The 2019 U.S. Supreme Court

What Acquitted Conduct Says about Justice Kavanaugh and Federal Defendants and Supervised Release

The Supreme Court has changed drastically over the last two years. With the inclusion of both Justice Gorsuch and Justice Kavanaugh to the highest court in the Country, there are plenty of questions on what way things will go for federal defendants at the Supreme Court in the next few decades.

There is no easy answer to this, as many Supreme Court Justices look one way during confirmation, and then act differently after they sit on the bench. This is most markedly observed when strict constructionalism meets federalism in a real way. That, however, is a longer discussion for a different post.

This post focuses on how the two newest justices might shape the way criminal matters are decided in the near to far future.

The ACCA

In recent cases, there have been significant decisions by the Supreme Court when it comes to the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA). In April of 2018, the case of Session v. Dimaya sided heavily with defendants. This case said that the residual clause of the definition of a crime of violence (per 18 U.S.C. §924(e)) was unconstitutionally vague.

In the simplest of terms, this case threw out a vague definition of what could be considered a crime of violence. It found that just because the act of committing a crime had the potential for violence, didn’t mean it could be considered a violent crime. That asks judges to use too much fortune-telling to be comfortably constitutional.

Whether or not Kavanaugh would have voted with the majority here is a matter of pure speculation, but the case was decided in a 5-4 split that could have swung either way. Kennedy voted against this majority, so even if Kavanaugh would have held the same opinion, this case would have still landed on the side of defendant Dimaya.

But there is wrinkle here. Kavanaugh, although having few opinions to draw on from his time on the D.C. Circuit, is a strong opponent to acquitted conduct. This is the principle of using conduct that the defendant was not convicted of, in order to lengthen their sentence.

Hypothetical Scenario: Consider a kid who was arrested for public intoxication and terroristic threats at age 19. He was actually drinking an energy drink and defending another kid from a bully, but mistakes happen and this hypothetical situation is resolved when a quick bench trial acquits him of both charges.

8 years down the line this same kid is charged as a part of a drug conspiracy when his local weed dealer is taken down by the DEA. He’s guilty of selling some extra weed this dealer had to get rid of 6 months prior, but gets charged (as all conspiracies go) with the entire amount of weed dealt by co-conspirators during that entire 6 month period. At his sentencing, that arrest shows up on the presentence report as criminal history with no points. However, the “Acquitted Conduct” section of the Sentencing Guidelines Manual adds a year to the sentence for something he was never convicted of.

Justice Kavanaugh has stated, on multiple occasions, that he believes the use of acquitted conduct to increase the length of a criminal sentence is both worrisome and a violation of due process protections. He even stated this in front of the Sentencing Commission in 2009.

Few conclusions can be made from this small example, however it is clear from his statements to the Sentencing Commission that Kavanaugh is committed to giving defendant’s a fair shake, and is a firm believer that the constitution guarantees this fairness.

Supervised Release

The future will tell what the new Supreme Court will do with issues of supervised release, but the wait won’t be long. In November of 2018, the Court agreed to review the case of Jason Mont.

Mont, who committed drug crimes while on supervised release for an early drug conspiracy, was indicted by the State of Ohio on these new drug charges, and the federal district court was informed of his violation of federal supervised release conditions.

Mont was held in county jail for 10 months during while awaiting trial for the Ohio charges. During that 10 months, his term of supervised release ended. After he was convicted and sentenced to 6 years in state prison, he was then given a revocation of supervised release in federal court and a 42 month sentence there as well.

Mont appealed to the 6th Circuit. 18 U.S.C. §3583(i) says that:

The power of the court to revoke a term of supervised release for violation of a condition of supervised release, and to order the defendant to serve a term of imprisonment and, subject to the limitations in subsection (h), a further term of supervised release, extends beyond the expiration of the term of supervised release for any period reasonably necessary for the adjudication of matters arising before its expiration if, before its expiration, a warrant or summons has been issued on the basis of an allegation of such a violation.

However, does this apply to pretrial holding? Mont’s lawyers argued that it doesn’t. However, the 6th Circuit disagreed and affirmed the district court’s decision.

Mont then appealed to the Supreme Court, who granted review of this case on November 2, 2018.

This will be a good case to take the temperature of the Supreme Court, in its newest form, regarding issues of federal supervised release.

Check back often for updates on these issues and many others.

The Newest SCOTUS

Supreme Court Nominee Kavanaugh

How This Pick Stacks up on Criminal Justice and Dimaya

2018 Marks the second time the Trump administration will have selected a judge to sit on the United States Supreme Court. The first nomination, Justice Neil Gorsuch, widely considered to be a right-leaning partisan pick, actually sided with the defendant in the much-publicized Dimaya case.

However, now that Judge Brett Kavanaugh has been nominated to replace Justice Kennedy, a new investigation into the track-record of this new nominee has been sparked. Priya Raghavan over at the Brennan Center for Justice (at the New York University School of Law) wrote about just this issue. Here are some highlighted excerpts from her excellent piece (links preserved from original article):

Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination is troubling on many fronts: He appears to want the president to be above the law, he would likely curtail abortion rights, and he’d almost certainly block meaningful gun control. But we know much less about Kavanaugh’s views on criminal justice. How the nominee would shape the Court’s criminal jurisprudence in many ways remains a mystery.

Kavanaugh serves on the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which spends much of its time reviewing federal government administrative actions and less time deciding criminal justice matters. As a result, his criminal justice decisions are few, and there are large swaths of the criminal law that Kavanaugh simply hasn’t publicly contemplated.
However, one thing is clear: Based on Kavanaugh’s limited criminal jurisprudence, there is no indication that Kavanaugh falls to the left of Kennedy on any aspect of criminal justice.

