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August 8, 2013

A Brady Violation in Tennessee

Placido Mendoza drove a truck from North Carolina to Tennessee. His passenger was Abel Tavera.

Tavera was a roofer. He later said (to a jury) that he thought he was going to Tennessee to see a construction project.

23.jpgThe truck had construction equipment in it. And a bucket containing nails.

Under the nails was a large quantity of methamphetamine.

Mr. Tavera went to trial and was convicted. His defense was that he didn't know that the truck had meth in it.

The driver, Mr. Mendoza, pled guilty before Mr. Tavera's trial.

Mr. Tavera was convicted and sentenced to 15 years and six months in prison.

After Mr. Tavera's trial, he learned that Mr. Mendoza told the AUSA - Donald Taylor - that Mr. Tavera had no knowledge of the drug conspiracy he was charged with.

AUSA Taylor never told Mr. Tavera's lawyer that Mr. Mendoza said Mr. Tavera isn't guilty.

And, as a result, the jury never heard that the only other guy in the car told the prosecutor that Mr. Tavera didn't know about the drugs.

As the Sixth Circuit said, "Mendoza's statements to Taylor were plainly exculpatory."

The Supreme Court has said that the government has to hand over all information that is exculpatory and that if it fails to do that, the prosecution is fundamentally unfair.

Yet, despite that the law is crystal clear on this, the Sixth Circuit notes that "nondisclosure of Brady material is still a perennial problem, as multiple scholarly accounts attest."

The procedural history is interesting - Mr. Tavera's motion for a new trial based on the Brady failure was still pending when the Sixth Circuit decided, in United States v. Tavera, that the Brady violation was so clear that the case had to go to a new trial.

The government did not think that it had to disclose this information. As the Sixth Circuit frames their argument:

the government argues, and the dissent agrees, that Tavera (although confined to his prison cell) or his lawyer should have exercised "due diligence" and discovered the statements by asking Mendoza if he had talked to the prosecutor.

The court of appeals held that the Supreme Court rejected the "due diligence" exception to Brady in Banks v. Dretke, 540 U.S. 668 (2004) when it noted that "[a] rule thus declaring "prosecutor may hide, defendant must seek," is not tenable in a system constitutionally bound to accord defendants due process."

Moreover, a rule that a Brady violation is excusable if the defendant or defense lawyer just does more work is kind of stupid. As the Sixth Circuit explained:

The Supreme Court's rejection of the idea that the "prisoner still has the burden to discover the evidence" is based in part on the fact that the prosecution has the advantage of a large staff of investigators, prosecutors and grand jurors, as well as new technology such as wiretaps of cell phones. That is one of the reasons that these investigators must assist the defendant who normally lacks this assistance and may wrongfully lose his liberty for years if the information they uncover remains undisclosed. The superior prosecutorial investigatory apparatus must turn over exculpatory information.

My favorite part is the suggestion that Mr. Tavera's lawyer should have interviewed Mr. Mendoza - because there is just about exactly zero chance that any competent lawyer would let his client talk to a co-defendant about the facts of the case while he's trying to work out a deal with the government.

Because "[t]his case shows once again how prosecutors substitute their own judgment of the defendant's guilt for that of the jury" the court of appeals reversed and recommended that "the U.S. Attorney's office for the Eastern District of Tennessee conduct an investigation of why this prosecutorial error occurred and make sure that such Brady violations do not continue."

September 14, 2012

Ineffective Assistance Of Counsel Claims Matter Even In Cases From Afghanistan, Says the DC Circuit

The war on terror[ism] is a massive new problem for society. And, of course, when there's a massive new problem for society, that ends up being a massive new problem for lawyers.

Despite the debate about whether or not to close the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay - both between Obama when he was a candidate and as President, and in society at large - and the discussion about whether to have civilian or military trials for alleged terrorism suspects, a very real part of the war on terror[ism] has been playing out in our federal courts.

The D.C. Circuit's opinion from last week in United States v. Mohammed is a nice example.

1124515_deserted_houses.jpgDon't Trust Just Anyone To Help With Your Missile-Buying

Mr. Mohammed lived in the village of Geratak in Afghanistan. If a man named Jaweed is to be believed, one day, Jaweed walked into Geratak and asked to speak with Mr. Mohammed.

Upon meeting Jaweed, Mr. Mohammed then invited Jaweed into his planning to attack a NATO airbase in Afghanistan. Specifically, Jaweed says that Mr. Mohammed asked him to get some missiles to use to attack the airbase.

As any federal criminal defense lawyer - or frequent viewer of The Wire - would suspect, Jaweed then went to law enforcement. Just like on The Wire, he went to the DEA, who were working in Afghanistan.

The DEA agents did what DEA agents do - they wired up Jaweed. Jaweed then recorded calls with Mr. Mohammed where he made some boasts about attacking the airfield.

Initially, the DEA decided they would give the missiles to Jaweed, and then arrest Mr. Mohammed as soon as Jaweed handed over the missiles. At some point, someone in the federal law enforcement community determined that handing missiles to a person in Afghanistan who has bragged about wanting to harm a NATO airbase - using missiles - is not a good idea.

A New Plan Is Hatched

If you only have a hammer, you only see nails. The DEA decided to arrest Mr. Mohammed for narcotics trafficking, instead of planning to attack the airbase.

Jaweed was instructed to talk to Mr. Mohammed about a friend of his looking for opium. Mr. Mohammed said he knew a guy who could get opium, and they talked about what Mr. Mohammed's commission for getting the two friends together would be. At one point, Mr. Mohammed said he'd use his commission to buy a car to transport the missiles to attack the airbase.

If there's anything the DEA knows how to do, it's a controlled buy. The opium deal went through and the agents got some good video of Mr. Mohammed handling opium.

The DEA did another deal - this time for heroin. During this deal, Jaweed told Mr. Mohammed that his friend was planning to send the heroin and opium to the U.S. Mr. Mohammed expressed pleasure at this idea - saying that their common goal was to "eliminate the infidels either by opium or by shooting".

Mr. Mohammed Is Arrested

The DEA arrested him in Afghanistan and drove him to a DEA base. He was given Miranda warnings and made a statement.

