New opinions — a partial sentencing reversal and an odd dual-juries affirmance

US v. Douglas — criminal sentencing — partial reversal — Shwartz

The Third Circuit today held that a district court erred when it imposed an obstruction-of-justice enhancement to a defendant’s criminal sentence. The enhancement was imposed because the defendant missed his original trial date due to an emergency room visit, but this was error because the government did not prove that the failure to appear was willful.

Over Judge Greenaway’s dissent, the court rejected the defendant’s claim that the court also erred by imposing a sentencing enhancement for abuse of a position of trust. The majority held that being a non-supervisor airline mechanic with a security clearance qualified for the enhancement.

Judge Greenaway’s dissent began:

The Sentencing Guidelines are meant to constrain judicial discretion, focusing and channeling decisions about criminal punishment in order to provide consistent,disciplined conclusions. I fear that my colleagues have shed those constraints. By disregarding the binding source of law here—the Sentencing Guidelines themselves—the majority has left the abuse of a position of public trust enhancement without limits on its scope. The Guidelines, and our consistent precedent in applying them, delineate particular sorts of abuse of trust which trigger this enhancement. The majority’s interpretation sweeps those textual and precedential distinctions away, rendering the enhancement indiscriminately applicable to a panoply of criminal actors.
Joining Shwartz was Vanaskie in full and Greenaway in part. Arguing counsel were Arnold Bernard, Jr. of Pittsburgh for the defendant and Michael Ivory for the government. The case was argued last March.

 

US v. Brown — criminal — affirmance — Jordan

The Third Circuit held that a district court did not commit plain error when it empaneled separate juries, one for this defendant and one for his co-defendant, for the same trial. The court noted that dual-jury trials “seem[] to have very little precedent in this Circuit,” and “we do not mean by this ruling to encourage the practice.”

Brown also urged the court to reconsider its 2014 en banc holding that defendants must object to procedural errors at sentencing to avoid plain error review. Problem was, he didn’t actually assert any errors with his sentence!

Joining Jordan were Chagares and Hardiman. The case was decided without oral argument.