Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Variance 480% Greater than Guidelines Unreasonable

US v. Tucker: Tucker pleaded guilty to bank fraud based on the follow scheme:
The Melloul-Blamey Construction Company in Greenville, South Carolina hired Tucker as office manager in October 2000. She began embezzling funds beginning in June 2002, by setting up a company called Hummingbird Marketing, of which she was sole proprietor, and using it as a "dummy vendor." (J.A. at 56.) She would request that a company official at Melloul-Blamey write checks to Bank of America for the purpose of purchasing cashier checks to pay vendors. She then took the company checks to Bank of America, where she exchanged them for certified checks made out to her, to cash, or to Hummingbird Marketing and not to legitimate vendors. Tucker then used the money to pay her personal credit card bills and to make restitution payments to the United States Clerk of Court for two previous fraud convictions.
(emphasis added). Tucker's Guideline range was 24 to 30 months. At sentencing, she argued for a sentence within that range, noting a history of depression that was reflected in the PSR. However, the district court concluded that a sentence in the Guideline range was insufficient to protect the public from further crimes by Tucker because she was a "dedicated embezzler and thief." The court calculated, without showing its work, an underrepresenation of criminal history departure to achieve a Guideline sentence of 60 months, but concluded that was insufficient. The district court finally imposed an upward variance of 144 months in prison.

Tucker appealed the scope of the district court's variance, but did not contest that some variance in her case was appropriate. The Fourth Circuit agreed, and vacated Tucker's sentence. The court initially rejected Tucker's argument that the district court focussed on one of the 18 USC 2553(a) factors - the need to protect the public - to the exclusion of all others, noting that giving one factor greater weight does not necessarily entail disregarding the others. The court then concluded that the district court failed to adequately supports its basis for a 144-month sentence. The court noted that the variance in this case was greater in length and in terms of deviation from the Guidelines than in Davenport and that the district court failed to adequately explain why such a great variance was required (it provided no reason why, for instance, the 60-month sentence it mentioned was not sufficient). Finally, several of the factors noted by the district court were already taken into account by the Guidelines.

Tucker's sentence was vacated and the case remanded for resentencing.

Congrats to the South Carolina FPD office on the win!

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Apparent Authority Saves Search of Password-Protected Files

US v. Buckner: Buckner pleaded guilty to multiple wire and mail fraud charges. The evidence of the fraud was discovered by a search of the computer hard drive in Buckner's home, which he shared with his wife. The fraud, stemming from illicit eBay activities, was originally thought to be committed by the wife (the wife's name was on the eBay accounts). She knew nothing about any eBay transactions and admitted that, although the computer was leased in her name, she only used it to play solitaire. When police came to talk to the wife, she volunteered the computer to be searched. That is when Buckner's fraud was uncovered.

Buckner moved to suppress the evidence recovered during the search of the computer's hard drive. He argued that because his files were password protected and his wife could not access them, she could not consent to a search of those files. The Government argued that none of the officers performing the hard drive search knew of the password and there was no need to bypass/defeat it to access the files. The district court denied Buckner's motion and Buckner entered a conditional guilty plea.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed Buckner's conviction. The court did hold that the wife lacked actual authority to consent to a search of Buckner's password protected files. However, the court concluded that she had apparent authority, particularly because the computer was leased in the wife's name only and the initial reports of fraud contained her name, not Buckner's.

Gang Affiliation Merits Upward Variance

US v. Hernandez-Villaneuva: Hernandez-Villaneuva was convicted of illegal reentry. His Guideline sentence was 0-6 months. The Government argued for an upward variance on grounds that when he returned to the United States Hernandez-Villaneuva associated with a violent Salvadoran street gang, even though there was no evidence that he participated in any illegal activity. The district court imposed a sentence of 18 months in prison, based largely on the gang relationship and the court's conviction that Hernandez-Villaneuva, a former gang member, "has not yet developed or demonstrated a maturity, a backbone, a character to turn things around."

Hernandez-Villaneuva appealed his sentence, which the Fourth Circuit affirmed. The court held that both the need for a variance and the scope of the variance was reasonable, due to the failure of the Guidelines to adequately consider Hernandez-Villaneuva's gang ties.

Highway Star

US v. Hill: The issue in this case was:

whether the stretch of Nider Boulevard between Shore Drive and Gate 4 of the United States Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek, located in Virginia Beach, Virginia, constituted a "highway" under Virginia law on August 10, 2004, the date of the charged conduct in this case.
It is, which required the court to affirm Hill's traffic offense under the Assimilative Crimes Act. The court based its conclusion on the fact that the roadway in question was open to the public and not limited to Naval personnel.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

3553(a) Doesn't Require Low End of Guideline Sentence; Court Can't Order Sentence to Run Consecutively to Future Sentences

US v. Smith: Smith pleaded guilty to five counts of bank robbery. After an upward departure, his Guideline sentencing range was 151 to 188 months. The district court sentenced him to 180 months in prison, to be served consecutively to "any other sentence imposed in any other case, or on any other probation revocation or whatever." At the time, Smith had a pending supervised release revocation proceeding in another district. On appeal, Smith raised to objections to his sentence, one of which the Fourth rejected, the other the court accepted and vacated Smith's sentence.

Smith's first objection was that he should have been sentenced to the bottom of the Guideline range - 151 months - because it was "sufficient, but not greater than necessary" to achieve the goals of sentencing. Smith argued that if sentences within the Guideline range are presumptively mandatory because the Guidelines incorporate the 3553(a) factors and 3553(a) requires the court to impose the least harsh sentence possible to achieve those goals, than the harshest sentence that can be imposed is the low end of the Guideline range. The court, while noted that this argument was "clever, [but] has no merit." The Fourth explained that:
rests on a logical fallacy: the fact that a sentence at the lowest end of the guidelines range could be reasonable if the sentencing judge concluded it was sufficient does not mean that the sentencing judge must conclude that it is sufficient. It is the sentencing judge who must initially determine what is sufficient. To hold that the lowest sentence in an applicable guidelines range is always sufficient would rob § 3553(a) of its force.
Smith's second objection was that the district court exceeded its authority by ordering his sentence to be served consecutively to future sentences not yet imposed. Reviewing 18 USC 3584, the Fourth agreed, noting that the statutory language clearly allowed the district court to impose consecutive sentences only where it was imposing multiple sentences at the same time or where the defendant was already subject to an incomplete term of incarceration. The court rejected the Government's argument that the 3584(a) presumption that sentences imposed at different times run consecutively trumps the rest of the statute, holding that such a reading would ignore the limitations already noted and would effectively abrogate the sentencing authority of one federal judge (the one imposing a sentence in the future) in favor of another.

Smith's sentence was vacated and his case remanded for resentencing.