Thursday, September 11, 2014

Sixth Circuit panel finds mandatory 15-year imprisonment term not grossly disproportionate for possession of shotgun shells

Because I filled an amicus brief on behalf of defendant Edward Young and participated in oral argument as well, I am much too close to the Eighth Amendment issue resolved against the defendant today in US v. Young, No. 13-5714 (6th Cir. Sept. 11, 2014) (available here), to provide any objective analysis and perspective.  And rather than provide my biased analysis in this post, let me for now be content to reprint the start the Sixth Circuit panel's per curiam ruling: 

Edward Young received a mandatory fifteen-year prison sentence for the crime of possessing seven shotgun shells in a drawer.  He came into possession of the shells while helping a neighbor sell her late husband’s possessions. When he eventually discovered them, he did not realize that his legal disability against possessing firearms — resulting from felonies committed some twenty years earlier — extended to ammunition. See 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). Under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), Young received a mandatory fifteen-year sentence.

Young now asks this court to conclude that the ACCA, as applied to him, is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment because the gravity of his offense is so low as compared to the harshness of his sentence, and unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment because he lacked notice.  Our precedent compels us to reject these claims and to affirm Young’s sentence.

To its credit, the per curiam decision in Young engages somewhat with some Eighth Amendment principles I sought to stress in my amicus efforts in this case, and Judge Stranch authored an extended concurrence discussing the policy arguments against mandatory minimums. But these aspects of the Young opinion do very little to salve my seething aggravation and frustration with this ruling.

A number of judges on the Sixth Circuit have a (somewhat justified) reputation for going to great lengths to bend and extend Eighth Amendment jurisprudence to block state efforts to execute brutal murderers after a state sentencing jury imposed the death penalty.  Consequently, I was hopeful (though not optimistic) that at least one member of a Sixth Circuit panel could and would conclude the modern Eighth Amendment places some substantive and judicially enforceable limits on extreme application of extreme federal mandatory minimum prison terms.  Apparently not.  Though surely not the intent of this ruling, I think the practical message is that one needs to murder someone with ammunition rather than just possess it illegally for the Sixth Circuit to be moved by an Eighth Amendment claim. (I was hoping to save a screed about this ruling for a future post, but obviously this is already a bit too raw for me to be able to hold my blog tongue.)

I am hopeful that the defendant will be interested in seeking en banc review and/or SCOTUS review, and thus I suspect the (obviously uphill) legal fight against this extreme sentence will continue. I plan to continue helping with that fight, and I would be eager to hear from others eager to help as well.

Prior related posts:

September 11, 2014 in Examples of "over-punishment", Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (23) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Group of world leaders call for end to criminal drug war and urges experiment with legalization

ThAs detailed in this AP report, a prominent group of prominent international leaders "urged a global overhaul of drug policies on Tuesday, calling for some drugs such as marijuana to be regulated, an end to incarceration for drug use and possession, and greater emphasis on protecting public health."  Here are the details:

The Global Commission on Drug Policy said traditional measures in the "war on drugs" such as eradicating acres of illicit crops, seizing large quantities of illegal drugs, and arresting and jailing violators of drug laws have failed. The commission's 45-page report pointed to rising drug production and use, citing the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime's estimate that the number of users rose from 203 million in 2008 to 243 million in 2012.

The commission includes former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan; the former presidents of Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Poland, Portugal and Switzerland; British tycoon Richard Branson and former U.S. Federal Reserve chief Paul Volcker. It was established in 2010 with a stated purpose of promoting "science-based discussion about humane and effective ways to reduce the harm caused by drugs to people and societies."

The commission's first report in 2011 condemned the drug war as a failure and recommended major reforms of the global drug prohibition regime. This report goes further, encouraging experiments in legally regulating markets in currently illicit drugs "beginning with but not limited to cannabis, coca leaf and certain novel psychoactive substances."

It called for "equitable access to essential medicines, in particular opiate-based medications for pain," noting that more than 80 percent of the world's population has little or no access to such medications. It also called for an end to criminalizing people for drug use and possession, a halt to "compulsory treatment" for such people, and alternatives to incarceration for non-violent, low-level participants such as farmers, couriers and others involved in producing, transporting and selling illegal drugs.

"The facts speak for themselves," said Annan, who is also the convener of the West Africa Commission on Drugs. "It is time to change course." He said drug policies must be based on what works, not on policies that criminalize drug use while failing to provide access to effective prevention or treatment. "This has led not only to overcrowded jails but also to severe health and social problems," Annan said in a statement.

Former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso said the ultimate goal must be reform to permit legal regulation. "Let's start by treating drug addiction as a health issue — rather than a crime — and by reducing drug demand through proven education initiatives," he said. "But let's also allow and encourage countries to carefully test models of responsible legal regulation as a means to undermine the power of organized crime, which thrives on illicit drug trafficking."

The full report from this Global Commission can be accessed at this link.

September 9, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Split Third Circuit panel concludes Allenye error can be harmless

Sixth Amendment fans will want to find the time to check out the Third Circuit's notable opinion today in US v. Lewis, No. 10-2931 (3d Cir. Sept. 9, 2014) (available here).   The start of the majority opinion (per Judge Fisher) in Lewis suggest there is not too much of note in the case: 

This case requires us to determine the applicable standard of review for situations where a district court has imposed a mandatory minimum sentence based upon facts that were never charged in the indictment or found by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Such errors occur when a sentence is imposed in violation of the rule recently set forth in Alleyne v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2151 (2013). Appellant Jermel Lewis challenges his sentence and contends that the failure of the indictment to charge an Alleyne element, combined with Alleyne error in jury instructions and at sentencing, is structural error.  We hold that Alleyne error of the sort alleged here is not structural and is instead subject to harmless or plain error analysis under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 52.  We conclude that the District Court’s error in Lewis’s case was harmless and will therefore affirm.

