I previously wrote about the ever-declining number of federal criminal trials due to the trial penalty: the additional months or even years added to a sentence after a conviction at trial, as compared to resolving the case by a plea agreement. This article focuses on another factor contributing to the trial penalty: punishment based upon acquitted conduct.
Whether you are being sentenced in federal or state court, it is critically important to carefully plan what you are going to say to the judge, both in written submissions and orally, before the sentence is imposed. Acceptance of responsibility and true remorse are key factors judges consider when imposing a sentence.
A recent article about a federal sentencing in Florida is a perfect example. A judge in the Southern District of Florida changed her mind and imposed a more severe sentence after listening to the defendant speak. The case involved a low-income housing fraud scheme. The defendant claimed contrition and responsibility, but immediately thereafter stated he did not act with fraudulent intent and never received a single complaint of underpaying a worker. Nearly a full year was added to his sentence as a consequence. His statement, according to the judge, was a far cry from any acceptance of responsibility she had heard in 30 years on the bench. The judge also remarked that she didn’t know who the defendant made the statement for, but suspected it was for members in attendance and their perception of him as a CEO of his construction firm.
We receive many calls over the course of the year from potential clients, telling us they received a “target letter” from the U.S. Attorney’s Office or State Attorney General’s Office and that they are considering whether to go to an interview with law enforcement under a “proffer agreement.”
Recent statistics show that about 96% of the criminal cases in federal court are resolved through guilty pleas. The number of cases going to trial has dramatically decreased in the past ten years. Thus, today’s criminal defense attorneys must be adept at negotiating the best possible resolution for their clients that choose to plead guilty.
Anyone facing a federal sentencing knows how difficult and daunting the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines can be for many types of crimes. For financial crimes, the amount of loss, number of victims, complexity of the scheme and the like can quickly ratchet someone with no prior offenses into the 10+ year range. With a system that does not allow for early release on parole, like most states, and that credits a defendant with only 54 days a year good time credit, sentencing in the federal system can be particularly harsh.
After more than two years of careful research and deliberation, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) released The Trial Penalty: The Sixth Amendment Right to Trial on the Verge of Extinction and How to Save It. The “trial penalty” refers to the substantial difference between the sentence offered prior to trial versus the sentence a defendant receives after a conviction at trial. This penalty is now so severe and pervasive that it has virtually eliminated the constitutional right to a trial. The report notes that to avoid the trial penalty, defendants must surrender fundamental rights which are essential to a fair justice system. The release of this report has garnered support from leading criminal justice reform entities, all of which agree that the incursion on the right to a trial poses a clear threat to justice.
I’ve posted before about the line of case following United States v. Trujllo-Alvarez, 900 F. Supp. 2d 1167 (D.Or. 2012), which held that ICE could not detain and attempt to remove a non-citizen defendant charged with the federal crime of illegal re-entry, once the defendant has been released under the Bail Reform Act. Trujillo and its progeny affirm that when the Executive Branch decides that it will defer removal and deportation in favor of first proceeding with a federal criminal prosecution, it is obligated to follow all applicable laws governing such prosecution, including, of course, the Bail Reform Act. Once the Secretary of Homeland Security opts for prosecution over deportation, and invokes the jurisdiction of the district court, that court has priority, and administrative deportation proceedings stall until and unless the criminal prosecution concludes or is dismissed. United States v. Blas, Crim. Action No. 13-378, 2013 WL 5317228, at *3 (S.D. Ala. Sept. 20, 2013). In United States v. Galitsa, 17 Cr. 324 (VEC), Judge Caproni followed the Trujillo-Alvarez reasoning, as did Judge Irizzary in United States v. Rosario Ventura, 17-cr-418, in the Eastern District of New York, holding that the Government must either release the defendant under the bond conditions set in the matter and proceed with prosecution, or dismiss the indictment and proceed with removal.
Press reports of late have revealed that former Army Lieutenant-General and National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and former Trump Foreign Policy Advisor George Papadopoulos pled guilty to making false statements to government agents. Federal statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1001, prohibits a person “in any matter within the jurisdiction of the executive, legislative, or judicial branch” of the federal government from “knowingly and willfully” (1) falsifying, concealing or covering up “by any trick, scheme, or device a material fact;” (2) making any materially “false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation;” or (3) making or using “any false writing or document knowing the same to contain any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or entry …”.
Just the other day, "Bridgegate" cooperator and former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey official David Wildstein, was sentenced in federal court to probation. The two defendants that he cooperated against were sentenced to 24 months and 19 months in federal prison. Despite the fact that Wildstein pled guilty to two counts of conspiracy for his role in the offense, and faced several years in prison, the sentencing judge granted the government’s downward departure motion for a much more lenient sentence – in this case probation.
A plea agreement is the negotiated resolution of a criminal case between the government and the defense when the client decides to plead guilty rather than fighting the charges at trial. The benefit of a plea agreement is that the plea is usually to a lower offense or a limited number of charges rather than to the most severe charge(s). In most instances, a defendant is rewarded in some fashion for pleading guilty rather than going to trial.