Thursday, February 18, 2010

Court Sets Standard for Preservation of Procedural Sentencing Error

US v. Lynn: This is actually three apparently unrelated sentencing appeals (one involves codefendants, however) collected in one place to resolve one issue - the proper standard of review when a party argues on appeal that the district court committed procedural error in selecting the sentence it imposed. The Fourth Circuit concluded that the correct standard is abuse of discretion (aka "reasonableness"), followed by an examination of harmless error if the district court did abuse its discretion. That is if the party arguing on appeal properly preserved the issue in the first place, else they are stuck with plain error review. Reviewing FRCrPr 52, the court concluded that the appealing party does not have to make a post-imposition objection in order to preserve the issue on appeal. All that is needed is for the party to seek a particular ruling from the district court (i.e., a particular sentence based on the 3553(a) factors) and have the court rejected that plea. As for the individual cases:
  • US v. Peake: Peake, the court concluded, did not adequately preserve the issue and was subject to plain error review. After the district court calculated the Guideline range, Peake's counsel did not argue for a specific sentence and admitted that the PSR fairly set out the circumstances of Peake's offense (felon in possession) and background. The district court imposed a sentence at the bottom of the Guideline range. There was no error, or at least none that affected Peake's substantial rights. Sentence affirmed.
  • US v. Tucker: The main issue at Tucker's sentencing (also a felon in possession - shot himself in the leg) was the district court's desire to depart upward to the statutory maximum because the Guidelines underrepresented Tucker's criminal history (the district court had sustained Tucker's objection to being classified as a career offender). Tucker argued against the departure, noting the three-year gap between the incident and the federal charge, during which time he had done nothing to get himself into trouble. The district court, without addressing that argument, departed and imposed a sentence of 101 months. The Fourth Circuit concluded that Tucker had preserved the procedural reasonableness issue for appeal, found that the district court abused its discretion, and could not conclude that the error was harmless. Sentence vacated.
  • US v. Lynn: Lynn and his codefendant, Rhodes, were convicted of conspiracy to distribute and possession to distribute more than 100 grams of heroin. At sentencing, Lynn was classified as a career offender. He argued for a downward variance, on grounds that he was "at the very margins of career offender status." Without addressing his claims, the district court imposed a within the Guideline sentence. The Fourth Circuit concluded that Lynn properly preserved the procedural reasonableness issue, that the district court abused its discretion, and that the Government could not show that the error was harmless. Rhodes, apparently, did not challenge his sentence (both challenged the denial of motions to suppress, those arguments being rejected by the court in a footnote).

No comments: