Pace Law’s Distinguished Fellow in Criminal Justice Mimi Rocah recently appeared on the “Law & Crime” network to discuss the government’s use of a cooperating witness with host Caroline Polisi. Ms. Rocah explained the process of using a cooperating witness in a federal prosecution. Although a cooperator must first plead guilty to the highest possible crime (and possibly other unrelated crimes), the incentive to cooperate in a federal investigation is significant. If the government finds that the cooperator has information against more culpable parties and they testify truthfully, the government will ask the judge to sentence the cooperator below the mandatory minimum under the sentencing guidelines. See the interview here.
Last week, in Molina-Martinez v. United States, the Supreme Court rejected a narrow interpretation of the plain error doctrine that would require a defendant sentenced under the wrong guideline range, but whose sentence would have been within the proper range, to show “additional evidence” beyond the plain error, that the error violated his substantial rights.
In Molina-Martinez, the defendant pled guilty to a crime that appeared to have a guidelines range of 77-96 months and he was sentenced to 77 months. On appeal, he argued for the first time that the District Court miscalculated his Guidelines range, which should have been 70 to 87 months. The Fifth Circuit agreed but held that the defendant could not satisfy the plain error requirement (F.R.Cr.P. Rule 52(b) – an obvious error that affects “substantial rights.”). It reasoned that a defendant whose sentence falls within what would have been the correct Guidelines range must, on appeal, produce “additional evidence” to establish beyond the mistake itself to show that the error affected his sentence. Based on earlier Fifth Circuit caselaw, if a defendant’s ultimate sentence falls within what would have been the correct guidelines range, the defendant must identify “additional evidence” to make that showing.
Most Courts of Appeals have adopted a less demanding standard under which a district court’s mistaken use off the wrong guidelines rang can itself serve as evidence of an effect on substantial rights, without more. See, e.g., United States v. Sabillon-Umana, 772 F.3d 1328, 1333 (10th Cir. 2014) (application of an erroneous Guidelines range “‘runs the risk of affecting the ultimate sentence regardless of whether the court ultimately imposes a sentence within or outside’” that range) (emphasis added); United States v. Vargem, 747 F.3d 724, 728–29 (9th Cir. 2014); United States v. Story, 503 F.3d 436, 440 (6th Cir. 2007). These courts recognize that, in most cases, when a district court uses an incorrect range, there is a reasonable probability that the defendant’s sentence would have been different without the error. The Supreme Court agreed, and rejected the “additional evidence” requirement for plain error review.
- Molina-Martinez v. United States, No. 14-8913, 2016 WL 1574581 (U.S. Apr. 20, 2016) (Court’s Official PDF).
- Molina-Martinez v. United States SCOTUS page.
- United States v. Martinez-Molina, 588 Fed. App’x 333 (5th Cir. Dec. 17, 2014).
- United States v. Sabillon-Umana, 772 F.3d 1328, 1333 (10th Cir. 2014).
- United States v. Vargem, 747 F.3d 724, 728–29 (9th Cir. 2014).
- United States v. Story, 503 F.3d 436, 440 (6th Cir. 2007).
- United States Sentencing Commission, Guidelines Manual – 2015 Version.
The adversarial system may be the best way for a society to adjudicate criminal charges to a result that will warrant public trust. But sometimes it feels like the US culture of adversarialness is just that – a pervasive method of dealing with everything that comes our way, and not simply in the courtroom. Our current political scene is certainly a reflection of that, as is the political gridlock.
A recent op-ed in the New York Times, titled President Obama’s Department of Injustice by Alec Karakatsanis, raises the question of whether our historical reliance on adversarialness – its intentional use for a good societal purpose – may have become reflexive, or unthinking, or may have simply gone too far.
On a similar topic, another example of cultural over-reaction, take a moment to view the July 26th episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, in which Mr. Oliver addresses the phenomenon of mandatory minimum sentencing and President Obama’s recent grants (and denials) of clemency to some low level offenders serving mandatory minimums. In doing so, he “explains why we treat some turkeys better than most low-level offenders.”
The United States Sentencing Commission has recently approved an amendment to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, “Drugs Minus Two,” which would reduce the sentencing guideline levels applicable to most federal drug trafficking offenses. Specifically, the amendment works to lower the base offense levels in the Drug Quantity Table prescribed under §2D1.1(c)(1) of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines Manual, which may ultimately result in a lower guideline sentencing range for many defendants sentenced under federal trafficking penalties.
The Sentencing Commission has voted to apply the amendment retroactively after determining that “setting the base offense levels above mandatory minimum penalties is no longer necessary and that a reduction would be an appropriate step toward alleviating the overcapacity of the federal prisons.” The Commission’s proposal was consistent with its obligation to formulate guidelines to “minimize the likelihood that the Federal prison population will exceed the capacity of the Federal prisons. 28 U.S.C. § 994(g).
According to the Commission, there are an “estimated 46,000 offenders that may benefit from retroactive application of Amendment 782 subject to the limitation in §1B1.10 (e), and the average sentence reduction would be approximately 18 percent.”
The Chair of the Sentencing Commission, Judge Patti B. Saris, stated that “the amendment received unanimous support from Commissioners because it is a measured approach. It reduces prison costs and populations and responds to statutory and guidelines changes since the drug guidelines were initially developed, while safeguarding public safety.”
The amendment will likely go into retroactive effect beginning November 1, 2015, unless Congress disapproves of the amendment. Congress has until November 1, 2014 to make its decision. If upheld, federal prisoners may begin to petition the courts pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3582 (C) (2) seeking a sentencing modification based upon the new guideline ranges.
- U.S. Sentencing Commission, U.S. Sentencing Commission Unanimously Votes to Allow Delayed Retroactive Reduction in Drug Trafficking Sentences, News Release (July 18, 2014).