In the federal system, most people charged with non-violent offenses are released on conditions after their first appearance before a magistrate judge. Conditions of release are meant to reasonably assure the appearance of the defendant in court as required, as well as the safety of any other person or the community pursuant to 18 U.S.C. §3142(c). Conditions may be as simple as release on an unsecured appearance bond (meaning no property or money is posted); travel restricted to the continental United States; surrender of one’s passport; surrender of any firearms; and telephonic or in-person reporting to Pretrial Services. In certain serious cases, conditions of release could be very stringent, requiring home detention with electronic monitoring where the person is only allowed out of the home for pre-approved visits with their attorney or medical appointments; surrender of family members’ passports; the posting of real properties with substantial equity; and release of the defendant to third party custodians who are required to report any violations of the release conditions to the court.
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.
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.
Much has been written about Paul Manafort’s conviction at his first trial, the potential decades long sentence, and his sudden plea and cooperation deal shortly before his second trial was scheduled to begin. This sequence of events alone is unusual as most defendants decide to cooperate in an effort to reduce their potential sentence well-prior to trial. Moreover, most federal prosecutors do not want to cooperate with a defendant who has contested charges, gone to trial and lost. Most unusual, and damaging to Manafort, is his apparent violation or beach of the cooperation agreement by his alleged lies to the government.
Rick Gates, Paul Manafort’s former business partner, is the star witness in the first trial resulting from the Special Counsel’s Russia collusion investigation in federal court in Virginia. Gates pled guilty to felony charges and agreed to testify against Manafort in an effort to receive a substantially reduced sentence. The government and defense agree on one thing – the cooperating defendant/witness is guilty of financial crimes, moral misdeeds and has lied repeatedly in the past. Despite that, Gates is on the witness stand, under oath testifying as a government witness in a highly publicized trial of great public interest.