July 1, 2004 U.S. Judge Overturns Guidelines For Sentences
By Adam Liptak
A federal judge in Utah held the federal sentencing guidelines unconstitutional on Tuesday, a move legal experts said followed all but inexorably from a Supreme Court decision last week striking down the sentencing law in Washington State.
The sweeping 40-page decision, by Paul G. Cassell of Federal District Court in Salt Lake City, was the first extended judicial analysis of what the Supreme Court's decision in the Washington State case means for the federal system.
Judge Cassell, a former law professor who defended the federal guidelines in The Stanford Law Review in April, wrote that he acted reluctantly, taking ' 'no joy'' in the ''potentially cataclysmic implications'' of his decision.
The decision is not binding on other judges. Still, Douglas Berman, a law professor at Ohio State University and an expert on sentencing law, said Judge Cassell's decision was likely to be influential, given the high quality of its analysis and the judge's background.
The Supreme Court decision, issued last Thursday and known as Blakely, requires any factor that increases a criminal sentence, except for prior convictions, to be admitted by the defendant or proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.
The federal sentencing guidelines, however, require judges to impose longer sentences based on all sorts of other material presented only to them, including information about the defendant's background and the nature and severity of the crime. Shorter sentences based on similar information remain permissible.
In the Utah case, Brent Croxford pleaded guilty to taking sexually explicit pictures of a girl when she was 8 and 9 years old. The guidelines required Judge Cassell to take account of not only that crime but also related conduct involving a second girl and the fact that Mr. Croxford had fled to Tennessee to avoid facing the charges.
Judge Cassell ruled that, under the Blakely decision, he was not entitled to impose more prison time based on either the other abuse or Mr. Croxford's flight, as neither had been admitted or proved to a jury.
He rejected the possibilities of convening a separate sentencing jury or imposing the maximum sentence suggested by the factors that had been proved or admitted.
That second approach was used by a federal judge in Maine on Monday, according to a transcript of a sentencing hearing. Judge D. Brock Hornby, of Federal District Court in Portland, sentenced Ducan Fanfan to 6 years instead of almost 20 in a drug case, saying the court was not entitled to consider increases requested by prosecutors based on the quantity of drugs involved and whether they included crack cocaine.
Judge Cassell's ruling was broader; he held the guidelines as a whole unconstitutional. That means, he wrote, that judges are bound only by the minimum and maximum sentences in the criminal statutes themselves. The crime Mr. Croxford was convicted of carries a minimum of 10 years and a maximum of 20. In that context, moreover, Judge Cassell wrote, judges are ''free to examine all relevant information.''
''Some observers may conclude this is paradoxical,'' the judge wrote, ' 'inasmuch as Blakely's core goal is to ensure jury fact-finding at sentencing.'' But all Blakely really requires, he said, is that juries determine the facts ' 'legally essential to the punishment.''
Judge Cassell sentenced Mr. Croxford to about 12 years, slightly less than the guidelines would have called for and slightly more than would have been generated by a partial application of them that ignored the unproved conduct.
Judge Cassell predicted that Congress would soon address the situation. He said that the likely legislative response would be ''tough fixed sentences across the board -- an outcome that will protect neither the interests of criminal defendants nor, paradoxically, the very right to a jury trial that Blakely sought to protect.''