Tuesday, September 26, 2023

New US Sentencing Commission report covers "Federal Escape Offenses"

The US Sentencing Commission this morning released this new 30+-page report titled simply "Federal Escape Offenses."  This USSC webpage provides a summary and key findings, and here and highlights from the highlights:

This new publication expands upon the Commission’s previous research on federal escape offenses. In this report, the Commission combines data it regularly collects with data from a special coding project to provide a deeper understanding of escape offenses and the individuals who commit those crimes.  The report provides the characteristics of individuals who commit escape offenses, then chronologically examines their criminal histories before the instant offense through their alleged criminal behavior while on escape status. Next it provides information on their subsequent sentencing.  Finally, this report examines their criminal behavior after being released into the community by the recidivism rates of a cohort of individuals released from federal custody in 2010.

  • Escape offenses accounted for less than one percent (0.4%) of all federal offenses between fiscal years 2017 and 2021.

  • Individuals sentenced for escape offenses had extensive and serious criminal histories....

  • Most federal escapes were from non-secure custody. The majority (89.0%) of individuals escaped from a Residential Reentry Center (i.e., a halfway house)....

  • Nearly all (99.2%) individuals sentenced for an escape offense received a sentence of imprisonment. The average term of imprisonment was 12 months.

  • Nearly two-thirds (65.0%) of individuals sentenced for an escape offense were sentenced within the guideline range for their escape crime, compared to 40.2 percent of all other federally sentenced U.S. citizens.

  • The majority (85.7%) of individuals sentenced for an escape offense and released in 2010 were rearrested during an eight-year follow-up period, which was higher than individuals sentenced for any other type of federal offense.  By comparison, one-half (49.2%) of other individuals released in 2010 were rearrested during the same time period.

    • Individuals sentenced for escape offenses were rearrested sooner after release compared to other sentenced individuals. Their median time to rearrest was ten months, compared to 19 months for the remaining 2010 cohort.

September 26, 2023 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Moral Judgments and Knowledge about Felony Murder in Colorado: An Empirical Study"

The title of this post is the title of this new article authored by Ian Farrell now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

With funds provided by a Hughes Pilot grant, I conducted a survey of 523 Colorado residents to determine their knowledge of and moral attitudes towards the felony murder rule.  The survey showed that only a very small fraction of the participants knew that unintended killings in the course of predicate felonies was murder punishable at the time by life without the possibility of parole.  Similarly, only a very small fraction of survey participants believed that persons who committed unintended killings in the course of predicate felonies deserved a murder conviction or sentence of mandatory life without the possibility of parole.  Rather, the mean sentence that survey participants considered just for felony murder was just over six years in prison.  These results substantially undercut the two main justifications given for felony murder, namely deterrence and retribution.

September 26, 2023 in Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Spotlighting disconcerting comments after a disconcerting crime

A regular reader suggest that I post this recent New York Post article headlined "Vegas teen told cops ‘I’ll be out in 30 days’ after he was nabbed in killing of retired police chief in hit-and-run: report."  The reader suggested this piece shows the harms of a “slap on the wrist” as sentencing policy because if "the consequences for improper actions are not significant enough, you get more of those actions." Here are excerpts:

The teen driver who allegedly mowed down a retired police chief in a fatal hit-and-run told Las Vegas police he would be back on the streets in under a month, according to a report.

Jesus Ayala is accused of driving a stolen Hyundai Elantra on Aug. 14 along with Jzamir Keys, 16, and deliberately crashing into and killing Andreas “Andy” Probst, 64, who had been riding his bike, a disturbing video showed.

Ayala, who just turned 18, was arrested hours after Probst was killed and told the police while in custody that he wouldn’t be locked up for long.

“You think this juvenile [expletive] is gonna do some [expletive]? I’ll be out in 30 days, I’ll bet you,” Ayala told the cops, according to KLAS. “It’s just ah, [expletive] ah, hit-and-run — slap on the wrist.”...

Ayala is being held at Clark County Detention Center without bail and was hit with 18 charges including murder, attempted murder and grand larceny. Ayala and Keys made their first appearances Thursday in Las Vegas Justice Court, where the teens face charges as adults....

The video allegedly recorded by Keys in August captured the moment the stolen car plowed into the back of Probst while the two teens laughed, saying, “Hit his ass.” Probst was tossed over the hood of the vehicle and left to die.

His widow, Crystal Probst, and daughter, Taylor Probst, were in court for Thursday’s hearing but left immediately afterward without speaking with reporters. Taylor Probst said on Tuesday the attack was a senseless killing caused by the effect “social media has on our youth” — not because of her father’s 35 years in law enforcement....

The death penalty will not be sought in either case because under Nevada law, they face 20 years to life in prison if they are convicted before they turn 18 years old.

The two teens are accused of going on a crime spree throughout the day on Aug. 14, as they allegedly hit a 72-year-old bicyclist while in a stolen Hyundai sedan, drove away, crashed into a Toyota Corolla and again drove away before striking Probst. They later apparently stole two more cars before crashing them into each other.

September 24, 2023 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (11)

Friday, September 08, 2023

Friday funnies?: Turkish court imposes sentence of 11,196 years in prison!

I surmise that any number of things associated with cryptocurrencies, including lots of numbers, are unbelievable.  But this Bloomberg story, headlined "Boss of Failed Crypto Exchange Gets 11,000-Year Sentence," has a sentencing number I could hardly believe.  Here are the details:

Faruk Fatih Ozer, who ran crypto exchange Thodex until it imploded in 2021, was sentenced to 11,196 years in prison by a Turkish court for crimes including fraud. Delivering its verdict late Thursday, the court in Istanbul sentenced Ozer and his two siblings to similar-length jail terms, finding them guilty of aggravated fraud, leading a criminal organization and money laundering.

Ozer, a high-school dropout who founded Thodex in 2017 and fled to Albania after Thodex went bust, appeared unrepentant at his final hearing. “I am smart enough to lead any institution on Earth,” state-run Anadolu Agency cited Ozer as saying in court. “That is evident in this company I established at the age of 22. I wouldn’t have acted so amateurishly if this were a criminal organization.”

The total amount of losses investors suffered when Thodex collapsed remains unclear. The prosecutor’s indictment estimates them at 356 million liras ($13 million), but Turkish media have reported figures as high as $2 billion.

I know nothing about Turkish sentencing law and practice, but I do know anyone tempted to calculate average prison terms in that country is now going to come up with a very large number.

September 8, 2023 in Offense Characteristics, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, September 07, 2023

New CRS document explores "Supreme Court’s Narrow Construction of Federal Criminal Laws"

The Congressional Research Service has this notable new "Legal Sidebar" reviews past and recent Supreme Court rulings that limit the scope of federal criminal statutes. This six-page document gets started this way:

Criminal law marks a boundary between conduct that society deems permissible and behavior that it deems worthy of punishment.  Those who cross the line may be subject to penalty and social disapproval.  In addition to punishment, transgressors may face wide-ranging collateral consequences, among other things.

Defendants charged with criminal offenses have mounted various legal challenges to the line drawn by criminal law itself.  One category of legal challenge centers on arguments related to where or how the boundary between lawful and unlawful conduct is established.  For example, defendants have argued that certain criminal statutes are unclear and fail to give fair notice to the public as to what conduct is wrongful; that other criminal statutes improperly reach those with no awareness that they have crossed the line and thus fail to reserve criminal punishment for those who are truly culpable; and that the application of particular criminal statutes in individual circumstances strays beyond what Congress intended or clashes with countervailing constitutional values.

In recent years, the Supreme Court has issued a series of decisions agreeing with defendants that have raised each of these arguments, narrowly construing some criminal statutes in the process.  A federal appellate judge described these rulings as “nearly an annual event.”  In the Court’s latest term, the Justices again issued opinions limiting the reach of specific criminal statutes.  This Sidebar addresses this apparent Supreme Court trend, identifying the substantive reasons why the Court has limited the scope of criminal statutes and offering examples from historic and modern cases.  The discussion and examples are not comprehensive but are representative in nature.  The Sidebar also summarizes four cases from the recently concluded 2022 Supreme Court term — Counterman v. Colorado, Dubin v. United States, United States v. Hansen, and Twitter v. Taamneh — in which the Court narrowly construed the criminal laws and concepts at issue.  The Sidebar closes with considerations for Congress.

September 7, 2023 in Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, September 05, 2023

Proud Boys leader, Enrique Tarrio, sentenced to 22 years for his role in Jan 6 activities

As reported in this Politico piece, "Enrique Tarrio, the national leader of the Proud Boys on Jan. 6, 2021, was sentenced Tuesday to 22 years in prison for masterminding a seditious conspiracy aimed at derailing the transfer of power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden."  Here is more:

The sentence, the lengthiest among hundreds arising from the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, is a reflection of prosecutors’ evidence that the Proud Boys, helmed by Tarrio, played the most pivotal role in stoking the violent breach of police lines and the Capitol itself. “Mr. Tarrio was the ultimate leader of that conspiracy. Mr. Tarrio was the ultimate leader, the ultimate person who organized, who was motivated by revolutionary zeal,” U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Kelly said as he handed down Tarrio’s sentence. “That conspiracy ended up with about 200 men amped up for battle encircling the Capitol.”

Hundreds of Proud Boys from across the country, vetted and assembled by Tarrio and a group of top lieutenants, became a vanguard of sorts as a mob of Trump supporters descended on the Capitol, and members of the group were involved in nearly every breach of police lines that day.  Dominic Pezzola, a New York Proud Boy who triggered the breach of the Capitol itself by smashing a Senate window with a stolen police shield, was sentenced Friday to 10 years in prison.

Tarrio, unlike most of his co-conspirators, was not at the Capitol on Jan. 6. Upon his arrival in Washington on Jan. 4, 2021, he was arrested for his role in the theft and burning of a Black Lives Matter flag from a church after an earlier pro-Trump march. Tarrio was released the next day and ordered to leave Washington D.C., so he headed with a group of allies to a hotel in Baltimore.

Prosecutors say despite his absence, he remained in touch with his men and monitored their actions on Jan. 6. And after the attack, he repeatedly celebrated the attack, defended his allies and regretted that it didn’t fully derail the transfer of power. He was convicted in May of seditious conspiracy, conspiring to obstruct Congress’ proceedings and destroying government property, among other charges.

Tarrio’s sentence closes a significant chapter in the investigation of the Jan. 6 attack. His 22-year sentence is likely to remain the lengthiest for anyone charged in connection with the attack itself — a mark that exceeds the 18-year sentences handed down to Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and Tarrio’s ally Ethan Nordean....

Kelly, a Trump appointee, appeared largely unmoved by Tarrio’s words of contrition. He emphasized that as the attack unfolded, he used his platform to tell his allies “Don’t fucking leave.” And that night, Tarrio privately told a confidant, “Make no mistake. We did this.” Despite Tarrio’s contrition, Kelly again slammed him for comparing Pezzola to George Washington. “It slanders the father of our country to speak that way,” Kelly said. The judge added that he doesn’t see evidence, despite Tarrio’s apologies, that he feels remorse for the seditious conspiracy for which he was convicted.

September 5, 2023 in Celebrity sentencings, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (17)

Friday, September 01, 2023

Two more lengthy sentences for Proud Boy members involved in Jan 6

As reported in this Reuters article, a "leader of the far-right Proud Boys was sentenced to 18 years in prison on Friday while another member got 10 years for their roles in the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of Donald Trump." Here is more:

Ethan Nordean, one of the group's leaders, was sentenced to 18 years in prison, short of what prosecutors had sought. Nordean had been convicted of seditious conspiracy and other crimes. "If we don't have a peaceful transfer of power in this country, we don't have anything," said U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly.

In a statement to the judge, Nordean called Jan. 6 a "complete and utter tragedy" and said he had gone to the Capitol to be a leader and to keep people out of trouble. "While it is true that I wholeheartedly regret what I did that day, what I regret more is not being a better leader," he said. Nordean's attorney, Nick Smith, had argued for a sentence within the range of 15 to 21 months.

Earlier on Friday, Dominic Pezzola, a member of the group who did not play a leadership role and the only defendant of five to be acquitted of seditious conspiracy, yelled, "Trump won!" as he left the courtroom following his own sentencing. Pezzola was sentenced to 10 years in prison after a jury convicted him of other felonies, including obstructing an official proceeding and assaulting police....

Pezzola's attorneys had asked for their client to be sentenced to around five years in prison, and said in their sentencing memo that he had already served about three years awaiting trial. Steven Metcalf, one of Pezzola's attorneys, told the judge that Pezzola was caught in the "heat of the moment."...

The government had sought a 20-year prison term for Pezzola and a 27-year term for Nordean. Kelly on Thursday ordered two other former Proud Boys leaders, Joseph Biggs and Zachary Rehl, to serve 17 years and 15 years in prison, respectively....

Former Proud Boys Chairman Enrique Tarrio will be sentenced on Sept 5. The government is asking for a 33-year sentence.

September 1, 2023 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (42)

Thursday, August 31, 2023

Proud Boy Joe Biggs sentenced to 17 years for Jan 6 activity after seditious conspiracy conviction (mid-way between parties' recommendations)

As reported in this Hill piece, "Proud Boy Joe Biggs on Thursday was sentenced to 17 years in prison, the second-highest sentence handed down to anyone convicted in connection with the Capitol attack." Here is more on the first of a series of notable sentencing of Proud Boys:

Biggs was convicted of sedition and other serious felonies earlier this year after being accused of leading members of the right-wing extremist group to the Capitol and talking with the first rioter to breach police barricades just minutes before he acted....

Addressing the court, Biggs said he is “sick and tired of left versus right,” and that the only group he wants to be a part of in the future is his daughter’s parent-teacher association. “I know I messed up that day, but I’m not a terrorist,” he said through tears.

