Friday, September 19, 2014
"The Most Senior Wall Street Official: Evaluating the State of Financial Crisis Prosecutions"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new article on SSRN authored by Todd Haugh. Here is the abstract:
This September marks six years since the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the height of the financial crisis. Recently, a growing debate has emerged over the Justice Department’s failure to criminally prosecute Wall Street executives for their role in creating the crisis. One side of that debate contends the government has failed to bring to justice individual wrongdoers — primarily the heads of banks operating in the mortgage-backed securities market — instead preferencing enforcement decisions that target corporations, resulting in punishments that are “little more than window-dressing.” The other side argues that cases against individuals are precluded by the realities of the federal criminal justice system, and that “corporate headhunting” will only inhibit meaningful regulatory reform.
It is difficult, however, to evaluate these competing claims without proper context. This Article explores the recent conviction and sentencing of Wall Street executive Kareem Serageldin as a means of providing that context. Although Serageldin has been trumpeted as the “the most senior Wall Street official” to be sentenced for conduct committed during the financial crisis, and his conviction was framed as a victory in punishing those accountable for the financial collapse, a critical look at his case reveals he committed only a mundane white collar crime marginally related to the crisis. This disconnect creates a unique lens through which to understand and evaluate the current state of — and debate surrounding — financial crisis prosecutions. And it ultimately highlights the merits, and shortfalls, of each camp’s arguments. The Article concludes by offering something largely absent from the current debate: specific proposals for how we might go about prosecuting individuals so as to prevent the next crisis.
Thursday, September 18, 2014
"The War on Drugs and Prison Growth: Limited Importance, Limited Legislative Options"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by John Pfaff now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Many commentators argue that the War on Drugs has played a major role in the four-decade long explosion in US incarceration rates, but in this paper I demonstrate that these claims do not generally rest on sound empirical footing. The direct incarceration of drug offenders explains only about 20% of prison growth (compared to over 50% for violent offenders), and drug convictions do not appear to drive parole revocations nor act as prior felonies that trigger harsh repeat offender laws for subsequent non-drug offending. Furthermore, drug offenders also appear to comprise only about 20% of those flowing through prison, which could be a more accurate measure of the War on Drugs' impact, since drug offenders generally serve disproportionately short sentences and thus may be under-represented in the one-day prison counts that are standard metric of prison's scope.
That said, the War on Drugs could still matter, but in more indirect -- and much harder to measure -- ways. Drug enforcement could contribute to overall social instability in high-crime, high-enforcement communities, or at least to the perception of instability, in ways that may trigger more enforcement by police and prosecutors, even if crime rates are relatively low and falling. Furthermore, while prior drug offenses do not appear to trigger formal recidivist statutes, they may alter prosecutorial charging decisions for later non-drug offenses, but prosecutorial charging behavior is currently impossible to measure with existing data.
Finally, even though the War on Drugs has played only a secondary role in prison growth, there are over 200,000 people in state prison every day on drug charges, and states appear eager to reduce the scope of drug-related incarcerations. So I conclude by considering some of the options available to states. I point out that the leading contenders -- decriminalization and sentence reduction -- will likely have little effect, since few offenders are in prison on marijuana charges (the only drug for which decriminalization is currently feasible), and all drug offenders serve relatively short sentences, well below the statutory maximums. I then consider broader options, such as proposals that target the financial incentives prosecutors have to send offenders, including drug offenders, to prison. I also touch on the implications of adopting broader definitions of "drug offenders," such as those who commit violent or property crimes either to support drug habits or in the course of selling drugs.
Wednesday, September 17, 2014
Seventh Circuit panel seemingly unmoved by feds appeal of probation sentence given to Beanie Babies billionaire
As detailed in this new Chicago Tribune article, "Prosecutors in Warner tax evasion case grilled by appeals court judges," federal prosecutors apparently did not get a warm reception at oral argument in the Seventh Circuit as they pressed their claims that a probation sentence given to a high-profile tax cheat was unreasonable. Here are the basics:
Federal prosecutors appealing the probation sentence of Beanie Babies founder Ty Warner faced a three-judge panel Wednesday to make the case for why the Westmont billionaire should get prison time for evading taxes.
Warner pleaded guilty last year to one count of tax evasion for failing to report more than $24 million in income and skirting $5.5 million in federal taxes on millions of dollars he hid for more than a decade at two Swiss banks. Prosecutors had been pushing for a sentence of at least one year in prison, partly to deter others from committing the same crime. Sentencing guidelines had called for a prison sentence of up to 57 months. His defense lawyers had argued that many tax evaders were allowed to join an amnesty program and that, even among those criminally charged and convicted, more than half who had been sentenced received probation.
Ilana Rovner, a U.S. appeals court judge for the seventh circuit, said Wednesday that she had a problem reconciling why the government was seeking to throw out Warner’s sentence when many tax evaders get probation or might not be prosecuted at all. Also, the amount of tax he evaded was a fraction of what he has paid in taxes, she noted. Warner has already paid a civil penalty for not reporting the offshore accounts and restitution for what he owed in back taxes and interest....
Rovner also noted that prosecutors seem to be ignoring the “considerable discretion” of the district judge, Charles Kocoras, has in imposing a sentence. He is a “veteran” judge who “obviously agonized” over the decision, she said.
Judge Michael Kanne noted that Warner’s guilty plea “saved the government some money” and that the appeals court “shouldn’t be the sentencing court.”
Judge Joel Flaum wondered why, if Warner’s conduct was so egregious, he was charged with only one count of tax evasion and why the government was seeking at minimum at least a year in prison. Rovner chimed in, addressing Petersen: “You agreed to this.”
Judge Kanne noted that one count of tax evasion and a minimum prison sentence of a year “doesn’t sound like deterrence to me.” Petersen responded that probation is a far more lenient sentence than the minimum of one year the government was seeking.
Anyone eager to hear the oral argument in full can access it via this mp3 link from the Seventh Circuit's website. Notably, former US Solicitor General Paul Clement argued on behalf of the defendant (and I cannot help but wonder if he got some special Beanie Babies from the defendant in addition to the usual fees for his efforts).
Prior related posts:
- You be the federal judge: what sentence should the Beanie Babies billionaire get for tax evasion?
- Feds to appeal probation sentence given to tax-dodging Beanie Babies billionaire
- Feds call probation sentence given to Beanie Babies billionaire substantively unreasonable
September 17, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Woman who bought guns for killer gets (way-above-guideline) eight-year federal prison sentence
As reported in this post last month, a high-profile federal gun case in upstate New York involved federal prosecutors seeking a statutory maximum sentencing term of 10 years in prison when the applicable guideline recommend only 18 to 24 months for the offense. This new local article, headlined "Woman tied to firefighter ambush sentenced to 8 years," details that the feds today were successful in securing a way-above-guideline federal gun sentence in the case:
The woman convicted of buying guns for a man that were used to kill two firefighters on Christmas Eve 2012 was sentenced to eight years in prison on federal charges Wednesday. The sentence, imposed by U.S. District Judge David Larimer, will run concurrent with a state sentence Dawn Nguyen is now serving of 16 months to four years.
On June 6, 2010, Nguyen bought the semiautomatic rifle and shotgun that William Spengler Jr. used when he fatally shot two volunteer firefighters Dec. 24, 2012. She claimed on a federal firearms transaction form that the guns were for her, when she was purchasing them for Spengler.