The D.C. Circuit noted that "[a]t no time [during the interview] did Mohammed ask for an attorney"

He was transferred to the United States and put on trial in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.

The Trial

Mr. Mohammed moved to suppress his statement, but the district court said that he was Mirandized and had the consequences of giving a statement explained to him, so no dice.

The trial lasted four days. Jaweed testified for two of those days. Mr. Mohammed's lawyer called no witnesses and offered no evidence. He was convicted of narcoterrorism and given two life sentences.

Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

The D.C. Circuit is a good court to practice in for a number of reasons - one of which is that you can raise an ineffective assistance of counsel claim in your direct appeal.

In many other circuits around the country, if your lawyer messed up, and that affected what happened to you, you can't complain about that in the appeal - you have to wait until after the appeal and file a petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2255.

But not so in the District of Columbia. Here, if you can show that your lawyer was constitutionally ineffective from the record before the court on appeal, the D.C. Circuit will consider your claim.

It almost makes up for not being able to vote for a Senator.

Here, Mr. Mohammed said that he had a number of witnesses in Afghanistan that he wanted his lawyer to interview.

These witnesses, he said, could have shown that Jaweed was a liar who hated Mr. Mohammed and was out to get him. Since Jaweed was the star witness, if Mr. Mohammed could have found and brought over witnesses to say Jaweed was biased or a liar, it could have gone a long way in his trial.

As the D.C. Circuit said, Mr. Mohammed's lawyer "owed him a duty to make reasonable investigations or to make a reasonable decision that makes particular investigations unnecessary." If he didn't try to contact witnesses - even ones in a remote village in Afghanistan - he may not have given Mr. Mohammed the legal representation the Constitution guarantees him.

Sadly, the rest of the details of the ineffective assistance are under seal.

And so, the case was remanded to the district court on the ineffective assistance claim.

September 6, 2012

The Prosecutor And District Court Should Try Really Hard To Make It Seem Like They Don't Hate Cubans When Sending A Cuban To Prison

Giraldo Trujillo-Castillon came to this country from Cuba when he was seventeen.

Like they say, you can take the man out of Cuba, but you can't take the Cuba out of the man. Or so seemed to believe a federal prosecutor and district court judge.

Mr. Trujillo-Castillon was accused of fraud in federal court.

He pled guilty. He went to sentencing.

1212572_cuban_convertible_pesos.jpgAn Anti-Cuba Sentencing Hearing

The government asked for the high-end of the sentencing guidelines range. The request was not made because of Mr. Trujillo-Castillon's conduct, but, rather, because this Assistant United States Attorney doesn't appear to think well of Cubans. As the Seventh Circuit explained,

Pointing to the defendant's admission that he viewed fraud differently than violent crimes, the government argued that "it may be possible to explain his stated attitude because of his Cuban heritage. . . . Maybe there is a different attitude toward private property in Cuba." The government noted Trujillo-Castillon's statement that his only friend in the United States was his wife, and said that "if you play by the rules, if you join us, if you become American, [you] will have many [] friends in the United States." The government then turned to "why people should come to the United States," professing that "if he came here because he thought it would be easy, then I would simply suggest that he and others like him either wise up, or don't come."

Not to be outdone, Mr. Trujillo-Castillon's own lawyer explained that perhaps being Cuban has some downsides - in the sense that you're more likely to commit property crimes. Again, here's how the Seventh Circuit explained what happened:

Defense counsel did not object to this line of argument; instead, he responded in kind. He explained that there is an "attitude" in Cuba that when you steal "you're pulling a Robin Hood type of act." He suggested that many Cuban immigrants have a hard time adjusting to "the American way of life."

It must have been very lonely to be Mr. Trujillo-Castillon.

I feel for the district judge at this point in the hearing.

On one hand, the parties seem to be arguing about whether it's so bad to be Cuban that Mr. Trujillo-Castillon should get a lighter sentence, or whether it's so bad to be Cuban that Mr. Trujillo-Castillon should get a higher sentence.

The judge would naturally feel that it's ok to stay on the "Cubans are bad" train. Except for the fact that it's really creepy to sentence someone based on their nationality. Also it violates their Due Process rights.

Here's how the district court walked the tightrope of animosity toward Cubans:

The court first explained that Trujillo-Castillon's "lifestyle" cannot "be blamed on Cuba." It said that his record was reminiscent of "when the Mariel people came over here and created crime waves all over the place"; "When [Fidel] Castro emptied his prisons, and his psychiatric wards, and Jimmy Carter took them all in." The court continued that, unlike in Cuba, "in America, private property is sacrosanct. It's not the Government's property. . . . And that's the way we live in America. And that's why it's a serious offense when you do this."

The district court then sentenced Mr. Trujillo-Castillo to a sentence seven months above the top of the sentencing guidelines.

The Appeal

Mr. Trujillo-Castillo appealed and the Seventh Circuit remanded the case in United States v. Trujillo-Castillo. The court of appeals started the discussion of the Cuba issue by noting that,

The guidelines make clear that race, sex, national origin, creed, religion, and socio-economic status "are not relevant in the determination of a sentence." U.S.S.G. § 5H1.10; see also 28 U.S.C. § 994(d) ("The Commission shall assure that the guidelines and policy statements are entirely neutral as to the race, sex, national origin, creed, and socioeconomic status of offenders."). A sentencing court's discretion to consider such factors is also constrained by the Constitution. See, e.g., Pepper v. United States, ___ U.S. ___, 131 S. Ct. 1229, 1240 n.8 (2011) ("Of course, sentencing courts' discretion under § 3661 is subject to constitutional constraints").

The standard that the court of appeals articulated is that remand is required when a reasonable observer might think that reliance on a prohibited factor influenced the sentence.

In this case, the Seventh Circuit held,

we think that both the government and the sentencing court crossed the very fine line of demarcation separating presentencing statements regarding a defendant's relationship with a country or its residents who have engaged in similar criminal activity there and statements concerning the race or national origin of the defendant which would violate his due process guarantees.

The court of appeals criticized both the prosecutor and the district court.

