Yates v. United States: Overcoming Plain Meaning

As we enter the home stretch of the Supreme Court term, I have been reviewing the criminal cases already decided by the Court this year. For my money, the most interesting is Yates v. United States, which presents a classic statutory interpretation problem. This was the fish case that got a fair amount of whimsical press coverage when it came out. Even the Justices proved incapable of avoiding fish puns in their opinions, but I’ll do my best not to get caught in that net. (Oops.)

Yates captained a commercial fishing vessel that was catching undersized grouper in violation of federal law. Following an inspection, some of the illegal catch was thrown back into the sea on Yates’s orders, presumably to avoid penalties. Yates was eventually convicted under 18 U.S.C. §1519, which authorizes a prison term of up to twenty years for anyone who “knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document or tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence the investigation or proper administration of any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States . . . or in relation to or contemplation of any such matter.”

Continue reading “Yates v. United States: Overcoming Plain Meaning”

SCOTUS End-of-Term Roundup: Should the Court Care How Effective a Statute Is?

In my previous post, I noted a number of the considerations that the Supreme Court emphasized in its criminal statutory interpretation cases from the past term.  In this post, I will highlight one recurring point of controversy, that is, whether the Court should try to maximize the effectiveness of statutes in achieving their overarching purposes.

Abramski, the firearms purchase case, provides a good illustration.   Continue reading “SCOTUS End-of-Term Roundup: Should the Court Care How Effective a Statute Is?”

SCOTUS End-of-Term Roundup: Statutory Interpretation in Criminal Cases

In the first post in this series, I discussed two causation cases in some detail.  In this post, I will more briefly summarize the full set of the Supreme Court’s criminal statutory interpretation cases from the past term and then offer a few overarching observations.

Here are the cases (excluding habeas corpus decisions):

Continue reading “SCOTUS End-of-Term Roundup: Statutory Interpretation in Criminal Cases”

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.   Continue reading “SCOTUS End-of-Term Roundup: Causation Cases”

SCOTUS Interprets Criminal Statute Narrowly to Preserve Federal-State Balance

In an opinion sure to be cited by many federal criminal defendants for years to come, the Supreme Court yesterday overturned the conviction of Carol Anne Bond under the Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act.  Although few defendants are prosecuted under this statute, the Court’s decision in Bond is noteworthy for its approach to the interpretation of federal criminal statutes.  The Court adopted a narrow interpretation of the Implementation Act in order to preserve what it called the “usual constitutional balance of federal and state power.”  (12)  This interpretive principle is not a new one, but the Court applied it in an unusually aggressive fashion in Bond.  The opinion is sure to be a favorite of defendants who find themselves prosecuted in federal court for offenses traditionally and routinely handled in state courts.

The underlying facts in Bond were a mix of the mundane and the bizarre.   Continue reading “SCOTUS Interprets Criminal Statute Narrowly to Preserve Federal-State Balance”

Crime Elements and Mental States: A New Theory

When legislatures create new crimes, they sometimes fail to specify what mental state must be proven with respect to each element.  These gaps in substantive criminal law give real significance to deafult rules or presumptions that certain levels of mens rea are required in certain circumstances.  The Model Penal Code, for instance, specifies that some form of mens rea (purpose, knowledge, recklessness, or negligence) must be proven as “each material element of the offense.”

The Supreme Court has also recognized a mens rea presumption, although in a somewhat more limited form than the MPC.  This was made clear, for instance, in Dean v. United States, 556 U.S. 568 (2009), in which the Court held that a ten-year mandatory minimum sentence could be triggered by the entirely accidental discharge of a firearm during a bank robbery.  The relevant statute did not specify any mental state, and Dean argued that the government should be required to prove that the discharge was knowing or intentional.  However, the Court indicated that its mens rea presumption only applied to elements that made a defendant’s conduct criminal, not to aggravating factors (like the discharge of a weapon) that merely made the defendant’s illegal conduct even worse.

Now, in an interesting new article, Eric Johnson seeks to defend and elaborate on Justice Stevens’ dissent in Dean.  Continue reading “Crime Elements and Mental States: A New Theory”

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.   Continue reading “Dorsey v. United States: So Long, Saving Statute?”