Regarding Kavanaugh’s decisions in favor of defendants:

The rare instances when Kavanaugh sides with defendants are equally telling. In U.S. v. Burwell, Kavanaugh dissented from a decision that upheld a 20-year sentence enhancement for a defendant who used a machine gun during a robbery. Kavanaugh argued that there was no proof that the defendant knew the gun he used was a machine gun and that the law should require such proof. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that Kavanaugh was looking out for the little guy. Insisting on such intent requirements – mens rea, in legal terminology – could make it harder for the government to prosecute white-collar criminals, largely benefitting a small segment of affluent defendants.

In Raghavan’s opinion, and that of many criminal justice scholars, Kavanaugh would rather Booker go away and make the guidelines manual mandatory again:

Kavanaugh’s views on sentencing are more difficult to parse. He testified in 2009 that, from a policy perspective, he believed federal sentencing guidelines should be mandatory, rather than advisory, to limit judicial discretion in sentencing. He was concerned that advisory guidelines would allow judges to impose their personal views at sentencing, leading to disparate outcomes. But Kavanaugh has on several occasions disagreed with his colleagues and supported lower court judges who gave harsh, above-guidelines sentences with little to no explanation of their reasons for doing so. In both In re Sealed Case and the recent U.S. v. Brown, where the D.C. Circuit vacated sentences after judges issued harsh, above-guidelines sentences without sufficient explanation, Kavanaugh dissented, calling the majority’s holding in the latter case “confounding.” Kavanaugh’s statements on sentencing leave us wondering: how much discretion does he think judges should have?

The article goes on to ask more open ended questions that are tangentially directed at Kavanaugh, but are more of a suggestion to the Senate panel at Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings.

The Difficulty on Bringing State Cases into Federal Habeas Proceedings

Federal Habeas Filings Under §2254

Filing a habeas petition is difficult and very time consuming. Filing an effective habeas petition is even harder. This is in reference to federal inmates filing for 28 U.S.C. §2255 habeas relief in federal court. A majority of these filings fail even before they get a hearing, never getting their day in court.

However, there is an avenue in this area of appeals that allows state inmates with state-level convictions to appeal their convictions on federal-constitutional grounds in federal court. This process and the law behind it comes from the section prior to the one that gives federal inmates this option.

This is Title 28 U.S.C. §2254.

Our most recent client who wanted to file for this type of appeal was the father of a young man in the Midwest United States who was wrongfully convicted of homicide. A case of mistaken identity that resulted in a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. This young man’s life is effectively over, all because an overzealous detective didn’t want to change his “hunch” from day 2 of investigating a murder.

This detective had pinned the crime on this young man, and nothing would dissuade him otherwise. Not a lack of evidence, or even witnesses that heard the confession of the real killer first hand. Add on top of that a drug-addicted witness who was paid a crime-stoppers-type reward before  the trial, who changed his tune from unsure, to a concretely positive identification, and the perfect storm was set for a wrongful conviction.

However, this post is not about this young man or the injustices that resulted in a jury convicting him of murder.

This post is about the process of even getting his case heard before a federal judge. It is immensely difficult, to say the least.

The American Constitution Society

Just this month, in July of 2018, the American Constitution Society (ACS) published a brief entitled “Litigating Fedreal Habeas Corpus Cases: One Equitable Gateway at a Time“. and it gets started this way:

The Supreme Court has described the writ of habeas corpus as “a bulwark against convictions that violate fundamental fairness”1 and as “the judicial method of lifting undue restraints upon personal liberty.”2 Unfortunately, obtaining federal habeas corpus relief has become close to impossible for many prisoners. The vast majority of habeas petitions are post-conviction petitions filed by state prisoners. Congress and the Supreme Court have erected a complicated maze of procedural obstacles that state prisoners must navigate, often without the assistance of counsel, to have their constitutional claims considered in federal court. One wrong procedural step means the prisoner’s claims are thrown out of federal court altogether. In fact, federal judges now dismiss a majority of state prisoners’ habeas claims on procedural grounds.3

The rare state prisoner who successfully manages to run this procedural gauntlet faces a merits review process that has become so deferential to the state that relief remains virtually unattainable. In the extremely rare case where a federal court grants relief, the judgment often comes years after a person has been wrongly imprisoned. At that point, the case has often been forgotten and the state actors responsible for the underlying constitutional violation have often changed jobs. As a result, the federal decision effectively has no deterrent value.

One empirical study revealed that only 0.29% of non-capital state prisoners obtain any form of federal habeas relief.4 That number is troubling in light of evidence that states systematically violate criminal defendants’ constitutional rights5 and data documenting large numbers of wrongful state convictions.6 Many state criminal defendants have no semblance of a fair process to determine their guilt or innocence. They are processed through a system populated by underfunded and overworked criminal defense attorneys who are often structurally ineffective,7 prosecutors whose incentives often are to obtain convictions and appear tough on crime rather than pursue just results,8 and overwhelmed trial court judges who are focused on docket management and often indifferent to the systemic mistreatment of poor people of color. To avoid reckoning with these failures, states often rely on (and even distort) state procedural rules to reject defendants’ constitutional claims.9

The entire brief runs 21 pages long and is well worth the read. Suffice it to say, though, these are very hard to do and do well.

As far as the young man who was convicted of murder? His case is still pending briefs ordered by the government and a report from an impartial magistrate judge before the presiding federal10 judge makes a determination of whether this case is heard, granted, and this young man gets freed from prison.

Judging from past inmates who have tried, however, it is likely that this case will go to an appeal before it gets taken seriously. Maybe even the U.S. Supreme Court.

We will, of course, post any updates in the future.