U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly ultimately applied a terrorism enhancement to Biggs’s sentencing guidelines, wherein a defendant must have committed an offense that “was calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion, or to retaliate against government conduct.” Kelly cited Biggs’s efforts to tear down a fence separating rioters from the Capitol and bringing them “one step closer” to their objective of halting the 2020 election certification as reason for applying the enhancement. “I really don’t think this is a close call,” he said of the decision.

Still, the 204-month sentence was significantly short of what prosecutors requested — 33 years in prison, the highest sentencing request for any defendant tried in connection with the Capitol attack.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason McCullough argued Thursday that Biggs’s rhetoric leading up to and after the Capitol attack demonstrated the need for a significant sentence. While the 2020 election votes were still being tallied, Biggs began advocating for violence and espousing false claims of election fraud — claims that prosecutors said ultimately motivated him and other Proud Boys to try to stop the certification of the vote on Jan. 6, 2021. “Joe Biggs will continue to carry out acts of political violence to meet his agendas,” McCullough said. “Until this country bends to his will — to his view of the world — these are not words; they’re convictions.”

A 33-year sentence is also recommended for Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio, whose highly anticipated sentencing was postponed at the last minute Wednesday. Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes was sentenced in May to 18 years in prison, the highest sentence tied to Jan. 6 to date.

Biggs requested a sentence between 27 months and 33 months in prison, or less than three years. His attorney, Norman Pattis, said Thursday that the nation’s political strife cannot be attributed to Biggs when the front-runner in the 2024 presidential race — former President Trump — has been criminally indicted four times. “To suggest this is Biggs’s fault is silly,” Pattis said.

Biggs and defendant Zachary Rehl placed blame on Trump for the Capitol attack in their joint sentencing memo. They said that Trump’s role is not “justification for their actions” but suggested that having heeded the former president’s calls that day “should yield some measure of mitigation.”...

During their trial, the five Proud Boys defendants often suggested Trump was responsible for the riot at the Capitol that day — not them. “It was Donald Trump’s words, it was his motivation, it was his anger that caused what occurred on Jan. 6,” Tarrio attorney Nayib Hassan said in closing remarks of the trial....

The other Proud Boys will be sentenced later this week. Rehl’s sentencing is scheduled for Thursday afternoon, while defendants Dominic Pezzola and Ethan Nordean are set to be sentenced Friday.

I find it quite interesting, but perhaps not all that surprising, that the sentencing judge here imposed a sentence that is almost exactly mid-way between the sentencing recommendation of the prosecution and the defense.

August 31, 2023 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (11)

Dissenting from denial of en banc review, Eighth Circuit judges make case that blanket felon disarmament violates the Second Amendment

Yesterday in this lengthy dissent from the denial of rehearing en banc in US v. Jackson, Eighth Circuit Judge Stras make a full-throated case that the broad criminal prohibition under federal law precluding persons with felony records from possessing a gun is constitutionally suspect after Bruen.   This opinion, which is joined by Judges Erickson, Grasz, and Kobes, starts this way:

By cutting off as-applied challenges to the federal felon-in-possession statute, see 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1), Jackson and Cunningham give “second-class” treatment to the Second Amendment. N.Y. State Rifle & Pistol Ass’n v. Bruen, 142 S. Ct. 2111, 2156 (2022) (quoting McDonald v. City of Chicago, 561 U.S. 742, 780 (2010) (plurality opinion)).  Even worse, they create a group of second-class citizens: felons who, for the rest of their lives, cannot touch a firearm, no matter the crime they committed or how long ago it happened. See United States v. Cunningham, 70 F.4th 502, 506 (8th Cir. 2023); United States v. Jackson, 69 F.4th 495, 501–02 (8th Cir. 2023). I dissent from the decision to deny rehearing en banc.

The full opinion is a must-read for anyone following Second Amendment jurisprudence, and here is a flavor of the opinion:

Practices shortly after the Founding are consistent with the dangerousness rationale. See Bruen, 142 S. Ct. at 2136–37 (discussing the concept of “liquidation”). Of the states that protected the right to keep and bear arms, none disarmed non-dangerous felons. Cf. Handbook on the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws and Proceedings of the Thirty-Fifth Annual Meeting 862–63 (1925) (cataloging the earliest felon-in-possession laws in the states). You read that right, none.

Even violent felons, as a class, were not disarmed until the early 20th century, nearly 150 years later. See Federal Firearms Act, ch. 850, §§ 1(6), 2(e), 2(f), 52 Stat. 1250, 1250–51 (1938). And it was only in 1961, just 62 years ago, that the federal government finally abandoned dangerousness as the litmus test for disarmament in enacting § 922(g)(1)’s predecessor. See An Act to Strengthen the Federal Firearms Act, Pub. L. No. 87-342, 75 Stat. 757 (1961); see also Range, 69 F.4th at 104. There is nothing about felon-dispossession laws that is longstanding, unless six decades is long enough to establish a “historical tradition” of the type contemplated by Bruen. Spoiler alert: it is not. See Bruen, 142 S. Ct. at 2156 (holding unconstitutional a century-old licensing regime).

In sum, the decades surrounding the ratification of the Second Amendment showed a steady and consistent practice. People considered dangerous lost their arms. But being a criminal had little to do with it....

Disarmament is about dangerousness, not virtue. We know that because colonial and post-ratification gun laws targeted rebellion and insurrection, not criminality. There have always been criminals, but there is no suggestion in any “historical analogue” that criminality alone, unaccompanied by dangerousness, was reason enough to disarm someone. Bruen, 142 S. Ct. at 2133 (emphasis omitted). And history certainly does not support Jackson’s unbending rule that felons can never win an as-applied challenge, no matter how non-violent their crimes may be or how long ago they happened.

August 31, 2023 in Collateral consequences, Gun policy and sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, August 21, 2023

Another "Set for Sentencing" podcast focused on acquitted conduct and uncharged conduct and other hot sentencing topics

In a number of past posts, I have highlighted the great podcast created by Doug Passon, a defense attorney and documentary filmmaker, which is called "Set for Sentencing."  I probably should blog about every new weekly episode because Doug produces, week in and week out, a whole lot of terrific sentencing content (and folks can catch up at this archive

I have been honored to speak on the "Set for Sentencing" podcast a few times, and I have had the distinct pleasure of discussing "acquitted conduct" sentencing on the blog multiple times.  As noted via this post from January, Mark Allenbaugh and I first spoke with Doug Passon about proposed amendment to the US Sentencing Guidelines on acquitted conduct and SCOTUS consideration of the issue in an episode titled, "PRESUMED GUILTY: Using Acquitted, Dismissed, and Uncharged Conduct to Increase Sentences." 

This summer, in the wake of the US Sentencing Commission opting not (yet) to move forward with any Guideline amendments and SCOTUS seemingly deferring to the Commission on this issue, Mark Allenbaugh and I got back together with Doug Passon to tape another episode.  This one is brilliantly titled, "Acquitted Conduct Revisited: Mmmmm... Flavors of Evil."  This new podcast discusses the latest (lack of) developments on acquitted conduct, and also includes some heated discussions of whether and how we ought to distinguish between acquitted conduct and uncharged conduct.  Among other things I learned via this podcast, the definition of "uncharged conduct" can be as unclear as any definition of "acquitted conduct." 

Some of many prior related posts:

August 21, 2023 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, August 17, 2023

Federal prosecutions alert families that possible plea deals with 9/11 defendants may preclude death penalty

As reported in this AP piece, the "suspected architect of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and his fellow defendants may never face the death penalty under plea agreements now under consideration to bring an end to their more than decadelong prosecution, the Pentagon and FBI have advised families of some of the thousands killed." Here is more:

The notice, made in a letter that was sent to several of the families and obtained by The Associated Press, comes 1 1/2 years after military prosecutors and defense lawyers began exploring a negotiated resolution to the case.

The prosecution of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others held at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has been troubled by repeated delays and legal disputes, especially over the legal ramifications of the interrogation under torture that the men initially underwent while in CIA custody. No trial date has been set.

“The Office of the Chief Prosecutor has been negotiating and is considering entering into pre-trial agreements,” or PTAs, the letter said. It told the families that while no plea agreement “has been finalized, and may never be finalized, it is possible that a PTA in this case would remove the possibility of the death penalty.”

Some relatives of the nearly 3,000 people killed outright in the terror attacks expressed outrage over the prospect of ending the case short of a verdict. The military prosecutors pledged to take their views into consideration and present them to the military authorities who would make the final decision on accepting any plea agreement.

The letter, dated Aug. 1, was received by at least some of the family members only this week. It asks them to respond by Monday to the FBI’s victim services division with any comments or questions about the possibility of such a plea agreement. The FBI had no comment Wednesday on the letter....

Jim Riches, who lost his firefighter son Jimmy in 9/11, went to Guantanamo for pretrial hearings in 2009. He remains deeply frustrated that the case remains unresolved 14 years later.  He said he laughed bitterly when he opened the government’s letter Monday. “How can you have any faith in it?” Riches asked.  The update “gives us a little hope,” he said, but justice still seems far off.

“No matter how many letters they send, until I see it, I won’t believe it,” said Riches, a retired deputy fire chief in New York City.  He said he initially was open to the use of military tribunals but now feels that the process is failing and that the 9/11 defendants should be tried in civilian court.

The Obama administration at one point sought to do so, but the idea was shelved because of opposition from some victims’ relatives and members of Congress and city officials’ concerns about security costs.  As the 22nd anniversary of the attacks approaches, “those guys are still alive. Our children are dead,” Riches said.

August 17, 2023 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (10)

Wednesday, August 09, 2023

US Sentencing Commission releases more "Quick Facts" data on economic offenses

This week, the US Sentencing Commission has released another set of its "Quick Facts" publications.  Long-time readers have long heard me praise the USSC for producing these convenient and informative short data documents, which are designed to "give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format."  Here are the latest postings by the USSC on this  "Quick Facts" page:

August 9, 2023 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 07, 2023

How many of the "171 Easy Mitigating Factors" might former Prez Trump argue at a federal sentencing?

Some recent posts related to former Prez Trump's legal woes are generating lots of comments; in one thread, one comment stated that it is "probably malpractice for a defense lawyer not to have" the legendary sentencing resource "171 Easy Mitigating Factors (and Counting): Cases Granting, Affirming, Or Suggesting Mitigating Factors."   That resource, authored by Michael R. Levine, provides cites to hundreds of federal precedents suggesting a wide array of grounds for mitigating a sentence.  I share the view that any competent federal defense attorney should be using this resource at sentencing (and I have uploaded below the Table of Contents, which includes contact information for the author for those seeking to purchase the full text).

In part because all federal defendants should receive competent representation, I hope former Prez Trump's lawyers in both of his federal criminal cases make sure they have a copy of "171 Easy Mitigating Factors."  And, in putting this post together, I got to thinking about the question in the title of this post.  From a quick scan of the TOC of "171 Easy Mitigating Factors," I came to the view that quite a significant number of these factors might be potentially applicable in former Prez Trump's case if he ever actually faces a federal sentencing.  Also, I got a a bit of chuckle over how certain "Mitigating Factors" read in light of the Trump prosecutions: might his lawyers someday argue for mitigation because, eg, "defendant is a law abiding citizen who 'just did a dumb thing'" or "prosecutor’s manipulation of the charges, even if no bad faith" or "defendant is older or elderly and presents less risk of recidivism"?

Though a bit tongue-in-check, I do mean for this post to flag the important reality that former Prez Trump is sure to have lots of significant mitigating arguments to seek to avoid a lengthy prison term (or any prison term) if he is ultimately convicted on any federal charges.  Of course, there is a long (and winding?) legal road ahead before any sentencing particulars are to be front and center in his cases.  But, even though former Prez Trump is likely one of the rare federal defendants unlikely now to consider any plea deal, it still seems important to note now that his defense attorneys have a reasonable basis to advise the former President that they would have lots of viable mitigating sentencing arguments to make even if he is convicted after a trial.


Some prior related posts:

August 7, 2023 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (31)

Wednesday, August 02, 2023

"The 'New' Drug War"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Jennifer Oliva and Taleed El-Sabawi.  Here is its abstract:

American policymakers have long waged a costly, punitive, racist, and ineffective drug war that casts certain drug use as immoral and those that engage in it as deviant criminals.  The War on Drugs has been defined by a myopic focus on controlling the supply of drugs that are labeled as dangerous and addictive.  The decisions as to which drugs fall within these categories have neither been made by health agencies nor based on scientific evidence.  Instead, law enforcement agencies have been at the helm of the drug war advocating for and enforcing prohibition.

The drug war has been a failure on all counts. American taxpayers have invested trillions of dollars in the war, yet the United States continues to witness record-setting numbers of drug overdose deaths every year.  The drug war has been used as a tool to disenfranchise and incarcerate generations of individuals minoritized as Black.  Black Americans are nearly six times more likely to be incarcerated for drug-related offenses than their white counterparts, notwithstanding that substance use rates are comparable across those populations.

The public rhetoric concerning drug use has notably changed in recent years.  Many policymakers have replaced the punitive, law and order narratives of the Old Drug War with progressive, public health-oriented language, which suggests that the Old Drug War has ended.  We, however, caution against such a conclusion.  This paper examines three categories of laws and policies that attend to individuals who use drugs under our country’s new, and purportedly public health-centric, approach: (1) laws that increase surveillance of certain drugs or those who use them; (2) the criminalization and civil punishment of the symptoms or behaviors related to drug use; and (3) laws that decrease access to treatment and harm reduction programs.

