Monday, April 28, 2014

Curious SCOTUS cert calls in criminal cases continuing, though overcriminalization now on docket

Court-yates_0056I was lamenting earlier this month in this post that the Justices seem to have relatively little interest in big criminal justice issues of late (especially on sentencing fronts), though I suppose I could have reconsidered this idea after SCOTUS last week took up two new criminal cases as reported here.  Today, via this new order list, SCOTUS showcases some more curious cert pool splashing around as detailed in this post at SCOTUSblog:  

The Court on Monday granted review in two new cases; both will be decided next Term. One seeks clarification of what a home loan borrower must do in order to get out from under the mortgage because the lender allegedly failed to provide full disclosure of the loan terms (Jesinoski v. Countrywide Home Loans).

The second case raises a novel issue about how federal law treats fish as an object that cannot be destroyed because it may figure in a criminal investigation. At issue in Yates v. United States is whether the Sarbanes-Oxley Act’s ban on destroying a “tangible object” includes only materials like documents or other records, or also includes a physical object like a fish. A fisherman convicted of destroying undersized fish that he allegedly caught illegally in the Gulf of Mexico raised the question whether he had fair notice that the law applied to his action. The Court limited its grant to the first question raised in the petition.

The ongoing mystery of what the Court is doing with a California murder case — submitted to the Justices in twenty straight Conferences without word of any action — continued on Monday. The case is Ryan v. Hurles, testing when a federal habeas court must defer to a state court that did not hold an evidentiary hearing on a claim that the judge was biased. Presumably, that case will be listed again this week, for a twenty-first time. It has been put before the Justices in every scheduled Conference since September.

The Court also took no action on the latest attempt to get the Court to expand the Second Amendment right to possess a gun so that it applies outside the home. The case is Drake v. Jerejian, seeking to challenge a New Jersey law that requires an individual to obtain a permit to carry a handgun in public. The law requires proof that an individual has a “justifiable need” to carry a gun in public for purposes of self-defense....

In accepting review of the Yates case, the Court will be spelling out the scope of a law passed in the wake of the corporate scandals, particularly involving Enron Corp. A provision of that law made it a crime to interfere with a federal investigation by destroying, hiding or altering vidence. The law forbids destroying, multilating, altering, concealing or falsifying “any record, document or tangible object,” with the intent to impede or obstruct a federal investigation.

The case involves John L. Yates, a Floridian who captained a commercial fishing vessel, Miss Katie, working the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. An inspector boarded the vessel in 2000 to check for compliance with fishing regulations. While on board, he saw several red grouper fish, which appeared to him to be smaller than the 20-inch minimum size for taking that species. He measured them, and found 72 that he deemed were too small.

Yates and his crew were told to return to port, and not to disturb the catch. Yates later was charged with violating the law against destroying evidence, for allegedly ordering a crew member to throw the undersized fish overboard. The crew then replaced the discarded fish with other red grouper.

At his trial on criminal charges, including destroying evidence, Yates’ lawyers contended that the law against destroying evidence was designed only to deal with documentary evidence, and that its coverage of “tangible objects” meant to apply on to the same category. That argument failed in the trial court, and Yates was convicted of violating that provision by ordering the casting overboard of the small red grouper. The Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld his conviction, rejecting his challenge to the scope of the evidence law.

I have complained about the recent tendency of SCOTUS to take up lots of seemingly quirky criminal justice cases unlikely to have a huge impact, and then also dodging big issues like the reach and application of the Second, Sixth and Eighth Amendments in light of recent rulings. This new Yates case strikes me as another example of a seemingly quirky criminal justice case with only limited implications UNLESS some Justices were eager to make a big stink about the feds going criminally after a little fisherman.

If a majority of Justices were to develop some novel jurisprudence to help fisherman Yates prevail (and, as this local article highlights, he seems like a pretty sympathetic character), this Yates case could possibly become a very big part of on-going policy debates concerning the overfederalization and overcriminalization of seemingly small matters that arguably could and should be handled through civil means and without too much federal prosecutorial involvement.  Indeed, I suspect (and certainly hope) that this Yates case might bring out more amici from the right than from the left, largely because the big concern raised by the case is the ability for small local businesses to conduct their affairs without facing criminal prosecution for not playing nice with federal bureaucrats. 

April 28, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Feds in NYC corruption sentencing argue 105 and 80 years necessary for white-collar defendants

An interesting white-collar sentencing scheduled for today in Manhattan is previewed in this New York Times article last week which ran under the headline "Decades in Prison Sought for CityTime Scheme." Here are the details that prompt the title of this post:

Federal prosecutors in Manhattan have asked a judge to impose sentences of 105 years, 80 years and up to 40 years on three men who the government has said became “unbelievably rich” in connection with New York City’s scandal-marred payroll modernization project known as CityTime.

The three men were convicted in a federal corruption trial last fall in Federal District Court and are scheduled to be sentenced on Monday. T he cost of the CityTime project was originally budgeted at $63 million but exploded to about $700 million, with almost all of the more than $600 million that New York City paid to its prime contractor, Science Applications International Corporation, or S.A.I.C., tainted by fraud, a federal indictment charged.

“The CityTime fraud, kickback and money laundering scheme that these defendants orchestrated, managed and operated represents one of the worst, if not the worst, financial crimes against the city,” the office of Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan, said in a memo filed on Sunday night recommending the sentences, which it said were appropriate under the advisory sentencing guidelines.  “The need for general deterrence supports severe sentences in this case,” the office added.

The government asked the judge, George B. Daniels, to sentence Gerard Denault, 52, who was S.A.I.C.’s project manager on CityTime, to 105 years in prison.  “He used his significant talents to abuse his executive position at S.A.I.C. to an extreme degree,” two prosecutors, Howard S. Master and Andrew D. Goldstein, wrote.  “Testimony at trial from witness after witness reflected that he used his power and his intellect to intimidate and sideline anyone at S.A.I.C who stood in the way of his criminal scheme.”

Mr. Denault’s lawyer, Barry A. Bohrer, said his only comment on the government’s request was “not one that is printable.”  He has requested a five-year sentence for his client.

Mr. Bharara’s office said in the memo that another defendant, Mark Mazer, 50, a former consultant to the city’s Office of Payroll Administration, had “abused his power as the city’s project manager to line his own pockets to a breathtaking degree rarely seen in any fraud or kickback case,” taking about $30 million over five years.  The prosecutors’ office asked that he be sentenced to 80 years.

Mr. Mazer’s lawyer, Gerald L. Shargel, who is seeking a five-year sentence for his client, said in a phone interview on Monday that it was the government’s request that was “breathtaking,” and that such sentences “should be reserved for the worst offenders among us.” Mr. Shargel said that the large amounts of money in the case had helped to inflate the recommended sentences.  “Just because the guidelines give the prosecutors the authority to argue for this sentence, it doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing to do,” Mr. Shargel said. “What do you give a murderer — 160 years?”

Without knowing all the facts of these cases, I cannot comment on whether these fraud defendants are really among the truly "worst of the worst" of white-collar criminals.  But I can comment that federal prosecutors, at least in this case, seem to not be really committed to helping the district judge here determine what sentence would truly be "sufficient but not greater than necessary" to achieve federal sentencing goals under 18 USC 3553(a).

Given that it would be remarkable if the defendants here would be able to live even half as many years in prison as the prosecutors are urging, it is obviously ludicrous to assert that a 105-year sentence is not greater than necessary for a 52-year-old defendant.  But it seems that a representative of the US government is going to stand up in to federal court today and make such a ludicrous sentencing claim.

UPDATE: The headline of this AP article about the now-completed sentencings in this matter reports the basic outcome: "NYC payroll scandal defendants each get 20 years."

April 28, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Short federal sentence for cocaine offense when "'Breaking Bad' meets 'Walter Mitty'"

32-waltermittyA remarkable federal drug sentencing case culminated in a short prison sentence as reported in this local article headlined "'Breaking Bad' meets 'Walter Mitty' in Alachua County contractor's cocaine sentencing."  Here are the details:

The judge said the criminal case seemed to be more like a movie than an actual court proceeding. But on Monday the strange saga of an Alachua County man who went to Puerto Rico to try and dig up 11 pounds of cocaine ended in a short prison sentence and a pledge to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity.

U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan sentenced Rodney Hyden, 56, to 60 days in prison, one year of home detention and five years of supervised release.  In imposing the sentence, Corrigan said it was one of the most difficult decisions he’d had to reach in a long time.  He said he’s struggled with what the proper sentence should be.

Hyden, who owns his own construction company, will also be required to volunteer an average of 20 hours a week at Habitat for Humanity during his home detention and supervised release and will also be expected to build a Splash Park for the city of Newberry, where he lives.

Hyden could have faced 10 years in prison, but prosecutors waived the minimum mandatory laws and said the crime didn’t mandate a sentence that long.  The head of Habitat and the mayor of Newberry also wrote letters to Corrigan saying they were comfortable with Hyden providing his services.

Defense Attorney Mark Rosenblum argued that his client should be let off without jail time and required to do the community service with Habitat for Humanity and Newberry. Federal prosecutor Tysen Duva asked for 30 months of prison.  “Rodney Hyden is a good man who made a bad mistake,” Rosenblum said. “Luckily for him, the government was represented by an honest prosecutor and the case was presided over by an extremely fair judge.”

A neighbor of Hyden’s in Newberry told him that when he lived in Puerto Rico he found cocaine washed up on the beach and buried it near the trailer where he lived at the time. Hyden talked to several people about getting the cocaine, but he didn’t know that one of those people, Daniel Jimenez, was working as an informer for the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office.

Two undercover agents posing as narcotics traffickers met with Hyden and offered to help him get the drugs to Northeast Florida.  Hyden went to Puerto Rico twice seeking the drugs, but couldn’t find them.  He ended up giving a treasure map of where he thought the drugs might be to the undercover agents.  Police found the drugs, which had degraded to the point of being worthless, and arrested Hyden.

During the trial, Rosenblum argued that his client had been entrapped by the government and never would have gone after the drugs if people working for the government hadn’t encouraged it.  Jurors rejected that argument.

Hyden was convicted of a serious crime, but at the same time there was no real victim in the case, and even if he’d managed to retrieve the drugs he could not have sold them because they had degraded so much, Corrigan said.  Corrigan said the seriousness of the drug crime mandated some prison time, but not a lot.

The judge also dropped some pop culture references. “If this case wasn’t so serious it would make a great movie,” Corrigan said.  “It’s a combination of ‘Breaking Bad’ and the ‘Secret Life of Walter Mitty.’”

April 22, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, April 17, 2014

"Culpability and Modern Crime"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new paper by Samuel Buell now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Criminal law has developed to prohibit new forms of intrusion on the autonomy and mental processes of others. Examples include modern understandings of fraud, extortion, and bribery, which pivot on the concepts of deception, coercion, and improper influence. Sometimes core offenses develop to include similar concepts, such as when reforms in the law of sexual assault make consent almost exclusively material.  Many of these projects are laudable.  But progressive programs in substantive criminal law can raise difficult problems of culpability.  Modern iterations of criminal offenses often draw lines using concepts involving relative mental states among persons whose conduct is embedded within socially welcome activities.  With such offenses, legal institutions struggle in borderline cases to locate sufficient fault to satisfy the demands of justification for punishment.  This Article demonstrates this problem through exploration of the law of each of these offenses in modern form.

To address the problem, the Article turns to criminal law theory, finding a connection between culpability and the principle of notice in criminal law.  Rather than its absence serving to exculpate, notice can profitably be understood to inculpate.  To manage the problem of culpability in modern crime, the Article concludes, legal institutions should attend more explicitly — in both criminalization and adjudication — to the questions whether the actor was aware of the normative wrongfulness of her conduct and, if not, whether punishment is justified on a negligence level of fault.  This orientation is especially advisable when further expansive moves in American criminal justice are now difficult to justify.

April 17, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Another bizarre, sad and fatal case of reefer madness?

As reported in this prior post, a Denver coroner report concluded that a young man fell to his death in March after eating marijuana cookies which may have caused him to act erratically.  Now, as reported in this local article, headlined "Police looking at pot role in wife's murder," another sad and fatal event might be linked to marijuana use in Colorado. Here are the distressing details:

The Denver man accused of shooting his wife in their home is in jail without bond. Richard Kirk made his first court appearance on Wednesday. He's facing first-degree murder charges after reportedly telling officers that he killed his wife, 44-year-old Kristine Kirk, while she was on the phone with 911.

Richard's family was in court on Wednesday to support him. They declined comment because they were advised not to speak.

It happened around 9:30 p.m. on Monday in the 2100 block of South St. Paul Street. Law enforcement sources tell 9NEWS that Kristine told the 911 dispatcher her husband Richard Kirk may have eaten marijuana edibles and that he was hallucinating and scaring their three young children.

"I can't get necessarily into specifics about that, but we are looking at a marijuana aspect of this investigation to see if it did play a role in this particular crime," said Denver Police spokesperson Sonny Jackson.

A longtime friend of the Kirk family, who did not want to be identified, told 9NEWS Richard is a religious man, happy-go-lucky and very friendly, who is not known for being violent. The friend also said Kristine was an amazing mother and good friend. They are stunned by what happened. It is a shock shared by many in the neighborhood where the crime scene tape remains a stark reminder of what unfolded there....

Richard has a prior arrest in Douglas County for driving under the influence and careless driving. A police source told 9NEWS it did not appear cops had ever been called to the home before.

Neighbors say they are still coming to grips with what happened. "Just kind of shocking, and it's almost just incredible that something like this would happen," Coyne said.

Kristine was on the phone with 911 for 12 minutes before she was shot. Denver Police said that's not unusual because the call originally came in as non-life threatening, but they plan to look into the circumstances of that call to make sure it was handled properly.

Though I am not ready to jump to any conclusions about this bizarre story, if this sad matricide gets attributed to marijuana use it could certainly impact public perceptions about the pros and cons of marijuana reform.

UPDATE:  I just came across this AP story, headlined "Police: Denver man ate marijuana candy before fatally shooting his wife," which provides these additional details about this tragic story:

Authorities say a Denver man accused of killing his wife while she was on the phone with 911 ate marijuana-infused candy before he allegedly shot her.

According to search warrants released Thursday, 44-year-old Kristine Kirk told dispatchers her husband bought and ate the candy before he started hallucinating and frightening the couple's three children. Police say 47-year-old Richard Kirk also may have taken prescription pain medication before he began acting erratically.

It was not clear whether the pot influenced his behavior.

April 16, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Monday, April 14, 2014

House Judiciary Chair suggests Smarter Sentencing Act still facing uphill battle on the Hill

DownloadCQ News has this important new article on federal sentencing reform developments in Congress under the headline "Goodlatte: Don't 'Jump to Conclusions' on Mandatory Minimums." Here are excerpts:

House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., is not convinced that Congress should scale back mandatory minimum drug sentences, even as the Obama administration and a bipartisan coalition in the Senate step up their efforts to do so.  Goodlatte, speaking to reporters from CQ Roll Call and Politico during a pre-taped interview that aired Sunday on C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” program, said the severity of drug sentences “is a legitimate issue for us to be examining.”

He noted that his committee has set up a task force to review mandatory minimum sentences and many other aspects of the federal criminal code, and he did not rule out taking up a bipartisan, administration-backed Senate proposal (S 1410) that would reduce some minimum drug penalties by as much as 60 percent.  The Senate could take up the proposal in the coming weeks after the Judiciary Committee approved it 13-5 in March.

Despite signaling his willingness to consider sentencing changes, Goodlatte said, “I want to caution that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about what is right and what is wrong with the law yet.” Asked whether he believes that some federal prisoners are facing dramatically long sentences for relatively minor drug crimes — a claim frequently made by supporters of an overhaul — Goodlatte expressed skepticism.

“If you’re talking about 25- or 30-year sentences, you’re talking about something that the judge and the jury found appropriate to do above mandatory minimum sentences, because those are five-year and 10-year sentences,” he said.  Regarding the mandatory minimum sentences themselves, he said, “you’ll find that the quantities of drugs that have to be involved are very, very large.”

In the case of marijuana possession, for example, it takes “hundreds” of pounds of the drug to trigger a five-year mandatory minimum penalty and “thousands” of pounds to trigger a 10-year mandatory minimum penalty, Goodlatte said.  “With other drugs that are very potent in much, much smaller doses, those quantities are much, much lower,” he said. “But if you look at it from the standpoint of what someone has to be engaged in dealing, you’re talking about large quantities before you get those minimums.”

The Senate bill, which is supported by conservatives including Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Rand Paul, R-Ky., would reduce 10-year minimum sentences for certain drug crimes to five years, while reducing five-year minimum sentences for other drug crimes to two years.  If those drug crimes result in “death or serious bodily injury,” mandatory minimum penalties would be slashed from their current 20 years to 10 years.  In all of the penalties being reconsidered, mandatory sentences are triggered based on the quantity of drugs involved in a particular crime....

Molly Gill, government affairs counsel for the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said in an e-mail that the quantity of drugs involved in a crime is “bad proxy for culpability” and suggested that it should not be used as the basis to defeat proposed changes to fixed drug sentences....

She noted that the independent U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets advisory sentencing guidelines for the federal judiciary, found in a 2011 study that “the quantity of drugs involved in an offense is not closely related to the offender’s function in the offense.” So-called “drug mules,” for example, physically transport large quantities of narcotics for others but are not themselves major traffickers or kingpins, Gill said.

Even as Goodlatte showed skepticism about lowering mandatory drug sentences, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. kept up his call for Congress to take action on the Senate proposal, known as the Smarter Sentencing Act.

After the Sentencing Commission approved its own changes in drug sentencing guidelines last week — a move that is expected to reduce some drug offenders’ penalties by an estimated 11 months — Holder urged Congress to follow up with more sweeping, statutory changes. “It is now time for Congress to pick up the baton and advance legislation that would take further steps to reduce our overburdened prison system,” he said in a statement.  “Proposals like the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act would enhance the fairness of our criminal justice system while empowering law enforcement to focus limited resources on the most serious threats to public safety.”

The full video of the interview with Rep. Goodlatte is available at this C-Span archive, and sentencing fans will want to cue the video up to a little after the 10 minute mark. Not long after that point, there is a discussion of federal marijuana policies and then the interview turn to drug sentencing generally. A review of the whole segment makes me a bit less pessimistic about the possibilities of federal sentencing reform making it through the House of Representatives. But being a bit less pessimistic is hardly being optimistic.

Some prior posts about federal prosecutorial perspectives on sentencing reform:

April 14, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Another notable (and astute?) local shaming sentence for elderly bully

Bully Sign Latino

As reported in this AP piece, "Ohio Judge Sentences Man To Wear 'I AM A BULLY' Sign," another notable sentence involving shaming has made national news this weekend. Here are the details:

A man accused of harassing a neighbor and her disabled children for the past 15 years sat at a street corner Sunday morning with a sign declaring he's a bully, a requirement of his sentence.

Municipal Court Judge Gayle Williams-Byers ordered 62-year-old Edmond Aviv to display the sign for five hours Sunday. It says: "I AM A BULLY! I pick on children that are disabled, and I am intolerant of those that are different from myself. My actions do not reflect an appreciation for the diverse South Euclid community that I live in."...

Aviv arrived at the corner just before 9 a.m., placing the hand-lettered cardboard sign next to him as he sat in a chair. Within a couple of minutes, a passing motorist honked a car horn. Court records show Aviv pleaded no contest in February to a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge. His attorney didn't return a telephone call for comment.

Aviv has feuded with his neighbor Sandra Prugh for the past 15 years, court records show. The most recent case stemmed from Aviv being annoyed at the smell coming from Prugh's dryer vent when she did laundry, according to court records. In retaliation, Aviv hooked up kerosene to a fan, which blew the smell onto Pugh's property, the records said.

Prugh has two adult adopted children with developmental disabilities, cerebral palsy and epilepsy; a husband with dementia, and a paralyzed son. Prugh said in a letter to the court that Aviv had called her an ethnic slur while she was holding her adopted black children, spit on her several times, regularly threw dog feces on her son's car windshield, and once smeared feces on a wheelchair ramp. "I am very concerned for the safety of our family," Prugh wrote in a letter to the court for Aviv's sentencing. She said she just wants to live in peace.

The judge also ordered Aviv to serve 15 days in jail and to undergo anger management classes and counseling. He also had to submit an apology letter to Prugh. "I want to express my sincere apology for acting irrationally towards your house and the safety of your children," Aviv wrote. "I understand my actions could have caused harm but at that time I was not really thinking about it."

Regular readers know that I tend to be a supporter of shaming sentences as an alternative to prison terms in appropriate cases. And this case seem like just the kind of matter in which a little public shaming, as opposed to an extended jail term, seems to have a reasonable chance of being an effective deterrent and a less cost to Ohio taxpayers.

April 13, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Monday, April 07, 2014

If it clearly cost thousands of innocent lives through heroin abuse, would most everyone oppose modern marijuana reforms?

I engendered an intriguing debate over research data, criminal drug reform and public safety concerns in my post here last week titled "If it clearly saved thousands of innocent lives on roadways, would most everyone support medical marijuana reforms?".  I am hoping to engender a similar debate with the question in the title of this new post, which is my sincere inquiry, directed particularly to those most supportive of modern marijuana reform movements, as a follow-up to this notable new Washington Post article headlined "Tracing the U.S. heroin surge back south of the border as Mexican cannabis output falls."  Here are excerpts:

The surge of cheap heroin spreading in $4 hits across rural America can be traced back to the remote valleys of the northern Sierra Madre. With the wholesale price of marijuana falling — driven in part by decriminalization in sections of the United States — Mexican drug farmers are turning away from cannabis and filling their fields with opium poppies.

Mexican heroin is flooding north as U.S. authorities trying to contain an epidemic of prescription painkiller abuse have tightened controls on synthetic opiates such as hydrocodone and OxyContin. As the pills become more costly and difficult to obtain, Mexican trafficking organizations have found new markets for heroin in places such as Winchester, Va., and Brattleboro, Vt., where, until recently, needle use for narcotics was rare or unknown.

Farmers in the storied “Golden Triangle” region of Mexico’s Sinaloa state, which has produced the country’s most notorious gangsters and biggest marijuana harvests, say they are no longer planting the crop. Its wholesale price has collapsed in the past five years, from $100 per kilogram to less than $25. “It’s not worth it anymore,” said Rodrigo Silla, 50, a lifelong cannabis farmer who said he couldn’t remember the last time his family and others in their tiny hamlet gave up growing mota. “I wish the Americans would stop with this legalization.”

Growers from this area and as far afield as Central America are sowing their plots with opium poppies, and large-scale operations are turning up in places where authorities have never seen them....

The needle habit in the United States has made a strong comeback as heroin rushes into the country. Use of the drug in the United States increased 79 percent between 2007 and 2012, according to federal data, triggering a wave of overdose deaths and an “urgent and growing public health crisis,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. warned last month.

Although prescription painkillers remain more widely abused and account for far more fatal overdoses, heroin has been “moving all over the country and popping up in areas you didn’t see before,” said Carl Pike, a senior official in the Special Operations Division of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

With its low price and easy portability, heroin has reached beyond New York, Chicago and other places where it has long been available. Rural areas of New England, Appalachia and the Midwest are being hit especially hard, with cities such as Portland, Maine; St. Louis; and Oklahoma City struggling to cope with a new generation of addicts. Pike and other DEA officials say the spread is the result of a shrewd marketing strategy developed by Mexican traffickers. They have targeted areas with the worst prescription pill abuse, sending heroin pushers to “set up right outside the methadone clinics,” one DEA agent said.

Some new heroin users begin by snorting the drug. But like addicts of synthetic painkillers who go from swallowing the pills to crushing and snorting them, they eventually turn to intravenous injection of heroin for a more powerful high. By then, experts say, they have crossed a psychological threshold — overcoming the stigma of needle use. At the same time, they face diminishing satisfaction from prescription pills that can cost $80 each on the street and whose effects wear off after four to six hours. Those addicts are especially susceptible to high-grade heroin offered for as little as $4 a dose but with a narcotic payload that can top anything from a pharmacy.

Unlike marijuana, which cartel peons usually carry across the border in backpacks, heroin (like cocaine) is typically smuggled inside fake vehicle panels or concealed in shipments of legitimate commercial goods and is more difficult to detect. By the time it reaches northern U.S. cities, a kilo may be worth $60,000 to $80,000, prior to being diluted or “cut” with fillers such as lactose and powdered milk. The increased demand for heroin in the United States appears to be keeping wholesale prices high, even with abundant supply.

The Mexican mountain folk in hamlets such as this one do not think of themselves as drug producers. They also plant corn, beans and other subsistence crops but say they could never earn a living from their small food plots. And, increasingly, they’re unable to compete with U.S. marijuana growers. With cannabis legalized or allowed for medical use in 20 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, more and more of the American market is supplied with highly potent marijuana grown in American garages and converted warehouses — some licensed, others not.  Mexican trafficking groups have also set up vast outdoor plantations on public land, especially in California, contributing to the fall in marijuana prices.

“When you have a product losing value, you diversify, and that’s true of any farmer,” said David Shirk, a Mexico researcher at the University of California at San Diego. “The wave of opium poppies we’re seeing is at least partially driven by changes we’re making in marijuana drug policy.”

I find this article fascinating in part because it highlight one (or surely many dozen) serious unintended consequences of modern marijuana reforms in the United States. I also find it fascinating because, just as my prior post explored some possible public safety benefits of consumers switching from alcohol use to marijuana use, this article spotlights some possible public safety harms of producers switching from marijuana farming to opium farming.

Some recent related posts:

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

April 7, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Friday, April 04, 2014

If it clearly saved thousands of innocent lives on roadways, would most everyone support medical marijuana reforms?

The question in the title of this post is my sincere inquiry, directed particularly to those most concerned about modern marijuana reform movements, as a follow-up to this extended (data-focused) commentary by Jacob Sollum at Forbes headlined "More Pot, Safer Roads: Marijuana Legalization Could Bring Unexpected Benefits." Here are excerpts (with key research links retained):

The anti-pot group Project SAM claims drug test data show that marijuana legalization in Washington, approved by voters in that state at the end of 2012, already has made the roads more dangerous. The group notes with alarm that the percentage of people arrested for driving under the influence of a drug (DUID) who tested positive for marijuana rose by a third between 2012 and 2013. “Even before the first marijuana store opens in Washington, normalization and acceptance [have] set in,” says Project SAM Chairman Patrick J. Kennedy. “This is a wakeup call for officials and the public about the dangerousness of this drug, especially when driving.”

In truth, these numbers do not tell us anything about the dangerousness of marijuana. They do not even necessarily mean that more people are driving while high. Furthermore, other evidence suggests that legalizing marijuana could make the roads safer, reducing traffic fatalities by encouraging the substitution of marijuana for alcohol....

According to State Toxicologist Fiona Couper, the share of DUID arrestees in Washington whose blood tested positive for THC, marijuana’s main psychoactive ingredient, rose from 18.6 percent in 2012 to 24.9 percent in 2013.  That’s an increase of more than 33 percent, as Project SAM emphasizes with a scary-looking bar graph. At the same time, the total number of DUID arrests in Washington rose by just 3 percent, about the same as the increases seen in the previous three years, while DUID arrests by state troopers (see table below) fell 16 percent.

These numbers do not suggest that Washington’s highways are awash with dangerously stoned drivers. So why the substantial increase in positive marijuana tests?  Lt. Rob Sharpe, commander of the Washington State Patrol’s Impaired Driving Section, notes that additional officers were trained to recognize drugged drivers in anticipation of marijuana legalization. So even if the number of stoned drivers remained the same, police may have pulled over more of them as a result of that training....

As Columbia University researchers Guohua Li and Joanne E. Brady pointed out a few months ago in the American Journal of Epidemiology, [a recent] increase in marijuana consumption has been accompanied by an increase in the percentage of drivers killed in car crashes who test positive for cannabinol, a marijuana metabolite.

But as with the increase in DUID arrestees who test positive for THC, this trend does not necessarily mean marijuana is causing more crashes.  A test for cannabinol, which is not psychoactive and can be detected in blood for up to a week after use, does not show the driver was under the influence of marijuana at the time of the crash, let alone that he was responsible for it. “Thus,” Li and Brady write, “the prevalence of nonalcohol drugs reported in this study should be interpreted as an indicator of drug use, not necessarily a measurement of drug impairment.”

Another reason to doubt the premise that more pot smoking means more deadly crashes: Total traffic fatalities have fallen as marijuana consumption has risen; there were about 20 percent fewer in 2012 than in 2002.  Perhaps fatalities would have fallen faster if it weren’t for all those new pot smokers.  But there is reason to believe the opposite may be true, that there would have been more fatalities if marijuana consumption had remained level or declined.

While marijuana can impair driving ability, it has a less dramatic impact than alcohol does. A 1993 report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, for example, concluded: “The impairment [from marijuana] manifests itself mainly in the ability to maintain a lateral position on the road, but its magnitude is not exceptional in comparison with changes produced by many medicinal drugs and alcohol.  Drivers under the influence of marijuana retain insight in their performance and will compensate when they can, for example, by slowing down or increasing effort.  As a consequence, THC’s adverse effects on driving performance appear relatively small.”  Similarly, a 2000 report commissioned by the British government found that “the severe effects of alcohol on the higher cognitive processes of driving are likely to make this more of a hazard, particularly at higher blood alcohol levels.”

Given these differences, it stands to reason that if more pot smoking is accompanied by less drinking, the upshot could be fewer traffic fatalities. Consistent with that hypothesis, a study published last year in the Journal of Law and Economics found that legalization of medical marijuana is associated with an 8-to-11-percent drop in traffic fatalities, beyond what would be expected based on national trends.  Montana State University economist D. Mark Anderson and his colleagues found that the reduction in alcohol-related accidents was especially clear, as you would expect if loosening restrictions on marijuana led to less drinking. They also cite evidence that alcohol consumption declined in states with medical marijuana laws.

Anderson et al. caution that the drop in deadly crashes might be due to differences in the settings where marijuana and alcohol are consumed. If people are more likely to consume marijuana at home, that could mean less driving under the influence.  Hence “the negative relationship between legalization and alcohol-related fatalities does not necessarily imply that driving under the influence of marijuana is safer than driving under the influence of alcohol,” although that is what experiments with both drugs indicate.

Arrest data from Washington are consistent with the idea that marijuana legalization could result in less drunk driving. Last year drunk driving arrests by state troopers fell 11 percent. By comparison, the number of drunk driving arrests fell by 2 percent between 2009 and 2010, stayed about the same between 2010 and 2011, and fell by 6 percent between 2011 and 2012. The drop in drunk driving arrests after marijuana legalization looks unusually large, although it should be interpreted with caution, since the number of arrests is partly a function of enforcement levels, which depend on funding and staffing.

Two authors of the Journal of Law and Economics study, Anderson and University of Colorado at Denver economist Daniel Rees, broadened their analysis in a 2013 article published by the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Anderson and Rees argue that marijuana legalization is apt, on balance, to produce “public health benefits,” mainly because of a reduction in alcohol consumption. Their projection hinges on the premise that marijuana and alcohol are substitutes. If marijuana and alcohol are instead complements, meaning that more pot smoking is accompanied by more drinking, the benefits they predict would not materialize.  Anderson and Rees say “studies based on clearly defined natural experiments generally support the hypothesis that marijuana and alcohol are substitutes.”  But in the same issue of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Rosalie Liccardo Pacula, co-director of the RAND Corporation’s Drug Policy Research Center, and University of South Carolina criminologist Eric Sevigny conclude that the evidence on this point “remains mixed.”

study published last month by the online journal PLOS One suggests that the substitution of marijuana for alcohol, assuming it happens, could affect crime rates as well as car crashes. Robert G. Morris and three other University of Texas at Dallas criminologists looked at trends in homicide, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, larceny, and auto theft in the 11 states that legalized marijuana for medical use between 1990 and 2006. While crime fell nationwide during this period, it fell more sharply in the medical marijuana states, even after the researchers adjusted for various other differences between states. Morris and his colleagues conclude that legalization of medical marijuana “may be related to reductions in rates of homicide and assault,” possibly because of a decline in drinking, although they caution that the extra drop in crime could be due to a variable they did not consider.

One needs to be very cautious, of course, drawing any firm conclusions based on any early research about impaired driving, car crashes, and marijuana reform. But let's imagine it does turn out generally true that legalizing medical marijuana helps produce a 10% drop in a jurisdiction's traffic fatalities. If extended nationwide throughout the US, where we have well over 30,000 traffic fatalities each and every year, this would mean we could potentially save more than 3000 innocent lives each year from nationwide medical marijuana reform. (One might contrast this number with debated research and claims made about the number of lives possibly saved by the death penalty: I do not believe I have seen any research from even ardent death penalty supporters to support the assertion that even much more robust use of the death penalty in the US would be likely to save even 1000 innocent lives each year.)

Obviously, many people can and many people surely would question and contest a claim that we could or would potentially save more than 3000 innocent lives each year from nationwide medical marijuana reform. But, for purposes of debate and discussion (and to know just how important additional research in this arena might be to on-going pot reform debates), I sincerely wonder if anyone would still actively oppose medical marijuana reform if (and when?) we continue to see compelling data that such reform might save over 50 innocent lives each and every week throughout the United States.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

April 4, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (33) | TrackBack

Friday, March 28, 2014

"Adventures in Risk: Predicting Violent and Sexual Recidivism in Sentencing Law"

The title of this post is the title of this new article by Melissa Hamilton now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

Risk has become a focal point of criminal justice policy.  Officials draw upon the sciences for the best evidence to differentiate between offenders at high risk of being a future threat to society, for whom preventive incapacitation may be justifiable, and those at low risk, for whom diversion might alleviate the overuse of imprisonment.  A recent turn in evidence-based practices is to borrow the newest technologies developed in the forensic mental health field to better classify offenders accordingly to their predicted likelihood of recidivism.

Actuarial risk assessment is considered the new frontier as a progressive sentencing reform, representing best practices in predicting recidivism risk.  The actuarial turn is adjudged to offer probabilistic estimates of risk that are objective, reliable, transparent, and logical.  Policy groups, state legislatures, judges, and probation offices actively promote the use of actuarial risk assessment, believing the empirically-derived tools effectively standardize sentencing practices, mitigate bias, and thereby increase the legal and moral standing of sentencing outcomes.

Actuarial prediction is promoted as founded upon scientific and empirical principals.  This Article critically analyzes the predictive abilities of actuarial risk prediction tools utilizing statistical, empirical, and legal methods.  A specific focus herein is the risk prediction of those criminals for whom fear is strongest: violent and sexual offenders.

Several questions are of interest: Is widespread reliance on actuarial sentencing justified? Are actuarial risk results sufficiently relevant, valid, and reliable for sentencing law?  Is actuarial evidence too prejudicial, confusing, and misleading to meet evidentiary standards in sentencing?  

The Article addresses proponents’ arguments that, regardless of any weaknesses, actuarial risk results should be admissible because they constitute merely one piece of evidence in a multi-faceted decision and that any flaws or errors in the evidence can be deduced through normal adversarial processes.

March 28, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Remorseless killer bride gets sentenced to 30+ years in federal prison

As this local piece reports, today a federal "judge has sentenced Jordan Linn Graham to 30 years in prison for the murder of her husband last summer in Glacier National Park."  Here are the basics:

U.S. District Judge Don Molloy sentenced the Kalispell woman to 365 months in federal prison, with no possibility of parole. He also prohibited her from benefiting in any way, including financial, from revealing additional details about the murder. Molloy said he did not find Graham remorseful about her husband's death. He said he kept waiting for her to say she was sorry for pushing her husband of eight days off a cliff in Glacier Park - but that never came.

Earlier in Thursday's hearing, Molloy denied Graham's request to withdraw her guilty plea for the murder of her husband in Glacier National Park last summer....

Graham, 22, of Kalispell, pleaded guilty in December to federal charges in the death of her husband, Cody Johnson, 25. She has admitted to pushing Johnson off a cliff at Glacier National Park on July 7 following an argument.

But Graham's attorneys sought this week to withdraw the plea after the U.S. attorney's office called for a sentence of 50 years to life. Prosecutors recommended such a lengthy sentence in part because they said Graham appeared to plan Johnson's killing.

Molloy, however, ruled Thursday that Graham had knowingly and willingly pleaded guilty near the end of her trial last December — and said that plea will remain in place. He made the ruling after hearing brief arguments from both sides. He then proceeded to the sentencing.

Assuming Graham gets the usual 15% sentence reduction for good time credit, this means she will have to serve over 25 years in the federal pen.  But it also means she should be a free woman again before she turns 50.

Previous related posts (with lots of interesting prior comments):

March 27, 2014 in Celebrity sentencings, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (38) | TrackBack

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Killer bride Jordan Graham moves to withdraw murder plea claiming feds breached deal in sentencing arguments ... UPDATE: motion denied!

I am intrigued and amazed to learn via this local article, headlined "Newlywed asks to withdraw guilty plea in husband's murder," that the Montana killer bride has now formally moved to withdraw her guilty plea based on the assertion that the federal prosecutors' sentencing arguments breached the (mid-trial) plea deal struck between defendant Jordan Graham and the feds.  Here are the details: 

The Kalispell newlywed accused of pushing her husband off a cliff last summer asked to withdraw her guilty plea late Tuesday, arguing the agreement she accepted was “illusory” and a “hollow formality.” Jordan Graham, 22, was to be sentenced in Missoula’s U.S. District Court Thursday for the July murder of 25-year-old Cody Johnson along a trail in Glacier National Park. It’s now unclear if the sentencing will proceed as scheduled.

First, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy will have to rule on Graham’s motion to withdraw her guilty plea. If he accepts the motion, a new trial will be scheduled.  If he rejects her motion, the sentencing could continue as planned.

In Tuesday’s motion, federal public defender Michael Donahoe argued that prosecutors “breached the plea agreement” by suggesting in a sentencing memorandum filed last week that Graham murdered Johnson with both intent and premeditation. That memorandum, and its suggestion that Graham be sentenced to life in prison, rendered December’s plea agreement “nothing but an empty promise” — merely a means by which prosecutors avoided a possible manslaughter verdict, Donahoe said.

Graham accepted the plea agreement near the end of her trial, pleading guilty to second-degree murder.  In exchange, prosecutors agreed to drop a first-degree murder charge — and its contention that Johnson’s death was premeditated.

For a first-degree murder conviction, prosecutors needed to prove there was intent on Graham’s part; intent is not required for a second-degree murder conviction.  “By offering and agreeing to accept a plea agreement to second degree supported by an extreme recklessness plea colloquy, the government effectively removed the issue of defendant’s alleged premeditation as an issue in the case,” Donahoe wrote Tuesday.  “That was the entire purpose of the plea agreement,” he added.

Then came the sentencing memorandum, where prosecutors argued that Graham planned the murder of Johnson on the night of July 7 and should spend the rest of her life in prison  — or at least the next 50 years.

Graham has admitted pushing her husband of eight days off a cliff in Glacier Park during an argument. She was experiencing doubts about their marriage, she said, and shoved Johnson during a heated exchange.  Her intent was not to kill him, Graham said, but rather an instinctive response to Johnson grabbing her arm.

In his sentencing memorandum, assistant U.S. attorney Zeno B. Baucus honed in on evidence that Molloy expressly prohibited from December’s trial.  That evidence included a long, black cloth found in the vicinity of Johnson’s body, which prosecutors theorized Graham used to blindfold her husband before pushing him off a cliff along Glacier Park’s Loop trail. Graham also took away her husband’s car keys, prosecutors contended, and removed his wedding ring before the altercation....

On Tuesday, Donahoe said the prosecution’s return to premeditation theories rendered the plea agreement void — and asked the judge to allow Graham to withdraw her admission of guilt....  “By making what should have been its closing argument to the jury in its sentencing papers, the government has furnished a ‘fair and just reason’ to support defendant’s request to withdraw her plea,” Donahoe wrote. “The government’s plea agreement promise ... is an empty and hollow formality,” he said. “Therefore, the defendant argues that the government’s offer for a plea agreement was and is illusory and in bad faith.”

I expect the government will file a full-throated response to this motion sometime today. And I am sure the government will stress that, by taking a plea to the lesser-charge of second-degree murder, Garaham got an extraordinarily important sentencing benefit: the sentencing range for that charge is a range of 0 to life, whereas a first-degree murder conviction carried a mandatory LWOP sentence. I fully understand why Jordan Graham and her lawyer are troubled that the feds are making a forceful sentencing argument for an LWOP sentence, but I am not sure why its sentencing advocacy alone provide a basis for withdrawing a seemingly otherwise valid (and valuable) plea.

