Thursday, September 30, 2021

TRAC releases intriguing new report on "Equal Justice and Sentencing Practices Among Federal District Court Judges"

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University is a research center that keeps track of a lot of federal criminal case processing data. Today TRAC released this notable short data report under the title "Equal Justice and Sentencing Practices Among Federal District Court Judges." Here are snippets from the start and end of the report:

This report examines very recent data on federal trial judges and their sentencing practices. The existence of judge-to-judge differences in sentences of course is not synonymous with finding unwarranted sentencing disparity....  But a fair court system always seeks to provide equal justice under the law, working to ensure that sentencing patterns of judges not be widely different when they are handling similar kinds of cases.

In reality, sometimes the goal of equal justice under the law is achieved, and other times the actual sentences handed down depart markedly from this goal. Using case-by-case, judge-by-judge, data updated through December 2020, a new analysis by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University identifies federal courthouses where wide judge-to-judge sentencing differences currently occur, and courthouses where there is wide agreement in sentencing among judges.

While special circumstances might account for some of these differences, half of the courthouses in the country had median differences in prison sentences of 16 months or more, and average differences of 21 months or more.

Results further showed that currently seven (7) federal courthouses out of 159 compared had perfect agreement among judges in the typical or median sentences assigned. In an additional thirty (30), judge-to-judge sentences differed by six months or less.... At the other extreme, five (5) courthouses showed more than 60 months difference in the median prison sentence handed out across judges serving on the same bench....

This study largely replicates the findings from TRAC's first national judge-by-judge examination of the differences among federal judges in sentencing practices that appeared in the Federal Sentencing Reporter. That study was published almost a decade ago. While it is true that some specific courthouses show greater agreement today, others show less agreement. Many of these changes appear to reflect changes in the judges currently serving there.

Yet answering the question of whether significant intra-judge differences in sentencing practices exist is not sufficient to establish that such differences are indeed unwarranted sentencing disparities. Much more research and a great deal more time is needed for a thorough examination of the actual details of judge-by-judge sentencing patterns.

September 30, 2021 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 13, 2021

Federal prosecutors signal they will be seeking jail time for some Capitol riot misdemeanants

This post from a few months ago, headlined "Federal judges expressing some concern about lenient plea deals for some Capitol riot defendants," spotlighted some comments by some federal judges about whether federal prosecutors we not being sufficiently "tough" in their prosecutorial approach to some January 6 rioters.  This recent Politico article, headlined "Prosecutors: Jan. 6 defendants should expect jail time," suggests that federal prosecutors got the message as they are now talking up the prospect of seeking jail time even in some cases that are resolved through only misdemeanor charges.  Here are the details:

Federal prosecutors indicated Friday that those who breached the Capitol — even those charged only with misdemeanor offenses like parading — should expect to face jail time, not probation, for their role in the assault.  "Misdemeanor breaches of the Capitol on January 6, 2021 were not minor crimes," Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Birney wrote in a sentencing memo for Valerie Ehrke, one of more than 600 defendants charged for participating in the Capitol mob.  "A probationary sentence … should not necessarily become the default."

Birney, however, did recommend probation for Ehrke, describing her as "the rare case where a probationary sentence is appropriate."  Ehrke entered the Capitol for just one minute, exiting quickly after police began repelling the crowd. She committed no violence or property destruction, according to surveillance videos, and she voluntarily spoke to law enforcement, expressing remorse and ultimately becoming one of the first to plead guilty. All of those factors, Birney wrote in the filing, should result in a probation-only sentence.

Few of the Jan. 6 defendants have reached sentencing so far, with Paul Hodgkins — the first felony case to get to the sentencing stage — facing an eight-month jail term, the longest doled out by judges to date.  Anna Morgan Lloyd, the first Jan. 6 defendant sentenced, received 36 months of probation for a misdemeanor guilty plea from Judge Royce Lamberth.  Judge Thomas Hogan sentenced Jessica and Joshua Bustle, a couple charged with misdemeanor offenses for entering the Capitol, to home confinement and probation, in part because they are expecting the birth of a child soon.

Like prosecutors, though, Lamberth emphasized that other defendants shouldn't necessarily expect probation for participating in the breach of the Capitol. “I don’t want to create the impression that probation is the automatic outcome here because it’s not going to be," Lamberth said during Morgan-Lloyd's sentencing, a comment that Birney pointed to in his sentence recommendation for Ehrke.

Hogan, too, echoed that sentiment, telling the Bustles, "I think the presumption should be that these offenses were an attack on our democracy and that jail time is usually — should be expected."

None of the Jan. 6 defendants facing the most serious charges, including dozens accused of assaulting police officers and a growing contingent charged with conspiring to block the certification of President Joe Biden's victory in the 2020 election, have been sentenced yet. Prosecutors say misdemeanor defendants bear responsibility for some of the more egregious crimes committed that day, in part because the sheer size of the mob helped provide cover for the most dangerous participants in the attack.

Some of many prior related posts:

September 13, 2021 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, September 01, 2021

Notable accounting of federal prosecutions and sentences responding to riots both before and during January 6

This recent AP article, headlined "Records rebut claims of unequal treatment of Jan. 6 rioters," provides a valuable and interesting accounting of some of the federal criminal accountability that has followed various riots in recent times.  Here are excerpts:

An Associated Press review of court documents in more than 300 federal cases stemming from the protests sparked by George Floyd’s death last year shows that dozens of people charged have been convicted of serious crimes and sent to prison.

The AP found that more than 120 defendants across the United States have pleaded guilty or were convicted at trial of federal crimes including rioting, arson and conspiracy. More than 70 defendants who’ve been sentenced so far have gotten an average of about 27 months behind bars. At least 10 received prison terms of five years or more....

To be sure, some defendants have received lenient deals. At least 19 who have been sentenced across the country got no prison time or time served, according to the AP’s review. Many pleaded guilty to lower-level offenses, such as misdemeanor assault, but some were convicted of more serious charges, including civil disorder.

In Portland, Oregon — where demonstrations, many turning violent, occurred nightly for months after a white Minneapolis police officer killed Floyd — about 60 of the roughly 100 cases that were brought have been dismissed, court records show.  Most of those defendants received deferred resolution agreements, under which prosecutors promise to drop charges after a certain amount of time if the defendant stays out of trouble and completes things like community service.  Some Jan. 6 defendants have complained it’s unfair they aren’t getting the same deals.

But President Joe Biden’s Justice Department has continued the vast majority of the racial injustice protest cases brought across the U.S. under Trump and has often pushed for lengthy prison time for people convicted of serious crimes.  Since Biden took office in January, federal prosecutors have brought some new cases stemming from last year’s protests.

Conservatives have sought to equate the attack on the Capitol with the Black Lives Matter protests, accusing Democrats of being hypocrites for not denouncing the violence after Floyd’s death as loudly as the Jan. 6 insurrection.  And some Republicans have seized on the handling of the protest cases in Portland to suggest that the Jan. 6 defendants are being politically persecuted.

That has not been borne out when comparing the sentences that federal judges have given to Jan. 6 defendants and those who are accused of crimes during the protests against police brutality across the country.  Only a handful of the nearly 600 people who’ve been charged in the insurrection have received their punishments so far, and just three people have been sentenced to time behind bars.  The vast majority of the most serious cases — involving those accused of assaulting police officers or conspiring to block the certification of Biden’s victory — remain unresolved.

Some of many prior related posts:

September 1, 2021 in Booker in district courts, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Second Circuit panel reverses 48-month (way-below-guideline) sentence as substantively unreasonable for abused woman who provided material support to ISIS

Regular readers know I do not blog much these days about federal sentence reasonableness review because there are not that many blogworthy opinions.  Out of many thousands of appeals brought by federal defendants each year, typically only a few hundred are successful, and all but a few dozen involve miscalculation of the guideline range.  The government rarely appeals, though it has a much better success rate in the relatively few appeals it brings each year. 

In one particular (and relatively rare) categories of cases, the government has a particularly notable history of appellate success when arguing a sentence in unreasonably lenient (see posts linked below for some historical examples).  This category is terrorism cases, and a Second Circuit panel added another example in this category with its ruling today in US v. Ceasar, No. 19-2881 (2d Cir. Aug. 18, 2021) (available here).  Federal sentencing fans will want to review this 53-page opinion in detail, but here is the opinion's introduction:

It is undisputed that beginning in or around January 2016, the defendant-appellee, Sinmyah Amera Ceasar, conspired to provide material support to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria ("ISIS"), in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2339B(a). Using social media and the encrypted messaging application Telegram, Ceasar expressed her support for ISIS, encouraged others to join ISIS abroad, and helped individuals in the United States contact ISIS members overseas. The overseas ISIS members then facilitated U.S.-based ISIS supporters' travel to ISIS-controlled territory. Ceasar herself intended to travel to ISIS territory by way of Sweden, where she planned to marry another ISIS supporter. In November 2016, Ceasar was arrested at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport on her way to Sweden via Turkey. Following her arrest, Ceasar entered into a cooperation agreement with the government in which she pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. In April 2018, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York granted her presentence release.

While on presentence release, Ceasar reoffended.  Despite the fact that the conditions of her release explicitly prohibited her from contacting individuals or organizations affiliated with foreign terrorist groups, Ceasar obtained a laptop computer, recreated pseudonymous social media accounts, and resumed contacting or attempting to contact several individuals known to be supporters of ISIS or other extremist groups.  The FBI, investigating Ceasar's conduct, found that she had intentionally deleted incriminating communications and had instructed others with whom she had been in contact to do the same.  The bond underlying her presentence release was revoked, and she was remanded pending sentencing. When the FBI interviewed Ceasar about her conduct while on presentence release, she made a significant number of false and misleading statements....

Mental health professionals who met with and treated Ceasar characterize her conduct as a misguided search for community stemming from a lifetime of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse and neglect.  Beginning in her childhood, Ceasar's father sexually abused her.  At age 13, she entered the foster care system and was abused or neglected in each home in which she was placed.  While Ceasar has never been legally married, she entered into three successive so-called "religious marriages" with older men, beginning when she was 16.  In each of those marriages, her husband physically or emotionally abused her.  Ceasar was diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the abuse and trauma she endured.

Ceasar faced a Sentencing Guidelines range of 360 to 600 months' imprisonment.  Prior to sentencing, the district court ordered the government and Ceasar to provide expert witness testimony or other materials to assist in its sentencing determination.  The district court held a multiday sentencing hearing at which two government and three defense experts testified as to Ceasar's involvement with and support of ISIS and whether she would be likely to reoffend. 

The district court concluded that the advisory Guidelines range was "excessively harsh" and varied downward from it dramatically.  The court found that Ceasar was motivated by the abuse and trauma she suffered most of her life, and that she needed educational and mental health support in lieu of a long prison sentence.  On June 26, 2019, despite the Guidelines minimum of 360 months, the court imposed a 46-month sentence on Ceasar for the Material Support Offense, one month for the Obstruction Offense, and one month for committing an offense while on presentence release, pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3147, all to run consecutively for a total term of 48 months' imprisonment.  Because she had been in custody from the time of her arrest in November 2016 until she was granted presentence release in April 2018, and was then remanded to custody on July 19, 2018 (following her violation of the conditions of her presentence release), Ceasar served only 13 additional months from the time of sentencing (June 26, 2019) until she was released from prison on July 28, 2020. 

The government appealed on substantive reasonableness grounds, arguing that the district court abused its discretion by considering Ceasar's need for rehabilitation to the exclusion of other sentencing factors, and that this mitigating sentencing factor could not bear the weight assigned to it. The government further argues that Ceasar's sentence was shockingly low compared with other sentences imposed for similar crimes. 

We are not without sympathy for Ceasar, but we are constrained to agree with the government. We conclude that the district court placed more emphasis on Ceasar's need for rehabilitation than that sentencing factor could bear, and failed adequately to weigh section 3553(a) factors that balance the needs and circumstances of an individual defendant against, among other things, the goals of protecting the public, deterring criminal behavior, and engendering respect for the law. We further conclude that in comparison with sentences for similar terrorism crimes, Ceasar's sentence of 48 months' imprisonment was shockingly low and unsupportable as a matter of law. We therefore vacate the judgment of the district court and remand for resentencing.

Prior posts on similar reasonableness ruling:

August 18, 2021 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, July 16, 2021

Feds advocate for (mid-guideline) prison term of 18 months for first Jan 6 defendant due to be sentenced on felony charge

As noted in this Washington Post piece, a notable federal sentencing is scheduled for Monday and federal prosecutors have a notable sentencing recommendation for the judge: "U.S. prosecutors on Wednesday urged a federal judge to impose an 18-month prison term on the first defendant to face sentencing for a felony in the Jan. 6 Capitol breach, citing the need to deter domestic terrorism."  Here is more:

“The need to deter others is especially strong in cases involving domestic terrorism, which the breach of the Capitol certainly was,” Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Mona Sedky said in a government sentencing request for Tampa crane operator Paul Allard Hodgkins, 38, who carried a Trump flag into the well of the Senate....

Hodgkins’s sentencing, scheduled for Monday, could set the bar for what punishment 100 or more defendants might expect to face as they weigh whether to accept plea offers by prosecutors or take their chances at a trial by jury.  About 800 people entered the building, U.S. officials have said, with more than 500 individuals charged to date and charges expected against at least 100 others.  About 20 people have pleaded guilty, and one misdemeanor defendant has been sentenced to probation.

In Hodgkins’s case, Sedky cited FBI Director Christopher A. Wray’s testimony in March to the Senate that the problem of homegrown violent extremism is “metastasizing,” with some actors growing emboldened by the Capitol riot....  Sedky also asked U.S. District Judge Randolph D. Moss of Washington to recognize prior court findings that though individuals convicted of such behavior may have no criminal history, their beliefs make them “unique among criminals in the likelihood of recidivism.”

Hodgkins pleaded guilty on June 2 to one felony count of entering the Capitol to obstruct Congress, a common charge being used by prosecutors.  Unlike other defendants, he was not accused of other wrongdoing or involvement with extremist groups, nor did he enter a cooperation deal with prosecutors.  Under advisory federal guidelines, he could face a prison sentence of 15 to 21 months.

Hodgkins poses an intriguing example for defendants against whom prosecutors have threatened to seek enhanced domestic terrorism penalties, lawyers said.  Such enhancements, if found to apply, could more than double a defendant’s guidelines range or otherwise increase recommended penalties, although judges would have the final say. In Hodgkins’s case, prosecutors did not ask the judge to apply the enhancement, even though they wrote Wednesday that his conduct met the definition of violence “calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion.”  Instead, prosecutors said a “midpoint” sentence in Hodgkins’s existing range was appropriate, but still urged Moss to consider the importance of dissuading future acts of domestic terrorism.

Hodgkins has asked for a below-guidelines sentence of probation.  His attorney urged Moss to follow the example of President Abraham Lincoln’s planned approach to the defeated South after the Civil War, before he was assassinated.  “Today, this Court has a chance to make a difference,” Tampa attorney Patrick N. Leduc wrote, asserting that America now is “as divided as it was in the 1850s” on racial and regional lines.  “We have the chance to be as Lincoln had hoped, to exercise grace and charity, and to restore healing for those who seek forgiveness. Alternatively, we can follow the mistakes of our past: to be harsh, seek vengeance, retribution, and revenge, and continue to watch the nation go down its present regrettable path,” Leduc said.

Lawyers familiar with the Capitol probe have said the case illustrates how prosecutors are taking a carrot-and-stick approach in plea talks, threatening to hit some defendants with tougher sentencing guidelines calculations while showing some flexibility for those not accused of any violent conduct in a bid to resolve cases short of trial.

For example, another Jan. 6 defendant pleaded guilty Wednesday to the identical charge as Hodgkins. However, Josiah Colt, 34, of Idaho, faced a sentencing guidelines range three times as high, 51 to 63 months, after admitting that he came armed to Washington and was with others accused of violently interfering with police. Colt, however, entered a cooperation deal, implicating two men he was with in plea papers and agreeing to aid investigators in exchange for a recommendation of leniency.

Several defense attorneys in the probe privately called prosecutors’ tactics draconian in some cases, saying they are threatening years of prison time for individuals not charged with violence and giving them little choice but to face trial.

The Post has also helpfully provided links to Hodgkins' sentencing memo and the Government's sentencing memo.  They both make for interesting reads.  And, as always, I welcome reader views on how they think the 3553(a) factors ought to play out in sentencing in this high-profile case.

