Monthly Archives: November 2017

Memphis Immigrant Wins Freedom Following U.S. Supreme Court Victory

By Daniel A. Horwitz:

Memphis, Tennessee—A Memphis man who secured a groundbreaking win before the U.S. Supreme Court this summer has officially won his freedom after a nearly nine-year legal battle to avoid being deported.  At the request of the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee, the indictment against Mr. Lee was formally dismissed earlier this month, and his case is finally over.

In 2009, Mr. Jae Lee—a South Korean immigrant and successful Memphis restaurateur—was indicted for what the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit described as “a relatively small-time drug offense.”  Thereafter, Mr. Lee pleaded guilty based on the advice of his defense attorney, who assured Mr. Lee that he would not be deported if he did so.

Unfortunately for Mr. Lee, his attorney’s advice was wrong, and spectacularly so.  Under federal immigration law, possession of ecstasy with intent to distribute is considered an “aggravated felony,” rendering Mr. Lee deportable immediately.  Consequently, when the Government initiated deportation proceedings against him, Mr. Lee sought to withdraw his guilty plea, asserting that his attorney had ineffectively assisted him by misadvising him about the consequences of pleading guilty.  Noting the strong evidence of his guilt, however, the District Court refused to allow Mr. Lee to withdraw his guilty plea, and the Sixth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decision.

Ultimately, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear Mr. Lee’s case in order to clarify the legal standard that governs ineffective assistance of counsel claims with respect to immigration-related plea bargaining.  In a 6-2 opinion, the Supreme Court held that “Lee has adequately demonstrated a reasonable probability that he would have rejected the plea had he known that it would lead to mandatory deportation.”[1]  As a result, the Supreme Court permitted Mr. Lee to withdraw his guilty plea and proceed to trial instead.

The two dissenting Justices who ruled against Mr. Lee—Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito—held that Mr. Lee could not have been prejudiced by his attorney’s incompetent advice because Mr. Lee intended “to pursue a defense at trial with no reasonable chance of success.”[2]  As this author explained in his 2016 Harvard Latino Law Review article on the matter, however, this analysis is overly simplistic in several respects, and it significantly mischaracterizes the relevant prejudice inquiry.

Further, the notion that a weak defense necessarily means that a defendant will be convicted at trial is also quite simply wrong.  Several reasons support this conclusion, including the fact that the Government retains discretion not to take a case to trial at all for any reason.  As the above-mentioned article explains: “longstanding precedent entrusts to the Executive Branch’s ‘absolute discretion’ all decisions ‘not to prosecute or enforce, whether through civil or criminal process.’”  See Daniel A. Horwitz, Actually, Padilla Does Apply to Undocumented Defendants, 19 Harv. Latino L. Rev. 1, 8 (2016).  Accordingly, no matter how strong the evidence of a defendant’s guilt, all immigrants “are potentially eligible for relief from deportation [and from being criminally prosecuted at all] through the Executive Branch’s use of prosecutorial discretion.”

Mr. Lee’s case aptly proves this point.  After the Supreme Court permitted Mr. Lee to withdraw his guilty plea back in June, the U.S. Attorney’s Office filed a motion to dismiss the indictment against him.  No specific reason was offered to justify the Government’s decision, and because prosecutorial discretion is absolute, the Government is not obligated to provide one.  If anyone were looking for a reason to support the U.S. Attorney’s decision to drop the charges, however, one need look no further than the Sixth Circuit’s opinion in Mr. Lee’s own case, which explained—in a ruling against him—that:

“[W]e should not be read as endorsing Lee’s impending deportation. It is unclear to us why it is in our national interests—much less the interests of justice—to exile a productive member of our society to a country he hasn’t lived in since childhood for committing a relatively small-time drug offense.”[3]

Ultimately, the Government’s decision to drop the case represents a tremendous win for Mr. Lee and his new lawyer, Mr. Patrick McNally, who was part of Mr. Lee’s Supreme Court team and secured the final dismissal of his indictment.  “[S]omeone finally understood the harm that his [first] lawyer’s advice caused him,” Mr. McNally told The Tennessean after the Supreme Court’s ruling in June.

Like ScotBlog?  Join our email list or contact us here, or follow along on Twitter @Scot_Blog and facebook at https://www.facebook.com/scotblog.org

[1] Lee v. United States, 137 S. Ct. 1958, 1961 (2017).

[2] Lee v. United States, 137 S. Ct. 1958, 1969 (2017) (Thomas, J., dissenting).

[3] Lee v. United States, 825 F.3d 311, 316–17 (6th Cir.), cert. granted, 137 S. Ct. 614 (2016), and rev’d and remanded, 137 S. Ct. 1958 (2017).

