In a tactic that Masschusetts law enforcement authorities say has gone too far, defense lawyers are rushing into state courts to toss out old convictions for clients who face new federal charges, in sometimes-successful attempts to avoid sentencing guidelines designed to severely punish career criminals, the Boston Globe reports. The legal wrangling repeatedly pits state and federal prosecutors trying to enforce a congressional mandate for career criminals to get long sentences against defense lawyers hoping to avoid penalties they argue are harsh.
In the middle are the judges, some frustrated by federal sentencing guidelines they view as too rigid and, in some instances, unfair. Sometimes, state judges have granted the request, wiping out old criminal convictions and preventing federal judges from treating such defendants as repeat offenders. “It’s a serious problem,” said U.S. Attorney Michael J. Sullivan, who estimated that his office handles dozens of cases each year in which federal defendants move to toss their old state convictions. “There’s no question that there are a number of people out there that try to undermine the federal sentence by having a state conviction vacated.” Last week, prosecutors berated Quincy District Judge Diane Moriarty, who had vacated the 2001 assault conviction of a drug dealer a few hours before he was to appear in federal court for sentencing. “Tell him it was an early Christmas present,” she told the defendant’s lawyer, according to a transcript. Moriarty later reinstated the conviction, and the drug dealer received a 15-year sentence for a crime that otherwise would have carried less than two years.