  1. Engle v. Isaac, 456 U.S. 107, 126 (1982) []
  2. Price v. Johnston, 334 U.S. 266, 269 (1948) []
  3. See NANCY J. KING ET AL., FINAL TECHNICAL REPORT: HABEAS LITIGATION IN U.S. DISTRICT COURTS 6 (2007), http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/219559.pdf [hereinafter KING REPORT]. []
  4. See KING REPORT, supra note 3, at 9. []
  5. See, e.g., Eve Brensike Primus, A Structural Vision of Habeas Corpus, 98 CALIF. L. REV. 1, 16-23 (2010) (documenting systemic violations of defendants’ rights in the states); see also Lynn Adelman, Who Killed Habeas Corpus?, DISSENT MAGAZINE (Winter 2018), https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/who-killed-habeas-corpus-bill-clinton-aedpa-states-rights (“As a federal judge, I have observed a considerable number of cases where state courts overlooked clear constitutional violations….”). []
  6. See Brandon L. Garrett, Actual Innocence and Wrongful Convictions in ACADEMY FOR JUSTICE, A REPORT ON SCHOLARSHIP AND CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM (Erik Luna ed., 2017). []
  7. See, e.g., Eve Brensike Primus, Defense Counsel and Public Defense in ACADEMY FOR JUSTICE, A REPORT ON SCHOLARSHIP AND CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM (Erik Luna ed., 2017). []
  8. See, e.g., John F. Pfaff, Prosecutorial Guidelines in ACADEMY FOR JUSTICE, A REPORT ON SCHOLARSHIP AND CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM (Erik Luna ed., 2017). []
  9. See, e.g., Lee v. Kemna, 534 U.S. 362 (2002) (examining Missouri’s distortion of two state procedural rules to prevent a defendant from presenting witnesses to support his alibi defense); see also Eve Brensike Primus, Federal Review of State Criminal Convictions: A Structural Approach to Adequacy Doctrine, 116 MICH. L. REV. 75 (2017) (documenting how states use procedural rules to avoid constitutional challenges). []
  10. Article III []

Federal Sentencing: Criminal History Category

Calculating Criminal History Weight

The final piece to sentencing calculations takes into consideration criminal history. Everything from misdemeanor driving crimes (like driving with a suspended license) to prior major felonies, the PSI/R considers the entirety of a defendant’s criminal history.

With no criminal history at all, zero points are assigned. Every other instance of past criminality is scored in the following categories:

  1. Juvenile Adjudication(s);
  2. Adult Criminal Conviction(s);
  3. Other Minor Conviction(s);

Then the totality of a defendant’s criminal history is scored with the points assigned by each entry in the above categories.

  • Three points are added for each prior convictions that carried an actual sentence more than 1 year and 1 day;
  • Two points are added for each prior conviction carrying an actual sentence of at least 60 days of detention;
  • One point is added for each prior sentence for a criminal conviction that didn’t qualify for the first two (e.g. criminal sentences with only probation or less than 60 days of detention);
  • Two points are added if the current charge occurred while the defendant was under any current sentence for another criminal case;
  • One point is added for each prior violent crimes that weren’t scored in the above categories (usually because they were combined sentences).

*Update: The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Sessions v. Dimaya has changed what federal courts can classify as a violent crime.1

Criminal History Category

Now that we know how criminal history is scored, the second part to this calculation is what category each score falls into. There are six categories, and each one carries longer sentences than the last.

Refer back to the sentencing table found in the Guidelines Manual for a visual representation of what this category does to sentences.

  • Category I: 0-1 criminal history points. This is the lowest category;
  • Category II: 2-3 criminal history points;
  • Category III: 4-6 criminal history points;
  • Category IV: 7-9 criminal history points;
  • Category V: 10-12 criminal history points;
  • Category VI: 13 or more criminal history points;

Calculating the Final Sentence

Okay, so from the base offense level we get our starting point. Then that score is increased and decreased by the enhancement and mitigating factors we talked about in the last section. Then we get the criminal history category.

Now we have all the information that goes into the federal sentencing table (link above) that is used to figure out what sentence the Guidelines Manual recommends for a specific defendant. Looking at the sentencing table, the Offense Level is in the left hand column from top to bottom. The Criminal History Category is in the top row from left to right.

This Criminal History Category can make a big difference in sentences. A defendant with an Offense Level of 22 with no criminal history gets a recommended sentence range of 41-51 months, while a defendant with a Criminal History Category of VI gets a recommended range of more than double that: 84-105 months.

This means that doing a “deep dive” with a criminal defense attorney about each and every point scored on a PSI/R to determine Criminal History Category is vitally important. If any of these points can be successfully objected to and challenged, a defendant may save 7-19 months of their life at final sentencing.

Summary

Although this whole process can seem very complicated, it is very important to pay close attention. If a defense attorney isn’t paying close attention, MAKE THEM. From challenging the calculation of the base offense level, to challenging the applicability of enhancements, to attacking the age or application of criminal history points, each step of this process can change a sentence, and experienced eyes can make years disappear from a defendant’s sentence.

It is a documented fact that a vast majority of defendants who are charged with a crime by the federal government will be convicted and face a sentencing hearing. The days between a plea hearing (or trial) and sentencing can be the most important in a defendant’s life. Don’t skip this part!

How PCR Consultants Can Help

We are consultants and not attorneys. When an attorney is working on a case, the state Bar Association prohibits any other attorney from offering their opinion on the case. You literally cannot get a second opinion as you would if considering other life-changing decisions like major surgery.

PCR Consultants offer experienced and independent eyes that can see the case as a whole and make a difference where the most good can come of it. In this case, an analysis of sentence computations. If you’d like to talk to us more and get a totally free consultation regarding a pending sentencing hearing, give us a call or e-mail.

Phone: (480) 382-9287

Email: info@pcr-consultants.com

Or visit out Contact Us page.

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Primer | Base Offense Levels | Offense Level Adjustments

  1. Importantly, the Supreme Court decided that residual clauses of 18 U.S.C. §16 and  §924(e) are unconstitutionally vague and cannot be used to define a “Crime of Violence” because they ask judges to consider the potential of a crime to turn violent, even if no violence existed in the criminal conduct. []

Dimaya Sentence Reductions via §2255

The Sentence Reduction Potential of Dimaya and Johnson

On April 17, 2018, the Supreme Court of the United States published an opinion in an immigration case called Sessions v. Dimaya. This case caused waves because the left-leaning justices split with right-leaning justices evenly at 4-4 and the deciding vote was the freshman justice Gorsuch.

In what has conservatives raging against their new justice, is really not much of an immigration issue. Well it is, because it brings some civil immigration cases into the constitutional realm of criminal cases. In this case, the question was whether or not a statute which anticipated possible/potentially violent conduct was too vague to withstand constitutional scrutiny.

No attempt is made here to take political sides or to create a partisan bias. The reason why you’re probably here reading this is to find out if Dimaya can be helpful to an inmate in federal prison. The short answer is, “Maybe.”

What did the Dimaya Case Accomplish?

You can skip this section entirely if you’re not interested in the legal analysis of this case, although it does help explain how and who this case helps.

This opinion, with dissents, is nearly 100 pages long, so there is a lot to unpack. However, the essential part that impacts federal inmates has to do with sentencing enhancements for violent crimes.

What the Dimaya case decided was that the residual clause of 18 U.S.C. §16(b) was unconstitutionally vague and violated the U.S. Constitution’s 5th Amendment, which guarantees due process.

Lets make that simpler to understand. That law above, 18 U.S.C. §16(b), is the second part of a 2-part definition of what constitutes a “Crime of Violence.” The first part says that violence has to be used, attempted, or threatened for the underlying crime to be considered a violent one.

The second part, the part we’re interested in here, says that “any other felony that, by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force against the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing the offense.”

The problem with this phrasing is that a “substantial risk” is subjective and vague. A court could assume that violence could be a result of many different types of felonies. While holding a gun, threatening to kill somebody to facilitate a robbery is certainly a crime of violence under the first definition above.

The Supreme Court decided to rely on it’s criminal definition of what makes a law unconstitutional for being too vague. The definition of a violent crime is generally made by §16, as is addressed above. Criminally, however, the definition of a crime of violence is defined in §924(e)(2).

This, by the way, is why this case caused an uproar, because it treats deportation as a punishment severe enough to cross over into criminal punishment, rather than a civil process. And treating deportation as a criminal matter gives non-citizens constitutional due process rights.

But never mind that now.

The Supreme Court decided in Sessions v. Dimaya that the residual clause of the definition of a “crime of violence” from §16 is void for being too vague, just like the residual clause of a “crime of violence” for criminal prosecution from §924(e)(2) is void for being too vague, which they had decided in 2015 with Johnson vs. United States, 576 U.S. ___, ___.

How Dimaya Could Reduce Federal Sentences

Very basically, Dimaya reinforced Johnson’s decision that the residual clauses of the definition of a “crime of violence” in both 18 U.S.C. §16(b) and §924(e) were unconstitutional because they were too vague.

What this means in terms of reducing sentences for federal inmates falls out of this. If a federal inmate had his sentence increased because their crime was a “violent” one, even if there was no violence, then the basis for that sentence increase is now considered unconstitutional.

In order to get this sentence increase eliminated, effectively getting a sentence reduction, involves filing a Motion to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct Sentence. Sometimes called a 2255,1 this allows a judge to correct a sentence for constitutional reasons (like the Dimaya decision here). However, there is a time limit.

The law that regulates the use of a 2255 motion sets a 1-year time limit on filing one. Four things can start this 1-year clock, but the relevant part here is that the Dimaya decision starts the clock for any inmate that can take advantage of it.

That means that any inmate who is affected by the Dimaya decision, meaning their sentence could potentially be decreased by using it, has until April 16, 2019 in order to file a motion to “Correct a Sentence” before they are no longer eligible to do so.

Contact Us To Find out How PCR Consultants Can Help

Find out how we can help by calling us for a free consultation at (480) 382-9287.

For more ways to contact us, visit our contact us page for contact form and e-mail addresses.

  1. because the statute allowing this is found in 28 U.S.C. §2255 []

28 U.S.C. 2255 Example – A Double Edged Sword

When it Works, Sometimes it Doesn’t

In our continuing exploration of 28 U.S.C. §2255 cases, the practice of federal habeas appeals never ceases to be amazing. And confusing.

Take, for instance, the case of Howard Handa.1 In this case, defendant Handa was sentenced for possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine in violation of 21 U.S.C. §841(a)(1) and use of a firearm in relation to a drug trafficking crime in violation of 18 U.S.C. §924(c).

In 1990 Bailey was sentenced for these crimes, then filed a §2255 petition after the Supreme Court made it’s landmark decision in Bailey v. United States in 1995. This case stated that simply because the defendant had access to a firearm does not necessarily mean that a gun was used during the commission of a crime.

This was the case with defendant Handa.

Note: this was 5 years after his original sentencing, which would normally be time-barred from being accepted. Except that prisoners have 1 year from any landmark (Supreme Court or Appeals Court) decision that could change the outcome of their sentences.2

Handa argued, successfully, that the gun found in his car when he was committing drug crimes was not loaded, and therefore a conviction for “Use of a firearm in relation to a drug trafficking crime” did not apply after the Bailey decision. He was right and his §924(c) was thrown out. Then things turned south for Handa.

Two Ways to Sentence

Before we go any further in this story, lets take a look at some procedure. This will be short, but important.

At the time of indictment the prosecutor had two choices of how to change Handa with his crimes.

  1. S/He could charge the drug crime only and enhance that sentence using the guidelines manual for the possession of a gun; or
  2. S/He could charge the drug crime and the gun crime separately.

The prosecutor in Handa’s case chose the second way, and therefore the judge sentenced Handa for both crimes together, as a “package deal”. The reason this matters will become obvious very soon.

Handa’s Re-sentencing

So Handa won. His §2255 was successful and the §924(c) charge for using a gun during his drug crimes was thrown out. Time for a victory dance, right? Wrong.

The government (prosecutor) then moved to have Handa re-sentenced using option #1 above, since option #2 was now not an option at all. Adding the sentence enhancement for the gun would increase Handa’s total original sentence, even with half of the number of charges at sentencing. If this sounds like the prosecutor wanting to have cake and it it too, you’re not wrong.

The district court, citing lots of Circuit precedent, said it had no authority to increase the original sentence beyond what it already had sentenced Handa to. But that victory, too, was short-lived. It it’s decision on the matter, the 9th Circuit said that the district court could re-sentence Handa because the “package deal” was now “unbundled”. Bad news for Handa, even with a victorious §2255 motion.

Takeaway: Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.

  1. United States v. Handa, 122 F.3d 690, (9th Cir. 1997) []
  2. The normal tolling limits for filing is 1 year after the latest of four events. For a full discussion of when the appropriate time to file a 2255 is, go to our main page on the subject []

Direct Appeal Issues in Federal Court – Plain Error vs. Abuse of Discretion

There are lots of issues that can be raised on direct appeal from an original sentencing hearing or trial. Too many than can be established in one blog post. Lawyers who practice in federal courts spend years litigating cases and studying law at the district level and sometimes at the appeal level. This post gets pretty technical, so read on at your own pace (risk).

Direct appeals from criminal cases can bring up evidence that should have been suppressed,1 or other actions that should have been taken legally by the district court but weren’t. For example, take the case of United States v. Fricosu (read up on the case here, here, and here). In this case, the government tried to force the defendant to give up her passwords so they could prosecute her for what was (hopefully) on her encrypted hard drives. The appeals court had to determine if this violated Fricosu’s 5th Amendment protections against self incrimination.

Aside from the many issues that are unique to a case and are argued at the lowest level of courts, there are two main places where Courts of Appeal will rule on sentences and convictions from district-level judges. These handle issues of plain error and abuse of discretion.

Plain Error

Each circuit has their own set of cases that define plain error reviews, but they all tend to revolve around a very easy, common sense definition of “plain error”. If the judge makes an obvious error, then the appeals court will send it back for correction.

A good example of this is if the judge mistakenly sentences a defendant with 4 extra points added to the offense level being sentenced. Depending on where they land on the federal sentencing table, 4 points could mean the difference of 2+ years on a sentence. Say the 4-points was for a gun used in the commission of a crime, when there were no reports or evidence of guns at all. It just got added because somebody made a clerical error.

Once that sentence was pronounced by the district judge, the only place to correct the plainly erroneous sentence would be the appeals court. If a sentence or decision is made in plain error, the matter is, if explained well, a simple correction that is dictated by the appeals court.

Abuse of Discretion

Judges at the district level have pretty wide latitude to make certain decisions. Anything from re-hearing requests, motions for dismissal of indictment are posed to district judges every day and they have to make a decision on whether or not the request has legal merit. Judges, for lack of a better phrase, just use their best judgment. When this decisions go out of bounds in a bold or subtle way, the appeals courts have the job of correcting this.

The definition of these powers are set by the Circuit itself. For the 9th Circuit, they define their abuse of discretion standard this way:

The standard, as it is currently described, grants a court of appeals power to reverse a district court’s determination of facts tried before it, and the application of those facts to law, if the court of appeals forms a “definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.” At the same time, the standard denies a court of appeals the power to reverse such a determination if the district court’s finding is “permissible.”

Because it has previously been left to us to decide, without further objective guidance, whether we have a “definite and firm conviction that mistake has been committed,” or whether a district court’s finding is “permissible,” there has been no effective limit on our power to substitute our judgment for that of the district court. United States v. Hinkson

If this sounds confusing, it usually is. However, the basis of the standard is simple. If the law allows for certain things at the judge’s discretion, anything outside of those certain things is abuse of discretion. If a district judge abuses his/her discretion on a simple matter, it can call into question the entire conviction. These arguments can be very nuanced, but can have very large impacts on the outcome of appeals.

That’s it for now, as a deeper discussion of abuse of discretion vs. plain error would get very VERY technical and boring. As if it weren’t already.

  1. Such as evidence gathered from an unlawful warrant, or testimony from an unreliable source []

2255 Motion to Vacate or Set Aside Sentence

How to file a §2255 Motion?

 

**Update**

For all questions and issues concerning the recent Supreme Court decision in Sessions v. Dimaya, and how that could reduce sentences for current federal inmates who have otherwise exceeded their 1-year window, please click here.

This is a very big question to answer, but the question that needs to be answered first is, “Can and should I file a Title 28 U.S.C. §2255 Motion?”

Again, this is a big question, but it is just as important as how to file. A motion of this type is sort of an appeal, without being a direct appeal. It is a collateral attack on the sentence of incarceration itself for constitutional issues.

First, only federal inmates can file one. The normal course of criminal cases in the federal criminal system is a direct appeal. Second, when the direct appeal didn’t work, was never filed, doesn’t have the ability to work, or simply doesn’t meet the needs of the defendant, a §2255 is the way to go.

