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September 26, 2019

Senators Durbin and Grassley introduce "Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act of 2019"

I am so very pleased to be able to blog about a new effort to prohibit the ugly practice of using "acquitted conduct" in the federal sentencing system.  Specifically, as detailed in this press release, "U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the lead sponsors of the landmark First Step Act, today introduced the bipartisan Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act of 2019, which would end the unjust practice of judges increasing sentences based on conduct for which a defendant has been acquitted by a jury."  Here is more from the release:

Along with Durbin and Grassley, the legislation is also cosponsored by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Thom Tillis (R-NC), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Mike Lee (R-UT).

Our criminal justice system rests on the Fifth and Sixth Amendment guarantees of due process and the right to a jury trial for the criminally accused.  These principles require the government to prove a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury.  Under the Constitution, defendants may be convicted only for conduct proven beyond a reasonable doubt.   However, at sentencing, courts may enhance sentences if they find, by a preponderance of the evidence, that a defendant committed other crimes.  The difference in those standards of proof means that a sentencing court can effectively nullify a jury’s verdict by considering acquitted conduct.

One prominent example of this unjust practice is the 2005 case of Antwuan Ball, who, along with his co-defendants, was convicted of distributing a few grams of crack cocaine, but acquitted of conspiring to distribute drugs.   Despite this, the sentencing judge held Mr. Ball responsible for the conspiracy, nearly quadrupling his sentence to 19 years.  Mr. Ball asked the Supreme Court to consider his case, but the Court denied the petition for the writ of certiorari.  Justice Scalia wrote a blistering dissent, joined by Justices Ginsburg and Thomas, noting that “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.”  Scalia decried the practice, writing that, “this has gone on long enough.”

The Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act would end this practice by:

  • Amending 18 U.S.C. § 3661 to preclude a court of the United States from considering, except for purposes of mitigating a sentence, acquitted conduct at sentencing, and
  • Defining “acquitted conduct” to include acts for which a person was criminally charged and adjudicated not guilty after trial in a Federal, State, Tribal, or Juvenile court, or acts underlying a criminal charge or juvenile information dismissed upon a motion for acquittal.

Long-time readers know I have been a long-time opponent of federal courts' use of acquitted conduct at sentencing (e.g., here is a post from 11 years ago on the issue, which itself links to more than a half-dozen prior posts on the topic).  I have also been involved in preparing briefs assailing the use of acquitted conduct in a number of circuit courts, and I was especially proud of this amicus brief that I prepared in support of certiorari in the Antwaun Ball case reference above.  So, I am fully supportive of legislative efforts to preclude the use of acquitted conduct at federal sentencing.

Thankfully, lots of other folks are also supportive of legislative efforts to preclude the use of acquitted conduct at federal sentencing, as revealed by these new policy group postings:

From Americans for Tax Reform, "ATR Joins Coalition Supporting the Prohibition of Punishing Acquitted Conduct"

From the Cato Institute, "Addressing the Gross Injustice of Acquitted Conduct Sentencing"

From FreedomWorks, "Support the Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act, S. 2566"

From the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, "Nation’s Criminal Defense Bar Lauds Newly Introduced 'Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act of 2019'"

September 26, 2019 at 11:32 PM | Permalink

Comments

I am a defense attorney with a court-appointed client who has sought a subsequent 2255 petition to the First Circuit to have the sentencing court's use of his state acquittal of murder and weapons charges in raising his federal base offense level for a federal drug conspiracy to life in prison through the murder cross-reference int he federal sentencing guidelines. The request for leave to file the subsequent 2255 petition was based on new law creating one sovereign for all double jeopardy purposes in Puerto Rico after the Sanchez Valle case in 2016. The appeals court adamantly refused to allow the petition and closed all doors (en banc and certiorari), based on use of acq. cond.

Posted by: Frank Inserni | Oct 15, 2019 1:25:34 PM

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