Monday, July 15, 2019

Senator Cory Booker proposes bold "second look" resentencing law

Continuing his pattern of putting forth bold criminal justice reform proposals, Senator Cory Booker is now promoting a notable new second look sentencing law.  This new NBC News article, headlined "Cory Booker aims to give aging prisoners 'a second look': The Democratic presidential candidate is unveiling new legislation to take prison reform another step forward," provides some of the details.  Here are excerpts:

New Jersey Senator Cory Booker is unveiling new legislation that would give more federal prisoners the chance at early release, building on perviously passed criminal justice reform that some supporters say didn't go far enough.

The First Step Act, passed in 2018, was a rare bipartisan feat in Congress, bringing some of the most liberal and conservative lawmakers together with President Donald Trump to enact the biggest reforms to the criminal justice system since the tough-on-crime laws of the 1980s and 1990s.  While the new law led to the release of thousands of federal inmates, thousands more were ineligible.

William Underwood, 65 years years old, is one inmate who wasn't eligible for release under the First Step Act.  He has been in federal prison for 30 years, convicted of conspiracy, racketeering and non-violent drug-related crimes.  Although it was his first felony conviction, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole under mandatory sentencing guidelines.

Booker, who first met Underwood in 2016, says he's a prime example of the kind prisoner who should be eligible for release.  He points to Underwood's age, the time he's already served and his record of good behavior as as reasons why more reforms are needed, noting that even the prison guards have said Underwood doesn’t belong there.

Booker’s legislation would address people like Underwood.  The Matthew Charles and William Underwood Second Look Act, named after Underwood and Charles, the first person released because of the First Step Act, would give those serving long sentences a second chance.

The bill would also give people who have served more than ten years an opportunity to petition the court for release. And for prisoners over the age of 50, they would be offered the presumption of release, which means the the judge would have to show that the inmate should remain behind bars because they are a threat to society.

The measure likely faces an uphill battle in part because it would shift the burden onto the judicial system to make the case that a prisoner should remain locked up. Another component that is expected to be controversial is that there is no exclusions for certain crimes.  (The type of crimes included in the First Step Act encompassed low-level, non-violent crimes.)  Booker’s office argues that it would be much tougher for someone convicted of a violent crime to be released because a court must find that the inmate is not a risk and the inmate must show readiness to re-enter society....

“I hope that this creates a much bigger pathway for people to be released, to save taxpayer dollars, to reunite families,” Booker said.  “This system of mass incarceration that now has more African Americans under criminal supervision than all the slaves in 1850 is an unjust system, and I intend to do everything I can to tear down the system of mass incarceration."

Booker was instrumental in the passage of the First Step Act, which had the support of President Donald Trump under the direction of his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and Kim Kardashian.  As a presidential candidate he’s running against a number of candidates introducing plans revolving around criminal justice and his bill is a direct response to frontrunner, former Vice President Joe Biden, who was critical to the passage of the tough-on-crime bills of the 80s and 90s.  Biden is expected to unveil a criminal justice reform plan in the coming weeks, which is expected to include a prohibition on mandatory minimum sentences.

Prior recent related post:

July 15, 2019 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Compassionate Release Training in DC (and online) next week

This NACDL tweet flags an important training opportunity taking place in DC and online next week for folks interested in getting in on some of the most exciting legal change brought about by the FIRST STEP Act.  Here is an image with the details:

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If that image does not do the trick, here is the text of a tweet from Mary Price of FAMM with the essentials:  "Calling all pro bono lawyers!  Want to learn how to help prisoners seeking Compassionate Release? We are training (live and by webinar) on Monday, July 15!  RSVP to agprobono @ akingump.com"

July 10, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

En banc Ninth Circuit works through Eighth Amendment jurisprudence and juvenile resentencing under federal guidelines

In this post around this time last year, I noted work on an amicus brief in support of a Ninth Circuit en banc petition in US v. Riley Briones.  The original ruling in Briones had a split Ninth Circuit panel affirming the district court's adoption of the federal sentencing guidelines as the key factor in the course imposing a life without parole federal sentence on a juvenile offender.   But after granting en banc review, the Ninth Circuit has now vacated the LWOP sentence and remanded for resentencing by a 9-2 vote.  The new majority opinion in Briones, available here, has a lot to say about Eighth Amendment jurisprudence and juvenile sentencing, and here are a few excerpts:

Taken together, Miller, Montgomery, and Pete make clear that a juvenile defendant who is capable of change or rehabilitation is not permanently incorrigible or irreparably corrupt; that a juvenile who is not permanently incorrigible or irreparably corrupt is constitutionally ineligible for an LWOP sentence; and that a juvenile’s conduct after being convicted and incarcerated is a critical component of the resentencing court’s analysis....

We reaffirm that when a substantial delay occurs between a defendant’s initial crime and later sentencing, the defendant’s post-incarceration conduct is especially pertinent to a Miller analysis. See id.; see also Montgomery, 136 S. Ct. at 736 (“The petitioner’s submissions [of his reformation while in prison] are relevant . . . as an example of one kind of evidence that prisoners might use to demonstrate rehabilitation.”).  The key question is whether the defendant is capable of change.  See Pete, 819 F.3d at 1133.  If subsequent events effectively show that the defendant has changed or is capable of changing, LWOP is not an option.

The district court’s heavy emphasis on the nature of Briones’s crime, coupled with Briones’s evidence that his is not one of those rare and uncommon cases for which LWOP is a constitutionally acceptable sentence, requires remand.  We do not suggest the district court erred simply by failing to use any specific words, see Montgomery, 136 S. Ct. at 735, but the district court must explain its sentence sufficiently to permit meaningful review.  See Carty, 520 F.3d at 992 (“Once the sentence is selected, the district court must explain it sufficiently to permit meaningful appellate review . . . . What constitutes a sufficient explanation will necessarily vary depending upon the complexity of the particular case . . . .”).  When a district court sentences a juvenile offender in a case in which an LWOP sentence is possible, the record must reflect that the court meaningfully engaged in Miller’s central inquiry.

And here is a concluding substantive paragraph from the dissent:

Thus, despite evidence of Briones’s rehabilitation, youth when the heinous crimes were committed, and youth-related characteristics, the record supports that Briones’s crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility, as opposed to transient immaturity. The district court therefore imposed a permissible sentence.  Notably, the majority does not conclude that a life without parole sentence is impermissible in this case. Instead, although the majority claims otherwise, the majority’s opinion vacates the district court’s sentence because the district court failed to find that Briones was permanently incorrigible. But as discussed above, there is no requirement for the district court to make any specific findings before imposing a life without parole sentence.  In short, the majority, citing Montgomery, states that it “do[es] not suggest the district court erred simply by failing to use any specific words,” Maj. at 19.  But in clear contravention of Montgomery, that is precisely why it has reversed. We remand for the district court to do again what it has already done.

July 9, 2019 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

"The Founders' Forfeiture"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper by Kevin Arlyck now available via SSRN that seems like especially good Fourth of July week reading. Here is its abstract:

Civil forfeiture is, in a word, controversial.  Critics allege that law enforcement authorities use forfeiture as means of appropriating valuable assets from often-innocent victims free of the constraints of criminal process.  Yet despite recent statutory reforms, a significant obstacle to meaningful change remains: Under longstanding Supreme Court precedent, the Constitution imposes few limits on civil forfeiture.  Relying on a perceived historical tradition of unfettered government power to seize and keep private property in response to legal violations, the Court has consistently rejected claims to constitutional protections.  Faced with an unfriendly historical tradition, forfeiture’s critics have tried to limit history’s relevance by asserting that forfeiture was traditionally used for limited purposes, but such arguments have fallen on deaf ears.

As this Article explains, forfeiture’s critics are right, but for the wrong reasons.  Based on original research into more than 500 unpublished federal forfeiture cases from 1789 to 1807, this Article shows — for the first time — that forfeiture in the Founding era was significantly constrained.  But not by judges. Instead, concern over forfeiture’s potential to impose massive penalties for minor and technical legal violations spurred Alexander Hamilton and the First Congress to establish executive-branch authority to return seized property to those who plausibly claimed a lack of fraudulent intent.  What is more, Hamilton and subsequent Treasury Secretaries understood themselves to be obligated to exercise that authority to its fullest extent — which they did, remitting forfeitures in over 90% of cases presented to them.   The result was an early forfeiture regime that was expansive in theory, but in practice was constrained by a deep belief in the impropriety of taking property from those who inadvertently broke the law.

Understanding early forfeiture’s true nature has significant implications for current debate about its proper limits.  The existence of meaningful constraints in the Founding era calls into question key historical propositions underlying the Court’s permissive modern jurisprudence, and suggests that history may offer an affirmative basis for identifying greater constitutional protections today.  This is also an opportune moment to reexamine forfeiture’s historical bona fides.  In addition to a growing public outcry over civil forfeiture, there are hints that members of the current Supreme Court may be willing to reconsider its constitutionality.

July 2, 2019 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 01, 2019

Two more notable imprisonment reductions using § 3582(c)(1)(A), one for LWOP term and another to remedy BOP's "abysmal health care"

As regular readers know, ever since the passage of the FIRST STEP Act, I have been talking up 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) as a critical and valuable new mechanism to reduce problematic prison sentences in any and every case in which a defendant presents "extraordinary and compelling reasons" supporting the reductions.  Earlier this month, I posted here and posted here two notable examples of judges finding notable reasons sufficient to reduce a sentence while making clear that the new FIRST STEP Act allows a judge broad authority to "determine whether any extraordinary and compelling reasons" justified a reduction in a prison term.  US v. Cantu, No. 1:05-CR-458-1, 2019 WL 2498923 (S.D. Tex. June 17, 2019) (finding extraordinary that government urged release to home confinement); see also US v. Cantu-Rivera, Cr. No. H-89-204, 2019 WL 2578272 (SD Tex. June 24, 2019) (finding FIRST STEP Act amendment of LWOP sentences supported finding of "extraordinary and compelling reasons").

Now I see that just late last week, at least two more district court issues two more important reductions in prison terms based on § 3582(c)(1)(A).  First, in US v. Johns, No. CR 91-392-TUC-CKJ, 2019 WL 2646663 (D. Ariz. June 27, 2019), a judge decided to reduce an LWOP drug conspiracy term because the defendant was 81 years old, now 81 years old, had served almost 23 years of his sentence and is "is rapidly deteriorating due to his age." Though an emphasis on old and and health is not unusual in this setting, I think the reduction of any federal LWOP sentence is noteworthy. 

Second, and even more interesting, US v. Beck, No. 1:13-CR-186-6, 2019 WL 2716505 (M.D.N.C. June 28, 2019).  In Beck, the judge authored a lengthy explanation for her reduction of the sentence to time served, and the start and conclusion provides an overview of the court's thinking:

Angela M. Beck is a federal prisoner serving a sentence for drug and firearms offenses.  She has cancer in her left breast and the Bureau of Prisons has not provided appropriate medical care for her disease, with repeated delays that have prevented her from timely obtaining urgent tests and treatment.  In the meantime, her cancer spread to her lymph nodes and possibly to her right breast.  Ms. Beck has filed a motion under the First Step Act of 2018 seeking immediate compassionate release.  Because Ms. Beck’s invasive cancer and BoP’s history of indifference to her treatment constitute extraordinary and compelling reasons, and because the § 3553(a) factors support a sentence reduction to time served, the motion for compassionate release will be granted....

Ms. Beck committed serious drug and firearms offenses with her husband in 2012 and 2013 that warrant substantial punishment.  She has served over six years of her sentence, nearly two of them with breast cancer treated so untimely as to significantly reduce her chances of survival.  Ms. Beck’s invasive cancer and the abysmal health care BoP has provided qualify as “extraordinary and compelling reasons” warranting a reduction in her sentence to time served.  See 18 U.S.C. 3582(c)(1)(A)(i).  While the old policy statement is not directly applicable to motions filed by defendants, a reduction is consistent with its general guidance and the Sentencing Commission’s intent.  With appropriate supervision, Ms. Beck poses little risk of recidivism or danger to the community.  She has already served an arduous sentence, and the § 3553 factors support a sentence reduction.  As such, Ms. Beck is entitled to compassionate release.

Just a few more remarkable stories made possible by the FIRST STEP Act.  I know many advocates hoped and wanted for the FIRST STEP Act to go a lot further and do a lot more.  But I continue to see a number of provisions of the Act as passed, particularly 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) and a few other provisions, as have a whole lot of potential to do a whole lot of good if used well.  (Indeed, I am hoping folks hoping to get retroactive relief from recent SCOTUS decisions like Rehaif and Davis and Haymond come to see the power and potential of § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i).

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

July 1, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Based on statutory proportionality review, split New Mexico Supreme Court dismiss death sentences for two murderers left on state's death row a decade after legislative abolition

As well reported in this Courthouse News Service piece, headlined "New Mexico Supreme Court Vacates Two Remaining Death Sentences," the final anti-death penalty shoe finally dropped in New Mexico a full decade after the state's legislature repealed its death penalty.  Here ere are the basics:

A divided New Mexico Supreme Court Friday set aside the death sentences of the last two men awaiting execution in the state, ruling that the penalties were disproportionate in comparison to sentences in similar murder cases.  The death penalty was abolished in New Mexico in 2009, but the death sentences of Timothy Allen and Robert Fry remained in place, because they were convicted and sentenced years before the change.

Allen and Fry were sentenced under a New Mexico law that requires the state’s highest court to review “comparative proportionality” in capital punishment cases.  State lawmakers adopted the 1976 law to ensure that the death penalty was not being imposed in ways that would violate inmates’ constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

Writing for the majority Friday, New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Barbara J. Vigil said justices found “no meaningful distinction” between the circumstances of Allen and Fry’s cases and those of similar murder cases.  “The absence of such a distinction renders the ultimate penalty of death contrary to the people’s mandate that the sentence be proportionate to the penalties imposed in similar cases,” Vigil said in the 147-page opinion.

Retired Justices Edward L. Chávez and Charles W. Daniels joined the majority decision, which did not address concerns over potential violations to Allen and Fry’s constitutional rights. Daniels wrote in a concurring opinion that “equally culpable” defendants in murder cases escaped the death penalty, adding that New Mexico has not imposed the death penalty in a “proportionate” way.  “A killer’s crimes reflect who he is,” Daniels said.  “What we do to the killer reflects who we are.”

Chief Justice Judith K. Nakamura wrote in the dissenting opinion that the majority misinterpreted the law.  “The Majority misstates the governing law and has done what our Legislature would not: repeal the death penalty in its entirety for all defendants in New Mexico,” said Nakamura, who was joined in dissent by retired Justice Petra Jimenez Maes.  “They perceive in the language authority to conclude that, because so few offenders in New Mexico have ever been sentenced to die, no offenders shall ever again be sentenced to die in New Mexico.”

The full 147-page ruling is available at this link, and here is how the Court's opinion gets started:

In this case we revisit our statutory responsibility to ensure that the death penalty is reserved for the most heinous crimes.  Since 1979, the New Mexico Legislature has directed this Court to ensure that “the death penalty shall not be imposed if . . . the sentence of death is excessive or disproportionate to the penalty imposed in similar cases.” NMSA 1978, § 31-20A-4(C)(4) (1979, repealed 2009).

In 2009, the Legislature abolished the death penalty as a sentencing option for murders committed after July 1, 2009.  Today, Petitioners Robert Fry and Timothy Allen, who committed their crimes before 2009, are the last inmates who remain on death row in New Mexico.  Fry and Allen filed Petitions for Writs of Habeas Corpus seeking to dismiss their death sentences in light of the prospective-only application of the repeal.

