Judge limits conduct to be raised during sentencing of former Lee Police Chief Joseph Buffis
SPRINGFIELD >> When former Lee Police Chief Joseph Buffis is sentenced on one count of extortion next month, prosecutors will not be able to raise most of the conduct they had hoped to bring up.
Prosecutors wanted to present evidence that Buffis either was not charged with or was acquitted of at his trial last year, including the alleged theft of church bingo funds.
But in an order filed in U.S. District Court on Wednesday, Judge Mark G. Mastroianni said using most of that conduct would be less about crafting an appropriate sentence and more about the government "seeking retribution for its trial losses."
Sentencing judges have, "wide latitude," to consider background, character and conduct of a defendant at sentencing, he said, but that consideration, "must be relevant to what would be an appropriate sentence" for the crime of which that defendant was convicted.
Buffis was tried last year on a total of 11 charges, but only convicted on a lone count of extortion. A jury cleared him of 10 other charges related to his alleged embezzlment from the Edward J. Laliberte Toy Fund he oversaw and using the money for his own expenses.
"The government's motive, however, is to sentence the defendant based generally on its belief, following a largely unsuccessful prosecution, that the defendant is a 'longtime thief and a brazen liar,' " the judge ruled, citing language in the government's motion to have the conduct considered.
Buffis' attorney, Lori Levinson challenged the prosecution's motion with a response, asking in part, "Why have jury trials at all?" if acquitted conduct was going to be considered at sentencing.
In his eight-page ruling, Mastroianni said because the 10 counts were rejected by the jury and because there's a lack of connection between them and the manner in which the extortion was committed, those charges won't be considered at sentencing.
Additionally, Mastroianni declined to consider two incidents of which Buffis has been accused, but not formally charged; billing the Town of Lee for additional cellphone lines for his family and the theft of funds from a church bingo account he oversaw.
Mastroianni ruled that the only connection those accusations have to the extortion charge is the government's belief that Buffis is a thief and a liar.
In his ruling, Mastroianni called that connection, "tenuous," noting that neither of those accusations involved money from the toy fund involved in the case and neither were part of Buffis' trial.
Mastroianni did say, however, he would consider evidence of Buffis' theft from the Lee Police Association account, which was presented at trial when he determines a sentence.
Those accusations include depositing about $3,700 worth of LPA checks into the toy fund, then writing checks from that account to himself and to his credit card accounts, writing another $8,630 worth of checks from the LPA account to himself or to "cash," and paying $1,300 from the LPA account to his wife's Sears account.
Mastroianni said that conduct was, "demonstrated to this court beyond a reasonable doubt," and was appropriate to consider at sentencing.
"At sentencing, the court, to the best of its ability will attempt to balance fairness to both sides while adhering to constitutional protections," Mastroianni said.
Buffis was convicted on the extortion charge for collecting a bogus $4,000 donation to the toy fund from a Lee couple in exchange for dropping pending criminal charges against them.
His sentencing has been moved back several times from its original October date and is now set for May 12.
The maximum penalty on the extortion charge is 20 years in prison, five years of supervised release and a fine of $250,000, but Buffis will likely be sentenced to less.
Contact Bob Dunn at 413-496-6249.
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