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October 6, 2012

Has the First Circuit blessed disregarding loss in some white-collar sentencings?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy new piece in the New York Law Journal by attorney Laura Grossfield Birger, which is headlined "The Impact of First Circuit's 'Prosperi' Decision: Does appellate review constrain district courts to follow Sentencing Guidelines?". Here are a few excerpts from the piece:

The recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in United States v. Prosperi, 686 F.3d 32 (1st Cir. 2012), affords great discretion to sentencing courts to deviate from the Sentencing Guidelines, despite expressing palpable discomfort with the extent of deviation at issue in this particular case.  For this reason, the opinion is likely to be cited often in the First Circuit and elsewhere, and its analysis and approach warrants examination....

[I]n reviewing the substantive reasonableness of the sentences, the First Circuit initially focused on whether the district court had offered a plausible explanation for minimizing the impact of the loss amount.  The court reviewed the reasons articulated by the district court in detail ... [and] found that the[] findings and conclusions constituted "plausible" explanations for the district court's refusal to give significant weight to the loss amount it calculated pursuant to the Sentencing Guidelines.

The relaxed review applied by the First Circuit to this aspect of the district court's rationale is significant.  As the court recognized, the strength of the justification required to support a variance from a Sentencing Guidelines range fluctuates with the degree of that variance; the greater the deviance from the applicable Sentencing Guidelines range, the more significant the justification required to support it.  Here, the government's principal complaint boiled down to the huge extent of the variance — from a more than seven-year sentence to probation.  By accepting the district court's decision not to give the loss amount much weight, the First Circuit essentially approved a reduction in the spread; once the loss amount is removed as the pivotal factor driving the sentence, the government's argument that the breadth of the variance between zero and 87 months is unjustifiable loses traction.

The balance of the First Circuit's analysis of the district court's rationale reflects its acceptance of its key tenet — the disregard of the loss amount as the determinative factor.  The court reviewed the government's other objections to the district court's proffered justification ... and swiftly rejected them....

Like most sentencing decisions, Prosperi is highly dependent on its facts, yet the opinion is likely to reverberate in white-collar sentencing jurisprudence.  The willingness of the district court not just to mitigate the impact of the loss amount on the sentence, but essentially to disregard its effect entirely, will be an attractive precedent to defendants facing staggering sentences driven largely by loss amounts.  And while the government will surely strive to limit Prosperi to its facts, it will not be difficult for defense lawyers to analogize other fraud cases to at least some of the factors present in Prosperi. Fundamentally, the Prosperi opinion also signals to district courts that, at least in the First Circuit, there are few restraints on their discretion to impose sentences far below the applicable Guidelines range in fraud cases; as long as they explain why they did so, citing lawful considerations, the sentences will not be disturbed on appeal even when the Court of Appeals plainly disagrees with the result.  If embraced by district courts, this may galvanize a trend away from the uniformity that the Guidelines seek to impose, particularly in white-collar cases, and toward a return to the flexibility and discrepancy in sentencing often associated with the pre-Guidelines era.

Related prior post:

October 6, 2012 at 11:26 AM | Permalink

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