7th Circuit warns attorneys about compliance

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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals chastised the U.S. Attorney's Office in Indiana's Northern District to "get its act together" to comply strictly with a statute that imposes a mandatory life sentence for a defendant convicted of a drug offense with two prior drug convictions. The Circuit Court upheld a defendant's life sentence, finding the government fulfilled the statutory purposes and adequately informed the defendant of what he was facing.

In United States of America v. Jerome Williams Jr., No. 09-1924, Jerome Williams claimed the government failed to comply with 21 U.S.C. Section 851(a)(1), the "notice of enhancement statute," so he should be re-sentenced. The notice sent to Williams contained only one conviction from 2002 and stated further information concerning his criminal history can be obtained from the United States Probation Office in the Pretrial Services Report. The report wasn't attached in the information and wasn't even filed with the District Court until nine months after Williams received the notice.

The report lists Williams' prior record, which contains 19 sets of charges but only one other felony drug conviction. The government's lawyer explained he prepared the notice in haste long before it was due because he was afraid he'd forget about it.

"The excuse that the government's lawyer gave us for these omissions does not reflect well on the Department of Justice," wrote Judge Richard Posner. "He thus has offered an all-purpose excuse for premature filings in federal courts of any and all documents."

The Circuit opinion took the U.S. Attorney's office to task for not having a protocol for compliance with Section 851 and for the inconsistencies in how the notices are presented.

"It is odd that U.S. Attorneys seem to have so much difficulty in complying unambiguously with a simple statute," the judge noted.

But caselaw has said that as long as the defendant has actual notice of the intended use of a prior conviction to enhance his sentence, the statute has been substantially complied with and that's good enough. The Circuit Court determined that to be the case for Williams and upheld his life sentence.

Williams has a legitimate argument that the notice should contain which specific convictions are being relied on to enhance, and placing the dispositions and convictions in one list could leave a defendant to guess which one is being used to enhance the sentence. However, in Williams' case, he only had one other felony drug conviction, so it was clear which convictions were being used, wrote Judge Posner.

The Circuit Court advised the Department of Justice to notify all U.S. Attorneys of the importance of strict compliance because it seems to be a problem across jurisdictions. Sloppy compliance brings a risk the court will hold the government failed to provide a defendant with adequate notice or the defendant has a claim for ineffective assistance of counsel.

"For these reasons and to spare us pointless appeals, the U.S. Attorney's office that prosecuted this case would be well advised to get its act together and comply strictly with section 851," he wrote.


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  1. I think the cops are doing a great job locking up criminals. The Murder rates in the inner cities are skyrocketing and you think that too any people are being incarcerated. Maybe we need to lock up more of them. We have the ACLU, BLM, NAACP, Civil right Division of the DOJ, the innocent Project etc. We have court system with an appeal process that can go on for years, with attorneys supplied by the government. I'm confused as to how that translates into the idea that the defendants are not being represented properly. Maybe the attorneys need to do more Pro-Bono work

  2. We do not have 10% of our population (which would mean about 32 million) incarcerated. It's closer to 2%.

  3. If a class action suit or other manner of retribution is possible, count me in. I have email and voicemail from the man. He colluded with opposing counsel, I am certain. My case was damaged so severely it nearly lost me everything and I am still paying dearly.

  4. There's probably a lot of blame that can be cast around for Indiana Tech's abysmal bar passage rate this last February. The folks who decided that Indiana, a state with roughly 16,000 to 18,000 attorneys, needs a fifth law school need to question the motives that drove their support of this project. Others, who have been "strong supporters" of the law school, should likewise ask themselves why they believe this institution should be supported. Is it because it fills some real need in the state? Or is it, instead, nothing more than a resume builder for those who teach there part-time? And others who make excuses for the students' poor performance, especially those who offer nothing more than conspiracy theories to back up their claims--who are they helping? What evidence do they have to support their posturing? Ultimately, though, like most everything in life, whether one succeeds or fails is entirely within one's own hands. At least one student from Indiana Tech proved this when he/she took and passed the February bar. A second Indiana Tech student proved this when they took the bar in another state and passed. As for the remaining 9 who took the bar and didn't pass (apparently, one of the students successfully appealed his/her original score), it's now up to them (and nobody else) to ensure that they pass on their second attempt. These folks should feel no shame; many currently successful practicing attorneys failed the bar exam on their first try. These same attorneys picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and got back to the rigorous study needed to ensure they would pass on their second go 'round. This is what the Indiana Tech students who didn't pass the first time need to do. Of course, none of this answers such questions as whether Indiana Tech should be accredited by the ABA, whether the school should keep its doors open, or, most importantly, whether it should have even opened its doors in the first place. Those who promoted the idea of a fifth law school in Indiana need to do a lot of soul-searching regarding their decisions. These same people should never be allowed, again, to have a say about the future of legal education in this state or anywhere else. Indiana already has four law schools. That's probably one more than it really needs. But it's more than enough.

  5. This man Steve Hubbard goes on any online post or forum he can find and tries to push his company. He said court reporters would be obsolete a few years ago, yet here we are. How does he have time to search out every single post about court reporters and even spy in private court reporting forums if his company is so successful???? Dude, get a life. And back to what this post was about, I agree that some national firms cause a huge problem.