In this consolidated appeal of the district court’s denial of Petitioners’ motions to dismiss their death sentences, we hold that Petitioners’ death sentences are disproportionate and violate Section 31-20A-4(C)(4).  Guided by our recognition that our Legislature intended for comparative proportionality review to protect against the arbitrary imposition of the death penalty, we conclude that there is no meaningful basisfor distinguishing Fry and Allen from the many similar casesin which the death penalty was not imposed.  Because Petitioners’ death sentences are statutorily disproportionate to the penalties imposed in similar cases, we remand each case to the district court to impose a sentence of life imprisonment.

Though taking longer in New Mexico than elsewhere, this ruling continues the well-established trend of state courts finding one way or another to give retroactive effect to the statutory repeal of the death penalty even when a legislature has sought to explicitly provide for the carrying out of prior lawful death sentence.

July 1, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 28, 2019

Just how huge is the mess and challenge for lower federal courts after SCOTUS decisions in Davis, Haymond and Rehaif?

I feel like, in order to really understand their import, I will need weeks, maybe months, to reread and reflect on the three decisions that were big wins for federal criminal defendants handed down by SCOTUS in the last week.  But, of course, lower courts do not have an academic's luxury of time to make sense of US v. Davis, No. 18-431 (S. Ct. June 24, 2019) (available here; discussed here), US v. Haymond, No. 17-1672 (S. Ct. June 26, 2019) (available here; discussed here) and Rehaif v. US, No. 17-9560 (S. Ct. June 21, 2019) (available here; discussed here). 

I suspect some lower courts are already starting to get motions from federal prisoners or defendants in pending cases that are based on these rulings.  And the Supreme Court's final order list this morning has a bunch of remands based on these rulings that highlight the coming work for federal Circuit Courts as well.  (For those interested in an accounting, I counted sixth Davis GVRs, one Haymond GVR, and four Rehaif GVRs.)

I will not try in this post to sort out the likely litigation echoes of these cases, but I will try to crowd source opinions as to which of these cases will prove most impactful and consequential.  Of course, impactful and consequential can be defined lots of different ways — e.g., it might be gauged based on the number of disruptions of prior convictions and sentences, emergence of a new jurisprudence, possible legislative responses, total volume of cites and litigation, etc.  Without getting too bogged down in trying to define these terms, I just want to put the question out there for collective engagement among the always informed and thoughtful readers of this blog:

Among the trio of Davis, Haymond and Rehaif, which of these recent rulings by SCOTUS for a federal criminal defendant do you think will prove to be the most impactful and consequential?

June 28, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

SCOTUS, in final order of OT 2018, adds two more federal criminal cases to docket for next Term

The Supreme Court released its final order list for the Term today, and it unsurprisingly starts with a bunch of remands based on its recent big criminal rulings.  I will do a distinct post on those remands, and here will instead focus on a few of the 11+ cases in which SCOTUS granted certiorari review for hearing the cases in the fall.  Most of these cases (some of which are consolidated) deal with civil issues, but I see two that are federal criminal matters: Kelly, Bridget v. United States, No. 18-1059, and Shular, Eddie v. United States, No. 18-6662.

SCOTUSblog has this page covering Kelly, which emerges from the high-profile "Bridgegate" scandal in New Jersey and present this issue:  "Whether a public official 'defraud[s]' the government of its property by advancing a “public policy reason” for an official decision that is not her subjective “real reason” for making the decision."

And the Shular case is yet another case raising an important technical issue in the application of the Armed Career Criminal Act, with the cert petition presenting this question: "Whether the determination of a 'serious drug offense' under the Armed Career Criminal Act requires the same categorical approach used in the determination of a 'violent felony' under the Act?"

Last but not last, the SCOTUS order list ends with a cert denial in a South Carolina case, McGee v. McFadden, No. 18-7277, which prompted an eight-page dissent from Justice Sotomayor starting this way:

Pro se petitioner Shannon McGee has a strong argument that his trial and resulting life sentence were fundamentally unfair because the State withheld material exculpatory evidence.  See Brady v. Maryland, 373 U. S. 83, 87 (1963).  The state courts offered flawed rationales for rejecting that claim. Nevertheless, the District Court denied McGee federal habeas relief, and both the District Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit summarily declined to grant McGee a “certificate of appealability” (COA), 28 U.S.C. §2253(c), concluding that his claim was not even debatable.  Without a COA, McGee cannot obtain appellate review on the merits of his claim.  See ibid.  Because the COA procedure should facilitate, not frustrate, fulsome review of potentially meritorious claims like McGee’s, I would grant the petition for writ of certiorari and reverse the denial of a COA.

June 28, 2019 in Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 27, 2019

"Somewhere Between Death Row and Death Watch: How Courts Have Precluded Capital Defendants From Raising Execution-Related Claims"

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

Most discussion on capital punishment focus on the merits of the death penalty generally.  While those arguments are surely important, for as long as capital punishment remains in the United States, safeguarding defendants’ rights throughout the capital sentencing process — including through execution — is crucial.  As part of that effort, this Article identifies a portion of the often-overlooked capital appellate process that effectively divests defendants of significant claims.

This issue is illustrated by the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decisions in Bucklew v. Precythe and Dunn v. Price, which provided insight in a lot of contexts.  Contributing to the conversation on the Court’s recent decisions, this Article explains how Bucklew and Dunn provided insight into not-so-obvious aspects of capital punishment with which defendants often struggle.  Specifically, Bucklew and Dunn illustrate the procedural predicament defendants face in raising execution- and warrant-related claims.  On one hand, courts determine that execution-related claims are not ripe, or premature, when raised before a defendant is under an active death warrant.  On the other, as in Bucklew and Dunn, when the defendant is under an active death warrant, courts determine the claims are brought too late, suspecting a game of delay.  Thus, as this Article explains, the proper time for defendants to raise execution-related claims is caught somewhere between death row and death watch, and courts have essentially precluded defendants from properly raising and being heard on these issues.

Addressing this concern, this Article canvasses potential solutions.  Ultimately, this Article concludes that the best solution is for states to enact and courts to enforce uniform warrant procedures, an example of which is outlined here. 

June 27, 2019 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Taking more stock of the many shades of Justice Neil Gorsuch in criminal cases

I-dont-always-vote-in-favor-of-criminal-defendants-but-when-i-do-justice-alito-starts-drinking-dos-eIn this post on Monday, fresh on the heels of noticing Justice Neil Gorsuch's notable votes for the claims of federal criminal defendants in US v. Gundy and Rehaif v. US and Davis v. US, I reviewed Justice Gorsuch's interesting and varied votes and role in big contested criminal cases from the SCOTUS docket this Term.  Of course, Wednesday brought another data point via the Court's ruling in US v. Haymond, a case in which Justice Gorsuch provided a key swing vote in a 5-4 ruling for another federal criminal defendant and wrote a potent plurality opinion extolling the importance of the Sixth Amendment jury trial right (basics here).

But lest one let four notable late-in-the-Term votes unduly shape one's view of Justice Gorsuch's approach in criminal cases, Leah Litman has this new Slate commentary designed to make sure nobody comes to think Justice Gorsuch is always channeling the late Justice William Brennan.  The piece is bluntly headlined "Neil Gorsuch Is No Friend to Criminal Defendants," and everyone interested in this topic should read the whole thing.  Here are excerpts:

Writers like to depict him as a friend to criminal defendants; the tone of several pieces even makes it sounds like he is among the most-criminal-defendant-friendly justices on the modern court.  And some commentators who cannot resist the blazing hot countertakes have even suggested that Gorsuch is better for criminal defendants than a Justice Merrick Garland would have been.

Where to start?  Even just a few cases from the Supreme Court’s current term make it clear that Gorsuch is no friend to criminal defendants.  The fact that he rules against the government in some number of criminal cases, and occasionally departs from his more law-and-order conservative colleagues in doing so, does not change that fact.  At most, Gorsuch is as good for criminal defendants as the least-criminal-defendant-friendly Democratic appointee.  That hardly makes him a hero.  On some cases, Gorsuch has played the villain....

It is true that Gorsuch sometimes departs from his conservative colleagues and rules for criminal defendants.  It is also true that his seemingly libertarian instincts lead him to be more friendly to criminal defendants than Justice Brett Kavanaugh....  But all of these examples hardly establish that Gorsuch is a friend to criminal defendants. The fact that his aggressive approach to constitutional law, which largely frees him from the constraints of stare decisis, occasionally leads him to reshape the law in ways that favor criminal defendants should not obscure the many times that he has reached out to reshape the law in ways that would meaningfully harm them.

Notably, Ramesh Ponnuru already has this partial response to this piece at the National Review under the headline "A Gorsuch Made Mostly of Straw." Here is how it closes:

The attention to Gorsuch’s pro-criminal defendant rulings really could create a misleading impression about his jurisprudence generally and it is worth providing a more complete sense of it.  But I am left thinking that Gorsuch’s defenders have mostly not argued for him as a friend of criminal defendants — nor should they have, since a Supreme Court justice shouldn’t approach the kind of cases that come before him with a bias for or against criminal defendants.

My quick take it that Justice Gorsuch is particularly drawn to arguments from defendants (especially federal defendants) that concern the structural elements of the Constitution and our criminal justice system that protect individual liberty.  At the same time, he seems particularly unmoved by arguments made by state defendants (especially state capital defendants) that concern when he may consider "mere" matters of justice administration that can and should be trusted to the states. In this regard, he seems to approach the criminal docket somewhat akin to the Justice he replaced, Justice Antonin Scalia, and that is enough for me to anoint him the most interesting person on the Court in criminal cases (see silly picture above).

What strikes me as particularly interesting for the Court as a whole with respect to its criminal jurisprudence is the fact that the Chief Justice and Justice Brett Kavanaugh seem to becoming the yang to Justice Gorsuch's yin.  In capital cases, Chief Justice and Justice Kavanaugh seem often at least a bit more inclined to vote in favor of a capital defendant (Madison v. Alabama and Flowers v. Mississippi) come to mind, whereas in some of the structural cases they are disinclined to rule for a federal defendant (as in Davis v. US and US v. Haymond).  Interesting times.

Prior related post:

June 27, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

"The Future of Presidential Clemency Decisionmaking"

The title of this post is the title of this notable and timely new article authored by Paul Larkin and now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

The Framers gave the president the clemency power when the federal government and the nation were in their infancy.  The president has far more demands on his time today than George Washington did in 1789.  The time necessary to make clemency decisions, even if done properly (and it has not always been done that way) alone could keep a large number of aides busy full time, let alone exhaust a chief executive troubled by the prospect that too many innocent people are rotting in prison or that too many people have been sentenced to the slow death of unnecessarily long terms of imprisonment.  Accordingly, the question is whether the president should leave clemency judgments to others, particularly ones who are professionals at sentencing.

Some scholars have suggested reinstituting some form of parole.  Yet, I think that we not will see a rebirth of parole any time soon.  The criticisms that persuaded Congress to abandon parole in the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 have not disappeared or lost their force.  Proof can be seen in the fact that, during the debate over the First Step Act of 2018, neither the House of Representatives nor the Senate seriously considered reinstituting parole to address the overcrowding that federal prisons have witnessed over the last decade-plus.  Other scholars urge Congress to adopt a “second-look” resentencing system.  That also is unlikely.  The suggestion that Congress reinstitute some type of second-look mechanism would be scorned as the attempted resurrection of parole under an alias.  Indeed, the First Step Act approached this issue by using well-settled good-time and earned-time credit systems to decide whether and when to release prisoners, not a second-look mechanism.

A third option, however, can be found in a provision of the First Step Act modifying the gatekeeper role played by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) since the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 went into effect.  An argument can be made that district courts now can resentence prisoners because prisoners can now go to court to argue that “extraordinary and compelling reasons” justify their early release without needing the BOP to ask a court for that relief.  That type of change to the law, however, is far from the type of interstitial fleshing out that Congress traditionally delegates to others.  Nonetheless, it remains to be seen how the Supreme Court will resolve that issue.

June 26, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

SCOTUS, via splintered 5-4 ruling, decides that supervised release revocation procedures used in Haymond are unconstitutional

Via a divided opinion thanks to the separate vote of Justice Breyer, the Supreme Court this morning ruled in favor of a federal criminal defendant's claim that the procedures used to revoke his federal supervised release term and send him back to prison was unconstitutional in US v. Haymond, No. 17-1672 (S. Ct. June 26, 2019) (available here).  Here is the vote/opinion break down in the case:

GORSUCH, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which GINSBURG, SOTOMAYOR, and KAGAN, JJ., joined. BREYER, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. ALITO, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and THOMAS and KAVANAUGH, JJ., joined.

Here is how Justice Gorsuch's lead plurality opinion starts:

Only a jury, acting on proof beyond a reasonable doubt, may take a person’s liberty.  That promise stands as one of the Constitution’s most vital protections against arbitrary government.  Yet in this case a congressional statute compelled a federal judge to send a man to prison for a minimum of five years without empaneling a jury of his peers or requiring the government to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.  As applied here, we do not hesitate to hold that the statute violates the Fifth and Sixth Amendments.

Because Justice Breyer's fifth vote is essential to the result here, his short concurring opinion demands quoting at length. So:

I agree with much of the dissent, in particular that the role of the judge in a supervised-release proceeding is consistent with traditional parole. See post, at 9–10 (opinion of ALITO, J.).  As 18 U.S.C. §3583 makes clear, Congress did not intend the system of supervised release to differ from parole in this respect. And in light of the potentially destabilizing consequences, I would not transplant the Apprendi line of cases to the supervised-release context.  See post, at 4–5....

Nevertheless, I agree with the plurality that this specific provision of the supervised-release statute, §3583(k), is unconstitutional.  Revocation of supervised release is typically understood as “part of the penalty for the initial offense.”  Johnson v. United States, 529 U. S. 694, 700 (2000).  The consequences that flow from violation of the conditions of supervised release are first and foremost considered sanctions for the defendant’s “breach of trust” — his “failure to follow the court-imposed conditions” that followed his initial conviction — not “for the particular conduct triggering the revocation as if that conduct were being sentenced as new federal criminal conduct.”  United States Sentencing Commission, Guidelines Manual ch. 7, pt. A, intro. 3(b) (Nov. 2018); see post, at 12–13.  Consistent with that view, the consequences for violation of conditions of supervised release under §3583(e), which governs most revocations, are limited by the severity of the original crime of conviction, not the conduct that results in revocation.  See §3583(e)(3) (specifying that a defendant may as a consequence of revocation serve no “more than 5 years in prison if the offense that resulted in the term of supervised release is a class A felony, [no] more than 3 years in prison if . . . a class B felony,” and so on).

Section 3583(k) is difficult to reconcile with this understanding of supervised release.  In particular, three aspects of this provision, considered in combination, lead me to think it is less like ordinary revocation and more like punishment for a new offense, to which the jury right would typically attach.  First, §3583(k) applies only when a defendant commits a discrete set of federal criminal offenses specified in the statute.  Second, §3583(k) takes away the judge’s discretion to decide whether violation of a condition of supervised release should result in imprisonment and for how long.  Third, §3583(k) limits the judge’s discretion in a particular manner: by imposing a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment of “not less than 5 years” upon a judge’s finding that a defendant has “commit[ted] any” listed “criminal offense.”

Taken together, these features of §3583(k) more closely resemble the punishment of new criminal offenses, but without granting a defendant the rights, including the jury right, that attend a new criminal prosecution.  And in an ordinary criminal prosecution, a jury must find facts that trigger a mandatory minimum prison term. Alleyne, 570 U. S., at 103.

Accordingly, I would hold that §3583(k) is unconstitutional and remand for the Court of Appeals to address the question of remedy.  Because this is the course adopted by the plurality, I concur in the judgment.

And here is how Justice Alito's dissent starts:

I do not think that there is a constitutional basis for today’s holding, which is set out in JUSTICE BREYER’s opinion, but it is narrow and has saved our jurisprudence from the consequences of the plurality opinion, which is not based on the original meaning of the Sixth Amendment, is irreconcilable with precedent, and sports rhetoric with potentially revolutionary implications.  The plurality opinion appears to have been carefully crafted for the purpose of laying the groundwork for later decisions of much broader scope.