Mandatory Minimums and the Supreme Court

I posted a few months ago on Erik Luna and Paul Cassell’s insightful article on mandatory minimums in the Cardozo Law Review.  Cardozo’s on-line journal, de novo, has just published my more extended response to Luna and Cassell: “Mandatory Minimums: Don’t Give Up on the Court,” 2011 Cardozo L. Rev. de novo 67.  Here is a taste from the introduction:

Erik Luna and Paul Cassell have given us an extraordinarily thorough and persuasive treatment of an important topic. I have little doubt that the world would be a better place if Congress heeded their advice and adopted the reforms they propose for federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws.2 Will Congress actually do so? Drawing on an eclectic mix of insights from behavioral science, political science, and legal theory, Luna and Cassell present a case for guarded optimism. On the other hand, in his insightful response to Luna and Cassell, Ronald Wright identifies various institutional features of congressional decisionmaking that seem likely to blunt the gathering momentum for mandatory minimum reform. Whether or not Wright is ultimately too pessimistic regarding Congress, his argument should cause us to consider whether other branches of government might realistically be expected to fill the void created by legislative inertia and timidity.

For instance, what about the Supreme Court—might the Court play a meaningful role in paring back the penal excesses of our federal mandatory minimums? Luna and Cassell dismiss the possibility. They write, “[T]he Supreme Court’s jurisprudence in this area, described by some as an abandonment of the field, makes clear that judicial review will not provide much of a check on excessive punishment. . . . [S]ignificant reform will come, if at all, by Congress.”

They may reach this conclusion too quickly. Their analysis is based entirely on the Supreme Court’s Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. However, they disregard an emerging body of statutory interpretation jurisprudence in which the Court has acted with surprising boldness in narrowing the scope of the Armed Career Criminal Act, one of the most draconian of the federal mandatory minimum statutes. The ACCA cases suggest that the Court may be more willing to regulate mandatory minimums through statutory than through constitutional interpretation. More speculatively, another very recent decision, United States v. O’Brien, may point the way to more robust procedural regulation of mandatory minimums, including a right to have a jury find the facts that trigger a mandatory minimum beyond a reasonable doubt.

Competing Approaches to Interpreting Criminal Statutes

I’ve just read an insightful paper by Eric Johnson on the interpretation of criminal statutes: Does Criminal Law Matter? Thoughts on Dean v. United States and Flores-Figueroa v. United States, 8 Ohio St. J. Crim. L. 123 (2010).  Johnson describes what he calls the “doctrine-centered” approach this way:

The doctrine-centered approach to criminal statutory interpretation has two defining characteristics. The first is the courts’ readiness, under this approach, to conclude that the statute itself leaves important questions unanswered. The second is the courts’ assumption that these unanswered questions are best resolved by the systematic application of criminal law doctrine—rather than by, say, an ad hoc, statute-specific analysis of the policies at stake. (128)

The competing “statutue-specific” approach has two contrasting characteristics:

The first is a readiness to find clear answers to interpretive questions in the statute‘s text. The second is a preference for resolving unanswered questions without the help of criminal law doctrine.  (138)

According to Johnson, the Dean and Flores-Figueroa decisions from 2009 reflect the Supreme Court’s current preference for the statute-specific approach.  Continue reading “Competing Approaches to Interpreting Criminal Statutes”

SCOTUS Rules That “Cocaine Base” Is Not Limited to Crack

It has not been a good week for criminal defendants on the statutory interpretation front.  Yesterday, in DePierre v. United States (No. 09-1553), the Supreme Court rejected a narrowing interpretation of a mandatory minimum statute for the third time this week.  (See my posts here and here for the earlier cases.)  DePierre, however, was considerably less contentious (and interesting) than the first two.  The Court unanimously agreed that the term “cocaine base” encompasses all cocaine in its chemically basic form, and is thus not limited to crack, for purposes of the five- and ten-year mandatory minimums that apply to trafficking in cocaine base.  This seems a relatively straightforward matter of plain-meaning interpretation, although it does contradict the way that the Sentencing Commission defines “cocaine base” for purposes of the guidelines.