Monday, October 20, 2014

SCOTUS order list gets week off to exciting start for criminal justice fans

As reported here and here at SCOTUSblog and here at How Appealing and here at Crime & Consequences, the Supreme Court this morning issued this order list which included one notable GVR and three grants of certiorari.  All of this SCOTUS action has a direct or indirect connection to criminal justice issues; these excerpts from Lyle Denniston's SCOTUSblog reporting highlights the basics of the cert grant: 

The Supreme Court, taking on an issue that reaches hotels and motels across the nation, agreed on Monday to rule on the power of city governments to require commercial lodgings to open their guest lists to the police. In agreeing to hear a Los Angeles case, the Justices also said they would rule on whether a lawsuit can be filed to use the Fourth Amendment to strike down a police inspection law in its entirety, whatever the factual situation in a given case.

The case of Los Angeles v. Patel was one of three new cases the Justices accepted for review.... Other issues in the newly granted cases focus on whether federal courts have power to order that guns taken from an individual during a drug prosecution should be transferred when the case is over to a neighbor and a friend to whom the owner wanted to sell them (Henderson v. United States), and whether it is unconstitutional for a state court to exclude an accused individual and defense lawyers from a hearing to examine the legality of prosecutors’ exclusion of minority jurors from serving (Chappell v. Ayala).

In addition, the notable GVR involved the application of the Burrage causation issue resolved last SOCTUS Term in a criminal prosecution involving a doctor convicted of four counts of unlawful distribution of a controlled substance leading to death.  Justice Alito, joined by Justice Thomas, concurred in a written opinion to make clear that "nothing in today’s order should be understood as suggesting that petitioner is entitled to acquittal."

October 20, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

"Why Did the Supreme Court Sidestep Sentencing Dispute?"

The title of this post is not merely the question I had for a few Justices after the denial of cert last week in Jones v. US (lamented here and here), it is also the headline of this new National Law Journal article about this decision authored by Tony Mauro.  Here are excerpts:

The U.S. Supreme Court's ­refusal to add a Washington drug case to its docket would not ordinarily get much notice.  But when the court did just that on Oct. 14, it drew wide criticism for missing an opportunity to resolve a long-­running dispute over judicial discretion in ­sentencing.

The court denied certiorari in Jones v. United States, which asked the court to rule that in deciding on a sentence, federal judges should not be able to take into consideration conduct for which the defendant was acquitted.  In the Jones case, the trial judge significantly increased the sentences of three defendants by factoring in drug conspiracy charges that the jury had rejected.

"It is really hard to understand why the court ruled as it did," said University of Illinois College of Law professor Margareth Etienne, a sentencing expert. "It goes against everything the Supreme Court has said for the last 15 years."

Cato Institute senior fellow Ilya Shapiro said, "It's not just high-­profile culture-war issues like same-sex ­marriage and the right to bear arms that the Supreme Court is avoiding like the plague."  Shapiro said the court's action was "another opportunity lost by the Court, another responsibility shirked.  "The issue has been raised in numerous lower court decisions, and in a 2007 Supreme Court case, several justices said it should be taken up if the right case came along.  As recently as Oct. 1, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit mentioned the Jones case in a ruling that criticized the "questionable ­practice" of basing sentences on uncharged or unproven offenses.

An unusual lineup of three justices — Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg — took the rare step of dissenting from the denial of review.  "This has gone on long enough," Scalia wrote. "The present petition presents the non-hypothetical case the court claimed to have been waiting for."

In the case the court denied, a District of Columbia jury found Antwuan Ball, Desmond Thurston and Joseph Jones guilty in 2007 of selling between two and 11 grams of cocaine, relatively small amounts. They were acquitted on racketeering and other charges that they were part of an extensive narcotics conspiracy. Yet, when U.S. District Judge Richard Roberts sentenced the three, he said he "saw clear evidence of a drug conspiracy," and sentenced Ball, Thurston and Jones to 18, 16 and 15 years in prison, respectively — four times higher than the highest sentences given for others who sold similar amounts of cocaine, according to filings with the Supreme Court....

Stephen Leckar, of counsel to Kalbian Hagerty in Washington, who represented the defendants in the petition denied last week, said he was disappointed that the petition fell "one vote short" of being granted certiorari. The fact that conservatives Scalia and Thomas dissented — along with liberal Ginsburg — "ought to be a fire bell in the night" signaling that the issue should be resolved, Leckar said....

The University of Illinois' Etienne speculated that some justices may have felt the facts of the Jones case were "too good" to be a vehicle for making a broad pronouncement on the issue. She explained that Jones involved a judge ignoring an actual acquittal by a jury, whereas a more common scenario is a judge basing an enhanced sentence on conduct that may or may not have been charged or was not part of a plea agreement. Ruling on a case involving an actual acquittal might leave the broader issue unresolved. "It is going to take a while" for the court to revisit the issue, Etienne added. "Until it does, the old adage that one is 'innocent until proven guilty' will continue to have little meaning."

Previous related posts on the Jones case:

October 20, 2014 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Judicial misconduct complained against Fifth Circuit Judge Jones based on provocative death penalty speech dismissed

Thanks to recent posts at Hercules and the Umpire and at Crime & Consequences, I see that the judicial misconduct complaint filed against US Circuit Judge Edith Jones of the Fifth Circuit based on a provocative speech she gave concerning the death penalty at a law school.  The lengthy dismissal order is available here, and this AP article reviews the basics:

A council of federal judges has dismissed a misconduct complaint against a conservative appellate judge who was alleged to have made racially discriminatory remarks at a lecture on the death penalty.

Judge Edith Jones ... allegedly said at a speech in February 2013 at the University of Pennsylvania law school that certain racial groups like African-Americans and Hispanics are predisposed to crime, and are prone to commit acts of violence and to be involved in more violent and heinous crimes than people of other ethnicities.

Thirteen individuals and public interest groups filed a judicial misconduct complaint against Jones, and Chief Justice John Roberts assigned the case to the appeals court in Washington at the request of the chief appeals judge in New Orleans. The dismissal, which took place in August, was publicly disclosed Wednesday.

