Repost from the Sentencing Law and Policy Blog, “Guest post on the Fourth Circuit’s reaction to district judge’s rejection of plea bargains”:

In prior posts here and here I noted the quite notable opinions by US District Judge Joseph Goodwin explaining why he was rejecting plea bargaining in fairly routine cases.  Professor Suja A. Thomas, Peer and Sarah Pedersen Professor of Law at the University of Illinois College of Law, who is a leading scholar on juries and has written the leading book on the topic, was kind enough to put together this guest post about the Fourth Circuit’s recent opinion in one of these cases:

By rejecting plea bargains, Judge Joseph Goodwin of the Southern District of West Virginia has been challenging the prevalent use of plea-bargaining in the federal courts.  Judge Goodwin began to do so in 2017 in United States v. Walker when he issued an opinion rejecting a plea bargain in a case involving heroin-dealing (discussed here).  He said he would continue to reject plea deals as long as the plea bargain wasn’t in the public’s interest.  True to his word he has rejected pleas in other cases including United States v. Stevenson and United States v. Wilmore.  Late last month in US v. Walker, No. 18-4110 (4th Cir. April 29, 2019), the Fourth Circuit issued its first opinion addressing Judge Goodwin’s rejection of pleas.

The facts of Walker are significant.  The government presented a deal for a plea to a single count of possession with intent to distribute heroin.  It recommended 24 to 30 months. The court rejected the plea deal and ultimately as a result of pleading guilty to three distribution counts plus a jury conviction on a gun count, the defendant received four times as much — 120 months in prison.

In Walker, Judge Goodwin described four considerations in whether a plea bargain agreement should be accepted: “(1) ‘the cultural context surrounding the subject criminal conduct’; (2) ‘the public’s interest in participating in the adjudication of the criminal conduct’; (3) the possibility of ‘community catharsis’ absent the transparency of a jury trial; and (4) whether, in light of the [presentence report], it appeared that the ‘motivation’ for the plea agreement was ‘to advance justice’ or to ‘expediently avoid trial.’” 922 F.3d 239, 245 (4th Cir. 2019).  In rejecting the plea bargain there, the judge discussed how West Virginia had been “deeply wounded by … heroin and opioid addiction,” explained the public’s significant interest in this issue, described the importance of the jury’s determination of this matter, and concluded that the plea agreement had been improperly motivated by convenience.  Id. at 245-46.

While the Fourth Circuit addressed Judge Goodwin’s rejection of plea bargaining, the opinion is disappointing.  In upholding his decision, it focused on only Judge Goodwin’s analysis of the defendant’s criminal history and violence.  And it suggested that Judge Goodwin’s broader considerations such as the cultural context of the offenses were irrelevant.  Similarly, in concurrence, Judge Niemeyer stated that the court would have abused its discretion if it had rejected plea bargaining based on the government’s frequent use for the reason of convenience. Id. at 254.

The Fourth Circuit missed an opportunity.  It could have addressed some of the problems tagged by Judge Goodwin — that constitutionally-enshrined juries decide few cases and that the courts accept plea bargaining as necessary for efficiency — despite no constitutional backing for this proposition.

With that said, I recognize that Judge Goodwin’s actions resulted in a black defendant being sent to prison for much more time than the prosecution wanted — continuing to contribute to the problem of mass incarceration.  Additionally, a jury had some role but did not decide all counts.  Though one can argue that the Judge’s action in rejecting plea bargains is far from a perfect solution, whether you agree with the Judge or not, he has taken a bold, very courageous step of questioning our continued reliance on the system of plea bargaining.

And I share some views with Judge Goodwin.  I value the role that the jury was to play in the criminal justice system under the Constitution.  Plea coercion, as I like call it, occurs in approximately 97% of federal cases.  Most of the time the defendant is given a false choice — receive a discount for pleading guilty or receive a penalty for going to trial.  The obvious result is the system that we have now.  No one takes a jury trial; the penalty is too great.  In a book and elsewhere, I have argued that this system is unconstitutional.  Historically a penalty was not attached to a jury trial.  A defendant received the same sentence if he pled guilty or if he was convicted before a jury.

The Harvard Law Review summarized and critiqued Judge Goodwin’s opinion in Walker. 131 Harv. L. Rev. 2073 (2018).  Although an interesting analysis including a discussion of the significant impact on the defendant, the authors missed the mark when they simply stated plea bargaining is “a systemic problem that cannot be convincingly addressed by the actions of a single judge.” Id. at 2078.  They did not recognize that systemic change often begins with a single person challenging the status quo.  The judge has already sparked national media coverage and other significant discussions about plea bargaining.

With that said, what will the government do in the future in Judge Goodwin’s courtroom?  It seems like the defendant and the government will get around Judge Goodwin’s rejection of the plea deal by privately agreeing in advance to the plea.  Hopefully, the needed attention to the problems with plea-bargaining will not end there


More Than You Wanted To Know About Marijuana

posted by Judge_Burke @ 20:08 PM
May 21, 2019

Joelle Anne Moreno (Florida International University (FIU) – College of Law) has posted Half-Baked: The Science and Politics of Legal Pot (Penn State Law Review, Vol. 123, 2019) on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Weed, herb, grass, bud, ganja, Mary Jane, hash oil, sinsemilla, budder, and shatter. Marijuana – whether viewed as a medicine or intoxicant – is fast becoming a part of everyday life, with the CDC reporting 7,000 new users every day and the American market projected to grow to $20 billion by 2020. Based on early campaign rhetoric, by that same year the U.S. could have a pro-marijuana president.

Despite its growing acceptance and popularity, marijuana remains illegal under federal law. Like heroin, LSD, and ecstasy, marijuana is a DEA Schedule I drug reflecting a Congressional determination that marijuana is both overly addictive and medically useless.

So what is the truth about pot? The current massive pro-marijuana momentum and increased use, obscures the fact that we still know almost nothing about marijuana’s treatment and palliative potential. Marijuana’s main psychoactive chemical is THC; but it also contains over 500 other chemicals with unknown physiological and psychological effects that vary based on dosage and consumption method. Medical marijuana may be legal in 32 states and supported by 84% of Americans, but federal constraints shield marijuana from basic scientific inquiry. This means that lawmakers and voters are enthusiastically supporting greater access to a drug without demanding critical scientific data. For policymaking purposes, this data should include marijuana’s short and long-term brain effects, possible lung and cardiac implications, chemical interactions with alcohol and other drugs, addiction risks, pregnancy and breast-feeding concerns, and the effects of secondhand smoke.

This Article treats marijuana as a significant contemporary science and law problem. It focuses on the fundamental question of regulating a substance that has not been adequately researched. The Article examines the extant scientific data, deficiencies, and inconsistencies and explains why legislators should not rely on copycat laws governing alcohol or prescription narcotics. It also explores how marijuana’s hybrid federal (illegality)/state (legality) raises compelling theoretical and practical Constitutional questions of preemption, the anti-commandeering rule, and congressional spending power. Marijuana legalization has, thus far, been treated as a niche academic concern. This approach is short-sighted and narrowminded. Marijuana regulation implicates the reach of national drug policy, the depth of state sovereignty, and the shared obligation to ensure the health and safety of our citizenry.


From the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System | University of Denver:

Divorcing Together

IAALS Releases New Report on its Interdisciplinary
Out-of-Court Approach to Separation and Divorce

It is no secret that divorce poses significant problems for those who go through the legal process. Even for people who approach it with the intention of remaining amicable, the adversarial nature of the legal process can put them at odds with one another. And, the courts are not well-positioned to provide much-needed emotional and future-planning support to families as they navigate the process. Today, IAALS has released a new report, Divorcing Together: Report on an Interdisciplinary Out-of-Court Approach to Separation and Divorce, which details the evaluation of our out-of-court model aimed at addressing these challenges for families with children.

We began designing our out-of-court divorce model in 2012 when we assembled a team of experts and stakeholders in the areas of family law and mental health. Working closely with this team, we devised a comprehensive divorce process that offered a range of services provided completely outside of the courts. The model was designed to provide not only legal services—including court case management, mediation, legal drafting, and legal education—but also a host of counseling services, such as co-parent coaching, individual counseling, family therapy, support groups, and child counseling.
In 2013, IAALS debuted the model on the University of Denver campus where graduate student interns served as the primary service providers. In 2015, the Center moved out into the Denver community and shifted to licensed professionals as primary service providers. Ultimately, the Center was unable to find a sustainable business model and closed its doors in late 2017.

