Tuesday, August 22, 2017

No Johnson Relief for Pre-Booker Defendants

US v. Brown: Brown was convicted on drug and gun charges and sentenced as a career offender back in the pre-Booker mandatory Guideline era. One of his prior convictions was for assaulting a police officer while resisting arrest in South Carolina. After Johnson was decided in 2015, Brown filed a 2255 motion arguing that Johnson made the residual clause of the "crime of violence" definition inactive and that his assault conviction didn't otherwise require the use of force. The district court denied the motion.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the denial, 2-1. We know that after Beckles defendants sentenced after Booker came out are doomed, because the Supreme Court held that advisory Guidelines are not subject to challenge as being unconstitutionally vague. But what about pre-Booker defendants like Brown? Brown argued that Beckles didn't address that issue and that a close reading of Johnson, Booker, and Beckles shows that the Supreme Court has recognized the right he is trying to assert - to not be sentenced pursuant to a unconstitutionally vague mandatory Guideline range. The Fourth Circuit concluded that was precisely the problem - by leaving the question open, the Supreme Court has not actually recognized the right Brown needs to take advantage of. As a result, there is no new declaration of a right that restarts the 1-year limitation on filing 2255 motions. As a result, Brown's motion was untimely because it was filed well after his conviction became final in 2003.

Chief Judge Gregory dissented, arguing that a newly recognized right it not just the "four corners of that holding" in which it is announced, but "is more sensibly read to include the reasoning and principles that explain it."

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Trial Judge's Comments About Immigration Program (and the People Who Use It) Require Reversal

US v. Lefsih: Lefsih came to the United States from Algeria via the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program ("DIVP") - a program that provides chances for people from countries without a lot of immigration to the United States to qualify for a lottery and, if they win the lottery, to legally enter the United States. After five years in the United States, Lefsih sought citizenship. On an application form he answered "no" to a question about whether he had "ever been arrested, cited, or detained" by law enforcement. In truth, he had received multiple traffic citations while working as a cab driver. Lefsih claimed that he didn't think such tickets fit the definition of "arrested, cited, or detained" and didn't knowingly provide a false answer. Lefsih was charged with two counts each of making a false statement and immigration fraud and went to trial.

At trial the Government presented testimony from an immigration officer who explained how the DIVP worked. During his testimony the district court repeatedly interjected with its feelings on the program, expressing its amazement that such a thing existed: "Do you think anybody in American knows about this, other than the Committee that sent it through Congress? Probably not."; "Don't you love Congress? I mean, unbelievable, unbelievable. I'm sitting here 32 years, first time I ever heard this." The district court later asked if the witness was "talking about the hundred countries that nobody could name," which were "the bottom hundred," such as Mauritania or Moldova. The court contrasted immigration policies involving "countries that send a lot of people here" and where "you have to show you're . . . someone who is going to contributed to the well-being of the"country with those in the DIVP who "don't have to be a back surgeon or anything."  Finally, the court asked "if you get luck and win the lottery and get a card to come to America you can drag along you ten kids and four wives or what?" Lefsih didn't object to any of this and was eventually convicted on all counts. The district court dismissed the two false statement counts to avoid double jeopardy issues and imposed a sentence of time served (Lefsih was turned over to ICE custody for deportation).

The Fourth Circuit reversed Lefsih's convictions. Although the court found that Lefsih's convictions were supported by sufficient evidence, the court concluded that the district court's repeated interjections about the DIVP denied Lefsih of his right to a fair trial (even applying plain error review). The district court's interjections had the effect of "unfairly lending credibility to the government's case." That was particularly true because the comments went beyond isolated statements about DIVP itself to include criticism of the people who took advantage of the program, like Lefsih. The problem was not "the extent of the judicial participation at trial, but instead the actual content of the court's questions and comments." Lefsih was able to demonstrate prejudice because the Government's case was "substantially weaker" than the "compelling and overwhelming" evidence in similar cases. Furthermore, the district court's belated instruction to the jury that anything it says should not impact their decision was insufficient to cure the prejudice.

Court Affirms Restitution, Non-Recusal In Mortgage Fraud Case

US v. Stone: Stone ran a mortgage fraud scheme, where she "convinced financially distressed homeowners to engage her services as a real estate agent to negotiate 'short sales' with the mortgage holders on behalf of those homeowners." She would buy the properties at an artificially low price, then "flip" the houses, selling them to "predetermined buyers" for much higher prices. As a result, she was charged with numerous fraud offenses as well as conspiracy. Prior to trial she filed a pro se (and "largely unintelligible") motion for the district court to recuse itself because he "sits in consort with the accuser(s)." At a hearing on the motion, Stone (still acting pro se on this issue, although she was represented by counsel) asked if the court had stock or other interests in any of the banks involved in the mortgages. The court responded that "if there was a conflict I wouldn't be here," repeatedly, and denied the motion. Stone was found guilty by a jury on all counts. Prior to sentencing, the PSR calculated the losses of the various mortgage lenders to be just over $2.3 million. Stone objected to that figure for sentencing purposes, but not restitution, arguing that it inflated the true losses suffered and "gives the lenders and windfall the never would have realized." The district court adopted the PSR's calculation, sentenced to Stone to 60 months in prison and required her to pay the full amount in restitution.

While the appeal was pending. Stone filed a motion for a new trial, arguing that the district court should have recused himself due to "an alleged conflict of interest stemming from its ownership of stock in some of the victim banks." The court denied the motion, but did admit that it "did have a financial interest in some of the victim banks" but that still did not require recusal.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed Stone's conviction and sentence. Reviewing the amount of restitution for plain error, the court found no error at all, concluding that the "preponderance of evidence shows that Stone fraudulently induced the lenders to approve the short sales and forego the full value of the mortgages." Particularly, Stone had not presented any evidence to support her argument that the lenders wouldn't have gotten the full value of the mortgages in the regular course of business anyway. For the same reason, the court also concluded that the district court did not clearly err in calculating the loss amount for purposes of calculating the advisory Guideline range.  On the recusal, the court found that the "district court's ownership of stock in the victim lenders is not a . . . financial interest" that required recusal because "the victim lenders here are not parties to the action; this is a criminal case between Stone and the Government." Moreover, any financial interest involved is so small as to be practically nil where the $2.3 million in restitution "will have a negligible effect, if any, on the value of these lenders, each of which is worth many hundreds of millions - if not billions - of dollars."

Adam Walsh Act Has Low Standard for Hearing on Motion to Release

US v. Maclaren: In 2009 the Government declared that Maclaren was a "sexually dangerous person" and subject to indefinite detention under the Adam Walsh Act (the opinion doesn't report what his initial conviction was for, but a footnote states he is "believed to have sexually abused" over 38 children over  period of more than 40 years). In 2013, the district court found the Government had met its burden and ordered Maclaren committed. In 2015, Maclaren filed a motion seeking a hearing on whether he should be discharged pursuant to a conditional release plan. The district court denied the motion, holding that Maclaren had not shown in his motion that his condition had improved since his commitment and he had failed to provide information about a release plan.

On appeal the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court's decision, but not on the merits. Rather, the issue was what showing a person like Maclaren had to show in such a motion to get a hearing, not get release. The court agreed with Maclaren that "a successful motion for a discharge hearing need only plausibly allege that the detainee is entitled to discharge." The district court erred by treating the motion as an vehicle for reaching the substantive issue of whether Maclaren should be released, not whether he was entitled to a hearing on whether he should be released.

Congrats to the Defender office in the ED North Carolina on the win!