Supreme Court Review-Preview-Overview

An up-to-date outline of Supreme Court criminal cases
is available here. It covers pending cert grants and decisions from the past and current Terms. Other "cites" of interest are available here.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Watson: Not "Use" to Barter Drugs for Gun

In Watson v. U.S., No. 06-571 (Dec. 10, 2007), the Supreme Court held that a person who trades drugs for a gun does not "use" a firearm and is therefore not guilty of violating 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), which criminalizes use of a firearm during and in connection with a drug trafficking offense.
The Court noted that in ordinary English, a person who trades an object to acquire another uses the object that he parts with, but not the one he acquires: when a person pays a cashier at a cafeteria one dollar for a cup of coffee, the person "uses" the dollar bill, not the cup of coffee. The Court declined to import meaning from a neighboring statute which criminalizes the mere receipt of a firearm, pointing out that the two statutes speak to different issues.
The Court also rejected the argument that since it had construed § 924(c) to criminalize bartering guns for drugs, it made sense to symmetrically also punish bartering drugs for guns. The Court, however, said that it must respect the "language" of the statute, and left it to Congress to decide whether the language should be change to effectuate more symmetrical results.

Gall: Reasonableness Review is Deferential

In Gall v. U.S., No. 06-7949 (Dec. 10, 2007), the Supreme Court held that while the extent of the difference between a particular sentence and the recommended Guideline range is relevant, courts of appeal must review all sentences – whether inside, just outside, or significantly outside the Guidelines range – under a deferential abuse of discretion standard. The Eighth Circuit therefore erred when it reversed based only on its disagreement with Gall’s sentence. The Court specifically rejected the Eighth Circuit’s view that a variance requires "extraordinary" circumstances, and its application of a proportionality formula to determine whether a Guideline-variance is justified.
The Court noted that the district court committed no procedural error, because it adequately considered the § 3553(a) sentencing factors and adequately explained its sentence. Turning to substantive "reasonableness" review, Court found that the district court "quite reasonably attached great weight" to a number of factors in imposing a below-Guidelines sentence – Gall’s withdrawal from the conspiracy, his youthful age at the time he committed the offense, and his self-motivated rehabilitation. The Court noted that it is not for courts of appeal to decide de novo whether the justification for a variance is sufficient.

Kimbrough: Crack Guidelines Advisory Only

In Kimbrough v. U.S., No. 06-6330 (Dec. 10, 2007), the Supreme Court held that under Booker the crack cocaine Guidelines, like all other Guidelines, are advisory only. A district judge therefore may consider the crack/powder disparity when sentencing crack cocaine offenders, and impose a below-Guidelines sentence if a within-Guidelines sentence is "greater than necessary" to serve the objectives of sentencing set forth at 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).
The Court rejected the government’s arguments that Congressional policy prohibits sentencing courts from disagreeing with the 100:1 ratio. The Court did not find support for this argument in Congress’ silence on this point, and noted that Neal v. U.S. was consistent with the view that Congressional statutes do not necessarily foreclose a different Guideline approach. The Court also noted that Congress recently acquiesced in the 2007 Guidelines which reduced the crack/powder disparity. The Court also rejected the argument that disagreements with the 100:1 ratio would increase sentencing disparities. The Court noted some departures from uniformity were a necessary result of its Booker decision. The Court further noted that the Sentencing Commission itself had reported that the 100:1 ratio created disproportionately harsh sanctions, thus lending support to the view that a Guidelines-based sentence would be "greater than necessary."
The Court concluded that Kimbrough’s sentence, 4.5 years below the bottom of the Guidelines range, was reasonable.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Logan: Civil Rights Never Lost are not "Restored"

In Logan v. U.S., No. 06-6911 (Dec. 4, 2007), the Supreme Court held that the ACCA provision which instructs sentencing courts to disregard a prior conviction if a defendant’s civil rights have been "restored" does not apply if, under the state law governing the prior conviction, the defendant retained his civil rights at all times.
The Court noted that the word "restored" describes a measure by which the government relieves an offender of some of the consequences of his conviction.
The Court acknowledged Logan’s argument that a literal reading of the statute would produce the "anomalous" result that those who never lost their civil rights could later be sentenced more harshly than those who did. The Court pointed out, however, that Logan’s reading of the statute would create its own anomalies, for example, dangerous recidivists who never lost their civil rights would be treated more leniently than less dangerous offenders who did. The Court noted that the anomalies resulted from the statute, which looked to the differing laws and policies of the several states. Logan’s reading would also undercut the statute’s express intent to include misdemeanor offenders within its potential scope. Finally, the Court pointed to a more recent Congressional statute which clarified the point, and cast doubt on Logan’s reading.