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 (26) | TrackBack

Friday, June 28, 2013

Since the GOP was so troubled by ATF's work in Fast & Furious, will they now investigate drug-house stings?

Though perceived and perhaps intended as a political witch-hunt, the investigation by the GOP-led House of Representatives into the Fast & Furious program reveals some of the ugly realities of how our federal government commits crimes in order to try to go after criminals. Consequently, I hope there might be more Republican calls for hearings and investigation of ATF practices as a result of this important and huge new investigative report by USA TodayThis lengthy story in the report is headlined "ATF uses fake drugs, big bucks to snare suspects; The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has locked up more than 1,000 people using controversial sting operations that entice suspects to rob nonexistent drug stash houses. See how the stings work and who they target." Here are excerpts (and a video) from the USA Today report:

 

 

 

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the agency in charge of enforcing the nation's gun laws, has locked up more than 1,000 people by enticing them to rob drug stash houses that did not exist. The ploy has quietly become a key part of the ATF's crime-fighting arsenal, but also a controversial one: The stings are so aggressive and costly that some prosecutors have refused to allow them. They skirt the boundaries of entrapment, and in the past decade they have left at least seven suspects dead.

The ATF has more than quadrupled its use of such drug house operations since 2003, and officials say it intends to conduct even more as it seeks to lock up the "trigger pullers" who menace some of the most dangerous parts of inner-city America. Yet the vast scale of that effort has so far remained unknown outside the U.S. Justice Department.

To gauge its extent, USA TODAY reviewed thousands of pages of court records and agency files, plus hours of undercover recordings. Those records — many of which had never been made public — tell the story of how an ATF strategy meant to target armed and violent criminals has regularly used risky and expensive undercover stings to ensnare low-level crooks who jump at the bait of a criminal windfall....

Most of the people the ATF arrested in drug-house stings last year — about 80% — already had criminal records that included at least two felony convictions before the agency targeted them. But 13% had never before been found guilty of a serious crime, and even some of those with long rap sheets had not been charged with anything that would mark them as violent.

ATF officials reject the idea that they should focus only on people with violent records. "Are we supposed to wait for him to commit a (obscenity) murder before we start to target him as a bad guy?" said Charlie Smith, the head of ATF's Special Operations Division, which is responsible for approving each sting. "Are we going to sit back and say, well, this guy doesn't have a bad record? OK, so you know, throw him back out there, let him kill somebody, then when he gets a bad record, then we're going to put him in jail?"....

[These stings] are dangerous because, if everything goes the way agents expect, they will be confronting a crew of heavily armed men amped up to commit an especially violent crime. To deal with that risk, the ATF steers the takedowns to remote places such as forest preserves or warehouses where it's easier to take suspects by surprise and where stray bullets won't endanger the public. Then it assembles a small army of federal agents and local police officers. Smith said he recalled one pre-arrest briefing with 170 officers.

Court records show ATF agents and local police officers working with them have shot at least 13 people during takedowns in drug-house stings since 2004, killing at least seven of them. Six were killed by local police officers conducting sting operations as part of an ATF task force. Most came after suspects fired at police or tried to run them down with cars....

The drug-house stings are engineered to produce long prison sentences, and they typically do precisely that. Using court records, USA TODAY identified 484 people convicted as a result of the stings, though there are almost certainly others. Two-thirds were sent to prison for more than a decade, a sentence longer than some states impose for shootings or robberies. At least 106 are serving 20-year sentences, and nine are serving life.

It's the drugs — though non-existent — that make that possible because federal law usually imposes tougher mandatory sentences for drugs than for guns. The more drugs the agents say are likely to be in the stash house, the longer the targets' sentence is likely to be. Conspiring to distribute 5 kilograms of cocaine usually carries a mandatory 10-year sentence — or 20 years if the target has already been convicted of a drug crime.

That fact has not escaped judges' notice. The ATF's stings give agents "virtually unfettered ability to inflate the amount of drugs supposedly in the house and thereby obtain a greater sentence," a federal appeals court in California said in 2010. "The ease with which the government can manipulate these factors makes us wary." Still, most courts have said tough federal sentencing laws leave them powerless to grant shorter prison terms.

To the ATF, long sentences are the point. Fifteen years "is the mark," Smith said. "You get the guy, you get him with a gun, and you can lock him up for 18 months for the gun. All you did was give this guy street creds," Smith said. "When you go in there and you stamp him out with a 15-to-life sentence, you make an impact in that community."

Because it is may be hard to generate too much public sympathy for the persons with criminal records being targeted by these ATF stings, I would be surprised if either Democrats or Republicans will start complaining anytime soon about what USA Today has uncovered about these ATF stings. But perhaps some libertarian leaning folks (paging Senator Rand Paul) will at least respond to this USA Today investigation with calls for greater transparency concerning these programs.

June 28, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Gun policy and sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

SCOTUS grants cert to resolve mens rea required for 924(c) accomplice liability

Thanks to SCOTUSblog, I see that the Supreme Court has started the short week with a cert grant of note concerning federal criminal law and a sentencing issue whicj has split the circuits.  The grant is in Rosemond v. United States (SCOTUSblog page here), and here is how the folks at SCOTUSblog describe the issue now to be resolved by the Justices (in its next Term):

Whether the offense of aiding and abetting the use of a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence or drug trafficking crime, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 924(c)(1)(A) and 2, requires proof of (i) intentional facilitation or encouragement of the use of the firearm, as held by the First, Second, Third, Fifth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuits, or (ii) simple knowledge that the principal used a firearm during a crime of violence or drug trafficking crime in which the defendant also participated, as held by the Sixth, Tenth, and District of Columbia Circuits.

