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August 10, 2006

Eleventh Circuit thoughtfully explores post-Booker sentencing while rejecting presumptions

This morning in US v. Hunt, No. 05-11671 (11th Cir. Aug. 10, 2006) (available here), the Eleventh Circuit has a lot of really interesting and important things to say about post-Booker sentencing.  Here are some extended highlights (with lots of useful cites omitted):

Much has been written about the amount of weight to accord the Guidelines in light of Booker, and virtually every position has been adopted by one court or another....

We do not believe that any across-the-board prescription regarding the appropriate deference to give the Guidelines is in order. Booker restored to district courts a measure of discretion that the mandatory Guidelines had removed. This discretion is bounded, of course, by Congress's mandate to consider the factors in section 3553(a), one of which, subsection four, is the Sentencing Guidelines.  There are many reasons a district court may choose to follow the Guidelines in a particular case — namely that the Guidelines are an accumulation of knowledge and experience and were promulgated over time by the Sentencing Commission, an agency instructed to consider the section 3553(a) factors.  The Guidelines, moreover, are an indispensable tool in helping courts achieve Congress's mandate to consider "the need to avoid unwarranted sentence disparities" among similarly situated defendants. 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(6).

There are, however, many instances were the Guidelines range will not yield a reasonable sentence.  If Booker is to mean anything, it must be that district courts are obligated to impose a reasonable sentence, regardless of the Guidelines range, so long as the Guidelines have been considered.  Thus, a district court's determination that the Guidelines range fashions a reasonable sentence necessarily must be a case-by-case determination.  In some cases it may be appropriate to defer to the Guidelines; in others, not.  So long as the district court considers the Guidelines, we do not believe it is appropriate to dictate a "strength" of consideration applicable in every case.

Nor do we find a presumption to be useful in this context.  Presumptions are burden-shifting tools, and operate effectively where the party against whom the presumption operates is better situated to come forward with evidence.  To say that the Guidelines are "presumptively" reasonable is to charge the defendant with the responsibility of establishing that the Guidelines range does not fulfill the remaining section 3553(a) factors in a particular case.  We agree that, in this context, there is some evidence the defendant is more likely to possess.  Other evidence, however, might better be asked of the Government — a repeat player in the criminal justice arena.  We therefore see no basis for ascribing a presumption one way or the other.  Rather, the Guidelines are to serve as a starting point for consideration as to whether a given sentence is "reasonable" in view of the entirety of section 3553(a).  Whether, after consideration of section 3553(a) in its entirety, a court finds the Guidelines to be compelling is a fact-specific judgment that we neither mandate nor foreclose.

In sum, we hold that a district court may determine, on a case-by-case basis, the weight to give the Guidelines, so long as that determination is made with reference to the remaining section 3553(a) factors that the court must also consider in calculating the defendant's sentence.

August 10, 2006 at 10:53 AM | Permalink

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