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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Third Circuit Upholds Large Upward Variance, Explaining that Ratcheting Procedure Not Required

The Third Circuit clarified yesterday, in United States v. Colon, that the ratcheting procedure district courts must employ when departing upward under the Guidelines for criminal history -- i.e., individually and sequentially considering each next-higher criminal history category -- does not apply to upward variances in consideration of the Section 3553(a) factors. The Court has previously held that ratcheting is still required post-Booker when district courts are departing under the Guidelines, United States v. King, 454 F.3d 187, 193 (3d Cir. 2006), but to require a similarly Guidelines-centric methodology for variances impermissibly "tie[s] the courts hands" by giving the Guidelines undue primacy in the Section 3553(a) calculus. Colon, slip op. at 7. Booker "doubly diminished" the Guidelines, the Court says, first by rendering them advisory and second by putting them on an even plane with the other Section 3553(a) factors. Colon, slip op. at 4.

Here, the demotion of the Guidelines worked to the defendant's detriment. The Third Circuit affirmed a 180-month sentence on a Guidelines range of 70-87 months (offense level 25, criminal history category III). The variance was far in excess of even the Guidelines range for a level 25 offender assuming a category VI criminal history (110-137 months), but was reasonable, the Court held, given the circumstances of the defendant's prior crimes. It remains to be seen whether the Third Circuit will take such a broad view of reasonableness when considering a similarly drastic variance below the Guidelines range.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Third Circuit Blog

Third Circuit Blog
In United States v. Korey, 2007 WL 14686, No. 05-3840, filed 1/4/07, the 3d Circuit vacated the defendant's conviction because the conspiracy instruction given to the jury contained an impermissible mandatory presumption that was not harmless. The instruction foreclosed the jury's consideration of an essential element of conspiracy: that the defendant shared a common goal, which in this case was to advance the cocaine distribution scheme.

65-year sentence affirmed for first offender convicted of 924(c) in triplicate.

Nope, not a typo . . . In United States v. Walker, No. 04-4405 (1/16/07), the Third Circuit affirmed a 65-year sentence for two armed robberies a jury said Mr. Walker committed in late 2004, as well as his possession of a firearm in connection with three crack-related offenses. The sentence consisted of a 10-year concurrent sentence for the drug offenses, and consecutive sentences, totaling 55 years, for three violations of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c).

At issue on appeal was "whether the 55-year consecutive mandatory minimum portion of [Mr. Walker's] sentence . . . violate[d] the Fifth and Eighth Amendments. op. at *1. Mr. Walker argued that 924(c)'s sentencing scheme violated due process and the separation of powers by limiting a court's sentencing discretion and preventing individualized sentencing. Reaffirming its decision in United States v. MacEwan, 445 F.3d 237 (3d Cir. 2006), the Court dismissed this claim, noting again that "Congress has the power to define criminal punishments without giving the courts any sentencing discretion." op. at *3. The Court also reaffirmed that "there is no due process right to individualized sentencing." Id.

Mr. Walker also argued his sentence violated equal protection in that it was irrational when compared with the punishments for other more serious federal crimes. Specifically, he noted that his sentence for offenses involving only the potential for violence was more severe than some sentences for offenses involving actual violence. The court dismissed this argument noting that the potential sentences for the referenced violent offenses could also be longer than the one Mr. Walker received.

Mr. Walker also argued that his sentence was irrational because 924(c)'s scheme of escalating sentences for subsequent convictions failed to differentiate between a true "recidivist" and a first time offender who is convicted all at once of more than one 924(c) offense. The Court dismissed this claim, noting that the Supreme Court's decision in Deal v. United States, 508 U.S. 129 (1993), held that 924(c)'s consecutive sentencing provision need not be limited to "recidivists."

Mr. Walker next argued that his sentence constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Applying the three part test set out in Solem v. Helm, 463 U.S. 277 (1983), for determining Eighth Amendment violations, the Court explained that the first step - a disproportion between "the gravity of the offense and the harshness of the penalty" - acts as a gateway, and if the first step does not exist there can be no Eighth Amendment violation. op. at ** 7-8. Noting that it must "grant substantial deference to the broad authority that legislatures necessarily possess in determining the types and limits of punishment for crimes," the Court found that the relationship between the harsh penalties under 924(c) and Congress' purpose for the penalties (to protect society "from violent criminals who repeatedly demonstrate a willingness to employ deadly weapons") was reasonable. op. at *9. Thus, the Court found that Mr. Walker's sentence was not grossly disproportionate from the gravity of his crimes, and accordingly found no Eighth Amendment violation.

Finally, Mr. Walker argued that 924(c)'s mandate of consecutive 25-year sentences conflicts with the parsimony clause in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) that courts "impose a sentence sufficient, but not greater than necessary." Based on this conflict, Mr. Walker argued that the rule of lenity mandated a lower sentence. The Court dismissed this claim, explaining that the rule lenity only applies where there is doubt about a statute's scope and that there was no doubt about the scope of 924(c).

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Third Circuit Blog

Third Circuit Blog
In US v. Williams, 2007 WL 14684 (C.A.3(Pa.)), No. 05-4292, filed 1/4/07, the 3d Circuit reiterated the standard for when double jeopardy bars a retrial following a government-provoked mistrial. The district court had granted a mistrial for prosecutorial misconduct (after the prosecutor questioned the defendant about prior convictions despite the court's order not to do so) and then granted the defendant's motion to dismiss the indictment on double jeopardy grounds after finding that the prosecutor intended to provoke the mistrial. The 3d Circuit disagreed, finding that the record evidence did not sufficiently establish that the government intended to goad the defendant into requesting a mistrial. It reversed and remanded for a new trial.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Cross Examination: Prosec can't ask Def if police are lying

In US v. William Harris, No. 05-2016 (3d Cir. 12/29/06), the 3rd Circuit held as a matter of first impression in the Circuit that "asking one witness whether another is lying is inappropriate." But since there was no objection in this case to the prosecutor's questions of defendant regarding whether the police witnesses were lying, the issue was reviewed for plain error. Since the Circuit had not yet ruled until this case, the error was not "plain." Nearly all other circuits have ruled that such questions are improper and may constitute reversible error if a timely objection is made.

These sorts of cross-examinantion questions are particularly common whenever a defendant testifies. Thus, in light of Harris, it is now especially important to object anytime the prosecutor asks the defendant (or any other defense witness) if the police witnesses must be lying.

Sentencing and the Parsimony Provision

In US v. Shalon Dragon, No. 05-4906 (12/29/06), the 3rd Circuit ruled that district courts need not expressly apply the "parsimony provision" when sentencing.

Dragon pleaded guilty to identity theft and faced a guideline range of 37 to 46 months in prison. The judge imposed 44 months, and Dragon appealed arguing that the judge failed to articulate why a lower sentence within the guideline range would not have been sufficient. Dragon argued that this omission violated the "parsimony provision" in 18 usc 3553(a), which states:

The court shall impose a sentence sufficient, but not greater than
necessary, to comply with the purposes set forth in paragraph (2) of this
subsection [which lists the four basic purposes of sentencing].



The Circuit ruled that "district judges are not required by the parsimony provision to routinely state that the sentence imposed is the minimum sentence necessary to achieve the purposes set forth in section 3553(a)(2)." Instead, the judges need only state adequate reasons for the sentence, give due consideration to the 3553(a) factors, and consider any arguments properly presented by the parties which have legal merit and a factual basis.

As Prof. Berman aptly sums it up in his blog (click here): "So, to review, after Booker district courts must still precisely and accurately calculate advisory guideline ranges, but they need not explain how their sentences comply with the one mandatory directive that Congress set forth in § 3553(a). Might one suggest this is another example of activist judges putting their policy preferences over the express text enacted by Congress?"

On the other hand, note that this issue was not expressly raised before the sentencing court, and thus the review before the Circuit was for plain error. The parsimony provision argument may fare better if expressly raised legally and factually before the sentencing court, since then it is an argument "properly presented by the part[y] which [has] legal merit and a factual basis in the record." For this reason, defense counsel should certainly continue to press this argument in the district courts.

Fraud - Insufficiency of Evidence

In US v. Aimee Jones, No. 05-4898 (12/28/06), the 3d Circuit reversed the defendant's conviction for health care fraud (18 usc 1347(2)), finding that the evidence was insufficient. The Court ruled that although the government may well have established that defendant stole money from the federally funded methadone clinic where she worked, the government did not establish that defendant used false or fraudulent representations to get the money.

Defendant's role as a clerk in the clinic was to collect fees for services provided. Evidently she kept some of the fees instead of depositing them. But these acts did not involve any misrepresentation, and nothing defendant did affected the delivery of or payment for the health care services. In the absence of any such evidence, the elements of health care fraud were not established. To read the health care fraud statute any more broadly than this would be to allow it to cover simple theft, which is already covered by a separate statute. Statutes should not be read in a manner that would render other statutes superfluous.

Ineffective Assistance of Appellate Counsel

In Wright v. Vaughn, No 04-3457 (3d Cir. 12/26/06), involving a 2254 petition challenging a state court conviction, the 3rd Circuit addressed a "layered" ineffectiveness claim: whether appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to raise trial counsel's ineffectiveness in not calling defendant's girlfriend as an alibi witness.

The Court ruled that appellate counsel was not ineffective since appellate counsel may have concluded that trial counsel had strategic reasons for not calling the witness. These reasons could have included the fact that as defendant's girlfriend, the witness was not unbiased, that she had a long history of crimen falsi offenses, and that after defendant's arrest, she never went to the police to tell them defendant could not have committed the murder.

The Court also rejected Wright's claim that he was denied his 6th Amendment right to confront witnesses because the district court disallowed cross-examination tending to show that others besides Wright had an interest in killing the deceased. The Court found that although the exclusion of the evidence was error, it was harmless since much of this evidence came in through other means. The Court thus affirmed the denial of the habeas petition.