How To Write (Or Solicit) A Good Letter Supporting A Defendant At Sentencing

This week various political figures took some abuse for writing letters seeking leniency in the sentencing of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who got a 15-month sentence for monetary transactions designed to conceal that he was paying off victims of sexual abuse.

I've argued before that if you write a sentencing letter in support of a famous (or notorious) person, the media will report on it in an insipid and sensational way. That's inevitable, and media reaction isn't my focus. My focus is suggesting how to write a letter that furthers the best interests of the defendant and is most likely to move the judge towards a better result.

With that in mind, here are some rules:

This letter is not a vehicle for you to express yourself. A letter supporting a defendant is not an opportunity for you to posture, work out issues, or express yourself artistically. It is an opportunity to help the judge see the defendant as a human being. If you cannot stop yourself from making your letter about you instead of about the defendant, or if you find yourself focusing on how the letter makes you sound, please don't write the letter.

Nobody cares what you think about this case or the criminal justice system. Now is not the time to say that the criminal justice system is unjust or should be spending resources on other things or how far worse criminals get away or how this shouldn't be a crime or this is politically motivated. Go write that shit on your LiveJournal. It will annoy the judge.

For these purposes, the defendant is not innocent. Most likely the defendant pled guilty. Or maybe he or she was convicted by a jury. Either way, the judge is starting from the premise that the defendant is guilty. Appeals and habeas corpus motions — or, maybe, attorney arguments about residual doubt — are the place for discussions of innocence. A sentencing letter isn't. "I know he didn't do it" and "this must be a mistake" dramatically undermine a defendant's statements of contrition in plea cases, and simply annoy the judge in jury verdict cases. If the defendant has done his or her best to accept responsibility and covey their regret and you come in and write "I've talked to him and I know he didn't do it," you are undermining the defense. It's not persuasive.

Don't bother if you don't know the defendant fairly well. A good sentencing letter isn't like a letter of recommendation that a professor writes about one of the 150 students in a frosh cattle-call course. It's something you write if you know the person — if you have a connection to them. Letters by mere acquaintances are worthless at best and damaging at worst.

When you praise the defendant's character, bear in mind they are being sentenced for a crime. The core idea "I was shocked by this case because I know the defendant to be a good person" is okay, expressed carefully. So, for instance, if your friend is being sentenced for structuring monetary transactions to hide the fact he's paying off people he sexually abused as kids when he was a coach, saying "[w]e all have our flaws, but Dennis Hastert has very few" is appallingly tone-deaf and probably hurts the defendant. Praise of the defendant can't ignore the present circumstances, or it seems uninformed or stubbornly blind. "Defendant's behavior towards me has been so kind and decent that these serious charges were devastating" is the right tone.

Don't minimize the crime. Why do I have to tell you this? Don't suggest that the crime isn't a big deal. Even if it isn't. That's for the defense lawyer to argue, not you. You're going to undermine the defendant's attempt to show contrition.

Don't attack the victim. You utter moron.

Don't talk about your yacht. When you're talking about how well you know the defendant and how you and the defendant have interacted, avoid emphasizing things that highlight the defendant's life of privilege and/or power. First, it sounds like you're bragging, which is obnoxious. Second, it sounds like you are implying that rich or powerful people should get lower sentences, will will antagonize the judge. Third, it tends to make the defendant look worse: if he or she had so much, why did they do this? Downplay it.

Humanize the defendant, preferably with private conduct. It's fine to talk about how a defendant has led a life of public service. But the best stories to tell are the ones about how the defendant acted when nobody was looking. Some of the most powerful letters are about the defendant's small, private acts of humanity, compassion, and decency. You are, after all, asking a judge to see this defendant as an individual human being rather than as a statistic — to exercise mercy. What better way that to tell a story about such mercy exercised by the defendant? The letters I like best aren't the ones about how my client paid to attend a charity gala every year. They're the letters that tell the story about how the client visited the company's receptionist in the hospital and took her whole visiting family out to dinner, or about how he or she helped a stranger, or how he or she showed private kindness. "This Congressman supported the Family Leave Act" is not nearly as powerful as "when my mom died Bob stayed up with me all night and drove me to the funeral home and sat with me while I handled her affairs."

Don't tell the judge what to do. Some lawyers ask letter-writers to ask for a specific sentence, or to ask explicitly for leniency. I don't. I don't think it's effective. The judge knows what the defense is asking for — the defense lawyer is arguing it. Parroting the defense lawyer's talking points makes the letters sound too orchestrated. For most letter-writers, you're asking the judge to consider the type of person you know the defendant to be. The right tone is "I ask you to consider these experiences in sentencing my friend" or "when you consider the crime, I ask you also to consider these things my friend is done." The exception is a close family member who is directly impacted by the sentence — "I don't know how we can keep the house or keep the kids in school if my spouse goes to prison."

Not every lawyer agrees with these rules. But I find them more effective and the judges I've talked to find such letters more persuasive.

Inside Department of Justice Culture: Locals Vs. "Main Justice"

Lawyers and non-lawyers alike chuckled this week when a federal judge in Texas blasted attorneys –and one attorney in particular — from the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.

Hughes thundered, “If the pretentious lawyers from ‘main’ Justice knew what they were doing — or had the humility to ask for help from the United States Attorney for the Southern District of Texas — it would not have taken three days, seven telephone calls, three voicemail messages, and one snippy electronic message for them to indirectly ask the court for assistance in ordering a transcript.”

This story displays two elements of the culture of the federal criminal justice system. The first is obvious: federal judges, who enjoy lifetime tenure and are almost never impeached, behave pretty much however they want. The black robe tends to amplify preexisting foibles; a bad temper, free from rebuke and guaranteed lifetime employment, grows steadily from an occasional peccadillo to a notorious habit. Fortunately, once you have reached a certain point in your career, being yelled at by a federal judge is merely bracing, like a brisk walk on a cold morning.

But another cultural truth lurks. There are two types of federal prosecutors: Assistant U.S. Attorneys who work at, and for, the 94 U.S. Attorney's Offices across the country, and the Assistant U.S. Attorneys who work in Washington D.C. at "main justice." The "main justice" attorneys often work in specialized and elite units, and frequently travel about the country "supervising" their cases. Those cases might involve terrorism, or civil rights, or political corruption. This can result in tension between main justice and the local prosecutors. To grotesquely overgeneralize, main justice can see the locals as hicks who don't know how to run "elite" cases, and locals can see main justice as arrogant, not as good as they think they are, and both clueless about and indifferent to local practices.

These are exaggerations, but there are occasional examples. About 20 years ago I was a young AUSA in Los Angeles, assigned to the "Complaints" division. Complaints handled intake, complaints, and search warrants on run-of-the-mill cases that didn't already have a federal prosecutor assigned. One day a team from main justice swept in seeking a search warrant on some "elite" matter. The legal core is the same — is there probable cause to believe the items sought are evidence of a federal crime and will be found at the specified location? — but the formatting and paperwork of warrants vary across the 94 federal judicial districts. Each set of judges likes its warrant applications prepared just so. This team from main justice prepared their warrant package the way they wanted to do it, and ignored my suggestions about how to conform to practices in Los Angeles. "Good luck," I said, not entirely sincerely. Sure enough, half an hour later I got a call from the duty magistrate judge. This man was the most pleasant and welcoming judge I've ever encountered; sometimes he was so nice on the bench that people worried he was making fun of them. "Mr. White," the judge asked, "could you please give these . . . . gentlemen some help preparing the warrant application to conform to the local rules?" asked the judge, using a tone suggesting that someone might leave this encounter in leg irons. I promised to do so. The main justice lawyers returned, fuming, indignant, railing against the fact that some backwater like Los Angeles didn't format its search warrant paperwork in exactly the same way they were used to in Washington. I helped them without comment.

Or there was the time that lawyers from main justice, during an argument on a securities case, blundered into the well. The well is the dead space between the counsel tables and the bench. In some places, it's considered culturally appropriate to walk into the well to address the court, just as it's considered appropriate to address the judge from a seated position in some places. But not in Los Angeles. The federal judge — a gentleman who has verbally flayed the flesh from my bones on more than one occasion1 — blasted them, and they were terrified and perplexed.

What's the point of all this? Well, it's partly about the easy truth that the system is made up of flawed human beings. But it's also about the job of lawyering. Nobody cares how you do it back in your courthouse. You're in this courthouse now, and effective representation of your client requires you to pay attention to how things are done here, however much you disdain the locals. Don't be an arrogant ass, it's bad for your client. Also: federal judges gonna federal judge, so shrug and move on.

Tea and Unaccountability: Bureaucracy and the Drug War

Last week Radley Balko described a Kansas case in which loose-leaf tea led to a police raid. One law enforcement officer saw someone shop at a hydroponics store, and another officer conducted trash searches at the shoppers' house and found leaves, and a "field test" suggested (falsely) that the leaves were marijuana, and it was off to the races with an armed incursion into the shoppers' home, which did not in fact contain any marijuana. A federal judge in Kansas recently ruled that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity in the resulting lawsuit.

Orin Kerr took Radley to task for his rhetoric and carefully reviewed the federal judge's order. The investigation may be bungled, Orin argues, but all the judge really did is find that an officer can rely on a positive field test for drugs in establishing probable cause, at least when the officer didn't know that such field tests are notoriously inaccurate.

Radley's perfectly right to be outraged. And Orin's perfectly right to note that Radley's outrage is directed at a feature, not a bug, of the system. Law enforcement has become increasingly bureaucratic, in the sense that actors are insulated legally and politically from the consequences of their actions, and those actions are treated as dictated by circumstance rather than chosen by accountable humans.

Consider, to start, the utter lack of accountability for taxpayer money displayed in this case. The whole case arise from "Operation Constant Gardener," a Sheriff's initiative to conduct marijuana cultivation raids on April 20th because that date is considered an "unofficial holiday among marijuana users." One officer was tasked to sit in the parking lot of a hydroponics store and take down license plates and pass those plates along to another law enforcement agency in a custom-made spreadsheet. Another officer matched those plates to individuals and addresses, and another officer evaluated which addresses to visit. Having chosen a suspect and an address, two other officers visited three times to root through the trash and look for evidence. Those two officers brought the "plant material" they found to a supervisor, in part because it was "hard to identify," to solicit his input. Upon a false positive "field test" for marijuana (though the material was actually tea), an officer drafted a search warrant, a deputy prosecutor reviewed and approved it, and seven law enforcement officers conducted an armed raid on the suspect's house. When the seven officers could not find evidence of marijuana cultivation, they extended the search for a couple of hours in an effort to find personal use amounts of marijuana. They found none. The Sheriff's Office later conducted a press conference bragging of the success of Operation Constant Gardener, presumably referring to other raids.

How much did all of that cost the taxpayers? Tens of thousands of dollars, at least. Was it worth it? Would it have been worth it even if law enforcement had found a private-residence-sized marijuana grow at the house? That's not a question you'll hear asked. The War on Drugs means never having to say "sorry I wasted your money." Certainly nobody who's paid to sit in a parking lot taking down license plates, or paid to raid trash cans and squint (quite literally) at tea leaves, or paid to devise cleverly-named gestures of defiance at marijuana users and then give press conferences about it, will ever ask that question. Financially, law enforcement is unaccountable.

They're also unaccountable in terms of basic competence. There was no incentive for the officers to learn, and know, that field tests are unreliable. What does it matter to them? They get paid whether or not they're reliable, paid whether the search turns up marijuana or tea. Moreover, they're insulated from any civil liability for relying on junk science. Nor do they have any incentive to conduct corroborating investigation. The officers here could have subpoenaed the house's electrical bills to watch for unusual consumption, a tell of indoor marijuana cultivation. They could have investigated whether the house has unusual foot traffic, or whether there had been any tips about the homeowner selling drugs. Faced with hard-to-identify plant material, they could have sent it to the crime lab for a test — after all, they had already waited seven months after the initial sighting of the suspect at the hydroponics store. But why do any of those things? The bar for probable cause is set extremely low — low enough that a visit to a hydroponics store and a questionable field test result on a small amount of leaves clears it. The small amount of leaves in the trash is consistent with mere personal use of marijuana, and some would argue that a seven-officer armed raid is a disproportionate use of law enforcement force to investigate such use, but nobody's asking about proportionality and nobody's being held accountable for the lack thereof. Why not just phone in your investigation, shrug at the result, and show up for a time-and-a-half raid on the dude's house? If a hypothetical officer could objectively conclude that there's enough evidence for probable cause, why give a shit about whether the person really did it or not?

When seven armed agents of the state raid your home at gunpoint in front of your spouse and young kids, it is traumatic. But arguably the homeowner should feel relieved that nothing worse happened. The officers didn't shoot the kids' pet dog, or mistake the X-Box controller in somebody's hand for a gun and shoot them, or stumble on a step and shoot someone, or shoot the homeowner when he reacted to what he might have thought was a home invasion robbery. The officers were relatively low-key — only seven officers, only one AR-15, no flashbang grenades thrown into a baby's crib to soften the place up first. Lucky! If any of those things had happened, it's likely that the officers would not have been accountable for it. The law usually doesn't hold them accountable for such "mistakes" in the course of a raid. And nobody even talks about holding them accountable for making the decision to conduct an armed raid on an occupied dwelling — a raid in which deadly mistakes are a distinct possibility — based on the aimless, good-enough-for-government-work suspicion that maybe they're growing pot in there. Nobody's asking whether the game is worth the candle — whether the known risk to lives is justified by the ends of the War on Drugs.

Nobody asks those questions because it's a bureaucracy, and you don't ask such questions in a bureaucracy. Asking questions might make you accountable, and the whole point of the law enforcement edifice is to insulate actors from accountability and to separate cause from effect. Someone chooses to harass marijuana users on April 20 to make a point and someone decides that you can find marijuana users shopping at hydroponics stores and someone decides that a field test of an unknown substance is good enough and someone decides to get a warrant and a family winds up held at gunpoint in their own home for drinking tea. These events are treated as if they are disconnected; nobody stops to say "the end result of this will be a man prone on the floor under the barrel of an AR-15 in front of his children, so act accordingly." Nobody's responsible, say the police. It just happens. I just work here.

What Happened In The Hammond Sentencing In Oregon? A Lawsplainer

Much ink has been spilled amount United States v. Hammond, the federal criminal prosecution cited by militia members as one of the motivations for taking over a federal facility in Oregon. The increased sentence imposed on the Hammonds has been cited as a sign of government abuse. But the sentencing itself is not remarkable.

In 2001 Steven and Dwight Hammond set a fire on their property that spread to public land. In August of 2006 they set a back burn near the boundary of their land to respond to a lightning-kindled fire; that fire burned a small amount of public land. The federal government charged the Hammonds with various crimes, including Title 18, United States Code, section 844(f)(1):

(1) Whoever maliciously damages or destroys, or attempts to damage or destroy, by means of fire or an explosive, any building, vehicle, or other personal or real property in whole or in part owned or possessed by, or leased to, the United States, or any department or agency thereof, or any institution or organization receiving Federal financial assistance, shall be imprisoned for not less than 5 years and not more than 20 years, fined under this title, or both.

The Ninth Circuit summarized part of the trial evidence as follows:

Although the Hammonds claimed that the fire was designed to burn off invasive species on their property, a teenage relative of theirs testified that Steven had instructed him to drop lit matches on the ground so as to “light up the whole country on fire.” And the teenager did just that.

A jury convicted the Hammonds of the Section 844 charge, acquitted them on other charges, and failed to reach a verdict on additional charges. While the jury continued to deliberate on the remaining charges, the Hammonds and the government reached a deal: the Hammonds would not appeal the verdict and the government would recommend that the Hammonds could stay out on bail pending sentencing and that the government would recommend that their Section 844 sentences be served concurrently — that is, that though the Hammonds were convicted of multiple counts of Section 844, each carrying a mandatory minimum five-year sentence, the government would recommend that those five-year terms not "stack," but result in just one five-year sentence.

At sentencing, the United States District Judge on the case refused to impose the five-year mandatory-minimum sentences required by Section 844, ruling that to do so would violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The court instead imposed sentences of twelve months and a day on the father2 and three months on the son.

