Recently in Guilty Pleas Category

April 26, 2013

The Fourth Circuit Holds That A Plea Based on Law Enforcement Fraud Is Invalid, Even If The Person Is Guilty

October 29, 2007 started bad for Cortez Fisher.

He walked out of his house and the Baltimore police approached him (he lived in Baltimore). They asked to talk to him. He said no. He tried to drive away, but backed into a cop car.

He was arrested and searched - they found empty glass vials in his pants pocket.

The officers got a search warrant for Mr. Fisher's house and car, based on an affidavit by Baltimore DEA Task Force Officer Mark Lunsford.

548792_downtown_baltimore.jpgIn the affidavit, DEA Task Force Officer Lunsford said that he had talked to a confidential informant who was reliable and had helped him with a number of prior cases. The confidential informant said that Mr. Fisher sold drugs out of his house. DEA Task Force Officer Lunsford said that after hearing from the confidential informant, he personally had watched Mr. Fisher sell drugs from his car.

Law enforcement searched Mr. Fisher's house and car. They found drugs and a gun.

Mr. Fisher plead guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm.

He was sentenced to ten years in prison.

One year later, DEA Task Force Officer Lunsford pled guilty to fraud for lying on affidavits in search warrants.

Now former-DEA Task Force Officer Lunsford said that Mr. Fisher's affidavit was one of the ones he lied in.

The District Court Holds That When Police Lie On A Search Warrant Affidavit It Isn't Necessarily A Miscarriage of Justice

Of course, as soon as the U.S. Attorney's Office learned that a man was in prison based on a lie, they immediately moved to vacate his conviction. A prosecutor's ethical mandate, of course, is to do substantial justice and protect the integrity of our system of justice.

No, wait, sorry, my bad. I must have misunderstood what a prosecutor is supposed to do. The U.S. Attorney's Office did exactly nothing.

Mr. Fisher, however, was understandably concerned that he had been convicted based on the word of someone who was now an admitted fraud.

He sent a letter to the district court saying that maybe he should have his plea taken back, since a law enforcement lie is a "but for" cause of his incarceration.

The district court held that this was not a good reason to withdraw a plea:

Unquestionably, if [Defendant] had known of Lunsford's criminal misconduct, he would have filed a motion to suppress, and the motion may well have been successful. Nevertheless, [Defendant] does not deny that he was unlawfully in possession of a firearm (as he admitted under oath during his Rule 11 colloquy). Under these circumstances[,] I cannot find that a failure to allow [Defendant] to withdraw his guilty plea would result in a "miscarriage of justice." Certainly, [Defendant] was denied of an opportunity to pursue a motion to suppress that might have been meritorious, but neither the Government nor his own counsel was aware of Lunsford's criminal misconduct at the time that [Defendant] entered his guilty plea and was sentenced. Therefore, it cannot be said that [Defendant's] counsel was ineffective or that the Government breached any obligation that it owed to him.

I don't understand how the district court could determine that "it cannot be said that . . . the [g]overment breached any obligation that it owed to" Mr. Fisher when it prosecuted him based on evidence obtained from a fraudulent affidavit. Wasn't ex-DEA Task Force Officer Lunsford a part of the government when he made the fraudulent affidavit?

The Fourth Circuit Holds That You Can Withdraw A Plea When It Is Procured By Fraud

The Fourth Circuit, in United States v. Fisher, took a different view:

This . . . is not a case where Defendant sought to withdraw his plea "merely because he discover[ed] long after the plea ha[d] been accepted that his calculus misapprehended the quality of the State's case or the likely penalties attached to alternative courses of action." Rather, Defendant's misapprehension stems from an affirmative government misrepresentation that "strikes at the integrity of the prosecution as a whole."

The Fourth Circuit was also good to note that just because Mr. Fisher was factually guilty doesn't matter - even a guilty person can suffer a miscarriage of justice.

Ultimately, the court of appeals found Mr. Fisher's plea was simply too compromised to stand:

Given the totality of the circumstances of this case--a law enforcement officer intentionally lying in a affidavit that formed the sole basis for searching the defendant's home, where evidence forming the basis of the charge to which he pled guilty was found--Defendant's plea was involuntary and violated his due process rights. Under these egregious circum- stances, Defendant was deceived into making the plea, and the deception prevents his act from being a true act of volition.

Though, as the court of appeal helpfully pointed out, the government can try Mr. Fisher again if want to put ex-DEA Task Force Officer Lunsford on as a witness at trial.

May 28, 2012

The Sixth Circuit Says That If You Plead Guilty To An Indictment You Don't Plead Guilty To All The Extra Bad Stuff The Government Put In The Indictment


Michael Louchart sold some guns. They were stolen and he knew it.

The feds caught up to him and charged him with conspiracy to steal firearms and with receiving and selling stolen firearms, each of which violated 18 U.S.C. § 922. In the indictment, the government said that Mr. Louchart was involved in the theft of more than 75 firearms.

It's not a coincidence that if a person steals more than 75 firearms they are then eligible for a sentencing enhancement under the sentencing guidelines.

Mr. Louchart didn't like his chances at trial. He entered a plea of guilty to the indictment, without a plea agreement.

1329263_pistol.jpgAt his plea hearing, the district court asked him what he did that made him guilty. Mr. Louchart said:

Well, a couple guys I know of brought me some guns, 13 revolvers and three long guns, and I sold them. And I knew they were stolen.

No one asked M. Louchart how many guns were stolen.

The presentence report assessed an increase in Mr. Louchart's proposed sentencing guidelines range, saying that he pled guilty to an indictment that said his crime involved more than 75 guns.

Mr. Louchart objected - he said he didn't say anything about any 75 guns.

The government put on no evidence of the number of guns, but relied on the fact that Mr. Louchart pled guilty to the indictment and the indictment said there were more than 75 guns.

The district court agreed, and applied the enhancement based on Mr. Louchart having participated in a conspiracy to steal guns with more than 75 guns.

Mr. Louchart appealed to the Sixth Circuit and, in United States v. Louchart, the Sixth Circuit reversed.

While, of course, the government can put on evidence to support a sentencing enhancement, and if it proves that the enhancement applies by a preponderance of the evidence, then an enhancement that a person being sentenced didn't admit to would apply. So admitting the facts supporting an enhancement under the sentencing guidelines isn't required to jack up a person's sentence.

As the court of appeals said,

To the extent that Louchart argues that he can be held accountable at sentencing only for the 17 guns that he admits possessing and selling, the law does not support such a limit. A district court may enhance a sentence based on relevant conduct so long as its factual findings are supported by a preponderance of the evidence and the sentence imposed does not exceed the statutory maximum.

But that's a separate issue.

The question, really, is whether Mr. Louchart admitted the number of guns in the indictment when he admitted that he was guilty of the offense charged there.

And the answer to that question is no.

