Tag Archives: criminal history

Counting Angels on Pins in the Guidelines – Update for July 26, 2017

We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.


Consumers of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines – the courts that apply them, the lawyers that argue them, and the defendants that suffer under them – all have experience with the Byzantine nature of the code: enhancements are many and malleable, timelines are flexible as needed, and the quantum of evidence needed to jack up offense levels seems to fluctuate like political approval ratings.

emperor170726A refreshing 7th Circuit decision handed down Monday declared emphatically that the Guidelines emperor has no clothes. Crane Marks, who had pled guilty to conspiring to distributing heroin, was sentenced to 108 months, a sentence that was “either well above or well below the advisory range under the Sentencing Guidelines, depending on one issue,” the Court said. The district court decided the issue against Crane, but did so in a way that was both legally and factually defective.

Most of us who have spent any time at all in courtrooms have heard judges disgustedly ask parties – either the plaintiff or defendant, and sometimes both – “why are you here?” It hardly ever is asked as eloquently as it was in this case. The Circuit complained,

In all candor, [the] one issue [in this case] seems astonishingly technical and trivial. It has nothing to do with Marks’ culpability or the larger goals of sentencing. As we explain below, the issue is whether, when Marks was imprisoned on his fourth state drug conviction in 2000, he also had his state parole revoked on any of his earlier state drug convictions and was re‐imprisoned on that revocation as well. From this description of the issue, we hope readers will agree that this is one of those guideline issues that should prompt the sentencing judge to ask why the judge or anyone else should care about the an‐swer.

Because the issue seems so technical and trivial, we have examined the record in this case for any signs that the judge would have given Marks the same sentence regardless of how the technical criminal history issue was resolved. We found no such signs, however, so we have considered the technical guideline issue on the merits.

The issue was straightforward enough. Crane had enough prior state drug convictions to be a career offender under USSG Sec. 4B1.1, which would subject him to a dramatically higher sentencing range. However, for a prior drug sentence to count, it had to be otherwise eligible for criminal history points, meaning that Crane would have had to have been in prison for it within 15 years of the current offense.

guidelines170530The government and Crane agreed he was not a career offender, because he got out of prison on one of his qualifying priors, from 1994, more than 15 years before his current crime. This would have set his sentencing range at 51-63 months. But the Probation Officer writing the presentence report found some handwritten state prison records saying Crane had had his parole revoked on the 1994 case in 2000, which would put imprisonment on the offense within the 15-year window and make the 1994 case countable. The records showed that his parole was revoked, and he was “in the custody” of the state department of corrections. The Probation Officer – and the court – concluded Crane was a career offender. His career offender guidelines were 151-188 months, but the court sentenced him well below that at 108 months.

Probation officers work for the U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services, a judicial agency. They are often considered by the district court judges to be their trusted employees. This unhealthy familiarity, in our opinion, leaves judges way too willing to accept anything the probation officer says, even when both the government and the defendant disagree. So it was in this case.

The Court of Appeals was not wearing the same blinders. It concluded “that the court made both a legal error and a factual error. The legal error was that the court did not make the finding needed to treat Marks as a career offender under the Guidelines. The factual problem is that the court was not presented with reliable evidence from which it could have found that Marks was imprisoned on a revocation of parole on any earlier conviction. That means that Marks does not qualify, technically, as a career offender. His advisory guideline sentencing range is lower than the range found by the district court.”

checkoff170726The legal problem was that the state department of corrections treated anyone on home confinement, electronic monitoring or in prison as being “in custody.” This meant that the notation that Crane was “in custody” was irrelevant: only if he was actually locked up within the 15 years would the prior offense count. As the Circuit put it, “The broad concept of “custody” is not enough under Sec. 4A1.2(k)(2). The focus is “incarceration.” Proving that Marks’ parole terms did not expire until 2000 was not enough—the government had to show that Marks was incarcerated on at least one of those convictions.”

