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Federal criminal sentencing can often be bewildering to criminal defense attorneys, making pleading strategies more uncertain than usual.
For thefts involving government property, the Fifth Circuit simplified things a bit on Tuesday. In U.S. v. Lagrone, the court rejected the government's application of 18 U.S.C. Section 641, favoring an interpretation that is more lenient to defendants charged with multiple small thefts.
Why did the court decide to remand Lagrone's case for sentencing with only one felony count?
Criminal lawyers and those not sleeping through their 1L Crim Law classes may recall that most state laws and federal law set the bright line between grand theft and simple larceny at some number around $1,000. Under federal law (specifically 18 U.S.C. § 641) the difference between 10 years in prison and less than one year incarceration comes down to whether the amount of thefts -- in aggregate -- amount to a sum of more than $1,000.
Sheryl Denise Lagrone was charged with two theft counts under 18 U.S.C. § 641, each of which were for stealing $880 in stamps from different U.S. Postal Offices. Federal prosecutors decided that since the aggregate sum of Lagrone's larcenies was more than $1,000, she was subject to a maximum of 10 years for each of her two theft counts.
Since double-counting or overlapping enhancements aren't rare at all in federal sentencing, the Fifth Circuit was presented with a real question: can aggregate theft sums be used to turn all component counts into felonies?
So the Fifth Circuit was presented with two conflicting interpretations of Section 641:
The former was the government's position, allowing Lagrone to be hypothetically saddled with two decades of prison for stealing $1,760 in stamps. The latter is Lagrone's argument, claiming that Section 641 allows the government to aggregate her theft counts but only punish her for a single felony count -- half of what the government contended.
Somewhat instructive on the issue, the court turned to U.S. v. Reagan, a case where the court upheld five counts of thefts exceeding $1,000 (which were $41,832 in aggregate) being punished as five separate felonies. However, the Lagrone Court distinguished Lagrone's case because each of her counts were for thefts less than $1,000 and required aggregation to qualify for felony consideration.
Ultimately the Fifth Circuit sided with Lagrone's interpretation. Not only is it a more lenient interpretation of an ambiguous statute, but to allow each small theft (less than $1,000) to be retroactively upgraded to a felony is not clearly prescribed by law.
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