Our Federal Prisons Are Fueled By Drugs

That’s the takeaway from this report by the federal courts and U.S. Sentencing Commission.

To summarize, there are almost 200,000 people in federal prison today, and almost half of them (or 48%) are there for drugs. Almost all of them (93%) are men, and the vast majority are young, minority men. The breakdown is 35% Hispanic, 35% black, and 27% white.

Here are the top five types of cases:

  1. Drugs (48%)
  2. Guns (19%)
  3. Immigration (8%)
  4. Child pornography and sex offenses (7%)
  5. Major frauds (5.8%)

For fraud cases, the median dollar loss was $800,000, in case you were wondering.

For the drug cases, here’s the breakdown among drugs:

  1. Methamphetamine (32.8%)
  2. Powder cocaine (24.2%)
  3. Crack cocaine (20.9%)
  4. Heroin (9.5%)
  5. Marijuana (8.4%)

Finally, the report shows how often people are sentenced below, above, or within the range that’s recommended by the federal sentencing guidelines. Here’s a crash course on the guidelines if you want to know how they work.

  • Half were sentenced within the guideline range (50.4%)
  • A quarter were sentenced below the range with the government’s support (24.7%)
  • One-fifth were sentenced below the range without the government’s support (21%)
  • Relatively few were sentenced above the guideline range (3.9%)

The Restoration of Rights Project

Have you ever been arrested? Do you have a prior conviction?

Do you wonder whether you can clean up your record and how that affects you, if at all?

Start here. It’s called the Restoration of Rights Project, and it looks at the law in every state for restoring your rights and status after an arrest or conviction. It covers federal law, too.

For each state, the Project compiles answers to these questions:

  1. Whether and how you can seal, expunge, or dismiss your arrest or conviction.
  2. Whether and how you can restore your civil rights, like the right to vote.
  3. Whether and how your state’s laws affect your chance of landing a job or license, losing one, or getting it back.
  4. Whether your state has a regular process to apply for a pardon and how often it grants one.
  5. Whether and how you can stop having to register as a sex offender.

It’s a great resource not just for lawyers and the courts but for, in its words, “the millions of Americans with a criminal record who are seeking to put their past behind them.”

The Modern Public Square

This week brought us another unanimous U.S. Supreme Court case that’s arguably more important because it concerned the First Amendment.

The issue was a North Carolina law that made it a felony for registered sex offenders to use any social-networking site that lets minors join. So to be clear, that’s any social-media site, period, that lets minors join. That meant Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, or pretty much any other social-media site. The law was even broad enough to include websites like Amazon, WebMD, and the Washington Post. So you almost couldn’t use the Internet.

The defendant was one of more than 1,000 people who’ve been prosecuted under the law. In 2002, when he was 21 years old, he had sex with a 13-year-old girl, and he was charged with it. He pleaded guilty to it and registered as a sex offender. Then the law passed in 2008.

In 2010, he happened to get a traffic ticket dismissed in court, whereupon he logged on to Facebook and posted this to his timeline: “Man God is Good! How about I got so much favor they dismissed the ticket before court even started? No fine, no court cost, no nothing spent … Praise be to GOD, WOW! Thanks JESUS!”

He was indicted for that.

He moved to dismiss on the ground that the law violated the First Amendment, but the trial court denied it. He was convicted at trial and given a suspended prison sentence.

On appeal, the state courts duked it out. The court of appeals agreed with the guy, finding that the law violated the First Amendment. But the state supreme court reversed, finding the law “constitutional in all respects.”

Finally, the federal high court unanimously struck down the law because it plainly applied to websites like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter among others. Facebook itself had 1.79 billion active users—or three times the population of North America.

The Court called these sites “integral to the fabric of our modern society and culture.” They had become our main sources for sharing current events, participating in the public square, and exploring human thought and knowledge. To foreclose access to them was to foreclose the legitimate exercise of First-Amendment rights.

