (9th Cir. Nov. 18, 2013) (available here), rejects a defendant's Second Amendment challenge to the federal statute criminalizing gun possession by persons convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors. Here is how the majority opinion starts:

Following the entry of a conditional guilty plea, Daniel Chovan appeals the district court’s denial of his motion to dismiss an indictment against him for violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9).  Section 922(g)(9) prohibits persons convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors from possessing firearms for life.  Chovan contends that § 922(g)(9) is unconstitutional both on its face and as applied to him because it violates his Second Amendment right to bear arms.  In the alternative, he argues that § 922(g)(9) does not apply to him because his civil rights have been restored within the meaning of 18 U.S.C. § 921(a)(33)(B)(ii).  We have jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291.  We reject Chovan’s “civil rights restored” argument, hold that intermediate scrutiny applies to his Second Amendment claim, and uphold § 922(g)(9) under intermediate scrutiny.

In a lengthy concurrence, Judge Bea explains why he thinks strict scrutiny is the right way to scrutinize the federal gun crime at issue here, and his opinion concludes this way:

The Heller opinion did not provide lower courts with explicit guidance on how to analyze challenges to statutes under the Second Amendment. If we are to apply the familiar tiers of scrutiny analysis in Second Amendment cases, instead of a pure textual, historical, and structural analysis, however, history and precedent still dictate a more stringent examination of these issues than the majority allow. Strict scrutiny has become an integral aspect of much of our constitutional jurisprudence. See Fallon, supra, at 1268 (ranking strict scrutiny “among the most important doctrinal elements in constitutional law”). After applying strict scrutiny to § 922(g)(9), I come to the same conclusion as do the majority, and uphold the law. The close look afforded by strict scrutiny, however, ensures that the law truly is narrowly tailored to further a compelling governmental interest, and ensures that the Second Amendment’s contours are drawn by the Constitution, and not by Congress.

November 18, 2013 in Collateral consequences, Gun policy and sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, October 21, 2013

Chicago Sun-Times editorial explains why "Mandatory-minimum sentencing doesn’t work"

Continuing an important on-going debate in Illinois over use of mandatory minimum sentences to deal with the problem of violent gun crimes, the Chicago Sun-Times today has this extended editorial headlined "Mandatory-minimum sentencing doesn’t work." Here are excerpts:

Mandatory minimum sentences, touted by some as a cure for gun crimes, are little more than a power grab by prosecutors. The intent of a mandatory minimum sentence is to make sure that people convicted of certain serious crimes get prison time and not a slap on the wrist, such as probation. But in the real world, that’s not what happens.

In the real world, this is what happens: Mandatory minimums, dictated by law, make it impossible for judges to use common-sense discretion when imposing sentences, so judges must nail some poor sap who simply made a foolish mistake with the same harsh sentence they would impose on a hardened criminal. But those mandatory minimums do nothing to reduce the ability of prosecutors to use discretion when deciding what charges — light or heavy — to file against a defendant. The indirect result is that prosecutors, not judges, set the sentence.

Mandatory sentencing is a fiction. It simply takes the decision-making for sentencing away from judges sitting in open court, where their actions can be questioned by higher courts, and hands that huge power and responsibility to prosecutors, who make their decisions behind closed doors, never to be challenged.

Legislation that might be called to a vote this week in Springfield would triple Illinois’ mandatory minimum sentence from one to three years for people convicted of the illegal use of a weapon, and it would broaden the kinds of crimes covered. An earlier version advanced out of committee in the spring legislative session, but ultimately died. The bill is backed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Police Supt. Garry McCarthy and the families of some gun crime victims. McCarthy says 108 shootings or murders so far in 2013 would have been prevented had the bill already been a law this year. He cited the case of Bryon Champ, convicted in 2012 of the unlawful use of a weapon, who is accused of taking part in a September drive-by shooting that injured 13 in Chicago’s Cornell Square Park.

Clearly, we all wish Champ — if in fact he was one of the drive-by shooters — had still been behind bars. But what about other sorts of gun-possession offenders who would qualify for same mandatory minimum sentence? Would we really send an 87-year-old woman who lives in a dangerous neighborhood to prison for three years for illegally keeping a gun as protection? Should state Sen. Donne Trotter really have gone to prison for three years when a gun was found in his luggage at O’Hare Airport?

It’s a question that will come up more often in Illinois when the concealed carrying of weapons becomes legal next year, and people — forgetting they are armed — try to carry guns into prohibited places. Should those people go to prison for three years as well?

The thinking behind mandatory minimum sentences is that prosecutors can be better trusted than judges to mete out tough punishment. Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez criticizes judges for being “quite lenient.” But most judges in the criminal court system are former prosecutors. And from 2010 through 2012, about 14,000 people were charged in three categories of unlawful use of a weapon, but the number of convictions was less than half of that. Changing sentences in cases where there is no conviction wouldn’t make any difference.

In analyzing the bill, the University of Chicago Crime Lab estimated that putting more people in prison would lead to 3,800 fewer crimes per year, including 400 fewer serious violent crimes. But the Sentencing Policy Advisory Council calculates that had the stricter mandatory minimum law been in effect from 2010 through 2012, it would have boosted prison costs by about $393 million. A Department of Corrections note attached to the legislation last spring estimated the bill would result in an increase of 3,860 inmates, with additional operating costs of $701,712,300 and construction costs of $263,130,300 over 10 years. That money would have to come from somewhere. If that leads to smaller police forces or cutting out effective programs to prevent recidivism, we might wind up with more gun crime than before.

Julie Stewart, president of Washington-based Families Against Mandatory Minimums, noted in a Feb. 17 Chicago Sun-Times op-ed that Chicago’s murder rate actually jumped 16 percent after Illinois imposed its current one-year mandatory minimum in 2011. And a report released Thursday by the Northwestern School of Law Bluhm Legal Clinic concludes mandatory sentences would not deter crime....

On the national level, the Obama administration is trying to curb mandatory minimum sentencing, which is an idea that goes back to the 1980s. Illinois should be doing so as well.

October 21, 2013 in Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, October 17, 2013

"Is the Supreme Court only willing to work at the fringes of the Second Amendment?"

The question in the title of this post is the main headline of this notable and effective new commentary by Lyle Denniston at the blog of the National Constitution Center. (Hat tip: How Appealing.)  Here are excerpts:

The Constitution’s Second Amendment, the Supreme Court ruled five years ago, protects an individual’s personal right to have a gun for self-defense.  It has returned to the Second Amendment only once since then, in a decision three years ago extending that personal right across the nation, so that it can be used to challenge state and local gun control laws as well as such laws at the federal level.

Since then, more than a half-dozen test cases on the issue have been filed at the court, and each one has been bypassed.  It appears that no one on the court is pushing to return to the issue; it takes four votes on the bench to grant review, and there is no reliable indication that any case has drawn even one vote....

Although lower courts have issued an array of differing and sometimes conflicting decisions (the pattern that usually draws in the Supreme Court), the scope of the Second Amendment right is still in a kind of constitutional limbo.  It remained there on Tuesday, when the Justices turned aside an appeal by a Maryland man, Raymond Woollard, who lives near Baltimore. He once had a permit to have a gun that he could carry outside his home, because he had shown he faced a potential threat from a son-in-law who had shown violent tendencies.  But when he tried to get the permit renewed, he was turned down, on the premise that he had not proved that he still faced a threat to his safety.  The court’s refusal to hear his appeal came quickly, after the Justices’ first fleeting look at the case. That has been the pattern for the past several years....

The message that the Supreme Court has seemed to be sending — at least up until now — is that it is in no hurry to resolve open questions about how far constitutional gun rights extend. It has not even agreed to spell out in a final way the constitutional test that it will apply to judge the validity of any specific gun control law.

