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August 1, 2008

Ninth Circuit Holds Lenient Sentence Does Not Rise to Abuse of Discretion

After pleading guilty to several counts of healthcare fraud, theft and money laundering, the defendant in United States v. Ruff, available here, a case decided today by the Ninth Circuit, was originally sentenced to 12 months and a day in prison and three years supervised release, with the recommendation that his sentence be served at a community corrections center where he could work, pay restitution and visit with his son.  After learning that the corrections center could only house the defendant if his confinement was as a condition of supervised release, the district court modified the sentence to one day of imprisonment and three years supervised release, with the condition that 12 months and a day of his supervised release be served at the corrections center.  The guidelines had recommended 30-37 months’ imprisonment for the combined offenses. The government appealed the modified sentence, claiming the modification overstepped the bounds of the sentencing court’s authority. 

The majority of the panel held there was no abuse of discretion by the sentencing court.  The court first recognized that the original below-guidelines sentence was reasonable in light of the mitigating factors recognized by the sentencing court pursuant to § 3553(a), and that the same factors justified the amended sentence, “because the only difference between the two sentences is one of meaningless semantics.” Citing the dissent’s discussion of Gall, the Court went on to recognize that

[t]he clear message in Gall, however, is that we must defer ‘to the District Court’s reasoned and reasonable decision that the § 3553(a) factors, on the whole, justified the sentence.’ …  [I]t is the reasoned decision itself, not the specific reasons that are cited, that triggers our duty to defer. Here, the district judge plainly satisfied this requirement, relying on factors such as treatment, cooperation and familial support to arrive at his chosen sentence.

Judge Gould firmly disagreed in dissent.

The abuse of discretion standard of review is not a rubber stamp of all sentencing decisions made by a district court. Instead, it requires us to vacate a sentence when it is substantively unreasonable. Where ‘we have a definite and firm conviction that the district court committed a clear error of judgment’ in imposing a particular sentence, it is our duty to vacate the sentence as unreasonable. See SEC v. Coldicutt, 258 F.3d 939, 914 (9th Cir. 2001). Here, the reasons given by the district court to support its sentence do not warrant a one-day prison term, even given the condition of supervised release that Ruff spend twelve months and a day in a residential confinement facility. This sentence is a substantively unreasonable punishment for Ruff’s theft of more than a half-million dollars in inventory supplies from his nonprofit employer.

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Comments

Bill, I am stunned no comment? These are the types of alternate sentences this country needs. Not every singe person standing in front of a Federal Judge needs to go to jail. Someone needs to calm the DOJ down. They have had 20 + years of running wild it is time to take the sentencing out of there hands.

Posted by: | Aug 2, 2008 7:08:00 PM

I love this case because it gets to the heart of what Gall and related cases are all about. I agree with both the majority and the dissent; the two are not opposed to each other.

"Instead, it requires us to vacate a sentence when it is substantively unreasonable."

Exactly. And now there are three judges on public record that it is not substantively unreasonable. In fact, the tally is 3-1. Judges actually judging: who would have thought it would come to this.

Posted by: Daniel | Aug 3, 2008 12:57:17 AM

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