US v. Napolitan — criminal — affirmance — Krause
Sometimes a judge imposes a criminal sentence on a defendants who is already serving another criminal sentence. When that happens, the judge has to decide whether the new sentence starts running now (“concurrent”), or whether instead the new sentence doesn’t start running until the defendant’s current sentence is over (“consecutive”).
The difference between concurrent and consecutive may sound like small potatoes, and some judges may treat it that way, but in practice the choice can have a huge impact on how long a defendant has to serve.
Imagine a defendant whose first sentence is 10 years in state prison. After she has served half that sentence, she gets a federal conviction and a new 5-year sentence. If the new sentence is consecutive, her total time in prison is 15 years; if concurrent, she serves 10 years. If that’s you or your parent or your child, that’s a huge sentencing difference.
Now, let’s change the above hypothetical. Suppose that, at the time of the new sentencing, everyone in the courtroom agrees that the first sentence was illegal. Instead of the 10 years she got, the sentence should have been only 5 years. But it’s too late now for her to challenge the unconstitutional first sentence.
In a case like the second hypothetical, is it unreasonable for a judge to make the second sentence consecutive? Today, the Third Circuit held that it is not, affirming a defendant’s consecutive sentence. The court found the outcome largely dictated by the 1994 Supreme Court ruling in Custis v. United States, which held that federal defendants generally cannot collaterally attack prior state sentences used to enhance their later federal sentences.
The opinion’s legal reasoning looks perfectly sound to me. But I wish the court had included some language reminding district courts that, while they’re more or less free to run new sentences consecutive to unconstitutional existing sentences, that doesn’t make it a fantastic idea.
Joining Krause were Fuentes (the court’s newest senior judge!) and Roth. The caption does not indicate whether there was oral argument; the defendant was represented by AFDs Akin Adepoju and Renee Pietropaulo of the WDPA defenders, the goverment by Donovan Cocas and Rebecca Haywood.
Minor quibble: I believe you’ve mixed up concurrent and consecutive in your example. The hypothetical defendant would only serve 10 years if concurrent and 15 if consecutive, not the other way around as you have it.
Andrew, I appreciate your pointing out the error! I’ve corrected it.