Our assessment of these policies demonstrates that the War on Drugs is not over.  It has merely been retooled, recalibrated, and reframed.  The “New” Drug War may be concealed with public health-promoting rhetoric, but it is largely an insidious re-entrenchment of the country’s longstanding, punitive approach to drug use.

August 2, 2023 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (10)

Pittsburgh synagogue shooter sentenced to death by federal jury

As reported in this AP article, the "gunman who stormed a synagogue in the heart of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community and killed 11 worshippers will be sentenced to death for perpetrating the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history, a jury decided Wednesday."  Here is more on the notable federal sentencing jury determination:

Robert Bowers spewed hatred of Jews and espoused white supremacist beliefs online before methodically planning and carrying out the 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue, where members of three congregations had gathered for Sabbath worship and study. Bowers, a truck driver from suburban Baldwin, also wounded two worshippers and five responding police officers.

The same federal jury that convicted the 50-year-old Bowers on 63 criminal counts recommended Wednesday that he be put to death for an attack whose impacts continue to reverberate nearly five years later.  He showed little reaction as the sentence was announced, briefly acknowledging his legal team and family as he was led from the courtroom.  A judge will formally impose the sentence later.

Jurors were unanimous in finding that Bowers’ attack was motivated by his hatred of Jews, and that he chose Tree of Life for its location in one the largest and most historic Jewish communities in the U.S. so that he could “maximize the devastation, amplify the harm of his crimes, and instill fear within the local, national, and international Jewish communities.” They also found that Bowers lacked remorse....

The verdict came after a lengthy trial in which jurors heard in chilling detail how Bowers reloaded at least twice, stepped over the bloodied bodies of his victims to look for more people to shoot, and surrendered only when he ran out of ammunition.  In the sentencing phase, grieving family members told the jury about the lives that Bowers took — elderly people and intellectually disabled brothers among them — and the unrelenting pain of their loss. Survivors testified about their own lasting pain, both physical and emotional.

Through it all, Bowers showed little reaction to the proceeding that would decide his fate — typically looking down at papers or screens at the defense table — though he could be seen conversing at length with his legal team during breaks.  He even told a psychiatrist that he thought the trial was helping to spread his antisemitic message.

It was the first federal death sentence imposed during the presidency of Joe Biden, who pledged during his 2020 campaign to end capital punishment.  Biden’s Justice Department has placed a moratorium on federal executions and has declined to authorize the death penalty in hundreds of new cases where it could apply.  But federal prosecutors said death was the appropriate punishment for Bowers, citing the vulnerability of his mainly elderly victims and his hate-based targeting of a religious community....

Bowers’ lawyers never contested his guilt, focusing their efforts on trying to save his life.  They presented evidence of a horrific childhood marked by trauma and neglect.  They also claimed Bowers had severe, untreated mental illness, saying he killed out of a delusional belief that Jews were helping to cause a genocide of white people.  The defense argued that schizophrenia and brain abnormalities made Bowers more susceptible to being influenced by the extremist content he found online.

The prosecution denied mental illness had anything to do with it, saying Bowers knew exactly what he was doing when he violated the sanctity of a house of worship by opening fire on terrified congregants with an AR-15 rifle and other weapons, shooting everyone he could find.

The jury sided with prosecutors, specifically rejecting most of the primary defense arguments for a life sentence, including that he has schizophrenia and that his delusions about Jewish people spurred the attack.  Jurors did find that his difficult childhood merited consideration, but gave more weight to the severity of the crimes....

Survivors and other affected by the attack will have another opportunity to address the court — and Bowers — when he is formally sentenced by the judge.

August 2, 2023 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (9)

Tuesday, August 01, 2023

Noticing one count in the latest federal indictment of former Prez Donald Trump could carry the death penalty

In many cases, even high-profile ones, I tend to be disinclined to focus too much on a defendant's sentencing prospects until a plea or a jury conviction seems forthcoming.  But with historic and repeated indictments of a former President who is also a front-running presidential candidate, it is hard not to talk about sentencing possibilities as soon as there is an actual indictment.  And, via an email tonight on the CrimProf listserve, Professor Jack Chin flagged a particularly interesting added sentencing element flowing from this latest indictment of former Prez Trump:

So one of the offenses Trump was charged with today carries a possible death sentence.  The NYT reports that seven people died in connection with the January 6 riots, so the conspiracy against rights is death eligible.  I assume a death notice will not be filed, and oppose the death penalty in all cases myself, but, if one supports the death penalty in principle, would seven be enough?

18 USC 241:

If two or more persons conspire to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any person in any State, Territory, Commonwealth, Possession, or District in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or because of his having so exercised the same; or

If two or more persons go in disguise on the highway, or on the premises of another, with intent to prevent or hinder his free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege so secured—

They shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both; and if death results from the acts committed in violation of this section or if such acts include kidnapping or an attempt to kidnap, aggravated sexual abuse or an attempt to commit aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to kill, they shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for any term of years or for life, or both, or may be sentenced to death.

August 1, 2023 in Celebrity sentencings, Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (44)

Monday, July 31, 2023

FIRST STEP Act sentence reduction used to address "FBI invented" conspiracy in which feds were "the real lead conspirator"

The FIRST STEP Act's procedural changes to sentencing reduction motions pursuant to 18 USC § 3582(c)(1)(A) continue to provide not only a critical mechanism to address excessive federal prison sentences, but also a fascinating window on a wide array of problematic aspects of the federal criminal justice system.  Many so-called "compassionate release" motions are often efforts to reduce injustices as much they are efforts to increase compassion in our federal sentencing system.  The latest example of this dynamic story comes from New York federal courts as reported in this AP piece headlined "Judge orders release of 3 of ‘Newburgh Four’ and assails FBI’s role in a post-9/11 terror sting."  Here are the basics:

Three men convicted in a post-9/11 terrorism sting have been ordered freed from prison by a judge who deemed their lengthy sentences “unduly harsh and unjust” and decried the FBI’s role in radicalizing them in a plot to blow up New York synagogues and shoot down National Guard planes.

Onta Williams, David Williams and Laguerre Payen — three of the men known as the “Newburgh Four” — were “hapless, easily manipulated and penurious petty criminals” caught up more than a decade ago in a scheme driven by overzealous FBI agents and a dodgy informant, U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon said in her ruling Thursday.

“The real lead conspirator was the United States,” McMahon wrote in granting the men’s request for compassionate release, effective in three months. She said that it was “heinous” of the men to agree to participate in what she called the government’s “made for TV movie.” But, the judge added, “the sentence was the product of a fictitious plot to do things that these men had never remotely contemplated, and that were never going to happen.”

She excoriated the government for sending “a villain” of an informant “to troll among the poorest and weakest of men for ‘terrorists’ who might prove susceptible to an offer of much-needed cash in exchange for committing a faux crime.” The U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment on the judge’s decision. A message seeking comment was sent to the FBI.

Citing concerns for the men’s health and her own qualms about the case, McMahon cut the 25-year mandatory minimum sentences she imposed on them in 2011 to time served plus 90 days. She said that would allow time for probation officials to prepare and for Payen’s lawyer to line up supportive housing for the man, who has a severe mental illness.

Judge McMahon's full opinion in US v. Williams, N. 09 CR 558 (CM) (SDNY July 27, 2023), is available at this link.  Here is just one notable passage in an opinion filled with notable passages:

For our purposes, suffice it to say the following: non-moving defendant Cromitie, the lead defendant in this case, was the object of a lengthy sting operation conducted by the FBI with the aid of a most unsavory “confidential informant,” Shaheed Hussain....  Over the course of the next few weeks, at Hussain's direction, he recruited David and Onta Williams and Laguerre Payen, to serve as “lookouts” while Cromitie planted “bombs” manufactured by the FBI at a synagogue and community center in Riverdale.  None of these three defendants had any history as terrorists; like Cromitie, they were impoverished small time grifters and drug users/street level dealers who could use some money. Payen in particular was of questionable mental acuity.  The three men were recruited so that Cromitie could conspire with someone; the real lead conspirator was the United States, but Cromitie could not conspire with the Government.

Nothing about the crimes of conviction was defendants' own doing.  The FBI invented the conspiracy; identified the targets; manufactured the ordnance; federalized what would otherwise have been a state crime (the Bronx “bomb” plot) by driving three of the four men (Onta Williams was not available) into Connecticut to view the “bombs” and “stinger missile launchers” that would be used in the operation; and picked the day for the “mission” (which was filmed in real time so it could be shown on television news the night the men were arrested). On May 20, Hussain drove the four men to Riverdale (they had no way to drive themselves); “armed” the “bomb” (because the hapless Cromitie, despite his “training,” could not figure out how to do it); and told Cromitie how to place the device while David Williams, Onta Williams and Payen performed lookout duty. As soon as the fake device was left by the community center door, law enforcement arrested the four men.

July 31, 2023 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (23)

Thursday, July 27, 2023

"Vagueness Avoidance"

The title of this post is the title of this recent article that I just saw on SSRN authored by Joel Johnson. Here is its abstract:

Vagueness avoidance is a powerful tool of judicial construction for constraining the reach of penal statutes.  Unlike ordinary constitutional avoidance, which is triggered by ambiguity and seeks to resolve semantic meaning, vagueness avoidance is triggered by vagueness-related indeterminacies that effectively delegate the legislative task of crime definition; such language requires construction to give it legal effect.  Because vague statutory language typically has a practically identifiable core, courts may legitimately craft a judicial construction of the text that captures only that core while excising its indeterminate peripheries.  Doing so respects the separation of powers, the principle of legality, and the modern methodological commitment to implementing legislative will through statutory construction.

Supreme Court case law supports this conception of vagueness avoidance, as the Court has traditionally been explicit about taking that approach with federal penal statutes containing indeterminate language. Yet, in a recent line of cases, the Court has moved toward implicit vagueness avoidance — the practice of justifying narrow constructions of indeterminate penal statutes on the basis of mere interpretation that determines semantic meaning.  That practice reflects an unfortunate conflation of vagueness avoidance and ordinary constitutional avoidance.

The practical effect is that the Court’s recent decisions rejecting exceedingly broad lower-court readings of penal statutes do little to deter lower courts from adopting similarly broad constructions in other contexts.  Each decision is essentially ad hoc, providing no broadly applicable principles of construction.  That emboldens prosecutors to continue exploiting indeterminate language in the federal criminal code to attach criminal penalties to a wide range of commonplace conduct.

The Court should change course by explicating vagueness avoidance as a distinct and robust rule of construction.  When applying vagueness avoidance, the Court should clearly identify the core-penumbra framework exhibited by the vague term and excise the indeterminate penumbra from the core.  Adherence to that approach would provide a ready tool of construction that can be used to reduce the breadth and imprecision of penal statutes. 

July 27, 2023 in Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 17, 2023

Some notable stories about Jan 6 riot cases, now more than 30 months later

I continue to keep an eye on a number of January 6 riot prosecutions because, though Jan 6 was a unique moment of lawbreaking, the subsequent prosecutions continue to provide high-profile lessons for deepening our understanding of many aspects of our federal criminal justice system.  Against that backdrop, I have seen in recent days a number of intriguing new Jan 6 prosecution and sentencing stories that seemed worth rounding up here:

From the AP, "Rioter who hurled bow like a spear at police during Jan. 6 attack gets more than 7 years in prison"

From BBC News, "The 'QAnon Shaman' and other Capitol rioters who regret pleading guilty"

From CBS News, "After courtroom outburst, Florida music teacher sentenced to 6 years in prison for Jan. 6 felonies"

From Courthouse News Service, "In rare move, federal judge acquits Jan. 6 defendant"

From The Hill, "Legal experts see strong potential for Trump charges in Jan. 6 probe"

From Insider, "QAnon Shaman, who pleaded guilty and made a heartfelt apology in Jan. 6 case, has changed his mind and wants his plea reversed"

From NBC News, "'Idiot' Jan. 6 rioter who stole John Lewis photo from Nancy Pelosi's office gets 4 years"

July 17, 2023 in Celebrity sentencings, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, July 13, 2023

BJS releases big report on "Sentencing Decisions for Persons in Federal Prison for Drug Offenses, 2013–2018"

I am very excited that the Bureau of Justice Statistics has released this new special report providing details on federal drug sentences for drug offenses, though it is something of a bummer that this report only covers fiscal yearends 2013–2018.  This official BJS press release about the report provides some of its highlights:

The number of people held in Federal Bureau of Prisons’ facilities on a drug offense fell 24% from fiscal yearend 2013 (94,613) to fiscal yearend 2018 (71,555), according to Sentencing Decisions for Persons in Federal Prison for Drug Offenses, 2013–2018, a new report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. These persons accounted for 51% of the federal prison population in 2013 and 47% in 2018. “Although the number of people in federal prison for drug offenses decreased over this 5-year span, they still accounted for a large share — almost half — of the people in BOP custody in 2018,” said Dr. Alexis Piquero, Director of BJS. “At the same time, we saw differences by the type of drug involved, with more people incarcerated for heroin and methamphetamines and fewer for marijuana and cocaine.”

Between 2013 and 2018, there were large decreases in persons serving time in federal prison for marijuana (down 61%), crack cocaine (down 45%) and powder cocaine (down 35%), with a smaller (4%) decline in persons imprisoned for opioids. These reductions were partly offset by growth in the number of persons serving time for heroin (up 13%) and methamphetamine (up 12%)....

Persons who received [mandatory minimum] penalties had been sentenced to 184 months on average, while those who received relief from penalties had an average sentence of 76 months and those not subject to penalties had an average sentence of 89 months. “Additionally, and regardless of any penalties they received, 6 in 10 people in BOP custody in 2018 were serving long drug sentences of 10 years or more,” Dr. Piquero said. “As for those sentenced to at least 20 years, more than half of the males were black and over 40% of the females were white.”

July 13, 2023 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 07, 2023

Rounding up some stories about notable (and different) life sentences

A busy holiday week has kept me from keeping up on all the sentencing news, but some stories about the imposition of some notable (and distinct) life sentences still caught my eye.  Here is a quick round-up of some of these life sentencing stories:

From state court in Iowa, "Fairfield teen sentenced to life in prison for murder of Spanish teacher"

From state court in Kansas, "Former preschool nurse sentenced to life in prison for child sex crimes"

From state court in Maryland, "Man handed life sentence for 2022 murder of Wicomico County deputy"

From state court in Ohio, "Man convicted of raping, impregnating 9-year-old Columbus girl sentenced to life in prison"

From state court in Oregon, "Marion County 19-year-old sentenced to life in prison after drug deal murder"

From federal court in Delaware, "A Delaware Man Sentenced to Life in Prison for a Street Feud that led to Woman's Death and Shooting of 6-Year-Old"

From federal court in Texas, "El Paso Walmart shooter expected to be sentenced on federal charges today after facing dozens of victims’ families and survivors in court"

These sentences are distinct not only because some were imposed in state courts and some in federal courts, but also because some of the state court sentences include the possibility of parole.  And, of course, some of these cases have received lots and lots of media attention and some just generate a single press story.

July 7, 2023 in Offense Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (10)

Thursday, July 06, 2023

Some early commentary on SCOTUS Second Amendment review of federal gun prohibition in Rahimi

In this post, I noted that the Supreme Court in its final order list granted cert review in US v. Rahimi to address (at least) one aspect of how the landmark Bruen Second Amendment case applies to federal firearm possession criminalization.  Since that grant, I have seen some new comment on the case, and here is a smattering of those pieces:

From HuffPost, "This Man Is A Suspect In Multiple Shootings. His Case May Decide The Future Of Gun Rights."

From the Independent, "Should domestic abusers have the right to be armed? The Supreme Court could upend protections for survivors"

From Mother Jones, "A Federal Gun Law Has Protected Domestic Violence Survivors for 30 Years. Now SCOTUS Will Decide Its Fate."

From Slate, "The Supreme Court’s YOLO Approach to Guns Is About to Face a Major Test"

Some (of many) prior recent related posts:

July 6, 2023 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Second Amendment issues, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (10)

Thursday, June 29, 2023

Former Ohio House speaker gets max federal prison sentence of 20 years for political corruption

In this post last week, I flagged the interesting federal sentencing memos submitted in the notable case of political corruption involving Ohio's former House Speaker Larry Householder.  Back in March, Householder and his co-defendant were convicted after trial on one count of conspiracy to participate in a racketeering enterprise involving bribery and money laundering.  In part because of Householders age (64), I thought he might get below (perhaps way below) the 16-20 years that federal prosecutors recommended.  But, as this local article details, he got the statutory max:

A federal judge on Thursday sentenced former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder to 20 years in prison for spearheading the largest political corruption scheme in state history.  U.S. District Judge Timothy Black’s sentence punctuated the fall for Householder, once one of the most powerful politicians in Ohio, but now a federal prisoner.

Householder, 64, led a scheme to secretly receive $60 million from Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp — a bankroll that helped fund his political operation, execute a campaign to pass legislation worth more than $1 billion for the company, and pay off his personal debts.  A jury in March found him guilty of racketeering alongside FirstEnergy Solutions lobbyist Matt Borges, a former chairman of the Ohio Republican Party.  Borges is scheduled to be sentenced Friday....

In a blistering statement before delivering Householder’s sentence, Black called the former speaker a “bully with a lust for power.”  Householder was taken into custody immediately following the sentencing hearing. Showing little reaction other than a reddening of his cheeks, Householder stared straight ahead as federal marshals slapped handcuffs on his wrists and led him from the court room.

He offered no apology in his statement before the court, saying that “my life was totally and fully about making life better for those I served.”  As he was led from the courtroom, Householder turned to give a sheepish smile to family assembled in the courtroom.  “The court and the community’s patience for Mr. Householder has passed,” Black said.

Federal prosecutors argued Householder should serve 16-20 years in prison.  His defense attorneys argued for 12 to 18 months behind bars for the Glenford Republican.  But Black gave Householder the maximum sentence shortly after prosecutors evoked a who’s-who of disgraced politicians, from former Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora to ex-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. “He committed perjury in this courtroom.  A sentence will show that the rule of law applies to everyone, including politicians,” assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Glatfelter said.

Householder was arrested in July 2020 and lost his speakership but hung on to his seat in the House for nearly a year. His colleagues in the House finally expelled him in June 2021.  He twice served as House Speaker, first from 2001 to 2004, when he left amid a federal pay-to-play investigation that ended without criminal charges.  He returned to the House in 2017 and to the speaker’s role in 2019, aided by secret political donations from FirstEnergy.

The Akron-based utility poured $60 million in bribes into so-called “dark money” nonprofits that allow political contributions to be shielded from the public.  That money was funneled to Householder to bankroll political advisers, polling, TV advertisements and other pieces of his political operation, and to pay for Householder’s personal legal debts and repairs on Householder’s Florida home, where his mother lived....

Householder testified in his own defense in the trial, a move that legal experts said backfired after prosecutors shredded his testimony on cross-examination. Householder’s attorneys have already said they plan to appeal.

Two others have pleaded guilty in the case — Householder’s political aide Jeff Longstreth and FirstEnergy Solutions lobbyist Juan Cespedes.  Both testified at trial and have not yet been sentenced. Neil Clark, another co-defendant in the case, died by suicide in 2021.

Borges is scheduled to be sentenced at 11 a.m. Friday. His attorneys asked for a one-year sentence, while prosecutors asked for between five and eight years.

No current or former employees of FirstEnergy have been charged.  The company agreed to cooperate with federal investigators and pay a $230 million fine as part of an agreement to avoid prosecution.  It also admitted paying a sperate $4.3 million bribe to former Public Utilities Commission of Ohio chairman Sam Randazzo. Randazzo has not been charged with any crime.

Householder’s case became synonymous with how state politicians operate — with dark money, virtually untraceable for the public.  Critics praised the conviction, but lamented little has changed in state politics.  At trial, Householder’s attorneys argued that the prosecution’s case amounted to politics as usual in Ohio.

Prior related post:

June 29, 2023 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (16)

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Rounding up some drug war stories and commentary

Yesterday was International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking created by the United Nations, and this press release noted that this day prompted ever more advocacy against punitive responses to drug activity: "UN experts call for end to global ‘war on drugs’."  On theme, I have seen a number of recent piece concerning the "war on drugs" in the US, and here are headlines and links:

From Cato at Liberty, "Why Are Cops in Charge of Medical Research and the Practice of Medicine?"

From Harper's Magazine, "Do Cartels Exist?: A revisionist view of the drug wars"

From The Hill, "A simple solution to save lives — and money — in the war on drugs"

From Marijuana Moment, "Chris Christie Vows To ‘End’ The Drug War If Elected President — But Only Partially"

From The New Republic, "Their Kids Died of Fentanyl Overdoses. Republicans Can’t Wait to Exploit It."

From the New York Times, "Harsh New Fentanyl Laws Ignite Debate Over How to Combat Overdose Crisis"

From Newsweek, "What If America Decriminalized All Drugs?"

June 27, 2023 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Supreme Court decides reckless mens rea sufficient for prosecution of threatening communications

The US Supreme Court this morning decided the last big criminal case on its docket for the current Term with its opinion in Counterman v. Colorado, No. 22-138 (S. Ct. 2023) (available here). Justice Kagan wrote the opinion for the Court, which starts this way:

True threats of violence are outside the bounds of First Amendment protection and punishable as crimes.  Today we consider a criminal conviction for communications falling within that historically unprotected category.  The question presented is whether the First Amendment still requires proof that the defendant had some subjective understanding of the threatening nature of his statements.  We hold that it does, but that a mental state of recklessness is sufficient.  The State must show that the defendant consciously disregarded a substantial risk that his communications would be viewed as threatening violence.  The State need not prove any more demanding form of subjective intent to threaten another.

Justice Sotomayor, partially joined by Justice Gorsuch, wrote a lengthy concurring opinion that concludes this way:

I agree with the Court’s conclusion that the First Amendment requires a subjective mens rea in true-threats cases, and I also agree that recklessness is amply sufficient for this case.  Yet I would stop there, leaving for another day the question of the specific mens rea required to prosecute true threats generally.  If that question is reached, however, the answer is that true threats encompass a narrow band of intentional threats.  Especially in a climate of intense polarization, it is dangerous to allow criminal prosecutions for heated words based solely on an amorphous recklessness standard.  Our society has often concluded that an intent standard sets a proper balance between safety and the need for a guilty mind, even in cases that do not involve the First Amendment.  Surely when the power of the State is called upon to imprison someone based on the content of their words alone, this standard cannot be considered excessive.  Because I part ways with the Court on this score, I respectfully concur only in part and in the judgment.

Justices Thomas and Barrett both authored dissenting opinion. Justice Barrett's is the main dissent joined by Justice Thomas, though Justice Thomas also writes on his own to complain that "the majority chooses not only to prominently and uncritically invoke New York Times [v. Sullivan], but also to extend its flawed, policy-driven First Amendment analysis to true threats, a separate area of this Court’s jurisprudence."  Justice Barrett's dissent includes this passage at the outset:

True threats do not enjoy First Amendment protection, and nearly every other category of unprotected speech may be restricted using an objective standard. Nonetheless, the Court adopts a subjective standard, though not quite the one advanced by Counterman. The Court holds that speakers must recklessly disregard the threatening nature of their speech to lose constitutional protection. Because this unjustifiably grants true threats preferential treatment, I respectfully dissent.

June 27, 2023 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7)

Monday, June 26, 2023

Notable new PPI report on "Contending with Carveouts: How and Why to Resist Charge-Based Exclusions in Reforms"

The folks at Prison Policy Initiative have this intriguing new advocacy document titled "Contending with Carveouts: How and Why to Resist Charge-Based Exclusions in Reforms." Here is how the document gets started:

Criminal legal system reforms are being introduced at a rapid pace across the United States, often with the stated goal of reducing our extreme prison and jail populations.  Too often, however, these reforms are handicapped because they exclude large categories of people impacted by the criminal legal system.  These “carveouts” generally exclude people charged with or convicted of violent, sex-related, or other serious charges.  This is sometimes referred to as focusing on the “non, non, nons” — nonviolent, non-sexual, and non-serious charges.  “Serious” charges often include drug crimes that involve specific controlled substances, like fentanyl or methamphetamines.  Too often, policymakers believe that these carveouts are politically necessary in order to pass legislation, or believe that they are actually good policy.

Some criminal legal system reformers make the mistake of assuming that carveouts are an unavoidable or necessary part of all criminal legal reform.  But the reality is that criminal legal system reform will never achieve its goals if we continue to focus only on non-violent, non-sexual, and non-serious charges.  Carveouts dramatically lessen the impact of criminal legal system reforms, and create a more difficult political landscape for later reform.

Carveouts are common, but not inevitable.  Below, the Prison Policy Initiative has gathered a set of resources for advocates and policymakers to understand the problems posed by carveouts and equip them with arguments to make sure that criminal legal reform can be for everyone, not just for a small subset of impacted people.

June 26, 2023 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, June 23, 2023

By 7-2 vote, SCOTUS preserved prohibition on inducing illegal immigration against First Amendment challenge

The Supreme Court this morning handed down another criminal law opinion today with US v. Hanson, No. 22–179 (S. Ct. June 23, 2023) (available here).  The opinion for the Court was authored by Justice Barrett and begins this way:

A federal law prohibits “encourag[ing] or induc[ing]” illegal immigration. 8 U.S.C. § 1324(a)(1)(A)(iv).  After concluding that this statute criminalizes immigration advocacy and other protected speech, the Ninth Circuit held it unconstitutionally overbroad under the First Amendment.  That was error.  Properly interpreted, this provision forbids only the intentional solicitation or facilitation of certain unlawful acts.  It does not “prohibi[t] a substantial amount of protected speech” — let alone enough to justify throwing out the law’s “plainly legitimate sweep.” United States v. Williams, 553 U.S. 285, 292 (2008). We reverse.

Justice Thomas authored a concurrence in order "to emphasize how far afield the facial overbreadth doctrine has carried the Judiciary from its constitutional role."

Justice Jackson, joined by Justice Sotomayor, authored a dissent that gets started this way:

At bottom, this case is about how to interpret a statute that prohibits “encourag[ing] or induc[ing]” a noncitizen “to come to, enter, or reside in the United States” unlawfully.  8 U.S.C. § 1324(a)(1)(A)(iv).  The Court reads that broad language as a narrow prohibition on the intentional solicitation or facilitation of a specific act of unlawful immigration — and it thereby avoids having to invalidate this statute under our well-established First Amendment overbreadth doctrine.  But the majority departs from ordinary principles of statutory interpretation to reach that result. Specifically, it rewrites the provision’s text to include elements that Congress once adopted but later removed as part of its incremental expansion of this particular criminal law over the last century.

It is neither our job nor our prerogative to retrofit federal statutes in a manner patently inconsistent with Congress’s choices.  Moreover, by acquiescing to the Government’s newly minted pitch to narrow this statute in order to save it, the majority undermines the goal of the overbreadth doctrine, which aims to keep overly broad statutes off the books in order to avoid chilling constitutionally protected speech.  See Dombrowski v. Pfister, 380 U.S. 479, 486–487 (1965). Because the majority’s interpretation of § 1324(a)(1)(A)(iv) diverges from the text and history of the provision, and simultaneously subverts the speech-protective goals of the constitutional doctrine plainly implicated here, I respectfully dissent.

June 23, 2023 in Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, June 22, 2023

Notable SCOTUS debate over "obstruction of justice" in Pugin immigration case producing distinctive 6-3 divide

Though not the biggest case of interest to the federal criminal justice bar handed down by the Supreme Curt today (that's Jones v. Hendrix to be covered in coming posts), criminal justice fans will still want to check out SCOTUS's work in Pugin v. Garland, No. 22-23 (S. Ct. June 22, 2023) (available here).  Here is how Justice Kavanaugh's opinion for the Court gets started:

Federal law provides that noncitizens convicted of an “aggravated felony” are removable from the United States. The definition of “aggravated felony” includes federal or state offenses “relating to obstruction of justice.” 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(43)(S).  The question here is whether an offense “relat[es] to obstruction of justice” under §1101(a)(43)(S) even if the offense does not require that an investigation or proceeding be pending.  That question arises because some obstruction offenses can occur when an investigation or proceeding is not pending, such as threatening a witness to prevent the witness from reporting a crime to the police.  We conclude that an offense may “relat[e] to obstruction of justice” under § 1101(a)(43)(S) even if the offense does not require that an investigation or proceeding be pending.

Six Justices are in the majority in Pugin, three in dissent, but not in the usual 6-3 arrangement.  Justice Jackson joined the majority (and authored a short concurrence), while Justice Sotomayor's dissent was joined by Justices Gorsuch and Kagan (though Justice Kagan jumped off the last part).  Here is how the dissent starts:

From early American laws, to dictionaries, to modern federal and state obstruction statutes, interference with an ongoing investigation or proceeding is at the core of what it means to be “an offense relating to obstruction of justice,” 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(43)(S).  The Court circumvents this ample evidence only by casting a wide net and then throwing back all but the bycatch.  That approach “turns the categorical approach on its head,” Esquivel-Quintana v. Sessions, 581 U.S. 385, 393 (2017), and subverts the commonly understood meaning of “obstruction of justice” when Congress enacted § 1101(a)(43)(S) in 1996.  I respectfully dissent.

June 22, 2023 in Collateral consequences, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Hunter Biden agrees to plea deal seeking to avoid prison time on tax and gun charges

As reported in this Politico piece, "Hunter Biden has reached a deal with federal prosecutors to resolve a five-year federal investigation into his failure to pay about $1 million in federal taxes and his purchase of a handgun in 2018." Here is more:

Under an agreement detailed Tuesday in a filing in federal court in Delaware, President Joe Biden’s son will plead guilty to a pair of misdemeanor tax charges. Prosecutors have also charged him with possessing a firearm while being a user of illegal drugs — a felony — but have agreed to dismiss that charge if he completes a two-year period of probation.

Hunter Biden, 53, is unlikely to serve time in prison if he complies with release conditions. The deal calls for both sides to recommend that he be put on probation.

The probe was overseen by Delaware U.S. Attorney David Weiss, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump and was permitted to stay in his post after Joe Biden took office in order to complete the investigation of the president’s son. The White House and the Justice Department have said they did not interfere with Weiss’ investigation.

A one-page document from federal prosecutors to the federal court in Delaware outlining the plea deal is available here.

June 20, 2023 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (18)

Thursday, June 08, 2023

How many of the many thousands convicted of federal aggravated identity theft might now have Dubin claims?

As reported in this prior post, the US Supreme Court this morning rejected the Fifth Circuit's (and the Government's) very broad reading of aggravated identity theft under 18 U.S.C. § 1028A(a)(1). The Court explained in Dubin v. US, No. 22-10 (S. Ct. June 8, 2023) (available here), that the two-year mandatory sentence of 1028A only applies "when the defendant’s misuse of another person’s means of identification is at the crux of what makes the underlying offense criminal, rather than merely an ancillary feature."  For a variety of reasons, I hope federal prosecutors have in the past mostly used the hammer of the two-year mandatory prison term of 1028A in "crux" cases rather than "ancillary" cases (and I sense some other circuits have sometimes limited cases in this way).  But the Dubin case and others cited therein certainly suggest that more than a few persons in the past have been wrongly subject to 1028A liability in "ancillary" cases.

Helpfully, the US Sentencing Commission has one of its great "Quick Facts" publications focused specifically on "Section 1028A Aggravated Identity Theft Offenses."  This July 2022 version reports on the total number of 18 U.S.C. § 1028A offenders sentenced from Fiscal Year 2017 through 2021.  Interestingly, in the three pre-pandemic years, there were over 1000 annual total 1028A offenders sentenced in federal courts; but in FY 2020 and thereafter the yearly numbers clocked in at just over 600.  The typical sentence for most of these offenders across a number of years seems to be in the four- to five-year range.  Consequently, using very "back of the envelop" math, I would guestimate there could be as many as a couple thousand 1028A offenders who are currently imprisoned and maybe a few thousand more currently serving terms of supervised release.  I remain eager to believe and hope that most of these folks were soundly convicted in "crux" cases, but surely many may be eager to claim in court that their convictions and added prison terms were wrongly imposed in "ancillary" cases.

Offenders now looking to pursue what might be called "Dubin claims" could, of course, face procedural barriers of all sorts.  But the still open-ended sentence reduction authority of 3582 might be one ready means for at least some (over-sentenced) prisoners to secure relief.  And there are likely more than a few currently pending federal prosecutions that may get a jolt of uncertainty with Dubin now requiring crux/ancillary distinctions in the application of 18 U.S.C. § 1028A(a)(1).  (But, critically, Justice Gorsuch's concurring opinion warns that we ought not try to sort any of this out while driving to summer vacation.  As he sternly explains: "Criminal statutes are not games to be played in the car on a crosscountry road trip.") 

June 8, 2023 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, May 28, 2023

"The Animal Crushing Offense Loophole"

The title of this post is the title of this new essay authored authored by Ben Buell available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

The Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture (“PACT”) Act of 2019 established the first federal criminal penalties targeting the most extreme forms of animal abuse.  Hailed by humane groups as a watershed moment in the development of animal welfare law, the PACT Act created a new federal crime: “animal crushing” — i.e., the crushing, burning, drowning, suffocation, and impalement of living non-human creatures.  But as the first defendants convicted under the PACT Act face sentencing in federal courts, judges and other stakeholders find little direction in the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.  The United States Sentencing Commission, which until recently lacked a voting quorum, has yet to promulgate an amendment to the Guidelines that accounts for this change in the law.  Instead, the current framework perpetuates a loophole in which the recommended penalty for animal crushing is typically less than the recommendation for offenders convicted of creating or distributing videos of that conduct.  As federal prosecutors increasingly bring charges under the PACT Act, this gap in the Guidelines will continue to lead to unjust sentencing disparities that do not adequately reflect the depravity of animal torture.

This Essay is the first to identify what it terms the “animal crushing offense loophole.”  It offers three potential solutions on the eve of the Commission’s annual amendment cycle: the creation of a new Animal Crushing Guideline, the express recognition of animal victimhood, and the use of a set of sentencing factors that distinguish among animal crushing defendants.

May 28, 2023 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Oath Keepers founder gets 18 years in federal prison for role in Jan 6 riot

As reported in this AP piece, the "founder of the Oath Keepers extremist group was sentenced Thursday to 18 years in prison for orchestrating a weekslong plot that culminated in his followers attacking the U.S. Capitol in a bid to keep President Joe Biden out of the White House after the 2020 election." Here is more:

Stewart Rhodes is the first person charged in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack to be sentenced for seditious conspiracy, and his sentence is the longest that has been handed down so far in the hundreds of Capitol riot cases.

It’s another milestone for the Justice Department’s sprawling Jan. 6 investigation, which has led to seditious conspiracy convictions against the top leaders of two far-right extremist groups authorities say came to Washington prepared to fight to keep President Donald Trump in power at all costs.

Before handing down the sentence, the judge told a defiant Rhodes that he is a continued threat to the U.S., saying it’s clear Rhodes “wants democracy in this country to devolve into violence.”

“The moment you are released, whenever that may be, you will be ready to take up arms against your government,” U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta said....

Prosecutors had sought 25 years for Rhodes, who they say was the architect of a plot to forcibly disrupt the transfer of presidential power that included “quick reaction force” teams at a Virginia hotel to ferry weapons into D.C. if they were needed. The weapons were never deployed.

In remarks shortly before the judge handed down the sentence, Rhodes slammed the prosecution as politically motivated, noted that he never went inside the Capitol and insisted he never told anyone else to do so. “I’m a political prisoner and like President Trump my only crime is opposing those who are destroying our country,” Rhodes said.

In a first for a Jan. 6 case, U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta agreed with prosecutors to apply enhanced penalties for “terrorism,” under the argument that the Oath Keepers sought to influence the government through “intimidation or coercion.”  Judges in previous sentencings had shot down the Justice Department’s request for the so-called “terrorism enhancement” — which can lead to a longer prison term — but Mehta said it fits in Rhodes’ case.

Prosecutors argued that a lengthy sentence is necessary to deter future political violence. Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathryn Rakoczy pointed to interviews and speeches Rhodes has given from jail repeating the lie 2020 election was stolen and saying it would be again in 2024. In remarks just days ago, Rhodes called for “regime change,” the prosecutor said....

A lawyer for Rhodes, who plans to appeal his conviction, said prosecutors are unfairly trying to make Rhodes “the face” of January 6. Attorney Phillip Linder told the judge that Rhodes could have had many more Oath Keepers come to the Capitol “if he really wanted to” disrupt Congress’ certification of the Electoral College vote. “If you want to put a face on J6 (Jan. 6), you put it on Trump, right-wing media, politicians, all the people who spun that narrative,” Linder said.

Another Oath Keeper convicted alongside Rhodes in November — Florida chapter leader Kelly Meggs — was expected to receive his sentence later Thursday. Two other Oath Keepers, acquitted of the sedition charge but convicted of other offenses, will be sentenced Friday. And four other members found guilty of seditious conspiracy at a second trial in January are scheduled to be sentenced next week....

Rhodes’ sentence may forecast what prosecutors will seek for former Proud Boys national chairman Enrique Tarrio, who was convicted of seditious conspiracy alongside other leaders of his far-right group this month for what prosecutors said was a separate plot to block the transfer of presidential power. The Proud Boys will be sentenced in August and September.

Rhodes, 58, and the other Oath Keepers said there was never any plan to attack the Capitol or stop Congress from certifying Biden’s victory. The defense tried to seize on the fact that none of the Oath Keepers’ messages laid out an explicit plan to storm the Capitol. But prosecutors said the Oath Keepers saw an opportunity to further their goal to stop the transfer of power and sprang into action when the mob began storming the building....

Before Thursday, the longest sentence in the more than 1,000 Capitol riot cases was 14 years for a man with a long criminal record who attacked police officers with pepper spray and a chair as he stormed the Capitol. Just over 500 of the defendants have been sentenced, with more than half receiving prison time and the remainder getting sentences such as probation or home detention.

Rhodes will not only be appealing his convictions, but surely also this sentencing.  The application of the guidelines' 'terrorism enhancement" will surely be part of any sentencing appeal, though I suspect there will be plenty of other issues raised for the DC Circuit to consider.

Prior related posts:

UPDATE with additional sentencing This CBS News piece, which is mostly about the Rhodes sentencing, includes this news about a co-defendant's subsequent sentencing:

Hours after Rhodes was sentenced, his co-defendant Kelly Meggs, the leader of the Florida chapter of the Oath Keepers, was given a sentence of 12 years behind bars. Meggs was convicted of seditious conspiracy alongside Rhodes last November. Prosecutors alleged he spearheaded the effort to enter the Capitol.

May 25, 2023 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (6)

Monday, May 22, 2023

Extended discussion of issues surrounding upcoming federal sentencing of Oath Keepers

Over at Lawfare, Roger Parloff has this remarkable new piece titled "Should Nine Oath Keepers Receive Terror-Enhanced Sentences?". This lengthy piece examines an array of intricate sentencing issues and it starts this way:

This week, a federal judge will begin handing down sentences for nine members of the Oath Keepers paramilitary group for their roles in the Jan. 6 insurrection, including six convicted of seditious conspiracy.  The government seeks 25 years imprisonment for the group’s founder and leader that day, Elmer Stewart Rhodes III, and sentences ranging from 10 to 21 years for the other eight.  Six of those sentences, if imposed, would become the longest to date for any Capitol Siege rioter.

The sentences, which will be imposed by U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta of Washington, D.C., raise difficult questions with no close precedents.  Although at least 15 people have been sentenced for seditious conspiracy since the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines took effect in 1987, all previous cases involved people prosecuted for conduct “tantamount to waging war against the United States,” a term of art in the sentencing guidelines that the government concedes is not met here.

Among many other items noted, this piece notes that, in some of these cases, federal prosecutors are seeking enhanced punishment based on acquitted conduct:

Three of the nine defendants being sentenced were acquitted of seditious conspiracy.  One of those defendants was actually acquitted of all three conspiracy counts charged. Yet, for sentencing purposes, the government treats those three the same as if they’d been convicted of all counts.

It is true that under controlling D.C. Circuit precedent, a sentencing judge can take into account conduct for which a defendant has been acquitted if the judge believes the conduct was nevertheless proven by the lower preponderance-of-the-evidence standard — which is all that is required for sentencing purposes.  Nevertheless, as I’ll discuss later, I will be surprised if Judge Mehta effectively overrides the jury verdict in this manner....

Absent the conspiracy allegations of which Caldwell was acquitted, Caldwell’s acts would have most likely resulted in either no charges at all or class A misdemeanor charges carrying a maximum one-year jail term. Yet the government seeks 14 years imprisonment for him — just two months less than career criminal Schwartz received for, inter alia, four assaults with a dangerous weapon on police officers.

Prior related post:

May 22, 2023 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (9)

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Some extended discussion of criminal doctrines as SCOTUS unanimously dismisses federal tort suit against Twitter alleging "aid" to ISIS

The US Supreme Court handed down six opinions in argued cases this morning, many of which were unanimous.  There was an intellectual property theme, of sorts, as the opinions included a patent ruling and an interesting copyright fair use case.  Also arguably in the IP lane was also the disposition of federal tort suits brought against Google and Twitter claiming that they were liable for aiding and abetting ISIS terrorism under 18 USC § 2333(d)(2).  The main opinion from the unanimous Court disposing of these cases was authored by Justice Thomas in Twitter v. Taamhen, No. 21–1496 (S. Ct. May 18, 2023) (available here). And those technically a matter or tort law, lots of the discussion draws on criminal law doctrines. Here is the start of the opinion of the Court and one passage with the lots of talk of criminal doctrines:

Under 18 U.S.C. § 2333, United States nationals who have been “injured . . . by reason of an act of international terrorism” may sue for damages.  § 2333(a).  They are not limited to suing the individual terrorists or organizations that directly carried out the attack, however.  That is because § 2333(d)(2) also imposes civil liability on “any person who aids and abets, by knowingly providing substantial assistance, or who conspires with the person who committed such an act of international terrorism.”  Victims of terrorist acts therefore may seek to recover from those who aided and abetted the terrorist act that injured them.

The plaintiffs (who are respondents) contend that they have stated a claim for relief under § 2333(d)(2).  They were allegedly injured by a terrorist attack carried out by ISIS.  But plaintiffs are not suing ISIS.  Instead, they have brought suit against three of the largest social-media companies in the world — Facebook, Twitter (who is petitioner), and Google (which owns YouTube) — for allegedly aiding and abetting ISIS.  As plaintiffs allege, ISIS has used defendants’ social-media platforms to recruit new terrorists and to raise funds for terrorism.  Defendants allegedly knew that ISIS was using their platforms but failed to stop it from doing so.  Plaintiffs accordingly seek to hold Facebook, Twitter, and Google liable for the terrorist attack that allegedly injured them.  We conclude, however, that plaintiffs’ allegations are insufficient to establish that these defendants aided and abetted ISIS in carrying out the relevant attack....

[C]ourts have long recognized the need to cabin aiding-and-abetting liability to cases of truly culpable conduct.  They have cautioned, for example, that not “all those present at the commission of a trespass are liable as principals” merely because they “make no opposition or manifest no disapprobation of the wrongful” acts of another.  Brown v. Perkins, 83 Mass. 89, 98 (1861); see also Hilmes v. Stroebel, 59 Wis. 74, 17 N. W. 539 (1883); Duke v. Feldman, 245 Md. 454, 457–458, 226 A. 2d 345, 347 (1967).  Put another way, overly broad liability would allow for “one person [to] be made a trespasser and even a felon against his or her consent, and by the mere rashness or precipitancy or overheated zeal of another.” Bird v. Lynn, 49 Ky. 422, 423 (1850).  Moreover, unlike its close cousin conspiracy, aiding and abetting does not require any agreement with the primary wrongdoer to commit wrongful acts, thus eliminating a significant limiting principle. See Nye & Nissen v. United States, 336 U.S. 613, 620 (1949).

To keep aiding-and-abetting liability grounded in culpable misconduct, criminal law thus requires “that a defendant ‘in some sort associate himself with the venture, that he participate in it as in something that he wishes to bring about, that he seek by his action to make it succeed’” before he could be held liable.  Id., at 619 (quoting Peoni, 100 F. 2d, at 402).  In other words, the defendant has to take some “affirmative act” “with the intent of facilitating the offense’s commission.” Rosemond, 572 U. S., at 71.  Such intentional participation can come in many forms, including abetting, inducing, encouraging, soliciting, or advising the commission of the offense, such as through words of encouragement or driving the getaway car.  2 LaFave § 13.2(a), at 457–460; see also J. Hawley & M. McGregor, The Criminal Law 81 (3d ed. 1899).  Regardless of the particulars, however, it is clear that some culpable conduct is needed. See Rosemond, 572 U.S., at 73, 77.

May 18, 2023 in Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2)

"What If Criminal Lawmaking Becomes Trustworthy?"

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

One common theoretical perspective posits that courts should assume a counter-majoritarian role in criminal law because the political process systematically disfavors the interests of criminal suspects and defendants.  Recent shifts in the politics of crime, however, complicate this perspective’s assumptions, raising the paradoxical possibility that welcome improvements in the politics of crime will weaken the theoretical case for counter-majoritarian judicial decisions.  This essay tentatively considers whether, if at all, courts’ interpretive approach should change in response to any continuing moderation of historic “tough on crime” politics.  It suggests that while arguments for narrow construction of criminal statutes will remain strong for the foreseeable future, a more moderate and competitive politics of crime could justify greater judicial deference, at least at the margins and in some limited circumstances, to democratic choices regarding criminal procedure.

May 18, 2023 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 15, 2023

SCOTUS grants cert in ACCA cases to address prior drug convictions as predicates for 15-year mandatory minimum

As predicted in this recent post, the Supreme Court today in this morning's SCOTUS order list granted cert in a pair of cases (which were consolidated) raising another question regarding the application of the Armed Career Criminal Act's mandatory minimum 15-year prison term for illegal gun possession.  The cases are Brown v. US, No. 22-6389 and Jackson v. US, No. 22-6640, and here are links to the Brown cert petition and the Jackson cert petition.  Here is the "Question Presented" from the Brown petition:

The Armed Career Criminal Act provides that felons who possess a firearm are normally subject to a maximum 10-year sentence.  But if the felon already has at least three “serious drug offense” convictions, then the minimum sentence is fifteen years. 

Courts decide whether a prior state conviction counts as a serious drug offense using the categorical approach. That requires determining whether the elements of a state drug offense are the same as, or narrower than those of its federal counterpart.  If so, the state conviction qualifies as an ACCA predicate.

But federal drug law often changes — as here, where Congress decriminalized hemp, narrowing the federal definition of marijuana.  If state law doesn’t follow suit, sentencing courts face a categorical conundrum.  Under an earlier version of federal law, the state and federal offenses match — and the state offense is an ACCA predicate.  Under the amended version, the offenses do not match — and the state offense is not an ACCA predicate.  So the version of federal law that the court chooses to consult dictates the difference between serving a 10-year maximum or a 15-year minimum.

The question presented is:

Which version of federal law should a sentencing court consult under ACCA’s categorical approach?

UPDATE: A helpful reader made sure I did not overlook the fact that a different drug is at issue in the Jackson case.  At issue in that case is the status of a conviction that came before 2015 when "the federal government removed ioflupane I123 from the federal drug schedules."  

May 15, 2023 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, May 11, 2023

SCOTUS unanimously reverses two federal fraud convictions based on novel theories

The Supreme Court this morning handed down two notable wins for federal fraud defendants, rejecting two theories of federal prosecution endorced by lower court in Ciminelli v. US, No. 21-1170 (S. Ct. May 11, 2023) (available here) and Percoco v. US, No. 21-1158 (S. Ct. May 11, 2023) (available here). Here is how the opinion for the Court in Ciminelli authored by Justice Thomas gets started:

In this case, we must decide whether the Second Circuit’s longstanding “right to control” theory of fraud describes a valid basis for liability under the federal wire fraud statute, which criminalizes the use of interstate wires for “any scheme or artifice to defraud, or for obtaining money or property by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, or promises.” 18 U.S.C. § 1343.  Under the right-to-control theory, a defendant is guilty of wire fraud if he schemes to deprive the victim of “potentially valuable economic information” “necessary to make discretionary economic decisions.” United States v. Percoco, 13 F.4th 158, 170 (CA2 2021) (internal quotation marks omitted). Petitioner Louis Ciminelli was charged with, tried for, and convicted of wire fraud under this theory. And the Second Circuit affirmed his convictions on that same basis.

We have held, however, that the federal fraud statutes criminalize only schemes to deprive people of traditional property interests. Cleveland v. United States, 531 U.S. 12, 24 (2000). Because “potentially valuable economic in-formation” “necessary to make discretionary economic decisions” is not a traditional property interest, we now hold that the right-to-control theory is not a valid basis for liability under §1343. Accordingly, we reverse the Second Circuit’s judgment.

Here is how the opinion for the Court in Percoco authored by Justice Alito gets started:

In this case, we consider whether a private citizen with influence over government decision-making can be convicted for wire fraud on the theory that he or she deprived the public of its “intangible right of honest services.” 18 U.S.C. §§ 1343, 1346. Petitioner Joseph Percoco was charged with conspiring to commit honest-services wire fraud during a period of time that included an eight-month interval between two stints as a top aide to the Governor of New York. Percoco was convicted of this offense based on instructions that required the jury to determine whether he had a “special relationship” with the government and had “dominated and controlled” government business. 2 App. 511. We conclude that this is not the proper test for determining whether a private person may be convicted of honest-services fraud, and we therefore reverse and remand for further proceedings.

Though federal criminal law and white-collar folks are going to want to review these (relatively shourt) opinions closely, everyone should take the time to check out Justice Gorsuch's concurrence in Percoco. It was joined by Justice Thomas and here are some brief highlights from its start and closing:

The Court holds that the jury instructions in this case were “too vague.” Ante, at 10.  I agree.  But to my mind, the problem runs deeper than that because no set of instructions could have made things any better.  To this day, no one knows what “honest-services fraud” encompasses.  And the Constitution’s promise of due process does not tolerate that kind of uncertainty in our laws—especially when criminal sanctions loom. “Vague laws” impermissibly “hand off the legislature’s responsibility for defining criminal behavior to unelected prosecutors and judges, and they leave people with no sure way to know what consequences will attach to their conduct.”  United States v. Davis, 588 U.S. ___, ___ (2019) (slip op., at 1)....

The difficulty here stems from the statute and the lower court decisions that inspired it.  I have no doubt that if all nine Justices put our heads together, we could rewrite § 1346 to provide fair notice and minimize the risk of uneven enforcement.  I have no doubt, too, that we could find a hook for any such rule somewhere in the morass of pre-McNally lower-court case law.  Maybe, too, that is the path we are on, effectively writing this law bit by bit in decisions spanning decades with the help of prosecutors and lower courts who present us with one option after another.  But that is not a path the Constitution tolerates.  Under our system of separated powers, the Legislative Branch must do the hard work of writing federal criminal laws.  Congress cannot give the Judiciary uncut marble with instructions to chip away all that does not resemble David.  See United States v. Reese, 92 U.S. 214, 221 (1876) (“It would certainly be dangerous if the legislature could set a net large enough to catch all possible offenders, and leave it to the courts to step inside and say who could be rightfully detained, and who should be set at large”); United States v. Wiltberger, 5 Wheat. 76, 95 (1820) (Marshall, C. J.) (“It is the legislature, not the Court, which is to define a crime, and ordain its punishment”).

Doubtless, Congress had high and worthy intentions when it enacted § 1346.  But it must do more than invoke an aspirational phrase and leave it to prosecutors and judges to make things up as they go along.  The Legislature must identify the conduct it wishes to prohibit.  And its prohibition must be knowable in advance — not a lesson to be learned by individuals only when the prosecutor comes calling or the judge debuts a novel charging instruction. Perhaps Congress will someday set things right by revising §1346 to provide the clarity it desperately needs.  Until then, this Court should decline further invitations to invent rather than interpret this law.

May 11, 2023 in Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (8)

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

First Circuit panel reverses fraud convictions for two Varsity Blues defendants

As reported in this New York Times piece, "a federal appeals court overturned the fraud and conspiracy convictions on Wednesday of two parents found guilty of participating in a far-reaching bribery scheme, known as Operation Varsity Blues, which ensnared dozens of wealthy parents who falsified their children’s credentials to gain admission to prestigious universities across the country."  Here is more:

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Massachusetts found that the lower court had made crucial missteps in the trial of Gamal Abdelaziz, a former casino executive, and John Wilson, a private equity financier.  The court, however, upheld Mr. Wilson’s conviction on tax fraud.

The appeals court made its decision largely on two technical legal grounds.  First, it ruled that the lower court judge wrongly instructed the jury that admissions slots constituted property.  “We do not say the defendants’ conduct is at all desirable,” the decision said.  But the appellate judges faulted the government for being too broad in its argument, to the point where “embellishments in a kindergarten application could constitute property fraud proscribed by federal law.”

The court also found that the government had failed to prove that the two men agreed to engage in a conspiracy with other parents, who were, like them, the clients of William Singer, known as Rick, a college admissions consultant to the rich, the mastermind of the admissions scheme.  The conspiracy charges allowed the government to introduce evidence related to other parents’ wrongdoing, creating the risk of bias against the defendants, the judges said in a 156-page decision....

The victory in the appellate court was striking because Mr. Wilson and Mr. Abdelaziz were the first to take their chances in front of a jury.  Dozens of other wealthy parents, including some celebrities, pleaded guilty, making it seem as if the prosecutions were ironclad.  The investigation became a symbol of how wealthy, prestige-obsessed parents had turned elite universities into brand-name commodities.

“Almost everybody pleaded guilty, so the government’s legal theories weren’t really tested until this case was decided,” Joshua Sharp, the lawyer who argued the case for Mr. Abdelaziz, said on Wednesday.

While Mr. Abdelaziz and Mr. Wilson found the weak spots in the government’s case, parents who pleaded guilty are unlikely to be able to challenge their convictions on similar grounds, legal experts said.

Mr. Abdelaziz was accused of paying $300,000 in 2018 to have his daughter admitted to the University of Southern California as a top-ranked basketball recruit even though she did not make the varsity team in high school.  Mr. Wilson was accused of paying $220,000 in 2014 to have his son admitted as a water polo recruit at U.S.C., even though prosecutors said he was not good enough to compete at the university.

Mr. Wilson was also accused of agreeing to pay $1.5 million in 2018 to have his twin daughters, who were good students, admitted to Harvard and Stanford as recruited athletes.

They were tried together in the fall of 2021; Mr. Wilson was later sentenced to 15 months in prison, and Mr. Abdelaziz to a year and a day. Their lawyers argued that the men thought they were making legitimate donations to the university. They said they trusted Mr. Singer, as their college consultant, to guide them.

The investigation ensnared more than 50 people, including the actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin; Ms. Loughlin’s husband, Mossimo Giannulli, a fashion designer; and coaches and exam administrators, among others. Mr. Singer agreed to cooperate with the government and pleaded guilty in 2019 to conspiracy charges. He was sentenced in January to three and a half years in prison.

The full 156-page opinion of the First Circuit panel is available at this link.

May 10, 2023 in Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Man convicted of murdering BLM marcher, whom Texas Gov has pledged to pardon, sentenced by judge to 25 years in prison

This new AP article, headlined "Army sergeant who fatally shot BLM protester in Texas sentenced to 25 years," reports on the latest legal development in a high-profile case which first caught my attention when Gov. Greg Abbott announced on social media that he would pardon a just-convicted killer.  Here are some of the details:

A U.S. Army sergeant plans to appeal his 25-year prison sentence for fatally shooting an armed man during a Black Lives Matter protest in Texas, and will cooperate with efforts by the state’s Republican governor to issue a pardon, his attorney said Wednesday.

Daniel Perry, 36, was convicted of murder in April for killing 28-year-old Garrett Foster during the downtown Austin protest in July 2020....  Perry attorney Clinton Broden said in a statement that his client would appeal. He called Perry’s conviction the product of “political prosecution” and said the defense team would “fully cooperate in the pardon process.”

Perry’s conviction prompted outrage from prominent conservatives, and Gov. Greg Abbott, citing Texas’ Stand Your Ground laws, has said he would sign a pardon once a recommendation from the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles hits his desk.  The board — which is stacked with Abbott appointees — is reviewing Perry’s case on the governor’s orders, but it is unclear when it will reach a decision.

District Judge Clifford Brown delivered a statement during sentencing that didn’t address the potential pardon directly.  But he insisted that Perry had a “fair and impartial trial” and that the jury’s decision “deserves our honor and it deserves to be respected.” 

Travis County District Attorney Jose Garza said it was Abbott “who decided to insert politics in this case.” Garza said he’s been in touch with the board and has been assured that prosecutors will be allowed to present a case against a pardon, and that it will include a presentation from Foster’s family.

The pardon process is a valuable check on the court system, Broden said. “Those who claim that Governor Abbott’s expressed intent is based on politics simply choose to ignore the fact that it was only the political machinations of a rogue district attorney which led to Sgt. Perry’s prosecution in the first instance,” he said.

Perry was stationed at Fort Hood, about 70 miles (110 kilometers) north of Austin, when the shooting happened. He had just dropped off a ride-share customer and turned onto a street filled with protesters. Perry said he was trying to get past the crowd and fired his pistol when Foster pointed a rifle at him. Witnesses testified that they did not see Foster raise his weapon, and prosecutors argued that Perry could have driven away without shooting.

Perry said he acted in self-defense. His lawyers asked the judge to consider his more than a decadelong military career and hand down a sentence of no more than 10 years. Army spokesman Bryce Dubee has said Perry is classified as in “civilian confinement” pending separation from the military.

On Tuesday, prosecutors submitted into evidence dozens of texts and social media posts Perry wrote, shared or liked, including some shockingly racist images. They had been excluded from Perry’s trial, but were publicly released after his conviction and allowed into the sentencing phase by Brown. “This man is a loaded gun, ready to go off at any perceived threat,” prosecutor Guillermo Gonzalez said, urging Brown to issue a sentence of at least 25 years. “He’s going to do it again.”

Perry, who is white, was working as a ride-share driver in downtown Austin on July 25, 2020, when he shot and killed Foster, an Air Force veteran. Foster, who was also white, was legally carrying an AK-47 rifle as he participated in the demonstration against police killings and racial injustice, following the death of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer.

Prior related post:

May 10, 2023 in Clemency and Pardons, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (17)

Monday, May 08, 2023

Big spread in sentencing recommendations for Oath Keepers founder convicted of seditious conspiracy

As reported in this Washington Post piece, lawyers for "Stewart Rhodes urged a judge to sentence him to far less than the 25-year prison term sought by federal prosecutors for seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack — asking for a penalty of time served or roughly 16 months behind bars — citing his military service and his founding and leadership of the right-wing extremist group Oath Keepers." Here is more:

In a Monday morning court filing, the attorneys emphasized that Rhodes volunteered for the Army in June 1983, completed Airborne school and was honorably discharged after suffering a spinal fracture in a low-altitude night jump in 1986.  They emphasized his formation of the Oath Keepers in 2009, saying the group provided hurricane and other emergency relief, security in cities experiencing rioting, and protective details for VIPs during President Donald Trump’s rallies after the 2020 presidential election....

The defense filing came after a Friday evening memo by prosecutors asking a federal judge to sentence Rhodes to 25 years in prison and eight followers to at least 10 years behind bars, in the first punishments to be handed down to defendants convicted of seditious conspiracy in the Capitol riot.

Rhodes and the others face sentencing starting later this month. Rhodes was arrested in January 2022 and will have served roughly 16 months at that point....

Rhodes, a top deputy and four others were found guilty at trials in November and January of plotting to unleash political violence to prevent the Biden presidency, stashing a small arsenal of firearms at hotels in Northern Virginia before converging that afternoon at the East Capitol steps in military-style tactical gear.  Three other co-defendants were convicted of obstructing Congress as it met to confirm the results of the 2020 election, among other crimes. Both top offenses are punishable by up to 20 years in prison, but prosecutors asked the court to stack sentences for Rhodes, citing among other things an enhanced terrorism penalty for actions intended to intimidate or coerce the government.

Prosecutors called for “swift and severe” punishment for Rhodes, saying his group’s actions went far beyond the scope and magnitude of any other Jan. 6 defendants sentenced so far.  They said Rhodes exploited his public influence in the anti-government extremist movement and mobilized people for political violence after “spreading doubt about the presidential election and turning others against the government” because their preferred candidate did not win....

Mehta, Rhodes’s sentencing judge, has handed down the two longest punishments to Jan. 6 defendants so far, both for assaulting police: 14 years for Peter Schwartz of Kentucky, who attacked multiple officers and who has a long criminal history of 38 convictions, including multiple domestic and police assaults; and 10 years for Timothy Webster, a former New York City police officer who attacked a Capitol Police officer with a metal flagpole.

Rhodes’s attorneys said only those two men have been sentenced to more than eight years in Jan. 6 cases, attaching a 54-page government chart of sentences to a 16-page defense filing.  About 200 of roughly 450 people sentenced have received no jail time, and more than half of the roughly 250 people who have been sentenced to prison received terms of less than two months.

Of 110 people sentenced for felonies, about 76 who pleaded guilty have been sentenced to an average of 33 months, and about 34 who were convicted at trial have been sentenced to an average of 44 months in prison, according to a separate Washington Post analysis.

The defense's 70-page sentencing filing is available at this link; the government's 183-page sentencing filing is available at this link.

May 8, 2023 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Saturday, May 06, 2023

Longest sentence yet in Jan 6 case, 14+ years in federal prison, given to man with 38 priors

As reported in this Fox News piece, a "Kentucky man with a long criminal record was sentenced Friday to a record-setting 14 years in prison for attacking police officers with pepper spray and a chair as he stormed the U.S. Capitol with his wife." Here is more:

Peter Schwartz’s prison sentence is the longest so far among hundreds of Capitol riot cases.  The judge who sentenced Schwartz also handed down the previous longest sentence — 10 years — to a retired New York Police Department officer who assaulted a police officer outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.  Prosecutors had recommended a prison sentence of 24 years and 6 months for Schwartz, a welder.

U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta sentenced Schwartz to 14 years and two months in prison, followed by three years of supervised release.  Mehta said Schwartz was a "soldier against democracy" who participated in "the kind of mayhem, chaos that had never been seen in the country's history."

"You are not a political prisoner," the judge told him. "You're not somebody who is standing up against injustice or fighting against an autocratic regime."

Schwartz briefly addressed the judge before learning his sentence, saying, "I do sincerely regret the damage that Jan. 6 has caused to so many people and their lives."  The judge said he didn't believe Schwartz's statement, noting his lack of remorse. "You took it upon yourself to try and injure multiple police officers that day," Mehta said.

Schwartz was armed with a wooden tire knocker when he and his then-wife, Shelly Stallings, joined other rioters in overwhelming a line of police officers on the Capitol’s Lower West Terrace, where he threw a folding chair at officers. "By throwing that chair, Schwartz directly contributed to the fall of the police line that enabled rioters to flood forward and take over the entire terrace," prosecutor Jocelyn Bond wrote in a court filing.

Schwartz, 49, also armed himself with a police-issued "super soaker" canister of pepper spray and sprayed it at retreating officers.  to a tunnel entrance, Schwartz coordinated with two other rioters, Markus Maly and Jeffrey Brown, to spray an orange liquid toward officers clashing with the mob.  "While the stream of liquid did not directly hit any officer, its effect was to heighten the danger to the officers in that tunnel," Bond wrote....

Stallings pleaded guilty last year to riot-related charges and was sentenced last month to two years of incarceration.

Schwartz was tried with co-defendants Maly and Brown.  In December, a jury convicted all three of assault charges and other felony offenses.  Mehta sentenced Brown last Friday to four years and six months in prison.  Maly is scheduled to be sentenced June 9.

Schwartz’s attorneys requested a prison sentence of four years and six months.  They said his actions on Jan. 6 were motivated by a "misunderstanding" about the 2020 presidential election.  Then-President Donald Trump and his allies spread baseless conspiracy theories that Democrats stole the election from the Republican incumbent....

Schwartz was on probation when he joined the Jan. 6 riot. His criminal record includes a "jaw-dropping" 38 prior convictions since 1991, "several of which involved assaulting or threatening officers or other authority figures," Bond wrote....

The 10-year prison sentence that Mehta handed down in September to retired NYPD officer Thomas Webster had remained the longest until Friday.  Webster had used a metal flagpole to assault an officer and then tackled the same officer as the mob advanced toward the Capitol.

May 6, 2023 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, May 01, 2023

With new Florida law authorizing death penalty for child rape, how might SCOTUS get to reconsider Kennedy?

Fifteen years ago, in Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U.S. 407 (2008), the US Supreme Court decided, by a 5-4 vote, that the Constitution prohibits a state from imposing the death penalty for the crime of child rape.  In the words of the majority opinion: "Based both on consensus and our own independent judgment, our holding is that a death sentence for one who raped but did not kill a child, and who did not intend to assist another in killing the child, is unconstitutional under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments."

In Florida, a multi-month effort to push back on this doctrine culminiated today in the signing of a new law to permit sentencing a child rapist to death.  Here are the basics from this USA Today piece:

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed into law a measure making child rape subject to the death penalty, defying a United States Supreme Court ruling. "In Florida, we stand for the protection of children," DeSantis said at a Monday press conference in Brevard County. "We think that in the worst of the worst cases the only appropriate punishment is the ultimate punishment."

But, in 2008, U.S. Supreme Court justices issued a 5-4 ruling barring states from imposing the death penalty for the rape of a child, when the crime does not involve a child’s death. The court rules that applying the death penalty in such cases would amount to “cruel and unusual punishment.”

DeSantis, though, has said he thinks the current conservative-majority U.S. Supreme Court may be willing to revisit the earlier ruling. "We think that decision was wrong," he said at the press conference. "This bill sets up a procedure to be able to challenge that precedent."

I see that the new Florida death penalty law, House Bill 1297, states expressly that "a sentence of death shall be imposed under this section notwithstanding existing case law which holds such a sentence is unconstitutional under the Florida Constitution and the United States Constitution."  I suppose that provision helps to provide a means for a test case to emerge in which lower Florida (and federal habeas) courts would presumably feel obligated based on the Kennedy precedent to strike down a capital child rape sentence, but then Florida would keep appealing in the hope of getting the Supreme Court to take up the case and overrule Kennedy. 

In addition to wondering about the facts of any "Kennedy test case," I cannot help but wonder how long it might take to get to SCOTUS.  There are, surely, hundreds of cases of young child sexual abuse in Florida with the child under age 12 as required by this law.  But, while there will be death eligible cases right away, we would need a prosecutor to charge under this new law and a jury to return a death verdict and recommended sentence before the appeals get going in earnest.  And the appeals would surely take quite some time before SCOTUS would even have a chance to take up a challenge to Kennedy.

Notably, three of the four Justices in dissent in Kennedy are still on the Court (Justices Thomas, Alito and the Chief), while none of the Justices in the Kennedy majority on still on this Court.  I suspect Justice Gorsuch would be a vote to reverse Kennedy, and that Justices Sotomayor, Kagan and Jackson would not be.  I would guess that one, and perhaps both, of Justices Kavanuagh and Barrett would, perhaps on originalist grounds, reverse Kennedy.  But when might they get the chance and are many of the Justices really eager to take this up?  

