Articles Posted in Criminal Justice Issues

Michael Diaz was charged with armed robbery and gun offenses nearly seven years ago. Since the age of 13, he has “changed identities” five times and has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and psychosis. He represented himself during a bench trial in 2006, but the Eleventh Circuit vacated his convictions, holding that he had not knowingly waived his right to a jury trial. He refused treatment for his mental illness and was found incompetent to stand re-trial.

In 2003, the Supreme Court addressed involuntarily medicating criminal defendants for the sole purpose of rendering them competent to stand trial in Sell v. U.S. Last week in Diaz, the Eleventh Circuit explained:

Sell laid out these four standards the government must satisfy for involuntary medication to render a defendant competent to stand trial: (1) important government interests must be at stake, (2) involuntary medication must significantly further the state interests in assuring a fair and timely trial, (3) involuntary medication must be necessary to further the state interests, and (4) administration of the medication must be “medically appropriate, i.e., in the patient’s best medical interest in light of his medical condition.”

Last Monday, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided United States v. Gowdy, an unbelievable case in which the Eleventh Circuit joined several other circuits in holding that one need not actually be in federal custody to escape from federal custody under 18 U.S.C. § 751(a).

Gowdy was convicted in the Northern District of Alabama for federal drug crimes, and then turned over to the state of Mississippi. Mississippi lost the federal detainer against Gowdy and then turned him over to the state of Alabama to face charges pending there. Alabama, never having received the federal detainer, released Gowdy when he completed his sentence there. When federal authorities discovered the mistake, they issued a warrant for Gowdy’s arrest. He agreed to turn himself in after making arrangements for the care of his daughter, but never did so.

Gowdy was charged with escape from federal custody. He was convicted on the theory of constructive custody – that he was in custody under his federal conviction, despite his mistaken release. The Eleventh Circuit agreed, holding “that the custodial requirement of § 751(a) is satisfied where a lawful judgment of conviction has been issued by a court against the defendant… [T]here is no additional requirement that the defendant be physically confined in an institution at the time of the escape.”

Bruce Karatz, former CEO of KB Homes, was sentenced last Wednesday for fraud and false statements in connection with underlying stock-options backdating charges (of which he was acquitted.) He received eight months of house arrest, five years probation, $1 million in fines, and 2,000 hours of community service, the sentence recommended in the probation office’s presentence investigation report (PSR). Judge Otis D. Wright II admonished the prosecutors for their “mean-spirited” sentencing memorandum.

This New York Times article explains the backdating scandal and its results, quoting one professor who analogized it to a “corporate crime lottery.” Although backdating was a widespread practice, relatively few corporate executives have been prosecuted, and then with mixed results. The longest prison sentence given to a backdating defendant has been 2 years.

In this case, the government requested 6 years incarceration and $7.5 million in fines. In their sentencing memorandum, prosecutors argued that sentencing Mr. Karatz to home detention in his “24-room Bel-Air mansion” would suggest “a two-tiered criminal justice system, one for the affluent … and a second for ordinary citizens.” “To promote respect for the law, the public must be assured that a wealthy, well-connected individual, regardless of his station, array of prominent friends and associates, history of private success or acts of public largess, will be subject to the same standard of criminal justice as those less fortunate,” prosecutors wrote.

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.

Last week, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in U.S. v. Ranier. In contrast to many recent cases in which the Court held that certain crimes were not “violent felonies” for the purposes of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA,) the Court held in Ranier that the defendant’s prior conviction in Alabama for third degree felony burglary qualified as a predicate offense.

In the wake of Begay v. U.S., in which the Supreme Court held that “violent felonies” for the purposes of the ACCA must be similar in kind and degree to the crimes expressly listed in the statute, the courts have been hammering out which crimes do and do not qualify. We have discussed several of these cases in the following posts:

Harris (second degree felony eluding police with wanton disregard for safety is a violent felony, although third degree felony willful fleeing is not – 11th Cir.)

Last week, the Department of Justice announced a new nationwide mortgage fraud initiative named “Operation Stolen Dreams.” Sally Quillian Yates, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia here in Atlanta, issued an immediate press release to show local federal law enforcement’s commitment to investigating and prosecuting mortgage fraud.

So far, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in this district has brought the following types of criminal charges in mortgage fraud cases:

In relation to the collapse of banks:

Last month Attorney General Eric Holder issued a memorandum to all federal prosecutors regarding Department of Justice policy on charging and sentencing. This memo supersedes prior memoranda on this subject issued between 2003 and 2005 by former A.G. John Ashcroft and former Deputy A.G. James Comey. The new memo encourages greater fairness in prosecution than Bush-era policies by repeatedly calling for “individualized assessment” of cases in charging, plea-bargaining, and sentencing.

The following excerpt provides an overview of the content of the memo:

[E]qual justice depends on individualized justice, and smart law enforcement demands it. Accordingly, decisions regarding charging, plea agreements, and advocacy at sentencing must be made on the merits of each case, taking into account an individualized assessment of the defendant’s conduct and criminal history and the circumstances related to the commission of the offense (including the impact of the crime on victims), the needs of the communities we serve, and federal resources and priorities. Prosecutors must always be mindful of our duty to ensure that these decisions are made without unwarranted consideration of such factors as race, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.

The United States Supreme Court decided two important federal criminal cases yesterday. We discussed the reasonable opinion in U.S. v. Carr, a SORNA case, in this post yesterday. We must now address the disappointing decision in Berghuis v. Thompkins, which we briefly explained in this post last October.

The Court divided along traditional ideological lines, with Justice Kennedy issuing the majority opinion joined by the conservative bloc and Justice Sotomayor writing a lengthy dissent for the liberal justices. The majority held, counter-intuitively, that a person must make an unambiguous statement to invoke his right to remain silent.

In this case, Mr. Thompkins was in custody, awaiting transfer to another state. He was seated in a hard, straight-backed chair in a small room. With the exception of declining a peppermint and commenting on his chair’s discomfort, he remained silent for nearly three hours of interrogation, until asked whether he believed in God. He said, “Yes.” and began to cry. When asked if he prayed, he again said, “Yes.” He was then asked if he prayed to God for forgiveness “for shooting that boy down.” Again, he said, “Yes,” and looked away. He refused to sign a Miranda waiver form or make a written statement.

As we reported last week, the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) has been voting on proposed amendments to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. Today the USSC issued a press release explaining additional amendments, including:

• Expanding the availability of alternatives to incarceration;

• Amending policy statements regarding age, mental and emotional conditions, physical condition, and military service to recognize their potential relevance;

This Tuesday, the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) voted to delete 4A1.1(e) from the Federal Sentencing Guidelines Manual. This Guideline addresses the recency of previous imprisonment in calculating the criminal history points that increase a defendant’s sentence.

4A1.1(e) currently reads:

Add 2 points if the defendant committed the instant offense less than two years after release from imprisonment on a sentence counted under (a) or (b) [more than 60 days] or while in imprisonment or escape status on such a sentence. If 2 points are added for item (d) [which adds points where the crime was committed while under a sentence, including probation, etc.], add only 1 point for this item.