Federal courts are frequently asked to take into account the collateral consequences of conviction in determining what sentence to impose under the criteria in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). It is generally permissible for them to do so, and in line with current proposals of national law reform organizations. At the same time, courts must guard against the risk of socioeconomic bias favoring more privileged defendants who have the most to lose in the civil sphere, and who are likely to enjoy more vigorous and effective advocacy around collateral consequences.
The following discussion first reviews a federal court’s general obligation to understand the collateral consequences that apply in a particular case, and to ensure that a defendant considering a guilty plea has been adequately advised about them. It then reviews post-Booker case law approving below-guideline sentences based on the severe collateral penalties applicable to a particular defendant, such as loss of employment, extraordinary family circumstances, sex offender registration, and even reputational harm (“the stigma of conviction”). Finally, it discusses cases in which courts of appeal have refused to approve deep sentencing discounts based on collateral consequences in circumstances suggesting a bias favoring middle-class defendants. Read more
On April 7 a panel of the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit heard argument in United States v. Jane Doe (Jane Doe I). At issue in that case is whether U.S. District Judge John Gleeson acted within his authority when he expunged the conviction of a woman he had sentenced some 14 years earlier, based on his finding that her conviction had proved an insurmountable bar to the jobs in home health care for which she was qualified. Judge Gleeson directed that the government seal the records of Ms.Doe’s conviction, stating that he had sentenced her “to five years of probation supervision, not to a lifetime of unemployment.” The government appealed, arguing that a federal court has no authority to expunge or seal a conviction record, particularly the record of a valid conviction. Briefs in the case can be viewed here.
The panel did not appear persuaded by the government’s argument that the Supreme Court’s 1994 decision in Kokkonen v. Guardian Life, 511 U.S. 375 (1994)(refusing ancillary jurisdiction to enforce state law civil claims), meant that federal courts have no jurisdiction to expunge the record of a federal criminal case. The import of the government’s argument would be to overrule the Circuit’s leading expungement case from the 1970s, United States v. Schnitzer, 567 F.2d 536 (2d Cir. 1977), which held that federal courts have ancillary jurisdiction to grant expungement on equitable grounds in extraordinary circumstances. No judge on the panel expressed any support for overruling Schnitzer, and the government seemed reluctant to ask for it. At the same time, Schnitzer involved expungement of an arrest that the government did not pursue, not a valid conviction. That distinction seemed to have some appeal for one judge on the panel, who suggested that the holding in Schnitzer might not apply where conviction as opposed to arrest is at issue.
In his final week on the bench, in an opinion that may in time prove among his most influential, U.S. District Judge John Gleeson issued a “certificate of rehabilitation” to a woman he had sentenced 13 years before. See Jane Doe v. United States, No. 15-MC-1174 (E.D.N.Y., March 7, 2016) (Jane Doe II). The opinion breaks new ground in holding that federal courts have authority to mitigate the adverse effects of a criminal record short of complete expungement. Along the way, it confirms that a district court may use its inherent equitable powers to expunge convictions in “extreme circumstances,” an issue now on appeal to the Second Circuit in Judge Gleeson’s earlier expungement case. (Jane Doe I has been calendared for argument on April 7.) The opinion also finds a role for federal probation to play, including under New York State’s “robust” certificate system, which lifts mandatory state law bars to employment and other opportunities. It does all of this in a manner that should make it hard for the government to appeal, since “this court-issued relief aligns with efforts the Justice Department, the President, and Congress are already undertaking to help people in Doe’s position shed the burden imposed by a record of conviction and move forward with their lives.”
Joe Palazzolo at the Wall Street Journal blog noted that
More than a dozen states and the District of Columbia issue certificates to certain ex-offenders who have shown their days of crime are behind them, usually by remaining offense-free for a long stretch. . . . .
There is no equivalent federal certificate. So Judge Gleeson invented his own.
A few days ago we received the following communique from Sharon Dietrich of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, announcing a major litigation victory that will be welcome news across the country. On December 30 a unanimous 7-judge appeals court struck down the provisions of the Pennsylvania Older Americans Protective Services Act barring employment of people with criminal records in long-term health care facilities such as nursing homes and home health care agencies. The provisions declared unconstitutional on due process grounds law include lifetime employment bans for offenses as minor as misdemeanor theft, which Sharon notes “prevented many Pennsylvanians with criminal records from working in that entire burgeoning field.” The decision in Peake v. Commonwealth is here, and NPR’s report on the decision is here.
On October 8, a former chief judge of the Eastern District of New York held that he was “constrained by controlling precedent” to deny the expungement petition of a woman who feared that her 23-year-old fraud conviction would prevent her from obtaining a nurse’s license. See Stephenson v. United States, No. 10-MC-712. Judge Raymond Dearie declined to find the “extreme circumstances” warranting expungement under Second Circuit precedent, noting that the petitioner before him was fully employed and that her aspiration to become a nurse was realistic, in light of the protection afforded her by New York’s nondiscrimination laws. He proposed that his own willingness to certify her rehabilitation could help satisfy the “good moral character” standard for a nursing license. (Could this be the sort of “certificate of rehabilitation” contemplated by Judge John Gleeson in his second Jane Doe expungement case? If so, it would seem to require no specific statutory authority for him to issue it to an individual he sentenced, no matter how long ago.)
