Seventh Circuit Week in Review (With a Brief Digression on Criminal Justice Federalism)

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The Seventh Circuit issued only one new criminal opinion in the past week.  In United States v. Robinson, the defendant’s ex-girlfriend (Evans) reported to a Milwaukee police officer that Robinson had a gun in his home, a charge that was later confirmed after the officer obtained a warrant to search Robinson’s residence.  Robinson was then convicted in federal court of being a felon in possession of a firearm.  On appeal, he argued that the cop who applied for the search warrant should have disclosed that Evans had recently been charged with disorderly conduct for threatening Robinson with a knife.  In Robinson’s view, had the judicial officer known the history of conflict between Evans and Robinson, the officer would have discounted the credibility of Evans’ allegation that Robinson had a gun and declined to issue the search warrant.  At a minimum, Robinson argued that he was entitled to a hearing on the matter under Franks v. Delaware, 438 U.S. 154 (1978). Continue reading “Seventh Circuit Week in Review (With a Brief Digression on Criminal Justice Federalism)”

Cert Grant: What Is “Knowing” Identity Theft?

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A federal statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1028A, imposes a mandatory two-year prison sentence on defendants who “knowingly” use “a means of identification of another person” in the course of committing a felony.  The two years is in addition to the sentence imposed for the underlying felony.  But what exactly does the word “knowingly” refer to in the statute: is it enough that the defendant knew that he was using a means of identification, or must the government also prove that the defendant knew the identification belonged to another person?  This is the question raised in a case that the Supreme Court agreed to hear earlier today, United States v. Flores-Figueroa.  The unpublished opinion below can be found at 2008 WL 1808508.

SCOTUS Blog summarizes the facts as follows: Continue reading “Cert Grant: What Is “Knowing” Identity Theft?”

Seventh Circuit Week in Review

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Beginning with this post, I will provide a regular weekend review of new Seventh Circuit opinions in criminal cases.  The past week was actually very quiet on the criminal front, with only one new opinion (and that one not especially significant in terms of discussing or modifying the law).  In United States v. Jackson, the three defendants were convicted of mail fraud in connection with a scheme to bilk their car insurance carriers by submitting false theft claims.  The Seventh Circuit had little apparent difficulty in affirming the convictions over the defendants’ arguments that the evidence was insufficient, that material evidence had been withheld by the government, and that evidence of a prior conviction had been improperly admitted.

Priorities for the New President: Restore Parole in the Federal Criminal Justice System

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This is part of a series of posts this month focusing on priorities for a new presidential administration.

In the area of federal criminal law, the next administration ought to undertake a number of initiatives: polish the Department of Justice’s tarnished image by ensuring that appointments to leadership positions are rigorously merit-based and by avoiding dubious prosecutions that appear politically motivated; make the federal criminal justice system a real leader and innovator in developing community-based alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenders; likewise, make the federal system a leader and innovator in implementing restorative justice and other processes that are more responsive to victim needs than conventional criminal case processing; seek the elimination of mandatory minimum sentencing statutes; and bring greater coherence and transparency to an executive clemency process that was extraordinarily kind to Scooter Libby, but that rarely does anything for offenders who are not politically connected. Although I regard all of these as matters of considerable urgency–and will perhaps blog about some of them at greater length later this month–I might put still another initiative at the top of the list: restore the possibility of parole release for federal prisoners. Continue reading “Priorities for the New President: Restore Parole in the Federal Criminal Justice System”

What Is an “Offense”?: Another ACCA Puzzle for the Courts

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I’ve posted a few times on recent Armed Career Criminal Act cases (e.g., here).  With several Supreme Court decisions last term on the scope of the ACCA, this has been an especially dynamic area of federal sentencing law.  The cases nicely illustrate one of the fundamental problems with the ACCA, which is that Congress sought to single out certain categories of prior state convictions as triggers for the ACCA fifteen-year mandatory minimum, when each state criminal justice system has its own idiosyncratic structure, terminology, and practice norms.  Congress did not, and could not, take into account the particularities of fifty different systems when drafting the ACCA.  As a result, the courts have faced a steady stream of difficult cases requiring them to determine which types of prior convictions from which states actually count as a “violent felony” or a “serious drug offense” (three of which trigger the fifteen-year minimum).  The Supreme Court’s May decision in United States v. Rodriquez provides a good example of the difficulty. Continue reading “What Is an “Offense”?: Another ACCA Puzzle for the Courts”

Should Sentencing Judges Be Required to Respond to Defendants’ Arguments for Lenience?

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I address this question in a new paper I’ve just posted on SSRN entitled “Explaining Sentences.” Here is the gist of the paper. Since 2005, federal judges have had increased discretion to impose sentences below the range prescribed in the federal sentencing guidelines. Since the guidelines ranges are based almost entirely on the aggravating circumstances of the crime, defendants typically argue for below-range sentences based on mitigating personal circumstances (e.g., post-offense rehabilitation, effects of extended incarceration on innocent family members, positive record of military or other community service, mental illness, physical disability, age). Some precedent, perhaps most notably in the Seventh Circuit, indicates that sentencing judges should respond to such arguments even when they choose to impose a guidelines sentence, explaining to defendants why their arguments have been rejected. Other decisions, however, indicate that the sentencing judge need do little or nothing to explain a guidelines sentence. For instance, in Rita v. United States, the Supreme Court seemed to indicate it would suffice if the sentencing judge merely acknowledged the defendant’s arguments at some point somewhere on the record.

I think decisions like the one in Rita are unfortunate. Given what is at stake–often years of a person’s life–it seems a small enough imposition to require district court judges to explain themselves in a more thorough manner. Moreover, a robust explanation requirement may help to counteract the natural tendency of busy judges (as Judge Posner puts it) just “to impose the guidelines sentence and be done with it”–a practice that threatens to undermine the Supreme Court’s rejection of mandatory sentencing guidelines three years ago.

Begay, Begone! ACCA, Aaak!

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I’ve posted recently on some of the fallout from the Supreme Court’s April decision in Begay v.United States, but not yet commented on Begay itself.  It is a remarkable case.  After twelve convictions in state court for DUI, Begay was convicted in federal court for being a felon in possession of a firearm.  The sentencing judge found that his prior DUI felony convictions qualified Begay for a fifteen-year mandatory minimum sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act, which applies to felon-in-possession defendants who have at least three prior convictions for a “violent felony.”  The Supreme Court reversed, determining that DUI is a not a “violent felony.”  I think this was the right result, but it was reached by the wrong means. Continue reading “Begay, Begone! ACCA, Aaak!”

More From the Seventh Circuit on the Scope of “Crime of Violence”

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Following on the heels of yesterday’s post on United States v. Smith, the Seventh Circuit issued another opinion considering the use of prior convictions to enhance a sentence. In United States v. Jennings, the court held that an Indiana conviction for resisting a law enforcement officer could be considered a “crime of violence” for purposes of a career offender enhancement under the federal sentencing guidelines. As I explained yesterday, the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Begay v. United States has altered the framework courts must use in determining whether a prior conviction counts as a crime of violence. In Smith, the Seventh Circuit interpreted Begay such that a crime of negligence and recklessness, even though it may result in serious injury, can no longer be considered a “violent felony” for purposes of the Armed Career Criminal Act. Although Begay (like Smith) involved an ACCA sentence enhancement, Jennings makes clear that the Begay standards also govern sentence enhancements under the career offender guideline. At the same time, Jennings seems to conduct the Begay analysis in a considerably less rigorous manner than Smith. Continue reading “More From the Seventh Circuit on the Scope of “Crime of Violence””

Seventh Circuit Narrows Reach of Armed Career Criminal Act

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On Friday, in United States v. Smith, the Seventh Circuit held that a conviction in Indiana for criminal recklessness could not be used as a predicate offense for a fifteen-year mandatory minimum sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act.  Ordinarily, felons found in possession of a firearm face a maximum sentence of ten years.  However, the ACCA raises the minimum to fifteen years for felons who have at least three prior convictions for “a violent felony or a serious drug offense.”  The Seventh Circuit’s decision to vacate Smith’s ACCA sentence last week illustrates the importance of Begay v. United States, in which the Supreme Court held that DUI does not count as a “violent felony” for ACCA purposes.  Prior to April, when Begay was decided, Seventh Circuit precedent indicated that a felony conviction for criminal recklessness counted; now, in light of Begay, the Seventh Circuit has adopted a new approach. Continue reading “Seventh Circuit Narrows Reach of Armed Career Criminal Act”

Supreme Court Raises Doubts About the Money-Laundering Trap

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The federal money-laundering statute prohibits both the concealment of proceeds from crime and the use of such proceeds to promote illegal activities.  While designed primarily with drug kingpins in mind, the statute’s broad language can easily become a trap for low-level criminals doing fairly routine things.  (I posted recently on a good example of an aggressive use of the money-laundering statute.)  Expansive readings of the statute mean that the penalties attached by Congress to many predicate offenses become meaningless, as nearly everyone becomes subject to the twenty-year maximum prison term triggered by a money-laundering conviction.  Responding to this concern, the Supreme Court recently adopted narrow constructions of the money-laundering statute in two cases, United States v. Santos, 128 S.Ct. 2020 (2008), and Cuellar v. United States, 128 S.Ct. 1994 (2008).  The cases may point the way towards a more discriminating money-laundering jurisprudence that attempts to reserve the harsh penalties of the statute for the most deserving defendants. Continue reading “Supreme Court Raises Doubts About the Money-Laundering Trap”

Federal Sentencing Guidelines Still Need Fundamental Reform

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As a frequent critic of the federal sentencing guidelines (see, e.g., my post from Monday), my readers–yeah, both of them–often assume that I dislike sentencing guidelines in general. To the contrary, I think that sentencing guidelines remain a good idea and have worked quite well in many states (not in Wisconsin, unfortunately, but I will leave that post for another day). The problem with the federal sentencing system is not that it has guidelines, but that it has bad guidelines. Continue reading “Federal Sentencing Guidelines Still Need Fundamental Reform”

A Galling Case in the Seventh Circuit

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The Seventh Circuit has an interesting new sentencing decision, United States v. Carter, which nicely illustrates the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision last year in Gall v. United States.  Robert Carter, the husband of defendant Virginia Carter, embezzled money from his insurance business over several years.  There is no indication that Virgina Carter participated in the embezzlement, but she likely had some knowledge of what was going on.  Eventually, for reasons that are unclear, she sought a divorce.  Following the advice of her lawyer, who did not know that much of the family income was illegal, Carter attempted to take control of the couple’s liquid assets by transferring them into her own individual bank accounts.  Normally, this would be a sound tactical move in a divorce setting, but, by virtue of the criminal origin of the assets, Carter thereby became a money launderer.  Following conviction, she faced a recommended sentence of 87-108 months in prison under the federal sentencing guidelines. Continue reading “A Galling Case in the Seventh Circuit”