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January 5, 2006

Sixth Circuit publishes (opaque) approval of downward departure

Today the Sixth Circuit decided to publish its ruling last month in US v. Williams, No. 04-4152 (6th Cir. Dec. 14, 2005), published (Jan. 5, 2005) (available here), which rejects a government appeal of a district court's (pre-Booker) four-level downward departure in a felon-in-possession case.  Given the case's procedural history and the opaque discussion in the opinion, the clearest aspect of Williams is that it is unclear.

First, at the outset of the discussion, the court states "[w]e review a district court's departure from the recommended Guidelines sentence under an abuse of discretion standard," but it then notes that after Booker "the sentence imposed by the district court must be reasonable."  The rest of the opinion does not clarify which standard is being applied, and conspicuously missing is any discussion of the Feeney Amendment's (pre-Booker) modification of departure review standards.  Second, through a discussion of the Sixth Circuit's prior Jackson opinion (discussed here), the Sixth Circuit's brief opinion in Williams seems to conflate a number of potentially distinct issues relating to departures and variances after Booker.

Despite its opaque reasoning, the decision in Williams does usefully reinforce the basic principle that district courts should thoroughly explain the bases for their sentencing determinations, especially when deciding not to follow the guidelines.  Williams also highlights that, whenever a district court does adequately explain its sentencing decision, that decision is likely to be affirmed.

January 5, 2006 at 10:26 AM | Permalink

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