The government appealed the sentence, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed and sent the case back, instructing the trial court to impose the statutory mandatory minimum sentence. The Court found — rather convincingly, given the precedent — that a five-year sentence for arson does not violate the Eighth Amendment:

Given the seriousness of arson, a five-year sentence is not grossly disproportionate to the offense. The Supreme Court has upheld far tougher sentences for less serious or, at the very least, comparable offenses. See Lockyer v. Andrade,
538 U.S. 63 (2003) (upholding a sentence of fifty years to life under California’s three-strikes law for stealing nine
videotapes); Ewing v. California, 538 U.S. 11 (2003) (upholding a sentence of twenty-five years to life under California’s three-strikes law for the theft of three golf clubs); Hutto v. Davis, 454 U.S. 370 (1982) (per curiam) (upholding a forty-year sentence for possession of nine ounces of marijuana with the intent to distribute); Rummel v. Estelle, 445 U.S. 263 (1980) (upholding a life sentence under Texas’s recidivist statute for obtaining $120.75 by false pretenses). And we and other courts have done the same. See, e.g., United States v. Tolliver, 730 F.3d 1216, 1230–32 (10th Cir. 2013) (upholding a 430-month sentence for using arson in the commission of a felony); United States v. Major, 676 F.3d 803, 812 (9th Cir. 2012) (upholding a 750-year sentence for offenses under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)), cert. denied, 133 S. Ct. 280; United States v. Meiners, 485 F.3d 1211, 1212–13 (9th Cir. 2007) (per curiam) (upholding a fifteen-year sentence for advertising child pornography); United States v. Uphoff, 232 F.3d 624, 625–26 (8th Cir. 2000) (upholding a five-year sentence for arson of a building).

So the district court resentenced the Hammonds. The government asked for the five-year mandatory minimum but kept its deal to recommend concurrent sentences (rather than stacking two counts of Section 844 to form a ten-year sentence), and the court agreed and imposed that sentence. The Hammonds will necessarily serve 85% of that sentence, less the time they've already served.

Was the five-year sentence cruel and unusual?

It's arguable whether the five-year sentence is colloquially cruel and unusual, or whether the law should treat it as a violation of the Eighth Amendment. But there's no serious argument that the sentence is cruel and unusual under existing Eighth Amendment precedent. The Supreme Court and lower courts have upheld far harsher sentences for far less serious conduct. The Eighth Amendment still has vigor when applied to the death penalty and some conditions of imprisonment, but under modern jurisprudence it does not place any significant limit on the length of imprisonment that may be imposed for convictions. That may not be what the law should be, but it's what the law is, and has been for some time.

Was the mandatory minimum sentence unusual, or unusually imposed?

The Hammond case provided a straightforward application of a statutory mandatory minimum sentence. If you accept the premise of the jury's verdict — that the jury found that the Hammonds maliciously burned government land — then the case does not stand out. Longer mandatory minimums are routinely imposed for less culpable conduct. That doesn't make it right; it just makes it banal.

Was it unusual for the government to appeal the sentence, or for the Hammonds to be returned to jail after serving the original sentence?

Absent a waiver, both the government and the defense have the right to appeal a sentence. Federal prosecutors generally must seek approval from "main Justice" — the Department of Justice in Washington D.C. — before appealing a ruling. That's so the feds don't make what they see as "bad law" by appealing "bad cases," and so the feds' legal stance remains relatively consistent across circuits.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, before the Supreme Court ruled that the United States Sentencing Guidelines must be treated as recommendations and not as mandates, the government routinely appealed sentences when they concluded that the judge had mis-applied the Guidelines in the defendant's favor. Now that the appellate standard is "reasonableness" of the sentence, the government appeals on that basis less often, but still does so. The United States has always routinely appealed sentences when a district judge has refused to impose a mandatory minimum sentence. Traditionally the Department of Justice has jealously guarded the mandatory nature of mandatory minimum sentences, appealing judicial defiance of them even in otherwise unappealing cases.

It's therefore not unusual at all that the government appealed the Hammonds' sentence.

Nor is the Hammonds' return to prison unprecedented. If the trial court imposes a short sentence and the appellate court overturns that ruling and requires a longer sentence, that's the result. The alternative would be that trial judges could avoid appellate review of sentences by making them short enough that defendants would be done with them by the time the appellate court could review them. That might be appealing to defense lawyers, defendants, and judges who believe in the primacy of trial court discretion, but it's not the law.

The U.S. v. Hammond appeal, reversal, and resentencing are not remarkable in the context of federal criminal law. Maybe they should be, but they aren't. Any suggestion that the proceedings represent a departure from the norm are incorrect.

That's not meant as an endorsement of the result. It's meant to question why this particular exercise of federal criminal authority strikes people as so outrageous, when in fact (as we often discuss here) it's routine.

Heroic Judge Peter Jaklevic Defends Justice System From Anarchy of Jurors Maybe Not Convicting Everybody

Mecosta County District Court Judge Peter Jaklevic is a former career prosecutor, like all righteous judges, and knows the purpose of jurors: to convict like they're told.

Judge Peter Jaklevic, pictured here with his draft campaign speech.  Image courtesy of

Judge Peter Jaklevic, pictured here with his draft campaign speech. Image courtesy of

So when Keith Wood — a wild-eyed former pastor and current lawless anarchist — began distributing seditious incitement to destroy the judicial system, Judge Peter Jaklevic knew just what to do: arrest him.

A 39-year-old former pastor was arrested and jailed in Mecosta County after he handed out fliers informing people about jury nullification in front of the county courthouse.

Keith Wood said he was handing out pamphlets from the Fully Informed Jury Association on Nov. 24 while standing on the sidewalks along Elm Street.

The Fully Informed Jury Association, and idea-terrorists of its ilk, promote the dangerous notion that Americans selected for jurors have a right — even an obligation — not just to follow the orders of judges, but to exercise their conscience and judgment in evaluating the state's exercise of power over individuals. Such incendiary nonsense threatens the very premise of our justice system, which is that jurors will act as obedient foot soldiers in the government's glorious and righteous efforts like the Great War on Drugs.

So Woods had to be stopped. But let nobody say that Judge Peter Jaklevic lacks proportion and mercy. He repeatedly sent intermediaries to Woods to bring him unto Jaklevic's presence.

A little while later, a court deputy came outside and told Wood that the judge wanted to talk to him, and if he refused to do so, the Big Rapids police would come and arrest him.

Woods refused Jaklevic's summons three times, just as Peter denied Christ three times. The hubris!

So Jaklevic ordered Woods arrested. Woods spent 12 hours in jail until he met the $150,000 bond — which he did by putting $15,000 on a credit card to pay a bail bondsman. Even if he's acquitted or the charges are dismissed he won't get that money back. Freedom is expensive.

Now, just as Woods denied Judge Jaklevic three times, Pharisee lawyers might deny Judge Jaklevic's right to rule. They might say that courts have only upheld restrictions on distribution of jury nullification information inside courthouses or in other fora where the government has a right to restrict speech. See, e.g., Braun v. Baldwin, 346 F.3d 761, 763 (7th Cir. 2003). They might insist that multiple courts have struck down purported limits on distribution of jury nullification information in public places like streets, and have narrowed restrictions on "jury tampering" to situations where defendants targeted people they knew to be on particular juries. See, e.g., United States v. Heicklen, 858 F. Supp. 2d 256, 275 (S.D.N.Y. 2012); Verlo v. City & Cty. of Denver, Colorado, No. 15-CV-1775-WJM-MJW, 2015 WL 5012919 (D. Colo. Aug. 25, 2015). They might say that a citizen standing on a public street handing out literature arguing about a core civic function, not directed at any particular judicial proceeding, is core free speech protected by the First Amendment.

But this legalism obstructs justice. We all know what justice is: it's when jurors convict the person the government has accused of a crime. That's the proper function of a jury in America. Everything else is dross. Woods threatened to disrupt that function. How could Jaklevic let that pass?

Let's all take a moment to thank Judge Peter Jaklevic for reminding us what the justice system is about: doing what he and other prosecutors say we should.

Bad Reporting on Matthew Keys' Possible Sentence Conceals Prosecutorial Power

For years I've been grumbling ineffectually about how the media gets criminal justice stories wrong. In particular, I've repeatedly complained that the media distorts stories about federal criminal prosecutions by reporting the statutory maximum sentence that defendants face without noting that the actual remotely plausible sentence they face is usually much lower.

Here's a case in point, and here's why you should care.

Yesterday a federal jury in Sacramento convicted former Reuters journalist Matthew Keys under the extraordinarily flexible, antiquated, and confusing Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The feds have long relied upon the ambiguity of that statute to pursue whomever they want to pursue. Keys was convicted on the theory that he provided LA Times login information to hackers who made nonsensical edits to an article on the Times' web site.

Although some media outlets reported the result accurately, many emphasized the statutory maximum sentence Keys could face. CNN: "Keys, 28, faces up to 25 years in prison when he is sentenced on January 20, 2016." "The Washington Post — "the end result may mean 25 years in prison." Huffington Post: "Keys Faces Up To 25 Years In Prison." Newsweek: "he faces up to 25 years in prison." Wired: "Keys faces a possible sentence of up to 25 years."

But there's no plausible chance that Keys will get anything like 25 years. The court will use the United States Sentencing Guidelines as a starting point — a recommended sentence — and absent any bizarre factors not present here, will impose a sentence close to that recommendation or below it. Based on the government's outlandish claim that the LA Times hack caused almost a million dollars in damages — more on that in a moment — Keys will likely face a recommended sentencing range of (by my calculation) 51-63 months as a starting point for sentencing arguments,3 and while the court may go considerably lower, it's very unlikely the court will go much higher. Keys' attorneys will get a chance to dispute these calculations, and may convince the court to reject the government's loss calculation (driving the recommended sentence lower) or otherwise adjust it, so that the judge ultimately sentences him based on a different recommended range. But there is effectively no chance that the court will go years higher — a sentence substantially above the guideline range is vulnerable to attack on appeal, and doesn't happen in cases like this.4 That calculation of 51 to 63 months recommended range is consistent with the government's comment that it will seek less than five years.

I can see why Keys would think that this is annoying pedantry, but it's not. Leave aside, for the moment, that the media is misinforming the public about the criminal justice system. Forget the fact-distorting discussions this always creates: "how can you get 25 years for hacking when murderers get out in 10?" The inaccurate reporting is a problem because it conceals a grave problem: the vast power of federal prosecutors to drive the sentence federal defendants get.

Keys gave hackers the ability to deface an LA Times online article for 40 minutes with silly gibberish. The government is arguing that caused $929,977.00 in damages. The jurisdictional cut-off for the charged crime is only $5,000. What part of a response to a hack gets counted as damages, and what doesn't? The line is obscure and flexible. Evidence here suggested that the Times initially calculated damages at $3,800, and that its agents tried to inflate the numbers to make it more likely that the perpetrators would be prosecuted federally. The government can take a very low-key approach and argue that only a low, easily provable number represented damages — or it can aggressively pursue an extravagant theory. If the judge accepts the government's stance — and judges usually do — it makes a very substantial difference in the sentence that the defendant faces. In this case, if the government were only arguing (let's say) $6,000 in damages, Keys would be facing a recommended sentencing range of 15-21 months instead of 51-63 months.5 Those years make quite a difference in somebody's life, and in the decision of whether to go to trial or not. The government can — and routinely does — say to defendants "if you accept this plea we'll stipulate that the damages are only $6,000, but if you go to trial, we're going to argue that they are almost a million dollars."

When journalists report the statutory maximum sentence, they help promote a misleading narrative that prosecutors merely charge cases and judges determine the sentence. In fact, prosecutors have extraordinary power to determine a defendant's likely sentence based on what they choose to charge and what facts they choose to argue. Bad reporting conceals that. Stop it.

Edited to add: Dan Nguyen helpfully points out that in its opposition to Keys' motion to suppress, the government asserted that the labor cost of investigating and responding to the hack was 333 hours worth less than $18,000, but implied that figure didn't include other costs that no doubt inform its nearly-a-million figure. Again, it's about the government's discretion to argue vastly disparate positions that drive a sentence.

Ninth Circuit Imposes (Some) Limits On Cops Yanking Things Out of Your Ass

Mark Tyrell Fowlkes had a bad day.

For you or me, that means realizing that there's no credit left on our Starbucks card or our co-workers being annoying or getting a flat tire. For Fowlkes, it meant the Long Beach Police Department forcibly pulling something out of his ass.

LBPD, assisted by the DEA, were wiretapping and surveilling Fowlkes to see if he was dealing drugs. He was. LBPD arrested him once, caught him with drugs and a gun, and released him, probably to see where he'd lead them. A week later, they ran a pretextual traffic stop on him, arrested him, and took him to jail. There they strip-searched him:

Five officers observed the strip search, including Officer Jeffrey Harris and Sergeant Michael Gibbs, who brought along his taser, gloves and “assistance” in the form of additional officers because he thought Fowlkes might have drugs.

Officers believed that Fowlkes was not being cooperative displaying his anus and thought he was trying to push something in there. One Sergeant testified that he believed Fowlkes was trying to force an object further into his anus in order to destroy evidence. That's not how anuses work. That's not how any of this works. But to prevent Fowlkes from further hiding or destroying something in his anus, Sargeant Michael Gibbs “delivered a drive stun tase to the center portion of the defendant’s back” and the officers handcuffed him. Officers claim they could see a plastic bag protruding from Fowlkes. With Fowlkes cuffed, tased, and under the control of five officers, the officers decided that immediate action was needed to protect evidence. Sargeeant Michael Gibbs gloved up and pulled the object out of Fowlkes' rectum without seeking a warrant, without medical training or medical personnel, and "without the assistance of anesthesia, lubricant, or medical dilation," producing blood and feces.

So. Not as bad as the day David Eckert had when New Mexico police enlisted the help of a doctor to penetrate him repeatedly, but still bad.

The feds charged Fowlkes with drug and gun possession. That included a count based on the drugs pulled out of him. The trial court rejected his argument that the drugs seized from his anus were illegally obtained. Yesterday, in a revised opinion, the Ninth Circuit decided to put some limits on cops' freedom to root about in our collective asses.

The Ninth Circuit found the warrantless visual strip search reasonable, including the visual body cavity search, mostly on the grounds that the government arrests so many people it would be impractical to get warrants to strip-search them, and because jail safety is important because the government arrests so many people. As Dilbert would say, that's not being circular, it's having no loose ends.

But the Court noted actual limits on intrusions into our bodies. "Therefore, while visual cavity searches that do not require physical entry into a prisoner’s body are generally permissible without a warrant during the jail intake process, physical cavity searches generally are not." Did the Court recognize a general rule against sergeants yanking things out of our asses without a warrant? Not exactly. It's the Ninth Circuit, sure, but this is still America. The Court avoided a broad rule. "We need not and do not determine whether a warrant is required to seize evidence discovered during a visual strip search from an inmate’s body because the officers’ conduct here was unreasonable for other reasons." The Court decided that the search was unreasonable — and thus violated the Fourth Amendment — because the officers violated the jail's own written policies requiring a medically trained person conduct cavity searches, because Fowlkes posed no immediate threat, because the officers had no training in such measures that would let them evaluate whether they were safe or necessary, and because the officers did not take any steps to minimize trauma:

Here, the LBPD officers did not take adequate steps to minimize Fowlkes’ physical trauma. They did not, for example, use lubrication or ensure that the removal was conducted under sanitary conditions; they did not seek the guidance or assistance of medical personnel; and they did not assure themselves that removing the object from Fowlkes’ rectum was safe—indeed they did not know the size, shape, or substance of the object. Further, they did nothing to mitigate his anxiety or emotional trauma. They did not, for example, offer him options for removing the contraband or secure his compliance; they did not (and could not) assure him that the removal was safe or being conducted by a trained professional; and they did not (and could not) assure him that the procedure was legal and in keeping with LBPD policy rather than an arbitrary show of force.

The Ninth Circuit — bless its heart — seems to think that physical and emotional trauma were a bug, not a feature, of the officers' approach. But at least we know: there are limits to the judiciary's willingness to let cops conduct medical procedures on you.

So the Ninth Circuit reversed Fowlkes' conviction — on the one count arising from the drugs found in his rectum. It upheld the rest of the conviction.

Isn't justice majestic?

Lawsplainer: What's Going On With That Troll Joshua Goldberg, Anyway?

Ken, you need to explain the Ninth Circuit's decision about the interaction between Section 512(f) of the DMCA and fair use law, particularly in the context of surviving motions to dismiss or summary judgment.



You can't make me.

Fine. God. You're such a child. Will you write about SOMETHING please?

. . . . maybe.

Like what?

Joshua Goldberg.

The multi-faced troll the feds just arrested? The one everyone wants to pin on "the other side" of whatever argument they're having?

yes him

Seems kind of a cop-out to me. But fine. What's he charged with, and how?

The feds — more specifically, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Florida — have filed a criminal complaint charging Goldberg with one count of distributing information about explosives and destructive devices.

Only one count?

It's only a complaint. See, in the federal system, prosecutors can seek a complaint — an accusation approved by a U.S. Magistrate Judge, based on the probable cause demonstrated in a written and sworn affidavit by a federal law enforcement officer — or get an indictment, which is an accusation issued by a grand jury.

But unless they plead immediately, all federal defendants charged with felonies are entitled to be charged by grand jury indictment. So if you're looking to arrest someone based on a complaint, you don't necessarily have to throw all of the charges in there — you'll have the chance to throw more in when you draft an indictment and go to the grand jury.

So he could get charged with more later?

Sure, if they've got the evidence.

Right now he's charged with one count of distributing information about things that go boom under Title 18, United States Code, Section 842(p).

What's that when it's at home?

It's a statute making it illegal to teach people how to make bombs so they can use them in a crime, basically:

(2)Prohibition.—It shall be unlawful for any person—

(A) to teach or demonstrate the making or use of an explosive, a destructive device, or a weapon of mass destruction, or to distribute by any means information pertaining to, in whole or in part, the manufacture or use of an explosive, destructive device, or weapon of mass destruction, with the intent that the teaching, demonstration, or information be used for, or in furtherance of, an activity that constitutes a Federal crime of violence; or

(B) to teach or demonstrate to any person the making or use of an explosive, a destructive device, or a weapon of mass destruction, or to distribute to any person, by any means, information pertaining to, in whole or in part, the manufacture or use of an explosive, destructive device, or weapon of mass destruction, knowing that such person intends to use the teaching, demonstration, or information for, or in furtherance of, an activity that constitutes a Federal crime of violence.

Hmm. So it criminalizes teaching about things? Could that be a First Amendment violation?

Some will say so, but I don't think it's a very strong argument. Notice that the crime requires that the defendant intend that the information be used in a federal crime of violence. A federal court in San Diego considered a First Amendment attack on the statute and rejected it on that basis:

The specific focus of the statute is not on mere teaching, demonstrating, or disseminating information on how to construct a destructive device, but upon teaching, demonstrating, or disseminating information with the specific intent that the knowledge be used to commit a federal crime of violence.

Courts have upheld similar statutes so long as they require that the defendant intended to further an illegal act.

How are they going to prove what Goldberg intended? He's a troll. The whole point of his existence is saying things he doesn't mean.

Well, their case got a hell of a boost when Goldberg effectively confessed to the elements of the crime.

The complaint and supporting affidavit are here. The feds say that Goldberg provided bombmaking information to be used in a terrorist attack on a Kansas City September 11 memorial. The feds have a confidential informant posing as a potential domestic terrorist, referred to as "CHS" in the complaint. They monitored communications in which Goldberg encouraged CHS to engage in a terrorist attack using bombs at the Kansas City memorial, and sent him links to pages with instructions for making bombs, and suggested what sort of shrapnel to use in the bombs.

Now, Goldberg could have engaged in the troll's typical defense — that he knew that CHS wasn't a real terrorist and was stringing him along. I wouldn't want to go to a jury with that, but it's colorable. But Goldberg blew that defense by talking to the FBI when they raided his house:

JOSHUA GOLDBERG admitted that he provided that individual with information on how to manufacture bombs. JOSHUA GOLDBERG further admitted that he believed the information would create a genuine bomb. Specifically, JOSHUA GOLDBERG stated that he provided the individual with instructions on how to create a pressure cooker bomb. When creating the pressure cooker bomb, JOSHUA GOLDBERG admitted that he instructed the individual to include nails and to dip the nails in rat poison. JOSHUA GOLDBERG also admitted that he instructed the individual to place the bomb at an upcoming memorial in Kansas City, Missouri that was commemorating the September 11,2001 attacks. JOSHUA GOLDBERG stated that he believed that the individual did intend to create functioning bombs and would actually attempt to use them to kill and injure persons. During the course of the interview, however, JOSHUA GOLDBERG made varying statements in an attempt to explain his actions in providing bomb making information to the individual. In general, JOSHUA GOLDBERG claimed that he intended for the individual to either kill himself creating the bomb or, if not, that he intended to alert law enforcement just prior to the individual detonating the bomb, resulting in JOSHUA GOLDBERG to receive credit for stopping the attack.

So. By failing to shut up — which one should always do when confronted with federal agents, at least until one gets legal advice — Joshua Goldberg has made the government's case dramatically stronger.

Is this going to be another case where there was never going to be any terrorist attack because the defendant was dealing with a government agent all the time?

Sure looks that way.

So, how much time could he do?

The statutory maximum for the charged crime is 20 years. But, as Popehat readers know, his sentence will be calculated using the recommendations of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines; the statutory maximum is only a ceiling and usually has little to do with the actual sentence. Plus, the feds will probably load more charges on when they indict.

We have very little information, and we don't know the final charges yet. But it appears to me that under the applicable guideline, taking into account only what's in the complaint, his recommended sentence will be very substantially less than 20 years. As currently charged, it's more like a couple of years if he pleads guilty. Of course, a judge can go above the guidelines, and may well do so in a case this vivid.

So. What's next for him?

He appeared in court and his Public Defenders agreed that he would stay in custody pending a bail hearing. That's often, though not always, a sign that the defense thinks they have a tough argument to get him out on bail. He's entitled to bail unless the government can show that's he's a danger to the community or flight risk in ways that amount and conditions of bail cannot address.

Normally, the next step would be for the feds to indict him, and for him to enter a not guilty plea on the indictment. But today apparently he got new lawyers and the U.S. Magistrate Judge ordered him to be evaluated for competency to stand trial.

What? He's trying an insanity defense?

Not necessarily. Competency is different than insanity. The insanity defense goes to whether the defendant can be held responsible for his actions. A competency exam assesses whether the defendant is even competent to stand trial — that is, whether as a result of mental illness he's "unable to understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him or to assist properly in his defense."

So if he's incompetent, he walks without even going to trial?

Oh no. First he gets evaluated at a federal psychiatric facility for up to 30 days. There's one in Springfield, Missouri, for instance. Then, if the judge finds by a preponderance of the evidence that he's competent, he stands trial. If the judge finds him not competent, he gets sent back to the federal psychiatric facility for up to four months to see if they can make him competent using drugs and therapy. Then he gets sent back for another assessment, and maybe more therapy and drugs, and so forth. He's in custody the whole time. Eventually, if it looks impossible to make him competent but he's still adjudged dangerous, he can be committed long-term.

The process of being shipped to a place like Springfield, and "treated" there, and returned, is notoriously unpleasant. I think I might prefer to get tried and sentenced. I mean, assuming I helped people make bombs or something.

What do you anticipate happening next?

He'll be back in 30 days, or longer if the parties agree to a longer time. The judge will make a determination of his competency, which the parties may or may not contest. Then, anything can happen. Remand to treatment if he's not competent, a guilty plea to minimize exposure, trial, and everything in between.

By the way, if his competency is in question, if I were his lawyer, I'd be thinking about whether I could get his confession thrown out. It's not a Fifth Amendment violation to take a confession from someone who is incompetent; a defendant still has to show police coercion. But a defendant's lack of competence can be one factor in determining whether law enforcement coerced a confession. It's worth a look for his defense.

Is that all?

For now.

Now do the DMCA case!

Bite me.

Ninth Circuit Harshly Scrutinizes Law Enforcement Leak, Threatens Sanctions Against Department of Justice

What the hell is going on in America?

The federal judiciary — which previously could be counted upon to be relatively complacent in the face of a culture of prosecutorial misconduct — has begun to take notice and harumph and even do something about it. In January a Ninth Circuit panel blasted state prosecutors defending a conviction won with perjury. Ninth Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski has started a blunt public and academic discussion of misconduct as a systemic problem. This week the Fifth Circuit cited prosecutorial misconduct — including federal prosecutors commenting on cases online under pseudonyms — in overturning the federal convictions of some murderous New Orleans police officers.

This is a trickle, not a tide. But normally federal judicial recognition of the problem of misconduct is a parched desert; any relief is notable. And in the last two months, judges have even questioned one of law enforcement's most cherished methods of gaming the system — leaks to the press. The situation raises questions not just about government misconduct, but about how the press addresses such misconduct.

[Read more…]

My Bad Use of Force Decision Shows You Shouldn't Second-Guess My Use of Force Decisions

The Blaze, Glenn Beck's tequila-sweat dream-diary, repeats a law enforcement talking point today. The talking point — "scrutinizing use of force will kill cops" — is rarely served this explicitly or uncritically.

The story's about a Birmingham police officer who got pistol-whipped at a traffic stop. A suspect from the car he stopped approached him aggressively, cold-cocked him, and pistol-whipped him. Cold-hearted bystanders took pictures of him bleeding on the ground rather than helping. Thankfully, the officer will recover. But he's saying that he didn't use force in time to defend himself because of fear of how the media might treat him:

"A lot of officers are being too cautious because of what's going on in the media," said the officer, who asked to remain anonymous for the safety of his family. "I hesitated because I didn't want to be in the media like I am right now."

The Blaze pointedly notes:

The suspect in question, Janard Shamar Cunningham, is a black man and was seemingly unarmed during the incident.

Police — eagerly quoted by The Blaze — are using this to complain about media coverage of their actions:

Heath Boackle, a sergeant with the Birmingham Police Department and president of the city's Fraternal Order of Police, said Thursday that cops are "walking on eggshells because of how they're scrutinized in the media."

Police Chief A.C. Roper sees the episode — as well as the reaction, including celebratory and vitriolic comments posted online alongside images of the wounded officer — as symptomatic of a larger problem, in which some don't respect law enforcement.

"The nobility and integrity of policing has been challenged," Roper said. "As a profession, we have allowed popular culture to draft a narrative which is contrary to the amazing work that so many officers are doing everyday across this nation."

Here the typical subtext is closer to plain text: reporting on, scrutinizing, and criticizing officer use of force puts officers in danger by making them hesitate and second-guess themselves.

This is monstrous gibberish.

A cop made a bad use of force call. Thank God he lived. But a bad use of force call is not a good argument for less scrutiny of use of force. "I have trouble making decisions because of fear of how I will be treated in the media" does not convey "I'm capable of good judgment about the use of force, so you should trust me more."

Chief Roper complains about "popular culture" drafting a "narrative." What he means is that he's mad that there has been a mild drift away from the existing narrative — the law and order (and Law & Order), thin-blue-line narrative in which the cop is presumed to be the good guy and force is presumed to be righteous, a necessary tool for discovering truth and punishing evil, thwarted only by dishonest lawyers and publicity-hungry politicians. That narrative has been — and remains — overwhelming.

Police work is not, contra Chief Roper, an occupation of nobility and integrity, any more than any other profession is. It's a profession made up of noble and ignoble people, honest officers and liars, decent folks and utter thugs. It does not deserve the cultural free pass we've given it. The complaints here show how extensive that free pass is. Consider: the officer and his supporters aren't saying that he hesitated using deadly force on a human being because using deadly force on a human being is something to be done with great care. They're saying he hesitated — and that other officers might hesitate — because of how it might look on the news.

If "maybe I shouldn't kill this guy unless I have a good reason" isn't an adequate motivator to govern deadly force — and our history suggests that it isn't — I'm okay with "maybe I don't want to be on the news" stepping in to help.

Edited to add: I took some shots at The Blaze here, but the CNN story linked above is just as cop-deferential.