Judge Dearie contrasted the case before him with the one in which Judge Gleeson ordered expungement in May, where the petitioner’s criminal record was having “a dramatic adverse impact on her ability to work,” citing Jane Doe I at *5. The government has appealed Judge Gleeson’s expungement order.
What relief is available for people with a federal conviction who cannot find or keep a job? Part of the answer may soon be found in two cases from Brooklyn that raise the question whether a federal judge has the power to expunge a conviction whose validity is conceded. In the first case, U.S. v. Jane Doe (Jane Doe I), the Justice Department has appealed Judge John Gleeson’s May 21 expungement order to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. In the second case, also styled U.S. v. Jane Doe (Jane Doe II), Judge Gleeson asked the Department to brief the issue of his authority to expunge. He also asked the government to advise whether he has authority to “enter a certificate of rehabilitation in lieu of expungement.” The government has now delivered its answer, and it is “No” to both questions.
The government’s brief is fairly predictable. On the expungement issue, it argues that federal courts have no “ancillary jurisdiction” to expunge the record of a lawful conviction, relying on the Supreme Court decision in Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co., 511 U.S. 375 (1994). As to the court’s authority to issue a certificate of rehabilitation, the government appears to assume that Judge Gleeson was referring to one of the certificates provided for under New York law, and relies on cases holding that a federal court cannot grant relief under a state law. One clue that this was not what Judge Gleeson had in mind might have been that neither of the New York certificates is called that (though they are considered evidence of rehabilitation), and that the only mention of a certificate of rehabilitation in federal law (Rule of Evidence 609(e)) is generic. Another clue is that no federal court that we know of has ever attempted to grant state relief to a federal offender (with the exception of a few assimilative crimes cases), indicating that the law on this issue is too clear to tempt even even the most creative jurist.
The petitioner’s brief is now due on October 5. The expert’s brief is likely to be due a day or two afterwards. No date has yet been set for oral argument.
This piece was originally published in The Crime Report on July 13, and republished in revised form on July 16.
On Monday President Obama announced in a video address that he had commuted the sentences of 46 people sentenced to long prison terms for drug offenses. His counsel, Neil Eggleston, stated that “While I expect the President will issue additional commutations and pardons before the end of his term, it is important to recognize that clemency alone will not fix decades of overly punitive sentencing policies.“
Mr. Eggleston added that “the President is committed to using all the tools at his disposal to remedy unfairness in our criminal justice system.” However, judging from his speech to the NAACP the next day, clemency is the only one of those tools that is calculated to result in any more prison releases.
In commuting the sentences of 46 individuals serving long drug sentences, President Obama declared that America is a “nation of second chances” in a video address posted on the White House website. But that sunny optimism about our country’s willingness to forgive hasn’t led him to grant very many pardons, the relief whose purpose is to restore rights and status to those who have fully served their sentences, to give them a second chance at first class citizenship. Indeed, as Michael Isikoff reported the same day the commutations were issued, Obama’s 64 pardons are the fewest issued by any full-term president since John Adams. Indeed, the President has commuted more in the past six months than he has pardoned in his entire time in office.
The President’s determination to reduce unjustly lengthy prison sentences is commendable and historically significant. But it need and should not lead him to the neglect the other part of the clemency caseload, the petitions filed by individuals who have led exemplary lives for many years but are still burdened by severe collateral consequences and the stigma of conviction. Unfortunately those petitions appear to have have been shunted to the back burner in the excitement of the so-called “clemency initiative.”
Not surprisingly, in the wake of U.S. District Judge John Gleeson’s extraordinary May 21 expungement order in Doe v. U.S., another petition asking for the same relief has now been filed with Judge Gleeson. Also not surprisingly, since this new petition was filed by one of Ms. Doe’s co-defendants, the underlying facts in this second petition are similar. The second Jane Doe was a more culpable participant in the insurance fraud scheme, and was sentenced to 15 months in prison instead of probation.* However, she has remained law-abiding since her release more than a decade ago, and like the first Jane Doe she has had a very difficult time getting or keeping a job because of her conviction. It seems unlikely that the difference in the second Jane Doe’s role in the offense will make a difference in the way the court disposes of her petition.
Judge Gleeson has asked the government to show cause why the new petition should not be granted, which should guarantee that it gets attention at the highest levels of the Justice Department. Argument has been set for September 18. If there were any doubt about whether the government will prosecute its appeal of the first expungement order, it has probably been dispelled now that the proverbial floodgates appear to be opening. Potential amici should start lining up counsel.
The debased legal and social status that results from criminal conviction is visited disproportionately on African-Americans. Collateral consequences are the vehicle by which this country now imposes a permanent servitude on the descendants of those who were once literally owned by other human beings. Mass conviction no less than mass incarceration is a legacy of slavery. So we think it appropriate to commend to our readers Bryan Stevenson’s extraordinary interview for The Marshall Project in the wake of last week’s terrorist attack in Charleston. It is incumbent on all of us to consider how the scheme of collateral penalties imposed by the criminal justice system is calculated to keep millions of Americans disenfranchised and impoverished, and to dedicate ourselves to dismantling it.