Yes, a state could pass specific, narrowly-tailored laws that regulate the type of conduct that portends crime, like contacting a minor or using a website to gather information about one.

But it couldn’t just cut people off from the public square.

White-Collar to Blue-Collar in One Day

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court issued two notable decisions on the same day.

One was a civil white-collar case, the other a criminal drug-trafficking case, and in both cases, the Court reversed the lower-court ruling on appeal.

In the civil case, the Court imposed a five-year statute of limitations on SEC cases that seek to disgorge profits. That’s the same period that applies in cases to enforce a fine, penalty, or forfeiture. Although disgorgement of profits is traditionally a form of restitution that’s measured by a defendant’s wrongful gain, the Court ruled that it’s a penalty in SEC cases for a couple reasons. First, the agency uses it to deter and punish defendants as much as to compensate victims. Sometimes, the money goes to Uncle Sam, and sometimes, the only victim is the public at large. Second, the agency often disgorges more than defendants have gained, leaving them worse off than before they broke the law. That may be the point, but that makes it a penalty.

In a footnote, the Court even seemed to call into question whether courts could order disgorgement at all. That’s something they’ve been doing since the 1970s, so it’s a big deal. For more in-depth analysis of this decision, see here.

In the criminal case, the Court reined in the government’s forfeiture power. Forfeiture allows the government to seize money or property that’s derived from a crime. But the law limits this to what someone actually and personally receives or obtains. That means you can’t be responsible for amounts obtained by someone else. So the hypothetical college student who gets $500 per month to drop off a few packages isn’t on the hook for the whole multimillion-dollar drug enterprise.

Here, two brothers worked in a hardware store together. One of them owned the store, and the other was a salaried employee. The two were charged with selling large amounts of a product they knew or had reason to know was being used to make meth. In three years, the store grossed about $400,000 from selling the stuff and netted $270,000.

The government wanted the $270,000 in profits. The owner agreed to forfeit $200,000 of it when he pleaded guilty, but the employee went to trial. He was acquitted of three counts, convicted of eleven, and sentenced to sixty months in prison. Then the government went after him for the remaining $70,000.

Although the government agreed that the employee had no ownership interest in the store and didn’t personally benefit from the illicit sales, it argued that, in a conspiracy, everyone is responsible for the full proceeds of the conspiracy. And it won that argument on appeal.

But the Supreme Court rejected that and reversed.

 

Judge Not, Lest We Be Judged

If you’re still not sold on the power of redemption, I may not be able to sway you.

But consider this guy. He committed a carjacking at 16 and spent eight years in prison for it. Today, at 35, he has a wife, two bouncy sons, and now, a law degree from Yale. He just graduated last month. I guess it’s good we didn’t throw away the key.

His story reminded me of three quotes I saw recently. They each spoke to why we should treat people humanely in our justice system. I saw them in the email signature of a defense lawyer in Texas, and while he and I have never met, I think they say something positive about him, too. If you need a lawyer in his neck of the woods, look him up.

I especially liked how the quotes were attributed to three very different people. An itinerant lawyer and activist. An influential computer scientist. An acclaimed writer and novelist.

Three different walks of life, but they seemed to agree on some things.

  1. Freedom is not worth having if it doesn’t include the freedom to make mistakes.”
  2. “Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.”
  3. “Sometimes you make choices in life and sometimes the choices make you.”

Great quotes, all. You live and breathe long enough, you know them to be true.

A Model Penal Code for the 21st Century

Charging decisions, which we wrote about last week, matter for many reasons. They drive plea bargains, and they affect sentencing. You file a felony, for example, so that the guy will plead to a misdemeanor without giving you much trouble. It happens all the time.

Bad charging decisions, though, don’t just cause wrongful convictions or unjust sentences.

They cause other consequences that continue to torment you after you’ve served your sentence. Your actual sentence may include your jail or prison time, the fines you must pay, or the terms of probation you must follow. You did the crime so you should do the time and pay the fine, right? Okay, but then even after you do, you still may not be able to cast a vote, land a job, rent a home, hold a license, or get a loan. These are the so-called collateral consequences of a conviction.

But the future may be brighter.

Last week, the American Law Institute approved major changes to the Model Penal Code to address these consequences. The ALI is the leading scholarly body that aims to clarify, modernize, and otherwise improve American law. The Model Penal Code is its seminal work in the area of criminal law. It doesn’t have the force of law by itself, but it’s influential. Most states have used it in passing their own laws, and courts cite to it often.

The new provisions would require you to prove, by clear and convincing evidence, that a collateral consequence of your conviction imposes a heavy burden on your ability to rejoin society and that public safety doesn’t need you to suffer it.

If you do that then a court could relieve you from that burden. A court could even issue a certificate of rehabilitation that shields employers, landlords, or others who give you a second chance from civil liability.

Already, state legislatures have been proposing and passing laws to give people a fair shake to prove themselves before dismissing them based on the past.

Hopefully, that momentum keeps building. We should consider what it means to have a record, anyway, when most people either have one, know someone close to them who does, or would have one but for the grace of God. And we should consider how we judge people altogether in a world in which our every action can leave a permanent trace.

The twenty-first century may demand it.

The New DOJ Policy on Charging Decisions

Two weeks ago, the new U.S. Attorney General announced a new policy for charging and sentencing in criminal cases. Although the policy targets drug cases in particular, it applies to all federal prosecutions.

You can break it down into three parts.

First, prosecutors should file the “most serious, readily-provable” charges in each case. The most serious charges are those that carry the stiffest sentence, including any mandatory-minimum sentence. To deviate from this policy, prosecutors must get approval from a supervisor, document their reasons for it, and be able to point to “unusual facts.”

Second, in most cases, prosecutors should seek a standard sentence under federal sentencing guidelines. If they want to deviate from the guideline sentence, they must get supervisory approval and document their reasons in the file.

Third, prosecutors should discard inconsistent policies of the prior administration. Under prior policy, prosecutors still charged the most serious offense that was consistent with a defendant’s conduct and likely to yield a solid conviction. But they were also encouraged to evaluate cases individually to decide which charges to file, and they were told to seek sentences that were fair and proportional under all the circumstances.

In particular, prosecutors now must ignore two prior policies that tried to reduce harsh sentences in low-level, nonviolent drug cases. Under one policy, they were not to charge a specific drug quantity if it triggered a mandatory-minimum sentence, and they were to avoid charging prior drug convictions that doubled the minimum sentence or put someone in prison for life. We wrote about this before here. Under the other policy, they could not threaten to charge such priors just to force you to plead guilty. I guess that’s fair game now.

The new policy has sparked criticism across the spectrum. Lawmakers from both parties have railed against it. One former U.S. Attorney decried its “stunning lack of faith” in line prosecutors. A coalition of state and local prosecutors has published an open letter against it. And the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers had this reaction:

“This Attorney General has taken away the discretion of professional prosecutors to determine what sentence serves justice in any given case. Instead, prosecutors are now required in every case mindlessly to seek the maximum possible penalty…. This policy will lock up non-violent offenders with little or no criminal history, waste untold millions of dollars, devastate families and whole communities, and yet not make us any safer.”

Back to Basics, Again.

Speaking of the U.S. Supreme Court, we shouldn’t have to rely on the country’s highest court to decide some questions correctly. But we do.

This week, the Court issued a friendly reminder about the presumption of innocence.

If you’re convicted of a crime, but your conviction is overturned on appeal, and there won’t be a retrial, the government has to return any money that you paid toward fines, fees, or restitution because you’re presumed innocent again. You’re presumed innocent until you’re proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a fair trial where the verdict holds up. Until then, the government can’t make you prove your innocence to get your money back.

Here’s what happened. In two separate cases, a man and woman were convicted at trial, and they were ordered to pay fines, fees, and restitution as a result. Then both had their convictions reversed on appeal. One was retried but acquitted. The other wasn’t retried because the state dropped the case.