WOW! I am surprised and disappointed that the Chief Justice and Justices Thomas and Kavanaugh all sign off on Justice Alito's dissent. I thought for sure one or more of them would be inclined to vote with the defendant in this case on at least a narrow ground.  But it seems Justice Gorsuch was so eager to swing for the Fifth and Sixth Amendment fences, he could not get any of these other Justices to stay on his team in this notable case.  I will need a few hours, probably a few days, to figure out just what this means now and for the future of Fifth and Sixth Amendment sentencing jurisprudence.  For now, I will just say WOW again.

UPDATE: I see this new post at Crime & Consequences on this ruling with this adroit title "An Odd 'Supervised Release' Law Bites the Apprendi Dust."

June 26, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

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

As regular readers know, ever since the passage of the FIRST STEP Act, I have been talking up 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) as a critical and valuable new mechanism to reduce problematic prison sentences in any and every case in which the defendant presents "extraordinary and compelling reasons" for the reductions.  Though to date it seems this imprisonment-reduction authority granted by 3582(c)(1)(A) has been used almost only for so-called compassionate release situations in which a prisoner was extremely ill or had an extreme family situation, I posted here yesterday a recent example of a judge finding other reasons sufficient to reduce a sentence and making clear that the new FIRST STEP Act allows a judge broad authority to "determine whether any extraordinary and compelling reasons" justified a reduction in a prison term.  United States v. Cantu, No. 1:05-CR-458-1, 2019 WL 2498923 (S.D. Tex. June 17, 2019).

Interestingly, around the time I was blogging about the Cantu ruling, another US District Court judge was issuing another important § 3582(c)(1)(A) ruling in United States v. Cantu-Rivera, Cr. No. H-89-204 (SD Tex. June 24, 2019) (available for download below).  This one, penned by Judge Sim Lake, is the first cases I have seen in which a defendant serving an LWOP sentence has had his sentence reduced to time served (30 years!) via a motion under § 3582(c)(1)(A).  This new Cantu-Rivera ruling, which runs only six pages and merits a full read, includes these notable passages:

Mr. Cantu-Rivera meets the age-related definition of extraordinary and compelling circumstances in U.S.S.G.§ lBl.13, comment. (n.l(B)).  He is 69 years old, he is experiencing serious deterioration in physical health because of the aging process (arthritic conditions in multiple joints, cataracts, diabetes, prostrate conditions), and he has served 30 years in prison....

The Court also recognizes the extraordinary degree of rehabilitation Mr. Cantu-Rivera has accomplished during the 30 years he has been incarcerated.  That rehabilitation includes extensive educational achievements, including Mr. Cantu-Rivera's completion of over 4,000 hours of teaching while in federal prison to complete a Teaching Aide apprenticeship with the Department of Labor.  The extraordinary degree of rehabilitation is also evident in Mr. Cantu-Rivera's service as a teaching assistant in several prison facilities for high-school equivalency and English-as-a­ Second-Language programs and his service in the BOP's suicide watch program, helping to care for inmates placed in solitary confinement due to suicide attempts.  Finally, the Court recognizes as a factor in this combination the fundamental change to sentencing policy carried out in the First Step Act's elimination of life imprisonment as a mandatory sentence solely by reason of a defendant's prior convictions.  § 401(a)(2)(A)(ii), 132 Stat. at 5220 (codified at 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A)).  The combination of all of these factors establishes the extraordinary and compelling reasons justifying the reduction in sentence in this case.

Download Cantu-Rivera Opinion

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

June 25, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Which Presidential Candidate Would Give David Barren His Freedom?"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new Filter commentary authored by Rory Fleming.  I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

David Barren is a Black man from Pittsburgh who was sentenced in 2010 to life without parole in the federal criminal justice system.  That was during President Obama’s tenure — despite his heavily implying that no one should serve more than 20 years in prison for a nonviolent drug offense — and while Attorney General Eric Holder ran the Department of Justice.

Barren was accused of leading a conspiracy involving the distribution of over 150 kilograms of cocaine — though trial transcripts show that federal prosecutors, the defense attorney and the judge had huge difficulty determining how much cocaine there really was.  While the government claimed that there was $1.2 million of drug money to be seized, court documents show it was $76,000 plus Barren’s house, worth approximately $500,000.

Anrica Caldwell, Barren’s fiancée, believes that federal prosecutors on the case demanded life in retaliation for his actually taking them to trial — something of a unicorn in the federal justice system, in which 97 percent of cases end in plea deals.  At least one of his co-conspirators got only four years in prison for the conspiracy, after testifying against Barren.

Obama felt bad for him, but only to a point. He commuted Barren’s sentence to 30 years on his final day in office.  As Barren himself wrote in an email to Reason reporter CJ Ciaramella, he got a “reduction from LIFE in letters, to life in letters and numbers.”

Caldwell, an elementary school teacher in Pittsburgh, is the vice president of CAN-DO, an organization that tirelessly fights for clemency for nonviolent federal drug prisoners. “Baby, I’m gonna die in here,” Barren told her in a call from prison in January 2017.  He is currently 54, and not due to be released until 2034....

But at least one presidential candidate, Senator Cory Booker — recognizing that as things stand, nothing is going to change in time to save people like Barren — is going for broke. Indeed, Booker’s new clemency plan aims at reducing sentences for potentially tens of thousands of people serving federal time for drugs.  Unlike Obama, he said he would do it by executive order — constituting a White House clemency recommendation panel that is not hamstrung by the US Department of Justice, which currently houses the Office of the Pardon Attorney.

This would arguably represent the first time in US history that a president told federal line prosecutors to stuff their hyper-carceral, alarmist agenda.  Obama buckled significantly to their pressure by leaving many people like Barren out to dry on de facto life sentences. “People assume that Obama’s clemency initiative means 1,700 people are kicking their feet up now at home,” said Caldwell, “and that’s just not true.”

Barren’s case is pending before the Trump White House for additional clemency relief, and Caldwell hopes this could be seen as an opportunity for Trump to prove he is serious about the issue before an election year.

Two other presidential candidates could follow Booker’s ambitious clemency reasoning.  In the Queens District Attorney race, perhaps the biggest criminal justice referendum of the year, both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have joined liberal media in endorsing Tiffany Cabán, who promises more proportional sanctions for both nonviolent and violent crime.

Sanders and Warren should talk about their plans for criminal justice reform in more detail, as it is the biggest civil rights issue of our time.  Would they give a man like David Barren a chance? Or would they, too, let his clock run out before he can see his loved ones from outside of the bars?

A few of many older and recent related posts: 

June 25, 2019 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 24, 2019

New District Court ruling confirms that "any extraordinary and compelling reasons" can now provide basis for reducing imprisonment under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)

As regular readers know, even since the passage of the FIRST STEP Act, I have been talking up 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) as a critical and valuable new mechanism to reduce problematic prison sentences in any and every case in which the defendant presents "extraordinary and compelling reasons" for the reductions. To date, it seemed that the imprisonment reduction authority granted by 3582(c)(1)(A) had been used almost only for so-called compassionate release situations in which a prisoner was extremely ill or had an extreme family situation.

But now, thanks to this posting by Shon Hopwood, I see that District Court Judge Marina Garcia Marmolejo resentenced Conrado Cantu under this provision via a thorough and thoughtful order explaining why, in the wake of the FIRST STEP Act, "when a defendant brings a motion for a sentence reduction under the amended provision, the Court can determine whether any extraordinary and compelling reasons other than those delineated in U.S.S.G. § 1B1.13 cmt. n.1(A)–(C) warrant granting relief." United States v. Cantu, No. 1:05-CR-458-1, 2019 WL 2498923 (S.D. Tex. June 17, 2019) (reprinted opinion available for download below).

As Shon explains in this post, this Cantu case may be the first in which a federal judge has "held that nothing in the statutory text of § 3582(c), nor the Sentencing Guidelines, precludes a judge from making its own determination of what are 'extraordinary and compelling' circumstances warranting a reduction of sentence."  Shon and I think this is exactly the right reading of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) after the changes made by the FIRST STEP Act.  Before FIRST STEP, the Bureau of Prisons was the gatekeeper for what motions should be brought for a reduction of imprisonment based on "extraordinary and compelling reasons."  Congress was clearly discontent with how that was going (and for good reason), and so now judges are to decide without a gatekeeper when  a term of imprisonment should be reduced based on "extraordinary and compelling reasons."

In light of all the big federal criminal justice rulings on behalf of criminal defendants in the last few days (especially Rehaif and Davis), I am wondering and hoping litigants and judges might now start to see the value of using 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) to operationalize some new precedents rather than rely only or even primarily on 2255 motions.  There are a number of problematic procedural issues that can arise when a prisoner tries to get a favorable SCOTUS ruling applied retroactively through a 2255 motion.  But if the prisoner can show that a new SCOTUS ruling is part of what provides "extraordinary and compelling reasons" for a prison reduction (and such a reduction is in keeping with the traditional 3553(a) factors), perhaps motions via 3582(c)(1)(A) will go down easier than 2255 motions.

Download United States v Cantu

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

June 24, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Gundy, Rehaif and Davis, oh my: object lessons in results-oriented jurisprudence

Wo-maab21165With apologies to Dorothy and with uncertainty about just which Justices should be cast as the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion, the title of this post is meant in part to reflect how I am feeling overwhelmed trying to process the results and votes in three big federal criminal justice cases over the last three workdays, namely Gundy v. US, 17-6086 (S. Ct. June 20, 2019) (available here; discussed here), Rehaif v. US, No. 17-9560 (S. Ct. June 21, 2019) (available here; discussed here), and US v. Davis, No. 18-431 (S. Ct. June 24, 2019) (available here; discussed here). 

Beyond being overwhelmed by 150+ pages of dense SCOTUS text, I am also struck by my sense that so many of the Justices in these cases have had their opinions shaped by the likely or feared results of a ruling one way or another.  To this end, this passage from the majority opinion penned by Justice Gorsuch today in Davis caught my eye:

In the end, the dissent is forced to argue that holding §924(c)(3)(B) unconstitutional would invite “bad” social policy consequences.  Post, at 34.  In fact, the dissent’s legal analysis only comes sandwiched between a lengthy paean to laws that impose severe punishments for gun crimes and a rogue’s gallery of offenses that may now be punished somewhat less severely.  See post, at 1–2, 30–34.  The dissent acknowledges that “the consequences cannot change our understanding of the law.”  Post, at 34.  But what’s the point of all this talk of “bad” consequences if not to suggest that judges should be tempted into reading the law to satisfy their policy goals?

I am not inclined to use this post to rail against results-oriented jurisprudence, in part because I think all jurisprudence is results-oriented in one sense or another.  But with Gundy, Rehaif and Davis all so new and raw, and with surely lots of fall-out and follow-up to flow from these decisions, I could not resist a post spotlighting a little (Emerald City) legal realism.  And with Haymond still in the works, perhaps even the Sixth Amendment Wizard will be revealed before too long.

P.S.:  If anyone is eager to cast certain Justices as the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion (or the Wicked Witch or Glinda or the Wizard or Auntie Em or even Toto), feel free to have at it in the comments.

UPDATE: Here are links to the SCOTUSblog analyses of these opinions:

On Gundy by Mila Sohoni, "Court refuses to resurrect nondelegation doctrine"

On Rehaif by Evan Lee, "Felons-in-possession must know they are felons"

On Davis by Leah Litman, "Vagueness doctrine as a shield for criminal defendants"

June 24, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Accounting Justice Gorsuch's votes (and opinions) so far this SCOTUS Term in big criminal cases

I am going to need a few hours (and days and weeks) to fully process the latest huge vagueness ruling from SCOTUS today in US v. Davis (basics here).  But Justice Gorsuch's latest decision to serve as the fifth vote (and to write the opinion for the Court) in this major ruling for a federal criminal defendant has me now eager to do a (too) quick accounting of his work in this space this Term.  Though we still await two more notable criminal rulings this Term — US v. Haymond and Mitchell v. Wisconsin — I do not think it is too early to start reviewing the Term that was and Justice Gorsuch's particularly interesting role in the criminal docket.

I am going to focus here on major contested criminal justice ruling from OT 2018 (going in the order argued), and I welcome feedback on this accounting as I start taking stock:

US v. Gundy, 5-3 ruling for feds, Justice Gorsuch in dissent for federal defendant

Madison v. Alabama, 5-3 ruling for state capital defendant, Justice Gorsuch in dissent for state

Stokeling v. US, 5-4 ruling for feds, Justice Gorsuch in majority

Garza v. Idaho, 6-3 ruling for state defendant, Justice Gorsuch in dissent for state

Bucklew v. Precythe, 5-4  ruling for state in capital case, Justice Gorsuch authors majority

Gamble v. US, 7-2 ruling for feds, Justice Gorsuch in dissent for federal defendant

Mont v. US, 5-4 ruling for feds, Justice Gorsuch in dissent for federal defendant

Flowers v. Mississippi, 7-2 ruling for state capital defendant, Justice Gorsuch in dissent for state

Davis v. US, 5-4  ruling for federal defendant, Justice Gorsuch authors majority

Rehaif v. US, 7-2 ruling for federal defendant, Justice Gorsuch in majority

Assembling this abridged list of notable criminal justice rulings this Term confirms my instinct that state capital defendants ought not be looking to get a vote from Justice Gorsuch (with the Chief Justice and Justice Kavanaugh seeming the most likely to swing), while federal defendants ought to be reasonably hopeful to get his vote in contested cases.  Though I hope and expect I the fine folks at SCOTUSblog and others can and will be do a more rigorous accounting on these matters at some point, I am eager to prime on-going conversations about how the current Court continues to be so very interesting and somewhat unpredictable on so many criminal cases.

June 24, 2019 in Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

SCOTUS, ruling 5-4, finds part of 924(c) unconstitutionally vague in Davis

This morning the Supreme Court in US v. Davis, No. 18-431 (S. Ct. June 24, 2019) (available here), has issues another huge ruling finding an important federal criminal statute unconstitutionally vague. The majority opinion in Davis is authored by Justice Gorsuch and starts this way:

In our constitutional order, a vague law is no law at all.  Only the people’s elected representatives in Congress have the power to write new federal criminal laws. And when Congress exercises that power, it has to write statutes that give ordinary people fair warning about what the law demands of them.  Vague laws transgress both of those constitutional requirements.  They hand off the legislature’s responsibility for defining criminal behavior to unelected prosecutors and judges, and they leave people with no sure way to know what consequences will attach to their conduct.  When Congress passes a vague law, the role of courts under our Constitution is not to fashion a new, clearer law to take its place, but to treat the law as a nullity and invite Congress to try again.

Today we apply these principles to 18 U. S. C. §924(c).  That statute threatens long prison sentences for anyone who uses a firearm in connection with certain other federal crimes. But which other federal crimes?  The statute’s residual clause points to those felonies “that by [their] nature, involv[e] a substantial risk that physical force against the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing the offense.” § 924(c)(3)(B).  Even the government admits that this language, read in the way nearly everyone (including the government) has long understood it, provides no reliable way to determine which offenses qualify as crimes of violence and thus is unconstitutionally vague.  So today the government attempts a new and alternative reading designed to save the residual clause. But this reading, it turns out, cannot be squared with the statute’s text, context, and history.  Were we to adopt it, we would be effectively stepping outside our role as judges and writing a new law rather than applying the one Congress adopted.

Justice Kavanaugh authors a very lengthy dissent for himself and three other Justices that starts this way:

Crime and firearms form a dangerous mix. From the 1960s through the 1980s, violent gun crime was rampant in America.  The wave of violence destroyed lives and devastated communities, particularly in America’s cities.  Between 1963 and 1968, annual murders with firearms rose by a staggering 87 percent, and annual aggravated assaults with firearms increased by more than 230 percent.

