Monday, June 27, 2016
Per the Chief, SCOTUS unanimously vacates former Gov's conviction while adopting "more bounded interpretation" of corruption statute
Wrapping up yet another remarkable Term with a notable bit of unanimity, the Supreme Court's final opinion for this SCOTUS season was a win for a high-profile federal defendant McDonnell v. United States, No. 15-474 (S. Ct. June 27, 2016) (available here). Chief Justice Roberts authored the opinion for the unanimous Court, and here are some key excerpts from the start and center of the ruling:
In 2014, the Federal Government indicted former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell and his wife, Maureen McDonnell, on bribery charges. The charges related to the acceptance by the McDonnells of $175,000 in loans, gifts, and other benefits from Virginia businessman Jonnie Williams, while Governor McDonnell was in office. Williams was the chief executive officer of Star Scientific, a Virginia-based company that had developed a nutritional supplement made from anatabine, a compound found in tobacco. Star Scientific hoped that Virginia’s public universities would perform research studies on anatabine, and Williams wanted Governor McDonnell’s assistance in obtaining those studies.
To convict the McDonnells of bribery, the Government was required to show that Governor McDonnell committed (or agreed to commit) an “official act” in exchange for the loans and gifts. The parties did not agree, however, on what counts as an “official act.” The Government alleged in the indictment, and maintains on appeal, that Governor McDonnell committed at least five “official acts.” Those acts included “arranging meetings” for Williams with other Virginia officials to discuss Star Scientific’s product, “hosting” events for Star Scientific at the Governor’s Mansion, and “contacting other government officials” concerning studies of anatabine. Supp. App. 47–48. The Government also argued more broadly that these activities constituted “official action” because they related to Virginia business development, a priority of Governor McDonnell’s administration. Governor McDonnell contends that merely setting up a meeting, hosting an event, or contacting an official — without more — does not count as an “official act.”
At trial, the District Court instructed the jury according to the Government’s broad understanding of what constitutes an “official act,” and the jury convicted both Governor and Mrs. McDonnell on the bribery charges. The Fourth Circuit affirmed Governor McDonnell’s conviction, and we granted review to clarify the meaning of “official act.”...
Taking into account the text of the statute, the precedent of this Court, and the constitutional concerns raised by Governor McDonnell, we reject the Government’s reading of §201(a)(3) and adopt a more bounded interpretation of “official act.” Under that interpretation, setting up a meeting, calling another public official, or hosting an event does not, standing alone, qualify as an “official act.”...
It is apparent from Sun-Diamond that hosting an event, meeting with other officials, or speaking with interested parties is not, standing alone, a “decision or action” within the meaning of §201(a)(3), even if the event, meeting, or speech is related to a pending question or matter. Instead, something more is required: §201(a)(3) specifies that the public official must make a decision or take an action on that question or matter, or agree to do so....
In sum, an “official act” is a decision or action on a “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy.” The “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy” must involve a formal exercise of governmental power that is similar in nature to a lawsuit before a court, a determination before an agency, or a hearing before a committee. It must also be something specific and focused that is “pending” or “may by law be brought” before a public official. To qualify as an “official act,” the public official must make a decision or take an action on that “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy,” or agree to do so. That decision or action may include using his official position to exert pressure on another official to perform an “official act,” or to advise another official, knowing or intending that such advice will form the basis for an “official act” by another official. Setting up a meeting, talking to another official, or organizing an event (or agreeing to do so) — without more — does not fit that definition of “official act.”
By vote of 6-2, SCOTUS upholds broad application of federal prohibition on firearm possession by certain misdemeanants
Confirming that the Second Amendment has far more bark than bite when push comes to shove (puns intended), the Supreme Court this morning rejected a narrow interpretation of the federal criminal statute that forever prohibits any firearm possession by any persons who are convicted of certain misdemeanors. The opinion for the Court authored by Justice Kagan in Voisine v. US, 14-10154 (S. Ct. June 27, 2016) (available here), gets started this way:
Federal law prohibits any person convicted of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” from possessing a firearm. 18 U.S.C. §922(g)(9). That phrase is defined to include any misdemeanor committed against a domestic relation that necessarily involves the “use . . . of physical force.” §921(a)(33)(A). The question presented here is whether misdemeanor assault convictions for reckless (as contrasted to knowing or intentional) conduct trigger the statutory firearms ban. We hold that they do.
Justice Thomas authored a dissent in Voisine, which was partially joined by Justice Sotomayor. His dissent is nearly twice as long as the opinion for the Court, and it starts and ends this way:
Federal law makes it a crime for anyone previously convicted of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” to possess a firearm “in or affecting commerce.” 18 U.S.C. §922(g)(9). A “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” includes “an offense that . . . has, as an element, the use or attempted use of physical force . . . committed by [certain close family members] of the victim.” §921(a)(33)(A)(ii). In this case, petitioners were convicted under §922(g)(9) because they possessed firearms and had prior convictions for assault under Maine’s statute prohibiting “intentionally, knowingly or recklessly caus[ing] bodily injury or offensive physical contact to another person.” Me. Rev. Stat. Ann., Tit. 17–A, §207(1)(A) (2006). The question presented is whether a prior conviction under §207 has, as an element, the “use of physical force,” such that the conviction can strip someone of his right to possess a firearm. In my view, §207 does not qualify as such an offense, and the majority errs in holding otherwise. I respectfully dissent....
At oral argument the Government could not identify any other fundamental constitutional right that a person could lose forever by a single conviction for an infraction punishable only by a fine. Tr. of Oral Arg. 36–40. Compare the First Amendment. Plenty of States still criminalize libel.... I have little doubt that the majority would strike down an absolute ban on publishing by a person previously convicted of misdemeanor libel. In construing the statute before us expansively so that causing a single minor reckless injury or offensive touching can lead someone to lose his right to bear arms forever, the Court continues to “relegat[e] the Second Amendment to a second-class right.” Friedman v. Highland Park, 577 U. S. ___, ___ (2015) (THOMAS, J., dissenting from denial of certiorari) (slip op., at 6).
In enacting §922(g)(9), Congress was not worried about a husband dropping a plate on his wife’s foot or a parent injuring her child by texting while driving. Congress was worried that family members were abusing other family members through acts of violence and keeping their guns by pleading down to misdemeanors. Prohibiting those convicted of intentional and knowing batteries from possessing guns — but not those convicted of reckless batteries — amply carries out Congress’ objective.
Instead, under the majority’s approach, a parent who has a car accident because he sent a text message while driving can lose his right to bear arms forever if his wife or child suffers the slightest injury from the crash. This is obviously not the correct reading of §922(g)(9). The “use of physical force” does not include crimes involving purely reckless conduct. Because Maine’s statute punishes such conduct, it sweeps more broadly than the “use of physical force.” I respectfully dissent.
Thursday, June 23, 2016
"For aficionados of pointless formalism, today’s decision is a wonder, the veritable ne plus ultra of the genre."
The title of this post is one of a number of Justice Alito's spectacular comments in his dissent in the latest Supreme Court ruling on ACCA, Mathis v. United States, No. 15–6092 (S. Ct. June 23, 2016) (opinion here, basics here). In addition to a number of great rhetorical flourishes, Justice Alito's dissent in Mathis explains how messy ACCA jurisprudence has become and reinforces my sincere wish that folks in Congress would find time to engineer a (long-needed, now essential) statutory ACCA fix. Here are passages from Justice Alito's Mathis dissent that frames effectively the mess that ACCA has become and builds up to the sentence I am using as the title of this post:
Congress enacted ACCA to ensure that violent repeat criminal offenders could be subject to enhanced penalties — that is, longer prison sentences — in a fair and uniform way across States with myriad criminal laws....
Programmed [via prior ACCA rulings], the Court set out on a course that has increasingly led to results that Congress could not have intended. And finally, the Court arrives at today’s decision, the upshot of which is that all burglary convictions in a great many States may be disqualified from counting as predicate offenses under ACCA. This conclusion should set off a warning bell. Congress indisputably wanted burglary to count under ACCA; our course has led us to the conclusion that, in many States, no burglary conviction will count; maybe we made a wrong turn at some point (or perhaps the Court is guided by a malfunctioning navigator). But the Court is unperturbed by its anomalous result. Serenely chanting its mantra, “Elements,” see ante, at 8, the Court keeps its foot down and drives on....
A real-world approach would avoid the mess that today’s decision will produce. Allow a sentencing court to take a look at the record in the earlier case to see if the place that was burglarized was a building or something else. If the record is lost or inconclusive, the court could refuse to count the conviction. But where it is perfectly clear that abuilding was burglarized, count the conviction.
The majority disdains such practicality, and as a resultit refuses to allow a burglary conviction to be counted even when the record makes it clear beyond any possible doubt that the defendant committed generic burglary.... As the Court sees things, none of this would be enough. Real-world facts are irrelevant.
California legislators introduce bill seeking to mandate that any future Brock Turners face three-year minimum prison terms
As reported in this Reuters piece, headlined "California lawmakers move to change sentencing law following Stanford case," the common legislative reaction by policy-makers to concerns about an unduly lenient sentence is in progress in the wake of the high-profile sexual assault sentencing of Brock Turner. Here are the basics:
Seizing on a nationwide furor over the six-month jail term handed to a former Stanford University swimmer following his conviction for sexual assault on an unconscious woman, California lawmakers on Monday introduced legislation to close a loophole that allowed the sentence. The bill, known as AB 2888, marks the latest response to the sentence given to 20-year-old Brock Turner by Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky in June, which was widely condemned as too lenient. Prosecutors had asked that Turner be given six years in state prison.
"Like many people across the nation, I was deeply disturbed by the sentence in the Brock Turner case," Assemblyman Bill Dodd, one of two California state legislators who introduced the bill, said in a written statement. "Our bill will help ensure that such lax sentencing doesn't happen again."
Turner was convicted of assault with intent to commit rape, penetration of an intoxicated person and penetration of an unconscious person in the January 2015 attack. Under California law, those charges are not considered rape because they did not involve penile penetration. According to the lawmakers, current California law calls for a mandatory prison term in cases of rape or sexual assault where force is used, but not when the victim is unconscious or severely intoxicated and thus unable to resist.
The new legislation, which was introduced in the state assembly on Monday, would eliminate this discretion of a judge to sentence defendants convicted of such crimes to probation, said Ben Golombek, a spokesman for Assemblyman Evan Low, a co-author of the bill. Golombek said that the effect of the proposed new law, which must still be approved by both houses of the legislature and signed by Governor Jerry Brown, is that Turner would have faced a minimum of three years behind bars.
Prior related posts:
- Lots of seemingly justifiable outrage after lenient California sentencing of privileged man convicted of three felony counts of sexual assault
- Lots more mainstream and new media commentary on lenient sentencing of Stanford sex assaulter
- NY Times debates "Should an Unpopular Sentence in the Stanford Rape Case Cost a Judge His Job?"
- "The Stanford rape case demonstrates liberal hypocrisy on issues of basic fairness in the criminal justice system"
- Juror involved in trial of Stanford swimmer Brick Turner assails sentence given for sexual assault convictions
- Considering the potential negative consequences of the Stanford rape sentencing controversy and judge recall effort
Stressing harms of drunk driving, SCOTUS upholds warrantless breath tests (but not warrantless blood tests) incident to arrest
The Supreme Court handed down its last big Fourth Amendment decision of this Term, and Birchfield v. North Dakota, No. 14–1468 (S. Ct. June 23, 2016) (available here), is a nuanced ruling that I am glad to see makes much of the scourage of drunk driving. Here is the start of the Birchfield opinion for the Court authored by Justice Alito, as well as two key summary paragraphs from deep into the opinion:
Drunk drivers take a grisly toll on the Nation’s roads, claiming thousands of lives, injuring many more victims, and inflicting billions of dollars in property damage every year. To fight this problem, all States have laws that prohibit motorists from driving with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) that exceeds a specified level. But determining whether a driver’s BAC is over the legal limit requires a test, and many drivers stopped on suspicion of drunk driving would not submit to testing if given the option. So every State also has long had what are termed “implied consent laws.” These laws impose penalties on motorists who refuse to undergo testing when there is sufficient reason to believe they are violating the State’s drunk-driving laws.
In the past, the typical penalty for noncompliance was suspension or revocation of the motorist’s license. The cases now before us involve laws that go beyond that and make it a crime for a motorist to refuse to be tested after being lawfully arrested for driving while impaired. The question presented is whether such laws violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches....
Having assessed the effect of BAC tests on privacy interests and the need for such tests, we conclude that the Fourth Amendment permits warrantless breath tests incident to arrests for drunk driving. The impact of breath tests on privacy is slight, and the need for BAC testing is great.
We reach a different conclusion with respect to blood tests. Blood tests are significantly more intrusive, and their reasonableness must be judged in light of the availability of the less invasive alternative of a breath test. Respondents have offered no satisfactory justification for demanding the more intrusive alternative without a warrant.
Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Breyer and Kagan joined Justice Alito's opinion for the Court. Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ginsburg, filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. Justice Thomas also filed his own opinion concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part.
Wednesday, June 22, 2016
Anyone interested in making bold predictions on the last four criminal cases still to be decided by SCOTUS this Term?
Amy Howe at SCOTUSblog has this helpful new post reviewing the final eight cases still to be resolved by the eight Justices before they take their summer vacations. Some of these opinions will be handed down tomorrow and the others are likely to be released early next week. Notably, four of the remaining eight are criminal cases (and I am leaving out of this accounting the big immigration case). Here are Amy's review of the four criminal cases left:
Voisine v. United States (argued February 29, 2016). Stephen Voisine and William Armstrong, the other petitioner in this case, both pleaded guilty in state court to misdemeanor assaults on their respective domestic partners. Several years later, each man was charged with violating a federal law that prohibits the possession of firearms and ammunition by individuals who have previously been convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence. Voisine and Armstrong contend their state convictions (which the First Circuit affirmed) do not automatically qualify as misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence because the state-law provisions can be violated by conduct that is merely reckless, rather than intentional.
Birchfield v. North Dakota (argued April 20, 2016). Twelve states and the National Park Service impose criminal penalties on suspected drunk drivers who refuse to submit to testing to measure their blood-alcohol levels. The question before the Court is whether those penalties violate the Fourth Amendment, which only allows police to “search” someone if they have a warrant or one of a handful of exceptions to the warrant requirement applies. Three drivers from North Dakota and Minnesota argue that neither of those conditions is met, and so the laws must fall. The North Dakota and Minnesota Supreme Courts ruled in favor of the states, and now the Justices will weigh in.
Mathis v. United States (argued April 26, 2016). After having been convicted of several burglaries in Iowa, Richard Mathis was later prosecuted by the federal government for being a felon in possession of a firearm and received a mandatory minimum sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act based on his burglary convictions. The Eighth Circuit affirmed his conviction. The question before the Court is how to determine whether state convictions like Mathis’s qualify for federal mandatory minimum sentences and for removal under immigration law.
McDonnell v. United States (argued April 27, 2016). Former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell is challenging his convictions for violating federal laws that make it a felony to agree to take “official action” in exchange for money, campaign contributions, or anything else of value. The Fourth Circuit affirmed, and so the Justices agreed to weigh in. He argues that merely referring someone to an independent decision maker – in his case, in an effort to help promote a Virginia businessman’s nutritional supplement – doesn’t constitute the kind of “official action” that the statute bars.
I think it is possible that any of these cases could turn into a blockbuster, and Birchfield and McDonnell arguably require the Justices to do some "big" jurisprudential work to resolve the issues before them. Narrow/technical rulings seem more likely in Voisine and Mathis, though the former may get some extra attention in light of the on-going political discussions and sparring over gun control following the Orlando shootings and the latter seems sure to add yet another chapter to the lengthy and complicated ACCA jurisprudence.
As we await these final rulings (and especially because all are sure to be eclipsed in the mainstream media by the abortion, affirmative action and immigration cases also on tap), I would be eager to hear from readers about what they are expecting or even hoping for as the SCOTUS Term winds down.
Tuesday, June 21, 2016
"What is 'violent' crime?"
The question in the title of this post is the very first sentence of this effective Salon commentary by Benjamin Levin. The commentary has this (much less pithy) full headline and subheadline: "It’s time to rethink 'violent' crime: How mislabeling misconduct contributes to our bloated criminal justice system: The distinction between violent and nonviolent crime is a problematic metric for determining criminal punishment." And here are excerpts:
What is “violent” crime? Perhaps that seems like an easy question — murder is; tax evasion isn’t. But the distinction between violent and nonviolent crime has proven tricky for lawyers, judges and legislators.
Policy debates about proper punishments or enforcement too often break down because the various stakeholders get hung up on whether the crime in question is “violent.” If we are serious about addressing mass incarceration and our bloated criminal justice system, it’s time to rethink what counts as violent crime.
Perhaps nowhere is this issue more evident than in recent debates about drug crime. Where the bipartisan push to reduce prison populations has focused on “nonviolent drug offenders,” sentencing reform opponents have argued that drug crime is inherently violent.
Last year, the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys (an organization representing federal prosecutors) published a white paper arguing that drug trafficking is violent crime. Last month, William Bennett and John Walters (the drug czars for Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, respectively), penned an op-ed echoing this claim.
I think that Bennett and Walters are wrong on the facts, but their argument also highlights the problem with using the violent/non-violent distinction as a relevant metric of criminal punishment.
Bennett and Walters claim that drug trafficking is violent because of the harms that drugs themselves do (i.e., by hurting users and by imposing third party harms). Notably, their claim isn’t that drug dealers use violence to make money and control their turf. Indeed, a body of research shows that prohibition – not the drugs themselves — has made drug dealing a dangerous industry. Rather, their claim is that drug dealing is violent because it has victims. And that’s a much broader claim.
They’re certainly right that many illegal drugs carry with them severe health risks and risks to third parties, causing danger at home, in the workplace, and on the road. But does that make drug dealing a “violent crime”?
Bennett and Walters’s argument appears to rest on an expansive definition of violent – an act is violent if it does harm in the world or if people suffer directly or indirectly because of it. This definition would capture many traditional violent crimes (murder, rape, assault, etc.), but it would also sweep in a great deal of conduct that does harm, directly or indirectly. Why isn’t selling alcohol or cigarettes a violent act? What about gun possession? Drunk driving? Theft? Or even tax evasion?
While the Supreme Court has struggled to define when conduct is “violent,” the real-world consequences of this definitional question are critically important: the law often treats violent and nonviolent crime very differently. Many laws govern the conduct of those with criminal records, restricting housing, employment, voting and a range of benefits. These laws often depend upon the nature of the underlying offense — a violent felony might preclude someone from finding work in a given industry; a nonviolent conviction might not. Additionally, a conviction for a violent (as opposed to a nonviolent) crime might trigger a much longer sentence if an individual commits another crime — even if the second crime is nonviolent or less serious....
Certainly, there are many cases in which most of us would agree that the alleged conduct is violent. And there may be cases in which most of us would agree that conduct is nonviolent. (And, those latter cases often serve as the easiest point of bipartisan sentencing reform.) Yet Bennett and Walters’s argument shows that most harmful or objectionable conduct might be classified as violent. If a determination that crime is violent rests simply on finding someone who suffers directly or indirectly based on the act in question, then the definition knows no bounds.
If “violent crime” means so many things, then it only creates the illusion that society has sorted out the true “bad guys” or punished the worst conduct. Instead, it becomes a proxy for social harm, risk prediction, or moral condemnation. It may be that consensus on questions of criminal punishment is an impossible goal. But continuing to cast all objectionable conduct as violent is counterproductive and makes meaningful compromise and reform even more difficult.
Sunday, June 19, 2016
Even after Orlando shootings, GOP leaders in Congress unwilling to allow more medical research into gun deaths
Though I generally favor so-called "common-sense" gun regulations, I am not sure that more gun regulations will really help to reduce gun violence. But I am sure that more research on gun violence and gun-related deaths could and should help us better engineer laws to advance public safety. Consequently, I was saddened and disappointed to see this recent article in The Hill. It is headlined "GOP rebuffs doctors on gun research," and here are excerpts:
The American Medical Association’s new push to unfreeze federal funding for gun research is hitting a wall of resistance in the Republican Party. In the wake of the mass shooting in Orlando, the nation’s leading doctors group announced Tuesday it plans to “actively lobby” against a nearly 20-year-old budget rule that has prevented federal researchers from studying gun-related deaths.
The near-unanimous vote, which took place two days after Orlando shooting early Sunday morning, puts the powerful doctor’s lobby at odds with Second Amendment supporters who have argued that gun-related violence is no different from other violent acts.
Dr. Alice Chen, the executive director of the nonprofit Doctors for America, called the move a “game changer” for the long-standing fight to lift the research restrictions. “The strength of the AMA's vast membership, plus that of the over 100 medical and public health groups across the country, will be hard for Congress to ignore,” she said.
But Republicans in Congress, including those in the House Doctors Caucus who are members of the group, are soundly rejecting the AMA’s calls for research into gun-related deaths. “I don’t particularly see the need for it, quite frankly,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who leads health funding for the House Appropriations Committee, told The Hill on Thursday.
Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas), a member of the House Doctors Caucus, said he also opposed the policy change. “Although I’m a member of the AMA, I don’t always agree with the position they take,” Burgess told The Hill on Thursday. “It seems to have worked well. I don’t favor changing it,” Burgess said of federal researchers staying away from the issue of guns....
It’s becoming increasingly unlikely that the gun research will be part of Congress’s response to the Orlando shooting. Cole, the Oklahoma Republican, said GOP leaders are much more likely to boost funding for the FBI to improve background checks. “Research is good, but unfortunately, this administration has used terrorism despicably to advance their gun control issue. It doesn’t shock me to tears that he might use [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] research rules to do the same,” Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) said Thursday.
Democrats this week already forced the GOP-led House Energy and Commerce Committee to vote on the research issue during its markup of a mental health bill. That amendment, from Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.), failed on a party line vote of 23-29.
The moratorium on federal gun research stems from a 1997 budget amendment that prohibits federal funds “to advocate or promote gun control” — language that researchers say has had a chilling effect. Republicans adopted the so-called Dickey amendment, named after Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ga.), in 1997 after strong lobbying from groups such as the National Rifle Association. Gun rights supporters have long argued that government agencies use studies to advance gun control, something researchers deny.
Dickey has since reversed course and is now campaigning to change the wording in the law. Other gun rights advocates have remained strong in their opposition. Larry Keane, general counsel for the National Sports Shooting Association, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has “misdiagnosed the issue.”
“Our view is that criminal violence involving firearms is a criminal justice [issue],” Keane said in an interview Thursday. “The CDC should focus on its mission, which is addressing diseases and illnesses like cancer and preventing an outbreak of the Zika virus.”
The renewed push for lifting the federal research restrictions began on Tuesday, after the AMA’s policy-making arm, the House of Delegates, decided by voice vote to “actively lobby” on the issue. It also officially declared gun violence to be a "public health crisis” for the first time, over the protest of some members.
American Academy of Family Physicians president, Dr. Wanda Filer, who attended the meeting in Chicago, said she heard “very few nay votes” during the vote. The resolution had been drafted late into the night on Sunday by a group of young doctors who skipped planned conference festivities to draft it.
It was the second year in a row the AMA’s conference was interrupted by reports of a mass shooting. Last year, the AMA held a moment of silence after the shooting at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C., that killed nine people....
Filer said the AMA’s vote adds momentum to the cause that many physician groups, like hers, already supported. “Without research and being brave enough to ask the questions, we’re going to have ill-informed, emotional arguments,” Filer said Thursday. “What we’re saying is, we need research.”
Importantly, I do not disagree with the gun rights advocates' view that "criminal violence involving firearms is a criminal justice [issue]," but accepting that notion does not logically justify precluding medical research on gun-related deaths. If our society is truly committed to reducing gun deaths, we ought to have bright researchers working in all disciplines studying this grave problem to try to discover evidence-based strategies to improve public safety. But, sadly, it seems that even after the worst mass shooting in recent US history, partisan politics can still preclude sensible policymaking.
Friday, June 17, 2016
"'Loss' Revisited: A Guarded Defense of the Centerpiece of the Federal Economic Crime Sentencing Guideline"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Frank Bowman now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
This article discusses "loss," the concept at the heart of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines section governing economic crimes, Section 2B1.1. It notes the common criticism that "loss" plays too large a role in federal economic crime sentencing, but distinguishes between the sound observation that structural problems in Section 2B1.1 cause loss amount to generate too many "offense levels" and critiques of the core definition of "loss."
The article summarizes previous suggestions made by the author and others to address the arguably disproportionate role played by "loss," but it focuses primarily on the Guidelines' definition of "loss," whether actual or intended. The article defends the fundamental soundness of the existing "loss" definition, but suggests some points on which improvements might be made, particularly to the definition of intended loss.
The article was solicited as a response to an article by Mr. Daniel Guarnera, published in the same issue of the Missouri Law Review, in which Mr. Guarnera argues for a revision of the definition of intended loss to include unrealized harms as to which the defendant was reckless.
Daughter of mass murder victim explains why she opposes death penaly for Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof
This new Vox commentary authored by Sharon Risher explains a notable person's notable perspective on forgiveness and the death penalty in a notable capital case. The piece is headlined "My mom was killed in the Charleston shooting. Executing Dylann Roof won’t bring her back." Here are excerpts:
Ethel Lance, my mother, was killed on Wednesday, June 17, 2015, along with my cousins Susie Jackson and Tywanza Sanders, and six other people at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. It appears to have been a racially motivated massacre plotted by a 21-year-old white man....
A mere 48 hours after the church shooting, millions of Americans watched my sister, Nadine Collier, stand in front of our mother’s accused killer and forgive him at his bond hearing. The media ran with the forgiveness narrative, praising the ability of the victims’ families for their graciousness and faith.
I didn’t forgive Dylann Roof. And I still don’t forgive him. After I saw my sister address the nation, I thought, This girl has to be crazy! Who’s going to forgive him so quickly? I was hurt that people thought Nadine’s views reflected the views of the Lance family and the thoughts of all of the Charleston nine’s loved ones.
Don’t get me wrong. I disagreed with Nadine, but I respected her opinion — she’s my sister, and she has a right to her own emotions and grieving process. Still, after the shooting, there were several articles that exploited our different ways of grieving. They pitted us against each other in the midst of a horrific tragedy.
I understand that the people of Charleston, and of America as a whole, latched onto the overwhelming message of forgiveness as a coping mechanism. But the focus on quick forgiveness and the pivot to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse washed away the severity of the larger issues at hand – that the accused killer, because of his hatred of black people, could be so stirred by white supremacist ideology that he would go into that church to kill my momma and all the others.
The man accused of killing my mother did not show any remorse. Why should I feel the need to forgive him when he has not asked for forgiveness? I know God commands us to forgive, but there is no time stamp — forgiveness is a journey that you allow yourself to feel because someone has wronged you....
In the months since the shooting, I received a handwritten letter from Lucia McBath, whose son Jordan Davis was killed in 2012 from gun violence. Lucia sent her condolences and told me to reach out to her if I needed to. On a whim, I did. From there, I became involved with gun control advocacy, rallying for national gun control organizations....
Despite the anger I am still coping with from my mother’s death, I don’t believe in the death penalty, even for the man who killed her. That’s my conviction because of my faith. I’ve said the same thing all along — I don’t believe as human beings that we should take away someone’s life just because we have the power to do so.
God is the only person, the only being who decides our fate. Still, I will let the judicial system do what they choose. The Department of Justice announced last month that it will seek the death penalty against the shooter. Whatever the outcome, I will not protest.
This is how my faith carries me. I don’t walk in fear. I don’t think about Dylann Roof. All I want to do is do what God has planned out for me. If I can stop one person from experiencing the pain myself and my family and all the families experienced post-Charleston, then I have done my part.
Thursday, June 16, 2016
New NIJ research report explores particulars and reasons for unprecedented 2015 increase in US homicides
The National Institute of Justice this week released this important and interesting new report authored by criminologist Richard Rosenfeld titled "Documenting and Explaining the 2015 Homicide Rise: Research Directions." Here is the report's executive summary:
The debate over the size, scope and causes of the homicide increase in 2015 has been largely free of systematic evidence. This paper documents the scale of the homicide increase for a sample of 56 large U.S. cities. It then examines three plausible explanations of the homicide rise: an expansion of urban drug markets fueled by the heroin epidemic, reductions in incarceration resulting in a growing number of released prisoners in the nation’s cities, and a “Ferguson effect” resulting from widely publicized incidents of police use of deadly force against minority citizens. The paper concludes with a call for the more frequent and timely release of crime information to address crime problems as they arise.
The homicide increase in the nation’s large cities was real and nearly unprecedented. It was also heavily concentrated in a few cities with large African-American populations. Empirical explanations of the homicide increase must await future research based on year-end crime data for 2015. Several empirical indicators for assessing the explanations under consideration here are discussed. For example, if the homicide increase resulted from an expansion in urban drug markets, we should observe larger increases in drug-related homicides than those committed under other circumstances. If returning prisoners fueled the homicide increase, that should be reflected in growing numbers of homicides committed by parolees.
It will be more difficult to empirically evaluate the so-called Ferguson effect on crime increases, depending on the version of this phenomenon under consideration. The dominant interpretation of the Ferguson effect is that criticism of the police stemming from widely publicized and controversial incidents of the use of force against minority citizens caused the police to disengage from vigorous enforcement activities. Another version of the Ferguson effect, however, switches the focus from changes in police behavior to the longstanding grievances and discontent with policing in AfricanAmerican communities. In this interpretation, when activated by controversial incidents of police use of force, chronic discontent erupts into violence.
The de-policing interpretation of the Ferguson effect can be evaluated with data on arrests and other forms of self-initiated activity by the police. De-policing should be reflected in declining arrest rates in cities experiencing homicide increases. Tracing the pathways from chronic levels of discontent to an escalation in homicide will ultimately require ethnographic studies in minority communities that reveal, for example, whether offenders believe they can engage in crime without fear that residents will contact the police or cooperate in police investigations. Such studies could also disclose other linkages between discontent, police use of force and criminal violence.
In summary, the following research questions for documenting and explaining the 2015 homicide rise, at a minimum, should be pursued when the requisite data become available:
• How large and widespread was the homicide increase in 2015? Did other crimes also increase?
• What conditions drove the homicide increase? Candidate explanations must account for the timing as well as the magnitude and scope of the increase.
• What role, if any, did the expansion of drug markets play in the 2015 homicide increase? Was there a relative increase in drug arrests and drug-related homicides?
• Did declining imprisonment rates contribute to the 2015 homicide rise? Was the increase greater in cities with more returning prisoners and among parolees?
• What role did the Ferguson effect play in the homicide rise? If de-policing contributed to the increase, arrest rates should have declined in cities experiencing the largest homicide increases. An open question is how to evaluate the role, if any, of community discontent with the police. Ethnographic studies, among other methods, should be high on the list of research approaches to identify the mechanisms linking police legitimacy and escalating levels of violence.
Researchers would have been in a better position to begin addressing the 2015 homicide rise, with evidence rather than speculation, if timely crime data had been available as the increase was occurring. We would have known whether the homicide rise was confined to large cities, whether other crimes were also increasing, and whether arrest rates were falling. The debate over the homicide increase would have been better informed. Technical impediments to the monthly release of crime data no longer exist. A large and worrisome increase in homicide should be the catalyst to finally bring the nation’s crime monitoring system into the 21st century.
Sunday, June 12, 2016
After most deadly mass shooting in US history, sadness and frustration and realism
The tragic news today from Orlando, which is already being identified as the worst mass shooting in US history, is not a sentencing story because the shooter apparently was killed by the police while on the scene of his horrible crimes. But, I feel compelled to blog about this horrific crime in order to express my deep sadness. I also have to express my frustration that, no matter what I or others have to say, the circumstances of this horrific crime will likely engender political and social discussions that may just deepen divisions among Americans who cannot help but want to "do something" and yet rightly struggle to figure out just what can be done about man's inhumanity to man.
Friday, June 10, 2016
Split Seventh Circuit panel debates import and impact of jury finding of drug quantity rejected by the judge at sentencing
A helpful reader altered me to an interesting Seventh Circuit ruling today in US v. Saunders, No. 13-3910 (7th Cir. June 10, 2016) (available here). These passages from the partial dissent authored by Judge Manion provides a reasonable look into why this split panel's sentencing work is blog-worthy:
The jury in this case found beyond a reasonable doubt that the drug amount was between 100 grams and 1 kilogram. This necessarily implies that the jury found the offense did not involve 3.69 kilograms, but at sentencing, the district court found a 3.69-kilogram amount. These findings are irreconcilable. By its finding, the district court overrode the jury’s decision. The Sixth Amendment does not allow this. I dissent from this aspect of the court’s decision, but join in all other aspects....
A straightforward reading of the jury-verdict form does not allow this court to find an “effective acquittal.” The jury does not — in a single sentence, passing judgment on one count — actually convict and effectively acquit. Here, the jury convicted Saunders and Bounds of a capped drug quantity, and its verdict should stand....
In its ruling today, the court affirms the district court’s application of Watts to this case. It should not. Watts stands for the simple principle that a sentencing court may consider conduct underlying an acquitted charge if that underlying conduct is proven by a preponderance of the evidence. Watts, 519 U.S. at 157. Watts is therefore factually and legally distinguishable from this case. Instead of an acquittal, this case features an affirmative jury finding of fact. An acquittal is a legal conclusion, “not a finding of any fact,” and it “can only be an acknowledgment that the government failed to prove an essential element of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt.” See id. at 155 (internal quotation marks omitted)....
As the Supreme Court observed [in Watts], “That [acquittal] verdict does not preclude a finding by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant did, in fact, use or carry such a weapon, much less that he simply possessed the weapon in connection with a drug offense.” Id. at 157 (emphasis in original). In contrast, the two results in this case cannot square: the defendants cannot have (1) possessed less than 1 kilogram and (2) also possessed 3.69 kilograms. By flatly contradicting the jury’s express factual finding, the sentencing judge in this case violated the Sixth Amendment rights of Saunders and Bounds. And if the jury system is to mean anything, this outcome is a problem.
Should I really be too troubled by a Texas life sentence (with parole eligibility in 30 years) for nine-time drunk driver?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this New York Times piece headlined "He Had 8 Convictions for Driving Drunk. On His 9th, He Got Life." Here are the details:
The first eight convictions for driving while intoxicated didn’t stop Donald Middleton of Houston from sliding behind the wheel and getting his ninth conviction. This time, the judge had had enough.
When Mr. Middleton, 56, faced Judge Kathleen Hamilton of the 359th District Court in Texas on Tuesday, she sentenced him to life in prison. He won’t be eligible for parole for 30 years.
Such a harsh sentence is uncommon for drunken-driving convictions, which often lead to temporary license suspensions and prison stays that allow repeat offenders to return to the road. In Mr. Middleton’s case, he still had a valid driver’s license, despite the eight convictions. Mr. Middleton’s case raises the question: How many times does someone have to be caught driving drunk before he or she can no longer legally drive?
He was arrested in May 2015 after he turned into the wrong lane and collided head-on with a vehicle driven by a 16-year-old who was on the way home from work at a grocery store. Mr. Middleton ran into a nearby convenience store and repeatedly asked a clerk to hide him, prosecutors said. He had a blood-alcohol level of 0.184, more than twice the legal limit, 0.08, according to Justin Fowles, a Montgomery County assistant district attorney. Mr. Middleton pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated last May and has been in jail since.
The teenager, Joshua Hayden, was not injured, but his father, Rowdy Hayden, said in a telephone interview that he appreciated the judge’s harsh sentence. “It angers me, as a father, that this individual skirted the justice system eight times and was still out here endangering our citizens on the roadway by drinking and driving,” said Mr. Hayden, who is a police constable in Montgomery County. “His proven track record showed he was going to continue to drink and drive. And who knows, the next time he may have killed someone.”
Mr. Middleton had four previous stints in prison for driving while intoxicated. His eighth conviction, in 2008, involved rear-ending a car with several people inside; they sustained minor injuries. Mr. Middleton fell out of the car and was unable to stand, Mr. Fowles said.
The conviction from that episode led to a 13-year prison sentence, of which he served four years. After the most recent conviction, he was classified as a habitual offender, which enabled the longer sentence. “He had proven to us that he can’t be trusted with his own freedom, that he’s a danger to our community and that the best thing for everyone else’s safety on the roadways is for him to never be able to drive again,” Mr. Fowles said in a telephone interview.
Rules for stopping habitual drunken drivers vary wildly by state, but repeat offenders tend to get multiple extra chances. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that one in three people arrested on drunken-driving charges are repeat offenders. In Minnesota, a 61-year-old man was released from prison last year after a five-year stay for his 27th conviction related to drunken driving. In Pennsylvania, one man was arrested five times in less than a year, but never lost his driver’s license or served more than 10 days in jail....
J. T. Griffin, the chief government affairs officer for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said the organization had focused on promoting ignition interlock devices, which require anyone convicted of drunken driving to pass a breathalyzer test before starting a car. Twenty-seven states have laws requiring them, including New York, he said. Suspending licenses can be ineffective when many people continue to drive without a valid license, he said.
“We believe in going after D.U.I. the first time, not waiting for the second or third or fourth offense,” Mr. Griffin said. “The first time is unacceptable. And nine times is just ridiculous.”
Wednesday, June 08, 2016
"Salience and the Severity Versus the Certainty of Punishment"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new essay authored by Murat Mungan now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
The certainty aversion presumption (CAP) in the economics of law enforcement literature asserts that criminals are more responsive to increases in the certainty rather than the severity of punishment. In simple economic models, this presumption implies that criminals must be risk-seeking. Some scholars claim that this and similar anomalous implications are caused by the exclusion of various behavioral considerations in theoretical analyses.
This article investigates whether a model in which criminals over-weigh probabilities attached to more salient outcomes (as in Bordalo et al. (2012) and (2013)) performs better than the simple expected utility theory model in explaining CAP-consistent-behavior. The analysis reveals that the answer is negative unless the probability of punishment is unreasonably high. This finding suggests that we should exercise caution in incorporating salience -- a la Bordalo et al.-- in simple law enforcement models.
Tuesday, June 07, 2016
Lots more mainstream and new media commentary on lenient sentencing of Stanford sex assaulter
The discussion of last week's lenient sentencing of a former Stanford University student convicted of multiple counts of sexual assault (basics here) has continued to generate notable mainstream and new media stories. Here is a round up of reads some of the latest reads that I found interesting:
Via BuzzFeed here, "Stanford Community Asked Judge To Give More Severe Sentence For Sex Assault"
Via the Los Angeles Times here, "Stanford rape sentence unusually light, legal experts say"
From the New York Times here, "The Judge in the Stanford Rape Case Is Being Threatened. Who Is He?"
From Bill Otis at Crime & Consequences here, "Collective Guilt a/k/a White Males Stink"
From Paul Cassell at The Volokh Conspiracy here, "What sentence should the former Stanford swimmer have gotten?"
From Scott Greenfiled at Simple Justice here, "Brock Turner’s Too Good Friend"
From Shuan King at the New York Daily News here, "Brock Turner and Cory Batey, two college athletes who raped unconscious women, show how race and privilege affect sentences"
I also thought worth reprinting was this comment from "Joe R" deep into the comment thread of my last post about this controversial case:
Dude will be on the sex offender registry for life with a violent felony. His life is essentially over. As countless sex offenders have demonstrated with their actions by committing suicide, life in America on the registry is a fate often worse than death.
Rest assured all of you expressing outrage, this kid's life is over, and he has little to no prospect of an enjoyable fulfilling life. He is being severely punished, and hasn't gotten away with anything.
Monday, June 06, 2016
Lots of seemingly justifiable outrage after lenient California sentencing of privileged man convicted of three felony counts of sexual assault
The recent lenient sentencing late last week of Stanford University student convicted of multiple counts of sexual assault has become a very big story today, and lots of folks across the political spectrum seem justifiably troubled by it. This new New York Times article, headlined "Outrage in Stanford Rape Case Over Light Sentence for Attacker and Statement by His Father," provides some of the basics about the case and reactions to it:
A sexual assault case at Stanford University has ignited public outrage and a recall effort against a California judge after the defendant was sentenced to six months in a jail and his father complained that his son’s life had been ruined for “20 minutes of action” fueled by alcohol and promiscuity. In court, the victim had criticized her attacker’s sentence and the inequities of the legal process.
The case has made headlines since the trial began earlier this year but seized the public’s attention over the weekend after the accused, Brock Allen Turner, 20, a champion swimmer, was sentenced by Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky of Santa Clara County to what many critics denounced as a lenient stint in jail and three years’ probation for three felony counts of sexual assault.
The next day, BuzzFeed published the full courtroom statement [available here and recommended reading] by the woman who was attacked. The statement, a 7,244-word cri de coeur against the role of privilege in the trial and the way the legal system deals with sexual assault, has gone viral. By Monday, it had been viewed more than five million times on the BuzzFeed site. One of those readings happened live on CNN on Monday, when the anchor Ashleigh Banfield spent part of an hour looking into the camera and reading the entire statement live on the air.
The unidentified 23-year-old victim was not a Stanford student but was visiting the campus, where she attended a fraternity party. In the statement, she described her experience before and after the attack.
She argued that the trial, the sentencing and the legal system’s approach to sexual assault — from the defense lawyer’s questions about what she wore the night she was attacked to the light sentence handed down to her attacker — were irrevocably marred by male and class privilege. The trial privileged Mr. Turner’s well-being over her own, she said, and in the end declined to punish him severely because the authorities considered the disruption to his studies and athletic career at a prestigious university when determining his sentence....
If Mr. Turner and his defenders wanted to rebut that argument, a statement read to the court by his father, Dan Turner, and posted to Twitter on Sunday by Michele Dauber, a law professor and sociologist at Stanford, certainly did not help.
In the statement, Mr. Turner’s father said that his son should not do jail time for the sexual assault, which he referred to as “the events” and “20 minutes of action” that were not violent. He said that his son suffered from depression and anxiety in the wake of the trial and argued that having to register as a sex offender — and the loss of his appetite for food he once enjoyed — was punishment enough. Brock Turner also lost a swimming scholarship to Stanford and has given up on his goal of competing at the Olympics. “I was always excited to buy him a big rib-eye steak to grill or to get his favorite snack for him,” Dan Turner wrote. “Now he barely consumes any food and eats only to exist. These verdicts have broken and shattered him and our family in so many ways.”
The Santa Clara, Calif., district attorney, Jeff Rosen, did not agree with Dan Turner’s assessment of the situation. In a statement, he said the sentence “did not fit the crime” and called Brock a “predatory offender” who refused to take responsibility or show remorse. “Campus rape is no different than off-campus rape,” Mr. Rosen said. “Rape is rape.”
The editorial board of The San Jose Mercury News agreed, calling the sentence “a slap on the wrist” and “a setback for the movement to take campus rape seriously” in an editorial.
Professor Dauber said Monday that she was part of a committee that was organizing a recall challenge to Judge Persky, whose position is an elected one. The professor said he had misapplied the law by granting Mr. Turner probation and by taking his age, academic achievement and alcohol consumption into consideration.
Professor Dauber might think about reaching out to Bill Otis for support for her effort to recall Judge Persky, as Bill now has these two notable posts up at Crime & Consequences about this case:
As the titles of these posts suggest, Bill seems right now more eager to go after the defense bar rather than the sentencing judge in this case, but I have an inkling he will be bashing on the judge soon, too. (Bill has never been disinclined to attack judges or others whom he thinks are failing to do what he thinks they should be doing). What strikes me as particularly notable and disconcerting, though, is that the elected state sentencing judge involved in this case was, according to this webpage, "a criminal prosecutor for the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office, where [he was called upon to] prosecute sex crimes and hate crimes" right before he became a judge.
I am not familiar with the particulars of California criminal procedures as to whether a prosecutor is able to appeal a sentence considered unjustifiably lenient. If so, then perhaps this sentence can be scrutinized and perhaps rectified on appeal; if not, we have another example of why I generally think allowing both sides to appeal a sentence for unreasonableness is a good idea.
June 6, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (24)
Friday, May 27, 2016
"Killing Dylann Roof: A year after Obama saluted the families for their spirit of forgiveness, his administration seeks the death penalty for the Charleston shooter."
The title of this post is the headline of this intriguing Atlantic commentary authored by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I urge everyone, both those for and against capital punishment, to read he entire piece. Here are excerpts:
On Tuesday, Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced she would seek the death penalty for Dylann Roof. It has not been a year since Roof walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and murdered nine black people as they worshipped. Roof justified this act of terrorism in chillingly familiar language — “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country.” The public display of forgiveness offered to Roof by the families of the victims elicited bipartisan praise from across the country. The president saluted the families for “an expression of faith that is unimaginable but that reflects the goodness of the American people.” How strange it is to see that same administration, and these good people, who once saluted the forgiveness of Roof, presently endorse his killing....
There are defensible reasons why the American state — or any state — would find [the nonviolent Martin Luther] King’s ethic hard to live up to. States are violent. The very establishment of government, the attempt to safeguard a group of people deemed citizens or subjects, is always violent. In America, a president is the commander in chief. Anyone who voted for Obama necessarily voted for violence. Furthermore, there is indisputable evidence that violence sometimes works. The greatest affirmation of civil rights in American history — emancipation — was accomplished at gun-point.
But one has to be careful here not to fall into the trap of lionizing killing, of pride in the act of destroying people even for just ends. Moreover, even if nonviolence isn’t always the answer, King reminds us to work for a world where it is. Part of that work is recognizing when our government can credibly endorse King’s example. Sparing the life of Dylann Roof would be such an instance — one more credible than the usual sanctimonious homilies delivered in his name. If the families of Roof's victims can find the grace of forgiveness within themselves; if the president can praise them for it; if the public can be awed by it — then why can't the Department of Justice act in the spirit of that grace and resist the impulse to kill?
Perhaps because some part of us believes in nonviolence not as an ideal worth striving for, but as a fairy tale passed on to the politically weak. The past two years have seen countless invocations of nonviolence to shame unruly protestors into order. Such invocations are rarely made to shame police officers who choke men to death over cigarettes and are sent back out onto the beat. And the same political officials will stand up next January and praise King even as they act contrary to his words. “Capital punishment is against the best judgment of modern criminology,” wrote King, “and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God.”
A few prior related posts:
- Should it be the state or feds (or both!?!) that capitally prosecute racist mass murderer Dylann Storm Roof?
- Thanks to death penalty, one of worst racist mass murderers gets one of best defense lawyers
- South Carolina prosecutors begin pursuit of death penalty again Charleston church mass murderer
- Attorney for Dylann Roof, Charleston church mass murderer, suggests plea to avoid death sentence
- Just why is DOJ still uncertain about seeking death penalty against Charleston mass murderer Dylann Roof?
- "Why Dylann Roof is a Terrorist Under Federal Law, and Why it Matters"
- Federal prosecutors (FINALLY!) decide to pursue death penalty for Charleston mass murderer Dylann Roof
Thursday, May 26, 2016
Making my way to DC for U.S. Chamber/NACDL Symposium: "The Enforcement Maze: Over-Criminalizing American Enterprise"
Highlighting the many ironies of modern travel, this morning I got to the airport extra early for a flight to DCA because of all the talk about TSA under-staffing and long security lines. But after breezing through securing in a matter of minutes, I am now stuck in the CMH terminal delayed hours awaiting a working plane to ferry me to our nation's capital to participate in a symposium on overcriminalization. I am bummed about the delay because I was looking forward to hearing the morning panels at this inside-the-Beltway event to which I am heading: The U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform (ILR) and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) Law & Policy Symposium on "The Enforcement Maze: Over-Criminalizing American Enterprise."
Undaunted, I remain upbeat because I am cautiously optimistic I will still make it to DC in time to hear fellow lawprof Lucian Dervan present a "TED Talk-inspired" presentation on "The Symbiotic Relationship Between Overcriminalization and Plea Bargaining." I am also looking forward to an afternoon of highlights at this event that include a luncheon keynote by David Ogden, former Deputy Attorney General of the United States, as well as closing remarks by Senator Orrin Hatch.
For those revved up by these topics, here is the description of my afternoon panel:
The Public Policy Consequences and the Road to Recovery: This panel will address the erosion of respect for criminal law, costs incurred by taxpayers, over-incarceration, and the squashing of business ingenuity and growth, and will explore solutions to these problems.
I expect to talk briefly about the importance of mens rea considerations at the sentencing of persons convicted of business-related crimes (and I may do a future post or two on this topic). But, in light of the panel's description, I would welcome reader comments on what I should make sure gets covered my someone on my panel.
Tuesday, May 24, 2016
Federal prosecutors (FINALLY!) decide to pursue death penalty for Charleston mass murderer Dylann Roof
Almost a year after Dylann Roof committed one of the worst mass murder hate crimes in modern US history, federal prosecutors have offically decided to make his federal prosecution a capital one. Here are excerpts from this CNN report about this (too-long-in-development) decision:
Federal prosecutors will seek the death penalty for Dylann Roof, who is accused of killing nine people at a historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina, in July 2015.
Roof, who is white, is charged with 33 federal offenses, including hate crime charges for allegedly targeting his victims on the basis of their race and religion. A judge entered a not guilty plea on his behalf in July 2015. "The nature of the alleged crime and the resulting harm compelled this decision," Attorney General Loretta Lynch said.
Roof, 22, is accused of shooting participants of a Bible study class at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, known as Mother Emanuel, in downtown Charleston on June 17, 2015. Among the victims was the church's pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who also was a state senator.
South Carolina has charged Roof with murder. Charleston County Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said last year that she will seek the death penalty in the state's case, which is scheduled to go to trial in January.
There is no date yet for his federal trial. Attempts to reach Roof's attorneys for comment were not immediately successful.
Roof, a high school dropout not known for violence, was captured in North Carolina the day after the shootings. He confessed in interviews with the Charleston police and FBI, two law enforcement officials told CNN. He also told investigators he wanted to start a race war, one of those officials said.
Three federal inmates have been executed in the United States since the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988 after a 16-year moratorium. They were Timothy McVeigh, Juan Raul Garza and Louis Jones. Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is one of the most recent people to be sentenced to death by a federal judge. There are about 60 people on federal death row.
I fully share the Attorney General's view that the "nature of the alleged crime and the resulting harm compelled this decision," and that is why I have been critical in prior posts about it taking so long to make this decision. A well-functioning criminal justice system surely ought to be able to prosecute and sentence a mass murderer in the span of a year in a case like this one in which there is no doubt about guilt. But, remarkably, it seems it now takes a year just to decide whether the death penalty should be even sought. Sigh.
A few prior related posts:
- Should it be the state or feds (or both!?!) that capitally prosecute racist mass murderer Dylann Storm Roof?
- Thanks to death penalty, one of worst racist mass murderers gets one of best defense lawyers
- South Carolina prosecutors begin pursuit of death penalty again Charleston church mass murderer
- Attorney for Dylann Roof, Charleston church mass murderer, suggests plea to avoid death sentence
- Just why is DOJ still uncertain about seeking death penalty against Charleston mass murderer Dylann Roof?
- "Why Dylann Roof is a Terrorist Under Federal Law, and Why it Matters"
Sunday, May 22, 2016
A bunch of timely and notable new Quick Facts from the US Sentencing Commission
The US Sentencing Commission has its pretty new website up and running, and my only knock on the site is that it is not easy anymore to see exacly what is new on the site. Fortunately, I somehow discovered that the Commission released two notable new Quick Facts covering federal drug sentencing and mandatory minimum sentences. (As the USSC explains, "Quick Facts" are publications that "give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format.")
In addition to these two new items, the Commission also released two other timely "Quick Facts" last month, and here are links to all four of these reader-friendly USSC products:
Mandatory Minimum Penalties (May 2016)
Drug Trafficking (May 2016)
Illegal Reentry (April 2016)
Alien Smuggling (April 2016)
May 22, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)
Saturday, May 21, 2016
"Trespass, Not Fraud: The Need for New Sentencing Guidelines in CFAA Cases"
The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Orin Kerr now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
This article argues that the existing regime for sentencing violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) is based on a conceptual error that often leads to improper sentencing recommendations. The Federal Sentencing Guidelines treat CFAA violations as economic crimes. Most CFAA crimes are rooted in trespass, however, not economic loss such as fraud crimes. The difference is significant. The economic crimes framework now in place leads guidelines calculations to focus too much on economic loss and not enough on the circumstances of the crime. The article concludes by sketching out a new and better way to calculate sentencing recommendations in CFAA cases.
Thursday, May 19, 2016
Notable sentencing elements in Oklahoma bill making any and all abortions a felony subject to mandatory imprisonment of at least one year
As reported in this new Washington Post piece, headlined "Oklahoma legislature passes bill making it a felony to perform abortions," legislators in the Sooner State have now sent to the Governor a piece of legislation designed to test the enduring constitutional viability of Roe v. Wade sooner rather than later. Here are the basics (with the sentencing portion that caught my eye highlighted):
Lawmakers in Oklahoma approved a bill Thursday that would make it a felony for anyone to perform an abortion and revoke the medical licenses of any physician who assists in such a procedure. This sweeping measure, which opponents have described as unconstitutional and unprecedented, was sent to Gov. Mary Fallin (R) for her signature.
Fallin has five days to decide whether to sign the bill, and her office did not immediately respond to a request Thursday about her plans. The Oklahoma bill is the first such measure of its kind, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights, which says that other states seeking to ban abortion have simply banned the procedure rather than attaching penalties like this.
According to the bill, anyone who performs or induces an abortion will be guilty of a felony and punished with between one and three years in the state penitentiary. The bill also says that any physician who participates in an abortion will be “prohibited from obtaining or renewing a license to practice medicine in this state.”
The bill passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives with a vote of 59-to-9 last month. On Thursday, the state’s senate passed it with a vote of 33-to-12. State Sen. Nathan Dahm, a Republican who represents Tulsa County, told the Associated Press he hopes the Oklahoma measure could eventually lead to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that recognized a woman’s right to an abortion.
The Oklahoma State Medical Association, which has called the measure “troubling,” said it would not take a position on the legality of abortion. However, the group said that it would “oppose legislation that is designed to intimidate physicians or override their medical judgment.”
Ever the sentencing nerd, I found it interesting and notable that Oklahoma would seek to outlaw abortion and make it a felony offense, but then attach to it a mandatory minimum prison sentence of only one year and a mandatory prison maximum of three years. After a little digging, I found the full text of the passed Oklahoma bill going to the Gov here, and I discovered these intriguing criminalization/sentencing terms used to apply only to a prohibition on abortions being performed by anyone other than a licensed physician. But the new bill, as shown below, deletes the language that allows licensed physicians to be excluded from this criminal prohibition:
SECTION 3. AMENDATORY 63 O.S. 2011, Section 1-731, is amended to read as follows:
Section 1-731. No person shall perform or induce an abortion upon a pregnant woman unless that person is a physician licensed to practice medicine in the State of Oklahoma. Any person violating this section shall be guilty of a felony punishable by imprisonment for not less than one (1) year nor more than three (3) years in the State Penitentiary.
Prior (arguably) related post:
- GOP frontrunner Donald Trump says "some form of punishment" would be needed for women who have abortions if procedure is made illegal
Two interesting intricate criminal justice rulings from SCOTUS (including a first-ever casebook cite in Betterman!)
The Supreme Court release three opinions this morning, two of which are criminal justice cases. Here are the most essential basics with links via How Appealing:
1. Justice Elena Kagan delivered the opinion of the Court in Luna Torres v. Lynch, No. 14-1096. Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Clarence Thomas and Stephen G. Breyer joined. You can access the oral argument via this link.
2. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court in Betterman v. Montana, No. 14-1457. Justice Thomas issued a concurring opinion, in which Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. joined. And Justice Sotomayor also issued a concurring opinion. You can access the oral argument via this link.
Statutory interpretation fans will be most interested in the ruling, but sentencing fans will be focused on the Betterman ruling. It gets started this way:
The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that “[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury . . . .” Does the Sixth Amendment’s speedy trial guarantee apply to the sentencing phase of a criminal prosecution? That is the sole question this case presents. We hold that the guarantee protects the accused from arrest or indictment through trial, but does not apply once a defendant has been found guilty at trial or has pleaded guilty to criminal charges. For inordinate delay in sentencing, although the Speedy Trial Clause does not govern, a defendant may have other recourse, including, in appropriate circumstances, tailored relief under the Due Process Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Petitioner Brandon Betterman, however, advanced in this Court only a Sixth Amendment speedy trial claim. He did not preserve a due process challenge. See Tr. of Oral Arg. 19. We, therefore, confine this opinion to his Sixth Amendment challenge.
Because I would like to see the Due Process Clause play bigger role in regulating sentencing matters, I am inclined to like the Betterman ruling. And, as the title of this post highlights, I definitely linked this passage from the majority opinion for an obvious personal reason:
[A] central feature of contemporary sentencing in both federal and state courts is preparation by the probation office, and review by the parties and the court, of a presentence investigation report. See 18 U. S. C. §3552; Fed. Rule Crim. Proc. 32(c)–(g); 6 W. LaFave, J. Israel, N. King, & O. Kerr, Criminal Procedure §26.5(b), pp. 1048–1049 (4th ed. 2015) (noting reliance on presentence reports in federal and state courts). This aspect of the system requires some amount of wholly reasonable presentencing delay.8 Indeed, many — if not most— disputes are resolved, not at the hearing itself, but rather through the presentence-report process. See N. Demleitner, D. Berman, M. Miller, & R. Wright, Sentencing Law and Policy 443 (3d ed. 2013) (“Criminal justice is far more commonly negotiated than adjudicated; defendants and their attorneys often need to be more concerned about the charging and plea bargaining practices of prosecutors and the presentence investigations of probation offices than . . . about the sentencing procedures of judges or juries.”); cf. Bierschbach & Bibas, Notice-and-Comment Sentencing, 97 Minn. L. Rev. 1, 15 (2012) (“[T]oday’s sentencing hearings . . . rubber-stamp plea-bargained sentences.”).
Tuesday, May 17, 2016
"How to solve the biggest issue holding up criminal justice reform: Republicans and Democrats can't agree on 'mens rea' reform. Here's a middle ground."
The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Politico commentary authored by Professor Alex Sarch. Here are excerpts:
Despite gridlock and the distraction of a presidential election, Congress hoped to pass legislation this year that would overhaul our flawed criminal justice system. But with the election approaching, that hope is rapidly disappearing over disagreements on one controversial issue: “mens rea reform.”
“Mens rea” — Latin for “guilty mind” — refers to requirements in criminal law that concern a defendant’s mental state, like the intent to cause harm or knowledge of what one was doing. Republicans have demanded that criminal justice reform also make such requirements in federal law stricter, forcing prosecutors in many cases to prove that defendants knew they were breaking the law. Democrats have balked at the proposed reforms, arguing that they would make it much harder to prosecute corporate executives for white-collar crimes.
Both sides have a point. Mens rea reform can increase clarity in the law and make unfair prosecutions less likely. But the Republican proposals, in both the House and Senate, are so strict that they would insulate many highly culpable actors from conviction. Instead of allowing the mens rea issue to derail criminal justice reform, lawmakers should agree on a middle ground that imposes a simple default mens rea requirement — knowledge of the facts constituting the offense. Such an agreement would improve our criminal law and pave the way for comprehensive criminal justice reform....
Late last year, Republicans introduced bills in the House and Senate to reform the mens rea requirements in federal law. But both bills have significant flaws that may actually create more confusion and protect culpable actors. Since courts already presume that criminal statutes include a mens rea requirement, an ill-conceived mens rea policy would be worse than the status quo.
The Senate bill would make it too hard to convict culpable actors because it says that for crimes without an explicit mens rea requirement, prosecutors must prove willfulness — defined as “knowledge that the person’s conduct was unlawful.” This standard has scary implications.... [W]hy should we immunize the bank executive who knew full well he was issuing misleading public statements, but who just happened to be unsure whether his actions were criminal (perhaps because he didn’t make time to research it)? For this reason, Department of Justice officials and other policy groups have criticized the proposed mens rea reform bills for making it harder to prosecute corporate crime.
The Senate bill does include an important exception for statutes to which Congress affirmatively intended no mental state requirement to apply. Moreover, the bill would not change any mental state elements established by Supreme Court precedent (though notably not precedent from Federal Courts of Appeals). However, these provisions do not make up for the bill’s dangerous new willfulness standard.
The House bill has been criticized as confusing, but it is a less extreme proposal than the Senate bill. It generally requires only knowledge of the facts constituting the offense as the default mental state requirement. In addition, when it comes to crimes that a reasonable person would not know to be illegal — largely crimes in technical areas like securities, tax or environmental law — the government would also have to prove that “the defendant knew, or had reason to believe, the conduct was unlawful.” In other words, it would have to show that they 1) knew the facts constituting the offense and 2) should have known their conduct was illegal. This means that mere negligence as to illegality would suffice for these crimes.
So for a bank executive accused of accounting fraud, for example, the government would only have to show that she 1) knew what she was doing (i.e., making false statements) and 2) should have known — based on her experience and professional role — that her actions were illegal.... However, the House bill has two problems. First, unlike the Senate bill, it does not make exceptions for statutes that courts have already interpreted to include a mens rea element or for statutes that Congress clearly intended to have no mental state requirement. Second, the bill makes it easier for culpable actors to escape liability by claiming ignorance of the law. Those accused of a technical crime could avoid punishment by claiming they didn’t realize their actions were illegal and that it wasn’t their responsibility to find out.
However, these problems can easily be fixed: Congress should add exceptions to the House bill and adopt regular knowledge as the default mens rea. Effectively, this deletes the second requirement from the House bill. In other words, for technical crimes, the government would not have to prove a defendant should have known his conduct was illegal, just that it was illegal and that the defendant knew the circumstances of the action. This knowledge standard would not make ignorance of the law any kind of excuse. Such a modest proposal should be an acceptable compromise, as it is only a small departure from the House bill. Republicans are right that the lack of clear mental state requirements in federal statutes lets courts interpret the law in uneven and unpredictable ways. But their proposed reforms would make it too hard to convict culpable actors. Instead, lawmakers should agree on a simple default mens rea — like the House bill’s basic requirement of knowledge of the facts. Such changes would provide clarity for courts and break the political logjam blocking criminal justice reform.
Though I appreciate this effort to find a mens rea middle ground that might help create more consensus on criminal justice reforms in Congress, I continue to feel strongly that those who oppose the incorporation of a high mens rea requirement in federal criminal laws to be misguided. Put simply, I really do not see any "scary implications" of having a high mens rea requirement for federal criminal offenses given that our massive regulatory state already has no shortage of civil laws (with significant penalties) that do not require showing mens rea.
Monday, May 09, 2016
Former federal drug warriors assail sentencing reform efforts because "drug dealing is a violent crime"
William J. Bennett, the director of drug control policy for President George H. W. Bush, and John P. Walters, the director of drug control policy for President George W. Bush, have this notable new Washington Examiner op-ed headlined "Drug dealing is a violent crime." Here are excerpts:
The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act now before Congress is based on a lie — that drug dealing is not a violent crime. Americans have been told this lie for years even as we witness the violence and death caused by drug dealers in our communities. Now, this lie is propelling legislation through Congress that will destroy more lives.
As former directors of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, we carry a particular responsibility to speak up when so many who should know better claim that drug trafficking has been treated too harshly under federal law.
Claims by President Obama and others that federal prisons are filled with "nonviolent drug offenders" and that drug dealing is a "victimless crime" are grotesquely dishonest. How can the drug trade be victimless when most Americans know a victim? How can it be non-violent when we witness the carnage every night on the local news?...
In the federal prison system, 99.5 percent of those incarcerated for drug convictions are guilty of serious trafficking offenses. And according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics study of state drug inmates, 77 percent reoffend within five years of release, with 25 percent committing violent offenses. Most of these convicted drug dealers are career criminals with long rap sheets. By softening punishments for these traffickers, as this legislation does, Congress would give convicted dealers shorter sentences and early release causing destruction to communities across America. Moreover, this push to release experienced traffickers is occurring at the same time our nation is enduring a 440-percent increase over the past seven years in heroin overdose deaths.
Drug dealing is inseparable from violent victimization. Illegal drugs kill tens of thousands each year in overdose deaths. More die in violent acts and accidents under the influence of drugs. Still more die slowly of blood-borne diseases contracted through injection drug use and through high-risk behavior while under the influence of drugs, including prostitution to support addiction. Street-level dealers look into the eyes of these victims daily as they take addicts' money and foster their self-destruction. Traffickers at levels above the street know this reality and take their wealth from it, spreading death across neighborhoods and across the globe....
Considering all that America knows about drug addiction, only the dishonest or willfully blind can claim that drug trafficking is a non-violent crime. Drug dealing depends on addiction; addicts consume the vast majority of the drug supply; the dealer cultivates users to create more addicts in a murderous cycle.
Drug dealers know drugs will eventually impair judgment and bend free will, altering personality and poisoning bonds to loved ones. We know drug use and addiction degrade millions of lives — impairing education, employment and parenthood. Drugs are at the root of much of the child abuse, endangerment and domestic violence perpetrated against the innocent.
But the destruction is much wider. Addiction and drug dealing ravage whole communities, urban and rural. We need look no further than the daily reports of the heroin epidemic today, or the still-vivid memories of the meth epidemic and the crack epidemic. Drug dealing makes whole neighborhoods war zones, places of economic blight and large-scale victimization. There is no greater single source of actual harm to Americans today — none. The cost of incarcerating drug dealers is small compared to the true cost of their crimes to society.
Knowing this, it is an utterly irresponsible effort to release experienced drug dealers from federal prison before they have completed their just sentences, arguing they are merely misguided business people or desperate individuals caught up in an unfair system. The truth about drug dealing is this: It requires cruelty and willful indifference to the visible suffering inflicted on others — over and over again — harming individuals, families and whole communities.
Wednesday, May 04, 2016
"Should His PTSD Keep Him From Death Row?"
The question in the title of this post is from the second part of the headline of this Mother Jones article. The first part of the headline explains "An Ex-Marine Killed Two People in Cold Blood," and here is how the piece starts:
At 12:44 p.m. on March 6, 2009, John Thuesen called 911. "120 Walcourt Loop," he told the dispatcher, breathing hard. "Gunshot victims." The dispatcher in College Station, Texas, asked what had happened. "I got mad at my girlfriend and I shot her," he said. "She has sucking chest wounds…"
He'd not only shot Rachel Joiner, 21, but also her older brother Travis. Thuesen had broken into the house after midnight, not sure what he'd do but wanting to see his estranged girlfriend. She was out with her ex-boyfriend, but when she returned later that morning, things "got out of hand." Thuesen, a 25-year-old former Marine reservist, called 911 and almost immediately expressed remorse. When he was arrested, he repeatedly asked the police about the victims and tried to explain why he'd kept shooting Rachel and her brother: "I felt like I was in like a mode…like training or a game or something."
The prosecution in the case gave its opening statement on May 10, 2010. With DNA evidence and no other suspects, it only took prosecutors three days to make their case. Over the next week, the defense team touched on the facts that Thuesen suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his service in Iraq, but pleaded for leniency in his sentence. None of that swayed the jury: On May 28, 2010, he was sentenced to death.
While on death row, Thuesen was given new lawyers, death penalty experts from the state's Office of Capital and Forensic Writs. In Texas, there are often two trials, one to determine guilt or innocence and the second to determine sentencing. Lawyers argued in their 2012 petition to have both the death penalty and the conviction vacated, and for a new sentencing trial, arguing that if his lawyers had served him adequately, "John Thuesen would not be on death row today, awaiting an execution date." In July 2015, Judge Travis Bryan III — the same judge who had presided over the criminal trial — agreed, and ruled that Thuesen's lawyers hadn't adequately explained the significance of his PTSD to jurors, and how it had factored into his actions on the day of the murders. Bryan also ruled that Thuesen's PTSD wasn't properly treated by the Veterans Health Administration. He recommended that Thuesen be granted a new punishment-phase trial. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals could rule on Bryan's recommendation at any time.
The ruling on his case has implications for a question that has concerned the military, veterans' groups, and death penalty experts: Should service-related PTSD exclude veterans from the death penalty? An answer to this question could affect some of the estimated 300 veterans who now sit on death rows across the country, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. But it's unclear how many of them suffer from PTSD or traumatic brain injuries, given how uneven the screening for these disorders has been.
Experts are divided about whether veterans with PTSD who commit capital crimes deserve what is known as a "categorical exemption" or "exclusion." Juveniles receive such treatment, as do those with mental disabilities. In 2009, Anthony Giardino, a lawyer and Iraq War veteran, argued in favor of this in the Fordham Law Review, writing that courts "should consider the more fundamental question of whether the government should be in the business of putting to death the volunteers they have trained, sent to war, and broken in the process" who likely would not be in that position "but for their military service." In a 2015 Veterans Day USA Today op-ed, three retired military officials argued that in criminal cases, defense attorneys, prosecutors, and judges often don't consider veterans' PTSD with proper due diligence. "Veterans with PTSD…deserve a complete investigation and presentation of their mental state by the best experts in the field," they wrote.
That idea is utterly unacceptable to Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a California-based victims-of-crime advocacy group, who contends a process already exists for veterans' defense attorneys to present mitigating evidence. To him, a categorical exclusion would be an "extreme step" that would mean "one factor — always, in every case — necessarily outweighs the aggravating factors of the case, no matter how cold, premeditated, sadistic, or just plain evil the defendant's actions may have been."
May 4, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)
Tuesday, May 03, 2016
Former New York Assembly speaker gets lengthy (way-below guideline) federal sentence for corruption
This Wall Street Journal article reports on today's notable sentencing of a notable crooked New York politician under the headline "Sheldon Silver Sentenced to 12 Years: The former New York state Assembly Speaker also was ordered to pay a $1.75 million fine." Here are the details on this sentencing (and related others to come):
Sheldon Silver was sentenced to 12 years in prison on Tuesday, making the former New York Assembly speaker one of the most powerful politicians in the state to be given time behind bars. U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni, who also ordered Mr. Silver to pay a fine of $1.75 million and forfeit about $5.3 million he reaped from the criminal schemes of which he was convicted, said she hoped the punishment would serve as a deterrent.
“I hope the sentence I impose on you will make other politicians think twice, until their better angels take over,” said Judge Caproni. “Or, if there are no better angels, perhaps the fear of living out ones golden years in an orange jumpsuit will keep them on the straight and narrow.”
In a brief statement before the sentence was announced, Mr. Silver, 72 years old, said he had let down his family, colleagues and constituents. “I’m truly, truly sorry for that,” said Mr. Silver, who was found guilty in November of honest-services fraud, extortion, and money laundering.
Prosecutors had asked Judge Caproni for a sentence greater than any previously imposed on a New York legislator convicted of public corruption, a term that court filings suggest was 14 years. Federal sentencing guidelines suggested a range from about 22 to 27 years. Judge Caproni said Tuesday that imposing such a sentence in this case would be “draconian and unjust” given Mr. Silver’s age.
Prosecutors said Mr. Silver used his public position and power to obtain millions of dollars in kickbacks and bribes. Mr. Silver’s schemes were “multifaceted and nefarious,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Carrie Cohen said before the sentence was announced Tuesday. Ms. Cohen said Mr. Silver needed a significant prison term that reflects the public toll of his crimes and the need to deter similar conduct in Albany. “His conviction caused unparalleled damage: to our political systems, to the public’s belief in our state government,” she said.
Attorneys for Mr. Silver questioned the benefit of sending him to prison, and described their client as a committed public servant who already had suffered an extraordinary fall from grace. “He is already crushed,” attorney Joel Cohen said Tuesday. “He’s been devastated by everything that occurred over the last year and a half.”...
The conviction of Mr. Silver, a Manhattan Democrat who served as speaker for more than two decades, was a significant victory for Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who has aggressively pursued public-corruption cases. “His crimes struck at the core of democratic governance — a man with unparalleled power over the affairs of New York State was secretly on the take, abusing all that power to enrich himself and prevent anyone from learning about his corrupt schemes,” prosecutors from Mr. Bharara’s office wrote in sentencing documents. “Today’s stiff sentence is a just and fitting end to Sheldon Silver’s long career of corruption,” Mr. Bharara said in a statement.
Two of Mr. Silver’s former Albany colleagues are expected to be sentenced later this month. Former state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, who in December was found guilty of public-corruption charges including conspiracy, bribery and extortion, is scheduled to be sentenced on May 12. Former state Sen. John Sampson, who was found guilty in July of obstruction of justice and making false statements to investigators, is scheduled to be sentenced in Brooklyn federal court on May 19.
Prior related post:
Monday, May 02, 2016
At SCOTUS, "age-old principes of conspiracy law" produces brand new division of Justices
More than six months after oral argument, the Supreme Court this morning finally released its opinion in Ocasio v. United States, No. 14-361 (S. Ct. May 2, 2016) (available here), which concerns the application of a federal conspiracy law surrounding extortion. Justice Alito wrote the opinion for the Court, and here is how it gets started:
Petitioner Samuel Ocasio, a former officer in the Baltimore Police Department, participated in a kickback scheme with the owners of a local auto repair shop. When petitioner and other Baltimore officers reported to the scene of an auto accident, they persuaded the owners of damaged cars to have their vehicles towed to the repair shop, and in exchange for this service the officers received payments from the shopowners. Petitioner was convicted of obtaining money from the shopowners under color of official right, in violation of the Hobbs Act, 18 U. S. C. §1951, and of conspiring to violate the Hobbs Act, in violation of 18 U. S. C. §371. He now challenges his conspiracy conviction, contending that, as a matter of law, he cannot be convicted of conspiring with the shopowners to obtain money from them under color of official right. We reject this argument because it is contrary to age-old principles of conspiracy law.
Few should be surprised that Justice Alito in Ocasio was not moved by a criminal defendant's effort to make more challenging pursuit of a conspiracy charge (a type of crime Judge Learned Hand famously describes as the "darling of the modern prosecutor's nursery"). But I was certainly surprised with how the votes of the other seven Justices broke down:
ALITO, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which KENNEDY, GINSBURG, BREYER, and KAGAN, JJ., joined. BREYER, J., filed a concurring opinion. THOMAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion. SOTOMAYOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which ROBERTS, C. J., joined.
Because I do not spend all that much time thinking about either extortion or conspiracy, I doubt I will have much more to say about Ocasio. But I would be grateful to hear from readers in the comments as to whether they think this opinion was worth the wait and/or whether the unusual divides of the Justices has a possible significance beyond this one case.
Reviewing the type of federal drug case that the SRCA should most impact
This lengthy new NBC news piece, headlined "As Drug Sentencing Debate Rages, 'Ridiculous' Sentences Persist," focuses on one notable federal drug defendant subject to a notable federal drug mandatory minimum that could be impacted by federal statutory sentencing reform. Here are excerpts:
When he was an addict and petty criminal, Leo Guthmiller knew little, and cared less, about the federal government's harsh drug sentencing laws. The worst he'd endured was 90 days at the county lockup in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Then, last April, nearly two years after he'd stopped popping painkillers and smoking methamphetamine, Guthmiller was arrested by two federal agents as he headed for a drug counseling session. He later learned why: a junkie and his girlfriend, facing stiff prison sentences, had told investigators that Guthmiller had introduced them to his meth dealer around the time he was getting sober. That made him the middleman in a street-level drug distribution scheme.
Because this was a federal case, and the amount of meth exceeded 500 grams, or 1.1 pounds, Guthmiller was suddenly facing at least 10 years behind bars as a co-conspirator.... The charge thrust him, unwittingly, into a raging debate over a pillar of America's war on drugs: mandatory-minimum sentences. Intended to sideline high-level traffickers, the laws have been used to sweep thousands of nonviolent, small-time offenders into epic prison terms....
Guthmiller didn't dispute the couple's accusation. But he bristled at the government's portrayal of him as a scheming operative. Besides, he was a changed man: sober, working, studying for his GED, leading AA meetings, completing a drug court program, newly married. Still, he pleaded guilty, unwilling to risk a trial that could end in an even longer prison term. "I'm not an innocent person, but at the same time this is all a bit much, I feel," Guthmiller told NBC News.
At his sentencing in mid-February, U.S. District Court Judge John Gerrard agreed. He praised Guthmiller's turnaround, but said federal drug statutes gave him no choice. He called the case "Exhibit A" on why Congress needed to pass The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which would give judges more flexibility. "A 10-year mandatory minimum sentence in a case like this is absolutely ridiculous," Gerrard said from the bench. "And the only reason I am imposing the sentence that I am imposing today is because I have to."...
The judge's remarks caught the attention of the Washington, D.C., advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums. As he prepared to spend the next decade behind bars, Guthmiller found himself cast as a case study in America's unforgiving drug laws. "The whole idea is these 10-year sentences were written by Congress to go after serious drug offenders, and they're being applied to a guy who is home and is going to drive himself to prison," said Kevin Ring, the group's vice president. "He obviously isn't this major criminal that everyone should be so scared of."
This is a key point in the drug-law reform effort, which has inspired an unlikely alliance among Democrats and Republicans, many of whom gathered at the White House last week to discuss their campaign. Mandatory minimum sentences, toughened during 1980s crime panics, established criteria under which judges had to impose lengthy prison terms for drug trafficking. The penalties depended on the type of drug, the amount of it, the offender's criminal history and the nature of the crime — including whether the offense involved violence, weapons or children. The new laws triggered an explosion in the U.S. prison population, contributing to a dramatic decline in crime rates but also costing taxpayers millions.
That cost-benefit balance has since tipped. Researchers now say that mass incarceration's impact on the crime rate has ebbed. Studies show that the likelihood of punishment, rather than the length of a prison sentence, is more likely to deter criminals. And there are now millions of nonviolent ex-offenders — a disproportionate number of whom are black — unable to contribute to the economy, including many who return to crime. Reformers argue that the money America spends on prisons would be better used for cops, schools and alternatives to jail, such as probation and drug courts.
In a 2011 report to Congress, the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that mandatory minimums focused too heavily on the amount of drugs and not enough on the offender's role in the trafficking operation. The commission has since loosened some of its guidelines retroactively, allowing thousands of nonviolent, low-level drug offenders to leave prison early. President Barack Obama joined the effort by granting clemency to many others.
Those moves are considered Band-Aids compared to the larger fix offered by the Sentencing Reform Act, legislation that would allow judges to impose shorter prison terms for bit players. But the bipartisan bill is bogged down by election-year politics. The Justice Department, meanwhile, has tried to change the system from within, ordering federal prosecutors to focus on high-level dealers. It appears to be working: the number of mandatory-minimum cases has dropped to 45 percent of all federal drug cases, down from 66.8 percent in 2007.
John Higgins, chief of the narcotics unit at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Nebraska, said in a statement that his prosecutors followed the Justice Department's advice, seeking mandatory minimums "only in those cases that warrant it." That included Guthmiller's, he said. He declined to go into detail, but pointed to court hearings in which prosecutors alleged that Guthmiller's 2013 matchmaking between the dealer and the couple led to the sale of 15-pounds of meth. "Methamphetamine is the number one drug threat in Nebraska," Higgins said.
Another prominent elderly corrupt politician presenting dynamic federal sentencing issues
This lengthy Wall Street Journal article, headlined "Sheldon Silver Set to Be Sentenced: Judge has wide leeway as prosecution asks for long prison term, and defense seeks leniency for the former Assembly speaker," reports on issues surrounding a high-profile politician's federal sentencing scheduled for tomorrow in New York. Here are excerpts:
A federal judge is expected to decide Tuesday whether former New York state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver deserves a long prison sentence for years of corruption, or leniency because he is ill and says he is sorry.
Leading up to the decision, lawyers for Mr. Silver have filed letters of support from ex-colleagues, constituents, family members and even a former employee at a Chinese restaurant he frequented. “I know that Sheldon Silver has been convicted, but please consider his kind personality and his support to the community,” wrote Fei Chen, who was a cook at Nom Wah Tea Parlor in Manhattan’s Chinatown.
The endorsement is part of a trove of materials from both the prosecution and defense that reflect the range of factors judges are supposed to consider in public-corruption cases and the latitude they have in deciding on punishment. Judges in cases like Mr. Silver’s grapple with how to account for breaking the public trust, and to what extent a sentence should serve as a deterrent to future crime.
Mr. Silver, a Manhattan Democrat who served as Assembly speaker for more than two decades, was convicted of honest-services fraud, extortion and money laundering. Prosecutors said Mr. Silver, 72 years old, netted about $4 million in kickbacks from schemes involving a real-estate company and an oncologist. Attorneys for Mr. Silver have said they would appeal.
Prosecutors have asked U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni for a prison sentence greater than any previously imposed on legislators convicted of public corruption in the state. Court filings suggest the longest sentence for such an official was 14 years. “Silver exploited the vast political power entrusted in him by the public to serve himself,” prosecutors wrote.
Defense lawyers have asked for leniency, suggesting “rigorous community service.” The former legislator also wrote an apology letter to the judge. “I failed the people of New York,” Mr. Silver’s letter said.
U.S. law says judges should decide sentences based not only on the offense, but also the defendant’s “history and characteristics.” Also relevant, the law says, are deterrence, public protection and the needs of the defendant, including medical care. In court filings, Mr. Silver’s lawyers have highlighted his prostate cancer, bile-duct obstruction and knee problems.
For judges, sentencing in public-corruption cases presents a particular quandary: While the convicted official usually isn’t considered a threat to public safety, or capable of committing the same crimes in the future, the government has an incentive to punish such officials harshly to deter others from similar offenses.
“The difficulty you have in high-profile cases is that there is a philosophical argument that general deterrence sometimes trumps all other factors,” said Benjamin Brafman, a defense attorney not connected to the Silver case who represented Carl Kruger, a former state senator who was convicted on public-corruption charges and sentenced to seven years.
In the case of Mr. Silver, Judge Caproni can also consider prosecutors’ evidence that Mr. Silver used his position to help two women with whom he had extramarital affairs because, like the letters, it speaks to his character. In legal filings, attorneys for Mr. Silver said the allegations were unproven.
In recent years, public-corruption cases have garnered more attention, particularly because prosecutors have become increasingly vocal when bringing charges, said Deborah Gramiccioni, executive director of NYU’s Center on the Administration of Criminal Law. “The public’s indignation perhaps seems more pronounced,” said Ms. Gramiccioni, a former federal prosecutor who worked on public-corruption cases. But such indignation doesn’t necessarily influence judges’ decisions, she said....
Data show that New York judges often diverge from the federal guidelines when awarding prison sentences. Of 3,301 cases sentenced in federal court in New York in fiscal 2015, judges awarded sentences within the guideline range in 29.5% of cases, compared with 47.3% nationwide, according to federal statistics. Of 544 fraud cases in New York, 28.5% of sentences fell within the guidelines. Just five people received sentences above the guideline range.
In Mr. Silver’s case, sentencing guidelines suggest a range from about 22 to 27 years. In sentencing filings, both prosecution and defense attorneys cite many of the same public-corruption cases, including that of Mr. Kruger, the former state senator. Attorneys for Mr. Silver note that Mr. Kruger was sentenced to well below the federal recommendations. But prosecutors note that Mr. Kruger pleaded guilty, which they view as a crucial difference. “Unlike Kruger, here Sheldon Silver has accepted no responsibility and shown no remorse for his crimes,” they said.
Thursday, April 28, 2016
"A Legal Definition of Leadership: Understanding Section 3B1.1 of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines"
The title of this post is the title of this new paper now available via SSRN authored by Marin Roger Scordato. Here is the abstract:
This Article offers a formal legal definition of “leadership” drawn from an unusual quarter: criminal sentencing. Sentencing guidelines that include adjustments based on the extent to which a defendant was a “leader” have spawned hundreds of appellate court cases attempting to develop a thoughtful, workable definition of the term. Reviewing these cases, this Article offers 25 separate characteristics courts have found material to a legal judgment as to whether an individual has been a leader within a criminal enterprise.
Eleven of these characteristics can be organized into three categories, which operate on the boundaries of the leadership concept. The first category contains those circumstances courts have found do not, by themselves, confer leadership status. For example, courts have found that controlling property alone does not make one a leader. The second category of leadership characteristics are those circumstances that are not, in themselves, sufficient to show a defendant is not a leader. For example, there may be more than one leader in a group, so the identification of one or more other leaders in a group does not preclude the possibility of characterizing a defendant as a leader as well. A third category of leadership focuses on the external group functions of leadership, the ways in which a leader monitors and mediates the points of contact between the group as a separate entity and important elements outside the group.
The remaining 14 characteristics comprise a fourth category that resides at the center of what courts find establishes leadership status. To courts, the gravamen of leadership is the control, organization, and responsibility for other group members. Examples of characteristics in this category are that a leader inspires members to make sacrifices for the group, possesses decision-making authority within the group, carries ultimate responsibility for the group’s success, and resolves disputes within the group.
This Article concludes by noting this formal legal definition of leadership, given its basis in criminal sentencing, has generated a set of leadership characteristics all of which appear to enjoy the possibility of general applicability to a broad range of factual contexts including standard business settings, but still notes how very far the formal legal definition of leadership is from conventional definitions grounded explicitly in a moral, value-laden context.
Wednesday, April 27, 2016
Reviewing the final SCOTUS oral argument week that was full of criminal justice issues
As noted in this post last week, three of the final five cases that the Justice were scheduled to hear during this last week of the Term's oral arguments involved criminal justice issue. The highest-profile and perhaps most consequential of these cases was argued today concerning the public corruption verdict against former Virginia Gov Bob McDonnell. Thanks to the always great folks at SCOTUSblog, I can link here to two posts about the McDonnell and to single post on the two other cases heard yesterday:
Former House speaker gets black hole of federal prison for 15 months after sentencing supernova
In this post yesterday, I explained why I called today's sentencing of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert a sentencing supernova. Today, this ABC News piece reports on the sentencing events and outcome in federal court this morning:
Former Speaker of the House John Dennis Hastert was sentenced today in federal court to 15 months in prison and two years of supervised release after he faced one of his accusers, who identified himself publicly for the first time as Scott Cross, a former Yorkville High School wrestling student.
Cross, who was until now identified in court documents only as “Individual D,” took the stand and introduced himself as a father, husband and businessman. Cross described his abuse by Hastert as “his darkest secret as he [Hastert] became more powerful.”
Hastert has also been required to comply with a sex offender treatment program. The sentence follows an almost year-long hush money case hinging on payments Hastert made to a student he allegedly sexually abused while acting as a wrestling coach at Yorkville High School in Illinois.
Cross said Hastert had "offered massages" to him in order to help him lose weight. He went on to describe a one-time incident when he was 17, saying Hastert "grabbed my penis and began to rub me. Stunned, I pulled up my shorts and ran out of the locker room.” Cross said he decided to testify after Hastert and his defense team reached out to his brother, Illinois politician Tom Cross, for a letter of support. Tom Cross served in the Illinois House of Representatives for 22 years. Scott Cross was on the varsity wrestling team at Yorkville High School when Hastert was a coach in the 1970s.
Using a walker, Hastert approached the judge. “I am deeply ashamed to be standing here today,” he said. “I know I am here because I mistreated some of my athletes that I coached. ... I want to apologize to the boys I mistreated. I was wrong and I accept that.” Judge Durkin referred to Hastert as a "serial child molester" while delivering the sentence.
The man formerly second in line for the presidency was wheeled into court this morning by attendants. In a January court filing, Hastert’s lawyers revealed that the former speaker’s health had rapidly declined following a stroke and a blood infection, and that he now needed “assistance for most daily activities.” Hastert technically faced a maximum penalty of five years.
Dozens of Hastert’s supporters have written letters to the judge asking for mercy, including former Republican Congressional leader Tom Delay, who called Hastert “a man of integrity. He loves and respects his fellow man.” CIA Director Porter Goss called Hastert “a rock solid guy with center-of-the country values.”
Hastert pleaded guilty in October to violating bank laws in connection with paying out hush money over the years allegedly to one of his victims, and in April his defense team made a filing publicly acknowledging the “harm” he caused to “others” for “misconduct that occurred decades ago.”
Tuesday, April 26, 2016
You be the judge for "sentencing supernova": what punishment for former House speaker Dennis Hastert for structuring (and sex) offenses?
I have decided to call tomorrow's scheduled sentencing for former House speaker J. Dennis Hastert a "sentencing supernova." As science geeks know, and as this Wikipedia entry explains, a supernova is "an astronomical event that occurs during the last stellar evolutionary stages of a massive star's life, whose dramatic and catastrophic destruction is marked by one final titanic explosion." I consider any former speaker of the House to be a "massive star" and I look at his coming sentencing as the culmination of a "dramatic and catastrophic destruction" as it was slowly unearthed by federal authorities that he was committing federal banking offenses in order to pay hush money to one (of now it appears many) of Hastert's long-ago sex abuse victims.
I also am thinking of Hastert's sentencing in "supernova" terms because there are so many dynamic and debatable sentencing issues swirling around his case. This recent Chicago Tribune article, headlined "More than 40 letters in support of Hastert made public before sentencing," reviews just some of the sentencing issues in play (with my emphasis added):
More than 40 letters in support of former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert — including one from his former congressional colleague Tom DeLay — were made public Friday evening in advance of his sentencing next week on hush money charges.
"We all have our flaws, but Dennis Hastert has very few," wrote DeLay, the Texas Republican who served as majority leader under Hastert in the early 2000s. "He doesn't deserve what he is going through. I ask that you consider the man that is before you and give him leniency where you can."...
Also included were letters from Hastert's wife, Jean, and sons Joshua and Ethan, who wrote of his devotion to his family and his good deeds as a coach, teacher and later as a politician. They also wrote of concerns over his failing health — Hastert's lawyers have said he suffered a stroke and near-fatal blood infection last year that left him hospitalized for weeks. "This has taken a terrible toll on our family," his wife wrote. "I am particularly worried that if he is taken from his home and the care he needs, his health will continue to deteriorate."
Hastert, 74, faces probation to up to five years in prison when he is sentenced Wednesday, although his plea agreement with prosecutors calls for a sentence of no more than six months behind bars. He pleaded guilty in October to one count of illegally structuring bank withdrawals to avoid reporting requirements, admitting in a plea agreement that he'd paid $1.7 million in cash to a person identified only as Individual A to cover up unspecified misconduct from decades earlier.
In a bombshell sentencing memorandum filed earlier this month, prosecutors alleged Hastert had sexually abused at least four wrestlers as well as a former team equipment manager when he was coach at Yorkville [more than 35 year ago]. The abuse allegedly occurred in hotel rooms during team trips and in almost-empty locker rooms, often after Hastert coaxed the teens into a compromising position by offering to massage them, prosecutors said. The filing also alleged that Hastert set up a recliner chair outside the locker room showers in order to sit and watch the boys....
When he was confronted by FBI agents about the unusual bank withdrawals in December 2014, Hastert lied and said he was just keeping his money safe because he didn't trust security at the banks, according to prosecutors. Later, he accused Individual A of extorting him by making false accusations of sexual abuse and even agreed to record phone conversations for the FBI — a gambit that fell apart when agents realized it was Hastert who was lying, according to prosecutors.
I have highlighted above the notable fact, thanks to a shrewd plea deal in this case, Hastert's punishment is statutorily limited to a prison sentencing range of zero to five years and that prosecutors are bound to recommend a sentence of no more than six months imprisonment. Prosecutors cut this deal, I suspect, because they realize that Hastert's old age and poor health and recent history of public service would make unlikely that a judge would sentence him to a very lengthy prison term.
That all said, it appears nearly undisputable that Hastert did sexually abuse numerous boys while serving as a wrestling coach decades ago and essentially got away with these crimes. (It is my understanding that the statute of limitations has passed so that he could not now be prosecuted for them.) His more recent bank/money structuring crimes are, of course, connected to these long-ago terrible crimes and Hastert also actively lied to public officials in a manner that could also have readily brought separate serious criminal charge for obstruction of justice.
Based on all these facts, I could make reasonabe arguments for sentences ranging from probation to five years, and I also could imagine lots of arguments for creative alternative sentencing terms instead of (or in addition to) a prison stint. For example, I believe some members of the community have urged the judge to require Hastert to make significant payment to groups that work with sexually abused boys. And perhaps one could strain to read federal law to argue that all of those abused by Hastert long ago are still technically victims of his more recent offenses and thus should be able to obtain some kind of restitution through his sentencing. (This would seem to be stretch, but there are reports that some other "victims" are planning to testify at Hastert's sentencing.)
So I sincerely wonder, dear readers, what supernova sentence you think should be impose in this case?
April 26, 2016 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (37)
Monday, April 25, 2016
Notable dissent from Eighth Circuit panel ruling affirming re-imposed stat-max 10-year sentence for possessing unregistered sawed-off shotgun
A helpful reader alerted me to an intriguing ruling by a split Eighth Circuit panel today in US v. Webster, No. 15-3020 (8th Cir. April 25, 2016) (available here). Here is the key substantive paragraph from the majority per curiam ruling in Webster:
Webster’s challenge to the substantive reasonableness of his sentence is reviewed under a deferential abuse-of-discretion standard. See United States v. Feemster, 572 F.3d 455, 461 (8th Cir. 2009) (en banc). As Webster notes, the district court imposed the same sentence on remand as Webster received in the first sentencing, and this court identified in the first appeal several mitigating sentencing factors that indicated a reasonable probability Webster would have received a shorter sentence but for the sentencing error. See Webster, 788 F.3d at 893. However, the fact that this court “‘might reasonably have concluded that a different sentence was appropriate is insufficient to justify reversal of the district court.’” Feemster, 572 F.3d at 462 (quoting Gall v. United States, 552 U.S. 38, 51 (2007)). While “substantive review exists, in substantial part, to correct sentences that are based on unreasonable weighing decisions,” United States v. Kane, 639 F.3d 1121, 1136 (8th Cir. 2011) (quotation omitted), this court “must give due deference to the district court’s decision that the § 3553(a) factors, on a whole, justify the extent of the variance.” Feemster, 572 F.3d at 461-62 (quoting Gall, 552 U.S. at 51). In reimposing the 120-month sentence, the district court commented in part that the Guidelines did not adequately take into account the seriousness of the offense: Webster had discharged the subject firearm into a fleeing vehicle, narrowly missing the driver. See U.S.S.G. § 5K2.6 (stating that court may depart if weapon was used in commission of offense; extent of increase depends on dangerousness of weapon, manner it was used, and extent its use endangered others; discharge of firearm may warrant “substantial sentence increase”). In short, after careful review, this court cannot say that this is the “unusual case” where the district court’s sentence will be reversed as substantively unreasonable. See Feemster, 572 F.3d at 464.
Judge Bright's dissent from this decision by the majority is what really makes Webster worth a full read by sentencing fans. Here are excerpts that provide a taste for why (with emphasis in the original and some cites omitted):
[O]ur reversal on the basis of substantive unreasonableness is often left to a district court’s decision to vary below the Guideline range. Rarely, if ever, do we hold sentences above the Guideline range substantively unreasonable. The pattern of failing to reverse above-Guideline sentences on the basis of substantive unreasonableness perpetuates our broken sentencing system.
As discussed by Former Attorney General Eric Holder, the problem with the federal sentencing system is the “outsized, unnecessarily large prison population.” See Eric Holder, Attorney Gen. of the U.S., U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Remarks at the Annual Meeting of the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates (Aug. 12, 2013), available at http://www.justice.gov/iso/opa/ag/speeches/2013/ag-speech- 130812 .html. As the Attorney General stated, “too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason.” Id. Our sentencing policy has also resulted in “harsher punishments” for “people of color” throughout the United States. Id. The White House recently highlighted the “decades of overly punitive sentencing policies” through the commutation of numerous prison terms....
Webster is an African-American man with a high school education. At the time of the offense, Webster had no employment record and came from a broken home. In spite of his adverse life circumstances, Webster has a limited criminal record with the lowest category criminal history score. At the resentencing hearing, Webster also informed the district court of his completion of a 14-hour drug treatment program, and attendance at both anger management and victim impact classes. (Resent’g Tr. 11- 12). Thus, in the year between Webster’s original sentence and the resentencing hearing, Webster showed the ability for successful rehabilitation....
Further, Webster was 20-years-old at the time of the offense. Since 2005, the Supreme Court, has consistently held young people are most likely to change during a period of incarceration. In fact, psychological research indicates the human brain does not reach its ultimate stage of development until adolescents reach their mid-twenties....
Based on the current move in this country to shorten federal sentences, coupled with Webster’s age , criminal history, education level, remorse, and efforts to rehabilitate himself, the district court’s punishment may well be excessive “under the totality of the circumstances in this case, judged in light of all of the § 3553(a) factors.” Kane, 639 F.3d at 1136. Therefore, I would vacate Webster’s sentence and remand for reconsideration consistent with this opinion.
Thursday, April 21, 2016
Federal district court declines to consider acquitted conduct at sentencing "based on the implication of Sixth Amendment guarantees"
A helpful reader alerted me to a notable new federal district court opinion handed down yesterday by Judge Mark Mastroianni in US v. Buffis, No. 13-30028-MGM (D. Mass. April 20, 2016) (available for download below). The full opinion runs only eight pages and federal sentencing fans will want to read it in full. These snippets should highlight why:
The government has filed a motion requesting the court sentence the defendant based on the totality of his misconduct. Specifically, the government is requesting the court sentence the defendant based on charged conduct for which he was acquitted by the jury, several incidents of uncharged behavior, and conduct initially charged but dismissed before trial. The superseding indictment against the defendant charged twelve counts; defendant was convicted of the first count, the twelfth was dismissed, and defendant was acquitted of counts two through eleven. The general nature of the Government’s case against the defendant involves his extortion and theft of funds, while in his role as Chief of Police for the Town of Lee....
The government advocates for legally appropriate sentencing considerations to affect the defendant’s sentence on the one convicted charge. The government’s motive, however, is to sentence the defendant based generally on its belief, after a largely unsuccessful prosecution, that the defendant is a “longtime thief and a brazen liar.”...
[B]road recognition of a sentencing court’s authority to consider acquitted conduct comes from the holding in United States v. Watts, 519 U.S. 148, 157 (1997) (per curiam).... The wisdom of interpreting Watts, under Sixth Amendment scrutiny, as even creating an available option for considering acquitted conduct at sentencing has been often questioned....
In Watts, the Court explained that consideration of acquitted conduct is not punishment for that conduct, noting the acquittal did not technically prove innocence, but, rather, is the causal increase of sentence based on the manner of commission of the crime convicted. Watts, 519 U.S. at 154-55. Established law under Watts allows a judge to decline to consider acquitted conduct at sentencing. This court has difficulty reconciling Watts with the burden of proof and presumption of innocence standards, which align an acquittal more naturally with factual innocence than with a guileful avoidance of justice deserving of a penalty. This court, therefore, declines to consider acquitted conduct in this case based on the implication of Sixth Amendment guarantees.
Additionally, under the facts here, I am not satisfied the acquitted conduct has useful relevance to the consideration of the manner in which the defendant committed the crime for which he was convicted. This relevance of the crimes to the manner of commission is the connection emphasized by the court in Watts. 519 U.S. at 154-55. In this case the jury, by special verdict form, indicated the manner it found the defendant to have committed a single act of extortion.
Based on the jury's verdict form, the court knows the manner of commission found by the jury for the only convicted charge. None of the acquitted charges speak to the manner of commission of the extortion. Rather, the acquitted conduct would describe a motive and pattern of scheming and dishonesty to accomplish theft generally. This is unlike relying on acquitted conduct at sentencing to find that a firearm was possessed at the time of a drug crime and connected to its commission. See Watts, 519 U.S. at 154-55; Gobi, 471 F.3d at 313-14. Nor is this a situation like that of a drug case where acquitted conduct could be relevant to the manner of commission by showing the total weight of drugs involved. United States v. Putra, 78 F.3d 1386, 1388-89 (9th Cir. 1996), reversed by 117 S. Ct. 633 (1997).
Brennan Center provides a (suspect?) "final analysis" of crime in 2015
The folks at the Brennan Center have this new report titled "Crime in 2015: A Final Analysis" authored by Ames Grawert and James Cullen Here is its first page with its summary findings:
This analysis provides final crime data to update the report, Crime in 2015: A Preliminary Analysis. It finds the same conclusions as that report (and its December 2015 update), with slightly different percentages.
The analysis examines crime in the 30 largest cities from 2014 to 2015, with 25 cities reporting data on murder through the end of 2015 and 22 reporting data on crime. Its findings:
• As shown in Table 1A, crime overall in the 30 largest cities in 2015 remained the same as in 2014, decreasing by 0.1 percent across cities. Two-thirds of cities saw drops in crime, which were offset mostly by an increase in Los Angeles (12.7 percent). Nationally, crime remains at all-time lows. The data show no evidence of a deviation from that trend.
• Violent crime rose slightly, by 3.1 percent. This result was primarily caused by increasing violence in Los Angeles (25.2 percent), Baltimore (19.2 percent), and Charlotte (15.9 percent). Notably, aggravated assaults in Los Angeles account for more than half of the rise in violent crime in these cities. There is no evidence of a deviation from the historically low levels of violence the country has been experiencing.
• As shown in Table 1B, the 2015 murder rate rose by 13.3 percent in the 30 largest cities, with 19 cities seeing increases and six decreases. However, in absolute terms, murder rates are so low that a small numerical increase can lead to a large percentage change. Murder rates today are roughly the same as they were in 2012 — in fact, they are slightly lower.
• Final data confirm that three cities (Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.) account for more than half (244) of the national increase in murders (Table 1B). While this suggests cause for concern in some cities, murder rates vary widely from year to year, and there is little evidence of a national coming wave in violent crime. These serious increases seem to be localized, rather than part of a national pandemic, suggesting that community conditions remain the major factor. Notably, these three cities all seem to have falling populations, higher poverty rates, and higher unemployment than the national average (Table 2). This suggests that economic deterioration of these cities could be a contributor to murder increases there.
These findings are consistent with the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report data from the first six months of 2015. Notably, the Brennan Center’s analysis focuses on major cities, where increases in crime and murder were highest, so this report likely systematically overestimates any rise in crime nationally.
I have in my title primed the question of whether we should look at this data as suspect largely because Bill Otis and others at Crime & Consequences have done a number of posts questioning how the Brennan Center has been analyzing and characterizing 2015 crime data. Here are some of these C&C posts:
- Studies, Experts, and Other Baloney
- Spinning the Murder Surge
- The Spin Continues: Big City Murders Up "Only" 1/7 in a Single Year
- The Year in Review, Looney Tune Version
Readers know I am a proponent of "evidence-based" sentencing reform, but they should also know that I fully recognize (and am often eager to highlight) how evidence about both crime and punishment will often be used by advocates in very different ways.
"Slimy Sheldon Silver should serve substantial slammer stint, sentencing statement says"
An awesome, amusing, amazing alliteration about prosecutors' potent politico punishment proposal after federal fraud findings made for too good a title for me not to reuse the headline of this New York Daily News piece. Here are the serious senetencing specifics:
Disgraced ex-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver should serve more than 14 years behind bars for corruption — a longer term than any other state pol convicted of similar crimes, federal prosecutors argued Wednesday.
Silver, a Democrat convicted last November on seven corruption counts, should serve a sentence that reflects the “unprecedented magnitude, duration, and scope of his abuse of power,” Manhattan federal prosecutors said in the sentencing memo.
“It should reflect the immeasurable damage Silver caused to the democratic process and to the public trust. It should punish Silver for the vast harm he has caused and the position of trust that he exploited, deter other elected officials from the temptation towards corruption, and communicate to the public that the rule of law applies even to the most prominent of public officials.”...
Sentencing guidelines for Silver suggest a range from 262 to 327 months — that’s between 22 and 27 years — in a federal lockup. “The guidelines range is high because the United States Sentencing Commission explicitly has recognized the ‘threat to the integrity of democratic processes’ caused by public corruption offenses,” the feds wrote.
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s office also said the hefty suggestion stemmed from “the many egregious aspects of the defendant’s crimes — including Silver’s role as a high-level public official, his engagement in multiple corrupt schemes, the millions of dollars in bribe money Silver took in, and his laundering of his crime proceeds.”
Bharara wants Silver, 72, to forfeit the $5.2 million he pocketed in the scheme and cough up “a substantial fine of at least $1 million is appropriate in this case, particularly in light of the defendant’s significant remaining resources and his more than $70,000-per-year pension, paid for by New York State taxpayers.”
Silver’s lawyers maintain in their sentencing memo that Manhattan Federal Judge Valerie Caproni should consider “a term of rigorous community service — whether as an alternative to incarceration, or as a component of an appropriate below-guidelines sentence” due to his age and poor health. "One letter after another — written with full awareness of the jury's verdict - from Mr. Silver's constituents, neighbors, friends, family, fellow Assembly members, and other government officials attest to his outstanding character and unrivaled contributions," they wrote in the memo, filed Wednesday.
Silver's lawyers went on to quote a key staffer who said that Silver "acted with integrity and exhibited a deep, consistent commitment to issues that he felt best served the public interest." They also quoted former Mayor David Dinkins as saying, "Mr. Silver has shown himself to be a person of integrity, committed to working in partnership on the side of New York City's citizenry."
Wednesday, April 20, 2016
Graphic portrayal of the sentencing price of prosecutorial misconduct in post-Katrina shooting case
As reported in this local article, headlined "Ending decade-long Danziger Bridge case, federal judge accepts guilty pleas from 5 ex-NOPD officers," today a set of significant pleas were entered in a high-profile local police misconduct prosecution that ultimately resulted in high-profile federal prosecutorial misconduct. The reprinted graphic from the piece and these excerpts from the press article highlight why this all became (like so many matters) ultimately a sentencing story:
Five former New Orleans police officers involved in the Danziger Bridge shootings after Hurricane Katrina, or the coverup that followed, pleaded guilty in federal court in New Orleans on Wednesday, taking reduced sentences and avoiding another trial after their previous convictions were thrown out.
The plea deals bring an end to a case that has stretched on for more than a decade and come to symbolize the chaos and government negligence that followed the storm. The former officers received dramatically shorter prison terms than they did after a federal jury convicted them on numerous charges in 2011. The original sentences ranged from six years to 65. Those read out in court on Wednesday ranged from 3 years to 12.
The original convictions were tossed out in 2013 by U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt over the online commenting scandal that by then had engulfed the office of former U.S. Attorney Jim Letten. In his ruling, Engelhardt said the anonymous comments that Letten’s top lieutenants had been making on news websites amounted to “grotesque prosecutorial misconduct,” even though those prosecutors were not on the trial team that convicted the Danziger defendants.
On Wednesday, Engelhardt outlined guilty pleas from the five officers, all but one of whom have remained behind bars while lawyers on both sides of the case prepared for the possibility of another trial. Arthur “Archie” Kaufman has been free on bond; Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius, Robert Faulcon and Anthony Villavaso were brought to court from prison in orange jumpsuits.
Preparations for Wednesday’s hearing took place with an unusual amount of secrecy. It was not until Wednesday morning that documents were unsealed in the court record showing that the re-arraignment and sentencing would take place. In the meantime, extra security and an overflow room had been arranged at the downtown federal court building, where family members of the victims gathered to watch the conclusion of a decade-long ordeal.
The following are the original prison terms handed down to each of the five officers, and the new terms outlined on Wednesday. All of the officers will receive credit for time served.
Kenneth Bowen: originally 40 years, now 10 years.
Robert Gisevius: originally 40 years, now 10 years.
Robert Faulcon: originally 65 years, now 12 years.
Anthony Villavaso: originally 38 years, now 7 years.
Arthur Kaufman: originally 6 years, now 3 years.
The only remaining loose ends in the Danziger case are the charges pending against Former Sgt. Gerard Dugue, who was charged with abetting the coverup and was tried separately from the other officers in 2012. Engelhardt called a mistrial after a prosecutor mentioned an unrelated case that was supposed to be off-limits, and the government has not sought to retry the case since.
Thursday, April 14, 2016
California board recommends parole for former "Manson family member" Leslie Van Houten
Though the federal system and a number of states have abolished parole, a number of states still have this method of prisoner release and high-profile cases often provide a reminder of this important reality. And, as highlighted by this new Los Angeles Times article, headlined "Board recommends parole for Charles Manson follower Leslie Van Houten," high-profile parole cases can reach back to crimes committed nearly a half-century ago. Here are the details and some context:
A California review board recommended parole Thursday for former Charles Manson family member Leslie Van Houten, who was convicted in the 1969 killings of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. The decision was issued following a hearing earlier in the day at the California Institution for Women in Chino. Van Houten has been denied parole 19 times since she was convicted of murder in the deaths of Leno LaBianca, a wealthy grocer, and his second wife at their Los Feliz home.
After the ruling is reviewed by the parole board's legal team, it will be forwarded to Gov. Jerry Brown, who could decide to block Van Houten’s release. Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey expressed disapproval after the decision was announced: "We disagree with the board's decision and will evaluate how we plan to proceed."
The youngest of Manson’s followers, Van Houten, 66, has been considered the least blameworthy member of the group, and has been portrayed by supporters as a misguided teen under the influence of LSD on the night of the killings. A former homecoming queen from Monrovia, Van Houten did not join in the Aug. 9, 1969, killings of Sharon Tate, the wife of film director Roman Polanski, and four others at the Benedict Canyon home that Tate was renting.
But the following day, then-19-year-old Van Houten joined in slaying the LaBiancas. Van Houten and another woman held down Rosemary LaBianca as Charles “Tex” Watson stabbed Leno LaBianca. After Watson stabbed Rosemary LaBianca, he handed Van Houten a knife. She testified to stabbing Rosemary at least 14 more times. The blood of the victims was used to scrawl messages on the walls, as had been done at the Benedict Canyon home.
In prior bids for parole, Van Houten's attorneys have characterized her as a model inmate who has obtained a college degree behind bars and has been active in self-help groups. At a 2002 parole board hearing, Van Houten said she was “deeply ashamed” of what she had done, adding: "I take very seriously not just the murders, but what made me make myself available to someone like Manson."...
Van Houten's attorney, Richard Pfeiffer, said he believed the two-member board was most persuaded by her exemplary behavior behind bars. "Since 1980, there were 18 different doctors who did psychiatric evaluations of her. Every single one found she was suitable for parole," Pfeiffer said.
Van Houten told her attorney that she was left "numb" by the decision handed down Thursday. Pfeiffer said he's hopeful that Brown opts to grant her parole. "The opposition to parole has always been the name Manson," he said. "A lot of people who oppose parole don’t know anything about Leslie’s conduct. Her role was bad. Everyone’s was. But they don’t know what she’s done since then and all of the good she’s done."
Last summer, a parole board recommended parole for Manson associate Bruce Davis, who was convicted in the 1969 killings of Gary Hinman and Donald “Shorty” Shea. But in January, Gov. Brown rejected parole for the 73-year-old, stating that “Davis' own actions demonstrate that he had fully bought into the depraved Manson family beliefs.” Davis was not involved in the killings of the LaBiancas, Tate and four others.
Two timely stories of marijuana reform not yet helping those serving "Outrageous Sentences For Marijuana"
From two very different media sources today, I see two very notable stories of defendants convicted of marijuana-related offenses serving extreme sentences for a type of behavior that is now "legal" at the state level in some form throughout much of the United States.
First, the New York Times has this new editorial headlined "Outrageous Sentences for Marijuana," which starts this way:
Lee Carroll Brooker, a 75-year-old disabled veteran suffering from chronic pain, was arrested in July 2011 for growing three dozen marijuana plants for his own medicinal use behind his son’s house in Dothan, Ala., where he lived. For this crime, Mr. Brooker was given a life sentence with no possibility of release.
Alabama law mandates that anyone with certain prior felony convictions be sentenced to life without parole for possessing more than 1 kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, of marijuana, regardless of intent to sell. Mr. Brooker had been convicted of armed robberies in Florida two decades earlier, for which he served 10 years. The marijuana plants collected at his son’s house — including unusable parts like vines and stalks — weighed 2.8 pounds.
At his sentencing, the trial judge told Mr. Brooker that if he “could sentence you to a term that is less than life without parole, I would.” Last year, Roy Moore, chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, called Mr. Brooker’s sentence “excessive and unjustified,” and said it revealed “grave flaws” in the state’s sentencing laws, but the court still upheld the punishment.
On Friday, the United States Supreme Court will consider whether to hear Mr. Brooker’s challenge to his sentence, which he argues violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments. The justices should take the case and overturn this sentence.
Second, AlterNet has this new piece with this lengthy headline, "As Marijuana Goes Mainstream, California Pioneers Rot in Federal Prison: Luke Scarmazzo and Ricardo Montes opened a dispensary in Modesto. Now they're doing 20 years in federal prison. Their families want them home. " Here is how it starts:
Behind the headlines about President Obama’s historic visit to federal prisons and highly publicized releases of non-violent drug offenders, the numbers tell a different story. Despite encouraging and receiving more clemency petitions than any president in U.S. history — more than the last two administrations combined, nearly 20,000 — very few federal prisoners are actually being granted clemency.
Nowhere is this irony more glaring than in the world of legal cannabis. Cannabis is now considered the fastest-growing industry in the nation, yet remains federally illegal. The sea change from the Department of Justice since 2009 has allowed state-legal cannabis industries to thrive. Federal solutions seem to be around the corner and for the first time cannabis businesses are being publicly traded and receiving legal Wall Street investment.
Ricardo Montes and Luke Scarmazzo are two of the 20,000 federal prisoners appealing to President Obama for clemency. They have exhausted their appeals and are serving 20-year mandatory minimum sentences for openly running a dispensary in the early days of California’s pioneering medical cannabis law. The irony isn’t lost on them that their crimes are now legal and profitable, but their appeals for clemency aren’t based on justice anymore — they just want to be home with their kids. Their daughters, Jasmine Scarmazzo, 13, and Nina Montes, 10, are appealing directly to President Obama to release their fathers via a Change.org petition.
Given that the Supreme Court has often stated and held that the Eighth Amendment's "scope is not static," but "must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society,” Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 101 (1958), I think both these cases should be pretty easy constitutional calls if courts and/or executive branch officials took very seriously a commitment to updating and enforcing Eighth Amendment limits on lengthy prison terms in light of the obviously "evolving standards of decency" concerning medical use of marijuana throughout the United States and the world. But, while hoping for some judicial or executive action in this arena, I am not holding my breath that any of these medical marijuana offenders will be free from incarceration anytime soon.
April 14, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)
Tuesday, April 12, 2016
Interesting alternative sentencing being used in Thailand for drunk drivers
Regular readers know that I have long viewed drunk driving as a much-too-common, potentially-deadly offense that I fear is not regularly punished appropriately to best reduce recidivism and the extraordinary harms to public safety and property that this offense too often produces. Consequently, I was intrigued to see this new article about a new kind of sentencing being tried for this offense in the Land of Smiles. The piece is headlined "Thai drunk drivers to do morgue work in 'shock sentencing' strategy," and here are the details:
Drunk-drivers in Thailand will be sentenced to community service in morgues in an attempt to combat the world’s second highest road death rate. The plan to confront offenders with the risks of their actions in starkly morbid fashion was unveiled as the country embarked on its most dangerous time on the roads – the Thai new year holidays.
In a country with a notoriously poor road safety record, the ruling junta hopes the initiative will drive home the message that drink driving and reckless driving is lethal. "Traffic offenders who are found guilty by courts will be sent to do public service work at morgues in hospitals," said Police Col Kriangdej Jantarawong, deputy director of the Special Task Planning Division.
"It is a strategy used to make traffic offenders afraid of driving recklessly and driving while they are drunk because they could end up in the same condition. It is aimed to be a deterrent, a way to discourage people."
The “shock sentencing” strategy was approved by the Cabinet as the kingdom prepared for the extended Songkran new year festivities that formally begin on Wednesday. There is much higher traffic than normal as millions return to their home villages, while the festivities are also marked by heavy consumption of alcohol, including by drivers. Nominal helmet laws for motorcyclists are widely flouted.
The combination means the celebrations are accompanied by carnage on the roads each year. The government’s safety campaign bluntly refers to the holiday week as “The Seven Days of Danger”. The death toll has been increasing in recent years, despite government crackdowns and awareness campaigns. The authorities have also said that they will immediately impound the cars of motorists driving under the influence.
"We originally had community services at hospital wards (for offenders)," said Nontajit Netpukkana, a senior official at the department of probation. "But we think the intensity that comes from working in a morgue will help give those doing community service a clearer picture of what happens after accidents caused by drink driving.”
Saturday, April 09, 2016
Death penalty abolition, broadened gun rights, heroin surge, police (mis)conduct, reduced sentences ... so many suspects in Chicago murder spike and NYC murder decline
The headline of this post is my effort to make some sense of this past week's dueling crime news headlines coming from two of America's largest cities:
As the title of my post is meant to suggest, I think there are so many notable legal and social developments that could be referenced in an effort to account for the increased mayhem in Chicago and the increased mildness in New York City. Indeed, what is so remarkable is the reality that all of the high-profile developments referenced in the title of this post have occurred nearly in parallel in both jurisdictions over the last decade, and yet the potential impact of all these developments seems to be playing out so very differently.
In a number of prior posts in recent years (some of which I have linked below), I have tried to figure out what seems to be working and not working in these two big US cites and various others to reduce or increase violent crime. But, as some of the posts below suggest, it often seems that the only simple explanation for dynamic crime rate data is that they seem to defy simple explanations:
- Is there really a simple explanation for record-low homicide rate in NYC (or the increase in Chicago)?
- Do latest ugly gun crime numbers in Chicago disprove the "more guns, less crime" hypothesis?
- Notable (lack of) big crime news emerging from the Big Apple
- "Was there a Ferguson Effect on crime rates in large U.S. cities?"
- "A Most Violent Year: What left and right got wrong about crime in 2015"
- Guns, gangs, ganja, going after police ... are there obvious lessons from 2015 homicide spikes?
- FBI releases national crime data reporting 2014 continued historic crime declines
- Should we thank unleaded gas and the EPA for the great modern crime decline?
Wednesday, April 06, 2016
Former coal exec gets maximum misdemeanor sentence for conspiracy to evade mine safety regulations
As reported in this AP piece, a federal "judge sentenced former coal executive Don Blankenship to a year in prison Wednesday for his role in the deadliest U.S. mine explosion in four decades, saying he was part of a 'dangerous conspiracy'." Here is more on a high profile federal misdemeanor white-collar sentencing result:
One day after the sixth anniversary of the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, which killed 29 men, U.S. District Judge Irene Berger gave the ex-Massey Energy CEO the maximum prison time and fine of $250,000. A federal jury convicted Blankenship on Dec. 3 of a misdemeanor conspiracy to violate mine safety standards at Upper Big Branch. MOBlankenship's attorneys contended he should receive probation and a fine, at most. The judge denied their motion for Blankenship to remain free as he appeals. It's not clear when he must report to prison.
As Blankenship left the courthouse, a few family members of miners who were killed started yelling at him while he and his attorneys spoke with reporters. "We buried our kid because of you," said Robert Atkins, whose son Jason died in the explosion. "That's all I got is a goddamn tombstone." Asked by a reporter what he had to say to the shouting family members, Blankenship said: "Well, just that the coal miners didn't cause the accident."...
U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez echoed prosecutors in saying the maximum punishment didn't fit the crime. "This administration continues to support efforts in Congress to strengthen those penalties, and we stand ready to work with members who believe that no worker should lose their life for a paycheck," Perez said in a news release.
At Upper Big Branch, four investigations found worn and broken cutting equipment created a spark that ignited accumulations of coal dust and methane gas. Broken and clogged water sprayers then allowed what should have been a minor flare-up to become an inferno. Blankenship disputes those reports. He believes natural gas in the mine, and not methane gas and excess coal dust, was at the root of the explosion.
Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito and the United Mine Workers of America spoke favorably about the decision. The sentencing capped a wide-spanning investigation into Massey following the explosion. Four other workers in the corporate chain were convicted of crimes including faking a foreman's license, lying to federal investigators and conspiring in an illegal scheme to warn miners and other subsidiaries of surprise safety inspections. Their sentences ranged from less than a year to more than three years in prison.
The judge described Blankenship's rise from a meager, single-mother Appalachian household to one of the wealthiest, most influential figures in the region and in the coal industry. "Instead of being to be able to tout you as a success story, we are here as a result of your part in a dangerous conspiracy," she said.
During the trial, prosecutors called Blankenship a bullish micromanager who meddled in the smallest details of Upper Big Branch. They said Massey's safety programs were just a facade — never backed by more money to hire additional miners or take more time on safety tasks. Blankenship was acquitted of felonies that could have stretched his sentence to 30 years....
In 2011, Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey after the explosion, agreed to pay $210 million to compensate grieving families, bankroll cutting-edge safety improvements and pay for years of violations by Massey Energy. Under the deal with federal prosecutors, Alpha wasn't criminally charged. The judge already ruled that Blankenship won't have to pay $28 million in restitution to Alpha Natural Resources, helping him avoid a serious blow to his personal fortune. Berger also ruled that Blankenship would not have to pay restitution to about 100 people, including former miners and family members.
Tuesday, April 05, 2016
More reflections and criticisms of clemency work past, present and future
I reprinted here over the weekend a lovely and positive report by Lisa Rich about all the activity emerging from the White House last week on the important topic of clemency. Thanks to Mark Osler, I have now learned that Thursday's extended "White House Briefing on Life After Clemency" can be watched in full via YouTube here. Here is how the event is described:
Building on the President's efforts to make our criminal justice system more fair by granting clemency to men and women sentenced under outdated sentencing rules, the briefing brings together academics, advocates and Administration officials seeking to remove obstacles to successful reentry. The briefing provides a collaborative environment to discuss and share ideas on the President's clemency initiative and ways to improve paths to reentry.
Critically, not everyone is having warm feelings about the work of Prez Obama and his administration's work to date in this arena. In particular, Mark Osler followed up his participation in the White House briefing with this New York Times op-ed headlined "Obama’s Clemency Problem." Here are excerpts:
In the spring of 2014, the Obama administration announced an initiative to consider granting clemency to thousands of federal prisoners serving what Mr. Obama called “unjust” sentences for low-level drug crimes. Federal prisoners were notified of the project, and more than 30,000 responded by submitting surveys to begin the process.
Despite the relatively high number of commutations that Mr. Obama has now granted, there are still more than 9,000 pending commutation cases, many of the sort singled out in the 2014 initiative as potentially worthy. So why has the president acted on so few? Typically, a reluctance to exercise the pardon power is a result of political timidity. But in this case, the Obama administration already took the political risk two years ago when it announced the clemency initiative.
The problem here is that too many cases can’t be adequately considered by the president because of a sluggish and often intransigent review process. Clemency petitions undergo no fewer than seven levels of review, four of them within the Department of Justice. Within the Justice Department, clemency petitions run not only through the Office of the Pardon Attorney but also through the office of the deputy attorney general.
When the pardon attorney, Deborah Leff, resigned in January, she complained in her letter of resignation that meritorious clemency cases had been thwarted by those above her. She noted in particular that some of her own recommendations had been overruled by the deputy attorney general, Sally Quillian Yates. It is not an incidental fact that Ms. Yates is a career prosecutor. When the Department of Justice reviews clemency cases, the opinions of prosecutors in the district of conviction are solicited and given considerable weight. But prosecutors are the wrong people for the task of vetting clemency cases.
I was a federal prosecutor for five years. In that job, deciding someone’s fate is a necessary but difficult emotional commitment. The prospect of being wrong — and a clemency initiative like Mr. Obama’s can feel like a judgment that prosecutors were wrong — can be a lot to bear. We should not be surprised if, when it comes to Mr. Obama’s clemency initiative, prosecutors systematically resist what is, in effect, an indictment of their work.
President Obama can and should fix this problem with a simple executive order that places the Office of the Pardon Attorney in the White House, rather than at the bottom of the institutional structure at the Department of Justice. An empowered pardon attorney (or perhaps a pardon board, as we find in many states) would then report directly to the president. That would allow an independent but thorough review of clemency petitions free from the influence of career prosecutors.
And while Professor Osler is concerned about the slow and cumbersome process for considering clemency requests, this letter to AG Loretta Lynch authored by Senator Richard Shelby highlights that others are troubled by some of the few offenders who have already received sentence commutations. Here is how Senator Shelby's letter gets started:
I am writing to you in response to yesterday’s announcement that President Barack Obama granted sentence commutations to 61 individuals. I have strong concerns that 12 of these 61 individuals were convicted of one, if not more, firearm-related offenses. These include:
- Seven convictions of possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime;
- Four convictions of possession of a firearm by a felon; and
- Two convictions of use of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking offense.
In August 2014, the Department of Justice announced its rubric for considering federal inmates for the President’s new initiative for executive clemency. Part of these criteria included: non-violent individuals who would not pose a threat to public safety if released; low-level offenders without significant ties to large-scale criminal organizations, gangs, or cartels; inmates who do not have a significant criminal history; and those who have no history of violence prior to, or during, their current term of imprisonment.
By my count, the President has commuted the sentences of over 200 of these “non-violent” federal inmates, of which 33 were convicted of firearm-related offenses. I am troubled by the nature of the firearm-related convictions and the fact that some individuals are previously convicted felons who continued to commit crimes. This announcement clearly demonstrates that the Administration is not following its own selection criteria. Frankly, I am left wondering why the President and the Justice Department consider individuals who carry guns to drug deals as “non-violent”.
Friday, April 01, 2016
Federal district judge astutely asks feds for accounting of political corruption sentences before high-profile NY pol sentencing
As reported in this New York Post article, headlined "Judge in Shelly Silver’s case wants to know how much time crooked pols usually get," a federal district judge has ordered federal prosecutors to help her discharge her post-Booker sentencing duties under 18 USC 3553(a)(6) to consider "the need to avoid unwarranted sentence disparities among defendants with similar records who have been found guilty of similar conduct." Here are the interesting details:
Manhattan federal Judge Valerie Caproni wants a chart outlining sentences for previously convicted New York politicians ahead of Sheldon Silver’s sentencing next month. In an order to prosecutors filed Thursday, Caproni asked for the information to “consider the need for unwarranted disparities between similarly situated defendants.”
The judge wants the government to include in its sentencing submission paperwork “a summary chart containing the sentences imposed on elected state and federal officials who were convicted in federal court of corruption-related offenses in the last five years to the extent that information is not unduly burdensome to obtain,” the one-page order says.
Prosecutors will have their hands full: Dozens of New York politicians have been convicted of charges varying from bribery to mail fraud and racketeering to tax evasion, prosecutors said.
Ex-City Councilman Dan Halloran was slapped with a stiff 10-year prison sentence for masterminding a failed $200,000 bribery plot to rig the 2013 mayoral election for then-state Sen. Malcolm Smith. Meanwhile, ex-Senate Majority Leader Smith, who was also busted, got seven years behind bars.
And Hiram Monserrate, the Democratic state senator who looted nearly $100,000 in taxpayer money to win higher office, was sent away for two years in 2012 after pleading guilty. Another disgraced ex-state senator, Pedro Espada Jr., received a five-year sentence for bilking a taxpayer-funded nonprofit to pay for his lavish lifestyle.
Silver faces up to 130 years behind bars after he was convicted in November of corruption charges. The 72-year-old ex-Assembly speaker will likely receive far less at his sentencing April 13.
Prosecutors’ sentencing submission is due by April 6, court records show. Ex-Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos — who was convicted with his son, Adam, of bribery and corruption just weeks after Silver — also faces 130 years. The Skeloses will be sentenced April 28.
Based on the quote of this article, it seems that Judge Caproni has asked not merely for sentencing details on convicted New York politicians, but all "elected state and federal officials who were convicted in federal court of corruption-related offenses in the last five years." I am guessing there could be hundreds of politicians nationwide who fit into this category. I would be especially interested to see what this summary chart looks like, and I hope to be able to post it on this blog whenever it becomes publicly available.
Thursday, March 31, 2016
"A Fatally Flawed Proxy: The Role of 'Intended Loss' in the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines for Fraud"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Daniel Guarnera now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Of all federal criminal defendants, those convicted of fraud are among the most likely to receive a sentence below the term recommended by the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. The most important (and controversial) driver of fraud sentences under the Guidelines is the economic loss — actual or intended, whichever is greater — resulting from the crime.
This Article examines the role of the “intended loss” calculation. The U.S. Sentencing Commission designed the intended loss enhancement to function as a rule-oriented proxy for defendant culpability. By applying the framework of rules and standards, this Article argues that culpability, by its nature, is too multifarious a concept to be accurately represented by a single variable. Furthermore, a recently-enacted amendment to the definition of intended loss — which restricts its scope to losses “that the defendant purposely sought to inflict” — will only exacerbate the problem by excluding a significant subset of plainly culpable conduct.
Rather than attempt to fine-tune the intended loss calculation any further, this Article contends that the purposes of sentencing in general (and the goals of the Guidelines in particular) would be better served by enabling judges to conduct a more standard-based inquiry into the wide array of facts that can bear on culpability. It evaluates several proposals that would give judges greater discretion while, at the same time, minimizing the risk of unwarranted sentencing disparities.
Wednesday, March 30, 2016
GOP frontrunner Donald Trump says "some form of punishment" would be needed for women who have abortions if procedure is made illegal
This recent article at The Crime Report, headlined "Trump On Crime: Tough Talk, Few Specifics," highlighted how hard it is to figure out Donald Trump's policy position on various criminal justice issues (in which I was quoted):
Most experts we talked to say it’s hard to distinguish the rhetoric from the policies. “[The Trump campaign] has not issued a platform yet, so I’m not sure that I’d take anything that he’s been saying as an actual criminal justice policy,” said Inimai M. Chettiar, director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program.
“What’s really frustrating, is that (he’s) like a cardboard candidate; you know what his pitch is but you don’t know anything else beyond that,” said Prof. Laurie Levenson of Loyola Law School. “And maybe he doesn’t either.”
Berman suggests half-jokingly that there’s a “simple answer” to the question of what Donald Trump believes about criminal justice. “Who the hell knows?” he said.
On many policy issues, Trump has sidestepped detailed responses by pointing to his experience in real estate and suggesting that good dealmakers keep their positions ambiguous at the start of any negotiation. That seems to apply to his approach to justice as well. Asked about specific criminal justice reforms, Trump often changes the subject back to supporting police or vague answers about needing to be “tough.”
But today GOP frontrunner Trump is making headlines for talking about criminal punishment in an especially controversial setting. This FoxNews piece, headlined "Trump says abortion ban should mean punishment for women who have procedure," provides the details:
Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump said Wednesday said that if abortion were illegal in the United States, then women who have the procedure should be punished. Trump made the comments during a taping of an MSNBC town hall that will be aired later Wednesday.
Host Chris Matthews pressed Trump to clarify, asking him whether abortion should be punished and who ultimately should be held accountable. “Look, people in certain parts of the Republican Party, conservative Republicans, would say, ‘Yes, it should,’” Trump said. The candidate later put out a statement saying: “This issue is unclear and should be put back into the states for determination.”...
When asked specifically at the town hall what he thought, the New York businessman answered, “I would say it’s a very serious problem and it’s a problem we have to decide on. Are you going to send them to jail?”
“I’m asking you,” Matthews prompted.
“I am pro-life,” Trump said.
Matthews pressed on, asking again who should be punished in an abortion case if it were illegal.
“There has to be some form of punishment,” Trump said.
“For the woman?” Matthews asked.
“Yeah,” Trump responded, adding later that the punishment would “have to be determined.”
His rivals seized on the remarks. Ohio Gov. John Kasich later told MSNBC “of course women shouldn’t be punished.” An aide to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz tweeted: “Don't overthink it: Trump doesn't understand the pro-life position because he's not pro-life.”
With all due respect to the statement made by an aide to Senator Ted Cruz, it seems to me that Donald Trump actually understands — and may be taking more seriously than many other politicians — the oft-stated pro-life position that life begins at conception and that abortion it at least somewhat akin to homicide.
The National Right to Life Committee, the nation's oldest and largest pro-life organization, states expressly here that in the US "over 40 million unborn babies have been killed in the 40 years since abortion was legalized and more than 1.2 million are killed each year" and that "medical science has known conclusively that every individual's life begins at the moment of fertilization." Pro-Life Action League states expressly here that "killing an unborn child is inherently wrong, and therefore can never be justified regardless of circumstances. It is no more just to kill an unborn child in order to avoid hardship than it would be to kill a toddler to avoid hardship. Because the unborn child is unseen, it is easier for society to condone killing him or her, though this is morally indistinguishable from killing any child at any stage of development." The American Life League similarly states expressly here that "abortion is a direct attack on a preborn child which kills; it is murder."
If one genuinely believes that any abortion involves the intentional "killing" of a human life, that it is "morally indistinguishable from killing any child at any stage of development," and that "it is murder," and thus an act which should be criminally prohibited (like all other forms of intentional homicide), then I would hope that one ought also be genuinely committed to criminally punishing, at least to some extent, any and every person intentionally involved in this act of intentional killing which "morally indistinguishable from killing any child at any stage of development."
In modern society, we threaten to punish all sorts of persons (at least with fines) for all sorts of petty crimes like overtime parking and illegal copying of a DVD and loitering. I believe I am understanding and showing respect to the views and claims of persons who are pro-lifer when I surmise they consider any intentional abortion to be a societal wrong that is far more serious than, say, overtime parking or loitering. If that is right, then I also think it would be fair to say that Donald Trump is actually understanding and showing respect for the views and claims of persons who are pro-life when he suggests that women intentionally involved in obtaining illegal abortions ought to be subject to at least "some form of punishment."
Sunday, March 27, 2016
"Cities begin to challenge a bedrock of justice: They’re paying criminals not to kill"
The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy Washington Post article about an alternative sentencing program sure to stir questions and controversy. Here are some of the details (with a key line emphasized):
RICHMOND, Calif. — The odds were good that Lonnie Holmes, 21, would be the next person to kill or be killed in this working-class suburb north of San Francisco. Four of his cousins had died in shootings. He was a passenger in a car involved in a drive-by shooting, police said. And he was arrested for carrying a loaded gun.
But when Holmes was released from prison last year, officials in this city offered something unusual to try to keep him alive: money. They began paying Holmes as much as $1,000 a month not to commit another gun crime.
Cities across the country, beginning with the District of Columbia, are moving to copy Richmond’s controversial approach because early indications show it has helped reduce homicide rates. But the program requires governments to reject some basic tenets of law enforcement even as it challenges notions of appropriate ways to spend tax dollars.
In Richmond, the city has hired ex-convicts to mentor dozens of its most violent offenders and allows them to take unconventional steps if it means preventing the next homicide. For example, the mentors have coaxed inebriated teenagers threatening violence into city cars, not for a ride to jail but home to sleep it off — sometimes with loaded firearms still in their waistbands. The mentors have funded trips to South Africa, London and Mexico City for rival gang members in the hope that shared experiences and time away from the city streets would ease tensions and forge new connections. And when the elaborate efforts at engagement fail, the mentors still pay those who pledge to improve, even when, like Holmes, they are caught with a gun, or worse — suspected of murder.
The city-paid mentors operate at a distance from police. To maintain the trust of the young men they’re guiding, mentors do not inform police of what they know about crimes committed. At least twice, that may have allowed suspected killers in the stipend program to evade responsibility for homicides.
And yet, interest in the program is surging among urban politicians. Officials in Miami, Toledo, Baltimore and more than a dozen cities in between are studying how to replicate Richmond’s program. The District of Columbia is first in line.
Implementing the Richmond model has emerged as a central fight this year between D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and the D.C. Council. Bowser (D) is opposed to the strategy, arguing that the city should instead use its resources to fund jobs programs and that there is little independent analysis of the Richmond program. The mayor did not include money for it in her proposed 2017 budget released Thursday, and Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said she is skeptical of the need for the Richmond-style program and has not seen sufficient data to verify its results.
She and Kevin Donahue, Bowser’s deputy mayor for public safety, question the veracity of Richmond’s claims of having saved so many of the city’s most violent offenders, since mentors — and not police — pick the participants and there has not been a control group used to measure outcomes. “There’s never been a real evaluation of the program,” Lanier said. “They didn’t design the program to allow it to be evaluated,” Donahue added.
But this month, the D.C. Council unanimously approved the idea as the best response to a surge of violent deaths that rocked the city last year. D.C. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) has promised to shift money from the mayor’s other law-enforcement priorities to launch the program. He said the successes in Richmond cannot be ignored by city leaders serious about reducing crime. That’s because five years into Richmond’s multimillion-dollar experiment, 84 of 88 young men who have participated in the program remain alive, and 4 in 5 have not been suspected of another gun crime or suffered a bullet wound, according to DeVone Boggan, founder of the Richmond effort....
Richmond’s decision to pay people to stay out of trouble began a decade ago during a period of despair. In 2007, Richmond’s homicide tally had surged to 47, making it the country’s sixth-deadliest city per capita. In the 20 years prior to that, Richmond lost 740 people to gun violence, and more than 5,000 had been injured by a bullet. Elected leaders of the heavily African American city of about 100,000 began treating homicides as a public health emergency....
Operation Peacemaker Fellowship is working with its fourth class of recruits, and [Boggan] no longer needs to wow participants with money upfront. Dozens of former fellows on the streets of Richmond — alive and not in jail — are his best advertisement, he said.
Those in the program begin by drafting a “life map” and setting goals — such as applying for a job, going back to school or communicating better with family. They meet with facilitators who, unbeknown to the young men, are psychologists or sociologists. Together, they talk through issues in what amounts to stealth therapy. If they remain engaged for six months, meeting with mentors several times a week, they start to receive monthly payments between $1 and $1,000, depending on their level of participation. The maximum amount paid is $9,000 over the 18-month fellowship. The program has handed out $70,000 a year, on average, since 2010, Boggan said.
Boggan believes that travel is another key to the program’s success. He sets aside $10,000 per fellow for trips that are often the first time participants have left the state or the country. But fellows must agree to partner with someone they have either tried to kill or who attempted to kill them. “Wild, right?” Boggan says. “But they get out there and realize, ‘Hey, this cat’s just like me.’ ” Boggan’s measure of success: No fellows who have traveled together have been suspected in subsequent shootings against one another.
Boggan and his staff are used to questions — and criticism — about the money. How do they know it doesn’t go to drugs? Or bullets? They maintain that the money is an indispensable tool, a way to keep kids engaged long enough to make a difference in their lives. “This is controversial, I get it,” Boggan said. “But what’s really happening is that they are getting rewarded for doing really hard work, and it’s definite hard work when you talk about stopping picking up a gun to solve your problems.”...
Many details of how the District would replicate Richmond’s program have yet to be determined, but one aspect is clearly more complicated than in Richmond. While the California strategy relies on private donors to fund the stipends and travel, the District would probably use roughly a half-million dollars annually in taxpayer money. Asked whether he could justify the expense if it came from the city’s general fund, Richmond Mayor Tom Butt was uncertain. “I’d try really hard to find outside funding,” he said.
I fully understand the how controversial this program could be if framed as a "cash for killers" program that use taxpayer moneys to provide cash rewards to the most violent offenders simply for making efforts not to keep killing. But, as the first phrase highlighted above is meant to suggest, if this program is framed as a public health initiative that helps keep young people alive and healthly for minimal costs, then this program could look and should sound much more palatable to taxpayers. Of particular note, the latest DC budget proposal under the "Health and Human Services" line item, allocates $800,000 to something called the "Joyful Foods initiative." The early success of the Peacemaker Fellowships in Richmond, California suggests that devoting that money to reducing gun violence in DC may contribute much more to health and human services than making sure food in the District is viewed as joyful.
Not to be overlooked, especially when we focus on a town like DC where political money flows from private sources to all sort of political advocacy groups, it would seem very possible that enterprising individuals might be able to fundraise effectively for this cause. For example, a little research has revealed that both the NRA and the Brady Campaigns spend over $3,000,000 annually lobbying about firearm laws and policies. If both groups could simply be convinced to spend 10% of these lobbying budgets on a DC gun violence prevention program like Peacemaker Fellowships, this would itself provide $600,000 in resources for this kind of programming.