White County Judge Sam Benningfield Publicly Reprimanded for Instituting Inmate Sterilization Program, Retaliating Against Defendants

White County General Sessions Judge Sam Benningfield, the architect of a controversial sterilization-for-jailtime program that has been compared to eugenics and is the subject of a pending federal lawsuit, has been publicly reprimanded by the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct.  The Board’s Order, entered November 20, 2017 and accessible here, concludes that Judge Benningfield violated Code of Judicial Conduct Rule 1.1 (Compliance with the Law) and Rule 1.2 (Promoting Confidence in the Judiciary).

Benningfield was publicly reprimanded for two separate incidents, both of which are referenced in this federal lawsuit against him.

First, Benningfield was found to have retaliated against a defendant for registering a valid hearsay objection—threatening to withdraw the entire county’s house arrest program and inform other defendants in the county that “they can thank [her]” for what happened if she failed to do so.  The defendant’s attorney ultimately withdrew his hearsay objection following Judge Benningfield’s threat.

Second, and more prominently, Judge Benningfield was found to have instituted an illegal sterilization-for-jailtime program in White County, Tennessee.  “[Y]ou now realize that this [program] could unduly coerce inmates into undergoing a surgical procedure which would cause at least a temporary sterilization, and it was therefore improper,” the public reprimand states.

Last week, several inmates who sued over the program sought an immediate order terminating it on the basis that it was still pending and violates the 14th Amendment.  The public reprimand indicates that since the inmates’ most recent filing, Judge Benningfield has entered an order ending the program.

Notably, the Board of Judicial Conduct’s public reprimand stops short of recommending Judge Benningfield’s removal from office.  (Attorney Daniel Horwitz, who is representing the inmates who sued Judge Benningfield, has previously stated that “if Judge Benningfield will not resign his office, he should be removed.“)   If sterilizing inmates and retaliating against defendants who exercise their rights in his courtroom does not merit removal, however, one might reasonably wonder what a judge could do that would.  Selected documents from the lawsuit filed against Judge Benningfield are available below.

Plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint for Injunctive and Declaratory Relief

May 15, 2017 Standing Order

July 26, 2017 Order Rescinding Previous Standing Order

Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss

Plaintiffs’ Response in Opposition to Motion to Dismiss

Plaintiffs’ Motion to Certify State Law Claims

Plaintiffs’ Motion for Partial Summary Judgment

Selected media coverage about the case

-The Washington Post: Tennessee judge reprimanded for offering reduced jail time in exchange for sterilization

-The Tennessean: 2nd lawsuit challenges Tennessee county’s inmate birth control practice

-WSMV Channel 4: Judge under scrutiny for offering reduced sentences for vasectomies, birth control implants

-BBC News: ‘We were guinea pigs’: Jailed inmates agreed to birth control

Like ScotBlog?  Join our email list or contact us here, or follow along on Twitter @Scot_Blog and facebook at https://www.facebook.com/scotblog.org

Eighth Amendment Challenge Filed Against Tennessee’s “Drug Free School Zone” Law

Nashville, Tennessee—A groundbreaking constitutional challenge has been filed regarding Tennessee’s “Drug Free School Zone Act,” a flawed but well-intentioned law that has recently come under fire by several conservative groups because it “ensnare[s] many individuals who fall outside of the scope and purpose of the law” and has resulted in significant collateral consequences that have been “passed on to taxpayers without any public safety returns.”  The law has long been a target of criminal justice reformers, who have argued that the severe, mandatory minimum penalties contemplated by Tennessee’s School Zone law fail to make appropriate distinctions between people who sell drugs to children and people who don’t.  A recent poll of 531 registered voters in Tennessee indicated that 84% of Tennesseans support reforming the law, including 90% of Democrats and 80% of Republicans.  Among other things, the law operates to punish first-time, non-violent drug offenders more severely than defendants who are convicted of violent crimes like Rape and Second Degree Murder.

Calvin Bryant is a beloved former Hillsboro High School football star, a former Tennessee State University student, and a former Tennessean employee.  A decade ago, witnesses described him as a “model citizen” who had “impeccable” character, was “loving toward his family,” “took a great interest in the people who live[d] in his neighborhood,” and was “very generous” with the elderly.  In 2008, however, Mr. Bryant was indicted for selling ecstasy pills to an aggressive government informant who had contacted him repeatedly, reminded Mr. Bryant that “he had helped raise him,” insisted that he needed drugs to earn money to feed his family, and pleaded with Mr. Bryant to help him get some.

The government’s informant had thirty-nine (39) separate convictions on his record in Davidson County alone at the time of the drug sales at issue—many of them violent felonies.  Even so, the informant was paid more than $1,000 in taxpayer money and avoided jailtime in exchange for helping secure Mr. Bryant’s conviction.  Mr. Bryant’s first trial ended in a hung jury after several jurors concluded that Mr. Bryant had been entrapped.  After his second trial, however, Mr. Bryant was convicted of selling drugs.

Even though it was a first-time, non-violent offense—Mr. Bryant had no other criminal history of any kind—because Mr. Bryant’s residence was located within 1,000 feet of a school, Mr. Bryant received a mandatory minimum sentence of seventeen (17) years in prison.  As a result, Mr. Bryant received a considerably longer sentence for committing a first-time, non-violent drug offense than he would have received if he had committed a severe, violent crime such as Rape, Second Degree Murder, Aggravated Robbery, Aggravated Vehicular Homicide, or Attempted First Degree Murder.  Mr. Bryant has been incarcerated for the past decade.  He has at least six years in prison left to serve.

Given the extraordinary circumstances of his prosecution, Mr. Bryant has filed a novel constitutional challenge to the application of Tennessee’s intensely punitive Drug Free School Zone law to his case.  Notably, even the District Attorney who prosecuted Mr. Bryant has submitted an affidavit supporting his early release, stating that: “I fail to see how an additional six years of incarceration will improve Mr. Bryant’s amenability to correction or would be required to maintain public safety.  I additionally fail to see how his release at a time earlier than 2023—and after over nine years of incarceration—will deprecate the seriousness of the offenses for which he was convicted or significantly imperil public safety.”

Tennessee’s intensely punitive Drug Free School Zone law was designed to keep drugs away from children.  Nobody disputes that this is a laudable goal.  However, many people, including several elected officials and judges in Tennessee, have disputed whether the law was ever intended to apply to drug sales between adults inside an adult’s residence and outside of school hours—especially when a government informant has set up a drug transaction inside a school zone on purposeAs one Tennessee judge has explained, for example:

I simply do not believe that the Tennessee legislature intended the scope of the Act to include drugs brought into the protected school zone by law enforcement’s own design. This concept of luring, which commonly takes the form of an undercover sting operation, is inconsistent with the legislative intent of the Act and defeats the overall purpose of “creat[ing] a drug-free school zone to reduce the occurrence of illegal drug activity in and around school facilities in order to enhance the learning environment.”

Mr. Bryant’s petition paints a heartbreaking picture of a law that was never intended for cases like his but which applied to him anyway.  In Davidson County, he notes, so-called “drug free” zones “cover[] almost every habitable portion of Nashville and [nearly] all of its urban core.”  As a result, based solely on a prosecutor’s discretion, the law can be applied “to virtually every drug sale that takes place in Nashville.”  Even so, in the approximately two decades since the law was enacted, only 62 defendants have ever been punished with the school zone sentencing enhancement in Davidson County, which upgrades a defendant’s conviction by a full felony class and renders defendants ineligible for parole for decades.  Although, as a general matter, the law has been used sparingly to punish dangerous or repeat offenders, Mr. Bryant’s petition notes that he has “the dubious distinction of being the only defendant in the history of this jurisdiction to receive Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-432’s sentencing enhancement for a first-time offense.”

Mr. Bryant’s petition also highlights the fact that “Davidson County’s own Grand Jury has observed that the [District Attorney’s] previous application of the school zone enhancement was arbitrary and capricious,” having formerly been applied in a way that turned substantially on a defendant’s poverty.  It explains:

“[G]iven the location-based nature of the sentencing enhancement at issue, Mr. Bryant’s sentence was also enhanced dramatically based on his poverty alone.  If, for example, Mr. Bryant had lived in a wealthy, residentially-zoned suburb like Belle Meade, then he likely would have been eligible for release after serving just two years and five months in prison for the exact same conduct.  Because Mr. Bryant lived in the Edgehill Housing Projects, however, Mr. Bryant must serve a mandatory minimum sentence of at least fifteen (15) years before he even becomes eligible for parole.”

Further, Mr. Bryant’s petition notes that before the new District Attorney reformed his office’s use of the school zone sentencing enhancement in 2014, “Davidson County’s application of Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-432 was unmistakably race-based.”  “Although there is abundant evidence that people of all races in Nashville use and sell drugs at roughly equal rates,” his petition explains, fully “87% of defendants in this jurisdiction who received enhanced sentences under Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-432 were people of color.”

