March 17 – Federal Sentencing Reform Gains Steam

Despite our skepticism – some might call it cynicism – about the likelihood that Congress will act to reform the Federal sentencing system, the issue seems to be gaining steam in the Senate.

speech_maker_rightThe Smarter Sentencing Act (S. 1410) picked up two more co-sponsors last Friday, Sen. John “Johnny” Isakson (Republican from Georgia), and Senator Timothy Kaine (Democrat from Virginia).   The bill now has 16 co-sponsors, 10 Democrats, 5 Republicans and one independent.  Traditionally, this kind of bi-partisan support for a bill is a good thing, increasing the likelihood that the bill will be passed.

The companions bill to S. 1410 – H.R. 3382 – is still in committee in the House of Representatives, but it has 20 co-sponsors, and gives the measure a 60 percent chance of getting out of committee and a 45% chance of passage.  Govtrack is notoriously stingy in its assessments of a bill’s chance of passage, making this number pretty heartening.  By comparison, Govtrack gives S. 1410 a 57 percent chance of passage, a major increase from moths ago, when its chances were still in the single digits.speech_maker_left

Finally, a lengthy New York Times piece last Thursday and an op-ed opinion piece today cover the legislative push on sentencing.  The Thursday story reported on the factors driving Republican support for sentencing reform:

“[L]eading Republicans are saying that mandatory minimum sentences in the federal system have failed — too costly, overly punitive and ineffective. So they are embracing a range of ideas from Republican-controlled states that have reduced prison populations and brought down the cost of incarceration.

“The shift turns upside down the “war on crime” ethos on the right, and even among some on the left, an approach that has dominated the policy of punishment for more than two decades.

“Religious conservatives see these efforts as offering compassion and the hope of reuniting broken families. Fiscal conservatives say the proposals would shave billions off the federal budget. The combination has made closing prisons and releasing inmates who no longer appear to pose a threat new articles of faith among politicians who would have rejected them out of hand only a few years ago….

“The changes represent a rare example of both parties agreeing in a major area of domestic policy. The Obama administration is engaged and supportive of the efforts in Congress, as was evident on Thursday when Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. endorsed a proposal that would reduce prison sentences for people convicted of dealing drugs, the latest sign that the White House is making criminal justice a priority of President Obama’s second term.”

March 13 – The Senate Reports Smarter Sentencing Act text

The Judiciary Committee report on The Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013 has been delivered, with the revised text of the Act as reported by the Committee.

jail_guy_cartoon-749696There is nothing in the Act as reported that grants any retroactivity, other than for crack offenses that could have gotten an 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) reduction except for a mandatory minimum that changed in The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.  The revised Smarter Sentencing Act gives the Sentencing Commission a lot of leeway, and its assignment could be read as supporting making changes retroactive, but passage of this bill – if that happens – won’t have any real impact on existing federal prison populations.

Of course, all of this presupposes that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will bring this to a vote before the end of the year.  He’s notorious for letting bills – such as the ill-fated Second Chance Reauthorization Act of 2011 – die even after a bipartisan Committee unanimously recommends it.

Update – March 14:   The Wall Street Journal  reported this morning that a new agreement between Senate Republicans and Democrats has resulted in “under a fresh process that could clear the way for the chamber to pass other bipartisan bills.”    Among the bills that the Senate expects to consider using the new procedure – in which Harry Reid agrees to bring bills to a vote and Republicans agree to limit the number and reach of amendments they introduce – are “a manufacturing bill, federal sentencing changes and stalled energy-efficiency legislation.”

Perhaps we may yet see the Senate consider the Smarter Sentencing Act.  If so, we still have the House or Representatives to worry about.

March 8 – Supreme Court Defines “Aiding or Abetting” in Drug-and-Gun Cases

Rosemond v. United States, Case No. 12-895 (March 5, 2014)

"The drug deal started going sour when he whipped out his squad automatic weapon.  I know I was surprised ..."
“The drug deal started going sour when he whipped out his squad automatic weapon. I know I was surprised …”

Federal law (18 U.S.C. § 2) provides that people who help other people commit crimes can be convicted of those crimes just as if they had committed them  themselves.  This is called “aiding and abetting” liability.  If one aids or abets (that generally means “helps”) someone else commit a crime, the aider or abettor can be found guilty of a crime he or she did not physically commit.  Thus if you loan money to someone to buy a kilo of cocaine, and they then buy it and resell it in small lots, you can still be convicted of distribution although you never saw the cocaine, let alone handled it.

(This is different from conspiracy – 18 U.S.C. § 846 – in which one is much more easily ensnared than aiding or abetting).

In a case decided March 5th by the Supreme Court of the United States, Rosemond v. United States, (Case No. 12-895), defendant Rosemond joined with two other people to sell drugs – but he claimed he didn’t know his companions would use a gun.  Federal law makes it a separate crime to commit a drug trafficking offense while using a gun (18 U.S.C. § 942(c)), a crime that carries a mandatory additional sentence of five years or more extra years in prison.  In Rosemond, the Supreme Court ruled that to convict a defendant of a § 924(c) offense on an “aiding or abetting” theory, the government must prove that the defendant knew in advance that someone else would use a gun, and at least far enough in advance so that he could, if he chose to, quit the crime.  If the defendant only learned about the gun when there was “no realistic opportunity” to quit, then he can’t be convicted.  In the words of law, he would lack the “mens rea” – the mental state – required, about the gun to convict.

The Justices handed down the 7-2 decision on March 5, 2014 (Lego reenactment of actual Supreme Court proceeding).

The Justices agreed that because § 924(c) has two basic elements – drug trafficking plus a firearm — a criminal § 924(c) aider or abettor must have “foreknowledge” that someone will use a gun, and not just foreknowledge that a drug deal is planned.  The trial court instructed the jury that it was enough for them to find that Rosemond knew it was a drug trafficking crime and that “his cohort used a gun” – not that Rosemond also knew that his companion would use a gun.  The trial court’s error was that the requirement that there be “foreknowledge” regarding the gun was not well conveyed to the jury.

The Justices unanimously rejected the idea that a defendant must be proven to have “desired” the use of a gun in order to be convicted.  That he “knowingly elected to aid” even after learning that a gun was involved is enough – “[t]he law does not, nor should it, care whether he participates with a happy heart or a sense of foreboding.”

The Justices handed down the 7-2 decision on March 5, 2014 (Lego reenactment of actual Supreme Court proceeding).
The Justices handed down the 7-2 decision on March 5, 2014 (Lego reenactment of actual Supreme Court proceeding).

The majority further subdivided the ques-tion of “foreknow-ledge,” deciding that the standard requires advance knowledge of a gun “at a time the accomplice can do something” about it.   Such advance know-ledge “enables [the accomplice] to make [a] legal (and indeed moral) choice” – either to continue participating even with the risks that presence of a firearm can bring ­– or stop.  “[I]f a defendant continues to participate … after a gun is displayed …, the jury can permissibly infer” that he had the requisite foreknowledge.”  “But when an accomplice knows nothing of a gun until it appears at the scene, … he may at that point have no realistic opportunity to quit the crime.”  When this is so, the majority rules, he lacks the required intent to aid the gun-use, as aiding and abetting doctrine requires.

Trial courts frequently punish what otherwise might be aiding or abetting liability under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) by upward adjustments of two levels for possession of a firearm during a drug offense under § 2D1.1(b)(1).  The standard of proof is much lower, in where a large quantity of drugs was involved, the additional two levels often can add five years or more to the advisory Guidelines sentence.  Whether the Rosemond “aiding or abetting” liability analysis will be employed in assessing § 2D1.1(b)(1) liability is a fertile ground for argument.


Feb. 16 – Reconsidering Mandatory Minimum Sentences

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank in Washington, has released a study of mandatory minimum sentences.   Among other matters, the study reviews two pending bills in the Senate.
The Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 expands the existing sentencing “safety valve” by allowing a judge to depart downward from any mandatory minimum “if the court finds that it is necessary to do so in order to avoid imposing” an unjust sentence.  The Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013 applies only to nonviolent drug crimes and would permit a district judge to issue sentences without regard to any mandatory minimum if the court finds that the defendant meets certain criminal history requirements and did not commit a disqualifying offense.
Although the Smarter Sentencing Act takes a smaller step than the Safety Valve Act toward the revision of the federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws, the study notes that such a measured approach could enhance federal sentencing policy while avoiding a number of potential pitfalls.
The report’s Abstract says

Mandatory minimum sentences are the product of good intentions, but good intentions do not always make good policy; good results are also necessary. Recognizing this fact, there are public officials on both sides of the aisle who support amending some components of federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws. But before such reform can proceed, Congress must ask itself: With respect to each crime, is justice best served by having legislatures assign fixed penalties to that crime? Or should legislatures leave judges more or less free to tailor sentences to the aggravating and mitigating facts of each criminal case within a defined range?

The Report is compelling reading, and represents further evidence that reform of Federal sentencing is a matter of importance to conservatives and liberals alike.