Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Relevant conduct must be illegal conduct

The Sixth Circuit's ruling yesterday in United States v. Ernest Catchings, 11-6303/6305 (found here) might seem obvious: in order to be "relevant conduct" for the purposes of calculating guidelines, said conduct must "amount to an offense for which a criminal defendant could potentially be incarcerated." Mr. Catchings had been prosecuted for using former client's identifying information to obtain credit cards in their names. In calculating loss, the PSR included money charged to credit cards Mr. Catchings had associated with a business he and another person had together. Those charges pushed Mr. Catchings into a higher loss bracket.

The business partner acknowledged they had obtained the credit cards together, for the business, but said the cards were not to be used for personal expenses. While the government presented evidence of charges on the cards, it presented no evidence those charges were not actually used for business purposes. Bad business, perhaps, but not illegal conduct.

The value in this case is less its seemingly-obvious result and more the discussions involved in reaching that result. The Sixth Circuit made clear the standard of review for relevant conduct decisions: because it involves the application of law to fact, the district court's determination is reviewed de novo. The analysis of the relevant conduct claim is a good example of giving legal heft to an argument in which I'd be tempted to just say, "Well, duh!"

Another issue raised in the appeal the voluntariness of his plea and whether he should have been permitted to withdraw his guilty plea. The Sixth Circuit affirms the district court decisions, again with an excellent walk-through of how these issues should be analyzed. The plea withdrawal analysis is worth your time, or even a copy and paste to whatever folder you keep for such gems.

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