Saturday, November 16, 2019

Another District Court finds statutory sentence reform among "extraordinary and compelling reasons" for reducing sentence by 40 years under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)

I am pleased to be able to report on a great new district court ruling granting a sentence reduction using 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) in order to under the now-repealed harshness of severe stacking of mandatory minimum 924(c) counts.  (As regular readers know, in prior posts I have made much of a key provision of the FIRST STEP Act which now allows federal courts to directly reduce sentences under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) without awaiting a motion by the Bureau of Prisons.  I see this provision as such a big deal because I think, if applied appropriately and robustly, this provision could and should enable many hundreds, and perhaps many thousands, of federal prisoners to have excessive prison sentences reduced.)

This new ruling comes in US v. Urkevich, No. 8:03CR37, 2019 WL 6037391 (D. Neb. Nov. 14, 2019). In this case, Judge Camp begins by noting that because of the severe stacking rules in place at the time of the crime, Urkevich's sentence "(848 months) is forty years longer than the sentence he likely would have received (368 months) if he were sentenced under the law (18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(C)) as it now exists." Then, after noting that the "Government does not dispute that Urkevich has demonstrated post-offense rehabilitation, and the Government does not argue that he poses a current danger to the safety of any other person or to the community," Judge Camp concludes:

If this Court reduces Urkevich’s sentences on Counts III and V to 60 months each, consecutive, he will not be eligible for immediate release.  His sentence would total 368 months, and he would have served somewhat more than half that sentence.  Nonetheless, the Court does not consider the Motion premature.  A reduction in his sentence is warranted by extraordinary and compelling reasons, specifically the injustice of facing a term of incarceration forty years longer than Congress now deems warranted for the crimes committed. A reduction in the sentence at this juncture will help Urkevich and the Bureau of Prisons plan for his ultimate release from custody and may assist him in his pending efforts to seek clemency from the Executive Branch.  This Court will not intervene in that process.

After consideration of all the factors set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), especially § 3553(a)(2)(A) (“the need for the sentence imposed ... to reflect the seriousness of the offense, to promote respect for the law, and to provide just punishment for the offense”) and § 3553(a)(6) (“the need to avoid unwarranted sentence disparities among defendants with similar records who have been found guilty of similar conduct”), as well as applicable Sentencing Commission policy statements, the Court finds extraordinary and compelling reasons for a reduction of the Defendant’s sentence pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i).  The Court further concludes that the Defendant has demonstrated that he poses no current danger to the safety of any other person or to the community. Accordingly, the Defendant’s sentences on Counts III and V of the Indictment will be reduced to 60 months each, consecutive.

The statement above by Judge Camp that the sentence reduction motion here is not premature is a reference to (and disagreement with) the reasoning of Judge Pratt in US v. Brown, No. 4:05-CR-00227-1, 2019 WL 4942051 (S.D. Iowa Oct. 8, 2019), a similar case noted and lamented in this post.  In Brown, the court seemed to essentially conclude that the movant had demonstrated extraordinary and compelling reasons for a sentence reduction and seemed to conclude the 3553(a) factors justified such a reduction, but the court rejected the motion for a reduced sentence seemingly because conforming a reduced sentence based on the terms of current statutory law would not lead to the defendant's immediate release.  I am quite pleased that this Urkevich case recognizes why a congressionally-authorized sentence reduction that is statutorily justified is always timely.

Some prior related posts on § 3582(c)(1)(A) after FIRST STEP Act:

November 16, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Prez Trump grants clemency to three military men subject to various war crime prosecutions

As reported in this Military Times piece, "President Donald Trump on Friday granted clemency to three controversial military figures embroiled in charges of war crimes, arguing the moves will give troops 'the confidence to fight' without worrying about potential legal overreach."  Here is more about these grants:

Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, convicted of second degree murder in the death of three Afghans, was given a full pardon from president for the crimes.  Army Maj. Mathew Golsteyn, who faced murder charges next year for a similar crime, was also given a full pardon for those alleged offenses.  Special Warfare Operator Chief Edward Gallagher, who earlier this fall was acquitted of a string of alleged war crimes, had his rank restored to Chief Petty Officer by the president.

All three cases had been championed by conservative lawmakers and media personalities as an overreaction to the chaos and confusion of wartime decisions.  But critics have warned the moves could send the message that troops need not worry about following rules of engagement when fighting enemies abroad.

“The President, as Commander-in-Chief, is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the law is enforced and when appropriate, that mercy is granted,” the White House said in a statement. “For more than 200 years, presidents have used their authority to offer second chances to deserving individuals, including those in uniform who have served our country. These actions are in keeping with this long history.”

Pentagon leaders privately had expressed reservations about the moves, but Defense Secretary Mark Esper has declined comment on the rumored actions in recent days. Last week, he said that he had a “robust” conversation with Trump about the proposed pardons and clemency and that “I do have full confidence in the military justice system and we’ll let things play out as they play out.”

The Army announced it will implement Trump’s pardons.... In the wake of Trump’s decision, the official twitter account of Rear Adm. Charles Brown, the Chief of Naval Information, indicated that Navy leaders “acknowledge his order and are implementing it.”

While Gallagher was acquitted of murder and obstruction of justice charges in July, a panel of his peers recommended he be reduced in grade for posing with the body of a detainee, a crime he never denied.

Lorance’s case dates back to a 2012 deployment to Afghanistan, when he ordered his soldiers to fire on three unarmed men riding a motorcycle near their patrol. Members of his platoon testified against him at a court-martial trial, describing Lorance as over-zealous and the Afghans as posing no real threat. He was sentenced to 19 years in prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. In recent years, Lorance and his family had waged a long campaign against his sentence, and found a receptive ear in Trump.

Golsteyn’s case had not yet been decided. He was scheduled for a December trial on charges he murdered an alleged Taliban bomb maker, and burned his remains in a trash pit during a 2010 deployment with 3rd Special Forces Group. Trump’s action effectively puts an end to that legal case before any verdicts were rendered....

Trump overturned a decision by Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday announced on Oct. 29 that preserved Gallagher’s demotion to petty officer first class. Gallagher’s legal team had urged the four-star to show mercy for a highly decorated SEAL whose case was plagued by allegations of corruption inside the Judge Advocate General’s Corps and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. Gallagher’s court-martial trial for murder and other alleged war crimes collapsed and a panel of his peers convicted him on the sole charge of positing for a photo next to a dead Islamic State detainee, a charge he never denied.

Before the trial kicked off, a military judge booted Cmdr. Christopher Czaplak, the lead prosecutor, for his role in a warrantless surveillance program cooked up with NCIS to track emails sent by defense attorneys and Navy Times. Prosecutors and agents also were accused of manipulating witness statements; using immunity grants and a bogus “target letter” in a crude attempt to keep pro-Gallagher witnesses from testifying; illegally leaking documents to the media to taint the military jury pool; and then trying to cover it all up when they got caught.

In a prepared statement sent to Military Times by attorney Phil Stackhouse, Golsteyn’s family said they were “profoundly grateful” that the president ended the soldier’s prosecution. Stackhouse said Golsteyhn spoke with the president by telephone “for several minutes” on Friday.

“We have lived in constant fear of this runaway prosecution," Golsteyn said in the statement. "Thanks to President Trump, we now have a chance to rebuild our family and lives. With time, I hope to regain my immense pride in having served in our military. In the meantime, we are so thankful for the support of family members, friends and supporters from around the nation, and our legal team.”...

Trump has exercised his pardoning powers often during his administration, including in the case of another soldier earlier this year. Former 1st Lt. Michael Behenna had been paroled from Leavenworth in 2014, after receiving a 15-year sentence for murdering an alleged al-Qaida operative in Iraq in 2009.

And in 2018, he pardoned former Machinist’s Mate 1st Class Kristian Saucier, who spent a year in jail after pleading guilty in 2016 to taking cell phone photos of his work space on board the attack submarine Alexandria ― prohibited, as the entirety of a submarine is considered a classified area.

This official statement from the White House about these clemency grants discusses the cases further and concludes with this paragraph:

The President, as Commander-in-Chief, is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the law is enforced and when appropriate, that mercy is granted.  For more than two hundred years, presidents have used their authority to offer second chances to deserving individuals, including those in uniform who have served our country.  These actions are in keeping with this long history. As the President has stated, “when our soldiers have to fight for our country, I want to give them the confidence to fight.”

November 16, 2019 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 15, 2019

SCOTUS grants cert on yet another ACCA case and also on statute of limitation on military rape charges

Via this new order list, the Supreme Court has added four new cases to its merits docket.  The big one of the bunch is a case involving Google and copyright issues concerning computer code, but the others are criminal cases.  One has SCOTUS focused on the application of the Armed Career Criminal Act yet again, and two combined others deals with statutes of limitation.  Here are descriptions of the new criminal cases via this post at SCOTUSblog (with paragraphs rearranged): 

In Walker v. United States, the justices will consider whether a criminal offense that can be committed merely by being reckless can qualify as a “violent felony” under the Armed Career Criminal Act, a 1984 law that extends the sentences of felons who commit crimes with guns if they have been convicted three or more times of certain crimes.

The question comes to the court in the case of James Walker, an elderly Tennessee man who was sentenced to 15 years in prison under the ACCA after police discovered 13 bullets — which Walker had found while cleaning the rooming house that he managed — when responding to reports of drug sales at the house.  Walker argues that the ACCA should not apply to his case. He contends that one of his prior convictions, for robbery in Texas, does not qualify as a “violent felony” because a defendant could be convicted if he recklessly caused injury during a theft.

The federal government agrees with Walker that the justices should weigh in on the issue, but it maintains that the lower court was correct in deeming Walker’s robbery conviction a “violent felony” for purposes of the ACCA.

The justices also granted two requests by the government to weigh in on the statute of limitations for old rape charges against members of the armed forces.  The question arises in the case of Michael Briggs, a captain in the U.S. Air Force who in 2014 was charged with the 2005 rape of a member of his squadron.  Under the version of the Uniform Code of Military Justice that was in effect when Briggs was charged, there is no statute of limitations for rape.  At his court-martial proceeding, Briggs was found guilty, but an appeals court later ordered that the charge be dismissed.  It reasoned that under a 2018 ruling by the same court, the five-year statute of limitations for the version of the UCMJ in effect in 2005 applied to Briggs’ offense.  The court also ruled that a 2006 law that specifically provides that there is no statute of limitations for rape does not apply to rapes committed before 2006.

The government filed a separate petition for review in the case of two other members of the Air Force.  Richard Collins was an instructor at an Air Force base in Texas.  In 2016 he was found guilty of the August 2000 rape of a student in his course.  As in Briggs’ case, an appeals court reversed Collins’ conviction, pointing to a 2018 decision by the same court.  Humphrey Daniels was convicted in 2017 of the 1998 rape of a civilian near the North Dakota Air Force base where he was stationed; his conviction was also reversed.

The government appealed to the Supreme Court, asking the justices to grant both petitions.  The government told the justices that sexual assault is “devastating to the morale, discipline, and effectiveness of our Armed Forces, but also difficult to uncover.”  The request was supported by a “friend of the court” brief by Harmony Allen and Tonja Schultz — the victims of Collins and Daniels. Today the justices agreed to take up the case.

November 15, 2019 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Tales of extreme state drug mandatory minimums (and non-retroactive reforms) from Florida

The Miami Herald has this lengthy article discussing an array of extreme sentences resulting from Florida's (now somewhat reformed) mandatory minimum drug laws.  The piece is headlined "Hundreds languish in Florida prisons under outdated mandatory minimum drug sentences, " and I recommend it in full.  Here is a taste:

It’s not enough that Jomari DeLeon calls every day, asking her 8-year-old daughter about school and reminding her that “mommy misses you.” The child still asks when she’s coming home, believing her mom’s been gone all these years because of a stint in the military. That would explain the barbed wire surrounding the compound that she visits every month.

In reality, DeLeon is four hours away in this privately run women’s prison in the Panhandle town of Quincy, serving the third year of a 15-year sentence. If she had committed her drug crime in 2016, rather than eight years ago, she would be free by now. Up to 1,000 Florida inmates find themselves in the same legal purgatory....

[DeLeon was involved in two small non-violent drug] deals — a grand total of 48 pills for $225.... Under Florida law in 2013, the possession or sale of about 22 hydrocodone pills — less than one prescription’s worth — would trigger a trafficking sentence of 15 years...

Similar drug cases were playing out across the state. In Orange County in 2009, a man named William Forrester was handed a 15-year sentence for oxycodone trafficking after he was caught falsifying prescriptions to support his habit....

In 2010, a woman named Nancy Ortiz asked an Osceola judge that rehabilitation be included in her sentence to ease her addiction to crack. She had sold two bottles of hydrocodone pills to an undercover cop. Instead, the judge sentenced her to 25 years. “I take no pleasure in imposing this sentence,” the judge told Ortiz. “But I don’t have any discretion in the matter.”

For years, people caught with prescription painkillers in Florida received tougher penalties than those with the same weight in street drugs. In some cases, they received five times the sentence because that’s what the law required....

[P]ublic defenders from around the state went to Tallahassee to lobby the Legislature to change the law .. [and] even the state prosecutors’ association — those pursuing convictions for drug crimes — joined the public defenders in pursuit of lighter sentences for those selling prescription pills. MO<Finally, lawmakers listened. Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, a former prosecutor, sponsored a bill in 2014 that increased the number of hydrocodone or oxycodone pills needed to trigger the lengthy mandatory sentences. To get 15 years for hydrocodone, for example, would now take about 77 pills, rather than about 22....

The Legislature’s 2014 law could not apply to DeLeon’s sentence because, at the time, the Florida Constitution explicitly prohibited changes in sentencing laws to apply retroactively.... [That was changed in 2018 when] voters approved Amendment 11 last year.

At Gadsden Correctional Facility, it was cause for celebration. Another prisoner serving 15 years, also for hydrocodone, told DeLeon that the change in Florida’s Constitution could mean their freedom. “This is exactly what’s going to help us get out of here,” she told DeLeon. DeLeon’s family was so excited for her re-sentencing hearing, they started preparing for her to come home, buying canvasses for her to paint.

In July, however, the judge explained his hands were tied. Her motion for a new sentence was denied because state lawmakers first need to lay out a framework for judges to follow. It’s unclear when, or if, lawmakers will do so.

Earlier this year, lawmakers again increased the number of hydrocodone pills required to trigger mandatory sentences. Bradley, the state senator who sponsored the 2014 drug sentencing change, said he would be open to easing sentences for old drug cases. But he said he doesn’t consider it a priority....

Hundreds of people like DeLeon are in prison serving outdated sentences for hydrocodone or oxycodone trafficking that would not have been handed down if they committed the same crimes today.

One analysis by the Crime and Justice Institute, a nonpartisan group that’s done policy analysis for the Florida Senate, found that up to 640 current inmates fall into this category, while researchers with the Project on Accountable Justice housed at Florida State University found up to 935 inmates. Both estimates have not been previously published.

For one year, it costs Florida $20.7 million to incarcerate 935 people, according to “full operating cost” data from the Department of Corrections. Multiply that expense over their entire sentences, and the cost to taxpayers balloons to more than a hundred million dollars.

November 14, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Two upcoming executions with still lots of questions swirling

As noted in this recent NBC News piece, a lot of officials and celebrities are raising a lot of questions about the guilt of Texas death row inmate Rodney Reed. Reed is scheduled to be executed by Texas next week, on November 20, based on his conviction in the 1996 rape and murder of Stacey Stites.

But tonight there is an execution scheduled in Georgia, and it is not without questions as well as detailed in this local article headlined "As execution nears, co-defendant says condemned man likely isn’t killer." Here are the basics:

A co-defendant of Georgia death row inmate Ray “Jeff” Cromartie, sentenced to be executed for murder, said recently he had no idea who pulled the trigger.... [T]he co-defendant says he's been keeping a secret the past 25 years that makes him believe Cromartie most likely wasn’t the gunman.

“I keep hearing that Jeff Cromartie is the shooter and I know that is probably not true,” Thad Lucas wrote in an affidavit released Monday, claiming he overheard another man confess to the shooting.  Lucas was the getaway driver for the 1994 store robbery turned shooting in South Georgia.  He and fellow defendant Corey Clark testified for the state, avoiding the death penalty and murder charges.

At the time, Clark testified that Cromartie was the gunman. Cromartie said it was Clark.  Now Lucas, who is Cromartie’s half-brother, says he overheard Clark confess to the crime. He said he didn’t come forward before now because he feared no one would listen....

Cromartie is scheduled to die at 7 p.m. Wednesday.  His attorneys are fighting for new DNA testing that they say could prove Cromartie didn’t pull the trigger.  Cromartie doesn’t deny involvement in the robbery, but he has maintained he wasn’t the shooter.

Generally speaking, Georgia’s party to a crime law could have made Cromartie eligible for the death penalty whether he pulled the trigger or not.  But his attorneys said the party to a crime law doesn’t apply now because prosecutors explicitly argued at trial that Cromartie fired the fatal shots.

On Monday, Cromartie’s attorney Shawn Nolan said the defense team was preparing a filing for the U.S. Supreme Court, asking it to halt the execution based on Lucas’ statement. “No court has ever heard or considered this new evidence of Ray Cromartie’s innocence,” Nolan said.  “The state has denied his requests for DNA testing for years.  Mr. Cromartie’s jury sentenced him to death based on their conclusion he was the shooter. If he was not the shooter, his death sentence is not valid and his execution must not proceed."

