Tag Archives: sentencing factors

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


District Judge Won’t Go Along With the Government’s Program, Gets Slapped – Update for June 28 ,2017

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


mario170628Mario Crancho, a trucker from Mexico, got busted in Arkansas with 43 kilos of coke hidden in his trailer. He wisely agreed to cooperate, and proceeded to make controlled deliveries, identified stash houses and debriefed extensively on the trans-border coke trade.

Of course, the government freely used its considerable powers to assist Mario, too. First, the government somehow failed to pass on to the Presentence Report writer the actual drug quantity Mario had shipped, instead mentioning only two of over 20 trips Mario had made from south of the border. This conveniently omitted probably 95% of the quantity he had actually shipped, leaving him with a very favorable advisory sentencing range of 168-210 months. The district judge wondered why, but lacking any cooperation from the parties in providing the right number, he ultimately adopted the PSR “without change.”

Then, at the sentencing hearing, the prosecution waxed rhapsodic about Mario’s assistance, calling it very substantial and asking for a 50% sentence cut from the low end of his guidelines pursuant to a USSG § 5K1.1 downward departure.

So how many pallets of Mario’s cocaine did the court not hear about? Inquiring minds – including the judge’s – want to know…

The district court reluctantly granted the government’s 5K1.1 motion, concluding that Mario had provided substantial assistance. But the judge was troubled, and pretty clearly had had a bellyful of these kinds of deals. The court said he was “really struggling with this because, while he has provided substantial assistance, what it does is shows me the breadth of… his involvement in these drug crimes, and it’s huge.” The district court had “seen people with not nearly this culpability go to jail for extended periods of time” and was “struggling with the 50 percent reduction and with the low end of the guidelines.”

And isn’t that the problem? The government has so much power to shower love on people who assist it, no matter their prior culpability. And the poor shmuck who peddled nickel bags on the corner. He didn’t know nuthin’, and so he’s got no information to trade. Watch the U.S. Attorney’s young guns hammer that kid at sentencing.

hammer160509However, when Mario’s judge expressed his misgivings, the government doubled down, becoming even more effusive. It argued Mario was super, having placed himself in great personal danger by making the controlled deliveries, that he began cooperating with the government at his first opportunity (forgetting his previous 21 coke runs from Sinoloa to North Carolina), and that had provided other valuable information as well. Defense counsel chimed in that Mario was a great guy and had a successful trucking business (that success helped no doubt by payments received for shipping hundreds of kilos of coke to the Tarheel State).

The government’s happy talk did not allay the district court’s concerns:

The problem I have with this is he’s given the opportunity to cooperate because he was so high up and because he was driving so much drugs and he was dumping that crap here in Winston-Salem, and we send people to jail every day for .6 grams of drugs, and it is massive amounts of drugs, and… in terms of the equity in sentencing… I can tell you I am not going to the low end, and I am still struggling with whether or not I am going to do the actual total 50 percent.

The judge sentenced Mario to 210 months, the top of the guidelines, and then cut it by 40% for substantial assistance. So instead of walking out of the courtroom with 84 months, Mario ended up with 126 months. That’s 44 months more than Mario expected, for the math-challenged among us.

Mario appealed, and on Monday, the 4th Circuit slapped the district judge’s hand.

Fourth Circuit case law requires a district court determining the extent of a 5K1.1 departure to consider assistance-related factors only. The district court clearly found Mario’s assistance to be substantial, but then judged the 50% reduction not on the extent or quality of Mario’s assistance but instead to the scope of the charged conspiracy and the level of Mario’s culpability in that conspiracy, questioned the equity of giving Mario a lower sentence than is often imposed on less culpable defendants, and condemned the destructive effect of the “junk” that Mario was “dumping” on the community.

The 4th Circuit's subtle advice to the district judge...
The 4th Circuit’s subtle advice to the district judge…

The Circuit admitted there was no problem relying on those other factors in setting the 210-month end of the guidelines, but the district court used it again in selecting a 40% instead of 50% reduction. The Court of Appeals said, “these concerns, which focus on facts related to the charged conspiracy, simply bear no relation to the nature, extent, and significance of the defendant’s assistance.”

Bottom line: The district judge was substituting his judgment for the prosecutor’s. There’s little room for that kind of judicial independence under the current sentencing regime.

The case was remanded for resentencing.

United States v. Crancho, Case No. 15-4760 (4th Cir. June 26, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root


7th Circuit Sanctifies Judicial “Hunches” as Sentencing Tool – Update for January 10, 2017

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


pecks170110Ryan Gibbs was just one of those perennial bad boys, with a record as long as your arm and a demonstrated lack of interest in conforming his conduct to the strictures of the law. In front of a district court for possession with Ryan faced a Guidelines-suggested 151-188 month sentencing range. The government asked for 216 months. The most Ryan could have gotten was a 240-month term.

The district judge, rambling “none too clearly” (as the Court of Appeals lamented), decided that Ryan was incorrigible:

When I look at the 3553(a) factors apart from the “nature and circumstances of the offense,” your “history and characteristics” of you as a defendant does [sic] not indicate that there should be any leniency at all; that they [anteced‐ent unclear] “reflect the seriousness of the offense,” “promote respect for the law,” which your history and characteristics indicate that you have no respect for the law; “provide just punishment.” Nothing — No previous sentence that this Court has imposed or other Courts have deterred you from your criminal conduct.

With this gibberish constituting the sum and substance of the district court’s application of the sentencing factors of 18 USC 3553(a), the judge slapped Ryan with 216 months.

Last week, the 7th Circuit affirmed the sentence. No surprise there – the government wins over 92% of the time in criminal appeals to begin with.

But the Court of Appeals upheld the decision primarily because it sensed it could trust the judge’s (and, to a lesser extent, the prosecutor’s) gut.

hunch170111The Circuit admitted that no one in the case “attempted a sophisticated analysis of the likely consequences… of adding roughly two years to the sentence he would have been given had the judge stopped at the top of the guideline range… both the prosecution and the judge based the 216-month sentence (proposed by the government, imposed by the judge) on a hunch. As the prosecutors as well as the judge are highly experienced, their hunches are likely often to be reliable.”

The Court said that, after all, the government can suggest any sentence within the statutory range and the judge can impose any sentence within the statutory range. Plus, the panel argued, the “briefs and argument of defense counsel in this case bordered on the perfunctory.”

So the judge and the AUSA are “highly experienced” and their hunches are “reliable.” Defense counsel, on the other hand, is a legal klutz filing cookie-cutter motions and soulless briefs. It sounds as though imposition of a sentence after proper consideration of the Guidelines and sentencing factors in Sec. 3553(a) is a privilege reserved only for defendants who have good lawyers or face lousy prosecutors and a neophyte judge.

Judge Richard Posner, the author of the decision and an appellate jurist for whom we have great respect, said that “some consideration, however, should be given to the possibility of basing a prison sentence – at least a very long one (and an 18-year sentence is very long) – on something other than a hunch.” We agree wholeheartedly. But he then proceeded on a flight of impractical fancy by suggested that maybe the sentencing judge should have called the Sentencing Commission, which then would given the AUSA, court and defense counsel guidance on why it set the Guidelines where it did, and might even propose the right out-of-guidelines sentence in this particular case. The parties might find the Sentencing Commission “a valuable resource,” Judge Posner opined.

momscold170110What a capital idea! For that matter, the district courts might just want to call Congress for guidance on why the statutory penalties are as they are, or ring up the President for his view as to whether it should peremptorily commute the sentence, or even ask the defendant’s mother what punishment she found to be the most effective when Ryan was a mere lad. To be sure, the Sentencing Commission could not be so busy that it wouldn’t be willing to give a few minutes of time to arbitrate an individual sentence in Ryan’s case (or in any of the other 80,000 criminal sentences that occur in federal courts annually).

phonefriend170110In the days before the Guidelines, judges sentenced anywhere within the statutory range virtually without oversight or discretion. The Guidelines were to change all of that. In Gibbs, the 7th Circuit has handed down a decision that enshrines a judge’s “hunch” as a standard that trumps all others. What’s nearly as bad, the Court has suggested that maybe district courts should start using the U.S. Sentencing Commission as a “phone-a-friend” in troublesome sentencing cases, a development undoubtedly as unwelcome to the Commission is it would be for people like us who believe that judging is for judges.

United States v. Gibbs, Case No. 16-1747 (7th Cir., Jan. 6, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root