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February 4, 2006

Lucky in lotto, unlucky in law

This story of a federal sentencing in Illinois perhaps provides a great set of facts for a future exam question in my sentencing course:

A local man who won millions in the Illinois Lottery was sentenced on Friday in Rockford federal court to 30 months in federal prison, without parole, for gun trafficking and drug dealing charges, according to a news release from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Defendant Eric Wagner, 33, of Freeport, who won the $37.5 million Illinois Lottery jackpot in April, was arrested in May by agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives....  The indictment accused Wagner of multiple counts of selling a firearm to a felon and illegally distributing marijuana.  In addition to the 30-month prison sentence, Wagner also was ordered to pay a $35,000 fine, to pay the costs of his own incarceration, and was sentenced to 30 months of supervised release following his release from prison, officials say.

"We believe the sentence was appropriate," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Pedersen, who prosecuted the case.  "He was sentenced within the guideline range and that's what we asked the court to do."  James Zuba, Wagner's attorney, said the judge applied the sentencing guidelines as "he saw that they should be applied," and that his client "accepts" the sentence.  "My client may disagree with the application of the guidelines, but he accepts the judge's decision," Zuba said.

The article explains that the defendant's drug and gun sales pre-dated his winning the lottery, and that the defendant was part of a partnership owning the winning ticket so he only cleared about $2.5 million.  Even so, I wonder if anyone suggested having the defendant pay a larger fine (and perhaps serve less prison time).  Would taking a bigger chunk of the defendant's winnings perhaps better serve the various goals set forth by Congress in 3553(a)?

February 4, 2006 at 01:17 PM | Permalink


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Professor, surely you are not implying that this newly-wealthy defendant be allowed to BUY his way out of some or all of his period of incarceration!! If you are, Dennis Kozlowski will certainly be calling you for legal advice soon.

Posted by: anon | Feb 4, 2006 2:09:01 PM

Which aspect of 3553(a) would that serve? The statute calls for "sufficient, but not greater than necessary, to comply with the purposes set forth in paragraph (2) of this subsection"

Paragraph (2) calls for the court to consider the need for the sentence imposed:

(A) to reflect the seriousness of the offense, to promote respect for the law, and to provide just punishment for the offense;
(B) to afford adequate deterrence to criminal conduct;
(C) to protect the public from further crimes of the defendant; and
(D) to provide the defendant with needed educational or vocational training, medical care, or other correctional treatment in the most effective manner;

I don't see how a defendant's lottery winnings, taken in light of any of those policies, would support shortening the sentence and raising the fine.

First, as "anon" suggested, it certainly wouldn't "promote respect for the law" if wealthy defendants could effectively buy their way out of incarceration.

Second, once a defendant has millions of dollars, then fines are suddenly a less effective way to send the desired message to the defendant. If you wish to "deter" (a)(2)(B), or "reflect the seriousness of the crime" (a)(2)(A), or "protect the public from further crimes of the defendant" (a)(2)(C), it would make more sense to increase the prison sentence and either increase the fine or eliminate it entirely, because the defendant has suddenly become impervious to minor fines.

If, however, you think that the Guidelines generally set drug sentences too high (i.e. they are not "sufficient, but not greater than necessary" as (a) provides), then I'm puzzled as to what the defendant's lottery winnings would have to with anything. Under that rationale, "increase the fine and decrease the prison time" is just another way of saying "decrease the punishment," which is all fine, but the lottery stuff obscures rather than illustrates the argument.

Posted by: B. Burgess | Feb 4, 2006 3:57:06 PM

In Europe, they use day fines and other economic sanctions to great effect in order to reduce reliance on incarceration. But these two very reasonable responses to my thought experiment highlight why we rarely see serious consideration of fines in the US.

Posted by: Doug B. | Feb 4, 2006 8:37:39 PM

Taking the guy's $2.5 million, it seems to me, would more than reflect the "seriousness of the offense." And since every lottery player hopes they'll win (and probably indulges an irrational expectation of their likelihood of winning), I see no reason such a policy wouldn't also provide a deterrent.

The concern about letting rich folks buy their way out of incarceration to me is a more serious problem with the idea (though in practice it happens all the time - for a variety of reasons wealthy defendants are much less likely to be incarcerated for their crimes). I'd be curious what policies applied to European "day fines" address that issue.

Posted by: Scott | Feb 5, 2006 9:49:45 AM

What if given a choice of 2.5 years in prison or 2.5 million dollars in fine, like 30 dollars or 30 days. It is a matter of what's worth more to you. I spent 15 years in federal prison on a conspiracy to manufacture amphetamine charge, I didn't have 15 million dollars to pay my debt, so as a first time offender, I had to give up a almost a fourth of my life so far, in prison. Whether it is a dollar a day or a million dollars a year, when you have given up a fourth of your life, how much is it worth. Let's here from lucky lotto, will he give up the 2.5 million for 2.5 years of his life?

Posted by: Barry Ward | Feb 6, 2006 10:50:55 AM

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