November 13, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Lots of victims/families and former officials urge Trump Administration not to move forward with federal executions

The Washington Post has this notable new article headlined "Hundreds of victims’ relatives, ex-officials ask Trump administration to halt federal executions."  Here are excerpts:

Hundreds of relatives of murder victims, current and former law enforcement officials and former judges have signed letters urging the Trump administration to call off its plans to resume federal executions next month.  The letters, which are signed by a wide range of current and former officials across the justice system as well as 175 people whose loved ones were slain, plead with President Trump and Attorney General William P. Barr to stop the executions.

These messages offer several explanations and requests. The relatives of murder victims — the largest single group to sign the letters — call for an end to the death penalty, denouncing the process as wasteful and something that only extends their grieving.  “We want a justice system that holds people who commit violence accountable, reduces crime, provides healing, and is responsive to the needs of survivors,” they write.  “On all these measures, the death penalty fails.”

Barr announced over the summer that the Trump administration would carry out the first federal executions since 2003, scheduling them to resume on Dec. 9.  The move breaks with recent declines in both death penalty activity nationwide as well as public support for the practice.  “The Justice Department upholds the rule of law — and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system,” Barr said in a July statement declaring that executions would resume.  The Justice Department said five executions were scheduled for December and January and promised that more would follow.

The letters asking Barr and Trump to stop the executions — intended to arrive at the White House and Justice Department on Tuesday — contain pleas from victims’ families as well as current and former prosecutors, police chiefs, attorneys general, judges and corrections officials, all citing their experiences and perspectives in arguing against resuming executions as scheduled.

Copies of the letters were shared with The Washington Post before they were submitted. A spokesman for the White House did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment Tuesday.  A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on the letters and referred a reporter to Barr’s earlier statement announcing the resumption of executions.

In one letter, current and former prosecutors and other law enforcement officials express fears about innocent people being convicted, the financial cost of death penalty cases and racial disparities. “We are deeply concerned that the federal government plans to proceed with executions despite serious questions about the fairness and reliability of the system that condemned them,” they write.

The current and former officials — a group including some of the “progressive prosecutors” who won district attorney jobs after campaigning for criminal justice reforms — note that they include a mix of people who support and oppose the death penalty. Rather than calling for an end to capital punishment, they ask for “a comprehensive review of the system” before any federal executions can occur.  “It’s too big a risk and there’s nothing to be gained,” Jim Petro, a Republican and a former Ohio attorney general who signed the letter, said in an interview....

In the letter signed by murder victims’ relatives, they argue that the death penalty “exacerbates the trauma of losing a loved one,” wastes money, does not deter crime and, due to the lengthy appeals process that keeps the cases going, delays the healing process.  Gail Rice — whose brother, Bruce VanderJagt, was a Denver police officer slain in 1997 by a man who killed himself — said she became an active death-penalty opponent after his death. Rice, who signed the letter to Trump and Barr, said her years working in prison and jail ministries showed her that justice is not fairly administered. “I’ll be praying for them,” she said of relatives of victims in the cases that led to the scheduled federal executions. “I would certainly tell them … please don’t listen to judges or prosecutors or legislators that are going to tell you this is wonderful, it brings closure, it brings healing. Because believe me, it doesn’t.”

The message in the letter from victims’ relatives echoes a plea from Earlene Peterson, who has separately asked the Trump administration not to kill Daniel Lewis Lee, the first federal inmate scheduled to be executed.  The Justice Department said Lee killed a family of three, among them an 8-year-old-girl and her mother — Sarah Powell and Nancy Mueller, Peterson’s granddaughter and daughter.  “I can’t see how executing Daniel Lee will honor my daughter in any way,” Peterson said in a video statement released last month. Peterson, noting that she voted for Trump and plans to do so again, said she wants the president to know: “I don’t want this to happen.”

November 12, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Why are bureaucrats undermining the president on criminal justice?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this notable new Hill commentary authored by Holly Harris.  The piece laments developments, previously reported here and here, relating to the implementation of one part of the FIRST STEP Act.  Here is are excerpts:

Justice Department bureaucrats have been quietly working to undermine President Trump and Congress by obstructing federal criminal justice reforms.  It is not surprising, and it is not the first time.  But it is a shame....

The Justice Department, according to various reports, is inexplicably spending taxpayer resources trying to find ways of bringing some of the prisoners released under the First Step Act back into federal custody.  An investigation by Reuters found dozens of instances in which the Justice Department argued against releasing these prisoners early, usually basing their new cases on some technicality like “the total amount of drugs that were found to be involved during the investigation, rather than the often smaller or more vague amount laid out in the law they violated years ago.”

It is no secret that the Justice Department zealously opposed the First Step Act, but I remained hopeful when its officials promised to fully and faithfully implement the law.  I applauded when they had issued progress reports on each of the provisions of the First Step Act.  But never once in these reports nor anywhere else did the Justice Department publicly disclose their plan to direct prosecutors to oppose release petitions.

Fortunately, most of those attempts to keep these individuals behind bars, or to reincarcerate them after the fact, have been struck down by federal judges.  But that is not stopping obstructionists within Justice Department ranks from continuing to thwart the will of President Trump, the will of Congress, and the will of the people to implement the First Step Act.

The Justice Department has long acted on an island, separate from the administration and accountable to no one.  The surreptitious obstruction of First Step is just the latest in a long line of unilateral actions aimed at undermining badly needed reforms to our broken criminal justice system.  Others questionable federal actions include reopening for profit prisons, directing prosecutors to charge all defendants with the highest provable offenses, and eliminating the investigations of police departments that repeatedly violate the civil rights of those they are sworn to protect.

Predictably, the latest obstruction of the popular First Step Act is not sitting well with leaders on both sides of the aisle. Democratic Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois told Reuters, “The notion that the Department of Justice is just going to keep nagging at them and appealing these cases is not what we have ever had in mind.”  Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah likewise told the Washington Post, “It would be a shame if the people working under the president failed to implement the bill as written.”...

In the face of this obstruction, Congress may finally be willing to push back hard against Justice Department attempts to act as a fourth branch of government.  Too many are invested in the success of the First Step Act to overlook attempts to undermine it.  I urge the leaders in the House and Senate to vigorously exercise their oversight authority over an institution that has operated on an island for far too long, and ensure that their own groundbreaking efforts to restore some justice to a broken system is not thwarted by the very officials who pledged to faithfully implement it.

Prior related posts:

November 12, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 11, 2019

"Disaggregating Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Doctrine: Four Forms of Constitutional Ineffectiveness"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Eve Brensike Primus now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

For years, experts have blamed Strickland v. Washington’s lax standard for assessing trial attorney effectiveness for many of the criminal justice system’s problems.  But the conventional understanding of Strickland as a problem for ineffectiveness claims gives Strickland too much prominence, because it treats Strickland as the test for all such claims. That is a mistake.  Properly understood, the Supreme Court has recognized four different constitutional forms of trial attorney ineffectiveness, and Strickland’s two-pronged test applies to only one of the four.  If litigants and courts would notice the complexity and relegate Strickland to its proper place, it would pave the way for meritorious ineffectiveness claims of the other three kinds.  This Article disaggregates strands of Sixth Amendment doctrine that others have jumbled together so as to enable courts and litigants to confine Strickland to its proper domain and use more appropriate analyses elsewhere.

The Article also explains why additional disaggregation is necessary within the category of cases where Strickland rightly applies.  Implicitly, the Supreme Court has created not one but three tests for assessing deficient performance within that domain, and it has indicated a willingness to soften the outcome-determinative prejudice prong as well.  Failure to recognize these different forms of Strickland ineffectiveness has made the test seem much harder for defendants to satisfy than needs to be true.  Recognizing these complexities, and applying the right test in the right case, is necessary if individual defendants are to be treated fairly and systemic constitutional problems in the provision of indigent defense services are to be addressed.

November 11, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 08, 2019

Spotlighting again how the Justice Department is resisting broad applicability of certain FIRST STEP Act provisions

In this post from July, I noted this Reuters article on some of the court skirmishes over the crack sentencing retroactivity provisions of the FIRST STEP Act.  That piece carried this headline: "As new U.S. law frees inmates, prosecutors seek to lock some back up."  Now the Washington Post has this lengthy piece in a similar vein under this headline: "Trump boasts that his landmark law is freeing these inmates. His Justice Department wants them to stay in prison." I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

The gathering in April was a triumphant celebration of the First Step Act, the most sweeping overhaul of the federal criminal justice system in a generation. Since its passage nearly a year ago, the law has led to the release of more than 3,000 inmates — including [Gregory] Allen, who was convicted of cocaine trafficking in 2001.

The Justice Department, though, had never wanted to let Allen out of prison. In fact, even as he and Trump shared a joyous embrace on television, federal prosecutors were trying to persuade a judge to put Allen back behind bars.

The president has repeatedly pointed to the First Step Act as one of his administration’s chief bipartisan achievements and one for which he is personally responsible. But cases like Allen’s expose a striking rift between the White House allies who supported the law and the Justice Department officials now working to limit the number of inmates who might benefit from it.

“DOJ is pushing against the will of the people, the will of Congress, the will of the president,” said Holly Harris, a conservative activist and leader of the Justice Action Network who worked with Congress and the White House to pass the law. Harris noted that, before the law’s passage, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions was a vocal critic of reducing prison sentences. His successor, William P. Barr, expressed similar reservations before his appointment.

The First Step Act aims to lessen long-standing disparities in punishment for nonviolent drug offenses involving crack cocaine. Having five grams of crack, a form of cocaine that is more common among black drug users, used to carry the same mandatory minimum sentence as having 500 grams of powder cocaine, which is more common among white drug users.

But federal prosecutors are arguing in hundreds of cases that inmates who have applied for this type of relief are ineligible, according to a review of court records and interviews with defense attorneys. In at least half a dozen cases, prosecutors are seeking to reincarcerate offenders who have been released under the First Step Act.

The department has told federal prosecutors that when determining whether to challenge an application for early release, they should consider not the amount of crack an inmate was convicted of having or trafficking — but rather the amount that court records suggest they may have actually had, which is often much larger.

A Justice spokesman, Wyn Hornbuckle, defended that interpretation, though he declined to discuss the department’s guidance to prosecutors or to say when it was disseminated. He did not respond to questions about the split between the department and the White House allies who pushed for the law. Hornbuckle said that in years past, prosecutors could secure lengthy prison sentences without having to prove an offender had large amounts of drugs. Under today’s laws, he said, those same offenders would probably be charged with crimes involving larger quantities. “The government’s position is that the text of the statute requires courts to look at the quantity of crack that was part of the actual crime,” Hornbuckle said. “This is a fairness issue.”

In the vast majority of cases reviewed by The Washington Post, judges have disagreed with the Justice Department’s interpretation. Some of the people involved in writing the legislation also disagree, including Brett Tolman, a former U.S. attorney in Utah. He and other supporters of the law note that the text of the legislation does not explicitly instruct courts to consider the actual amount of crack an offender allegedly had. “This is not a faithful implementation of this part of the First Step Act,” said Tolman, who was appointed by President George W. Bush. “At some point, they figured out a way to come back and argue that it wouldn’t apply to as many people.”

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, accused the Justice Department at a congressional hearing last month of “trying to sabotage” the law by interpreting it in this way. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, a key Republican sponsor of the law, declined to comment on the department’s stance on inmate eligibility but told The Post he had concerns about how other aspects of the law are being implemented. “It would be a shame if the people working under the President failed to implement the bill as written,” Lee said in a recent statement to The Post....

“The people that did the deal, including President Trump, wanted to help guys like me,” said Allen, 49, whose case was mentioned in a Reuters story in July about efforts by some prosecutors to clamp down on First Step Act relief. “But on the flip side, you have federal prosecutors who wake up every day trying to keep guys like me locked up.”...

The First Step Act was championed by a bipartisan coalition that spanned the political spectrum, from the conservative megadonor Koch brothers toracial-justice activist Van Jones. The legislation forbids federal jailers from shackling pregnant inmates and grants judges new powers to free sick and elderly prisoners. One of the most consequential parts of the law was the provision allowing federal inmates such as Allen to apply for early release. The mandatory sentencing policies those offenders faced are among the factors that have led the United States to incarcerate more people than any other nation, experts say....

Trump has made criminal justice reform a chief talking point in recent months, and several of his advisers — including Kushner — believe it could play an important role in his reelection bid, said Doug Deason, a prominent donor to the Trump campaign. A senior campaign official added that the Trump campaign plans to tout the First Step Act in the hopes of attracting black voters in key states such as North Carolina and Florida.

The legislation has earned Trump goodwill from unlikely corners, something he craves amid an impeachment inquiry. Last week, he beamed onstage in Columbia, S.C., as he was presented with an award from a bipartisan advocacy group of black elected officials. “I told him, ‘You ought to go and get that award,’” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said in an interview. “There ain’t many people giving you an award these days.”

Backstage, Trump talked up the idea of another such law, asking Steve Benjamin, the city’s mayor, whether he should call it the Second Step Act, the mayor recalled. Yet even as Trump toasts himself for the legislative victory, defense attorneys and advocates are frustrated that the White House is not doing more to ensure that the law is implemented as intended.

“The irony of this administration working against itself is mind-boggling,” said Brittany Barnett, a defense attorney who has worked on several of the First Step Act cases championed by Kardashian. “Especially with lives on the line.”

In the weeks after the bill became law, many federal prosecutors allowed inmate petitions for early release to go unchallenged. Then, at the direction of officials in Washington, prosecutors began to reverse course, court records show. In March, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Bockhorst asked federal judges in West Virginia to place a hold on more than two dozen applications for relief — some of which she had not previously opposed. She wrote that she expected to oppose at least some of those applications based on new guidance from the Justice Department.

In a brief phone interview, Bockhorst said the government shutdown that began soon after the bill passed and lasted until late January delayed the guidance from Washington. “We didn’t have the benefit of any kind of coordinated position,” she said. Similar reversals took place in New York, where prosecutors agreed in April that certain inmates were eligible — only to change their position in May. In one case, a judge found the reversal striking enough to ask what prompted it.

Prior related post:

November 8, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, November 07, 2019

"Taking a second look at life imprisonment"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Boston Globe commentary authored by Nancy Gertner and Marc Mauer. Here are excerpts:

While there has been a great deal of attention in recent years to the impact of the drug war on growing prison populations, in fact, the main drivers of the prison system now are excessive sentences for violent offenses.

The statistics are troubling.  There are as many individuals [in Massachusetts] serving life sentences as the entire state prison population in 1970, and more than half are black or Latino. Of the 2,000 lifers in the state, about half are not eligible for parole.  Barring executive clemency, they will die in prison after spending decades behind bars.

Since 90 percent of lifers nationally have been convicted of serious violent crimes, supporters of lifelong incarceration argue that incapacitating such people is an effective crime-control mechanism.  In fact, it is the opposite: It is counterproductive for public safety.

Criminologists know that individuals “age out” of crime.  Any parent of a teenager understands that misbehavior, often serious, is all too common at this stage.  FBI arrest data show that the rate of arrest for teenage boys rises sharply from the mid-teen years through the early 20s but then declines significantly. Arrests for robbery, for example, peak at age 19 but decline by more than half by age 30 and by three-quarters by age 40. The same is true for other violent crimes.

The reason is clear.  As teenage boys enter their 20s, they lose their impulsivity, get jobs, find life partners, form families, and generally take on adult roles.  Violent behavior becomes less attractive.

For public safety purposes incarcerating people past age 40 produces diminishing returns for crime control; less and less crime is prevented by incapacitation each year.  This impact is magnified by resource tradeoffs.  National estimates for the cost of incarcerating an elderly person are at least $60,000 a year, in large part due to the need for health care.  With finite public safety resources, these costs are not available to invest in family and community support for the new cohort of teenagers, for whom proactive initiatives could lower the risk of antisocial behavior.

Legislation introduced by Representative Jay Livingstone of Boston and Senator Joe Boncore of Winthrop, along with 34 cosponsors, would help to ameliorate this problem in Massachusetts.  Under the bill’s “second look” provision, individuals serving life without parole would be eligible for a parole review after serving 25 years....

Recently, there has been a bipartisan critique of the effects of mass incarceration, particularly on low-income communities of color.  State policy makers across the country are exploring ways to reduce excessive prison populations without adverse effects on public safety.  The proposed “second look” provision offers one significant alternative.  It should be passed.

November 7, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Very different looks on criminal justice reform for governors in Oklahoma and New York

As spotlighted in prior posts here and here and here, Oklahoma this week saw a series of interesting and important criminal justice reform efforts culminate in the release of more than 400 prisoners as part of the largest mass commutation in U.S. history (details here).  Thanks to Twitter, I saw this video clip of persons being released from the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center.  Notably, in addition to being greeted by friends and families, the released individuals also saw Governor Kevin Stitt and First Lady Sarah Stitt awaiting their release to congratulate them.

Not long after I saw this video and the heartening involvement of Oklahoma Governor Stitt in this historic criminal justice reform story, I saw this press article discussing the disheartening work of New York Governor Cuomo is a much more discouraging criminal justice story.  The piece is headlined "Gov. Cuomo's Program for More Clemency Applications Appears to Stall, As Prisoners Wait and Hope for a Second Chance," and here are excerpts:

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s program to help more prisoners apply for clemency in New York State appears to be stalled and the Governor’s office is declining to explain why.

