Brief filed: 10/01/2019
Leyva v. United States
United States Supreme Court; Case No. 19-5796
Decision Below 916 F.3d 14 (D.C. Cir Feb. 26, 2019)
The standard-of-review question this case presents implicates profound concerns with federal sentencing--concerns with substantial constitutional implications. Federal courts routinely sentence defendants to years in prison based on hearsay statements relayed to the court at sentencing by law enforcement officers. Those statements often come from convicted criminals who want to reduce their sentences by cooperating with the government. The cooperating criminals do not appear in court, so the district judge has no opportunity to assess their demeanor. They do not swear an oath to tell the truth. They do not face cross-examination. And their out-of-court statements need only persuade the judge by a preponderance of the evidence. Petitioner Beltran Leyva faces a life sentence based on precisely such evidence. Defendants have few safeguards against sentencing enhancements that rest on false out-of-court statements from cooperating criminals. One such protection is searching appellate review. De novo review by the court of appeals ensures that the reliability of the cooperator's statement will receive a second level of careful scrutiny. And de novo review comports with the rationale for heightened appellate scrutiny: the stakes--a person's right to due process of law before losing his liberty--are high, and, because the district court never observes the cooperator's demeanor, the appellate court is just as capable of evaluating his credibility.
John D. Cline, Law Office of John D. Cline, San Francisco, CA.