Nearly all of my clients face federal white-collar criminal charges. Many of them seem to believe that federal criminal charges are more serious than state criminal charges, or that the penalties will be steeper.
A recent case from Texas shows that’s definitely not the case.
The Texas Case
According to a Law360 article, a Texas state court judge sentenced Susan Gay Pruitt to 22 years in prison. Her crime? Selling investments in fake oil and gas projects.
You may be thinking that she defrauded investors of millions and millions of dollars to deserve such penalty. But that’s not the case. In fact, according to the article, she defrauded investors of only $225,000.
You may be thinking that she challenged the government at every step and made them take her to trial in a lengthy proceeding. That’s not true either. She pleaded guilty.
The Pennsylvania Case
When I saw the article about Ms. Pruitt’s sentence, I was shocked by its length (of the sentence, not the article). The same day, I saw another article about a defendant in Pennsylvania named Daryl Stevens who sentenced to a year in federal prison after pleading guilty to mail fraud.
Mr. Stevens had apparently set up fake companies to sell nonexistent products to a pharmaceutical company. The total fraud in that case was $1.2 million.
I took a look at the judgment documents to Mr. Stevens case. He pleaded guilty to four counts of mail fraud and aiding and abetting. The judgment then says “the defendant is hereby committed to the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons to be imprisoned for total term of 12 months and one day.”
Mr. Stevens was also ordered to pay about $180,000 in restitution.
Digression on Year-and-a-Day Sentences
You may be wondering why defendants are sometimes sentenced to a year and a day, rather than just a year. This longer sentence on paper can allow the defendant to serve a shorter sentence in reality. Under 18 U.S.C. § 3624(b), an inmate with a sentence of more than a year is eligible for good time credits. These are credits earned in prison for good behavior.
If the inmate follows the rules, that he can receive up to 54 days of credit of each year of his sentence. This is about 15% of the total time to be served. However, if a defendant is sentenced to a year in prison, he’s not eligible for this credit under § 3624(b). He will have to serve 365 days of his year-long sentence rather than 312 days of a year-and-a-day sentence.
Comparing the Possible Federal Sentences in Both Cases
So let’s take a look at the likely sentences that would have been imposed on Mr. Stevens and Ms. Pruitt under the federal guidelines, assuming that there were no plea deals.
The amount of loss attributable of Mr. Stevens could either have been $1.2 million or $180,000. The government’s sentencing memorandum stated that the amount of the loss was $224,918, so we can use that as a maximum loss amount.
Under section 2B 1.1, Mr. Stevens have a base offense level of 7, and the loss amount would add 10 levels, for a total of 17. Assuming no criminal history, this results in a sentencing range of 21 to 27 months.
The amount of loss attributable to Ms. Pruitt was $225,000.
The same exact calculation would apply as for Mr. Stevens. She would likely be sentenced to 21 to 27 months in prison.
That sentence simply cannot be compared to the 22 years Ms. Pruitt received in Texas state court. But there’s simply no way that a $225,000 fraud should earn someone 22 years in prison. That’s a sentence for a Bernie Madoff or the head of a massive drug ring that used violent means.
Stop Thinking that Federal Crimes Are More Serious
There’s no doubt in my mind that sometimes the federal sentencing guidelines are unfair and lead to sentences that are far more serious than the offense. Usually this arises when the government adopts an aggressive view of the “loss” at issue in the case.
Every case is different. I don’t know all the facts of Ms. Pruitt’s case but I have a hard time believing that she deserved that sentence, no matter what she did.
As these two cases show, the federal courts may be more sane when it comes to sentencing policy and practice. Sometimes.