Federal Court in Atlanta Overturns Fraud Sentence: the Importance of Good Lawyering at the Sentencing Hearing

Like our federal cases here in Atlanta and throughout the country, it is important to keep in mind how a federal sentencing hearing takes place. The various phases of the federal sentencing process require the Defendant’s attorney to not only know the law, but also to know the procedure, so that “objections” are properly preserved. A decision issued today by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit makes this point. In that case, the attorney properly objected, thus preserving the issue for appeal. In the Court of Appeals, the Defendant raised the same argument, and the appellate tribunal agreed. The result is a lower sentence for the Defendant. The case is United States v. Washington.

Mr. Washington was charged in a large fraud scheme involving banks and credit card customers. He pled guilty. As a result, the United States Probation Officer prepared the very important document called the “Presentence Investigation Report”, which is often called the “PSR”. The PSR has two major parts, one of which is sort of a miniature biography of the Defendant. The second part of the PSR is where the probation officer makes some recommendations as to how the complex Federal Sentencing Guidelines should apply.

In a federal fraud case, there is a specific enhancement under the Sentencing Guidelines that is based on the number of victims. For example, if there are more than 250 victims, then a six-level enhancement is added to the Guideline score.

Mr. Washington was one of many people charged in this particular fraud scheme. The same judge had found more than 250 victims while imposing sentence on some of the other Defendants. However, Mr. Washington’s lawyer properly objected to the enhancement for more than 250 victims, because the prosecutor never produced any evidence. In response to Mr. Washington’s objections, the probation officer stated that he had been provided with “spreadsheets detailing the victims,” and that the number exceeded 250. The prosecutor said that “thousands of individuals” had their credit card numbers stolen. However, the prosecutor did not submit any evidence to support this assertion. During the sentencing hearing, the Defendant’s lawyer reiterated his objection, but was interrupted by the Judge. “That’s the figure that’s been applied to other defendants.” Therefore, the Judge used the enhancement for more than 250 victims.

The Court of Appeals reversed the sentence. First, they repeated what has been said in numerous previous cases: the prosecution bears the burden of producing at least some evidence to support any enhancement of the Guidelines. Mere argument is not enough. Also, it’s not good enough to simply refer to evidence from a co-Defendant’s case, unless the record shows that the Defendant and his attorney at least had a chance to review such evidence and contest it.

Perhaps the most important part of the case is what happens next. The Court of Appeals noted that sometimes it sends the case back so the prosecution can basically “fix” the problem. They refused to take that approach here. The government had its chance, and blew it. No “do-over”, said the appellate court. As a result, they ordered that the lower court resentence Mr. Washington without using the 6-level enhancement, which will almost certainly reduce his Guideline range and probably the overall sentence.

Again, it is important to hire a lawyer who knows the law and procedure. Mr. Washington’s attorney knew when to object, and likely saved his client additional time in prison.