I have been obsessing about the upcoming sentencing in this case with my sentencing students because, as noted in this recent post, I think it provides a great and accessible tutorial on federal plea bargaining and sentencing realities. Little did I expect that this live tutorial would take on this interesting extra lesson.

Previous related posts (with lots of interesting prior comments):

UPDATE:  As this AP article reports, prosecutors do not agree that they breached any promises in this case:

Prosecutors responded Wednesday that they agreed to dismiss the first-degree murder charge but did not agree to ignore other evidence offered at trial in recommending a sentence of 50 years to life.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kris McLean noted that Graham agreed to plead guilty on Dec. 12 without the benefit of a plea agreement. At that time, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy reminded Graham that her plea meant she could face a life sentence in federal prison.

The federal government is not limited by the defendant’s description of events in recommending a prison term, McLean wrote in his response Wednesday. He argued the court can consider any information about the background, character and conduct of the defendant when determining a sentence.

The government’s sentencing memo recommends the court consider an upward variance to a sentence of life in prison, but no less than 50 years, in part because “the circumstances surrounding Cody’s death closely resemble conduct that is often associated with a first-degree murder conviction.”

Prosecutors said the fact that Graham was unhappy in her new marriage, that she somehow ended up with the only set of keys to the car Johnson drove into the park on July 7 and the fact that she texted a friend saying if the friend didn’t hear from her at all again that night, “something happened,” indicated Graham was “planning and considering murder.”

Graham is scheduled to be sentenced Thursday by Molloy in Missoula. It was not clear how Graham’s motion might affect the sentencing schedule.

ANOTHER UPDATE:  Unsurprisingly, as this local article reports, the "judge has denied a Kalispell newlywed's request to withdraw her guilty plea for the murder of her husband in Glacier National Park last summer." Here is more:

U.S. District Judge Don Molloy began Thursday's sentencing hearing by considering Jordan Linn Graham's motion to withdraw her guilty plea to second-degree murder....

Molloy ... ruled Thursday that Graham had knowingly and willingly pleaded guilty near the end of her trial last December - and said that plea will remain in place. He made the ruling after hearing brief arguments from both sides. He then proceeded to the sentencing. 

March 26, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (37) | TrackBack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 26, 2014 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (21) | TrackBack

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

"Victim Gender and the Death Penalty"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new empirical paper authored by a whole bunch of folks at Cornell Law School and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Previous research suggests that cases involving female victims are more likely to result in death sentences.  The current study examines possible reasons for this relationship using capital punishment data from the state of Delaware.  Death was sought much more for murders of either male or female white victims compared to murders of black male victims.  Analyzing capital sentencing hearings in Delaware from 1977-2007 decided by judges or juries, we found that both characteristics of the victims and characteristics of the murders differentiated male and female victim cases.  The presence of sexual victimization, the method of killing, the relationship between the victim and the defendant, and whether or not the victim had family responsibilities all predicted the likelihood of a death sentence and help to explain why cases with female victims are more likely to be punished with a death sentence.

March 25, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, March 24, 2014

Bridezilla murderer Jordan Graham's federal sentencing as amazing teaching opportunity

BRIDEZILLARegular readers (or anyone who watches morning television) likely remember the killer newlywed Jordan Graham.  As reported in prior posts here and here, Graham admitted to pushing her new husband from a cliff in Glacier National Park, but at first claimed that she did not mean to do it.  Then, after a federal jury trial was conducted,  but before a jury started deliberating about the charges, Graham entered a plea to second-degree murder in exchange for federal prosecutors agreeing to drop a first-degree murder charge and a count of making a false statement to authorities.

Now, as reported in this local article, headlined "Newlywed murder case unusual for federal court; sentencing Thur," it is now sentencing time. Unsurprisingly, federal prosecutors and Graham's defense team have much different views on what sentence she ought to receive for second-degree murder:

Does pushing your husband off a cliff to his death warrant serving life in prison?  Or 10 years? Or somewhere in between?  On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy must decide what punishment is fitting for Jordan Graham, who pushed her husband off a cliff in Glacier National Park last summer after only eight days of marriage.

After both sides had rested their case in a December trial, 22-year-old Graham pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the death of 25-year-old Cody Johnson before the jury could enter into deliberations.

The case is relatively unusual for federal court, since accusations of murder are usually tried and sentenced in county courtrooms, but Graham pushed Johnson on federal land, said Jordan Gross, an associate professor of law at the University of Montana who teaches criminal law and criminal procedure. Federal sentencing guidelines are vague on what’s required for second-degree murder. Hence the 90-year difference in sentences the defense and prosecution are asking Molloy to hand down, Gross said.

Graham was charged with first-degree murder, a lesser included charge of second-degree murder and making false statements to law enforcement. For first-degree murder, prosecutors must prove there was intent on the defendant’s part, where intent is not required for a second-degree murder conviction.

Although Graham pleaded guilty, prosecutors rehashed in their sentencing memorandum that Johnson was found without his wedding ring or car keys and hinted at the possibility that Graham had indeed intended to kill her new husband. Graham’s defense team contends that the circumstances of the evening were a recipe for disaster and that the incident was more akin to an accident. “She pleaded guilty, but that doesn’t mean that the prosecution can’t come in and argue her sentence up to life because that’s what the statute says,” Gross said. Federal statutes also don’t stipulate a required minimum sentence.

The benefit of pleading guilty before the jury could return a verdict is that it shows Graham accepts responsibility for her actions, Gross said. “There are shades of acceptance of responsibility,” though, Gross said, adding that in Graham’s case, she didn’t spare Johnson’s family the anguish of taking the stand and reliving their pain during a trial.

Letters from family and friends in support of Graham and letters filed on behalf of the prosecution, also will play a role in Molloy’s determination — and give insight from those who know Graham and Johnson best.

Brad Blasdel, who knew Graham for several years through her family, wrote that she was quiet and shy on the surface but cold and calculating underneath and showed no emotion about Johnson’s death. “Not once did I see any sign of remorse in Jordan for killing Cody,” he wrote, asking Molloy to consider the woman’s callousness during sentencing. “She took Cody’s life with premeditation and malice; now she must give hers,” he continued.

Cyndi Blasdel called Graham a “quiet instigator” who frequently encouraged bad behavior in others from the time she was a child. After Graham and Johnson’s engagement, Graham’s behavior became increasingly erratic, to the point of murder, Blasdel said. “Jordan Graham knew what she did was wrong and knew the consequences. She needs to be held accountable. She is not a nonviolent offender. Those of us who know her are afraid and some of us still sleep with the lights on,” she wrote.

People who wrote letters on Graham’s behalf, though, urged Molloy to be lenient to the quiet, hardworking woman who they say diligently attended church and served as a mentor to other young women.

Graham’s stepfather, Steven Rutledge, wrote he feels Johnson’s death was a terrible accident. “Why she decided to tell stories about the true events are unknown and unfortunate, but not a reason for a long prison term,” he wrote. Graham is a quiet churchgoer who cares deeply about others, he wrote. “I ask you to grant Jordan some leniency, and a chance at living her life as a young Christian woman.”

If Molloy is lenient, Graham has the potential to become a contributing member of society, her mother, Lindele Rutledge, wrote. Her daughter has shown remorse repeatedly in letters, through phone conversations and during visitation times, Rutledge wrote. “She has never been in trouble with the law. Her only record is a couple of speeding tickets. By showing her leniency she could get a college education and become a better and useful member of society.”...

Graham also likely will address Molloy during Thursday’s hearing in U.S. District Court in Missoula. It will be her opportunity to interact with Molloy outside of the case facts, said Paul Ryan, who has practiced law in Missoula for 20 years. Her comments to the judge will allow her to personally explain why she pushed Johnson and convey if she truly accepts responsibility for her actions, Ryan said.

Johnson’s mother, Sherry Johnson, as well as several other family members, will make comments during the sentencing hearing too. “They’re usually the most emotional and they can certainly carry a lot of weight with the judge,” Ryan said. What Johnson’s family feels is appropriate punishment also will factor into the decision, as will the impact to the victim, he said. “In this case, it was fatal. There can’t be a greater impact on a person than that,” he added.

As the title of this post highlights, I think this upcoming sentencing provides an extraordinary opportunity for me to explore with students critical sentencing issues ranging from views on how offense facts beyond the offense of conviction ought to impact sentencing and whether post-offense behavior by the defendant ought to play a large role at sentencing.  

In this prior post, I noted some of the federal sentencing guideline issues that this case necessarily raises.  Specifically, the guideline for second degree murder, 2A1.2, provides a base offense level of 38 and recommends an upward departure if "the defendant's conduct was exceptionally heinous, cruel, brutal, or degrading to the victim."   Should that apply here?  Also, I believe federal prosecutors have calculated the guidelines to include enhancements for obstruction of justice and without any reduction for acceptance of responsibility based on the lateness of the plea.  Are those fair and proper as sentencing consideration?

I could go on and on, but I want to save some of the fun for my students in class this week.  In the meantime, though, I would love to hear from readers (especially those who are regular sentencing practitioners) about what elements of this high-profile case provide especially good teaching ideas.

Previous related posts (with lots of interesting prior comments):

March 24, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

As a matter of law, policy and practice, what should be the "offense" a sentencer considers?

The question in the title of this post is arguably the most fundamental and important question (and one which is conceptually and practically quite difficult) for any and all sentencing systems.  And yet, this question seems rarely examined or even discussed except when there is controversy over issues like the use of acquitted or uncharged conduct in a guideline sentencing system.  Because I will be exploring this question with my sentencing students in coming classes, I am quite eager to have readers of this blog share their perspectives.

Some important consensus realities help explain why the question is conceptually and practically quite difficult: (1) nearly all sentencing systems and observers agree that the offense(s) of conviction must be a necessary and critical part of the "offense" to be considered at sentencing, but (2) nearly all sentencing systems and observers agree that at least some non-conviction, offense-related factors (such as motive and leadership role) should also be considered sentencing.  In other words, there is a consensus view that the "offense(s) of conviction" are a central but non-exclusive part of what I would call the "offense for sentencing."  That consensus, in turn, presents critical follow-up questions concerning just how a sentencing system (A) can/should define and process the "offense(s) of conviction" and (B) can/should allow, structure and/or require of any variety of non-conviction, offense-related factors.  Some of the most challenging and controversial issues of modern sentencing can often hinge on matters related to these follow-up questions/categories A and B.  

For example, under category A, a sentencing system must consider cases in which a defendant is convicted of multiple offenses and decide if a sentencer must or should group multiple convictions for sentencing consideration or should instead consider each offense distinctly and then combine in some way the sentence determined separately for each offense.  Also under category A are hard questions about offenses that have as a fundamental element the requirement of a serious prior conviction — like failure to register as a sex offender or felon in possession of a firearm.   A sentencing system has to consider if a sentencer must or should view the nature and circumstances of the predicate prior offense as important in consider the new offense of conviction.

Hard issues raised under category B are even more common and often much more controversial.  For example, if/when a defendant has been charged but not convicted of offense-related conduct either because of a jury acquittal or a plea deal, can/should/must a sentencer consider (or be barred from considering) facts and factors related to charged but unconvicted conduct?  In addition, just how much weight can/should/must a sentencer give to offense-related factors that are rarely part of a formal conviction (factors like motive and leadership role and victim impact), but that are often thought central to understanding how truly serious any specific offense really is. 

March 18, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Infomercial celebrity to be selling in federal prison for next decade

Kevin_Trudeau-Prison_Escape_PlanAs reported in this local article, headlined "TV pitchman Kevin Trudeau sentenced to 10 years in prison," a salesman many have seen on late-night television will now only be seen in federal prison for a long time. Here are the sentencing details:

When TV huckster Kevin Trudeau stood in a packed federal courtroom to make one final sales pitch Monday, he hardly resembled the tanned, dapper figure seen hawking miracle diets and natural cancer cures on so many late-night infomercials.  After spending four months in jail for contempt of court, Trudeau’s trademark jet black coif was thin and gray. His usual tailored suit was replaced by rumpled orange jail clothes.  Even his typical air of defiance had turned to contrition, a change he said washed over him during his sleepless first night in custody.

“If I ever write a book again, if I ever do another infomercial again, I promise no embellishment, no puffery and absolutely no lies,” Trudeau told U.S. District Judge Ronald Guzman in a remorseful tone.  “I know going forward I will be a better person.”

But the judge wasn’t buying a word.  Moments after Trudeau’s plea for leniency, a visibly irritated Guzman sentenced the best-selling author to 10 years in prison, citing Trudeau’s decades-long history of fraud and calling him “deceitful to the core.”

“He has treated federal court orders as if they were mere suggestions...or at most impediments to be sidestepped, outmaneuvered or just ignored,” Guzman said in handing down an unusually lengthy prison term for a contempt conviction.  “That type of conduct simply cannot stand.”...

Trudeau has been jailed since Nov. 12 when he was convicted by a federal jury of criminal contempt for lying in several infomercials about the contents of his hit book, “The Weight Loss Cure 'They' Don't Want You to Know About.”  Prosecutors said he ignored a previous court order by describing the program as easy when it actually called for punishing calorie restrictions and a crippling list of food restrictions.  Meanwhile, U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman has repeatedly found Trudeau in civil contempt for failing to pay anything toward a $37.6 million fine imposed by the Federal Trade Commission in spite of continuing to live a lavish lifestyle.

On Monday, prosecutors cited Trudeau’s history of fraud that goes back to a state conviction in 1984.  “He is a habitual liar and a fraudster,” Assistant U.S. Attorney April Perry said.  As a result of the size of the fraud and Trudeau’s two previous felony convictions, federal sentencing guidelines called for 20 to 25 years in prison, a range that Guzman said he thought was “appropriate.”  However, he eventually agreed with prosecutors who said a 10-year term was sufficient since -- unlike in many fraud cases -- no one who bought Trudeau’s book was financially ruined.

Trudeau’s attorneys argued that prosecutors vastly inflated the amount of harm done by Trudeau’s misleading infomercials, saying many buyers were satisfied with the weight loss book.  In his lengthy statement to the court, Trudeau said he has been “completely wiped out” financially and that he and his wife Nataliya Babenko, 26, are “effectively homeless.” He said his time at the Metropolitan Correctional Center has changed his perspective and led him to realize he had made many errors. While he wouldn’t wish incarceration on anyone, the experience has wound up being “one of the best, most positive things in my life,” Trudeau said.

“In the past four months I have been stripped of all ego, defiance, arrogance and pride and for that I am thankful,” Trudeau said as he stooed at a lectern and read from typed notes.

But Judge Guzman was unimpressed, noting that in his three decades of fraud, Trudeau had taken on more than a dozen different aliases and even used his mother’s Social Security number to perpetrate a scam. “That doesn’t happen by accident, and it doesn’t happen by good intentions,” the judge said. “It is a reflection of a person’s character.”

March 18, 2014 in Celebrity sentencings, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Monday, March 17, 2014

DC Circuit gives disconcertingly short-shrift to Antwuan Ball's many significant sentencing claims

Very long time readers with very good memories may recall the array of notable post-Booker issues that surround the sentencing of Antwuan Ball following his conviction for crack distribution in Washington DC. As first noted in this prior post (from June 2008!), Ball put the government to its burden of proof concerning allegations of a massive drug conspiracy and murders; a very lengthy jury trial led to Ball being acquitted in November 2007 on every count of a massive racketeering, drug conspiracy and murder indictment save for one crack distribution count related to a $600, half-ounce, hand-to-hand crack-cocaine deal in 2001.

Fast forward to 2011 and, as reported here, the feds are urging the district judge to rely heavily on all sorts of alleged/claimed wrongdoing by Ball to impose a max statutory sentence of 40 years on the crack charge. (Significant side note: in light of the passage of the FSA and Supreme Court's subsequent Dorsey ruling, I am not sure 40 years was in fact the proper stat-max for Ball, but more on that point later.)

Relying on the prosecution's allegations that Ball was the leader of a huge crack consipracy (claims which the jury rejected), the district judge apparently calculated Ball's guideline sentence range to be 292 to 365 months (though again, due to the FSA, I am not sure that was the right guideline range circa March 2011).   This NACDL amicus brief filed in January 2013 indicates that Ball's guideline range would have been only 51 to 71 months absent consideration of acquitted conduct.

