Thursday, November 1, 2012

Not Your Everyday Mandatory Minimum

Most people getting mandatory minimum sentences in federal courts fall into three major offense types:  drugs, guns, and child pornography.  But there are over 170 mandatory minimum sentences in the federal code, and, as this story shows, some of them might surprise you -- and produce surprising results.

Rejecting mandatory minimum five-year sentences as “grossly disproportionate” to the crimes, a federal judge in Eugene on Tuesday sentenced an Eastern Oregon rancher to three months in prison and his adult son to one year and a day for deliberately setting fires on federal land. ...

U.S. Judge Michael Hogan agreed with the Hammonds’ defense lawyers that setting fire to juniper trees and sagebrush in the wilderness was not the type of crime that Congress had in mind when it set mandatory sentences of five to 20 years for anyone who “maliciously damages or destroys, or attempts to damage or destroy by means of fire” any federal property. The mandate was part of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.
Prosecutors alleged that the father-son owners of Hammond Ranches Inc. set a series of fires on U.S. Bureau of Land Management land where the Hammonds had grazing rights.
Prosecutors said the fires were set to reduce the growth of juniper trees and sagebrush, and to accelerate the growth of rangeland grasses for the Hammonds’ cattle. ...
Hogan ... sentenced both Hammonds to three years of postprison supervision and required them to surrender their firearms. The judge also allowed the men to stagger their sentences in order to keep operating their ranch. He ordered Dwight Hammond to report to prison in January, with Steven Hammond to begin his sentence upon his father’s release.
While Judge Hogan's sentences are almost certain to be reversed on appeal (there is no safety valve for the mandatory minimum involved here), tell us what you think.  Did the judge get it right?  Should he have discretion in this kind of scenario, where prosecutors arguably should never have brought these particular charges?  Should there be a safety valve for cases like this?

Leave a comment and share your thoughts.


Anonymous said...

Judge Hogan trumps congress!? I thought only the Supreme Court did that. The way its suppose to work is Hammonds should have gotten the MM's then they could appeal to the 9th, then to SCOTUS if needed.The statute met the MM's. Hammonds were convicted by a jury of their peers. The jury knew what the sentence was going to be if they were found guilty.

Anonymous said...

What's the purpose of sentencing guidelines if judges are going to do what they will, anyways?

People familiar with this case know that these fires weren't being set to clear brush. They were being set with the very deliberate purpose of driving away interlopers from BLM property where they had grazing permits. Lives were put in danger because they trespassed on land owned by the government.

Conservatives often bemoan {liberal} judges who deviate from guidelines and de facto legislate from the bench. This is really no different-- except this time it was a conservative judge. It was his last day on the bench and maybe everyone caught a break, so hopefully the prosecutor will appeal the sentence and the MMs will be adhered to, as intended.