In a lengthy inquiry, a three-judge panel of the judicial council was unable to find any recording of Jones' remarks, forcing them to rely on varying recollections of audience members about precisely what Jones said. "It appears likely that Judge Jones did suggest that, statistically, African-Americans and/or Hispanics are `disproportionately' involved in certain crimes and `disproportionately' present in federal prisons," said the panel. "But we must consider Judge Jones' comments in the context of her express clarifications during the question-and-answer period that she did not mean that certain groups are `prone to commit' such crimes," the panel of judges said.

"In that context, whether or not her statistical statements are accurate, or accurate only with caveats, they do not by themselves indicate racial bias or an inability to be impartial," said the panel. "They resemble other albeit substantially more qualified, statements prominent in contemporary debate regarding the fairness of the justice system."

Attorney Maurie Levin, who represents the complainants, said the ruling "essentially credits Judge Jones' stale recollections over the testimony of a lawyer and five law students who set down their recollections not long after the lecture. There is simply no way to understand that as a fair weighing of the evidence." The complainants are appealing to the Committee on Judicial Conduct and Disability of the judicial council.

I especially recommend Judge Richard Kopf's analysis and reactions in his post at Hercules and the Umpire, and I found noteworthy and important these particular reactive insights from Judge Kopf:

The work of the Special Committee and Professor Jeffrey Bellin makes me proud to be a federal judge. The clarity, tone, thoroughness and objectivity which is evident in the Report of the Special Committee is remarkable....

In my opinion, the essential allegations of the complaint lack a credible factual basis. With the aid of Professor Bellin’s searching investigation, the Report of the Special Committee, in restrained terms, explains why that is so.

I fear that complaints like this one will chill, and may even be intended to chill, judicial speech concerning the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice, particularly when the judge does not share the jurisprudential or ideological views of the listeners, and despite the fact that federal judges are expressly encouraged under the Code to speak about the law and how to improve it.

As distinguished from my fears expressed in the preceding paragraph, the Report of the Special Committee does a skillful job of explaining why controversial speech by a federal judge in the context of a talk on the law does not violate the Code.

Prior related posts:

UPDATE: Judge Kopf now has this additional interesting post on this matter titled "On being 'uncomfortable' and 'offended' — the ethics complaint against Judge Jones and the student affiants."

October 19, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Saturday, October 18, 2014

With DAG James Cole also stepping down, new appointments will remark DOJ

DownloadAs detailed in this Los Angeles Times article, "Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole said in an interview Thursday that, like his boss, he will soon leave the Justice Department." Here is more about the emptiness at DOJ and DAG Cole's work and legacy:

The coming departure of Cole, who for four years has been the day-to-day boss of the department, adds to a growing leadership vacuum at the federal government’s top law enforcement agency. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder, Jr. announced last month that he would leave as soon as a successor is confirmed, though the Obama administration has so far not announced a replacement.

At least half a dozen other top positions at Justice, including the associate attorney general, the No. 3 job, are currently filled with acting appointees.

Cole said he was particularly proud of his efforts to take a softer federal approach to enforcement of federal marijuana laws, a project to encourage nonviolent prisoners serving long drug sentences to apply for a presidential commutation, and prosecution of Credit Suisse bank and individual Swiss bankers for helping U.S. citizens evade taxes.

He has also been closely involved in Holder’s “smart on crime” initiative to reduce the prison population and the large proportion of African Americans in federal prisons.

Cole said he expected to leave in early January, after someone has been chosen to take his place, on a permanent or acting basis.

October 18, 2014 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, October 17, 2014

ProPublica urges next AG to "Fix Presidential Pardons"

The title of this post is drawn from the headline of this strong new piece from the Editor-in-Chief of ProPublica. The full headline and subheadline provides the basics: "For the Next Attorney General, a Modest Suggestion: Fix Presidential Pardons; More than two years ago, a ProPublica series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged." And here are a few excerpts from a piece that is styled as an open letter to the next Attorney General:

Dear Possible Attorney General Nominees (You Know Who You Are),...

More than two years ago, ProPublica reporters Dafna Linzer and Jennifer LaFleur revealed that white applicants were nearly four times as likely to receive a presidential pardon as were comparable African Americans. The story appeared on the front page of The Washington Post, our publishing partner. I know, I know, this seems improbable but LaFleur spent many months doing a statistical analysis that eliminated every other factor we could imagine that might explain this disparity. We sent our findings and methodology to several leading experts in the field. All agreed that race was the only factor driving the vast difference. We published our methodology and you can read it here. Linzer's reporting on the pardons process suggested that it was far more subjective than you might have thought. We wrote about how race creeps into decision-making even when no one is overtly biased. It's worth a look.

Given the starkness of these findings, we at ProPublica thought, naively, that your predecessor and his boss would move immediately to address this problem. As I'm sure you're aware, a president's authority to grant pardons is one of the only unchecked powers in our constitutional system of checks and balances. When it comes to pardons, President Obama can do whatever he wants.

We were told by several political insiders that the pardon stories did not prompt reform because of their timing. They appeared in late 2011, just as the president was gearing up for what was expected to be a bruising campaign for a second term. It was not considered the politically ideal moment for the nation's first African-American president to make the justice system fairer for people of color. And so the government did what it so often does in such circumstances: It commissioned a study to see if our findings were correct....

If history is any guide, you'll be getting a tsunami of pardon requests in the last months of the administration. It might be nice to have come up with some serious reforms by then to fix a process that is so demonstrably flawed. There are lots of ideas about what could done, from setting up an independent pardons commission to taking the pardons office out of the Justice Department.

Good luck with the confirmation hearings. And remember, two years can fly by a lot quicker than you'd ever imagine....

Best Regards,

Stephen Engelberg/Editor in Chief, ProPublica

October 17, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Thursday, October 16, 2014

"Is Hillary Clinton ready for marijuana's 2016 push?"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable and lengthy new CNN article.  Here are excerpts:

When Hillary Clinton graduated from Wellesley College in 1969 -- where the future first lady and Secretary of State says she did not try marijuana -- only 12% of Americans wanted to legalize the drug.  In 45 years, however, the tide has changed for legalization: 58% of Americans now want to make consumption legal, two states (Colorado and Washington) already have and two more states (Oregon and Alaska) could join them by the end of the year.