The government should have forgone discussing Trujillo-Castillon's national origin in the first place. And although the court did not expressly adopt the government's position, it did nothing to reasonably assure the defendant that his Cuban heritage would not factor into its calculus. See id. Instead, the court exacerbated the problem by comparing the defendant's conduct to the Mariel people who emigrated from Cuba more than thirty years ago. By lumping the defendant in with the Mariel people and expressly contrasting the values held by Americans with people, like the defendant, "who come[] from Cuba," the court arguably made Trujillo-Castillon's national origin a factor at sentencing. A reasonable observer hearing or reading the remarks might certainly think so.

The court of appeals explained that it wasn't sure if the above-the-guidelines sentence was based on Mr. Trujillo-Castillon's Cuban nationality or some other characteristic. The appellate court directed the district court to either resentence him based on some other factor or explain that the court wasn't motivated by an improper dislike for the Cuban people.

Is there any chance the district court is going to say, in effect, "yes, I was impermissibly biased against Cubans, you should get a new lower sentence" on remand?

I'm betting no.

April 20, 2012

A District Court Cannot Take Away Alcohol And Technology For The Rest Of A Person's Life Without Explaining Why


It's easy to hate people who are found guilty of child pornography charges. People don't like it when other people sexualize children

But, as the Sixth Circuit held in United States v. Inman, a district court still has to give reasons to be mean to them.

Mr. Inman pled guilty to possession of child pornography. He was sentenced to 57 months in prison.

Like anyone else who goes to federal prison, after he is released, he'll be on supervised release - a federal probation officer will supervise him to make sure he's not drifting into further lawlessness.

As a part of his supervised release, he'll have to follow certain conditions. Those conditions, as well as how long he'll be on supervised release, are set by a judge at his sentencing hearing.

In Mr. Inman's case, the government and Mr. Inman's lawyer recommended that he be on supervised release for ten years.

Instead of ten years, the district court, apparently motivated by how gross Mr. Inman's conduct is, sentenced him to a lifetime of supervised release. It didn't explain why.

1231362_sign_no_alcohol.jpgAnd, the district court set a number of conditions that no one asked for, or talked about at Mr. Inman's sentencing hearing - he had to submit to mandatory drug testing; to notify the probation office if he is prescribed any medicine; to provide the probation office with all of his financial information; and he can never drink alcohol again, possess or use a device capable of creating pictures or video, or rent a storage facility or post office box.

What's worse, the district court didn't explain why it was imposing these conditions - it just imposed them.

As the Sixth Circuit explained, these conditions are going to seriously mess him up.

The district court . . . precluded him from using any device capable of creating pictures or video. This special condition effectively prohibits Inman for his lifetime from possessing a cell phone with photo or video capability, a video camera, or any other device capable of creating pictures or videos, even if such devices might be used appropriately in connection with employment or family activities.

So much for getting the new iPhone.

Mr. Inman can never drink alcohol again, according to the district court, even though he doesn't have a problem with alcohol. The Sixth Circuit was troubled by this condition too.

Nothing in the record suggests that Inman has any problem with alcohol or drug dependence; yet, he is now barred from consuming alcohol for life, required to submit to periodic drug testing, and required to keep the probation office informed of any prescription medications in his possession. Supervised release conditions must be tailored to the specific case before the court. Where appropriate, the mandatory condition of drug testing "may be ameliorated or suspended by the court for any individual defendant if the defendant's presentence report or other reliable sentencing information indicates a low risk of future substance abuse by the defendant." 18 U.S.C. § 3563(a)(5). Moreover, the pertinent statute on discretionary conditions does not permit a total ban on alcohol, but allows a court to order the defendant to "refrain from excessive use of alcohol." 18 U.S.C. § 3563(b)(7) (emphasis added). Because Inman appears to present a low risk of future substance abuse, the district court should explain why these conditions of supervised release are warranted.

Finally, the Sixth Circuit thought the requirement that Mr. Inman allow his finances to be inspected by a probation officer was not supported by the record.

Inman also challenges the special condition requiring him to provide the probation office with any requested personal financial information. Inman's crime was not financial in nature. We realize that Inman's finances may give a probation officer insight into whether Inman is involved in illegal conduct, but we cannot approve a requirement that Inman disclose any and all financial information to the probation officer without first reviewing the district court's explanation as to why such a condition is necessary in light of the pertinent sentencing factors.

Based on all of that, the case went back to the district court for resentencing. If a district court is going to take away someone's ability to have an iPhone for life, that court has to do a little bit more explaining.

See also:
Sex Offenders, Supervised Release, and The Eighth Circuit

March 23, 2012

Using An AUSA's Name In A Published Opinion And The Streisand Effect

It's rare that a particular prosecutor is named in an opinion by a federal appeals court. Apparently the Department of Justice wishes it were more rare.

The Ninth Circuit issued a curious opinion last month, in United States v. Lopez-Avila.

Previously, the court of appeals had issued an opinion that was critical of a particular Assistant United States Attorney. The Department of Justice filed a motion asking that the Ninth Circuit remove the name of that prosecutor from the public opinion.

1378633_man_with_a_megaphone_1.jpgHere's the appellate court's response:

The Department of Justice has an obligation to its lawyers and to the public to prevent prosecutorial misconduct. Prosecutors, as servants of the law, are subject to constraints and responsibilities that do not apply to other lawyers; they must serve truth and justice first. United States v. Kojayan, 8 F.3d 1315, 1323 (9th Cir. 1993). Their job is not just to win, but to win fairly, staying within the rules. Berger, 295 U.S. at 88. That did not happen here[.]

It goes on, after noting that the appeal involved misconduct by the prosecutor in the trial court that was relatively obvious.

When a prosecutor steps over the boundaries of proper conduct and into unethical territory, the government has a duty to own up to it and to give assurances that it will not happen again. Yet, we cannot find a single hint of appreciation of the seriousness of the misconduct within the pages of the government's brief on appeal.

