News You Can Use: Tenth Circuit reaffirms that restitution must be based on the offense of conviction, not relevant conduct.

The Mandatory Victim Restitution Act authorizes restitution only for the loss caused by the specific conduct that is the basis of the offense of conviction.  United States v. Mendenhall, 945 F.3d 1264 (10th Cir. 2019).

Restitution can be an afterthought at sentencing.  The parties are, understandably, far more concerned with incarceration.  However, appropriately limiting restitution is important because a large restitution order can follow a client for 20 years and make it difficult for them to get back on their feet, and stay there.  See 18 U.S.C. § 3613.

As the Tenth Circuit has recognized, “The most important thing at sentencing is determining whether the defendant will be incarcerated and, if so, for how long. Other matters, such as restitution and conditions of supervised release, are, appropriately, of secondary concern. But they are not inconsequential and deserve focused attention.” United States v. Martinez-Torres, 795 F.3d 1233, 1234 (10th Cir. 2015)

Recently, in United States v. Mendenhall, the Tenth Circuit reiterated a fundamental aspect of restitution under the Mandatory Victim Restitution Act (MVRA): a district court can order restitution only to a victim of an offense of conviction, and “only for loss caused by the specific conduct that is the basis of the offense of conviction.”  Mendenhall, 945 F.3d at 1267.

In Mendenhall, an indictment charged the defendant with unlawful possession of three specific stolen firearms, each identified by serial number.  The firearms were stolen from a pawnshop during a burglary in which a total of 62 firearms were stolen, and substantial evidence implicated Mendenhall in the burglary.  Only a dozen or so firearms, including the three identified in the indictment, were recovered and returned to the pawnshop.

The district court ordered Mendenhall to pay the pawnshop restitution in the amount of $33,763.23 for “the loss of firearms not recovered, wages for employees to conduct inventory, loss of revenue for closing of business . . . and cleanup/repairs.”  Id. at 1266.  Mendenhall did not object to the restitution order.  On plain error, the Tenth Circuit reversed.

The Tenth Circuit explained that “[d]istrict courts lack inherent powers to order restitution.”  Id.  They may only do so as authorized by statute, and the MVRA authorizes restitution only to “a person directly and proximately harmed as a result of the commission of an offense.”  Id. (quoting 18 U.S.C. § 3663A(a)(2)).  Moreover, the Supreme Court has interpreted this language as limiting restitution “only for losses caused by the conduct underlying the offense of conviction.”  Id. at 1267 (quoting Hughey v. United States, 495 U.S. 411, 416 (1990)).  Based on these limitations, Mendenhall did not owe any restitution at all.

The elements of Mr. Mendenhall’s offense of conviction were: (1) knowing possession of the firearms; (2) interstate commerce; and (3) knowing or having reasonable cause to believe the firearms were stolen.  “None of these elements caused the losses cited as the basis for the restitution order” because the “three firearms listed in the indictment were recovered and returned.”  Id. at 1268.  That Mendehall did not object to the PSR’s assertion that he was involved in the burglary was irrelevant: “Restitution must be based on the offense of conviction, not relevant conduct.”  Id. (quoting United States v. Frith, 461 F.3d 914, 916 (7th Cir. 2006)).

Finally, the Tenth Circuit panel was reluctant to find that the fourth prong of the plain error test was met—that is, whether the error “seriously affects the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings”—calling it “not an easy question in a case like this one where everybody knows that Mendenhall stole the firearms and pocketed the cash from the theft.”  Id. at 1270.  However, it acknowledged that a restitution order that exceeds the amount authorized by statute “amounts to an illegal sentence,” just as a term of imprisonment above the stat max does.  Accordingly, the Tenth Circuit was bound by precedent to conclude that all four prongs of plain error were met, and it reversed the order of restitution.

Takeaways

  • Restitution can be very burdensome for our clients.
  • Because restitution is a secondary concern for everyone—the defense, the government, probation, and the court—the orders often contain errors.
  • Restitution can be ordered only for loss caused by the specific conduct that is the basis of the offense of conviction. In other words, restitution must be based on the offense of conviction, not relevant conduct.
    • Caveat: in a plea agreement, a defendant can agree to restitution beyond what is otherwise authorized by statute.
  • An excessive restitution order is an illegal sentence

News You Can Use: Tenth Circuit Reverses First Degree Murder Conviction (and reaffirms important principles of appellate law along the way)

The Tenth Circuit reversed appellant Brian Tony’s first-degree murder conviction this week and remanded the case for a new trial.  Not only is this an amazing defense victory with an incredible remedy (kudos to AFPD Josh Lee in Denver), but the relatively short appellate decision is packed with important information, particularly for appellate lawyers. This decision also should send a clear message to trial courts: take extra care before excluding defense evidence.