The factual problem was that the district court lacked reliable evidence to support application of the career‐offender Guideline. As a general rule, a sentencing judge may rely on a presentence report if it “is well‐supported and appears reliable,” the Circuit said. “But if a presentence report contains nothing but a naked or unsupported charge,” the defendant’s denial will suffice to call the report’s accuracy into doubt. Similarly, if the presentence report “omits crucial information, leaving ambiguity on the face of that document,” the government has the burden of independently demonstrating the accuracy of the report.”

Here, the records contained no narrative showing that Crane was given a new term of imprisonment for violating parole, or whether he was merely noted as being in custody on a potential parole violation. The fact that his sentence on 1994 conviction “was discharged only a few months after he pled guilty to the 2000 charge,” the Circuit said, “suggests that no revocation occurred. And it is difficult to understand why, if Marks’ parole was actually revoked, the government could not have supported the presentence report with a copy of the order of revocation.”

angels170726It seems so much like counting angels on the heads of pins. Had the trial judge stated on the record that his sentence would be 108 months with or without the career offender finding, the 7th would have simply called it a day. But without being able to tell from the record how the faulty career offender status influenced the trial court, the Circuit had no option but to remand the case for resentencing.

United States v. Marks, Case No. 15-2862 (7th Cir., July 24, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root


Sentencing Commission Issues Comprehensive Drug Recidivism Study – Update for February 23, 2017

We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.


A 149-page report issued Tuesday by the U.S. Sentencing Commission offers a fascinating, data-filled glimpse into recidivism by federal drug offenders.

shawshank161117First, our criticism: the data are drawn from 10,000+ federal drug offenders who were either released or placed on probation during 2005. While a study on recidivism necessarily has to watch a cohort of people over a period of years, a lot has happened since 2005 that may change the accuracy of some of the findings.

For example, the study showed that among the 2005 releasees, methamphetamine offenses constituted just under 17% of all offenses. By 2015, about 31% of all drug offenders were methheads. The other concern is that all of the releasees would have been sentenced before United States v. Booker, and thus had mandatory Guidelines sentences. That leaves unanswered the question whether non-mandatory Guidelines sentences have a different influence on drug offender recidivism than did the old regime of mandatory Guidelines sentences.

offenderages170223But our concerns do not materially lessen the benefit that the Report’s wealth of data confers on the sentencing debate. The overall finding is sobering: over an 8-year period, one half of the 2005 group of federal drug trafficking were rearrested for a new crime or a violation of supervised release conditions.

Some other findings:

• Crack cocaine offenders had the highest rate (61%) of recidivism of any drug type, while powder cocaine offenders had the lowest rate (44%);

• The median time from release to the first recidivism event was 25 months;

• Nearly one-fourth (24%) of recidivist drug trafficking offenders had assault as their most serious new charge, followed by drug trafficking and public order offenses at about 15% apiece;

offenderages170223• A drug trafficking offender’s criminal history was closely associated with the likelihood of recidivism, from a recidivism rate of 35% for offenders with no prior criminal history, to 77% for offenders in the highest criminal history. Interestingly, the Guidelines “career offenders” – whom policy dictates are supposed to represent the hardest-core offenders – had a recidivism rate of 63%, lower than three of the six other criminal history ranges;

• A federal drug trafficking offender’s age at time of release was closely associated with likelihood of recidivism. Drug trafficking offenders released prior to age 21 had the highest recidivism rate at 65%, while drug trafficking offenders over 60 years old at the time of release apparently retired, with a recidivism rate of only 16.5%;

• There is little apparent association between the length of imprisonment and recidivism for drug trafficking offenders overall, a finding that supports other studies suggesting that no prison sentence over 5 years has any greater deterrent effect than a 5-year term. However, once criminal history is accounted for, length of imprisonment is associated with lower rates of recidivism (probably because of the older age of the prisoner when released).

• Federal drug trafficking offenders had a substantially lower recidivism rate compared to state drug offenders released around the same time. Over 76% of state drug offenders released from prison were rearrested within five years, compared to 42% of federal drug trafficking offenders released over the same five-year period.

