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January 24, 2007

Notable Tenth Circuit reasonableness ruling

A helpful reader sent me this account of the Tenth Circuit's notable recent decision on procedural reasonableness in US v. Hall, No. 05-1205 (10th Cir. Jan 23, 2007) (available here):

[The Hall] court reverses a substantial downward variance, on the government's cross-appeal [but] uses some good language about the district court's duty to explain its sentencing determinations and to tie them to the 3553(a) factors.  In particular, the court explains, "[a]lthough we have never required a district court to recite any 'magic words' to show that it has fulfilled its obligation to be mindful of the factors Congress has instructed it to consider in sec. 3553(a), we have nevertheless required the court to give reasons for imposing a specific sentence." (citing its decision in Sanchez-Juarez). 

The Court further explains that such reasons are necessary for "meaningful appellate review." Next, the Court says that the defendant's 151-month sentence (substantially below the Guidelines range) might be substantively reasonable, but says it is procedurally unreasonable because the district court's only basis for varying from the Guidelines range (which was also the range for his co-defendants) was his "comparatively minor" criminal history.  The district court didn't discuss the offense characteristics or specifically discuss 3553(a), it just constructed a "hypothetical" Guidelines sentence based on a lower criminal history category AND a lower offense category.

January 24, 2007 at 10:46 PM | Permalink

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Comments

When I read this case yesterday, it did not strike me as a major ruling on the necessity for a district court to justify or ground a variance in 3553(a) factors. Rather, this case stands for the (unremarkable?) proposition that it is procedurally unreasonable for a judge to vary from the Guidelines and sentence a defendant "as if" the defendant were at another offense level and/or criminal history category without explaining how the judge reached the new "as if"/hypothetical levels.

The 10th Cir. reversed here because the judge did not explain how the new "as if" offense level" was reached; the Cir. did not care that the varriance wasn't based in 3553(a) factors.

With an offense level 36, criminal history category III, the judge sentenced Mr. Hall "as if" he were an offense level 34, criminal history category I. The judge only explained how the "as if" criminal history category I was reached, and made no mention at all to how he reached a two point offense level variance.

If anything, the 10th Cir. opinion hinders the use of 3553(a) factors - as opposed to the Guidelines - in sentencing. For the judge said that he considered the 3553(a) factors and found the "as if" levels to be appropriate, but was nonetheless reversed as procedurally unreasonable because he did not explain how his "tethered" Guideline sentence was reached.

Posted by: DEJ | Jan 25, 2007 4:09:45 PM

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