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Tax Restitution Trips Up A District Court Judge In The Seventh Circuit

Justice Scalia recently made headlines by taking a cheap shot at the ranks of federal district court judges.

As the Associated Press reported (hat tip to Sentencing Law and Policy):

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia says the quality of federal judges has suffered because there are too many of them. Testifying before a Senate committee Wednesday, Scalia blamed Congress for making federal crimes out of too many routine drug cases. In turn, that created a need for more judges.

“Federal judges ain’t what they used to be,” he said during a rare appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The federal judiciary should be an elite group, said Scalia, who has served on the high court for 25 years. “It’s not as elite as it used to be,” he said.

He was responding to a question about what he sees as the greatest threat to the independence of judges.

369110_taxpapers.jpgFor what it’s worth, I go half way with Justice Scalia on this. There are too many federal drug prosecutions, but, from my perspective, the quality of the federal district court bench is still excellent – especially the judges I appear in front of (and who may be (but probably aren’t) reading this).

One danger of having too many cases is that it gets hard to look at each case with fresh eyes.

Sentence too many folks on drug crimes, and every person convicted of drug dealing starts to look the same. It’s a rare, and good, judge who can treat the 500th drug defendant as an individual in the same way that she did with the first.

Once a judge does, say, 100 sentencing hearings, she can be forgiven, perhaps, for not focusing on the details of each one.

This kind of volume leads to the regrettable sloppiness in the Seventh Circuit’s opinion in United States v. Hassebrock.

Mr. Hassebrock earned substantial income from an oil business in 2004. Among other income, he received a taxable settlement of $2.5 million. He neglected, however, to file income tax returns. He was indicted, and, at trial, convicted, of tax evasion and willfully failing to file a tax return.

Tax evasion and failure to file a tax return are odd offenses. While most federal crimes appear in Title 18 of the United States Code, tax offenses are codified in Title 26. Tax evasion is a violation of 26 U.S.C. § 7201 and willful failure to file a tax return is a violation of section 7203.

The difference in which title is the source of the crime changes things in small and subtle ways at sentencing.

In Mr. Hassebrock’s case, it changed whether the sentencing court had the power to order Mr. Hassebrock to pay restitution.

To back up, a court can order, as a part of a sentence, a person to pay funds to make his victims whole as restitution. If a person defrauded money, he can be ordered to pay the amount defrauded. If he shot someone, he can be ordered to pay the costs of medical bills, lost wages, and therapy to recover from the injury.

The general restitution statutes, 18 U.S.C. §§ 3663 and 3663A, apply to violations of crimes that appear in Title 18 and drug crimes in Title 21. They do not apply to offenses in Title 26 – that is, they don’t apply to tax evasion.

Judges imposing sentence really want to impose restitution. As a practical matter, it makes collecting the taxes that were evaded monumentally easier for the government.

Yet restitution in tax cases is only available in two ways. First, if the person charged with a tax offense pleads guilty, as a condition of a plea agreement he can agree (or be forced to agree) to pay restitution as a part of his sentence. This is authorized by 18 U.S.C. § 3663(a)(3).

Second, if the district court orders that the person be on supervised release, the court can make restitution a condition of that supervised release.

Importantly, a district court cannot make restitution a part of a sentence in federal court.

Given that this blog only addresses cases and issues where the defendant wins, you will not be shocked to learn that the district court in Mr. Hassebrock imposed a restitution order as a part of his sentence.

The government tried to let the sentencing court know it couldn’t do it, but the judge, ignoring the government’s statement that the court could only impose restitution as a condition of Mr. Hassebrock’s post-prison supervised release, imposed restitution as a part of the sentence.

The court directed Mr. Hassebrock to start paying the restitution immediately – while he was serving his 36 month sentence. However, the court doesn’t have the power to order him to pay restitution until his prison sentence is over and he is being supervised by the United States Probation Office.

Mr. Hassebrock, to his credit, has apparently starting paying his restitution from prison.

His case was remanded for a new restitution order that starts once he is out of prison.