Case: Puckett v. United States

Date: Wednesday Jan. 14, 2009

Issue: Whether a forfeited claim that the government breached a plea agreement is subject to the plain error standard of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.

Background: James Benjamin Puckett robbed a Dallas bank and after four days on the run was arrested in Nevada. He initially pleaded not guilty but he eventually reached a plea agreement with the government in which he would receive a significant reduction in his sentence by pleading guilty. But at the sentencing hearing the government backed out of the deal. It argued Puckett failed to live up to his end of the bargain and pushed for a longer sentence. Puckett's call for the reduced sentence went unheeded by the judge, who sentenced him to consecutive terms totally almost 30 years in prison.

Puckett appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing the government's action entitled him to withdraw his guilty plea. But that court ruled against him, concluding the trial court judge didn't need the government's urging to disregard the lower sentence. In essence, the Fifth Circuit said the government's action had no bearing on the ultimate outcome of the sentence.

Case: Boyle v. United States

Date: Wednesday Jan. 14, 2009

Issue: Whether, in order to establish the existence of an enterprise within the meaning of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), the government must prove the existence of an entity with an ascertainable structure apart from the pattern of racketeering activity in which its members engage.

Background: Movie fans are very familiar with the team of robbers in the successful Ocean's 11 franchise. Edmund Boyle is no George Clooney but for most of the 1990's he ran with his own crew of shady characters. One was nicknamed "Fat Sal," another was a noted club owner who reportedly dated supermodels and called Madonna his friend. Others still supposedly had ties to the Gambino crime family. The group was called the Night Drop Crew and targeted banks in the New York City area and elsewhere looking for poorly secured safe deposit boxes. Its estimated Boyle and his cohorts pulled off heists that took in excess of $1 million. Similar to the Ocean's movies, each member of the crew had a designated role in the crime. Boyle was brought into the clan for his reputation at boosting cars.

Eventually, Boyle was arrested and charged under RICO laws with burglarizing eight banks. Prosecuting under The RICO statutes is significant because that allowed the government to seek and eventually obtain longer prison terms. Boyle was sentenced to 12 and 1/2 years behind bars. RICO has been a favored law used by prosecutors to go after organized crime figures. It requires proof of a structured organization underlying the criminal activity. Boyle claims no such organization exists. He says the collection of bank thieves was a loose coalition of characters with no formal structure or hierarchy. As such, the government's RICO prosecution was invalid. The Second Circuit disagreed finding Boyle's argument lacked merit.