The Report includes chapters breaking down the numbers according to the types of drugs in the offenders’ cases.

rearrestbysent170223There’s plenty of data in the Report for everyone. While only being released two days as of this writing, the Report is already being used by one inmate going back for resentencing and another 60+-year old offender on supervised release who wants the court to end his supervision early.

United States Sentencing Commission, Recidivism Among Federal Drug Trafficking Offenders (February 21, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root


A Couple of Year-End Decisions of Interest – Update for January 3, 2017

We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.


Late last week, the Government appealed a remarkable Dec. 22 EDNY decision to suppress wiretap evidence because a federal agent perjured himself on the application.

liarliar171013In the case, a drug trafficking prosecution, the Government wanted to use recorded phone conversations, as well as GPS data taken from the ankle bracelet of a conspirator who was on state parole. Senior District Judge Jack Weinstein ruled, however, that a Homeland Security agent falsely swore in a 2015 affidavit supporting the there had been no previous wiretaps on the targets, when in fact there had been four in the last 12 years. 

“This was not a ‘misunderstanding.’ It was perjury,” the Judge wrote in United States v. Lambus. “Knowingly false statements cannot be tolerated, especially if those statements are made at proceedings where the courts have little choice but to take the government at its word.”

The government argued the agent made an inadvertent mistake, but admitted his representations were “absolutely wrong.” The appeal was filed last week in the 2nd Circuit, and will postpone a planned Jan. 9, 2017, trial.

The Judge also limited the use of GPS data pulled from Lambus’ ankle bracelet. Lambus’ parole officer began to suspect he was dealing drugs, and otherwise violating his parole, he made Lambus wear a bracelet. The PO kept the bracelet on for 2 years, and shared the date with the Feds.

gps170103“A state cannot use a parolee as a sort of fly paper, trailing him around the community for years, trolling for criminals,” the court held. “If the state wishes to search someone for the primary purpose of furthering a deliberate effort to gather evidence as part of a wide-ranging criminal prosecution, the “warrant and probable-cause requirement is not…‘impracticable’;” the search cannot be justified as a “special need,” even if the searchee is a parolee.

Memorandum Opinion and Order, United States v. Lambus, Case No. 15-CR-382 (E.D.N.Y. Dec. 22, 2016)

– Thomas L. Root



Maximo Mateo-Medina tried to do it right. He was thrown out of the U.S. after a conviction, but came back to care for his dying wife. After she passed away, he stayed to care for her special-needs grandson, whose parents were dopers. When he threw the kid’s father out for drug abuse, the dopehead dad turned him in for illegal reentry.

snitch161004The government agreed he should only get 6 months, but the district court gave him a year, because the Presentence Report listed 6 prior arrests that did not result in convictions. The PSR had no facts about the arrests, but that didn’t keep the court from hammering Maximo, holding he had “engaged in conduct which to the Court’s view belied and made ring hollow a little bit his desire to merely come to America to seek a better life.” The sentencing judge complained it was the reason Maximo “did not have any actual adult convictions is because of the breakdowns in the court—in the state court system—and not because of innocence.”

Last Friday, the 3rd Circuit said the district court violated Maximo’s due process rights by speculating about his criminal past with no evidence supporting its conclusions. The Court of Appeals cited recent studies that showed whites and blacks who commit the same minor offenses get treated very differently: “In early adulthood,” the Court said, “race disparities in drug arrests grew substantially; as early as age 22, African-Americans had 83% greater odds of a drug arrest than whites and at age 27 this disparity was 235%.” With respect to Hispanics, the study found that socioeconomic factors such as residing in an inner-city neighborhood accounted for much of the disparity in drug arrest rates.”

prohibition-arrests-blacks-thumbnailIn other words, it’s as likely that Maximo got arrested a lot because he was a Hispanic in a poor neighborhood, and not prosecuted because the charges were too bogus for a prosecutor to mess with. Without some facts showing he was guilty but lucky enough to beat the raps, the Circuit said, a sentencing court cannot consider arrests without convictions in increasing a defendant’s sentence.

United States v. Mateo-Medina, Case No. 15-2862 (3rd Cir., Dec. 30, 2016)

– Thomas L. Root