Monday, June 02, 2014

Tenth Circuit explains what's the matter with Kansas prior convictions as enhancers

Download (1)Thanks to a helpful reader, I learned that today the Tenth Circuit handed down a significant opinion concerning the use of prior Kansas offenses in career offender guideline calculations in US v. Brooks, No. 13-3166 (10th Cir. June 2, 2014) (available here).  Here is how the opinion in Books starts and ends:

Did Defendant Damian L. Brooks commit enough prior qualifying felonies to be considered a “career offender” under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines?  The district court below said yes, relying on United States v. Hill, 539 F.3d 1213 (10th Cir. 2008), to classify a prior Kansas conviction of Defendant as a felony because it was punishable by more than one year in prison. On appeal, Defendant admits Hill mandates this classification. He argues, however, that Hill was abrogated by the Supreme Court in Carachuri-Rosendo v. Holder, 560 U.S. 563 (2010).  We agree.  As such, exercising jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291 and 18 U.S.C. § 3742, we reverse and remand for resentencing....

In conclusion, Hill — which looked to the hypothetical worst possible offender to determine whether a state offense was punishable by more than a year in prison — cannot stand in light of Carachuri-Rosendo.  We now hold, in line with our pre-Hill precedent, that in determining whether a state offense was punishable by a certain amount of imprisonment, the maximum amount of prison time a particular defendant could have received controls, rather than the amount of time the worst imaginable recidivist could have received.  As such, Defendant’s prior Kansas conviction for eluding police is not a felony for purposes of U.S.S.G. § 4B1.1(a).  The district court’s imposition of a career offender enhancement was therefore in error and is REVERSED. This case is REMANDED for resentencing.

The helpful reader who alerted me to this opinion noted that "for those of us who deal with Kansas state convictions, it is (as Ron Burgundy would say), kind of a big deal."  Here is part of this reader's explanation for why:

Previous 10th Circuit authority held that a conviction for a Kansas on grid "felony" was punishable by more than one year if a sentence more than one year could be imposed on any hypothetical defendant.  That is, the analysis was not limited by a defendant's actual criminal history category on the state guidelines grid.  If more than one year could be imposed for any criminal history category, the conviction = felony for purposes of federal law, even though a particular defendant may have only been exposed to a sentence less one year or less....

This ruling will impact multiple areas of federal prosecution and sentencing.  For instance, if the high end of a defendant's KS gridbox is 12 months, then the conviction is not a disabling conviction for purposes of 18 USC 922(g)(1).  Likewise, such a conviction would not be a predicate conviction for purposes of the Armed Career Criminal Act or the Career Offender guidelines enhancement.

A more limited effect will be that a few drug-grid convictions will not be a "prior drug felony" that can enhance a controlled substance offense under 21 USC 851....  Certain attempts/conspiracies/solicitations to commit drug crimes would also not be a federal felony for enhancement purposes.

Because I do not know how many federal sentencing cases are significantly impacted by how certain prior Kansas offenses are assessed, I cannot readily guess just how loudly this Brooks ruling might echo in other settings.  But I do know that a similar type of ruling from the Fourth Circuit a few years ago concerning how North Carolina priors were to be treated has tied up a lot of federal courts in a lot of jurisprudential knots as they try to unwind the impact of "mis-assessed prior offenses." Consequently, I would advise court officials and federal practitioners in Kansas and perhaps throughout the Tenth Circuit to start reviewing and giving thought to what Brooks says and what it could mean for prior cases as well as future ones.

June 2, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Conservative Justices debate treaty powers, local crimes and constitutional connections

The sole criminal justice ruling from the US Supreme Court this morning comes in Bond v. US, No. 12-158 (S. Ct. June 2, 2014) (available here), and conservative con law thinkers are likely to enjoy the lengthy read much more than sentencing fans.  Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Roberts starts this way in Bond:

The horrors of chemical warfare were vividly captured by John Singer Sargent in his 1919 painting Gassed. The nearly life-sized work depicts two lines of soldiers, blinded by mustard gas, clinging single file to orderlies guiding them to an improvised aid station. There they would receive little treatment and no relief; many suffered for weeks only to have the gas claim their lives. The soldiers were shown staggering through piles of comrades too seriously burned to even join the procession.

The painting reflects the devastation that Sargent witnessed in the aftermath of the Second Battle of Arras during World War I. That battle and others like it led to an overwhelming consensus in the international community that toxic chemicals should never again be used as weapons against human beings. Today that objective is reflected in the international Convention on Chemical Weapons, which has been ratified or acceded to by 190 countries. The United States, pursuant to the Federal Government’s constitutionally enumerated power to make treaties, ratified the treaty in 1997. To fulfill the United States’ obligations under the Convention, Congress enacted the Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act of 1998.  The Act makes it a federal crime for a person to use or possess any chemical weapon, and it punishes violators with severe penalties. It is a statute that, like the Convention it implements, deals with crimes of deadly seriousness.

The question presented by this case is whether the Implementation Act also reaches a purely local crime: an amateur attempt by a jilted wife to injure her husband’s lover, which ended up causing only a minor thumb burn readily treated by rinsing with water. Because our constitutional structure leaves local criminal activity primarily to the States, we have generally declined to read federal law as intruding on that responsibility, unless Congress has clearly indicated that the law should have such reach.  The Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act contains no such clear indication, and we accordingly conclude that it does not cover the unremarkable local offense at issue here.

Notably, all the Justices agree that the federal prosecution and conviction in Bond must be reversed, but Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito write concurrences to explain why they view Bond's treatment as unconstititional not merely statutorily unauthorized. And while I suspect con law scholars will have a grand time debating the virtues and vices of the different perspectives of the different conservative Justices, I fear that criminal law practitioners are unlikely to find much in Bond to use in more traditional federal cases.

June 2, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, May 29, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Effective Sentencing Project and HRW responses to Senators' letter opposing the Smarter Sentencing Act

SSAI was very pleased to learn from helpful readers that Antonio Ginatta, the US Program Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch, and Jeremy Haile, federal advocacy officer for The Sentencing Project, have now both authored effective and distinct responses to the May 12th letter sent by Senators Grassley, Sessions, and Cornyn to their Senate colleagues voicing opposition to the Smarter Sentencing Act (reported here).  Haile's response appears here at The Hill under the headline "Last stand for the drug warriors." Here are excerpts:

In a letter to colleagues, Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) wrote that the legislation “would benefit some of the most serious and dangerous offenders in the federal system.” The xenators raised the specter of a violent crime wave if minimum penalties for nonviolent drug offenses are reduced.

