Federal Court Orders New Sentencing Hearing for “Polite” Bank Robber
When a person is convicted of a federal crime, the amount of prison time they face is determined in part by a complex set of sentencing guidelines. The guidelines are not mandatory, but they are commonly used by judges when sentencing defendants convicted of felonies or Class A misdemeanors under the United States Code. The guidelines basically set a “base level” sentence for a given offense, which the judge can then adjust upward or downward based on certain factors specific to a particular defendant’s case.
Robber’s Actions Did Not Create Fear of Deadly Violence
When a judge incorrectly applies the guidelines to increase a defendant’s sentence, that may be grounds for a new sentencing hearing. For example, the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals recently overturned a Florida defendant’s sentence for bank robbery. The issue was not the defendant’s guilty–he admitted to the crimes–but rather the judge’s determination that the robbery involved an “implicit or explicit threat of death.”
Here is what happened. In March 2017, the defendant entered a Chase bank. He handed a teller a note stating, “Put $5[,]000 in an envelope. Put the note inside as well. Stay calm. Do this and no one will get hurt. Press the alarm after I walk out. I have kids to feed. Thanks.”
The teller proceeded to have what the trial judge late deemed a “conversation” with the defendant. The teller explained she could only give the defendant $1,000 in cash. The defendant then asked her to repeat the process four more times, which she did. The defendant then left the bank without further incident.
A few days later, the defendant entered a Wells Faro bank. He handed the teller a similar note demanding $20,000. This time, the teller did not comply but rather immediately sounded an alarm. Police subsequently arrested the defendant.
Before a federal judge, the defendant pleaded guilty to federal charges of bank robbery and attempted bank robbery. The defendant did not seek a plea agreement with prosecutors in advance. At sentencing, the judge enhanced the defendant’s base level under the sentencing guidelines after concluding his actions involved the implicit or explicit threat of death.
The defendant appealed this “threat of death” enhancement, arguing he never made such threats, and in fact was not carrying a weapon during either robbery. Interestingly, the prosecution agreed the enhancement was improper and declined to defend the judge’s ruling on appeal. The 11th Circuit ended up appointing an outside attorney as a “friend of the court” to defend the sentence.
But the appeals court ultimately agreed with the defendant and the government that the judge’s ruling was improper. The court, which dubbed this “The Case of the Polite Bank Robber,” explained the threat of death enhancement is an “objective test,” meaning the evidence had to show that the “defendant’s overall conduct would have instilled the fear of death in a reasonable person.”
Looking at the facts, the 11th Circuit said the defendant’s conduct here did not rise to this level. The defendant did not make any “threatening gestures” or give any indication that he had a weapon. Nor did he “aggressively” demand money, as demonstrated by his extended conversation with the first bank teller. Even the content of the defendant’s note–indicating he was robbing the banks to feed his kids–likely “softened the impact of the demand.”
Of course, that does not get the defendant off the hook for his crimes. But the 11th Circuit said the defendant was entitled to re-sentencing under a correct interpretation of the guidelines.
Speak with a Miami Federal Crimes Defense Lawyer Today
If you are facing federal criminal charges, it is important to work with an experienced Miami federal crimes attorney. Even if you intend to plead guilty, a defense lawyer can help ensure that the judge and the prosecution follow the rules when it comes to sentencing. If you need immediate advice or representation, contact the Law Offices of Julia Kefalinos at 305.676.9545 today.