Tuesday, January 13, 2015
In United States v. Coppenger, the defendant pled guilty to conspiracy to commit bank (mortgage) fraud and a Klein conspiracy. Coppenger, a developer, led and initiated the scheme, which involved two Panama City land parcels, 33 straw buyers and three corrupt mortgage company officers. The Government requested a downward departure based on Coppenger's substantial assistance, and the parties agreed that a sentence within the 78-97 month Guidelines range found at level 28, criminal history category 1, was appropriate. Instead, the sentencing court upwardly varied to a 120 month sentence, based on Coppenger's victimization of the straw buyers, many of whom pled guilty and saw their lives ruined. The judge relied heavily on sealed information contained in the straw buyers' presentence reports. Coppenger's trial attorney failed to object.
Coppenger attacked the sentence on appeal as procedurally and substantively unreasonable. He argued that it was procedurally unreasonable under Fed.R.Crim.Proc. 32(i)(1)(B), because the court relied on information excluded from the presentence report without giving the defendant a written or in camera summary of said information, thereby surprising and prejudicing Coppenger. Coppenger argued that the sentence was substantively unreasonable because the court characterized his co-conspirators as victims.
The Sixth Circuit vacated the sentence, holding that the court's procedural error was plain, both surprising and prejudicing Coppenger. The Sixth Circuit distinguished Coppenger's case from Irizarry v. United States, 553 U.S. 708 (2008), because in Irizarry the Supreme Court interpreted Fed.R.Crim.Proc. 32(h), which requires advance notice to the parties only when a sentencing court is contemplating an upward departure. Although the court in Coppenger's case upwardly varied, rather than departed, it did so after reviewing approximately 30 straw buyer presentence reports, in order for the judge to "go back and refresh my recollection about their history, their background, and how it was that they came to be involved in all this." None of this information was contained in Coppenger's presentence report and it remains under seal to this day. The Sixth Circuit held that Coppenger and his attorney should have been given a meaningful opportunity to understand and respond to this information: "Here the district court's sua sponte reliance on extraneous information both surprised and prejudiced Coppenger and denied him a meaningful opportunity to respond, in violation of Rule 32(i)(1)(B). The court’s explicit consideration of the offense conduct’s impact on the co-conspirator straw buyers was not only novel, but was neither signaled in the presentence report nor otherwise reasonably foreseeable."
The Sixth Circuit rejected Coppenger's substantive unreasonableness argument, holding that the court on remand could consider the impact of Coppenger's offense conduct on his co-conspirators.
Congratulations to Evan Smith of the Appalachian Citizens' Law Center, who argued and briefed the case on appeal.