Articles Posted in Federal criminal law

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So called “mandatory minimum” sentences for numerous Federal crimes were established a generation ago by the United States Congress. From a policy and financial standpoint, many people have come to the conclusion that the societal benefits are now substantially outweighed by the human costs and the costs purely in terms of dollars. This point of view is shared by many (though certainly not all) in Congress across all political stripes. This topic is starting to generate bipartisan Congressional support among some Senators and Representative of both parties. In fact, legislation was proposed in the Senate known as the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015. Among other items, this proposed law would reduce and/or eliminate mandatory minimum sentences and expand the “safety valve” eligibility. The bill has not been passed, though it may move to the Senate floor for consideration this year.

What is interesting to me about the bill is that it is sponsored by such a politically diverse group of Senators. The bill has found support form a large number of former federal prosecutors and senior Government officials including two former FBI Directors and a U.S. Attorney General.

The proposed changes to the mandatory minimum are fully supported by the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections. The Colson task force describes itself as a:

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently issued an opinion that may significantly impact the way that Federal drug prosecutions are carried out in Texas.  On October 15, 2015 the Court decided United States v. Haines, No. 13-31287, 2015 WL 6080523. The Haines Court held that the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires that a  jury make a defendant specific finding, beyond a reasonable doubt,  of the drug quantity to each individual defendant to establish the  statutory minimum sentence.

Under the law as it existed prior to Haines, the only question for the jury to decide concerning drug quantity was the amount involved in the overall scope of the conspiracy.  The question of the amount applicable as to each individual defendant was a sentencing question for the Court on a lower standard of proof.  In the post Haines world, if the Government seeks to convict someone of  federal conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute drugs in an amount that carries enhanced statutory minimum sentences, the Government must prove that the individual person involved is personally responsible for an amount of drugs that triggers the statutory enhancement.  For example, under 21 United States Code section 841(b)(1)(A), a conspiracy involving 5 kilograms or more of  a cocaine mixture subjects a person to a mandatory statutory minimum of ten years imprisonment.

Prior to Haines, to subject someone to that mandatory minimum sentence, all the Government would need to prove is that they were guilty of a conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute, and the the overall scope of the conspiracy involved 5 kilograms or more.  Now, to subject someone to that mandatory minimum, they must proved not only guilt as the the conspiracy, but also that the individual person is personally responsible for an amount sufficient to trigger the enhanced minimum penalty.

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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled in July that the police do not need a warrant to access mobile phone subscribers cell phone tower data. The Fifth Circuit, which has the final word on matters of Federal law in Texas, held that warrantless access to such information by police is not a violation of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure.

Instead, according the the Fifth Circuit, the information is merely a business record created and maintained by the private cell companies. Further, the Government is not involved in the creation or storage or the accumulated data, and for a variety of reasons, the Court held that an individual has no expectation of privacy in the data.

What does this mean? As a practical matter, the phone in your pocket or purse is a de facto tracking device. If you use a cell phone you may be tracked to a relatively small area by use of the cell phone tower data. This data is now accessible without a warrant.

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The United States Supreme Court issued a pair of decisions today that directly address two important provisions of the U. S. Constitution.  The opinions issued were overshadowed by the Court’s decision in the Arizona voting law case, which garnered the overwhelming majority of media attention.

Buried in that news cycle however were two important Supreme Court cases addressing the Constitution.  The first, Alleyne v. United States, overruled Harris v. United States, which was decided only eleven years ago.  In Alleyne, the Court decided by a 7-2 majority that any fact which, if proven, will have the effect of increasing the statutory minimum range to which the accused is subject, must be submitted to the fact finder and proved.  In other words, any fact or facts that will increase the statutory minimum implicates that Sixth Amendment.

For Federal practitioners, I do not see this as an opening to a fundamental change in the sentencing process.  The facts and issues generally regarded as sentencing factors that may increase the punishment within the prescribed statutory range will still be considered by the sentencing judge at sentencing and may be found reliable with a jury finding and proof beyond a reasonable doubt.  The Alleyne case does not appear, for example, to affect a sentencing court finding that the defendant acted as an Organizer, Manager or Leader, or that the defendant Obstructed Justice. 

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The United States Sentencing Commission (U.S.S.C.) has submitted a number of amendments to the United States Sentencing Guidelines that are to take effect on November 1, 2013.  The amendments in their entirety may be found here.

From a practical standpoint, the most important amendment may be one of the changes to U.S.S.G. 3E1.1.  Section 3E1.1 is that provision of the Guidelines that addresses Acceptance of Responsibility.  The section provides for a 2 point reduction to the base offense level for a defendant who “clearly demonstrates acceptance of responsibility for his offense.”    The change to this section added the following language.

       “The government should not withhold such a motion based on interests not identified in §3E1.1, such as whether the defendant agrees to waive his or her right to appeal.”  

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rosenthalwadas.com

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A recent decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit raised some eyebrows in Federal criminal law circles.  In the case of U.S. v. Rodriguez – Escareno, ___F.3d___, 2012 WL5200190 (5th Cir. Oct. 23, 2012)  the Court vacated and remanded for resentencing,  on a plain error standard, where the District Court imposed a 16 level enhancement for defendant’s previous conviction for a “drug trafficking offense.”

Mr. Rodriguez – Escareno was indicted by a federal Grand Jury for the crime of  Illegal Reentry, and he plead guilty to the charge.  In the Federal system, when an indicted person pleads guilty, a Presentence Investigation Report (PSR)  is prepared.  One of the matters that the PSR addresses is the existence of prior convictions.  Mr. Rosdriguez – Escareno was previously convicted of a conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine. The PSR determined that Rodriguez-Escareno’s previous crime was a “drug trafficking offense,” which permitted the application of a 16-level enhancement under U.S.S.G. § 2L1.2(b)(1)(A)(i).  On the surface, it seems obvious that a drug conspiracy withing the meaning of the Federal criminal statute will be considered a drug trafficking offense within the meaning of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines; at least that is what everyone in Mr. Rodriguez – Escareno’s case appeared to believe.

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Derk Wadas

The  Federal Drug Conspiracy laws establish a so called “mandatory minimum” of a certain number of years in prison upon conviction and sentencing. depending upon the amount of drugs involved.  For example, 5-40 years in prison with a minimum of five or 10 years to Life in prison   Essentially, it means that if one is convicted of a dug conspiracy, one is required to serve the mandatory minimum without regard to applicable sentence under the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines

Is the mandatory minimum really “mandatory.”  For many, the answer is clearly, no.  There are several mechanisms built into the law that allow people to avoid, in some cases, the mandatory minimum requirements.

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Sentencing in federal criminal case is largely a product of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual.  For those that may not know, the Guidelines were established by Congress in the 1980s in an effort to bring uniformity and consistency to federal criminal cases.  The Guidelines established, among other things,  mandatory minimum sentences for many drug conspiracy cases.

In 1994, Congress passed the “Safety Valve” statute, 18 U.S.C section 3553(f)The safety valve provision of Title 18 authorizes Courts to impose sentences below the statutory minimum if the defendant meets certain requirements in cases under section 21 USC 841, 844, 846, 960 or 963.

(1) the defendant does not have more than 1 criminal history point, as determined under the sentencing guidelines;
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In most Federal Criminal cases, if a person is convicted, the sentence will be determined by using the United States Sentencing Guidelines.  The Guidelines were created by the U.S. Congress in the 1980s.  The Guidelines were created with the goal of achieving uniformity in Federal criminal sentences across the United States.

In other words, if you are convicted and sentenced for participating in a Federal drug conspiracy case in the Eastern District of Texas, your sentence should be substantially like that of a similarly situated person in another part of the country.

The Guidelines are formulaic and they operate to calcuate a prison term using several criteria.  Broadly speaking, these can be broken down into several categories.

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A Federal criminal case is very different than a state criminal case.  There exists a separate set of laws and processes that must be understood and carefully considered.