In order to be eligible and qualified to file one of these types of appeals, a few criteria need to be met:

  1. Only federal inmates may file;
  2. Complaints cannot be made if they could have been made on direct appeal;
  3. Complaints must be an attack on the sentence itself, not issues related to confinement (such as RDAP acceptance, placement in halfway house, or holdings in Solitary/SHU);

To answer any questions you have about how to file a 2255 motion, give us a call for a free initial consultation: (480) 382-9287

Issues for Direct Appeal

For direct appeals, there are a number of issues that can be brought up. This should be discussed first, before a discussion of the issues that can be raised on 2255 filings. It’s a good way to separate the two.

For a direct appeal there are many issues that can generate a successfully filed appeal. For starters, if a sentencing judge misapplies the guidelines manual by adding or subtracting points for issues not stipulated in a plea agreement, a direct appeal is the way to go. Second, if the prosecution has withheld exonerating evidence, a direct appeal is the way to go.

Basically, mistakes in the administration of justice during an original sentencing or trial are the only issues that have merit on direct appeal. As long as the defense attorney did their job well during the original criminal penalty phase, this is usually sufficient.

IMPORTANT: Issues on direct appeal must have been raised at the district level already, but decided wrong. Appeals courts will not listen to new arguments, only ones that have been already raised at the court below them.

Issues for §2255 Motions

It is a sad fact that most federal criminal defendants cannot afford to hire adequate legal representation for themselves when charged with a federal crime. A vast majority of federal defendants are assigned a public federal defender to represent them.

Federal defenders are a amazing at their jobs, usually. However, they also have a case-load that is MUCH larger than privately hired lawyers and will often make errors or be ineffective because of it. It cannot be stressed enough that great lawyers can make big mistakes when they are overworked, and no lawyer is more overworked than a federal public defender.

With that out of the way, one of the triggers that is most often used for the basis of §2255 filings is the ineffective assistance of counsel.

**A Good Example**
One client we had in early 2017 was eligible and appropriate for a reduction in offense level points because he was a small pawn in a large criminal fraud conspiracy. A “minor role” adjustment is ready and available in the Sentencing Guidelines Manual for defendants just like him. Unfortunately, this adjustment is applied very sparingly in some districts, and liberally in others.

Our client’s lawyer did not mention or fight for this adjustment, which would have been totally appropriate and would have shaved a year or two off of his sentence. So here is where a 2255 works well, and for the following reasons:

  1. The client’s lawyer failed to argue for this adjustment at original sentence, and was therefore ineffective;
  2. The sixth amendment in the Bill of Rights guarantees effective counsel, so this issues is a constitutional one, meaning a §2255 is the right course to take;
  3. The issue could not be brought up on direct appeal because it was not raised at the original sentencing hearing; and,
  4. The issue is timely because, last year, the Sentencing Commission recognized that this adjustment was being applied unevenly between the districts and issued a clarifying amendment to encourage a more even application, triggering a “new evidence” type of claim for our client.

There are far too many issues that could trigger a §2255 to be successfully argued and accepted by the district court of sentencing, so we won’t make a big list here. However, know that anything from a sentence that goes above the statutory maximum allowed by law, or issues that should have been raised during the original prosecution by the defense counsel, but was not, are all covered under the §2255 umbrella.

To answer any questions you have about issues that can trigger a successful 2255 motion, give us a call for a free initial consultation: (480) 382-9287

How We Work

PCR Consultants is a document preparation company. We prepare solid documents that our clients can use to file for all sorts of relief in the federal criminal justice system. Anything from §2255 Motions to Requests for Early Release from Probation.

We aren’t lawyers, and we are not a law firm. That means we don’t represent our clients in court, and cannot file for them. What we do is write killer documents that will make the defendant HEARD by the district court, and include with them an application for the appointment of defense counsel.

Inmates are not guaranteed free defense attorney’s as a right during the process of a §2255, this is to protect the federal defender’s office from being inundated with work in this area. Most of these motions that are filed have little to no merit, or are dismissed for various reasons (such as the ability to raise the issue on direct appeal or no standing to argue new constitutional law in a habeas proceeding).

However, once a judge grants an evidentiary hearing on a §2255 that is found to have merit, appointment of counsel is mandatory (according to Federal Rules Governing §2255 Procedure 8(c)). Our service comes as a package deal, we write:

  1. The originating motion, supplemented with the district’s own forms (if required);
  2. A motion for an evidentiary hearing if the judge finds merit in the request;
  3. (Optional) A motion to proceed as indigent (In Forma Pauperis); and,
  4. A motion for the appointment counsel if the motion for evidentiary hearing is granted.

To answer any questions you have about how we work with clients to write a 2255 motion, give us a call for a free initial consultation: (480) 382-9287

What Happens After the Motion is Filed

After the documents are filed, we’re hands-off. Once they are filed, a chain of events will occur. It starts with the original sentencing judge, who will examine the motion for it’s merits and either dismiss the motion or order the government to file a response.

After the government responds, the defendant might want to file a rebuttal to the government’s arguments. This might be allowed under local criminal rules, or it might not. If not, the rebuttal must be submitted before the Court orders or it won’t be considered at all. Alternatively, the defendant can file a motion for leave to reply, which will give him/her more time to formulate a response.

Now is the time the judge will either grant or deny the defendant and the relief they’re seeking. In cases where facts are in dispute, the Court can grant an evidentiary hearing where, as was discussed earlier, a judge is required to appoint counsel for defendants who cannot afford one of their own.

Time Limits

Unlike direct appeals, which are required to be filed within 14 days (usually) after the pronouncement of a sentence, a §2255 Motion can be filed within a 1 year time period. That is, the defendant/inmate has to file this motion within one year of the latest of four events:

  1. The date of final judgment;
  2. The date any removal of obstacles to filing the motion by government action in violation of the constitution were removed;
  3. The date where the Supreme Court rules on a case which triggers an applicable argument to the defendant/inmate;
  4. The date where supporting facts could have been discovered through research.For clarification, in #1 above, a judgment becomes final when it is pronounced or when any direct appeal to that judgment was denied. So if the Supreme Court refuses to hear an appeal, then the date of final judgment is the date that the Supreme Court petition for hearing is denied.

To answer any questions you have about how court procedures work after filing a 2255 motion, give us a call for a free initial consultation: (480) 382-9287

One Shot

Defendants only get one shot at filing a §2255, except in rare cases where new evidence is found, or the Supreme Court makes a startling ruling that changes the process of similar cases. Many, many inmates get help from other inmates they are incarcerated with to file a motion like this. Some are very good, but most times this is a total waste of the one shot a defendant gets at filing a motion like this.

That makes the build and execution of this filing the most important part of the process. A motion down the line can be argued, can be re-written and re-submitted, but a summary dismissal due to a bad first filing can’t be easily remedied. Having help in this important process can make the difference between success and failure.

The 2016 Guidelines Manual Amendments

Today, the 2016 amendments to the United States Sentencing Commission’s Guidelines Manual go live. The topics of this year’s adjustments are:

  1. Compassionate Release from Prison;
  2. Animal Fighting;
  3. Child Pornography Circuit Conflicts;
  4. Immigration; and,
  5. Conditions of Probation and Supervised Release.

Obviously, here we’ll be focusing on the Conditions of Probation and Supervised release, with some later posts dealing with the changes in sentence structures for Animal Fighting, Immigration cases, and possibly Porn. To see the full press release on the amendments that go live today, click here.

Conditions of Federal Probation/Supervised Release

The section of the amendments list regarding the standard, mandatory, and special conditions of supervised release gets started this way:

Reason for Amendment:
This amendment is a result of the Commission’s multi-year review of sentencing practices relating to federal probation and supervised release. The amendment makes several changes to the guidelines and policy statements related to conditions of probation, §5B1.3 (Conditions of Probation), and supervised release, §5D1.3 (Conditions of Supervised Release).

When imposing a sentence of probation or a sentence of imprisonment that includes a period of supervised release, the court is required to impose certain conditions of supervision listed by statute. 18 U.S.C. §§ 3563(a) and 3583(d). Congress has also empowered courts to impose additional conditions of probation and supervised release that are reasonably related to statutory sentencing factors contained in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), so long as those conditions “involve only such deprivations of liberty or property as are reasonably necessary for the purposes indicated in 3553(a)(2).” 18 U.S.C. § 3563(b); see also 18 U.S.C. § 3583(d). Additional conditions of supervised release must also be consistent with any pertinent policy statements issued by the Commission. See 18 U.S.C. §3583(d)(3).

The Commission is directed by its organic statute to promulgate policy statements on the appropriate use of the conditions of probation and supervised release, see 28 U.S.C. § 994(a)(2)(B), and has implemented this directive in §§5B1.3 and 5D1.3. The provisions follow a parallel structure, first setting forth those conditions of supervision that are required by statute in their respective subsections (a) and (b), and then providing guidance on discretionary conditions, which are categorized as “standard” conditions, “special” conditions, and “additional” special conditions, in subsections (c), (d), and (e), respectively.

There is a deeper discussion of cases which have challenged certain restrictions that are placed on federal defendants on supervised release, which is very interesting, but too long to post here.

In essence, here are the changes that this amendment made.