In 2017, Cuomo asked lawyers to volunteer to help identify prisoners worthy of his mercy, and assist them in making their best case for a shortened sentence. More than two hundred lawyers stepped up. But two years and thousands of pro bono hours later, Governor Cuomo has neither approved nor denied any of the 107 clemency applications filed through the program.

“It’s discouraging. We’ve put a lot of resources into it.” said Norman Reimer, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which partnered with Families Against Mandatory Minimums and the State at the Governor’s request. “We put people away for ridiculous amounts of time, often for mistakes they made when they were very young,” Reimer added.

Lawyers involved in the NACDL/FAMM project tell News 4 because there has been no action in these cases, they are reluctant to take on new prisoners. More than 1,600 prisoners are currently waiting to be assigned attorneys through the project. “The idea that you can’t find a single one of those to grant is inconceivable to me. There’s just no greater feeling than giving somebody freedom,” said NYU Law Professor Rachel Barkow and author of "Prisoners of Politics."

The power to commute a prisoner’s sentence rests solely with the Governor. NACDL says the Cuomo administration has been highly cooperative, producing records and helping to vet cases.

Cuomo administration insiders familiar with the clemency review process say the problem is not that these cases are being ignored. Sources with first hand knowledge say the cases submitted by NACDL/FAMM were carefully reviewed by a team of attorneys inside the office of the Counsel to the Governor. They say the team identified a group of worthy candidates for a possible mid-year clemency grant this past Spring, but the Governor did not act.

Timing, they speculated, may have played a role, citing pushback from some law enforcement groups for Cuomo’s role in the early release of Judith Clark in May 2019. Clark was the getaway driver in the deadly 1981 Brink’s robbery and the Governor commuted her sentence to make her eligible for early parole. One person who has discussed the project at length with the Governor’s senior staff described a sense that politically speaking, “the bang was not worth the buck.”

Several sources familiar with the internal review process say the Governor’s office may have been taken aback by the large number of applications lawyers submitted on behalf of prisoners who committed violent felonies. These cases are more politically sensitive for a governor, because it is not uncommon for district attorneys, law enforcement groups and family members of victims to oppose early release.

But Norman Reimer says if the severity of the crimes is the reason for Cuomo’s inaction, that’s not how the governor’s office promised to approach this process. “What I like about Governor Cuomo’s initiative is he didn’t limit it based on the nature of the crime," said Reimer. "We pressed that issue and it was an affirmative decision by them to let the person’s record of rehabilitation speak the loudest, even in violent crimes.”

Governor Cuomo’s office did not respond to repeated requests for an explanation for his inaction on the NACDL/FAMM cases, nor for a breakdown of the clemency grants he has issued. According to public reports, Cuomo has commuted at least 18 sentences in almost nine years, including three in 2018.

Barkow says compared with some other Democratic governors, Cuomo has used his executive clemency powers sparingly. Gavin Newsom of California commuted the sentences of 23 prisoners since September of this year, including prisoners involved in violent felonies....

In last year's primary, the progressive wing of the Democratic party hammered Cuomo for what they considered insufficient criminal justice reforms. “The people who care about these issues want to see real results,” said Professor Barkow. “They want to see that people are walking the walk and not just kind of throwing talk out there.” As for Cuomo’s record on justice issues like clemency and marijuana legalization, Barkow added “It seems like the pattern is to wait and just make sure where the political winds are blowing.”

November 5, 2019 in Clemency and Pardons, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 04, 2019

"Experimental Punishments"

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

The Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause prohibits, under its original meaning, punishments that are unjustly harsh in light of longstanding prior practice.  The Clause does not prohibit all new punishments; rather, it directs that when a new punishment is introduced it should be compared to traditional punishments that enjoy long usage.  This standard presents a challenge when the government introduces a new method of punishment, particularly one that is advertised as more “progressive” or “humane” than those it replaces.  It may not always be obvious, for example, how to compare a prison sentence to a public flogging, or death by lethal injection to death by hanging. When the new method of punishment is introduced, it is often an experimental punishment whose constitutional status is not immediately clear.

This Article shows how usage over time clarifies the constitutional status of experimental punishments by revealing two types of data that may not be available at the time the punishment is adopted.  First, the degree of stable reception the punishment achieves over time indicates whether society has accepted the punishment as consistent with the overall tradition.  The Eighth Amendment is premised on the idea that long usage is the most reliable method of determining what is cruel and what is not.  The longer a practice is used, and the more universally it is received, the more likely it is to comport with the demands of justice.  On the other hand, failure to achieve long usage may be powerful evidence that a punishment is cruel.  Second, usage over time can reveal more clearly how harsh the effects of the punishment are in comparison to traditional punishments. Innovations in punishment such as long-term solitary confinement, involuntary sterilization, and three-drug lethal injection all appeared “progressive” and “humane” when first adopted, but usage over time has shown their effects to be unjustly harsh in comparison with the practices they have replaced.

November 4, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 03, 2019

Giving Oklahoma its criminal justice reform due

Regular readers will not be surprised to hear more about red-state Oklahoma's interesting and important criminal justice reform efforts, as I have tried to highlight here repeatedly the more-than-okay news from the OK state.  But with record-setting clemency developments (first noted here), the mainstream media is catching up as evidence by these recent pieces:

From the Boston Globe, "What a conservative state can teach us about progressive criminal justice reform"

From US News, "Oklahoma Focuses on Criminal Justice Reform"

From the Washington Post, "Oklahoma approves largest single-day commutation in U.S. history"

UPDATE: Here are a few more new pieces from the national media:

From CNN, "462 Oklahoma inmates will be released today in the largest commutation in US history"

From USA Today, "Hundreds of Oklahoma inmates to be freed, the largest mass release in US history"

November 3, 2019 in Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, November 01, 2019

"The Decline of the Judicial Override"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper now on SSRN authored by Michael Radelet and G. Ben Cohen.  Here is its abstract:

Since 1972, the Supreme Court has experimented with regulation of the death penalty, seeking the illusive goals of consistency, reliability, and fairness.  In this century, the court held that the Sixth Amendment prohibited judges from making findings necessary to impose a death sentence.  Separately, the court held that the Eighth Amendment safeguarded evolving standards of decency as measured by national consensus.

In this article, we discuss the role of judges in death determinations, identifying jurisdictions that initially (post 1972) allowed judge sentencing and naming the individuals who today remain under judge-imposed death sentences.  The decisions guaranteeing a jury determination have so far been applied only to cases that have not undergone initial review in state courts.  Key questions remain unresolved, including whether the evolving standards of decency permit the execution of more than 100 individuals who were condemned to death by judges without a jury's death verdict before implementation of the rules that now require unanimous jury votes.

November 1, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Rounding up some death penalty news and notes

In order to cover a number of notable death penalty stories of late, I will resort here to a round up of headlines and links.  As always, I welcome reader feedback on whether some of these pieces (or others in this arena) merit additional attention:

From the AP, "Georgia Supreme Court temporarily halts man’s execution"

From the AP, "2 more Ohio executions delayed amid lack of lethal drugs"

From The Appeal, "Using Nitrogen Gas For Executions Is Untested And Poorly Understood. Three States Plan To Do It Anyway."

From The Conversation, "The death penalty is getting more and more expensive. Is it worth it?"

From the Death Penalty Information Center, "More Than 250 Conservative Leaders Join Call to End Death Penalty"

From the New York Times, "Before First Federal Execution in Years, Family of Victims Dissents"

UPDATE: A few more:

From The Crime Report, "Feds ‘Out of Touch’ on Death Penalty, says Conservative Leader"

From Mother Jones, "Trump Loves the Death Penalty. These Conservatives Don’t."

From NET, "No Scheduled Executions, But Courts Busy With Nebraska Death Penalty Issues"

October 31, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Federal court finds First Amendment violated by sheriff's plan to place signs of sex offender homes on Halloween

A helpful reader spotlighted a new notable federal court ruling dealing with one example of how some local law enforcement officials sometimes use the Halloween holiday to single out registered sex offenders.  This local newspaper story, headlined "Judge sides with sex offenders in ‘no trick-or-treating’ fight," reports on the basics:

A federal judge on Tuesday said a Georgia sheriff’s plan to post “no trick-or-treating” signs at sex offenders’ homes was unconstitutional.

The ruling comes after three registered sex offenders sued Butts County Sheriff Gary Long to stop his office from the practice, which began last year with deputies planting signs that urged Halloween revelers against stopping. Deputies put up some of the signs while others among the county’s 200 registered sex offenders were told to display one themselves or face unspecified trouble, according to the complaint.

U.S. District Court Judge Marc T. Treadwell’s order applies only to the three plaintiffs, meaning it wouldn’t stop the sheriff’s office from placing signs at other registered sex offenders’ homes. But the judge said Long’s legal authority to place the signs was “dubious at best.”

The sheriff disagreed with the ruling but said he’d abide by it. He said he had deputies put the signs up last year because a popular trick-or-treating event on the square in downtown Jackson was cancelled, leading to an increase in door-to-door visits.

“While the vast majority of us may disagree with the Judge’s ruling, I strongly encourage you to NOT take matters into your own hands this Halloween,” Long wrote on Facebook. “Unfortunately, there is no time to appeal before this Halloween.”

Treadwell said the three men who sued are “by all accounts” rehabilitated and living law-abiding lives.“Yet their Sheriff finds it necessary to post signs in front of their homes announcing to the public that their homes are dangerous for children,” the judge wrote. “The Sheriff’s decision is not based on any determination that the Plaintiffs are dangerous. Nor is the Sheriff’s sign-posting founded on Georgia law.”

The sheriff’s plan to place the signs “run afoul” of the First Amendment because it compels the men to display the message even though they disagree with it. The sheriff said he’d sought legal advice in 2018 before placing the signs and believed it was appropriate.

The full 25-page ruling is available at this link, and here is its introduction:

The Plaintiffs are sex offenders. That is because many years ago they committed offenses that fall within the State of Georgia’s definition of sex offenses.  Since then, they have served their terms of imprisonment and have, as far as the law is concerned, paid their debts to society.  But because they have been classified as sex offenders, they remain subject to Georgia’s lifelong requirement that they register with their local sheriff. But by all accounts, they are rehabilitated.  They live productive, lawabiding lives.  Two of the named Plaintiffs live with their parents; one has a six-year-old daughter living with him.  The State of Georgia, under its system for classifying sex offenders, has not determined that they pose an increased risk of again committing a sexual offense.

Yet their Sheriff finds it necessary to post signs in front of their homes announcing to the public that their homes are dangerous for children.  The Sheriff’s decision is not based on any determination that the Plaintiffs are dangerous. Nor is the Sheriff’s sign-posting founded on Georgia law.  Rather, the Sheriff’s decision is based solely on the fact that the Plaintiffs’ names remain on Georgia’s registry of sex offenders.  Further, Sheriff Long plans, as he has in the past, to ban the Plaintiffs from expressing their disagreement with the signs and the message the signs convey.

The Plaintiffs object and seek relief from this Court.  The question the Court must answer is not whether Sheriff Long’s plan is wise or moral, or whether it makes penological sense.  Rather, the question is whether Sheriff Long’s plan runs afoul of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.  It does.

October 31, 2019 in Collateral consequences, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, October 28, 2019

Upon SCOTUS remand, Indiana Supreme Court remand Timbs after setting out excessiveness standards

In Timbs v. Indiana, the US Supreme Court unanimously held that the Eighth Amendment's Excessive Fines Clause applies to the states, but then remanded the case back to the Indiana courts to figure out just how that Clause should apply in Tyson Timbs' case.  Today, the Indiana Supreme Court issued this opinion in which it further remands the case to the state trial court with the help of a lengthy opinion explaining its approach to the Clause.  Here is how the opinion starts and concludes:

Civil forfeiture of property is a powerful law-enforcement tool.  It can be punitive and profitable: punitive for those whose property is confiscated; and profitable for the government, which takes ownership of the property.

When a civil forfeiture is even partly punitive, it implicates the Eighth Amendment’s protection against excessive fines. And since that safeguard applies to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, we now face two questions left open by the Supreme Court of the United States.  First, how should courts determine whether a punitive, in rem forfeiture is an excessive fine? And second, would forfeiture of Tyson Timbs’s vehicle be an excessive fine?

We answer the first question with an analytical framework similar to those of almost all courts to have addressed the issue.  For the second question, we remand for the trial court to determine, based on that framework, whether Timbs has cleared the hurdle of establishing gross disproportionality, entitling him to relief....

Conclusion

Over twenty-five years ago, the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously held that in rem forfeitures can be punitive and, thus, fines subject to the Eighth Amendment’s excessiveness limitation.  It left to lower courts the task of establishing the appropriate measure of excessiveness — a task that we take up today.

We accordingly hold that a use-based in rem fine is excessive if (1) the property was not an instrumentality of the underlying crimes, or (2) the property was an instrumentality, but the harshness of the punishment would be grossly disproportional to the gravity of the underlying offenses and the owner’s culpability for the property’s misuse.

Here, Timbs’s Land Rover was an instrumentality of the underlying offense of drug dealing.  But we remand for the trial court to answer the question of gross disproportionality based on the framework we set out.

October 28, 2019 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Retroactive application of Oklahoma sentencing reforms sets up record-setting day for commutations

This recent article from Oklahoma, headlined "‘Largest single-day commutation in nation’s history’ expected to take place in Oklahoma next month," reports on a notable example of an interesting process being used to make a criminal justice reform initiative retroactive in the Sooner state.  Here are the basic details:

More than 400 Oklahoma prison inmates are expected to pass through an “expedited” commutation process on Nov. 1, a number believed to be the largest one-day total in United States history, Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board Executive Director Steve Bickley said.

The accelerated process is thanks to House Bill 1269, a bi-partisan bill which was passed this summer and made retroactive a number of criminal justice reforms that reclassified some drug and property crimes.

The new law goes into effect Nov. 1 and the Pardon and Parole Board is holding a special meeting that day where it will review nearly 900 inmates the law makes eligible for the expedited docket. “All the research I’ve done, this will be the largest single-day commutation in the nation’s history,” Bickley said....

The Nov. 1 hearing differs from the normal commutation process in a number of ways, Bickley said. Rather than the typical two-step process that often takes several months, the hearing is expected to take less than an hour. “It’s definitely going to be a much faster up-and-down process,” he said. Inmates who pass through the expedited process are expected to be released from prison in November.

Gov. Kevin Stitt, in a statement, offered praise for the entities preparing for the large number of commutations. “I applaud the hard work of the Pardon and Parole board and the staff as they prepare for this historic day. The board is wisely implementing a thorough process to ensure their actions on Nov. 1 reflect the intentions of Oklahomans who voted for State Question 780, while also prioritizing the safety of our communities. The Department of Corrections has also been a committed partner in putting people first in this process by hosting transition fairs inside state prisons to connect non-violent offenders with the resources they need to succeed when they re-enter society.”

When State Question 780 was made into law in 2016, it made possession of “personal use” amounts of most drugs a misdemeanor and upped the felony threshold for property crimes from $500 to $1,000.  But it wasn’t until the passage of HB 1269 earlier this year that those changes were made potentially retroactive for those still in prison for those crimes.

The new law mandates that, rather than strict retroactivity, the Pardon and Parole Board must decide which inmates affected by HB 1269 get an accelerated commutation and which inmates must go through the standard commutation process, Bickley said.

There are two dockets on Nov. 1, one for 793 inmates on the “drug possession” docket and one for 99 inmates on the “property crime” docket. Everyone on those two dockets is technically eligible for accelerated commutation, though the list will be whittled down extensively, Bickley said.

First, there are a number of inmates on the two lists who will not be recommended for accelerated commutation due to misconduct while in prison. Bickley said some inmates on the lists were involved in the events that led to the recent lockdowns at a number of state prisons, and those inmates would not receive recommendations. Additionally, district attorneys across the state can file challenges to specific commutations that may affect whether an inmate gets a recommendation, Bickley said, and as of Wednesday the Pardon and Parole Board had heard from only three of the more than 20 district attorneys across Oklahoma.

“And of course you could have some who receive recommendations and are signed off on by the governor, but they have additional sentences to serve or a detainer by another agency who will not be able to leave prison due to those factors,” Bickley said. Still, he expects “more than 400 and less than 500” inmates to be granted commutations by the end of the hearing, he said.

October 26, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Many Colorado sentences now uncertain after court ruling precluding imposition of imprisonment for certain offenses and probation for others

A helpful reader alerted me to this interesting story from the Denver Post headlined "Hundreds of prisoners can seek new trials, freedom after Colorado Supreme Court rules sentences illegal." Here are the details of a shock being sent through the state's criminal justice system:

The Colorado Supreme Court has ruled the sentences of hundreds — perhaps thousands — of criminal defendants serving time in Colorado prisons, some for violent sexual crimes, are illegal, giving many of them a renewed shot at freedom.

The court last month stunned the state’s judicial system when it ruled that defendants cannot be sentenced to both prison and probation for charges in the same case, deeming the sentences illegal and unenforceable.  The ruling applies to any defendant sentenced to prison followed by a probation term, and gives each the right to force prosecutors to start over.  Those already out of prison theoretically could request their plea deal be overturned, legal experts said.

