Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Prior offenses impact grading of supervised release violations

US v. Wynn:  Anthony Wynn began a 5-year term of supervised release upon completion of the imprisonment portion of a 150-month drug trafficking sentence.  His PO filed a petition for revocation of Wynn’s supervised release after Wynn tested positive for marijuana use 6 times, as well as other allegations, e.g., driving without a license, operating an uninsured vehicle, and tinted windows, failing to submit monthly reports, failure to complete substance abuse treatment, and failing to timely advise his PO of a new arrest.  Wynn admitted his violation conduct; the district court found that Wynn had violated his supervised release, and revoked him.

Wynn’s PO calculated a term of imprisonment based on Wynn’s prior drug convictions.  Even though his marijuana charges would have been grade C violations absent any consideration of Wynn’s criminal history, the PO counted the violations as grade B violations under a recidivist enhancement.  Wynn had prior convictions in state court for possession of heroin, possession with intent to deliver heroin, possession of marijuana, and possession of heroin, and possession of cocaine and marijuana, dating from 1994 through 2002.  The district court held that Wynn’s recidivism directly affected the grade of his violations; Wynn challenged the procedural calculations of his revocation sentence on appeal.

The question on appeal was whether the court properly applied a statutory enhancement in calculating the applicable policy statement range, whether Wynn’s conduct of possessing marijuana was a grade B or C violation under the policy statements.  The difference between these two violations is the length of the term of imprisonment the offense may by punishable by:  grade C violations call for one year or less; grade B violations call for term exceeding one year.  Application Note 1 to USSG §7B1.1, according to the panel here, allows the “district court to consider not only conduct for which a defendant is prosecuted in a criminal case, but all of a defendant’s conduct,” whether or not the defendant has been prosecuted for it.  The commentary, the panel found, suggests that district courts should consider all conduct that affects the maximum penalties for a violation of supervised release.  The Fourth Circuit upheld the determination that this defendant’s possession of marijuana during his supervised release constituted grade B, not grade C, violations.

Simmons does not shield defendant from 12-level enhancement

US v. Bercian-Flores:  In this appeal, Jose Bercian-Flores challenged the sentencing enhancement he received in his illegal re-entry case, a 12-level bump based upon his prior 1997 conviction for unlawfully transporting aliens.  Bercian-Flores argued on appeal that Simmons shielded him from this enhancement, as his guidelines range for his 1997 conviction (when the guidelines were mandatory) was zero to 6 months; the Fourth Circuit found, however, that since the sentencing judge in 1997 had the discretion to sentence Bercian-Flores for up to five years then, the enhancement here was not an error.  The Fourth Circuit affirmed the sentence.

Bercian-Flores emphasized that he was not punished for more than a year for his 1997 conviction, and the guidelines prescribe a 12-level enhancement for illegal re-entry defendants when such an individual has a prior felony conviction for smuggling other aliens “punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year.”  U.S.S.G. §2L1.2.  What’s more, the judge who sentenced Bercian-Flores in 1997 had found no aggravating factors, and no factual findings that warranted an upward departure beyond zero to six months.  The Fourth Circuit disagreed, finding that the top sentence in a guidelines range is not the maximum term of imprisonment, as determined by the Supreme Court.  The statutory maximum sentence as set by Congress controls whether Bercian-Flores’ prior convictions counts as a predicate felony for sentencing enhancement here, not the top sentence in his guidelines range.

Pretrial motions improperly reduced government's ability to put on case

US v. Bajoghli:  In this interlocutory appeal, the Fourth Circuit analyzed the propriety of a district court’s decisions on certain pretrial motions.  The Fourth Circuit panel reversed and remanded, and found that the evidence the defendant attempted to strike or exclude was relevant to the government’s ability to prove its case, and it was an abuse of the district court’s discretion to “unduly restrict the latitude reasonably necessary for the government to carry its burden of proof.”

Bajoghli stands accused of healthcare fraud.  The government has alleged that over a three-and-one-half-year period, Bajoghli, a dermatologist, orchestrated a scheme of falsely diagnosing patients with cancer, and performing unnecessary procedures on his unsuspecting patients.  Bajoghli would also direct “unqualified” medical assistants to perform a variety of procedures without supervision, but he would bill healthcare benefits programs as if he, himself, had performed them, billing the programs at a higher rate.

The government argued in its appeal that in order to prove a healthcare fraud scheme existed, it must be able to prove the “entire scheme,” with evidence that may not be directly related to the 53 charges, yet was relevant to proving the scheme.  The district court had ruled that evidence presented at trial must relate to one of the 53 instances of fraud named in the indictment, and Bajoghli argued that evidence of uncharged conduct would only be “loosely relevant” to the charged offenses and should be excluded under Rule 403 as unfairly prejudicial as well as under Rule 404(b)’s notice requirement, as “other acts” evidence.  The Fourth Circuit found that evidence of the entire scheme is relevant to proving the 53 charged acts, in proving the “boundaries” of the scheme.  Additionally, the Fourth Circuit found that since evidence of conduct not charged in a specific execution may be relevant to the healthcare fraud scheme, Rule 404(b) does not regulate it as “other bad acts.”