Faced with an onslaught of violent gun crime and its debilitating effects, the American people demanded action. In 1968, Congress passed and President Lyndon Johnson signed the Gun Control Act.  That law made it a separate federal crime to use or carry a firearm during a federal felony. Despite that and other efforts, violent crime with firearms continued at extraordinarily dangerous levels.  In 1984 and again in 1986, in legislation signed by President Reagan, Congress reenacted that provision of the 1968 Act, with amendments.  The law now prohibits, among other things, using or carrying a firearm during and in relation to a federal “crime of violence.” 18 U. S. C. §924(c)(1)(A).  The law mandates substantial prison time for violators.

Over the last 33 years, tens of thousands of §924(c) cases have been prosecuted in the federal courts. Meanwhile, violent crime with firearms has decreased significantly.  Over the last 25 years, the annual rate of murders with firearms has dropped by about 50 percent, and the annual rate of nonfatal violent crimes (robberies, aggravated assaults, and sex crimes) with firearms has decreased by about 75 percent.  Violent crime in general (committed with or without a firearm) has also declined. During that same time period, both the annual rate of overall violent crime and the annual rate of murders have dropped by almost 50 percent.  Although the level of violent crime in America is still very high, especially in certain cities, Americans under the age of 40 probably cannot fully appreciate how much safer most American cities and towns are now than they were in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.  Many factors have contributed to the decline of violent crime in America. But one cannot dismiss the effects of state and federal laws that impose steep punishments on those who commit violent crimes with firearms.

Yet today, after 33 years and tens of thousands of federal prosecutions, the Court suddenly finds a key provision of §924(c) to be unconstitutional because it is supposedly too vague. That is a surprising conclusion for the Court to reach about a federal law that has been applied so often for so long with so little problem.  The Court’s decision today will make it harder to prosecute violent gun crimes in the future.  The Court’s decision also will likely mean that thousands of inmates who committed violent gun crimes will be released far earlier than Congress specified when enacting §924(c). The inmates who will be released early are not nonviolent offenders.  They are not drug offenders.  They are offenders who committed violent crimes with firearms, often brutally violent crimes.

June 24, 2019 in Gun policy and sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Supreme Court grants cert on AEPDA rules limiting habeas petitions

The Supreme Court this morning via this order list granted cert on a number of cases, one of which, Banister v. Davis, 18-6943, concerns federal habeas procedures.  Here is how the grant appears on the order list:

The motion of petitioner for leave to proceed in forma pauperis is granted, and the petition for a writ of certiorari is granted limited to the following question: Whether and under what circumstances a timely Rule 59(e) motion should be recharacterized as a second or successive habeas petition under Gonzalez v. Crosby, 545 U.S. 524 (2005).

June 24, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Were lawyers busy all weekend drafting "Rehaif motions" seeking relief for "tens of thousands of prisoners" potentially impacted by the SCOTUS decision?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by the dire claims appearing in Justice Alito's dissent in Friday's Supreme Court ruling in Rehaif v. US, No. 17-9560 (S. Ct. June 21, 2019) (available here).  At the start of his dissent, Justice Alito frets that the Court's ruling in Rehaif "will create a mountain of problems with respect to the thousands of prisoners currently serving terms for §922(g) convictions" and that "[a]pplications for relief by federal prisoners sentenced under §922(g) will swamp the lower courts."  At the end of his dissent, he returns to this lament (with cites removed):

Although the majority presents its decision as modest, its practical effects will be far reaching and cannot be ignored. Tens of thousands of prisoners are currently serving sentences for violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(g).  It is true that many pleaded guilty, and for most direct review is over.  Nevertheless, every one of those prisoners will be able to seek relief by one route or another.  Those for whom direct review has not ended will likely be entitled to a new trial.  Others may move to have their convictions vacated under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, and those within the statute of limitations will be entitled to relief if they can show that they are actually innocent of violating §922(g), which will be the case if they did not know that they fell into one of the categories of persons to whom the offense applies.  If a prisoner asserts that he lacked that knowledge and therefore was actually innocent, the district courts, in a great many cases, may be required to hold a hearing, order that the prisoner be brought to court from a distant place of confinement, and make a credibility determination as to the prisoner’s subjective mental state at the time of the crime, which may have occurred years in the past.  This will create a substantial burden on lower courts, who are once again left to clean up the mess the Court leaves in its wake as it moves on to the next statute in need of “fixing.”...

The majority today opens the gates to a flood of litigation that is sure to burden the lower courts with claims for relief in a host of cases where there is no basis for doubting the defendant’s knowledge.

Though I am not sure that the litigation following the Court's decision in Rehaif will amount to a flood, I am sure that it will be interesting to see just how this ruling echoes through the lower courts in the weeks and months ahead.

June 23, 2019 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, June 22, 2019

"Judges should be able to take a 'second look' at prison sentencing"

The title of this post is the title of this recent USA Today op-ed authored by Kevin Sharp and Kevin Ring. Based on the title alone, regular readers should know I am keen on the ideas in this piece, and here are excerpts:

It’s time we took bold steps that would give most prisoners an incentive to work hard to change their lives and successfully reintegrate into society, making us all safer when they do. It’s time for Congress and state legislatures to adopt broad “second look” sentencing laws.

We have both worked with people who have taken extraordinary steps to rehabilitate themselves in prison. One of us is a former federal judge who resigned, in large part, because he could no longer stand to impose the excessive and unjust prison terms Congress mandates in so many cases. The other is a former prisoner and the leader of a national organization that works with thousands of families directly impacted by harsh federal and state sentencing laws.

We know that implementing second-look laws, which would allow judges to review every offender’s sentence after a certain period — say 10 or 15 years — could reform our criminal justice system in a way that would recognize the capacity for rehabilitation, ensure public safety and reduce excessive sentences.

Second-look laws would give any individual hoping for a second chance more than enough time to show that he or she has earned it. Knowing that an opportunity for resentencing exists would very likely improve morale and behavior inside prisons, benefiting prisoners and corrections officers alike.

There is nothing more frightening than living in an environment where there is no hope. Moreover, there is ample evidence to suggest that lengthier sentences do not make us safer, yet our country continues to impose some of the harshest prison terms in the Western world....

Although presidents and many governors have the authority to shorten excessive sentences and reward extraordinary rehabilitation, they rarely use it. Over the past 40 years, executives have been loath to take any risks with their political futures. We need to move beyond short-term fear and follow what we know to be true about human nature and people’s capacity to change. Enacting second-look laws would allow us to reduce the unnecessary harm we are causing to some of our fellow citizens and improve public safety for all of us.

Under second-look laws, public safety would be preserved by ensuring that prosecutors, probation officers and pretrial services, along with prison officials, are involved in any resentencing in order to make the court aware of a given individual’s rehabilitation, or lack thereof. It’s more likely that adopting second-look laws would make our communities safer and decrease the strain on our prison system by preventing us from wasting our limited anti-crime resources warehousing people who pose little or no safety risk.

If we want to safely reduce our nation’s prison population, we need to stop throwing people away and start recognizing the human capacity for rehabilitation and redemption. We need to commit to second chances, and we can start by promising to give everyone a second look.

A few of many, many prior related posts and related writings:

June 22, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, June 21, 2019

SCOTUS finds mens rea of "knowing" distributes in gun statute in Rehaif

The Supreme Court ruled for a federal criminal defendant today in classic criminal law mens rea case in Rehaif v. US, No. 17-9560 (S. Ct. June 21, 2019) (available here). Justice Breyer authored the opinion for the Court, which starts this way:

A federal statute, 18 U. S. C. §922(g), provides that “[i]t shall be unlawful” for certain individuals to possess firearms. The provision lists nine categories of individuals subject to the prohibition, including felons and aliens who are “illegally or unlawfully in the United States.” Ibid.  A separate provision, §924(a)(2), adds that anyone who “knowingly violates” the first provision shall be fined or imprisoned for up to 10 years. (Emphasis added.)

The question here concerns the scope of the word “knowingly.”  Does it mean that the Government must prove that a defendant knew both that he engaged in the relevant conduct (that he possessed a firearm) and also that he fell within the relevant status (that he was a felon, an alien unlawfully in this country, or the like)?  We hold that the word “knowingly” applies both to the defendant’s conduct and to the defendant’s status.  To convict a defendant, the Government therefore must show that the defendant knew he possessed a firearm and also that he knew he had the relevant status when he possessed it.

Justice Alito penned a lengthy dissent, which was joined by Justice Thomas and starts this way:

The Court casually overturns the long-established interpretation of an important criminal statute, 18 U. S. C. §922(g), an interpretation that has been adopted by every single Court of Appeals to address the question.  That interpretation has been used in thousands of cases for more than 30 years.  According to the majority, every one of those cases was flawed. So today’s decision is no minor matter.  And §922(g) is no minor provision. It probably does more to combat gun violence than any other federal law.  It prohibits the possession of firearms by, among others, convicted felons, mentally ill persons found by a court to present a danger to the community, stalkers, harassers, perpetrators of domestic violence, and illegal aliens.

Today’s decision will make it significantly harder to convict persons falling into some of these categories, and the decision will create a mountain of problems with respect to the thousands of prisoners currently serving terms for §922(g) convictions.  Applications for relief by federal prisoners sentenced under §922(g) will swamp the lower courts.  A great many convictions will be subject to challenge, threatening the release or retrial of dangerous individuals whose cases fall outside the bounds of harmless-error review.

June 21, 2019 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

SCOTUS finds Batson violation based on "extraordinary facts" in Flowers

The Supreme Court ruled for a criminal defendant today in a Batson challenge in Mississippi v. Flowers, No. 17-9572 (S. Ct. June 21, 2019) (available here). As with all criminal cases, I find the line up of the Justices notable:

KAVANAUGH, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and GINSBURG, BREYER, ALITO, SOTOMAYOR, and KAGAN, JJ., joined. ALITO, J., filed a concurring opinion. THOMAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which GORSUCH, J., joined as to Parts I, II, and III.

Here is part of the start of the lengthy opening of the opinion of the Court:

In Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), this Court ruled that a State may not discriminate on the basis of race when exercising peremptory challenges against prospective jurors in a criminal trial.

In 1996, Curtis Flowers allegedly murdered four people in Winona, Mississippi. Flowers is black. He has been tried six separate times before a jury for murder. The same lead prosecutor represented the State in all six trials.

In the initial three trials, Flowers was convicted, but the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed each conviction. In the first trial, Flowers was convicted, but the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed the conviction due to “numerous instances of prosecutorial misconduct.”  Flowers v. State, 773 So. 2d 309, 327 (2000)....

In his sixth trial, which is the one at issue here, Flowers was convicted. The State struck five of the six black prospective jurors.  On appeal, Flowers argued that the State again violated Batson in exercising peremptory strikes against black prospective jurors. In a divided 5-to-4 decision, the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed the conviction.  We granted certiorari on the Batson question and now reverse....

Four critical facts, taken together, require reversal....

We need not and do not decide that any one of those four facts alone would require reversal. All that we need to decide, and all that we do decide, is that all of the relevant facts and circumstances taken together establish that the trial court committed clear error in concluding that the State’s peremptory strike of black prospective juror Carolyn Wright was not “motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent.” Foster v. Chatman, 578 U.S. ___, ___ (2016) (slip op., at 23) (internal quotation marks omitted). In reaching that conclusion, we break no new legal ground.  We simply enforce and reinforce Batson by applying it to the extraordinary facts of this case. 

June 21, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (9)

Senator Cory Booker sets out "Restoring Justice Initiative" focused on providing clemency relief to thousands of federal offenders

ImagesAs reported in major media pieces ranging from Fox News to the New York Times to Vox, Senator Cory Booker on Thursday unveiled a major policy proposal as part of his presidential campaign.  The proposal is set for in this extended Medium post, titled "RESTORING JUSTICE: Cory’s Plan to Extend Clemency to People Serving Excessive Sentences."  I recommend this posting in full for all the details, and here are a few highlights (with links from the original):

The Restoring Justice Initiative builds on Cory’s long record of working to reform the broken criminal justice system. Since his days on the Newark City Council and as mayor, Cory has been a relentless advocate for criminal justice reform, building unusual coalitions to make real change.

In the Senate, his work was a critical factor in passing the First Step Act  —  a law that is turning the tide against mass incarceration.  In addition, Cory has pushed for bold legislative reforms, such as the Marijuana Justice Act.

The power to grant clemency, however, is a broad power granted exclusively to the president by Article II of the Constitution without requiring action by Congress  —  a power that President Booker would use immediately to begin correcting some of the most egregious abuses of the failed War on Drugs.

On day one of his presidency, he will initiate a historic clemency process for an estimated 17,000-plus nonviolent drug offenders serving unjust and excessive sentences  —  representing the most sweeping clemency initiative in more than 150 years....

Under the Restoring Justice Initiative, three broad classes of individuals serving sentences in federal prisons would be immediately considered for clemency.  Cory would use the power granted by the Pardon Clause of Article II of the Constitution to issue commutations for broad classes of individuals currently serving sentences for nonviolent drug offenses widely viewed as unduly harsh and rooted in racist and misguided federal policy.

Individuals serving sentences for marijuana-related offenses...

All told, as of 2012, the most recent year for which data is publicly available, 11,533 individuals are currently incarcerated in federal prisons for marijuana-related offenses.

Individuals serving sentences that would have been reduced under the First Step Act, if all the bill’s sentencing provisions had been applied retroactively:

The bipartisan First Step Act, approved by an 87–12 vote in the Senate, reduced the minimum sentences required for certain drug offenses.  Minimum sentences reduced in the First Step Act included mandatory life sentences for a third drug offense (changed to a 25-year minimum sentence); 20-year mandatory minimum sentences for a second drug offense (reduced to 15 years); and fixes to the 924c “stacking” mechanism. However, these reforms were not made retroactive, meaning that someone sentenced on December 20, 2018 is serving more time than someone sentenced a day later (the date the bill was signed) for an identical offense.  As of October 2017, 3,816 individuals in this category would be eligible for a sentence reduction in accordance with the First Step Act through clemency.

Individuals currently incarcerated with unjust sentences due to the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine:

The sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine is a key driver of the gap in incarceration rates between Black and white people. In recent years, we have seen progress righting this historic wrong. For example, the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act reduced the crack-to-powder disparity from 100:1 to 18:1, and the First Step Act made the change retroactive, leading to the release of more than one thousand people. A disparity in sentencing, however, still exists. This effort would eliminate entirely the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences retroactively, a reform that should have occurred decades ago.

On day one in office, Cory would sign an executive order initiating a clemency process for thousands of people currently serving unjust drug sentences. The EO would charge the Bureau of Prisons, the Defender Services Division of the U.S. Courts, and the United States Sentencing Commission with immediately identifying individuals within the classes cited above that meet the stated eligibility parameters for clemency. It would also enable individuals to self-identify and submit their names for consideration.

The initiative will also revamp and streamline the clemency process more broadly through the creation of an Executive Clemency Panel situated at the White House. For individuals granted clemency, a federal interagency council would make policy recommendations to the Administration and Congress to facilitate their successful reentry, including identifying job and training opportunities, investing in rehabilitation programs, and targeting evidence-based social services.

The bipartisan Executive Clemency Panel would be comprised of advisors representing diverse sets of expertise to expeditiously process all cases.  While the process would operate with a presumption of a recommendation of clemency, the panel would closely review cases and prison history and decline to forward recommendations for individuals who may pose a threat to public safety.  For individuals granted clemency, a federal interagency council would make policy recommendations to the Administration and Congress to facilitate their successful reentry, including identifying job and training opportunities and targeting evidence-based social services.

The panel would also give a special presumption for release for those that are 50 years of age or older and have served lengthy sentences  —  as all evidence suggests that people typically age out of crime and are far less likely to recidivate.  Cory would also appoint a senior official in the White House to advise him on criminal justice issues, charged with advancing a proactive reform agenda.

Sounds pretty darn good to me!

