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May 8, 2006

Ninth Circuit discusses fast-track disparity

The Ninth Circuit today in US v. Marcial-Santiago, No. 03-30248 (9th Cir. May 8, 2006) (available here) discusses at some length the defendants' contention that "the disparity between their sentences, and the sentences imposed on similarly-situated defendants who are prosecuted in districts with fast-track programs, is unwarranted and renders their sentences unreasonable."  Here is the heart of the analysis (with cites omitted) from the Ninth Circuit:

In light of Congress's explicit authorization of fast-track programs in the PROTECT Act, we cannot say that the disparity between Appellants' sentences and the sentences imposed on similarly-situated defendants in fast-track districts is "unwarranted" within the meaning of § 3553(a)(6).  When Congress passed the PROTECT Act, it did so with knowledge that 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(6) was directing sentencing courts to consider the need to avoid unwarranted sentencing disparities.  By authorizing fast-track programs without revising the terms of § 3553(a)(6), Congress was necessarily providing that the sentencing disparities that result from these programs are warranted and, as such, do not violate § 3553(a)(6).  Accordingly, we conclude that the disparity between Appellants' sentences and the sentences imposed on similarly-situated defendants who are prosecuted in fast-track districts is not unwarranted.  It is justified by the benefits gained by the government when defendants plead guilty early in criminal proceedings.

Even if this disparity were assumed to be unwarranted, however, that factor alone would not render Appellants' sentences unreasonable; the need to avoid unwarranted sentencing disparities is only one factor a district court is to consider in imposing a sentence. At Appellants' sentencing hearings, the district court noted that the Guidelines ranges were advisory, considered and rejected Appellants' arguments regarding the disparity between sentences imposed in the District of Montana and in fast-track districts, and weighed the other § 3553(a) factors.  After completing this review, the court imposed sentences that are within the Guidelines ranges.  The district court gave thoughtful attention to factors recognized in § 3553(a) and exercised sound discretion to ensure that the punishment fit the crime and the circumstances of the appellants.  We conclude that the sentences Appellants received are reasonable, and we will not here disturb the discretion of the sentencing court.

We turn next to Appellants' assertion that the PROTECT Act's provision authorizing fast-track programs violates their due process and equal protection rights because similarly situated individuals in districts with fast-track programs could receive lower sentences.  The fast-track provision of the PROTECT Act applies only to convicted felons, and so we consider whether the provision is rationally related to a legitimate government interest.  Because the government has a legitimate interest in conserving prosecutorial and judicial resources in districts with large numbers of immigration cases, and fast-track programs are rationally related to that interest, we conclude that the PROTECT Act's authorization of these programs, and their implementation in some but not all districts, does not violate Appellants' equal protection and due process rights.

Careful readers will appreciate that the Ninth Circuit does not assert (or suggest?) that it would be unreasonable for a district court to exercise its discretion to adjust a sentence based, at least in part, on a concern about fast-track disparity.  Rather, Marcial-Santiago only stands for the proposition that a within-guideline sentence is not necessarily unreasonable for failure to consider fast-track disparity.

May 8, 2006 at 02:22 PM | Permalink

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