As the Sixth Circuit explained,

Louchart's guilty plea, however, should not have been treated as an admission of the quantity of firearms stated in the indictment. The quantity of firearms involved was not an element of the offense, and the quantity of firearms alleged in the indictment was not admitted by Louchart at the plea hearing or in a plea agreement. Admission of facts from a guilty plea is limited to elements of the crime charged or those explicitly admitted to by the defendant. The Supreme Court for instance has carefully stated the scope of a guilty plea admission: "a guilty plea is an admission of all the elements of a formal criminal charge." McCarthy v. United Sates, 394 U.S. 459, 466 (1969) (emphasis added). The Supreme Court has also described guilty pleas as "comprehend[ing] all of the factual and legal elements necessary to sustain a binding, final judgment of guilt and a lawful sentence." United States v. Broce, 488 U.S. 563, 569 (1989) (emphasis added). This limited language strongly suggests that a guilty plea does not constitute an admission of facts included in an indictment when those facts were not necessary to sustain a conviction. It follows that these facts cannot be used to increase a defendant's sentence without the district court's first determining that the facts are supported by a preponderance of the evidence.

And, for those who practice outside of the Sixth Circuit, there's a nice survey of cases from around the federal appellate courts on this question.

Because Mr. Louchart didn't admit the number of guns, just that he met the elements, his case was remanded for resentencing.

April 26, 2012

The Eleventh Circuit Holds That A District Court Can't Ask Folks Who Have Been Charged With A Crime If They've Talked About A Plea Yet

You've got to feel for federal district judges.

Their caseloads are going up as the Senate refuses to confirm judges to replace those who have left the bench. Justice Scalia doesn't respect them. Their pay hasn't been meaningfully increased in years.

So you could understand why a federal district court judge would want to have fewer trials.

Of course, the easiest way to see a case not go to trial is to see it result in a plea.

But a federal judge isn't allowed to participate in the plea negotiations between the parties (it's in the rules - Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)).

What counts as participating in plea negotiations? As it happens, the Eleventh Circuit recently opined on that question in United States v. LaCour.

1213599_pills.jpgMr. LaCour's Internet Drug Emporium

Jude LaCour ran a business called the Jive Network. In an effort to cut down on the spiraling cost of prescription medicines, and how expensive it can be to find a doctor to write a prescription, the Jive Network ran a number of webpages.

Customers of the Jive Network would fill in an online form about their health. They would order drugs that they thought would ameliorate whatever health condition they suffered from.

A doctor would review the web form. The doctor had no ability to change the amount or kind of drug, but the doctor did have to sign off on the prescription. The Jive Network would then issue a prescription in the doctor's name and send out the drugs.

One doctor who worked at the Jive Network filled prescriptions in as little as six seconds.

From 2002 to 2005, the Jive Network had more than $85 million in revenue.

Mr. LaCour's Federal Criminal Case

Mr. LaCour was indicted, along with a few of the doctors who worked for the Jive Network, in a 53 count indictment that accused them of conspiracy to distribute Schedule III and Schedule IV prescriptions without a valid prescription, a few individual counts of distributing drugs without a prescription, and a rack of money laundering charges.

Many folks pled.

The district court judge assigned to the case wanted to make sure that everyone who didn't plead knew that they had the option of trying to negotiate a plea.

During a status conference, the district court asked the government and the lawyers for the people accused of a crime if plea negotiations had happened. The district court specifically talked about whether there's a way to structure a plea so that it would have less affect on the professional licenses of the doctors who were accused.

The district court concluded the conversation by telling everyone that he would be the judge to sentence everyone - apparently some of the cases were assigned to another judge - and that knowing who the judge is would matter a lot to the defendants.

Then, a few weeks later, the district court raised plea possibilities again. As the Eleventh Circuit described it:

The District Court stated, "I want to now address each of the defendants individually and talk about the possibility of other resolutions of this matter other than a trial." The District Court acknowledged that it is "strictly prohibited from attempting to work out any kind of an agreement upon resolution of the case short of a trial." The Court nonetheless went on to note that "[t]his case if there is a conviction requires the Court [to] determine here that defendant fits with respect to the sentencing guidelines." The Court then distributed a chart that, based on the record, may have shown the sentencing guidelines ranges, and it went on to discuss the history of the federal sentencing regime and the applicable law as it stands. In describing the current sentencing regime, the District Court stated that "the Supreme Court has made it pretty clear . . . that we judges have a great deal of discretion in that area."

That last statement is kind of odd. It's sort of like "remember, I'm the guy you want to make sure is happy at the end of the day."

The District Court did state, "Remember, I'm not permitted to engage in plea negotiations, so I'm not suggesting to any defendant that you should consider pleading guilty." The District Court, however, said: "But I am concerned that you understand what the position of the government is if in fact you should want to think about pleading guilty. . . . I'm not interested in the details [of any offer], but I want to be sure that each defendant for whom the government has presented a proposition knows about the proposal." The District Court then asked the government to indicate whether it had presented a proposal to the defendants. The government stated that it did put forward a proposal for each defendant. The District Court then directly asked each individual defendant, including all five appellants, whether they had seen the proposal."

Not more than two weeks later, the trial started.

The court of appeals held that this was over the line. Because "the district court explicitly indicated that it would like the defendants to begin and engage in plea negotiations" it violated the commandment in Rule 11 not to participate in the negotiation.

As most folks know, the Supreme Court recently held that defense counsel can be ineffective in messing up plea negotiations. If the district court had said, instead of what he did here, something like "I just want to make sure everyone's being constitutionally effective - defense counsel, have you talked about plea negotiations" would that violate Rule 11? I suppose we'll have to find out.

Mr. LaCour, as a result, had his sentence reversed and remanded so that he could be resentenced in front of a different judge.

Interestingly, the other folks who the district court encouraged to plead won't be eligible for resentencing because they didn't appeal anything else in connection with their sentences. Deeply unlucky.

April 17, 2012

The D.C. Circuit Holds That Safety Valve Is Still Available Even If A Person Comes To The Truth Late

Jesus Rodriguez took a long time coming to the truth. But in his appeal in United States v. Rodriguez, the D.C. Circuit held that, sometimes, coming to the truth late is coming soon enough.

Mr. Rodriguez was indicted for cocaine distribution. He faced a five-year mandatory minimum.

There Are Two Ways To Get Under A Mandatory Minimum Sentence

There are two ways under a mandatory minimum. One is to cooperate with the government and receive a government motion for a sentence under the minimum under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e). To do that, means to cooperate with the government in its efforts to put others in prison.

1327707_old_water_valve.jpgThe other option is to meet the requirements for the "safety valve" under section 3553(f). The biggest one - the one that is most often the problem - is the requirement that a person truthfully talk about their role in the offense and disclose to the government everything they know about their own conduct.

As the statute says on this requirement,

not later than the time of the sentencing hearing, the defendant has truthfully provided to the Government all information and evidence the defendant has concerning the offense or offenses that were part of the same course of conduct or of a common scheme or plan, but the fact that the defendant has no relevant or useful other information to provide or that the Government is already aware of the information shall not preclude a determination by the court that the defendant has complied with this requirement.

If a person qualifies for safety valve in a drug case, the person also receives a two-level reduction in her offense level under the sentencing guidelines.