Prior recent related post:

June 21, 2019 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

New Compassionate Release Clearinghouse to match lawyers with prisoners seeking release after FIRST STEP Act

This new press release, titled "FAMM, Washington Lawyers’ Committee, NACDL Launch Compassionate Release Clearinghouse," reports on an exciting new resource for helping to better implement a part of the FIRST STEP Act. Here are the details:

Thousands of sick, dying, and elderly federal prisoners who are eligible for early release will now have access to free legal representation in court through the newly established Compassionate Release Clearinghouse. The clearinghouse, a collaborative pro bono effort between FAMM, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), is designed to match qualified prisoners with legal counsel should they need to fight a compassionate release denial or unanswered request in court.

“People who can barely make it out of their beds in the morning should not have to go into court alone against the largest law firm in the nation,” said Kevin Ring, president of FAMM. “Congress was clear that it wanted fundamental changes in compassionate release, yet we’ve seen prosecutors continue to fight requests from clearly deserving people, including individuals with terminal illnesses. It’s gratifying to know we will be able to help people in a tangible and meaningful way.”

The Compassionate Release Clearinghouse recruits, trains, and provides resources to participating lawyers. The Clearinghouse’s design and implementation is being assisted by the Washington, D.C., law firm of Zuckerman Spaeder LLP through its partner Steve Salky.

“Sick and dying prisoners for years were unjustly denied release on compassionate release grounds by the Bureau of Prisons,” said Jonathan Smith, Executive Director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. “Now, prisoners will be assisted by dedicated and high-quality lawyers in seeking relief from the courts, evening the playing field, and allowing many of these prisoners to return home.”

The effort was made possible by the passage of the First Step Act, which addresses a well-documented, three-decades-long issue in which sick, elderly, and dying prisoners have been routinely denied early release by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). Until December 2018, there was no mechanism to challenge or appeal those decisions. Now, prisoners are allowed to appeal directly to a sentencing judge if their petitions are denied or unanswered.

Since the passage of the First Step Act, prisoners have been filing motions for release, and some have been challenged by federal prosecutors. The Compassionate Release Clearinghouse will make sure those prisoners have an attorney to fight for them in court.

“NACDL is proud to participate in this critically important effort,” said NACDL Executive Director Norman L. Reimer. “To make the promise of the First Step Act a reality for qualified sick, elderly, and dying prisoners, the nation’s criminal defense bar is committed to recruiting pro bono attorneys to be champions for those in need. Additionally, NACDL’s First Step Implementation Task Force will aggregate resources to support attorneys who undertake this important work.”

The Clearinghouse started matching attorneys with prisoners in need in February, and has matched more than 70 cases with pro bono attorneys. The Clearinghouse is actively recruiting additional attorneys and law firms to join in the effort.

As regular readers may recall (and as I have stressed in a number of prior posts), because  18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A), the provision of federal law often known as "compassionate release," allows a court to reduce a prison sentence based on any and all "extraordinary and compelling reasons," it should not only be the "sick, dying, and elderly federal prisoners" who are potentially eligible for early release.  But, as this press release highlights, because there is already a history of extreme resistance toward releasing even the most deserving under this provision, it is heartening to see these groups work to make sure prisoners can get needed legal help to benefit from the reforms Congress is surely eager to see given full effect.

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

June 19, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Good day for thinking hard about sentencing second looks and second chances

I am greatly enjoying day two of the great "Rewriting the Sentence" conference at Columbia Law School (previously noted here and here and here and being live streamed here).  This afternoon, I have the honor of moderating a panel titled "Sentencing Second Chances: Addressing Excessive Sentencing With Escape Valves," and then will get to attend another later panel on "The Role of Mercy and Dignity in Criminal Justice: From Restoration to Clemency."   I am so excited this conference has two panels addressing, in varied ways, issues surrounding the correction or adjustment of problematic sentences.  As regular readers know, I have been thinking and writing about these issues a lot in recent years, making the case that they are particularly critical issues in an era of mass incarceration.  So I am so very glad this afternoon will be filled with robust discussions of sentencing second looks and second chances.

Excitingly, on the same day I am talking about these issues, Shon Hopwood has just published some important new writings on these topics.  Specifically, over at Prison Professors, Shon has this new important post titled "A Second Look at a Second Chance: Seeking a Sentence Reduction under the Compassionate Release Statute, 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A), as Amended by the First Step Act."  This post, which should be read in full and includes important links, overviews a set of new writings by Shon on second looks and second chances.  I plan to blog more about Shon's work in this space, and here I will start with the start of his posting:

There is a viable argument for why federal district court judges can use the compassionate release statute, as amended by the First Step Act, as a second look provision to reduce a sentence for people in federal prison if “extraordinary and compelling reasons” are present.  Over the weekend, I posted both a law review article (entitled Second Looks & Second chances that will be published by Cardozo Law Review) and a sample brief (that will form the basis of challenging Adam Clausen’s ridiculous 213-year federal sentence).  Both discuss the reasons why federal judges can and should give sentence reductions in cases where people in federal prison have a demonstrated record of rehabilitation in addition to compelling reasons why they were sentenced too harshly. See 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A).

In my article, I explain that there is a long history of second look provisions in American law, and why second look provisions are normatively desirable.  More importantly, the text and history of Section 3582(c) supports the view that, when Congress first enacted the compassionate release statute in 1984, it intended compassionate release to act as a second look provision to take the place of federal parole, which Congress was abolishing.  The problem was that Congress gave the power to trigger a sentence reduction under the compassionate release statute to the Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”).

Leaving the BOP Director with ultimate authority to trigger and set the criteria for compassionate release sentence reductions created several problems.  The Office of the Inspector General found that, among many other problems, the BOP failed to provide adequate guidance to staff regarding the criteria for compassionate release and that BOP had no timeliness standards for reviewing such requests.  As a result of these problems and others, the OIG concluded that: “BOP does not properly manage the compassionate release program, resulting in inmates who may be eligible candidates for release not being considered.”

Congress heard the complaints. Congress passed, and President Trump signed, the First Step Act of 2018, which, among other things, changed the procedures and ultimately the criteria for when a person in federal prison can seek a sentence reduction under the compassionate release statute in 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i).  After the changes made by First Step, federal prisoners can file a motion for a sentence reduction, and federal district courts are authorized to reduce a sentence even if the BOP fails to respond or even in the face of BOP opposition to a sentence reduction.

Under the First Step Act, Congress took the power that previously resided with the BOP Director to trigger and set the criteria for sentence reductions and transferred it to Article III courts — where it should be.

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

June 18, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 17, 2019

Another notable new GVR by SCOTUS "to consider the First Step Act of 2018" over DOJ opposition

In this post two weeks ago, I flagged the interesting Supreme Court decision in Wheeler v. US to grant, vacate and remand the case to allow courts below "to consider the First Step Act of 2018."  In that case, petitioner asserted that a provision of the FIRST STEP Act changed the applicable mandatory minimum while his case was on appeal.  The Government responded that the FIRST STEP Act was not applicable once a case was on appeal, but SCOTUS decided to send the case back to the Third Circuit to consider the issue.

Now a second case, Richardson v. US, No. 18-7036, has received similar treatment via this new SCOTUS order list. In Richardson, the defendant received an extremely long sentence has on stacked 924(c) gun counts, and following the passage of the FIRST STEP Act, Richardson filed this supplemental brief asserting he is now "entitled to be resentenced under the recently passed First Step Act of 2018."  Once again, the Justice Department asserted in this response that "the First Step Act is unambiguously inapplicable here" and so provides "no sound basis" for a grant, vacate and remand. 

In the end, it seems SCOTUS thought there was a sound basis for a GVR in this case, because that is just what the Court did in order to enable the Sixth Circuit have the first crack at what I call a "pipeline" issue about the applicability of the FIRST STEP Act to cases in the pipeline when the Act was passed.

June 17, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Interesting new data on declining capital habeas petitions in federal court

The folks at TRAC recently produced this interesting little data report under the heading "Death Penalty Prisoner Petitions Fall Sharply."  Here is part of the text:

The latest available data from the federal courts show that during April 2019 the government reported only 5 new prisoner petitions challenging their death penalty sentence. According to the case-by-case court records analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, there were just 62 death penalty challenges for the first seven months of FY 2019.  They have fallen over fifty percent (51.6%) over the last two years. Petitions are on pace to be the lowest number filed in over a decade.

The comparisons of the number of civil filings for death penalty-related suits are based on case- by-case federal court records which were compiled and analyzed by TRAC...  Since FY 2008, death penalty petitions reached a peak during FY 2009 when they totaled 245. The previous low was five years ago in FY 2014 when they fell to 162. If the current pace of filings continues during the remaining months of FY 2019, filings are projected to be only slight above one hundred this year.

Absent some other data or distinctive explanation, this seems like a pipeline story: in the 198-s and 1990s, there were lots of state death sentences imposed, resulting in lots of capital habeas challenges reaching the federal courts decades later. In years, the number of state death sentences have declined (see DPIC data here), meaning that the number of subsequent federal habeas challenges have declined.

June 12, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 10, 2019

Supreme Court unanimously affirms ACCA sentence based on prior burglary conviction in Quarles

The Supreme Court this morning somewhat clarified the operation of its convoluted Armed Career Criminal Act jurisprudence through a unanimous opinion in Quarles v. US, No. 17-778 (S. Ct. June 10, 2019) (available here).  Here is how Justice Kavanaugh's opinion for the court get started:

Section 924(e) of Title 18, also known as the Armed Career Criminal Act, mandates a minimum 15-year prison sentence for a felon who unlawfully possesses a firearm and has three prior convictions for a “serious drug offense” or “violent felony.”  Section 924(e) defines “violent felony” to include “burglary.” Under this Court’s 1990 decision in Taylor v. United States, 495 U. S. 575, the generic statutory term “burglary” means “unlawful or unprivileged entry into, or remaining in, a building or structure, with intent to commit a crime.” Id., at 599 (emphasis added).

The exceedingly narrow question in this case concerns remaining-in burglary.  The question is whether remaining in burglary (i) occurs only if a person has the intent to commit a crime at the exact moment when he or she first unlawfully remains in a building or structure, or (ii) more broadly, occurs when a person forms the intent to commit a crime at any time while unlawfully remaining in a building or structure.  For purposes of §924(e), we conclude that remaining-in burglary occurs when the defendant forms the intent to commit a crime at any time while unlawfully remaining in a building or structure.  We affirm the judgment of the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

The most interesting aspect of Quarles may be the short concurrence by Justice Thomas, which makes these points:

This case demonstrates the absurdity of applying the categorical approach to the enumerated-offenses clause. The categorical approach relies on a comparison of the crime of conviction and a judicially created ideal of burglary. But this ideal is starkly different from the reality of petitioner’s actual crime: Petitioner attempted to climb through an apartment window to attack his ex-girlfriend.

More importantly, there are strong reasons to suspect that the categorical approach described in Taylor v. United States, 495 U. S. 575 (1990), is not compelled by ACCA’s text but was rather a misguided attempt to avoid Sixth Amendment problems. See Sessions v. Dimaya, 584 U. S. ___, ___–___ (2018) (THOMAS, J., dissenting) (slip op., at 21–23).  Under our precedent, any state burglary statute with a broader definition than the one adopted in Taylor is categorically excluded simply because other conduct might be swept in at the margins. It is far from obvious that this is the best reading of the statute. A jury could readily determine whether a particular conviction satisfied the federal definition of burglary or instead fell outside that definition. See Ovalles v. United States, 905 F. 3d 1231, 1258–1260 (CA11 2018) (W. Pryor, J., concurring). Moreover, allowing a jury to do so would end the unconstitutional judicial factfinding that occurs when applying the categorical approach. See, e.g., Dimaya, supra, at ___–___ (opinion of THOMAS, J.) (slip op., at 22– 23); Mathis v. United States, 579 U. S. ___, ___ (2016) (THOMAS, J., concurring) (slip op., at 2); Descamps v. United States, 570 U. S. 254, 280 (2013)...

Of course, addressing this issue would not help petitioner: He has not preserved a Sixth Amendment challenge. Moreover, any reasonable jury reviewing the record here would have concluded that petitioner was convicted of burglary, so any error was harmless.

Because the categorical approach employed today is difficult to apply and can yield dramatically different sentences depending on where a burglary occurred, the Court should consider whether its approach is actually required in the first place for ACCA’s enumerated-offenses clause.  With these observations, I join the opinion of the Court.

June 10, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

SCOTUS grants cert in new capital case from Arizona concerning death sentence review procedures

The Supreme Court's new order list this morning includes new cert grants in five cases, one of which will interest sentencing fans.  Specifically, McKinney v. Arizona, No. 18-1109, involves questions of how a death sentence is to be reviewed.  SCOTUSblog coverage of the case has all the cert stage briefs linked (including a number of amici briefs), and here is the Questions Presented from the cert petition:

1. Whether the Arizona Supreme Court was required to apply current law when weighing mitigating and aggravating evidence to determine whether a death sentence is warranted.

2. Whether the correction of error under Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U.S. 104 (1982), requires resentencing.

And here is how Arizona's brief in opposition describes the issues in the case:

1. Whether the Arizona Supreme Court erred in concluding that, because Petitioner’s convictions and sentences on two counts of first-degree murder became final several years before this Court decided Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002), that Ring did not apply to Petitioner.

2. Whether the Arizona Supreme Court erred in conducting an independent review of Petitioner’s death sentences.

Any Supreme Court decision about how Ring claims are to be sorted through on appeal should impact not only death sentence in Arizona, but also in Florida and perhaps a few other states. So McKinney could end up a pretty big deal.

June 10, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, June 09, 2019

"The Orwell Court: How the Supreme Court Recast History and Minimized the Role of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines to Justify Limiting the Impact of Johnson v. United States"

The title of this post is the title of this article recently posted to SSRN and authored by Brandon Beck. Here is its abstract:

In recent years, federal criminal defendants have enjoyed great success in challenging “residual clauses” within the United States Code as unconstitutional. This began in 2015 when the United States Supreme Court, in Johnson v. United States, struck a portion of the Armed Career Criminal Act as void for vagueness.  Johnson’s holding at first appeared monumental because it invalidated a provision commonly used to enhance the prison sentences of offenders with certain qualifying prior convictions.  Subsequent developments, however, significantly dulled the impact of Johnson, thwarting the dramatic reduction in sentences it once foreshadowed.

This Article is about how Johnson came to be and the mechanisms through which the Supreme Court has subsequently weakened Johnson’s effect.  It will describe two specific mechanisms: (1) the Supreme Court’s recasting of the history of federal sentencing in an attempt to contextualize the holding of Booker v. United States as a return to the bygone days of indeterminate sentencing; and (2) the Supreme Court’s evolving view of the role of the United States Sentencing Guidelines (Guidelines) in the federal criminal system that minimizes the Guidelines’ actual influence over a district court’s sentencing decisions.  It will then explain why these mechanisms — one that exerts control over the past and one that exerts control over the present — are both unfounded.  Finally, this Article will suggest ways in which those involved in federal criminal law — the United States Sentencing Commission (Sentencing Commission), Congress, the courts, and the criminal bar — can address the problems that the Court’s recent decisions have caused in our criminal justice system.

June 9, 2019 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, June 08, 2019

Hoping Prez Trump picks a Pardon Attorney eager to make good on his big clemency talk

Around this time last year, as highlighted in posts here and here and here, President Trump was talking up the possibility of granting clemency to lots and lots of folks. (Talking to reporters in June 2018, he said “We have 3,000 names. We’re looking at them. Of the 3,000 names, many of those names have been treated unfairly,” and their sentences are “far too long.”)

Fast forward a year, and Prez Trump is nowhere near walking the clemency walk after having talked the clemency talk.  But, as this recent Washington Examiner article hints, perhaps there is movement afoot on this front as the Justice Department seeks to find a new (and needed) Pardon Attorney.  The article is headlined "Trump urged to pick his own pardon attorney," and here are excerpts:

Worried clemency advocates are urging President Trump to select his own pardon attorney as the Justice Department reviews a stack of resumes collected on short notice.

