Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Booker Changes Little Regarding Internal Operation of Guidelines: Preponderance Standard Governs, and Acquitted Conduct Can Be Considered

United States v. Vaughn, Docket No. 04-5136-cr (L) (2d Cir. Dec. 1, 2005) (Newman, Sotomayor, Daniels (by designation)): In a disappointing but hardly surprising decision, the Court concludes that the standard of proof at sentencing remains the preponderance standard and that acquitted conduct can still be used to calculate the Guidelines range. The Circuit's position on the calculation of the Guidelines range in the post-Booker world has now become quite clear: The same rules that formerly governed pre-Booker continue to govern post-Booker, the only difference being that the end result of those calculations (i.e., the Guidelines range) is merely advisory and only one factor among several to be considered under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) in imposing sentence.

The decision also quickly rejects an ex post facto / Due Process challenge to the use of the remedial portion of the Booker opinion to defendants who committed their crime before January 2005, and discusses the appropriate language to use in a jury charge concerning how to evaluate the credibility of a cooperating witness testifying as a member of Team America.

The essential facts are simple. The two defendants were charged with a § 841(b)(1)(B) drug conspiracy carrying a 5 to 40 year sentence. At trial, an alleged co-conspirator testified for the Government pursuant to a cooperation agreement. Defense counsel sought a detailed charge to the jury explaining how testimony from snitches should be viewed (i.e., with great suspicion given their strong motive to curry favor with The Man). The court denied the request and gave a more watered-down charge concerning the evaluation of a snitch's testimony.

Defendants were convicted. However, the jury indicated on a special verdict form that the Government proved only a § (b)(1)(C) quantity of drugs (carrying a 0 to 20 year sentence). At sentencing, the court found on a preponderance standard that defendants were responsible for distributing far more than what the jury found, and imposed sentences in accordance with that finding under the then-mandatory Guidelines -- 97 months and 121 months, respectively.

1. The Court disposed of the ex post facto argument quickly, noting that even before Booker, defendants had fair notice that distributing drugs carried at least a 20 year maximum. Op. 9-10.

2. The Court also quickly rejected the argument that the reasonable doubt standard should be used after Booker, pointing to Crosby's conclusion that "district courts remain statutorily obliged to consider the Guidelines in the same manner as before." Op. at 11.

3. The same back-o'-the-hand treatment was given to the defendants' argument that acquitted conduct can no longer be used to calculate the Guidelines range after Booker: "[D]istrict courts may find facts relevant to sentencing by a preponderance of the evidence, even where the jury acquitted the defendant of that conduct." Op. at 13. This general proposition is subject to three qualifications: The district court may not, however, impose "(1) a sentence in the belief that the Guidelines are mandatory, (2) a sentence that exceeds the statutory maximum authorized by the jury verdict, or (3) a mandatory minimum sentence under § 841(b) not authorized by the verdict." Op. at 14.

4. The only silver lining in the opinion concerns the jury charge issue. The Court ultimately upheld the defendants' convictions, finding that considered in light of the other components of the courts' charge as well as points made in defense counsel's summation and on cross of the snitch, "the issue of the cooperator's credibility" was "fairly put" to the jury. Op. at 6. The Court specifically cautioned, however, that "a more detailed accomplice or cooperating witness instruction . . . would have been prudent." Op. at 8. Indeed, "[t]he better course would have been for the trial judge to more specifically caution the jury to scrutinize the testimony of the cooperating witness with an eye to his motivation for testifying and what he stood to gain by testifying." Op. at 6. This should be excellent fodder to convince a trial judge to give a detailed "snitch credibility" charge.

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