Thursday, April 24, 2014

False distress signal = $489,000

Not much happening this week (so far) in the Sixth, so thought I would share this nugget with you.  Yesterday, the Court upheld the sentence in the case of United States v. Kumar. 13-3970  

Kumar was a 19 year old student at Bowling Green University who was studying aviation technology.  He dreamed of becoming a pilot for the Coast Guard after his graduation.  As part of his training, he was ordered to fly from an airport in Bowling Green, Ohio to Cleveland in back.  On the way back, flying over Lake Erie, he thought he saw a flare from a boat, and radioed it in.  He was then instructed by the airport to fly in for a closer look - he did not see a boat or anything, but he was fearful that he would be accused of "sounding stupid", so he told the airport that he saw a 25 foot boat with persons in life vests, with a strobe light activated.

This understandably prompted a response by more than the cavalry.  The United States Coast Guard and the Canadian Armed Forces spent the next 24 hours searching for the fictitious boat.  A month after the search,  Kumar admitted he had lied.  The United States subsequently prosecuted him for a Class D felony "making a false distress call".

Kumar of course plead guilty.  But his punishment was far from light.  He was sentenced to 3 months incarceration, and 3 years supervised release.  But possibly even more importantly, Kumar was ordered to pay restitution to the United States and Canada for all of their expenses for the entire operation - $489,007.70

On appeal, Kumar challenged the imposition of the entire cost of the vessels, manpower, etc. for the time period.  He also challenged the court's authority to impose restitution for a foreign entity (Canadian Armed Forces).  The Sixth Circuit affirmed, finding that "all costs incurred as a result", as outlined in the statute, was broad enough to include all expenses and costs.

The precedential value of this decision is minimal, as there will not be too many cases handled for this type of offense.  But it is worth noting the facts - a 19 year old kid panicked, made a mistake, and will now pay the rest of his life for it.  He has what amounts to a $500,000 house payment, he has a felony conviction, and he has served 3 months in prison - all because he did not want to seem stupid.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

April 14 through 18, a busy week for the Sixth Circuit

Compared to most weeks, the 6th Circuit was very active this past week. There were five published cases, which appear to be noteworthy. I will provide a brief synopsis of all five.

1) Teresa Prewett v. Stanley Weems, Case No. 12-6489.

The defendant pled guilty to child pornography production offenses, and later the victim filed a civil against him for damages pursuant to 18 USC 2255(a). The allegation was that Weems produced 7 videos, and alleged each video entitled the victim to $150,000 of compensation. The question before the court was whether the victim could seek $150,000 for each individual video (totaling over $1 million), or for the entire criminal offense (a total of $150,000). Because the victim did not bring separate suits for each individual video and the suit arose out of a single “unbroken chain of events,” the victim was only entitled to one single cause of action for all 7 videos, and the total amount recoverable was $150,000.

2) United States v. Barbour, Case No. 13-5653.

This case concerned the Armed Career Criminal Act and how to define predicate offenses of crimes of violence. At issue was the defendant’s prior state conviction of two aggravated robberies. At the state level, both aggravated robberies were indicted in a single count. Ten years later, he was indicted for a federal firearms offense. The federal court found the two aggravated robberies each counted as a single predicate crime of violence for the purposes of the ACCA, resulting a 15 year mandatory minimum sentence under 18 USC 924(e). On appeal, the defendant challenged this, arguing that the robberies could not be separated. The 6th Circuit agreed with the defendant and vacated the sentence.

The opinion provides a good overview of the 6th Circuit’s stance on how to define separate offenses in the context of 924(e). Offenses can be separately counted if: 1) it is possible to discern the point at which the first offense is completed, and the subsequent point at
which the second offense begins, 2) it would have been possible for the offender to cease his criminal conduct after the first offense, and withdraw without committing the second offense, or 3) the offenses are committed in different residences or business locations. Page 5 of opinion. The court also made clear that the burden to prove whether the offenses were separate was on the government. Concluding the evidence before the district court was not clear as to when one robbery ended and the other began, the court vacated the sentence.

3) Gunner v. Welch, No. 13-3996

This was an appeal of the denial of a 2254 habeas corpus petition. The petitioner was convicted of drug trafficking and given a ten year sentence. The evidence showed that prior to trial, the prosecution offered a plea bargain to his counsel, but the petitioner claims he encouraged him to go to trial. He was convicted, given ten years, and appealed.

On appeal, his appellate counsel failed to inform him of his post-conviction rights, and specifically the fact that he had only a 180-day limit to file a post-conviction petition. As a result, the petitioner missed his post-conviction filing deadline. Petitioner filed a 2254 petition raising ineffective assistance of appellate counsel. The district court denied.

The 6th Circuit reversed finding that appellate counsel's failure to advise the defendant about his post-conviction rights, and the 180-day time limit, amounted to ineffective assistance of appellate counsel. The court's opinion is unique, and gets its Agency law issues, but ultimately reverses and remands. There is a discussion of Martinez v. Ryan claims (on ineffective assistance of post-conviction counsel) as well. This case is interesting in evaluating the duties of appellate counsel, which include the right to inform a defendant of their post-conviction rights and deadlines as well.

