Grober and Irey: New Developments in the Child Pornography Sentencing Guidelines Battle

October 29, 2010 by Kish & Lietz

As we discussed in this post last year, federal judges have increasingly spoken out against the unreasonable sentencing guidelines regarding child pornography. In the last week, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in U.S. v. Grober, upholding a dramatic downward departure in a child pornography case, and a district judge in the Middle District of Florida issued an opinion in U.S. v. Irey reacting to the Eleventh Circuit’s reversal of his initial sentence in the case.

In Grober, the Court affirmed a 60-month sentence where the applicable guidelines range was 235 to 293 months. District Judge Katharine Hayden held hearings over 12 days to explore how the sentencing guidelines for child pornography offenses had gotten so harsh, eventually concluding that they are unworkable and unfair. This Tuesday, the Third Circuit held, 2-1, that the imposed sentence was not an abuse of discretion. That opinion is discussed extensively in this Legal Intelligencer article.

In recent years, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed below-guidelines sentences in child porn cases in both U.S. v. McBride and U.S. v. Gray. However, this July the Court decided Irey, an unfortunate case with incredibly disturbing underlying facts. We discussed Irey in this post, lamenting that hard facts often lead to bad law. In that case, the Eleventh Circuit reversed a 17 ½ year sentence, ordering that the defendant be sentenced to the guidelines range on remand, which was 30 years. This week, District Judge Gregory Presnell issued a lengthy opinion with his postponement of resentencing pending Supreme Court review, questioning the circuit court’s usurpation of his discretion. As Professor Berman of the Sentencing Law & Policy Blog notes here, this opinion seems to serve as a de facto amicus brief in support of an as-yet-unfiled petition for certiorari.

The Third Circuit’s opinion in Grober is available here.
The Eleventh Circuit’s opinion in Irey is available here.
Judge Presnell’s postponement opinion in Irey is available here.

Mateos: An Eleventh Circuit Reminder to Criminal Defense Lawyers to Brush Up on the Rules of Evidence

October 26, 2010 by Kish & Lietz

Last week the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued its decision in United States v. Mateos, a Medicare fraud case in which the Court held that exclusion of an exculpatory videotape was harmless error. This case is an important reminder to all trial lawyers to remain as well-versed as possible in the law of evidence to best represent our clients.

The defendants were employees of a clinic that purported to treat HIV patients. The clinic’s two doctors saw 70 patients per week, each of which was paid to complain about bleeding disorders. Every patient received either saline or a diluted dose of an expensive and medically unnecessary drug, and then the clinic billed Medicare for full treatments. The clinic received more than $8 million from Medicare during the five months that it was open.

Doctor Alvarez’s defense at trial was that she had not known about the fraud. She tried to introduce a video in which a member of the conspiracy assured her that the clinic was not involved in fraud to show that she had not been aware, but the video was excluded as inadmissible hearsay. The Eleventh Circuit held that the video was not hearsay because it was offered for a purpose other than the truth of the matter asserted. However, the Court held that the error was harmless because the defense had elicited the exculpatory content of the video through testimony.

The Court also upheld an upward departure in sentencing, noting that, under the new healthcare laws, the sentence would have been within the guidelines range had the fraud been committed today. Because sentences within the guidelines are presumptively reasonable and because the sentencing judge named numerous reasons for its upward departure, the Court held that a 30-year sentence was not an abuse of discretion, despite sentencing disparities.

The full opinion is available here.

Kentucky v. King: U.S. Supreme Court Will Look at Exigent Circumstances Exception to Constitution's Requirement for a Search Warrant

October 21, 2010 by Paul Kish

The United States Supreme Court announced last month that it will review a case involving the "exigent circumstances" exception to the Constitution's requirement that the police get a search warrant before conducting a search or seizing property. We regularly confront similar matters when we litigate federal cases here in Georgia, Alabama and Florida and when one of these cases is taken up to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. This case, Kentucky v. King, likely will clear up whether this particular exception to the warrant requirement can apply when the police themselves create the exigency that otherwise mandates that they act before getting a search warrant.

The police chased a suspected drug dealer into a hallway where he could have entered one of two doors. A strong smell of marijuana came from one of the doors. The officers knocked on that door and announced their presence, after which they heard sounds consistent with destruction of evidence. They then broke open the door, discovering drugs and the unfortunate Mr. King inside.

Our Constitution says that it is unreasonable to conduct a search and seizure unless a judicial officer has issued a warrant. Over the years, the courts have created so many exceptions to the warrant requirement that it looks more like Swiss cheese than a rule to protect privacy. The "exigent circumstances" exception means that the police get to break down doors without a warrant if there is some immediate need to act, for example when persons inside are destroying evidence, someone inside needs immediate help, or there is an immediate danger to the police coming from inside the residence. However, over the years the police have gotten smart and often create the exigent circumstance that lets them get around the warrant requirement. The courts have reacted to these situations in a variety of ways.

In Kentucky v. King the State lost in the lower courts when the Kentucky Supreme Court said that the officers should have reasonably anticipated that their knocking would goad those inside into making noise similar to destroying evidence, thus creating the very exigency that authorized the officers to enter without a warrant. The State explained in its Petition for a Writ of Certiorari that there are at least five different tests being applied by the various lower courts when dealing with similar situations.

We look forward to seeing how the U.S. Supreme Court rules, which likely will not occur until next year. The opinion below and briefs supporting and opposing the petition for certiorari are available here.