Describing the Smarter Sentencing Act as a sort of “get out of jail free card” for dangerous criminals is highly misleading. The bill would not eliminate a single mandatory minimum, nor would it reduce any maximum penalties. Instead, it would allow judges greater discretion in low-level cases, while preserving long sentences for the most serious offenders....

Unfortunately, some longtime drug warriors seem intent on throwing cold water on the sentencing reform movement just as it is heating up. Michele Leonhart, head of the Drug Enforcement Agency, recently testified that rather than unwinding the drug war, “we should be redoubling our efforts.” A number of former federal law enforcement officials have argued that current drug sentencing penalties should be preserved.

But we have tried incarcerating our way to a drug-free America, and that approach has failed. Three decades later, evidence is mounting that federal drug laws have led to skyrocketing prison populations without making communities safer. Meanwhile, illegal narcotics are as pure and as readily available as ever.

Rather than caving in to the “tough on crime” rhetoric of another era, Congress should seize a rare opportunity for reform. State after state has reduced drug sentencing penalties without jeopardizing public safety. Polls show that Americans, Republican and Democrat, favor treatment over prison for nonviolent offenders.

The old playbook on crime and punishment is worn out. It’s time to take a new approach to nonviolent drug sentencing.

Ginatta's response appears in an open letter available here to Senators Grassley, Sessions, and Cornyn detailing with hard data why so many of their claims are misguided.  I urge ervery to read the HRW reponse in full, and here is an excerpt:

Your letter states that drug-related mandatory minimums “are used almost exclusively for high-level drug traffickers.” Data from the United States Sentencing Commission tells a much different story. According to the Commission, 40 percent of federal drug defendants were couriers or street dealers.  In fact, nine out of ten federal drug defendants come from the lower or middle tiers of the drug business.  Because mandatory minimums are triggered by the quantity of drug involved, a street-level dealer can face the same minimum sentence as the head of a large drug trafficking organization. A typical federal drug offender is someone like Jamel Dossie, a 20-year-old, small-time street-level drug dealer’s assistant who received a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for working as a go-between in four hand-to-hand sales totaling 88.1 grams or 3.1 ounces of crack (the weight of an average bar of soap)....

You next cite in your letter that “those who would benefit from these reduced sentences are not ‘non-violent’ — they would include repeat drug traffickers and criminals with a history of violence.”  This is only part of the story.  Almost half (49.6 percent) of all federal drug offenders imprisoned in Fiscal Year 2013 fell under the lowest criminal history category (zero or one criminal history point under the federal sentencing guidelines).  And 83.8 percent of federal drug offenders during the same period were found to not have a weapon involved in their crime.  A small percentage of drug offenders may have used a weapon in their offense, but the mandatory minimums you defend are wilfully blind to the vast numbers of those who didn’t.  To brand all drug offenders as violent is too broad a sweep — no sane sentencing policy should make that assumption.

Some prior posts about the SSA and debates over federal sentencing reform:

May 27, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Fascinating research on federal mortgage fraud prosecutions and sentencing in Western PA

20140525mortgage-fraud-thumbI am pleased and excited to have learned over the long weekend that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Duquesne University School of Law collaborated on an innovative Fact Investigations class, led by associate professor and Criminal Justice Program director Wesley Oliver, to study the modern work of Western Pennsylvania's federal prosecutors in response to modern mortage fraus.  As explained in this first article of a series about this work, this group "identified 144 prosecutions alleging mortgage-related crimes in the Pittsburgh area ... [and then] analyzed 100 prosecutions in which sentence had been pronounced and for which the federal sentencing guidelines could be discerned." Before getting into the findings, I want to heap praise on everyone involved in this project because it shows what valuable work can be done when law schools and traditional media team up to examine intricate and dynamic issues concerning the federal criminal justice system.

Here, from the start of the first article in the series, are the basic findings of this terrific project:

In 2008, as the housing market dragged the world economy down, orders came from Washington, D.C., to federal prosecutors nationwide: Bust the people whose lies contributed to the mess.

Six years later, the effort by Pittsburgh's federal prosecutors to punish fraudulent mortgage brokers, appraisers, closing agents, property flippers and bank employees can claim 144 people charged, more than 100 sentenced and no acquittals.

That undefeated record, though, came at a price: Some of the worst offenders got extraordinary deals in return for their testimony against others.

A review by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Duquesne University School of Law students of 100 completed cases showed that the sentences of mortgage-related criminals in the Pittsburgh area were driven more by their degree of cooperation with prosecutors than by the number of people they scammed, the dollars they reaped or the damage they did to the financial system.  Some of the most prolific offenders used their central places in the fraud conspiracy to secure light sentences.

• Leniency for cooperation was doled out liberally.  At least 30 of the 100 defendants were the beneficiaries of prosecutorial motions to reward "substantial assistance" to the investigation.  That cooperation rate is nearly double that seen in fraud cases nationwide, suggesting that prosecutors here rewarded more defendants than normal.

• Most of the mortgage criminals who assisted prosecutors got no prison time, and the average amount of incarceration for those 30 defendants was a little more than three months.  By contrast, defendants who pleaded guilty but didn't provide substantial assistance to prosecutors, got average sentences of three years in prison.  Those few who went to trial faced an average of 6½ years behind bars.

•  Several of the figures most central to the region's mortgage fraud problem cooperated with prosecutors, and got non-prison sentences.  For instance, Kenneth C. Cowden, formerly of McKees Rocks and now of Florida, performed unlicensed appraisals that exaggerated real estate values in the region to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. He cooperated and got nine months in a halfway house.  Jay Berger of Fox Chapel, who recruited Cowden and lived lavishly from fraudulent mortgages, was sentenced in 2012 to 15 months in prison, but died this month at age 49 without serving time.

Here are links to all the article in the series:

Regular readers will not be at all surprised to hear me say that I view this terrific bit of investigative journalism as further proof that those who are really concerned about suspect disparities in federal sentencing ought to be much more focused on the application of (hidden and unreviewable) prosecutorial sentencing discretion than about the exercise of (open and reviewable) judicial sentencing discretion.

May 27, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Monday, May 26, 2014

"Disarming the Dangerous: Preventing Extraordinary and Ordinary Violence"

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Should I be hopeful Amy can now recover more restitution after major child porn bust in NYC?

The question in the title of this post is my (perhaps weak) effort to put some kind of positive spin on this depressing new story from CNN headlined "Cop, rabbi, scoutmaster among arrests in child porn bust."  Here are just some of the ugly basics:

They are people children are supposed to trust: A New York Police Department officer, a Fire Department of New York paramedic, a rabbi and a scoutmaster were among more than 70 people arrested in a major child porn bust, authorities said Wednesday.