Despite their growth in approval, many activists see 2014 as a smaller, but important, step to their end goal.  It is 2016, when voters will also have to decide who they want in the White House, that marijuana activists feel could be the real tipping point for their movement.

"There will certainly be even more on the ballot in 2016," said Tamar Todd, director of marijuana law and policy and the Drug Policy Alliance.  "More voters coming to the polls means more support for marijuana reform and in presidential election years, more voters turn out."

Demographics and money are also an important consideration.  Big donors who are ready to fund pro-legalization efforts are more loose with their money in presidential years, according to activists, while Democrats and young people are more likely to turn out. This means legalization activists will be better funded to reach the nearly 70% of 18 to 29 year old Americans who support legalization.

On paper, activists feel their plan will work. But it is one yet to be decided factor -- who Democrats will nominate for president in 2016 -- that could throw a wrench into their push. Clinton is the prohibitive favorite for the Democrats' nomination, but to many in the marijuana legalization community, she is not the best messenger for their cause.

"She is so politically pragmatic," said Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.  "If she has to find herself running against a conservative Republican in 2016, I am fearful, from my own view here, that she is going to tack more to the middle. And the middle in this issue tends to tack more to the conservative side."...

Clinton has moved towards pro-legalization, though. Earlier this year, during a town hall with CNN, she told Christiane Amanpour that she wants to "wait and see" how legalization goes in the states before making a national decision. At the same event, she cast some doubt on medical marijuana by questioning the amount of research done into the issue.

Later in the year, Clinton labeled marijuana a "gateway drug" where there "can't be a total absence of law enforcement."

"I'm a big believer in acquiring evidence, and I think we should see what kind of results we get, both from medical marijuana and from recreational marijuana before we make any far-reaching conclusions," Clinton told KPCC in July. "We need more studies. We need more evidence. And then we can proceed."

This is more open, however, than in 2008 when Clinton was outright against decriminalization, a step that is less aggressive than legalization. Despite warming on the issue, Clinton's position is concerning to activists like St. Pierre because he feels they are far from solid. "If reforms keep picking up... the winds in our sails are clear," he said. "But if we lose one of more or all of those elections this year, cautious people around her could make the argument that this thing has peaked and you now have to get on the other side of it."

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

October 16, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Will Eric Holder still be Attorney General well into 2015?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent press report that "President Obama plans to wait on nominating a new attorney general to replace Eric Holder until shortly after the November election." Here is more on the slow pace of Holder's departure from the Office of Attorney General: 

A source close to the process on Tuesday confirmed to Fox News that the president plans to wait until after the Nov. 4 midterm elections. The source said the administration considers the appointment to be serious and wants to wait so the nomination doesn’t get mired in election-year politics. Democrats reportedly had asked the president to hold off until after Nov. 4.

But some Senate Republicans wanted Obama to wait until the new Senate is seated in January to name his pick to succeed Holder. By naming a nominee shortly after the election yet before the new year, the White House would be putting his or her confirmation in the hands of some lawmakers who are not returning in 2015 -- and thus no longer accountable to voters. Further, the White House would be handing the nomination to a Democrat-controlled Senate, despite the possibility that control of the Senate could flip to Republicans in January.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has warned that confirming Holder’s successor before a new Congress is sworn in “would be an abuse of power that should not be countenanced."...

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, asked about the timing, said Tuesday that it will take a "little bit of time" to choose the right nominee for the job. But he urged the Senate to "act quickly and in a bipartisan fashion to confirm that person."

The lame duck timetable covers just seven legislative calendar weeks, not accounting time off for holiday recesses. But the White House has pointed out there is precedent for such a move. The day after the 2006 midterm, President George W. Bush nominated Robert Gates as secretary of defense and he was confirmed in less than a month with bipartisan support.

A few recent related posts:

October 15, 2014 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

AG Eric Holder officially says federal prosecutors should no longer require defendants to "waive their right to bring future claims of ineffective assistance of counsel"

I have long thought it both bad policy and ethically suspect to expect or require criminal defendants to waive future rights (as opposed to current rights) in a plea agreement.  Consequently, I am very pleased to see this new press release coming the the US Department of Justice, titled "Attorney General Holder Announces New Policy to Enhance Justice Department's Commitment to Support Defendants' Right to Counsel." Here are the details (with my emphasis added):

Attorney General Eric Holder, along with Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole, announced today that the Department of Justice will no longer ask criminal defendants who plead guilty to waive their right to bring future claims of ineffective assistance of counsel.  The new policy bolsters the department’s commitment to ensuring that individuals are ably represented as they face criminal charges and marks the Attorney General’s latest step to reform the criminal justice system.

“Everyone in this country who faces criminal legal action deserves the opportunity to make decisions with the assistance of effective legal counsel,” said Attorney General Holder. “Under this policy, no defendant will have to forego their right to able representation in the course of pleading guilty to a crime.  I am confident in the ability of our outstanding prosecutors to ably and successfully perform their duties without the use of these waivers, as the vast majority of them already do.  Moving forward, I am certain that this more consistent policy will help to bring our system of justice closer in line with our most fundamental values and highest ideals.”...

Deputy Attorney General Cole unveiled the new policy through a memorandum to all federal prosecutors and through a conference call today. Prior to today’s action, 35 of the department’s 94 U.S. Attorney’s Offices sought waivers of future claims that included claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. While the department believes such waivers are legal and ethical, the new policy will create a uniform policy for all U.S. Attorneys to follow.

The memo directs federal prosecutors to no longer ask defendants to waive future claims of ineffective assistance of counsel in plea agreements. It also instructs prosecutors to decline to enforce waivers that have already been signed in cases where defense counsel provided ineffective assistance resulting in prejudice or where the defendant’s ineffective assistance claim raises a serious issue that a court should resolve.

As noted in this prior post, a few months ago the the Supreme Court of Kentucky unanimously rejected a challenge by the federal government to Kentucky Bar Association Ethics Opinion stating that the use of ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC) waivers in plea agreements violates Kentucky's Rules of Professional Conduct.  Thus, I think DOJ is still on shaky ground when it asserts a belief that such waivers "are legal and ethical," but this suspect view becomes a lot less worrisome if the feds no longer plan to use such waivers nand also will not seek to have them enforced.