With the charges dismissed, the defendants asked for their money back, but they lost in the state courts because a new state law required them to sue for their money and prove their innocence by clear and convincing evidence.

But that can’t be right, and it wasn’t. Without a conviction, the state had no right to their money, and under the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution, it couldn’t shift the burden of proof to them to prove their innocence.

Good for them that the court of last resort got it right.

But that court hears fewer than two percent of all potential cases each year. And it wouldn’t have heard these cases, either, if it weren’t for a pro bono clinic at the UCLA School of Law.

The New Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court

Now that Neil Gorsuch has been sworn in, we’ll begin to find out how he wields the law as a member of the highest court in the land.

Some say he’s a natural successor to the Justice whose seat he fills, Antonin Scalia. Here is a profile of Mr. Gorsuch that compares his views to those of Mr. Scalia on matters of criminal law, interstate commerce, and more.

Justice Scalia’s legacy may be complicated, but he defended the rights of the accused in important ways. He championed the right of confrontation, for example. It’s in the Sixth Amendment, and it means that if you’re charged with a crime, your accusers must take the witness stand, testify under penalty of perjury, and face cross-examination in open court. They can’t hide behind hearsay and innuendo. Scalia also championed your right to a trial by jury—that dwindling bastion of freedom and democracy—and he looked after the Fourth Amendment in an age of new technologies.

We hope Justice Gorsuch hews to that heritage and builds on it. Justice Scalia, for example, didn’t care much for the Miranda rule, but we may come to appreciate it more in this century than we did in the last. We may feel differently about the meaning of due process when we see that governments can exercise total dominion over their citizens. We may value legal limits on their power more as we realize that no other limits exist.

To that end, some point optimistically to Gorsuch’s views on overcriminalization, the rule of mens rea, and the rule of lenity.

Others are less sanguine about him in general.

But left, right, or center, most would agree, in the end, with this comment: “We think that all judges should look to the text and history of the Constitution. But [we hope] he will follow all parts of the Constitution, in particular those parts that were added in the 19th and 20th centuries that made our Constitution more equal, more just, more free and pushed us further down an arc of progress.”

Securities Fraud: But Was It Even A Security?

What is a security, anyway? The California Court of Appeal tackled that question recently in a case about a loan between friends.

A good starting point is that the law considers a security to be an investment contract, but there’s more to it than that. You may be familiar with common examples like publicly-traded stocks and bonds, but sometimes it’s a tougher call.

California law recognizes two tests to determine whether a deal or transaction is a security. One is the state’s risk-capital test, and the other is the federal Howey test (from a U.S. Supreme Court case). California courts may apply either one to your case, their goal being to protect the public from shady investment schemes.

The narrower risk-capital test asks whether you indiscriminately solicited passive investments from the public at large. A passive investment is one whose success depends mainly or exclusively on the efforts of people other than the investors.

The broader federal test simply asks whether you solicited people to invest passively.

In this case, the defendant had persuaded a guy he knew to invest in his land-development deal. The investment was a $280,000 promissory note that promised to pay out as follows:

  1. If the land were sold, the guy would share in the net profits from the sale.
  2. If the land were developed, he would receive one residential acre of his choosing.
  3. If neither event took place within one year, he could call the note and get interest on top of principal at a rate of ten percent.

But things didn’t exactly pan out, and some years later, the local district attorney’s office charged the defendant with securities fraud.

The trial court partly dismissed the case because it ruled that the promissory note wasn’t a security but a simple loan.

The government appealed that ruling, but the appeals court agreed. Even under the federal test, the note wasn’t a security because it was carefully negotiated between the parties, and it called for repayment whether the venture succeeded or not. The defendant had even personally guaranteed it.

So the case could’ve been a breach of contract, or it could’ve been a fraud.

But it wasn’t a securities fraud because the note wasn’t a security.

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