May 28, 2013 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, May 16, 2013

"Can ‘Smart Gun’ Technology Change the Stalemate Over Gun Violence?"

The title of this post is the headline of this new piece of reporting over at The Crime Report, which echoes some ideas that I have been raising on this blog for a number of years and that I have given extra attention to following the Newtown massacre.  Here are excerpts:

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter issued a challenge to the gun industry yesterday, arguing that the application of “smart gun” technology, designed to program firearms so that only their owners can fire them, could not only save lives but neutralize the concerns of gun rights advocates.

"Why don't you at least try?” Nutter, who also serves as president of the U.S., Conference of Mayors, asked Joe Bartozzi, vice-president of the Connecticut-based firearms manufacturer O.F. Mossberg and Sons.  “Put one on the market and see what happens."

But Bartozzi, speaking at a roundtable for newsroom editors and columnists at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, insisted it wouldn’t work.  Bartozzi said Mossberg had already surveyed focus groups about some of the cutting-edge technology already available, such as personalized rings that could be digitally programmed to recognize the legitimate owner of a weapon.

The response, he said, was overwhelmingly negative.  Customers who wanted guns to protect themselves and their families considered such technology too unreliable, he said. "What if I have to hand the gun to my spouse in an emergency?”  Bartozzi recalled a focus group member asking.

"It’s hard to understand that it represents more than just a piece of steel or plastic.  It represents personal security; it represents security when the police aren't there.  It represents even food when there's no supermarket. It represents self-defense.  It represents liberty and freedom for a lot of people," Bartozzi said....

Nutter and fellow panelist Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak argued that finding technological solutions to the challenge of gun access represented a common sense approach to a problem both sides agreed was a key factor in reducing the kind of gun violence that has afflicted many U.S. cities: the easy access to guns — particularly those sold or trafficked on the black market — to youth gang members and others who otherwise could not get them legally....

The smart gun technology issue, ranging from biometrics to trigger locks, also reflects a wider challenge by gun safety advocates to treat guns as consumer products subject to national safety standards similar to seatbelts in cars or childproof medicine bottles.

Bartozzi, a member of the board of governors of the National Shooting Sports Foundation — the leading industry lobby group — insisted guns are unlike other consumer products subject to federal rules because they are protected by the Second Amendment.  “I think sometimes we confuse what our privileges and rights. Driving a car is a privilege.  You have the right to own a gun,” he said.

Rybak and other speakers at yesterday’s “Under the Gun” roundtable charged that leading gun rights lobbies such as the National rifle Association (NRA) and the NSSF made it harder to reach any compromise because of their objections to both technological solutions and efforts to modernize even the current system for tracking guns used during crimes.

Based in part on prior discussions on this blog (some of which are linked below), I understand fully the reservations that many gun owners and gun-rights activists have about using technology to try to prevent mis-use of firearms.  Nevertheless, I think the development of device that might at least enable one to eletronically disable a stolen or lost firearm could perhaps generate interest in the marketplace, especially if the federal government created tax incentives to encourage use of this kind of gun-safety technology.

More broadly, I think the development of a safer "smart gun" could and should be spurred by some kind of "Project X" private funding scheme through a university or think tank (see example here), especially now that it seems the private marketplace or governments are making much progress on this front.  I suspect just a few millions dollars as a "smart gun" prize (only a fraction of what is being poured into gun policy lobby shops and PACs) could go a very long way to moving forward and ultimately saving innocent lives.

A few recent and older related posts:

May 16, 2013 in Gun policy and sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, May 13, 2013

In Chicago for symposium on "Gun Violence and the Second Amendment"

As detailed on this webpage, I am on a panel this morning at the Union League Club of Chicago to help kick off a "symposium on the issue of gun violence and the Second Amendment, co-sponsored by ULCC Public Affairs and the Chicago Bar Association." Here are the details:

ULCC Public Affairs and its Subcommittee on the Administration of Justice, in partnership with the Chicago Bar Association's Human Rights Committee, presents a half-day (8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.) symposium with expert panelists focusing on efforts to curtail gun violence and the parameters of the Second Amendment....

The event begins with continental breakfast at 8:30 a.m. and a panel discussion on the scope and impact of the Second Amendment on the issue of gun violence prevention, moderated by Professor Ann Lousin of the John Marshall Law School.  Panelists for this segment include David G. Sigale (plaintiff's attorney in McDonald, et al v. City of Chicago), Professor Geoffrey R. Stone (former provost of The University of Chicago and dean of its law school), and Professor Douglas Berman (Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University Law School).

The mid-morning panel, titled "Public Policy Initiatives Related to Gun Control and Gun Violence," will review state and federal legislative responses to gun violence as well as social concerns correlated with gun violence, such as poverty and lack of educational and employment opportunities.  The discussion will be moderated by J. Timothy Eaton of Shefsky & Froelich and will feature panelists Professor Jens Ludwig, University of Chicago; Juliet Leftwich, Legal Director, Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, and John Tillman, CEO of the Illinois Policy Institute.

As reported in this SCOTUSblog post, the Supreme Court is slated to release orders and opinions at the exact time of my panel discussion.  Based on the blogging variation on Murphy's Law, I am predicting this means that SCOTUS will hand down this morning some of the big sentencing decisions I have been eagerly awaiting, and in turn that I will need a lot more time than usual to report and assses whatever happens.  (Of course, the very fact that I am making this prediction could mean that SCOTUS decides today only some more boring civil rulings that I and other sentencing fans can just ignore.)

May 13, 2013 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Sunday, May 12, 2013

"Sentencing Bill Could Cost Taxpayers $760 Million Over 10 Years"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent report concerning the projected price tag for a sentencing proposal being discussed as an approach to dealing with Chicago's gun violence.  Here are the details:

A bill designed to reduce gun violence by increasing gun-crime sentences could end up costing Illinois taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, according to an investigation by NBC Chicago and The Chicago Reporter.

State Representative Mike Zalewski (D-Riverside) has proposed a bill to increase Illinois’ minimum mandatory prison sentence for gun violators from one year to three years. "We have to make sure individuals are afraid, frankly, of the law, and afraid of the consequences," Zalewski said. "I think three years sets a high bar that if you’re found guilty of the offense, you’re going to face serious consequences. You’re not going to be right back out on the street."

But critics say the bill is nothing more than "political theatre." What’s more, it’s prohibitively expensive, according to opponents like John Maki, Executive Director of the John Howard Association, a local prison-watchdog group. "It’s going to add about 4,000 inmates in about three years," Make explained. "It’s going to explode the budget."

The results of a study done by NBC Chicagos partner, The Chicago Reporter, would seem to support that view. The Reporter analyzed all criminal cases in Cook County Criminal Court from 2000 through 2011, and estimated that it cost taxpayers more than $5.3 billion to imprison Chicago criminals during that period. If those sentencing costs were extrapolated to include the increased prison time resulting from Zalewski’s gun-sentencing bill, The Reporter estimates the bill to taxpayers would have increased by an additional $760 million during that same time period....

As for the potential added expense of these expanded prison sentences, Zalewski is part of a separate discussion in Springfield, aimed at freeing up space in Illinois’ overcrowded prisons. The discussion centers around reducing the number of non-violent offenders — people convicted of such offenses as prostitution or drugs, for example — to make room for these more violent gun offenders.

Discussing this idea and similar gun sentencing proposals making the rounds in other states, Daniel Denvir has this recent commentary in The New Republic.  Its headline captures its themes: "The Worst Gun Control Idea Has Bipartisan Support: Why states should not pass new mandatory minimums for firearm possession."

May 12, 2013 in 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 (2) | TrackBack

Monday, May 06, 2013

Don't registered sex offenders need gun rights for personal self-defense more than others?

The question in the title of this post is my initial reaction to this big newpaper story from Iowa, headlined "50 sex offenders have gun permits: Law enforcement is concerned that state law allows offenders to easily obtain permits."  Here are excerpts from the lengthy Des Moines Register story,  which is less than fully informative about legal matters, but provides a lot of interesting facts nonetheless:

Joshua Duehr is one of more than 50 sex offenders in Iowa who can carry a gun in public. “I don’t leave the house without one,” said Duehr, who lives in Dubuque.

It’s legal — and it’s news that has surprised some state lawmakers and alarmed a few Iowa and national law enforcement officers.  An FBI official, the president of the Iowa State Sheriffs’ & Deputies’ Association, the president of the Iowa State Police Association and two state lawmakers told The Des Moines Register they have public safety concerns after learning that a two-year-old state law on gun permits allows registered sex offenders to obtain a weapons permit....

Some, if not most, applications by sex offenders for permits to carry weapons would have been denied by county sheriffs before 2011, according to officials from the Iowa Department of Public Safety.  But under a two-year-old state law, sheriffs no longer have discretion to reject such applications.

The law change means people convicted of misdemeanor sex crimes can now walk the streets, malls or virtually any public place in the state while carrying a gun.  Almost all of the sex offenders on the Register’s list were convicted of misdemeanors such as lascivious conduct with a minor or assault with intent to commit sexual abuse.

But the Register found three men convicted of felony sex crimes who had permits to carry weapons in public.  Two of those men had their permits revoked by sheriffs after the Register asked about their situations....

Some sheriffs were aware that sex offenders are carrying weapons in public, primarily because they issue the permits and have firsthand knowledge about the issue.  But other professionals in Iowa’s law enforcement community were caught off guard.

Rob Burdess, a Newton police detective and the president of the Iowa State Police Association, was unaware that sex offenders are being issued weapon permits until he was asked about it by the Register.  He noted that people with felonies or domestic abuse convictions are typically unable to obtain weapon permits, so he questions the logic of allowing sex offenders — even those convicted of non-felony offenses — to carry weapons in public....

[A] review of states surrounding Iowa found that some sex offenders can obtain permits to carry weapons even though authorities said they aren’t aware of a large number being issued.  Those states — including Nebraska, Missouri and Wisconsin — have laws similar to Iowa’s that do not specifically exclude sex offenders from obtaining such permits. Minnesota law, however, makes it a misdemeanor for a person required to register as a sex offender to carry a handgun.

Just as state laws vary, so do opinions about whether armed sex offenders inherently pose more of a risk than other citizens.  Sex offense recidivism rates are much lower than commonly believed, according to legislative testimony given in multiple states by Jill Levenson, an associate professor at Lynn University in Florida.  She is frequently recognized as a national expert on sexual violence....

National uniform crime data from 2006 — the most recent data available — show that about half of all reported sex offenses included a weapon of some form (including the use of fists) but less than 1 percent of all reported sex offenses included the use of a firearm, according to Jason Rydberg, a graduate student at Michigan State.  Iowa numbers mirror the national trend.  Of the roughly 5,750 people on Iowa’s sex offender registry, 47 — or less than 1 percent — used guns in their crimes, according to data from the Iowa Department of Public Safety....

The Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, a national organization focused on the prevention of sexual abuse, generally advocates for cases to be reviewed individually when assessing if a sex offender is likely to reoffend or jeopardize public safety.  “There’s no blanket way of stating that sex offenders are more dangerous than everybody else,” said Maia Christopher, executive director of the association.

Iowa Rep. Clel Baudler, R-Greenfield and a former state trooper, isn’t reassured by the type of research offered by Levenson or groups like the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers.  Until he was contacted for this article, Baudler was unaware that the new gun permit law he advocated for in 2010 has allowed dozens of sex offenders to obtain weapon permits....

An Iowa sheriff may deny a permit to carry a weapon if he believes probable cause exists that the person is likely to use a weapon in a way that would endanger themselves or others.  Those types of denials typically must be based on documented actions from the past two years.  Iowans who believe sheriffs have wrongly rejected their applications for a weapon permit may appeal.  Each appeal, generally reviewed by an administrative law judge, can cost a county government and taxpayers hundreds of dollars....

The cost and the real possibility of losing a case is one reason sheriffs don’t deny permits to carry weapons — even in cases where they have reservations — several sheriffs told the Register.

Washington County in January issued a permit to acquire a weapon to Ronald Nicholis Hahn Jr., who has been on the sex offender registry since 2005 because he was convicted of indecent exposure.  Dunbar said he approved the permit because Hahn passed background checks.  Hahn, 51, said he poses no threat to public safety and that he uses guns for hunting.  “My offense happened seven or eight years ago and it has nothing to do with weapons, so why should I be denied the ability to purchase a gun?” Hahn asked.

Rep. Matt Windschitl, R-Missouri Valley, indicated that he believes Iowa’s new weapons permit law doesn’t need to be revised to specifically ban sex offenders.  People convicted of felonies, including sex offenders, are already prohibited from obtaining a permit, he emphasized. “If their local sheriff does not have probable cause to restrict that person under current law from being able to obtain a permit, then that’s the situation at hand,” said Windschitl, a gunsmith who has advocated for multiple pro-gun bills.

Aggravatingly, this story fails to note that it is a serious federal crime, subject to up to 10 years imprisonment, for any and all persons convicted of a felony or a domestic violence misdemeanor from even possessing a gun. Thus, as the story indirectly notes, only persons without a felony or domestic violence conviction is even lawfully able to possess a gun, let alone get a lawful state permit for one. (I find notable that somehow three sex offender felons were able to get an Iowa gun permit, which perhaps highlights the need for background checks on how good current background checks are in the permit-issuance process in Iowa.)

More to the point of the question in the title of this post, if we think the Second Amendment right to bear arms is linked in some important and significant way to the natural right of personal self-defense (as Heller suggested), a reasonable claim might be made that it would be uniquely unconstitutional to deny gun permits to otherwise eligible persons on a state sex offender registry. There has long been considerable anecdotal evidence of considerable vigilante violence directed toward persons based simply on their presence on a sex offender registry. Given the history of private violence directed toward sex offenders — not to mention the possibility that local law enforcement might not be too quick to come to the aid of someone they know is a registered sex offender — I can fully understand why Joshua Duehr and other low-level registered sex offender might be afraid to move around in public without packing heat to potentially aid any efforts to exercise their natural right of self defense.

Though I do not fancy myself a Second Amendment expert, I wonder if a state law like Minnesota's  prohibiting misdemeanor sex offenders from having a firearm in constitutional in the wake of Heller and McDonald.  If and when a low-level sex offender in Minnesota or elsewhere could reasonably document a history of serious personal threats of serious violence directed toward him because of his placement on the registry and asserted a genuine belief in his need for a firearm in order to protect himself, could a state really require his name and address to stay on the sex offender registry while also denying him a right to keep and bear arms to defend himself?

May 6, 2013 in Collateral consequences, Gun policy and sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Second Amendment issues, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (90) | TrackBack

Friday, March 22, 2013

Based on new Louisiana constitutional provision, state judge strikes down law criminalizing felon gun posssission

As reported in this lengthy local article from New Orleans, some felons in the Bayou have gotten (for now) some benefit from the modern gun rights movement. Here are the basics:

An Orleans Parish judge on Thursday ruled that the state statute forbidding certain felons from possessing firearms is unconstitutional, in the wake of a constitutional amendment passed last year that made the right to bear arms a fundamental one in Louisiana.  The issue will now go straight to the state Supreme Court, which must decide whether the statute infringes on Louisiana citizens' now-enhanced right to gun possession.

Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Darryl Derbigny on Thursday dismissed the charge against one felon, but took his decision a step further than another judge faced with a similar decision earlier this month.

Derbigny ruled that the entire statute -- RS 14:95.1 -- was unconstitutional after voters last year approved by a sweeping majority a constitutional amendment backed by the National Rifle Association. That bill made gun ownership a "fundamental right," on the same level as freedom of speech or religion. A court interpreting any law restricting a fundamental right -- as gun ownership is now considered -- must approach it with "strict scrutiny," the highest level of judicial scrutiny.

Before Jan. 1, questions of gun rights were considered with "rational scrutiny," which allowed regulations to "protect the public health, safety, morals or general welfare." But strict scrutiny requires that the law is, first, necessary for a "compelling government interest." Then, it must be so narrowly defined as to serve only that interest and, third, be the least restrictive way of doing so.

The Orleans Parish public defenders office challenged the constitutionality of the statute on behalf of a half-dozen clients, all charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm. The attorneys concede that public safety is a compelling interest to bar violent offenders, like murderers or armed robbers, from possessing weapons. But the law also bars people convicted of a number of less obviously violent felonies from possessing guns....

The case before Derbigny involved a 20-year-old man named Glen Draughter who had previously pleaded guilty to attempted simple burglary. Draughter was later caught riding in a car with two other people; a .40-caliber Smith & Wesson was in the backseat and an AK-47 with a 30-round magazine was in the trunk.

Public defenders Jill Pasquarella and Colin Reingold argued that under a strict-scrutiny test, the government must be able to provide compelling data showing that those convicted of crimes like simple burglary prove a heightened threat to society when armed. "There is, simply, no rational basis for stripping Louisianans of their rights ... where they have been convicted of crimes that are wholly unrelated to firearm possession or use," Pasquarella wrote to judges in this and several other cases.

Assistant District Attorney Matthew Payne submitted sociological studies suggesting a link between such offenses and a proclivity toward later violent crime.

But Derbigny on Thursday ruled that the statute infringed on constitutional protections when analyzed under a "strict scrutiny" test required of laws restricting fundamental rights. He wrote that it "is not narrowly tailored to achieve the government's interest."...

Judge Frank Marullo had already ruled in favor of defendants in several similar cases. But he did not declare the statute unconstitutional, saying his rulings applied to specific defendants and the circumstances of their cases. Judge Arthur Hunter is scheduled to hear a similar case later this month.

Payne on Thursday noted that he intends to appeal the decision. When a statute is deemed unconstitutional in its entirety, the appeal skips mid-level appeals courts and is fast-tracked straight to the state Supreme Court for review.

If the Supreme Court sides with Derbigny, and rules that the statute violates the state constitution, the law will be scrapped and the Legislature forced to rewrite it. If the court finds that the amendment makes the gun-possession law unconstitutional, it will also have to decide whether the unconstitutionality is retroactive -- which could jeopardize convictions that occurred before the amendment went into effect....

In the meantime, prosecutions of felons in possession of a firearm will continue on, said Chris Bowman, spokesman for Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro. In the weeks leading up to the November election, with the gun rights amendment on the ballot, Cannizzaro warned of the possible fallout.

He wrote an op-ed column threatening that it would lead to a "flurry of litigation in which criminal defendants will challenge the constitutionality of current criminal laws regulating gun possession."

The nonpartisan Bureau of Governmental Research also urged voters to defeat the constitutional amendment, saying it "would expose the public to unnecessary risks and hamper law enforcement efforts" and adding: "There is no good reason to enter this uncharted territory." Gov. Bobby Jindal wrote an op-ed too, but his exhorted voters to pass the amendment, which he described as "an ironclad guarantee of freedom here in Louisiana."

In a prepared statement Thursday, the Jindal administration said: "We disagree with the judge's ruling. The amendment passed last session is not in conflict with Louisiana or federal law barring felons from owning guns."

Cannizzaro's office, meanwhile, offered an "I told you so" statement. "District Attorney Cannizzaro predicted that the passing of this amendment would cause prosecutors across the state to go to court and defend the constitutionality of 14:95.1," Bowman said Thursday.

Some related Second Amendment and gun policy posts:

March 22, 2013 in Gun policy and sentencing, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Monday, March 18, 2013

Should NRA care more about gun rights for non-violent felons or those accused of domestic violence?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy new front-page New York Times article headlined "Ruled a Threat to Family, but Allowed to Keep Guns." Here is an excerpts from the first part of the article:

[I]n one of a handful of states, the protection order would have forced [an abusive husband] to relinquish his firearms.  But that is not the case in Washington and most of the country, in large part because of the influence of the National Rifle Association and its allies.

Advocates for domestic violence victims have long called for stricter laws governing firearms and protective orders.  Their argument is rooted in a grim statistic: when women die at the hand of an intimate partner, that hand is more often than not holding a gun.  In these most volatile of human dramas, they contend, the right to bear arms must give ground to the need to protect a woman’s life.

In statehouses across the country, though, the N.R.A. and other gun-rights groups have beaten back legislation mandating the surrender of firearms in domestic violence situations.  They argue that gun ownership, as a fundamental constitutional right, should not be stripped away for anything less serious than a felony conviction — and certainly not, as an N.R.A. lobbyist in Washington State put it to legislators, for the “mere issuance of court orders.”

That resistance is being tested anew in the wake of the massacre in Newtown, Conn., as proposals on the mandatory surrender of firearms are included in gun control legislation being debated in several states.

Among them is Washington, where current law gives judges issuing civil protection orders the discretion to require the surrender of firearms if, for example, they find a “serious and imminent threat” to public health.  But records and interviews show that they rarely do so, making the state a useful laboratory for examining the consequences, as well as the politics, of this standoff over the limits of Second Amendment rights.

By analyzing a number of Washington databases, The New York Times identified scores of gun-related crimes committed by people subject to recently issued civil protection orders, including murder, attempted murder and kidnapping.  In at least five instances over the last decade, women were shot to death less than a month after obtaining protection orders. In at least a half-dozen other killings, the victim was not the person being protected but someone else.  There were dozens of gun-related assaults like the one Ms. Holten endured.

The analysis — which crosschecked protective orders against arrest and conviction data, along with fatality lists compiled by the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence — represents at best a partial accounting of such situations because of limitations in the data.  The databases were missing some orders that have expired or been terminated.  They also did not flag the use of firearms in specific crimes, so identifying cases required combing through court records....

In some instances, of course, laws mandating the surrender of firearms might have done nothing to prevent an attack.  Sometimes the gun used was not the one cited in the petition. In other cases, no mention of guns was ever made.  But in many cases, upon close scrutiny, stricter laws governing protective orders and firearms might very well have made a difference.

As long-time readers know, I find puzzling and troubling that the NRA or others are quick to assert or assume that the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms, if it really is about protecting a truly fundamental constitutional right, that it can be permanently stripped away for any and every felony conviction, even very-long-ago, indisputably non-violent drug possession or white-collar offenses.  This new article reinforces my sense that the NRA's advocacy policies, as well as existing gun laws and practices, are crude and problematic tools now often used to deny gun rights to persons who are not obviously dangerous while sometimes preserving gun rights for persons who are obviously dangerous.

Some related Second Amendment and gun policy posts:

March 18, 2013 in Gun policy and sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (29) | TrackBack

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Interesting developments in "smart gun" discussions and debate

I just came across this notable piece from California on my favorite firearms topic, namely smart gun technologies and policies.  The report is headlined "Personalized guns touted as safety check," and here is how it starts:

In the latest James Bond movie, the hero is given a gun that recognizes the palm of his hand.  Later, when a bad guy snatches the pistol away in a tussle, it won't fire, and Agent 007 lives to die another day.  It may have felt like Hollywood fantasy, but the basic premise is very real — and very dear — to some lawmakers and gun control advocates.

They believe that in the age of smartphones and the aftermath of December's elementary school massacre in Connecticut, the time has come for a marriage of firearms — which have changed little for decades — and modern technology that allows all sorts of devices to be personalized to their user.

President Obama, in the anti-gun-violence plan he introduced in January, directed the attorney general to issue a report on "existing and emerging gun safety technologies."  He also promised prizes to companies that develop the smart guns.

Sensing momentum, state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, introduced legislation last month that would require all handguns sold in the state to be "owner-authorized."  Under the bill, which is similar to one New Jersey passed in 2002, standard guns would become illegal for sale 18 months after the state Department of Justice determines personalized guns are readily available and function well.

The idea is that a gun should be useless if picked up by a child or a suicidal teen or stolen in a burglary.  The weapons would feature biometric technology such as fingerprint or grip recognition, or radio-frequency identification, which is used in employee-access badges and the toll-collection system FasTrak.

The guns could be used only by their owner, who in some cases would have to wear a special watch or ring to be able to fire the weapon.  The firearms could be configured to allow for multiple users, such as family members.

Skeptics of the technology point out that, despite years of research and high hopes, such guns are still not available in the United States.  But that may be changing.

Belinda Padilla, the head of U.S. sales for a German company called Armatix, said the firm plans to sell a .22-caliber pistol in the United States by this summer that works only after its user activates it by entering a five-digit code into a wristwatch.  The watch uses radio waves to communicate with the gun.  "The bottom line is, this exists now," said Stephen Teret, founder of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University, who has followed the progress of personalized guns for years.  "The question isn't one of technological feasibility anymore, but one of policy."

No one doubts the tough politics around personalized guns, which have been studied and debated for more than two decades.  Many gun owners oppose them, saying they fear the technology will fail them in a pinch.  A major gun control group, the Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C., also opposes the idea, arguing that personalized technology would save few lives, distract from more important efforts, and give a false impression that guns are safe, perhaps driving new sales.

Brandon Combs, who heads the Calguns Foundation, a gun rights organization, said personalized guns aren't close to being marketable or reliable.  Even if they were, he said, a law mandating their sale would make guns much more expensive and difficult to use, infringing upon the constitutional right to bear arms. "We're creating laws now for a possible future that may or may not ever come to fruition, and to me that's silly," Combs said.  "The reality is this would do nothing but create another opportunity for California to ban handguns and make them expensive for people."

A few recent and older related posts:

March 9, 2013 in Gun policy and sentencing, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Friday, March 01, 2013

Procedural rules now blocking efforts to undo convictions of federal defendants who are legally innocent

As reported in this new USA Today piece, headlined "Federal judge refuses to release innocent prisoners," a number of procedural issues are getting in the way of undoing federal convictions of defendants that the US Justice Department now recognizes are legally innocent.  Here are the details:

Even the federal prosecutors who put Gordon Lee Miller in prison couldn't get him out.  U.S. Justice Department lawyers took the unusual step in December of asking a federal judge to throw out Miller's conviction and free him because, they said, he had not actually broken the law.