But the end of of the dissenting opinion (per Judge Rendell) in Lewis suggests there is a lot more to the matter:

Over a decade ago in Vazquez, I noted that the logic in that decision would mean that the “government can charge and convict a defendant of manslaughter, but sentence him for murder, and, as long as the government produced evidence at trial that would support that sentence, we would not notice or correct the error under [plain error review] and require resentencing in accordance with the jury’s verdict.”  271 F.3d at 130 (Rendell, J. dissenting).  Today the majority goes beyond even that dire prediction as it upholds a sentence for a crime different from that of conviction, under de novo review.  Under the majority’s reasoning, and contrary to Alleyne, a district court may now sentence a defendant pursuant to an improper mandatory minimum, in violation of the Sixth Amendment, and we would be obligated to uphold the sentence if we, an appellate court, find the evidence at trial to have been sufficient.  In short, today’s decision strikes at the very heart of the jury trial and grand jury protections afforded by the Constitution.

But perhaps I am wrong.  Perhaps we live in a brave new world where judges may determine what crimes a defendant has committed without regard to his indictment or jury verdict, and sentence him accordingly.  Or maybe Alleyne does not really mean what it says, when it proclaims brandishing and carrying offenses to be separate and distinct crimes, and that a defendant is entitled to be sentenced consistent with the jury’s findings.  But I take the Supreme Court at its word.  Until clearly instructed otherwise, I maintain that different crimes are just that, and district court judges cannot sentence a defendant to an uncharged crime simply because the evidence fits, nor can an appellate panel affirm such a sentence because they find that the evidence fits.  I adhere to the principle that both appellate and trial judges are required by the Constitution to respect, and sentence according to, a valid jury verdict, and on this basis I respectfully dissent.

September 9, 2014 in Blakely in Appellate Courts, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Recuenco and review of Blakely error, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Pitching argument to pitch death penalty as failed government policy

Daniel LaChance has this notable new op-ed in today's New York Times headlined "What Will Doom the Death Penalty: Capital Punishment, Another Failed Government Program?". Here are excerpts:

To opponents of the death penalty, recent accounts of botched executions and DNA-based exonerations of death-row prisoners have revived hope that judges and voters will finally see capital punishment for what it is: an intolerable affront to human dignity.

But while such optimism is understandable, it is misplaced....

[F]ederal oversight of capital cases ..., more than wrongful convictions and botched executions, is what is distinctive about the contemporary American death penalty.  New layers of appeals and new issues to litigate at both the state and federal levels meant that inmates put to death in 2012 had waited an average of almost 16 years for their execution date.  The deeply unsatisfying, decades-long limbo that follows a death sentence today is without precedent.  The 3,054 men and women languishing on the nation’s death rows have become the unwitting cast of a never-ending production of “Waiting for Godot.”...

Efforts to remedy the problem by reforming the appellate process have been unsuccessful. In 1996, when the average stay on death row was approaching 11 years, Congress enacted legislation restricting death-row inmates’ access to federal courts, in order to speed up executions.  But it didn’t work; since then, the time between sentencing and execution has grown by over 50 percent.

The problem, it turns out, isn’t foot-dragging by defense lawyers or bleeding-heart judges. It’s money.  In California, for instance, the low wages paid by the state to qualified lawyers who take on indigent inmates’ appeals have meant that there aren’t enough lawyers willing to do the work.  Inmates wait an average of three to five years after sentencing for a government-appointed lawyer to handle their appeal.  And that’s just the beginning of a process — sometimes lasting 25 years or more — that a federal judge recently determined was so protracted that it made capital punishment in California unconstitutionally cruel and unusual....

As depressing as it may be to abolitionists driven by a commitment to human rights, Americans, most of whom are white and live above the poverty line, find it hard to sympathize with members of an indigent, mostly minority death-row population who have been convicted of horrible crimes.  Preaching to the congregation rather than the choir, then, ought to focus on the failure of capital punishment to live up to the promise of retributive justice it once held.

Casual supporters of the death penalty can be made to recognize that the death penalty has become inextricably mired in the very bureaucracy and legalism it was once supposed to transcend, and that the only solutions to the problem — an elimination of appellate lawyers for death-row inmates or a financial bailout — are unlikely to be legal or feasible.

Resources for fighting the death penalty are scarce, and for too long, abolitionists have spent them appealing to the humanistic ideals they wished most Americans shared, instead of one they actually do: distrust of government.  Arguing that the death penalty is an affront to human dignity just doesn’t work.  But portraying it as another failed government program just might.

September 9, 2014 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, September 08, 2014

"The Dilemmas of Excessive Sentencing: Death May Be Different But How Different?"

The title of this post is the title of this essay by Michael Meltsner now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This article is adapted from a speech given by the author in honor of Hugo Adams Bedau, inaugurating the Hugo Adam Bedau Memorial Lecture Series at Tufts University. The article explores the differences and substantial similarities of a prisoner being sentenced to death row versus being sentenced to life without parole.

The article strongly advocates granting parole eligibility to those with life sentences. It provides several examples detailing why this is so difficult politically, and highlights how Supreme Court rulings in Miller v. Alabama and Graham v. Florida, holding mandatory life without parole as unconstitutional for minors, implicate the same set of issues. The piece ends with a list of systemic reforms that would improve the criminal justice landscape.