As this trend continues, it tends to put an exaggerated emphasis on each new case that reaches the Supreme Court: Will this be the one that will finally get the Justices’ attention; if not, what will it take?  Since the Supreme Court is the sole entity to determine the scope of the Second Amendment right (aside from the legislatures that can put together a clarifying constitutional amendment), judges and legislators across the country have to wonder when they will get new constitutional guidance.

Especially because the Supreme Court left so much unclear about the scope and application of the Second Amendment in Heller, and particularly now that these issues have been "percolating" in lower courts for a half-decade, I think it is getting to be past time for the Justices to take up some "Heller application" cases.  In this setting, the SCOTUS is starting to seem a bit like too many others decision-makers inside the Beltway: apparently unwilling or unable to make hard decisions about how competing priorities ought to be balanced in the development of Second Amendment jurisprudence, the Justices so far are avoiding making any decisions at all.

October 17, 2013 in Gun policy and sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

SCOTUS takes up another federal criminal gun case while dodging bigger Second Amendment contentions

The Supreme Court this morning granted review on a technical federal gun crime issue, but denied review on a Second Amendment case looking to figure out the reach of SCOTUS rulings in Heller and McDonaldHere is the SCOTUSblog summary of these developments:

The Court also granted review ... on the legality under federal law of the owner of a gun selling it to someone else, if the new owner can have a gun legally.  That case is Abramski v. United States (12-1493).  However, the Court followed its recent pattern of refusing to hear constitutional challenges to gun control laws under the Second Amendment, turning aside a Maryland case seeking to expand the personal right to have a gun beyond the home (Woollard v. Gallagher, 13-42).

Notably, Abramski is the second technical statutory federal gun crime case that the Supreme Court has decided to resolve this Term.  Two weeks ago, the Court granted cert in US v. Castleman, which concerns whether a "Tennessee conviction for misdemeanor domestic assault by intentionally or knowingly causing bodily injury to the mother of his child qualifies as a conviction for a 'misdemeanor crime of domestic violence' under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9)."

Based on a too-quick review of the cert briefing in these cases, I doubt that either Abramski or Castleman will result in a major ruling concerning federal criminal law or sentencing.  But, especially given the relative dearth of significant sentencing cases on the SCOTUS docket so far, I will keep these cases on my persona watch-list.  I think either or both cases could develop into Second Amendment sleepers if some of the briefing or some of the Justices contend that there is more at stake in these cases than just a technical federal statutory crime issue.

October 15, 2013 in Gun policy and sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, October 14, 2013

Intriguing research and debate surrounding talk of increasing mandatory minimum sentence for illegal gun possession in Chicago

This new Chicago Sun-Times article, headlined "U. of C. study bolsters call for stiffer firearms sentences: police supt.," reports on some notable new crime research concerning a proposal to increase the mandatory minimum sentence for certain gun possession crimes.   Here are excerpts:

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s argument for stiffer firearms sentences is bolstered by a new study showing gun possession offenders placed on probation are more likely to get re-arrested for murder than other felons, his police superintendent says.

The University of Chicago Crime Lab studied whether those convicted of aggravated unlawful use of a weapon — a gun possession charge — have higher arrest rates for murders and non-fatal shootings than other felons. Using Chicago Police arrest data, the study found that aggravated UUW offenders were four times more likely to be re-arrested on murder charges and nearly nine times more likely to be locked up for nonlethal shootings than other felons.

The U of C study focused on all felons — and a subset of aggravated UUW offenders — who have been sentenced to probation between 2008 and 2011 in Cook County. The study tracked any re-arrests within two years of their probation date.

“This data makes clear that we have to treat illegal gun possession as the violent crime that it is,” police Supt. Garry McCarthy said on Friday.