But the judge's answer was still more unusual: No. 

The judge's ruling against Miller is among the latest in a handful of court decisions blocking — at least temporarily — efforts by defense lawyers and prosecutors to overturn convictions in hundreds of cases in which the Justice Department agrees that people were sent to prison improperly because of a misunderstanding of federal law. The decisions raise for the first time the prospect that scores of prisoners still waiting for courts to decide their cases might remain locked up.

"It's very frustrating," said Chris Brook, legal director of the ACLU of North Carolina, which has been tracking the cases.  "These are cases where everybody is on the same page. The government and the defense agree.  The only one standing in the way is the judge."  Miller finished his prison sentence while the case was being decided, but still must serve three years on supervised release.

The legal dispute stems from a misunderstanding about which North Carolina state convictions were serious enough to make having a gun a federal crime.  A USA TODAY investigation last year identified 60 people who had been sent to prison on gun charges even though an appeals court later determined that it was not illegal for them to have a gun.  The Justice Department had initially asked courts to keep the prisoners locked up anyway, but dropped that position last year "in the interests of justice," and is now asking courts to let them out.

In response, judges have so far freed 34 people and taken at least 16 others off supervised release, court records show.  A Justice Department review last year identified 175 others in the smallest of the state's three judicial districts who are entitled to be released or have their prison sentences reduced.

But this month, U.S. District Judge Robert Conrad in Charlotte turned down petitions by Miller and another man seeking to have their convictions overturned, even though prosecutors said in court filings that they were "convicted for conduct that we now understand is not criminal." Another judge, Martin Reidinger, has expressed skepticism that he can free five other men, and has asked prosecutors and defense lawyers to prepare additional filings before he makes his decision.

A Justice Department spokeswoman, Allison Price, declined to comment on the specifics of those cases, saying only that "the court is empowered with great discretion and we respect the court's decision."  The department has until next week to tell Reidinger whether it still believes the men can be freed.

Miller was sent to federal prison under a law that bars people from owning guns if they have already been convicted of a crime that could have put them in prison for more than a year.  But Miller's prior North Carolina convictions could have put him in jail for no more than eight months. Conrad — the former chief federal prosecutor in Charlotte — said in a Feb. 15 order that he could not upend Miller's conviction.  Miller, he wrote, was "lawfully sentenced under then-existing law," and an appeals court's 2011 decision that changed that understanding of the law did not apply to cases that were already concluded.

Miller's lawyers, who declined to comment, have appealed Conrad's order.  If an appeals court upholds the decision, it could effectively block other judges from overturning convictions in similar cases that are still pending in federal courts throughout North Carolina.

Related prior posts:

March 1, 2013 in Gun policy and sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Monday, February 11, 2013

Talk in Chicago of increasing mandatory minimum sentences for gun possession

Chicago gunsAs reported in this new local article from Chicago, that city's "mayor, cops and prosecutors are taking aim at Illinois’ gun possession laws — calling for longer mandatory prison terms and 'truth in sentencing'." Here are some of the details of the proposal and the sentencing debate is has started to engender:

Their wish list includes boosting the minimum required sentence for people convicted of gun possession from one year in prison to three years. They hope to increase the minimum sentence for felons caught with guns from two years to three years.

They also want everyone convicted of felony gun possession to be required to serve 85 percent of their sentences. Now those inmates must complete only half their terms — and sometimes much less after earning “good time” in prison.

Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said the proposed reforms would deter more people from carrying guns illegally and would help curb violence. “The guys who are doing the shootings would be away from the corners for a longer time,” Alvarez said in an interview.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose office drafted the legislative proposals, is expected to announce them Monday with Alvarez and other officials. “Criminals continue to escape with minor sentences for possessing and using firearms,” Emanuel said in a prepared statement.

For months, police Supt. Garry McCarthy has proposed lengthening the mandatory sentence for gun possession to three years, pointing to New York City, where he was once a high-ranking cop. The state of New York passed a 3½-year mandatory minimum sentence for illegal gun possession in 2007. The following year, NFL star Plaxico Burress was arrested after a handgun he was carrying accidentally discharged and shot him.

Burress pleaded guilty to a lesser offense and was hit with a two-year jail term, drawing national attention to New York City as a place that cracks down on illegal gun possession. Criminologists point to the mandatory gun sentence in New York as one of the reasons for the Big Apple’s continuing decline in violent crime.

Chicago — whose murder tally rose 16 percent to 506 last year — has about three times as many murders per capita as New York. Also, about 85 percent of murders in Chicago involve a gun, compared to about 60 percent in New York.

While the cops and prosecutors in charge of locking up criminals support lengthier sentences, one judge said the General Assembly — and the public — need to think hard before making the gun laws harsher. “As a taxpayer of this state, I would hope the legislators are cognizant that creating mandatory minimum sentences creates a financial consequence to the state,” said Cook County Judge Nicholas Ford.  “A lot of judges bristle at mandatory minimum sentences.  It’s not my position to question it.  It’s my job to enforce whatever the legislature forwards me.

“But for a person who’s never been convicted of a felony, for a person who’s never committed a violent crime, for a taxpayer who’s never had any problems with the law, I wonder about that,” Ford said.