Kudos to AG Holder and others in DOJ for making the sounder ethical and policy approach to this significant matter now official DOJ policy.  And, notably, those who regard national consistency in federal sentencing policy and practice to be important should also welcome this universal policy decision coming from Main Justice.

UPDATE: The one-page memo referenced in this press release can be downloaded here:  Download DOJ Policy on Waivers of Claims of IAC

October 14, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Refusing to take up acquitted punishment, passive virtues, SCOTUS reputation, and cert-denial-deal speculation

I cannot resist the urge to use this space to reflect upon (and perhaps salve) my disappointment in the learning the certiorari petition in Jones v. US, No. 13-10026 — a case in which I wrote this SCOTUS amicus brief in support of cert — came up only one SCOTUS vote short of making it as the petition today was denied over a dissent authored by Justice Scalia and joined by Justices Thomas and Ginsburg.   As I briefly explained in this initial post on the cert denial, I find especially notable and troubling that neither Justices Sotomayor and Kagan provided the key single additional vote for cert given that both were in the majority in two recent cases which, I think, further set a foundation for finding constitutional limits on guideline punishment enhancements based on acquitted conduct.

As I have explained in prior posts and in my Jones amicus brief, in Peugh v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2072 (2013) (authored by Justice Sotomayor), the Supreme Court clarified that Guideline ranges, even though now only advisory after Booker, still have consequential “force as the framework for sentencing” and thus are subject to at least some constitutional limitations on how they are calculated and applied. Id. at 2083-84.  And in Alleyne v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2151 (2013) (with both Justices Sotomayor and Kagan as key votes to reverse a pre-Blakely/Booker precedent), the Supreme Court overturned a prior holding that had failed to recognize that the constitutional protections of the Fifth and Sixth Amendments apply fully not only to facts raising maximum sentences, but whenever the law creates a “linkage of facts with particular sentencing ranges." 133 S. Ct. at 2159-62.

I continue to believe (or at least want to believe) that the huge acquitted conduct guideline punishment enhancements at issue in Jones have to trouble greatly any Justice who truly accepts the Apprendi-Blakely Sixth Amendment jurisprudence, AND who truly believes the advisory federal sentencing guidelines still have constitutionally-significant legal force (as Peugh holds), AND who truly claims the Constitution is concerned with judicial findings of facts that raise punishment floors as well as ceilings (as Alleyne holds).  In other words, I continue to believe (or at least want to believe) that Justices Sotomayor and Kagan would be votes to reverse the sentences at issue in a case like Jones if and when cert is ever granted to review huge acquitted conduct guideline punishment enhancements.  

So why wasn't cert granted this time around, especially with Justices Scalia, Thomas and Ginsburg vocally in support of such a grant in Jones?  As the title of this post is meant to suggest, I think Justices Sotomayor and Kagan may have concluded it would be virtuous and valuable to be passive in this setting, at least for right now, because any extended SCOTUS consideration of extended acquitted guidelines punishment could give Sixth Amendment rights (and SCOTUS itself) an extended black eye (especially if one or both of them might ultimately be inclined to uphold extended acquitted guidelines punishments in Jones).  

I have long hoped for and sought a cert grant on acquitted conduct enhancements because I have long believed jurisprudes on both the left and the right will (and should) have a hard time defending, especially in light of the strong jury-rights rhetoric in cases like Apprendi and Blakely, a federal guideline sentencing system that still recommends huge punishment increases based essentially on judicial rejection of a not-guilty jury verdict.  (Notably, the only time SCOTUS directly addressed this issue, in the 1997 Watts case, the Court issued a summary reversal to permit acquitted conduct enhancements and thus prevented full briefing or oral argument on the matter.)   But yet again because of another cert denial, we will not learn if Justices Breyer and Kennedy (or even CJ Roberts), who in other settings express concerns about prosecutorial power and excessive sentencing, might be cajoled through full briefing and argument to see the constitutional vices of allowing prosecutors and judges to trump juries in the federal sentencing process. 

Finally, once one starts thinking about the possibility that Justices Breyer and Kennedy and even CJ Roberts might have been especially eager right now to dodge full consideration of acquitted conduct punishments, it becomes hard to avoid speculating about "long confernce" deals to deny cert and thereby dodge consideration now of other (higher profile) hard constitutionally issues.  As all Court-watchers know, the really big cert-denial news after the SCOTUS long conference involved denials in all the same-sex marriage cases from around the country.  Dare I show my ignorance about what really goes on behind SCOTUS doors when I wonder if, at least tacitly, a large block of Justices concluded during the long conference that it was in every Justices' interest to be "deeply in denial."  Just a (silly?) thought.

Previous related posts on the Jones case:

October 14, 2014 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Three Justices dissent from denial of certiorari in Jones/Ball acquitted conduct case

I am very disappointed to have to report that this morning the Supreme Court denied certiorari review in the notable federal drug sentencing case from DC involving Antwan Ball and his co-defendants concerning judicial fact-finding to increase a federal guideline sentence contrary to a jury acquittal.  As I noted in this post last week, Jones v. US, No. 13-10026, was relisted by the Justices after their "long conference."  Now today's SCOTUS order list has at the very end the news that cert has been denied in Jones v. US, No. 13-10026, with a three-page dissent from that decision authored by Justice Scalia and joined by Justices Thomas and Ginsburg.  Mega-bummer!!!

Here is the bulk of Justice Scalia's dissent from the denial of cert in Jones (with emphasis in the original): 

A jury convicted petitioners Joseph Jones, Desmond Thurston, and Antwuan Ball of distributing very small amounts of crack cocaine, and acquitted them of conspiring to distribute drugs. The sentencing judge, however, found that they had engaged in the charged conspiracy and, relying largely on that finding, imposed sentences that petitioners say were many times longer than those the Guidelines would otherwise have recommended.

Petitioners present a strong case that, but for the judge’s finding of fact, their sentences would have been “substantively unreasonable” and therefore illegal.  See Rita v. United States, 551 U.S. 338, 372 (2007) (SCALIA, J., joined by THOMAS, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment).  If so, their constitutional rights were violated.  The Sixth Amendment, together with the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, “requires that each element of a crime” be either admitted by the defendant, or “proved to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt.”  Alleyne v. United States, 570 U. S. ___, ___ (2013) (slip op., at 3). Any fact that increases the penalty to which a defendant is exposed constitutes an element of a crime, Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466, 483, n. 10, 490 (2000), and “must be found by a jury, not a judge,” Cunningham v. California, 549 U. S. 270, 281 (2007).  We have held that a substantively unreasonable penalty is illegal and must be set aside.  Gall v. United States, 552 U.S. 38, 51 (2007).  It unavoidably follows that any fact necessary to prevent a sentence from being substantively unreasonable — thereby exposing the defendant to the longer sentence — is an element that must be either admitted by the defendant or found by the jury.  It may not be found by a judge.

For years, however, we have refrained from saying so.  In Rita v. United States, we dismissed the possibility of Sixth Amendment violations resulting from substantive reasonableness review as hypothetical and not presented by the facts of the case.  We thus left for another day the question whether the Sixth Amendment is violated when courts impose sentences that, but for a judge-found fact, would be reversed for substantive unreasonableness.  551 U.S., at 353; see also id., at 366 (Stevens, J., joined in part by GINSBURG, J., concurring) (“Such a hypothetical case should be decided if and when it arises”).  Nonetheless, the Courts of Appeals have uniformly taken our continuing silence to suggest that the Constitution does permit otherwise unreasonable sentences supported by judicial factfinding, so long as they are within the statutory range....

This has gone on long enough.  The present petition presents the nonhypothetical case the Court claimed to have been waiting for.  And it is a particularly appealing case, because not only did no jury convict these defendants of the offense the sentencing judge thought them guilty of, but a jury acquitted them of that offense.  Petitioners were convicted of distributing drugs, but acquitted of conspiring to distribute drugs.  The sentencing judge found that petitioners had engaged in the conspiracy of which the jury acquitted them. The Guidelines, petitioners claim, recommend sentences of between 27 and 71 months for their distribution convictions.  But in light of the conspiracy finding, the court calculated much higher Guidelines ranges, and sentenced Jones, Thurston, and Ball to 180, 194, and 225 months’ imprisonment.  

On petitioners’ appeal, the D. C. Circuit held that even if their sentences would have been substantively unreasonable but for judge-found facts, their Sixth Amendment rights were not violated.  744 F. 3d 1362, 1369 (2014).  We should grant certiorari to put an end to the unbroken string of cases disregarding the Sixth Amendment — or to eliminate the Sixth Amendment difficulty by acknowledging that all sentences below the statutory maximum are substantively reasonable.

I am especially disappointed that Justice Scalia and his joiners here could not garner one more vote to grant cert from any of the newer Justices who came on the Court after Blakely and Booker became the Sixth Amendment law of the land.  Of course, Justice Alito has frequently shown his disaffinity for expanding the Sixth Amendment rights recognized in those cases.  But Chief Justice Roberts joined the Blakely gang in applying (and arguably expanding) Sixth Amendment rights in Cunningham v. California and Justices Sotomayor and Kagan have "shown empathy" for defendants seeking expanded applications of the Sixth Amendment in more recent cases such as Alleyne.  As I will explain in a future post, anyone (like me) hoping that Justices Sotomayor and Kagan might end up being even more committed to defendants' procedural rights at sentencing has to be deeply troubled by their disinclination to provide a fourth vote for granting cert in Jones.

Previous related posts on this case and acquitted conduct sentencing enhancements:

October 14, 2014 in Advisory Sentencing Guidelines, Blakely Commentary and News, Blakely in the Supreme Court, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Monday, October 13, 2014

Oklahoma AG requests additional delay before state gets back to executions

As reported in this Reuters article, "Oklahoma's attorney general has filed a request to delay three upcoming executions in Oklahoma due to a lack of drugs and to provide more time to implement new lethal injection protocols, according to court documents obtained on Monday."   Here is more:

Attorney General Scott Pruitt has asked the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals to delay two executions set for November and one set for December because the state does not have the necessary drugs or the medical personnel to carry out the executions, a filing from last week showed. The drugs used during executions in the United States are under scrutiny after inmates in troubled executions in Ohio, Oklahoma and Arizona took longer than is typical to die and showed signs of distress.

Pruitt requested a Jan. 15 execution date for Charles Warner, convicted of raping and murdering 11-month old Adrianna Walker. Pruitt was scheduled to be executed Nov. 13. His original execution date was April 29, the same night of the botched execution of condemned murderer Clayton Lockett. Lockett's execution prompted the state to delay all executions pending a review and investigation into why it took Lockett over 40 minutes to die....

Richard Eugene Glossip and John Marion Grant were also scheduled for execution in 2014, but Pruitt asked that their executions be set for Jan. 29 and Feb. 19, respectively. Robert Patton, director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, issued a statement on Monday supporting the 60-day delay.

Dale Baich, attorney for Warner, issued a statement applauding Pruitt's request, saying more time is needed for the federal courts to review a lawsuit filed by 26 inmates, including Warner, Glossip and Grant. The lawsuit argues that the state is experimenting on death row inmates with untested lethal injection drugs, violating the law’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

October 13, 2014 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

"Will Oscar Pistorius serve any prison time for killing Reeva Steenkamp?"

The question in the title of this post is the first line of this AP article headlined "Factors that may affect if Pistorius spends time in prison." Because I know very little about South African sentencing law and procedure, I found this AP article quite informative, and here are excerpts:

Judge Thokozile Masipa began hearing testimony Monday before deciding what sentence the double-amputee Olympic athlete should serve.  Pistorius was acquitted of murder in Steenkamp's shooting death but convicted of a lesser charge of culpable homicide, or killing Steenkamp through negligence.  It has a wide range of possible sentences in South Africa, from a fine and no prison time to as much as 15 years in jail....

Judge Masipa will hear testimony from a small number of witnesses called by the defence and then prosecution before deciding on Pistorius' sentence.  The defence began presenting witness testimony on Monday, arguing why the judge should be lenient.  Prosecutors could call Steenkamp's family members to show that Pistorius should be sent to prison for years because of the suffering he has caused....

Pistorius' lawyers cited what they say is his remorse and previous good character as reasons for a lenient sentence.  Defence lawyers began by calling a psychologist who has counselled the athlete since he killed Steenkamp. Dr. Lore Hartzenberg testified that Pistorius was a "broken man" wracked with grief following the shooting, and had lost his reputation, his friends and his career.  The defence hopes her testimony -- which focused on what she said was Pistorius' emotional pain following an accidental killing -- will help persuade Masipa that Pistorius is remorseful, has suffered already and shouldn't be sent to prison because he needs ongoing therapy.

Prosecutor Gerrie Nel countered that Pistorius was "still alive" and Steenkamp wasn't and that should be considered....

Pistorius' work with charities before the Feb. 14, 2013 shooting was listed extensively by his agent, Peet van Zyl, who was also called by the defence.  Van Zyl's testimony was designed to paint the Paralympic champion as a generally good person who had no previous criminal record.  He also said that Pistorius had lost all his athletics endorsements because of the court case and had already been punished financially.

A social worker from South Africa's department of correctional services was the only one of the three defence witnesses who testified on the first day of the hearing to suggest a sentence.  Joel Maringa said three years of "correctional supervision" would be appropriate, where Pistorius would be partly under house arrest and have to do community service, but would also be able to train and attend athletics meets.

Nel fiercely criticized that suggestion, saying it was "shockingly inappropriate" after Pistorius killed someone.  The prosecution, which sought a murder conviction, has insisted that Pistorius should go to prison because of the level of negligence he displayed when he fired four hollow-point bullets through a toilet cubicle door in his home and into a small space without checking who was inside.

Masipa's options are wide-ranging: She could order a fine and a suspended prison sentence, meaning the 27-year-old Pistorius spends no time in jail unless he offends again.  But she could also sentence him to up to 15 years in prison.  In between those two scenarios, Masipa could order he be put under house arrest for a period.  Pistorius could apply for parole after serving half of any prison sentence.

October 13, 2014 in Celebrity sentencings, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Noting how politicians can be pro-life and pro-death (penalty) in Texas

This local story on modern Texas politics, headlined "Being pro-life in gov's race doesn't extend to death row," highlights what concerns about the sanctity of life real mean in the Lone Star State.  Here are excerpts:

When Attorney General Greg Abbott talks about his opposition to abortion, he often mentions his Catholic faith. Not so when he talks about his support for the death penalty, whose abolition is advocated by Pope Francis.

“Catholic doctrine is not against the death penalty, and so there is no conflict there,” Abbott, the Republican nominee for governor, said when asked about that point in a meeting with the San Antonio Express-News Editorial Board.  The Catholic catechism doesn't exclude the death penalty as an option if that's the only way to defend human lives from an offender, but it says that given current options, such cases “are very rare, if practically non-existent.”

Pope Francis, in reaffirming the church's call to abolish the death penalty last year, asked that such sentences be commuted to a lesser punishment allowing for the offender's reform, the National Catholic Register reported.  “The difference, of course, is one between innocent life and those who have taken innocent lives,” Abbott said of his position on abortion versus the death penalty.

A different view on capital punishment would itself be seen as tantamount to a political death sentence in Texas.  Abbott's Democratic opponent, Sen. Wendy Davis, also backs the death penalty — even though as a Fort Worth City Council member in 2000 she voted to impose a moratorium on it, and even though the Texas Democratic Party platform calls for substituting life in prison for capital punishment, saying the death penalty is applied disproportionately to the poor and persons of color.

The moratorium didn't pass, and Davis said that the questions prompting her to support it then have largely been answered through such means as advancement in the use of DNA evidence. “Obviously, before we mete out the most serious of punishments, we need to know we've done everything to assure that the person on the receiving end of that punishment is guilty,” Davis told the Express-News Editorial Board in a separate appearance Friday. “We have made some advances in that regard. ... Is there still work to do? Absolutely.”

Both candidates credited work by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, on the issue. Abbott cited his efforts with Ellis on legislation to expand DNA testing in death penalty cases. “I know that the only way the death penalty will work is to ensure its absolute accuracy — that everyone who is given the death penalty is guilty of the crime for which they were accused and convicted of committing,” Abbott said.

Being sure can be difficult.  In 2010, Anthony Graves became the 12th death-row inmate to be exonerated in Texas, absolved of the 1992 Burleson County murder for which he was convicted.  Michael Morton, who served 25 years in his wife's Williamson County murder before being exonerated, told CNN, “I thank God this wasn't a capital case.”...

Abbott and Davis both said if elected, they'll also take care in presiding over executions. “I will ensure that before I ever allow an execution to occur, I will be 100 percent convinced that the person who is being sentenced to the death penalty is guilty of that crime,” Abbott said. Davis said, “As governor, I'll take that very seriously and make sure that before that punishment is meted out that we have done everything we can to answer the questions that need to be answered.”

October 13, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Religion, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Sunday, October 12, 2014

"Confronting Cognitive 'Anchoring Effect' and 'Blind Spot' Biases in Federal Sentencing: A Modest Solution for Reforming a Fundamental Flaw"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new paper by U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett. Here is the abstract:

Cognitive "anchoring effect" bias, especially related to numbers, like sentencing guidelines ranges, is widely recognized in cognitive psychology as an extremely robust and powerful heuristic.  It is a cognitive shortcut that has a strong tendency to undermine judgments by "anchoring" a judgment to an earlier disclosed number, the anchor.  Numerous studies prove anchoring bias produces systematic errors in judgment in wide-ranging circumstances, including judgments by experts — doctors, lawyers, real estate agents, psychologists, and auditors — as well as a variety of decisions by foreign and American federal and state judges.  The anchoring effect occurs even when the anchor is incomplete, inaccurate, irrelevant, implausible, or even random.

Roughly corresponding in time with the developing understanding of the anchoring effect, federal sentencing has undergone a revolution from judges having virtually unlimited discretion, to virtually no discretion, and back to considerable discretion, as the Federal Sentencing Guidelines went from mandatory to advisory in a single monumental U.S. Supreme Court decision, United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005).  Surprisingly, since judges were granted much greater discretion in Booker, the length and severity of federal sentences, for the most part, has not changed.  This remains true despite long-standing, persistent, and widespread dissatisfaction among federal district court judges with the Guidelines and the length of sentences.  This Article argues that this is because judges’ sentences are subconsciously anchored by the calculated Guidelines range.

This Article offers a simple, modest, and practical solution that requires no change in existing law by the Supreme Court or Congress.  It simply requires rearranging the numerical anchoring information in the presentence report and adding additional relevant numerical information to counteract the anchoring effect of the Guidelines.  If federal district court judges are educated about the effect of cognitive anchoring and their own bias-based blind spots to it — their improved awareness can only enhance the fairness of sentencing.

October 12, 2014 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Documenting a notable California legal crusade against sex offender restrictions

This lengthy local article, headlined "Pair seeks repeal of sex-offender laws in California," provides a detailed review of a notable effort to take down via court challenges local sex offender restrictions. The piece merits a full read, and here are a few highlights:

A crusading civil rights attorney and a registered sex offender have partnered in a legal battle that has prompted dozens of California cities to repeal or revise what the pair believe are unconstitutional ordinances restricting the activities of sex offenders.

Since March, Santa Maria attorney Janice Bellucci and Frank Lindsay, a 62-year-old water-treatment specialist from Grover Beach and registered sex offender for 35 years, have filed 18 lawsuits in federal court challenging ordinances in cities from Stockton down to National City.

To date, Bellucci has settled 15 of the lawsuits, while 38 other cities have avoided litigation by agreeing to repeal their ordinances. Six other cities have voluntarily suspended enforcement of their ordinances, while ordinances in another 18 cities are still under review.

“The way I look at it is that I’m protecting the Constitution of the United States as well as the state of California,” said Bellucci, president of California Reform Sex Offender Laws, a nonprofit she launched three years ago as an affiliate to the national Reform Sex Offender Laws organization.

While Bellucci believes she’s fighting for the rights of oppressed sex offenders, others say she’s endangering the state’s youth. “As an elected official and as a mother, I’m concerned about the health and safety of our young people who don’t have a voice,” said Carson Councilwoman Lulu Davis-Holmes. Carson is one city sued by Bellucci that plans to fight the lawsuit. “Our kids did not make the choice to be molested,” Davis-Holmes said. “I personally think we need to do more to protect those who cannot protect themselves,”

Bellucci’s flurry of lawsuits was prompted by a 4th District Court of Appeal’s decision in January that found sex offender ordinances in Orange County and the city of Irvine cannot impose restrictions more stringent than state law, which only restricts sex offenders who are on parole and whose victims were under the age of 14 from visiting public parks without the express permission of their parole agent.

In addition to the suits she filed with Lindsay, Bellucci has filed two lawsuits on her own, challenging ordinances in Canyon Lake and Commerce. Those complaints do not name Lindsay as a plaintiff because ordinances in those cities do not apply to sex offenders whose convictions are as old as Lindsay’s.

In April, the state Supreme Court declined a petition by the Orange County District Attorney’s Office to review the appellate court ruling, leaving it intact. The appellate court ruling, coupled with the spate of litigation initiated by Bellucci, could have a major impact on the lives of California’s 107,913 registered sex offenders, roughly 14 percent of the nation’s 774,600, as cities and counties are forced to either repeal their ordinances or make them uniform with state law.

This companion article, headlined "Sex-crimes convict says registration has ruined his career, endangered his life?," provides a profile of the sex-offender who is the plaintiff in much of the discussed California sex offender litigation.

October 12, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Friday, October 10, 2014

Wyoming Supreme Court joins group deciding SCOTUS Miller ruling is retroactive

As reported in this local article, headlined "Casper man convicted of murder as a teenager now has possibility of parole," the Wyoming Supreme Court had a big ruling yesterday on juve life sentences.  In Wyoming v. Mares, 2014 WY 126 (Wyo. Oct. 9, 2014) (available here), the Court held that Miller v. Alabama announced a substantive rule that is to be applied retroactively under Teague and also that a Wyoming statute enacted last year making juves parole eligible should be applied retroactively. Here is how the unanimous opinion in Mares gets started:

In 1995, Edwin Mares was convicted of felony murder as a juvenile and sentenced to life in prison, which sentence was by operation of law the equivalent of a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.  In 2013, Mr. Mares filed a motion, pursuant to Rule 35 of the Wyoming Rules of Criminal Procedure, to correct an illegal sentence. Through that motion, Mr. Mares contended that his sentence of life without the possibility of parole was unconstitutional in light of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. ___, 132 S.Ct. 2455, 183 L.Ed.2d 407 (2012).  This Court accepted certification of two questions from the district court.  The first question concerns the test to be used in determining the retroactivity of new constitutional rules when a judgment is challenged on collateral review.  The second question is whether Miller applies retroactively under our chosen test.

We conclude that as a result of amendments to Wyoming’s parole statutes in 2013, Mr. Mares’ life sentence was changed from one of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole to one of life with the possibility of parole in twenty-five years.  This change occurred by operation of the amended law, and the sentence Mr. Mares challenged in his Rule 35 motion therefore no longer exists.  We are aware, however, that other collateral challenges to juvenile offender sentences are pending throughout our district courts, and we therefore, in the interests of judicial economy and to avoid conflicting rulings, choose to answer the certified questions.  In response to the first certified question, we hold that the proper rule for determining whether a new constitutional rule applies retroactively to cases on collateral review is the test announced by the Supreme Court in Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288, 109 S.Ct. 1060, 103 L.Ed.2d 334 (1989).  In response to the second question, we conclude that under a Teague analysis, the rule announced in Miller applies retroactively to cases on collateral review.

October 10, 2014 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, October 09, 2014

New survey shows significant and growing support for "eliminating mandatory minimum prison sentences for nonviolent offenders"

As reported via this FAMM news release, which is headlined "New Poll Finds 77% of Americans Support Eliminating Mandatory Minimums for Non-Violent Offenses," there is new polling data suggesting that large and growing percentages of Americans favor mandatory minimum sentencing reform. Here are the basic details:

A new Reason-Rupe Public Opinion Survey finds that 77 percent of Americans support eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses.  That number is up from 71 percent in December 2013, the last time Reason-Rupe polled on the question.  You can find the full survey results here (PDF); mandatory minimums are question 17. 

“Almost three decades have passed since the United States instituted harsh mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses.  During that time, countless lives have been ruined and countless families destroyed.  The American people have noticed, and they want no more of it,” said Julie Stewart, president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

The poll question Reason-Rupe posed reads as follows: “Would you favor or oppose eliminating mandatory minimum prison sentences for nonviolent offenders so that judges have the ability to make sentencing decisions on a case-by-case basis?”

Seventy-seven percent of respondents said they favored eliminating mandatory minimums, while only 17 percent of respondents said they were opposed.  When Reason-Rupe asked the same question in December 2013, 71 percent of respondents were in favor of eliminating mandatory minimums, and 24 percent were opposed.

October 9, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Texas succeeds with new laws intended to disrupt school-to-prison pipeline

Discovering the (perhaps somewhat unexpected) success of reforms in (perhaps somewhat unexpected) states is one of the great joys of following closely state-level criminal justice policy and practice.  For example, this new local article showcases how Texas is achieving success at addressing problems often stressed by juvenile justice advocates.  The piece is headlined "New laws drastically cut prosecutions of Texas students," and here is how it starts:

Working as intended, two state laws passed in 2013 have fueled a larger-than-anticipated 83 percent decline in the number of Texas schoolchildren prosecuted in adult court for infractions such as disrupting a classroom, court figures show.  Including other misdemeanor school-based offenses, almost 90,000 juvenile cases were kept out of adult court by the new laws, which were written to encourage schools to handle most behavior problems internally instead of relying on police or the courts, two Texas House committees were told Wednesday.

“We were expecting a drop. I don’t think we were expecting that significant a drop in the first year,” said David Slayton, director of the state Office of Court Administration.  The sharp decline in the number of juvenile prosecutions, publicized for the first time at Wednesday’s joint hearing of the House Corrections and Public Education committees, offered early evidence that the laws were working to reduce the number of children saddled with criminal records for relatively minor school offenses, legislators and criminal justice advocates said.

“We have seen major success as a result of the passage of these bills,” said Mary Schmid Mergler with Texas Appleseed, a legal advocacy group.  “School discipline had increasingly moved from the schoolhouse to the courthouse, and misbehavior that used to mean a trip to the principal’s office was landing children in court and resulting in criminal convictions,” she said.

The offenses targeted by the laws are prosecuted in municipal and justice of the peace courts — adult settings that lack protections found in juvenile court, such as appointed lawyers and confidentiality rules — and can result in criminal convictions that often make it difficult to find housing, enter college or join the military, Mergler said.

The laws, known as Senate Bills 393 and 1114, barred police officers from writing tickets for Class C misdemeanors that occur on school grounds, though traffic violations are exempt from the ban.  Officers also cannot issue citations for school offenses such as causing disruptions in class or on a school bus.

October 9, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

"Fifteen Years of Supreme Court Criminal Procedure Work: Three Constitutional Brushes"

The title of this post is the title of this lovely essay by Daniel Richman now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This essay — written in connection with a French National Research Agency project on “Neo or Retro Constitutionalisms” — is an effort to pull together the last fifteen years of Supreme Court criminal procedure cases expanding constitutional protections. It identifies three different styles: thin and clear doctrinal lines on miniature doctrinal canvases that have only passing connections to criminal justice realities; episodic and self-limiting engagements with a potentially larger regulatory space; and a grand style that hints at sweeping structural ambitions but collaborates with other regulatory authorities.

Readers undoubtedly can come up with more than three styles.  But, in any event, the exercise highlights the limited nature of the Court’s work during this period, the limits of formalism, and the need for scholars to disaggregate broad references to “constitutionalism.”

October 9, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Recommended reading, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Ninth Circuit panel chastises prosecutors for breaching "fast-track" plea agreement

A Ninth Circuit panel has handed down a lengthy, must-read opinion today in US v. Morales Heredia, No. 12-50331 (9th Cir. Oct. 8, 2014) (available here).  The start of the opinion should make clear to federal practitioners, especially in border districts, why this case is notable:

Every day along the southwest border, previously deported aliens lacking entry documents are arrested, detained, and charged with illegal reentry.  Once convicted, they serve a term of imprisonment, and then are again deported.  The numbers are so great that federal prosecutors in these border states began to resort to an efficient means of securing a conviction: a “fast-track” plea agreement that binds the government and the defendant, but not the district judge.

The government secures the benefit of a streamlined process that minimizes the burden on its prosecutorial resources.  It need not go before a grand jury to secure an indictment; battle motions, including collateral attacks on the underlying deportation; prosecute a jury trial; or oppose an appeal.  The defendant, in turn, waives constitutional and other rights and agrees to a term of incarceration and, often,a term of supervised release ordinarily discouraged by the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines.  What is the incentive for the defendant to take this deal?  The prosecutor binds his office to recommend a four-level downward departure in the offense level now advised by the Guidelines, and to present a “united front” in favor of a reduced sentence to the district judge.  If the judge does not accept this sentence, the defendant may walk away from his guilty plea, and proceedings will begin anew.

Paul Gabriel Morales Heredia (Morales) was one such defendant.  But in Morales’s case, the orderly and efficient plea-bargaining process did not play out as intended.  The government extended the promise of a reduced prison term with one hand and took it away with the other.  The prosecutor’s recommendation of a six-month prison term rang hollow as he repeatedly and unnecessarily emphasized Morales’s criminal history, adding for good measure his personal opinion that “defendant’s history communicates a consistent disregard for both the criminal and immigration laws of the United States.” Morales’s counsel timely objected and sought specific performance of the plea agreement.  The district judge denied this relief on the irrelevant ground that the prosecutor’s statements did not influence him.  We conclude that Morales is entitled to relief, and we vacate his sentence and remand for further proceedings before a different judge.

October 8, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack