Articles Posted in Federal Criminal Defense

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Companies and attorneys should be wary when turning documents over to a governmental entity while in an adversarial relationship, even when a signed confidentiality agreement is in place. The risks associated with doing so took center stage last summer in a civil defamation case, Gruss v. Zwirn, when United States District Judge Paul Gardephe ruled that Zwirn Entities waived the attorney-client privilege when it disclosed portions of witness statements to the SEC as part of an internal investigation.
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Former top officials of the prominent global law firm, Dewey & LeBoeuf, were indicted last week for deceiving banks and hiding the firm’s true financial condition from creditors, investors, auditors, and even its own partners. The lengthy indictment paints an elaborate accounting fraud where executives and financial professionals desperately tried to avert financial disaster. In short, the criminal charges brought by the Manhattan District Attorney allege a massive scheme to “cook the books” where the defendants falsified financial records submitted to banks and investors to demonstrate that the firm had complied with existing loans and therefore was worthy of further investor loans. The charges also allege the defendants made fraudulent accounting entries to support these phony representations.
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http://www.mdattorney.com/lawyer-attorney-1300820.htmlAs a Maryland Federal Criminal Attorney I know that nothing in the federal sentencing guidelines strikes more fear into the hearts of defendants and defense attorneys than the Career Offender provisions, found at section 4B1.1. This section is the most overused and perhaps least understood of all components of the guidelines.

In a nutshell, a criminal defendant is considered a Career Offender if he is currently charged with a violent crime or controlled substance offense and has previously been convicted twice of “a felony that is either a crime of violence or a controlled substance offense.” It is basically the federal version of a “third strike” rule. The consequences of being labeled as a career offender are disastrous. First, a defendant’s criminal history category is automatically raised to Category VI-the most serious category in federal law. Second, the offense level for the current charge is also automatically inflated to some of the highest in the guidelines system. In most cases, the level is raised to 37. To give some perspective, level 43 is the highest designation in the sentencing guidelines, and applies to crimes such as 1st degree murder!

Moreover, federal courts have adopted a very wide “strike zone” in determining what constitutes a “controlled substance felony.” While most logical thinkers understand that a controlled substance felony means drug distribution or dealing, federal courts have ruled that a state drug possession conviction can qualify as long as the offense carries a maximum possible punishment of greater than one year. In Maryland, possession of cocaine carries a maximum possible punishment of four years, making it a “felony” for federal purposes, even though the crime is classified as a misdemeanor under state law. So an individual in Maryland who has been twice convicted of cocaine possession will be treated as a career offender if he thereafter is charged in federal court with drug dealing or conspiracy to deal drugs. The results are significant.

A defendant classified as a career offender in a federal drug case will typically face a sentencing range of 30 years – life! Facing such a monstrous guideline range forces many defendants to accept guilty pleas in defensible cases as well as cases where the defendant is actually innocent!
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I recently wrote a blog about the recent and dramatic change in the federal DOJ policy regarding the disparity between federal sentencing guidelines for crack and powder cocaine. http://www.marylandcriminalattorneyblog.com/2009/06/the_disparity_between_federal.html On May 1, 2009, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) released a Memorandum to all U.S. Attorney’s Offices instructing all federal prosecutors to inform sentencing courts “that the Administration believes Congress and the Commission should eliminate the crack/powder disparity . . .” and that prosecutors should not object to variances in sentencing to achieve that result.

The new DOJ memorandum gives federal criminal defense lawyers a powerful new tool to fight the draconian sentences that clients have faced for federal crack cocaine offenses.

Most recently, I convinced a federal judge in Maryland that the new DOJ Memo not only reduced the sentencing “regular” 2D1.1 guidelines for crack cocaine offenses, but it also reduced the Career Offender Guidelines under section 4B1.1. I argued that the DOJ Memo applied across the board to all disparity between crack and powder cocaine. Because my client was charged with conspiracy to distribute more than 50 grams of crack, the maximum possible punishment for the offense was life under 18 U.S.C. §841(b)(1)(A). The maximum possible penalty, however, for a similar offense involving powder cocaine was only 20 years under §841(b)(1)(C). This difference caused the career offender guidelines to drop from level 37, to level 32 because the career offender guidelines are keyed directly to maximum possible sentence for the charged offense.
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The tremendous and unfair disparity between crack and powder cocaine in the Federal Sentencing Guidelines is no more! For many years, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines for offenses involving the possession or sale of crack cocaine were exponentially more severe than the guidelines for offenses involving only powder cocaine. For example, a defendant with no prior criminal record who possessed a kilo of crack cocaine would face a guidelines sentence of between 15 – 20 years without parole. That same defendant would face a sentencing range of between 5 – 6 years if he possessed a kilo of cocaine powder.