Prior related posts:

July 16, 2021 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

US Sentencing Commission issues big new report on "Federal Sentencing of Child Pornography: Non-Production Offenses"

Cover_CP-non-prodDespite only having a single commissioner, the US Sentencing Commissioner is continuing to produce interesting federal sentencing data and reports.  This latest USSC report, running nearly 100 pages, was released today under the titled "Federal Sentencing of Child Pornography: Non-Production Offenses."   This report drills into data from fiscal year 2019, and this webpage sets out these "key findings" from the report:

  • Facilitated by advancements in digital and mobile technology, non-production child pornography offenses increasingly involve voluminous quantities of videos and images that are graphic in nature, often involving the youngest victims.
    • In fiscal year 2019, non-production child pornography offenses involved a median number of 4,265 images, with some offenders possessing and distributing millions of images and videos.
    • Over half (52.2%) of non-production child pornography offenses in fiscal year 2019 included images or videos of infants or toddlers, and nearly every offense (99.4%) included prepubescent victims.
  • Constrained by statutory mandatory minimum penalties, congressional directives, and direct guideline amendments by Congress in the PROTECT Act of 2003, § 2G2.2 contains a series of enhancements that have not kept pace with technological advancements.  Four of the six enhancements — accounting for a combined 13 offense levels — cover conduct that has become so ubiquitous that they now apply in the vast majority of cases sentenced under § 2G2.2.
    • For example, in fiscal year 2019, over 95 percent of non-production child pornography offenders received enhancements for use of a computer and for the age of the victim (images depicting victims under the age of 12).
    • The enhancements for images depicting sadistic or masochistic conduct or abuse of an infant or toddler (84.0% of cases) or having 600 or more images (77.2% of cases) were also applied in most cases.
  • Because enhancements that initially were intended to target more serious and more culpable offenders apply in most cases, the average guideline minimum and average sentence imposed for nonproduction child pornography offenses have increased since 2005.
    • The average guideline minimum for non-production child pornography offenders increased from 98 months in fiscal year 2005 to 136 months in fiscal year 2019.
    • The average sentence increased more gradually, from 91 months in fiscal year 2005 to 103 months in fiscal year 2019.
  • Although sentences imposed remain lengthy, courts increasingly apply downward variances in response to the high guideline ranges that apply to the typical non-production child pornography offender.
    • In fiscal year 2019, less than one-third (30.0%) of non-production child pornography offenders received a sentence within the guideline range.
    • The majority (59.0%) of non-production child pornography offenders received a variance below the guideline range.
    • Non-government sponsored below range variances accounted for 42.2 percent of sentences imposed, and government sponsored below range variances accounted for 16.8 percent.
  • Section 2G2.2 does not adequately account for relevant aggravating factors identified in the Commission’s 2012 Child Pornography Report that have become more prevalent.
    • More than forty percent (43.7%) of non-production child pornography offenders participated in an online child pornography community in fiscal year 2019.
    • Nearly half (48.0%) of non-production child pornography offenders engaged in aggravating sexual conduct prior to, or concurrently with, the instant nonproduction child pornography offense in fiscal year 2019.  This represents a 12.9 percentage point increase since fiscal year 2010, when 35.1 percent of offenders engaged in such conduct.
  • Consistent with the key aggravating factors identified in the Commission’s 2012 Child Pornography Report, courts appeared to consider participation in an online child pornography community and engaging in aggravating sexual conduct when imposing sentences, both in terms of the length of sentence imposed and the sentence relative to the guideline range.
    • In fiscal year 2019, the average sentence imposed increased from 71 months for offenders who engaged in neither an online child pornography community nor aggravating sexual conduct, to 79 months for offenders who participated in an online child pornography community, to 134 months for offenders who engaged in aggravating sexual conduct.
    • In fiscal year 2019, offenders who engaged in aggravating sexual conduct were sentenced within their guideline ranges at a rate nearly three times higher than offenders who did not participate in online child pornography communities or engage in aggravating sexual conduct (44.3% compared to 15.6%).
  • As courts and the government contend with the outdated statutory and guideline structure, sentencing disparities among similarly situated non-production child pornography offenders have become increasingly pervasive. Charging practices, the resulting guideline ranges, and the sentencing practices of judges have all contributed to some degree to these disparities.
    • For example, the sentences for 119 similarly situated possession offenders ranged from probation to 228 months though these 119 possession offenders had the same guideline calculation through the application of the same specific offense characteristics and criminal history category.
    • The sentences for 52 similarly situated receipt offenders ranged from 37 months to 180 months though these 52 receipt offenders had the same guideline calculation through the application of the same specific offense characteristics and criminal history category.
    • The sentences for 190 similarly situated distribution offenders ranged from less than one month to 240 months though these 190 distribution offenders had the same guideline calculation through the application of the same specific offense characteristics and criminal history category.
  • When tracking 1,093 nonproduction child pornography offenders released from incarceration or placed on probation in 2015, 27.6 percent were rearrested within three years.
    • Of the 1,093 offenders, 4.3 percent (47 offenders) were rearrested for a sex offense within three years.
    • Eighty-eight offenders (8.1% of the 1,093) failed to register as a sex offender during the three-year period.

June 29, 2021 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Post-Libby commutation developments, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, April 01, 2021

Notably split Sixth Circuit panel finds way-above guideline felon-in-possession sentence to be substantively unreasonable

Earlier this week, a Sixth Circuit panel handed down a split (unpublished) opinion finding an above-guideline sentence substantively unreasonable in US v. Stanton, No. 20-5320 (6th Cir. Mar. 30, 2021) (available here).  Any and every circuit ruling that finds a sentence substantively unreasonable is quite notable because such opinions are quite rare — for example, USSC data shows only six such reversals in Fiscal Year 2019 and only eight such reversals in Fiscal Year 2020.  (Indeed, with this Sixth Circuit Stanton ruling finding an above-guideline sentence substantively unreasonable handed down on the same day that the Fourth Circuit found a within-guideline sentence substantively unreasonable in Freeman (discussed here, opinion here), one might be tempted to remember March 30, 2021 as an historic day for reasonableness review.)

The majority and dissenting opinions in Stanton are worth full reads, and here is how the majority opinion gets started and wraps up:

Dustin Stanton challenges his 108-month sentence for one count of unlawful possession of a firearm as substantively unreasonable.  Stanton argues that the district court did not provide sufficiently compelling reasons to justify nearly tripling his maximum guideline sentence of 37 months.  We agree.

In sum, based on the reasons it provided at sentencing, the district court “placed too much weight on the § 3553(a) factors concerning criminal history [and] deterrence . . . without properly considering sentencing disparities.”  See Perez-Rodriguez, 960 F.3d at 758. “By ‘relying on a problem common to all’ defendants within the same criminal history category as [Stanton]—that is, that they have an extensive criminal history — the district court did not give a sufficiently compelling reason to justify [its extreme variance].” Warren, 771 F. App’x at 642 (quoting United States v. Poynter, 495 F.3d 349, 354 (6th Cir. 2007)).  Though Stanton’s continued recidivism and his previous 84-month sentence for the same crime may ultimately warrant an upward variance, they are not — without more — sufficiently compelling justifications for nearly tripling his maximum guideline sentence for a mine-run offense.  See Boucher, 937 F.3d at 714 (vacating sentence as substantively unreasonable and noting that “after the district court reweighs the relevant § 3553(a) factors” the defendant “may or may not be entitled to a” variance).

And here is how Judge Thapar starts and ends his dissent:

District judges are not at liberty to turn a blind eye to reality at sentencing.  Instead, the sentencing factors in the United States Code require judges to consider the real-world consequences of a prison term.  Will the sentence protect the public?  Will it deter the defendant?  What does a defendant’s criminal history tell the court about his likelihood of recidivism?  Are there positive factors that might cut the other way?  The sentencing guidelines help answer these questions.  But district judges understand better than most that the guidelines are not binding for a reason: They don’t fit every case.  Especially one like Dustin Stanton’s.  Here, a conscientious district judge had a violent, repeat offender in front of him.  The last time Stanton was in federal court, Judge Waverly Crenshaw’s colleague sentenced him to 84 months.  Barely a year after his release, Stanton was back — as violent as ever, and for the same offense.  So Judge Crenshaw did what good judges do.  He balanced the sentencing factors and came up with a fair sentence: 108 months.  I respectfully dissent from making him do it again....

Fair sentencing is a key goal of our criminal justice system. The sentencing guidelines help further that goal. Still, district judges must exercise independent judgment when imposing a sentence. Sometimes the reality of a case justifies a variance downward. Sometimes, it justifies the opposite. Here, Judge Crenshaw decided that Stanton’s case called for an upward variance. That decision was reasonable. Thus, I respectfully dissent.

April 1, 2021 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Gun policy and sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 14, 2020

US Sentencing Commission issues big new report on "The Influence of the Guidelines on Federal Sentencing: Federal Sentencing Outcomes, 2005–2017"

I am pleased to see that the United States Sentencing Commission is continuing to release notable data reports despite being an incomplete agency due to the absence of confirmed commissioners for years.  Today brings this notable new publication, clocking in at nearly 100 pages, titled "The Influence of the Guidelines on Federal Sentencing: Federal Sentencing Outcomes, 2005–2017."  Here is this reports "Key Findings": 

In this report, the Commission analyzes the difference between average guideline minimums and average sentences imposed.  These differences, measured in a raw number of months and average percentage difference, are analyzed for all cases in the aggregate and selected individual guidelines across three time periods between 2005 and 2017: the Booker, Gall, and Post-Report Periods.  While the extent of those differences vary depending on the individual guideline, the Commission found several overarching trends indicating that the guidelines generally continue to have a substantial influence on sentences imposed after Booker.

  • In the wake of Booker and Gall and continuing into the Post-Report Period, the difference between the average guideline minimum and average sentence imposed widened for the federal caseload overall, indicating that the influence of the guidelines generally decreased after Booker rendered them advisory.  However, this trend has not continued in the most recent years of the Post-Report Period, suggesting that the influence of the guidelines may have stabilized.

  • The influence of the guidelines continued to vary substantially depending on the type of offense throughout the Post-Report Period.  As indicated by the difference between the average guideline minimum and average sentence imposed, the guidelines continued to exert a strong influence on sentences imposed in firearms and illegal reentry offenses, a more moderate influence on sentences imposed in fraud and drug offenses, and a weakening influence in non-production child pornography offenses and career offender cases.

  • Major amendments by the Commission to the drug trafficking and illegal reentry guidelines appear to have strengthened their influence during the most recent years of the Post-Report Period.  The difference between the average guideline minimum and average sentence imposed for these two guidelines narrowed after the Commission reduced the Drug Quantity Table by two offense levels in 2014 and comprehensively revised the illegal reentry guideline in 2016.

  • The guidelines generally exert a greater influence on sentences imposed in cases in which judicial discretion could be meaningfully assessed.  Excluding cases in which judicial discretion could not be meaningfully assessed narrowed the difference between the average guideline minimum and the average sentence imposed for the federal caseload overall, and for all but one individual offense type studied, across every time period studied.  This narrowing was largely attributable to the exclusion of cases with substantial assistance departures, which resulted in an average sentence reduction of 51.8 percent.  Sentence reductions for substantial assistance require a government motion and afford substantial weight to the government’s evaluation.

In short form, and at the risk of being too flip or summary about these findings, I take this all to mean that the USSC has through its data analysis found: (a) federal judges generally follow the less-crazy-severe guidelines somewhat more than the more-crazy-severe guidelines, AND (b) when the USSC finally gets around to amending the guidelines to make some of the more-crazy-severe guidelines a bit less crazy-severe, judges are inclined to follow those guidelines a bit more.  Oh, and (c) we really have no clear idea what the heck may be going on when prosecutors exercise their discretionary sentencing powers through substantial assistance departures (since, I assume, the DOJ shares no information with the USSC about the decision-making of federal prosecutors).

December 14, 2020 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Dispensary owner gets (within-guideline?!) federal prison term of 15+ years for marijuana sales that could be legal under most state laws

The headlined of this local article from Michigan, "Michigan medical marijuana seller gets prison: ‘Federal law has not changed,’ judge says," does not fully capture all the notable elements of a federal sentencing for marijuana sales yesterday.  Here are the details via the press article:

The former owner of medical-marijuana dispensaries in several Michigan cities was sentenced Tuesday, Jan. 28, to nearly 16 years in federal prison.  Danny Trevino, 47, of Lansing, who had Hydroworld dispensaries in Grand Rapids, Flint, Jackson, Lansing and elsewhere, had avoided state criminal and civil penalties over the years but was convicted of multiple federal charges.

“States are changing marijuana laws across the country, certainly that’s true, but federal law has not changed,” U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney said.

Trevino sought the statutory minimum sentence of five years in prison. Maloney instead sentenced Trevino to 15 years, eight months in prison - at the low end of advisory sentencing guidelines, which ranged from 188 to 235 months.

The sentence upset several family members and pro-marijuana activists who attended the sentencing in Grand Rapids. “What you saw is a travesty,” Detroit resident Richard Clement said. His shirt read: “#GETNORML,” “#WARONDRUGS” and “CANNACURES.”

He said it was difficult to reconcile what he called a harsh sentence in a state where marijuana is legal. He and others think Trevino was targeted because he is Hispanic. “This was totally racist,” a woman said, leaving the courthouse. “None of the (other dispensaries) ever get raided.” She was with Trevino’s family but refused to give her name....

Trevino, who has operated dispensaries since 2010, was convicted in an August jury trial of 10 felony charges, including conspiracy to manufacture, distribute and possess marijuana and maintaining a drug-involved premises. He was not allowed to use the state’s medical-marijuana law as a defense to the federal charges.

Nonetheless, the government said, he acted outside of the boundaries of the state medical-marijuana law. Defense attorney Nicholas Bostic called that a “fallacy.” He said that Trevino was successful in challenging state complaints after he had been arrested and the subject of several search warrants. He was arrested in April 2014 in Grand Rapids for delivery or manufacture of marijuana and maintaining a drug house but charges were dropped a month later, court records showed.

He fought forfeitures of funds seized by police that were ultimately returned by state courts. Trevino’s businesses were raided 16 times between 2010 and 2016, the government said. He provided the state with store records and tax records that showed his businesses brought in nearly $3 million.

“He thought he was legal,” Bostic told the judge. He said his client, whose previous drug convictions prevented him from being a caregiver, oversaw the operation. He said that every single sale of medical marijuana at his businesses would have been legal under laws in 33 states and the District of Columbia that allow medical or recreational marijuana. Trevino earlier told MLive: "How could I not have been in compliance if I was acquitted and found not guilty. We were winning and they didn’t charge us, so we kept going.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel McGraw said Trevino knew he acted illegally under federal law. He called Trevino “defiant, unrepentant and undeterred from committing the current federal crimes.” After federal investigators used a search warrant at one of his locations in 2016, Trevino posted on Facebook: “I guess Hydroworld is illegal. Lol OK.”

McGraw said Trevino acted as though marijuana – legalized in 2018 for recreational use in Michigan – was always legal. Trevino was “told time and time again that it was illegal and your honor, he simply didn’t care. He didn’t care. He kept operating," the prosecutor said.

The judge said his concern was Trevino’s conduct under federal law. “I fully recognize that the landscape has changed in many states in this country,” Maloney said. “The fact is, marijuana is a Schedule 1 controlled substance.” He noted that Congress has eliminated the mandatory minimum prison sentence for crack cocaine but has not acted on marijuana.

He said Trevino “had to know he was on the radar screens of federal authorities.” The judge ordered Trevino to serve four years on supervised release once his prison term ends. He also fined Trevino $11,000.

Without seeing more materials from this case, I am adverse to making too many quick judgments about this outcome. But nearly 16 years for quasi-legal marijuana sales seems pretty severe absent a lot more aggravating facts.  This article suggests that the defendant here was a "problem child" under Michigan state law, and so I suppose I can understand why the feds went after him and why the judge decided he merited a significant sentence. But if the defendant possibly believed that he was complying with state law, it seems misguided to sentence him pursuant to federal sentencing guidelines that are based around the “heartland” of a fully illicit drug dealer.

January 29, 2020 in Booker in district courts, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

US Sentencing Commission releases new report on "Inter-District Differences in Federal Sentencing Practices"

As reported via this USSC webpage, the US Sentencing Commission has this morning released this big new report under the full title "Inter-District Differences in Federal Sentencing Practices: Sentencing Practices Across Districts from 2005 - 2017." Here is a summary and key finding from the USSC's webpage:

This report is the third in a series of reports. It examines variations in sentencing practices—and corresponding variations in sentencing outcomes—across federal districts since the Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in United States v. Booker.

The Commission’s ongoing analysis in this area directly relates to a key goal of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984: reducing unwarranted sentencing disparities that existed in the federal judicial system. In particular, the Act was the result of a widespread bipartisan concern that such disparities existed both regionally (e.g., differences among the districts) and within the same courthouse. Having analyzed the differences within the same courthouse in its Intra-City Report, the Commission now turns in this report to examining regional differences since Booker....

Key Findings

While the extent of differences in sentencing practices vary depending on the specific primary guideline, the overarching trends indicate that, consistent with the findings of the Commission’s 2012 Booker Report, sentencing outcomes continue to depend at least in part upon the district in which the defendant is sentenced. In particular, the Commission finds that:

  • Variations in sentencing practices across districts increased in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in Booker.  These inter-district sentencing differences have persisted in the 13 years after Booker and six years after the Commission’s 2012 analysis.

  • Sentencing differences increased for each of the four major offense types analyzed (fraud, drug trafficking, firearms related offenses, and illegal reentry) during the Gall Period.  This trend continued for some, but not all, of the four offense types in the six years following the last period analyzed in the Commission’s 2012 Booker Report.

  • Guideline amendments intended to promote uniformity by addressing judicial concerns regarding severity have had an inconsistent impact on inter-district disparity.  Specifically, despite multiple significant revisions to the drug trafficking guideline, including the two-level reduction of the base offense level for all drugs, districts increasingly diverged in their sentencing practices for drug trafficking offenders.  However, the comprehensive amendment to the illegal reentry guideline contributed to increasing uniformity in sentencing practices in the Post-Report Period.

  • Certain districts have consistently sentenced more — or less — severely in relation to the guideline minimums than other districts, both over time and across offense type.

I am already looking forward to finding time to review and assess this latest big report from the USSC. But I cannot help but note at the outset that detailed data work which focuses almost exclusively on sentencing differences without any detailed discussions of sentencing severity or sentencing efficacy seems largely out of sync with the current political and policy criminal justice concerns expressed by both public officials and advocates.

Prior related post:

January 22, 2020 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 20, 2020

Recalling on-going work of the US Sentencing Commission as I continue to troll for "Reflections on Booker at 15"

In this post last weekend, I noted (1) that it is now a full 15 years since the Supreme Court (not-so-)radically transformed the federal sentencing system through its ruling in Booker v. United States, and (2) that it seems I may be one of the few to now note (or even realize) that we have passed another big milestone in the history of the federal sentencing system.  Though I have not yet received any "Reflections on Booker at 15" in response to my prior post, a reliable source reminded me that the US Sentencing Commission has an on-going series of reports that serve to update the system-wide Booker analysis that the USSC completed in its reports to Congress in 2006 and 2012.

To aid review and reflections, here are links to the USSC's 2006 and 2012 Booker reports and to its notable follow-up work from the last few years:

  1. Report on the Impact of United States v. Booker on Federal Sentencing (March 2006).

  2. Report on the Continuing Impact of United States v. Booker on Federal Sentencing (December 2012)

  3. Demographic Differences in Sentencing: An Update of the 2012 Booker Report  (November 2017)

  4. Intra-City Differences in Federal Sentencing Practices (January 2019)

The same reliable source told me that the Commission is nearing completion on another post-Booker report to be released shortly (and this report will also outline other on-going USSC work in this arena).  If this new Commission report ends up having some provocative findings, perhaps there will be some notable "Booker at 15" talk in the offing.

Prior related post:

January 20, 2020 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, November 18, 2019

"Movements in the Discretionary Authority of Federal District Court Judges Over the Last 50 Years"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Susan Klein now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

From my vantage point, judges’ individual control over their courtrooms remains largely stable.  Updated but similar versions of the problems encountered (and created) by Judge Julius Hoffman now confront our newer, younger, and perhaps better qualified judges.  While federal judges may be less likely to encounter radical, overtly political defendants and government officials trying to wrest control (and public opinion) from them in court, they are more likely to see minority defendants along with accompanying “courtwatchers” who want inequities in the criminal justice system noticed in individual cases.  I will first describe the Chicago Eight (soon to become the Chicago Seven) trial and then explain the new courtwatchers in Part I.

I have witnessed federal judges having lost, primarily since the mid-1980s, much of their earlier control over the criminal justice process in general, but in particular over charging and sentencing decisions.  Judicial discretion and control over a criminal trial is obviously less important when 97.2 percent of federal felony sentences are imposed by the district judge pursuant to a guilty plea negotiated between the government and the defendant, and only 2.8 percent of the sentences that judges impose are after a jury or bench trial.  The power players in the criminal justice system are the folks who determine whether to offer a plea and what plea terms to include.  We live in a world of guilty pleas controlled by prosecutors.  Federal prosecutors determine whom to investigate, whom to charge, and how much punishment to impose.  However, the pendulum has begun to swing back, and federal district judge discretion over criminal sentencing is now on the rise.  I will support these observations, as well as offer some good sentencing news post-Booker, in Part II.

Finally, in Part III, I will raise a relatively new phenomenon — federal district court judges imposing nationwide temporary restraining orders against the federal government. Though this last trend is not limited to or primarily about criminal trials, I think it fairly covered by the topic for today — most of these injunctions involve controversial policies that can, like with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals case, lead to criminal charges.  This legal device allows a single federal judge in a single judicial district to determine federal policy for the entire country, at least until the matter can be resolved by the Supreme Court.  This is one of the few areas where I have seen federal district judicial authority expand over the last few decades.  The Supreme Court has taken very recent notice of this trend, and will likely have something to say about the matter soon.

November 18, 2019 in Booker in district courts, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 15, 2019

You be the federal judge: what sentence for Roger Stone after his conviction on all seven counts including obstruction, witness tampering and making false statements to Congress?

The question in the title of this is prompted by this criminal justice news emerging from a federal courthouse in DC today: "Roger Stone, an ally of President Donald Trump, was found guilty Friday of lying to Congress and obstructing an investigation into Russia to protect Trump and his presidential campaign."  Here is some more about the case and convictions:

The jury's verdict came after about eight hours of deliberation.  Stone, a fixture in GOP politics, has worked on campaigns stretching back to Richard Nixon's.  Stone is the latest Trump ally to be found guilty in cases sprouting from a special counsel's investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election.

The verdict, reached by a jury of nine women and three men, comes amid an impeachment inquiry into allegations that Trump sought to pressure Ukraine into investigating a political rival....  Trump took to Twitter shortly after the verdict was announced. He decried a "double standard" and said law enforcement officials lied, including Robert Mueller, the special counsel who headed the Russia investigation.

Stone's trial ends after a week marked with Nixon quotes, references to the Mafia movie "The Godfather" and a colorful witness who offered to do a Bernie Sanders impression before an unamused federal judge.  The proceedings attracted the attendance of controversial figures, including alt-right firebrands Milo Yiannopoulos and Jacob Wohl.

Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign adviser who attended the trial, said he was escorted out of the courtroom by a federal marshal for turning his back on the jurors as they walked out.  "Normal Americans don’t stand a chance with an Obama judge and a Washington jury," he tweeted.

U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson allowed Stone to go home as he awaits his sentencing, scheduled for Feb. 6.  A gag order preventing him from talking about the case remains in effect. He and his attorneys did not comment as they left the courthouse....

The proceedings revealed information about the Trump campaign's efforts to seek advance knowledge of emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee, which hurt Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton when Trump was trailing in the polls.  Testimony indicated these efforts involved the candidate himself.

Stone, 67, stood trial on accusations that he repeatedly lied to Congress about his back-channel efforts to push for the release of those emails. He was accused of urging a possible congressional witness to either lie or scuttle his testimony.

"Roger Stone lied … because the truth looked bad for the Trump campaign and the truth looked bad for Donald Trump," Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron Zelinsky told jurors.

Defense attorneys urged jurors to focus on Stone's state of mind, arguing he did not willfully mislead Congress.  The claim that Stone lied to protect the Trump campaign was "absolutely false," Bruce Rogow told jurors.  "It makes no sense," Rogow said, adding that the campaign was long over and Trump was already president when Stone testified before Congress in 2017. "Why would Stone lie, why would he make stuff up? ... There is no purpose, there is no reason, there is no motive."

Stone was found guilty of seven charges: one count of obstruction of an official proceeding, five counts of false statements and one count of witness tampering. The maximum penalty for all counts totals 50 years in prison, though first-time offenders generally receive significantly lower sentences.

Jurors heard from five government witnesses and saw dozens of emails and text messages that prosecutors said proved Stone lied.  His defense attorneys did not call any witnesses, and Stone, known for his flamboyance and combativeness, did not testify.  The charges stemmed from Stone's interactions with the Trump campaign in the summer of 2016, around the time that WikiLeaks, an anti-secrecy group, began publishing troves of damaging emails about the Democratic National Committee and Clinton.

Prosecutors said Stone lied to the House Intelligence Committee about his efforts to push for the release of those emails.  They said he lied about the identity of the person who tipped him off about WikiLeaks' plans — his so-called intermediary.  They said he falsely denied talking to the Trump campaign about what he learned and falsely told Congress he did not have text messages and emails in which he talked about WikiLeaks.

Prosecutors said Stone sought to silence a witness who could expose these lies by using threatening references from "The Godfather" movie.  Stone urged the witness in multiple emails to follow the steps of Frank Pentangeli, a character in "The Godfather II" who lied to Congress to avoid incriminating Mafia boss Michael Corleone.

In some settings, I would be inclined to predict that an elderly nonviolent first(?) offender is quite unlikely to get a lengthy prison term or even any prison time at all.  But these days and in these kinds of high-profile case, I am never quite sure what to expect or predict.

So, dear readers, what sentence do you think you would be inclined to impose?

November 15, 2019 in Booker in district courts, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Longest prison sentence (six months) imposed in college admission scandal on big-spending dad

As reported in this USA Today piece, today in Boston "Toby MacFarlane, a former real estate and title insurance executive from California, was sentenced to six months in prison Wednesday for paying $450,000 to get his daughter and son admitted into the University of Southern California as fake athletic recruits."  Here is more:

It marks the longest prison sentence so far handed down among 13 parents and one college coach in the nation's college admissions scandal.

U.S. District Judge Nathaniel Gorton stressed that MacFarlane participated in the nationwide admissions scheme led by college consultant Rick Singer "not once, but twice," taking seats at USC away from two deserving students. He told MacFarlane his actions should be tolerated no more than a common thief's actions, "because that's what you are — a thief."...

Gorton also sentenced MacFarlane to two years of supervised release, 200 hours of community service and a $150,000 fine....

Addressing the court, MacFarlane, himself a USC graduate, apologized to his family, friends, former business partners and his alma mater, as well as "all of the students who applied and didn't get in."...

Gorton opted to impose a harsher sentence than called for in sentencing guidelines, citing the “fraudulent, deceitful" nature of MacFarlane's conduct. The judge's decision could be a preview of how he will approach other parents who go before him — including actress Lori Loughlin — who have pleaded not guilty.

MacFarlane, a former senior executive at WFG National Title Insurance Company, made two separate payments of $200,000, one in 2014 and on in 2017, to the sham nonprofit operated by Singer. Singer, in turn, facilitated his children's admissions into USC through bribes to one current and two former USC employees. MacFarlane also made a $50,000 payment to USC athletics.

The first transaction involved the admission of MacFarlane's daughter into USC as a fake soccer recruit. He then paid Singer again to admit his son into USC posing as a basketball recruit. "The defendant knew what he was doing was wrong. He knew it wasn't accepted at the school," Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Rosen told the judge. "So what does he do? He does it again with his son.”

Rosen said MacFarlane deserved prison because he was the first parent who paid into Singer's "side-door" recruitment scheme twice. He asked the judge to "send a message" as a result.

MacFarlane's defense attorney, Ted Cassman, sought a lighter sentence, arguing his client was less culpable than other parents sentenced in the admissions scheme. Unlike other parents, he said MacFarlane did not seek out Singer for cheating but for his consulting services. He said MacFarlane already suffered "swift and severe" collateral consequences from his conduct. He also pointed to MacFarlane's divorce, which separated his family and pressured him to buckle to Singer's offer....

The toughest prison sentence previously ordered was five months for Agustin Huneeus, a Napa Valley, California winemaker. Huneeus, who agreed to pay Singer $300,000 is the only defendant to take part in both the recruitment scheme and Singer's plot to cheat on college entrance exams. U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani handed down the sentence of Huneeus and 11 other parents while Judge Douglas Woodlock sentenced one other parent.

Twenty-nine defendants, including 19 parents, have either pleaded guilty in court or agreed to plead guilty to charges in the historic admissions case. Igor Dvorsiky, a former administrator for the ACT and SAT, pleaded guilty in court Wednesday to racketeering charges for accepting nearly $200,000 in bribes to opening a private school he operated in Los Angles for cheating in Singer's scheme. He admitted to opening it on 11 occasions, involving 20 students, for cheating.

Prior related Varsity Blues posts:

November 13, 2019 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Reviewing the sentencing dynamics as more parents get (minimal) prison time in "Operation Varsity Blues" college admissions scandal

This lengthy USA Today article provides a kind of mid-season review now that 19 parents out of 35 charged have pleaded guilty in "Operation Varsity Blues" college admissions scandal. The piece, which I recommend in full, is headlined "Parents cry desperate times in college admissions scandal.  A judge opts for prison anyway."  Here are excerpts:

One couple, Gregory and Marcia Abbott, told the judge they paid $125,000 to have someone fix their daughter's college entrance exams because she was suffering from chronic Lyme disease and needed a boost.

Attorneys for a father, Robert Flaxman, said he was desperate to help a troubled daughter remain in recovery — so he paid to cheat in hopes of getting her into a college where she would be safe.

Lawyers for another parent, Marjorie Klapper, said she was trying to help her epileptic son who'd suffered a brutal physical assault feel like a "regular" student.

The wealthy parents are among 10 sentenced in the last two months in the nation's college admissions scandal. Each insisted they didn't cheat for the status symbol of their child getting into an elite college or university. Instead they were driven by a feeling people endure regardless of economic class — desperation. They were families in crisis, the parents said, and the scheme's mastermind, the manipulative college consultant Rick Singer, found them at their most vulnerable and seized upon their weakness.

But their stories, each deeply personal with some details sealed from public court documents, have done little to sway the sentences handed down by U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani. Attorneys for the Abbotts, Flaxman and Klapper each asked for no incarceration but got prison anyway. Only one of the 10 sentenced parents has avoided prison altogether.

“Just because you’re a good person in tough circumstances doesn’t mean you can disregard what you know is right," Talwani said last week to Flaxman, a real estate developer from Laguna Beach, California, who specializes in luxury resorts. “Even good people who are doing things for people they love can’t be breaking the law."

Flaxman, who sobbed in court as he apologized to students who "work hard and don’t cheat no matter what,” received one month in prison for paying $75,000 to Singer to have someone change answers on his daughter's ACT exam to improve her score.

The ongoing round of parent sentencing continues today with Jane Buckingham, of Los Angeles, the founder of a marketing firm and author of a self-help book series called, "The Modern Girl's Guide to Life." She's admitted to paying Singer $50,000 to have someone take the ACT exam for her son.

Two more parents will be sentenced in the coming weeks by other Boston federal judges. Four additional parents pleaded guilty in court Monday, bringing the total to 19 parents out of 35 charged who have pleaded guilty in the case. The latest four won't be sentenced until 2020.

Parents sentenced to date pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud charges. Those citing personal crises tend to have paid into the test-cheating plot and are not part of the group who paid Singer significantly more to have their children tagged as college recruits to facilitate their admissions. Talwani, during a hearing last week, said a level of "elitism" was at play with the latter.

Daniel Medwed, professor of law and criminal justice at Northeastern University School of Law, said a fallback defense strategy in any case is to develop "mitigation evidence" — often hardships — to demonstrate extenuating circumstances.  "With clients from impoverished or challenging backgrounds, the argument is to often cite those backgrounds — that this person never had a chance, they grew up without a roof," Medwed said.  "But when your defendants are white privileged folks you can't make a classic hardship argument.  So you have to come up with a different hardship."  Some of their arguments might not resonate with judge, he said, because it's difficult to "connect the dots between the hardships and the behavior."

The theme of this article seems to be that the defendants' various tales of woe are having little impact, that these deeply personal stories "have done little to sway the sentences handed down by U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani."  But, critically, federal prosecutors have generally advocated for longer prison terms for nearly all defendants than have been imposed by Judge Talwani, and it is generally unusual for any federal prison terms to be measured in weeks rather than in months and years.  So I am inclined to believe these arguments are resonating with the sentencing judge, but that she is still eager to impose (minimal) terms of imprisonment to send a message about misbehavior and equal justice.

Prior related Varsity Blues posts:

October 23, 2019 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Catching up with another round of sentencings in "Operation Varsity Blues"

Three more parents were sentencing this past week by US District Court Judge Indira Talwani in the "Operation Varsity Blues" college admissions scandal.  Here are the headlines and essential from press accounts of these latest high-profile federal sentencings:

From NBC News, "NYC man, wife both sentenced to month in prison in college admissions scam: Gregory and Marcia Abbott paid $125,000 to have their daughter's SAT and ACT altered":

A New York man and his wife were each sentenced Tuesday to a month behind bars for paying a college-admission fixer to boost their daughter's SAT and ACT scores.  Gregory and Marcia Abbott will also have to complete a year of supervised release, pay a $45,000 fine and perform 250 hours of community service each, under sentences handed down in Boston by U.S. District Court Judge Indira Talwani.

The couple had already pleaded guilty in May to a single count each of fraud and conspiracy, paying $125,000 to ring leader Rick Singer for someone to correct answers on their daughter’s college board exams....

Prosecutors had asked Talwani to sentence the Abbotts to eight months in prison each.  Defense lawyers had sought probation for the pair.  The couple paid $50,000 to have a test proctor correct their daughter's ACT exam answers in 2018, and then another $75,000 to fix her SAT.

From the Los Angeles Times, "Bay Area entrepreneur is spared prison in college admissions scandal":

If any of the parents waiting to be sentenced in the college admissions scandal stood a chance at avoiding prison, it was Peter Jan Sartorio. He was, by any measurement, a small fish in a case filled with high-profile names and deep pockets: The $15,000 the 54-year-old food entrepreneur from the Bay Area paid to rig his daughter’s college entrance exam matched the lowest amount parents shelled out in the scam.  And with neither fame nor fortune, Sartorio didn’t fit the mold of the rich, entitled parent who prosecutors said needed to be punished with time behind bars.  He also was the first to admit his guilt.

On Friday a judge in Boston decided Sartorio was, in fact, less culpable than the others.  She spared him prison time, sentencing him instead to probation and community service. 

Sartorio is the eighth parent sentenced in the case and, for all up to now, U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani decided some amount of incarceration was needed.  The judge opted to go more lightly on Sartorio than she did on the actress Felicity Huffman, who received two weeks in prison for the same offense.  Sartorio was ordered to spend a year on probation, serve 250 hours of community service and pay a $9.500 fine....

Prosecutors had sought a one-month sentence for Sartorio, saying it was clear the father of two knew at the time that what he was doing was wrong. They underscored in court papers that when it came time to pay Singer, Sartorio avoided leaving a paper trail by paying cash and made multiple withdrawals from different accounts to avoid triggering automatic reviews by banking officials.

Prior related Varsity Blues posts:

October 13, 2019 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Next parent sentenced in college admission scandal gets four months in federal prison

As reported in this New York Post piece, headlined "Businessman gets 4 months for bribing his son’s way into USC," the second parent sentenced in the college admissions scandal will be spending somewhat longer in prison than Felicity Huffman. Here are details:

A Los Angeles businessman who paid $250,000 in bribes to get his son into USC — lying that the kid was an international water polo star — landed four months behind bars Tuesday.

Devin Sloane, a 53-year-old water treatment company owner, had pleaded guilty in May to conniving with college admissions scamster Rick Singer and crooked University of Southern California officials to get his son into the top college....

The dad had put his son in a Speedo and swim cap and posed him with a water polo ball in the family’s backyard pool for photos to help create a fake athletic profile for the kid in the summer of 2017. With the help of his dad’s accomplices, the teen was then marketed to the university as an acclaimed international player with “the youth junior team in Italy” who participated in tournaments from Greece to Serbia and Portugal, the feds said.... The teen had never played the sport competitively.

Federal prosecutors in Boston said in court papers that Sloane also “bragged about misleading a USC development official to cover up the quid pro quo — using his dead mother as a prop for a fake donation — and even expressed outrage when high school counselors dared to question why a student who did not play water polo was being recruited to play college water polo.”

The feds had sought a year and a day in prison for Sloane, whom they said showed “moral indifference” during the scam. His lawyers argued for no jail time, instead offering that Sloane could do community service by working with kids at a private school.

Before sentencing Sloane, Judge Indira Talwani scoffed, “That’s about as tone-deaf as I’ve heard. The independent school kids are not the victims in this case,” according to WGBH-TV.

In addition to the four-month prison term, Sloane must complete 500 hours of community service and pay a $95,000 fine.

Sloane is the second parent to be sentenced in the scandal. The first, actress Felicity Huffman, received 14 days behind bars for her $15,000 bribe. Assistant US Attorney Eric Rosen said in court before Sloane’s sentencing that the dad was different from Huffman because the actress didn’t tell her daughter about the bribe scheme, thus avoiding directly involving her, while Sloane “literally threw his kid into the family pool,” according to a Law360 newswire reporter.

Rosen also noted the difference in the size of the bribes in each case.... But Sloane’s lawyers argued to Tuesday that their client didn’t completely understand that the money he was paying was a bribe.

Prior related posts:

September 24, 2019 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, September 09, 2019

Sixth Circuit finds 30-day sentence given to Senator Rand Paul's attacker "substantively unreasonable"

To my knowledge, a full 15 years after Booker created the reasonableness standard of appellate review for federal sentencing, I believe there are still only a handful of cases in which circuit courts have declared a sentence to be "substantively unreasonable" upon a defendant's appeal claiming it included a prison term that was too long.  But today a Sixth Circuit panel manages to declare yet again, upon an appeal by the government, that a sentence is "substantively unreasonable" because the term of incarceration was too short.  And this ruling in US v. Boucher, No. 18-5683 (6th Cir. Sept. 9, 2019) (available here), comes in quite the high-profile setting.  Here is how it begins:

Senator Rand Paul was mowing his lawn when he stopped to gather a few limbs in his path.  Without warning, Rene Boucher — Paul’s next-door neighbor, whom he had not spoken with in years — raced toward Paul and attacked him from behind.  The impact broke six of Paul’s ribs, caused long-lasting damage to his lung, and led to several bouts of pneumonia.  Boucher later pleaded guilty to assaulting a member of Congress in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 351(e). Although his Guidelines sentencing range was 21 to 27 months in prison, the district court sentenced him to 30 days’ imprisonment.  On appeal, the Government argues that Boucher’s sentence was substantively unreasonable.  We agree and therefore VACATE his sentence and REMAND for resentencing.

I have largely stopped following circuit reasonableness rulings because they so often seemed void of real content or character.  This Boucher ruling has some considerable content and character, as it runs a full 16 pages and concludes this way:

In a mine-run case like this one, we apply “closer review” to any variance from the Guidelines. Kimbrough, 552 U.S. at 109 (quoting Rita, 551 U.S. at 351).  And our review here reveals no compelling justification for Boucher’s well-below-Guidelines sentence.  Gall, 552 U.S. at 50.  Boucher may or may not be entitled to a downward variance after the district court reweighs the relevant § 3553(a) factors, and it is the district court’s right to make that decision in the first instance.  See United States v. Johnson, 239 F. App’x 986, 993 (6th Cir. 2007) (“This Court takes no position on what an appropriate sentence in this case might be and notes that on remand the district court still retains ample discretion to grant a variance. . . . The narrow reason for remand here is that the extreme nature of the deviation, without a correspondingly compelling justification, resulted in a substantively unreasonable sentence.”).  We therefore VACATE Boucher’s sentence and REMAND for resentencing.

I have long hoped for a mre robust and searching form of reasonableness review, but I continue to find that courts are much more interested in seriously questioning 30-day sentences when prosecutors appeal than in questioning 30-year sentences when defendants appeal.  And so it goes in incarceration nation.

September 9, 2019 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

"A Partial Fix of a Broken Guideline: A Proposed Amendment to Section 2G2.2 of the United States Sentencing Guidelines"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article now available via SSRN and authored by Brent Evan Newton. Here is its abstract:

Except for the federal criminal penalties for crack cocaine offenses, no specific non-capital penalty structure has been more widely criticized than USSG § 2G2.2 and the corresponding federal penal statutes, 18 U.S.C. §§ 2252 & 2252A. Together, those provisions govern penalties for child pornography offenses other than those involving actual production of child pornography.  Indeed, one of the leading sources of criticism has been the United States Sentencing Commission, whose 300-plus-page report to Congress in December 2012 made a compelling case for changing both the guideline and, to a lesser degree, the statutes.

The current sentencing guideline for non-production offenses is fundamentally broken, as evidenced by the fact that only 28.4 percent of defendants sentenced under section 2G2.2 receive within-range sentences and 69.1 percent of defendants receive downward variances or departures (unrelated to their substantial assistance or participation in a fast-track program).  The vast majority of child pornography defendants receive downward variances from their guideline ranges based on sentencing judges’ subjective senses of what appropriate sentences should be.  Because judges have no meaningful national benchmark from which to render sentencing decisions, widespread sentencing disparities exist -- in conflict with the central purpose of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. In addition, because the current guideline fails to offer any meaningful benchmark, federal prosecutors around the country engage in a wide variety of different charging and plea-bargain practices resulting in significant sentencing disparities among similar defendants.

Although the best solution to the problems with the current child pornography sentencing scheme would require congressional intervention, Congress appears unwilling to make any changes in the statutory handcuffs currently on the Commission.  Therefore, I have set forth a detailed proposed amendment to section 2G2.2 that could be adopted by the Commission without congressional authorization.  If the Commission does not amend the guideline, then my proposal provides a detailed roadmap for federal district judges to “vary” from the current, broken guideline pursuant to the authority granted by the Supreme Court in United States v. Booker and Kimbrough v. United States.

August 7, 2019 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, August 05, 2019

“MAGA Bomber” Cesar Sayoc sentenced to 20 years in prison despite LWOP guideline range

As reported in this CNBC piece, "'MAGA Bomber' Cesar Sayoc was sentenced to 20 years in prison on Monday for sending 16 mail bombs to 13 people around the United States last year, including leading critics of President Donald Trump such as former President Barack Obama, ex-Vice President Joe Biden, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, actor Robert De Niro and financier George Soros." Here is more about this high-profile sentencing:

“I am beyond so very sorry for what I did,” Sayoc said before he was sentenced in U.S. District Court in Manhattan by Judge Jed Rakoff, according to the Courthouse News service.

“Now that I am a sober man, I know that I a very sick man,” Sayoc reportedly said. “I wish more than anything that I could turn back time and take back what I did ... I feel the pain and suffering of these victims.”

But Rakoff said, “The nature and cirumstances of the instant offenses are, by any measure, horrendous.”

“While none of the devices exploded ... at the very least they were intended to strike fear and terror into the minds of their victims and to intimidate those victims, mostly prominent political figures, from exercising their freedom.” Rakoff noted that Sayoc, even if he proves to be a model prison, “will be about 75 years old before he can be released.”

“No one can pretend this is not, in real terms, substantial punishment; but in the Court’s view, it is no more, and no less, than [what] he deserves,” Rakoff said.

Sayoc, a 57-year-old Florida resident whose own lawyers called him “a Donald Trump super-fan,” pleaded guilty on March 21 to 65 criminal counts, which included using weapons of mass destruction and illegal mailing of explosives with intent to kill or injure. Prosecutors said Sayoc’s crimes amounts to a “domestic terrorist attack.”

Prosecutors had asked Rakoff to sentence the former exotic dancer and steroid abuser to life in prison for the mail bombing spree....

None of the home-made bombs exploded, and “would not have functioned as designed,” according to prosecutors. But they noted that Sayoc packed PVC pipes with explosive powder and glass shards, along with pool chemicals to “increase the chances of burning the skin of” his targets....

Sayoc’s lawyers had asked that he be sentenced to just 10 years in prison, the mandatory minimum for his crimes. In their own sentencing submission, defense lawyers wrote that, “a series of traumatic events pushed Cesar Sayoc further and further into the margins of society.”

Valuably, Judge Rakoff authored this nine-page sentencing opinion explaining why he found the sentencing recommendations of the prosecution and defense not quite right and why he settled on a 20-year prison term for these crimes.

August 5, 2019 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

The long legacy of drug wars: Eighth Circuit panel affirms LWOP sentence for drug dealer as reasonable

As long-time readers likely realize, I do not blog much these days about how federal circuit courts are conducting reasonableness review of sentences — largely because there are precious few cases in which circuit judges seriously question (or even seriously engage with) the sentencing judgments of district courts.  A helpful reader alerted me to a reasonableness review decision from the Eighth Circuit today which provides another example of how disinclined circuit courts are to question even the most extreme prison sentences.

US v. Duke, No. 18-1371 (8th Cir. July 310, 2019) (available here), involves the appeal after a resentencing of a man originally sentenced three decades ago.  Back then, arguably at the height of the modern drug war, "Ralph Duke was sentenced in 1990 to a term of life imprisonment plus forty years for committing several serious drug trafficking and firearms offenses."   Here is a description of Duke's crimes from this latest opinion:

Duke controlled all phases of a drug trafficking organization in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area from 1984 through June 1989.  He purchased cocaine primarily from a Colombian-affiliated source in Houston or from sources in Los Angeles.  The cocaine was transported to Minnesota in vehicles owned by Duke and driven by younger members of his drug trafficking organization.  Duke then distributed kilograms of cocaine to dealers for resale at the street level in smaller quantities.  Duke laundered the proceeds of drug sales by purchasing homes and cars in the names of others.  All told, Duke and his organization trafficked over fifty kilograms of cocaine before law enforcement interrupted their operations.  When Duke was apprehended in May 1989, officers found two loaded handguns in his bedroom and two assault shotguns and two AR-15 semi-automatic rifles in his residence.  The government charged at least twenty-five people as a result of the investigation of Duke’s organization. 

In other words, Duke was a big-time drug dealer in the 1980s, though it does not appear that he was actively involved in any violent activities or that his case involved other aggravating factors (though I suppose he might be called a drug kingpin).  But back in the 1990s, when the drug war was ranging and the federal sentencing guidelines were mandatory, perhaps it is not surprising that the federal district judge originally imposed an LWOP sentence on Duke.

But fast forward nearly 30 years, and Duke had the chance to benefit from a full resentencing in 2018 due to various legal developments.  Circa 2018, the federal sentencing guidelines were now advisory and, according to Duke, a lower sentence was justified in light of his "exceptional institutional conduct over the last 29 years, lack of criminal history, age, medical history, family ties, rehabilitation, remorse, and low risk of recidivism."  But the same federal district judge was unmoved and decided to give Duke an LWOP sentence yet again.  And the Eighth Circuit panel, in the ruling linked above, decided this LWOP sentence was reasonable.

When Booker was first decided and circuit courts were tasked with reasonableness review based on 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), I had sincerely hoped appellate judges would come to embrace the task of ensuring sentences were "not greater than necessary to comply with the purposes set forth" by Congress.  But it became all too clear all too quickly that all too few circuit judges were eager to rigorously review long prison sentences, especially if those sentences fell within calculated guideline ranges.  Years later, even with mass incarceration and long sentences for drug offenses subject to considerable criticism, we still see federal judges finding no problem with giving a "death-in-prison" sentence based on drug dealing many decades ago.

July 31, 2019 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 03, 2019

Fourteen+ years after inventing reasonableness review in Booker, SCOTUS finally grants cert to address how it works procedurally

The Supreme Court's new order list this morning includes an exciting blast (from the past?) for federal sentencing fans in the form of a cert grant in Holguin-Hernandez v. US, No. 18-7739. The petition for certiorari in this case sets forth this simple question presented: "Whether a formal objection after pronouncement of sentence is necessary to invoke appellate reasonableness review of the length of a defendant’s sentence."   

Notably, the government has this slightly different accounting of what's at issue in this case in its cert opposition brief: "Whether the court of appeals correctly reviewed for plain error petitioner’s claim that the district court imposed a substantively unreasonable term of imprisonment for petitioner’s violation of the terms of his supervised release, when petitioner failed to object in the district court to that term of imprisonment."  (The two-page Fifth Circuit panel ruling in this case is here; SCOTUSblog has the briefing and other documents in this case at this link.)

There is a circuit split on this issue of just how reasonableness review is to operate procedurally, but that split has been pretty well established and entrenched for the better part of a decade.  I suspect that the recent new arrivals to the Supreme Court, particularly Justice Kavanaugh but maybe also Justice Gorsuch, may explain why this long-ignored issue has now gotten taken up by the Justices.

Sadly, it seems the cert grant in this case concerns only a procedural issues surrounding the standards of review rather than the substantive particulars of how circuit courts should judge the reasonableness of a sentence.  But, given that it has been nearly a decade since SCOTUS has said anything significant about reasonableness review (I think of the 2011 Pepper case as the last big ruling in this space), even this Holguin-Hernandez glass of reasonableness water looks like an oasis in the desert of post-Booker SCOTUS jurisprudence.

June 3, 2019 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, April 29, 2019

"Booker Circumvention? Adjudication Strategies in the Advisory Sentencing Guidelines Era"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Mona Lynch and now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

This article addresses the question of policy circumvention in federal courts by examining how legal actors have differentially adapted their adjudicatory practices after U.S. v. Booker (2005) rendered the federal sentencing guidelines advisory rather than mandatory.  By linking two distinct bodies of scholarship — the courts-as-communities scholarship that assesses and explains locale-based variations in criminal court operations and the socio-legal “law and organizations” scholarship that addresses how organizational actors translate and implement top-down legal policy reforms — this article argues that law-as-practiced is always temporally and spatially contingent.

Expanding on prior quantitative research that addresses district-specific adaptations to Booker, this article reports on findings from a qualitative study recently conducted by the author of four federal districts.  Based on these findings, this article examines within-district changes and between-district variations in: (1) legal actors’ perceptions of whether the Booker policy change impacted local practices and outcomes, and if so, the extent of its impact; (2) how legal strategies and practices have changed at three stages of the criminal process: charging, pre-conviction plea negotiations, and formal sentencing; and (3) interviewees’ perceptions about whether Booker contributed to greater racial or other disparities in case out-comes.

Findings indicate that a dynamic, proactive adaptation process is taking place, conditioned by local norms but not fully dictated by those norms.  They also make clear that changes in sentencing outcomes in the post-Booker period are not simply the result of liberated judges exercising their discretion, but rather are jointly produced by courtroom workgroup members through both contestation and cooperation.  This inquiry is especially timely given both ongoing and proposed changes in federal sentencing policy that aim to maintain severity in punishment, re-impose constraints on legal actors, and threaten to exacerbate racial and ethnic inequalities in the federal criminal system.

April 29, 2019 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Interesting new TRAC data on intra-courthouse judge-to-judge differences in sentences

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University maintains lots of data on the work of federal courts and federal agencies. Seemingly inspired by the recent sentencing(s) of Paul Manafort, TRAC completed a "study of judge sentencing differences at 155 federal courthouses across the country" in which "the judge with the lowest average prison sentence was compared with the judge with the highest average sentence at each courthouse."  At this page, TRAC summarizes its findings this way:

Based upon case-by-case sentencing records, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University found that half of federal judges served at courthouse where the average prison sentence differed by at least 23 months depending upon which judge handled the case.  Sixty-six of these judges served at six courthouses where the average prison sentence length differed by more than 48 months.

The Orlando courthouse in the Middle District of Florida with seven judges had a range of over 80 months between the judge with the shortest versus the longest average prison sentence.  This was followed by the Greenbelt courthouse in Maryland with over 64 months difference among the seven judges serving there....

To examine current sentencing differences at each of the 155 federal courthouses included in the study, read the full report [at this link].

Because TRAC is comparing average sentences for each federal judge directly without controlling for the specific caseloads of these judges, variations in average sentences could reflect caseload differences as much as judicial differences. But in the full report, TRAC reasonably notes that due to "the fairly large number of defendants sentenced by each judge, where there is random assignment of cases to judges then statistically speaking each judge should have closely comparable caseloads so that differences in the nature of the offenses and defendants' histories are roughly comparable."

Ultimately, this TRAC report provides a crude and incomplete account of intra-courthouse judge-to-judge differences because just one or two outlier judges could and would make a courthouse look bad in this TRAC accounting.  Still, it is interesting and useful to be reminded statistically of what all federal criminal justice practitioners know well, namely that most judges have their own distinctive and unique approaches to sentencing decision-making.

March 24, 2019 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Paul Manafort gets additional (consecutive) 43 months in prison at second sentencing, resulting in 7.5 year total term

As reported in this Politico piece, headlined "Paul Manafort’s prison sentence was upped to seven-and-a-half years on Wednesday, bringing an end to Robert Mueller’s most public legal battle and capping a spectacular fall for the globe-trotting GOP consultant and former chairman of the Trump campaign." Here is more:

It's the longest sentence by far for anyone ensnared in Mueller’s nearly two-year-old probe. Manafort’s punishment reached its final length after U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson on Wednesday gave Manafort an additional 43 months in prison for a series of lobbying and witness tampering crimes he pleaded guilty to last fall. Manafort also must serve nearly four years for his conviction in a jury trial for financial fraud crimes in Virginia.

Manafort, wearing a dark suit and seated in a wheelchair, issued a full-throated and blunt apology shortly before Jackson handed out his second — and final — prison sentence in the Mueller case. “I am sorry for what I have done and for all the activities that have gotten us here today," said Manafort, contrite and stone-faced.

But Jackson swiftly upbraided Manafort's penitence, insinuating that it was insincere and hinting that she believed Manafort had previously calibrated his statements to appeal to President Donald Trump for a pardon — the only way out of a multi-year prison sentence at this point for the ex-Trump aide, who turns 70 next month.

"Saying I'm sorry I got caught is not an inspiring plea for leniency," Jackson said, exhaustively recounting Manafort's deception and propensity for hiding money in offshore accounts, ducking millions in U.S. taxes, tampering with witnesses and repeatedly failing to come clean when confronted with his behavior.

"Why?" she asked. "Not to support a family but to sustain a lifestyle at the most opulent and extravagant level," she said, a reference to the high-end suits, designer clothes, custom rugs and luxury cars that Manafort collected over the years. "More houses than one man can enjoy, more suits than one man can wear."...

Manafort made his plea to Jackson about charges brought in the D.C. court, which centered on his lobbying work in Ukraine and conspiring with a suspected Moscow-linked business associate to tamper with potential witnesses. But his shorter-than-anticipated Virginia sentence was hanging over the entire court proceedings.

Jackson stressed that she was not there for a "review or revision" of the Virginia sentence, which drew condemnation from some in the legal community who felt the punishment was unfairly brief, given the scope of the crimes and sentencing guidelines that called for Manafort to receive between about 19 and 24 years....

As a result, one major question facing Jackson, an Obama appointee, was whether she would make Manafort serve his D.C. sentence after he completes the punishment from his Virginia case, or whether she would allow him to serve them both concurrently. Manafort has been using a cane and wheelchair in his recent court appearances and has asked for leniency by citing his deteriorating health, as well as the strains of solitary confinement at the Alexandria, Va., detention center.

Ultimately, Jackson split her decision, making some of her sentence — 30 months — concurrent with the Virginia punishment, but ordering that the rest be served consecutively. Manafort’s nine months already spent in jail since his bond was revoked last June for witness tampering will count toward his time served, meaning Manafort is on track to be released from federal custody around the end of 2025.

By my calculations, if Manafort were to get all available good time credit, he might be eligible for release in 2024.  And, thanks to the FIRST STEP Act, Manafort might also eventually be able to earn some additional time off for participating in prison programming (though the particular of "earned" time credits will likely not be fully in place until next year).

Some of many prior related posts:

March 13, 2019 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (9)

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Paul Manafort's sentencing memorandum in DC makes pitch for a sentence "significantly below" ten years

As reported in this Politico piece, counsel for "Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman, pleaded on Monday for a federal judge to spare their 69-year-old client from a sentence that would essentially send him to prison for the rest of his life."  Here is more about the latest sentencing filing:

In a 47-page filing, Manafort’s attorneys described a client who has been “personally, professionally, and financially” broken by special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation and who deserves a sentence “significantly” below the statutory maximum of 10 years he faces after pleading guilty in Washington to a pair of conspiracy charges.

“Mr. Manafort has been personally and financially devestated [sic] as a result of his conduct and the forfeiture he has agreed to,” his lawyers wrote. “There is no reason to believe that a sentence of years in prison is necessary to prevent him from committing further crimes.”

Manafort’s lawyers added that he “poses no risk to the public, which itself has certainly been generally deterred from engaging in similar conduct based on the widespread negative publicity this case has garnered, as well as his incarceration in solitary confinement.”

Two federal judges are scheduled to sentence Manafort twice next month over criminal charges brought by Mueller’s office, including tax and bank fraud, as well as witness tampering and unregistered lobbying for a foreign government. U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis III is scheduled first in Virginia, on March 8, and U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson in Washington goes second, on March 13.