There hasn’t been a political appointee in the post since the 1970s under President Jimmy Carter, but advocates say it could make a big difference, enhancing the position’s stature and ensuring that Trump’s interest in giving second chances extends beyond isolated cases. “I think it makes a lot of sense to have the pardon attorney job be a political one,” said Margaret Love, U.S. pardon attorney from 1990 to 1997.

The job posting was open for just a month, closing May 10, giving Love and others the impression the department may already have a candidate in mind and creating concern that a career prosecutor could take the helm.

“I wonder if they are going to make Trump aware of [the search]. Shouldn’t the president have some say over who his pardon attorney is?" said Sam Morison, who worked for 13 years as a staff attorney in the Office of the Pardon Attorney. “If they are just going to the U.S. attorney's offices, they are going to get someone who's a company man, and that's the idea,” he said.

Morison wants Trump to pick his own pardon attorney and move the office into the White House, citing institutional weight against clemency in cases the Justice Department itself prosecuted.

Though theoretically authorized to call the White House counsel, the pardon attorney reports to the deputy attorney general. In 2016, Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff quit, citing squelched White House contact. Since then, the office has lacked a permanent leader.

Morison, who now helps clemency applicants, is hopeful based on Trump’s public remarks, including that there are “a lot of people” in prison for “no reason.”

“Trump gets a lot of criticism, but I think it's refreshing for him to admit something everyone knows to be truth: The Justice Department is not perfect, and prosecutions are not perfect. Most presidents aren’t actually willing to acknowledge that,” Morison said. “I think Trump does not trust DOJ, and in this particular instance he's probably correct.”

The White House has considered criminal justice reforms, including during a September panel featuring Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner and celebrity Kim Kardashian.

Heritage Foundation scholar and panelist Paul Larkin, who wants Trump to create a White House Office of Executive Clemency, returned to the White House in April for a private group discussion on clemency reform. Larkin noted Trump can create a West Wing office without congressional action and holds the exclusive constitutional power to pardon. Larkin separately advocates a commission to vet clemency requests, but that would require legislation.

CAN-DO founder Amy Povah, whose group favors “Clemency for All Non-Violent Drug Offenders,” also wants the pardon attorney divorced from the Justice Department. “We are relying on President Trump to finally be the hero we've been waiting for because he is an outsider who doesn't worry about shaking up the status quo,” she said....

The job posting closed as Trump fell behind former President Barack Obama on clemency. Trump has freed four prisoners, giving 12 people clemency including pardons, nearly all at the urging of politicians or celebrities. At this point in his presidency, Obama had issued 17 clemency grants.

One person said to have applied to be pardon attorney, immigration judge and former Guantánamo Bay prosecutor Stuart Couch, declined an interview request. White House spokeswoman Mercedes Schlapp declined to say if Trump was aware of the job opening or planned to intervene.

Last year around this time, I had become (too) hopeful that Prez Trump was prepared to change in various ways the process and politics around clemency. But, a year later, I am back to (more justifiable) pessimism and cynicism on this front. I still think it possible, especially in the wake of the praise that Prez Trump has received from his commutation of Alice Johnson's life sentence and his support for the FIRST STEP Act, that Prez Trump and his team could do something big here. But I am not holding my breath, and I feel especially bad for all the federal prisoners and their families who have likely also been hoping for too much from this Prez on this front.

A few of many recent related posts: 

June 8, 2019 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 06, 2019

"Recording the Pain of Others: Lethal Injection's Visibility Problem"

The title of this post is the title of this new piece authored by Christen Hammock and now available via SSRN, Here is its abstract:

In July 2011, Georgia executed Andrew DeYoung for murdering his parents and sister.  Pursuant to a motion to preserve evidence brought by counsel for Gregory Walker, another man on Georgia’s Death Row, DeYoung’s execution produced the only existing video of a lethal injection in the United States, which remains under seal in a Georgia courthouse.  This effort to record an execution reverses the historical trend of making executions less visible by bringing them inside prison walls and limiting eyewitnesses.  Unlike similar cases, the successful motion to preserve DeYoung’s execution and autopsy on video did not litigate the public’s right to see executions, but instead argued that visual evidence of a botched execution was necessary to support another condemned man’s Eighth Amendment claim.

This project evaluates this strategy’s assumption that video representation is less mediated and thus more effective and accurate as evidence than traditional eyewitness and expert testimony.  This evaluation proceeds by examining the rhetorical strategies used in death penalty abolition litigation and judicial opinions that have, in turn, upheld and struck down methods of capital punishment.  Part I examines lethal injection’s “invisibility problem” and argues that this problem stems from secrecy surrounding state execution protocols and the overwhelming metaphor of healing that lethal injection’s “weapons” project.  Part II explores a potential solution to this problem — creating visual records of lethal injections — using the litigation surrounding DeYoung’s execution as an example.

June 6, 2019 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

En banc Sixth Circuit finds invalid an application note used to expanded the reach of "controlled substance offense" priors

In this post last year, I flagged an interesting split Sixth Circuit panel opinion on the reach of a particular important guideline provision, and that case has now led to this notable short per curiam en banc ruling in US v. Havis, No. 17-5772 (6th Cir. June 6, 2019) (available here). The ruling starts this way:

Although it is neither a legislature nor a court, the United States Sentencing Commission plays a major role in criminal sentencing. But Congress has placed careful limits on the way the Commission exercises that power. Jeffery Havis argues that the Commission stepped beyond those limits here and, as a result, he deserves to be resentenced. We agree and REVERSE the decision of the district court.

Here are the basic particulars:

In 2017, Havis pled guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm.  See 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1).  Under the Sentencing Guidelines, a person convicted under § 922(g)(1) starts with a base offense level of 14; but that level increases to 20 if the defendant has a prior conviction for a “controlled substance offense.” ...

The question before the court, then, is whether the definition of “controlled substance offense” in § 4B1.2(b) includes attempt crimes.  The Sentencing Commission said it does in the commentary to § 4B1.2(b).  See USSG § 4B1.2(b) comment (n.1).  But the plain language of § 4B1.2(b) says nothing about attempt crimes.  On appeal, Havis maintains that we must look to the actual text of Guideline § 4B1.2(b).  The Government asks us to defer to the Commission’s commentary.....

To make attempt crimes a part of § 4B1.2(b), the Commission did not interpret a term in the guideline itself — no term in § 4B1.2(b) would bear that construction.  Rather, the Commission used Application Note 1 to add an offense not listed in the guideline.  But application notes are to be “interpretations of, not additions to, the Guidelines themselves.”  Rollins, 836 F.3d at 742. If that were not so, the institutional constraints that make the Guidelines constitutional in the first place — congressional review and notice and comment — would lose their meaning. See Winstead, 890 F.3d at 1092 (“If the Commission wishes to expand the definition of ‘controlled substance offenses’ to include attempts, it may seek to amend the language of the guidelines by submitting the change for congressional review.”). The Commission’s use of commentary to add attempt crimes to the definition of “controlled substance offense” deserves no deference.  The text of § 4B1.2(b) controls, and it makes clear that attempt crimes do not qualify as controlled substance offenses.

The Guidelines’ definition of “controlled substance offense” does not include attempt crimes. Because the least culpable conduct covered by § 39-17-417 is attempted delivery of a controlled substance, the district court erred by using Havis’s Tennessee conviction as a basis for increasing his offense level. We therefore REVERSE the district court’s decision and REMAND for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

June 6, 2019 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, June 03, 2019

Intriguing SCOTUS decision to GVR Fourth Amendment case "to consider the First Step Act of 2018" over DOJ opposition

A number of helpful folks made sure I did not miss the fact that the Supreme Court's order list today started with this disposition of Wheeler v. US:

The motion of petitioner for leave to proceed in forma pauperis and the petition for a writ of certiorari are granted.  The judgment is vacated, and the case is remanded to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit for the court to consider the First Step Act of 2018, Pub. L. No. 115-391 (2018).

Interestingly, the original cert petition in Wheeler concerned a Fourth Amendment issue (discussed here at Bloomberg Law).  But, following the passage of the FIRST STEP Act, Wheeler's counsel filed this supplemental brief on the FIRST STEP Act issue.  That supplemental brief states that after the original petition was filed, "new legislation was enacted under which Mr. Wheeler could not be subject to the 20-year sentence imposed.  Mr. Wheeler files this Supplemental Brief to explain the impact of the new legislation on his sentence and to request relief from his unlawful sentence as an alternative remedy."

Here is part of the feds response to the supplemental brief which comes at the tail of of its cert opposition brief:

The First Step Act amended 21 U.S.C. 841(b)(1)(A) to reduce the statutory minimum sentence for certain drug offenses by recidivists from 20 years to 15 years.  See First Step Act § 401(a)(2).  But in Section 401(c), titled “Applicability to Pending Cases,” Congress provided that “the amendments made by th[at] section, shall apply to any offense that was committed before the date of enactment of this Act, if a sentence for the offense has not been imposed as of such date of enactment.”  § 401(c) (emphasis added).  Here, petitioner’s sentence was imposed in 2016, long before the First Step Act was enacted, and petitioner has been serving that sentence since that time....  The First Step Act is thus inapplicable to petitioner.

Petitioner’s contention (Supp. Pet. 4) that the First Step Act applies to all criminal cases pending on “direct appellate review” is incompatible with the language of the statute. Congress instructed that the relevant provisions of the First Step Act apply only to pending cases where “a sentence * * * has not been imposed.”  First Step Act § 401(c).

In this post back in December 2018, I highlighted some of the "pipeline" ambiguity concerning which on-going cases could or should get the benefit of the the new FIRST STEP Act provisions. Though one might read the GVR by SCOTUS here as an indication that the Court thinks all pending cases should benefit from the new legislation, it might be more accurate to say that the Justices want the Third Circuit to sort this matter out in the first instance.

June 3, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Splitting 5-4 in a distinctive way, SCOTUS rules against defendant seeking to avoid tolling of supervised-release term

The Supreme Court handed down four opinions this morning, but only one came in a criminal case and the opinion was not in one of the cases that so many criminal justice court-watchers are eagerly waiting for (like Gundy or Gamble or Haymond).  But the ruling this morning in Mont v. US , No. 17-8995 (S. Ct. June 3, 2019) (available here), on a technical issue of when federal supervised release terms run, should capture the attention of SCOTUS watchers because of the distinctive (and I think unprecedented) line-up of the votes in this 5-4 split opinion: 

THOMAS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and GINSBURG, ALITO, and KAVANAUGH, JJ., joined. SOTOMAYOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BREYER, KAGAN, and GORSUCH, JJ., joined.

The ruling of the Court begins and ends this way:

This case requires the Court to decide whether a convicted criminal’s period of supervised release is tolled — in effect, paused — during his pretrial detention for a new criminal offense. Specifically, the question is whether that pretrial detention qualifies as “imprison[ment] in connection with a conviction for a Federal, State, or local crime.” 18 U. S. C. §3624(e). Given the text and statutory context of §3624(e),we conclude that if the court’s later imposed sentence credits the period of pretrial detention as time served for the new offense, then the pretrial detention also tolls the supervised-release period.....

In light of the statutory text and context of §3624(e), pretrial detention qualifies as “imprison[ment] in connection with a conviction” if a later imposed sentence credits that detention as time served for the new offense.  Such pretrial detention tolls the supervised-release period, even though the District Court may need to make the tolling determination after the conviction.  Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Sixth Circuit.

The dissent begins this way:

A term of supervised release is tolled when an offender “is imprisoned in connection with a conviction.” 18 U. S. C. §3624(e).  The question before the Court is whether pretrial detention later credited as time served for a new offense has this tolling effect.  The Court concludes that it does, but it reaches that result by adopting a backwardlooking approach at odds with the statute’s language and by reading the terms “imprisoned” and “in connection with” in unnatural isolation.  Because I cannot agree that a person “is imprisoned in connection with a conviction” before any conviction has occurred, I respectfully dissent.

Though I will need to read the opinion closely to see whether there are some possible broader implications of this ruling, but this case shows yet again that Justice Gorsuch is much more inclined to vote in favor of criminal defendants (in non-capital cases) than other GOP appointees. And here we have Justice Ginsburg proving to be the swing voter delivering a loss to a criminal defendant.

June 3, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 02, 2019

New Illinois marijuana legalization legislation gives particular attention to criminal justice concerns

As some readers know from my repeated mention of my article, "Leveraging Marijuana Reform to Enhance Expungement Practices," I am especially interested in how marijuana reform can and should intersect with criminal justice concerns and should advance criminal justice reform efforts.  Consequently, I am especially pleased and intrigued that the new (soon to be official) Illinois marijuana legalization legislation gives particular attention to criminal justice matters.  This USA Today article, headlined "Illinois posed to legalize marijuana sales, expunge criminal records for pot crimes," provides some of the particulars:

Illinois is poised to legalize marijuana sales with sweeping legislation that would also automatically expunge the criminal records of people convicted of minor pot possession.

State lawmakers gave final approval to the bill Friday and Gov. JB Pritzker said he will sign the measure, which make Illinois the first state to legalize marijuana sales via its legislature.  Most other states that have legalized cannabis did so via a ballot initiative process.  Vermont's legislature legalized cannabis but prohibited commercial sales.

"This will have a transformational impact on our state, creating opportunity in the communities that need it most and giving so many a second chance," Pritzker said in a statement. "In the interest of equity and criminal justice reform, I look forward to signing this monumental legislation."...

Prizker's office didn't give a timeframe for when he might sign the law, which would go into effect Jan. 1, 2020.  Under the system, adults could buy and possess up to 30 grams of cannabis "flower," along with marijuana-infused foods known as edibles, and small amounts of highly concentrated extracts. Non-residents could buy half the amount.

The law also establishes a system for taxing and regulating marijuana, and consumers would pay up to 34.75% tax on their purchases, depending on potency.  Regulators would give preference points to members of minority groups seeking to get business licenses, and state-certified labs would test products for potency and contaminants, a growing concern among users.  Backers say the measure will create jobs in communities around the state, an argument made by Canadian officials when they legalized marijuana nationally last year.

Money raised by the new taxes would first be dedicated to expunging an estimated 770,000 minor cannabis-related cases, according to the bill's language.  Expungement has long been a goal of marijuana-legalization advocates, who argued the federal government's so-called War on Drugs disproportionately targeted minorities.  Other states have similar provisions, usually added after the fact, but Illinois' law is the first to contain such a sweeping expungement provision from the start.

Any tax money left over after would be used to support drug-treatment and enforcement programs, improve mental health counseling access, and bolster the state's general fund.

"Cannabis was at the heart of our nation's disastrous War on Drugs.  This is a measure that will improve people's lives on a level commensurate with the devastation wrought by prohibition," said Steve Hawkins, executive director for the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project, which worked with lawmakers and Pritzker to write the law.  "Illinois is on the brink of replacing a shameful, destructive policy with the most far-reaching cannabis law ever enacted."

In my 2018 article, "Leveraging Marijuana Reform to Enhance Expungement Practices," I urged states to utilize tax revenues gained from marijuana legalization to advance expungement efforts, and am so pleased to see Illinois make expungment efforts its very first funding priority.  In my article, I also urged the creation of administrative infrastructure to support this work in the form of what I call a "Commission on Justice Restoration."  I do not believe the Illinois legislation goes this far, but maybe future reforms in that state or elsewhere will. 

