Monday, February 06, 2006

Guideline Sentence = Presumptively Reasonable

US v. Green: Finally, nearly a year after Booker, the Fourth Circuit decides to discuss exactly what "reasonableness" means in the context of sentencing appeals. Sort of.

The bottom line is this:
  • To sentence a defendant, the district court must: (1) properly calculate the Guideline sentencing range; (2) determine whether a sentence "within that range and within statutory limits serves the factors set forth in [18 USC] 3553(a) and, if not, select a sentence that does serve those factors; (3) implement the mandatory statutory limitations; and (4) articulate the reasons for selecting the particular sentence, especially explaining why a non-Guideline sentence is appropriate.
  • The Fourth Circuit joins several others (see Doug Berman's discussion here) in holding that a sentence within the advisory Guideline range is "presumptively reasonable." That doesn't mean that a non-Guideline sentence is therefore "ipso facto unreasonable."
  • A sentence will be unreasonable if it is (a) within the advisory Guideline range but there was an error in applying or construing the Guidelines, or (b) if the sentence is imposed outside of the Guideline range "and the district court provides an inadequate statement of reasons or relies on improper factors in departing from the Guidelines' recommendation."
  • Finally, when reviewing an outside the Guidelines sentence to determine "whether a sentence . . . serves the purpose of sentence established by Congress in [18 USC 3553(a), 28 USC 991 (a), and 28 USC 994], we defer to the district court's sentencing judgments, correcting only for an abuse of discretion.
Having said all that, the court is able to deal with the sentence in this case simply by concluding that the Guidelines were improperly applied. Green pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute more than 50 grams of crack. The PSR showed, and the parties agreed, that Green was a Career Offender. Nevertheless, the district court concluded that while Green "technically fit the definition of Career Offender, the label "did not fit Mr. Green." On the request of defense counsel, the district court calculated the Guideline range without the Career Offender enhancement, then reduced the offense level for acceptance of responsibility and substantial assistance. Green received 87 months in prison (down from a Career Offender range of 262-327 months).

The Fourth Circuit vacated that sentence, finding it unreasonable because it was based on an improper application of the Guidelines. Specifically, the court found that the district court erred in several ways to conclude that the Career Offender label did not fit Green. The court did not reach the issue of whether an 87-month sentence was reasonable under the 3553(a) factors or whether a sentence within the Career Offender-fueled Guideline range would have been reasonable.

Doug Bermans's thoughts on Green can be read here.

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