“This is going to result in a ton of litigation,” defense attorney Scott Robinson said. “This appears clearly to go against what many defense lawyers and prosecutors have assumed to be true for years, that different types of sentences can be imposed on different charges in the same case.”

Prosecutors in at least four judicial jurisdictions, including Denver, have relied on the dual sentence as part of the plea agreement process, mostly for sex crimes where a defendant could be sentenced to an indeterminant number of years in prison and authorities wanted to ensure lifetime supervision should the defendant be released.

“My biggest concerns are that we can no longer do this and what do we do with those we’ve already done it to? What if they’re already in prison? Are they all released?” asked Mesa County District Attorney Daniel Rubinstein.  “If the sentence is invalidated, we could be back at square one, or worse.”

The high court’s decision is based on a 2014 Boulder County case in which a jury found Frederick Allman, 67, guilty of various theft and forgery crimes.  He was sentenced to 15 years in prison and a 10-year probation term that was to be concurrent with the parole he’d serve upon his release.  The Supreme Court, in a 7-0 decision, said the 2015 sentence by District Judge Andrew Macdonald was illegal.  [The decision is available at this link.]

“…The determination that probation is an appropriate sentence for a defendant necessarily requires a concordant determination that imprisonment is not appropriate,” Justice Brian Boatright wrote in the court’s opinion issued Sept. 23. “The probation statute gives courts guidance and discretion in choosing to grant probation.  However, it requires a choice between prison and probation. … The legislature intended to allow courts to choose only one or the other.  Probation is an alternative to prison.”

Attorney General Phil Weiser’s office has until Oct. 28 to file a petition for the court to re-hear the case.

The court’s decision primarily affects defendants who signed plea agreements, a number that could reach into the thousands as 95% of all criminal cases are settled with plea deals. Defendants convicted by a jury, as was Allman, would simply be resentenced since the jury verdict remains unchanged.

Prosecutors explain that a plea agreement would be handled differently than a guilty verdict because a defendant agreed to a specific outcome in exchange for the plea. Because the sentence is deemed illegal, defendants can rescind their original agreement. “If the sentence is invalidated, we would go back to reaffirm the plea agreement, or even start over,” Rubinstein said.

The Colorado District Attorney’s Council said a majority of the state’s 22 judicial districts won’t be affected, but at least four of them — 2nd (Denver), 18th (Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert, Lincoln), 20th (Boulder) and 21st (Mesa) — have used sentences that fit those under scrutiny.

Attorney Tom Carberry, who won an earlier appeal for a client with a similar illegal sentence, said he’s uncovered at least 56 other cases with illegal sentences, the majority of them sexual assaults.  Three others are drug cases and two involve economic crimes.  All are in Denver. “Each of these defendants has the right to a lawyer appointed at state expense,” Carberry said of the breath of the Supreme Court decision.  “That will run into the millions” of dollars.

Denver DA Beth McCann did not elaborate on the scope of the problem in her jurisdiction, but said she’d rather not have to find out.  “We are very supportive of the Colorado attorney general’s plan to ask the court to reconsider its decision,” McCann said in an emailed statement. “We are concerned that if the decision stands, it will significantly impact many cases that have already been resolved.”

Other prosecutors are also trying to determine what the decision will mean for them.  “This decision will have a significant impact, for offenders and victims,” Boulder District Attorney Michael Dougherty said in an emailed statement to The Post.  “A defendant could come back to court seeking a hearing to correct an illegal sentence, or file motions alleging ineffective assistance of counsel. For survivors of sexual assault, this decision will be particularly harmful because they thought the case was over and the outcome certain.”...

In the 18th Judicial District, hundreds of cases could be impacted, many of them involving children, some going back years, according to Chief Deputy District Attorney Chris Gallo, who heads the special victims unit that handles about 500 cases a year.  “For several years now, we’ve been pursuing resolutions where there were prison and probation components, trying to balance a punishment aspect and a longer supervisory aspect to the sentence,” Gallo said.  “I can’t even fathom the ultimate outcome of this decision, how many could be released, or its impact.  But more than half of our cases would be affected.”

Mesa County’s Rubinstein said although only about a half-dozen cases in his jurisdiction are affected, they are significant.  “The pleas would be invalidated, and it could be that a new offer is rejected,” Rubinstein said, noting prosecutors cannot change the terms of the agreement without beginning the case anew. “How does that work for a guy with five years in prison already.”  

Judges could theoretically say they’re not bound by the plea agreement and a defendant could take his chances with a new sentence, Rubinstein said. “(A judge) might think there’s been substantial time (in prison) and a judge won’t want to load up with additional punishment,” he said, “and the defendants might say they’ll take their chances with the judge.”  A good defense attorney, however, could find exploitable cracks, he said.  “They’ll look to see if the case is, perhaps, worse,” Rubinstein said.  “Witnesses move, they die, they don’t wish to participate. The chances of a trial could be better from their viewpoint.”

October 24, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Author and veteran (and bank robber) gets out of federal prison a few months earlier thanks to FIRST STEP Act and sound view of "extraordinary and compelling reasons"

Cherry1Regular readers are likely tired of my many posts about the provision of the FIRST STEP Act that now allows federal courts to directly reduce sentences under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) without awaiting a motion by the Bureau of Prisons.  But I am not close to tired of telling all the interesting stories of federal prisoners that now come to light via this provision, and this local press article reports on the latest interesting defendant to secure relief thanks to the FIRST STEP Act through this means.  The article is headlined, "Imprisoned Cleveland-area author moved to halfway house while production commences for movie adaption directed by Russo brothers," and here are the basics:

A federal judge on Thursday ordered a Cleveland-area native who wrote an acclaimed novel while in prison for a rash of bank robberies moved to a halfway house.

Nico Walker, 34, was arrested in 2011 for a series of robberies in Cleveland and the eastern suburbs. An Army veteran who served as a combat medic in Iraq, Walker suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues that led to drug abuse and the robberies, records show.

Senior U.S. District Judge Donald Nugent sentenced Walker, who hails from Hunting Valley, to 11 years in federal prison. He has spent most of his time at a facility in Ashland, Kentucky.

With Walker nearing the end of his prison sentence because of good time, he asked the judge to allow him to move into a Mississippi halfway house. The judge agreed to do so following a hearing Thursday, moving Walker’s re-entry program start date up from Dec. 10.

Walker wrote the semi-autobiographical novel “Cherry” while he was in prison. The book details the life of an Army medic with post-traumatic stress disorder who robs banks to support his opioid addiction. The book, based in Cleveland, is being made into a movie directed by native sons and “Avengers” directors Anthony and Joe Russo. Tom Holland, who plays Spider-Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is set to star as the main character.

Because of this, Walker was given “an unusual and lucrative job opportunity” to work as an executive producer and assist in production of the movie being filmed in Cleveland, Nugent wrote in an order. However, Walker’s attorney Angelo Lonardo said his client turned down the job offer. Walker also has a contract to write a second book, Nugent wrote.

Nugent wrote that Walker also plans to care for his ailing mother, who is suffering from leukemia, Nugent wrote. The judge issued his order based on the First Step Act, a criminal justice bill President Donald Trump signed in December. Moving Walker to a halfway house and allowing him to occasionally travel to care for his mother “will address the extraordinary and compelling issues raised in his request” and ensure his re-entry will be successful and the community will be safe, the judge wrote.

Lonardo said his client had no disciplinary infractions while in prison. He said Walker taught reading and writing behind bars. “This is a big deal,” Lonardo said. “You want your guys to get out and to have a decent job, and this is an excellent opportunity for him.” He added that his client “has earned this.”

Judge Nugent's six page order is available at this link, and here I especially like how the opinion righly recognizes how a combination of factors can make the case for a sentence reduction:

Taking into consideration Mr. Walker?s history; the circumstances leading up to his crime; his acceptance of responsibility not just with regard to the conviction but as demonstrated through the meaningful use of his time in prison; the failing health of his mother; his extraordinary job opportunity and the good that would allow him to do for his family and his community; and, the minimum time left remaining on his sentence; the Court finds that Mr. Walker has provided sufficiently extraordinary and compelling reasons to justify an alteration of his current sentence.

Last but not least, anyone looking for more evidence of how extraordinary and compelling the story of Nico Walker is, consider checking out these recent press articles about his past and his book:

October 22, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Usual suspects playing usual roles in Malvo argument over juve LWOP sentencing

In recent SCOTUS history, Eighth Amendment cases in the Supreme Court tended to be pretty predictable with certain Justices as regular votes for defendants, others as regular votes for the state, and Justice Kennedy (and sometimes the Chief Justice) being the key swing voter.  But Justice Kennedy is now gone, and it appear from this SCOTUS review of the oral argument in Mathena v. Malvo that Justice Kennedy's replacement, Justice Kavanaugh, may be slipping into the swinger shoes:

Kavanaugh asked both Heytens and Spinelli about the broader question of how courts should approach sentencing of juveniles.  If Miller and Montgomery require the sentence to consider a defendant’s youth to determine whether he is incorrigible (and therefore should be sentenced to life in prison without parole) or instead simply immature (and therefore should have at least the possibility of parole), Kavanaugh asked, would that requirement be satisfied by a discretionary regime that includes the defendant’s youth among the factors that the sentence must consider or that allows the defense counsel to raise the issue?  That proposal seemed to draw support from an array of justices, including Kagan, Justice Sonia Sotomayor and perhaps even Chief Justice John Roberts.

Over at Crime & Consequences, Kent Scheidegger has this accounting of possible head-counting:

I'm sure Justice Kagan would like the Court to just accept Montgomery's recasting of Miller on its face and endorse an intrusive rule for federal micromanagement of juvenile LWOP sentencing, just like the monstrosity we have for capital sentencing.  I would be surprised if she has a majority for that.  I think Justice Alito (and probably Justice Thomas) would like to overrule Montgomery.  I doubt they have a majority for that.  Justice Gorsuch seems inclined to a narrow reading of Montgomery, though, because a broad one would implicate the Apprendi rule.

Justices Ginsburg and Breyer question the Virginia Supreme Court's holding that the Virginia system actually was discretionary at the time of Malvo's sentencing.  The Fourth Circuit assumed that was correct.  They could send the case back to reconsider that point.

With this many splits among the Justices, there is no predicting the outcome.

The full transcript of the argument is available at this link.

October 16, 2019 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Another LWOP federal drug sentence reduced under § 3582(c)(1)(A) after FIRST STEP Act

Regular readers may already be tired of many prior posts in which I have made much of a key provision of the FIRST STEP Act that now allows federal courts to directly reduce sentences under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) without awaiting a motion by the Bureau of Prisons.  But I continue to see value in highlighting developing jurisprudence under this provision largely because I think, if applied appropriately and robustly, this provision could and should enable many hundreds (and perhaps many thousands) of federal prisoners to have excessive prison sentences reduced.

Last week, I flagged in this post a notable recent ruling in US v. Brown, No. 4:05-CR-00227-1, 2019 WL 4942051 (S.D. Iowa Oct. 8, 2019), which rejected a § 3582(c)(1)(A) motion to reduce an extreme sentence for a federal drug offender.  Today, thanks to seeing this press report headlined "Judge in Oregon grants compassionate release for 76-year-old man serving life sentence for drug conspiracy," I can report on a successful § 3582(c)(1)(A) motion to reduce an extreme (LWOP) sentence for a federal drug offender.  The ruling US v. Soears, No. 3:98-cr-0208-SI-22, 2019 WL 5190877 (D. Ore. Oct. 15, 2019), is well described in the above-linked press piece:

A judge has ordered the release of a 76-year-old man who was sentenced to life and served nearly 21 years behind bars for running a large cocaine distribution ring, finding he meets the “extraordinary and compelling’’ reasons for compassionate release.

Despite objections from prosecutors, U.S. Judge Michael H. Simon found Adolph Spears Sr. suffers from potentially terminal health problems and is no longer a danger to the community. "In light of the age of Spears’ previous convictions, Spears’ age, and Spears’ physical and medical condition, the Court does not find that at this time Spears poses a significant risk to the community," Simon wrote in a 13-page opinion Tuesday.

The judge’s ruling is a direct result of changes to federal law from a criminal justice bill called the First Step Act, which passed late last year and allows federal courts to directly reduce sentences if an inmate meets the criteria for compassionate release....

Because of his medical problems, Spears was moved in May from the federal prison in Sheridan to the Butner Medical Facility in North Carolina. "While he has been at Butner, family members have made regular cross-country visits to see him, believing that each one may be the last," his defense lawyer Lisa Ludwig wrote to the court. "Allowing him to spend the time he has left being cared for by the family who loves him will be an act of compassion to Mr. Spears, but also to the family who cares so deeply for him."

Spears has multiple chronic serious medical ailments, a limited life expectancy and depends on a wheelchair to get around, according to one of his medical experts. He was diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer in June 2018. He also suffers from poorly controlled diabetes, cataracts, pain from spinal surgery, chronic kidney disease, limited mobility and difficulty swallowing. Three of his daughters, a daughter-in-law and granddaughters have offered to house Spears if he’s released and provide medical and financial support.

Spears submitted his release request to the prisons bureau on Sept. 13, the same day he filed a motion with the court. On Sept. 30, the prisons bureau denied Spears’ request, and said he could appeal or wait until 30 days after his initial request was made to file a motion with the court. The judge said he waited until Tuesday, more than 30 days after Spears made his request to the prisons bureau, to consider the motion.

The judge said Spears’ deteriorating physical health met the requirements for compassionate release, and said it appeared that the federal prisons bureau failed to consider anything beyond whether Spears had a terminal illness. The U.S. probation office, at the judge’s request, approved the home of one of Spears’ daughters for his release, finding her suitable as his caregiver.

Prosecutors had argued that Spears remains a danger, largely because he was convicted of a significant drug conspiracy and he possessed guns during his drug trafficking activities. He also previously was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and was sentenced to 25 years after he offered a man $500 to burn down an IRS agent’s house while he was being investigated in 1978 for tax evasion, according to court records.

Federal prosecutors argued that Spears’ age and medical condition don’t render him "so incapacitated" that he couldn’t resume his criminal conduct, pointing out he was leading a drug ring in his late 50s. Simon said he took into account Spears’ criminal history but noted that Spears’ most recent drug conviction is more than 19 years old and his last conviction for a crime of violence is more than 40 years old.

It’s unlikely Spears would have faced as serious a sentence today if convicted of the same conduct, Simon noted. He was convicted of distributing crack cocaine when sentences for such drug crimes were much higher and judges had less discretion, Simon wrote. Since then, Congress has made changes to avoid sentencing disparities in such drug cases. The judge said he’ll order new conditions for Spears’ release and a lifetime of federal supervision.

Some prior related posts on § 3582(c)(1)(A) after FIRST STEP Act:

October 16, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Rounding up some previews of SCOTUS consideration of DC sniper Lee Malvo's juve LWOP sentence

Tomorrow afternoon, the US Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Mathena v. Malvo, a case that calls upon the Justice to continue struggling with the application of the Eighth Amendment limits on LWOP sentences that was set out in Miller v. Alabama and given retroactive effect in Montgomery v. LouisianaThis SCOTUSblog page has links to all the briefing in this case and sets out this question presented as framed by the state of Virginia:

Whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit erred in concluding — in direct conflict with Virginia’s highest court and other courts — that a decision of the Supreme Court, Montgomery v. Louisiana, addressing whether a new constitutional rule announced in an earlier decision, Miller v. Alabama, applies retroactively on collateral review may properly be interpreted as modifying and substantively expanding the very rule whose retroactivity was in question.

The intricacies of this question presented highlights that the Justice could approach the Malvo case as a small technical matter only about the proper application of prior settled decisions.  But because the crimes of Lee Malvo were horrific and the rulings in Miller and Montgomery contentious, there are advocates who wonder and fear that certain Justices may be eager to use this case to cut back on the Court's recent Eighth Amendment jurisprudence.

I have seen a number of notable previews and commentary concerning the Malvo case, and here is a sampling:

October 15, 2019 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Will the Supreme Court Rein in 'Excessive Fines' and Forfeitures?: Don’t Rely on Timbs v. Indiana"

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

The Supreme Court’s decision in Timbs v. Indiana, 139 S. Ct. 682 (2019), last term buoyed the hopes of those who saw it as a powerful signal to states and municipalities to rein in excessive fines, fees, and forfeitures.  Yet, the Court seems disinclined to fill the term “proportionality” with robust meaning or wrestle with Eighth Amendment challenges to fines and fees.  Those steps would be required for the Excessive Fines Clause to function as an effective backstop against revenue-raising and increasingly abusive local and state practices.  In the end, state courts and state legislative changes may more likely address effectively the essential question of what is excessive and restrain criminal justice actors from imposing ever heavier financial burdens on those caught up in the system.

This article first sets out the Supreme Court’s decision in Timbs in light of the incorporation debate and prior case law in the area.  Next it turns to the underlying but unaddressed contours of “excessive” in the context of fines and forfeitures.  The article then provides a broader look at forfeiture, including the interplay between state and federal law enforcement in the area.  Finally, the piece addresses state and local fines and fees, which will now be subject to Eighth Amendment analysis.  The Court, however, rejected the first opportunity to take up such a challenge.  At least for now, litigants may be more successful in reining in abusive fines and forfeitures in state legislatures and state courts.