As reported here, District Judge Richard Roberts at sentencing declared that he "saw clear evidence of a drug conspiracy [and imposed on Ball a 225-month prison sentence] for his conviction of the 2001 hand-to-hand drug transaction."  At the time of Ball's 2011 sentencing, I noted here that I was quite pleased the acquitted conduct issues preserved in this notable case, and I suggested "some circuit has to question at least the substantive reasonableness of a sentence that is greatly elevated on the basis of acquitted conduct."  

Now fast forward exactly three more years, and I find myself quite disturbed and troubled by how the acquitted conduct issues (and other issues) were given seemingly quite short shrift by a panel of the DC Circuit in its ruling late last week in US v. Jones, No. 08-3033 (DC Cir. Mar. 14, 2014) (available here).  

For starters, as I read the panel opinion in Jones, I find myself persistently wondering whether and how the district court at Ball's 2011 sentencing may have been influenced by the pre-FSA crack statutes and guidelines before the Supreme Court in Dorsey subsequently made clear that post-FSA rules should apply to all post-FSA sentencings.  This issue is not discussed in the Jones opinion (and perhaps it was not raised/preserved), but uncertainty about the application of the FSA at the time of sentencing might arguably alone be reason enough to require resentencing for Ball.

More fundamentally, to reject Ball's acquitted conduct claims, the DC Circuit opinion in Jones only cites to (now dated) post-Booker precedents from all the circuits via this discussion (my emphasis added):

Although we understand why appellants find sentencing based on acquitted conduct unfair, binding precedent of this court establishes that the practice does not violate the Sixth Amendment when the conduct is established by a preponderance of the evidence and the sentence does not exceed the statutory maximum for the crime.  See United States v. Settles, 530 F.3d 920, 923-24 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (citing United States v. Watts, 519 U.S. 148, 156-57 (1997) (per curiam)); Dorcely, 454 F.3d at 371 [D.C. Cir. 2006] (“[A] sentencing court may base a sentence on acquitted conduct without offending the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury.”).  This is true even when consideration of the acquitted conduct multiplies a defendant’s sentence severalfold.  See Dorcely, 454 F.3d at 370-71.  Appellants, in effect, ask us to reconsider Settles and Dorcely. But not only do those decisions bind us, no subsequent decision by the Supreme Court or another circuit calls their validity into question. Cf. FED. R. APP. P. 35(b)(1) (suggesting contrary decisions by the Supreme Court or by another court of appeals as grounds for en banc review).  Indeed, since the Supreme Court struck down the mandatory federal sentencing guidelines and freed judges “to exercise broad discretion in imposing a sentence within a statutory range,” United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220, 233, 243-44 (2005), every numbered circuit has addressed the constitutionality of sentencing based on acquitted conduct, and each one has reached the same conclusion reached by this court. See United States v. White, 551 F.3d 381, 384-86 (6th Cir. 2008) (en banc); United States v. Mercado, 474 F.3d 654, 656-58 (9th Cir. 2007) (collecting cases from every numbered circuit but the Sixth).  

I have emphasized a phrase from the middle of this paragraph because I actually believe there are at least two SCOTUS rulings since the DC Circuit addressed this issue in Settles and Dorcely that arguably "calls their validity into question."  Specifically, just from 2013, the Supreme Court's Peugh decision (basics here) and especially its Alleyne decision (basics here and here) provide a reasonable basis to question the continued validity of severe acquitted conduct guideline enhancements.  A fair reading of Alleyne suggests that judicial fact-finding as to facts which "alter the prescribed range of sentences to which a defendant is exposed and do so in a manner that aggravates the punishment" can be constitutional problematic even if these facts do not raise the applicable statutory maximum sentence.

Critically, I am not asserting that the 2013 SCOTUS rulings Peugh and/or Alleyne now require reversal of old circuit precedents upholding major acquitted conduct enhancements.  But I do strongly believe that 2013 SCOTUS rulings Peugh and/or Alleyne raise significant new questions about old circuit precedents upholding major acquitted conduct enhancements.  Consequently, I find this cursory treatment of what strikes me as a significant sentencing issue in a significant case to be disconcerting.

That all said, perhaps the "optimistic" way to read this opinion is as an invitation to Ball and others to see en banc review of old circuit precedent upholding major acquitted conduct enhancements.  At the very least, given that Ball still likely has a decade in federal prison left for his $600, half-ounce, hand-to-hand crack-cocaine deal in 2001, I hope he seriously considers pursuing further appeals of his sentence.

Some old posts on the Ball case and acquitted conduct sentencing enhancements:

March 17, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (32) | TrackBack

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Capital murder charges in mix for SXSW killer drunk driver

Regular readers know that I am eager for persons involved in dangerous drunk driving incidents to be subject to significant punishment.  Consequently, I was pleased to see this new report emerging from Austin suggesting Texas justice may be severe for a deadly drunk driving incident.  The piece is headlined "Killeen man facing capital murder charges in fatal SXSW crash," and here are excerpts:

A suspect who police say killed two people when he mowed down a festival crowd at Thursday's South by Southwest festival has been identified as a 21-year-old Killeen man. Rashad Charjuan Owens is expected to be charged with two counts of capital murder and 23 counts of aggravated assault with a vehicle, according to a police source.

Owens is suspected of driving drunk and has been booked but not yet formally charged. He remained in police custody while being treated at a local hospital and was released to officers, officials said. Two festival-goers, including a woman from Austin and a man from The Netherlands, were killed and 23 more were injured early Thursday after the suspected drunken driver rammed through a police barricade in downtown Austin.

According to reports, Owens fled from police after an attempted traffic stop at a gas station about three blocks from where the crowd was standing outside a music venue....

Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo described a large crowd on the street, in line for a concert at The Mohawk on 10th and Red River Street. Many festival attendees also had just left another show at nearby Stubb's minutes before. Hundreds of pedestrians were still on the street at the time, as rapper Tyler the Creator was due to perform....

The incident, which lasted for just a minute, began at 12:30 a.m. when an APD officer attempted to pull over a suspected drunken driver into a downtown gas station, just off Interstate 35, Acevedo said. The suspect fled, weaving through traffic at the gas station, then drove the wrong way down a one-way street, Ninth Street, before turning onto a crowded Red River Street. An officer at the Red River barricade had to jump out of the way. The suspect continued north, through two blocks of pedestrian traffic, before hitting the moped, a taxi, a parked van, and running into a curb, according to Acevedo. The driver attempted to run away when a police officer shocked him with a stun gun.

The Austin Police Department reported 966 DWI incidents citywide this year through February, down 10 percent from the same time period last year. Police reported 585 DWI incidents citywide during March 2013, up 3 percent from March 2012....

According to the Austin Police Department's last annual report, dated 2012, the city had 22 fatal crashes that year involving an alcohol-impaired driver, up from 10 the year before. That amounts to 29 percent of all fatal crashes, up from 21 percent the year before. By contrast, the San Antonio Police Department reported a total of 60 alcohol-related traffic fatalities last year and 48 in 2012.

March 13, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (21) | TrackBack

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Sixth Circuit to hear oral argument on extreme application of ACCA in US v. Young

A number of months ago in this post, titled "A few shotgun shells landed a man 15 years in federal prison," I reported on a remarkable federal sentencing story out of Tennessee involving an extreme application of the 15-year mandatory minimum federal sentencing term set out in the Armed Career Criminal Act.  I am now excited that tomorrow morning, a Sixth Circuit panel is scheduled to hear oral argument in this matter, US v. Young.  I am excited in part because I authored a brief on behalf of the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys (NACDL) setting out why this sentencing should be deemed unconstitutional under a proper application/interpretation of the Eighth Amendment.  And the Sixth Circuit has afforded me five minutes of argument time (taken from the Appellant's alloted time).

Notably, counsel for Mr. Young has on appeal has developed a Fifth Amendment challenge to the conviction as well as making Eighth Amendment arguments against the sentence.  And the feds, not surprisingly, contend there is no constitutional problem with the conviction and sentence in this case.  Readers interested in this case and the legal issues on appeal can review the briefs, which I am uploading here:

Download Brief of Appellant in US v. Young

Download Young Amicus FILED

Download Appellee's Briefin US v. Young

Download Reply Brief of Appellant in Young

Related prior posts:

March 12, 2014 in Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack