Monday, November 17, 2014

Fourth Circuit Remands for Resentencing -- District Court to Impose Lower Sentence Based on Apprendi Error

Back in 2000, the Supreme Court held that any fact that increases the maximum possible sentence must be submitted to the jury and proved beyond a reasonable doubt.  Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000).  Unfortunately, over the past 14 years, Apprendi error has often not resulted in lower sentences.  Sometimes Court of Appeals have found it not to be plain error (in cases in which the error was not raised in the district court).  In others, Courts of Appeals have found it harmless.  Last month, the Fourth Circuit rejected the government’s harmless error argument and vacated a defendant’s 16-month term of imprisonment for making false statements to obtain federal worker’s compensation benefits in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1920.  The statute provides for a maximum sentence of five years’ imprisonment unless “the amount of the benefits falsely obtained does not exceed $1,000,” in which case the punishment cannot exceed one year’s imprisonment. In this case, the jury made no finding concerning loss.  The government argued that the error was harmless since the evidence was overwhelming that the defendant received in excess of $100,000 in benefits.  While the Court did not disagree with that figure, it focused on the requirement that to qualify for more than a year’s imprisonment, more than $1,000 of loss must be from benefits “falsely obtained.”  The defendant’s false statement involved his failure to report $635 he had received for working.  The government’s own witness testified that the defendant could receive small amounts of income and still be entitled to benefits.  Under these conditions, the Fourth Circuit held that the evidence was far from “overwhelming” that the loss from false statements exceeded $1,000.  It therefore vacated the sentence and remanded for imposition of a sentence of no more than one year’s imprisonment.  United States v. Catone, 2014 WL 5158197 (4th Cir. October 15, 2014).

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