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March 23, 2014

Seeking engagement on "offense" for sentencing purposes (with or without emphasis on "acquitted/uncharged conduct")

In this post from my main blog, titled "As a matter of law, policy and practice, what should be the 'offense' a sentencer considers?," I set out some ideas that I referenced in last Wednesday's class and that I am eager to review during our two classes this coming last full week of March. (Remember, class does not meet on 3/26; I suspect I have already conducted a make-up class with the extra minutes I have run class late some days.)

In that post (which I urge students to review), I explain why many challenging and controversial issues of modern sentencing can often relate to the consensus viewpoint that (1) offense(s) of conviction are a necessary and critical part of the "offense" to be considered at sentencing, but also that (2) at least some non-conviction, offense-related factors (such as a defendant's motive and role and the impact on victims) should also be considered sentencing.  The constitutional issues considered by the Supreme Court in Watts and the broader debate over whether sentencing guidelines should focus mostly/exclusively on the "charged" offense or the "real" offense depend to a large extent on whether concern (1) or concern (2) is considered most important at sentencing.

Usefully, an interesting and notable variation on the Watts case was decided by the DC Circuit less than 10 days ago in a multi-defendant case involving one defendant named Antwuan Ball.  I discussed the background and ruling in the Antwuan Ball case in this SL&P post titled "DC Circuit gives disconcertingly short-shrift to Antwuan Ball's many significant sentencing claims."  Here are the factual basics:

Ball put the government to its burden of proof concerning allegations of his involvement running a massive drug conspiracy in Washington DC; a very lengthy jury trial led to Ball being acquitted in November 2007 on every count of a massive racketeering, drug conspiracy and murder indictment save for one crack distribution count related to a $600, half-ounce, hand-to-hand crack-cocaine deal in 2001.

At sentencing, federal prosecutors urged the district judge to rely heavily on all sorts of alleged wrongdoing by Ball to impose a (statutory maximum) sentence of 40 years on the crack charge/conviction.  Relying on the prosecution's allegations that Ball was the leader of a huge crack conspiracy (claims which the jury concluded were not proven beyond a reasonable doubt), the district calculated Ball's guideline sentencing range to be 292 to 365 months (whereas Ball's guideline range would have been only 51 to 71 months absent consideration of "acquitted conduct").

District Judge Richard Roberts at sentencing declared that he "saw clear evidence of a drug conspiracy," and he ultimately decided to give Ball a (below-guideline-range) 225-month prison sentence for his conviction based on the 2001 hand-to-hand drug transaction. In other words, like the defendants in the Watts case that came before the US Supreme Court, Antwuan Ball's calculated guideline range and his actual sentence was significantly impacted by "real offense conduct" considered by the sentencing judge but not the basis for a conviction. But, as was likewise true for at least on of the Watts defendants, Antwuan Ball ultimately was eligible for and received a much lower sentence than he would have gotten had been convicted of all the offenses with which he had been charged. (Ball likely would have been facing a statutory mandatory LWOP if he had been convicted by the jury of being the leader of a big crack conspiracy.)

I have strong (but quite nuanced) views about what is wrong and what is not-so-wrong with how federal sentencing law now deals with defendants like Antwuan Ball, and you can become more informed and insightful than 99% of practitioners if/when you can understand why these issues are so philosophically and doctrinally challenging. And, to aid analysis, my post about the Ball case generated a pair of thoughtful posts at The Volokh Conspiracy:  Professor (and former federal sentencing judge) Paul Cassell got the ball rolling via this post titled "Should a drug dealer acquitted of running a drug ring be sentenced for running a drug ring?". And then Professor Will Baude chimed in via this post titled "The real constitutional problem with Antwuan Ball’s sentence." 

Among the reasons you might want to invest time/energy thinking through this case is because I likely will be authoring an amicus brief this coming summer in support of a cert petition if/when the lawyers for Antwuan Ball and his co-defendant decide to pursue further appeals.  I would welcome any and all student help and input now or later concerning such a project.

March 23, 2014 in Class activities, Guideline sentencing systems, Offense Conduct, SCOTUS cases of note | Permalink


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I think to feel completely comfortable with Antwuan Ball’s 18 year sentence for one crack distribution conviction you have to be so entrenched in the details of sentencing law that you bypass common sense and ignore the broader implications to our criminal justice system. From what I understand, Ball’s sentence means that a conviction’s only purpose is to set the statutory maximum sentence. The judge can then base the sentence on unrelated conduct for which the defendant was acquitted or not even charged as long as the prosecution proves it by a preponderance of the evidence.

The sentence is what ultimately matters to those involved. The number of charges and convictions are insignificant in comparison to the number of years. Antwuan Ball certainly cares only about the number of years. And presumably the public cares only about the number of years, and therefore so does the prosecutor. So how can the most important thing, the number of years in jail, be so divorced from the foundation of our criminal justice system – the prosecution’s burden to convince a jury of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt? In this case the prosecution failed to prove their case, but they got what mattered – the sentence.

Ultimately I think cases like Ball’s produce distrust and cynicism toward the criminal justice system. Why would prosecutors even bother with proof beyond a reasonable doubt if they don’t have to? In most cases there is a lesser crime that can easily secure a conviction. If I were a prosecutor and was satisfied with the maximum sentence established by that lesser crime, I would put all of my efforts toward proof by a preponderance of the evidence in sentencing. Trial and conviction by proof beyond a reasonable doubt become perfunctory steps on the way to sentencing.

We need a limitation on what judges can consider in sentencing. In Watts the Court wrote that “Sentencing enhancements do not punish a defendant for crimes of which he was not convicted, but rather increase his sentence because of the manner in which he committed the crime of his conviction.” Perhaps a good place to start would be a limitation that reflects that sentiment; the defendant is punished for the convicted offense, and other considerations in sentencing should relate only to the manner in which that offense was carried out. In Ball’s case, the conviction was for drug distribution and the sentencing judge considered the acquitted charge of drug conspiracy. The drug conspiracy charge could be considered related to the manner in which the drug distribution offense was carried out, so such a limitation might not prevent Ball’s sentence. However, it would prevent sentencing judges from considering conduct completely unconnected to the convicted offense. That would be a start.

Posted by: Lauren Brady | Mar 28, 2014 3:03:16 PM

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