Author Archive | Sarah Baumgartel

Thursday, April 30th, 2020

Examining the scope of crack resentencings under the First Step Act

Last week we highlighted the Second Circuit’s decision in United States v. Holloway, No. 19-1035, holding that a motion for a sentence reduction under Section 404 of the First Step Act of 2018 is governed by 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(B), not § 3582(c)(2).

In United States v. Chambers, No. 19-7104, 2020 WL 1949249 (4th Cir. Apr. 23, 2020), the Fourth Circuit recently reached the same conclusion in addressing a slightly different issue. In Chambers, the district court erroneously applied a career offender enhancement in a First Step Act crack resentencing, because the career offender enhancement had been applied at the original sentencing. Overturning this decision, the Fourth Circuit holds that the “First Step Act does not constrain courts from recognizing Guidelines errors” and that “any Guidelines error deemed retroactive … must be corrected in a First Step Act resentencing.”

Although this is a somewhat narrow issue, the …


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Categories: career offender, First Step Act of 2018

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Compassionate Release and Covid-19

Numerous district courts in the Second Circuit and across the country have used the expanded compassionate release provision of the First Step Act, 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i), to release at-risk defendants from custody during the Covid-19 crisis. These courts have found that the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, combined with underlying medical issues that increase a defendant’s risk from the virus, can constitute “extraordinary and compelling” reasons to reduce the defendant’s sentence and order release from custody.

The national Federal Defenders website and Douglas Berman’s Sentencing Law and Policy blog are two great sources of information about these compassionate release grants.

Here I wanted to highlight a few notable decisions within the Second Circuit related to this issue.

In United States v. Gerard Scparta, No. 18 Cr. 578 (AJN), ECF Dkt. 69 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 19, 2020), Judge Nathan granted a compassionate release motion of a 55-year old defendant who suffers from …


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Categories: Covid-19, First Step Act of 2018

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Tuesday, April 28th, 2020

Some Summary Orders: Bikes, Guns, Fines

On April 27, 2020, the Second Circuit issued three summary orders in criminal matters.

In United States. v. Cuello, No. 19-2053, the Circuit affirmed a district court’s denial of suppression of a gun found during a traffic stop. This “traffic” stop was of a bike that did not have proper “head and tail lights,” in violation of New York Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1236(a). During the stop, police asked the bike rider for identification and his “bicycle registration.”

Did you know that “bicycle registration” is a thing? Apparently, the Syracuse Revised General Ordinances, Section 29-1 requires every person in the city of Syracuse who owns a bicycle operated in the city to register that bicycle “with the chief of police.” Well.

When the bike rider failed to produce his registration, police asked him about a black backpack he was wearing. Because how suspicious is it to be riding …


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Categories: 922(g), fine, reasonable suspicion, Rehaif, traffic stop

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Wednesday, February 19th, 2020

Committing or threatening violence is a “crime of violence.”

For one brief, beautiful moment, it seemed like nothing could ever be a crime of violence. But the pendulum is swinging back and now everything is becoming a crime of violence once again.

In United States v. Nikolla, 17-2206-cr (2d Cir. Feb. 19, 2020), the Second Circuit held that threatening violence in furtherance of an extortion plan, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1951(a), is categorically a “crime of violence” under the force (or elements) clause of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c).

In Nikolla, the defendant pled guilty to several charges, including a § 924(c) offense, pursuant to a written plea agreement. On appeal, he nonetheless challenged his § 924(c) conviction. In upholding this conviction, the Circuit found § 1951(a) divisible and noted that the defendant pled guilty to the provision which applies to a defendant who “commits or threatens physical violence to any person or property in furtherance” …


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Categories: 924(c), crime of violence

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Notable compassionate release decision

The First Step Act expanded so-called compassionate release, which permits a court to reduce a previously-imposed sentence if it finds that “extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant such a reduction.” 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A). The Act also for the first time enabled defendants to make an application directly to the court for such relief. We are still waiting to see the full impact of these legal changes. One open question is what constitutes “extraordinary and compelling reasons.” Both the Sentencing Commission and the Bureau of Prisons have promulgated definitions. But do these definitions limit the authority of courts to grant relief? Recently, a federal court in Utah found that they did not.

In United States v. Kepa Maumau, No. 08 Cr. 758 (TC) (D. Utah Feb. 18, 2020), the district court ruled that it was not bound by the Sentencing Commission’s or Bureau of Prisons’ definitions of “extraordinary and compelling …

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Thursday, January 2nd, 2020

Circuit Panel Affirms Fraud Convictions, Over Dissent

In an opinion expanding the scope of federal criminal liability for “insider trading,” a two-Member majority of the Second Circuit affirmed several securities and fraud convictions in United States v. Blaszczak, 18-2811 (2d Cir. Dec. 30, 2019). Judge Kearse dissented from the decision.

This multi-defendant case involved a so-called expert services network: defendant Blaszczak was a political intelligence consultant, who provided clients with information about contemplated rule changes by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), a government agency. Prosecutors charged that a CMS employee disclosed confidential agency information to Blaszczak (ahead of announcements of rule changes), who in turn shared this information with employees at hedge funds. The CMS employee, Blaszczak, and two hedge-fund employees were charged.

Although this high-profile prosecution was presented as an “insider trading” case, the defendants were acquitted of all of the traditional insider trading charges (the Title 15 offenses). However they were …

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Friday, November 1st, 2019

Connecticut First-Degree Robbery is a Crime of Violence Under Section 16(a)

Continuing to develop its “crime of violence” jurisprudence, the Second Circuit held that Connecticut first-degree robbery, Section 53a-134(a)(4), is a crime of violence under 18 U.S.C. § 16(a).

In Wood v. Barr, 17-514-ag (2d Cir. Nov. 1, 2019), a lawful permanent resident facing deportation argued that his Connecticut robbery conviction was not a “crime of violence,” and therefore not an aggravated felony.

Since the Supreme Court struck down Section 16(b)’s so-called residual clause in Sessions v. Dimaya, the Second Circuit focused on Section 16(a)’s elements clause. This provision defines a “crime of violence” as an offense that has an element requiring “the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person or property of another.” The Circuit adopted its rationale in an earlier decision, United States v. Bordeaux, 886 F.3d 189 (2d Cir. 2018), which addressed New York first-degree robbery. The Circuit noted that …


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Categories: crime of violence, robbery

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Tuesday, October 29th, 2019

Circuit Strikes Supervised Release Condition Based on Variation from Pronounced Sentence

A criminal defendant has the right to be present at the pronouncement of sentence. “Therefore, after a sentence has been pronounced, the written judgment may clarify the terms of the spoken sentence, but may not add to them.” If there is a substantive difference between the spoken and written versions of a sentence, the spoken version ordinarily controls.

Based on this rule, in United States v. Dodd, 18-2320 (2d Cir. Oct. 28, 2019), the Second Circuit ordered the district court to strike a condition of supervised release that the court had added to the written judgment, but which it had not imposed orally at sentencing. The condition prohibited the defendant from maintaining or opening any bank or financial accounts without approval from his probation officer. Because the condition had not been part of the oral sentence, on appeal the government conceded that it must be vacated.

In the same …


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Categories: sentencing, supervised release, Uncategorized

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Thursday, August 22nd, 2019

Second Circuit Vacates Civil Forfeiture Judgement Based on Suppression Issue and Other Errors

On August 9, 2019, the Second Circuit vacated a high-profile civil forfeiture judgment, in an opinion that may be of interest to criminal practitioners. The litigation involves the government’s efforts to seize 650 Fifth Avenue, a skyscraper in midtown, and other property, based on allegations that the property owners violated federal law through their relationships with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

In In re 650 Fifth Avenue and Related Properties, No. 17-3258(L) (2d Cir. Aug. 9, 2019), 2019 WL 3756033, the Circuit held that, among other errors, the trial court mistakenly denied a motion to suppress evidence obtained pursuant to a defective search warrant. In a prior 2016 appeal in the case, the Circuit ruled that a certain search warrant was constitutionally deficient because, on its face, it lacked particularity as to the alleged crimes.

Thus, the Circuit had already found a Fourth Amendment violation. The only question was …

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Federal Second-Degree Murder is Not a Crime of Violence …

In the Ninth Circuit, at least. This week in United States v. Begay, No. 14-10080, 2019 WL 3884261 (9th Cir. Aug. 19, 2019), the Ninth Circuit held that second-degree murder, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1111, is not a crime of violence for purposes of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c).

In Begay, the defendant, “[a]fter a few hours of drinking and smoking methamphetamine,” “shot [the victim] in the head with a handgun,” killing him. The defendant was convicted of second-degree murder and discharging a firearm during a crime of violence, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A)(iii).

The Ninth Circuit vacated the § 924(c) conviction. The Circuit applied the categorical approach to determine whether second-degree murder qualifies as a crime of violence, looking to the elements of that offense rather than the specific facts of the case. (And after United States v. Davis, an offense must qualify …


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Categories: 924(c), crime of violence, murder

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Second Circuit Grants Habeas Relief in State Murder Case Based on Right to Present a Complete Defense

In Scrimo v. Lee, No. 17-3434 (2d Cir. Aug. 20, 2019), the Second Circuit ordered the grant of a writ of habeas corpus, undoing the defendant’s 2002 second-degree murder conviction.

Defendant Paul Scrimo was convicted of second-degree murder following trial in New York state court and sentenced to 25 years to life. Briefly, the defendant was charged with strangling a woman in her apartment early in the morning, after drinking with her and a man named John Kane at various bars. The chief evidence against the defendant was the testimony of John Kane. Kane admitted that he was with the victim and the defendant on the night of the murder, and in the victim’s apartment during the crime. Kane claimed that he saw the defendant strangle the victim after she insulted him.

There was little to corroborate Kane’s account of the murder and, in fact, other evidence pointed to …


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Categories: cumulative impact, evidence, harmless error, right to present a defense; Rule 403, state

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