Alvarez responded that few people without criminal backgrounds are charged with felony gun possession in Cook County.  “You will see that once in a while, but that is when our discretion [as prosecutors] comes into play in charging and in looking at cases once they’re in the system,” she said.

Supporters of mandatory minimum sentences say they also provide a predictable outcome. Indeed, a Chicago Sun-Times examination found wide disparities in how often Cook County judges put people behind bars for gun possession before mandatory minimum sentences fully took effect in early 2011.

Ford, for example, sentenced 42 defendants for gun possession and sent about 76 percent to prison. About 21 percent received probation and 2 percent went to boot camp. The length of his average prison sentence was almost two and a half years. Judge Michael Brown, meanwhile, sentenced 45 defendants. About half went to prison, 23 percent received community service, 18 percent probation and 5 percent boot camp. But the length of his average prison sentence was more than three years.

Overall, Cook County judges sent nearly three-quarters of such defendants to prison for an average sentence of almost two and a half years.  About 14 percent got probation, 6 percent boot camp and 4 percent community service.  The newspaper studied 2011 sentencing outcomes in felony gun possession cases that didn’t include other types of crimes.

Many of those cases involved 2010 arrests, which didn’t apply to the mandatory minimum sentences that took effect in 2011. A separate law that took effect in late 2009 requires a minimum sentence of three years for gang members convicted of carrying a loaded gun.

The Sun-Times analysis found that judges sometimes sentenced defendants to Cook County boot camp — a four-month program with eight additional months of strict supervision. Ford called boot camp a “really solid disposition” for younger defendants without a felony record or violent background.

But Alvarez said she doesn’t think judges should have the option to sentence such defendants to boot camp. “It’s not ‘pen’ time,” she said. “I think the law is clear that they should not be giving boot camp, but judges see it a different way.”

Alvarez said she’s considering discussing the matter with Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans and “seeing if there’s something we need to change legislatively — or litigate it.” As Alvarez and other politicians pursue tougher gun laws, one man convicted of illegal gun possession surprisingly said they’re right.

Matthew Munoz, 24, was arrested in 2011 after he and his pals got into a squabble with rival gang members on the South Side.... Munoz was eligible for probation because his crime happened in 2010, before the one-year mandatory minimum took effect. He was sentenced to two years’ probation, but after one year he messed up when he tried to foil a drug test.

Munoz was sent to prison. But because he got credit for time he spent in the Cook County Jail, he said he spent only one day at Stateville Correctional Center. “It’s called ‘dress in and dress out,’ ” he said.

Munoz is now on parole, which he vows to complete successfully. He plans to go to school and get a job. “Some people need prison to learn their lesson,” Munoz said. “I wish I got sent to prison a long time ago. I kept getting probation for this and that. . . . Chicago is getting out of control with the gang violence. They should send those guys to prison — even guys like me.”

As serious sentencing fans know well, and as this article helps highlight, mandatory minimum sentencing laws do not really mandate prison for all offenders.  Rather, they mostly serve to transfer the discretion as to which offenders go to prison from judges to prosecutors. 

If there is good research indicating that this transfer of discretion in the gun crime settings help to reduce illegal gun use and gun violence, I can understand why folks in Chicago and elsewhere think increased mandatory minimums should be a needed response to gun crimes and gun violence.  But, as lots of research and experience reveals in the federal system and elsewhere, having prosecutors as exercising the most sentencing discretion via mandatory minimums tends to increase sentencing disparities, not ensure that similar defendants always receive similar sentences.

Recent and older related posts:

February 11, 2013 in Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack

Friday, February 08, 2013

"What the Gun Lobby and the Marijuana Lobby Have in Common"

The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary by Andrew Cohen at The Atlantic.  It gets started this way:

Last week, I took a glancing look at some of the most dubious gun measures creeping up from state legislatures all over the country since the beginning of the year. The statutory text may differ from state to state, but the theme of those post-Newtown proposals are essentially the same: Under the banner of federalism, expressing alarm at federal power, earnest lawmakers are seeking to use new state laws to prevent law enforcement officials from enforcing existing (and future) federal gun regulations.

At the same time, also in the last five weeks, lawmakers in at least 18 states -- more than one-third of the nation -- have proposed dozens of new marijuana laws that would dramatically alter the way millions of people interact with pot.  Again, the details differ from bill to bill.  But, again, the underlying theme is familiar: Under the banner of federalism, expressing disdain with federal power, earnest lawmakers are seeking through these measures to erode the scope of federal law, which still classifies marijuana as a dangerous drug that is illegal to sell or possess.

The new generation of gun laws, which run directly counter to national public opinion, is rooted in the fealty of state lawmakers to the 10th Amendment, to the 2nd Amendment, to gun industry lobbyists and to its tribune, the National Rifle Association.  And these measures, if passed, would be patently unconstitutional.  You can amend or repeal a federal statute, in other words, including of course a federal gun regulation, but as a state lawmaker you cannot seek to punish federal officials who are trying to enforce it.

On the other hand, the new generation of marijuana laws, which represent growing national support for reasonable reform, is a direct result of the stunning election success last November of two legalization measures in Colorado and in Washington.  These measures, too, on their face, violate federal marijuana law.  And, ultimately, either the federal law will have to change, or these state laws will have to change.  That change isn't likely to come first from the courts.  It's going to have to come from lawmakers, from Congress, and the White House.

February 8, 2013 in Gun policy and sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack