SCOTUS End-of-Term Roundup: Causation Cases

Author’s Note: With this, I begin a series of posts that will review the Supreme Court’s criminal cases from the now-concluding term.

The Court’s docket this term included two interesting causation cases that came to somewhat different conclusions. The cases were Burrage v. United States, 134 S. Ct. 881, which dealt with criminal responsibility for a drug-related death, and Paroline v. United States, 134 S. Ct. 1710, which dealt with restitution for a child pornography victim. In both cases, the Court had to grapple with tensions between traditional, narrow understandings of causal responsibility in the law and a natural human desire to hold bad actors accountable for tragic harms with which they seem to have some connection, even if that connection is a tenuous or uncertain one.

Burrage nicely illustrates the tension.   (more…)

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Thoughts on the Holder Address: Two Cheers for the New Paradigm

In August, Attorney General Eric Holder delivered a widely noted address to the American Bar Association that seemed to promise significant changes in federal prosecutorial policies.  I wrote these reactions for the Federal Sentencing Reporter.

Following decades in which the U.S. Department of Justice has consistently advocated for a rigid and harsh legalism in criminal justice policy—in which DOJ, in the name of abstract principles of national uniformity, has willfully disregarded the devastating impact of its charging, plea-bargaining, and sentencing practices on real-life human beings—Attorney General Holder’s ABA address seems a breath of fresh air. He calls for a more flexible federal criminal justice system, in which prosecutorial charging priorities are more specifically tailored to meet local needs, in which sentencing is more individualized to the offender and prosecutors sometimes forego mandatory minimum sentences, and in which individual U.S. Attorney Offices experiment with new diversion programs as an alternative to conventional case-processing. Holder believes—correctly, I think—that a more flexible and pragmatic system can achieve better public-safety results at a lesser cost than a system in which preserving the integrity of the federal sentencing guidelines is the overriding value.

Through Holder’s address, DOJ offers its most prominent and unequivocal endorsement yet of an emerging new criminal justice paradigm.   (more…)

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New US DOJ “Smart on Crime” Policy

AG Holder’s remarks to the ABA earlier this week, announcing new DOJ initiatives, are here.  The related “Smart on Crime” report is here.  Press coverage of the Holder speech focused on the announcement that federal prosecutors would no longer seek to have “draconian” mandatory minimums imposed on low-level drug offenders, but there are other interesting aspects to the new policy, including expanded compassionate release for federal prisoners and a new focus on reentry and collateral consequences.

It seems to me that just about everything here could have been said, and should have been said, two decades ago by AG Reno.  Still, better late than never . . . .

Ironic that this federal backing away from mandatory minimums occurs the very same week we see a push in Wisconsin for new mandatory minimums at the state level.

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So Long, Harris — Breyer’s on Board

Yesterday, in a long-anticipated move, the Supreme Court finally overturned its 2002 decision in Harris v. United States.  The new decision in Alleyne v. United States extended jury-trial rights to mandatory minimum sentences.  Justice Breyer’s “flip” from his position in Harris made the difference.

In Apprendi v. New Jersey (2000), the Court held that a defendant has a right to a jury trial regarding the facts that may increase the maximum sentence to which he is exposed.  Breyer dissented in Apprendi and has steadfastly maintained ever since that Apprendi was wrongly decided.

Two years later, in Harris, the Court decided not to extend Apprendi to the facts that raise a defendant’s minimum sentence.  Breyer was part of the 5-4 majority in Harris, but stated in a concurring opinion that he could see no reason to distinguish increasing the maximum from increasing the minimum.  Thus, Breyer’s vote in Harris was simply another vote against Apprendi.  This immediately raised the expectation that some day, when Breyer was ready to give up the fight against Apprendi, he would be willing to overturn Harris.

Some day has come.   (more…)

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Seventh Circuit Affirms Life Sentence Notwithstanding Supreme Court’s Recent Eighth Amendment Decisions

From the time of its decision in Harmelin v. Michigan (1991), affirming a mandatory sentence of life without parole for a drug trafficking offense, through its decision in Ewing v. California (2003), affirming a de facto life sentence for shoplifting, the Supreme Court showed little interest in using the Eighth Amendment Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause as a basis to limit the length of prison sentences.  More recently, however, the Court has begun to extend the principles it developed to regulate capital sentencing into the noncapital realm.  First, in Graham v. Florida (2010), the Court banned life without parole for juveniles not convicted of homicide.  Then, in Miller v. Alabama (2012), the Court banned the use of mandatory “LWOP” sentences for all juveniles — even those convicted of homicide.

The Court’s trajectory seems to threaten Harmelin.  Even if the logic of Graham permits LWOP for drug trafficking, the logic of Miller arguably requires a consideration of mitigating circumstances before the sentence can be imposed — prohibits, in other words, LWOP as a statutory minimum for a drug offense.

