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Seventh Circuit Exercises Supervisory Powers in Reversing District Court’s Judgment Revoking Supervised Release

In March 2019, Jordan began three years of supervised release imposed upon him after conviction for drug-related crimes. On June 3, 2019, he did not complete required mental health and substance abuse assessments. On the following day, he failed to attend his required drug testing. The probation office petitioned for revocation, filing a memorandum asserting those facts.

Before taking testimony at Jordan’s revocation hearing, the district court announced it was adopting “the factual findings of the violation memorandum.” Jordan later testified that until those two days in June, he had been in compliance with all of his conditions, not once failing any of his drug tests (he was tested about three times per month). The testing was random, so every day either he or one of his acquaintances phoned the testing and assessment facility to listen to a recorded message that directed whether testing of him was required that day.

On June 4, he called and listened to the portion of the recording he thought pertained to him and concluded testing was not required of him on that date. Regarding the mental health and substance abuse assessments, he had agreed to them with his probation officer on May 28. The officer said she would contact him, and it was his understanding that the assessments were to occur on June 26. It wasn’t until he showed up for his assessments on the 26th that he learned they had been scheduled for June 3.

The district court found by a preponderance of the evidence that Jordan violated the terms of his supervised release, “adopting the factual findings of the violation memorandum as [its] own.” It imposed a sentence of, inter alia, six months in prison followed by 26 months of supervised release. Jordan appealed, arguing due process claims under Morrissey v. Brewer, 529 U.S. 694 (1972) (due process requires written statement with respect to the evidence relied on and reasons for revocation).

The Court observed, however, that Jordan’s case fit better within its supervisory powers “to review proceedings of trial courts and to reverse judgments of such courts which [it] concludes were wrong.” Cupp v. Naughten, 414 U.S. 141 (1973). This authority permits the Court to require sound procedures that are not specifically commanded by statutes or other relevant provisions. Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140 (1985). The Court explained that under its supervisory power, it’s identified “two flaws in the district court’s procedure and decision.”

First, the trial court neither mentioned nor adequately explained its rejection of Jordan’s defense that he lacked intent to violate the conditions of supervised release and made reasonable, good faith attempts to comply. Such an explanation is required. United States v. Hopkins, 847 F.3d 535 (7th Cir. 2017). It was particularly important in the case at bar because, before hearing a word of testimony, the court advised Jordan that it was adopting the factual findings of the probation officer’s memo. As that signaled the district court’s view of the facts before hearing any evidence, it was incumbent upon the court to explain why Jordan’s evidence did not dissuade the court of that view.

Second, the district court did not adequately explain its decision for reimprisoning Jordan for six months. Sentences must always conform to the “broad command” of the parsimony principle, which requires sentences to be “sufficient, but not greater than necessary to comply with the four identified purposes of sentencing: just punishment, deterrence, protection of the public, and rehabilitation.” Dean v. United States, 137 S. Ct. 1170 (2017). Prison is not necessarily appropriate for every violation of a condition of release, such as in this case where Jordan made genuine efforts to comply and did not obviously pose a threat to society. Bearden v. Georgia, 461 U.S. 660 (1983). Because Congress intended supervised release to improve the odds of a successful transition from prison to liberty (Johnson v. United States, 529 U.S. 694 (2000)), returning a defendant to prison for violations that occurred despite reasonable, good faith efforts to comply may well undermine that transition, the Court stated.

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Related legal case

United States v. Jordan



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