"I'm sure Miss Nguyen wishes she could take back that decision she made on that June day, but life is not like that," Larimer said in federal court Wednesday morning. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Noto in court Wednesday had argued that Nguyen's actions directly led to the Christmas Eve killings. "She should have foreseen the possibility of serious harm," said Noto....
Spengler had previously served 17 years in prison for fatally beating his grandmother with a hammer in 1980.
Larimer on Wednesday said he believed Nguyen knew of Spengler's dangerousness, and that she likely knew the facts behind Spengler's killing of his grandmother. Speaking of Spengler's past crime, Larimer said, "that should raise not one but hundreds of red flags that maybe this is not the kind of person who you want to be giving guns to."
Nguyen's lawyer Matthew Parrinello maintained that Nguyen did not know the specifics of Spengler's earlier crime. "This was a quirky, weird, crazy neighbor that she knew," said Parrinello. "But he was very nice, very kind and he did things for her family."
Dawn Nguyen on Wednesday faced the court room — which was packed with police officers, West Webster, N.Y., volunteer firefighters and her relatives — and told the crowd that she was sorry for her actions.
Related prior posts:
- Fascinating federal "gun control" criminal charges in wake of NY ambush murder-suicide
- Though guidelines recommend two years or less, feds request 10-year max for woman who bought guns for killer
Monday, September 15, 2014
Effective commentary on Sixth Circuit panel upholding 15-year ACCA sentence for possession of shotgun shells
I am pleased to see that by LawProf Richard M. Re now has posted on his (wonderfully titled) Re's Judicata blog some new critical thoughts about the Sixth Circuit panel ruling late last week in US v. Young, No. 13-5714 (6th Cir. Sept. 11, 2014) (available here). Young rejected an Eighth Amendment claim by the defendant by ruling that a mandatory 15-year federal imprisonment term was not grossly disproportionate for a felon's possession of shotgun shells. I first blogged about the Young ruling here, and I have not (yet) commented further because I was involved in the briefing and argument to the Sixth Circuit as an amicus representing NACDL.
Helpfully, Prof Re's extended post on Young, which is titled "A 'Shell' Game in the Sixth Circuit?", highlights some of my own deep concerns about the ruling. I recommend everyone check out the full post, which gets started this way:
In US v. Young, the Sixth Circuit recently affirmed a startlingly severe sentence for what seems like innocuous conduct, and the blogosphere has taken note. As Eugene Volokh put it in his post title, the case involved a “15-year mandatory minimum federal sentence for possessing shotgun shells (no shotgun) almost 20 years after past felonies.” The case might go to the Supreme Court on the Eighth Amendment question it raises.
Viewed from another angle, Young illustrates two reasons to lament the rarity of executive clemency. First, whether Young’s sentence is just seems to depend on factors that weren’t pressed in court but that executive officials likely know about. A robust clemency tradition would bring those factors to light. Second, in the absence of executive clemency, the Sixth Circuit seems to have reached outside the proven record to do the executive’s job for it — and, in doing so, the court relied on allegations and innuendo instead of judicial findings.
Prior related posts on Young case:
- "A few shotgun shells landed a man 15 years in federal prison"
- New York Times column spotlights extreme application of ACCA in US v. Young
- Sixth Circuit to hear oral argument on extreme application of ACCA in US v. Young
- Sixth Circuit panel finds mandatory 15-year imprisonment term not grossly disproportionate for possession of shotgun shells
September 15, 2014 in Examples of "over-punishment", Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack
Tuesday, September 09, 2014
Will and should federal judge Mark Fuller get the same professional treatment as Ray Rice?
The provocative question in the title of this post is a slightly different phrasing of the question in the headline of this provocative AL.com commentary by John Archibald. That headline is "Superstar Ray Rice cut from team; will 'superstar' judge Mark Fuller get to play on?", and the commentary concludes this way:
Before seeing the actual video evidence, the Baltimore Ravens had apologized for Rice. Then team officials saw the replay. They saw the lightning left. They saw Janay Rice quivering on the floor. They saw, and finally reacted as they had to react, with speed and with revulsion.
With that devastating left hand there was nothing left to the imagination. It didn't matter that Rice had racked up 3½ miles of yardage during his career, that he scored 222 points. It did not matter who he was before he threw that punch. He was somebody else — wearing the Ravens' colors — after it. They cut him from the team today.
It is no different with any abuser. It is sure no different with "superstar" federal judge Mark Fuller, who was arrested in Atlanta in August for beating up his wife. We don't have video of that hotel room, but the police account was vivid enough.
The place reeked of booze and was littered with broken glass —and hair. Kelli Fuller told the cops she accused her husband of having an affair, and he responded by throwing her to the ground, kicking her and beating her in the face.
Fuller copped a plea in Atlanta, agreeing to terms that will send him to counseling and expunge his record. Like the whole wife-beating thing never happened at all.
Which is as bad as the NFL handing Rice a two-game suspension in the first place. Which is worse than the NFL handing Rice a two-game suspension in the first place.
He'll return to the bench a judge for life, deciding the fate of his fellow man as if the law did not apply to him, as if he were above it, as if he were ... a superstar.
But he's still just a 56-year-old punk kid. He ought to quit, but punk kids and abusers don't often quit. That shouldn't be the end of it.
Because if the NFL and the Baltimore Ravens can make a statement about domestic violence, so can the courts and the United States Government. Fuller shouldn't get the opportunity to quit. He needs to be impeached. We should demand it. He is, after all, wearing our colors.
Monday, September 08, 2014
Former SAC trader Mathew Martoma gets lengthy (but way-below guideline) federal prison term of nine years for insider trading
As reported in this new USA Today piece, headlined "Ex-SAC Capital trader gets 9-year sentence," a high-profile white-collar sentencing has resulted in a below-guideline (but still lengthy) prison term for an insider trader. Here are some of the interesting details from today's interesting sentencing in New York federal court:
Former SAC Capital portfolio manager Mathew Martoma was sentenced to a nine-year prison term Monday for his central role in what federal prosecutors called the most profitable insider-trading scheme in U.S. history. Martoma, a former financial lieutenant to billionaire hedge fund founder Steven Cohen, sat silently, declining to speak before U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe imposed the sentence during a Manhattan federal court hearing.
The judge also ordered the 40-year-old father of three to forfeit nearly $9.4 million — more than his current net worth — and surrender for imprisonment on Nov. 10. His attorneys are expected to file an appeal of his Feb. 6 conviction.
Federal jurors found Martoma guilty of conspiracy and two counts of securities fraud after a month-long trial during which the defendant declined to testify. The case centered on charges that Martoma illegally obtained disappointing results of clinical tests on an experimental Alzheimer's disease drug in 2008 by cultivating relationships with two doctors who were privy to details of the testing outcome. Martoma then set in motion a $700 million sell-off of SAC Capital stock holdings in shares of Elan and Wyeth, the pharmaceutical firms that developed the drug. The transactions generated approximately $276 million in profits and avoided losses, along with a nearly $9.4 million 2008 bonus for Martoma.
The sentence imposed by Gardephe was lower than the 188-months-to-235-months range specified in federal sentencing guidelines. It exceeded the eight-year prison term recommended by probation officials and met prosecutors' request for a sentence higher than that recommendation.
The sentence came after defense attorney Richard Strassberg argued for leniency.... He urged Gardephe to weigh Martoma's devotion to his family and history of helping others. The defense lawyer also filed more than 100 support letters from Martoma's relatives and friends — some of whom were in the courtroom for Monday's sentencing.
The defense team also argued that Martoma was the sole source of financial support for his wife, Rosemary, and the couple's three young children. "Mathew, as a person, is much more than the charge of insider-trading that has brought us all to this courtroom today," said Strassberg. He argued that a "just" sentence would consider Martoma's history of charitable acts and helping others.
But federal prosecutor Arlo Devlin-Brown said "It is hard to think of a more significant and brazen instance of insider trading than the case before this court. The sentence in this case, we submit, must reflect the seriousness of this significant breach."
Gardephe, however, said he had weighed all of the submissions from both sides and studied sentences in other insider trading convictions in New York's Southern federal district. The judge credited Martoma's charity and other acts of generosity but he said the evidence showed that Martoma went for "one big score" that would provide lifetime security. "His plan worked, but now he has to deal with the fallout."
Gardephe also referred to Martoma's expulsion from Harvard Law School for falsifying a grades transcript, as well as his subsequent admission to Stanford University's business school without disclosing the expulsion. Saying "there is a darker side" to Martoma's character, Gardephe added, "I do believe there is a connection" to the insider trading episode. "The common thread is an unwillingness to accept anything but the top grade ... and the highest bonus."
September 8, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
Intriguing concurring sentiments about federal child porn downloading cases from Judges Noonan and Reinhardt
Late last week, two judges on the Ninth Circuit made noteworthy an otherwise forgettable decision in US v. Hardrick, No. 13-50195 (9th CIr. Sept. 4, 2014) (available here), through their concurring opinions in a run-of-the-mill affirmance of federal conviction of a child pornography downloader. Here is the text of Judge Noonan's Hardrick concurring addition:
I write to underline the need for further action to discourage a crime whose actual extent is unknown but whose commission is increasingly prosecuted as a serious federal offense. As pointed out in a thoughtful communication by Alexandra Gelber, Assistant Deputy Chief, Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section of the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice: Those convicted of the crimes of possessing, receiving, or distributing child pornography typically have no criminal record but “include professors, teachers, coaches, fathers, lawyers, doctors, foster parents, adoption agency owners, and more.” See Alexandra Gelber, Response to “A Reluctant Rebellion” 7 (July 1, 2009), http://www.justice.gov/criminal/ceos/downloads/ReluctantRebellionResponse.pdf. Obviously, lack of criminal history is not a defense. It is equally obvious that this kind of defendant is normally law-abiding and, unless suffering from some psychological impairment — the probability Judge Reinhardt effectively develops — could be expected to obey the law in this area if aware of its provisions and especially if aware of its sanctions. Why should the government not advertise the law and its penalty? Better to stop a crime’s commission than mop the consequences.
Judge Reinhardt's comment are a bit more extended, and here are excerpts:
Like Judge Noonan, I concur in the unanimous opinion of the court. Also, like Judge Noonan, I am disturbed about the practical impact of the child pornography laws upon otherwise law-abiding individuals. I do not agree, however, that advertising the legal consequences is a solution to the problem. Rather, it is my view that “psychological impairment” is in most, if not all, cases the cause of the criminal conduct. Whether psychiatric treatment rather than incarceration would be the proper response by state authorities is a matter that I would hope would be given more serious consideration than it has until now. Surely sentences of five to twenty years for a first offense of viewing child pornography are not the solution. See 18 U.S.C. § 2252(b)(1). Nor are mandatory sentences of fifteen to forty years for a second. See id.....
I do not profess to know the solution to the problem of how to cure the illness that causes otherwise law-abiding people to engage in the viewing of child pornography. I know only that lengthy sentences such as the one in this case, ten years (and below the guidelines at that) for a first offense, cannot be the answer.
There is nothing new in what I say here, but it is a problem that I believe deserves more attention than we have given it thus far. Many lives of otherwise decent people have been ruined by psychological problems they are not presently capable of controlling. Incarcerating them will not end the horror of child pornography or the injury it inflicts on innocent children. All it accomplishes is to create another class of people with ruined lives — victims of serious mental illness who society should instead attempt to treat in a constructive and humane manner.
September 8, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack
Pregame preview of another high-profile insider-trading sentencing in NYC
This new BloombergBusinessweek article, headlined "Mathew Martoma, Convicted SAC Trader, Gets Sentenced Today," provides these basics about a not-so-basic, white-collar sentencing scheduled in federal court today:
Around 9 pm on November 8, 2011, a pair of FBI agents pulled up outside of Mathew Martoma’s home in Boca Raton, a 6,200 square-foot mansion tucked behind a circular driveway and lavish palm trees. They were there to talk to Martoma about insider trading at SAC Capital, his former employer and one of the world’s largest hedge funds.
The SEC, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan were five years into a far-reaching investigation of illegal trading among hedge funds across the country, and just three weeks before, Raj Rajaratnam, the co-founder of the $7 billion fund the Galleon Group, had been sentenced to a record 11-year prison term for insider trading.
The government was fairly confident that Martoma would lead them to an even bigger prize: one of the richest men in the world and the founder of SAC, Steven A. Cohen. From that point on, nothing proceeded quite as the government expected. Instead, Martoma is scheduled to be sentenced today in what prosecutors describe as “the most lucrative insider trading scheme ever charged.”
After an investigation, an arrest and a high-profile five-week trial in January, Martoma was convicted of insider trading in two drug stocks, Elan and Wyeth, and earning profits and avoiding losses of $275 million while working as a portfolio manager at SAC. The government alleged that he spoke with Cohen right after learning about important drug trial results, and that Cohen traded the two stocks as well. Martoma’s was the eighth conviction of a former or current SAC employee of insider trading....
From the FBI’s perspective, Martoma was an ideal candidate for cooperation. He has three young children and a beautiful, devoted wife, all of whom he would be separated from during a long prison term. He was also fired from SAC after failing to replicate his success in Elan and Wyeth and, the government believed, there was powerful evidence against him. He had no reason to be loyal to his former boss and he had a lot to lose. Still, Martoma baffled everyone by refusing to flip, insisting he was innocent and bringing the government’s determined march toward Cohen to an abrupt stop. Without a witness, any developing case against the hedge fund founder fell apart. Now it is Martoma who faces a sentence of up to 20 years, although it’s likely to be closer to 8.
Cohen was never charged with insider trading, and his life goes on relatively unchanged. Prosecutors indicted SAC in January, 2013, calling the company a “magnet for market cheaters.” The firm agreed to plead guilty and pay a $1.2 billion fine (not including $600 million already pledged to the SEC over Martoma’s trades). A civil case brought by the SEC charging Cohen with failing to supervise his employees has not been resolved. Cohen shut down his hedge fund and transformed his firm into a family office, Point72 Asset Management, which invests his personal fortune.
Thursday, September 04, 2014
Former Virginia Gov McDonnell (and wife) now facing high-profile federal sentencing after jury convictions on multiple charges
As detailed in this FoxNews report, headlined "Ex-Virginia governor, wife found guilty on corruption charges," a high-profile federal criminal trial is now over and a high-profile federal sentencing process is about to begin. Here are the basics:
Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen were convicted Thursday on a range of corruption charges in connection with gifts and loans they accepted from a wealthy businessman, marking a stunning fall for the onetime rising Republican star.
A federal jury in Richmond convicted Bob McDonnell, 60, of 11 of the 13 counts he faced; Maureen McDonnell was convicted of nine of the 13 counts she had faced. Both bowed their heads and wept as a stream of "guiltys" kept coming from the court clerk. The verdict followed three days of deliberations, after a five-week trial.
Sentencing was scheduled for Jan. 6. Each faces up to 30 years in prison. After the verdict was read, FBI agent-in-charge Adam Lee said the bureau will "engage and engage vigorously in any allegation of corruption." Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell, head of the Justice Department's criminal division, said the state's former first couple "turned public service into a money-making enterprise."
The former governor, up until his federal corruption case, was a major figure in national politics and had been considered a possible running mate for presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012. The couple, though, was charged with doing favors for a wealthy vitamin executive in exchange for more than $165,000 in gifts and loans. They also were charged with submitting fraudulent bank loan applications, and Maureen McDonnell was charged with one count of obstruction.
The former governor testified in his own defense, insisting that he provided nothing more than routine political courtesies to former Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams. Maureen McDonnell did not testify. His testimony and that of others exposed embarrassing details about Maureen McDonnell's erratic behavior and the couple's marital woes as the defense suggested they could not have conspired because they were barely speaking....
Prosecutors claimed that the McDonnells turned to Williams because they were grappling with credit card debt that once topped $90,000 and annual operating shortfalls of $40,000 to $60,000 on family-owned vacation rental properties. Two of the loans totaling $70,000 were intended for the two Virginia Beach rent houses. Williams said he wrote the first $50,000 check to Maureen McDonnell after she complained about their money troubles and said she could help his company because of her background selling nutritional supplements.
My (way-too-quick) rough review of likely applicable sentencing guidelines suggests that the McDonnells are likely facing guideline sentencing ranges of 10 years or even longer based on the offense facts described here. I presume they should be able to get some top-flight attorneys to make some top-flight arguments for below-guideline sentences. But, at least for now, I am inclined to urge former Gov McDonnell to expect to be celebrating his 65th (and maybe also his 70th) birthday in the graybar hotel.
Wednesday, September 03, 2014
Third Circuit panel splits over whether placing child porn in shared folder constitutes distribution
A Third Circuit panel today split on an interesting question of computer crime law involving child pornography. Here is how the majority opinion in US v. Husmann, No. 13-2688 (3d Cir. Sept 3, 2014) (available here) gets started:
David George Husmann placed various images of child pornography in a shared computer folder connected to a file sharing network. Based on that conduct, a jury convicted him of three counts of distributing child pornography. At trial, the government did not present evidence that any person had actually downloaded or obtained the materials that Husmann made available. The issue we address is whether the mere act of placing child pornography materials in a shared computer folder, available to other users of a file sharing network, constitutes distribution of child pornography. We conclude it does not. A conviction for distributing child pornography cannot be sustained without evidence that another person actually downloaded or obtained the images stored in the shared folder. Accordingly, we vacate Husmann’s conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 2252(a)(2) and remand for resentencing.
And here is how the dissenting opinion, per Judge Van Antwerpen, gets going:
I cannot join my colleagues in the narrow definition of “distribution” they would apply to child pornography cases. George Husmann was convicted by a jury of three counts of distributing child pornography pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 2252(a)(2). Husmann placed images of child pornography into a shared folder accessible to all global users of the peer-to-peer (“P2P”) file sharing program 360 Share Pro. Once in the shared folder, a search term and a click of a mouse allowed access to these images by any user on the system. My colleagues definition of “distribution,” under 18 U.S.C. § 2252, would create a system in which a person who intentionally posted child pornography on the Internet, knowing it is accessible to hundreds, if not millions, of individuals, is not “distribution.” This is certainly not what Congress had in mind and following the majority’s approach, the crime of distribution would not be complete until a police officer downloaded the image. This is a distinction without merit. Given the plain meaning of the term, the intent of Congress, the advancement of technology, as well as a series of recent sentencing cases, the placing of child pornography into a shared file accessible over a peer-to-peer file sharing network, alone should constitute “distribution.” Husmann took all the necessary steps to make a product available to the public in a publically accessible location, and whether or not a party took that product is irrelevant to both the purpose of § 2252 and to his role as distributor. For that reason, the conviction of Appellant George Husmann for “distribution” under 18 U.S.C. § 2252 should be upheld.
"Life sentence for buying marijuana?"
The question and title of this post comes from the headline of this new CNN commentary by Vanita Gupta, who is deputy legal director at the ACLU. An editorial note at the start of this piece provides this background: "CNN's David Mattingly reports on the case of a Missouri man sentenced to life in prison for purchasing marijuana Wednesday at 7 p.m. on Erin Burnett OutFront." And this companion piece, headlined "The price of pot," provides this additional preview:
Penalties for the personal use of marijuana vary across the country, the most severe standing in stark contrast as more states legalize medical and even recreational use. Possession of an ounce of pot in Colorado is penalty-free, but if you’re in Kansas, that same ounce could land you a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
This week on "Erin Burnett OutFront," CNN's David Mattingly investigates two marijuana cases involving stiff penalties, including one man spending life in prison on pot charges. "OutFront" asks: Does the punishment fit the crime? Watch the two-part "OutFront" investigation Wednesday and Thursday, September 3-4 at 7 p.m. ET.
And now here are now excerpts from the commentary by Vanita Gupta:
Clearly something is broken when a Missouri man named Jeff Mizanskey can be sentenced to die in prison for purchasing seven pounds of marijuana. With two nonviolent marijuana convictions already on his record, Jeff received life without parole under Missouri's three strikes law.
The punishment of growing old and dying behind bars for offenses like Mizanskey's is extreme, tragic, and inhumane. This should outrage us, but it should not surprise us. This country has spent 40 years relentlessly ratcheting up the number of people going to prison and dramatically expanding the time we hold them there. We've spent decades criminalizing people with drug dependency, passing extreme sentencing laws, and waging a war on drugs that has not diminished drug use. Small wonder, then, that even less serious crimes like Mizanskey's marijuana purchase result in costly and cruel sentences....
While many of the lawmakers who passed harsh sentencing laws thought they were doing the right thing, the results are now in: This approach has devastated families and communities, generated high recidivism rates, drained state budgets from more productive investments, and has reinforced generations of poverty and disadvantage that disproportionately fall on communities of color. There were ways to hold Mizanskey and others like him accountable for their actions short of sentencing them to die in prison.
We can and must do better. It's time for states to end the costly criminalization of marijuana and recalibrate sentencing laws so that the punishment actually fits the crime as opposed to a politician's reelection agenda. Public attitudes toward marijuana are rapidly evolving, and a Gallup poll last year found for the first time that a majority of Americans now favor legalization as a better course than criminalization.
Unfortunately, laws and police practices that enforce them are out of step with public opinion. Nationally, nearly half of all drug arrests are for marijuana offenses. At least one person is arrested for marijuana possession every hour in Mizanskey's home state of Missouri, which also wasted nearly $50 million on marijuana enforcement in 2010. Although black people and white people use marijuana at about the same rate, a black person in Missouri was 2.6 times more likely to be arrested for having marijuana than a white person.
The solution is clear. Instead of taxpayers spending millions of dollars on this unnecessary enforcement and keeping folks like Mizanskey in prison for the rest of their lives, states could follow Colorado and Washington by taxing and regulating marijuana and investing saved enforcement dollars in education, substance abuse treatment, and prevention and other health care.
But even if states are not ready to expand their tax base in this manner, state lawmakers need to take a good, hard look at their sentencing laws and eliminate penalties that far outweigh the crimes they seek to punish. It is tempting to think that Mizanskey's case is an anomaly, but that is not the case.
According to a report released by the American Civil Liberties Union last year, there are currently 3,278 people serving life sentences without parole for nonviolent crimes, including marijuana offenses. Many of them, like Mizanskey, are there because of three-strikes laws and mandatory sentencing regimes. These policies force judges to impose excessively cruel sentences and forbid corrections officials from granting early release or parole, even despite exemplary records in prison.
The good news is that there is a growing bipartisan consensus all over the country that our criminal justice system has gone too far and that we can and must safely downsize our prison population. Missouri recently reformed the three strikes law that sentenced Jeff to prison for life. If he were sentenced today, he could have received a significantly shorter sentence and be eligible for parole.
As states like Missouri make these kinds of reforms, we must not forget the people who languish behind bars because of old sentencing laws now thought to be excessive. Smart reforms that correct past injustice should be made retroactive, and governors must use their clemency powers more frequently. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon should grant clemency to Jeff Mizanskey. Public safety is not served by having him die in prison.
September 3, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack
You be the sentencing judge: decades or just years for mistaken home shooting in Detroit? UPDATE: Judge decides decades
This new Detroit Free Press article, headlined "Attorney: Wafer wants to apologize at sentencing today for porch shooting," sets out the basic sentencing arguments being presented to a Michigan judge in a high-profile homicide case. Here are the details:
Theodore Wafer wants to apologize to the parents of the 19-year-old woman he fatally shot 10 months ago and plans to make a statement during his sentencing this morning. That is what Wafer’s attorney said in a court document asking Wayne County Circuit Judge Dana Hathaway to depart downward from the sentencing guidelines of second-degree murder when she sentences the Dearborn Heights man for killing Renisha McBride.
“He wants to tell the McBride family that he is so sorry for taking their loved one’s life,” defense attorney Cheryl Carpenter said in the document. “He wishes he could have taken it all back and not opened that door. He beats himself up for opening the door.”
Wafer, 55, fatally shot McBride on the porch of his home about 4:30 a.m. Nov. 2. A jury convicted him last month of second-degree murder, manslaughter and using a firearm in a felony.
Prosecutors said they believe Wafer should receive a sentence of 15-25 years in addition to two years for the firearm count and will make their argument in court, said Maria Miller, a spokeswoman for the office. “There are no compelling, objective and verifiable reasons not accounted for in the sentencing guidelines that would justify a downward departure from the guideline range,” prosecutors said in a court document filed last week.
The defense disagrees. Carpenter said in the court document that she anticipates asking for a minimum sentence of four to seven years plus two years for the weapons conviction. Carpenter called the facts and circumstances of the case “more akin to manslaughter than murder.” Carpenter cited several reasons for the departure, including Wafer’s age, his cooperation with police after the shooting and remorse for McBride’s death....
Gerald Thurswell, the attorney for McBride’s family in a wrongful-death lawsuit against Wafer, said one of McBride’s sisters will give a victim-impact statement during sentencing, and McBride’s father, Walter Simmons, will read a statement from another sister. McBride’s family feels Wafer should spend the rest of his life behind bars, Thurswell said....
The court document filed by the defense said Wafer is “riddled with guilt for his actions” and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. During the trial, prosecutors argued that Wafer was angry, wanted a confrontation, went to the door to scare away neighborhood kids with his gun, shot through a locked screen door and killed McBride, whom they described as an “unarmed, injured, disoriented 19-year-old.”
Wafer, who said he couldn’t find his cell phone and had no land line, testified that he heard banging on his doors, grabbed a baseball bat then his shotgun, opened the front door because he thought someone was going to come inside and fired in self-defense.
The jury didn’t believe self-defense, a juror told the Free Press. Carpenter said she plans to appeal the conviction.
UPDATE: This CNN report, headlined "Man gets 15-30 years for shooting Michigan teen on his porch," provides the details of the sentencing decision made by the real sentencing judge here. Here is how the report starts:
Theodore Wafer said he was sorry from the bottom of his heart Wednesday for gunning down an unarmed young woman on the front porch of his Michigan home, but a judge said "mistake" was the wrong word to describe a murder and sentenced him to 15 to 30 years in prison.
Wafer, 55, looked down, his lawyer patting him on the back, as Wayne County Circuit Judge Dana Hathaway sentenced him for second-degree murder in the November shooting death of Renisha McBride, 19 -- a racially charged case because the victim was black and Wafer is white.
Wafer had testified that he feared for his life when loud banging startled him awake in the early morning hours of November 2, 2013. He opened his front door and fired a fatal shotgun blast into the face of McBride, who prosecutors say was seeking help after a car accident.
"To the parents family and friends of Renisha McBride, I apologize from the bottom of my heart and I am truly sorry for your loss," Wafer said. "I can only hope and pray that some how you can forgive me. ... From my fear, I caused the lost of a life that was too young to leave this world and for that I carry that guilt and sorrow forever."
Hathaway said it was one of the "saddest cases" she had ever presided over. "I do not believe that you are a cold-blood murderer or that this case had anything to do with race or that you are some sort of monster," the judge said. "I do believe you acted out of some fear but mainly anger and panic and unjustified fear is never an excuse to take someone's life."
Hathaway said she was confident Wafer was remorseful and would likely never commit another crime in his life, but that McBride came to his doorstep seeking help and lost her life. "You made the choices that brought us here," the judge said. "I don't know that you could ever use the word 'mistake' to describe a murder, and a person was murdered."
The defense had argued for a sentence of four to seven years, saying a longer sentence guaranteed that he would never get out of prison alive. But Hathaway said the sentencing guidelines were reasonable for the crime, giving him 15 to 30 years for second-degree murder and two additional years for possessing a firearm while committing the felony.
Monday, September 01, 2014
Gendered perspective on Ohio's challenges with opioids and prison growth
As reported in this recent Toledo Blade editorial, headlined "Women in prison: A big increase in female inmates should prompt changes in how Ohio’s courts deal with addiction," Ohio has struggled of late with an increase in its prison population. And this reality has prompted at least one prominent paper to urge reforms focused on a particular demographic:
A stunning rise in the number of women entering Ohio prisons should encourage elected officials to seek better ways of managing the state’s $1.5-billion-a-year prison system.
Driven largely by a growing number of drug-addicted offenders from rural counties, Ohio prisons now hold nearly 4,200 women. From 2012 to 2013, the number of women coming to state prisons increased by 11 percent, from 2,580 to 2,854, said JoEllen Smith, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
Ohio’s opioid and heroin epidemic is largely to blame for the increase, as more low-level female drug offenders are sent to prison. “That population is very much nonviolent and drug-addicted, often with male co-defendants leading the case,” state prisons Director Gary Mohr said recently.
At the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, which holds more than 2,600 prisoners, the top three offenses for women entering the prison are drug possession, theft, and trafficking, said public information officer Elizabeth Wright. Moreover, the statewide share of women prisoners coming from rural counties — those with fewer than 100,000 residents — has nearly doubled in the past decade. Altogether, Ohio’s 28 prisons hold more than 50,000 inmates....
Mr. Mohr has prudently called for diverting more low-level drug offenders from prison to community-based treatment programs. To do that, Ohio will need more adult drug courts. Most counties, including Lucas County, still don’t have a drug court. The state also needs more community programs to serve as effective alternatives to incarceration.
Ohio’s prosecutors and judges also must get better educated on addiction. Too many of them still don’t understand that chemical addiction is a compulsive disease, not a moral choice. “A big part of the problem is that a number of people, including judges and prosecutors, see addiction as a state in which people have more control than they actually have,” Orman Hall, the director of Gov. John Kasich’s Opiate Action Team, told The Blade’s editorial page. “Opioid and heroin addiction is a compulsive disorder. In the early stages, people have very little ability not to relapse.”
Finally, prisons must expand the amount of effective drug treatment they provide, even as Ohio courts continue to send them people who would be better served in community programs. The growing number of women entering prison in Ohio is more than a demographic shift. It’s a grim reminder that the state’s criminal justice system is failing to deal effectively, and humanely, with its heroin and opioid epidemic.
September 1, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Sunday, August 31, 2014
"Rational Criminal Addictions"
The title of this post is the title of this intriguing paper now available on SSRN and authored by Manuel Utset. Here is the abstract:
This article argues that repeated criminal misconduct, at least in some areas, has the characteristics of a habit or addiction. Curiosity or a transient attraction can lead an offender to commit her first crime. This first infraction will give her a sense of how much she enjoyed it, and whether she has the talent, and stomach, to continue down a path of repeated misconduct. If the feedback is sufficiently positive, the offender may commit a second crime, and possibly a third.
At some point, the offender will find herself with the opportunity to commit yet another crime, and realize that the immediate disutility of stopping, of going back into a life as a law-abiding citizen, is too great: she may find that the immediate disutility of foregoing a criminal opportunity is too high. Once the habit takes hold, the offender may continue to commit crimes, even if doing so leads her to suffer large aggregate negative internalities. An offender is thus “addicted to criminal misconduct” if her previous history of misconduct increases the marginal utility of committing a crime in the current period by a sufficient amount; that is, if the immediate disutility from stopping has reached a cut-off point, such that she violates the law notwithstanding the fact that but-for the addiction she would have obeyed the law.
The addicted criminal trades off the heightened immediate disutility from obeying the law against the reduction in total utility due to the negative internalities — including expected sanctions. After setting forth the rational criminal addiction theory, the article develops a number of legal implications that follow from the theory.
Saturday, August 30, 2014
"The criminalisation of American business"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Economist cover story, which carries the subheadline "Companies must be punished when they do wrong, but the legal system has become an extortion racket." Here are excerpts:
Who runs the world’s most lucrative shakedown operation? The Sicilian mafia? The People’s Liberation Army in China? The kleptocracy in the Kremlin? If you are a big business, all these are less grasping than America’s regulatory system. The formula is simple: find a large company that may (or may not) have done something wrong; threaten its managers with commercial ruin, preferably with criminal charges; force them to use their shareholders’ money to pay an enormous fine to drop the charges in a secret settlement (so nobody can check the details). Then repeat with another large company.
The amounts are mind-boggling. So far this year, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and other banks have coughed up close to $50 billion for supposedly misleading investors in mortgage-backed bonds. BNP Paribas is paying $9 billion over breaches of American sanctions against Sudan and Iran. Credit Suisse, UBS, Barclays and others have settled for billions more, over various accusations. And that is just the financial institutions. Add BP’s $13 billion in settlements since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Toyota’s $1.2 billion settlement over alleged faults in some cars, and many more.
In many cases, the companies deserved some form of punishment: BNP Paribas disgustingly abetted genocide, American banks fleeced customers with toxic investments and BP despoiled the Gulf of Mexico. But justice should not be based on extortion behind closed doors. The increasing criminalisation of corporate behaviour in America is bad for the rule of law and for capitalism (see [companion] article)....
The drawbacks of America’s civil tort system are well known. What is new is the way that regulators and prosecutors are in effect conducting closed-door trials. For all the talk of public-spiritedness, the agencies that pocket the fines have become profit centres: Rhode Island’s bureaucrats have been on a spending spree courtesy of a $500m payout by Google, while New York’s governor and attorney-general have squabbled over a $613m settlement from JPMorgan. And their power far exceeds that of trial lawyers. Not only are regulators in effect judge and jury as well as plaintiff in the cases they bring; they can also use the threat of the criminal law.
Financial firms rarely survive being indicted on criminal charges. Few want to go the way of Drexel Burnham Lambert or E.F. Hutton. For their managers, the threat of personal criminal charges is career-ending ruin. Unsurprisingly, it is easier to empty their shareholders’ wallets. To anyone who asks, “Surely these big firms wouldn’t pay out if they knew they were innocent?”, the answer is: oddly enough, they might.
Perhaps the most destructive part of it all is the secrecy and opacity. The public never finds out the full facts of the case, nor discovers which specific people—with souls and bodies—were to blame. Since the cases never go to court, precedent is not established, so it is unclear what exactly is illegal. That enables future shakedowns, but hurts the rule of law and imposes enormous costs. Nor is it clear how the regulatory booty is being carved up. Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, who is up for re-election, reportedly intervened to increase the state coffers’ share of BNP’s settlement by $1 billion, threatening to wield his powers to withdraw the French bank’s licence to operate on Wall Street. Why a state government should get any share at all of a French firm’s fine for defying the federal government’s foreign policy is not clear....
In the longer term, two changes are needed to the legal system. The first is a much clearer division between the civil and criminal law when it comes to companies. Most cases of corporate malfeasance are to do with money and belong in civil courts. If in the course of those cases it emerges that individual managers have broken the criminal law, they can be charged.
The second is a severe pruning of the legal system. When America was founded, there were only three specified federal crimes — treason, counterfeiting and piracy. Now there are too many to count. In the most recent estimate, in the early 1990s, a law professor reckoned there were perhaps 300,000 regulatory statutes carrying criminal penalties—a number that can only have grown since then. For financial firms especially, there are now so many laws, and they are so complex (witness the thousands of pages of new rules resulting from the Dodd-Frank reforms), that enforcing them is becoming discretionary.
This undermines the predictability and clarity that serve as the foundations for the rule of law, and risks the prospect of a selective — and potentially corrupt — system of justice in which everybody is guilty of something and punishment is determined by political deals. America can hardly tut-tut at the way China’s justice system applies the law to companies in such an arbitrary manner when at times it seems almost as bad itself.
Friday, August 29, 2014
Based on additional 3553(a) justifications, Eighth Circuit affirms "profound downward variance to a sentence of probation" in multi-million dollar fraud
Especially in the years right after after Booker, the Eighth Circuit garnered a (seemingly well-deserved) reputation as one of the circuits most likely to reverse below-guideline sentences as too lenient. But after a number of those reversals were thereafter reversed by the Supreme Court in cases like Gall and Pepper, it seemed the Eighth Circuit became somewhat more willing to uphold below-guideline sentences, and today in US v. Cole, No. 11-1232 (8th Cir. Aug. 29, 2014) (available here), a unanimous panel has upheld a probation sentence in a high-loss, white-collar case that in the past I would expect to see reversed based on the government's appeal.
The Cole decision from the Eighth Circuit is relatively short, and it is today's must-read for any and all white-collar practitioners. Here are snippets that help highlight why:
A jury found Abby Rae Cole guilty of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, tax evasion, and conspiracy to commit tax fraud. The district court sentenced Cole to three years probation, a downward variance from the advisory Guidelines range of 135 to 168 months imprisonment. The government appealed the sentence as substantively unreasonable, and Cole cross-appealed her convictions. We affirmed the convictions but declined to reach the issue of whether the sentence is substantively unreasonable, finding procedural error in the lack of an adequate explanation by the district court for the sentence and the substantial downward variance. We remanded the case to afford the district court a chance to supply an adequate explanation....
In our previous opinion, we noted that before reaching the substantive reasonableness of a sentence “‘[w]e must first ensure that the district court committed no significant procedural error,’” such as “failing to adequately explain the chosen sentence—including an explanation for any deviation from the Guidelines range.” Id. (quoting United States v. Feemster, 572 F.3d 455, 461 (8th Cir. 2009) (en banc)). We noted that Cole and her co-conspirators’ convictions were based on the theft of approximately $33 million from Best Buy over a four-year period and the evasion of over $3 million in taxes, Cole’s sentencing Guidelines range was 135 to 168 months imprisonment, and Cole’s co-conspirators, her husband and a Best Buy employee, received sentences of 180 and 90 months respectively. Despite these facts, the district court provided scant explanation for the profound downward variance to a sentence of probation.
On remand, the district court received additional briefing from the parties, conducted a hearing in which it heard additional argument with respect to sentencing, and then announced its reasons for the downward variance and the probationary sentence in a lengthy and comprehensive analysis concluding with the observation that this is an “unusual, extraordinary case in which a sentence of three years probation was appropriate.” In the additional analysis, the district court touched on all of the section 3553(a) factors in explaining the rationale behind the sentence it imposed upon Cole. The district court recognized the numerous restrictions Cole endured while on probation and the “lifelong restrictions” she faces as a federal felon, see 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(2)(A)&(B); the court stressed that, with the probationary sentence, Cole would be less likely to commit further crimes as she “has a far greater likelihood of successful rehabilitation with family support and stable employment,” see 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(2)(C). The court also explained that while “[t]his was one of the largest corporate frauds in Minnesota history and was also a significant tax fraud,” Cole served a more minor role as, in the court’s judgment, she was “mostly a passive, although legally responsible, participant.” See 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(1). The court focused on Cole’s history and characteristics, emphasizing that she had no prior contact with law enforcement and was “markedly different” than “most of the fraudsters who appear before th[e] Court” in that Cole “is not a consummate fraudster, she is not a pathological liar.” See 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(6). Finally, the district court explained that the probationary sentence would allow Cole to work and earn money to make restitution to the victims of the fraud. See 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(7).
The United States persists in its appeal, contending that the district court improperly based the sentence on Cole’s socioeconomic status, her restitution obligations, and her loss of criminally derived income. However, the facts of Cole’s fall from an industrious and highly successful entrepreneur to convicted felon and the loss of the bulk of her legitimately acquired assets cannot be denied. We find no error in the district court’s reference to these events....
While we do not minimize the seriousness of the crimes perpetrated by Cole and the staggering nature of the fraudulent scheme in which Cole was a participant, the district court here, unlike in Dautovic, has adequately explained the sentence and appropriately considered the section 3553(a) factors in varying downward to a probationary sentence, making “precisely the kind of defendant-specific determinations that are within the special competence of sentencing courts.” Feemster, 572 F.3d at 464 (quotation omitted). For instance, the district court noted that Cole’s role in the offense was mostly as a passive participant and Cole was not the typical white collar defendant the court had observed in similar criminal schemes. We find no error in the weighing of the section 3553(a) factors, and thus the district court did not abuse its substantial discretion in sentencing Cole to probation.
This ruling strikes me a one-in-a-million outcome: I cannot recall another case (out of the nearly million cases that have been sentenced in the federal system since Booker) in which the defendant faced a guideline range of 11 to 14 years and received a sentence of probation. This outcome seems all that much more remarkable given that this huge (and now declared reasonable) variance was in a case in which the defendant did not plead guilty or provide substantial assistance to the government and involved "one of the largest corporate frauds in Minnesota history and was also a significant tax fraud."
Because this Cole case seems remarkable in many ways, and because it likely will be (and should be) cited by nearly every white-collar offender facing federal sentencing in the months and years ahead, it would not shock me if the Justice Department seriously considers pursuing an appeal up to the Supreme Court.
August 29, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack
Wednesday, August 27, 2014
Based on Burrage, split Sixth Circuit panel reverses federal hate crime convictions for Amish beard-cutters
Regular readers may recall lots of coverage early last year concerning the unusual federal hate crime prosecution and sentencing of a group of Amish who assaulted others in their community in the midst of a religious dispute. The convictions were appealed to the Sixth Circuit, and a panel this morning reversed the convictions based on the intervening Supreme Court decision in the Burrage mandatory sentencing case. Here is how the majority opinion, per Judge Sutton, in US v. Miller et al., Nos. 13-3177 et al. (Aug. 27, 2014) (available here), gets started:
A string of assaults in several Amish communities in Ohio gave rise to this prosecution under Section 2 of The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009. The assaults were not everyday occurrences, whether one looks at the setting (several normally peaceful Amish communities), the method of attack (cutting the hair and shaving the beards of the victims), the mode of transportation to them (hired drivers), the relationship between the assailants and their victims (two of them involved children attacking their parents), or the alleged motive (religious-based hatred between members of the same faith). A jury found that four of the five attacks amounted to hate crimes under the Act and convicted sixteen members of the Bergholz Amish community for their roles in them.
At stake in this appeal is whether their hate-crime convictions may stand. No one questions that the assaults occurred, and only a few defendants question their participation in them. The central issue at trial was whether the defendants committed the assaults “because of” the religion of the victims. 18 U.S.C. § 249(a)(2)(A). In instructing the jury on this point, the district court rejected the defendants’ proposed instruction (that the faith of the victims must be a “but for” cause of the assaults) and adopted the government’s proposed instruction (that the faith of the victims must be a “significant factor” in motivating the assaults). Regrettably for all concerned, a case decided after this trial confirms that the court should have given a but-for instruction on causation in the context of this criminal trial. Burrage v. United States, 134 S. Ct. 881, 887–89 (2014). Because this error was not harmless, and indeed went to the central factual debate at trial, we must reverse these convictions.
Here is how the dissent, per Judge Sargus sitting by designation, gets started:
This is the first appellate case involving a religious hate crime under the Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, 18 U.S.C. § 249. While I respect the majority’s efforts to construe a deceivingly simple, but actually complex, statute, I dissent. In my view, the majority has adopted an unduly restrictive interpretation of the statute.
Since this case was tried, the Supreme Court decided the case of Burrage v. United States, 134 S. Ct. 881 (2014). The majority correctly holds that the “because of” phrase used in § 249(a), similar to “results from,” requires proof that one act would not have happened “but for” the other. I disagree, however, with the majority’s conclusion that the trial court’s causation-instruction error was not harmless. This disagreement stems not from a dispute over the standards governing a harmless error analysis, but rather is from a disagreement over statutory construction.
Related prior posts:
- Ohio Amish hair-cutting incidents now a federal hate crimes sentencing matter
- Stark extremes for forthcoming debate over federal sentencing of Amish beard-cutters
- Interesting defense arguments for sentencing leniency in Amish beard-cutting case
- Feds request LWOP for Samuel Mullet Sr., leader of Amish beard-cutting gang
- Are tough sentences sought in Amish beard-cutting case part of a DOJ "war on religion"?
- "Amish beard-cutting ringleader gets 15 years"
- Guest post on Amish sentencing: "A Travesty in Cleveland"
Tuesday, August 26, 2014
Though guidelines recommend two years or less, feds request 10-year max for woman who bought guns for killer
An interesting and challenging federal sentencing is scheduled this week in upstate New York, and one of many reasons the case is noteworthy is because federal prosecutors are requesting a statutory maximum sentencing term of 10 years in prison when the applicable guideline recommend only 18 to 24 months for the offense. This recent local article, headlined "U.S. asks for Nguyen to get 10 years," provides the context and details:
Federal prosecutors want a judge to ignore sentencing guidelines and sentence Dawn Nguyen to 10 years in prison. While Nguyen likely did not know that firearms she bought for William Spengler Jr. would be used in an ambush of volunteer firefighters, she did "place two tactical military-style weapons in the capable hands of a man who she knew had already killed his own grandmother," say court papers filed Thursday by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Noto.
Nguyen is scheduled to be sentenced in U.S. District Court on Thursday for her conviction in three federal crimes: lying on a federal firearms transaction when she bought a shotgun and semiautomatic rifle in June 2010; passing those weapons onto a man — Spengler — whom she knew was a convicted felon; and possessing the guns while she was a marijuana user.
The request for a 10-year sentence sets up a rare occurrence in federal court — a decision by a judge as to whether the crimes were so extraordinary that the guidelines should be bypassed. The guidelines, while only advisory, are designed to ensure comparable punishments for comparable crimes. A judge has the discretion in unusual cases to sentence up to the maximum, which for Nguyen is 10 years for each crime.
To make his decision, U.S. District Judge David Larimer will have to weigh the question that has long been central to Nguyen's offenses: Should she be held responsible for the Christmas Eve 2012 violence spree during which Spengler killed his sister and two volunteer firefighters?...
Nguyen has pleaded guilty to the federal crimes. She also was convicted in state Supreme Court of lying on the firearms purchase form when she said the guns were for her. State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Moran sentenced her to 16 months to four years in state prison.
In June 2010, Nguyen and Spengler went to Gander Mountain in Henrietta where she bought the weapons for Spengler, who could not own guns because of his past crimes. On the morning of Christmas Eve 2012, Spengler fatally shot his sister, Cheryl, then started a blaze that largely destroyed his Lake Avenue home and others along the Lake Road strip. He then lay in wait for firefighters, ambushing them with the guns bought by Nguyen. He fatally shot West Webster volunteer firefighters Michael Chiapperini, 43, and Tomasz Kaczowka, 19.
The 10-year sentence "is what the victims have asked for," U.S. Attorney William Hochul Jr. said Friday of the families of the slain firefighters. "It's absolutely critical that the judge keep in mind the chain of events started by Dawn Nguyen," Hochul said.
In a letter to the court, Nguyen, now 25, said that Spengler told her he wanted the guns for hunting, and she did not know enough about guns to find that unusual. She wrote that she knew Spengler had been imprisoned for the death of his grandmother, but she did not know exactly what he had done.
Her attorney, Matthew Parrinello, said Friday that the request by prosecutors for a 10-year sentence is a "media grab."
"She committed a crime and she has already been punished," he said, noting Nguyen's state prison sentence. Parrinello wants Larimer to use the sentencing guidelines, and have the federal sentence run concurrent with her state sentence.
Prosecutors are asking that the federal sentence not be served until after Nguyen completes her state sentence, which would further increase the time she has to spend in prison.
The 25-page sentencing brief submitted by federal prosecutors in this notable case is available at this link and it make for an interesting read.
August 26, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Sunday, August 24, 2014
Will third time be a charm in federal sentencing of child porn defendant Richard Bistline?
Regular readers and those who follow closely federal sentencing of child pornography offender will recall the name Richard Bistline: as detailed in posts linked below, the Bistline's sentencing created a kind of battle royale between US District Judge James Graham and the Sixth Circuit. This coming week, as reported in this Columbus Dispatch article, Bistline is scheduled to be resentenced yet again, this time by a different district judge after Judge Graham's prior sentences were twice found to be substantively unreasonable by the Sixth Circuit. Here are excerpts from the Dispatch article providing the backstory:
Are federal sentencing guidelines for possessing child pornography too harsh? Calling the guidelines “draconian,” U.S. District Judge James L. Graham has become increasingly vocal in his criticism from the federal bench in Columbus.
Possessing child porn is vastly different from distributing or producing it, Graham said in an interview last week. “The purveyors or producers of these images deserve the most severe punishment we can give them. My concern is the people who end up possessing it.”
Richard Bistline, a Knox County man, is to be in federal court on Wednesday to be sentenced for the third time for child-porn possession. His case thrust Graham into the spotlight in 2010 after the judge sentenced Bistline, of Mount Vernon, to one day in prison, 30 days of home confinement and 10 years of probation. The recommended sentence under federal guidelines was five to six years.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Deborah A. Solove appealed Graham’s sentence to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that the penalty did not reflect the seriousness of the offense. The appeals court ordered Graham to resentence the defendant. But a defiant Graham again sentenced Bistline to a single day in prison, although he increased the home confinement to three years. Solove again appealed, and the 6th Circuit court again ruled that Graham’s sentence was too lenient. The court removed Graham from the case.
Judge George C. Smith is to sentence Bistline on Wednesday....
Graham says the guidelines for child-porn possession are outdated. Adding points for looking at child porn on a computer is unjustified, he said, because nearly all of it is accessed that way. Adding points for possession of numerous images is unjustified because “current technology produces numerous images with one key stroke or mouse click,” he said....
In its second Bistline ruling, the appeals court wrote that possessing child porn “is not a crime of inadvertence, of pop-up screens and viruses that incriminate an innocent person.” Possession becomes a crime “when a defendant knowingly acquires the images — in this case, affirmatively, deliberately and repeatedly, hundreds of times over, in a period exceeding a year."
Graham isn’t alone in his contention that the guidelines are outdated. A 2013 U.S. Sentencing Commission report on federal child-porn guidelines noted that many of the sentencing enhancements designed to further punish the worst possessors now apply to most offenders....
Other men who have pleaded guilty to one count of child-porn possession in federal court in Columbus, as Bistline did, have received multiple-year sentences. Among them: former special deputy sheriff Todd R. German of Union County, sentenced last year to four years; former Reynoldsburg teacher Matthew Fisher, sentenced in 2011 to three years; and former Columbus doctor Philip Nowicki, sentenced in 2011 to two years.
Graham said most of the child-porn-possession defendants he sees have no previous criminal record and “are involved in viewing these images as a result of what appears to be a form of addiction I think is becoming more and more prevalent in today’s society, affecting people of all ages.” Just by being found guilty, he said, they face ruined lives, for both themselves and their families. “They need to stop it,” he said. “The men who are doing this are going to get caught.”
Prior related posts:
- Sixth Circuit finds substantively unreasonable a one-day of lock-up for child porn downloading
- District Judge at resentencing continues to resist federal child porn guidelines even after Sixth Circuit reversal
- "Should defendants’ age, health issues be sentencing factors?"
- Sixth Circuit panel, again, finds substantively unreasonable a non-prison sentence for child porn downloading in Bistline