One of those arrested -- a supervisor with the Transportation Security Administration -- allegedly traveled to the Dominican Republic to have sex with children, a law enforcement official said. He allegedly made more than 50 trips there.

The investigation, involving agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement as well as New York authorities, began as part of an undercover operation into peer-to-peer networks, authorities told reporters Wednesday.  The suspects, who do not appear to know one another, were able to search files using graphic terms and descriptions. Software continuously scanned files and automatically uploaded images to personal computers, laptops and mobile phones.

Special Agent in Charge James Hayes, head of Homeland Security Investigations New York, called the arrests the largest enforcement operation in New York "targeting predators (who) possess, produce or distribute sexually explicit images of children." The activity, he said, has "reached epidemic proportions."

"The backgrounds of many of the individuals ... is shocking," Hayes said. "These defendants come from all walks of life ... This operation puts the lie to the classic stereotypical profile that child predators are nothing more than unemployed drifters. Many of the defendants are, in fact, well-educated and successful in private and professional lives. They work as registered nurses, paramedics, caretakers for mentally ill adults, computer programers and architects."

The continuing operation resulted in 71 arrests -- including one woman -- and the seizure of nearly 600 devices, including desktop and laptop computers, tablets, smartphones and thumb drives with tens of thousands of sexually explicit images and videos of children, Hayes said.

The pornographic images of children were shared at no charge, authorities said. About a third of the suspects remain in custody, and the others were released on bonds ranging from $30,000 to $500,000. Hayes said the January arrest of Brian Fanelli, chief of the Mount Pleasant Police Department in upstate Valhalla, New York, on child pornography violations helped lead to the other defendants.

A few months ago, I asked in the title of this post a serious question that comes to mind now again: "Just how many prominent, successful men are child porn fiends?".  As the title of this post suggests, following the Supreme Court's messy "split-the-difference" approach to child porn restitution in its recent Paroline ruling (basis here), I am hoping a silver lining to this dark cloud might be that CP crimes committed too often by persons "well-educated and successful in private and professional lives" might now mean more restitution getting paid to the unfortunate victims of these crimes.

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

May 21, 2014 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Texas teen facing 5-to-life for selling pot brownies(!) highlights prosecutorial sentencing powers

A drug war and severe sentencing story making the media rounds today emerged via this recent local report headlined "Texas man facing possible life sentence for pot brownies." Here are the basics (which have already been sensationalized a bit in some media accounts I have seen):

A Texas man accused of making and selling marijuana brownies is facing up to life in prison if convicted.  That’s because officials in Round Rock have charged him with a first-degree felony.

It’s a move that the man’s family and attorney outraged. “It’s outrageous. It’s crazy. I don’t understand it,” Joe Lavoro, the man’s father said. Like many familiar with the case, Joe does not understand why his son is in so much legal trouble....

The 19-year-old is accused of making and selling pot brownies.  He’s charged with a first degree felony.  “Five years to life? I’m sorry.  I’m a law abiding citizen.  I’m a conservative. I love my country.  I’m a Vietnam veteran, but I’ll be ****ed.  This is wrong. This is ***n wrong!” the father said.

Lavoro’s lawyer agrees. “I was outraged. I’ve been doing this 22 years as a lawyer and I’ve got 10 years as a police officer and I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Jack Holmes, Lavoro’s attorney said.

The former high school football player has a clean record.  The charge is so severe because the recipe includes hash oil.  That allows the state to use the sugar, cocoa, butter and other ingredients to determine the weight of the drugs.  “They’ve weighed baked goods in this case. It ought to be a misdemeanor,” Holmes said.

KEYE reached out to the district attorney to ask how they’re going to prosecute the case.  Our call has not yet been returned....

Jacob’s father wants what’s right. “If he did something wrong, he should be punished but to the extent that makes sense. This is illogical. I’m really upset, and I’m frightened, I’m frightened for my son,” Joe said.

Jacob Lavoro's father is right to be frightened, in large part because it would seem that his son's fate is now almost entirely in the hands of local prosecutors. Though I do not know all the ins and outs of Texas drug laws, I assume that the local prosecutors can (and probably will) ultimately allow Lavoro to plead to some less charge rather than go to trial on a first-degree felony charge carrying a 5 to life sentence. But the fact that such a severe charge with a big-time sentence is even on the table all but ensures that the local prosecutor can extract a plea on whatever terms strikes his fancy.

May 20, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Occupy Wall Street activist sentenced to occupy jail for three months

CecilyAs the New York Times reports here, a "woman whose assault case had become a cause célèbre, first among Occupy Wall Street supporters and then expanding well beyond the movement, was sentenced to three months in jail on Monday, as a judge rejected calls for her immediate release." Here is more about a high-profile state sentencing that occurred yesterday in Manhattan:

The woman, Cecily McMillan, 25, a graduate student at the New School and a volunteer labor organizer, was convicted two weeks ago of assaulting a police officer at Zuccotti Park in Manhattan in 2012.  Before the sentence was delivered, Ms. McMillan remained mostly defiant, even as she characterized the encounter with the officer as “an accident.”.....

But Justice Ronald A. Zweibel, who had remanded Ms. McMillan on May 5 after the four-week trial, imposed the jail sentence that prosecutors had requested, rather than release her on probation, as her lawyers had urged.  She could have faced a maximum of seven years for the second-degree assault.  “A civilized society must not allow an assault to be committed under the guise of civil disobedience,” Justice Zweibel said....

Upon her conviction, Ms. McMillan’s supporters wrote scores of letters to Justice Zweibel, urging him to be lenient.  Five City Council members delivered the same message on the steps of City Hall, and the Russian activists Pussy Riot, who were recently imprisoned for criticizing President Vladimir Putin, visited her on Rikers Island and called for her release. An online petition calling for leniency garnered 160,000 signatures....

Before sentencing, Shanda Strain, an assistant district attorney, said Ms. McMillan deserved a three-month stay in jail because she had falsely accused Officer Bovell of grabbing her breast, lying under oath “to avoid responsibility for her actions.”

“This trial was not a referendum on a large social cause or movement, though the defendant tried and continues to try to make it just that,” Ms. Strain said. Then she added, “In essence, she has repeatedly argued that the rules should not apply to everyone equally — that defendants who are politically motivated deserve special treatment.”...

Ms. McMillan’s lawyer, Martin Stolar ... told the judge that the bruises and mental trauma that Ms. McMillan had suffered during her arrest were punishment enough.  “You touch a police officer and get the hell beat out of you,” he said outside court.  “That’s what happened to her. That’s enough of a deterrent.”

Ms. McMillan also received five years of probation, and was ordered to undergo a mental-health evaluation and treatment.  Mr. Stolar said he had filed a notice of intent to appeal the verdict, and had asked that his client be granted bail pending the appeal.

May 20, 2014 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Identifying better DOJ prosecutorial priorities than low-level drug crimes

Perhaps the main reason I am a supporter of the Smarter Sentencing Act is my desire to have Congress send an important message about federal criminal justice priorities to the US Justice Department and others through a relatively modest revision of existing mandatory minimum sentencing provisions.  Notably, the preamble to the SSA makes express mention of this goal, describing the purpose of the Act as designed to "focus limited Federal resources on the most serious offenders."  By reducing (though not eliminating) mandatory minimums for various drug crimes, Congress would be effectively saying that federal prosecutors ought not prioritize federal prosecutions of first offenders who may have been involved in dealing only a few ounces of crack or meth or heroin.

Critically, under current law and after the SSA were to become law, if and whenever a drug offender has even a single prior drug offense or just possesses a firearm or causes any significant bodily harm, additional heightened mandatory sentences kick in.  Thus, the only drug dealers likely to benefit significantly from the SSA are true first-offenders who deal only a few ounces of crack or meth or heroin.  I feel confident that major dealers, repeat dealers, and those who use or threaten violence will still be a priority for federal prosecutors after passage of the SSA, and that the feds will still have plenty of prosecutorial tools to take down serious drug traffickers.  And by making sure that lengthy prison terms are mandated only for the most serious offenders, federal prosecutorial and corrections resources can and should be better focused on other crimes, especially crimes that only federal prosecutors can effectively and efficiently prosecute.

What kinds of other crimes, you might ask, would I want federal prosecutors to prioritize over going after first offenders involved in dealing only a few ounces of crack or meth or heroin?  Helpfully, old pal (and forner federal prosecutor) Bill Otis in a pair of new posts over at Crime & Consequences identifies two classes of federal fraud and corruption that ought to be a signal concern for federal prosecutors. Here I will provide links and highlights from these two posts:

A New Prosecution Priority for DOJ: "The lead story in the Washington Post today reports that possibly a million applicants for Obamacare subsidies may have 'misstated' their income.... DOJ should not allow something like that to happen again.  Whether one loves Obamacare or hates it, no one has the right to bilk it by cheating.   A few hundred highly publicized false statement prosecutions would go a long way toward keeping applicants honest and, therefore, keeping the program as solvent as it's going to get."
Another Prosecution Priority for DOJ:  "My last post suggested that the Justice Department prosecute at least some of the thousands of Obamacare applicants who have intentionally falsified statements of their income in order to bilk the taxpayers for even more than they're being bilked out of already.  There is second priority I would suggest for DOJ examination -- a priority that, it seems, the Department may have taken up.  As the New York Times reports: 'The Department of Veterans Affairs' inspector general is working with federal prosecutors who are trying to determine whether criminal violations occurred at a medical center in Phoenix accused of falsifying data or creating secret waiting lists intended to hide months long delays for veterans to see doctors, a top official told a Senate committee on Thursday.'"

I suspect Bill would be quick to assert that the federal government in general and DOJ in particular has plenty of resources to keep going after all drug offenders and to now start going after Obamacare cheats and federal executive branch liars.  Though it is surely true that federal prosecutions are not a zero-sum game, the fact remains that the sentencing laws on the books necessarily serve to structure and greatly influence the exercise of prosecutorial discretion for this Administration and others.  Plus, state prosecutors can (and still do) go after low-level (and high-level) drug dealers, whereas state prosecutors cannot go after after Obamacare cheats and federal executive branch liars.

In short, I heartily endorse Bill's suggestion that AG Holder and his prosecutorial agents start going after Obamacare cheats and federal executive branch liars.  And that endorsement of DOJ prosecutorial priorities provides an additional reason for my support of the SSA and its effort to reorient federal prosecutorial priorities accordingly.

Some prior posts about the SSA and debates over federal sentencing reform:

May 18, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Friday, May 16, 2014

Federal judge splits the difference in sentencing former SAC money manager to 3.5 years

As reported in this Wall Street Journal article, a federal district judge in a high-profile white-collar sentencing today imposed a prison term roughly half-way between what federal prosecutors and the defense sought.  Here are the basics:

A federal judge sentenced former SAC Capital Advisors LP portfolio manager Michael Steinberg to three and a half years in prison Friday, saying he hoped Wall Street would learn from this case. The term was well below what prosecutors had sought.

U.S. District Judge Richard Sullivan called the former senior SAC employee "a basically good man," citing evidence of his character supplied in 68 letters sent by his family and friends. But he also pointed to the seriousness of Mr. Steinberg's insider trading.  "They are crimes that go to the heart of living in an honest society and having a market system," he said during a hearing in Manhattan federal court.  Wall Street, he hoped, would "derive lessons."

Mr. Steinberg, 42 years old, is SAC's most senior former employee to be convicted of insider trading.  Prosecutors had asked for a sentence of 5¼ to 6½ years to send a strong deterrent message to the market.  Mr. Steinberg's lawyers had requested less than half that amount.

Mr. Steinberg was convicted in December on four counts of securities fraud and one count of conspiracy for trading on confidential information, handing prosecutors the first verdict from a federal jury to back up their allegations that there was insider trading at SAC.  There is a chance Friday's sentence won't stick.  A pending appeal in a related insider-trading case could bolster Mr. Steinberg's chances to overturn his conviction.

May 16, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Intriguing Second Circuit opinion concerning which priors trigger 10-year child porn mandatory

Today in US v. Lockhart, No. 13-602 (2d Cir. May 15, 2014) (available here), a Second Circuit panel resolves a notable statutory question concerning what prior sex offenses serve as predicates triggering a 10-year mandatory minimum prison term for a child porn possession offense.  Here is how the opinion in Lockhart starts along with a later paragraph highlighting why this issue could perhaps get Supreme Court attention:

In this case, we must decide whether a sentencing provision that provides for a ten‐year mandatory minimum term of imprisonment if a defendant was previously convicted “under the laws of any State relating to aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward,” 18 U.S.C. § 2252(b)(2), requires that an “aggravated sexual abuse” or “sexual abuse” conviction involve a minor or ward, or whether only “abusive sexual conduct” is modified by the phrase “involving a minor or ward,” such that a sexual abuse conviction involving an adult victim constitutes a predicate offense. We conclude that the statutory text and structure indicate that the latter reading is correct and therefore affirm the district court’s imposition of a ten‐year sentence on Defendant‐Appellant Avondale Lockhart....

Looking at § 2252(b)(2) as a whole, we find, as a number of other circuits have explained, that “it would be unreasonable to conclude that Congress intended to impose the enhancement on defendants convicted under federal law, but not on defendants convicted for the same conduct under state law.” United States v. Spence, 661 F.3d 194, 197 (4th Cir. 2011).... This reasoning compels us to conclude that “involving a minor or ward” modifies only prior state convictions for “abusive sexual conduct,” not those for “sexual abuse” or “aggravated sexual abuse,” each of which would constitute a predicate federal offense if committed against an adult or a child.

We acknowledge that the Sixth, Eighth and Tenth Circuits have reached the opposite conclusion, namely, that the phrase “involving a minor or ward” modifies all three categories of state sexual abuse crimes.  However, the Eighth and Tenth Circuits have drawn this conclusion without elaborating on their reasoning. Indeed, these circuits appear merely to have assumed that a prior state‐law sexual abuse conviction requires a minor victim for purposes of the sentencing enhancement, an assumption that made little difference in those cases since the predicate violations at issue involved minor victims.... The Sixth Circuit has reached this conclusion most explicitly, although it did so because it found that another panel of that court had “already considered the proper construction of the statutory language at issue,” and that that prior decision bound the current panel, even though the earlier opinion did not engage in any express analysis of the statutory language.  United States v. Mateen, 739 F.3d 300, 304–05 (6th Cir. 2014) (citing United States v. Gardner, 649 F.3d 437 (6th Cir. 2011)), reh’g en banc granted, opinion vacated (Apr. 9, 2014).  We are not compelled to follow such unexplored assumptions in coming to our conclusion here.

May 15, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

"Federal Judges Are Cutting Rich Tax Cheats Big Sentencing Breaks"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy and interesting new piece at Forbes by Janet Novack.  Here are excerpts:

Increasingly, federal judges are going easy on tax cheats, or at least easier than the U.S. Sentencing Commission’ s guidelines say they should. The trend has been quietly building since 2007, but was given a high profile Forbes 400 face in January when a Chicago federal judge let billionaire H. Ty Warner off with probation for hiding as much as $106 million in UBS AG and a smaller Swiss bank for more than a decade and evading at least $5.5 million in tax on his secret accounts.  According to the sentencing guidelines, the 69-year-old Warner, who made his fortune by creating Beanie Babies, should have gotten 46 to 57 months in the federal pen.  Prosecutors have appealed Warner’s sentence, asserting, among other things, that the judge was unreasonably impressed by his “not so extraordinary” charity and by gushing letters from employees, and business associates....

[I]n 2005, the Supreme Court ruled in U.S. v Booker that the guidelines were merely advisory.  Subsequent Supreme Court and appellate decisions have made it clear that trial judges have broad discretion to depart from the guidelines and will only be overturned if they’ve failed to properly consider the guidelines or their decision is clearly unreasonable.  “Once they make the noises about calculating the guidelines, they can come up with their own numbers, and they can base it on anything they want,” says Scott A. Schumacher, a professor at University of Washington Law School who has written a new paper on tax-sentencing post-Booker that is being published in the Villanova Law Review.  While the percentage of all sentences that fall within the guidelines has steadily declined since Booker, the change in tax sentences has been particularly dramatic, he adds.

For example, in fiscal 2013, judges gave below guideline sentences, without buy-in from prosecutors, to 45% of those sentenced for tax crimes, but just 28% of those sentenced for embezzlement; 26% of those sentenced for fraud; and 22% of those sentenced for forgery or counterfeiting. (Another 20% of tax offenders got sentence reductions which prosecutors sponsored, usually as a reward for providing “substantial assistance” to the government.)

While the light sentencing of some offshore cheats has gotten attention, the larger leniency-for-tax crimes trend has been mostly obscured by Internal Revenue Service reports, which show the average prison term for “tax and tax related crimes” rising from 21 months in 2004 to 31 months in 2013.  The IRS numbers, however, are skewed by the long prison sentences (some more than 10 years) being meted out to those convicted in the recent epidemic of identity theft refund fraud — a crime Kathryn Keneally, U.S. Assistant Attorney General for the Tax Division described at an American Bar Association Tax Section meeting last week as “more like street crime.”

The Sentencing Commission’s statistics, by contrast, count only pure tax crimes and not those in which identity theft, public corruption, drug dealing or some other charge is considered the primary offense and tax evasion is thrown in.  By the USSC’s figuring, the average sentence for a tax convict last year was just 14 months, with a median of 12 months.  In those cases where sentencing judges handed out a downward departure citing the Booker decision, the commission’s data shows, the median sentence was cut by 78.5%; in such cases the most lenient within-guideline sentence would have been a median of 16 months and the lucky convicts got a median sentence of just four months. (A side benefit: such short sentences can be served in community facilities, instead of the federal pen.)

Surprisingly, the average sentence for tax crimes hasn’t changed much, even as the percentage of tax cheats getting a sentencing break has risen.  The likely explanation is found in the way the sentencing guidelines work, ratcheting up prison terms as the amount of tax the government was cheated out of rises.  As prosecutors have focused more on wealthier tax cheats and bigger dollar cases involving both onshore and offshore evasion, the sentences tax offenders are supposed to get have risen too. Last Friday, for example, a federal judge sentenced Patricia Hough, a 67-year-old Fort Myers, Fla. psychiatrist, to 24 months in jail.  That might sound like a lot, except her guideline sentence was 80 to 100 months....

These days, sentencing judges routinely give lip service to that need for general deterrence, but still seem sympathetic to the argument that by being prosecuted, individual defendants have already suffered more than their chiseling peers.  In offshore cases, defendants’ lawyers never fail to point out that tens of thousands of people (the last count released by the IRS was, 43,000) with undeclared foreign accounts have escaped prosecution through the Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program....

Sentencing judges also tend to be sympathetic to other arguments typically made by wealthy and successful convicts: that they have given a lot to charity; have already been publicly humiliated; have paid heavy fines (in Warner’s case a $53 million penalty for failing to file required reports of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts ); and even that they are simply too valuable as either job creators or community volunteers to be sitting in jail. Chicago Federal District Court Judge Charles P. Kocoras, before giving Warner probation, cited all those considerations....

[S]ince the Supreme Court’s Booker decision, only one tax sentence has been reversed on appeal. In that case a sentencing judge gave probation to Frederick L. Engle, who had evaded his taxes for 16 years using shell corporations.  According to sentencing guidelines, he should have gotten 24 to 30 months.  The sentencing judge’s stated reason for the leniency was that Engle, a high earning sales rep for shoemaker Nine West who had relationships with Wal-Mart, Target and J.C. Penny, would be able to earn good money to pay back the IRS if he was kept out of jail and allowed to travel abroad.

In overturning the sentence, a three judge panel of Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals wrote: “Reduced to its essence, the district court’s approach means that rich tax-evaders will avoid prison, but poor tax-evader will almost certainly go to jail. Such an approach, where prison or probation depends on the defendant’s economic status, is impermissible.”

After Engle failed to appear for his new sentencing hearing and continued to evade tax, he was sentenced in absentia to 60 months in jail.  When U.S. Marshals caught up with him, he got an additional year for failure to appear.  Now 73, Engle is serving his time at the Butner, N.C. federal correctional institution and is not scheduled for release until October 2015.

May 14, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

How do we reconcile Senator Jeff Sessions' vocal support for the FSA and strong opposition to the SSA?

SessionsThere are many interesting claims and notable contentions in the letter sent by Senators Grassley, Cornyn and Sessions to their colleagues explaining their opposition to the Smarter Sentencing Act (first reported here).  Most notable, I think, are the essential ideas set out at the start and end of the letter: despite a decades-long federal drug war that has grown the size of the federal government and has long included severe mandatory minimums prison terms, we still find ourselves in the midst of a "historic heroin epidemic" which apparently calls for "redoubling our efforts." I believe that the sensible response to ineffective federal government drug policies and practices would be to consider changing some of these policies and practices, not "redoubling our efforts" (and thereby redoubling the size of an apparently ineffective federal government bureaucracy).

But, as the question in the title of this post suggests, I am now especially wondering how Senator Jeff Sessions, who was a vocal supporter of Congress's decision in 2010 to reduce crack mandatory minimum sentences through the Fair Sentencing Act, has now signed on to a letter forcefully opposing a proposal to reduce other drug mandatory minimum sentences through the Smarter Sentencing Act.   Notably, in this March 2010 statement, Senator Sessions stated that he has "long believed that we need to bring greater balance and fairness to our drug sentencing laws" and that the FSA's change to crack mandatory minimums will "achieve needed fairness without impeding our ability to combat drug violence and protect victims." In his words, the FSA's reforms to crack mandatory minimums "strengthen our justice system."

But now, four years later, Senator Sessions has signed on to a letter opposing the Smarter Sentencing Act which claims that this proposal to "reduce sentences for drug traffickers would not only put more dangerous criminals back on the streets sooner, but it would send the message that the United States government lacks the will or is not serious about combatting drug crimes." This letter also asserts that "lower mandatory minimum sentences mean increased crime and more victims."

Critically, the SSA changes federal drugs sentencing laws significantly more than the FSA: the SSA cuts the minimum prison terms for all drug offenses rather than just increasing the amount of one drug needed to trigger existing mandatory prison terms as did the FSA.  Consequently, one can have a principled basis to have supported the FSA's reduction of crack sentences (as did nearly every member of Congress when the FSA passed) and to now oppose the SSA's proposed reduction of all federal drug sentences.  However, back in  2010, Senator Sessions recognized and vocally stated that reducing some federal drug sentences would actually "strengthen our justice system" by helping to "achieve needed fairness without impeding our ability to combat drug violence and protect victims."  I believe (like a majority of the Senate Judiciary Committee) that the SSA would likewise "strengthen our justice system," but Senator Sessions now seem to think it will "mean increased crime and more victims."

Some prior posts about the SSA and debates over federal sentencing reform:

May 14, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Feds call probation sentence given to Beanie Babies billionaire substantively unreasonable

As detailed in this Chicago Tribune article, federal prosecutors have filed their merits brief with thr Seventh Circuit complaining about the probation sentence given to the billionaire creator of Beanie Babies after he pleaded guilty to hiding at least $25 million from U.S. tax authorities in Swiss bank accounts.  Here are some details of the filing:

The U.S. government on Friday appealed the sentence of billionaire Ty Warner, the Beanie Babies creator who recently received two years' probation for tax evasion.

In January, U.S. District Judge Charles Kocoras rejected calls from prosecutors that he sentence Warner to a prison sentence of at least a year for failing to pay income taxes on millions of dollars that he hid for years in Swiss bank accounts. Kocoras said he was swayed by letters detailing Warner's acts of kindness in giving him probation instead of prison.

The government's appeal on Friday said Kocoras gave too much weight to Warner's charitable acts, considering his wealth and that many of the letter writers were current or former employees....

In a court filing on Friday, prosecutors said the district court judge's ruling was "substantively unreasonable" and that Warner's sentencing should have served as a punishment and deterrence. It also said Warner's sentence provided "unwarranted sentencing disparities" as others have been treated more harshly for tax evasion....

It also said Warner's claim that he donated $140 million to charity was overstated because the figure included the retail value of Beanie Babies he had donated. A more accurate reflection of the cost would have been $36 million, the government said. The government also estimated that Warner's charitable contributions amounted to 2 percent of his net worth -- "a not extraordinary" amount.

A spokesman for Warner said it was unfortunate that "the government is spending resources to challenge a well-reasoned and careful sentence issued by a well-respected judge."

The government filing said the founder of Ty Inc. hid $100 million in Swiss bank accounts, refused to report $24 million of it to the Internal Revenue Service, and evaded $5.5 million in taxes. At the time of his sentencing, his net worth was $1.7 billion.

Critically, though not mentioned in this article and likely not stressed in the government's appeal, in In addition to probation, Judge Kocoras ordered Warner to do 500 hours of community service at Chicago high schools, and Warner had already previously agreed to pay $27 million in back taxes and interest, and a civil penalty of more than $53 million.  Though the absence of any prison time surely bothers the feds and has prompted this appeal, the fact that Warner's foolish bit of tax dodging has already seems to have cost him more ten times the taxes he sought to evade strikes me as punishment enough.  For these sort of economic crimes, I tend to think an expensive economic punishment is more efficient and effective than prison time.  But, obviously, federal prosecutors do not agree.  And it will be interesting to see what the Seventh Circuit will have to say ultimately.

Prior related posts:

May 11, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Saturday, May 10, 2014

"Drugs and Violence"

The title of this post is the title of this notable and important new paper I just noticed via SSRN authored by Shima Baradaran. Here is the abstract:

The war on drugs has increased the United States prison population by tenfold.  The foundation for the war on drugs and unparalleled increase in prisoners rely on the premise that drugs and violence are linked.  Politicians, media, and scholars continue to advocate this view either explicitly or implicitly.

This Article identifies the pervasiveness of this premise, and debunks the link between drugs and violence.  It demonstrates that a connection between drugs and violence is not supported by historical arrest data, current research, or independent empirical evidence. That there is little evidence to support the assumption that drugs cause violence is an important insight, because the assumed causal link between drugs and violence forms the foundation of a significant amount of case law, statutes, and commentary.

In particular, the presumed connection between drugs and violence has reduced constitutional protections, misled government resources, and resulted in the unnecessary incarceration of a large proportion of non-violent Americans.  In short, if drugs do not cause violence — and the empirical evidence discussed in this Article suggests they do not — then America needs to rethink its entire approach to drug policy.

May 10, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Friday, May 09, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 05, 2014

New York Times op-ed spotlights enduring flaw with modern drug sentencing

Today's New York Times has this notable new op-ed authored by Mark Osler under the headline "We Need Al Capone Drug Laws."  Here are highights:

After a ruinous 30-year experiment in harsh sentences for narcotics trafficking resulting in mass incarceration, policy makers are having second thoughts.  Many states, including Texas, have reformed their laws to shorten sentences.  Congress is giving serious consideration to the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would do the same. The United States Sentencing Commission has just adopted a proposal to revise federal guidelines.

And most recently, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced that President Obama intends to use his executive pardon power to release hundreds or even thousands of federal prisoners with narcotics convictions (I am on a committee to train lawyers for the project).  Something like that hasn’t happened since President John F. Kennedy granted clemency to more than 200 prisoners convicted of drug crimes.

Unfortunately, none of this addresses a very basic underlying problem: We continue to use the weight of narcotics as a proxy for the culpability of an individual defendant, despite this policy’s utter failure.  If a kingpin imports 15 kilograms of cocaine into the country and pays a trucker $400 to carry it, they both face the same potential sentence.  That’s because the laws peg minimum and maximum sentences to the weight of the drugs at issue rather than to the actual role and responsibility of the defendant.  It’s a lousy system, and one that has produced unjust sentences for too many low-level offenders, created racial disparities and crowded our prisons....

Some laws create remarkably low thresholds for the highest penalties.  For example, my home state of Minnesota categorizes someone who sells just 10 grams of powder cocaine (the equivalent of 10 sugar packets) as guilty of a first-degree controlled-substance crime — the most serious of five felony categories.  There is no real differentiation between the most culpable wholesaler and an occasional street dealer.  

The problem with recent legal reforms is that they don’t dispose of this rotten infrastructure.  In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which changed the ratio between crack and powder cocaine for sentencing purposes from 100-to-1 (meaning the same sentence applied to 100 grams of powder cocaine and to 1 gram of crack) to 18-to-1.  

What the Fair Sentencing Act didn’t do is change the basic weight-centric centric focus that has filled our prisons with narcotics convicts. There were 4,749 such prisoners serving federal time in 1980, before the harshest weight-based standards were implemented. As of 2013, that number was 100,026. As for the drugs themselves, they’re still here....

A better measure of culpability would be the amount of profit that any individual took from the operation of a narcotics ring. Because narcotics conspiracies are nothing more or less than a business, they operate like any other business. The people who have the most important skills, capital at risk or entrepreneurial abilities take the most money. Statutes and guidelines should be rewritten so that profit thresholds replace narcotic weight thresholds. Only then will mules and street sellers properly face much shorter sentences than real kingpins.

This would, of course, create a new challenge for prosecutors and investigators, who would have to prove the amount of profit made by an individual defendant. It wouldn’t be as easy as snatching up mules and street dealers. But then “easy” and “justice” rarely rest comfortably with each other.

May 5, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Friday, May 02, 2014

Family of medical marijuana patients in Washington turn down plea and set up notable federal trial

HarveysThis lengthy new Huffington Post article, headlined "This Entire Family Of Medical Marijuana Patients Could Go To Prison For Growing Pot," spotlights a developing federal criminal case that seems likely to provide a notable criminal justice setting for the on-going national debate over marijuana law, policy and reform. Here are the basics:

Four family members and a close family friend in a rural town in northeastern Washington are facing years in federal prison for growing marijuana for their personal medical use.

Larry Harvey, 70, his wife Rhonda Firestack-Harvey, 55, their son Rolland Gregg, 33, and Rolland's wife Michelle, 35, as well as close family friend Jason Zucker, 38, claim they were individually growing 74 marijuana plants for their own medical use at the Harveys' rural home near Kettle Falls, Washington, as is their right under state law.

"There is no hidden agenda here," Rhonda said Thursday in a statement to the media. "My husband and I are retired, but work hard to live a peaceful, sustainable life in the northeast Washington wilderness.  We both have serious health issues and were told by our doctors that medical marijuana could help. All five of us have qualifying conditions, actually, and the garden was below the limit of 15 plants per patient."

"It's outrageous that the federal government is wasting money prosecuting five patients who were in total compliance with state law," Rhonda added.  The Harvey home was first raided by state authorities in August 2012 after two flybys from Washington state's Civil Air Patrol -- the official civilian auxiliary of the United States Air Force -- reported an apparent marijuana grow near the Harvey residence.

On August 9, according to a motion filed by the Washington state U.S. attorney's office, state law enforcers raided the Harvey property and found 74 plants growing near the home. Under the presumption that the family was growing this cannabis as a collective, rather than individually, officers seized 29 cannabis plants so that the family would be compliant with state law, which limits collective crops to no more than 45 plants. The authorities did not press charges or seize any other assets.

However, days later, on August 16, federal authorities showed up with a new warrant and conducted a more comprehensive raid.  At the time, authorities were enacting a widespread crackdown on medical marijuana providers -- an effort that extended into states like California and Colorado -- at the directive of the Obama administration. During the Aug. 16 raid, Drug Enforcement Administration agents seized the Harveys' remaining marijuana plants, as well as about five pounds of raw cannabis and some marijuana-infused edibles from the freezer.  The feds also seized a 2007 Saturn Vue, $700 in cash, a computer, a motorcycle and an ATV, along with the family's legally owned firearms.

"This is not the kind of spectacular haul that the DEA is typically called in for," the family's attorneys wrote in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder this February urging him to reconsider the charges. "Just the opposite, the evidence seized is consistent with the type of strict medical dosage that occurs with a doctor's supervision."

In 2013, the five patients were indicted by the Eastern Washington attorney general's office. According to the defendants' attorneys, all of them were growing cannabis in compliance with state law. Still, the federal government has charged each of them with six felonies apiece, including manufacturing, possession and distribution of marijuana, as well as the possession of a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking, according to the indictment.

