Wednesday, January 24th, 2007

Panel Revisits Guidelines-Land

United States v. Trupin, Docket No. 05-2934-cr (2d Cir. Jan. 23, 2007) (Wesley, Hall, Jones): The real sentencing action is occurring elsewhere, of course, but someone has to report the news from the provinces. This opinion is bad news indeed, but may become irrelevant by June. Keep your fingers crossed.

Here, on a Government appeal of the 69-year-old tax-cheat defendant’s 7-month prison sentence, a Panel of the Circuit vacates the sentence as substantively unreasonable — i.e., “too darn short for our particular taste.” The opinion is fact specific, to be sure, but also portends a broader view of sentencing (at both the district and Circuit levels) quite familiar to most — the pre-Booker, mandatory Guidelines regime in which sentences outside the Guidelines range were presumptively suspicious and lawful only where exceptional circumstances exist. Also, nowhere seen is the deferential, hands-off appellate posture announced in Crosby and Fleming to establish the post-Booker appellate framework for the Circuit. Instead, this particular Panel essentially assumes the role of a higher sentencing court, overruling the lower court’s (irreducibly) subjective judgment about the most “just” and appropriate sentence in favor of its own (and different) subjective judgment about the same. One need not be a cynic to point out that had a different Panel of the same Court heard Trupin’s appeal — for instance the Panel that affirmed a well-below-the-range sentence in Jones, 460 F.3d 191 (2d Cir. 2006) (click here for our discussion), a sentence justified, at bottom, by the district judge’s “gut feeling” that the defendant deserved a break — the result would have been different. Let’s hope the Big Court in DC cleans up this mess of its own making.

Here are the relevant details — though the retrograde nature of the opinion can only be appreciated on a full reading. Trupin is 69 years old. He was convicted at trial of failing to report $6 million in income over a 6-year period, a scam that involved shell companies, phony accounts, etc. At the original pre-Booker sentencing, the judge declined to depart downward on the basis of Trupin’s age or family circumstances (he has an ill wife) and imposed a 41-month sentence (the bottom of the applicable range), though stating his personal view that the Guidelines range was too harsh. Following Booker and a remand pursuant to Crosby, the district judge imposed a principal sentence of 7 months’ incarceration and 7 months’ home confinement (as part of a 3-year term of supervised release).

To justify this sentence, the judge pointed to, inter alia, (1) the fact that, “from everything I can see, Mr. Trupin does everything in his power to take good care of his [ill] wife, even though he doesn’t have the means that he once had”; (2) Trupin’s advanced age, which means that “service of a lengthy sentence will be a greater hardship on him than in most cases,” and further noting that recidivism generally declines with age and opining that “Trupin is not going to go out and commit any more crimes of the sort he’s done”; (3) the fact that it’s unlikely that the IRS could collect the amounts owed by Trupin anyway, whether he’s incarcerated or not; and (4) the court’s view that “a few weeks in jail for most of us would be a very, very significant punishment.”

The Panel finds fault with each aspect of the district court’s reasoning, essentially substituting its own subjective judgment for the lower court’s. Op. 7. First, regarding Trupin’s age and family circumstances, the Panel points out that the district court denied a downward departure on the same grounds at the original sentencing, and did not reconsider this decision at the post-Booker resentencing. “So what?”, one might say in this post-Booker world, but not so the Panel. This fact is significant, Op. 7-8, because it shows that the “court placed far too much weight on Trupin’s family circumstances and age without giving adequate weight to the other statutory factors” at the resentencing. Op. 8. Huh.

Regarding Trupin’s wife and his efforts to care for her, for instance, the Panel claims that this factor “is neither sufficiently compelling nor present to the degree necessary to support the sentence imposed.” Id. This is so because, among other things, Trupin’s presence was not “essential to his wife’s well-being.” Id. Moreover, the fact that Trupin will not be able to care for his wife during his incarceration is “not sufficiently unique” to him, “but rather is true of every married defendant who runs afoul of the law.” Op. 9.

The Panel also finds that the court “placed too much weight on Trupin’s advanced age,” pointing out that he was in good health and that — regardless of general recidivism statistics — Trupin began committing crimes in his 50s and then continued doing so into his 60s. Op. 9. Also, “whether and to what extent the IRS would be able to collect the unpaid taxes” is “an irrelevant variable to include in the sentencing calculus.” Id.

Additionally, once again substituting its judgment for the lower court’s, the Panel believed that the 7-month sentence does not “reflect the seriousness of Trupin’s offense.” Op. 9. And, finally, the Panel rejects the district court’s claim that even a few weeks in prison is a significant sentence, describing this as a “general policy disagreement[]” that a sentencing judge is forbidden to make. Op. 10.

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