Friday, April 07, 2006

Court Expounds on Reaosnablenss Review for Within the Guidelines Sentence

US v. Johnson: Johnson pleaded guilty to three drug counts of cocaine and crack distribution. Using the grouping rules in USSG 3D1.2, the district court calculated Johnson's advisory Guideline sentencing range to be 97 to 121 months. Johnson objected, arguing that the district court should use its discretion under Booker to not apply the 3D1.2 grouping principles. The district court disagreed and sentenced Johnson to 97 months in prison.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed on appeal. Starting with the observation that the court has twice concluded that a sentence within an advisory Guideline sentencing range is presumptively reasonable, the court noted that in neither case (US v. Green and US v. Moreland) had the sentence at issue been imposed within a properly calculated range. Given that situation in this case, the court took "this opportunity to briefly explore the three justifications [for presumptively reasonable Guidelines] in greater detail." Those justifications are:

"The first reason that Guideline sentences are presumptively reasonable under Booker is the legislative and administrative process by which they were created." "By now," the court concluded, "the Guidelines represent approximately two decades of close attention to federal sentencing policy. It would be an oddity, to say the least, if a sentence imposed pursuant to this congressionally sanctioned and periodically superintended process was not presumptively reasonable." The court did not note that the Guidelines operated for most of those two decades in a fashion that violated the Sixth Amendment.

"[T]he incorporation into the Guidelines of the factors Congress identified in 18 USC 3553(a) as most salient in sentencing determinations." "The conclusion to be drawn," the court writes, "is that the advisory Guidelines are not something separate and apart from Congress's objectives in 3553(a). Rather, they embody many of those objectives." The court does not discuss the various sentencing factors in 3553(a) that the Guidelines not only fail to incorporate, but specifically exclude from consideration.

Finally, "such sentences are based on individualized factfinding and this factfinding takes place in a process that invites defendants to raise objections and requires courts to resolve them."

Because Johnson's sentence falls within a properly calculated Guideline range, it is presumptively reasonable. The court found neither of Johnson's arguments for not applying the Guidelines compelling. First, the court held that if "Johnson believes that 3D1.2's grouping provision is unreasonable or unfair as a general matter, the proper forum in which to raise this issue is Congress or the Sentencing Commission, not a federal court. Second, the court held that the district court provided an adequate examination of the 3553(a) factors.

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