Tag: sentencing guidleines

Trump Administration Sets Strict New Course for Federal Prosecutions

John Roberts, Esq.
Arseneault & Fassett, LLP

The Attorney General of the United States, Jeff Sessions, has issued a memorandum to all federal prosecutors establishing the strict new policy of the Trump Administration’s Department of Justice (DoJ) for charging and sentencing federal offenses. The “Sessions memo” overturns a series of “Holder memos,” issued during the Obama administration, which had urged prosecutors to avoid charging crimes that carry mandatory terms of imprisonment in certain cases.

The Sessions memo outline two broad directives. First, federal prosecutors are to “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offenses.” Leaving nothing to the imagination, the memo defines “serious” offenses as “those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences.” Second, the memo directs prosecutors to disclose to the sentencing court all facts that could impact a judge’s sentencing decision, and to seek sentences within the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s Guidelines. Any Government recommendations for variances or departures from the Guidelines requires the approval of supervisors. Further, prosecutors who wish to deviate from the principles of the memo must justify such with “unusual facts” and must document those special circumstances for the file.

The Sessions memo explicitly rescinds any previous DoJ policies which would be inconsistent with the new one, and it specifically cites the Holder memos issued in 2013 and 2014. The Holder memos had directed prosecutors to avoid seeking mandatory-minimum and enhanced sentences for nonviolent, low-level drug-distribution defendants who were not part of large-scale criminal organizations and did not have significant criminal records. Those relatively lenient policies are now history under the Trump administration.

By requiring front-line prosecutors to pursue the most serious provable charges and disclose all relevant facts to the sentencing court, the new policy seeks to deny them a major avenue of prosecutorial discretion — the ability to be flexible and reasonable in applying the law to the specific circumstances of each defendant to obtain the most just result. In light of these new policies, it is more important than ever in certain cases where a person is under scrutiny by federal law enforcement for an experienced criminal defense attorney to interface with prosecutors as early in the process as possible. In such cases, an early resolution may prove more favorable for the client than would be possible after an investigation has developed to the point where unreasonably serious charges are filed and prosecuted.

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Changes to Federal Sentencing Guidelines Affect Definitions of “Crimes of Violence” and “Career Offenders”

John Roberts, Esq.
Arseneault & Fassett, LLP


Changes to the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines have redefined “crime of violence” and “career offenders” for sentencing purposes. These changes affect key aspects of the Guidelines which Federal courts use to determine some of the most lengthy sentences.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission recognized that the previous definition of “crime of violence” was widely considered complex and unclear. The Commission was further prodded by the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Johnson v. United States, which found that the broad language used to define “violent felony” in the Armed Career Criminal Act — coincidentally, the same language used in the previous version of the Guidelines — was unconstitutionally vague. Finally, the Commission found that courts were imposing an increasing proportion of sentences below the Guideline ranges.

In the latest changes to the Guidelines, the Commission narrowed the definition of “crime of violence” by removing the impermissibly broad language, and revised and narrowed the list of offenses that are always deemed crimes of violence. For example, burglary of a dwelling and involuntary manslaughter have been removed from the enumerated offenses, while the use and even the unlawful possession of certain firearms have been added.

In another change, the Commission added a provision for downward departures to the Guidelines governing “career criminals.” Defendants who are deemed to be career criminals receive the harshest sentences, often at or near the statutory maximums. The latest change permits courts to depart from the Guidelines and impose a lower sentence where one of the defendant’s prior convictions was classified as a felony by the Federal Guidelines but as a misdemeanor by the State. This change provides an opportunity for an astute defense attorney to advocate for a more just sentence than a strict interpretation of the Guidelines would otherwise result in.

The Guidelines greatly influence the sentences that Federal judges impose. Criminal statutes, enacted by Congress, impose a very broad range of potential sentences for federal crimes – for example, anywhere from zero to ten years. The Guidelines are designed to help judges to narrow down the appropriate sentencing range for a particular defendant to a matter of months – for example, 0 to 6 months, or 33 to 41 months, or 87 to 96 months – and thus provide uniformity of sentences for similar criminal conduct throughout the Federal court system.

To achieve this goal, the Guidelines provide courts with a multitude of complicated formulas which consider, among other things, the law that was violated; the specific facts of each case such as the number of victims, the seriousness of the loss or damage, and the role that each defendant played; and the defendant’s criminal history, if any. Even small adjustments in these factors can make the difference between a fair sentence and a harsh one.

Although Congress established the U.S. Sentencing Commission which created and maintain the Guidelines, the Supreme Court determined that the Guidelines are not mandatory upon Federal courts. Judges are authorized to impose sentences above or below the Guidelines, based on the unique facts and legal arguments that prosecutors and defense attorneys advocate before the court.

These latest changes to the Guidelines underscore the importance that anyone who has been charged with — or is even under investigation for — a Federal offense should immediately consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney who has an intimate knowledge of the latest Guidelines. While every attorney’s goal is always to avoid having any sentence imposed on a client, the most effective attorneys will also consider all the nuances of the Guidelines to advise and advocate for the best possible result.

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