Thursday, April 12, 2007

Post-Offense Rehabilitation Doesn't Support Probation in Crack Case

US v. Pyles: Pyles was part of a "circle of drug using friends" in Morgantown who would get drugs for other people and "pinch" a bit for themselves as payment. In May and June, 2004, authorities made three controlled buys of crack from the pinching Pyles, totalling 0.71 gram. In May, 2005, Pyles and several others were indicted on charges of conspiracy to distribute more than 5 grams of crack and substantive delivery charges. Pyles eventually entered a guilty plea to one count of aiding and abetting the distribution of crack. However, in the PSR Pyles was attributed 26.4 grams of crack as relevant conduct. His Guideline range was 63 to 78 months.

Between the time of the controlled buys and Pyles's sentencing hearing, he made significant steps towards rehabilitation. His employer submitted letters to the district court detailing Pyles's efforts to turn his life around and his value as an employee. Concerned as to Pyles's need for drug treatment, the district court postponed sentencing to allow Pyles to seek treatment with a "noted substance abuse counselor in Morgantown." When sentencing reconvened, the counselor reported to the court that Pyles "ha[d] done better than any person I am currently working with." Pyles had successfully completed his term of presentencing bond with no incidents, according to the probation officer.

The district court then asked the parties about the factors found in 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) and whether probation would better serve those factors than imprisonment. The Government objected to the idea of probation, noting that a co-defendant had already been sentenced to 37 months in prison. The district court rejected that argument, noting that the Fourth Circuit has held that inter-defendant disparity is not the type of disparity that is prohibited. The district court finally determined that probation was appropriate and sentenced Pyles to 5 years of probation, including a 6-month term of home confinement. To support her sentence, the district court produced a 22-page opinion detailing Pyles's rehab and working through each of the 3553(a) factors.

The Government, of course, appealed, and the Fourth Circuit reversed, finding the extent of the variance in this case to be unreasonable. Initially, however, the court did affirm the district court's refusal to consider inter-defendant conspiracy as a factor at sentencing. However, the court ultimately decided that a sentence of probation in a case where the unobjected to Guideline range bottomed out at 63 months was too great. The court concluded that the district court would have had to depart 16 levels under the Guidelines to reach a zone in which probation was an option, which was too great given the circumstances of the case. The court praised the district court, somewhat patronizingly, for the time and effort it put in to justifying its decision, but in the end it was not sufficient to justify a sentence that did not include incarceration. Pyles's sentence was vacated and remanded for further proceedings.

The heart of this case really comes down to a quote from the district that's on page 13 of the slip opinion: "federal sentencing policy is not purely retributive. It does not mandate warehousing individuals who reclaimed their lives long before they were indicted and arrested." The Fourth spends the next four pages basically saying, "oh yes it does."

Doug Berman & commentators at Sentencing Law and Policy discusses Pyles here.

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