Tag Archives: presentence report

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.

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WHY SHOULD IT MATTER?

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

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Saying It Doesn’t Make It So – Update for January 12, 2017

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

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DADDY SAYS…

Because170112Serial college football coach Terry Bowden – who spent sojourns between his many coaching gigs as a TV sports analyst – delighted in quoting his father, legendary Florida State coach Bobby Bowden. “Daddy says…” Terry would start out, and then deliver a gem of football wisdom like Moses delivering the stone tablets.

We almost regret that Bobby’s been busy the past year coaching the University of Akron Zips to a lackluster 5-7 season, because we would like hearing him tell us “Daddy says… boys without fathers wear earrings to be like their mommas…” Yeah, really. Bobby said that.

Our point is that just because “Daddy says” it, it doesn’t mean it’s so. That’s the same point the 5th Circuit made in a decision handed down earlier this week.

fraud170112Euneisha Hearns was a mortgage loan officer involved in a rather plain vanilla conspiracy. She held customers lie to get mortgages, which was something of a sport in the halcyon days before the market collapsed in 2008. In Euneisha’s case, buyer interested in purchasing property on Brownstone Court in Dallas lacked the cash for a down payment. Hearns whipped up a loan application for him that puffed the value of the place and his ability to pay, netting enough for the buyer to close the deal and use some of the loan proceeds for the down payment (sort of like a snake eating itself).

Unsurprisingly, the buyer defaulted, the false statements came to light, and Euneisha was indicted. An old lawyer we used to work with liked to say, “no thief only steals once,” and this maxim apparently held here. There wasn’t just one bad loan at Euneisha’s. There were at least ten the government knew of.

Euneisha figured she was on the hook for about $180,000 (the amount of the Brownstone loan, an amount that will probably buy a storage shed in San Francisco). But the Sentencing Guidelines let a court set the loss based on the offense itself and related conduct. The presentence report prepared after trial said the conspiracy was responsible for total loss of $866,000, which included the Brownstone loan and “loss amounts related to nine other properties.”

“What other properties?” asked Euneisha. The PSR retorted that  “the Government has identified 10 properties [including the Brownstone Property] that involved fraud in the mortgage loan process. Government records reflect that with respect to these properties… Hearns [and her co-conspirators] were all involved in the scheme to defraud.”

Ah, the “Daddy says…” gambit. The PSR otherwise provided no information or evidence to support the loss amounts or Euneisha’s involvement in the other nine deals. The government presented evidence with respect to three of these properties at trial, but the remaining six properties were not mentioned either at trial or at sentencing. Nothing in the record showed when the six remaining transactions occurred, whether criminal activity was associated with the transactions, or whether Euneisha had even heard of them. Who bother? The government says, the PSR repeats. Game, set, match.

history170112Euneisha did not offer evidence to show that she was not involved with the other properties. It would have been hard to do so, to prove a negative. It’s especially tough in loss calculation, because loss amounts “need not be determined with precision” and “all that is necessary is that the finding be plausible in light of the record as a whole.” What’s more, PSRs – which, like history, are written by the winners – are generally considered “reliable evidence for sentencing purposes.” The district court concluded that “the information contained in the presentence report has sufficient indicia of reliability to support its probable accuracy.” It held Euneisha responsible for all $866,000.

Bcorso170112ut as another sportscasters, the equally legendary Lee Corso, likes to say, “Not so fast, my friend!” This week, the 5th Circuit vacated the sentence. Sure, the Court said, “a district court may adopt the findings of the PSR without additional inquiry if those facts have an evidentiary basis with sufficient indicia of reliability and the defendant does not present rebuttal evidence or otherwise demonstrate that the information is materially unreliable.” What’s more, a defendant has the burden of showing that the information in the PSR is materially unreliable.

However, the problem here is that the PSR contained no information to support the loss amounts and no evidence Euneisha had anything to do with the other transactions. The government only mentioned three of the nine properties at trial. As for the others, “the facts contained in the PSR regarding these six properties lack an evidentiary basis with sufficient indicia of reliability,” the Circuit said. “Although a PSR may be considered as evidence by the court when making sentencing determinations, bare assertions made therein are not evidence standing alone.”

negative170112The appellate panel made clear that Euneisha was not at fault for failing to disprove the PSR’s loss claim. “If the factual recitation in the PSR lacks sufficient indicia of reliability,” the Court held, “then it is error for the district court to consider it at sentencing — regardless of whether the defendant objects or offers rebuttal evidence.”

The case will go back for resentencing.

United States v. Hearns, Case No. 16-40222 (5th Cir., Jan. 9, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root

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