October 15, 2019 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Lots more cert denials and Rehaif GVRs in second SCOTUS order list of OT19

The Supreme Court this morning has released this relatively short order list, although the list of cases in which certiorari has been denied still runs about 10 pages.  The order list, like the one last week, starts with a list of cases in which "certiorari is granted, [t]he judgment is vacated, and the case is remanded" to the relevant Court of Appeals."  But all the Supreme Court's GVR work this week — six cases to be exact — relates to its mens rea ruling in Rehaif v. US, No. 17-9560 (S. Ct. June 21, 2019) (available here; discussed here).   In his Rehaif dissent, Justice Alito fretted that "great many convictions will be subject to challenge...."  Indeed.

October 15, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Deep dive into the deep human realities surrounding DC second look laws and policies

A helpful reader alerted me to this great extended article from the Washington City Paper about second look sentencing players and practices in DC. The piece, which I recommend in full, is headlined "How to End a Sentence: Juvenile sentencing reforms have sparked a face-off between the D.C. Council and U.S. Attorney over who should be released, and when."  Here are excerpts:

The [Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act] IRAA allows people who committed violent crimes before they turned 18 to ask a judge for a reduced sentence, as long as they’ve served at least 15 years. A D.C. Council bill introduced in February, the Second Look Amendment Act, would expand the law to include people who committed crimes before their 25th birthdays. An estimated 70 people have asked for a new sentence, and the bill could expand the number of eligible offenders to more than 500, the USAO believes.

This legislation comes as so-called “second look laws” are gaining momentum across the country and follow the precedent set by multiple U.S. Supreme Court rulings curtailing harsh sentences for juveniles. The high court’s decisions rely on a growing body of research showing brain development continues into a person’s mid-20s.

The Model Penal Code, a project of the American Law Institute that provides a template for criminal justice policy makers, suggests that offenders of all ages receive a second look after serving 15 years in prison. The latest version, revised in 2017, explains that America relies on the heavy use of lengthy prison sentences more than any other Western democracy. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, despite two decades of falling crime rates.

D.C. Superior Court Judge Ronna Beck agrees that long sentences deserve another look. “I wish there were an opportunity for judges to be able to review everyone’s sentence after a significant period of time,” Beck said during Flowers’ resentencing. “Many people will not qualify for the sentence reduction that you did, but I think that it would be beneficial to our system to be able to have a review like this so that when people have really transformed their lives, as you seem to have done, that there was an opportunity to adjust a sentence that was imposed many, many decades earlier.”

A majority of the D.C. Council supports the Second Look Amendment Act—as does Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration and Attorney General Karl Racine. But [Jessie] Liu, the Trump-appointed U.S. Attorney, is not a fan. Her office has encountered few IRAA petitions that it likes. Since the original law took effect in 2017, federal prosecutors, who have jurisdiction over felony crimes in D.C., have opposed nearly every request for resentencing.

They’ve argued that offenders are too dangerous to be released, their crimes are too heinous, they haven’t accepted responsibility for their crimes, their release undermines “truth in sentencing,” and that, although prison records showing a dedication to education are admirable, they are to be expected.

At a recent hearing for Mustafa Zulu, a man who spent 20 years in solitary confinement starting when he was 20, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jocelyn Bond argued that Zulu’s “very very impressive” list of educational courses and accomplishments does not outweigh his sins in and out of prison. “Education is not a panacea for violence,” Bond said. “It does not fix someone’s character … It doesn’t change someone’s underlying violent character.”

In September, as part of its campaign opposing the Second Look Amendment Act, the U.S. Attorney’s Office hosted a meeting for the public and a group of advisory neighborhood commissioners. Liu stood against the wall while representatives from her office made their case against the bill, emphasizing the impact on victims and concerns that the Council is expanding the law too quickly without sufficient evidence that those released won’t commit new crimes.

During the meeting, John Hill, a deputy chief and career prosecutor, cited data from the Bureau of Prisons showing a recidivism rate of about 35 percent among people released from 2009 to 2015 who would be eligible under the Second Look Amendment Act. Hill ignored City Paper’s request for the underlying data, and the USAO has refused to release it. Hill also presented incorrect data on D.C.’s incarceration rate, which the office later corrected in a tweet.

Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a senior researcher for The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization that promotes criminal justice reform, points out that the BOP’s definition of recidivism includes technical parole violations for missing a meeting or smoking weed. “A recidivism measure that separates these factors from new offenses gives people a better sense of public safety risk,” Ghandnoosh says.

Sarah McClellan, chief of the USAO’s victim witness assistance unit, explained at the September meeting that the new law reactivates trauma for victims and their families, many of whom have spoken passionately in opposition to offenders’ release.  At least two advisory neighborhood commissioners have published editorials opposing the second look bill, including Darrell Gaston, whose 15-year-old godson, Gerald Watson, was gunned down earlier this year. Malik Holston, 16, is charged with first-degree murder in Watson’s death.

October 12, 2019 in Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 11, 2019

Terrific ABA review of SCOTUS criminal work during Oct 2018 Term

Download (6)LawProf Rory Little regularly prepares for the American Bar Association an end-of-Term review of the Supreme Court's work in criminal cases.  A decade worth of this terrific work is available at this link, and just recently added there is this 48-page accounting of the October 2018 Term.  The whole document is terrific, and here is the start of the first section under the heading "Brief Overview of the 2018-19 Term, Criminal Cases" (emphasis in original):  

As far as criminal cases go, there are two “big stories” from the past Term, one descriptive and the other substantive impact of the Term’s “big” cases. Let’s do the descriptive first.

This was the first Term in which two new Justices appointed by President Trump served together. Justice Gorsuch was appointed at the end of the Term before last, so this was his second full Term. Justice Kavanaugh served almost all of this Term; his confirmation was slightly delayed (as you may recall), so he actually first took the bench on Monday, October 8, the second week of the Term.  Still, the big question was, how would these two new Justices affect the Court?

What we now know is that, contrary to the general picture of the prior Term, the Justices divided in a remarkably large number of different variations.  Overall, there were 67 argued cases, plus 5 summary reversals, for a total of 72. I count 26 of the 72 as “criminal law and related,” or 24 of the 67 argued.  Of the 72, there were 20 decisions decided by a 5-4 vote -- and of these, there were 10 different variations of which Justices made up the five. This is an unusually high number. It seems that the current Justices are still trying to find their way, and (happily) are not cemented to always-predictable results.  I count 10 of the 5-4 decisions as criminal; in five of those the “liberal” bloc prevailed. If we think of the four liberal Justices as Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan, the question becomes: who was the fifth Justice? Interestingly, it was Gorsuch in three, Roberts in one, and Alito in one. (Kavanaugh was not the fifth vote in any 5-4 liberal criminal win, but he did write the strong majority opinion in Flowers, see below, a pro-defendant Batson death penalty decision.)

Justice Gorsuch’s pro-defense votes in at least four cases (Davis and Haymond, plus dissents in Gamble and Mitchell) indicate that he continues the “libertarian” streak that his predecessor Justice Scalia sometimes exhibited.  At the same time, Justice Gorsuch’s majority opinion in Bucklew, a death penalty case in which he boldly wrote that “last-minute stays should be the extreme exception,” demonstrates a strong pro-government position on capital punishment. Interestingly, despite their common appointment source, Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh did not always agree (they had only a 56-70% overall agreement rate), and were on opposite sides in six or more criminal cases. Is there a lesson here? Wait and see, is my advice.

Substantively, because 23 of the 67 argued cases (or 25 of the 72 total) were criminal lawor-related decisions, we can see that over a third of the docket is “criminal.” This is about normal for the Supreme Court’s docket. With 25 criminal-and-related decisions, of which I’d say 17 were “pure criminal,” there is a lot to digest (as the following 38 pages demonstrate).  Only a few highlights can be summarized here.

What was the “biggest” criminal law decision of the Term?  Of course it depends on your interests, and perhaps your ideology.  Certainly the Gamble case, affirming the “separate sovereigns” exception to the Sixth Amendment’s Double Jeopardy Clause despite calls for overruling it, was big news.  Meanwhile, the Timbs decision makes it clear that the Eighth Amendment’s “no Excessive Fines” Clause applies fully to the States. (In a similar vein, next Term the Court will decide whether the Sixth Amendment’s unanimous jury requirement is similarly “incorporated,” in Ramos v. Louisiana). Meanwhile, the Fourth Amendment decision in Mitchell suggests that a majority is ready to broaden the concept of “exigent circumstances” as a categorical exception.  And finally, the Haymond decision extends Apprendi to the revocation of supervised release, which Justice Alito in dissent calls “revolutionary;” and the decision in Rehaif demonstrates a strong commitment to requiring mens rea for every factual element of an offense (in that case, knowledge that one belongs to a class of persons prohibited from possessing firearms).

October 11, 2019 in Recommended reading, Religion, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Another notable (but ultimately disappointing) ruling about sentence reductions under § 3582(c)(1)(A) after FIRST STEP Act

As regular readers know, in prior posts I have made much of a key provision of the FIRST STEP Act which now allows federal courts to directly reduce sentences under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) without awaiting a motion by the Bureau of Prisons.  I see this provision as such a big deal because I think, if applied appropriately and robustly, this provision could and should enable many hundreds (and perhaps many thousands) of federal prisoners to have excessive prison sentences reduced.

But in order for § 3582(c)(1)(A) to have a significant impact, federal judges will need to fully embrace and give full effect to their new authority to "reduce the term of imprisonment" whenever and wherever they find that "extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant such a reduction."  I have flagged here and here and here some notable examples of judges finding notable reasons sufficient to reduce a sentence.  But now I have to note a notable new ruling in which a notable judge seems to conclude there are "extraordinary and compelling reasons" to warrant a sentencing reduction, but then still decides not to grant a reduction for reasons that do not seem justified by the provisions of § 3582(c)(1)(A).

This new ruling comes in US v. Brown, No. 4:05-CR-00227-1, 2019 WL 4942051 (S.D. Iowa Oct. 8, 2019), and it is authored by Senior District Judge Robert Pratt.  Notably, Judge Pratt was the district judge in the Gall case who gave full effect to the Booker ruling and whose non-incarcerative decision there was ultimately vindicated by SCOTUS.  In this new Brown case, Judge Pratt writes an extended, thoughtful opinion about compassionate release and the changes to § 3582(c)(1)(A) brought by the FIRST STEP Act.  In so doing, Judge Pratt states that "much about Defendant's situation is extraordinary and compelling" and yet still "the Court concludes it cannot exercise its discretion to grant release at this time."

The Brown opinion explains the basis on which Daniel Brown claims his situation is "extraordinary and compelling": (a) his behavior for a dozen years in prison was "exemplary," (b) he "suffered a botched surgery while incarcerated" (though he can still care for himself in prison) (c) "his daughter is without a parent" (though an adult who cares for herself) and (d) "he faces a sentence far longer than he would ever receive under modern law."  This last point is a function of Brown having received an extra 300 months (25 years!) because of stacked 924(c) gun counts that would no longer stack now after the FIRST STEP Act.  On this point, Judge Pratt further notes that the judge who originally sentenced Brown "concluded the additional 300 months' imprisonment from the second § 924(c) count was 'far greater than was necessary to achieve the ends of justice'."  And for good measure, as Judge Pratt notes, Brown's "co-defendant, who eventually ran his own drug operation, was released in April 2018."

This all sure seems to me to be "extraordinary and compelling reasons [that] warrant a reduction" under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A), and Judge Pratt essentially says as much.  But, disappointingly, after making a strong factual record on Brown's behalf, Judge Pratt declines any reduction of Brown's original 510-month sentence with this reasoning: 

In this case, compassionate release nevertheless is premature because even if the First Step Act applied retroactively, Defendant would still be in prison.  With a lone § 924(c) count, Defendant still faced 210 months in prison.  ECF No. 118.  Even rounding up to the nearest month and including good conduct credits, Defendant has served 167 months. That is a long stretch by any measure, and perhaps more than appropriate for Defendant's crimes.  Regardless, because Defendant would still be in prison under modern law, any sentencing disparity created by § 924(c) stacking does not, at least yet, provide an “extraordinary and compelling reason” for compassionate release.  Thus, despite discretion to consider a broad range of factors, the Court declines to grant Defendant's motion at this juncture.

This reasoning seems deeply misguided to me: Daniel Brown has not moved in this case for the First Step Act to be applied retroactively, because (disappointingly) Congress has not provided for the Act to be applied retroactively.  Rather, Brown has moved for a sentence reduction under § 3582(c)(1)(A) because Congress has provided for judges to be able to "reduce [his] term of imprisonment" if and whenever a judge finds "extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant such a reduction."  Judge Pratt suggests Brown has made such a showing and he even suggests that Brown has already served more time than is appropriate for his crimes.  But, still, Judge Pratt refuses to use the legal tool available to him to reduce Brown's sentence, and so Brown is now still slated to serve nearly another 30 years in prison(!) that neither Congress nor any judge views as in any way justified by any sound sentencing purposes.

Critically, though 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) is often called a "compassionate release" provision, there is no requirement in the statute that a judge order a sentencing reduction in the form of a "time served" sentence.  All the statute says is that a judge is authorized to "reduce the term of imprisonment ... after considering the factors set forth in section 3553(a) to the extent that they are applicable, if it finds that extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant such a reduction."  If Judge Pratt's concern was that section 3553(a) factors did not justify reducing Brown's sentence below 210 months, he still could have granted him relief by reducing his sentence from 510 to 210 months.

Because Judge Pratt used terms like "not yet" and "at this juncture" and "at this time," I am hopeful that Judge Pratt could and would entertain a renewed § 3582(c)(1) from Brown in four years when he has served 210 months of imprisonment.  Notably, there is no clear law right now about whether and when there are limits on how many times a defendant can bring a motion for sentence reduction pursuant to § 3582(c)(1)(A).  But since I think the law clearly supports granting his motion now, I am disappointed Judge Pratt did not exercise his discretion in this case in a manner similar to how he did in Gall.

A few prior related posts on § 3582(c)(1)(A) after FIRST STEP Act:

UPDATE:  I was able to secure a copy of the ruling in Brown, which can be accessed here: Download Brown Compassionate release

ANOTHER UPDATEA month after this ruling, another District Judge in Nebraska considering similar facts granted a reduction in sentencing in US v. Urkevich, No. 8:03CR37, 2019 WL 6037391 (D. Neb. Nov. 14, 2019). That ruling is discussed in this post: Another District Court finds statutory sentence reform among "extraordinary and compelling reasons" for reducing sentence by 40 years under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A).

October 9, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

"The Brain in Solitude: An (Other) Eighth Amendment Challenge to Solitary Confinement"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper recently posted to SSRN authored by Federica Coppola.  Here is its abstract:

Solitary confinement is not cruel and unusual punishment.  It is cruel and unusual if one or more of its accompanying material conditions result in a wanton and unnecessary infliction of pain upon an individual.  This requirement is met when such conditions involve a “deprivation of basic identifiable human needs” to an extent that they inflict harm or create a “substantial risk of serious harm” and they are enacted with “deliberate indifference” by prison personnel.  With limited exceptions, the Supreme Court and lower federal courts have perpetuated a narrow application of these standards. 

In particular, Courts have often discounted the generalized mental pain caused by extreme isolation.  Accordingly, Courts have often neglected the duration of solitary confinement as an autonomous aspect of constitutional scrutiny.  Growing neuroscientific research has emphasized that social interaction and environmental stimulation are of vital importance for physiological brain function.  It has further highlighted that socio-environmental deprivation can have damaging effects on the brain, many of which may entail irreversible consequences.  Drawing on these insights, this article suggests that solitary confinement is in and of itself cruel and unusual punishment even under the current standards.  Avenues for a profound rethinking of solitary confinement regimes are presented and discussed.

October 9, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 07, 2019

Series of state court stays slows down Texas machinery of death

Texas has completed seven executions in 2019 through the end of September, and it had four more executions scheduled for October. But, as of late last week, state courts in Texas have halted the executions of three of the condemned prisoners who were facing October execution dates. Here are links to press reports on these three stays:

From the Texas Tribune, "Texas court halts the execution of Stephen Barbee to consider U.S. Supreme Court precedent: The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued a stay in Barbee's case. He was scheduled to be executed Oct. 2."

From the Texas Tribune, "Judge halts execution for man convicted of killing two Henderson County deputies: Randall Mays was scheduled to be executed Oct. 16, but the judge removed the death warrant amid questions that Mays may not be mentally competent to be put to death."

From the Dallas Morning News, "Texas Seven's Randy Halprin has execution stayed after attorneys allege judge was anti-Semite: Halprin, one of seven men who escaped from the John B. Connally Unit on Dec. 13, 2000, was scheduled to die Thursday for his role in the slaying of Irving police officer Aubrey Hawkins." 

Because Texas has five more executions already scheduled for the rest of 2019, the state is still likely on pace for another double-digit execution year. But it now seems likely that the state will have fewer executions than the 13 it had last year, and it is now possible that the US as a whole will end up with fewer total executions in 2019 than occurred in 2018.

October 7, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

So many cert denials, and lots of Davis and Rehaif GVRs, in first big SCOTUS order list of OT19

The Supreme Court this morning has released this 78-page order list that resolves lots and lots of the cases that pile up at the Court during its summer recess.  The list of cases in which certiorari has been denied runs dozens of pages, and I was a bit surprised that this order list does not have any statements from any Justices about any of these denials.  (In all likelihood, any cases the Justices thought debatable have been relisted for possible comment in later order lists.)

The order list start with a long list of cases in which "certiorari is granted, [t]he judgment is vacated, and the case is remanded" to the relevant Court of Appeals." The vase majority of the GVRs cite the Supreme Court's work in US v. Davis, No. 18-431 (S. Ct. June 24, 2019) (available here; discussed here) and Rehaif v. US, No. 17-9560 (S. Ct. June 21, 2019) (available here; discussed here).  These GVRs are not surprising, as I wondered aloud in this post back in June about the likely mess and challenge that Davis and Rehaif  surely presented for lower courts.  As is their custom, the Justices are eager to send cases back to the lower courts to start the clean up effort.

October 7, 2019 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Lots of SCOTUS previews as a new Term starts with a criminal bang

Tomorrow morning is the first Monday in October, which means the start of Supreme Court oral arguments kicking off a new Term for the Court. This ABA Journal piece, headlined "SCOTUS opens new term with criminal law cases addressing insanity defense and unanimous juries," highlights how the Term start with extra intrigue for criminal justice fans. This piece starts this way:

The U.S. Supreme Court has several blockbuster cases in its new term — on gay and transgender rights, federal immigration enforcement and gun regulation. But before it gets to any of those, the court on the first day of the term will take up two criminal law cases raising significant questions, even though only a handful of states are affected by each.

In Kahler v. Kansas, the first case up for argument on Oct. 7, the question is whether the U.S. Constitution permits a state to abolish the insanity defense. Only four states besides Kansas—Alaska, Idaho, Montana, and Utah—do not recognize that defense.

In Ramos v. Louisiana, the justices will consider whether the 14th Amendment fully incorporates against the states the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of a unanimous jury verdict.

“Both of these cases speak to a larger lesson,” says Brian W. Stull, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. “The court, with justices on the left, center, and right, has been vigilant in insisting at a minimum on the common-law protections that defendants enjoyed at time of the founding.”

SCOTUSblog has these previews of Kahler and Ramos:

Bloomberg Law has this preview article looking at a number of the criminal cases for the term under the headline "Bridgegate, D.C. Sniper Feature in Packed SCOTUS Criminal Term."  Here is how it starts:

An action-packed U.S. Supreme Court term kicks off Oct. 7, and the criminal docket has a little something for everyone—the insanity defense, the D.C. sniper, the death penalty, the Fourth Amendment, and the New Jersey corruption saga known as “Bridgegate.”

These disputes and others mark the latest crime and punishment tests for the Roberts Court, which, after Justice Brett Kavanaugh replaced Justice Anthony Kennedy, is on more solid conservative footing.

But criminal cases can scramble the usual 5-4 line-ups, and in Kavanaugh’s first full term — Justice Neil Gorsuch’s third — court watchers are eager to see how the justices tackle these weighty questions.

October 6, 2019 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, October 04, 2019

SCOTUS gets back to work with short order list granting review in new cases, including a federal criminal statutory/constitutional matter

The US Supreme Court this morning released this short order list, in which the Justices grant certiorari review in five cases (through two sets are consolidated). Criminal justice fans may be most interest in the granted case of US v. Sineneng-Smith, which SCOTUSblog summarizes this way:

Issue: Whether the federal criminal prohibition against encouraging or inducing illegal immigration for commercial advantage or private financial gain, in violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1324(a)(1)(A)(iv) and (B)(i), is facially unconstitutional.

But the grants sure to get the most attention today and for months to come emerge from Louisiana cases that now bring the issue of abortion back to the Court:

Issue: Whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit’s decision upholding Louisiana’s law requiring physicians who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a local hospital conflicts with the Supreme Court’s binding precedent in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.

October 4, 2019 in Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Mass Supreme Judicial Court vacates manslaughter conviction based on merely providing heroin to person who overdosed

As reported in this local article, the top court in Massachusetts has vacated "the involuntary manslaughter conviction of a man who provided drugs in a fatal overdose."  Here is the context and commentary from the press piece: 

Jesse Carrillo was convicted two years ago for the 2013 fatal heroin overdose of fellow UMass Amherst student Eric Sinacori, who was 20 when he died. On Thursday, the state's Supreme Judicial Court vacated Carrillo's manslaughter conviction, arguing that the prosecution did not provide sufficient evidence that Carrillo knew the heroin would cause a fatal overdose.

Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan said in a statement that it's "disheartening that the Supreme Judicial Court does not believe heroin use carries a high probability of substantial harm or death." He added: "The families who have lost loved ones to this brutal epidemic would surely disagree with the Court’s analysis, as do we.”

But Northeastern University law professor Leo Beletsky says if the case were upheld, it would have set a dangerous precedent. "If the government could charge every person who shares drugs with someone who subsequently dies, the way that the government had argued this case previously would essentially turn those friends, those partners, those co-users into potential murderers," he said.

The full unanimous ruling of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is available at this link, and it my be of particular interest to law profs and 1Ls now getting to the homicide unit in their CrimLaw classes (and to many others). Here are excerpts from the opinion's introduction: 

To find a defendant guilty of involuntary manslaughter caused by wanton or reckless conduct, our case law requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant engaged in conduct that creates "a high degree of likelihood that substantial harm will result to another."  Commonwealth v. Welansky, 316 Mass. 383, 399 (1944).  Selling or giving heroin to another person may be wanton or reckless conduct where, under the circumstances, there is a high degree of likelihood that the person will suffer substantial harm, such as an overdose or death, from the use of those drugs.  And in many cases the circumstances surrounding the distribution of heroin will permit a rational finder of fact to find beyond a reasonable doubt that the transfer of heroin created a high degree of likelihood of substantial harm, such as an overdose or death. But not every case will present circumstances that make such conduct "wanton or reckless." This is one such case.

We conclude that the mere possibility that the transfer of heroin will result in an overdose does not suffice to meet the standard of wanton or reckless conduct under our law. The Commonwealth must introduce evidence showing that, considering the totality of the particular circumstances, the defendant knew or should have known that his or her conduct created a high degree of likelihood of substantial harm, such as an overdose or death.

Here, no evidence was presented during the Commonwealth's case-in-chief that would permit a reasonable jury to conclude that the inherent possibility of substantial harm arising from the use of heroin -- which is present in any distribution of heroin -- had been increased by specific circumstances to create a high degree of likelihood of substantial harm.  For instance, the Commonwealth did not present evidence that the defendant knew or should have known that the heroin was unusually potent or laced with fentanyl; evidence that Sinacori was particularly vulnerable to an overdose because of his age, use of other drugs, or prior overdoses; or evidence that the defendant knew or should have known that Sinacori had overdosed but failed to seek help.  In the absence of any such evidence, we conclude that the Commonwealth did not meet its burden of producing sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to conclude that the defendant's conduct in this case created a high degree of likelihood that Sinacori would suffer substantial harm, such as an overdose or death, from his use of the heroin.  The defendant's conviction of involuntary manslaughter must therefore be vacated, and a required finding of not guilty entered.

As many of my former students likely recall, the Welansky case is still one of my favorite cases to teach during 1L Criminal Law. I find it fascinating to see that tragic case and the legal precedent that it set still of great importance 75 years later in very different sad setting.

October 4, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

Missouri Gov denies clemency request to Russell Bucklew hours before his potentially "gruesome" execution... which went forward seemingly without difficulty

As reported in this CNN article, headlined "A man set to be executed tonight could suffer a 'gruesome' death because of his rare disease, activists say," the last person in Missouri who could have readily stopped a high-profile execution has decided to allow it to go forward tonight.  Here are the details:

Missouri's governor has refused to stop what activists say would be "one of the most gruesome" executions in US history.

Russell Bucklew, 51, is scheduled to die by lethal injection at 6 p.m. (7 p.m. ET) Tuesday. He was convicted of first-degree murder, kidnapping and first-degree burglary in 1997.

Gov. Mike Parson turned down a clemency request, said his press office, without providing additional detail.

Bucklew suffers from a rare blood vessel disorder called cavernous hemangioma.  The disease can cause tumors in the head and regular bleeding from the mouth, nose, eyes and ears.  An execution by lethal injection could cause prolonged suffocation and excruciating pain, Bucklew's attorneys have said.  Bucklew argued the state should consider death by lethal gas as an alternative.

In April, the Supreme Court ruled against Bucklew in a 5-4 decision, which means plans for the lethal injection can proceed.  Justice Neil Gorsuch said the Eighth Amendment "does not demand the avoidance of all risk of pain" in carrying out executions....

But the American Civil Liberties Union said executing Bucklew would violate the Constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.  "What makes (Bucklew's) execution different is that he has a medical condition that would make it one of the most gruesome in U.S. history," the ACLU wrote.  It said Bucklew's tumors "will likely rupture during the lethal injection process, causing him to hemorrhage, choke, and suffocate in his own blood."...

Bucklew was convicted of fatally shooting his ex-girlfriend's presumed new boyfriend, Michael Sanders, and firing at Sanders' son before kidnapping Stephanie Ray Pruitt.  After raping his ex-girlfriend, court documents state, Bucklew was involved in a gunfight in which he and a Missouri state trooper were injured.

UPDATE: This AP article reports that the execution of Russell Bucklew went forward in the state of Missouri this evening and seemingly was not gruesome at all:

A Missouri man was executed Tuesday for killing a man during a violent 1996 crime spree, despite concerns the inmate's rare medical condition would cause a gruesome lethal injection. Russell Bucklew was executed at the state prison in Bonne Terre. It was Missouri's first execution since January 2017....

Bucklew looked around and twitched his feet beneath the sheet as he lay on the gurney just before the lethal injection. He suddenly took a deep breath and all movement stopped. He showed no outward signs of distress.

Cheryl Pilate, one of Bucklew's attorney's, said several steps were taken to try to ensure that he didn't suffer, including sedating him prior to the execution and elevating the gurney to help prevent him from choking. "We believe the significant efforts that went into making this a less horrible process were beneficial," Pilate said.

October 1, 2019 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, September 30, 2019

Hopeful that the Democratic Prez hopefuls might engineer a clemency revival

Long-time readers know I have lamented under-use of Presidential clemency powers for the 15+ years I have been blogging (e.g., consider this 2004 post lamenting "Bush's stingy pardon practice").  In 2010, I wrote this law review article lamenting Prez Obama's poor early clemency track record and urging him to make structural changes to the federal clemency system.  To his credit, Prez Obama upped his clemency game in the tail end of his second Term, but he failed to engineer any systemic changes to a problematic process.  And Prez Trump, after an (overly) interesting early start to clemency work, has failed to vindicate his big talk last summer about big clemency plans.

Against this backdrop, I cannot help but get a little excited by this little CBS News article headlined "Clemency debate takes shape in 2020 Democratic race — advocates say it hasn't gone far enough."  Here are excerpts: 

Advocates for criminal justice reform argue 2020 candidates aren't spending enough time discussing clemency.  Inmates are behind bars who shouldn't be, they say, and the next president has the power to change that without Congress.

Senator Cory Booker brought attention to the issue at the Democratic presidential debate earlier this month, saying if he were elected president, he would commute the sentences of roughly 17,000 non-violent drug offenders on his first day.

Booker first proposed the idea in June to reduce sentences for those who would have received less time if guidelines under the First Step Act — passed in December 2018 — had been in effect.  "If 87 members of the United States Senate say these sentences are way too long — and we changed it — but we didn't make it retroactive, we could literally point to the people that are in jail unjustly right now," Booker said at the debate in Houston....

A petition historically goes through multiple rounds of approval within the Department of Justice and the White House before reaching the president's desk.  It's a lengthy process that can be easily stalled.

Experts argue there are political forces at play that can taint the process since the majority of the system is housed under the attorney general's purview.  "The DOJ is comprised of the people that put these people behind bars in the first place," said Joe Luppino-Esposito, the director of Rule of Law initiatives at the Due Process Institute.  "It's a little odd the clemency process happens within the same department."

However, at least six Democratic hopefuls — Booker, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Senator Kamala Harris, Senator Amy Klobuchar, Senator Bernie Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren — say they would address these issues through an independent commission, which could both speed up and depoliticize the process....

Klobuchar was the first candidate to introduce the idea. Her plan establishes a bipartisan advisory board to review petitions and make recommendations to the president. "For the first time, we have candidates proposing changing the process," said Mark Osler, a professor at the University of St. Thomas. "They'd be smart to take a look at it very closely at this point."...

The Obama administration attempted to streamline the process by introducing specific eligibility criteria, however, an internal report by the Department of Justice last year found the initiative was "poorly implemented." ...

Presidents and governors are often wary about the risk of being criticized if someone with a commuted sentence goes on to commit a highly-publicized crime.  Many attribute this to the "tough on crime" climate ushered in after the Willie Horton campaign ad during the 1988 election.  In 2012, former Republican nominee Mitt Romney boasted that he granted zero pardons while he served as governor of Massachusetts.

I won't get too excited about all this clemency reform talk unless and until we actually have a would-be reformer in a place to walk the clemency reform walk. But it is still encouraging to see how the political discourse has evolved in recent years, and perhaps an evolution of the actual law will not be too far behind.

September 30, 2019 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Noticing Justice Sotomayor's persistent voice as SCOTUS turns away capital cases

Adam Liptak has this new New York Times piece headlined "In Death Penalty Cases, Sotomayor Is Alone in ‘Bearing Witness’." Here are brief excerpts:

The terse Supreme Court rulings arrived in the evening, in time to allow an execution later that night.  There were three rulings in the last month or so, at 5:52 p.m., at 7:01 p.m. and at 10:13 p.m. They were bland and formulaic, saying only that the court had denied an “application for stay of execution of sentence of death.”  The inmates who had filed the applications were put to death within hours.

In all three cases, only one member of the court bothered to write an opinion, to give a hint about what was at stake.  That was Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who maintains a sort of vigil in the capital cases other justices treat as routine.  She described shortcomings in the trials the inmates had received and oddities in the laws the courts below had applied....

There is a precedent for Justice Sotomayor’s attention to capital cases, said Jordan M. Steiker, a law professor at the University of Texas....  “Justice Sotomayor is carrying forward the tradition of Justices Brennan and Marshall,” Professor Steiker said, referring to Justices William J. Brennan Jr. and Thurgood Marshall, who came to adopt a practice of dissenting in every death penalty case....

Justice Sotomayor’s sustained attention to the capital justice system, Professor Steiker said, was part of an effort to speak to many audiences. “She recognizes the institutional limits of the court in correcting every injustice or every misreading of federal law, yet she wants to communicate the wrongness of those injustices and misreadings despite the court’s inability to intervene,” Professor Steiker said. “Justice Sotomayor is speaking to institutional actors — judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers — to make clear that the court, or least some portion of it, is keenly aware of problems that it is not presently able to correct.

September 30, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Pennsylvania Supreme Court opts to dodge broadside challenge to state's death penalty

As noted in this post from July, Philly DA Larry Krasner filed a notable state court brief urging the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to declare state's death penalty unconstitutional.  But, as set forth in this brief order released on Friday, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided to "decline[] to exercise its extraordinary King’s Bench jurisdiction," and so the applications were "DENIED on this basis." This local article provides some more context and reactions:

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a petition by two death row inmates to find the state’s death penalty unconstitutional, a request that some advocates had hoped would lead to a historic ruling.  In its one-page order, the court left the door open for individual review of death penalty cases. “Discrete review of properly presented claims will proceed in the individual cases, subject to the jurisdictional limits of the post-conviction courts,” its ruling said.

The Supreme Court case centered on a petition filed by federal defenders in August 2018 on behalf of two inmates, Jermont Cox of Philadelphia and Kevin Marinelli of Northumberland County, but had the potential to affect the approximately 130 others on death row.

Shawn Nolan, chief of the capital habeas unit at the Federal Community Defender Office in Philadelphia, which represents Cox and Marinelli, said in a statement Friday: “We are disappointed that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declined to hear this important case at this time.  As noted by the order of the court, we will continue to litigate the unconstitutionality of Pennsylvania’s capital punishment system in individual cases.  There is overwhelming evidence that Pennsylvania’s death penalty system is broken — unfair, inaccurate, and unlawful under the constitution of the commonwealth.”...

On Sept. 11, the seven justices heard the appeal arguments in the cases of Cox and Marinelli.  During that hearing, Tim Kane, an assistant federal defender, argued that the death-penalty system is unreliable and thus violates the state constitution’s ban on cruel punishment.

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, which represents the state in Cox’s appeal, also contended that the death penalty, as applied, has been unreliable and is thus unconstitutional.  Paul George, assistant supervisor of the Philadelphia district attorney’s law division, referred to a recent study by his office that found that 112 of 155 death penalty sentences — or 72% — from 40 years through 2017 were overturned.  Most were overturned because the defendants had ineffective counsel, he said.

George, like Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, is a former criminal defense attorney who has opposed the death penalty.  Krasner, who took office in January 2018, had campaigned on “never” seeking the death penalty. In practice, the District Attorney’s Office under Krasner has agreed or signaled a willingness to vacate the death penalty for more than one-third of the 45 inmates from Philadelphia on death row in May, an Inquirer analysis showed.  Under Krasner and George’s leadership, the office has not asked for the death penalty in any cases that have come up for resentencing....

The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office, which represents the state in Marinelli’s case, has taken a different stance from the District Attorney’s Office. Ronald Eisenberg, senior appellate counsel in the Attorney General’s Office, argued before the justices that there was no immediate need for the high court to take up its so-called King’s Bench power to review the matter, and suggested that other avenues exist to address issues regarding lawyers determined to be ineffective in capital cases....

The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association issued a statement Friday afternoon supporting the order. “The extraordinary relief sought by petitioners was the wrong mechanism for this type of challenge, and it was properly denied,” the statement said. “The appeals process in Pennsylvania exists to ensure this rare punishment is applied properly — and that process will continue to be utilized by individuals sentenced to death.  While no prosecutor takes joy in seeking the death penalty, we believe today’s ruling is the right result for the citizens of this commonwealth.”

In the state legislature, Sen. Sharif Street and Rep. Chris Rabb, both Philadelphia Democrats, are among lawmakers who in April announced a plan to introduce legislation to end the state’s death penalty, saying it is unsuccessful as a crime deterrent, costly, and flawed. Sen. Katie Muth, a Democrat who represents parts of Montgomery, Chester, and Berks Counties, is a prime joint sponsor of the proposed Senate bill. Her legislative director, Sonia Kikeri, said Friday that Muth hopes to introduce the bill in the fall session.

Republican Rep. Francis X. Ryan of Lebanon County, who considers himself one of the most conservative members in the state House, is a prime joint sponsor of Rabb’s bipartisan effort. “I do think it needs to be abolished,” Ryan said Friday. Rabb said in a separate interview that they would plan to introduce their bill “when we have a few more co-sponsors on both sides of the aisle.... We have our work cut out for us if we want to introduce it by the end of this year.” He said they would have until November 2020 to introduce a bill in the current legislative session.

Cox was convicted of three separate drug-related murders in Philadelphia in 1992 and ordered to die for one of them. Marinelli was sentenced to death for a 1994 killing in Northumberland County.  Pennsylvania’s death penalty has been used three times since it was reinstated by the state in 1978.  The last person executed by the state was the Philadelphia basement torture killer Gary Heidnik, in 1999.

Gov. Tom Wolf in 2015 imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in Pennsylvania.

Prior related posts:

September 29, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Texas completes its seventh execution of 2019 with killing of triple killer

As reported in this local article, a "Texas death row inmate with claims that he was intellectually disabled was executed Wednesday at the Huntsville 'Walls' Unit for stabbing his two stepsons during an attack more than 12 years ago in their North Texas home that also killed his wife." Here is more:

Robert Sparks, 45, was apologetic to his family for the September 2007 slayings of 9-year-old Harold Sublet and 10-year-old Raekwon Agnew in their Dallas home.

“I am sorry for the hard times and what hurts me is that I hurt y’all,” Sparks said in his last statement.  He was declared dead at 6:39 p.m., approximately 23 minutes after the lethal process began.

Prosecutors say Sparks' attack began when he stabbed his wife, 30-year-old Chare Agnew, 18 times as she lay in her bed.  Sparks then went into the boys' bedroom and separately took them into the kitchen, where he stabbed them. Raekwon was stabbed at least 45 times.  Authorities say Sparks then raped his 12- and 14-year-old stepdaughters.

His attorneys fought his appeal until the final minute, arguing that the jury specifically relied upon “the false testimony of prosecution expert A.P. Merillat when sentencing him to death.  The appeal also claimed that the courtroom bailiff wore a syringe tie on the date of jury deliberations, “creating an unacceptable risk of impermissible factors coming into play at trial.”

Notably, as revealed in this SCOTUS order, Justice Sotomayor thought this claim about a syringe tie justified stopping his execution.  Here is her dissent from the Supreme Court's denial of a stay for Sparks:

The allegations presented in this petition are disturbing.  On the day the jury began punishment deliberations in petitioner Robert Sparks’ capital murder trial, one of the bailiffs on duty in the courtroom wore a black tie embroidered with a white syringe — a tie that he admitted he wore to express his support for the death penalty.

That an officer of the court conducted himself in such a manner is deeply troubling.  Undoubtedly, such “distinctive, identifiable attire may affect a juror’s judgment.” Estelle v. Williams, 425 U.S. 501, 504–505 (1976).  The state habeas court, however, conducted an evidentiary hearing but did not find sufficient evidence to conclude that the jury saw the tie. I therefore do not disagree with the denial of certiorari.  I nevertheless hope that presiding judges aware of this kind of behavior would see fit to intervene in future cases by completely removing the offending item or court officer from the jury’s presence.  Only this will ensure the “very dignity and decorum of judicial proceedings” they are entrusted to uphold. Illinois v. Allen, 397 U.S. 337, 344 (1970).  The stakes — life in this case, liberty in many others—are too high to allow anything less.

September 25, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Execution of Youth under Age 21 on the Date of Offense: Ending with a Bang or a Whimper?"

The title of this post is the title of this new article authored by Hollis Whitson and Eric Samler now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Consistent with the scientific evidence that proves that adolescent brain development continues well into the third decade of life, the Supreme Court may be foreshadowing the day when an actual or de facto categorical ban will bar the death penalty for offenders who were under the age of 21 years old on the date of the offense.  For almost two decades, death sentences and executions of such persons have been in steep decline — in absolute numbers and in geographical concentration. Over the same period, the minority percentage of those impacted has increased.  The authors joins the American Bar Association and other voices that have called for a categorical ban on execution of persons who were under the age of 21 years old at the date of offense.

September 25, 2019 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, September 22, 2019

"Justice sometimes needs a do-over"

The title of this post is the headline of this Washington Post commentary authored by James Forman Jr. Here are excerpts:

The D.C. Council is considering the Second Look Amendment Act, which builds on the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act of 2016 (IRAA).  That law allows people convicted of serious crimes before they turned 18 to ask judges to review their sentences after they have served 15 years.  The proposed law expands eligibility for sentence review to all those who committed crimes before age 25 and have served at least 15 years in prison....

The core idea behind this is that everybody — including people in prison — grows and matures with time. Social science research shows that most people who commit violent crimes do so while they are young....

Of course, some people in prison remain a threat.  That’s why D.C.’s Second Look Amendment Act would not give judges carte blanche to shorten every sentence that comes before them.  Instead, the law instructs them to consider a long list of factors, including evidence of maturity and rehabilitation, medical and mental health reports, prison disciplinary records, victim impact statements and the views of the U.S. attorney’s office.

The Second Look Amendment Act offers a promising corrective to the harsh — and ineffective — practices once commonplace in courthouses across America.  But while the law has the support of the majority of the city’s elected officials, the unelected U.S. attorney is leading a campaign to scuttle it.

I’m not surprised by this opposition.... But I am disappointed by the office’s willingness to mislead the public in making its case.  Consider one of its central criticisms of IRAA and the Second Look Amendment Act: It says that the laws eliminate a judge’s ability to consider the nature of the crime when deciding whether to reduce a sentence.  In fact, the laws do nothing of the kind.  Though a change to IRAA this year removed “the nature and circumstances of the offense” from a list of factors that judges must consider, nothing in the law prevents judges from engaging in such consideration, and several provisions still in force effectively require them to do just that.

Don’t take my word for it.  The U.S. attorney’s office has made this very point in court.  Last month, when prosecutors opposed a sentence reduction in the case of United States v. Momolu Stewart, the U.S. attorney’s office told the judge that he must consider the defendant’s crime because it is “essential context for evaluating other factors that remain relevant under the IRAA.” It appears that the U.S. attorney’s office wants to have it both ways. In court, prosecutors tell judges they are logically bound to consider the crime, while in the press and community meetings, they frighten voters by telling them that the law doesn’t allow that.

The Second Look Amendment Act gives the D.C. Council a chance to restore a measure of fairness to a criminal system often lacking it.  Standing up to the U.S. attorney’s office may not be easy, but the D.C. Council did so when it rejected that office’s scare tactics and eliminated mandatory minimums for drug offenses in the 1990s. That decision now is universally admired.  If the council is willing to embrace reason over fearmongering again, I am confident the Second Look Amendment Act will be recognized as another proud accomplishment.

September 22, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 20, 2019

Kentucky Supreme Court hears arguments to preclude death penalty for defendants under age 21

As reported in this local article, the Kentucky Supreme Court heard a notable death penalty case yesterday.  Here are the details:

Kentucky could become the first death penalty state to put additional age restrictions on capital punishment.  Currently, 18 is the legal age allowed in the United States.  However, the Supreme Court of Kentucky could ban the death penalty for defendants who committed a crime between the ages of 18 and 21.

On Thursday, the Court heard the arguments surrounding two high profile murders out of Lexington.

In the first case, Efrain Diaz Jr. and Justin Smith are charged with the death of UK student Jonathan Krueger. Police say Krueger and a friend were walking home on East Maxwell St. in 2015 when Diaz, Smith, and Roman Gonzalez approached them.  Police say the three were armed and one of them shot and killed Krueger.  Gonzalez was 17-years-old at the time, so the death penalty cannot be applied to him. However, Diaz was 20-years-old at the time and Smith was 18.

In the second case, Travis Bredhold is accused of allegedly robbing and killing gas station attendant Mukeshbhai Patel in 2013.  Bredhold was 18-years-old at the time.

If things stand as they currently do, Bredhold, Diaz, and Smith will not face the death penalty. In Fayette County Circuit Court, Judge Ernesto Scorsone ruled the death penalty is unconstitutional for people in that age range because new science shows their brains are still developing and they lack the maturity to assess risks and control their impulses.

The defendants' lawyer, who wants the Supreme Court of Kentucky to uphold Scorsone's ruling, used the science argument in court today.  "In 2005, we thought the problem with juvenile misbehavior was simply that the brakes were defective," said defense lawyer Timothy Arnold.  "Now, we know they have their foot on the gas and they are flooring it between the ages of 18 and 20."

The Attorney General's Office argued against that, hoping to convince the Court to overturn the Scorsone's ruling. "Judge Ernesto Scorsone of the Fayette Circuit Court abused his power when he decided that 18 to 20 year olds were exempt from the death penalty," said assistant state attorney general Matthew Krygiel.

The Attorney General's Office argued that the Supreme Court of the United States set the age for capital punishment at 18 and that should be followed.  Krygiel reiterated that 18 is the legal age of an adult in the United States. "Being 18 years old, you can enlist in the Army," said Krygiel. "They give you an assault rifle and send you halfway across the world, and after some basic training on the rules of engagement, you're going to decide whether or not to pull a trigger and shoot somebody."

However, the defense lawyer believes the Kentucky Supreme Court has the power to revisit the age limit. Arnold argued that given the new science available, 18 to 21 year olds should not have capital punishment as a penalty option. "To be clear, nobody's proposing throwing a parade for anybody," said Arnold.  "What we are saying is simply that they're not eligible for the death penalty.  They'll still be eligible for life without parole or any other penalty that would be applicable to somebody who committed a serious crime. The death penalty is reserved for the worst of the worst, and science shows that they're not that."

Prior related post:

September 20, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, September 19, 2019

"Timbs v. Indiana: Toward the Regulation of Mercenary Criminal Justice"

The title of this post is the title of this new article forthcoming in the Federal Sentencing Reporter authored by Wayne Logan and now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

In Timbs v. Indiana, the Supreme Court unanimously held that the Eighth Amendment's Excessive Fines Clause is an incorporated protection under the Fourteenth Amendment and therefore regulates state and local governments.  The unanimous result, wedding liberal and conservative Justices alike, was backed by an ideologically diverse group of amici, including the ACLU, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Cato Institute.  The government practice giving rise to the litigation — civil asset forfeiture — has been subject to widespread criticism, fueled by troubling accounts of what has come to be known as “policing for profit.”  Reaction to Timbs ran the gamut from regarding it as “huge” to being a decision having little impact.  As I discuss in this symposium contribution, Timbs is important both because it provides a new federal constitutional basis to regulate government targeting of criminal defendants for revenue generation and signals the Court’s broader recognition of the problematic nature of the widespread practice.

September 19, 2019 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Without discussion of 3553(a) factors, Eleventh Circuit needs just one sentence to declare 120 years (LWOP) imprisonment for child porn offenses reasonable

Earlier this month in this post, I flagged the Sixth Circuit panel ruling in US v. Boucher, No. 18-5683 (6th Cir. Sept. 9, 2019) (available here), which concluded that a month-long sentence was unreasonably short after an intricate multi-page analysis of § 3553(a) factors.  The detailed circuit analysis especially faulted the district court's consideration of personal factors and the failure "to address the risk of sentence disparities."  In my post about the Boucher ruling, I noted that I favor reviewing courts conducting robust and searching forms of reasonableness review, but I  lamented the fact that circuit courts often seem much more interested in seriously questioning 30-day sentences when federal prosecutors appeal than in questioning 30-year sentences when federal defendants appeal.  

Interestingly, today I was alerted to a new Eleventh Circuit panel ruling in which it is not a 30-year sentences, but actually a 120-year sentence(!), that gets short shrift in the reasonableness review process.  Specifically, in US v. Kirby, No. 18-11253 (11th Cir. Sept. 17, 2019) (available here), the defendant was convicted after trial of three counts of producing child pornography and two counts of possessing child porn.   As described by the Eleventh Circuit panel, the defendant had a large (but not enormous) number of child porn images and he created (but did not distribute) many images of his "thirteen-year-old stepdaughter, either captured by hidden cameras in bathrooms or taken while Kirby was assisting his stepdaughter with stretches due to a sports injury [and also had one] pornographic image of a friend of [his] stepdaughter."  This is serious criminal behavior, but the district court responded (based it seems on a maxed-out guideline range of life) by maxing out all the counts to the statutory maximum and running the terms consecutively to arrive at sentence of 1440 months (120 years) of imprisonment.

In addition to making a technical challenge to how the guideline range of life was used by the district court, the defendant here contended that his sentence was substantively unreasonable.  After discussing the technical issues for a number of pages, here is the full substance of the Kirby panel's response to the reasonableness claim:

As an initial matter, Kirby’s argument is largely predicated on the erroneous conclusion that the district court imposed an above-guidelines sentence.  Regardless, the sentence was not unreasonable.  Before imposing the longest sentence that it could, the district court thoroughly discussed Kirby’s particularly heinous conduct and direct participation in the creation of child pornography, his breach of public trust as a police officer, and his total failure to take responsibility for his actions.

Without seeing the full factual record or the parties' briefs, I am disinclined to assert that the substantive judgment of reasonableness here was obviously wrong.  But where is the circuit concern in this case for the district court's consideration of personal factors and the failure to address the risk of sentence disparities?   And what does strike me as obviously wrong is the obvious fact that there is such a contrast in the amount of attention and deliberation given to the reasonableness claims in cases like Boucher and Kirby.  As long as reviewing courts (and so many others) are so much more likely to worry so much more about undue leniency than about undue severity, over-incarceration will still define our criminal justice systems.

September 18, 2019 in Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

"Tinkering With the Machinery of Death: Lessons From a Failure of Judicial Activism"

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

The Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on capital sentencing is a mess.  That may be the only proposition that draws a consensus in this sharply divisive area.  Critics and supporters of capital punishment agree that the system created by the Court fails to achieve its goals, although for different reasons.  The entire body of case law is an exercise in judicial activism.  That is, it consists of the decisions by the Supreme Court creating rules that shifting majorities believed were good policy at the time, unsupported by any demonstrable connection to the original understanding of the Eighth Amendment. 

I contend that the worst aspect of this body of case law — both in constitutional illegitimacy and in harmful effects — is the rule of Lockett v. Ohio that the defendant must be allowed to introduce and have considered virtually unlimited evidence in mitigation. The Court’s inability to agree with itself from one year to the next on what this rule means has caused many wrongful reversals of well-deserved sentences.  The unlimited potential it creates for attacking the competence of defense counsel continues to cause massive delay and expense, and all for evidence of limited probative value.  This is a massive failure of judicial activism. I propose that the Court prune back the rule to only the circumstances of the crime, youth, and lack of a criminal record and return the question of the admissibility of all other mitigation to the people and the democratic process.

September 17, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, September 16, 2019

The impact of the FIRST STEP Act as told through one (all-too-typical) case

Jesse Wegman has this notable new New York Times piece headlined fully "‘All You Can Do Is Take Care of Your End’: For one inmate serving a life sentence, a new federal law gave hope where there had been none." I highly recommend the piece in full, and here are some extended excerpts:

Imagine that at the age of 28, you’re told you are going to spend the rest of your life in prison with no chance of release. What would you do with all that time?

There’s no shame in admitting you’d want to throw in the towel.  It’s a rational reaction to a hopeless situation: Why bother working to improve yourself, learning something new or making amends if nothing you do will ever make a difference?

Gary Rhines, now 46, had every reason to choose that route, after receiving a mandatory sentence of life without parole in 2004 for being a repeat drug offender.  As a lifer, Mr. Rhines was last in line for all prison programming; no one cared whether he participated or not.  But that didn’t stop him.  He earned his high school equivalency diploma.  He enrolled in drug-treatment and anger-management programs, learned industrial painting and how to operate a forklift.  He received a certificate in a culinary-arts program and worked in the prison chapel.

“All you can do is take care of your end,” Mr. Rhines told me recently in a telephone interview. “I had a list of things that were very important to my success.” If he didn’t do them, he said, “it was me giving up on myself.”

