Commentary on Alabama Law and Society

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Location: Birmingham, Alabama

Friday, April 14, 2006

White Collar Crimes

The B'ham News has an editorial today about the recent conviction and sentence of a former JeffCo sheriff for illegally using a criminal database. All I know about the facts of the case is what I've read in the papers, but three things about the editorial struck me.

First, the sentencing judge said that if he was a juror, he would have found the defendant's not guilty. The editorial then says: "But if that's the case, [the judge] could have (and should have) thrown out the case."

Not necessarily. The judge only gets to 'throw out' the case if he determines that no reasonable juror could convict the defendant. Here, apparently, the judge concluded that a juror could reasonably convict the defendant. The judge might not think that is the most reasonable outcome, but it is reasonable none the less. That a judge thinks the jury made the wrong decision does not mean the jury made an unfounded decision. Only if it was unfounded may the judge toss it.

Second, the editorial expresses concern that the sentence - probation - was too light, and that it "fits in with a bad pattern in Birmingham federal courts of giving the lightest possible sentences for white-collar crime."

White collar sentencing is not an issue confined to the Northern District of Alabama. (see, e.g. this, and this). Nor is it an easy issue to resolve. On the one hand, you have a case like this in which the defendants pose absolutely no future threat, and the crime was a one time occurrence causing little if any tangible harm. They did abuse their offices, but should they go to jail for that? On the other hand, you have folks like (if convicted) Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling. Their crimes were ongoing, and who can count how many people suffered as a result? Those two ought to spend the rest of their lives in 'time out.' So, in my view, the judge ought to have as much discretion as possible to set the proper sentence based on the particular case.

Third, the appeal could be interesting. In theory, the federal guidelines make sure the penalty fits the facts of the case, but in practice the guidelines are mandatory and often result in ridiculous sentences. I do not know whether the sentence in the sheriff's case was within the guidelines or not. If so, it will be affirmed on appeal. If not, then things will get interesting. The Eleventh Circuit loves law enforcers but it disdains below guidelines sentences. Thus, we will have a collision. My bet is that the sentence is upheld.