4) United States v. Bryon Taylor, Case No. 12-3730

This is my case, so I will try to tether my editorializing, but probably won’t. Mr. Taylor was convicted in 2004 of crack cocaine offenses. His offense subjected him to a 120-month mandatory minimum, but the government filed an enhancement, setting him mandatory minimum at 240 months. He was able to pierce the mandatory minimum due to 5K, and got a sentence of 151 months.
After the retroactive crack cocaine amendments, a 3582 sentence reduction motion was filed, alleging his guideline range had been lowered 2 levels and that he was eligible for a reduction to 130 months.
The district court denied, and the 6th Circuit affirmed. Judge Boggs wrote the opinion, but Judge Donald wrote a dissent. Judge Boggs concluded that under USSG 1B1.10, which discusses eligibility requirements for reduction, prevented relief. The key term is whether a defendant’s “applicable guideline range” has been lowered. The majority concluded that under USSG 1B1.10, 1B1.1, and 5G1.1, all make clear that if the defendant was subject to a statutory mandatory minimum, then that mandatory minimum IS the applicable guideline range. Essentially, the 5K departure has no bearing on the reduction analysis, and as the Court says “the helpful defendant has bottomed out” at the mandatory minimum. This holding is consistent with another one of my appeals, United States v. Joiner.

Judge Donald’s dissent essentially argues that the statutory mandatory minimum becomes “inoperative” when the defendant cooperates and pierces the mandatory minimum. Because it is inoperative, it cannot act continue to act as a floor for 3582 eligibility. This is consistent with the holdings of the 7th Circuit (US v. Wren), 3rd Circuit (US v. Savani) and DC Circuit (In re Sealed Case).

A petition for rehearing will be filed, but one thing should be made clear. This appeal, and many like it, concern on the definition of “applicable guideline range” found in USSG 1B1.10. The majority, and the corresponding similar appeals, all conclude that the mandatory minimum = the applicable guideline range, regardless of any subsequent departures or 5K grants. BUT, the Sentencing Commission, days before the issuance of this appeal, issued new sentencing guideline amendments. Specifically, the Commission changed 1B1.10, to add the following language:

If the case involves a statutorily required minimum sentence and the court had the authority to impose a sentence below the statutorily required minimum sentence pursuant to a government motion to reflect the defendant's substantial assistance to authorities, then for purposes of this policy statement the amended guideline range shall be determined without regard to the operation of §5G1.1 and §5G1.2.

So, this new amendment, which takes effect on November 1, 2014, essentially adopts Judge Donald’s position (and my position). In total, a cooperating defendant will not be hampered by their pierced mandatory minimum in seeking a sentence reduction. More to come.......

5) United States v. Kilgore, No. 13-5623

Defendant was sentenced to 70 months for being a felon in possession of a firearm. While performing community service at a police station, he stole two firearms from the evidence room. At sentencing, he was given a 2-level enhancement for “stealing” the firearms (2K2.1(b)(4)). He was also given a 4-level enhancement under 2K2.1(b)(6)(B), for possessing the firearm in connection “with another felony offense.” He challenged the 4-level enhancement, stating the stealing of the firearms was not an other felony offense. The Sixth Circuit agreed, finding the act of stealing the firearms could not amount to another felony offense is connection with the illegal possession of the same firearms. His sentence was reversed and the case was remanded.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Policy and Perjury and Leadership, oh my!

Last week, the Sixth Circuit ruled in United States v. Kamper and Head, 12-5167 and 12-5800. The cases concerned an MDMA distribution conspiracy. Kamper was the "administrator" of the conspiracy and Head, a chemist, was "in charge of manufacturing." The conspiracy was Kamper's idea and he provided the start up funds. Head had access to chemicals and knew how to make the drug. Other co-conspirators were involved.

Policy disagreements
Kamper pled guilty. He argued at sentencing (well, pre-sentencing and at sentencing) that the MDMA-to-marijuana ratio in the guidelines was based on discredited science. He asked the district court to select a new ratio, or to vary from the Guidelines. The district court concluded "that the Sentencing Commission is in a better position than this Court to take into account all of the various value judgments involved in adopting a particular guideline." The district court provided other rationales as to why it could not reject the ratio established in the Guidelines.

The Sixth Circuit ruled the district court was wrong. It ruled "district judges may exercise their discretion to reject Guidelines ratios because of policy disagreements in all aspects of the Guidelines." It clarified its ruling in Bistline: "the courts have the authority to reject the Guidelines range selected by Congress," provided they articulate their refutation of the particular Guideline. Most of all, "The district court must not rely on the Guidelines for reasons that Kimbrough rejected, such as institutional competence, deference to Congress, or the risk that other judges will set different ratios."

The Sixth decided the district court was wrong, but had otherwise sufficiently justified Kamper's sentence as to not warrant remanding for a new sentencing hearing.

Head went to trial. He testified on his own behalf and "flatly stated that he had never produced MDMA." He had "no idea" how the stuff was made. The jury convicted him, and his presentence report recommended a two-level obstruction-of-justice enhancement for the perjury. The district court applied the enhancement, over Head's objection.

The Sixth Circuit reversed this decision. District courts must go through a two-part evaluation: (1) identify the portions of the testimony that are perjurious, and (2) make a specific finding for each element of perjury. Perjury, in turn, has three elements: (1) false statement under oath (2) concerning a material matter (3) with the willful intent to provide false testimony. The district court ruled the statements were false, but failed to make factual findings about the other two elements of perjury: materiality of the matter or Head's intent.

Head also objected to the three-point bump for being a manager or supervisor of the conspiracy. The district court ruled the enhancement applied because each of the three co-conspirators was "jointly the manager or supervisor of the entire operation."

The Sixth Circuit reversed. To qualify for the enhancement, a defendants "must have managed or supervised one or more other participants and not merely the criminal scheme." So the district court misapplied the law when it ruled the three co-defendants were "jointly the manager or supervisor of the entire operation." The Sixth Circuit acknowledged "the record arguably demonstrates that Head was responsible for directing other individuals in menial tasks" but asserted the district court erred when it did not make a factual finding that Head managed or supervised other individuals involved in the conspiracy.