In the meantime, I realize I am way behind in providing here a round up of some posts from my blogging at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform that highlight the intersections of marijuana reform and criminal justice issues.  So:

June 2, 2019 in Collateral consequences, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, June 01, 2019

NYU Center, reviewing historical state clemency grants, spotlights Massachusetts' ugly recent history

As noted in this prior post and as detailed at this link, the NYU School of Law's Center on the Administration of Criminal Law has a new project focused on state clemency histories with reports on particular state experiences.  The first of these reports is titled "The Demise of Clemency for Lifers in Pennsylvania," and is available at this link.  Now the second report, titled "Willie Horton’s
Shadow: Clemency in Massachusetts," has been released and is available at this link.  Here is how it gets started:

A healthy criminal justice system punishes no more than is necessary and creates opportunities for rehabilitation.  Clemency advances both goals.  This Report of the Center’s State Clemency Project focuses on Massachusetts, where just one sentence has been commuted since 1997.  Without a realistic opportunity for clemency, more than 1,000 individuals serving life-without-parole sentences in Massachusetts — 13 percent of the state’s prison population—are condemned to die behind bars.

June 1, 2019 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Alabama completes execution of Christopher Price seven weeks after delay based on dispute over execution methods

As reported in this prior post, Alabama was planning to execute Christopher Price seven weeks ago as punishment for his 1991 killing of a minister.  But the execution was called off that day because his death warrant expired before the Supreme Court vacated a lower court stay.  Tonight, as reported in this AP article, the execution was completed.  Here are the basics:

A man convicted of using a sword and knife to kill a country preacher during a 1991 robbery was put to death by lethal injection in Alabama on Thursday, weeks after he was initially scheduled to die. Christopher Lee Price, 46, became the second inmate put to death in Alabama in two weeks. The execution was carried out at Holman prison and he was pronounced dead at 7:31 p.m.

Price, who was nearly put to death in April before an execution warrant expired, sought a stay from the U.S. Supreme Court based on a challenge to the state's method of using three drugs during lethal injections. The nation's high court, by a 5-4 vote, refused to halt the execution Thursday night. The conservative majority did not give a reason for denying the stay.

Price had asked to instead die by nitrogen hypoxia, an execution method Alabama has legally authorized but not developed. His lawyers argued the method, which kills by depleting the body of oxygen, would be less painful than lethal injection.

Price sued the state over Alabama's current practices, and the inmate's attorneys contend the state is rushing to execute him two weeks before the trial date.... In a dissent Thursday, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that the court should have delayed the execution until the trial could take place.

Justice Breyer's dissent from the denial of an execution stay, which was joined in full by Justice Ginsburg and in part by Justices Sotomayor and Kagan, is available at this link.

May 30, 2019 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Oklahoma makes retroactive its 2016 defelonization reform initiative

Still more proof that deep red states can be deeply committed to deep criminal justice reforms comes in this local article from Oklahoma headlined "Governor signs legislation to make State Question 780 retroactive." Here are the encouraging particulars:

Gov. Kevin Stitt on Tuesday signed into law a criminal justice reform measure that will make State Question 780 retroactive.  Voters passed the state question in 2016 to reclassify some drug possession and property crimes as misdemeanors instead of felonies.

The retroactivity legislation, which takes effect Nov. 1, establishes an expedited commutation process for people who are serving felony prison sentences for offenses that are now misdemeanors. It also provides a simplified path to expungement for people with old drug possession and low-level property convictions.

Lawmakers estimated that 500 to 800 people could be released on simple possession charges and up to 60,000 people could have their records expunged under the bill.

The legislation will allow families to be reunited and will contribute to workforce development, said Kris Steele, executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, a nonpartisan coalition that pushed for the retroactivity measure and other legislative reforms.  "Tens of thousands of Oklahomans will be eligible to apply to have their felony taken off their record, which will open up new and hopefully more fruitful employment opportunities for them," Steele said....

"Making the reforms in State Question 780 retroactive not only upholds the will of the people, the voters of our state, but it also opens up a lot of opportunities for individuals who have that scarlet letter hanging around their neck to have that removed and it affords those individuals the opportunity to move forward in life in a very healthy and positive way," he said.

The law directs the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole board to establish an accelerated, single-stage commutation docket for applicants currently serving time who have been convicted of a crime that has been reclassified from a felony to a misdemeanor.  Typically, applicants seeking commutation must pass through a two-stage review process with the Pardon and Parole Board in order to receive a favorable recommendation to the governor, who has final say about whether to grant a commutation.

May 29, 2019 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, May 24, 2019

Is Prez Trump gearing up for a big Memorial Day clemency push for servicemembers?

The question in this post is prompted by lots of new news reports, such as this lengthy one from Fox News headlined "Trump weighs pardons for servicemembers accused of war crimes, as families await decision." Here are excerpts:

President Trump is considering potential pardons for military members and contractors accused of war crimes as Memorial Day approaches -- deliberations that have prompted warnings from critics that the move could undermine the rule of law but also raised the hopes of their families who say the servicemembers were wrongly prosecuted.

Jessica Slatten, in an interview Thursday, told Fox News she's praying for Trump to pardon her brother, Nicholas Slatten, one of several Blackwater contractors charged in the shooting deaths of Iraqi civilians in September 2007. "Nick is innocent and our family is terrified that he will die in prison for a killing that someone else confessed to multiple times," she said. The

Blackwater case, and the 2007 massacre at the heart of it, is one of the more controversial portfolios before the president. The New York Times first reported that Trump was weighing possible pardon decisions on an expedited basis going into the holiday weekend.

Speaking to reporters Friday, Trump confirmed he’s looking at a handful of cases, while indicating he could still wait to make his decision. “We teach them how to be great fighters, and then when they fight, sometimes they get really treated very unfairly, so we’re going to take a look at it,” he said. “[The cases are] a little bit controversial. It’s very possible that I’ll let the trials go on, and I’ll make my decision after the trial.”

The review spurred harsh criticism from Democratic lawmakers as well as former top military officials, especially since not all of the accused have faced trial yet. "Obviously, the president can pardon whoever he thinks it's appropriate to pardon, but ... you have to be careful as a senior commander about unduly influencing the process before the investigation has been adjudicated," said retired Navy Adm. William McRaven, former head of Joint Special Operations Command.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said in a statement: "If he follows through, President Trump would undermine American treaty obligations and our military justice system, damage relations with foreign partners and give our enemies one more propaganda tool."

The lawyers and family members of the accused, however, insist these cases are not as clear-cut as they've been portrayed -- and, to the contrary, have been marred by legal problems. The cases include those of former Green Beret Maj. Mathew Golsteyn, who admitted to killing a suspected Taliban bomb maker; Navy SEALS Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, whose own SEALS turned him in for allegedly shooting unarmed civilians and killing a 15-year-old ISIS suspect in his custody with a knife; four Marine snipers who were caught on video urinating on the corpses of suspected Taliban members; and Slatten.

Slatten is one whose case did go to trial. In fact, he faced three of them. The first ended in a conviction, but it was later thrown out -- as federal judges said he should have been tried separately from three other co-defendants, one of whom said he, and not Slatten, fired the first shots.

The second ended in a mistrial, and the third resulted in a guilty verdict. He faces a mandatory life sentence without parole, but his legal team is fighting to set him free. "Prosecuting veterans for split-second decisions in war zone incidents is wrong," Slatten's attorney said in a letter to the White House counsel's office obtained by Fox News. "Prosecuting ones for killings they did not commit is doubly so."...

Three of the other Blackwater contractors involved in the incident -- Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard -- were convicted of manslaughter, but the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled that their mandatory 30-year sentence was a violation of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

The sentences had been so severe due to a charge related to the use of machine guns. The court noted that the charge was based on a statute meant to combat gang violence, not contractors in a war zone using government-issue weapons. Their cases were sent back down to a lower court, and they are awaiting new sentences.

It is unclear if Slough, Liberty or Heard are among those Trump is considering for pardons, but Slough's wife Christin is hoping for the best. "I think that we're cautiously optimistic," she told Fox News. She said that her husband is "more than well deserving" of a pardon and is hoping that Trump will come through where other administrations have not....

Martin Dempsey, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned of the consequences that pardons could bring. "Absent evidence of innocence of injustice the wholesale pardon of US servicemembers accused of warcrimes signals our troops and allies that we don't take the Law of Armed Conflicts seriously," Dempsey tweeted Tuesday. "Bad message. Bad precedent. Abdication of moral responsibility. Risk to us."

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg also expressed concern. In a Washington Post interview, the Afghanistan War veteran described the potential pardons as "so dangerous and so insulting to people who've served."

Trump's decision could come in time for the Memorial Day holiday, though he indicated Friday he might take longer. Despite warnings that a pardon might not be appropriate for cases that have not concluded, Christin Slough noted Trump is not a "traditional president." She said he is "more interested in what's right," than how things are normally done.

May 24, 2019 in Clemency and Pardons, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Shouldn't it now constitutional problematic for extreme LWOP sentences to be preserved after legislative changes to three-strikes laws?

The question in the title of this post might be directed to some important federal cases in the wake of the FIRST STEP Act.  But this morning the question comes to mind due to this new AP article discussing state sentencing changes not made retroactive in Washington.  The article is headlined "‘3 strikes’ sentencing reform leaves out Washington inmates," and here are the disconcerting details:

A small group of inmates, disproportionately black, are set to stay in Washington state prisons for life — left out of the latest in a multi-year wave of reforms easing tough-on-crime “three strikes” laws around the U.S.

At least 24 states including Washington passed such laws during the 1990s, embracing tough-on-crime rhetoric. But nearly half have since scaled them back amid concern that habitual but less-violent offenders were being stuck behind bars for life with hardcore felons.

Washington’s 1993 three-strikes law was among the first and stands out as among the nation’s strictest. But lawmakers targeted it for reform this year with legislation removing second-degree robbery — generally defined as a robbery without a deadly weapon or significant injury — from the list of crimes qualifying for cumulative life sentences.

But while the original reform included a retroactive clause, making inmates sentenced under the old law eligible for resentencing, an amendment pushed by a prosecutors’ group cut out retroactivity. Washington governor and Democratic presidential contender Jay Inslee signed the changes into law April 29.

That means about 62 inmates convicted of second-degree robbery will be left serving life sentences, according to state records, even after judges stop “striking out” new offenders convicted of the same crimes. About half are black, despite African Americans making up only 4% of Washington’s population.

Under the original bill, the inmates with a robbery “strike” would have had the opportunity to have their life sentences re-examined by judges — but now they won’t. Supporters of the amendment have said even less-serious robberies can leave emotional scars, and that prosecutors might have set aside more serious charges because they knew second-degree robbery convictions would mean life in prison for those offenders.

But inmates among the 62 described frustration that offenders with similar records may face drastically shorter sentences going forward. “It’s just wrong on its face, to make people rot in prison for the rest of their life on a sentence that doesn’t even exist anymore,” said John Letellier, 67, whose 1999 fast food restaurant robbery earned him his third strike.

The push to take out the reform’s retroactivity clause emerged from the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, a group that represents prosecutors. Russell Brown, the group’s director, said he reviewed most of the cases listing second-degree robbery as the third strike, and believed that prosecutors in many probably refrained from seeking more serious charges because of the guarantee the charge — known in legal circles as “Rob 2” — would count as a third strike. But he acknowledged that he never confirmed his suspicions with any of the prosecutors who handled the cases....

In Washington, second-degree robbery has one of the lowest seriousness levels of any crime on the three-strikes list, hypothetically encompassing anything from demanding money from a clerk to snatching a purse. At least 11 states including Washington have eased their three strikes laws since 2009, often removing property crimes from “strike” lists or restoring discretion to judges over previously mandatory life sentences.

But lawmakers have also often been reluctant to make the three-strikes reforms retroactive: Out of the 11 only California has included such a clause...

In phone and email interviews, inmates among the 62 in Washington described how the reform raised their hopes — and the amendment dashed them. Among them is Devon Laird, age 54 and serving life on a robbery third strike. Convicted of snatching a wallet from an elderly man outside a drugstore in 2007, Laird’s court records include convictions for violent crimes in his early 20s, but also testimony portraying him as attempting to escape a past that included being stabbed at 14 and shot twice before age 21. “When they said it wasn’t retroactive, it really set in on me that, man, I got life,” said Laird.

Cheryl Lidel, 60, is also serving life for a 2010 robbery after being convicted of other robberies and theft. She described her crimes as driven by substance abuse that began shortly after she was sexually assaulted as a young girl. In charging documents for her third-strike robbery, prosecutors said Lidel was going through heroin withdrawal when she robbed a Subway blocks from a police station, sticking her hand in her pocket to imitate a gun. She then asked a taxi to take her to an area known for drug dealing. “The first time I came here I was 23 years old, and in March of this year I turned 60,” Lidel said.

While it’s hard to say exactly how much time any of the 62 would have faced without their robbery charges counting as strikes, few would have faced life.... According to state guidelines, the maximum for second-degree robbery, given to the highest-level offenders, is less than seven years....

Some of the 62 might not have received shorter sentences because of other serious crimes on their record, including at least eight with early robbery convictions but a final strike for murder. But nearly half the inmates on the list received a third strike only for some form of robbery.

The bill’s sponsor, Democratic Sen. Jeannie Darneille, said before the state’s legislative session ended that she did not want to change her bill with the amendment killing retroactivity but that it would have been at risk of failing without support from law enforcement or prosecutors because lawmakers would have feared being labeled soft on crime.

The particulars of this story are all too familiar, and long-time readers know that I have long argued that the standard presumption in favor of finality for criminal judgments need not and should not be elevated over other critical criminal justice interests when a defendant seeks only to modify an ongoing prison sentence based on new legal developments.  (My full perspectives on "sentence finality" and retroactivity appear in a law review article, "Re-Balancing Fitness, Fairness, and Finality for Sentences", and in some prior posts reprinted below).   

Moreover, as the question in the title of this post highlights, I think these issues have constitutional implications when extreme sentences are in play.  Notably, many state courts have ruled that it would be unconstitutional to carry out a death sentence for a person long ago sentenced for murder after a state legislature prospectively abolished the death penalty.  Given that the Supreme Court has in the last decade applied my capital Eighth Amendment precedents to the application of LWOP sentences, it seems reasonable to argue that state courts should find it unconstitutional to not reconsider an extreme LWOP sentence for a person long ago sentenced to LWOP on a basis that a state legislature has prospectively abolished.

(Significantly, and in response to the concerns so often raised by prosecutors in this retroactivity setting, a narrow version of the constitutional claim here might be just that a past LWOP sentence needs to be reexamined, not automatically changed.  Under such an approach, prosecutors would be able to argue against a sentence change by bringing forward evidence that the defendant could and would have gotten an LWOP sentence on grounds other than those changed by the legislature.  But at the very least, I think the constitutional norm should be reexamination of now-changed sentences, rather than their harsh preservation. )

Some (of many) prior posts on sentencing finality:

May 21, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, May 20, 2019

Guest post on the Fourth Circuit's reaction to district judge's rejection of plea bargains

6a00d83451574769e2022ad3762ba2200c-320wiIn prior posts here and here I noted the quite notable opinions by US District Judge Joseph Goodwin explaining why he was rejecting plea bargaining in fairly routine cases.  Professor Suja A. Thomas, Peer and Sarah Pedersen Professor of Law at the University of Illinois College of Law, who is a leading scholar on juries and has written the leading book on the topic, was kind enough to put together this guest post about the Fourth Circuit's recent opinion in one of these cases:

By rejecting plea bargains, Judge Joseph Goodwin of the Southern District of West Virginia has been challenging the prevalent use of plea-bargaining in the federal courts.  Judge Goodwin began to do so in 2017 in United States v. Walker when he issued an opinion rejecting a plea bargain in a case involving heroin-dealing (discussed here).  He said he would continue to reject plea deals as long as the plea bargain wasn’t in the public’s interest.  True to his word he has rejected pleas in other cases including United States v. Stevenson and United States v. Wilmore.  Late last month in US v. Walker, No. 18-4110 (4th Cir. April 29, 2019), the Fourth Circuit issued its first opinion addressing Judge Goodwin’s rejection of pleas.

