Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Practice Notes: First Circuit Cases Yield White Collar Rulings on Materiality and Upward Variance/Departure

Two white collar decisions emerged last week from the First Circuit, both related to the Rwandan genocide.

United States v. Kantengwa reinforces an old truth for white collar practitioners. If you don't win on materiality at trial, you are totally screwed on appeal. According to the First Circuit, the appellant was "a member of a prominent political family allegedly involved in the Rwandan genocide." Katengwa was indicted for perjury under 18 U.S. Code 1621 (1) for false statements she told under oath in an asylum application and subsequent removal proceedings. Katengwa argued, among other things, that the government was precluded from bringing perjury charges against her because an immigration judge had already ruled that her false statements did not "go to the heart" of her asylum claim. Assuming, without deciding, that an administrative finding of fact can preclude later criminal charges, the First Circuit rejected Katengwa's collateral estoppel claim, because "materiality" under 1621 (1) and the "heart of the matter rule" in immigration law involve two distinct standards. "The heart of the matter rule from immigration law prohibits basing an adverse credibility determination on inconsistencies in an applicant's testimony that do not go to the heart of [her] claim." (Internal quotes and citations omitted.) But, "a statement is material in a criminal prosecution for perjury under § 1621(1) if it is 'material to any proper matter of the [decisionmaker's] inquiry.' United States v. Scivola, 766 F.2d 37, 44 (1st Cir. 1985) (emphasis added)." The First Circuit made clear, through a litany of examples, that this test can cover a multitude of subsidiary matters to the decisionmaker's overall inquiry. Translation: In all but the rarest cases, materiality is an argument you make to the jury. It can serve as a nice hook for jury nullification. Don't expect it to lead to victory on appeal.

In  United States v. Munyenyezi, Katengwa's sister was indicted on "two counts of procuring citizenship illegally by making false statements to the government. See 18 U.S.C. §§ 1425(a) and (b)." The jury hung in her first trial, but the second trial produced convictions. She raised several issues on appeal, but the one that concerns me here is the sentence of 120 months, the statutory maximum. Munyenyezi's Guidelines Range was 0-6 months, and she attacked the sentence on appeal as substantively unreasonable. The First Circuit called this, "a tough sell," reiterating its abuse of discretion standard of review and precedent that "as long as we see 'a plausible sentencing rationale' that reaches 'a defensible result,' the sentence stands. United States v. Martin, 520 F.3d 87, 96 (1st Cir. 2008)." The trial judge imposed the 120 month sentence under alternative theories. He granted an upward departure under Guidelines Section 5K2.0 for an aggravating circumstance of a kind or degree not adequately taken into accoount by the Guidelines. He also upwardly departed under 18 U.S.C. Section 3553 (a). As every schoolboy knows, and as the First Circuit reminds us, "Section 3553(a) lets a judge vary upward based on factors listed there, like the defendant's background (including her criminal history), the circumstances of the offense, the seriousness of the offense, the need to protect and deter others, the need to promote respect for the law and to provide a just punishment, and the need to eliminate unjustified sentencing disparities." And the First Circuit also reminds us, albeit in a footnote, that "[u]nder certain circumstances a judge can also vary downward using section 3553(a)." You don't say!

Interestingly, the trial judge did not upwardly depart/vary because of Munyenyezi's alleged "participation in genocidal conduct." He sentenced her to the statutory maximum because, "'lying about participation in genocide when specifically asked,' the judge explained, knowing full well 'that such conduct is automatically disqualifying with respect to immigration and citizenship seriously undermines the integrity of this country's immigration standards in the most offensive way' imaginable." The judge later noted that if he had sentenced Munyenyezi for her alleged genocidal conduct, he would not have imposed concurrent sentences.

There are often silver linings in decisional clouds. An appellate court that uphold a 3553 (a) upward variance of ten years can also uphold a 10 year downward variance. The precedent cuts both ways.

(wisenberg)

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