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Important White-Collar Crime Decision By the Federal District Court in D.C.

Judge Huvelle on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued an opinion in United States v. Ring that is tremendously important for white-collar practitioners specifically, or people who are interested in sentencing in federal criminal cases more generally. It dodges, in a very nice way, the question of how much of a penalty the government can try to assess on a person accused of a federal crime who decides to go to trial.

The Washington Post has a story, as does Sentencing Law & Policy.

Mr. Ring was accused of being involved in Jack Abramoff’s illegal deeds. Unlike everyone else in the case – indeed, unlike most white-collar defendants – Mr. Ring went to trial. He was convicted.

The government asked the court to impose massively higher sentencing guidelines adjustments than it requested for others who had entered a guilty plea and cooperated with the government. As Judge Huvelle noted,

 As Ring points out, the government now advocates for a Guidelines methodology that it has never asked for before (and that the Court has not previously employed) with respect to calculating the sentences of his co-conspirators.

The increased guidelines were significant.* Mr. Ring argued that they were the result of the government wanting to punish him for making them go to trial.

Defendant’s position is that the government is retaliating against him for exercising his Sixth Amendment right to trial. It is easy to see why such an inference might be justified, since the government’s new methodology for calculating defendant’s offense level (prior to adjustments for role in the offense and obstruction of justice) would result in a Guidelines sentence of between 121 and 151 months-nearly nine years longer than it would otherwise have been. . . . Indeed, the government’s position is that Ring’s total offense level (37) should be the highest of all participants in the conspiracy, despite the fact that Abramoff (whose offense level was 34, not including acceptance of responsibility) and Scanlon (whose offense level was 27, not including acceptance of responsibility) were clearly more culpable.

Mr. Ring asked the court to apply the guidelines that were used for the others in the case, instead of using the higher guidelines the government asked for.

Judge Huvelle was sympathetic,

The notion that an ostensibly objective system of sentencing guidelines can produce such wildly varying results for essentially the same offense conduct is deeply troubling, and indeed, as Ring argues, if the Guidelines are “subject to manipulation” in this fashion, it would mock the very consistency the Guidelines were meant to impose on such elementary concepts as “offense level.”

Judge Huvelle did not find that the government was imposing a trial penalty, though. Instead, she adopted the guidelines applicable to the others through a straightforward guidelines analysis, ultimately concluding that Mr. Ring’s guidelines were in line with the others in the case.

* For the folks who are into the details of the guidelines issues, to summarize so you can see if you want to read the opinion, the main issues are: (1) the application of a bribery cross-reference under § 2C1.7 that would apply the bribery sentencing guidelines under § 2C1.1 instead of the § 2C1.7 Honest Services Fraud guidelines; (2) the “more than one bribe” enhancement under § 2C1.1; (3) loss calculation under § 2C1.1(b)(2); (4) a manager enhancement under § 3B1.1; (5) an obstruction of justice enhancement under §3C1.1; and (6) whether Ring can get acceptance under § 3E1.1 even though he went to trial.

All issues were resolved under the 2003 version of the guidelines, for ex post facto reasons. (and, though I normally like to link to the guidelines sections themselves, I didn’t here, because they are only available in pdf).

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