The facts of Walker are significant.  The government presented a deal for a plea to a single count of possession with intent to distribute heroin.  It recommended 24 to 30 months. The court rejected the plea deal and ultimately as a result of pleading guilty to three distribution counts plus a jury conviction on a gun count, the defendant received four times as much — 120 months in prison.

In Walker, Judge Goodwin described four considerations in whether a plea bargain agreement should be accepted: “(1) ‘the cultural context surrounding the subject criminal conduct’; (2) ‘the public’s interest in participating in the adjudication of the criminal conduct’; (3) the possibility of ‘community catharsis’ absent the transparency of a jury trial; and (4) whether, in light of the [presentence report], it appeared that the ‘motivation’ for the plea agreement was ‘to advance justice’ or to ‘expediently avoid trial.’” 922 F.3d 239, 245 (4th Cir. 2019).  In rejecting the plea bargain there, the judge discussed how West Virginia had been “deeply wounded by ... heroin and opioid addiction,” explained the public’s significant interest in this issue, described the importance of the jury’s determination of this matter, and concluded that the plea agreement had been improperly motivated by convenience.  Id. at 245-46.

While the Fourth Circuit addressed Judge Goodwin’s rejection of plea bargaining, the opinion is disappointing.  In upholding his decision, it focused on only Judge Goodwin’s analysis of the defendant’s criminal history and violence.  And it suggested that Judge Goodwin’s broader considerations such as the cultural context of the offenses were irrelevant.  Similarly, in concurrence, Judge Niemeyer stated that the court would have abused its discretion if it had rejected plea bargaining based on the government’s frequent use for the reason of convenience. Id. at 254.

The Fourth Circuit missed an opportunity.  It could have addressed some of the problems tagged by Judge Goodwin — that constitutionally-enshrined juries decide few cases and that the courts accept plea bargaining as necessary for efficiency — despite no constitutional backing for this proposition.

With that said, I recognize that Judge Goodwin’s actions resulted in a black defendant being sent to prison for much more time than the prosecution wanted — continuing to contribute to the problem of mass incarceration.  Additionally, a jury had some role but did not decide all counts.  Though one can argue that the Judge’s action in rejecting plea bargains is far from a perfect solution, whether you agree with the Judge or not, he has taken a bold, very courageous step of questioning our continued reliance on the system of plea bargaining.

And I share some views with Judge Goodwin.  I value the role that the jury was to play in the criminal justice system under the Constitution.  Plea coercion, as I like call it, occurs in approximately 97% of federal cases.  Most of the time the defendant is given a false choice — receive a discount for pleading guilty or receive a penalty for going to trial.  The obvious result is the system that we have now.  No one takes a jury trial; the penalty is too great.  In a book and elsewhere, I have argued that this system is unconstitutional.  Historically a penalty was not attached to a jury trial.  A defendant received the same sentence if he pled guilty or if he was convicted before a jury.

The Harvard Law Review summarized and critiqued Judge Goodwin’s opinion in Walker. 131 Harv. L. Rev. 2073 (2018).  Although an interesting analysis including a discussion of the significant impact on the defendant, the authors missed the mark when they simply stated plea bargaining is “a systemic problem that cannot be convincingly addressed by the actions of a single judge.” Id. at 2078.  They did not recognize that systemic change often begins with a single person challenging the status quo.  The judge has already sparked national media coverage and other significant discussions about plea bargaining.

With that said, what will the government do in the future in Judge Goodwin’s courtroom?  It seems like the defendant and the government will get around Judge Goodwin’s rejection of the plea deal by privately agreeing in advance to the plea.  Hopefully, the needed attention to the problems with plea-bargaining will not end there.

Prior related posts:

May 20, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Waiting for Godot ... Gundy

Waiting-for-godot1-740x1024With apologies to Samuel Beckett, the following script came to mind t capture how I am feeling after another morning of SCOTUS rulings without a decision in one interesting criminal case argued way back in early October:

ESTRAGON: Charming spot. (He refreshes SCOTUSblog.) Inspiring prospects. (He turns to Vladimir.) Let's do some other work.

VLADIMIR: We can't.

ESTRAGON: Why not?

VLADIMIR: We're waiting for Gundy.

ESTRAGON: (despairingly). Ah! (Pause.) You're sure it won't be DIGed?

VLADIMIR: What?

ESTRAGON: That we might wait and wait and not get a ruling.

VLADIMIR: They said by June. (They look at the calendar.) Do you see any others cases taking this long?

ESTRAGON: What others?

VLADIMIR: I don't know. A civil case.

ESTRAGON: What about all the capital cases?

VLADIMIR:  What are you insinuating? That we've come to the wrong place?

ESTRAGON: It should be here by now.

VLADIMIR: Then didn't say for sure it'd come.

ESTRAGON: And if it doesn't come?

VLADIMIR: We'll come back next decision day.

ESTRAGON: And then the decision day after that.

VLADIMIR: Possibly.

ESTRAGON: And so on.

VLADIMIR: The point is—

ESTRAGON: Until Gundy comes.

May 20, 2019 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Has anyone kept track of total ACCA case GVRs through the years (or estimated total time spent on ACCA churn)?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by the one notable criminal justice element of the Supreme Court's order list this morning. At the very end of a relatively short order list, Justice Alito (joined by Justice Thomas) dissents from the Court's decision to GVR a case back to the Eleventh Circuit (which is what the US Solicitor General urged the Court to do).  Here is the full dissent:

The Court grants, vacates, and remands in this case, apparently because it harbors doubt that petitioner’s 1987 conviction under Florida law for battery on a law enforcement officer qualifies as a “violent felony” as defined by the Armed Career Criminal Act’s elements clause, which covers a felony offense that “has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another.”  18 U. S. C. §924(e)(2)(B)(i).  I share no such doubt: As the case comes to us, it is undisputed that petitioner was convicted of battery on a law enforcement officer after he “‘struck [an] officer in the face using a closed fist.’”  App. to Pet. for Cert. A–1, p. 11. See Fla. Stat. §784.03(1)(a) (2018) (a person commits battery when he “[a]ctually and intentionally touches or strikes another person against the will of the other,” among other things).  Because the record makes “perfectly clear” that petitioner “was convicted of battery on a law enforcement officer by striking, which involves the use of physical force against the person of another,” App. to Pet. for Cert. A–1, at 11, I would count the conviction as a “violent felony” under the elements clause and would therefore deny the petition.  Mathis v. United States, 579 U. S. ___, ___ (2016) (ALITO, J., dissenting) (slip op., at 6).

Last year in this post, I expressed my ACCA exhaustion by asking "At just what level of Dante's Inferno does modern ACCA jurisprudence reside?".  And if I was much more clever and had endless time, I might this year try to come up with some account of ACCA jurisprudence that uses an elaborate array of Game of Thrones references (e.g., the now-long-dead residual clause could be cast as evil Joffrey and other clauses could be other Lannisters and other characters could be key SCOTUS rulings assailing or defending clauses).   

I make the GoT reference in part because I know I can find on the Internet somewhere a detailed accounting of characters killed in that long-running fictional series.  In turn, I wonder if I can find on the Internet somewhere any accounting of cases sent back by SCOTUS in the long-running (and likely never-ending) drama that is modern ACCA jurisprudence.

May 20, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Student SCOTUS preview part four: more vote predicting after oral argument in US v. Haymond

6a00d83451574769e201b7c9134b4d970b-320wiI noted here back in 2017 an interesting opinion in US v. Haymond where a Tenth Circuit panel declared unconstitutional the procedures used for revocation of a sex offender's supervised release.  The Supreme Court also found the case interesting because, as reported here, the Justices in 2018 accepted the petition for certiorari filed by the feds.  The SCOTUSblog page on Haymond has links to all the briefing.

As reported in this prior post, I have a great student, Jim McGibbon, who has been drafting a series of posts on the Haymond case.  Oral argument took place back in February, and Jim was there for all the action.  Following up on his introductory post, and his second post inspired by the briefing in the case, he has now a pair of posts on the Justices' likely votes informed by the argument.  The start of his efforts (covering six likely or possible votes for the defendants) can be found in this post, and here is his analysis of likely votes for the government:

While we anxiously await the written decision in United States v. Haymond, here is an accounting of the Justices that seem most likely to vote for the government as it seeks to defend the constitutionality of the procedures used to revoke Haymond's supervised release under 18 U.S.C. § 3583(k).

Chief Justice Roberts

The Chief Justice may see himself as an umpire, but at oral argument he was a pitcher throwing both the government and the defendant curve balls. He stated to the government that “simply because the jury’s sentence includes [the sentence authorized by 3583(e)] doesn’t mean that everything that follows is necessarily constitutional.”  But he also questioned the defense’s arguments that 3583(k) is unconstitutional because their claims could undermine the workability of the entire statute and the supervised release/revocation system.

Based on his statements at oral argument, it is difficult to predict the Chief Justice's vote.  But the Chief Justice authored a dissent in Alleyne v. United States, a case which held that any fact increasing a mandatory minimum sentence must be found by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.  The Chief Justice disagreed with the majority’s broad reading of the Sixth Amendment in Alleyne based on his view that a sentencing factor that increases an applicable minimum sentence (but not the maximum) is not an element of the crime that needed to be submitted to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.  The Chief Justice may similarly resist a broad reading of the Sixth Amendment for Haymond, perhaps deciding a revocation finding under 3583(k) is not part of a “criminal prosecution,” but just part of a postconviction hearing, and thus not within the ambit of proceedings the Framers envisioned for Sixth Amendment protection.

Justice Alito

Justice Alito at oral argument was the MVP for the  government (as Justice Sotomayor was for the defendant).  During oral argument, Justice Alito declared that the remedy proposed by the defendant may “bring down the entire system of supervised release.”  He also expressed his “trouble” with the “whether we should overrule an enormous amount of precedent and wipe out probation and parole or decide this novel question [of whether a reimprisonment term can exceed the period of conditional liberty in a supervised release term].”  Perhaps, Justice Alito thinks the solution in Haymond is to heavily rely on Morrissey v. Brewer, which ruled parole revocation proceedings do not require elaborate procedures, without addressing broader questions about the operation of supervised release and its revocation. 

Notably, Justice Alito's dissent in Alleyne not only admonished the majority’s willingness to eschew stare decisis, but also expressed disapproval with Apprendi v. New Jersey, the landmark case expanding defendants' Fifth and Sixth Amendment procedural rights concerning findings with sentencing impact.  Alleyne and Apprendi are critical cases for Haymond for both his due process and jury trial claims, and Justice Alito seems unlikely to find either kind of claim persuasive.  Justice Alito, whether seen as a textualist or an originalist, clearly resists legal change in the favor of criminal defendants.  

Justice Breyer

Justice Breyer will probably vote for the government, although it is not a foregone conclusion given his history with cases like Apprendi and Alleyne.  Justice Breyer was initially vexed with the procedural rights that the Supreme Court set forth in Apprendi, calling that decision “impractical.”  Back in 2000, he questioned why the majority  blessed a “sentencing system in which judges have discretion to find sentencing-related factors,” but then viewed for constitutional purposes “sentencing statutes” that increased the maximum sentence “differently.”  In Apprendi, Justice Breyer expressed concern with the possibility of “special postverdict sentencing juries” describing them as “not worth their administrative costs,” and a ruling for the defendant in Haymond could encourage the use of such a procedure.  

Thirteen years after Apprendi, however, Justice Breyer pulled a volte-face when providing a key fifth vote in Alleyne for extending the rights set forth in Apprendi.  This may mean that Justice Breyer now sees that extending jury trial rights can be sometimes justified; indeed, at the Haymond oral argument, Justice Breyer called himself a “good follower of Apprendi.”  As with any uncertain Justice, the Haymond case may boil down to whether supervised release is viewed as just a variation on parole.  If Justice Breyer believes that parole is sufficiently similar to supervised release, then Haymond is not entitled to the “full panoply of rights,” according to Morrissey v. Brewer

Prior related posts:

May 19, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, May 18, 2019

"'Balanced Liberty' – Justice Kennedy's Work in Criminal Cases"

The title of this post is the title of this new essay authored by Rory Little and available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

During his 43 years as a federal appellate judge, Anthony M. Kennedy authored over 350 opinions in cases relevant to criminal law (although establishing a precise number using various electronic databases offers a cautionary tale). Below I offer four general themes that emerge from my review of Justice Kennedy’s written work in criminal cases:

(1) Perhaps surprising to some, when writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy ruled more often for a defense-side view than for the government;

(2) His expansive vision of “liberty,” as expressed in civil cases, was more “balanced” in the criminal context;

(3) His balanced-liberty approach was less defendant-friendly in habeas cases; and

(4) His work was most impactful in (obviously?) death penalty and race-focused cases, as well as plea-bargaining; and he was consistently correct about the doctrine of “willful blindness.”

In conclusion, Justice Kennedy’s 30 years of writings on the U.S. Supreme Court mark him as one of the most influential Justices of our time in shaping criminal law doctrine.

May 18, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, May 17, 2019

"Cruel State Punishments"

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

The Supreme Court has almost systematically expanded the Eighth Amendment over the past decade and a half, proscribing categorical limitations to the death penalty and juvenile life without parole.  With Justice Kennedy’s recent retirement, this expansion seems like it might be ending.  As this door is closing, however, another door may be opening for restricting excessive punishments — state constitutional analogues to the Eighth Amendment.  A close examination of such provisions reveals that some of the provisions use “or” instead of “and,” a linguistic difference that suggests many state constitutions might be broader than the Eighth Amendment.

This article explores the consequences of linguistic differences between the Eighth Amendment and its state constitutional analogues, focusing in particular on the effect of disjunctive state constitutional provisions.  Specifically, the article argues that these linguistic differences open the door to broader application of state Eighth Amendment analogues to rein in excessive punishment practices of state governments.

In Part I, the Article begins by providing an overview of Eighth Amendment doctrine and the importance of the conjunction in its application to criminal sentences.  Part II surveys the state constitutions and examines the language of the provision analogous to the Eighth Amendment, grouping these provisions into three broad categories.  In Part III, the Article advances its core claim — state constitutional prohibitions against “cruel” punishments should limit the ability of states to impose disproportionate punishments.  Part IV concludes the Article by exploring the many practical consequences of limiting the imposition of cruel punishments.

May 17, 2019 in Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, May 16, 2019

California felony murder revisions showcase, yet again, the varied challenges of giving retroactive effect to sound reforms

The Marshall Project has this notable new article about the application of California's new felony murder law under the headline "California Law Says This Man Isn’t a Murderer. Prosecutors Disagree." Here are excerpts:

After California changed its murder laws last fall, Neko Wilson was the first man to walk free. Wilson, 37, had been facing the death penalty for a 2009 robbery that led to the deaths of a couple in Fresno County.  No one accused him of killing anyone, or even being in the family’s home that night, but prosecutors said he helped plan the break-in.  At the time, that was enough for him to be charged with felony murder, under a doctrine that holds that anyone involved in a crime is responsible if a death occurs.

But in September 2018, the legislature limited murder charges to people who actually participate in a slaying. And so in October, Wilson left the Fresno County jail, where he had spent nine years awaiting trial, subsisting largely on beans and instant noodles....

That freedom may be short-lived.  Prosecutors have moved to send Wilson back to jail, arguing that the new law that freed him violates California’s constitution and that freeing him was a mistake.  A hearing is set for May 16.

District attorneys around the state have launched similar challenges since prosecutors in Orange County successfully argued in February that the new murder law unconstitutionally clashes with anti-crime initiatives that voters approved in 1978 and 1990.  As prisoners around the state seek release, some judges have agreed with the constitutional argument and others have rejected it, setting up a fight that is likely to end up in the state’s highest court.

The cases are a sign of the broader pushback facing state lawmakers who have passed laws aimed at reducing the prison population and the cost of incarceration.  After decades of tough-on-crime laws, California now leads the nation in shrinking the number of people behind bars, while crime remains near historic lows.  But the trend has angered some prosecutors, who say lawmakers are risking public safety.

May 16, 2019 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)