September 8, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, September 04, 2014

"Systemic Barriers to Effective Assistance of Counsel in Plea Bargaining"

The title of this post is the title of this notable paper I just saw on SSRN authored by Peter Joy and Rodney Uphoff.  Here is the abstract:

In a trio of recent cases, Padilla v. Kentucky, Missouri v. Frye, and Lafler v. Cooper, the U.S. Supreme Court has focused its attention on defense counsel's pivotal role during the plea bargaining process.  At the same time that the Court has signaled its willingness to consider ineffective assistance of counsel claims at the plea stage, prosecutors are increasingly requiring defendants to sign waivers that include waiving all constitutional and procedural errors, even unknown ineffective assistance of counsel claims such as those that proved successful in Padilla and Frye.  Had Jose Padilla and Galin Frye been forced to sign a waiver of any ineffective assistance of counsel claim as a condition of entering their pleas, and if the Supreme Court approved of such waivers, then neither Padilla nor Frye would have secured the relief the Court held that they deserved.

Waivers of ineffective assistance of counsel claims pose both legal and ethical issues. Legally, the waivers serve to undermine a defendant’s due process rights — recognized by the Court in Gideon v. Wainwright — by requiring the defendant not only to waive what is unknown to them at the time of waiver, but to do so even when based upon bad advice of ineffective counsel.  Ethically, a defense lawyer counseling a defendant to waive ineffective assistance of counsel claims has a personal conflict of interest with the client, because the lawyer has reputational and other interests in not having the lawyer’s representation of the client determined to be ineffective.

Whether the Supreme Court would approve a waiver of an ineffective assistance claim that would negate the due process right to effective assistance of counsel is not yet resolved.  Such a decision, however, would immunize much incompetent lawyering from any judicial scrutiny altogether.

This article begins by examining the systemic barriers defense counsel face to provide meaningful advice to criminal defendants contemplating a guilty plea These barriers include the underfunding of defense services in many jurisdictions and the coerciveness of the plea bargaining process.  Next, the article analyzes the law and ethics of waivers of ineffective assistance of counsel claims and whether such waivers should be permissible.  We contend that such waivers should not be enforceable for both legal and ethical reasons.  Permitting waivers of ineffective assistance of counsel claims not only constitutes judicial acceptance of a prosecutorial veto of the Court’s recent decisions regarding plea bargaining, but also ensures that more defendants never receive the effective assistance of counsel during plea bargaining.

September 4, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

"Rethink sentencing and parole to solve aging, costly prison population"

The title of this post is the headline of this new editorial from a local South Carolina paper.  Yet, even though focused on some Palmetto State particulars, many of the points and themes in the editorial have broad applicability in many US jurisdictions.  Here are excerpts:

The term "life in prison" is easy enough to understand when it is handed down as a sentence in a courtroom.  But after the courtroom drama subsides, Corrections Department officials must face the realities of feeding, housing and caring for criminals who will spend decades in prison.

For many, the sentences are a just and fair punishment.  Often, they are also necessary to keep the public safe.  But some who will spend their lives behind bars must do so because of overly severe mandatory sentencing laws.

Regardless, any prisoner costs the state and its taxpayers a lot of money.  Prisons should serve to deter would-be criminals and separate society from its most dangerous members. Problems — and extra costs — arise when they must also serve as mental health facilities and nursing homes.

According to a recent report by The State newspaper, the number of South Carolina inmates over the age of 55 has more than doubled over the last 10 years. And that number is expected to increase without reforms to the way the state handles its sentencing and parole laws.

Many aging prisoners were sentenced long before a 2010 legislative reform reduced sentences for some non-violent crimes while strengthening punishments for violent offenders. That bill was so effective that it has reduced the prison population in the state by more than 10 percent overall and slashed the number of incarcerated non-violent offenders in the years since its passage.

South Carolina has also implemented programs, including a "smart probation" system, that have helped cut the rate of recidivism dramatically, as The Post and Courier reported on Sunday.   Even so, the state's cost per inmate continues to rise, and part of that increase is due to the expense of caring for aging prisoners with additional medical needs and accompanying logistical concerns....

The South Carolina Sentencing Reform Commission prepares an annual review of the state corrections system with a particular focus on the impact of the 2010 legislation.  That data show that sentencing reform has, by and large, been a success story. But more work remains.  South Carolina should continue its reform of sentencing laws while focusing on rehabilitation for offenders who pose a minimal threat if given probation rather than prison.

The Legislature should also consider expanding parole options for aging inmates who have served substantial portions of their sentences, have serious chronic medical conditions or are unlikely to pose a threat should they be released under supervision.  Every prisoner who can safely be released on parole represents thousands of dollars of savings for taxpayers....

Any decision must consider both what is cost effective and acceptable for public safety. If some older prisoners who have effectively paid their debt to society can be allowed to re-enter society safely and at a savings to taxpayers, then there is little reason to keep them locked away.

September 2, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, August 29, 2014

New Hampshire Supreme Court rules Miller is substantive and retroactive to prior JLWOP cases

Today the New Hampshire Supreme Court in In re Petition of State of New Hampshire, No. 2013-0566 (N.H. Aug. 29, 2014) (available here), declared that the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment ruling in Miller v. Alabama should be applied retroactively. Here is how the court's ruling begins and ends:

In this Rule 11 petition, see Sup. Ct. R. 11, the State appeals the determination of the Superior Court (Smukler, J.) that the rule announced in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012), precluding the imposition of mandatory life-without-the-possibility-of-parole sentences on juvenile offenders under the age of eighteen at the time of their crimes, applies retroactively to the respondents (petitioners in the trial court), Robert Dingman, Eduardo Lopez, Jr., Michael Soto, and Robert Tulloch on collateral review.  We affirm....

