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Law students defeat government at the 4th Circuit

Bureau of Prisons abused discretion in sentencing decision

//June 7, 2016//

Law students defeat government at the 4th Circuit

Bureau of Prisons abused discretion in sentencing decision

//June 7, 2016//

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After months of preparation, a pair of law students, their professor seated behind them, stood before the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and argued against the federal Bureau of Prisons in a criminal case with ties to North Carolina.

A decade of a man’s life was on the line.

And the law students prevailed against the government.


Travis Andrews and Clint Cowan, who were third-year students at the University of Virginia School of Law at the time and are now studying for the bar exam, convinced the 4th Circuit that the BOP had made a legal error and abused its discretion when it interpreted a North Carolina federal judge’s silence as an intention for consecutive sentencing.

The May 25 decision gives defendant Anthony Mangum a chance to be released from prison 10 years earlier than if he had to serve his state and federal sentences consecutively. Mangum’s case, Cowan said, highlights a “big problem between federal and state interactions.”

“Prisoners are bearing the brunt of this,” he added. “So it’s a justice problem.”

‘Blindsided’ by the BOP

Mangum’s appeal hinged on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision four years ago in Setser v. United States, which interpreted a part of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984.

Setser’s case made it clear that section 3584(a) of the act does not automatically require a consecutive sentence whenever a federal judge hands down a sentence before a state court and provides no guidance about how the time should be served.

A federal magistrate in North Carolina sentenced Mangum to 21 years and eight months on drug distribution charges, before he was returned to state custody in Oklahoma and sentenced to 10 years for felony assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and several other charges. The sentences were the result of guilty pleas.

The Oklahoma judge ordered Mangum to serve his state time concurrent with his federal sentence. The state also tried on four separate occasions between 2007 and 2009 to transfer Mangum to federal custody, but the government rejected each attempt. He was finally paroled to the feds in 2011.

After taking custody of Mangum, the BOP determined that his federal sentence ran consecutive to his state sentence based on what turned out to be an erroneous interpretation of the applicable statute and the federal judge’s silence in imposing the sentence.

But a U.S. District judge in Raleigh affirmed the BOP’s order, spurring Mangum’s appeal to the 4th Circuit.

Michael Archenbronn, a Winston-Salem lawyer who briefly represented Mangum at the trial level, said that in his experience it’s not unusual for a defendant to agree to a state plea deal while thinking that their sentence will run concurrent with a federal sentence, only to find out later that isn’t the situation.

“I’d hate to see someone in state court think they’re getting a certain deal and they get blindsided,” he said. “Maybe this [Mangum’s case] will help prevent them from getting blindsided by the Bureau of Prisons’ policy of not giving credit to people who were in state custody.”

A few days before the 4th Circuit published its opinion in Mangum’s case, the South Carolina Supreme Court issued an unpublished decision in Ham v. State, which unraveled a defendant’s plea bargain calling for him to serve his federal and state sentences concurrently, a scenario that the BOP rules prohibited. The defendant was in state custody when he pleaded to the federal charges.

“The situation is common where you have defendants getting state and federal charges,” said Tiffany Butler, an attorney at the South Carolina Commission on Indigent Defense in Columbia who was involved in Ham.

She added that in Ham and Mangum “you have a federal entity not giving credence to a state order.”

“I think both cases are important,” she said.

What the judge said

Andrews and Cowan argued in their brief, which they workshopped with 10 other law students in their school’s Appellate Litigation Clinic and its director, Stephen Braga, that Mangum had been entangled in “a ‘perfect storm’ of administrative errors.”

“What has happened to Mangum makes no sense at all under the federal or state sentencing regimes, and is the result of a bureaucracy that has clearly lost sight of the forest for the trees,” they wrote.

They began working on their brief in September 2015 and rehearsed their argument with Braga and their peers every day during the week before their January 2016 hearing date at the federal courthouse in Richmond. They stayed at a nearby hotel the night before, but Andrews said he hardly slept.


“I woke up very early and Clint [Cowan] and I walked over to the courthouse. I think having a partner helped calm me down,” he said, adding that Braga’s presence also was reassuring.

The 4th Circuit allowed Andrews and Cowan to tag-team the argument by sharing the time allotted for Mangum. Senior Circuit Judge Andre Davis later gave the duo an indelible high-five in a footnote in the decision, writing that he and the other two judges on the panel were grateful “for the excellent representation provided by appointed counsel, which has greatly aided this court in its resolution of this appeal.”

The BOP’s lawyer, Michael Bredenberg, an assistant U.S. attorney in Raleigh, had argued that the applicable statute created a presumption that prison sentences must run consecutively unless the federal sentencing judge says otherwise. Bredenberg did not respond to an interview request.

In rejecting the BOP’s argument, Davis held that a “federal sentencing judge’s silence does not and cannot give rise to a statutory presumption that the federal sentence should be deemed intended as a consecutive sentence to the later imposed state sentence.”

Davis also noted that while the federal judge in Mangum’s case was silent on the issue of consecutive or concurrent, the fact that he was “powerless to impose a federal sentence to be served consecutively to a state sentence that had not yet been imposed” was telling.

The case has been sent back to the BOP to make a sentencing determination based on the 4th Circuit’s statutory interpretation. There’s no guarantee that the BOP will order Mangum to serve his sentences concurrently.  But Davis wrote in the order that “one might reasonably expect the BOP to exercise its discretion to weigh heavily what the state judge did say rather than what the federal judge did not and could not say.”

Andrews and Cowan were among seven students in UVA’s Appellate Litigation Clinic who argued before the 4th Circuit in five separate appeals. They prevailed in four of the five cases. The fifth has yet to be decided.

Andrews has landed a clerkship with 6th Circuit Judge Alice Batchelder. Cowan has a job waiting at Butler Snow in Memphis.

The 12-page decision is Mangum v. Hallembaek (Lawyers Weekly No. 001-097-16). A digest of the opinion is available at

Follow Phillip Bantz on Twitter @NCLWBantz

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