Friday, August 24th, 2012

Let’s Get Metaphysical

United States v. Cassesse, No. 10-2210-cr (2d Cir. July 11, 2012, amended July 25, 2012) (Newman, Katzmann, Parker, CJJ)

This case untangles a mathematic quandary left by some unclear statutes: how can a life term of supervised release, imposed on a supervised release violation, be reduced by the number of months of the prison term imposed for that same violation?  Here the district court simply sentenced the defendant to twelve months in prison on the violation to be followed by another life term of supervised release.  Describing the issue as “almost metaphysical,” the circuit affirmed.

Cassesse was originally convicted under a drug statute that carries a maximum possible supervised release term of life, and was sentenced to that, to follow an eighty-seven month term of imprisonment.

After his release to supervision, Cassesse pled guilty in a new federal case – this one involving racketeering – and received a ninety-month sentence. For the supervised release violation, which the same district judge heard at the same time, the court sentenced him to a consecutive twelve-month prison term and imposed, over objection, a new term of lifetime supervised release.

The circuit rejected Cassesse’s argument that the new life term of supervised release was illegally long

The supervised release statutes provide that when supervised release is revoked and the defendant is sentenced to prison, the court may impose an additional term of supervised release, the length of which “shall not exceed” the maximum term of supervised release authorized by statute for the underlying offense “less any term of imprisonment” imposed on the revocation. 

Since, in this case, since the authorized maximum term of supervised release for the underlying drug offense was life, the “intriguing question” was “whether and how the prison term reduction concept” should apply. To the government, there was no problem at all, since twelve months in prison plus lifetime supervised release “equal[led] the original lifetime term” of supervision “but did not exceed it.”  

Cassesse, on his part, insisted that the twelve months should be subtracted from his lifetime term of supervised release, either by (1) requiring instead the imposition of a fix term of years of supervision in cases like his, (2) using the guidelines’ Sentencing Table (start with offense level 43 and then deduct) and then converting back to years, or (3) using his life expectancy at the time of sentencing and  subtracting one year from that. 

The circuit had a more practical approach. It simply decided that the prison subtraction provision did not apply at all. The “more appropriate course is simply to recognize that this is one of those rare situations where Congress did not expect the literal terms of its handiwork to be applied to a lifetime term of supervised release.” To the circuit, it was “highly unlikely” that Congress intended this, and thus that there was no error. The court also rejected the idea of using the defendant’s life expectancy – this would “introduce a variable bearing little, if any, relation to the penological purposes for defendants who outline their life expectancy and would introduce reverse age discrimination.”

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