We conclude that, pursuant to the Teague framework, the rule announced in Miller constitutes a new substantive rule of law that applies retroactively to cases on collateral review.  Consequently, we find that the respondents are entitled to the retroactive benefit of the Miller rule in post-conviction proceedings.  In light of our decision, we decline to address the respondents’ argument that we should “apply a broader retroactivity doctrine than the federal courts apply.”

August 29, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Based on additional 3553(a) justifications, Eighth Circuit affirms "profound downward variance to a sentence of probation" in multi-million dollar fraud

Especially in the years right after after Booker, the Eighth Circuit garnered a (seemingly well-deserved) reputation as one of the circuits most likely to reverse below-guideline sentences as too lenient.  But after a number of those reversals were thereafter reversed by the Supreme Court in cases like Gall and Pepper, it seemed the Eighth Circuit became somewhat more willing to uphold below-guideline sentences, and today in US v. Cole, No. 11-1232 (8th Cir. Aug. 29, 2014) (available here), a unanimous panel has upheld a probation sentence in a high-loss, white-collar case that in the past I would expect to see reversed based on the government's appeal.

The Cole decision from the Eighth Circuit is relatively short, and it is today's must-read for any and all white-collar practitioners.   Here are snippets that help highlight why:

A jury found Abby Rae Cole guilty of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, tax evasion, and conspiracy to commit tax fraud.  The district court sentenced Cole to three years probation, a downward variance from the advisory Guidelines range of 135 to 168 months imprisonment.  The government appealed the sentence as substantively unreasonable, and Cole cross-appealed her convictions.  We affirmed the convictions but declined to reach the issue of whether the sentence is substantively unreasonable, finding procedural error in the lack of an adequate explanation by the district court for the sentence and the substantial downward variance.  We remanded the case to afford the district court a chance to supply an adequate explanation....

In our previous opinion, we noted that before reaching the substantive reasonableness of a sentence “‘[w]e must first ensure that the district court committed no significant procedural error,’” such as “failing to adequately explain the chosen sentence—including an explanation for any deviation from the Guidelines range.” Id. (quoting United States v. Feemster, 572 F.3d 455, 461 (8th Cir. 2009) (en banc)). We noted that Cole and her co-conspirators’ convictions were based on the theft of approximately $33 million from Best Buy over a four-year period and the evasion of over $3 million in taxes, Cole’s sentencing Guidelines range was 135 to 168 months imprisonment, and Cole’s co-conspirators, her husband and a Best Buy employee, received sentences of 180 and 90 months respectively. Despite these facts, the district court provided scant explanation for the profound downward variance to a sentence of probation.

On remand, the district court received additional briefing from the parties, conducted a hearing in which it heard additional argument with respect to sentencing, and then announced its reasons for the downward variance and the probationary sentence in a lengthy and comprehensive analysis concluding with the observation that this is an “unusual, extraordinary case in which a sentence of three years probation was appropriate.”  In the additional analysis, the district court touched on all of the section 3553(a) factors in explaining the rationale behind the sentence it imposed upon Cole. The district court recognized the numerous restrictions Cole endured while on probation and the “lifelong restrictions” she faces as a federal felon, see 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(2)(A)&(B); the court stressed that, with the probationary sentence, Cole would be less likely to commit further crimes as she “has a far greater likelihood of successful rehabilitation with family support and stable employment,” see 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(2)(C). The court also explained that while “[t]his was one of the largest corporate frauds in Minnesota history and was also a significant tax fraud,” Cole served a more minor role as, in the court’s judgment, she was “mostly a passive, although legally responsible, participant.” See 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(1).  The court focused on Cole’s history and characteristics, emphasizing that she had no prior contact with law enforcement and was “markedly different” than “most of the fraudsters who appear before th[e] Court” in that Cole “is not a consummate fraudster, she is not a pathological liar.” See 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(6). Finally, the district court explained that the probationary sentence would allow Cole to work and earn money to make restitution to the victims of the fraud.  See 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(7).

The United States persists in its appeal, contending that the district court improperly based the sentence on Cole’s socioeconomic status, her restitution obligations, and her loss of criminally derived income.  However, the facts of Cole’s fall from an industrious and highly successful entrepreneur to convicted felon and the loss of the bulk of her legitimately acquired assets cannot be denied.  We find no error in the district court’s reference to these events....

While we do not minimize the seriousness of the crimes perpetrated by Cole and the staggering nature of the fraudulent scheme in which Cole was a participant, the district court here, unlike in Dautovic, has adequately explained the sentence and appropriately considered the section 3553(a) factors in varying downward to a probationary sentence, making “precisely the kind of defendant-specific determinations that are within the special competence of sentencing courts.”  Feemster, 572 F.3d at 464 (quotation omitted).  For instance, the district court noted that Cole’s role in the offense was mostly as a passive participant and Cole was not the typical white collar defendant the court had observed in similar criminal schemes.  We find no error in the weighing of the section 3553(a) factors, and thus the district court did not abuse its substantial discretion in sentencing Cole to probation.

This ruling strikes me a one-in-a-million outcome: I cannot recall another case (out of the nearly million cases that have been sentenced in the federal system since Booker) in which the defendant faced a guideline range of 11 to 14 years and received a sentence of probation.  This outcome seems all that much more remarkable given that this huge (and now declared reasonable) variance was in a case in which the defendant did not plead guilty or provide substantial assistance to the government and involved "one of the largest corporate frauds in Minnesota history and was also a significant tax fraud."

Because this Cole case seems remarkable in many ways, and because it likely will be (and should be) cited by nearly every white-collar offender facing federal sentencing in the months and years ahead, it would not shock me if the Justice Department seriously considers pursuing an appeal up to the Supreme Court. 

