As a matter of course, federal prosecutors often pile on charges in order to strong-arm defendants into entering a favorable guilty plea quickly. Those who exercise their jury trial right and put the government to its proof often receive harsh sentences based on these overreaching indictments. But last week, a federal judge in Oklahoma took a rare stand against this practice.
United States v. King, a fifty-nine-defendant prosecution, appeared to be following the typical pattern. Though the only unlawful conduct seemed to be violations of the payment-processing provisions of the Unlawful Internet Gaming and Enforcement Act (“UIGEA”), the government had charged the defendants with gambling, money laundering, and even racketeering offenses carrying lengthy prison sentences. Several defendants entered favorable guilty pleas, likely because of sticker shock at the relevant sentencing guidelines.
However, many other defendants chose to go to trial and several jury trials were held before the Honorable Stephen P. Friot, resulting in convictions on one or more counts. Having given up their chance for a favorable plea, it appeared that those who went to trial would be sentenced harshly under laws intended to combat organized crime. But before sentencing, Judge Friot took the unusual step of issuing “Preliminary Findings and Comments with Respect to Sentencing” in which he took a critical eye to typical charging and sentencing practices.
Judge Friot’s focus was the requirement under federal law that a sentence be “sufficient, but not greater than necessary,” to punish offenders and deter future crimes. To give meaning to this vague standard, Judge Friot took the unusual step of quoting from a letter that was written by the jury foreman in one of the trials, who said:
The way I look at it, with all the “legal” sports gambling that goes on the U.S.[,] coupled with the fact that no one was physically harmed and nobody was forced to place bets, I see no threat to society by allowing both Mr. Dorn and Mr. Korelewski [sic] to avoid prison time. I truly believe that our taxpayer money is better spent on these “criminals” by allowing them the opportunity to make a legal living outside of prison walls. I strongly support some sort of deferred sentence or probation.
Though Judge Friot said that this letter was not “determinative,” he also refused to rely on the government’s charging decisions in deciding how to sentence those convicted, focusing instead on “the real conduct that should be punished.” He concluded by saying that he was “particularly interested in what the government may have to say about” why those particular defendants should be imprisoned. In light of this skepticism, it is not surprising that his subsequent sentences were for probation or time served, not further imprisonment.
The ability of prosecutors to charge minor offenses as if they were serious crimes often turns the constitutional right to a jury trial into a very risky proposition. Judge Friot’s thoughtful opinion recognizes that even if defendants can be punished for their role in unlawful gambling, they should not be penalized for the decision to roll the dice before a jury.