A bill backed by the Emanuel administration and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez would raise the mandatory minimum sentence for aggravated UUW from one to three years and would require offenders to serve 85 percent of their sentences — a “truth in sentencing” provision.

“No matter how you look at it, this bill will save lives,” McCarthy said. “Every illegal gun on our street is a potential murder and the bill pending in Springfield is narrowly tailored to stop violent criminals.”...

Todd Vandermyde, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association in Illinois, said he remains opposed to the legislation because he’s concerned first-time offenders could get trapped in the same net as felons.

Meanwhile, the Illinois Department of Corrections last week warned of the steep cost of getting tougher on gun-possession offenders. The department said it would cost about $1 billion to house an additional 3,860 prisoners over 10 years.  Those costs would include the $21,000 annual cost of housing each prisoner plus the cost of building new prisons or retrofitting existing ones to accommodate them....

Vandermyde said he doesn’t have a problem with boosting the penalties for felons caught with guns.  But he’s worried about first-time offenders getting three-year prison terms....

Aggravated unlawful use of a weapon involves a person who possesses a gun on his person or vehicle, isn’t on his property, and one of the following circumstances exists: the gun is loaded and immediately accessible; the gun is uncased and unloaded, but the ammunition is immediately accessible; or the person doesn’t have a state Firearm Owner’s Identification Card.

The seven-page University of Chicago Crime Lab report referenced in this press article is available at this link (which a kind and helpful reader sent my way).  

In addition, John Maki, Executive Director of the John Howard Association of Illinois, has authored a lengthy response here to the UC Crime Lab report titled "Mandatory Minimums Will Not Solve Chicago’s Epidemic of Gun Violence: A Response to the University of Chicago Crime Lab’s Support of HB2265." Here is how this interesting reponse starts and ends:

As Illinois’ only non-partisan prison watchdog, the John Howard Association (JHA) believes that the state needs to do everything in its power to use evidence-driven laws, policies, and practices to address Chicago’s epidemic of gun violence. This must include the appropriate use of the state’s prison system, particularly for the serious offense of illegal gun possession. However, as we debate how we should use prison, we should do so with a clear understanding that the deeper we send a person into the justice system, the more we trade the possibility of the long-term benefit of rehabilitation for the short-term effect of incapacitation....

JHA opposes HB2265 because we agree with the consensus of experts and practitioners who have found that the wise use of judicial discretion is more effective at preventing crime than mandatory minimum sentences. At the same time, it is clear that Mayor Emanuel’s administration and its supporters will continue to lobby for HB2265. JHA would therefore like to recommend two amendments.  First, as supporters have argued that the costs of HB2265 will be minimal and that mandatory minimums could even save taxpayer money by deterring crime, JHA proposes that the City of Chicago should pay for the costs of increased incarceration that stem from the bill, which would otherwise fall entirely on the state. Second, if supporters believe that the law will work, they should demand a three-year sunset be placed upon the bill.  This would allow analysts to isolate and evaluate its impact. In three years, if the evidence shows that HB2265 works in the way that the Crime Lab argues it will, no one will oppose re-authorizing it, including JHA.

October 14, 2013 in Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Thursday, September 26, 2013

New trial granted for defendant subject to long mandatory sentence in Florida "warning shot" case

As reported in this news report, headlined "Marissa Alexander will get a new trial," today there was a notable development in a notable Florida criminal case that garnered some additional attention in the wake of the George Zimmerman prosecution. Here are the basics:

Marissa Alexander, the African-American woman who was sentenced to 20 years for discharging a firearm in Florida despite pleading Stand Your Ground against her husband, will get a new trial. Alexander, 32, said she fired a bullet at the ceiling because she was afraid of her husband. No one was injured. It took 12 minutes for the jury to convict her.

“We reject her contention that the trial court erred in declining to grant her immunity from prosecution under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law,” wrote Judge James H. Daniel, “but we remand for a new trial because the jury instructions on self-defense were erroneous.”

Alexander, who had given birth the week before, testified that after an altercation regarding texts from her ex-husband, she locked herself in the bathroom. Her husband Rico Gray broke through the door, grabbed her by the neck, and shoved her into the door. She ran to the garage, found she couldn’t get the door open, and returned with a gun. When Gray saw the gun, he said, “Bitch, I’ll kill you.” Alexander testified that firing the gun into the air as a warning shot was “the lesser of two evils.”

The jury rejected her self-defense argument, and instead Alexander was sentenced under the “10-20-Life” law, which carries a series of mandatory minimum sentences related to gun crimes. The prosecutor in her case was Angela Corey, who also prosecuted George Zimmerman who was acquitted in the death of Trayvon Martin....

The appeals court judge ruled that the lower court judge improperly put a burden on Alexander to prove that the firing was in self-defense. “The defendant’s burden is only to raise a reasonable doubt concerning self-defense,” Daniel wrote. “The defendant does not have the burden to prove the victim guilty of the aggression defended against beyond a reasonable doubt.” He ordered a retrial. A separate proceeding would determine whether Alexander could be released on bail pending that trial.

The relatively short opinions in this case (a majority opinion and a concurrence) can be accessed at this link.

Prior related posts:

September 26, 2013 in Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Sunday, August 11, 2013

New York Times column spotlights extreme application of ACCA in US v. Young

A few weeks ago in this post, titled "A few shotgun shells landed a man 15 years in federal prison," I reported on a remarkable federal sentencing story out of Tennessee involving an extreme application of the 15-year mandatory minimum federal sentencing term in the Armed Career Criminal Act.  I am now pleased to see Nicholas Kristof giving this case some attention via this new op-ed column headlined "Help Thy Neighbor and Go Straight to Prison."   Here are excerpts of a piece about a case that I hope gets lots and lots of attention as it makes its way up to the Sixth Circuit:

If you want to understand all that is wrong with America’s criminal justice system, take a look at the nightmare experienced by Edward Young.

Young, now 43, was convicted of several burglaries as a young man but then resolved that he would turn his life around.  Released from prison in 1996, he married, worked six days a week, and raised four children in Hixson, Tenn.

Then a neighbor died, and his widow, Neva Mumpower, asked Young to help sell her husband’s belongings.  He later found, mixed in among them, seven shotgun shells, and he put them aside so that his children wouldn’t find them. “He was trying to help me out,” Mumpower told me. “My husband was a pack rat, and I was trying to clear things out.”

Then Young became a suspect in burglaries at storage facilities and vehicles in the area, and the police searched his home and found the forgotten shotgun shells as well as some stolen goods.  The United States attorney in Chattanooga prosecuted Young under a federal law that bars ex-felons from possessing guns or ammunition. In this case, under the Armed Career Criminal Act, that meant a 15-year minimum sentence.

The United States attorney, William Killian, went after Young — even though none of Young’s past crimes involved a gun, even though Young had no shotgun or other weapon to go with the seven shells, and even though, by all accounts, he had no idea that he was violating the law when he helped Mrs. Mumpower sell her husband’s belongings.

In May, a federal judge, acknowledging that the case was Dickensian but saying that he had no leeway under the law, sentenced Young to serve a minimum of 15 years in federal prison.  It didn’t matter that the local authorities eventually dismissed the burglary charges.

So the federal government, at a time when it is cutting education spending, is preparing to spend $415,000 over the next 15 years to imprison a man for innocently possessing seven shotgun shells while trying to help a widow in the neighborhood.  And, under the law, there is no early release: Young will spend the full 15 years in prison.

This case captures what is wrong with our “justice” system: We have invested in mass incarceration in ways that are crushingly expensive, break up families and are often simply cruel. With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States has almost one-quarter of the world’s prisoners.

This hasn’t always been the case, but it is the result of policies such as mandatory minimum sentences since the 1970s.  In 1978, the United States had 307,000 inmates in state and federal prisons. That soared to a peak of more than 1.6 million in 2009. Since then, the number of inmates has declined for three consecutive years to 1.57 million in 2012.  The number of juveniles detained has also begun to drop since peaking in 2000, although the U.S. still detains children at a rate five times that of the next highest country.

In short, there’s some hope that this American experiment in mass incarceration has been recognized as a failure and will be gradually unwound.  Among the leaders in moving away from the old policies are blue states and red states alike, including New York and Texas. But America still has twice as many prisoners today as under President Ronald Reagan.

Almost everyone seems to acknowledge that locking up vast numbers of nonviolent offenders is a waste of money. California devotes $179,400 to keep a juvenile in detention for a year, and spends less than $10,000 per student in its schools. Granted, mass incarceration may have been one factor in reduced crime in the last couple of decades; there’s mixed evidence. But, if so, the economic and social cost has been enormous — including the breakup of families and the increased risk that children of those families will become criminals a generation later....

When almost 1 percent of Americans are imprisoned (and a far higher percentage of men of color in low-income neighborhoods), our criminal justice system becomes a cause of family breakdown and contributes to the delinquency of a generation of children.  And mass incarceration interacts with other government policies, such as the way the drug war is implemented, to have a disproportionate effect on African-Americans.  Black men use marijuana at roughly the same rate as white men but are more than three times as likely to be arrested over it.

Young is particularly close to his children, ages 6 to 16.  After back problems and rheumatoid arthritis left him disabled, he was a stay-at-home dad while his wife worked in a doctor’s office.  When the judge announced the sentence, the children all burst into tears.  “I can’t believe my kids lose their daddy for the next 15 years,” his wife, Stacy, told me.  “He never tried to get a firearm in the 16 years I was with him. It’s crazy. He’s getting a longer sentence than people who’ve killed or raped.”...

I asked Killian, the United States attorney, why on earth he would want to send a man to prison for 15 years for innocently possessing seven shotgun shells. “The case raised serious public safety concerns,” Killian said.  Oh.

The classic caricature of justice run amok is Inspector Javert in Victor Hugo’s novel “Les Misérables,” pursuing Jean Valjean for stealing bread for hungry children.  In that case, Valjean knew that he was breaking the law; Edward Young had no idea.

Some day, Americans will look back and wonder at how we as a society could be much more willing to invest in prisons than in schools. They will be astonished that we sent a man to federal prison for 15 years for trying to help a widow.

Recent related post:

August 11, 2013 in Examples of "over-punishment", Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (18) | TrackBack

Monday, August 05, 2013

"Va. gun crime drops again as firearm sales soar"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable big article recently appearing in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.  Here are excerpts:

Gun-related violent crime continues to drop in Virginia as the sales of firearms continue to soar, a pattern that one local criminologist finds interesting “given the current rhetoric about strengthening gun laws.”

Major gun crime collectively dropped for a fourth consecutive year statewide, while firearms sales climbed to a new record in 2012 with 490,119 guns purchased in 444,844 transactions — a 16 percent rise over 2011, according to federally licensed gun dealer sales estimates obtained by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The proliferation of guns occurred as the total number of major reported crimes committed with all types of firearms in Virginia dropped 5 percent, from 4,618 offenses in 2011 to 4,378 last year, according to Virginia State Police data.  Looking back over seven years, total firearm sales in Virginia have risen a staggering 101 percent from 2006 to 2012, while gun-related crime has dropped 28 percent during that period.

“This appears to be additional evidence that more guns don’t necessarily lead to more crime,” said Thomas R. Baker, an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs who specializes in research methods and criminology theory.

“It’s a quite interesting trend given the current rhetoric about strengthening gun laws and the presumed effect it would have on violent crimes,” Baker added.  “While you can’t conclude from this that tougher laws wouldn’t reduce crime even more, it really makes you question if making it harder for law-abiding people to buy a gun would have any effect on crime.”

But Josh Horwitz, the leader of a national gun-control group, does not find the comparison of gun crime to legal gun sales particularly significant, and views any perceived correlation between the two sets of data as essentially meaningless.  “Guns sold incident to a background check are less likely to be involved in crimes than guns sold without a background check,” said Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “So the real question — which I don’t think we really know — is what’s the level of gun sales without a background check?

“In other words, if people who buy those guns and have a background check, and keep those guns and don’t sell them, then you would not expect that those guns would affect the crime rate,” Horwitz said. “The important analysis is not the total number of guns sold with a background check, but rather the number of guns sold without a background check.”...

Baker cautioned against drawing any conclusions that more guns in the hands of Virginians are causing a corresponding drop in gun crime, as some academics and gun-rights supporters have argued.  “To substantiate (that) argument, you would need to eliminate a number of other factors that could potentially explain away the relationship of more guns, less crime in Virginia,” Baker said. “Only if the relationship remained after controlling for additional factors could a researcher be more comfortable making the claim that more guns lead to less crime.  But what the data does show is that the ‘more guns, less crime argument’ is certainly possible.”...

Although overall gun-related crime dropped 5 percent last year, murders and non-negligent manslaughter deaths committed with firearms rose 6 percent from 190 in 2011 to 201 last year. But killings with handguns dropped 3 percent.  Killings involving firearms of unknown type increased 42 percent, from 62 in 2011 to 88 in 2012.

Robberies accounted for the largest drop in gun-related crime, falling 11 percent from 2,935 offenses in 2011 to 2,508 last year. Robberies involving handguns dropped 7 percent from year to year....

Although expansion of background checks is the main goal of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, Horwitz said his group supports the tighter controls on firearms that were enacted into law in Colorado and New York after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut that killed 26.

He acknowledged that those measures — aside from the background checks — will not affect the gun-related crime rate. “It won’t reduce crime,” Horwitz said. “The point is that it decreases the lethality of crime.” He was referring to so-called assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

August 5, 2013 in Gun policy and sentencing, National and State Crime Data | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Monday, July 22, 2013

"A few shotgun shells landed a man 15 years in federal prison"

Young photoThe title of this post is the headline of this remarkable federal sentencing story out of Tennessee.  Here are the details:

In some cases, old mistakes echo across the years. New sins carry the crushing weight of an old life.   In some cases, a criminal past is not forgiven.

Months before he left state prison on burglary convictions in 1996, Edward Lamar Young told his grandmother he was going to be a different man. He would get work, get married and have a family.  The 26-year-old wouldn't steal to get what he needed or wanted.  And soon after he left prison bars behind he fulfilled that promise. He met and married a woman named Stacy.  The couple had four children.

But in late September 2011, he went off track.  He stole tools, tires and weightlifting equipment from vehicles and a business warehouse.  He even had his son with him on one trip, which added a separate charge. A video camera recorded the burglaries. Less than a week later police knocked on the door of his Hixson home. He let them in. They found the tools, but they found something else too, small items inside a drawer that would escalate his punishment far beyond burglary.

Young admits he's done bad things, but he says he's never carried a weapon, never shed another person's blood.  But because of what police found at his house that day -- seven shotgun shells -- his 15-year prison sentence now places him alongside lifelong killers, movie-style gangsters and drug kingpins.  There are homicide convictions that carry sentences half as long in Tennessee state courts. 

Laws designed for the worst of the worst, but written broadly enough to ensnare the less dangerous, subject Young to what even his sentencing judge called a Dickensian penalty. There is a bill in Congress that would give federal judges discretion, untie their hands to ensure punishments fit the crimes.  But that bill is far from passage and would have to apply retroactively, a rarity in many criminal laws, to help Young.

Weeks, maybe months before police came to his home Young had helped a neighbor, a woman named Neva Mumpower.  Her husband had died and she wanted to sell some of their older furniture.  She told Young if he hauled it to the flea market she'd split whatever it sold for.  He did, but kept a chest of drawers at his place. 

A short time later he went through it and found the shells.  Young didn't think much of them.  He put them away so the kids wouldn't come upon them and went on with his day. He'd get them back to Mumpower later or just throw them away.  Except he didn't.

Young confessed to the burglaries and faced state prison time, probably a few years with the likelihood of parole and probation.  Not a proud moment but recoverable.  The 43-year-old man soon discovered that the shotgun shells carried a heavier burden -- a 15-year mandatory federal prison sentence with no possibility of parole.

Standing inside the wood-paneled courtroom in the downtown federal building May 9, Stacy Young knew what was coming but held out a strand of hope.  Mercy, maybe.  She listened as the lawyers droned on about legal definitions, criminal histories and what was right, what was fair. Then the judge told her husband he could speak.

"I just ... I mean, it wasn't ... it wasn't my intent," Ed Young told the judge. "I did find them in the box, and I put them up until I could give them back to her, so my kids wouldn't find them.  I don't think I deserve to grow up without my family, and I don't think my family deserves to grow up without me."  The Youngs' oldest son, who is 16, ran out of the courtroom in tears.  The crying family huddled in the hallway after the sentencing. The youngest son is 6 years old.  He'll be 20 when Ed Young leaves federal prison, a 62-year-old man....

Convicted felons are told they no longer can possess firearms.  Having a gun, even if the felony was a white-collar crime such as wire fraud, means prison time.  What some may know but Young swears he did not, is that possessing ammunition, say seven shotgun shells, is just as bad.

There's nothing in Young's criminal record to show he's ever been accused of carrying a weapon, even in the 20-year-old burglary convictions.  But those burglaries are counted as "violent crimes."  And language is important.  Young's criminal past classified him as an armed career criminal under federal law.  That classification means he faces severe penalties for the rest of his life if he breaks any of the rules.

Young's attorney is flabbergasted. "I don't think there's anything like it at all," said Chris Varner.  "Everything went wrong here." As far as his legal research shows, it is only under the Armed Career Criminal Act that Young's distant convictions can count against him, Varner said.  Other federal sentencing guidelines would not have considered the past convictions because they were so long ago.

Once the charges were filed and the federal grand jury indicted Young, nothing could stop the machine that is federal law.  Prosecutor Chris Poole worked the case.  He declined to comment under U.S. Attorney's Office policy not to speak about active cases.  Young's case is on appeal to the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.  But in court documents, Poole explains to U.S. District Judge Curtis Collier that by definition Young's crimes fit the career criminal law and the minimum sentence is 15 years.  The maximum was life.

During the May 9 hearing Collier hinted at his thoughts on the Draconian sentence. "Mr. Young, I don't know if you read a lot, but there was an author who has written a lot of books, and has some overtones here. His name is Charles Dickens," Collier said.

The judge went on to explain the situation and his own lack of power. "This is a case where the Congress of the United States has instructed federal district judges like myself to impose a sentence of at least 180 months, that is, 15 years," Collier said. "... This sentence is not so much a punishment for the present crime as it is a punishment for your history of crimes."

The week after the federal sentencing, prosecutors in state court dismissed the burglary and related charges....

Stacy Young is now a single working mother with a house full of children.  She'll haul them down to Atlanta every other week.  Two of the children will visit the first day, then they'll stay overnight for the other two to see their father the second day.  Ed Young writes letters nearly every day and says he'll keep writing. 

Varner, his attorney, sees the sentence far outweighing the crime and worries what it says about justice. "This is not who we are, we do not do this as a nation," he said.  Stacy, devastated by the outcome, living with the consequences, sees it much more personally. "I don't think he should have 15 years for seven shotgun shells," she said. "I think it's crazy."

July 22, 2013 in Examples of "over-punishment", Gun policy and sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (27) | TrackBack