May 1, 2023 in Death Penalty Reforms, Kennedy child rape case, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (13)

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

"Racial Bias, Accomplice Liability, and the Felony Murder Rule: A National Empirical Study"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by G. Ben Cohen, Justin Levinson and Koichi Hioki now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Inside the fraught history of American homicide law sit two long-criticized doctrines, felony murder and accomplice liability.  Though each of these rules have separately faced intense criticism for their resistance to the supposedly foundational principles of moral culpability and individual responsibility, their legacy must also be defined by the way they function symbiotically and specifically to heighten racialized punishment.  This Article addresses the weighty combined reach of the accomplice liability and felony murder doctrines and proposes that racial bias has fueled the operation and survival of the rules.  Specifically, it suggests that implicit racial bias has led to the automatic individuation of white men who are involved in group crimes, while at the same time created automatic de-individuation for Black and Latino men in similar situations, rendering these two doctrines complicit in state sanctioned racialization.

While legislative and judicial power exist to constrain regimes that unfairly expand criminal liability while ignoring criminal responsibility, the Article argues that the phenomenon of white individualization sustains these doctrines when they would otherwise have been discarded.  A national empirical study the authors conducted supports the claim of racialized group liability in the felony murder rule, demonstrating that Americans automatically individualize white men, yet automatically perceive Black and Latino men as group members. In addition to this core finding, the study also found that mock jurors disproportionately penalized men with Latino-sounding names compared to men with white or Black-sounding names, ascribing to them the highest levels of intentionality and criminal responsibility in a group robbery and ensuing homicide.  Contextualized within the troubled history of the felony murder and accomplice liability rules, the Article concludes by calling for the abandonment of the felony-murder doctrine in group liability situations.

April 19, 2023 in Data on sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Preparing for some criminal action as SCOTUS heads into homestretch for OT22

After a couple of (eventful) weeks off, the Supreme Court heads into its last set of oral arguments for the current Term.  There are a couple of cases being argued the next two Wedensdays that might be of interest criminal justice fans:

Counterman v. ColoradoNo. 22-138, to be argued April 19:

Issue: Whether, to establish that a statement is a "true threat" unprotected by the First Amendment, the government must show that the speaker subjectively knew or intended the threatening nature of the statement, or whether it is enough to show that an objective "reasonable person" would regard the statement as a threat of violence.

Tyler v. Hennepin County, MinnesotaNo. 22-166, to be argued April 26:

Issue: (1) Whether taking and selling a home to satisfy a debt to the government, and keeping the surplus value as a windfall, violates the Fifth Amendment's takings clause; and (2) whether the forfeiture of property worth far more than needed to satisfy a debt, plus interest, penalties, and costs, is a fine within the meaning of the Eighth Amendment.

In addition, this coming week, we are due to get an orders list before arguments start on Monday and opinions from argued cases on both Tuesday and Wednesday.  Before too long we should be getting some more opinions in some more of the the criminal cases argued last fall (though I am inclined to guess we might not get Jones v. Hendrix, the case of great procedural interest, for a few more months).

April 16, 2023 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, April 09, 2023

Some notable headlines about various developments in various prosecutions related to Jan 6

Though a split DC Circuit ruling about obstruction charges received the most press attention, two addition headlines about sentencing developments in prosecutions related to Jan 6 also caught my eye this morning.  Here is a quick round-up of full headlines:

From NBC News, "Appeals court upholds 'obstruction' charge used against hundreds of Jan. 6 rioters, for now: A panel of appellate court judges upheld the use of the statute against Jan. 6 rioters, but the complex ruling means the issue likely isn't settled yet."

From Politico, "Prosecutors seek lengthiest Jan. 6 sentence yet for rioter who pinned officer in Capitol doorway: The sentence would be more than five years longer than the longest sentence handed down in any Jan. 6 case."

From Tampa Bay Times, "Ex-soldier with Jan. 6 ties gets 7 years prison in Tampa case: Jeremy Brown, a retired U.S. Army Special Forces master sergeant, was found guilty of having illegal weapons and a classified military document at his home."

April 9, 2023 in Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, April 03, 2023

Sentencing Project releases new fact sheet on "Incarcerated Women and Girls"

Screenshot-2023-03-29-at-2.58.06-PM-950x434The Sentencing Project this morning released this new six-page fact sheet titled simply "Incarcerated Women and Girls."  The document is full of data and graphics highlighting aspects of the reality that "the rate of growth for female imprisonment has been twice as high as that of men since 1980."  I recommend the full document, and here is some of its text:

Between 1980 and 2021, the number of incarcerated women increased by more than 525%, rising from a total of 26,326 in 1980 to 168,449 in 2021. While 2020 saw a substantial downsizing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this trend reversed with a 10% increase in 2021.

Though many more men are in prison than women, the rate of growth for female imprisonment has been twice as high as that of men since 1980. There are approximately 976,000 women under the supervision of the criminal justice system....

In 2021, the imprisonment rate for Black women (62 per 100,000) was 1.6 times the rate of imprisonment for white women (38 per 100,000). Latinx women were imprisoned at 1.3 times the rate of white women (49 vs. 38 per 100,000).... Between 2000 and 2021, the rate of imprisonment in state and federal prisons declined by 70% for Black women, while the rate of imprisonment for white women rose by 12%....

The rate at which women are incarcerated varies greatly from state to state. At the national level, 47 out of every 100,000 women were in prison in 2021. The state with the highest rate of female imprisonment is Idaho (127) and the state with the lowest incarceration rate of women is Massachusetts (6).

Women in state prisons are more likely than men to be incarcerated for a drug or property offense. Twenty-five percent of women in prison have been convicted of a drug offense, compared to 12% of men in prison; 19% of incarcerated women have been convicted of a property crime, compared to 13% among incarcerated men. The proportion of imprisoned women convicted of a drug offense has increased from 12% in 1986 to 25% in 2020.

April 3, 2023 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Convicted of felony murder as teen for police killing during burglary, LaKeith Smith gets sentence reduced to "only" 30 years in Alabama

A felony murder case from Alabama received some national media attention as a resentencing proceeding approached this week.  That resentencing and its context are covered in this AP article headlined "Man sentenced to 30 years after police officer shot friend." Here are some of the details:

LaKeith Smith was 15 when a police officer shot and killed his friend when the teens were caught burglarizing homes in Alabama, but it is Smith who will spend decades in prison for his friend’s death.  A judge on Tuesday sentenced Smith, now 24, to 30 years in prison — a reduction from the more than 50 years he originally received, but a blow to his family and advocates who argued he should not spend decades in prison for a killing he did not commit.

The new sentencing hearing was held after a judge ruled Smith’s original lawyer failed to present possible mitigating evidence about his home life and mental health. Circuit Judge Sibley Reynolds handed down the new sentence after a lengthy court hearing.  Sibley gave Smith the same punishment he previously handed down — 30 years for the felony murder charge and 25 years for burglary and theft — but this time allowed the sentences to run concurrently, instead of stacked on top of one another.

“What he received today was not justice. It was clearly an over-sentence,” defense attorney Leroy Maxwell said after court. He said they will pursue an appeal. Maxwell said the case, which has garnered national attention because of Smith’s age and the sentence he received, is the “poster child” for the misuse of felony murder laws that allow someone to be charged for a killing during commission of a felony even if the death was unintentional.

The fatal shooting happened on Feb. 23, 2015, when Millbrook police officers responded to a call of a burglary in progress. A Millbrook police officer shot and killed 16-year-old A’Donte Washington when officers surprised the teens, local news outlets reported. A grand jury cleared the officer in the shooting. The surviving four teens were charged with felony murder. Three took a plea deal, and Smith went to trial.

The Elmore County courtroom, which sits across the highway from a state prison, erupted in angry shouts after the judge handed down the sentence, attorneys and others said. “He’s not a murderer. He doesn’t deserve 55 or 30 years,” Smith’s mother, Brontina Smith, said after court.

Maxwell argued LaKeith Smith was the least culpable of the teens because he was the youngest and there was no evidence he fired a gun. The judge heard testimony about Smith’s difficult home life, as well as a request from Washington’s father to let Smith go free. “They were kids, just kids. I don’t condone them going to somebody’s house and whatever. Give them time for that. But the murder of my child? No,” Andre Washington said after court.

District Attorney CJ Robinson, who was the prosecutor in the case before being elected as district attorney, said the sentence is within the allowed guidelines. “There are no winners here. Never have been (in) this case,” Robinson said via text after court. He supported the new sentencing hearing for Smith, agreeing that Smith’s original trial lawyer did an inadequate job at sentencing....

The case has put a spotlight on the state’s felony murder law, a legal doctrine that holds someone liable for murder if they participate in a felony, such as a robbery, that results in someone’s death. Most states have felony murder laws, but rules vary on their use.  According to a 2022 report by the Sentencing Project, a group advocating against mass incarceration, 14 states allow people engaged in a felony to be convicted of felony murder for a killing committed by a third party if it can be characterized as a foreseeable result of their action.

Additional national media coverage of this case include the following:

From The Marshall Project, "New Scrutiny on Murder Charges Against People Who Don’t Actually Kill: The U.S. is the only country that still uses the 'felony murder' legal doctrine."

From Mother Jones, "Police Killed His Friend and Blamed Him. He Got 65 Years in Prison. He Was 15.: A cop took an Alabama teen’s life, but LaKeith Smith took the charge. His big mistake: wanting a trial."

March 22, 2023 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, March 05, 2023

"Mandatory Sentences as Strict Liability"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by William W. Berry III now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

Strict liability crimes — crimes that do not require a criminal intent — are outliers in the world of criminal law. Disregarding criminal intent risks treating the blameworthy the same as the blameless.

In a different galaxy far, far away, mandatory sentences — sentences automatically imposed upon a criminal conviction — are unconstitutional in certain contexts for the exact same reason.  Mandatory death sentences risk treating those who do not deserve death the same as those that might.

Two completely separate contexts, two parallel rules of law.  Yet courts and commentators have failed to see the similarities between these two worlds, leaving an analytical black hole.  Indeed, equity in criminal sentencing may depend upon recognizing the connections between these parallel universes.

This Article aims to fill this analytic gap, proposing a rethinking of mandatory sentences in light of the way criminal law treats strict liability crimes.  Specifically, the Article argues that courts should re-conceptualize mandatory sentences as a type of strict liability.  To that end, it proposes a series of possible statutory and constitutional limits on mandatory sentences.

March 5, 2023 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, March 03, 2023

"To Hemp in a Hand-basket: The Meaning of 'Controlled Substance' Under the Career Offender Enhancement"

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

Sentencing enhancements can drastically impact prison sentences for people convicted of federal crimes.  The career offender enhancement is particularly harmful to a federal criminal defendant because it automatically raises their minimum offense level and criminal history score under the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, which, although no longer mandatory, are almost always followed by judges in determining actual prison sentences.  Since 2016, the career offender enhancement has been applied to almost 8,000 criminal defendants who, at the time of their convictions, had accrued a total of two or more predicate felony convictions, for either a drug offense or a crime of violence enumerated in the Guidelines.

Yet an active circuit split over the definition of a “controlled substance” means that defendants with identical criminal histories could face drastically different guideline sentences.  Because the Supreme Court’s categorical approach in Taylor v. United States prohibits the use of “overbroad” predicate convictions for sentencing enhancement purposes, the definition of “controlled substance” is consequential -- a state statute criminalizing a broader set of conduct than applicable federal law cannot trigger the career offender enhancement.

Four circuits (the Fourth, Seventh, Eighth, and Tenth) have held that “controlled substances” are defined by applicable state law, sidestepping the categorical approach.  In those circuits, a prior conviction for marijuana that includes hemp -- now legal federally and in many states -- can serve as a predicate offense for the career offender enhancement. Four other circuits (the First, Second, Fifth, and Ninth) have held that “controlled substances” are defined by the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).  In these circuits, overbroad marijuana convictions cannot serve as predicate offenses under the categorical approach because the CSA currently legalizes hemp, while most state statutes before 2018 included hemp as a possible basis for conviction.  As a result, criminal defendants in these circuits are spared many years on their prison sentences by avoiding a career offender classification.

This Note argues that the Supreme Court should adopt the latter approach and hold that the CSA defines controlled substance offenses.  This recommendation is grounded in analysis of the career offender enhancement’s text, context, purpose, and history.

March 3, 2023 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (10)

Thursday, March 02, 2023

Sentencing scheduled for morning after jury convicts Alex Murdaugh of murdering his wife and son ... UPDATE: Life sentences imposed

For whatever reasons, I have not been enthralled by the Murdaugh saga and trial in South Carolina.  But, after a swift set of guilty verdicts from the jury tonight, I am intrigued to see the sentencing unfold.  But, this AP article details, it seems that sentencing will unfold Friday morning:

Disgraced South Carolina attorney Alex Murdaugh was convicted of murder Thursday in the shooting deaths of his wife and son in a case that chronicled the unraveling of a powerful Southern family with tales of privilege, greed and addiction.

The jury deliberated for less than three hours before finding Murdaugh guilty of two counts of murder at the end of a six-week trial that pulled back the curtain on the once-prominent lawyer’s fall from grace.

Murdaugh, 54, faces 30 years to life in prison without parole for each murder charge when court is scheduled to reconvene for sentencing at 9:30 a.m. Friday.

I saw another press piece indicating that prosecutors will be seeking LWOP sentences. Given that Murdaugh is 54 years old, the 30-year minimum that is applicable is almost a functional life term.

Any predictions?

UPDATEAs reported in this local article, headlined "Judge sentences Alex Murdaugh to 2 consecutive life sentences for the murders of his wife and son," apparently Murdaugh will not get out of prison even if he comes back to life after he dies while serving the first of his life sentence.  I am not quite sure how to otherwise understand the concept of "consecutive" life sentences, but maybe there is something notable in South Carolina sentencing law that makes it sensible to impose multiple life sentences consecutively.

March 2, 2023 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (9)