The district court ruled that post-scheme conduct should be excluded as “prior bad acts evidence” governed by 404(b), for which the government failed to provide adequate notice to Bajoghli.  The district court also excluded this evidence under Rule 403.  In his appeal, Bajoghli argued that Rule 404(b) does apply to this evidence because it would not be “intrinsic” to any of the charged executions of healthcare fraud.  However, the Fourth Circuit agreed with the government that this evidence was probative of Bajoghli’s knowledge and intent, which are elements of healthcare fraud, and since Rule 404(b) does not apply to conduct that is “intrinsic” to the charged crime, it was an error for the district court to use it as a basis for the exclusion of this evidence.  The district court further misapplied Rule 403 here, according to the panel, because it reflects a misunderstanding of what constitutes unfair prejudice, i.e., evidence that would “lure the factfinder into declaring guilt on a ground different from proof specific to the offense charged.” [Emphasis in original].

Lastly, with respect to the financial gain Bajoghli allegedly earned by charging his healthcare benefits providers for work that Bajoghli allegedly sent off to outside contractors (who completed the work at a fraction of what Bajoghli purportedly received), the Fourth Circuit and the government concurred again, in that this evidence of financial gain was probative of intent to defraud.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

District Court's Advocacy of Plea Bargain Requires Vacation of Plea

US v. Braxton: Braxton was charged with possession with intent to distribute more than 1 kilogram of heroin. His attorney advised him during plea negotiations that, if he went to trial, the Government could file an information increasing his mandatory minimum sentence if convicted from 10 to 20 years. Braxton at first requested a new attorney, but later withdrew the request. He insisted on going to trial, however, before which the Government filed the information.

On the day of trial, the court memorialized the last plea offer that Braxton rejected (he would admit he possessed the heroin, but he wanted to put the Government to its proof) - the Government would withdraw the information and argue for a sentence of 15 years. Braxton again asked for new counsel or, in the alternative, to represent himself. Both of those requests were denied. Wading into the dispute between Braxton and his attorney, the district court expressed reluctance at letting Braxton go to trial, said Braxton was "hurting [his] own interest," and compared his decision to "put[ting] [your] head in a buzz saw that makes absolutely no sense." After a couple of breaks in the proceedings, Braxton changed his mind and agreed to plead guilty. Braxton said he didn't feel coerced or pressured into pleading, although the district court had expressed its concern that he was "unwisely proceeding to trial before a jury." Braxton unsuccessful tried to withdraw his plea and was sentenced to 138 months in prison.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit vacated Braxton's conviction. Relying on last year's decision in Sanya, the court concluded that the district court had improperly participated in plea negotiations in violation of Rule 11 of the Rules of Criminal Procedure. As in Sanya, the court's "commentary was extensive and persistent, and continued unabated" through the day of trial. In addition, Braxton's change of heart came after one of the district court's more pointed bits of commentary (opining that he "shouldn't put his head in a vice and face a catastrophic result"). The error was plain, affected Braxton's substantial rights, and had to be noticed. It was irrelevant that Braxton said, at the time, that he was entering the guilty plea voluntarily. The court also rejected the Government's argument that the district court was drawn into the issue by Braxton's request to represent himself, noting that issue was resolved before the district court really got going on why he should enter a guilty plea.

Erroneous Career Offender Calculation Cannot Be Corrected in 2255 Proceeding

US v. Foote: Recall last year when the Fourth Circuit, in Whiteside, first concluded that an incorrect career offender calculation due to a Simmons error could be remedied in a 2255 proceeding and then, en banc, concluded that it could not. The issue in Whiteside specifically was the technical 2255 issue of whether the motion in that case (filed within a year of Simmons being decided) was timely. Thus, Whiteside didn't technically address the central substantive issue of whether an erroneous career offender designation could be remedied in a 2255 proceeding. Foote takes that issue head on and, unsurprisingly, comes to a similar conclusion.

Foote pleaded guilty to distributing crack. He was classified as a career offender based, in part, on a pair of prior North Carolina drug convictions that, under Fourth Circuit precedent at the time, carried a potential maximum sentence of more than one year in prison. He challenged the career offender determination on appeal (unsuccessfully) and then in a timely 2255 motion. Simmons was decided while Foote's 2255 motion was pending, showing that his priors were not felonies (because he was not subject to a maximum sentence of more than one year) and he was not, therefore, a career offender. The district court denied the motion, but granted a Certificate of Appealability on the issue of whether the error could be remedied in a 2255 proceeding.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit concluded that it could not and affirmed the denial of the 2255 motion. Noting that a sentencing error (that does not impact constitutional or jurisdictional claims) can only be remedied in a 2255 proceeding if the error is "a fundamental defect which inherently results in a complete miscarriage of justice," the court concluded that "sentencing a defendant pursuant to advisory Guidelines based on a career offender status that is later invalidated does not meet this remarkably high bar." The court noted that, in general, Guideline errors are not subject to 2255 review in the Fourth Circuit. It also recognized that other circuits had drawn a distinction between career offender errors under a mandatory system (2255 applies) and advisory system (2255 doesn't apply). The court rejected Foote's attempt to stretch the Supreme Court's "actual innocence" cases to include sentencing errors (much less advisory Guideline calculation errors). In conclusion, the court expressed "frustration" at the result (pointing out that Foote had done everything correctly in order to challenge his sentence), but that "the guidance of the Supreme Court and Congress is clear" and it "ties our hands."