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Hunter Biden plea agreement looks like 'sweetheart' deal, but also highlights wide judicial leeway

Biden, whose father is President Joe Biden, could be let off with supervised parole, or could face the average sentence of three to five years.

Published: August 31, 2023 11:00pm

The plea agreement Hunter Biden once had with federal prosecutors for the illegal possession of a firearm while using or addicted to a controlled substance has been decried by critics as a "sweetheart" deal. Since that deal fell apart, it has also sparked a review of similar cases and deals showing that sentences depend on several circumstances that give judges great leeway.

Biden, whose father is President Joe Biden, could be let off with supervised parole, or could face the average sentence of three to five years.

Even before any question of sentencing is answered, there’s little question Hunter Biden was treated differently than most when it came to his arrest.

Just the News’ review of arrest circumstances described by the Justice Department show considerable disparity.

Unlike other persons charged with the same crime, when Biden was discovered by Delaware State Police to be in possession of the firearm, officers did not arrest him, nor did they test him for drug use.

In 2021, Politico reported, according to unnamed sources, that the Secret Service inserted itself into the investigation, seeking to obtain the background check paperwork from the gun store from Biden purchased the firearm. The Secret Service initially claimed it had “no involvement in this incident.”

The state police never filed charges against the president's son.

In June of this year, the Justice Department announced federal charges against Hunter Biden that included two misdemeanor tax offenses and a felony firearm offense.

Specifically, Biden was charged with unlawfully possessing “a firearm despite knowing he was an unlawful user of and addicted to a controlled substance,” according to the DOJ. 

Biden, who has a long and documented history of drug abuse and legal paternity issues, was offered a deal which critics reacted to with outrage.

Conservatives, including House Speaker Kevin McCarthy also called the agreement a “traffic ticket” emblematic of a “two-tiered” justice system because it spares Hunter Biden from prison while leaving Donald Trump facing hundreds of years in prison on 71 felonies in two separate indictments.

The plea deal infamously blew apart after District Court Judge Maryellen Noreika for the U.S. District of Delaware refused to rubber-stamp it.

Hunter Biden admitted in his autobiography and in the now-dead agreement that when he purchased a firearm, he lied on the background-check questionnaire, answering “no” to the question: “Are you an unlawful user of, or addicted to, marijuana or any depressant, stimulant, narcotic drug, or any other controlled substance?”

Not only was his possession of the firearm a federal crime, but lying on the application form is in itself a felony. 

Hallie Biden, Hunter’s then-girlfriend and his late brother’s widow, illegally disposed of the handgun in a public trash can outside of a grocery store in Delaware. She has not been charged.

Just the News reviewed recent cases involving this specific charge, examining the punishment meted out to learn what Biden may face in his criminal trial, which is expected to occur since there's no longer a plea agreement. 

One recent case bears similarity to Hunter Biden’s.

Adaris Hawkins, a 23-year-old in Waterloo, Iowa was recently sentenced to almost five years in prison, according to a the Justice Department. 

When police went to Hawkins’ residence to execute a warrant, they found him to be in possession of a firearm. Hawkins subsequently tested positive for marijuana, the department said.

Like Biden, according to the DOJ, from July 2021 and April 2022 Hawkins purchased several firearms and “falsely claimed… that he was not a drug user,” on the background check paperwork. But Biden is accused of purchasing only one weapon illegally, and like Biden, Hawkins entered into a plea agreement admitting to knowingly possessing a single firearm as a drug user, after which he was sentenced. 

In late 2022, another defendant, this one from Lincoln, Nebraska, was sentenced to three years in prison for the same charge, although it too, involved multiple weapons.

In the Nebraska case, police had discovered a firearm in the defendant’s possession after a search during a traffic stop when the officer detected marijuana odor. More evidence of drug use and other weapons was discovered at the defendant’s home, according to the DOJ.

Tough sentences are not always the outcome in these cases, partially because in 2005 the Supreme Court held in U.S. v. Booker that the federal sentencing guidelines are no longer mandatory, but only "advisory," giving trial court judges wide discretion.

In March of this year, a defendant in Vermont who pleaded guilty to the same offense as Biden was sentenced to time served, followed by 3 years of supervised release for being a drug user in possession of a firearm, a DOJ press release stated.

Studies now show that lenient sentences for federal gun charges are becoming rarer during the Biden administration. The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) affiliated with Syracuse University, which compiles data on crime from a variety of federal sources, reported that weapons convictions are at “record high” levels during the administration. 

Convictions for such crimes reached record high in fiscal 2022, at 9,559,” according to a recent TRAC report.

“This was the largest number in any single year since recording began,” the report also reads. “So far during the Biden administration conviction levels have averaged about 15 percent higher than those during the Trump administration.” 

While federal agencies appear to be aggressively pursuing convictions, Hunter Biden’s plea agreement Justice Department raised concerns about the leniency of the prosecutors in this case. 

Commentators have noted the irony in Biden being accused of breaking the same 1993 law that was championed by his father when he was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee roughly 30 years ago, according to The Hill.

In the beginning of August, a federal appellate court questioned the underlying justification for the law with which Hunter Biden is wrestling. In United States vs. Daniels, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit court ruled that “Our history and tradition may support some limits on an intoxicated person’s right to carry a weapon, but it does not justify disarming a sober citizen based exclusively on his past drug usage.” 

The ruling, however, has no practical effect on the Biden case, because Fifth Circuit law is binding only in the federal district courts in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. Any appeals process that might put the case before the Supreme Court would most likely take years. The high court grants certiorari to only 1% of the cases submitted to it, according to the Oklahoma A&M Mirror.

Reports in some liberal media circles appeared to suggest the Daniels case was a way out for Hunter Biden. Those reports failed to mention that the Daniels court called for its ruling to be interpreted narrowly, writing: “We do not invalidate the statute in all its applications, but, importantly, only as applied to Daniels.”

Importantly, the court noted that “the government presented no evidence that he was intoxicated at the time of arrest.” 

In all, Hunter Biden’s fate is an open question.

Just the News’ review showed that several factors are mixed into the sentencing decision, including the number of weapons involved, the type and amount of illegal drugs involved, and most importantly, the wide latitude of judicial discretion.

Judge Noreika, in rejecting the plea deal may have signaled a view that even the son of the president is not above the law.

Still, observers look for the sympathy card to be played by Abbe Lowell, Biden’s new attorney. Biden-supporting online publications like Vox and others hope to persuade Noreika to be lenient.

A story by Vox seems to align a series of excuses for Biden: “At that time, Hunter’s personal life was tumultuous. He progressed from alcohol to hard drugs, including crack cocaine. His older brother, Beau, died of brain cancer in 2015. Hunter then split from his wife, who would later accuse him in a court filing of “spending extravagantly” on “drugs, alcohol, prostitutes, strip clubs and gifts for women with whom he has sexual relations.”

The Vox story says of Biden: "He repeatedly went in and out of rehab. He was a mess."

Time will tell whether appeals to sympathy will sway Judge Noreika one way or another.

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