For years, criminal defense attorneys, interest groups, and even many federal judges objected to the disparity, noting that there was no rational basis to treat crack cocaine differently from powder cocaine. Statistics revealed that the disparity adversely affected African Americans, who were most often charged with offenses involving the crack cocaine guidelines.

On December 12, 2007, the United States Sentencing Commission announced that it was retroactively reducing the sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine offenses. While there was still a substantial disparity between crack and powder cocaine, the Sentencing Commission’s actions were promising and were the first official recognition that the disparity between crack and powder cocaine was a problem that needed to be resolved.

On May 1, 2009, the Department of Justice (DOJ) did just that. In a memorandum to all United States Attorney’s offices across the country, the DOJ instructed all federal prosecutors to “inform courts that the Administration believes Congress and the U.S. Sentencing Commission should eliminate the crack powder disparity . . .” That is, federal prosecutors are now instructed to inform sentencing courts that they agree that the disparity between crack and powder cocaine should be eliminated. The impact of this new policy is going to be dramatic.
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Aggressive Maryland criminal defense attorneys know that the best way to attack a search warrant is by attacking the affidavit in support of the warrant. This is commonly referred to as a Franks Hearing.

In Franks v. Delaware, 438 U.S. 154, 98 S.Ct. 2674, 57 L.Ed.2d 667 (1978), the Supreme Court held that in certain defined circumstances a defendant can attack a facially sufficient affidavit. The Franks Court recognized a “presumption of validity with respect to the affidavit supporting the search warrant”, and thus created a rule of “limited scope”.

The rule created by the Franks decision requires that a dual showing be made before a court will hold an evidentiary hearing on the affidavit’s integrity. This showing incorporates both a subjective and an objective threshold component. In order to obtain an evidentiary hearing on the affidavit’s integrity, a defendant must first make “a substantial preliminary showing that a false statement knowingly and intentionally, or with reckless disregard for the truth, was included by the affiant in the warrant affidavit.” This showing “must be more than conclusory” and must be accompanied by a detailed offer of proof.

In addition to showing that the affidavit contains false information, a defendant must show that the false information is essential to the probable cause determination. That is, if a court finds that “when material that is the subject of the alleged falsity or reckless disregard is set to one side, there remains sufficient content in the warrant affidavit to support a finding of probable cause, no hearing is required.”
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Although our federal criminal defense attorneys practice nationally, the majority of our cases are in the mid-Atlantic which falls into the Federal Fourth Circuit. Historically known as a conservative Circuit, the Court, which sits in Richmond, Virginia has directed the District Judges on a specific procedure they want followed in all post Booker federal sentencing
The Fourth Circuit has prescribed the steps the District Court must follow in imposing a sentence. First, the Court should calculate the proper guideline range after making appropriate findings of fact. United States v. Pauley, 511 F.3d 468 (4th Cir. 2007)(citing Gall, 128 S. Ct. at 596); see also Hughes, 401 F.3d at 546. “After calculating the Guidelines range, the sentencing court must give both the government and the defendant an opportunity to argue for whatever sentence they deem appropriate.” Id. The Court should then consider all of the § 3553(a) factors to determine whether they support the requested sentence. Id. If the guideline range does not serve the factors set forth in § 3553(a), then the Court may impose a non-guideline or “variance” sentence. United States v. Hampton, 441 F.3d 284, 287 (4th Cir. 2006); United States v. Moreland, 437 F.3d 424, 432 (4th Cir. 2006). The Court must articulate reasons for the sentence it imposes, particularly a variance sentence, by reference to the § 3553(a) factors and its factual findings. Id.
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The federal criminal sentencing has changed dramatically since the landmark case of United States v. Booker in 2005. Federal criminal defense attorneys have significantly more room for creativity and advocacy. Federal Judges are no longer handcuffed by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. For decades decades the power in sentencing, and most federal prosecutions, rested with the prosecutor. Booker has shifted the stables-somewhat, in favor of the criminal defense lawyer and given Federal Judges a more “human” role at sentencing.

18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) in light of United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005) requires the Court to fashion a sentence “sufficient but not greater than necessary” to achieve the statutory purposes of punishment. In Booker, the Supreme Court restored this Court’s ability to fashion a sentence tailored to the unique circumstances of each case and each criminal defendant by requiring courts to consider factors other than the sentencing range prescribed by the United States Sentencing Guidelines. Thus, although the Federal Judge still must take the Sentencing Guidelines into account, Booker rendered the Sentencing Guidelines advisory. See Gall v. United States, 128 S. Ct. 586, 594 (2007); United States v. Pauley, 511 F.3d 468 (4th Cir. 2007). The sentencing guideline range is not binding on the Court, but is only one of several factors in §3553 (a) to be considered in determining the sentence. Booker, 543 U.S. at 258-60.

In fact, the sentencing guidelines do not even enjoy a presumption of reasonableness. Nelson v. United States, 129 S.Ct. 890, 892 (2009)(“The guidelines are not only not mandatory on sentencing courts; they are also not to be presumed reasonable.”)(emphasis in original). See also Rita v. United States, 127 S. Ct. 2456 (2007). The “overarching” command of § 3553(a) is the Parsimony Clause, which “instruct[s] district courts to ‘impose a sentence sufficient, but not greater than necessary’ to accomplish the goals of sentencing.” Kimbrough, 128 S.Ct. 558, 563 (2007)(quoting Gall, 128 S.Ct. at 600).

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The United States Federal Sentencing Guidelines are not mandatory on sentencing courts. The Guidelines are also not presumed to be reasonable. That was the very clear and very recent message sent by the United States Supreme Court in Nelson v. United States, 129 S.Ct. 890 (2009). In so ruling , the Supreme Court made it very clear that the federal sentencing guidelines are NOT what they used to be!

The federal sentencing guidelines used to strike fear into the hearts of criminal defendants accused of federal offenses. Not only were the guidelines mandatory, but they were VERY harsh. Under the old sentencing guidelines scheme, even first time offenders with compelling personal circumstances were forced to serve large non-paroleable prison terms. Federal prison populations swelled with non-violent drug offenders incarcerated for long terms of incarceration. Judges who wished to vary from the guidelines were routinely reversed by federal circuit courts. Federal prosecutors, emboldened by the harsh mandatory guidelines, had no incentive to be reasonable. Under the mandatory guidelines system, prosecutors – not Judges –were the most powerful players in determining the fate of criminal defendants. By deciding which crimes to charge, the prosecutors could effectively dictate the result faced upon conviction. Even the most skilled defense attorneys were often powerless to stop unfairly harsh sentences. Judges were equally powerless.

The sentencing landscape has now changed dramatically. The guidelines are now just that – GUIDELINES – to be considered but not necessarily followed by federal district judges. The sea change began in United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005). Booker held that the then-mandatory U.S. Sentencing guidelines were unconstitutional. The only way to salvage the guidelines as a system was to make them advisory only. Even after the Court’s decision in Booker, federal appellate courts continued to treat the guidelines with reverence. For example, at least one federal appeals court had ruled that a district court judge was not free to disregard the guidelines except for “extraordinary circumstances.” Other courts held that judges could not disagree with the disparate treatment of offenses involving crack versus powder cocaine under the guidelines.

This thinking came crashing to a halt in Nelson v. United States, 129 S.Ct. 890 (2009), and Spears v. United States, 128 S.Ct. 840 (2009). In the Nelson case, the Court overruled the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and held that a federal district judge cannot presume that a sentence within the federal sentencing guidelines is reasonable. That is, the advisory federal sentencing guidelines are only one factor in a multi-part system of determining a sentence for a person convicted of a federal offense. http://www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/18/3553.html A sentencing judge is free to sentence a defendant to whatever is reasonable, regardless of the sentenced called for under the sentencing guidelines.

In the Spears decision, the Court made clear that federal judges are also free to disregard Sentencing Commission policies in arriving at a fair and reasonable sentence. In that case, the Court upheld the decision of a federal judge to impose a sentence below the sentencing guidelines because the judge disagreed with the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s policy to treat crack cocaine offenses more harshly than those involving powder.

Not only can a district judge choose to not follow the guidelines, but a court can also impose a sentence that disregards U.S. Sentencing Commission policies.
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I recently won a significant victory for a federal criminal client in United States District Court for the District of Maryland in a re-sentencing under Booker. http://www.mdattorney.com/lawyer-attorney-1301200.html In the Booker case, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the federal sentencing guidelines that apply to all criminal cases prosecuted in federal courts were no longer mandatory. The Court in Booker held that federal judges should consider the sentencing guidelines in fashioning a sentence, but that the guidelines were just one of many factors to be weighed in sentencing. These factors are laid out in federal law at 18 U.S.C.§3553(a) & (b). They include the nature and circumstances of the person, the need to protect the public from further crimes by the defendant, as well as the nature and circumstances of the offense.

While the Court’s decision in Booker was not retroactive, the case does apply to cases that were on appeal at the time of the decision. In my recent case, the client had been convicted prior to Booker and sentenced to 174 months incarceration for being part of a multi-state drug conspiracy. The client’s trial defense attorney did not ask the federal appeals court to remand the case for a new sentencing in light of the Booker decision. I represented the client in a federal habeus suit in Maryland seeking that the client be re-sentenced.

In that case, the Chief Judge Legg agreed with our argument that the prior counsel’s failure to raise the Booker issue on appeal constituted ineffective assistance of counsel. He set the case in for a new sentencing hearing.