Articles Posted in Sentencing

Lawyers that specialize in defending federal criminal cases may be interested to know that the federal sentencing commission recently released a document entitled: “Selected Post-Booker and Guideline Application Decisions for the Eleventh Circuit”. According to the Commission, “[t]he document is not a substitute for reading and interpreting the actual Guidelines Manual or researching specific sentencing issues.” However, those of you that practice federal criminal law in Georgia, Alabama and Florida will find the document useful, because it does contain helpful “annotations to certain Eleventh Circuit judicial opinions that involve issues related to the federal sentencing guidelines.”

I reviewed the document this morning and it is a fairly comprehensive. It not only includes case annotations dealing with many of the more common guideline provisions (including fraud, internet, and immigration offenses), but it also includes several sections that involve general principles of federal sentencing law, such as burden of proof issues, the requirements for sentencing on acquitted conduct, and departures and variances.

The document can be found here and for those of you that practice in other federal circuits, links to similar documents for those other circuits can be found here.

I just returned from the Twentieth Annual National Seminar on the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. Kevin Napper, Laurel Moore Lee, and many others organized an outstanding seminar dealing with all aspects of federal criminal sentencing. It is always fun to get together with other federal practitioners and discuss how things are handled in federal jurisdictions throughout the United States.

Yesterday, we had an enjoyable panel discussion dealing with the “Presentence Report and the Sentencing Process” in federal court. We had a great group of individuals on our panel, including defense lawyers (Donna Elm and Adrienne Wisenberg), a federal prosecutor (Laurel Moore Lee), an Assistant Deputy Chief Federal Probation Officer (Ray Owens), and a sentencing mitigation specialist (Tess Lopez).

We covered a lot of ground in our discussion and part of that discussion reminded me that, in my humble opinion, at least one aspect of federal sentencing needs to change. In federal court, before most every sentencing hearing, a federal probation officer prepares a Presentence Report, also known as the PSR. Before the sentencing hearing, the PSR is disclosed to both parties. Very frequently, however, before the sentencing hearing, the federal probation officer that prepared the PSR meets with the federal judge that is conducting the sentencing hearing (in chambers) and makes a recommendation to the judge on what the ultimate sentence should be.

In 2005, the United States Supreme issued its landmark decision in the federal criminal case of United States v. Booker. Among other things, the Court in Booker ruled that the federal sentencing Guidelines are no longer mandatory, but are instead advisory. Before Booker, it was undisputed that courts were required to apply the Guidelines that were in effect when the federal crime at issue was committed, if applying a later Guideline created Ex Post Facto concerns. In other words, if the Guideline in effect on the date of a sentencing established a harsher Guideline range, the sentencing court was required to apply the more lenient Guideline that was in effect when the crime was committed. An example that comes to mind arises in federal, white collar cases. For instance, under the Guideline that applied up until October 31, 2002, the base offense level in white collar cases was 6, rather than 7. For this reason, under the law as it existed before Booker, courts in white collar cases were required to use the Guideline with the base offense level of 6, as long as the crime was completed prior to the effective date of Guideline that changed the base offense from 6 to 7.

When Booker was decided, however, some people (mostly prosecutors) claimed that since the Guidelines were no longer mandatory, the Ex Post Facto principles discussed above no longer applied. According to these individuals, courts were now free to apply the Guideline in existence on the date of the sentencing, even when the Guideline in effect when the crime was committed provided for a more lenient sentencing range.

Recently, the Eleventh Circuit squarely addressed this issue for the first time, and in our view, reached the right result (for the most part). In Wetherwald, (a federal white collar case), the defendants were convicted of defrauding investors out of millions of dollars. On appeal, the defendants argued that the trial court erred by applying the federal sentencing Guidelines that were in effect on the day of sentencing, rather than the more lenient Guidelines that were in place when the crimes at issue were committed.

Next Monday, the federal Supreme Court will hear arguments in Pepper v. United States. In this fascinating case, the Court will consider whether judges can take a prisoner’s efforts at rehabilitation into consideration when that prisoner is resentenced. This case is interesting both because the government has changed its stance and because of the uncommon circumstance that Mr. Pepper was resentenced to three additional years in prison after four years of freedom.

Mr. Pepper pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and was sentenced to 24 months in prison, although the Sentencing Guidelines range was 97 to 127 months. The government successfully appealed that sentence, but the judge resentenced Mr. Pepper to the same amount of time, in part because of the prisoner’s efforts at rehabilitation following the first sentence. Prosecutors again appealed, arguing that such a consideration was an abuse of discretion. The Eighth Circuit agreed. Upon resentencing by a different judge, Mr. Pepper was ordered to return to prison to serve an additional 41 months.

After successfully appealing Mr. Pepper’s below-guidelines sentence twice, the Department of Justice has switched sides and is supporting Mr. Pepper’s contention on appeal to the Supreme Court that rehabilitation should be taken into account. As reported in this Des Moines Register article, when she was Solicitor General, Justice Kagan sided with Mr. Pepper, arguing that court rules do not prohibit “a court from considering at resentencing a defendant’s efforts at rehabilitation undertaken after his initial sentencing.” Rather, a federal law “specifically instructs sentencing courts to consider ‘the history and characteristics of the defendant.'” Justice Kagan will not take part in the Supreme Court’s decision.

Ed. Note: On November 1, the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s 2010 Amendments to the federal Sentencing Guidelines went into effect, along with a temporary, emergency amendment to implement Section 8 of the Fair Sentencing Act. On the whole, the amendments reflect a reduction in federal criminal sentences and provide the sentencing judge with additional discretion. The Sentencing Commission’s reader-friendly guide to the 2010 amendments is available here.

We discussed this amendment in detail in this post in April. The amendment deleted 4A1.1(e), which addressed the recency of previous imprisonment in calculating the criminal history points that increase a defendant’s sentence. That provision added points if the defendant committed the offense less than two years after release from imprisonment or while in imprisonment or escape status.

The proponents of this amendment argued that the recency and status guidelines were redundant, unfairly adding to the cumulative impact of the criminal history calculation. Statistics showed that the recency of a prior record, when combined with the status provision in subsection (d), predicted recidivism in only 1 case out of 1000. In addition, not only did recency fail to reflect meaningful differences in past criminal conduct, it was actually more likely to increase punishment for less culpable defendants. The effect 4A1.1(e) and (d) had on deported immigrants who illegally reentered the country was particularly egregious, considering other cumulative guidelines and their usual reasons for re-entry.

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 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.

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.