This summer, all those years of work paid off. At a hearing on July 24 in a Harrisburg, Pa., Federal District Court, Judge John E. Jones III resentenced Mr. Rhines to time served — in his case, 18 years, which includes nearly three years of pretrial detention.

The judge was able to impose that sentence thanks to the First Step Act, a new federal law that alleviates some of the most draconian punishments handed down under a string of federal criminal laws and sentencing guidelines passed in the 1980s and 1990s....

The crime that landed Mr. Rhines in prison for life was relatively minor — he was charged with participating in the sale, in Pennsylvania, of 66 grams of crack cocaine, a little more than the weight of a pack of M&Ms.  The crime involved no weapon and no violence. One of his co-defendants received a sentence of nine to 23 months.  But Mr. Rhines had been convicted of selling small amounts of drugs twice before, and that made all the difference: Under the sentencing laws, a third drug conviction involving more than 50 grams of crack meant a mandatory sentence of life without parole....

In requiring stunningly long sentences, the crime bills took power away from judges to make decisions based on a defendant’s unique circumstances — that is, to judge — at the moment such discretion was most needed.  Mr. Rhines’s judge might have taken into account not only the nonviolent nature of his crime, but also that by the age of 7, he was watching his mother use heroin and get physically abused by multiple boyfriends.  Or that because of her drug addiction, he and his brothers and sisters went for stretches without food, heat, electricity or hot water.  Or that he stopped going to school at 11 to provide for his siblings by working as a bag boy at a grocery store.  Or that at age 12, he was forced to sell drugs in local crack houses to pay off his mother’s drug debts and was warned that she would be beaten if he didn’t. In other words, from the time he was a little boy, Gary Rhines never stood a chance....

Congress finally began to reel in some of its longest and most unjust sentences in 2010, when it passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced a glaring disparity in punishments for crimes involving crack and powder cocaine. That should have been good news for inmates like Mr. Rhines, because under the new law, the amount of crack he was convicted of selling no longer triggered a mandatory life sentence. The problem was that the 2010 law applied only to future cases, not past ones.

This is where the First Step Act comes in.  Signed last December by President Trump, it slashed the length of drug sentences — for example, the top mandatory-minimum punishment for a third-strike drug offense is now 25 years rather than life. The law also gave judges more power to reduce individual sentences and authorized $75 million in annual funding for prison programs that will help prepare inmates for release.  Most important, it made the 2010 sentencing law retroactive, which helps the thousands of inmates, like Mr. Rhines, who have been serving absurdly long sentences under a law that Congress itself said was unjust nearly a decade ago.

At Mr. Rhines’s resentencing hearing in July, where he recounted his brutal childhood, Judge Jones noted the painfully slow evolution of America’s criminal-justice system. “It’s taken essentially a quarter century for policymakers to figure out the fundamental unfairness” of those harsh 1980s and 1990s drug laws, the judge said.  He also noted that the trial judge in Mr. Rhines’s case, James McClure, had been frustrated at having his hands tied by the law. “That deprived Mr. Rhines of the determination of a very fair jurist,” Judge Jones said, “who carefully evaluated every case that came before him.” (Judge McClure died in 2010.)

Finally, Judge Jones took note of Mr. Rhines’s self-rehabilitation in an indifferent environment. “Without any hope,” the judge said, “you participated in a number of these programs, which is very impressive to me.”...

The prosecutor on the case requested that the judge resentence Mr. Rhines to 30 years, which was the term recommended under federal sentencing guidelines. Judge Jones declined. “I just don’t know rationally how anybody can contend with the circumstances of this case, including Mr. Rhines’s personal circumstances,” the judge said, and conclude “that they warrant a 30-year sentence for 66.6 grams of cocaine. That defies credulity and logic, in my view.” In an email further explaining his decision, Judge Jones told me that he considered Mr. Rhines to be “the very face of the First Step Act” and said it was “unjust, and in fact ludicrous, to have this model inmate spend additional time in federal prison.”

As of August, nearly 1,700 people, 91 percent of them black like Mr. Rhines, have gotten new, shorter sentences under the First Step Act, according to a report by the United States Sentencing Commission. The average reduction is nearly six years, bringing the average sentence of these inmates down from about 20 years to 15 — hardly flinging open the prison gates. But it is part of the larger shift toward a more humane criminal-justice system that has swept the country over the past decade and helped shrink the federal prison population to about 180,000 today, from a high of 220,000 in 2013.

This is real progress, and it is why the First Step Act has been praised as a rare bipartisan success story — one all the more remarkable for the political delicacy of its subject matter.  Mr. Trump himself called the older drug sentences “very unfair,” particularly to black inmates like Mr. Rhines.

Still, the law comes up short in important ways. The biggest is that its new reductions of sentences for drug crimes do not apply to past cases. That’s an especially glaring omission given that the First Step Act fixed the identical problem in the 2010 law. In other words, Congress failed to heed its own lesson: If a sentence is determined to be unjust, isn’t it unjust in all situations? Why should it matter when a prisoner was convicted?

This well-told story helps put some more names and faces to what the FIRST STEP Act has helped achieved.  But the piece also highlights just how far we still have to go to truly achieve new attitudes and new approaches to crime and punishment.  I cannot help but still see dark facts in this often bright story: the dark fact that federal prosecutors in 2019 still urged an additional dozen years in federal prison for the sale of less than 2.5 ounces of crack, the dark fact that Congress could not bring itself to include at least modest measure of retroactivity with its modest reforms of extreme mandatory minimums in the FIRST STEP Act, and the dark fact that there are so many human variations on Mr. Rhimes among the tens of thousands of federal prisoners whose stories will not get so well told.

September 16, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, September 15, 2019

California Gov Newsom commutes 21 sentences to make offenders eligible for parole

In his first year in office, California Gov Newsom has not been afraid to use his clemency power in various ways. This local article highlights his latest work in this arena, starting this way: "Gov. Gavin Newsom is commuting the sentences of 21 violent offenders incarcerated in California prisons, including four men who have convictions related to homicides in Sacramento County, the governor’s office announced Friday." Here is more:

Jacoby Felix, Crystal Jones, Andrew Crater and Luis Alberto Velez were convicted of separate murders in the 1990s. All four, now granted commutations by Newsom, were convicted in Sacramento County and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The clemency action was announced Friday in a statement from the governor’s office, which describes the crimes committed by those four men and 17 other state prisoners, and explains the reasoning for commuting their sentences.

“The Governor carefully reviewed each application and considered a number of factors, including the circumstances of the crime and the sentence imposed, the applicant’s conduct while in prison and the applicant’s self-development efforts since the offense, including whether they have made use of available rehabilitative programs and addressed treatment needs,” a statement from Newsom’s office said.

Youth offender status was another important factor considered, with 15 of the 21 total commutations involving inmates convicted before the age of 26. The four Sacramento County grantees were all between ages 18 and 26 at the time of their crimes....

Newsom’s commutations would make each offender eligible for suitability hearings with the state Board of Parole Hearings.

The commutations can be upheld or rejected by the California Supreme Court. The court blocked 10 clemency actions by former Gov. Jerry Brown in his final weeks in office, marking the first time since 1930 that a California governor’s commutation requests had been denied.

But Velez and Jones’ cases have already been reviewed and recommended by both the Board of Parole Hearings and the California Supreme Court, according to Friday’s news release. Those advance reviews are required by law for any commutation case involving an applicant with multiple felony convictions.

Velez, Felix and Crater would be eligible for parole suitability hearings in 2020. Jones would be eligible in approximately 2023 after serving 25 years of his life sentence.

Also included in Newsom’s commutations are Marcus McJimpson, who has served 31 years of two life terms for a 1988 Fresno County double murder, and 80-year-old Doris Roldan, who has been imprisoned since 1981 for the first-degree murder of her husband. Roldan of Los Angeles County – who now uses a wheelchair, as noted in the governor’s statement – was recommended for clemency by her warden.

The Gov's office has this overview statement about all the commutations and detailed discussions of each case appears in gubernatorial clemency certificates available here.

Prior related post about Gov Newsom's clemency work:

September 15, 2019 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

After Sixth Circuit panel approves (resoundingly) Ohio's execution protocol, will state now seek to restart its machinery of death?

As reported in this post from February, Ohio Gov Mike DeWine put a long list of scheduled executions on hold after a lower court had ruled that "it is certain or very likely" that the state's reliance on the drug midazolam in its eceuction protocol "cannot reduce consciousness to the level at which a condemned inmate will not experience the severe pain associated with injection of the paralytic drug or potassium chloride."  Ironically, the Ohio death row defendant, Warren Keith Henness, appealed the district court's decision because it ultimately denied his request for a stay of execution. 

That appeal has not been resolved by  a Sixth Circuit panel in In re Ohio Execution Protocol Litigation, No. 19-3064 (6th Cir. Sept 11, 2019) (available here), and the panel opinion seem almost to be urging Ohio to get it machinery of death up and running again.  Here are extended excepts providing context for, and content from, this short ruling:

In Glossip, the Supreme Court held that, to demonstrate a likelihood of success on the merits of an Eighth Amendment challenge to a state’s method of execution, the plaintiff must: (1) show that the intended method of execution is “sure or very likely to cause serious illness and needless suffering,” and (2) “identify an alternative [method] that is feasible, readily implemented, and in fact significantly reduces a substantial risk of severe pain.” Id. at 2737 (citations, brackets, internal quotations, and original emphasis omitted).

Applying this framework, the district court found that Henness met his burden on Glossip’s first prong but failed to propose a viable alternative method of execution as required by the second. We review each prong separately....

We disagree [with the district court's conclusion on the first Glossip prong].  As an initial matter, neither pulmonary edema nor the symptoms associated with it qualify as the type of serious pain prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.  Consider: midazolam may cause Henness to suffocate.  But the Eighth Amendment only prohibits forms of punishment that seek to intensify an inmate’s death by “superadd[ing]” feelings of “terror, pain, or disgrace.”  Bucklew v. Precythe, 139 S. Ct. 1112, 1124 (2019) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). Consistent with this understanding, the Supreme Court recently reasoned that the fact that an inmate sentenced to death by hanging might slowly suffocate to death is not constitutionally problematic.  Id.  Because suffocation does not qualify as “severe pain and needless suffering,” it follows that Ohio’s use of midazolam — which could cause pulmonary edema, i.e., suffocation — is not constitutionally inappropriate.  The district court therefore clearly erred in concluding to the contrary.

Further, the district court erred in finding that Henness met his burden of proving that midazolam is incapable of suppressing his consciousness enough to prevent him from experiencing — at a constitutionally problematic level — the pain caused by the combination of the paralytic agent and potassium chloride.  Indeed, though we have concluded that the combination of those two substances “would cause severe pain to a person who is fully conscious,” we have also recognized that midazolam is capable of altering an inmate’s ability to subjectively experience pain.  See Fears, 860 F.3d at 886, 888 (noting that “experts . . . agree[] that midazolam is sometimes used alone for intubation”). That said, the relevant inquiry is whether an inmate injected with 500 milligrams of midazolam would subjectively experience unconstitutionally severe pain — an inquiry that Henness has failed to prove should be answered in his favor.  To be sure, the bulk of Henness’s evidence focuses on the fact that midazolam is incapable of rendering an inmate insensate to pain.  But “the Eighth Amendment does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death,” so it is immaterial whether the inmate will experience some pain — as noted, the question is whether the level of pain the inmate subjectively experiences is constitutionally excessive.  See Bucklew, 139 S. Ct. at 1124.  And the fact that midazolam may not prevent an inmate from experiencing pain is irrelevant to whether the pain the inmate might experience is unconstitutional. Without evidence showing that a person deeply sedated by a 500 milligram dose of midazolam is still “sure or very likely” to experience an unconstitutionally high level of pain, Henness has not met his burden on this prong, and the district court clearly erred in concluding otherwise....

But even if we were to agree with Henness that Ohio’s method of execution is very likely to cause either of the types of severe pain identified by Henness and the district court, we would still find that Henness has failed to carry his burden under Glossip’s second prong.  This is because Henness’s proposed alternative method — death by secobarbital — is not a viable alternative.  As an initial matter, the record demonstrates that death by secobarbital is not “feasible” because secobarbital can, in some instances, take days to cause death and Henness has failed to propose any procedures detailing how an execution team might deal with such a prolonged execution.  Setting that deficiency aside, Henness’s proposal still fails.  As the Supreme Court recently explained, a state may decline to utilize an alternative method of execution — even if it is otherwise feasible and capable of being readily implemented — so long as the state has a legitimate reason for doing so, and “choosing not to be the first [state] to experiment with a new method of execution is a legitimate reason to reject it.” Bucklew, 139 S. Ct. at 1128-30 (internal quotation marks omitted).  It follows that, because no other state uses secobarbital to carry out an execution, Ohio may decline to implement it.

As a final point, we note that Henness’s last-minute motion to dismiss on mootness and ripeness grounds is without merit. Contrary to his contentions, Ohio has said that it intends to resume executions with this protocol if we approve. See, e.g., Andrew J. Tobias, Gov. Mike DeWine Freezes All Ohio Executions While New Method Developed, Cleveland.com (February 19, 2019), https://perma.cc/2HUL-HBUG (last accessed August 9, 2019). Thus, his challenge is not moot.  And his challenge is ripe — notwithstanding the fact that his execution has been delayed.

In other words, it seems that the Sixth Circuit panel here clearly credits the death row defendant's contention that Ohio's use of midazolam in its lethal injection protocol "may cause Henness to suffocate" and seems to credit the claim that he "will experience some pain."  But, according to the panel, it is fully constitution circa 2019 for the state to opt to "slowly suffocate to death" a condemned defendant as long as that defendant is not "sure or very likely to experience an unconstitutionally high level of pain."  

I am certain that the defendant here will now appeal this matter to the en banc Sixth Circuit and also the Supreme Court, but I will be surprised if this appeal gets heard in full again.  (I will predict here that at least a few Sixth Circuit judges will dissent if and when the full circuit does not take up the case.)  Consequently, I think the fate of Warren Keith Henness and a long list of condemned with execution dates in Ohio now turns on what whether and when Governor DeWine is prepared to order the state's machinery of death to become operational again.

A few (of many) prior recent related posts:

September 11, 2019 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Previewing another dynamic SCOTUS criminal justice docket

Though we are still nearly a month away from the first Monday in October, it is not too early to start gearing up for what may be another dynamic and interesting Supreme Court Term for criminal justice fans.  Wonderfully, Rory Little has already put together this lengthy preview post at SCOTUSblog under the heading "Overview of the court’s criminal docket for OT 19 — sizeable and significant."  I highly recommend Rory's post in full, and I can excerpt here his intro and conclusion along with a few sentencing-related highlights (with links from the original):

The Supreme Court has already granted review in 50 cases for the term that opens on Monday, October 7.  More will be granted when the court returns for its “long conference” (following the summer recess) on October 1.  By my broad definition (which includes immigration and civil-related-to-criminal cases), 20 of the 50 cases already granted (40%) involve criminal-law or related issues. After consolidations, this represents 16 hours of argument — and 10 of those hours will occur in the first two months.  From this end of the telescope, the cases look important, and a few will certainly have broad impact.

Monday, October 7, will open with two very significant criminal-case arguments, one before and one after lunch (with a patent case sandwiched in the middle).

First, the justices will consider whether a state may (as Kansas has) constitutionally eliminate any defense of insanity to criminal charges.  This presents both due process and Eighth Amendment questions, and involves intricate mental gymnastics regarding the difference(s) between insanity and a permissible defense of lacking criminal mens rea....  After lunch, the court will address the likely far easier question whether the “unanimous verdict” requirement for criminal jury trials under the Sixth Amendment necessarily applies to all the states under the 14th Amendment’s incorporation doctrine....

On October 16, in Mathena v. Malvo, the court will consider the life-without-parole (LWOP) sentence imposed on the juvenile “D.C. sniper,” Lee Malvo, who with an adult partner (since executed) shot and killed 10 people in the Washington, D.C., area in 2002.  The constitutionality of LWOP sentences for juveniles under the Eighth Amendment has bedeviled the court twice previously: Such sentences have been declared unconstitutional when mandatory, but not when discretionary.  This case will examine what exactly that means.  The year-old retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who authored the most recent decision on the issue, makes the outcome difficult to predict....

[A]t least one death-penalty case is almost always on the court’s annual docket.  OT 19 is no exception. In McKinney v. Arizona the justices will address questions revolving around the use and evaluation of mitigating evidence in capital cases....

In Shular v. United States, the justices will once again confront the much-critiqued “categorical approach” to evaluating which state offenses count as predicates for enhanced federal sentencing.

Somewhat refreshingly, the court granted review on a typewritten pro se prisoner petition for certiorari in Banister v. Davis, a habeas case.  Once the court requested a response from Texas, Banister enlisted a former assistant solicitor general and clerk to Justice Sonia Sotomayor to represent him, and the case, although dry, will be significant to the habeas bar....

The Supreme Court’s docket is a bit of an optical illusion: it always looks very different at the start from the way it is perceived by the following July.  Big cases argued in October are decided by early spring and by then are overshadowed by new grants of review, which we now perceive, “if foreseen at all, … dimly.” So stay tuned.  The sense of imminence and uncertainty is one reason the court and its machinations provide such an irresistible attraction!

September 10, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 09, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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