Understanding the News: Federal Sentencing Guidelines

Ippei Mizuhara, an interpreter for L.A. Dodger’s star Shohei Ohtani, was recently charged by federal authorities in California with one count of bank fraud related to his alleged theft of millions of dollars from Ohtani, which Mizuhara used to bankroll his prolific gambling habit. Though federal investigations often take a long time, the IRS was investigating the illegal gambling ring Mizuhara used to place his bets, so they had a substantial head start on their investigation.


News outlets often report the maximum penalties associated with criminal charges. But the reality is that the maximum penalties are seldom imposed. Instead, federal courts are required by law to calculate a range of imprisonment based on the sentencing guidelines. The federal sentencing guidelines are advisory – meaning the court need not impose a sentence within the guideline range – but they are the starting point for every federal sentence imposed. If a court decides to impose a sentence outside the guideline range, it must provide specific reasons for doing so. As a result, the guidelines provide a far more accurate estimate of the potential penalty that a federal defendant might face.


The guidelines work like a mathematical formula. The facts of the case determine whether certain guidelines apply, and any dispute about the application of the guidelines is resolved by the court at a sentencing hearing. These factors include the criminal history of the defendant, his role in the offense, and whether any aggravating circumstances exist.


Estimating Mizuhara’s Federal Guidelines Calculation

Mizuhara was charged by complaint with one count of bank fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1344(2). When a case is charged by complaint, the government must obtain an indictment from a grand jury or, if Mizuhara agrees, charge him by information. Often, when the government files an information, it signals that there is a plea agreement.


The first step in applying the sentencing guidelines is to determine which section applies to the offense. The starting point for bank fraud – and most fraud-related offenses – is §2B1.1.


The maximum term of imprisonment for bank fraud is 30 years, so the base offense level is 7. §2B1.1(a).


The guidelines then require the Court to apply enhancements based on specific offense characteristics. The complaint alleges that Mizuhara stole at least $15 million from Ohtani’s account. For a loss between $9.5 million and $25 million, the offense level increases by 20. §2B1.1(b)(1). Though there are additional specific offense characteristics in the subsection – for example, identity theft or healthcare fraud – none appear to apply in Mizuhara’s case.


The next step in the guidelines calculation is an evaluation of the defendant’s role. Here, Mizuhara served as Ohtani’s translator and, because of that position, had special access to Ohtani’s private information. Mizuhara allegedly abused his position as interpreter to access Ohtani’s bank accounts and even pretended to be Ohtani when calling the bank. The Court would likely apply an enhance for this abuse of trust, and increase the offense level by two. §3B1.3.


The second factor the Court will consider concerning a defendant’s role is whether the defendant accepted responsibility, most commonly accomplished by pleading guilty. The federal guidelines reward defendants who plead guilty: if Mizuhara pleads guilty, he would receive a three-level reduction. §3E1.1.


The guidelines also consider a defendant’s criminal history. In November 2023, the U.S. Sentencing Commission also amended the guidelines to provide another reduction for defendants with no prior criminal history, so long as the offense did not involve certain aggravating factors like the use of violence or possession of firearms. Though we do not know Mizuhara’s criminal history, we can presume he would likely fall into this category and would receive an additional two-point reduction. §4C1.1.


The major variable in an estimated guideline calculation is cooperation with federal authorities. If, based on a recommendation from the government, the defendant provided substantial assistance in the investigation or prosecution of another person, the Court may account for the significance and usefulness of the assistance, and depart from the guidelines calculation. §5K1.1. Here, Mizuhara may have a substantial incentive to cooperate with the IRS’s existing investigation into the illegal gambling ring. Should he provide particularly helpful assistance, the Court could reward him with another reduction.


But applying the sentencing guidelines with the publicly-available information, we arrive at the following total offense level:


Guideline Section Offense Level
Base offense level (§2B1.1(a)) 7
Loss amount (§2B1.1(b)) +20
Abuse of trust (§3B1.3) +2
Acceptance of responsibility (§3E1.1) -3
Zero-Point Offender (§4C1.1) -2
Total Offense Level 24


The Bottom Line

After calculating the total offense level, we can then refer to the Sentencing Table to determine the guideline range. In Mizuhara’s case, the guidelines recommend a term of 51 to 63 months of imprisonment. From our estimate, it’s clear that the maximum statutory penalty of 30 years is unlikely. Instead, should Mizuhara plead guilty, his sentence would likely be in the ballpark of 5 years. Alternatively, if Mizuhara were not to plead guilty, the guidelines would recommend a sentence of 70 to 87 months – a “trial tax” that amounts to approximately two years.


If you have a pending criminal case or investigation that you would like to discuss or have questions about sentencing, please call Eric Bacaj, Esq. at (443) 909-7503.

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