Wisconsin Supreme Court on Extraneous Comments at Sentencing

In reviewing the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s opinion in State v. Harris for a talk I am giving later this fall, I was immediately struck by the similarities with United States v. Figueroa, the Seventh Circuit case I blogged about yesterday.  In both cases, the sentencing judge made numerous “colorful” comments at the sentencing hearing that suggested the judge may have been taking various irrelevant considerations into account.

In Harris, the sentencing judge seemed to be passing judgment on the defendant’s lifestyle.  He made a big deal of Harris’s domestic arrangements, which involved Harris staying home with his daughter while the daughter’s mother worked and attended college.  He also focused on Harris’s marijuana use (Harris’s conviction, though, was for possession with intent to deliver cocaine).  The judge then contrasted Harris’s lifestyle with the more laudable choices made by others: “People Mr. Harris’s age [are] enlisting in the Marines and Army and National Guard, putting their lives at stake while Mr. Harris sits at home, gets high while his baby mama works and goes to school.”  The judge also found it “appalling” that the twenty-one-year-old Harris lacked any employment history.

More generally, comparing Harris and Figueroa, one gets the sense that both judges were viewing the defendants as representives of particular social groups (Mexican immigrants in one case, and dissolute young men supported by their girlfriends in the other), and were using the sentencing hearing as an occasion to express critical judgments on the groups.

Why, then, did Figueroa win and Harris lose?  Continue reading “Wisconsin Supreme Court on Extraneous Comments at Sentencing”

Seventh Circuit Vacates Sentence Based on Judge’s “Inflammatory Remarks” at Sentencing Hearing

Convicted in the Eastern District of Wisconsin of trafficking in cocaine, Jose Figueroa was sentenced to 235 months in prison, which was at the low end of the applicable guidelines range.  The Seventh Circuit, however, vacated and remanded for resentencing in United States v. Figueroa (No. 09-3333) (Wood, J.). The problem was purely procedural:

[The district court’s] extraneous and inflammatory comments during the sentencing hearing . . . cast doubt on the validity of the sentence.  During the heraing, the district court digressed to discuss Figueroa’s native Mexico, the immigration status of Figueroa and his sisters, and the conditions and laws in half a dozen other countries — not to mention unnecessary referencs to Hugo Chavez, Iranian terrorists, and Adolf Hitler’s dog.  We have no way of knowing how, if at all, these irrelevant considerations affected Figueroa’s sentence.  We therefore must remand, to ensure that the district court’s choice of sentence was based only on the criteria that Congress has authorized.