The memo that Manafort’s attorneys submitted Monday aims to rebut Saturday’s filing from Mueller, who told Jackson that the longtime Republican operative “repeatedly and brazenly violated the law” for more than a decade and should be considered for a total sentence in the roughly 17-to-22-year range by stacking her sentence on top of the one Ellis issues.

The full filing is available at this link, and here is an excerpt from its introduction:

Mr. Manafort, who over the decades has served four U.S. presidents and has no prior criminal history, is presented to this Court by the government as a hardened criminal who “brazenly” violated the law and deserves no mercy.  But this case is not about murder, drug cartels, organized crime, the Madoff Ponzi scheme or the collapse of Enron.  Rather, at its core, the charges against the defendant stem from one operable set of facts: Mr. Manafort made a substantial amount of income working as a political consultant in Ukraine, he failed to report to the government the source and total amount of income he made from those activities, and he attempted to conceal his actions from the authorities. He has accepted full responsibility by pleading guilty to this conduct....

Mr. Manafort has been punished substantially, including the forfeiture of most of his assets. In light of his age and health concerns, a significant additional period of incarceration will likely amount to a life sentence for a first time offender.

Some prior related posts:

February 26, 2019 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Latest Manafort sentencing memorandum from Special Counsel pulls few punches

As reported in this Politico article, a "federal judge should consider giving former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort a sentence that would send him to prison for at least 17 and a half years, special counsel Robert Mueller said in a court filing made public Saturday."  Here is more from the article about the filing and the legal context now:

Manafort faces a pair of sentencing hearings in the coming weeks in Virginia and in Washington where judges will determine what punishment he should face in two separate criminal cases brought by Mueller’s office involving tax fraud, bank fraud, unregistered lobbying for a foreign government and witness tampering.

The latest submission from Mueller accuses Manafort of a bold, brazen and wide-ranging series of crimes carried out over decades and continuing while Manafort was managing the Trump campaign in the summer of 2016, although prosecutors seemed to avoid mentioning the president directly in their new filing....

The new court submission in Washington released on Saturday makes no explicit recommendation about how much prison time Manafort should serve, but urges U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson to consider making the longtime political consultant and lobbyist serve a total sentence in the roughly 17-to-22-year range by making her sentence consecutive to one a Virginia judge is expected to impose ahead of her early next month.

Jackson has the power in her case to sentence Manafort to up to ten years: the maximum allowed by law for the conspiracy and obstruction of justice crimes he pleaded guilty to before her last year as part of plea deal.

Last week, Mueller’s prosecutors told U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis in Alexandria that sentencing guidelines applicable to Manafort’s case there call for him to serve between 19 and a half and 24 and a half years in prison. The prosecution team also made no explicit recommendation for a sentence in that case, beyond urging that the punishment be “serious” and adequate to deter others from similar conduct.

In theory, Ellis could sentence Manafort to as long as 80 years in prison on the charges of tax fraud, bank fraud and failing to report foreign bank accounts that he was convicted of at a high-profile jury trial last August.

The full 25-page filing (with a few redactions) is available at this link. Here is part of its introduction:

Based on his relevant sentencing conduct, Manafort presents many aggravating sentencing factors and no warranted mitigating factors. Manafort committed an array of felonies for over a decade, up through the fall of 2018.  Manafort chose repeatedly and knowingly to violate the law— whether the laws proscribed garden-variety crimes such as tax fraud, money laundering, obstruction of justice, and bank fraud, or more esoteric laws that he nevertheless was intimately familiar with, such as the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).  His criminal actions were bold, some of which were committed while under a spotlight due to his work as the campaign chairman and, later, while he was on bail from this Court. And the crimes he engaged in while on bail were not minor; they went to the heart of the criminal justice system, namely, tampering with witnesses so he would not be held accountable for his crimes.  Even after he purportedly agreed to cooperate with the government in September 2018, Manafort, as this court found, lied to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), this office, and the grand jury.  His deceit, which is a fundamental component of the crimes of conviction and relevant conduct, extended to tax preparers, bookkeepers, banks, the Treasury Department, the Department of Justice National Security Division, the FBI, the Special Counsel’s Office, the grand jury, his own legal counsel, Members of Congress, and members of the executive branch of the United States government.  In sum, upon release from jail, Manafort presents a grave risk of recidivism. Specific deterrence is thus at its height, as is general deterrence of those who would engage in comparable concerted criminal conduct.

Some prior related posts:

February 23, 2019 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, February 04, 2019

"18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)’s Undervalued Sentencing Command: Providing a Federal Criminal Defendant with Rehabilitation, Training, and Treatment in 'the Most Effective Manner'"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new (and very timely) article authored by Erica Zunkel now available in the Notre Dame Journal of International & Comparative Law.  Here is its abstract:

The vast majority of federal criminal defendants are sentenced to prison, and non-incarceration sentences have become vanishingly small.  During the sentencing process, federal district court judges are required to consider what sentence will provide the defendant with necessary rehabilitation and treatment in the most effective manner pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(2)(d).  Courts regularly undervalue, ignore, or even violate this statutory command.  Some courts seem to believe that the Bureau of Prisons can provide adequate rehabilitation and treatment and do not explain how this squares with what the statute requires.  Other courts barely engage with the issue.  Only a minority of courts take the statutory command seriously. 

This is problematic because evidence shows that the Bureau of Prisons is ill-equipped to provide defendants with the most effective rehabilitation and treatment, particularly medical care and mental health care.  This Article concludes that the courts should take § 3553(a)(2)(D)’s mandate much more seriously in sentencing federal criminal defendants. Likewise, defense attorneys should engage in vigorous advocacy at sentencing to ensure that courts understand the Bureau of Prisons’ severe limitations in providing effective, let alone adequate, rehabilitation and treatment.

February 4, 2019 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Fourth Circuit affirms officer Michael Slager "conviction" (by a judge at sentencing) of murdering Walter Scott

I noted in posts here and here back in December 2017 that, after the high-profile shooting and then state and federal prosecutions of former South Carolina police officer Michael Slager for killing Walter Scott, the real action in his case became a federal sentencing "trial" after Slager pleaded guilty to a federal civil rights offense.  This "trial" was really a judicial inquisition in which a federal sentencing judge took testimony at a sentencing hearing in order to decide whether Slager's crime was "really" second-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter for purposes of calculating the appropriate guideline range.  

Notably, the presentence report in Slager's case suggested a prison term of between 10 and 13 years based on the conclusion that his crime should be viewed as voluntary manslaughter (and his defense attorneys requested an even lower sentence).  But federal prosecutors successfully argued that the district court should, after applying the guidelines for second-degree murder and obstruction of justice, impose a prison sentence for Slager within an enhanced guideline range of roughly 17 to 22 years of imprisonment.  The judge, after a multi-day hearing, "convicted" Slager of second-degree murder and ultimately imposed a 20-year prison term.  Yesterday the Fourth Circuit affirmed the sentence in US v. Slager, No. 18-4036 (4th Cir. Jan 8, 2019) (available here). Here is how that opinion gets started and a passage from the heart of the opinion:

Defendant Michael Slager (“Defendant”), a former officer with the North Charleston Police Department, admitted that he “willfully” shot and killed Walter Scott (“Scott”), when Scott was unarmed and fleeing arrest.  Defendant further admitted that his decision to shoot Scott was “objectively unreasonable.”  Based on those admissions, Defendant pleaded guilty to depriving Scott of his civil rights under color of law.  The district court sentenced Defendant to a 240-month term of imprisonment.  Before this Court, Defendant argues that the district court reversibly erred in setting his sentence by: (1) using second-degree murder as the sentencing cross-reference for his offense rather than voluntary manslaughter, and (2) applying a two-level enhancement for obstruction of justice.  Finding no reversible error, we affirm Defendant’s sentence....

“When sentencing courts engage in fact finding, preponderance of the evidence is the appropriate standard of proof.” United States v. Span, 789 F.3d 320, 334 (4th Cir. 2015) (citations and alterations omitted). We “will not reverse a lower court’s findings of fact simply because we would have decided the case differently.” Id. (quoting Easley v. Cromartie, 532 U.S. 234, 242 (2001)).  Instead, clear error exists only when “the reviewing court on the entire evidence is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.” Id. (quoting Easley, 532 U.S. at 242)....

Because Santana’s video does not capture the entirety of the disputed period, the court based many of its factual findings on its assessment of the credibility of the two testifying eyewitnesses to the encounter: Defendant and Santana.  Examining at length each of Defendant’s four accounts of the encounter, the court discredited Defendant’s testimony as “contradictory,” “self-serving, evolving, and internally inconsistent.” Slager, 2018 WL 445497, at *4–6.  The record amply supports that credibility determination....

In conclusion, the district court did not reversibly err by inferring Defendant’s malice from the facts it found credible. Moreover, the court did not reversibly err by determining that Defendant’s malice was not negated by “sudden quarrel or heat of passion.” Accordingly, the court properly cross-referenced second-degree murder.

I take no issue with the substantive conclusions of the courts here, but I still always find it jarring when district judges at sentencing are resolving factual disputes and reaching judgments about criminal behavior that have long traditionally been classic jury issues. But, thanks to the remedial opinion in Booker, these matters can still be resolved by judges at sentencing because their findings result in only advisory recommendations rather than sentencing mandates.

Prior related posts:

January 9, 2019 in Advisory Sentencing Guidelines, Blakely Commentary and News, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, December 13, 2018

US Sentencing Commission published proposed amendment, including a big change to determining a "crime of violence"

As reported in this press release, the "United States Sentencing Commission voted today to publish for comment proposed amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines, including a proposal concerning how sentencing courts determine if a prior conviction is a “crime of violence” under the guidelines."  Here is more:

At a public meeting, Circuit Judge William H. Pryor Jr., the Acting Chair of the Commission remarked, “The ‘crime of violence’ definition continues to cause extensive litigation with inconsistent sentencing outcomes, often resulting in offenders whose conduct is obviously violent in nature failing to qualify for sentencing enhancements. These results are particularly troublesome given the risk to public safety posed by violent offenders.”

The sentencing guidelines provide increased penalties for offenders with a prior conviction that is a “crime of violence” or “controlled substance offense” (e.g., the career offender guideline). Under the guidelines, the sentencing court must determine whether a prior conviction falls into either of those categories. Circuit caselaw currently limits the sentencing court’s analysis of the prior conviction to the elements of the statute of conviction (referred to as the “categorical approach”), without any consideration of the defendant’s actual conduct in the offense. Today’s proposed amendment would enable the sentencing courts to consider the conduct that formed the basis of the offense of conviction as well as the elements of the statute of conviction. The Commission is requesting input on this proposal and the appropriate sources of information the courts might use to ensure that clear and reliable evidence of prior violent conduct is accounted for at sentencing.

The Commission also published a proposal to clarify the definition of certain enumerated offenses and provide clearer guidance how to treat inchoate offenses in determining whether an offense is a crime of violence.  The proposed amendment addresses specific application issues and general concerns raised by the Department of Justice in their August 2018 annual letter to the Commission.

The Commission is finalizing a study in which it found that violent federal offenders recidivate much more often, more quickly, and commit more serious offenses than non-violent federal offenders.  The Commission expects to publish its full findings and other reports on revocations and mandatory minimum penalties in early 2019 (view related studies).

Acting Chair Pryor also provided an update at the meeting on the Commission’s top priority this amendment cycle — examining the current federal sentencing system and operation of .... the guidelines.  In the coming weeks, the Commission will release a report comparing federal judges’ sentencing practices within 30 major metropolitan U.S. cities.  “These findings raise important questions about the advisory guidelines system. We need to study and consider new approaches that more adequately achieve the goals of the Sentencing Reform Act—including the goal of avoiding unwarranted sentencing disparity — within the constitutional parameters set forth by the Supreme Court in Booker,” stated Acting Chair Pryor.

In light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Koons v. United States and recent circuit conflicts, the Commission also proposed revisions to how retroactive sentence reductions are determined when mandatory minimum penalties are present in the case. The Commission also published several proposed amendments responding to recently enacted legislation.

These proposed amendment could prove to be quite consequential if they become actual amendments, but the press release further explains why the USSC may not have a quorum to start the new year and will need to have new confirmed members quickly to be able to complete  official business (my emphasis added):

Today’s public meeting gave the current commissioners the opportunity to work together for the last time, as the terms of Acting Chair Pryor and Commissioner Rachel E. Barkow expire at the end of the 115th Congress.  “I have had the privilege of working alongside Commissioner Barkow since she was confirmed by the Senate five years ago. Her steadfast commitment to fair sentencing and quick ability to process sentencing data served the Commission and the public well,” said Acting Chair Pryor.  “She has made substantial contributions to the work of the Commission.  I will miss her.”

Acting Chair Pryor also thanked the advisory group members whose terms are expiring, including Ronald Levine, Chair of the Practitioners Advisory Group and T. Michael Andrews, Chair of the Victims Advisory Group.

As the terms of Acting Chair Pryor and Commissioner Barkow expire, two voting commissioners will continue to serve terms (Senior District Judge Charles R. Breyer and District Judge Danny C. Reeves).  The Commission must have at least four voting commissioners for a quorum. At least three of the commissioners must be federal judges and no more than four may belong to the same political party.  Commissioner Patricia K. Cushwa (ex officio, U.S. Parole Commission), and Commissioner David Rybicki (ex officio, U.S. Department of Justice) serve as non-voting members.

December 13, 2018 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Any recommendations or predictions for Michael Cohen's upcoming sentencing?

Prez Trump's former lawyer, Michael Cohen, is scheduled to be sentenced by US District Judge William Pauley in New York City on December 12 after his guilty plea to charges including campaign finance fraud and lying to Congress.  As detailed in prior posts linked below, Cohen is asking for "time served," while federal prosecutors seek a "substantial term of imprisonment" of around 3.5 years.  This lengthy CNN commentary by Elie Honig, headlined "Why sentencing judge may not show Cohen 'mercy'," predicts that prosecutors are more likely to be happy with the outcome than Cohen.  Here are excerpts:

First, what sentence is Judge William Pauley likely to impose? I've appeared in front of Judge Pauley in many cases. He is fair but tough. Lawyers and defendants often find him intimidating. He has administered tongue-lashings to many prosecutors (yes, including me), defense attorneys and litigants. He has a serious, formal demeanor on the bench....

In my experience, Judge Pauley is a stern sentencer, particularly where the defendant has exploited a position of authority and acted out of greed or arrogance. The SDNY prosecutors, clearly aware of this tendency, noted in its sentencing memo last week that Cohen, "an attorney and businessman ... was motivated to do so [commit crimes] by personal greed, and repeatedly used his power and influence for deceptive ends."

Judge Pauley can show mercy to a truly unfortunate or disadvantaged defendant, but he does not usually take kindly to abuse of power. Under the federal sentencing guidelines, the SDNY argues that Cohen faces a sentencing range of 51 to 63 months.  The federal guidelines are based on a chart: one axis reflects the defendant's prior criminal history (for Cohen, none) while the other reflects the seriousness of the offenses (for Cohen, fairly serious -- offense level 24 out of a maximum of 43).  The range is not binding but it is important. Judge Pauley must consider the range, but he can sentence within, above or below it at his discretion....

Judge Pauley likely will give Cohen some credit for providing useful information to Mueller, but almost certainly won't let Cohen walk, given the SDNY's tepid support for only a modest reduction....

The big question then is whether Cohen will continue cooperating after sentencing. Cohen vows in his sentencing memo that he will. However, once he has been sentenced, his incentive to cooperate diminishes.

There is a mechanism in the federal rules -- Rule 35 -- that permits the prosecutor to ask the judge for a reduced sentence if the defendant provides valuable cooperation after his original sentence was imposed. If Cohen receives a sentence that he simply cannot bear, he will be highly motivated to continue providing assistance to Mueller, and perhaps to come clean on previously undisclosed topics, in hopes of earning an eventual Rule 35 motion.  Paradoxically then, the more time Cohen gets on Wednesday, the more likely he may be to cooperate fully with Mueller as the investigation builds to a crescendo.

The stakes on Wednesday undoubtedly will be high for Cohen and for his ability and incentive to cooperate moving forward.  Cohen's future cooperation, in turn, will affect Mueller's ability to penetrate into the heart of corruption in the Trump campaign and the White House.

In a discussion with a member of the media, I predicted that Cohen would get a sentence in the 2.5 to 3 year range. I am incline to stick with that prediction for now, though I would like to hear reader predictions of what they Judge Pauley will do at sentencing or even recommendations as to what they think Judge Pauley should do at sentencing.

Prior related posts:

December 11, 2018 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Michael Flynn in sentencing memo requests probation "not to exceed one year ... along with 200 hours of community service."

As reported in this Politico article, headlined "Flynn pleads with judge for no jail time," a high-profile defendant is asking for a low-impact sentencing outcome. Here are the basics:

Michael Flynn’s attorneys asked a federal judge on Tuesday to spare the former Trump national security adviser any jail time because of his “extensive cooperation” with special counsel Robert Mueller.

In a 178-page sentencing memo, Flynn’s attorneys pleaded for leniency by citing their client’s “exceptional record of military service” and “his genuine contrition for the uncharacteristic error in judgment that brought him before this court.”

Flynn, who pleaded guilty last December to lying to the FBI during the early stages of its counterintelligence investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, should instead be sentenced to one year of probation with minimal supervision conditions and 200 hours of community service, his lawyers said.

The retired Army general, his lawyers added, has shown he has a “deep respect for the law, as reflected in his extensive cooperation with the government’s efforts to get to the truth and to enforce the laws.”

U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan is scheduled to sentence Flynn on Dec. 18 for his guilty plea for making false statements to the FBI. Mueller’s office last week highlighted Flynn’s cooperation — including 19 interviews with the special counsel and other Justice Department prosecutors — in their own memo suggesting that Flynn get little or no jail time for his behavior.

The full filing is available at this link, and it runs 178 pages due to dozens of exhibits mostly in the form of letters in his support. The memo itself runs only just over a dozen pages and it starts with this "Preliminary Statement":

The defendant, through his attorneys, submits this Memorandum in Aid of Sentencing and respectfully requests that the Court grant the Government’s Motion for Downward Departure pursuant to § 5K1.1 of the United States Sentencing Guidelines, and sentence him to a term of probation not to exceed one year, with minimal conditions of supervision, along with 200 hours of community service.  General Flynn has accepted responsibility for his conduct.  He has cooperated extensively with several Department of Justice investigations, as detailed in the addendum to the Government’s Memorandum in Aid of Sentencing.  As the Government has made clear, his cooperation was not grudging or delayed.  Rather, it preceded his guilty plea or any threatened indictment and began very shortly after he was first contacted for assistance by the Special Counsel’s Office. Following extraordinary public service in the United States Army, during which his innovations as a highly decorated intelligence officer saved countless American lives, and a lifetime of faithful devotion to his family and fellow service members and veterans, as described in the powerful letters of support that accompany this submission, a sentence of non-incarceration is both appropriate and warranted.

Prior related posts:

December 11, 2018 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Federal Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, December 07, 2018

Feds request for Michael Cohen a "substantial term of imprisonment" though with a "modest downward variance" from Guideline range of 51-63 months in prison

Michael Cohen is scheduled to be sentenced by US District Judge William Pauley in New York City on December 12 after his guilty plea to charges including campaign finance fraud and lying to Congress.  As noted in this prior post, late last Friday, Cohen's lawyers filed this 30-page sentencing memorandum making a plea for leniency and a sentence of "time-served and restitution to the IRS."  Today it was time for federal prosecutors to weigh in, and the Acting US Attorney for the Southern District of New York has now delivered this 40-page government sentencing memorandum making a case for a "substantial prison term."  Here is this latest filing's preliminary statement:

Defendant Michael Cohen is scheduled to be sentenced on December 12, 2018. The United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York (the “Office”) respectfully submits this memorandum in connection with that sentencing and in response to the defendant’s sentencing memorandum dated November 30, 2018 (“Def. Mem.”). 

Cohen, an attorney and businessman, committed four distinct federal crimes over a period of several years.  He was motivated to do so by personal greed, and repeatedly used his power and influence for deceptive ends. Now he seeks extraordinary leniency — a sentence of no jail time — based principally on his rose-colored view of the seriousness of the crimes; his claims to a sympathetic personal history; and his provision of certain information to law enforcement. But the crimes committed by Cohen were more serious than his submission allows and were marked by a pattern of deception that permeated his professional life (and was evidently hidden from the friends and family members who wrote on his behalf).

Cohen did provide information to law enforcement, including information that assisted the Special Counsel’s Office (“SCO”) in ongoing matters, as described in the SCO’s memorandum to the Court, and the Office agrees that this is a factor to be considered by the Court pursuant to Title 18, United States Code, Section 3553(a).  But Cohen’s description of those efforts is overstated in some respects and incomplete in others.  To be clear: Cohen does not have a cooperation agreement and is not receiving a Section 5K1.1 letter either from this Office or the SCO, and therefore is not properly described as a “cooperating witness,” as that term is commonly used in this District.

As set forth in the Probation Department’s Presentence Investigation Report (“PSR”), the applicable United States Sentencing Guidelines (“Guidelines”) range is 51 to 63 months’ imprisonment.  This range reflects Cohen’s extensive, deliberate, and serious criminal conduct, and this Office submits that a substantial prison term is required to vindicate the purposes and principles of sentencing as set forth in Section 3553(a).  And while the Office agrees that Cohen should receive credit for his assistance in the SCO investigation, that credit should not approximate the credit a traditional cooperating witness would receive, given, among other reasons, Cohen’s affirmative decision not to become one.  For these reasons, the Office respectfully requests that this Court impose a substantial term of imprisonment, one that reflects a modest downward variance from the applicable Guidelines range.

Prior related posts:

UPDATE:  My posting above initially failed to note that there big sentencing memo linked above came from the Southern District of New York.  I have clarified this above because there was another filing from the Special Counsel's Office to address Cohen's offense of lying to Congress.  This SCO sentencing filing runs only seven pages, and it paints Cohen in a somewhat better light, concluding this way:

The defendant’s crime was serious, both in terms of the underlying conduct and its effect on multiple government investigations.  The sentence imposed should reflect the fact that lying to federal investigators has real consequences, especially where the defendant lied to investigators about critical facts, in an investigation of national importance.

However, the defendant has made substantial and significant efforts to remediate his misconduct, accept responsibility for his actions, and assist the SCO’s investigation. Accordingly, the Government respectfully submits that the Court should give due consideration to the defendant’s efforts set forth above and that it would be appropriate to allow the defendant to serve any sentence imposed in this case concurrently with any sentence imposed in United States v. Cohen, 18-cr-602 (WHP).

December 7, 2018 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (15)

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Michael Cohen makes pitch for "time-served and restitution to the IRS" based largely on his continuing cooperation

Michael-Cohen-pleads-guilty-to-8-chargesMichael Cohen is scheduled to be sentenced by US District Judge William Pauley in New York City on December 12 after his guilty plea to charges including campaign finance fraud and lying to Congress.  Late Friday, Cohen's lawyers filed this 30-page sentencing memorandum which makes a substantial plea for leniency.  Here are two good accountings of the filing:

From Lawfare, "There's a Lot Going On in Michael Cohen's Sentencing Memo"

From the New York Times, "Michael Cohen, Ex-Trump Lawyer, Asks U.S. Judge for Leniency"

Here are excerpts from the document's notable preliminary statement (with cites removed):

Beginning before the entry of his plea on August 21, 2018, and continuing thereafter through late November, Michael participated in seven voluntary interview meetings with the Special Counsel’s Office of the Department of Justice (“SCO”). He intends to continue to make himself available to the SCO as and when needed for additional questioning. He also agreed to plead guilty to an additional count, namely, making false statements to Congress, based in part on information that he voluntarily provided to the SCO in meetings governed by a limited-use immunity proffer agreement. The SCO is expected to submit a letter to the Court describing its assessment of Michael’s cooperation, and the Office of the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York (“Office”) is expected to join with the SCO in presenting Michael’s cooperation to the Court as a mitigating sentencing factor under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).  Michael’s decision to cooperate and take full responsibility for his own conduct well reflects his personal resolve, notwithstanding past errors, to re-point his internal compass true north toward a productive, ethical and thoroughly law abiding life.

For what it says about Michael’s fortitude and fundamental character, the significance of his cooperation with the SCO falls outside of the ordinary framework in which courts routinely assess cooperation in criminal cases. It states the obvious to observe that this matter is unique. Michael is cooperating in a setting in which the legitimacy of the SCO’s investigation – and the rationale for its very existence – is regularly questioned publicly and stridently by the President of the United States.... The President routinely denounces the SCO investigation as politically biased and reliant on excessively aggressive prosecutorial tactics....

In the context of this raw, full-bore attack by the most powerful person in the United States, Michael, formerly a confidante and adviser to Mr. Trump, resolved to cooperate, and voluntarily took the first steps toward doing so even before he was charged in this District.  He took these steps, moreover, despite regular public reports referring to the President’s consideration of pardons and pre-pardons in the SCO’s investigation.... And, he acted knowing that the result would be personal attacks on him by the President, a bevy of advisers and public relations specialists, and political supporters of the President, as well as threats to him.  Although it is true that any decision to cooperate in an investigation directly or indirectly touching a sitting President would be weighty and fraught for any former confidante and associate, here, in the circumstances of this case, at this time, in this climate, Michael’s decision to cooperate required and requires singular determination and personal conviction.  He could have fought the government and continued to hold to the party line, positioning himself perhaps for a pardon or clemency, but, instead — for himself, his family, and his country — he took personal responsibility for his own wrongdoing and contributed, and is prepared to continue to contribute, to an investigation that he views as thoroughly legitimate and vital....

For the reasons set forth below, we respectfully request that the Court, based on (1) the cooperation Michael has provided, (2) his commitment to continue to cooperate, and (3) all of the remaining sentencing factors required to be considered under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), impose a sentence of time-served and restitution to the IRS.

As reported in this prior post, Cohen's plea agreement does not allow him to seek a "departure" from the stipulated guideline range — which the plea agreement set at 46 to 63 months' imprisonment  — but it does allow that " either party may seek a sentence outside of the Stipulated Guidelines Range based upon the factors to be considered in imposing a sentence pursuant to Title 18, United States Code, Section 3553(a)."  

Prior related posts:

UPDATE: A helpful reader downloaded from Pacer and just sent me the full Cohen sentencing submission with all 30+ attachments for posting, and here it is:

Download Cohen- Defendant%27s Sentencing Memorandum (11-30-18)

December 2, 2018 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Notable federal sentencing argument that "nature and circumstances of the offense" includes "rhetorical China shop bull who is now our president"

C487660a9f953e1a74a1e5c649ef3640--gloveA helpful reader made sure I did not miss this HuffPost piece concerning a notable federal sentencing filing in a high-profile federal case.  The full headline of the piece sets forth the basics: "Trump Fan Convicted In Anti-Muslim Terror Plot Asks Judge To Consider Trump’s Rhetoric: Patrick Stein’s attorneys also said he learned about the Quran 'from the internet and conservative talk-show hosts such as Sean Hannity and Michael Savage'."  Here are more details from this article (which also include a link to the full filing):

Attorneys for a President Donald Trump supporter who was convicted in a domestic terrorism plot aimed at slaughtering Muslim refugees asked a federal judge to factor in the “backdrop” of Trump’s campaign rhetoric when deciding their client’s sentence.

Patrick Stein was one of three right-wing militiamen found guilty in April of a conspiracy to kill Muslim refugees living in rural Kansas. Ahead of the 2016 election, Stein and two others plotted with an FBI informant and an undercover agent to bomb an apartment complex that housed Muslims in Garden City. Stein went by the handle “Orkin Man” and referred to Muslims as “cockroaches” he wanted exterminated.

His sentence was expected to be announced Friday but has been delayed until Nov. 19.

At trial, defense attorneys referred to the defendants as “knuckleheads” who were engaged in “locker room talk,” and Stein’s attorney argued his client was a victim of a “chaos news” environment that had him thinking a civil war was coming. A jury convicted Stein and his co-defendants, Curtis Allen and Gavin Wright, on weapons of mass destruction and conspiracy against civil rights charges.... The government said it is seeking life sentences for all three defendants.

Stein’s attorneys, James Pratt and Michael Shultz, argued Monday in a sentencing memo that sending Stein to prison for life was unwarranted and that a sentence of 15 years would be appropriate. They said the judge should factor in the “backdrop to this case” when crafting an appropriate sentence.

“2016 was ‘lit.’ The court cannot ignore the circumstances of one of the most rhetorically mold-breaking, violent, awful, hateful and contentious presidential elections in modern history, driven in large measure by the rhetorical China shop bull who is now our president,” they wrote.

“Trump’s brand of rough-and-tumble verbal pummeling heightened the rhetorical stakes for people of all political persuasions,” they added. “A personal normally at a 3 on a scale of political talk might have found themselves at a 7 during the election. A person, like Patrick, who would often be at a 7 during a normal day, might ‘go to 11.’ See SPINAL TAP.  That climate should be taken into account when evaluating the rhetoric that formed the basis of the government’s case.”

Stein’s attorneys, who called their client an “early and avid” Trump supporter, said it was important to keep in mind that “almost no one thought Trump was going to win” when evaluating the likelihood of an attack. The plot was supposed to take place after the election, as the group didn’t want their attack to boost Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Stein, in a message to an undercover agent, wrote that if they attacked ahead of the election it would “give a lot of ammunition to the Hillary supporters” and said that Clinton could never be allowed to be president.

“Trump’s win changed everything, and it is reasonable to speculate that it would have changed things among the defendants as well,” the attorneys wrote. “The urgency for action would be gone. The feeling of a losing battle would be gone. The conspiracies, in part, would be disproven as the transition from Obama to Trump took place. It is logical to conclude that the discussed attack would never have happened in the world that existed post-Trump.”

Stein’s attorneys said their client got caught up in the anti-Muslim information he was devouring online. His knowledge of the Quran, his attorneys wrote, “came directly from the internet and conservative talk-show hosts such as Sean Hannity and Michael Savage. Patrick himself had never read the Quran, nor had he participated in a comparative study of any religion.”

Stein, his attorneys wrote, was “the perfect, vulnerable target” for the FBI, and had relapsed into alcoholism and “had used methamphetamine regularly,” including after he met FBI informant Dan Day. They said that Stein’s crimes “demonstrated an extreme level of hatred and fear, but they also demonstrated an utter lack of sophistication.”

Any sentencing document that effectively cites Spinal Tap garners my appreciation, and it obviously deserves to be honored for being willing to take its arguments "one louder."

October 31, 2018 in Booker in district courts, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

US Sentencing Commission releases FY 2018 third quarter (repackaged) sentencing data

US Sentencing Commission has now released here its "3rd Quarter ... Preliminary Fiscal Year 2018 Data."  As previously noted in this post when the USSC released data on offenders sentenced during the first half of fiscal year 2018, the Commission has altered how it accounts and reports sentencing data.  This new data run explains "the Commission is again updating the way it presents quarterly data. In this report, all analyses that involve a comparison of the position of the sentence imposed to the guideline range that applied in the case are presented in a new way. Sentences are now grouped into two broad categories: Sentences Under the Guidelines Manual and Variances."  As I see it, this means within-guideline and "traditional departure" sentences are grouped together, while all Booker-allowed variances are broken out distinctly.

As I have said before, nothwithstanding this repackaging aside, we can still look at the "within-guideline" number on Tables 8 and 8A for direct comparisons on this front between the first three quarters of of FY 2018 and all federal sentencing data from the last full year of the Obama Administration (in this FY 2016 data report).  Doing so shows that the within-guideline sentencing rate has increased from 48.6% in FY 2016 up to 50.5% in the first three-quarters of FY 2018.  Without a more intricate and sophisticated analysis controlling for caseloads and other factors, this upward movement in within-guideline sentences does not alone provide conclusive evidence that "Trump era" changes in prosecutorial policies and practices is having a direct impact on federal sentencing outcomes.  But these new data continue to be suggestive of trends to watch as more cases more through the pipeline and as new federal prosecutors and judges are impacted by new commands and advocacy from Main Justice.

Prior related post:

October 30, 2018 in Booker in district courts, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Latest federal sentencing of corrupt New York pol results in former state senate leader Dean Skelos getting 51 months

This New York Post piece, headlined "Dean Skelos sentenced to more than four years in prison," reports on the latest high-profile political corruption sentencing from a state that always seeks to keep the white-collar lawyers busy. Here are the details:

Dean Skelos, once one of the most powerful men in Albany, was sentenced to more than four years in prison Wednesday for using his political office to benefit his do-nothing son — who was noticeably absent from court for his father’s day of reckoning.

Manhattan federal Judge Kimba Wood said she would’ve given the one-time state Senate majority leader less than 51 months behind bars given his advanced age, but tacked on an extra three months because she found he lied on the witness stand.  “Your repeated mischaracterizations and lies about your conduct warrant a three-month enhancement,” Wood told the 70-year-old disgraced pol.

Dean’s son, Adam Skelos, who was convicted alongside him at their retrial in July, was nowhere to be found in court, underscoring the father and son’s strained relationship. Adam will be sentenced later Wednesday afternoon.

In begging for leniency, Dean told the judge he hoped to one day repair their bond. “My son, Adam, I love him more today than yesterday,” he said, his voice cracking. “I always try to protect him and I failed. Although our relationship is strained, I hope one day it will be restored.” Dean also asked Wood to go easy on his only child. “I hope that you show him mercy so that he can be the father he wants to be,” Dean said.

The Long Island Republican, and Adam, 36, were convicted at their retrial in July of strong-arming companies seeking help from Dean into giving Adam no-show jobs and consulting gigs. The pair was first convicted in 2015, but the case was tossed on appeal — paving the way for the politician to take the stand in his own defense in July....

The feds had asked the judge — who sentenced Dean to five years after the first trial — to take it up a notch to at least six-and-a-half years. A lawyer for Dean asked for leniency, saying the case has already taken a severe toll on the once-powerful politician, including straining his relationship with Adam. Dean has also developed a drinking problem due to the stress, his lawyer said.

Adam Skelos was previously sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison after the judge said the trial showed that he had “no moral compass.” Adam, who is expecting a second child with his fiancée next month, has also asked for leniency, saying the judge’s harsh words have forced him to seek help and to change.

As Senate majority leader, Dean Skelos served as one of the so-called “three men in a room” — the others being Gov. Andrew Cuomo and longtime state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who was sentenced in July to seven years for corruption.

October 24, 2018 in Booker in district courts, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 07, 2018

You be the federal judge: what sentence for George Papadopoulos after guilty plea to one count of making false statements?

As reported in this Hill article, headlined "Former Trump adviser Papadopoulos to be sentenced Friday," a high-profile defendant is due to be sentenced in federal court this afternoon by Judge Randolph Moss.  Here are some of the terms of the sentencing debate:

George Papadopoulos, the Trump campaign adviser who pleaded guilty nearly a year ago to lying about his Russia contacts, is scheduled to be sentenced in federal court on Friday.

His sentencing will mark a milestone in Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation as the special counsel makes headway on several other fronts, including interviewing individuals linked to former Trump adviser Roger Stone and readying for the Washington, D.C., trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

Papadopoulos admitted to lying to FBI agents in October about the extent, nature and timing of his contacts with Russian individuals who he tried to use to broker a meeting between the campaign and the Russian government.

Government prosecutors are asking that Papadopoulos be jailed for up to six months and that he face a $9,500 fine for his crime, arguing in a recent court filing that his false statements “caused damage to the government’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.” “The defendant’s false statements were intended to harm the investigation, and did so,” prosecutors wrote in an Aug. 17 sentencing memorandum.

Papadopoulos’ defense attorneys, meanwhile, are challenging the notion that their client did deliberate harm to the investigation, writing in a filing on Aug. 31 that Papadopoulos “misled investigators to save his professional aspirations and preserve a perhaps misguided loyalty to his master.” They argue he should face one-year probation.

The Papadopoulos case is noteworthy because he was the first Trump associate to plead guilty and cooperate with prosecutors in Mueller’s investigation. There is no indication that he played more than a minimal role during his months as a foreign policy adviser on the campaign. The White House aggressively sought to downplay his involvement last year, with the president dismissing him as a “low-level volunteer” in a tweet following his guilty plea.

The sentencing of Papadopoulos, 31, will tie up one loose end in the special counsel’s sprawling investigation, and signals his cooperation is no longer needed in the investigation. His guilty plea created a media firestorm last October, revealed the same day Mueller charged Manafort and Rick Gates, another former Trump campaign aide, in an elaborate illegal foreign lobbying scheme unrelated to the work they did during for the campaign.

Court filings told the curious story of a young aide who misled FBI agents during a January 2017 interview about his contacts with a professor, later identified as Joseph Mifsud, who claimed substantial connections to the Russian government and who told Papadopoulos that the Russians possessed “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails” – months before hacked Democratic emails began to leak on the web. The New York Times later reported that it was Papadopoulos’ discussions with an Australian diplomat, Alexander Downer, about those emails in May 2016 that helped trigger the FBI’s inquiry into Russian interference the following July.

