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June 14, 2011

DC Circuit reverses above-guideline sentence for inadequate explanation

In an interesting sentencing ruling today in US v. Akhigbe, No. 10-3019 (DC Cir. June 14, 2011) (available here), involved the DC Circuit finding procedurally unreasonable the failure of a district court to adequately explain the basis for an above-guideline sentencing. Here is a key paragraph from the ruling:

In In re Sealed Case, we found plain procedural error where the district court imposed an above-Guidelines sentence “without providing any explanation at all” in open court and also submitted no written statement of reasons.  Id. at 192–93 (indicating that the error was “obvious enough”).  To be sure, the facts of this case are not quite so extreme, but we nonetheless believe that the district court’s oral and written statements are clearly insufficient.  We thus conclude not only that the district court erred procedurally in sentencing, but also that its error was plain.  In reaching this conclusion, we recognize that district courts necessarily and appropriately exercise professional judgment in determining how much reasoning to give when explaining discretionary sentencing decisions.  In many cases, such as where the parties have presented only “straightforward, conceptually simple arguments” and the district court concludes a Guidelines sentence is appropriate, a fairly brief recitation of reasons will satisfy the court’s procedural obligations.  Rita, 551 U.S. at 356–57.  Moreover, although a district court must explain its decision to impose a non-Guidelines sentence with specificity and “ensure that the justification” for its sentence “is sufficiently compelling to support the degree of the variance,” Gall, 552 U.S. at 50, we do not ask the court to do the impossible and provide detailed reasoning as to why it chose, for example, to vary upward by 12 months rather than by 11 or 13.  But under the circumstances of this case, where the district court imposed a sentence that varied significantly from both the advisory Guidelines range and from the sentences the parties sought, the brief and generalized explanation the court provided is plainly inadequate to satisfy section 3553(c)’s requirements.

June 14, 2011 at 11:37 PM | Permalink

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Comments

Your "available here" does not link to anything as far as I can tell. I was interested to see if the panel is functionally requiring a more detailed statement for an upward variance than a downward one (even if they don't actually come out and say so).

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jun 15, 2011 10:20:37 AM

It's available here: http://www.cadc.uscourts.gov/internet/opinions.nsf
(No. 10-3019)

I didn't see an indication of different approaches for upward vs. downward. They seemed more concerned that the reasons given would apply to any defendant, not just this one, yet the court did not give a reason for disagreeing with the guideline in the mine-run case (citing Kimbrough).

Posted by: Def. Atty. | Jun 15, 2011 12:11:31 PM

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