Even with the Center closed, the successes and lessons learned throughout its four years of operation are invaluable as we continue to refine innovative models for helping families, and IAALS’ evaluation report provides keys insights. Most notably, the data demonstrates that individual parents experienced significant improvements in levels of acrimony toward the other parent, shared decision-making skills, communication and conflict resolution skills, confidence in the co-parenting relationship, and levels of stress related to parenting. Further, parent feedback about the Center experience was overwhelmingly positive. As one parent put it:

“The focus on children and what is best for them that is advocated by [the Center] helped our entire family go through the process and has positioned us for a harmonious co-parenting situation moving forward.”
The IAALS out-of-court model represents a substantial step in revolutionizing the way families experience the separation and divorce process—and our data will be informative as new innovations continue to develop. As communities around the country establish similar resources, we can look forward to a day when all families who intend to work together through the divorce process can do so in a supportive, cooperative environment.


By Bert | May 14, 2019 | The Open File Blog:

Wildly inappropriate behavior from the office of the prosecutor in Delaware’s largest city generated fascinating discussion among the justices in a recent Delaware Supreme Court opinion. The decision concerns the court’s review of a lower court’s dismissal of Jacquez Robinson’s first-degree murder indictment on the basis of law enforcement misconduct. Specifically, New Castle County prosecutors and their investigators raided the defendant’s jail cell and took his confidential files and notes, which included trial strategy, without notifying the court or his lawyer. In a close call, the five justices of the state’s highest court split three-to-two, with the majority deciding to reverse the lower court’s ruling. Although they declined to dismiss the indictment, the majority reprimanded the prosecutors, disqualified them from further participation in the case, ordered the office to destroy all trial work-product, and required the office to notify the trial court of its opinion if another instance of this misconduct was found. The dissenting justices would have gone even further, finding that the State’s “guileful and inept” response to being caught showed that the problem of misconduct demonstrated by their handling of Mr. Robinson’s documents is not merely an isolated incident.



Suspending Driver’s Licenses For Non-payment Of Fines

posted by Judge_Burke @ 19:19 PM
May 9, 2019

Michigan, like so many other states, has fines that are at times quite steep. There are people who just don’t bother to pay fines, but there are others who simply can’t pay the fine.

From Howard Bashman’s How Appealing blog, “Judge: Stop unfairly suspending Michigan driver’s licenses”:

Back in December 2017, Niraj Warikoo of The Detroit Free Press had an article headlined “A federal judge has issued a preliminary injunction halting the suspension of driver’s licenses in Michigan for people too poor to pay off court debts from traffic tickets, a decision that could impact about 100,000 residents.” The majority on a divided three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit issued this decision reversing the district court’s preliminary injunction. Circuit Judge Bernice Bouie Donald once again ends her dissenting opinion with “I dissent!”



What Kind Of Breath Taking Device Does Your Jurisdiction Use?

posted by Judge_Burke @ 17:02 PM
May 8, 2019

Sometimes we take for granted that forensic science is reliable when it isn’t. And because we legitimately fear drunk driving, the volume of cases can lead judges to be a bit cynical about challenges to the local police methodology. Just because there is a challenge does not necessarily make it true. The device that has been approved  in New Jersey illustrates the challenges courts face.

Mark DenbeauxNathan W. KahlNicholas SnowRichard EschleMarissa LitwinKeith Oliver and Robert DiPisa (Seton Hall University, School of Law, Seton Hall University, Seton Hall University, Seton Hall Law School – Center for Policy & Research, Seton Hall University – Center for Policy & Research, Seton Hall University – Center for Policy & Research and Seton Hall University – Center for Policy & Research) have posted The Untestable Drunk Driving Test on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The intersection of law and science has a long and tortuous history, but a new chapter is being written in New Jersey with the state’s use of the Alcotest 7110 MK III-C for prosecuting drunk driving traffic offenses. As the name implies, this is a device which purports to test levels of intoxication by measuring breath alcohol levels in order to determine blood alcohol concentration. The Alcotest is a proprietary device purchased by the State of New Jersey for use by law enforcement under a contract with the manufacturer that prohibits the State from subjecting the device to “reverse engineering” testing. Although the Alcotest was approved for use by the New Jersey Supreme Court after a proceeding that explored its reliability, serious scientific and legal questions remain, largely because of the manufacturer’s refusal to sell a device for independent testing or permit the State to provide its devices for such assessment. Given this limitation, any conclusions about the Alcotest are necessarily tentative. Nevertheless, as detailed in this Report, there are serious reasons to doubt the accuracy and reliability of the test, especially the manufacturer’s claims of the superiority of its product because, unlike other devices, the Alcotest employs two independent measures of breath alcohol. In reality, the two measures are highly interdependent. In addition, there are other reasons to question the validity of the test as an accurate measure of intoxication.
The Alcotest machine and the process by which it has been adopted raise the following novel issues:

• In New Jersey, the Alcotest device has been adopted to the exclusion of all other devices. The Alcotest is now the only breath alcohol analyzer of record in the state.

