New Jersey Criminal Defense Attorney Blog Covering New Jersey and Federal Criminal Law and Procedure

Articles Posted in Advisory Guidelines

Jeff Sessions, our new Attorney General, issued a Memorandum to all United States Attorneys on May 10, 2017 which states, in relevant part, that “it is a core principle that prosecutors should charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense [] By definition, the most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences.”

This Memorandum represents a significant departure (no pun intended) from the bipartisan support for overhauling the federal criminal justice system that had been intensifying in Congress over the last few years.  It also reflects President Trump’s campaign promise to get tough on crime.  The general targets of the new policy include narcotics and weapons offenses, and gang violence.

The problem with this Memorandum is that it also reflects a reversal of some of the more intelligent decisions made during the Obama administration concerning the federal criminal justice system, specifically, the treatment of low-level, non-violent drug offenders.  For example, former Attorney General Eric Holder instructed federal prosecutors to consider the unique facts and circumstances of a particular case, and to exercise discretion in charging narcotics offenses.  Significantly, in narcotics cases involving non-violent defendants with minimal criminal histories and no connection to organized crime, Holder instructed US Attorneys to omit information concerning drug quantities from charging documents, thereby avoiding the automatic trigger of harsh penalties.  Mr. Sessions’ Memorandum references Mr. Holder’s prior instructions in a footnote, and rescinds them. Continue reading

Many defendants focus exclusively on only one issue in their case – Am I going to jail?  If there is even a possibility that this question may be answered affirmatively, follow-up issues concerns the length of the sentence and the facility where it may be served (e.g., state prison vs. county jail).  What often gets lost in the discussions concerning this aspect of a criminal case are the collateral consequences of sentencing.

Collateral consequences are other things that happen to someone with a felony conviction that have little to do with jail or prison time.  These consequences follow a defendant upon release from custody, and can affect virtually every aspect of their life.  A Federal Judge in the Eastern District of New York just wrote a 42-page opinion concerning collateral consequences that should be required reading for every trial judge (Federal and State) in the United States.

Chevelle Nesbeth, the defendant and a college student from Connecticut who apparently had no meaningful prior criminal record, was entering the country at Kennedy Airport.  She was coming from Montego Bay, Jamaica.  In a random bag inspection, customs agents noticed what they viewed as unusually dense handrails on her suitcases.  Further inspection revealed approximately 600 grams (or 2 1/2 pounds) of cocaine, with an estimated street value of $45,000.  Nesbeth elected to proceed to trial, arguing that she received the bags from friends and knew nothing about the drugs.  The jury did not believe her, and convicted her of importing drugs and possession with intent to distribute.  Under the Federal advisory sentencing guidelines, Nesbeth faced a sentence including, among other punishments, a custodial term of 33 to 41 months. Continue reading

We have written before about federal sentencing issues.  A recent US Supreme Court decision again focuses our attention on this important topic and, specifically, the central role that the advisory guidelines play in the federal sentencing process, and how sentencing mistakes can – and should – be corrected.

By way of background, sentencing in federal cases is governed largely by the the advisory sentencing guidelines promulgated by the United States Sentencing Commission.  The concept underlying the advisory guidelines is relatively simple.  They are designed to promote uniformity in sentencing.  Thus, if two defendants with roughly similar backgrounds are convicted of the same offense and appear for sentencing before two different judges in two different jurisdictions, the advisory guidelines help ensure that the defendants will receive roughly the same sentence.  In this respect, the guidelines restrict the discretion of the sentencing judge.

The central role of the advisory guidelines in federal sentencing cannot be overstated.  As a general matter, current law does not require  judges to impose the sentence that the guidelines contemplate for a particular offense, which is why defense attorneys (and some of the more intellectually honest US Attorneys) refer to them as “advisory”.  There is a list of factors in the federal sentencing statute that district court judges are supposed to consider when fashioning a sentence in a particular case, and the guidelines is one of the items on that list.  However, unless there is a good reason to “depart” or “vary” from a guidelines sentence, most judges will typically sentence a defendant within the guidelines range for the offense at issue.  This is because a “within range” sentence is presumed reasonable, so the likelihood of reversal for a sentencing error is reduced.  (In the simplest sense, “departures” and “variances” are reasons to sentence a defendant to something less that what the guidelines call for.  They are not easily obtained, and are not available in every case.) Continue reading