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7th Circuit decision unearths problems with mandatory minimums

A 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision released this week highlights the frustration some judges have with mandatory minimum sentences, as attorneys say a judge’s decision to give a lower-than-mandated sentence was illegal.

The decision regards Jamie Moody, a 40-year-old Milwaukee man arrested after trying to sell a gun in June 2013. Moody, who has three violent criminal convictions, was charged with knowingly possessing a firearm as a felon. Under the Armed Criminal Career Act, which mandates longer sentences for defendants with more than two violent or serious drug convictions, Moody was required to receive a mandatory 15 years in prison.

But on Dec. 19, Eastern District of Wisconsin Judge J.P. Stadtmueller sentenced Moody to 12 years. According to the decision, the judge wrote “one of his convictions ‘technically scored as a violent felony’ but reasoned that using this conviction to enhance Mr. Moody’s sentence would cause a ‘miscarriage of fundamental justice’ given the ‘nature of the offense [and] its age.'”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office appealed, arguing that it was an illegal sentence, and Moody’s appellate attorney did not disagree. Both sides asked the 7th Circuit to correct the sentence, saying it did not need to be sent back to a lower court.

The 7th Circuit, in a decision authored by Senior Judge Kenneth Ripple, agreed that the sentence was illegal but instead sent it back to the district court to have Moore re-sentenced by another judge.

The case is peculiar for at least one reason, attorneys and experts said. It’s not unusual for an attorney to argue that a prior conviction qualifies to be included as part of the Armed Criminal Career Act. It’s rare, though, for a judge to take that step on his or her own.

During the hearing, Stadtmueller said that “it would be one thing if Mr. Moody had a string of Bonnie-and-Clyde-type armed robberies or very, very recent significant criminal conduct; but this offense is over 20 years old. It doesn’t score for purposes of the criminal history category. And I think it will be a miscarriage of fundamental justice to do so underscoring why in certain instances these guidelines are and continue to remain flawed.”

Marquette University Law Professor Michael O’Hear said the judge’s decision seemed to challenge the constitutionality of the mandatory minimums for the case.

“I can’t recall seeing any other cases like this, where a judge has chosen to disregard to disqualify a qualifying prior conviction,” O’Hear said.

Peter Henderson, the federal defender appointed to represent Moody on appeal, declined to comment. Jonathan Koenig, the head of the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s appellate division, also declined to comment.

Stadtmueller’s decision also comes at a time where mandatory minimums as a whole are being debated. The laws give strict sentencing guidelines for certain crimes and little room for a judge to deviate sentences downward if they choose. Critics say that has led to an overcrowded prison population and disproportionate prison time for less serious offenses.

“The problem we see is that we have well-respected judges with significant experience, appointed by a president, who is not given the ability to make a decision,” said Jonathan LaVoy, a criminal defense attorney at Kim & LaVoy SC, Milwaukee.

Still, the case is just one of many where the minimums are being challenged in court. Such challenges are just starting to come from defense attorneys, especially for defendants facing life sentences, but the case law is far from being developed, O’Hear said.

Robert Ruth, a Madison criminal attorney, said that challenges to the Armed Career Criminal Act are usually made to disqualify prior convictions from being included in sentencing. He said he is not aware of any relevant case law to make a constitutional challenge.

“If you’re going to try to upset [the Armed Career Criminal Act] … talk about a huge ripple effect,” Ruth said. “Saying, ‘I want to declare this whole kit and caboodle unconstitutional, that’s asking a lot.”

But that challenge may eventually come, in Wisconsin or other states. LaVoy said he thinks that case will eventually come, though he said “that it has to be the right case with the right facts.”

At the same time the prosecutors appealed, Moody also appealed pro se, arguing his attorney coerced him into taking a plea deal. Ripple’s decision dismissed those arguments.

About Eric Heisig

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