August 29, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

"Rebellion: The Courts of Appeals' Latest Anti-Booker Backlash"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new essay about federal sentencing and appellate practices by Alison Siegler available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

For over twenty-five years, federal courts of appeals have rebelled against every Supreme Court mandate that weakens the United States Sentencing Guidelines. Since the Court made the Guidelines advisory in United States v Booker, the rebellion has intensified, with the appellate courts consistently ensuring adherence to the Guidelines by over-policing sentences that fall outside the Guidelines and under-policing within-Guidelines sentences.  The courts of appeals are now staging a new revolt, creating appellate rules — carve-outs — that enable them to reject meritorious challenges to within-Guidelines sentences.

Part I describes the previous rebellions.  Part II introduces the current rebellion.  Part II.A discusses what I term the “stock carve-out,” an appellate rule that violates the sentencing statute and the Sixth Amendment by allowing sentencing judges to ignore mitigating arguments regarding defendants’ personal characteristics.  Part II.B discusses the “§ 3553(a)(6) carve-out,” a rule that similarly violates the statute and precedent by allowing sentencing judges to ignore disparity arguments.  Part III concludes.

August 27, 2014 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Significant Third Circuit ruling on the consequences of a defendant's appeal despite an appeal waiver

A helpful reader alerted me to a significant ruling today by the Third Circuit in US v. Erwin, No. 13-3407 (3d Cir. Aug. 26, 2014) (available here). Here is how the opinion starts:  

This case presents the novel question of what remedy is available to the Government when a criminal defendant who knowingly and voluntarily executed a waiver of right to appeal — and received valuable promises from the Government in return — violates his plea agreement by filing an appeal. Christopher Erwin pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute oxycodone, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(C) and 21 U.S.C. § 846.  His agreement included a waiver of right to appeal his sentence if it was within or below the advisory Sentencing Guidelines range that results from a total advisory United States Sentencing Guidelines (“U.S.S.G.”) offense level of 39.  The Government agreed not to bring further criminal charges against Erwin in connection with the conspiracy, and it also agreed to seek a downward departure under U.S.S.G. § 5K1.1.  The Government fulfilled its part of the bargain; Erwin, who challenges his within-Guidelines sentence on appeal, did not.

For the following reasons, we conclude that Erwin’s appeal is within the scope of his appellate waiver, to which he knowingly and voluntarily agreed, and that he has failed to raise any meritorious grounds for circumventing the waiver.  We further conclude that Erwin breached the plea agreement by appealing, and that the appropriate remedy for his breach is specific performance of the agreement’s terms: that is, the Government will be excused from its obligation to move for a downward departure.  We will therefore vacate Erwin’s judgment of sentence and remand for de novo resentencing in accordance with this opinion.

Matthew Stiegler in this post at his CA3blog starts his coverage of this Erwin ruling with this astute observation:

The Third Circuit just issued what looks to me like a very significant new criminal sentencing ruling: when a defendant violates an appeal waiver, he can be re-sentenced without the deal.  Defendants who plead guilty and waive their appeals (i.e. virtually all federal defendants) can still raise miscarriage-of-justice challenges to their sentences, but the cost of losing such a challenge just went way, way up.

August 26, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Notable federal case impacted by SCOTUS Miller ruling nearly two decades after initial sentencing

This local story out of Kansas City, headlined "Judge orders new sentencing hearing for defendant in deaths of six KC firefighters," reports on a notable new legal development in an old case as a result of the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment ruling in Miller v. Alabama.  Here are excerpts (with my emphasis added for reasons explained below):

A man serving a life sentence for his role in the 1988 explosion deaths of six Kansas City firefighters will get a new sentencing hearing, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Fernando Gaitan signed orders Monday setting aside the life sentence given to Bryan E. Sheppard in 1997.  Gaitan ordered probation officers to prepare a new sentencing report on Sheppard and told prosecutors and Sheppard’s lawyers to write sentencing memos to be submitted to him by Sept. 26.  After that, Gaitan will review the paperwork, confer with attorneys and set a date for Sheppard to be re-sentenced, according to federal court records.

Sheppard, who was 17 at the time of the explosion, asked for a new sentencing hearing because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that “mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on ‘cruel and unusual punishments.’”

In February, prosecutors agreed that Sheppard was covered by the Supreme Court ruling and deserved a chance to make his case for a reduced sentence before a federal judge.

Firefighters Thomas Fry, Gerald Halloran, Luther Hurd, James Kilventon Jr., Robert D. McKarnin and Michael Oldham died before dawn Nov. 29, 1988, while fighting a fire in a construction trailer parked near the site of a U.S. 71 widening project. The trailer contained 25,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate mixed with fuel oil. It erupted in a massive explosion that ignited a second explosives trailer. The two blasts were felt for miles.

A federal jury convicted five defendants nearly nine years later. All were sentenced to life in prison.

The passage I have highlighted is noteworthy because it reveals that federal prosecutors in this case (and I am pretty sure in others) agree that the Supreme Court's Miller ruling should be applied retroactively.  As regular readers know, the issue of Miller retroactivity has split state courts and it seems only a matter of time before the SCOTUS resolves the split.

August 26, 2014 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, August 25, 2014

What's the likely Ninth Circuit timeline for deciding the fate of California's death penalty in Jones v. Chappell?

As first noted in this post a few days ago, California Attorney General Kamala Harris has officially noticed an appeal to the Ninth Circuit in Jones v. Chappell, No. 2:09-cv-02158-CJC (C.D. Cal. July 16, 2014) (available here), the remarkable case in which U.S. District Judge Carney declared all of California's death penalty system unconstitutional.  Because the stakes are so high in California and for modern death penalty jurisprudence generally, I expect this Ninth Circuit capital appeal will get considerable attention in the weeks and months ahead and that lots of different death penalty advocates (both pro and con) will be filing amicus briefs with competing claims about the constitutionality of California's death penalty system.

As the question in the title of post highlights, though I am sure the Jones v. Chappell appeal will get garner lots of attention, I am not sure how quickly (or slowly) the Ninth Circuit will hear and decide this case.  As death penalty fans know, federal capital habeas appeals have a (well-earned) reputation for proceeding either (1) very slowly, in part because a death row defendant raises so many case-specific claims concerning errors in a state trial and sentencing, or (2) very quickly, in part because there is a looming serious state execution date and the state highlights that all reasonable claims of error have been considered and rejected before.  In Jones v. Chappell, however, at issue on appeal is just one basic system-wide constitutional concern which is being considered in a case in which no serious execution date is looming.  Consequently, there is little reason to expect this appeal to move especially slowly or especially quickly.

Notably, a bit of irony attends the question in the title of this post because the constitutional issue in Jones v. Chappell centers on lengthy delays in appellate review in California and the apparent arbitrariness of which cases get through reviews more quickly or slowly.  Arguably, the longer the Ninth Circuit appellate process takes in Jones v. Chappell, the stronger the capital defendant's claims become.  That  bit of irony aside, I am eager to hear from any infomed Ninth Circuit capital habeas practitioners or observers concerning what kind of timelines are likely in play now in Jones v. Chappell.  Is this case likely to be fully briefed before the end of this year?   Can/should we reasaonally expect oral argument to take place in the early part of 2015 and a ruling not long thereafter?

I ask these questions not only because I am genuinely wondering what kind of pacing we all should expect in this matter, but also because this case necessarily should impact any political plans that California death penalty supporters and opponents may have for the big looming 2016 election.  Supporters of a more efficient and effective California death penalty system are already on record expressing interest in a voter initiative to reform the state's capital appellate process, and steadfast opponents of the death penalty also seem likely to eye a 2016 capital repeal initiative.  Not just how, but also exactly when, the Ninth Circuit rules in Jones v. Chappell could greatly impact initiative planning and advocacy.

Recent related posts:

August 25, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, August 24, 2014

"Clemency and the Unitary Executive"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Rachel Barkow now available on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

President Obama’s use of enforcement discretion to achieve important domestic policy initiatives — including in the field of criminal law — have sparked a vigorous debate about where the President’s duty under the Take Care Clause ends and legitimate enforcement discretion begins.  But even with broad power to set enforcement charging policies, the President controls only the discretion of his or her agents at the front-end to achieve policy goals.  What about enforcement decisions already made, either by his or her own agents or actors in previous administrations, with which the President disagrees?  The Framers anticipated this issue in the context of criminal law and vested the President with broad and explicit back-end control through the constitutional pardon power.  But while centralized authority over enforcement discretion at the front-end has grown, the clemency power finds itself falling into desuetude.

This Article explores the fall of the clemency power and argues for its resurrection as a critical mechanism for the President to assert control over the executive branch in criminal cases.  While clemency has typically been referred to as an exercise of mercy and even analogized to religious forgiveness, it also serves a more structurally important role in the American constitutional order that has been all but overlooked.  It is a critical mechanism for the President to control the executive department.  Those in favor of a unitary executive should encourage its more robust employment.  But even critics of unitary executive theory should embrace clemency as a mechanism of control because, whatever the merits of other unitary executive claims involving military power or oversight over administrative agencies, clemency stands on different footing.  It is explicitly and unambiguously grounded in the Constitution’s text, and it comes with an established historical pedigree.  It is also a crucial checking mechanism given the landscape of criminal justice today.  The current environment of overbroad federal criminal laws and excessive charging by federal prosecutors has produced a criminal justice system of unprecedented size and scope with overcrowded and expensive federal prisons and hundreds of thousands of individuals hindered from reentering society because of a federal record.  Clemency is a key tool for addressing poor enforcement decisions and injustices in this system, as well as checking disparities in how different United States Attorneys enforce the law.

August 24, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Friday, August 22, 2014

California Attorney General seeking appeal in Jones v. Chappell capital case

As reported in this Los Angeles Times piece, headlined "California AG Kamala Harris to appeal ruling against death penalty," the Ninth Circuit will now be called upon to consider the remarkable decision last month by U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney ruling that all of California's death penalty system is unconstitutional.  The ruling in Jones v. Chappell, No. 2:09-cv-02158-CJC (C.D. Cal. July 16, 2014) (available here), has already generated lots of thoughtful discussion (as reflected in posts last month  here and here), and now I suspect the case is going to generate lots of thoughtful amicus briefs on both sides.

For a host of reasons, I am not very surprised and I am very pleased that California AG Harris has decided to appeals the important and consequential ruling in Jones v. Chappell.  The facts stressed and conclusions reached in that decision merit greater attention and scrutiny, and proceedings in the Ninth Circuit will help ensure the cases and its issues get a wider airing.  Indeed, I would not be surprised if the Ninth Circuit ends up having both a regular panel and an en banc panel consider the issues in Jones v. Chappell all as a prelude to an (inevitable?) cert petition by the losing party on appeal.  In other words, stay tuned death penalty followers.

Recent related posts:

August 22, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Third Circuit finds "reprehensible" conduct regarding victim restitution not grounds for revoking supervised release

A Third Circuit panel yesterday handed down an interesting ruling in US v. Bagdy, No. 13-2975 (3d Cir. Aug. 21, 2014) (available here), reversing the revocation of supervised released despite calling the defendant's conduct "reprehensible." Here is how the Bagdy opinion starts:

At issue on this appeal is whether supervised release may be revoked and an offender sent to prison based upon a District Court’s finding that the offender acted in bad faith in relation to his obligation to make restitution to the victims of his criminal conduct.  In this case, although Appellant David Bagdy complied with the letter of the District Court’s restitution order by ultimately paying more than one-third of a $435,000 inheritance he had received while on supervised release, he engaged in a lavish spending spree that dissipated the balance of the inheritance while delaying the proceedings intended to modify the restitution order.  Like the District Court, we find Bagdy’s conduct reprehensible.  We conclude, however, that the District Court could not revoke supervised release for such bad faith conduct because Bagdy did not violate a specific condition of supervised release in relation to the restitution obligation.  Accordingly, we will vacate the judgment and remand for further proceedings.

August 22, 2014 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Victims' Rights At Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Kentucky Supreme Court affirms that ineffective assistance of counsel waivers in plea agreements are ehtically suspect

Via an e-mail from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyer, I just learned of a notable new opinion from the Kentucky Supreme Court.  Here is an excerpt from the NACDL's account of the ruling (as well as a link to the ruling):

In a landmark decision handed down today in U.S. v. Kentucky Bar Assn., the Supreme Court of Kentucky unanimously rejected a challenge by the federal government, by and through its federal prosecutors in that jurisdiction, to Kentucky Bar Association Ethics Opinion E-435, which states that the use of ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC) waivers in plea agreements violates Kentucky's Rules of Professional Conduct.

According to the court, this means that whether in state or federal court in Kentucky, "either defense counsel or prosecutors inserting into plea agreement waivers of collateral attack, including IAC, violates our Rules of Professional Conduct." The Court held that "the use of IAC waivers in plea agreements (1) creates a nonwaivable conflict of interest between the defendant and his attorney, (2) operates effectively to limit the attorney's liability for malpractice, (3) induces, by the prosecutor's insertion of the waiver into plea agreements, an ethical breach by defense counsel." The decision also relies on the McDade-Murtha Amendment (28 USC § 530B), which requires that federal prosecutors abide by state ethics laws. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) advocated for passage of this important check on prosecutorial misconduct and has worked to defeat efforts to repeal or dilute the measure.

The Kentucky Bar Association adopted Ethics Opinion E-435 in late 2012, shortly after NACDL adopted Formal Opinion 12-02, cited in today's Kentucky Supreme Court decision. The NACDL opinion determined that it is not ethical for a criminal defense lawyer to participate in a plea agreement that bars collateral attacks in the absence of an express exclusion for prospective claims based on ineffective assistance of counsel. The NACDL opinion further states that prosecutors may not ethically propose or require such a waiver. It also describes an attorney's duty when the government attempts to extract such a waiver.

NACDL filed an important amicus curiae brief joined by numerous legal ethics professors and practitioners in U.S. v. Kentucky Bar Assn. and was also afforded the opportunity to present oral argument before the Supreme Court of Kentucky in this matter....

A link to the Supreme Court of Kentucky's decision in U.S. v. Kentucky Bar Association is available here.

A link to NACDL's Formal Opinion 12-02 is available here.

A link to NACDL's joint amicus curiae brief in U.S. v. Kentucky Bar Association is available here

August 21, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Pennsylvania Supreme Court declares $75K mandatory fine constitutionally excessive for $200 theft

Images (2)Thanks to How Appealing, I just saw this fascinating new unanimous ruling by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in Pennsylvania v. Eisenberg, No. (Pa. Aug. 19, 2014) (available here). Here is how the lengthy opinion gets started:

The controlling issue in this unusual direct appeal from a conviction arising under the Gaming Act is whether imposition of a mandatory minimum fine of $75,000 for a conviction of a first-degree misdemeanor theft of $200 violates the prohibition of Article I, Section 13 of the Pennsylvania Constitution against excessive fines.  For the reasons set forth below, we conclude that, under the circumstances, the fine imposed indeed is unconstitutionally excessive. Accordingly, we vacate that portion of the judgment of sentence involving the mandatory fine and we remand to the trial court to determine, in its discretion, the appropriate fine to be imposed commensurate with appellant’s offense.

The full ruling is worth a full read by anyone interested in constitutional review of sentences, especially because the ruling turns in part on the fact that the punishment here involved a statutory mandatory term.  Here is an excerpt from the heart of the opinion's analysis:

In our view, the fine here, when measured against the conduct triggering the punishment, and the lack of discretion afforded the trial court, is constitutionally excessive. Simply put, appellant, who had no prior record, stole $200 from his employer, which happened to be a casino.  There was no violence involved; there was apparently no grand scheme involved to defraud either the casino or its patrons.  Employee thefts are unfortunately common; as noted, appellant’s conduct, if charged under the Crimes Code, exposed him to a maximum possible fine of $10,000. Instead, because appellant’s theft occurred at a casino, the trial court had no discretion, under the Gaming Act, but to impose a minimum fine of $75,000 – an amount that was 375 times the amount of the theft....

The Commonwealth argues that the mandatory fine is not constitutionally excessive because a fine serves both to punish and to deter, and in the Legislature’s judgment, the amount here was necessary to accomplish both in light of the public perception of the gaming industry and the significant amount of money exchanged in casinos.  We acknowledge that all fines serve the twin purposes of punishment and deterrence.  At the same time, however, we note that the extension of the mandatory fine to this offense was adopted in 2010, and it was accompanied by no separate legislative statement of purpose. The only statement of purpose is that attending the initial Gaming Act legislation, i.e., the general statement of purpose to protect the public through regulation of the gaming industry.  The Commonwealth cites nothing in the later legislation, its legislative history, or logic to explain the sheer amount of this fine for this particular added offense, and the reason for making the offense subject to a mandatory fine....

[T]he Commonwealth’s reliance on cases in which courts have upheld substantial criminal administrative penalties in light of the Legislature’s dual objectives of punishment and deterrence, is misplaced. In those cases, the fines were tailored, scaled, and in the strictest sense, calculated to their offenses.  It is undoubtedly within the Legislature’s discretion to categorize theft from a casino differently than other theft crimes in Pennsylvania, and, in turn, to fashion different penalties.  However, the prohibition against excessive fines under Article I, Section 13 requires that the Legislature not lose sight of the fact that fines must be reasonably proportionate to the crimes which occasion them.  We hold that, as imposed here, the mandatory fine clearly, palpably and plainly violates the Pennsylvania Constitution.

August 20, 2014 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Detailing the significant increase in California lifers getting parole

This local article, headlined "Life with parole no longer means life term: Legal ruling causes steady rise in parole for California's lifers," highlights that parole has recently become a realistic possibility again for lifers in California. Here are the details:

Not so long ago, the conventional wisdom in legal circles was that any violent criminal sentenced to life with the possibility of parole in California wasn’t likely to ever walk out of prison. Whether that inmate had served the minimum on a term of 15 years to life or 25 years to life seemed inconsequential for many prisoners in the 1990s and early 2000s. In California, life meant life.

But that’s not the case anymore. In 2009, 221 lifer inmates were released from prison on parole, more than twice the number from the year before, according to the Governor’s Office. The numbers have steadily increased since then, reaching a high of 596 lifer inmates released on parole last year.

More than 2,200 inmates who had been serving life sentences in California have been paroled over the past five years, which is more than three times the number of lifers paroled in each of the previous 19 years combined.

Authorities say the higher numbers are primarily the result of a state Supreme Court decision in 2008 that set a new legal standard for the Board of Parole Hearings and the Governor’s Office to use when determining who is suitable for parole. That standard is focused not just on the circumstances of the inmate’s offense, but whether he or she poses a current threat to public safety. If not, the inmate may be released.

Despite speculation to the contrary, Gov. Jerry Brown’s office has stressed that lifer parole grants during his current administration have had nothing to do with a federal court mandate to reduce overcrowding in California’s prisons. “The prison population has no bearing on the governor’s decision to reverse or not act on a parole grant,” said Evan Westrup, a spokesman for Brown....

The spike in paroles came during Arnold Schwarzenegger’s term as governor, when the state’s high court established the standard by which a prisoner could be determined suitable for parole. Schwarzenegger, who was governor from 2003 to 2011, reversed more than 1,100 lifer parole grants during his time in office. One of them involved Sandra Davis Lawrence, who killed her lover’s wife in 1971. Her case went to trial in 1983. She was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

The Board of Parole Hearings determined in 2005 that Lawrence was suitable for parole based on several factors, including her efforts to rehabilitate herself in prison, her acceptance of responsibility for her crime and her close ties to her family. But Schwarzenegger found that Lawrence was not a good candidate for release based on “the gravity of the commitment offense,” according to court documents.

A three-judge panel of the state Supreme Court said that’s not good enough, explaining that parole could not be denied simply because the inmate’s offense was “heinous” or “cruel.” The key factor is whether that person remains a danger at the time parole is considered. “There has to be something more than just your crime was particularly atrocious,” said Jennifer Shaffer, executive officer of the Board of Parole Hearings. Denial can’t be based on “something you can’t change,” she said.

When the board denies parole for an inmate, that decision can be appealed, which results in a court-ordered hearing. In 2009, the first full year after the ruling, there were 263 court-ordered hearings spurred by appeals. “That is basically the court saying, ‘You got it wrong,’” she said. Last year, there were only 13 court-ordered hearings, which Shaffer said indicated the board had learned over time how to do a better job of applying the new standard. “The board, as a whole, learned with a lot of guidance from the court,” she said.

The Board of Parole Hearings issued 670 parole grants in 2012, and 590 in 2013, but some of those offenders may still be behind bars. Depending on factors specific to each case, it could take five months to several years for each prisoner to actually be released. State law bars the board from taking prison overcrowding into account when making its decisions. However, Shaffer said, there may be a perception that the issues are related because of the state’s efforts to comply with the federal court order.

August 20, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

"15 years without an execution: the death penalty in Pennsylvania"

The title of this post is the headline of this local article highlighting Pennsylvania's remarkably long de facto moratorium on executions despite sending a significant number of murderers to death row." Here are the details:

Pennsylvania's Governor Tom Corbett has issued his thirty-sixth execution warrant. Michael Parrish, from Monroe County, is scheduled for execution in October after being convicted of killing his girlfriend and baby.

But according to experts, if the current trend continues, it could be decades before that ever happens. "Anyone who fights the death penalty today can go on for 15 to 25 years on death row," said Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli.

Pennsylvania ranks fourth in the United States for the most people on death row. Close to 200 people currently have a death sentence, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. But the state has executed just three people in the last 35 years.

Morganelli said lengthy appeals are a factor, but not the sole, or biggest influence. "We have federal judges who constantly block these executions…It has nothing to do with the guilt or innocence of the defendant. It is because the federal judges are philosophically opposed to the death penalty," Morganelli said. Other experts said overturned death sentences are also a reason.

Notably, Pennsylvania's modern experience with the death penalty seems somewhat comparable to what has transpired in California; the facts and factors in Pennsylvania thus seem similar to those stressed in Jones v. Chappell, last month's controversial federal district court ruling that California's death penalty is unconstitutional under Eighth Amendment (basics here). I would think more than a few savvy defense lawyers representing death row defendants in Pennsylvania are likely adding Jones claims to their appeals.

Some related posts:

August 20, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack