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February 7, 2007

Revving up for Claiborne: a crack(ed) safety-valve sentence

Mario2small Though the briefs in Claiborne and Rita discuss federal sentencing guideline generalities at length, these cases are ultimately about the sentencing fortunes and fates of two men: Mario Claiborne and Victor Rita.  It will be interesting to see if the Justices at oral argument (and in the opinions) focus on the specifics of Mario and Victor or instead talk mostly about guideline generalities.  (History provides no clear guide: the Justices focused on facts in Koon, but relatively little in Booker.)

The specifics of both cases are quite interesting and nuanced.  I will discuss Victor Rita's case  — which has many parallels to the on-going trial of Lewis Libby — in a future post.  This post presents a quick account of some interesting Mario Claiborne specifics.

1.  The impact of harsh crack guidelines.  Mario Claiborne pleaded guilty to two minor crack offenses, and his sentence of 15 months would not have been below the guidelines had he been dealing with powder cocaine.  But, because of the crack guidelines — which the US Sentencing Commission has itself repeatedly called unfairly harsh — the applicable guidelines range advised a sentence of at least 3 years.  The district court, likely influenced by the USSC's analysis that the crack guidelines are too harsh for low-level offenders, decided to sentence below the guideline, but the Eighth Circuit declared that choice unreasonable.  But is it really unreasonable for a district court not to follow crack guidelines that everyone recognizes are unreasonable in some cases?

2.  The impact of the safety valve.  One reason the government may have appealed and the Eighth Circuit reversed is because Mario Claiborne got a lot of credit for pleading guilty and for being a minor offender.  Though federal guidelines have many factors that drive sentences up, Claiborne benefited from two provisions that drive sentences down: a reduction for accepting responsibility and for fitting within the so-called "safety-valve" criteria allowing a sentence below applicable mandatory minimums.  Though many federal defendants (such as Victor Rita) can rightly complain that the guidelines do not give credit their mitigating circumstances, Mario Claiborne cannot make that charge.

3.  The impact of post-sentencing realities.  As first noted here, Mario Claiborne has served his original 15-month prison sentence and has bee free from federal custody since May 1, 2006.  Assuming Mario has been a good egg since his release, is there a strong reason he should now be resentenced and given a longer prison term?  Of course, Mario's actions since he was first sentenced nearly two years ago are not formally relevant to whether the district judge sentenced him unreasonably in March 2005.  But, if he has been super Mario this year and has thus shown the wisdom of the sentencing break he got from harsh crack guidelines, the Justices may not be especially eager to declare that break unreasonable.

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February 7, 2007 at 11:26 AM | Permalink


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Tracked on Feb 24, 2007 12:42:56 AM


"But is it really unreasonable for a district court not to follow crack guidelines that everyone recognizes are unreasonable in some cases?"

That's very close to saying the district judge can ignore the law differentiating crack and powder sentencing. It's hard to say that a 100:1 ratio is reasonable “in some cases” but not in others. It's the same drugs and the same math. Some judges would use the sort of Supreme Court decision implied above to nullify the law across the board. And at that point, avoiding unwarranted sentencing disparity goes out the window.

If the Court really cares about lowering sentences (and I doubt most of the justices do), it should take a look at the constitutionality of the crack vs. powder laws themselves. Yes, that approach creates its own problems, but it has to be more defensible than allowing district courts to ignore laws they don't like.

Also, the Government in its brief gave reason to think Claiborne's drug activity was not limited to two isolated "minor" offenses, even after he was arrested.

Posted by: | Feb 7, 2007 2:30:00 PM

How is it "ignoring" the law; it's merely ignoring "advice."

Posted by: Elson | Feb 7, 2007 2:46:31 PM

Also, the Government in its brief gave reason to think Claiborne's drug activity was not limited to two isolated "minor" offenses, even after he was arrested.

If so, why didn't it prosecute those offenses?

This is precisely why the Guidelines have been so severely criticized. The government prosecutes the easily proven minor crime, then gets a sentence based on other alleged crimes that were never put to a jury.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Feb 7, 2007 3:31:59 PM

My daughter was sentenced to the mandatory min of 10 yrs, contrary to the pre-sentencing memorandum which recommended 1yr and a day. She was denied the safety valve relief because the prosecution said she did not meet the fifth criteria of the provision by accepting responsibility or being truthful. The prosecutor stated that he had contended all along
that my daughter was minor in the course of things but the charges levied against her said other wise notice of appeal has been filed. Can you direct me to someone that has experience with dealing with this specific area of law?

Posted by: Veronica | Jan 8, 2008 4:16:08 PM

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