Papadopoulos also misled FBI investigators about his contacts with other Russians, including a woman believed to be a relative of Putin, who he sought to use to broker a meeting between the Trump campaign and Moscow – lies that the government says were damaging to an investigation in its infancy.

Prosecutors have suggested his cooperation did not bear much fruit, writing in August that he did not offer “substantial assistance” to the investigation and that much of the information he provided “came only after the government confronted him with his own emails, text messages, internet search history, and other information it had obtained via search warrants and subpoenas.”

The Papadopoulos defense attorneys tell a different story. They say that, since his guilty plea, he has provided government investigators with “critical information” about his contacts with members of the Trump campaign. In the recent filing, they referenced a key meeting in March 2016 during which he allegedly broached the subject of arranging a meeting between Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin....

Papadopoulos will be the second individual sentenced in the Russia investigation. Dutch lawyer Alex Van Der Zwaan was handed 30 days in prison and slapped with a $20,000 fine in April after pleading guilty to making false statements relevant to the government’s investigations into foreign lobbing by Manafort and Gates. Papadopoulos’ wife, Simona Mangiante, had signaled in recent weeks that her husband was mulling walking away from the plea deal with Mueller, though she backed down from those suggestions late last week.

Prior related post:

UPDATE: This Vox article provides the real outcome in its headline, "Papadopoulos given 14-day sentence as part of the Mueller investigation."

September 7, 2018 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, July 23, 2018

Spotlighting a remarkably thoughtful federal sentence in a remarkably challenging setting

Over at his blog Simple Justice, Scott H. Greenfield has this terrific new post spotlighting a terrific new sentencing opinion by US District Judge John Kane in US v. Jumaev, No. 12-cr-00033-JLK (D. Col. July 18, 2018) (available here). Because Scott's posting provide effective context and commentary concerning the case and sentencing, I will here just quote the first two paragraphs of Judge Kane's 44-page sentencing decision to clarify the core concern of the opinion:

After his co-defendant Jamshid Muhtorov informed him that the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) was in need of financial support, Defendant Bakhtiyor Jumaev mailed Mr. Muhtorov $300. Mr. Jumaev wrote only a single check, and the funds never reached the IJU or any other foreign terrorist organization.  Mr. Jumaev had no specific plot or plan and did not intend to further any via his contribution. The idea to aid the terrorist organization was proposed and facilitated entirely by Mr. Muhtorov.  Indeed, Mr. Jumaev had no direct contact with the members of any terrorist organization.  And, significantly, he never committed any act of violence, nor did he advocate for any particular violent act.

Mr. Jumaev now comes before me for sentencing after having been found guilty by a jury of two counts in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2339B, namely (1) conspiring and (2) attempting to provide material support in the form of $300 to the IJU, a designated foreign terrorist organization.  Although his actions certainly are sufficient for the jury to have found him guilty of these two very serious crimes, the above summary illustrates how his guilt rests on far less culpable conduct than that of all other defendants of which I have been made aware who have been convicted under the same statute.

At the risk of turning this matter into a parlor game, I wonder if readers might be inclined to share, before clicking through to the opinion, their predictions as to (a) the defendant's calculated guideline range, (b) the sentence was urged by federal prosecutors, and/or (c) the sentence imposed by Judge Kane.  Alternatively, I would also love to hear folks' opinions on just what kind of federal sentence someone should get for simply sending, upon request, a $300 check to support the Islamic Jihad Union.

July 23, 2018 in Booker in district courts, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, July 02, 2018

Notable Sixth Circuit panel reverses as procedurally unreasonable big upward variance in cocaine sentence based on opioid overdoses

On Friday, the Sixth Circuit handed down a notable new sentencing opinion in US v. Fleming, No. 17-3954 (6th Cir. June 29, 2018) (available here). The start of the opinion reviews its essentials:

Marcus Fleming was convicted of a cocaine offense, and the United States Sentencing Guidelines provided for a recommended sentence of 60 months’ imprisonment.  At his sentencing hearing, the district court doubled that.  It did so based in large part on a brief local news article that described a recent surge in drug overdose deaths, mostly due to powerful opioids like fentanyl.  Neither this article, nor the underlying Ohio state report on which it was based, was provided to the parties before the start of the sentencing hearing.  Nor was Fleming notified before the hearing that the district court planned to consider the article or the issues it addressed.  Because this procedure denied Fleming a meaningful opportunity to comment on information that led to a substantial increase in his sentence, the resulting sentence was procedurally unreasonable.

Here is small part of the Sixth Circuit panel's analysis:

Here, the district court’s reliance on information about mixed cocaine-opioid overdose deaths in the Cleveland.com article was a surprise, and that surprise was prejudicial to Fleming’s sentencing presentation. Therefore, Fleming’s sentence was rendered in a procedurally unreasonable manner.

The district court’s consideration of information about mixed cocaine-opioid overdose deaths was a surprise because, before the sentencing hearing, there was no indication that opioids were relevant to this case, let alone that they would play a prominent role. Fleming was convicted for possession of cocaine, not opioids.  Nothing in the record suggested that opioids were found in Fleming’s car, or that Fleming had ever sold or possessed opioids, or even that any cocaine Fleming sold had ever been mixed with opioids. Of course, opioids have been a topic of grave public concern in recent years, as their devastating and tragic effects have been felt across the country. But it was far from apparent that they were relevant to Fleming’s sentence for possession of cocaine.

This ruling strikes me as notable or at least two reasons beyond its substantive particulars: (1) one of jurists on Prez Trump's SCOTUS short list, Judge Raymond Kethledge, was one of the judges on this Fleming panel, and (2) this Cleveland.com report highlights that the erroneous sentencing judge has a history of unreasonably long sentences:

An Akron federal judge who has been criticized by a federal appeals court had a sentence reversed again on Friday -- this time because of his reliance on a cleveland.com article....

Adams has been removed from cases a few times in recent years and has been the target of criticism by the 6th Circuit.  Most recently, the appeals court removed him from a case involving two men arrested in Cleveland with more than 200 pounds of cocaine. Both prosecutors and defense attorneys in the case agreed to recommend prison sentences of about three years, but Adams gave them both 10 years and did not give any good reasons for the higher sentences, the 6th Circuit ruled.

July 2, 2018 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Split Second Circuit panel reverses lengthy child porn sentence for second time; dissent notes "sentence is barbaric without being all that unusual"

I do not tend to blog much any more about circuit opinions conducting reasonableness review because, now more than a decade since the Supreme Court ensured reasonableness review would be very deferential thanks to Rita, Gall and Kimbrough, few circuit sentencing opinions break any new ground.  But though a Second Circuit panel opinion yesterday, US v. Sawyer, No. 15-2276 (2d Cir. June 19, 2018) (available here), does not break new ground, it still struck me as blogworthy for both the majority opinion and the dissent.

The majority opinion in Sawyer is well summarized by the preamble to the opinion: 

Appeal from a judgment of the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York (D’Agostino, J.) imposing a sentence of 300 months of imprisonment for the offenses of producing child pornography and receiving child pornography. This court previously vacated as substantively unreasonable a sentence of 360 months of imprisonment for the same offenses, identifying specific deficiencies in the district court’s analysis. The district court did not sufficiently address those deficiencies on remand and suggested that it would have difficulty putting aside its previously-expressed views.

The key factor that appears to have driven the original panel opinion and this second reversal was the "the district court’s failure to give sufficient downward weight to the effect of the severe sexual abuse Sawyer endured at home throughout his childhood."  Tellingly, even at the second sentencing, the district court stressed that the guidelines called for 80 years in prison(!), suggesting no "failure to afford sufficient weight to the way [the defendant was] raised in determining [his] sentence, looking at the fact that [the original sentence] departed by 50 years from the [80 year] guideline range."  In this way in this case,  we can and should see how extreme guideline ranges can persistently distort a district court's sentencing decision-making even after a circuit court has concluded that the district court failed to comply with the requirements of the first time around 3553(a).

Beyond noticing the impact and import of broken guidelines even in a case in which everyone agrees they should not be followed, the Sawyer case struck me as blogworthy because of a (casual?) line in the dissenting opinion by Judge Jacobs. Here is the context for the line quoted in the title to this post, with my emphasis added:

In decrying the 25-year sentence, the majority opinion observes (fairly) that this case is not the most heinous or egregious on record.  At the same time, however, this is not a case such as United States v. Dorvee, 616 F.3d 174 (2d Cir. 2010), or United States v. Brown, 843 F.3d 74 (2d Cir. 2016), in which decades of imprisonment were imposed solely for looking at images created by others, and in which any harm to a child was inflicted at one or more removes. This defendant was hands-on.  He produced the pornography, and he used a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old to do it.  For these acts, a 25-year sentence is not a shocking departure from sentences routinely imposed in federal courts for comparable offenses — especially considering that the mandatory minimum is fifteen.  The sentence is barbaric without being all that unusual.

I appreciate the candor and yet remain stunned by Judge Jacobs stating simply that the defendant's sentence here is "barbaric" but yet not "all that unusual" and thus ought to be affirmed despite the obligation of circuit courts to review sentences for their reasonableness in light of the requirements of 3553(a).

June 20, 2018 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (7)

Monday, June 18, 2018

Split SCOTUS outcomes for federal defendants: a plain error win in Rosales-Mireles and an explanation loss in Chavez-Meza

The Supreme Court has handed down this morning its last two sentencing cases, Rosales-Mireles v. United States and Chavez-Meza v. United States, and they are split decisions in every sense. 

In Rosales-Mireles v. United States, No. 16–9493 (S. Ct. June 18, 2018) (available here), Justice Sotomayor writes for the Court ruling in favor of the federal defendant, with Justice Thomas writing the chief dissent joined by Justice Alito.  In Chavez-Meza v. United States, No. 17–5639 (S. Ct. June 18, 2018) (available here), Justice Breyer writes for the Court ruling in favor of the federal government, with Justice Kennedy writing the chief dissent joined by Justices Kagan and Sotomayor.

Here is the Court's opening paragraph in Rosales-Mireles:

Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 52(b) provides that a court of appeals may consider errors that are plain and affect substantial rights, even though they are raised for the first time on appeal.  This case concerns the bounds of that discretion, and whether a miscalculation of the United States Sentencing Guidelines range, that has been determined to be plain and to affect a defendant’s substantial rights, calls for a court of appeals to exercise its discretion under Rule 52(b) to vacate the defendant’s sentence.  The Court holds that such an error will in the ordinary case, as here, seriously affect the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings, and thus will warrant relief.

Here is the Court's opening paragraph in Chavez-Meza:

This case concerns a criminal drug offender originally sentenced in accordance with the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.  Subsequently, the Sentencing Commission lowered the applicable Guidelines sentencing range; the offender asked for a sentence reduction in light of the lowered range; and the District Judge reduced his original sentence from 135 months’ imprisonment to 114 months’.  The offender, believing he should have obtained a yet greater reduction, argues that the District Judge did not adequately explain why he imposed a sentence of 114 months rather than a lower sentence.  The Court of Appeals held that the judge’s explanation was adequate.  And we agree with the Court of Appeals.

As regular readers should now come to expect, sentencing cases have a way of producing notable voting patters. Criminal defendants and defense attorneys should be intrigued and encouraged by that both Chief Justice Roberts and the new Justice Gorsuch signed on to the majority opinion in Rosales-Mireles. But defendants and defense attorneys surely will also be troubled that the Chief along with Justices Breyer and Ginsburg were all willing to embrace the "close enough for government work" approach in Chavez-Meza.

June 18, 2018 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, June 15, 2018

Any predictions on sentencing day for Senator Rand Paul's attacker? UPDATE: Boucher got 30 days in jail and 100 hours community service

Friday finally brings judgment day for Dr. Rene Boucher, the neighbor of Senator Rand Paul, who strangely decided to violently tackle Senator Paul while he was mowing his lawn last fall.  As reported in this local article, headlined "Defense attorney in Paul tackling case makes pitch for probation," the defendant is hoping to avoid any period of incarceration:

Dr. Rene Boucher, who admitted guilt to a federal crime in a case involving the tackling of U.S. Sen. Rand Paul outside the lawmaker’s home, has formally requested to be placed on probation. Attorney Matt Baker, representing Boucher, filed a 10-page memorandum [last] Friday in U.S. District Court arguing that incarceration for the retired physician would serve no useful purpose.

Boucher, 60, pleaded guilty in March to a count of assaulting a member of Congress resulting in personal injury. His sentencing, before Special Judge Marianne Battani, is set for June 15.

Special Prosecutor Bradley Shepard has recommended a 21-month prison sentence for Boucher, but Baker argues probation is more appropriate “based upon the rather unique nature of the offense” and several extenuating circumstances. “Other than the isolated incident that is in issue, Dr. Boucher has been a pillar of his community, a solid citizen, a family man and a devout Christian,” Baker stated in his memorandum, which also stressed Boucher’s lack of a criminal history and his service in the U.S. Army and in the community as a physician.

A neck injury sustained in a bicycle accident forced Boucher, a specialist in pain management and anesthesiology, to retire from practicing medicine, according to court records. Accompanying the sentencing memorandum are 14 letters supporting Boucher and extolling his character.

Baker’s filing offers context into what led to the Nov. 3 incident in the Rivergreen subdivision, where Paul and Boucher are neighbors. On that date, Paul was tackled outside his residence while doing yardwork. Boucher told law enforcement that he ran onto the senator’s property and tackled Paul after he witnessed Paul stack brush on top of a pile near Boucher’s property.

Baker’s filing makes the case that the roots of the tackling incident could be traced to summer 2017, when Boucher trimmed the limbs on a few maple trees on the property line dividing the Boucher and Paul properties....

The memorandum filed Friday quotes what Baker said is a victim impact statement from Paul filed May 21 in which the senator says he “can only assume that (Boucher’s) deep-seated anger towards me co-mingles with his hatred of my political policies” and states that Boucher must be suffering from a “personality disorder, substance abuse, intense political hatred or all of the above.”

Baker called those allegations “completely unfounded.” “Dr. Boucher has adamantly denied any such political motivations throughout, as even the suggestion of them is completely unfounded and simply not true,” Baker said.

In an emailed statement to the Daily News on Tuesday, Paul's communications director, Kelsey Cooper, took issue with some of Baker's characterizations of the neighbors' relationship. "Before Senator Paul was violently attacked from behind, he had no conversations or discussions with the attacker," Cooper wrote. "There was no 'longstanding dispute.' This description is untrue. It is impossible to have a dispute when no words of disagreement were ever spoken – neither immediately nor at any other time before the attack occurred. In the decade prior to the attack, Senator Paul had no contact with the attacker.

"The attack was a pre-meditated assault that broke six of the Senator’s ribs and was complicated by fluid and blood around the lung and recurrent pneumonia. Any description of this attack that implies a 'yard dispute' justifies such violence and misses the point."

I am inclined to predict that Boucher will get some period of incarceration, but less than the 21 months sought by federal prosecutors.  I will guess the term will be somewhere between six months and a year-and-a-day.  But this really a guess, especially given that I have not been able to find a copy of the sentencing filings available on-line, nor have I seen any guideline calculations.

In this prior post about this case, I encouraged readers to suggest what sentence they thought fitting for Senator Rand Paul's attacker. I welcome additional comments on what folks think Boucher will and should get.

Prior related post:

UPDATE: This press piece reports on the sentencing outcome, and starts this way:

The neighbor who admitted to attacking U.S. Senator Rand Paul outside his home last fall was sentenced Friday in U.S. District Court in Bowling Green to 30 days in jail. Rene Boucher was also ordered to serve one year of supervised release, perform 100 hours of community service, and have no intentional contact with the Paul family.

Boucher addressed the court and offered an apology to the Republican lawmaker who sustained broken ribs and other injuries after being tackled from behind while mowing his lawn on November 3. "What I did was wrong and I hope he and his family can one day accept my apology," Boucher said.

Boucher, who pleaded guilty to assaulting a member of Congress, expressed embarrassment and described the last seven months as a "nightmare." The 60-year-old retired anesthesiologist said he lost his temper over repeated piles of debris on the property line between his home and Paul's in the upscale Rivergreen subdivision in Bowling Green.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Brad Shepherd asked the judge for a 21-month prison term, arguing that Boucher didn't simply lose his temper. "This was a vicious, unprovoked assault," Shepherd said.

June 15, 2018 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings | Permalink | Comments (7)

Monday, May 28, 2018

Another helpful review of analysis of huge set of federal sentencing outcomes

In this post last week I discussed this amazing new working paper by Alma Cohen and Crystal Yang titled "Judicial Politics and Sentencing Decisions."  I am now pleased to giving attention to this research in the New York Times through this latest "Sidebar" column.  His piece is headlined "Black Defendants Get Longer Sentences From Republican-Appointed Judges, Study Finds," and here are excerpts: 

Judges appointed by Republican presidents gave longer sentences to black defendants and shorter ones to women than judges appointed by Democrats, according to a new study that analyzed data on more than half a million defendants.  “Republican-appointed judges sentence black defendants to three more months than similar nonblacks and female defendants to two fewer months than similar males compared to Democratic-appointed judges,” the study found, adding, “These differences cannot be explained by other judge characteristics and grow substantially larger when judges are granted more discretion.”...

It has long been known that there is an overall racial sentencing gap, with judges of all political affiliations meting out longer sentences to black offenders. The new study confirmed this, finding that black defendants are sentenced to 4.8 months more than similar offenders of other races. It was also well known, and perhaps not terribly surprising, that Republican appointees are tougher on crime over all, imposing sentences an average of 2.4 months longer than Democratic appointees.

But the study’s findings on how judges’ partisan affiliations affected the racial and gender gaps were new and startling.  “The racial gap by political affiliation is three months, approximately 65 percent of the baseline racial sentence gap,” the authors wrote.  “We also find that Republican-appointed judges give female defendants two months less in prison than similar male defendants compared to Democratic-appointed judges, 17 percent of the baseline gender sentence gap.”

The two kinds of gaps appear to have slightly different explanations.  “We find evidence that gender disparities by political affiliation are largely driven by violent offenses and drug offenses,” the study said.  “We also find that racial disparities by political affiliation are largely driven by drug offenses.” 

The authors of the study sounded a note of caution.  “The precise reasons why these disparities by political affiliation exist remain unknown and we caution that our results cannot speak to whether the sentences imposed by Republican- or Democratic-appointed judges are warranted or ‘right,’” the authors wrote.  “Our results, however, do suggest that Republican- and Democratic-appointed judges treat defendants differently on the basis of their race and gender given that we observe robust disparities despite the random assignment of cases to judges within the same court.”

The study is studded with fascinating tidbits.  Black judges treat male and female offenders more equally than white judges do. Black judges appointed by Republicans treat black offenders more leniently than do other Republican appointees. More experienced judges are less apt to treat black and female defendants differently.  Judges in states with higher levels of racism, as measured by popular support for laws against interracial marriage, are more likely to treat black defendants more harshly than white ones.

Prior related post:

May 28, 2018 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Amazing new empirical research in federal sentencing outcomes detailing disparities based on political background

This week brought this amazing new working paper by Alma Cohen and Crystal Yang titled simply "Judicial Politics and Sentencing Decisions." I did not want to blog about the paper until I had a chance to read it, and doing so make me want to now do dozens of blog posts to capture all the issues the paper covers and raises. The paper's simple abstract provides a hint of why the paper is so interesting and provocative:

This paper investigates whether judge political affiliation contributes to racial and gender disparities in sentencing using data on over 500,000 federal defendants linked to sentencing judge.  Exploiting random case assignment, we find that Republican-appointed judges sentence black defendants to 3.0 more months than similar non-blacks and female defendants to 2.0 fewer months than similar males compared to Democratic-appointed judges, 65 percent of the baseline racial sentence gap and 17 percent of the baseline gender sentence gap, respectively.  These differences cannot be explained by other judge characteristics and grow substantially larger when judges are granted more discretion.

Each of these three sentences could alone justify multiple postings on just research particulars: e.g., I believe a database with over 500,000 sentencings might be the largest ever assembled and analyzed; I wonder if the data looks different for Clinton and Obama judges among the Ds, for Nixon and Reagan and others judges among the Rs; I fear many judge characteristics like prior jobs and connections to certain communities are really hard to control for.  In other words, just the scope and methods of this research is fascinating.

Moreover and more importantly, there is great richness in the findings of the full paper.  For example, the authors find "statistically significant differences in racial gaps in base offense level and final offense level by judge political affiliation."  In other word, the authors have discovered worrisome disparities in how guideline ranges are set/calculated, not just in how judges sentence in reaction to a particular guideline range.   Some additional notable findings are summarized in this recent WonkBlog piece at the Washington Post headlined "Black defendants receive longer prison terms from Republican-appointed judges, study finds."  Here are excerpts:

Federal judges appointed by Republican presidents give black defendants sentences that are, on average, six to seven months longer than the sentences they give to similar white defendants, according to a new working paper from Alma Cohen and Crystal Yang of Harvard Law School.  That racial sentencing disparity is about twice as large as the one observed among judges appointed by Democrats, who give black defendants sentences that are three to four months longer than the sentences they give to white defendants with similar histories who commit similar crimes....

They did find, however, that the gap between sentences for black and white defendants was smaller for more-experienced judges than for less-experienced ones.  They also found that differences between how Republican and Democratic judges treat black and white defendants grew larger after the Supreme Court's 2005 decision in United States v. Booker, which gave federal judges much more leeway to depart from federal sentencing guidelines.

Importantly, however, they found that growing differences between Democratic and Republican judges in the post-Booker era are due to Democratic judges reducing disparities in how they sentence black and white defendants.  Given more discretion, in other words, Democratic judges treated defendants of different races more equally, while Republican judges continued to carry on as they had before.

Cohen and Yang also found one important geographical effect: Black defendants fared particularly poorly in states with high amounts of population-level racial bias, measured here by the percentage of white residents in a given state who believe there should be laws against interracial marriage.  These states tend to be clustered in the South, and previous research has shown a similar racial sentencing bias in these states when it comes to capital punishment.

Finally, they also observed an opposite effect in how Democratic and Republican judges treated female defendants: While all judges tended to hand down shorter sentences to women than to men charged with similar crimes, Republican judges were considerably more lenient to women.  “Overall, these results indicate that judicial ideology may be a source of the persistent and large racial and gender disparities in the criminal justice system,” Cohen and Yang conclude.

Anyone with any experience in the federal sentencing system knows full well how judicial ideology may be a source of the persistent and large disparities in the operation of the system. But reflecting on my own experiences as a defense attorney and expert in a number of federal sentencing settings, I am eager here to highlight how the impact of judicial ideology may be impacted by the work of other actors involved in the federal sentencing process. I often sense that those judges (perhaps disproportionately Republican Appointees) with an earned reputation as a "by the guideline" type may not consistently receive the same type of mitigating information from probation officers and defense attorneys as do those judges known often to depart or now vary.

If readers are as intrigued and engaged by this new paper as I am, please say so in the comments, and I may try to see if I can encourage some folks to write up some guest-postings about this research.

UPDATE: A helpful reader sent me this link to the full paper in case folks are not able to access it via the NEBR site.

May 24, 2018 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (10)

Sunday, May 20, 2018

US District Judge Bennett explains why meth sentencing guidelines are wrong to treat "drug purity [as] a proxy for culpability"

Long-time readers know that US District Judge Mark Bennett has long made his post-Booker mark with thoughtful opinion explaining why various guidelines ought not merit full respect in light of the purposes of sentencing set forth in 18 USC § 3553(a). Judge Bennett's latest important sentencing work, which a helpful reader made sure I did not miss, comes in US v. Nawanna, No. CR 17-4019-MWB (D. Iowa May 1, 2018) (available here). Like so many of Judge Bennett's opinions, this latest ruling is a must-read for all who follow the federal sentencing system, and it starts and ends this way:

The United States Sentencing Guidelines differentiate between methamphetamine mixture and actual (pure) methamphetamine or "ice."  That difference is the primary basis for the defendant's motion for a downward variance.  Even though he is a first-time drug offender who has never been in prison, he argues that he faces a "breathtakingly high" Guidelines sentencing range of 360 months to life, where the methamphetamine at issue was treated as actual (pure) methamphetamine or ice.  He argues that the harsh methamphetamine Guidelines overstate his culpability and should be rejected on policy grounds.  Specifically, his argument, of first impression for me, is that the methamphetamine Guidelines are based on a flawed premise, set out in U.S.S.G. § 2D1.1, cmt. n.27(C), that drug purity is a proxy for culpability.

The prosecution responds that, although I am free to place whatever weight I wish on the various advisory Guidelines, the defendant's advisory Guidelines sentencing range is appropriate in this case, because it reflects the dangerous role the defendant played in dealing pure methamphetamine . Thus, this case requires me, once again, to consider the question of the merits of the advisory Guidelines sentencing range for a defendant convicted of methamphetamine offenses.  In United States v. Hayes, 948 F. Supp. 2d 1009 (N.D. Iowa 2013), I followed the lead of two other federal district judges by reducing a methamphetamine defendant's advisory Guidelines sentencing range by one third, on the basis of a policy disagreement with the methamphetamine Guidelines.  This sort of variance was for low level, non-violent, addict offenders.  This opinion, which supplements my rationale on the record at the defendant's sentencing hearing, explains why I find that a similar reduction, based on a different calculation, is appropriate in this case....

Exercising my discretion to reject the advisory Guidelines sentencing range for methamphetamine offenses on the basis of a policy disagreement, I determined that a downward variance was appropriate in Nawanna's case.  The reasons for rejecting the methamphetamine Guidelines, here, were independent of the reasons for rejecting the methamphetamine Guidelines set out in my decision in Hayes.  Here, I concluded that the methamphetamine Guidelines are based on a flawed assumption that methamphetamine purity is a proxy for role in the offense, which, like Judge Robert C. Brack of the District of New Mexico, I find "is divorced from reality." Ibarra-Sandoval, 265 F. Supp. 3d at 1255.  Nawanna's advisory Guidelines sentencing range of 360 months to life would be greater than necessary to accomplish the purposes of sentencing under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).  Instead, for the reasons stated, above, and on the record during Nawanna's sentencing hearing, Nawanna should be sentenced to 132 months incarceration.

May 20, 2018 in Booker in district courts, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The challenge of modern federal sentencing: "there are 15 distinct factors in 3553(a)"

The line in quotes in the title of this post is a phrase that was uttered yesterday by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein during Supreme Court oral argument in Chavez-Meza v. United States. (The full argument transcript is available at this link.)  Based on my review of the transcript, I think DAG Rosenstein did himself proud before SCOTUS, and I am especially proud of his accounting of the many factors in 18 USC � 3553(a).

Specifically, I am keen on this accounting of the 3553(a) factors because I have long preached that there are four distinct sentence factors packaged in 18 USC � 3553(a)(1), which calls upon courts to consider "the nature and circumstances of the offense and the history and characteristics of the defendant."  Often when talking to students about a sentencing problem I give, I stress that plain text of � 3553(a)(1) indicates Congress wants judges to consider distinctly an offense's nature (drugs or fraud) as well as its circumstances (lengthy or limited); to consider distinctly a defendant's history (abused or educated) as well as his characteristics (remorseful or brazen).  I think DAG Rosenstein's statement that "there are 15 distinct factors in 3553(a)" is built upon counting � 3553(a)(1) as itself having four factors.

Moving beyond my own quirky affinity for � 3553(a)(1), I wonder if readers can readily think of any other area of federal law that calls upon judges to consider "15 distinct factors" as part of their decision-making.  I do realize that many capital sentencing statutes call upon juries and/or judges to balance or weigh even more factors that appear in 18 USC � 3553(a).  But I would be especially eager to hear from folks about other areas of law that but a comparable factor burden on federal judges.

April 24, 2018 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Another federal court reaction to federal sentencing realities of modern drug war

In this post a few weeks ago, I noted an interesting Seventh Circuit ruling which not only explored ineffective assistance of counsel in plea negotiations, but also highlighted how our federal drug laws can functionally operate to turn a seemingly minor crime into an offense carrying a 20-year mandatory minimum.  That post generated a lot of thoughtful comments, leading me to think it worthwhile to spotlight another drug war sentencing tale with a different variation in the work of counsel and court.

Specifically, a couple of helpful readers sent me a notable sentencing memorandum and a recently unsealed sentencing opinion in US v. Smith, No. 6:17-cr-147-Orl-31KRS (M.D. Fla. Feb. 27, 2018). In this case, as explained by the sentencing judge, Judge Gregory Presnell, Tyrone Smith faced a huge increase in his sentence range under the career-offender guideline for two prior low-level cocaine sales:

Smith was arrested and charged in Count 2 of the Indictment with distribution of a mixture containing a detectable amount of carfentanil.  He pled guilty and appeared before me for sentencing.  The PSR (Doc. 80) scored defendant with a base of 24.  Subtracting two levels for his minor role in the offense and three levels for his acceptance of responsibility, his guideline score would be 19.  With a criminal history score of III, his suggested guideline sentence would be 37-46 months. But the prior state court offenses described above make defendant a career offender as defined by USSG 4B1.1.  Application of this enhancement increases defendant’s score from 19-III to 29-VI, resulting in a guideline range of 151-188 months, a 400% increase for selling $120 worth of cocaine ten years ago!

Running through the 3553(a) factors and noting the "growing chorus of federal judges who reject application of the career offender guideline in certain cases," Judge Presnell concluded "that a reasonable sentence in this case is 30 months, which constitutes a modest downward variance from the low end of defendant’s unenhanced guideline score."

I have provided here for downloading counsel's sentencing memorandum for Tyrone Smith as well as Judge Presnell's "Bench Sentencing Opinion":

Download Sentencing memorandum Final

Download Bench Sentencing Opinion

April 15, 2018 in Booker in district courts, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

After plea to lying to special counsel, attorney gets 30 days (within-guideline) federal sentence

As reported here via Politico, "Special counsel Robert Mueller obtained the first sentence in his high-profile investigation Tuesday, as a Dutch attorney who admitted to lying to investigators was ordered into federal custody for 30 days." Here is more with an emphasis on sentencing details:

Former Skadden Arps lawyer Alex van der Zwaan, 33, pleaded guilty in February to lying to FBI agents about his contacts with former Trump campaign official Rick Gates and Konstantin Kilimnik, a suspected Russian intelligence operative who worked closely with Gates and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

Attorneys for van der Zwaan pleaded with U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson to forgo any prison time, give him a fine and let him return to his London home by August, when his wife is due to give birth. However, the judge said some time in jail was appropriate given van der Zwaan's offense and the fact that he is a lawyer.

“We're not talking about a traffic ticket,” she said. “This was lying to a federal officer in the course of a criminal investigation...This was more than a mistake. This was more than a lapse or a misguided moment."

In addition to the 30-day sentence, Jackson also imposed a $20,000 fine and two months of probation, but she said she would permit van der Zwaan to reclaim his passport and leave the country as soon as his month in custody is completed. It's not immediately clear where or in what type of facility he will serve the 30 days....

Van der Zwaan's defense asked that he be permitted to serve at a Bureau of Prisons center in Allenwood, Pennsylvania. The judge said Tuesday that she would recommend that, but federal policies usually dictate that a sentence of less than six months be served at a halfway house or at the D.C. jail.

One of van der Zwaan's defense attorneys, William Schwartz, argued that leniency was appropriate given the impact of the episode on the Dutch lawyer's family and on his legal career.  He is likely to lose his license as a solicitor in the United Kingdom, Schwartz said.

But Jackson was largely unmoved by those arguments, noting that van der Zwaan came from an upbringing of privilege and lacked any hardship that could have mitigated his actions. Van der Zwaan is married to the daughter of a Ukrainian-Russian energy mogul, German Khan, whom Forbes ranks 138th on its list of billionaires, with a net worth of $9.3 billion.

"This glass was dropped on a very thick carpet, which has cushioned him," the judge said of the defendant. She credited him for supporting himself and his wife in recent years, although she noted that van der Zwaan's father-in-law has provided funds to the couple since the attorney was fired from his job....

The fact that prosecutors are not requiring future cooperation from van der Zwaan suggests that they don't see him as a crucial player in the Trump-Russia saga. Prosecutor Andrew Weissmann said the defendant's reason for lying remains murky. "To be candid, we don't know what was motivating the defendant," Weissmann said. "We count on people to tell us the truth. We count on people to turn over documents that are responsive."

Defense attorneys said he lied to Mueller's team because he feared being fired if Skadden found out he had recorded work-related conversations without permission, including at least one with former Obama White House Counsel Greg Craig, a Skadden partner who oversaw the Tymoshenko report. Van der Zwaan was ultimately fired by the firm late last year, after his inaccurate statements to the Mueller team.

Weissmann said that concern about the consequences at Skadden could have been part of the explanation, but there was "reason to doubt that is simply the sole motive." Mueller's team offered no specific recommendation to Jackson on an appropriate sentence in the case. Weissmann said that was the special counsel office's policy, which he also followed as a federal prosecutor in Brooklyn.

Van der Zwaan spoke to the court only briefly during the sentencing hearing at the federal courthouse near Capitol Hill. "Your honor, what I did was wrong and I apologize to the court for my conduct," he said. He also apologized to his family for his actions.

Later in the hearing, Jackson said she did not detect great remorse. "The expressions of remorse, even those made on his behalf, were somewhat muted to say the least," the judge declared shortly before she imposed the sentence.

Jackson also rebuffed Schwartz's argument that van der Zwaan's freedom was curtailed in recent months as he spent his days at a "residential hotel" awaiting legal proceedings. "I'm not really moved by the complaint that he is in his hotel room with nothing to do," the judge said, saying he was not in custody and could have been doing community service to keep busy.

"This glass was dropped on a very thick carpet" is a quote I am going to have to remember.  And though not mentioned in this article, I am pretty sure the calculated guideline range in this matter was 0 to 6 months, so perhaps we ought also remember that the first sentence imposed in this matter emerging from the special counsel was a within-guideline (and not-bottom-of-the-range) sentence.

April 3, 2018 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (9)

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Judge Jed Rakoff sentences rapper DMX to one year in federal prison for tax fraud

US District Court Judge Jed Rakoff has long been a vocal advocate against mass incarceration and other problems he seeing is the operation of the federal criminal justice system. But that view did not preclude him from thinking he needed to send a notable white-collar criminal to federal prison yesterday as reported in this local article (which provides a nice short review of the parties' sentencing arguments):

Embattled rapper DMX was sentenced Wednesday to one year in prison for tax fraud — but insisted he wasn’t “like a criminal in a comic book” trying to scheme against the government.  DMX, real name Earl Simmons, admitted in November to evading $1.7 million in taxes. He was also given three years of supervised release.

The 47-year-old performer, whose top songs include “Party Up (Up in Here),” stood accused of hiding money from the IRS from 2010 to 2016 — largely by maintaining a “cash lifestyle.” “I knew that taxes needed to be paid,” Simmons said shortly before Manhattan Federal Judge Jed Rakoff handed down his sentence. “I hired people but I didn’t follow up. I guess I really didn’t put too much concern into it.

“I never went to the level of tax evasion where I’d sit down and plot . . . like a criminal in a comic book,” said Simmons, who grew teary at points during the proceeding.

Prosecutors had pushed for Rakoff to hit Simmons with a sentence ranging from four years and nine months up to five years in prison. In their sentencing papers, prosecutors urged Rakoff to "use this sentencing to send the message to this defendant and others that star power does not entitle someone to a free pass, and individuals cannot shirk the duty to pay their fair share of taxes."

Simmons' lawyers, Murray and Stacey Richman, asked Rakoff for a sentence of in-patient rehab. With treatment — and strict supervision — Simmons could keep performing, allowing him to repay his whopping tax debt, they insisted. They also floated the idea Rakoff could appoint a trustee who would oversee Simmons' business dealings — making sure the tax man got paid. They maintained that Simmons' traumatic and impoverished upbringing led him astray as an adult, including toward addiction and bad financial decisions — but that he has a talent to "make beauty out of ugliness."

The Richmans played the music video for Simmons' 1998 song "Slippin'", claiming lyrics such as "If I'm strong enough I'll live long enough to see my kids/Doing something more constructive with their time than bids" indicate his search for redemption through art. "He is the American dream, and sometimes the American dream takes you to court," Stacey Richman said. "He has been able to raise himself from the ghetto."

Rakoff sympathized with Simmons, saying he was another example of how "the sins of the parents are visited upon their children" — but felt prison was necessary to deter would-be tax fraudsters....

Other performers have done time for tax raps.

Former Fugees singer Lauryn Hill got a three-month sentence in federal lockup for not paying taxes on $1.5 million in income from 2005 to 2007.

Fat Joe, whose legal name is Joseph Antonio Cartagena, got four months in federal prison after he didn't file tax returns on more than $3 million in income.

Ja Rule, who is legally named Jeffrey Atkins, received a 28-month sentence for not filing tax returns that ran concurrently with a two-year weapons sentence, according to reports.

March 29, 2018 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)