July 1, 2004 - The Charleston Gazette (WV)
20-Year Drug Sentence Tossed Over Supreme Court Ruling
Gutting Of Washington State Law Applies To W.Va., U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin Decides
By Chris Wetterich
In a decision with national implications, a federal judge in Charleston ruled Wednesday that a recent U.S. Supreme Court case that gutted sentencing rules in Washington state also applies to federal sentencing guidelines used here and across the country.
Before an unusually crowded courtroom filled with lawyers and probation officers, U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin reduced the sentence of a St. Albans man who conspired to make methamphetamine from 20 years to one year.
Goodwin is only the second federal judge in the United States to rule that the Supreme Court's decision in Blakely v. Washington applies to the federal system.
In that decision, the Supreme Court ruled that a judge cannot add time to a convict's sentence based upon facts not considered by a jury or admitted to by the defendant.
Federal sentencing rules are complex and different from how defendants are sentenced in state cases in West Virginia.
In West Virginia's courts, a judge has the discretion to sentence defendants to prison time between the minimum and maximum lengths set by the state Legislature.
In the federal system, Congress also sets minimum and maximum sentences. But it also specifies other rules for federal judges to follow, depending on the amount and type of "relevant conduct" for which the convict is responsible.
If a defendant has a prior criminal record, uses a gun while committing a crime or had a certain amount of drugs, the sentence increases. The rules are an attempt to ensure that the same crimes carry the same sentences, no matter what part of the country a convict is in.
The U.S. Probation Department prepares a pre-sentence report for each defendant that alleges all of the relevant conduct a judge should use in determining a sentence. It is up to a judge to determine whether the relevant conduct occurred.
In the case of Ronald Shamblin, the man whose sentence Goodwin reduced Wednesday, the amount of relevant conduct was so "off the charts" that it increased his sentence from the minimum of 6 months to the maximum of 20 years, Goodwin said.
Shamblin's pre-sentence report alleged that he tried to obstruct justice by urging his wife to lie to probation officers, put a child in danger through his drug activity, had materials in his house used to make meth and had a shotgun under his bed, Goodwin said.
Shamblin admitted to none of those things; only that he bought Sudafed and gave it to another person, knowing it would be used to make meth.
Shamblin filed a motion to have his sentence reduced late last week after the Supreme Court issued the Blakely decision. His attorney said Goodwin should not have boosted Shamblin's sentence because of all of the relevant conduct in the presentence report.
On Wednesday, Goodwin agreed, over the objections of U.S. Attorney Kasey Warner's office. The judge said that, under Blakely, the sentence was unconstitutional because the relevant conduct was not put before a jury.
"I don't think any defense lawyer could have found a better case to test Blakely," Goodwin said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney W. Chad Noel objected to the ruling and said federal prosecutors do not concede that the Supreme Court's ruling applies to the federal court system.
Noel also suggested that in Shamblin's case, a jury should hear the relevant-conduct evidence, rather than Goodwin simply reducing the sentence.
U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell of Utah - who on Tuesday went a step farther than Goodwin and ruled that federal sentencing rules are unconstitutional - said there is no law on the books that allows for a sentencing jury, and that such a scheme would be impractical.
Goodwin also rejected Noel's argument, noting that he has the power to immediately correct errors he has made.
In the new sentence, Goodwin applied the federal sentencing rules without taking into consideration the relevant conduct. The guidelines called for a sentence between six and 12 months.
Goodwin's decision does not have to be followed by every federal judge in the state, but will be used by defense lawyers to challenge the sentencing rules at future hearings and to attack sentences their clients already have received.
Warner said Wednesday that he was consulting with the Justice Department in Washington and believes he can appeal Goodwin's ruling, but no decision has been made. The Justice Department is expected to send instructions to local U.S. attorneys soon on how to deal with the implications of the Blakely case.
Before adjourning, Goodwin noted the extreme disparity between Shamblin's original sentence of 20 years and his current sentence of 12 months, which he called "woefully inadequate."
"Here we have a defendant who admitted he bought cough medicine," Goodwin said. "One week ago, Mr. Shamblin provided a vivid illustration of the draconian nature of federal drug sentencing guidelines. Today, his case illustrates the upheaval the Blakely case will cause, at least for a time, in the federal system."