Mr. Rodriguez Walks Half Way To The Truth

Mr. Rodriguez wanted to take advantage of the safety valve statute. He pled guilty and met with agents for the government and talked about his role in the offense. He talked about his drug dealing.

He told them that the guy who drove him to a drug deal was his boss, who was just giving him a ride.

The government didn't believe him about that.

The Safety Valve Hearing

The case went to a hearing on whether Mr. Rodriguez had been honest in his statements to the government. Mr. Rodriguez testified at the hearing that the man who drove him to the drug deal didn't know it was a drug deal.

Two police officers testified that the man who drove Mr. Rodriguez to the drug deal paced behind the car while the deal was happening, and brought $4,000 in cash and a gun to the deal. They also said that the guy Mr. Rodriguez was selling drugs to was told, by Mr. Rodriguez, that his supplier would drive him to the deal.

The district court concluded that Mr. Rodriguez was lying. It continued the sentencing hearing to figure out what to do with that.

Bad Things Happen When You Lie In Federal Court

The government asked for a number of increases in Mr. Rodriguez's offense level because of his false testimony. He was given a two-level increase for obstructing justice. He lost his acceptance of responsibility credit - the reduction in his guidelines based on pleading guilty.

These changes moved his guidelines from 46-57 months to 78-97 months.

Mr. Rodriguez then decided to change his approach. He met with the government again. This time, he told them what everyone agreed was the truth.

He apologized for his prior statement, and said he was sorry he lied.

The Sentencing Hearing

At sentencing, Mr. Rodriguez apologized to the district court for lying.

The district judge sentenced him to 72 months - his guidelines were increased because of his obstruction, and he lost acceptance of responsibility.

What About Safety Valve?

On appeal, Mr. Rodriguez had new counsel. His new lawyers argued that his trial counsel should have asked for a safety valve reduction under the sentencing guidelines, and that he was constitutionally ineffective for not doing so.[FN1]

The D.C. Circuit agreed.

The court of appeals noted that the government conceded at sentencing that Mr. Rodriguez had, eventually, belatedly, been fully truthful with them by the time the sentencing hearing happened.

The court of appeals held that

The fact that Rodriguez waited until the last minute to provide the information or that he was tardy in doing so does not preclude him from obtaining safety-valve relief. The provision does not distinguish between defendants who provide the authorities only with truthful information and those who provide false information before finally telling the truth. (internal quotations omitted)

Moreover,

Familiarity with the Guidelines is a necessity for counsel who seek to give effective representation. When a lawyer fails to raise an applicable provision of the Guidelines, he fails to provide effective assistance. (internal quotations omitted)

Because Mr. Rodriguez was entitled to a two-level reduction for safety valve the case was remanded for resentencing.

[FN1] - Readers from outside of the D.C. area may be surprised to learn that the D.C. Circuit allows a person to raise an ineffective assistance claim on direct appeal if the record establishes the ineffective assistance sufficiently.

See also:

April 12, 2012

A District Court's Statements At A Plea Hearing Can Change The Meaning of A Plea Agreement; Or, Why To Read Junk Mail Carefully


As the Supreme Court reminded us a few weeks ago, most criminal cases end in a plea. United States v. Saferstein, from the Third Circuit, is a stark reminder of how a plea can go sideways, and a lovely example of one feature of federal plea practice - appeal waivers.

GoInternet - They Made Money The New Fashioned Way

Mr. Saferstein was the CEO of GoInternet.

GoInternet may not have had the best business model.

1290864_ethernet_cable.jpgBasically, the folks at GoInternet would cold-call small companies and offer internet services. They'd offer to send the companies a "Welcome packet" for $29.95. Then GoInternet would start charging $29.95 a month through the company's phone bill.

Companies often wouldn't see the charges, since the charges were on their phone bills.

Also, GoInternet wouldn't tell businesses it would charge them monthly, except in the welcome packet's disclosures, which were hard to find.

Also, apparently the welcome packet was designed to look like junk mail, so people would throw it out instead of opening it.

Finally, in my favorite twist, GoInternet didn't hire enough people to be able to process order cancelations. People who tried to cancel were often unable to.

It's like every time a person at GoInternet had an unpleasant call-center experience they thought: "Hey, I can monetize this!"

These sales practices did a great job at generating "customers." By 2003, GoInternet had more than 350,000 businesses signed up. It's annual revenue was more than $49 million.

The FTC Came Calling

The FTC came after GoInternet and Mr. Saferstein. The company and Mr. Safterstein agreed to change it's practices and send a postcard to every customer letting them know that they were being billed by GoInternet.

Mr. Saferstein apparently thought that agreeing to send the postcards was a good idea, because it would solve the problem with the FTC.

The problem with sending these postcards, though, was that then his customers would stop paying his company money for basically no reason.

Mr. Saferstein came up with a better idea. He would agree to send the postcards, then not send them - that way the FTC would go away, and he'd still collect the money from his customers.

He seems to have had a gift for a certain way of thinking.

Mr. Saferstein was charged with mail and wire fraud, conspiracy to commit perjury[FN1], and tax fraud.[FN2]

The Plea Agreement

He reached a plea agreement. He'd plead guilty to one fraud count and two tax counts.[FN3]

The plea agreement had an appeal waiver. In general, a person preserves his right to appeal unless he explicitly waives in it a provision of the plea agreement.

Here's how the Third Circuit described the appeal waiver:

[The plea agreement] contained an appellate waiver provision, which provided that Saferstein "voluntarily and expressly waive[d] all rights to appeal or collaterally attack" his conviction, subject to several exceptions. The waiver was "not intended to bar the assertion of constitutional claims that the relevant case law holds cannot be waived." Further, it provided an exception if the government were to appeal Saferstein's sentence and excepted a small number of enumerated claims that Saferstein would be permitted to raise on appeal: (1) that his sentence exceeded the statutory maximum for that count; (2) that the sentencing judge erroneously departed upward under the Guidelines; or (3) that the sentencing judge imposed an unreasonable sentence above the Guideline range.

At the plea hearing, though, the judge told Mr. Saferstein that the appeal waiver was a little different. Specifically, the district court said that,

the waiver "of course, is not intended to bar you [from] raising constitutional claims, and only the Court can decide whether they are constitutional claims or some other kind of claim."

This is a broader than what was written in the plea agreement.

Because of the massive loss in the case, the district court calculated Mr. Saferstein's offense level under the sentencing guidelines as a 43. With no criminal history, the advisory guidelines range was life.

The district court granted a downward variance though, to 23 years on each count, to run concurrent.

Mr. Saferstein appealed.

The Appeal

The question, of course, is whether he was allowed to appeal in light of the appeal waiver in the plea agreement.

Mr. Saferstein's appeal challenged whether the district court used the correct sentencing guidelines manual. The court used a manual from a date later than the date that Mr. Saferstein committed some of his crimes.

If a law changes to increase a penalty, it can't be used to punish a person for conduct that happened before the law was passed. If it does, that violates the ex post facto clause of the constitution.