The Ninth Circuit then concludes,

upon initial release of this opinion, the government filed a motion requesting that we remove Albert's name and replace it with references to "the prosecutor." The motion contended that naming Albert publicly is inappropriate given that we do not yet know the outcome of any potential investigations or disciplinary proceedings. We declined to adopt the government's suggestion and denied its motion. We have noticed that the U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona regularly makes public the names of prosecutors who do good work and win important victories. E.g., Press Release, U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Arizona, "Northern Arizona Man Sentenced to Federal Prison for Arson," (January 31, 2012) ("The prosecution was handled by Christina J. Reid-Moore, Assistant U.S. Attorney, District of Arizona, Phoenix"), available at http://www.justice.gov/usao/az/press_releases/2012/ PR_01312012_Nez.html. If federal prosecutors receive public credit for their good works--as they should--they should not be able to hide behind the shield of anonymity when they make serious mistakes.

This is the Striesand effect - where an effort to make something not be public gets it even more attention - in action.

Perhaps the best recent example of the Streisand effect was when Dan Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins, sued over media coverage he disliked.

My reaction to seeing Snyder's suit was that he seems really entitled.

It's hard not to think the same thing of the Department of Justice here.

March 19, 2012

Just Because It's A Supervised Release Hearing Doesn't Mean There Are No Rules

Anthony Doswell was having a bad run of luck.

He was on supervised release from the end of a federal sentence. Supervised release works a bit like probation for those who have been in prison - folks coming out of a federal prison have a period of years where they have to check in with a probation officer, be drug tested, and, if they mess up, sent back to prison.

1268685_washington_monument.jpgOne big way to mess up is to commit a new crime. The rub is that a person can be violated - and sent back to prison - for committing a new crime, not just for being convicted of committing a new crime.

So, it's possible for a person on supervised release to be charged with a new crime, beat the charge, then be sent to prison anyway.

It's a hard world.

Anthony Doswell was in a spot like that. He was on supervised release and had been charged with having some marijuana on his person. He also tested positive for heroin and didn't show up to mental health treatment, or to meet with his supervising probation officer. [FN1]

He and his lawyer went to court to answer the allegations. His plan was to admit that he had been using marijuana and throw himself on the mercy of the court.

At the hearing, his lawyer learned that Mr. Doswell had previously been charged with heroin distribution.

Mr. Doswell had also been to court on the charge - twice! Each time the chemist who said the heroin in question was heroin had neglected to show up. The heroin case was eventually dismissed.

Mr. Doswell and his attorney may not have had the most transparent relationship.

In any event, Mr. Doswell objected to a violation of his supervised release based on the heroin. The government went forward with the allegation, providing the district court with the charging documents for the state court heroin distribution charge, as well as the chemist's report.

The government did not call any witnesses.

The district court found that Mr. Doswell had violated his supervised release by selling heroin. As the Fourth Circuit summarized it,

Without explanation, the district court concluded that, "notwithstanding the objection," the drug analysis report was "sufficient to support the [heroin] violation alleged." Accordingly, the court found Doswell guilty of the heroin violation set forth in Supplemental Notice, a violation that the court concluded, "in itself, [wa]s sufficient for . . . a mandatory revocation [of Doswell's supervised release]." The court then sentenced Doswell to the statutory maximum, twenty-four months of imprisonment.

On appeal, the only issue the Fourth Circuit dealt with, in United States v. Doswell, was whether, under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 32.1(b)(2), Mr. Doswell had a right to have the witnesses against him testify.

The government argued that under a prior Fourth Circuit case, and the general principle that revocation hearings are less formal, it didn't have to have a witness there.

Mr. Doswell, instead, suggested the court of appeals look at the language of Rule 32.1(b)(2), which says that at a revocation hearing, a person has

an opportunity to appear, present evidence, and question any adverse witness unless the court determines that the interest of justice does not require the witness to appear

Since the district court spent exactly no time balancing whether the interests of justice didn't require the chemist to testify against Mr. Doswell, the Fourth Circuit reversed the finding of violation and remanded.

Big congratulations to the defense lawyer on appeal, Joanna Silver! Way to ask the court to please read the law.

[FN1] - I know, they call the people who supervise folks on supervised release "Probation Officers" even though it's supervised release. I suppose "Supervised Release Officer" is too specialized a title or something.

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.

February 28, 2012

Judge Posner On Harboring, the Dictionary, and Trusting the Government


Deanna Costello's love knew no boundaries. Literally. For years she had a romantic relationship with a man who was not in the United States lawfully. It led to a strong judicial slapdown of the Department of Justice by one of our nation's leading jurists, in United States v. Costello.

Ms. Costello's Boyfriend

Ms. Costello lived in Cahokia, Illinois, perhaps five miles from St. Louis. She lived with a man from Mexico for a year ending in July 2003. That time ended when he was arrested on a federal drug charge. He plead guilty and was sent back to Mexico after his prison sentence.

1378507_heart_shaped_flower_petal.jpgIn March of 2006, Ms. Costello picked her boyfriend up at the bus station in St. Louis. She drove him to her house, where they lived until October 2006. Sadly, he was then arrested on new drug charges, and the couple were again separated. As the court of appeals noted, he "was given a stiff prison sentence."

Ms. Costello was charged with harboring an alien. She went to a stipulated facts trial - basically a trial where she and the government agree what happened, they simply disagree about whether what happened was a crime.

She was convicted. The district court sentenced her to two years probation and a $200 fine.

The Appeal

She appealed. Judge Posner, writing for the Seventh Circuit, reversed, in an opinion as critical of the government as any I've read in a very long time.

Judge Posner concluded, basically, that harboring an alien does not include having a person in the country unlawfully as a live-in boyfriend.

Judge Posner started by noting that "[t]here is no evidence that the defendant concealed
her boyfriend or shielded him from detection" and that, indeed, since he was arrested at her house several times, it's more likely that law enforcement would find him if he was there than, say, at a relative's house.

Or, alternatively,

The defendant in the present case was not trying to encourage or protect or secrete illegal aliens. There is no suggestion that she prefers illegal aliens as boyfriends to legal aliens or citizens. She had a boyfriend who happened to be (as she knew) an illegal alien, and he lived with her for a time.

A Car Ride Is Not Harboring

The district court made much of Ms. Costello having driven the man from the bus station to her house. Judge Posner wasn't impressed with this fact, noting that

the distance was so short--about six miles--that in a pinch he could have walked. And had he wanted to take public transportation he could have used the St. Louis metro transit system; the price of his ticket would have been $2.75. (That is the price today; it probably was lower in 2006.) There is nothing to suggest that the two of them had prearranged the pickup, or that, had she not picked him up, he would have returned to Mexico. (We don't know how long he had been in the United States.)

A car ride is not harboring an alien.

Judge Posner spent considerable time considering the meaning of "harboring" in the statute criminalizing harboring an alien. Judge Posner considered the way "harboring" is used, and the breadth of the anti-harboring statute if "harboring" covers Ms. Costello's conduct.

The Government's View of Harboring Is Absurd

Judge Posner was concerned that the government's view of what counts as harboring sweeps lots and lots of conduct into the criminal law. In perhaps the most awkward - yet at the same time still awesome - sentence he's ever written, Judge Posner asks:

is it likely that Congress intended that parents whose child invites an immigrant classmate who, as they know, is illegally in the country to a sleepover might be branded as criminals even if he didn't accept the invitation, since the statute criminalizes attempts?

The court of appeals also points out the absurd consequences of the government's statutory interpretation,

an illegal alien becomes a criminal by having a wife, also an illegal alien, living with him in the United States; if they have children, born abroad and hence illegal aliens also, living with them, then each parent has several counts of criminal harboring, on the government's interpretation of the statute.

Judge Posner Doesn't Trust The Government

The government tells us not to worry: we judges can rely on prosecutors to avoid bringing cases at the outer margin of the government's sweeping definition of "harboring." But this case is at the outer margin. No doubt it was brought because the Justice Department suspects that the defendant was involved in her boyfriend's drug dealings, but cannot prove it, so the Department reaches into its deep arsenal (the 4000-plus federal crimes) and finds a crime that she doubtless never heard of that it can pin on her. She was sentenced only to probation and to pay a fine but now has a felony record that will dog her for the rest of her life if she loses this appeal.

Down with the Dictionary

In perhaps my favorite section of the opinion (though there are many) Judge Posner criticizes the government's use of the dictionary -

"Dictionary definitions are acontextual, whereas the meaning of sentences depends critically on context, including all sorts of background understandings A sign in a park that says "Keep off the grass" is not properly interpreted to forbid the grounds crew to cut the grass.

To try to learn how "harboring" is normally used, Judge Posner turned to Google:

a search based on the supposition that the number of hits per term is a rough index of the frequency of its use--reveals the following:

"harboring fugitives": 50,800 hits
"harboring enemies": 4,730 hits
"harboring refugees": 4,820 hits
"harboring victims": 114 hits
"harboring flood victims": 0 hits
"harboring victims of disasters": 0 hits
"harboring victims of persecution": 0 hits
"harboring guests": 184 hits
"harboring friends": 256 hits (but some involve
harboring Quakers--"Friends," viewed in
colonial New England as dangerous heretics)
"harboring Quakers": 3,870 hits
"harboring Jews": 19,100 hits

It is apparent from these results that "harboring," as the word is actually used, has a connotation--which "sheltering," and a fortiori "giving a person a place to stay"--does not, of deliberately safeguarding members of a specified group from the authorities, whether
through concealment, movement to a safe location, or physical protection.


Because Ms. Costello was not keeping her boyfriend from the authorities - rather she was just keeping him to herself - she was not harboring. She was merely entertaining.

And entertaining an alien is not against the law.

December 15, 2011

The Right To Not Remain Silent


People are social animals. We teach each other. We learn from each other. We judge each other.

Perhaps dozens of times a day we make evaluations about other people based on how they look at us and what they say to us. We make determinations about other people based on race and class and whether we think another person is "one of us" - in all the ways that a person can be one of us. Maybe pheromones play a role in how we evaluate each other. But these small judgments we make in our interactions with others shape how we treat each other in ways large and small.

None of this goes away when a judge puts on a robe and imposes a sentence on a person who has been convicted of a crime.

A federal district judge will know generally about the crime - the judge either sat through a trial and heard the testimony, or read a statement of offense in a plea agreement - and will know from the presentence report about the person being sentenced.

But these background facts don't give the judge the same human knowledge about the person that a face-to-face interaction does. Which is why whether the person speaks at his sentencing - and how he acts if he does speak - can be very important.

Rule 32 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure give a person being sentenced a right to talk to the judge about what sentence the court should impose.

837375_mouth.jpgThe right to talk to the judge before the sentence is imposed was given a very muscular reading by the Eleventh Circuit in United States v. Perez.

Mr. Perez, along with a number of others, was convicted of conspiring to rob a check cashing store, as well as a drug stash house that did not, in fact, exist. The federal government, in an apparent effort to bring counter-terrorism tactics to the street, has started finding people who may be interested in committing a crime, then arranging with a confidential informant to have them find some fake entity to conspire to rob. It's easier to catch fake crime than real crime, I suppose. (For more on these kinds of cases, please see this post at the Ninth Circuit blog).

At sentencing, the sentencing court said to Mr. Perez's counsel "will the defendant be allocating?" Mr. Perez's lawyer conferred with his client then told the court, "No, Your Honor. He doesn't wish to address the Court." Mr. Perez did not, then, address the court.

The Eleventh Circuit found that this violated Mr. Perez's right to present information to the court. The court of appeals noted that:

On a number of occasions, "[w]e have explicitly held that the requirement of Rule 32[(i)(4)(A)(ii)] is not satisfied when the court does not address the defendant personally concerning the defendant's desire to allocute but instead addresses defendant's counsel only."

In light of that, the court held that it was not convinced that Mr. Perez knew that he had a right to speak to the sentencing judge.

Because the right to allocute is fundamental, the Eleventh Circuit reversed, even though no one objected at the time.

Waxing poetic about the importance of allocution, the court of appeals said

The right of allocution provides a defendant "an opportunity to plead personally to the court for leniency in his sentence by stating mitigating factors and to have that plea considered by the court in determining the appropriate sentence." United States v.Tamayo, 80 F.3d 1514, 1518 (11th Cir. 1996). "As early as 1689, it was recognized that the court's failure to ask the defendant if he had anything to say before sentence was imposed required reversal." Green v. United States, 365 U.S. 301, 304, 81 S. Ct. 653, 655, 5 L. Ed. 2d 670 (1961) (Frankfurter, J., plurality opinion). Although criminal procedures have progressed significantly since the seventeenth century, "[n]one of these modern innovations lessens the need for the defendant, personally, to have the opportunity to present to the court his plea in mitigation." Id. Allocution continues to "ensure that sentencing reflects individualized circumstances," United States v. De Alba Pagan, 33 F.3d 125, 129 (1st Cir. 1994) (citing United States v. Barnes, 948 F.2d 325, 328 (7th Cir. 1991), while maximizing the "perceived equity of the process." Id. (quoting Barnes, 948 F.2d at 328). Consequently, a defendant's right of allocution, which is codified in Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 32, remains firmly entrenched in our criminal jurisprudence.

And so, back for resentencing Mr. Perez will go.

December 9, 2011

Ms. Tapia Wins! Again!


For a person convicted of a crime, winning in the Supreme Court of the United States can be a mixed bag.

Sometimes it works out well. Clarence Gideon was acquitted when he was retried, this time with the aid of a defense lawyer. He was also, of course, lovingly portrayed by Henry Fonda in film, and is now perhaps the most often-invoked indigent of the Twentieth Century.

657704_supreme_court.jpgOn the other hand, Ernesto Miranda, the man who gave us Miranda warnings, was convicted on retrial after his statement was suppressed. He served 11 years in prison for rape.

Freddie Booker's case turned federal criminal sentencing on its head. Mr. Booker was resentenced after his case rendered the federal sentencing guidelines advisory - he was given exactly the same sentence with the advisory guidelines as with the mandatory ones.

Perhaps that was a harbinger.

Alejandra Tapia won her case in the United States Supreme Court last term. And, happily, yesterday, she found that she'll get some relief from that win.

She was convicted at trial of bringing two undocumented people into the country for financial gain, and of bail jumping - apparently Ms. Tapia did not make it to court for one of the hearings in her case.

She was sentenced to 51 months, the high-end of the applicable guidelines range. The sentencing court said that she had a drug problem and needed treatment while in prison. The sentence he imposed was to help her get that treatment.

Ms. Tapia appealed the sentencing judge's reliance on her need for drug treatment, but the Ninth Circuit affirmed. Ms. Tapia took her case all the way to the Supreme Court. In the Supreme Court, she won.

There, in Tapia v. United States, the Court held that a district judge cannot increase a sentence on a person in order to provide more time in prison to rehabilitate the person.

(Judge Posner has already provided district court judges with a roadmap for how to circumvent Tapia.)

The Supreme Court remanded to the Ninth Circuit to determine whether Ms. Tapia is entitled to relief based on its holding.

On remand from the Supreme Court Ninth Circuit held that Ms. Tapia is entitled to resentencing in United States v Tapia. The district court's consideration of her drug history and need for drug treatment was plain error.

As the Ninth Circuit said, in determining that Ms. Tapia was negatively effected by the sentencing judge's findings:

There is little reason to think that the district judge did not mean what he said in sentencing Tapia. He stated that "the need to provide treatment" was one of the considerations that "affect[ed]" the length of the sentence he imposed. We take him at his word, and hold that Tapia has shown that there is a "reasonable probability that [she] would have received a different sentence" but for the district judge's impermissible consideration of this factor.

So, back to the district court for resentencing for Ms. Tapia. Here's to hoping she avoids Mr. Miranda and Mr. Booker's fates and receives less than her prior 51 months.

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.

December 5, 2011

Club Rules, Prejudicial Evidence, and Hard Distinctions About Child Pornography

In a classic Simpsons episode, Homer Simpson, as a young person, is excluded from a club of his peers - the club is called the "No Homers Club." Homer complains, noting that there was a Homer inside the clubhouse.

He's told - "It says no Homers. We're allowed to have one." (Incidentally, the "No Homers Club" is now the name of many Simpsons fan clubs).

DSC01433_z.JPGClub rules tend, I think, to be silly. The Seventh Circuit's recent opinion in United States v. Loughry however, meant the difference in whether a child pornography conviction stands can depend on the rules of a private "club."

Robert Loughry was accused of being an administrator of an online club that had very rigid rules. The club, called the "Cache," existed to allow users access to a particular kind of child pornography. Other kinds were explicitly prohibited.

As the Seventh Circuit explained it,

Only "lascivious exhibition" pornography, which included the exhibition of girls' genitals, was permitted on the Cache. Images depicting sexual contact or other sexually explicit material were prohibited.

Mr. Loughry was accused of distribution of child pornography, advertising child pornography, and related conspiracy counts. He was not accused of possession of child pornography.

The government introduced evidence of the images found at the Cache. As the Seventh Circuit explained,

The site was divided into sub-forums and topic areas. There was a non-nude gallery area and a nude gallery area, which was subdivided by ages into "18 and over nude," "13-18 nude," and "under 13 nude" categories. The Cache's rules prohibited posting any images depicting sexual contact, masturbation, penetration, boys, or men. According to several witnesses, the purpose of the Cache was to provide its members with access to child pornography consisting of the lascivious exhibition of the genitals of minor girls.

During the trial, the government introduced evidence of Mr. Loughry exercising the kind of role in the Cache that one would expect an administrator to exercise - he promoted members, he kicked them out, and he created new member accounts.

The last government witness, though, introduced evidence of significant hard-core child pornography found on Mr. Loughry's computer. It was the kind of child pornography that would not have been allowed in the Cache. It's described in the opinion, if you want to know more.

Mr. Loughry was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

On appeal, he challenged the district court's decision to admit the hard-core child pornography from his computer as unduly prejudicial under Rule 403 of the Federal Rules of Evidence. Again, keep in mind that Mr. Loughry was not charged with the crime of possessing the hard-core child pornography on his computer.

The court of appeals took the district court to task for not looking at the hard-core child pornography before ruling on the admissibility question. Because the trial judge didn't look at that evidence, the court of appeals reasoned, that judge couldn't have made an informed decision about how prejudicial it was.

As the court of appeals said it,

The challenged videos include the kind of highly reprehensible and offensive content that might lead a jury to convict because it thinks that the defendant is a bad person and deserves punishment, regardless of whether the defendant committed the charged crime. Given the inflammatory nature of the evidence, the district court needed to know what was in the photographs and videos in order for it to properly exercise its discretion under Rule 403. Without looking at the videos for itself, the court could not have fully assessed the potential prejudice to Loughry and weighed it against the evidence's probative value.

Describing the kind of hard core child pornography that was shown, the court of appeals determined that it was prejudicial - and that the prejudice outweighed the value of admitting it, noting,

Such displays have a strong tendency to produce intense disgust.

The Seventh Circuit then found that the judge's error was not harmless, and reversed and remanded the case.

Child pornography cases are hard, and it is challenging to make the kinds of distinctions that the Seventh Circuit made here. Good on them for doing this work though, even though it's hard.

November 29, 2011

Two Ways To Think About Punishment


The Wrong Way To Think About Punishment

When I meet people at a cocktail party, or talk to kids of elementary-school age, and they learn I'm a federal criminal defense lawyer, I'm often asked something like, "How much time do you get for bank robbery?" or, "What's the punishment for mortgage fraud?"

The assumption is that there is a menu of punishments for crimes - if you do X, you get Y.

127450_the_stocks.jpgThere is a version of this that is a bit more fine grained. It isn't a question of whether you commit mortgage fraud, but of how much money you take from the fraud. If you do X, with Y harm, you get Z.

Some bank robberies are worse than others. "What's the punishment for committing one of the bad ones?" the guy at the cocktail party may ask.

Looking at the federal sentencing guidelines, you can see the fullest expression of this more refined view. The guidelines are a loving catalog of how bad each crime is, considering each feature and sub-feature of the criminal conduct. And there's a chart at the end of the book that will tell you how much time you get for each.

This is, I think, the wrong way to think about punishment.

The Right Way To Think About Punishment

Happily, the Third Circuit recently explained the right way to think about punishment (the quotations are from the Supreme Court's recent opinion in Pepper) in United States v. Salinas-Cortez:

Appropriate sentences can only be imposed when sentencing courts "consider the widest possible breadth of information about a defendant." Id. at 1240. It is only then that we can "ensure[] that the punishment will suit not merely the offense but the individual defendant." Id. As we have previously explained, the now advisory Guideline range is but one of many factors that must be considered if a court is to properly impose a sentence that is tailored to the offender rather than one that focuses only on the offense.

It is remarkably difficult to get a federal prosecutor to ask for a sentence below the federal sentencing guidelines. Some offices have a blanket policy against such requests. Others simply don't do them. The effect is that when a person is punished, his crime overshadows who he is as a person.

(For a nice discussion of the role prosecutors play in this, see this piece at Main Justice from Mary Price at Families Against Mandatory Minimums.)

The Third Circuit explained,

It is only by ensuring that the individual circumstances of the defendant are not obliterated by the offense that an individual's potential to successfully rejoin society is maximized and the interest of public safety advanced. Thus, "[i]t has been uniform and constant in the federal judicial tradition for the sentencing judge to consider every convicted person as an individual and every case as a unique study in the human failings that sometimes mitigate, sometimes magnify, the crime and the punishment to ensue." Koon v. United States, 518 U.S. 81, 113 (1996). This bedrock principle predates enactment of the Guidelines.

It's a beautiful sentiment in Koon, that every criminal case is a reflection of our shared humanity and the ways in which humans can falter morally.

It's also a view rejected by the sentencing guidelines. Chapter 5H. Chapter 5H starts with a discussion of how much of what matters to a person is either a prohibited characteristic or not ordinarily relevant to sentencing.

Admittedly, Congress has required that the sentencing guidelines take this view (see 28 U.S.C. 994(d) and (d)). Still, it's wholly inconsistent with the view the Supreme Court expressed in Koon and reaffirmed in Pepper, that sentencing should rely, fundamentally, on a consideration of who the person is who committed the offense.

Mr. Salinas-Cortez

Mr. Salinas-Cortez was sentenced to 156 months in a federal prison after he was convicted of playing a role in a cocaine distribution conspiracy. He appealed, arguing that the district court did not adequately consider his argument that he was a minor player in the conspiracy.

The Third Circuit remanded the case for the district court to more fully consider Mr. Salinas-Cortez's argument that he was a minor player, and should receive a lower sentencing guidelines range under U.S.S.G. § 3B1.2.

The district court, on remand, considered Mr. Salinas-Cortez's argument, then rejected it. Mr. Salinas-Cortez argued that he had made strides toward rehabilitating himself. The district court did not believe that it had the authority to consider Mr. Salinas-Cortez's work to make himself a better person. The court imposed, again, a sentence of 156 months.

A week later, the Supreme Court decided Pepper, which holds that a district court can and should consider rehabilitation when imposing a sentence after remand.

The Third Circuit, therefore, remanded for the district court to resentence Mr. Salinas-Cortez in light of his rehabilitation after his offense.

November 2, 2011

The Fourth Circuit Makes Testifying At Trial In One's Own Defense Ever So Slightly Less Of A Roll of The Dice


One of the trickiest problems in a criminal trial, in federal court or any other court, is determining if the person accused of a crime should testify.

On one hand, the jurors instinctively want to hear what the person has to say. They're instructed not to hold it against him if he doesn't testify, but, as a matter of human psychology, people want the guy who just sat and listened to others say bad things about him to say something back.

Dice.jpgAnd, of course, the person on trial may have something useful to say in his own defense.

On the other hand, if the person has a criminal record, by testifying the government can often introduce that criminal history to the jury - if it wasn't already presented.

Worse, in federal court, a person who testifies and is convicted runs the risk of being assessed a two-level increase for obstruction of justice under U.S.S.G. § 3C1.1.

Doesn't that violate a person's right to testify in their own defense? you may wonder. As it happens, the Supreme Court heard an argument to that effect - and rejected it - in United States v. Dunnigan.

The Court acknowledged that in prior precedents

we indicated that the ordinary task of trial courts is to sift true from false testimony, so the problem caused by simple perjury was not so much an obstruction of justice as an expected part of its administration

Nonetheless, because section 3C1.1 does not apply to every defendant who testifies and is convicted, the Supreme Court held that section 3C1.1 passes constitutional muster and does not unduly infringe on a person's right to testify in his defense.

The obstruction enhancement was at issue in the Fourth Circuit's opinion in United States v. Perez.

In Perez, the person on trial testified in his own defense. He was convicted. At sentencing, the district court determined that the two-level bump under 3C1.1 applied because:

[T]he fact remains that the jury decided this matter unfavorably toward Mr. Perez. . . . the Court agrees that the government witnesses were more credible, from the Court's perspective, than was Mr. Perez . . . The Court believes that the jury reasonably accepted testimony of the government witnesses, rejected that of Mr. Perez and the Court believes that Mr. Perez's testimony at trial was not credible and constituted obstruction of justice.

The Fourth Circuit used Perez as an opportunity to discuss what a sentencing court has to find in order to impose an adjustment under 3C1.1. Mindful that the Supreme Court requires that the enhancement not apply in every case where a person testified and was convicted, the Fourth Circuit clarified that 3C1.1 only applies when the person on trial:

"(1) gave false testimony; (2) concerning a material matter; (3) with willful intent to deceive"

The Fourth Circuit, though, seemed troubled by how easy it can be for a sentencing court to impose this enhancement. For that reason, the Fourth Circuit now requires that a district court

must provide a finding that clearly establishes each of the three elements. With respect to willfulness, for example, it would, in the usual case, be enough for the court to say, "The defendant knew that his testimony was false when he gave it," but it could not simply assert, "The third element is satisfied." While some may suggest this is little more than an empty formality, we believe it serves a vital purpose.

Because the district court in Perez did not do this factfinding, the court of appeals reversed and remanded for a new sentencing hearing.

October 18, 2011

The First Circuit, Federalism, and the Department of Justice's Distaste For Rejection


The rumble in Rhode Island is over - Rhode Island won.

As frequent readers of this blog - and fans of the Interstate Agreement on Detainers - will recall, a fight broke out between Rhode Island and the United States Department of Justice over a man named Jason Wayne Pleau.

Rhode Island.jpgMr. Pleau appears to have killed a man in the course of a bank robbery. The bank was federally insured (like just about every other bank in the country). The United States Attorney's Office in Rhode Island decided to bring a case against Mr. Pleau based on the charges.

In the state system, Mr. Pleau reached an agreement to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence without the possibility of parole. That's good enough for Rhode Island, which has a long history of opposition to the death penalty.

If Mr. Pleau is prosecuted in federal court, he can face the death penalty.

Mr. Pleau is in state custody. The U.S. Attorney's Office asked for him to be produced under the Interstate Agreement on Detainers. The Interstate Agreement on Detainers is an agreement between almost every state and the federal government over transfer of people for prosecution.* It's in the U.S. Code.

The Interstate Agreement on Detainers, though, lets a state say no. Rhode Island's Governor, Linc Chafee, did just that. Because Governor Chafee is strongly opposed to the death penalty, he refused to turn Mr. Pleau over to the federal government.

The U.S. Attorney's Office then sought a writ for Mr. Pleau to be turned over to be prosecuted. A writ of habeas corpus ad prosequendum is, in effect, an order issued by a United States District Court telling whoever is holding a person to send the person to that court so the person can be prosecuted. It's authorized by 28 U.S.C. § 2241(c)(5).

The United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island issued the writ.

The Governor, standing on the principle that he opposes the death penalty, refused to turn Mr. Pleau over.

The United States Department of Justice, standing on the principle that it really does not like to be told no, insisted that Mr. Pleau be turned over.

The dispute went to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

The court of appeals, in a joint opinion in United States v. Pleau and In re Pleau, held that the United States has a choice - it can use the IAD or it can use a writ to get a prisoner.

But, once the government chooses which way to go, it is stuck with that choice.

Since the federal government asked under the IAD first, it was bound by Governor Chafee's refusal, and cannot later ask for a writ to trump the Governor's right to refuse under the IAD.

What's interesting about the case, though, is less the technical merits of the statutory question about whether the IAD or the statute authorizing writs wins. What's interesting is how the court of appeals looks at this issue. The appellate court could have decided this on narrow statutory grounds. Instead, it ran to the policy concerns.

This was the first time a governor of a state had denied a federal request for a person to be prosecuted - ever. The First Circuit spent a good deal of time on the legitimacy of Rhode Island's interest.

Noting that this is a symbolically important issue, the court of appeals quoted the Governor saying that

he could not "in good conscience" allow the federal government to ride roughshod over Rhode Island's "conscious[] reject[ion]" of execution as an acceptable form of state punishment.

It went on to observe that
the only additional punishment that a federal conviction might bring would appear to be authorization to kill Pleau. The present case thus presents a stark conflict between federal and state policy prerogatives on a matter of literally life-and-death significance.

And then, as if that wasn't already a big nod to the Governor's policy preferences, the court of appeals noted, in a footnote, that maybe the federal government should just step off when it comes to prosecuting these kinds of crimes saying,
We pause to note that the crimes Pleau is alleged to have committed -- armed robbery and murder -- are quintessential state crimes, and betray on their face no hint of any uniquely federal interest. See United States v. Jiménez-Torres, 435 F.3d 3, 14-15 (1st Cir. 2006) (Torruella, J., concurring) (objecting to unwarranted extension of federal criminal jurisdiction over traditionally state crimes). Moreover, given that Pleau has already agreed to plead guilty to state charges and accept a life sentence without the possibility of parole, it is frankly unclear what is to be gained from pursuing federal charges in this case, particularly in light of the truly extraordinary costs of capital litigation.

This is a great question - what exactly is the federal interest here? I suspect, as I said before, that it's just a matter of the United States Department of Justice being willing to spend whatever it takes to keep from being told no.

Beyond that, the First Circuit's discussion reminds me of the discussion in the Supreme Court's opinion in United States v. Cabrales of why we have a constitutional venue provision, because

[p]roper venue in criminal proceedings was a matter of concern to the Nation's founders. Their complaints against the King of Great Britain, listed in the Declaration of Independence, included his transportation of colonists "beyond Seas to be tried.

As the federal government comes down on California's medical marijuana providers, maybe it starts to look a bit like the prior sovereign we had in these lands.

* Only forty-eight states have signed onto the IAD. Also, the description here is very general - the IAD is very involved. The Department of Justice's U.S. Attorney's Manual has more information on the IAD.