While the Supreme Court might eventually reach this destination, the Seventh Circuit has decided not to try to get there first.   (more…)

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Dorsey v. United States: So Long, Saving Statute?

Last month, in Dorsey v. United States (No. 11-5683), the Supreme Court resolved an important circuit split on the interpretation of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.  The FSA softened the controversial mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine offenses that have been in place since 1986.  There’s no question that crack offenders who committed their crimes after the statute’s effective date, August 3, 2010, benefit from the new regime.  However, the lower courts have divided over the handling of crimes committed before the effective date, but sentenced after it.  Although this may sound like a minor dispute, given the volume of crack offenses prosecuted in federal court and the eleven-month median time between indictment and sentencing in these cases, there may be hundreds or thousands of defendants who are affected by its resolution.

Such timing questions are often resolved by reference to the federal “saving statute” of 1871 (1 U.S.C. §109), which indicates that the law in place at the time of an offense should normally govern the penalty.  However, this is only a default principle; earlier Supreme Court decisions indicate that Congress can make reduced penalties applicable to all defendants if Congress demonstrates such an intent either expressly or by necessary implication.  Since the FSA did not expressly address the question one way or another, Dorsey turned on the finding of implied congressional intent.  By a narrow 5-4 margin, the Court decided that Congress had indeed intended to make the FSA applicable to all defendants sentenced after the statute took effect.   (more…)

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SCOTUS to Decide Retroactivity of Fair Sentencing Act

Congress scaled back penalties for crack cocaine in the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, but did not indicate how the law was to be applied to defendants who committed their crimes before the Act’s effective date.  The circuits have split on this question, and the Supreme Court has now granted certiorari in a pair of Seventh Circuit cases in order to resolve the split: United States v. Fischer, 635 F.3d 336, and United States v. Hill, 417 Fed. App’x 560.  I blogged about Fischer at the time it was decided, here.  I’m hoping for a reversal of the Seventh Circuit’s approach, which needlessly denies many defendants the benefits of the FSA’s much fairer, but still plenty tough, crack sentencing regime.

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Sentencing Commission Criticizes Mandatory Minimums in Comprehensive New Report

What more is there to be said about mandatory minimums?  Everyone already knows they are bad sentencing policy.  Pursuant to congressional directive, however, the U.S. Sentencing Commission last week issued a comprehensive new report on federal mandatory minimums.  I doubt it’s a game-changer, but the report does include a wealth of interesting new data.

First, though, there are the Commission’s recommendations.  Here are the (eminently sound) overarching recommendations:

A strong and effective sentencing guidelines system best serves the purposes of the Sentencing Reform Act. . . . If Congress decides to exercise its power to direct sentencing policy by enacting mandatory minimum penalties, the Commission believes that such penalties should (1) not be excessively severe, (2) be narrowly tailored to apply only to those offenders who warrant such punishment, and (3) be applied consistently. Sentencing data and interviews with prosecutors and defense attorneys indicate that mandatory minimum penalties that are considered excessively severe tend to be applied inconsistently.  (xxx)

(more…)

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Mandatory Minimums and the Disappearing Trial

The New York Times has a new article on mandatory minimums and plea bargaining.  The article notes the near-disappearance of the American criminal trial over the past generation:

Plea bargains have been common for more than a century, but lately they have begun to put the trial system out of business in some courtrooms. By one count, fewer than one in 40 felony cases now make it to trial, according to data from nine states that have published such records since the 1970s, when the ratio was about one in 12. The decline has been even steeper in federal district courts.

Although there are doubtlessly multiple causes for this trend, the article focuses particularly on the role of mandatory minimums, which have given prosecutors an ever-increasing amount of leverage in plea negotiations.  Even an innocent defendant must think long and hard about going to trial when a plea would mean a sentence of only a couple of years of prison but a trial conviction might result in a mandatory minimum of ten years or more.  The system has effectively made a lie of the constitutional promise of a right to a jury trial.

When I cover this subject in Criminal Procedure, students inevitably wonder how to reconcile the practice of threatening defendants with mandatory minimum charges if they go to trial with the prosecutorial vindictiveness doctrine of Blackledge v. Perry.  The answer?  The Supreme Court carved out an exception to Blackledge and gave its stamp of approval to coerced guilty pleas in Bordenkircher v. Hayes.  A few years ago, I argued in this article that it was time for the Court to revisit Bordenkircher, especially in light of the Court’s revitalization of the jury-trial right in Apprendi v. New Jersey.  Sadly, the Court has not yet given any indication that it has noticed my argument.

Hat tip to Tony Cotton.

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