Similarly, many circuits have held that using sentencing guidelines that were are more draconian and adopted after a person committed a crime violates the ex post facto clause.

So, based on that, if Mr. Saferstein has preserved his right to appeal constitutional issues, then he can win on appeal and be resentenced.

How Do You Construe An Appellate Waiver In A Plea Agreement?

Under the terms of the plea agreement, Mr. Saferstein had not preserved his right to appeal. As the district court construed the appellate waiver in the plea hearing though, he had a right to bring this appeal.

As the Third Circuit teed up the issue:

As a result [of the district court's statement], Saferstein argues that the agreement he entered into voluntarily and knowingly preserves his right to appeal constitutional claims. The Government contends that this statement is not controlling, since it misrepresents the plain language of the plea agreement, which states that the waiver was "not intended to bar the assertion of constitutional claims that the relevant case law holds cannot be waived." The district court's statement is clearly at odds with the otherwise plain and straightforward language of the agreement. That statement thus created a plausible and tangible ambiguity and seemingly expanded Saferstein's appellate rights.

So, which governs?

The Tenth Circuit has previously looked at this. In lovely language, it wrote that

[L]ogic indicates that if we may rely on the sentencing court‟s statements to eliminate ambiguity prior to accepting a waiver of appellate rights, we must also be prepared to recognize the power of such statements to achieve the opposite effect. If it is reasonable to rely upon the court‟s words for clarification, then we cannot expect a defendant to distinguish and disregard those statements of the court that deviate from the language of a particular provision in a lengthy plea agreement. United States v. Wilken, 498 F.3d 1160, 1168 (10th Cir. 2007).

The government's argument was that a plea agreement is a contract. Normally, parol evidence of a contract - that is evidence outside of the contract itself - can't be used to interpret the contract.

But, a plea agreement, unlike a contract, requires a plea hearing under Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.

Based on that, the court of appeals held,

[P]lea agreements must be construed to protect the defendant as the weaker bargaining party [therefore] we must find that a statement made by the sentencing court during the colloquy can create ambiguity where none exists in the plain text of the plea agreement.

Because there was ambiguity, the Third Circuit construed that ambiguity against the government, and allowed Mr. Saferstein to go forward with his appeal.

So, because of the ex post facto problem, Mr. Saferstein is going back for resentencing.

[FN1] - Mr. Saferstein asked his employees to lie in a court hearing about sending postcards.

[FN2] - Did I forget to mention that Mr. Saferstein didn't report all his income on his tax returns?

[FN3] - If there's an IRS agent assigned, and there's a plea, the government almost always wants the person to plead to a tax count. It's annoying.

April 10, 2012

Ineffective, But Laudable, Counsel


Everyone makes mistakes. Even criminal defense lawyers.

Luis Juarez bought a gun. When he bought the gun, he said that he was a U.S. citizen. The government thought he was lying about that.

Mr. Juarez was charged with violating 18 U.S.C. § 911, which criminalizes making a false statement about being a United States citizen.

(Does Germany have a similar statute? Did Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" violate it? I suppose not, because being a "Berliner" - whether a resident of Berlin or a jelly donut - is probably not the same as a citizenship claim. Pity.)

A lawyer was appointed to represent him. He reviewed the evidence, and negotiated a guilty plea. Mr. Juarez took the plea and was convicted. He was sentenced to 36 months for lying about being a citizen, and 42 months for reentering the country after a prior deportation following an aggravated felony.

No appeal was taken.

498474_eraser.jpgThen, Mr. Juarez, filed a pro se petition for relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. A 2255 allows a person who is serving a federal sentence to challenge his conviction because it violated the constitution. We may start to see more of these as a result of the Supreme Court's recent ineffective assistance cases.

Mr. Juarez's 2255 alleged that his lawyer was ineffective - violating Mr. Juarez's right to counsel - because the lawyer didn't investigate whether Mr. Juarez is a United States citizen.

Mr. Juarez, at the time, had already been deported before. Yet, Mr. Juarez asserted that his mother became a citizen when Mr. Juarez was under the age of 18, that his father was deceased, and that he stayed lawfully in the country until his 18th birthday. If all of that is true, it looks like Mr. Juarez would be a citizen under the derivative citizenship statute, 8 U.S.C. § 1432(a), as it then existed.

A hearing was held on Mr. Juarez's petition. His prior counsel did the honorable thing, and told the truth. He said that he simply didn't think about derivative citizenship. If he knew of it earlier, he "would've made a motion to withdraw the plea."

This is clearly the right thing for Mr. Juarez's lawyer to do. It is remarkable, perhaps, only because it isn't always what lawyers do.

Mark Bennett, over at Defending People, had a post about a lawyer who took a different approach - conspiring with the government to lie about a nonexistent defense strategy. It's shameful.

The point of being a criminal defense lawyer is to try to help your clients. If a lawyer is going to save his own skin on a lie instead of tell the truth to help his client, he should just something else with his time. We all make mistakes. Clients shouldn't suffer as a result.

Despite Mr. Juarez's lawyer's candor, the district court denied the 2255. The Fifth Circuit, in United States v. Juarez, reversed.

If Mr. Juarez were a citizen, it would be a complete defense to the crimes he was accused of. For that reason, and because he had a colorable claim of citizenship, the Fifth Circuit reversed and remanded.

April 3, 2012

Do People Convicted of White-Collar Crimes Have The Most To Gain From The Supreme Court's Recent Decisions On Ineffective Assistance Of Counsel?

The Supreme Court recently decided two cases about what a lawyer has to do when representing a client deciding whether to take a guilty plea or go to trial - Lafler v. Cooper and Missouri v. Frye.

These cases hold, basically, that if a defense lawyer messes up when representing a person in connection with a decision to plead guilty, that violates the person's constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel. As a result, the harm that was done by the lawyer's mistake can, and must, be undone. So, a person who was hurt by a lawyer's mistake can challenge what happened to him and possibly have a conviction or sentence undone.

The New York Times took the notable step of issuing an editorial praising the decisions. Lots of folks have commented on the effects of the rulings (like this guest post at Sentencing Law and Policy).

Lafler, I think, will prove the more interesting case. It definitely has the more interesting facts.

594710_shirt_close-up.jpgMr. Cooper's Lawyer's Folly

In Lafler, Mr. Cooper, was charged with assault with intent to murder. The person Mr. Cooper stood accused of assaulting was shot in the lower half of his body.

The government offered Mr. Cooper a plea to lesser charges that would have resulted in a sentence of 51 to 85 months in prison. Mr. Cooper rebuffed these offers based on his lawyer's advice that a person cannot be found guilty of assault with intent to murder if the person is aiming at the lower half of the victim's body.

This singularly bizarre bit of legal "advice" was not accurate - just like it isn't accurate that the police can't arrest a husband and a wife for the same crime.

Yet, Mr. Cooper relied on his lawyer's erroneous "no murder if you're shooting below the waist" maxim and went to trial. He was convicted, and sentenced to a mandatory minimum sentence of 185 to 360 months.

The Supreme Court held that, on these facts, Mr. Cooper was not competently represented by counsel. As a result, in the future, people who went to trial based on a bad assessment of what will happen at trial have a tenable claim of ineffective assistance.

Will The Floodgates Open?

The dissent said that this is going to open a floodgate of litigation, as people who are in prison try to use Lafler (and Frye) to overturn their sentences.

So, I'm trying to think about who will most benefit from this opinion.

I think, most clearly, it would be people who went to trial, when there was a viable plea offer for less time than the person received, and where the person received a significant sentence after trial.

The Court quoted a lovely law review article about the perils of going to trial in this age of plea-bargaining:

The expected post-trial sentence is imposed in only a few percent of cases. It is like the sticker price for cars: only an ignorant, ill-advised consumer would view full price as the norm and anything less a bargain

So, as I read Lafler, a lawyer has an obligation to meaningfully and competently discuss whether to take it. As the Court says,

If a plea bargain has been offered, a defendant has the right to effective assistance of counsel in considering whether to accept it. If that right is denied, prejudice can be shown if loss of the plea opportunity led to a trial resulting in a conviction on more serious charges or the imposition of a more severe sentence.

I think this means that a lawyer advising a person looking at trial or a plea has to tell him, competently, what the strengths and weaknesses of his case, and the government's case, are.

Obviously, there can be some room to wiggle there - if a lawyer says that there's a 35% chance of conviction, when, in fact, there's a 38% chance (assuming anything in a trial could ever be known with such precision), it would be hard to see how that kind of error would require a reversal.

But there's a lot of room to move in a challenge to a person's conviction.

What if, for example, a person's lawyer simply didn't anticipate that a bit of evidence would be significant? The government had, say, an email that was particularly damning. When discussing a plea, the person's lawyer simply didn't mention the effect that this email could have on a jury. It seems that could be close enough to the "no murder if you're shooting below the waist" rule to be worth a challenge.

Who Gets More Serious Sentences After Trial Than On A Plea?

Lafler will confer the most benefit to people who faced the most significant trial penalty.

Thinking just of federal cases, I'm sure there are a lot of candidates for this kind of relief - people who are now facing mandatory minimum sentences that could have been pled around, or enhanced sentences based on prior convictions that wouldn't have been triggered on a plea - but I think one interesting area will be white-collar offenses.

Since Enron, there have been a lot of white-collar prosecutions. And, since the guidelines get crazy when the loss amounts get high, I would think virtually any white-collar case where a person was sentenced near the sentencing guidelines after trial, and where there was a plea offered before trial, would be worth thinking about as a candidate for relief under Lafler.

One additional interesting thing about white-collar cases is that they tend to be the kinds of cases where honest conversations about plea options happen less frequently.

In the average drug case in federal court, there is a frank conversation about whether to plead. Either the client (or his family) is bearing the costs of the representation, or the lawyer is court-appointed. In either case, the economic incentives line up to encourage that conversation.

In white-collar cases where the person accused of the crime is indemnified, the incentives are different. The client isn't paying for his legal fees, and the law firm has an interest in seeing the case go to trial. A frank conversation about whether trial can be won or lost, or whether an acceptable plea can be secured, can be challenging.

Of course, maybe I'm wrong about that. As these convictions get challenged under Lafler, the plea advice that lawyers have been giving, and their advice about what's going to happen at trial, will be getting new scrutiny.

I'm looking forward to seeing how this plays out.

March 13, 2012

A Fifth Circuit Opinion Shows Why People Would Want to Take Every Case To Trial, Even Though It's a Really Bad Idea

The federal criminal justice system runs on pleas. If every person charged with a crime demanded that the courts give them the attention that the Constitution guarantees them, United States Attorney's Offices wouldn't be able to prosecute as many people as they do, and federal district courts would grind to a halt.

In the New York Times this week, Michelle Alexander, a law professor at Ohio State University - who wrote The New Jim Crow, arguing that our criminal justice policy is, in essence, a continuation of America's legacy of not being so awesome about issues of race - wrote a piece arguing that criminal defense lawyers should band together and insist that all our clients go to trial to crash the system.

1226064_prison_cells_2.jpgThe Michelle Alexander piece has generated all kinds of attention, from geeky to professional.

I'm not unsympathetic to this view. Mandatory minimums drive too many clients to give up their rights too easily. Federal criminal practice should be about more than pleas, cooperation, and sentencing. And I think that just about any person who has handled more than two criminal cases had fantasized about the system-wide chaos that would ensue if we organized people accused of crimes.

But, like Brian Tannenbaum says, it's never going to happen. A criminal defense lawyer has to look out for each client, in each case. We're not doing systematic reform - we're doing individual representation.

If you want to reform the system, work for the ACLU or be a law professor. If you're practicing law, you should help individual people with individual legal problems. The faults of the system are a secondary concern (which doesn't mean that you won't think about them while failing to sleep at 3 in the morning - just that your job isn't to change them, except as you need to in the course of representing your client).

The problems with our system of federal factory justice, highlighted in Professor Alexander's work, are serious ones though. And the Fifth Circuit's recent opinion in United States v. Carreon-Ibarra highlights.

Mr. Carreon-Ibarra pled guilty to a count in an indictment that charged him with using a firearm in connection with a drug trafficking offense. It was charged under 18 U.S.C. 924(c).

At the plea hearing, he was told that the charge carried a mandatory minimum of 5 years.

As it happened, the gun in question was a machinegun. So his mandatory minimum was, in fact, 30 years.

The presentence report, prepared by the Probation Office, reported that Mr. Carreon-Ibarra's mandatory minimum was 30 years.

Mr. Carreon-Ibarra's counsel objected. The lawyer objected to the presentence report, and objected to the district court at the sentencing hearing.

The judge, appreciative of the fact that Mr. Carreon-Ibarra had been told he faced only a five-year mandatory minimum at the plea hearing, told Mr. Carreon-Ibarra that he considered him subject to only a five-year mandatory minimum. The court said it had the power to give him as little as five years on this count.

The district court them imposed a forty year sentence.

The problem arose, though, when the district court issued its judgment. In the written judgment that followed the hearing, the court said that Mr. Carreon-Ibarra pled guilty to the machinegun offense, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of thirty years.

Clearly, the district court didn't read it's own judgment in light of its statements at sentencing.

The Fifth Circuit reversed, holding that Mr. Carreon-Ibarra's plea was deficient because he wasn't accurately told what the mandatory minimum would be.

How does this happen? How does a smart judge, appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate pay this little attention to documents that send a man to prison for forty years?

It happens because there are too many federal criminal cases that have become too routine for courts to give the attention that these cases need.

And that's why people who are going through the criminal justice system are angry.

They can feel that their cases don't get deep attention from the courts or the prosecutors. People know when they've been turned into file numbers or claims. Claims that send them to prison for massive amounts of time. People resent how little the most important case in their lives matters to the people who make decisions about them.

It makes people want to do crazy things to tear the system down.

Even though that would be a bad idea.

December 8, 2011

The First Circuit Vacates A Plea


Sometimes being a defense lawyer in federal court is a matter of playing for dropped balls. In some cases, if everything goes the way it looks like it should for the government, there's not much chance of a good result. But, mistakes are often made. If the right mistakes happen, things can look different quickly.

877665_sport_balls_1.jpgThe appeal in the First Circuit's recent opinion in United States v. Ortiz shows the importance of playing for a dropped ball.

A Night in May

According to a statement of facts that Mr. Ortiz signed, in May of 2007, he and his friends decided to try to steal a car. The car was occupied. The men in the car got out, and had a fistfight with Mr. Ortiz and his friends. When the fight was over, the men in the car got back in the car and tried to drive away.

One of Mr. Ortiz's friends blocked the way of the car. People yelled. Mr. Ortiz shot into the car, killing the driver.

Mr. Ortiz was charged with four crimes: (1) conspiracy to commit carjacking; (2) car jacking; (3) use of a firearm in connection with a crime of violence; and (4) causing the death of a person through the use of a firearm. [FN1]

Mr. Ortiz Pleads Guilty

Mr. Ortiz worked out a plea to Count Three - use of a firearm in connection with a crime of violence under 18 U.S.C. 924(c). Because a gun was discharged, Count Three carries a mandatory minimum term of ten years.

As a part of the plea agreement, Mr. Ortiz and the government agreed that they would both ask for the ten year sentence be imposed. At the plea hearing, the judge told Mr. Ortiz that Count Three carried a mandatory minimum ten year sentence.

In his plea, Mr. Ortiz also waived his right to appeal.

A charge under 924(c) does not have a maximum penalty established by statute - rather, courts have construed it as having a maximum sentence of life. [FN2] This fact, however, was not mentioned in Mr. Ortiz's plea agreement paperwork. It was also not addressed at his plea hearing - which violates Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.

Mr. Ortiz Has a Presentence Report

Mr. Ortiz, like every other person who is convicted in federal court, was the subject of a presentence report. The presentence report accurately stated that the maximum penalty for his count of conviction was life in prison.

At his sentencing hearing, though, the district judge neglected to ask whether Mr. Ortiz had read the presentence report.

Mr. Ortiz is sentenced

Expecting to receive a sentence of ten years in prison, Mr. Ortiz was surprised when the court imposed a sentence of 30 years.

He was further surprised when one of his friends from the night of the shooting, beat two counts at trial and received a sentence of only 15 years.

Mr. Ortiz tried to withdraw his plea after he was sentenced because his sentence was three times the amount of he expected to receive. The district court denied the motion. Mr. Ortiz appealed.

The Appeal

The government argued that Mr. Ortiz could not bring an appeal, because he waived that right in his plea agreement. The government also argued that the original plea should stand.

The court of appeals, though, thought differently. It remanded, since Mr. Ortiz was not aware that by pleading guilty he could be sentenced to life in prison.

The court remanded, with instructions to vacate the conviction.

As an interesting postscript, the court noted that Mr. Ortiz, if re-convicted, could, of course, receive up to life in prison. Mr. Ortiz's counsel presented, during the course of the appeal, a statement that Mr. Ortiz was aware of that risk, and wanted to proceed with the appeal anyway.

Here's to hoping Mr. Ortiz doesn't do worse on remand.

[FN1] The opinion describes these each as aiding and abetting charges to the substantive counts, then, bizarrely, in footnote one, takes the government to task for charging these as, e.g., a violation of "18 U.S.C. § 2119(3) and 2." (emphasis in original). The footnote then continues "Because it is unclear what statutory provision "and 2" refers to in each instance, we have omitted that language here."

I hate to, in essence, say "duh" to a court of appeals, but, I think it's pretty obvious that "and 2" refers to 18 U.S.C. § 2, the statutory provision that sets out aiding and abetting liability.

I'm no fan of defending the government, but this is an odd attack based on a blindingly obvious misunderstanding by the opinion's author.

[FN2] This quirk leads to a delightfully paradoxical turn of phrase - the statutory maximum for a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) is not set by statute.

September 27, 2011

Retroactivity In The Federal Sentencing Guidelines and The Parol Evidence Rule

One of the hardest things about representing a person charged with a crime in federal court is that the law is often changing. A decision that makes sense based on the law at the time, may not make sense later, if the law moves.

Fortunately, sometimes when the law changes, it changes for the better. And, sometimes when the law changes for the better, a person charged with a crime can benefit from it.

The Sixth Circuit provides a nice example of this in United States v. Cornell Smith.

Mr. Smith was charged with distributing more than a kilogram of crack cocaine. His lawyer negotiated a plea agreement for him under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(C).

Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(C)

A plea under Rule 11(c)(1)(C) - commonly referred to as "C" plea by those who practice federal criminal law - binds the court at sentencing. Normally, a United States District Judge has complete discretion to impose a sentence up to the statutory maximum, or down to probation if there is no mandatory minimum.*

Under a C plea though, the parties agree either on a specific range or a specific sentence. The sentencing judge then has a choice - she can accept the agreed sentence or reject the plea entirely and the person can go to trial.

Some district court judges routinely reject C pleas because they feel that they encroach on their power too much. Some prosecutors routinely refuse to enter into them because they fear a reaction from the judge.

Mr. Smith's C Plea

Mr. Smith's C plea was to 15 years. Mr. Smith and the prosecutor attached to the plea agreement a sentencing worksheet that said that the guidelines range, as they calculated it, was 168 months to 210 months. Presumably, the guidelines worksheet was there to convince the sentencing court that the C plea should be accepted. In any event, it was a C plea to 15 years.

Trouble Brews

The presentence report, though, found that the guidelines range really should be 210 months to 262 months, because the United States Probation Officer who wrote the presentence report found that a guidelines enhancement applied that the parties thought should not have.**

In response to this calculation, Mr. Smith's attorney wrote to the Probation Officer that:

The Present Report as authored is a firm commitment to the mandatory guidelines. The guidelines are dead. United States v. Booker, 125 S. Ct. 738, 739 2005; United States v. Oliver, 397 F.3d 369 (6th Cir. 2005). [sic] declared the mandatory guidelines unconstitutional. The plea agreement entered into between the United States Attorneys Office [sic] and Defense Counsel was not based on the guidelines and therefore, there is no miscalculation by the attorneys. The plea agreement reached between the attorneys and their clients was based on the fact that a 15 year maximum sentence was sufficient and in the interests of justice. The Presentence Report failed to consider the validity and worthiness of the plea agreement entered into by the parties. The plea agreement was valid and in the interests of justice. Worshiping the dead mandatory guidelines gives honor to the deceased guidelines and gives them more weight and respect than the rulings of the United States Supreme Court and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The mandatory guidelines should be left in their crypt and not brought above ground level. (emphasis added)

It probably felt good to write.

The Court, in any event, accepted the C plea and sentenced Mr. Smith to 15 years in prison.

The Law Changes

After Mr. Smith was sentenced, the United States Sentencing Commission changed the sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine. The Sentencing Commission decided that the change in the crack guidelines is retroactive.

Normally, once someone is sentenced in a federal court, their case is over, and the sentence cannot be changed. There are a few narrow exceptions to this rule though.

One of them is if the guidelines have changed, and the sentencing commission makes the change retroactive. As 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) says, such a resentencing can happen

in the case of a defendant who has been sentenced to a term of imprisonment based on a sentencing range that has subsequently been lowered by the Sentencing Commission pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 994(o), upon motion of the defendant or the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, or on its own motion, the court may reduce the term of imprisonment, after considering the factors set forth in section 3553(a) to the extent that they are applicable, if such a reduction is consistent with applicable policy statements issued by the Sentencing Commission.

Though this only happens if the person was originally sentenced based on the sentencing guidelines.

So, for Mr. Smith, the question is whether he was sentenced based on the sentencing range under his C plea.

C pleas And Sentencing Ranges

The Supreme Court very recently held that a C plea does not prevent someone from getting the benefit of a retroactive change in the guidelines under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) if the person's sentence was based on the guidelines in Freeman v. United States. So Mr. Smith is eligible for a new sentence if his C plea was based on the guidelines.

There is, though, the problem of his lawyer's statement to the Probation Officer, which expressly said that the sentence was not based on the guidelines, but, rather, on "the interests of justice."

As this case shows, in federal criminal practice, sometimes it's better not to talk about the interests of justice.

The Parol Evidence Rule

Happily, the Sixth Circuit held that when determining whether a C plea is based on the sentencing guidelines, you don't look at parol evidence.

Most criminal defense lawyers choose their practice area so they don't have to think about the parol evidence rule. They'd rather think about parole evidence (get it?).

The Parol Evidence Rule is the rule that when interpreting a contract, like a plea agreement, you don't look at evidence outside of what's in the document.

So, here, the court of appeals looked only at the plea agreement itself, and not at the defense lawyer's statement, and determined that Mr. Smith's plea was based on the sentencing guidelines.

As a result, the Sixth Circuit sent Mr. Smith's case back for resentencing under section 3582.

* This discretion is sometimes overly celebrated among those charged with a crime. Just because a judge can give probation for, say, health care fraud with more than $100 million in losses doesn't mean that the judge will. It's a bit like how I could sell you my car for $100. Sure, I've got the legal ability to do it, but I'm not going to.

** For those not in the know, before sentencing in every federal criminal case, a presentence report is written by a United States Probation Officer. The report contains a calculation of the now advisory sentencing guidelines, as well as a social history of the person being sentenced. And, yes, this is not what you normally think of Probation Officers doing.

September 13, 2011

The Seventh Circuit Reminds Us That Loss Is Not Equal To Restitition (also, pleading open has benefits).

Tomas Leiskunas, a man who "at 26 years old . . . had a minor criminal history and at least two aliases," was charged with being a straw purchaser in a mortgage fraud scheme in the federal district court in Chicago.

The folks who were engaged in the scam, according to the Seventh Circuit's opinion in United States v. Leiskunas, would take out fake mortgages in Mr. Leiskunas's name* on houses that he was never going to live in. He would attend real estate closings and say that he was going to live in the houses.

That's against the law.

Mr. Leiskunas decided to plead guilty. He declined to accept a plea agreement from the government, deciding, instead, that he would like to plead open. (For prior posts on defendants who have done well on appeals by pleading open, check out this post, this post, or this post).

The biggest effect of an open guilty plea is that there are no agreements about the person's sentencing guidelines. In a fraud case, as in almost any white-collar case, loss amount is the largest question on the table. In Mr. Leiskunas's case, it was also responsible for his win in the Seventh Circuit.**

The starting point for most white-collar sentencing guidelines is section 2B1.1 of the federal sentencing guidelines. The biggest factor driving a white-collar case is normally loss amount.

The guidelines say that the loss amount is the amount of money that is reasonably foreseeable to be lost to the person charged with the crime.

In Mr. Leiskunas's case, the government had a novel and concrete theory of loss.

The total amount loaned in the closings that Mr. Leiskunas participated in was $4,473,161.55.

Because, as you may have noticed, the housing market is not doing well, each house involved in Mr. Leiskunas's case was foreclosed on (that they were a part of a mortgage fraud conspiracy may have been a contributing factor). The total value of money raised at these foreclosure sales was $1,792,000 less than the total amount loaned.

Thus, the government argued, the amount the banks lost must have been the amount that was reasonably foreseeable to Mr. Leiskunas.

The district court adopted the government's calculation of loss without much discussion.

The Seventh Circuit reversed because the district court did not offer an explanation for accepting the government's position.

The appeals court did not opine on the merits of the government's position. It did not note, for example, that there was no way Mr. Leiskunas could have known what the houses would fetch later at a foreclosure sale. The court of appeals did not explain that the amount used as a loss number was the amount of harm actually suffered, which is very different than the amount of harm that Mr. Leiskunas would have been able to predict when he participated in the mortgage fraud. The Seventh Circuit also did not point out that the government's test completely fails to account for the way the guidelines explicitly say that loss amount should be calculated.

Nope, the Seventh Circuit just sent it back for a better explanation.

 

* Or, if not his actual name, one he would be willing to answer to during a real estate closing.

** Sort of. The Seventh Circuit also reversed on the district court's determination that Mr. Leiskunas did not play a minor role in the mortgage fraud scheme. The district court expressed the belief that the law was that Mr. Leiskunas could not be a minor player if he was essential to the scheme or was involved, in a minor way, a number of times. This was not the law, according to the Seventh Circuit. For more, see USSC S 3B1.2.

August 18, 2011

Pleading Guilty Only Makes Sense If There Is Evidence That You Are Guilty

The vast majority of federal criminal cases are resolved through plea agreements.

There are a lot of advantages to pleading guilty, among them: the sentencing guidelines level will be lower under section 3E1.1 of the sentencing guidelines; a person can sometimes avoid a charge with a mandatory minimum; and the government will often offer some concessions in what it seeks at sentencing.

It makes sense that a person facing a federal crime would want to put herself in a better position for sentencing.

But only if she's guilty.

The Eighth Circuit reversed a conviction and vacated a guilty plea where the factual record did not support a conclusion that the person pleading guilty committed the crime that she was pleading guilty to.

The case is United States v. Heid.

Ms. Heid wanted to help her son - what mother wouldn't. When her son was arrested, she wanted to bail him out. She made some calls, collected some money, and took the money to the courthouse - with two bailbondsmen. She posted the bond and her son was released.

The federal government became convinced that Ms. Heid used drug money to secure her son's bond. She was indicted, along with the two bailbondsmen and someone who contributed the money, for conspiracy to commit money laundering.

Ms. Heid pled guilty. She wanted to accept responsibility. She did not enter into a plea agreement - she just went to court and said she was guilty.

The district court judge accepted her plea, even though he said he didn't know that she met the intent requirement in the statute. You see, to be guilty of money laundering, you have to both know that the money came from something illicit, and you have to know that the point of the transaction you're entering into is to disguise that the cash came from something illicit.

But, because the bailbondsmen were going to trial soon, the district court thought he'd probably learn a lot more soon, so he was willing to accept the plea, subject to hearing about how the bailbondsmen were guilty later.

A funny thing happened on the way to the bailbondsmen's conviction though. They were acquitted at trial.

Ms. Heid tried to withdraw her plea. The district court said no. The Eighth Circuit, reviewing the record, determined that there was no evidence in the record that Ms. Heid was actually factually guilty.

Specifically, there was no evidence about what she knew about the money's source or that the point of giving the money to the bailbondsmen was to launder it.

Because there was no factual support for her plea, the plea was vacated.

It's nice that her conviction was vacated because there's no evidence that she was guilty. It would have been better if it happened sooner than six months before she's set to be released from prison.

July 26, 2011

The Second Circuit Rocks Out On The Fourth Circuit's Love of The Third Level

Recently, the Fourth Circuit held that the government cannot deny someone who pleads guilty the third level for acceptance of responsibility under 3E1.1. Here's my earlier post on the Fourth Circuit opinion (which describes the issue in much more detail).

Today, the Second Circuit joined the Fourth Circuit's celebration of giving full sentence-reduction credit to people who plead guilty.

In United States v. Lee, the defendant, Mr. Lee entered a guilty plea and did it soon enough that they knew they wouldn't have to prepare for trial. The government refused to move for a third level reduction in Mr. Lee's sentencing guidelines under 3E1.1, though, because Mr. Lee had the temerity to disagree with the government about what happened in the crime.

He entered a guilty plea, but, apparently, did not fully submit to the will of the United States government, and so they had to have a sentencing hearing. The Second Circuit's opinion is not crystal clear on the government's reasoning, but, apparently, the government wanted Mr. Lee to spend more time in prison because either (1) he disagreed with the government, or (2) he made them do extra work.

The Second Circuit held that the government's refusal to move for the third level was unlawful. The court said that the government cannot withhold the third level simply because they have to prepare for a sentencing hearing, relying heavily on the Fourth Circuit's decision in Divens.

Let that 3E1.1 law keep developing in a way that gives people credit for giving away their rights in a guilty plea.

Hat tip to Professor Berman.

If you have questions about how federal criminal charges are different than state criminal charges, please visit this page on Maryland federal criminal charges or Washington DC federal criminal charges.

July 24, 2011

The Sixth Circuit Reverses, Taking Care Not to Hurt The Feelings Of The District Court

How should we think about seeing a sentenced reversed? Is it a statement about the quality of the district court judge? To be sure, a United States district judge will not pop the champagne on hearing she's been reversed. But, ultimately, should we think that the appeals court is commenting on the ability of the district court judge when it sends the district court's work back for a do-over?

I tend to think we shouldn't. It appeals the Sixth Circuit disagrees with me in United States v. Priester. (For Sentencing Law & Policy coverage, go here.)

Mr. Priester entered a guilty plea to a number of drug charges, including crack distribution. His lawyer argued that the judge should reject the guidelines because they reflect a policy decision that crack cocaine is worse than powder cocaine. The district court judge, on the Sixth Circuit's reading of the transcript, said he didn't think he had the power to reject sentencing guidelines.

As it happens, the district judge was wrong. After the sentencing, the U.S. Supreme Court held, in Spears v. United States, that a district court judge does have the authority to disagree with the decision reflected in the sentencing guidelines about how bad crack cocaine is.

In essence, the district court judge in Priester thought the law was one way. The Supreme Court later said it was another.

The Sixth Circuit goes out of its way to say just how awful it feels that the district court is being reversed here. The court starts the opinion by noting that "[i]n some cases we hold the district court to a standard we would dislike imposing on ourselves." The court later says that it is vacating Priester's sentence "on the admittedly unfair ground of insufficient clairvoyance."

Is there any argument that fairness to the district court is a proper ground to consider in a decision?

One can appreciate the social dynamics at play in a reversal - circuit court judges see district court judges in a number of fora. The circuit court wants to send a message to the district court that the reversal is not a reflection on the district court's work or value as a judge. But surely that sentiment is better expressed in something published by Hallmark than in a federal reporter.

Of course, a lawyer does not transform into a district judge by being sloppy about his or her work. A district judge is never going to want a court of appeals to say they got it wrong.

This Judge Does Not Like To Be Reversed

Yet courts of appeals do not exist to validate district judges. If anything, courts of appeals exist to give people a sense that a fresh, unbiased, triple set of eyes will look at each case. If the circuit court goes out of its way to assure the parties and the bar that its worried about how a reversal will effect the district court judge, as opposed to the man sentenced to fifteen years in prison, it threatens to undermine our collective confidence in these courts as that detached second look.

A contrary perspective, in a slightly different context, was recently given by Judge Reinhardt of the Ninth Circuit. As the ABA Journal put it, the Ninth Circuit "took another beating" by the Supreme Court last term. Judge Reinhardt was sanguine about his role in relation to that reversal rate,

"If anything, it's a compliment. I get treated like the others on the [Supreme] Court," he told the Los Angeles Times. "If you follow the law the way it is, before they change it, you're going to get reversed."

 

If you have questions about how federal criminal charges are different than state criminal charges, please visit this page on Maryland federal criminal charges or Washington DC federal criminal charges.

July 9, 2011

The Ninth Circuit Says the District Court Can't Negotiate An Appeal Waiver

You've got to feel for federal district court judges.  No one wants someone else looking over their shoulder.  Even though winning a federal criminal appeal is hard to do, district court judges still do get reversed more often than they'd like. 

Yet, when it comes to pleading guilty, only the government can ask the defendant to give up his right to plead guilty -- the judge doesn't have a role in plea negotiations. 

One district court judge in the Ninth Circuit had a novel solution -- he'd just negotiate, "man to man", his own appeal waiver with a defendant.  Which gives rise to a remarkable Ninth Circuit opinion in United States v. Gonzalez-Melchor.

The Court told the defendant he'd sentence him below the guidelines, to something like 60 or 65 months (off the low end in the 80's), if the defendant would agree in open court not to appeal the sentence and "waste" everyone's time with an appeal. (in fairness, the court did retract the characterization of the appeal as wasteful (which is either ironic or appropriate since the Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded)).

Despite his "man to man" pledge not to appeal, the defendant appealed anyway.  The Ninth Circuit, considering this court-negotiated appeal waiver, had little trouble finding the waiver invalid.

Sadly, the Ninth Circuit remanded for resentencing, thereby unraveling the whole deal, rather than letting the appeal go forward without the waiver.  I'm looking forward to reading the opinion in a few years where the sentencing court gives the guy low end, and he appeals saying he should have gotten what he got the first time, and is only getting a higher sentence because he wouldn't agree to an illegal appeal waiver.

If you have questions about how federal criminal charges are different than state criminal charges, please visit this page on Maryland federal criminal charges or Washington DC federal criminal charges.