• The Alcotest device is now ‘immunized’ from challenge and from outside testing, and doubly so:

• By New Jersey’s contract with Draeger, which allows Draeger to prohibit any entity other than the state from purchasing the Alcotest, and

• By the decision in State v. Chun, which acknowledges Draeger’s intellectual property rights to the source code of the Alcotest, thus preventing any outside entity from determining how the machine works.

• Measurement devices like the Alcotest are inherently inexact, not because of oversights or poor design but because any measurement carries with it measurement errors. Sources of error for previous machines were reasonably well investigated, documented, and understood. The Alcotest, while new and theoretically better than previous designs, is also subject to measurement error, but because of the Alcotest’s immunity to challenge, those sources of error are currently not subject to investigation by scientists, let alone litigants.

The point — that a consequential and relatively ubiquitous scientific instrument is unavailable for scientific purposes, under any circumstances — is more than a theoretical issue.

The hallmark of the scientific process is testing and peer review. As matters now stand, it is impossible to test and review the Alcotest in the courts, and Dr. Snow’s experiences show that it is further exempted from testing and review in the scientific community.

This report investigates the process by which the Alcotest was adopted; the extent to which it is immune from testing; the reason that such immunization is dangerous in light of the science of breathalyzers in general and the Alcotest in particular; and, finally, the legal consequences of admission of evidence that cannot be tested either in general or in this particular case. Because science lies at the core of the legal issues surrounding the use of the Alcotest, Part Two of this report describes the science behind blood alcohol tests in general and the Alcotest in particular. Part Three considers the circumstances and the Special Master’s decision of State v. Chun. Finally, the report’s conclusion addresses the legal consequences of the aforementioned testing prohibitions upon the use of the device in litigation


What Kind Of Evidence Should Judges Admit?

posted by Judge_Burke @ 18:18 PM
May 7, 2019

From ProPublica, via the NACDL news scan:

In his report, Vorder Bruegge wrote that John Henry Stroman and the robber had similar “overall shape of the face, nose, mouth, chin, and ears.” But Vorder Bruegge stopped short of declaring a match, saying the video and pictures were too low resolution for that.

Nevertheless, prosecutors said in court filings that if Vorder Bruegge took the stand, he would testify that “the photograph is of sufficient resolution to definitively state that the robber is John Henry Stroman.” The judge said the testimony would be admitted if the case went to trial. A week later, Stroman accepted a plea deal.

It wasn’t the first time, nor the last, Vorder Bruegge’s lab results said one thing and the courts were told something different. Court records and FBI Lab files show statements by prosecutors or Vorder Bruegge veered from his original conclusions in at least three cases.


The Right To Medical Care In Your Local Jail

posted by Judge_Burke @ 20:04 PM
May 6, 2019

From Minnesota Public Radio:

This week, a federal appeals court addressed the right to treatment for an inmate who suffers from opioid addiction, a move that legal advocates say could have wide repercussions.

The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston ruled that a rural Maine jail must provide Brenda Smith with medication for her opioid use disorder. One of her attorneys, Emma Bond, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Maine, says the new ruling has the potential to create a “big signal” for jails across the country and combat the social barriers preventing incarcerated people from receiving treatment.

“This is the first federal appeals court in the country to address the right to treatment for opioid addiction in jail,” says Bond. “It represents a huge step forward in the fight against the opioid crisis and for our client who will get her medication in jail.”

Brenda Smith, a resident of Madawaska, Maine, was sentenced in 2018 to 40 days in the Aroostook County Jail for theft at an area Walmart, according to statements in an earlier court decision. Smith currently receives a twice-daily dose of buprenorphine — more commonly known by the brand name Suboxone. This medication helps people with opioid addiction control cravings and maintain recovery. Smith has been in stable recovery for five years on the medication.

Jail officials told her lawyer they were going to interrupt that treatment during her sentence, according to this week’s ruling, forcing her to undergo withdrawal in jail. They argued the drug is contraband in the jail and could hinder rehabilitation and become a source of trafficking. Smith and the ACLU of Maine challenged that position in court, arguing that withholding treatment would violate the Americans with Disabilities Act and the 8th Amendment of the constitution.

Susan Friedman of the Legal Action Council in New York has worked on the intersection of the Americans with Disabilities Act and access to medication-assisted treatment for the better part of a decade and she agrees with Bonds’ assessment. Friedman says not only is the ruling binding for courts and jails in the First Circuit, courts around the country will pay attention to this affirmation that denying inmates in jail medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder violates the ADA – and is illegal.

Under the ADA, it’s illegal to discriminate on the basis of disability, and this includes people who have gone through or are going through drug rehabilitation.

“That sends a really important message to jails and prisons around the country as well as to policy makers who are grappling with these issues,” said Friedman.

Friedman said some jails and prisons will likely start trying to provide access to medications for opioid use disorder to avoid being the subject of a similar lawsuit or because administrators recognize it’s the right thing to do.

Research has shown that providing medication treatment in jail and prison can prevent relapse and reduce risk of overdose upon release. A number of jails and prisons around the country are starting to offer medication treatment with buprenorphine or methadone — but many refuse to, citing concerns that the drugs will be diverted and abused.

Smith’s won her Maine-based case this week when a three-judge appellate panel upheld an earlier ruling by federal judge Nancy Torresen in U.S. district court for Maine.

Last month, Torresen ordered the jail “to provide the Plaintiff with her prescribed buprenorphine during her sentence at the Aroostook County Jail in whatever way the Defendants deem most appropriate in light of the Aroostook County Jail’s security needs.


Drug Courts

posted by Judge_Burke @ 17:06 PM
May 2, 2019

Celebrating 30 Years of Drug Courts


May is National Drug Court Month, and this year marks thirty years of treatment courts in the United States. The first drug court was created in 1989 in Miami-Dade County, Florida. During the past three decades the number of drug courts has exceeded 4,000.


Treatment courts are designed with people in mind, essentially putting treatment and rehabilitation ahead of punishment. Instead of incarceration, the programs offer people with drug offenses the opportunity to enter court supervised, long-term treatment.


As public support for justice reform builds, so too does the recognition that a substance use disorder is a health issue and should be treated as such. The recent increase in opioid-related overdose deaths, with 130 Americans dying every day, changed the conversation about both substance use disorders and about treatment.


In 2017, the Department of Health and Human Services declared the opioid crisis a national public health emergency. To combat the crisis, the federal government called for improving access to treatment and recovery services.

Treatment courts are a part of the solution. They help to save lives; reduce drug use, crime, and recidivism; save money; and make families and communities safer. This #DrugCourtMonth we celebrate those who worked hard to

Understanding Misdemeanors

posted by Judge_Burke @ 22:07 PM
May 1, 2019

Sandra G. Mayson and Megan T. Stevenson (University of Georgia School of Law and George Mason University – Antonin Scalia Law School, Faculty) have posted Misdemeanors by the Numbers (Boston College Law Review, Forthcoming) on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Recent scholarship has underlined the importance of criminal misdemeanor law enforcement, including the impact of public-order policing on communities of color, the collateral consequences of misdemeanor arrest or conviction, and the use of misdemeanor prosecution to raise municipal revenue. But despite the fact that misdemeanors represent more than three-quarters of all criminal cases filed annually in the United States, our knowledge of misdemeanor case processing is based mostly on anecdote and extremely localized research. This Article represents the most substantial empirical analysis of misdemeanor case processing to date. Using multiple court-record datasets, covering several million cases across eight diverse jurisdictions, we present a detailed documentation of misdemeanor case processing from the date of filing through adjudication and sentencing.

The resulting portrait reveals a system that disproportionately impacts poor people and people of color. Between 2011 and 2016, each jurisdiction studied relied on monetary bail, which resulted in high rates of pretrial detention even at relatively low amounts, and imposed court costs upon conviction. There were substantial racial disparities in case-filing rates across locales and offense categories. The data also, however, highlight profound jurisdictional heterogeneity in how misdemeanors are defined and prosecuted. The variation suggests that misdemeanor adjudication systems may have fundamentally different characters, and serve different functions, from place to place. It thus presents a major challenge to efforts to describe and theorize the contemporary landscape of misdemeanor justice. At the most fundamental level, the variation calls into question the coherence of the very concept of a misdemeanor, or of misdemeanor criminal justice. As appreciation for the significance of lowlevel law enforcement builds, we urge scholars and policymakers to attend carefully to the complexity of this sub-felony world.