Most importantly, however, Mr. Bryant notes that in the time since his conviction, Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-432 has been reformed both judicially and operationally to avoid precisely the type of strict liability penalty that applied in his case.  Consequently, if Mr. Bryant had committed the exact same offense today, then he would likely have been subject to a maximum sentence of between two and eight years in prison, rather than seventeen years.  Further, given his status as a first-time, non-violent offender, Mr. Bryant may well have avoided prison time at all.

Mr. Bryant has asked Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Steve Dozier to declare his sentence unconstitutional as applied to the unique circumstances of Mr. Bryant’s case, arguing that these circumstances render his sentence excessive under both the Eighth Amendment and Article 1, Section 16 of the Tennessee Constitution.  Mr. Bryant has also petitioned Judge Dozier for release while he submits an application for a pardon or commutation.  More than a dozen supporters—including Mr. Bryant’s own prosecutor, local politicians, business owners, friends, family members, and civil rights activists—have also filed affidavits in support of Mr. Bryant’s early release.  A hearing on Mr. Bryant’s petition is set for December 15, 2017 in Davidson County Criminal Court, Division 1.

“The fact that Tennessee law punishes first-time, non-violent drug sales more harshly than rape and murder is insane,” said attorney Daniel Horwitz, who is representing Mr. Bryant.  “Mr. Bryant was a promising young college student and a pillar of his community at the time of his conviction, and he made a single mistake that has already cost him a full decade of his life behind bars.  Mr. Bryant has more than paid his debt to society, and he deserves to be released.  This is the most unfair sentence I have ever seen.”

Read Mr. Bryant’s Verified Petition for Sentencing Relief here.

Selected Media Coverage

-Patch:  Nashville Case Highlights Drug-Free School Zone Reform Efforts

-Reason: How a Drug-Free School Zone Sent a Tennessee College Student to Prison For 17 Years

-Nashville Scene:  Council Members Petition Judge Over Drug-Free School Zone Case

-The Tennessean:  He got 17 years for selling drugs near school. Now 12 Nashville officials are fighting on his behalf

Selected Case Filings

Calvin Bryant Petition for Sentencing Relief

Appendix

Like ScotBlog?  Join our email list or contact us here, or follow along on Twitter @Scot_Blog and facebook at https://www.facebook.com/scotblog.org

 

 

White County Judge Acknowledges Sterilization-For-Jailtime Deal Still Active; Plaintiffs Seek to Terminate the Program

After a furious national uproar in response to an inmate sterilization program instituted by White County General Sessions Judge Sam Benningfield, in late July of this year, Judge Benningfield publicly announced that he had formally rescinded his previous standing order instituting the sterilization program, which had been compared to eugenics.  Although dozens of inmates had been surgically sterilized by the time the order was “rescinded,” news coverage of the scandal subsided immediately, permitting the fallout from the sterilization program to continue virtually uncovered.

In a recent filing, however, Judge Benningfield and White County Sheriff Oddie Shoupe—who are currently being sued over the sterilization program—acknowledged that the order purporting to rescind the program actually “did not renege on the offer of a 30-day reduction in the jail sentence[s]” of inmates who agreed to be sterilized after all.  This concession confirms concerns that had been raised by the attorney for the inmates who have sued over the program, whose lawsuit alleged that:

“Despite claiming to be an ‘Order Rescinding [his May 15, 2017] Standing Order,’ however, Defendant Benningfield’s July 26, 2017 Supplemental Order states unequivocally that inmates who fail to ‘demonstrate[] to the court their desire to improve their situations and take serious and considered steps toward their rehabilitation by having the [specified long-term surgical sterilization] procedures or agreeing to have same’ will still be incarcerated for 30 days longer than similarly situated inmates who do acquiesce to surgical sterilization.”

Judge Benningfield and Sheriff Shoupe, who have both been named as defendants in the lawsuit over the sterilization program, have asked a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit against them.  In response to their concession that the inmate sterilization offer is still active, however, on Monday, the Plaintiffs sought an immediate declaratory judgment that Judge Benningfield’s ongoing sterilization program is unconstitutional.  “This program is outrageous, it is morally indefensible, and it’s illegal,” attorney Daniel Horwitz, who is representing the inmates, stated at the outset of the lawsuit.  Selected documents from the case are available below:

Plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint for Injunctive and Declaratory Relief

May 15, 2017 Standing Order

July 26, 2017 Order Rescinding Previous Standing Order

Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss

Plaintiffs’ Response in Opposition to Motion to Dismiss

Plaintiffs’ Motion to Certify State Law Claims

Plaintiffs’ Motion for Partial Summary Judgment