  1. Court Established Payment Schedules: If the Court imposes a mandatory payment schedule for a Special Assessment, Fine, or Restitution Judgment, then that schedule is law. All this amendment really did is change the placement of Court-imposed payment schedules from the “mandatory” section to the “standard” conditions section.
  2. Sex Offenders: Ambiguity was removed from the mandatory condition of a convicted federal sex offender’s requirement to register as a sex offender in their specific state.
  3. Reporting to the Probation Officer: This, too, is simply there to relieve some ambiguity. If a defendant is released to be supervised outside  the jurisdiction of the convicting court, then they are to report to the probation officer of the local Court, then to whomever they’re directed to report to after that.
  4. Leaving the Jurisdiction: This is a good one. Standard Condition #1 is normally worded like this: “the defendant shall not leave the judicial district without the permission of the court or probation officer;” Simple, right? Sometimes, not so much. In States like California, the borders of the districts are weird. In New York, taking the subway from Manhattan to The Bronx or Queens means leaving the Southern District and traveling to the Eastern District. Fall asleep on a train? VIOLATION!
    Anyway, this amendment adds the word “knowingly” to the condition to absolve the subway sleepers and the California hikers from violating a condition of their probation if they didn’t INTEND to violate it. Problem solved.
  5. Answering Truthfully: This one has actually come up more than once with clients. Standard Condition #3 on most Judgment Orders states, “the defendant shall answer truthfully all inquiries by the probation officer and follow the instructions of the probation officer;” But what if the probation officer asks a question that an honest answer could be incriminating? Does the 5th Amendment right to remain silent protect a defendant? Yes, yes it does. It always has. However, many probation officers don’t know this. A defendant on federal probation CAN refuse to answer a question on 5th Amendment protection grounds without violating their probation, and now the guidelines acknowledge this and specify it. It also prevents a probation officer from claiming a defendant “didn’t follow directions” because of an invocation of the 5th Amendment protection against self incrimination.
  6. Residence and Employment: This section changes two things. First, for full-time employment, the Commission added that full-time employment means at least 30-hours a week. This is still able to be waived for education, disability, and other reasons at the discretion of the probation officer.Second, a change of employment or residence used to require a defendant to give 10-days notice to their probation officer prior to the change. But what happens in the event a supervised defendant gets fired? Laid off? Their house burns down??? There is now added language to require the notification of 10 days, or within 72 hours of becoming aware of the change.
  7. Visits by Probation Officer: Not much change here. The commission re-asserts that a probation officer may need to visit probationers at work or at home, sometimes without notification to ensure compliance. “The revision provides plain language notice to defendants and guidance to probation officers.”
  8. Association with Criminals: This is a big one, and is a big step backward. The condition that defendants refrain from “association” with persons who they know to be engaged in criminal activity or have been convicted of a felony. That word “association” gives some leeway. Conduct at work will often put a defendant into contact with co-workers who are known to be former felons. This amendment seems to comport with, but restrict the Soltero case below.“[C]onsistent with the fundamental presumption that “prohibited criminal acts require an element of mens rea,” Vega, 545 F.3d at 750, non-association conditions prohibit only knowing contact with persons that the supervisee knows to be felons. See id.; United States v. Soltero, 510 F.3d at 867 n. 9. We further limited the meaning of nonassociation conditions by emphasizing that “ ‘incidental contacts’ ․ do not constitute ‘association’․” Soltero, 510 F.3d at 866-67 (quoting Arciniega v. Freeman, 404 U.S. 4, 4-5 (1971) (per curiam)” U.S. v. King 09-50665 (9th Circuit 2010).
    Now the association clause changes “association” with “communicating or interacting”, but also adds the word “knowingly” into the condition to make it have a specific requirement that a defendant intended to communicate with the criminal or former felon. That way, if the pizza delivery guy is also a drug dealer, but he just delivered a pizza once to a defendant, that exchange wouldn’t violate the Association with Criminals Clause. However, when it comes to professional relationships, the coverage of “association” would seem to be gone.
  9. Arrested or Questioned by a Law Enforcement Officer: This amendment only changes which section the provision goes under and makes no changes to it.
  10. Firearms and Dangerous Weapons: This amendment, or the part that matters, defines what a “dangerous weapon” is. Some clients have complained that their probation officer has ordered them to get rid of a compound hunting bow or a cross-bow because it was considered a dangerous weapon. This amendment defines a dangerous weapon as “anything that was designed, or was modified for, the specific purpose of causing bodily injury or death to another person such as nunchakus (sic) or tasers.” Rest easy. Those compound bows and cross bows don’t seem to fall under this category, as they were designed for animal hunting, not people hunting.
  11. Acting as an Informant: Nothing new here, just a change in language to improve clarity.
  12. Duty to Notify of Risks Posed by the Defendant: This third-party risk notification requirement is usually a hurdle for most defendants in their quest for employment. Many probation officers mandate that defendants tell their employer about their criminal history. This can, and usually does, limit a defendant’s ability to obtain employment. This can spill out in other areas like e-commerce for self-employed defendants and is really sticky. The amendment gives the probation officer more authority when making a determination about this notification requirement, which sucks. This tends to manifest itself in ways that are very detrimental to a supervised defendant.
  13. Supporting Dependents: The change to this condition is minimal, but fixes some vagueness. Basically this will only be applied to the judgement orders of defendants who have dependents that need support. Right now, it’s applied to everybody and is enforced if it is needed to be.
  14. Alcohol; Controlled Substances; Frequenting Places Where Controlled Substances are Sold: Here’s some good news. These conditions have been deleted so that the “excessive use of alcohol” prohibition is now gone and will be replaced with a full prohibition if it is deemed need in specific cases. Controlled substances are already covered in mandatory conditions, and frequenting places where drugs are sold is covered in the “non-association” clause discussed above.
  15. Material Change in Economic Circumstances: In basic terms, this condition requires defendants to notify their probation officer if they get fired/laid-off from their job, or if they come into a lot of money like an inheritance. Since this only matters if the defendant has a fine or restitution outstanding, the Commission has clarified that this condition is not necessary for cases where no fines or restitution judgments exist.

That wraps up this year’s U.S.S.C. Guidelines Manual amendments for supervised release and probation terms. Some important changes, but nothing earth-shattering this year.

Prosecutorial Misconduct Taken to A Whole New Level

Orange County, CA – Its no secret that many felons, defense attorney’s, and inmates believe that the office of the prosecutor fights unfairly and plays dirty. The reality is, there isn’t much oversight to keep prosecutors from doing so. Making matters worse, there is nearly no mechanism used to punish prosecutors who do.

Charge bargaining (plea extortion), trial penalties, and Brady violations are all common forms of prosecutorial misconduct. They are very easy to suspect, but often very hard to prove.

Hard to prove, that is, until a story like this comes out. A judge in Orange County has disqualified any prosecutors from the county District Attorney’s office from participating in a specific criminal case because of rampant corruption and civil rights violations against defendants. Shaun King over at the Daily Kos exhaustively goes over the allegations and the events leading up to the disqualification of prosecutors. His piece gets started this way:

Between San Diego and Los Angeles is Orange County, California. With more than 3 million residents, it’s larger than 21 states. If Orange County were a separate country, its economy would be the 45th largest in the world. Now known for Disneyland, the county may soon be known for having one of the most corrupt justice systems in the world. The width and depth and duration of the corruption truly boggles the mind. A case that should’ve been open and shut has blown the lid off some deep secrets.

On October 12, 2011, Orange County experienced the deadliest mass killing in its modern history. Scott Dekraai killed 8 people, including his ex-wife, in a Seal Beach beauty salon. He was arrested wearing full body armor just a few blocks away. Without a doubt, Dekraai was the perpetrator. A dozen surviving witnesses saw him. He admitted to the shooting early on. Yet, nearly four years later, the case against him has all but fallen apart.

It turns out that prosecutors and police officers committed an egregious violation of Dekraai’s rights—so much so that Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals shocked everyone and removed the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, and all 250 prosecutors, from having anything more to do with the case.

The entire piece is worth a full read, and will make your blood boil.