FACTS: Mr. Tony’s defense at trial was that he acted in self-defense or at least without premeditation.  It was a plausible defense because the killing occurred during a knock-down, drag-out fight.  In support of this defense, Mr. Tony wanted to put on evidence that the decedent was high on methamphetamine at the time of the killing.  His theory of relevance was straightforward: meth makes people behave erratically- they can become crazy and violent- which supported the notion that the decedent was the first aggressor.  The trial judge, however, excluded the methamphetamine evidence on the ground that the defense had not proffered a proper, non-propensity purpose under Federal Rule 404(b).

HOLDING: The judge erred in excluding the defense evidence because defense counsel had proffered a proper purpose. But there are lots of other interesting points of law involving appellate procedure that the Tenth Circuit discusses in reaching its holding.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Use this case if you are looking for law on the scope of permissible affirmance on alternative grounds

The government asked the court of appeals to affirm the conviction on the alternative ground that the meth evidence wasn’t relevant without expert testimony that (1) the decedent was actually high at the time of the fight and (2) meth makes people violent.  The defense responded with a legal argument: because any decision on evidentiary relevance is committed to the district court’s (not the appellate court’s) discretion, the Tenth Circuit could affirm on that ground only if it would be an abuse of the district court’s discretion to rule for the defense on the relevance issue.  This principle has long existed in the Tenth Circuit’s case law, but it was buried by dozens of cases that ignored it and affirmed evidentiary rulings on alternative grounds with no discussion of the discretionary nature of the decision.  This principle is now revived.

Use this case if you are looking to police the government’s burden of proof on harmless error

The government argued that excluding the meth evidence was harmless because the evidence at trial overwhelmingly established Mr. Tony had not acted in self-defense. On this point, the court first clarified that the government bears the burden of demonstrating that a preserved, non-constitutional error is harmless.  While the government had argued that the error was harmless with respect to self-defense, it had not argued that it was harmless with respect to the lack of premeditation.  The government’s failure to make this argument operated as a waiver.  This too is an important point of law – that the government waives harmless error by not arguing it.

Use this case if you are looking for law on why a new trial is the appropriate remedy for evidentiary error

The government argued that instead of remanding for a new trial, the circuit should have remanded the case to the district court to make findings on whether it would have excluded the meth evidence under Rule 403 as substantially more prejudicial than probative.  The court said no for two reasons.  The first was the trial had happened two years earlier, which would make it hard for the district court to put itself back in the position of making pretrial rulings.  The second reason was that remanding for findings would give the district court, eager to avoid a retrial, “an overwhelming temptation to rationalize the exclusion of the meth evidence under Rule 403.”  Op. at 11.  This is another principle that existed but was moribund in the circuit’s case law until this case reaffirmed it.

News You Can Use: Tenth Circuit limits the unit of prosecution for child pornography possession offenses

Holding: Multiple devices ≠ multiple counts: child pornography discovered at the same time, and in the same place, is a single offense, regardless of how many devices that material is stored on.

This fall, the Tenth Circuit limited the number of charges the government can bring for possessing child pornography, at least where that material is discovered at the same time and same place.

In United States v. Elliott, 937 F.3d 1310 (10th Cir. 2019), the defendant was charged with four possession counts, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252A(a)(5)(B), which penalizes “possess[ing]” . . . any . . . material that contains an image of child pornography.”  The charges were based on child pornography discovered on a computer, external hard drive, phone, and cloud storage account linked to the phone.  All the items were located in the defendant’s bedroom during execution of a search warrant.

The government’s theory was that it could charge on a “per device” basis, i.e., that every device on which child pornography was located constituted a separate offense.  The defendant argued that this charging theory was multiplicitous: that it imposed multiple punishments for the same offense of simply possessing child pornography.

To answer the question, the court of appeals had to determine what the unit of prosecution was for § 2252A.  This is an inquiry of statutory interpretation—the unit of prosecution is the minimum amount of activity a defendant must undertake to commit each new and independent violation of a criminal statute. 

Ultimately, the Tenth Circuit held that § 2252A(a)(5)(B) does not permit multiple possession charges based solely on the number of electronic devices a defendant simultaneously possessed. That means that child pornography discovered at the same time, and in the same place, is a single offense, regardless of how many devices that material is stored on.  And because multiplicity is never harmless error, the Elliott court vacated all but one the defendant’s possession convictions.

Open question: whether the government might be able to sustain multiple possession charges with proof that a defendant received the child pornography at different times, or stored it in entirely separate locations.

Key takeaways.

  • Be on the lookout for multiplicity.  Whenever an indictment charges multiple violations of the same statute, be sure to ask what the unit of prosecution is for that statute.  If it is unclear, query whether lenity may apply.  Elliott and the Tenth Circuit’s en banc decision in United States v. Rentz, 777 F.3d 1105 (10th Cir. 2015) are good places to start your research.
  • Don’t let other circuits’ decisions prevent you from making novel arguments.  Here, the Fifth Circuit previously had accepted the government’s “per device” charging theory, and at least four other circuits had suggested in dicta that such charging might be permissible.  The Tenth Circuit found none of this authority persuasive in ruling the other way.
  • The unit of prosecution for child pornography possession under § 2252 is an open question, but it should be the same as § 2252A.  There are two federal statutes that independently criminalize possessing child pornography:  18 U.S.C. § 2252A(a)(5)(B) and § 2252(a)(4)(B).  And while § 2252 is charged less frequently, it still shows up from time to time.  Elliott’s analysis applies only to § 2252A, but its discussion of § 2252 and the slight difference in wording between the two statutes should be helpful in arguing that the unit of prosecution under of § 2252 is the same as § 2252A.

Resource: Changes to Local Rules of Practice for the District of Colorado, Effective December 1, 2019

Just a reminder that the United States District Court for the District of Colorado has issued revised Local Rules of Practice effective December 1, 2019.  You can visit the Local Rules page here.

The Criminal Rules start at page 30.

One of the most notable changes is to the rule on Motions for Departure or Variance (D.C.COLO.LCrimR 32.1(c)).  It now provides: “A motion for departure or variance shall not be included in a sentencing statement or other sentencing-related document. A motion for departure or variance shall be filed as a separate motion.”

The purpose of this rule change is to make sure a sentencing statement does not implicitly or explicitly move for a variance or departure.  The sentencing statement can refer to such a motion, but cannot, itself, be the vehicle for the request. Put simply: in the District of Colorado, file your sentencing statements and your departure or variance motions separately.

Relatedly, U.S. District Judges Christine M. Arguello, William J. Martínez, R. Brooke Jackson, and Daniel D. Domenico have published revised criminal and civil practice standards. Be sure to check those out here.

Resource and Practice Tip: Update on Granted First Step Act Sentence Reductions and Some Thoughts on the Compassionate Release Eligibility Framework

 

By Ashley Cordero

Ashley is a fall intern at the Office of the Federal Public Defender for the Districts of Colorado and Wyoming. She is a second-year law student at the University of Denver, Sturm College of Law. Prior to law school, she managed an employment program for previously incarcerated individuals in her hometown Los Angeles, California. She hopes to remain in Colorado to pursue a career in public defense.

FIRST STEP ACT UPDATE

Summary of the USSC Resentencing Provisions Retroactivity Data Report

In October 2019, the U.S. Sentencing Commission released the Retroactivity Data Report collecting data on sentence reductions granted pursuant to Section 404 of the First Step Act. Section 404 expanded the pool of individuals eligible for a sentence reduction for previous crack-cocaine convictions by retroactively applying sections 2 and 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. Now, under the First Step Act, the courts were to consider granting a sentence reduction as if the Fair Sentencing Act was in effect when the defendant was originally sentenced.

Sections 2 and 3 increased the quantity of crack cocaine that triggered mandatory minimum penalties and eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for simple possession of crack cocaine. This retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act guidelines had the potential to ameliorate some of the racial inequity stemming from the disparate crack-cocaine conviction rates between Black (83.0%) and White (5.8%) defendants. The report includes motions granted through September 30, 2019.

Key Findings from the USSC Retroactivity Report

  • Nationwide, district courts have granted 1,987 motions for sentence reduction under section 404. The Tenth Circuit has granted 1.7% (35) of these motions. The Districts of Colorado and Wyoming have granted four sentence reductions within the Tenth Circuit.
  • Of the defendants granted a sentence reduction, 91.2% are Black, 4.2% Hispanic, 3.8% White.
  • 98% of defendants granted a sentence reduction are male.
  • Nationally, on average defendants saw a 26.2% decrease from their current sentence. In the Tenth Circuit, defendants saw an average 30% decrease.

COMPASSIONATE RELEASE ARGUMENTS IN 924(c) CASES

Background

Section 403 of the First Step Act eliminated the archaic stacking provision that previously mandated minimums for individuals who were convicted of possessing a firearm in the commission of a crime of violence or drug trafficking offense –even if the charges arose from a singular criminal incident. The First Step Act revised 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(C) by providing that the higher penalty for a “second or subsequent count of conviction” under section 924(c) is triggered only if the defendant has a prior section 924(c) conviction that has become final.  See generally USSC First Step Act Summary. However, Section 403 was not made retroactive. This prompts the question, where do defendants with previous mandatory minimums under 924(c) fall within the First Step Act compassionate release eligibility framework?

Federal courts may reduce a defendant’s sentence if they find an “extraordinary and compelling reason” to warrant a reduction and that reduction is consistent with policy statements issued by the Sentencing Commission. 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i) (2018). This is known as “compassionate release.”

The Sentencing Commission Policy statement dated November 1, 2018, lists four eligibility criteria including “other reasons” where there exists an “extraordinary and compelling reason other than or in combination with reasons” described in the report. While the report has not been updated since the passage of the First Step Act, district courts continue to refer to the policy statement as helpful guidance.  United States v Bucci, 2019 WL 5075964, at *1 (D. Mass. Sept. 16, 2019); See also United States v Shields, 2019 WL 2645028, at *2 (N.D. Cal. June 27, 2019).

While a sentence reduction must be consistent with the Commission’s policy statements, federal courts are not bound to these prescriptive categories. Courts have not found the policy report circumstances list to be exhaustive. See United States v Overcash, 2019 WL 1472104 (April 3, 2019) (stating the court may make an independent determination). Even if eligibility is established, reduction is not required. Federal courts have the discretion to reduce the defendant’s sentence, considering the 3553(a) sentencing factors to make their determination. See United States v Cole, 2019 WL 3406872, *5 (N.D. Ind. July 29, 2019).

If Making Compassionate Release Argument, Consider Reading Shon Hopwood’s article, Second Looks and Second Chances

  • Shon Hopwood is an Associate Professor of Law at Georgetown Law. In June 2019, as part of a series on federal sentencing, Cardozo Law Review published his essay, “Second Looks and Second Chances,” which outlines the history of second looks provisions and suggests litigation tactics for certain defendants, such as those with previous 924(c) convictions.
  • Before the First Step Act, Congress did not define what constituted an “extraordinary and compelling reason” for sentence reduction. Congress intended this provision to act as a safety valve.
  • There is no indication that Congress intended to limit the compassionate release safety valve to only medical or elderly release. If a defendant can establish extraordinary and compelling circumstances, compassionate release could be used to justify a reduction of an unusually long sentence.
  • By eliminating the stacking provision, Congress has acknowledged that the original sentencing scheme for 924(c) was overly punitive and unfair.
  • Unlike section 404 which established categorical eligibility, section 403 was not retroactive. Those sentenced under the stacking provision and now seeking relief under compassionate release must establish “extraordinary and compelling reasons” individually.
  • However, simply because Congress did not create a retroactive categorical eligibility for sentence reduction does not suggest that Congress foreclosed other options of relief.
  • Consider using the “other reasons” provision to demonstrate that the defendant has a compelling and extraordinary reason for compassionate release.

 

 

 

News You Can Use: Tenth Circuit issues helpful decision limiting restitution in conspiracy cases

The Tenth Circuit recently issued an important decision in United States v Anthony concerning restitution in conspiracy cases. The facts are unlikely to reoccur very often, but the opinion contains some broadly applicable and helpful points of law.

Background

Mr. Anthony was convicted after trial of conspiracy to entice a child.  The evidence showed that he called an “escort service” which sent two minors to his place of business. He touched them both and had sex with one of them.  The girls had been ensnared by a pimp, and Mr. Anthony was one of over a hundred customers they had seen.

In ordering restitution, the district court held Mr. Anthony accountable for all the harm the girls suffered during the time they spent working for the pimp.  One of the girls had earlier been involved with another pimp in an enterprise wholly unrelated to the later one.  The court made no attempt to disaggregate the harm caused during the girl’s involvement with the first pimp from the harm caused during her involvement with the second.

The Decision

18 U.S.C. § 2259 generally requires proof of “but for” causation

Mr. Anthony’s first claim on appeal was that the district court should have disaggregated the harm caused during the first enterprise.  The circuit agreed.  And along the way, it ruled that 18 USC 2259, the statute governing restitution for most federal sex crimes, requires a showing of “but for” causation.  In doing so, the court rejected the government’s claim that the statute allowed liability based on a theory of multiple independent causes, which would have greatly expanded restitution liability.  Using but for causation–a familiar concept in restitution analysis generally–resolution of the claim was easy.  Mr. Anthony was obviously not a but for cause of the harms that were caused before his crime was even committed.

Restitution is limited to the harm established by the trial evidence

Mr. Anthony’s second claim was that the court shouldn’t have held him accountable for all the harm that happened during the time the girls were involved with the second pimp.  This argument rested on conspiracy law.  Conspiracy, of course, is an agreement, and he argued that his only agreement, if any, was to have sex with the girls on that one night.  The circuit also agreed with this argument (although Mr. Anthony ultimately lost because the claim wasn’t preserved).  The circuit had long held that a conspiracy conviction makes a defendant “liable in restitution for all losses that proximately result from the conspiracy itself, including losses attributable to coconspirators.”  And historically, the court had looked to the indictment to define the scope of the conspiracy and hence a defendant’s restitution liability.   But here the court held, at least in the case of a trial, that restitution has to be limited to what the evidence actually proved, not what was alleged in the indictment. 

Conspiracy liability is limited to the defendant’s own agreement

Here, the evidence only showed, at most, that Mr. Anthony joined a conspiracy to obtain the girls for sex on the night he met with them.  The reason?  Mr. Anthony’s sole purpose was to “have sex.”  Although he likely knew that his decision to pay for sex furthered the overall enterprise, that knowledge was not enough to make him a conspirator in that enterprise.  As the circuit put it, “mere knowledge” that his actions furthered an illegal enterprise, even in conjunction with his participation in a small part of the enterprise, doesn’t by itself establish that Anthony “joined in the grand conspiracy.”  Id. 

Key Takeaways

  • Be sure to take a careful look at restitution in sex offense cases.  Except child pornography crimes, Anthony teaches that restitution in the sex offense context is limited to harm that would not have occurred but for the defendant’s offense.
  • The evidence, not the indictment, controls, at least when there’s a trial. Restitution is limited to harm established by the evidence at trial, even if the indictment’s allegations are broader.
  • Traditional concepts of conspiracy liability apply in the restitution context. Conspiracy liability (including for restitution) is limited to the defendant’s own agreement, even if she knows of the wider conspiracy.

News You Can Use: Tenth Circuit holds mandating medication on supervised release requires particularized findings and compelling circumstances

Earlier this fall, in United States v Malone the Tenth Circuit confronted a special condition of supervised release that directed the defendant to participate in mental health treatment while on supervision.   Conditions of this sort are fairly routine, but this condition included a particularly problematic feature – it required Mr. Malone to “take prescribed medication as directed.”  In imposing the condition, the trial court gave no justification for it.

There was no objection to the condition in the district court, but the Tenth Circuit reversed for plain error.  The court explained that requiring a person to take psychotropic drugs – which this requirement, as part of a mental health condition, plainly did – intrudes on a significant liberty interest.  And when a court wants to impose a condition of supervised release that “invades a fundamental right or liberty interest,” it must make particularized findings that set out “compelling circumstances” that justify the condition.  The district court didn’t do so here, and because the record would not have supported the necessary findings in any event, the court directed the district court to strike the “offending language” from the judgment.

Key Takeaways:

  • Keep an eye out for conditions like this in PSRs that come your way.  As the circuit recognized, this condition was being “broadly imposed as a ‘stock’ special condition” in Kansas.  Similar conditions have also cropped up in other judicial districts.
    • To that end, take note of this language in Malone:

      “When “stock” special conditions are proposed and the defendant does not object, it is easy to overlook the constitutional implications at stake. But even when the defendant does not object, the district court must ensure that its conditions conform to the Constitution.”

  • Carefully review proposed conditions to see whether they infringe on fundamental rights or liberty interests.  Lots of conditions fit this description.  Examples include: occupational restrictions, restrictions on familial association, and possessing of legal, sexually explicit material.
  • Develop your record at sentencing.  Ask the district court to make the requisite findings and establish the compelling reasons to justify the condition.