Aug. 9, 2016 – A federal district judge in Wisconsin who talked about urban decay, social unrest, and personal experiences before sentencing a heroin dealer to 84 months in prison committed procedural error, a federal appeals court panel has ruled.
Billy Robinson Jr. got involved in his cousin’s heroin trafficking ring in 2014. A crew was buying drugs in Chicago and selling them in Milwaukee, crossing state lines. Thus, when Robinson sold heroin to a confidential informant, he was charged with two counts of traveling in interstate commerce to facilitate heroin distribution, a federal crime.
He pleaded guilty, and District Judge Rudolph Randa of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin ultimately sentenced him to seven years in prison.
But during the sentencing hearing, Judge Randa made comments that allowed Robinson to appeal the sentence on the ground that Randa committed procedural error.
In U.S. v. Robinson, No. 14-cr-150 (July 22, 2016), a three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit vacated the sentence and remanded for resentencing, concluding those comments strayed too far from the record.
“Sentences in criminal cases must be based only on the criteria authorized by Congress,” wrote Judge Diane Wood.
“The court’s comments made at this sentencing were irrelevant and had no basis in the record. They therefore undermine our confidence in the fairness of the proceeding.”
The panel noted that Judge Randa invoked his own recollections of the relevant neighborhood in which Robinson was peddling drugs, noting that it was once a safe place when he attended college but is now dangerous because of the drug presence.
“These references are troubling because they could be ‘understood as a personal grudge that the judge bore against [Robinson] for dealing drugs in his old neighborhood,’” Judge Wood wrote.
Randa also discussed similarities between Milwaukee today and Milwaukee in 1967 – 12 years before Robinson was born – a time of civil unrest and riots related to the Vietnam War, as well as recent protests in Baltimore over police brutality.
“[E]vents in Milwaukee before he was born, or recent protests in other cities, are not relevant to Robinson’s sentence,” Judge Wood wrote.
Finally, the panel rejected Robinson’s claim that the court should have considered his minimal involvement in the drug ring and that he should have received a lesser sentence than another defendant who ran drugs across state lines for two years.
Wisconsin Supreme Court Justices Debate Judicial Recusal Law in Drunk Driving Case – WisBar News (July 20, 2015).