Because their trial is being held in federal court, it may not be enough of a defense for the family to argue that they were compliant with state law. In a motion filed Wednesday, Michael Ormsby, the U.S. attorney in eastern Washington state involved in the case, requested that "any evidence of medical purposes as well as the defendants' belief that they were lawfully engaged in marijuana cultivation" be inadmissible in court. Ormsby argued that the family's purpose for growing the marijuana is not the issue. Rather, he said, the "knowing or intentional manufacturing of marijuana" is all that matters in this case....

During pre-trial hearings for the case this week, the family unanimously rejected the plea deals offered by the prosecuting attorneys that would have reduced their maximum sentences to just three years behind bars. Without the plea deal, their maximum sentences range from up to 40 years to life in federal prison.

Washington state law allows for licensed medical marijuana patients to grow up to 15 plants and be in possession of up to 24 ounces of usable cannabis. The law also says that no more than 10 qualified patients can participate in a single collective garden. The patients can grow up to 15 plants each, but the garden cannot exceed 45 plants.

Federal authorities are charging the Harvey family with growing "100 or more" marijuana plants -- a charge that dramatically increases related fines and prison sentencing -- alleging that the family had grown a crop in 2011 similar in size to the one seized in the raids the following year. The charge is based on "numerous" photos, found on a seized computer from the residence, that allegedly depict the defendants in the grow at the same location in 2011, according to the motion filed by the U.S. attorney's office....

In their letter to Holder, the defendants' attorneys argued that there is no proof these five people are "perceived to be violent in any way," and say that the firearms had "absolutely nothing to do with the cultivation of cannabis." "This is a mom and pop on a family homestead near a National Wildlife Refuge in the Northeastern corner of Washington, where the nearest town is 10 miles in any direction," the attorneys wrote.

The family's attorneys argue that there is an "equal justice disparity" created by federal drug laws that directly contradict state laws in Washington, where medical marijuana has been legal for well over a decade. "In the very city where the Harvey family is set to stand trial, an ordinance was recently passed to establish groundbreaking licensing requirements for aspiring entrepreneurs in the existing medical marijuana field, as well as those planning to enter the emerging [recreational] marketplace," the attorneys wrote in their letter to Holder. "These conflicting realities cannot co-exist."...

Now that all five defendants have rejected the plea deals, their federal trial is expected to begin later this month. An official from the U.S. attorney's office in eastern Washington familiar with the matter said that the office cannot comment on ongoing cases.

For individuals and groups concerning about excessive federal government involvement in the activities of individuals out West, the Harvey family would seem to be a much more sympathetic cause célèbre than Cliven Bundy. But I have a feeling Sean Hannity and some of the folks quick to back Bundy in his stand-off with the feds are not likely to be championing family values and states' rights in this setting. And, sadly, that seems too bad and a telling indication that political principles may only go so far once pot is involved.

May 2, 2014 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Judge Paul Friedman identifies drug defendant who should benefit from Clemency Project 2014

I am intrigued and pleased to have learned that this afternoon District Court Judge Paul Friedman issued an opinion in US v. McDade, No. 13-1066 (D.D.C. Apr. 29, 2014) (available for download below), which in part responds to the Justice Department's recent announcements about its new clemency initiative.  I urge all those wondering about the types of defendants and cases that the new clemency initiative might help to read Judge Friedman's new McDade opinion in full; here is a snippet that provides a sense for why:

On February 25, 2002, after a ten-day trial, a jury found defendant Byron Lamont McDade guilty of conspiracy to distribute and possess with the intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine. Most of the witnesses at trial were his former co-defendants or others involved in the conspiracy who had negotiated pleas with the government involving cooperation and testimony. In fact, McDade was the only one of those charged in this multi-defendant case to have proceeded to trial.  Regrettably, pursuant to the then-mandatory pre-Booker sentencing guidelines, the Court was required to sentence McDade to 324 months in prison, a sentence which the Court described at the time as “much more than sufficiently punitive.”...

At the time the Court sentenced Mr. McDade nearly twelve years ago, on May 31, 2002, he was a 34-year old married man with two young children, one of whom is disabled.  He was a high school graduate who had been employed more or less steadily as a loader for United Parcel Service, as an apprentice for a plumbing company, as a self-employed operator of a company that provided transportation to the handicapped, and as a sanitation truck driver.  He was described by his wife, a hair stylist who suffers from a heart murmur, as a good father to their children and to her son by a prior relationship.   Before his current conviction, Mr. McDade had one prior misdemeanor conviction for which he was ordered to pay a ten-dollar fine. Id. at 10-11. For the instant offense, he faced a ten-year mandatory minimum sentence and, at Offense Level 41, Criminal History Category I, a pre-Booker guideline sentence of 324 months to life.....

In denying Mr. McDade’s first motion to vacate, set aside or correct his sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255, the Court [noted that] ... had Mr. McDade not exercised his constitutional right to a jury trial and instead pled guilty, the likely sentence under even a mandatory Guideline regime would have been approximately 168 months, approximately half the sentence the Court was required to impose after Mr. McDade was found guilty at trial.  [This Court also then noted that] had the Sentencing Guidelines been advisory in 2002, or if Booker were retroactive now, the Court would vary substantially from the Guideline sentence of 324 months....

Earlier this year, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole previewed a new effort on the part of the Department of Justice to identify individuals who are potential candidates for executive clemency and sentence commutations and whom he hoped, with the help of volunteer lawyers and bar associations, would be encouraged to prepare clemency petitions to the Department of Justice.  He said at the time: “For our criminal justice system to be effective, it needs to not only be fair; but it also must be perceived as being fair. These older, stringent punishments, that are out of line with sentences imposed under today’s laws, erode people’s confidence in our criminal justice system.”  Then, just last week, Deputy Attorney General Cole formally announced a new initiative to encourage qualified federal inmates to petition to have their sentences commuted or reduced by the President, an initiative that will have the assistance of numerous volunteer attorneys and groups under the umbrella Clemency Project 2014.  He noted that the initiative is not limited to crack offenders, but to “worthy candidates” who meet six specific criteria.  He stated that this clemency initiative “will go far to promote the most fundamental of American ideals – equal justice under law.” 

The Court continues to believe that Byron McDade is a prime candidate for executive clemency.  The sentence this Court was required to impose on Mr. McDade was unjust at the time and is “out of line” with and disproportionate to those that would be imposed under similar facts today.  While the Court is powerless to reduce the sentence it was required by then-existing law to impose, the President is not.  The Court urges Mr. McDade’s appointed counsel to pursue executive clemency on Mr. McDade’s behalf so that justice may be done in this case.

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April 29, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack