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August 14, 2014

Eighth Circuit reverses 20-month sentence for police abuse and perjury as substantively unreasonable

In the post-Booker sentencing world, reversal of sentences on appeal for being substantively unreasonable are quite rare. But this week has brought two such reversal: as noted in this prior post, an Eleventh Circuit panel on Tuesday declared a probation sentence in a public corruption case to be substantively unreasonable, and today an Eighth Circuit panel declared a 20-month sentence in a police abuse case to be substantively unreasonable in US v. Dautovic, No. 13-1145 (8th Cir. Aug 14, 2014) (available here). Here is the heart of the unanimous panel ruling:

We conclude that the district court imposed a substantively unreasonable sentence in this case.  Dautovic’s offense conduct was egregious.  A police officer beat an innocent victim with a dangerous weapon, causing serious bodily injury and permanent physical damage. He arrested Bonds and Evans and then wrote a false police report that caused themto be charged with crimes.  At Bonds and Evans’s trial, where they were found innocent, Dautovic committed perjury.  Dautovic maintained throughout his trial that his actions in the early morning hours of September 13 were reasonable and that his police report was sloppy, not intentionally falsified.  A jury, however, found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of using excessive force and obstructing justice, and the district court’s findings atsentencing were consistent with the jury’s verdict.  The district court found that Dautovic showed no remorse and that his experience in Bosnia did not relate to his beating of Bonds.

The district court, nonetheless, varied downward from the bottom of the Guidelines range by 115 months.  The district court found that Dautovic overreacted during the arrest and beating of Bonds.  It disagreed with the Guidelines range because it believed that the color-of-law enhancement added too many months to the sentencing range and because the sentencing range exceeded the statutory maximum term of imprisonment for the excessive force count.  It found that a Guidelines-range sentence was inappropriate in light of the fact that Dautovic was a first time offender who had done good things for his community and family.  The district court acted within its discretion when it decided to vary downward based on Dautovic’s history and characteristics and on its policy disagreement with the Guidelines, but these considerations do not justify the imposition of a 20-month sentence in this case.

The district court’s justification for the variance fails to support the degree of the variance in this case.  To the extent the district court tried to avoid unwarranted sentence disparities by basing Dautovic’s sentence on the average sentence imposed for civil rights violations, we are not convinced that the U.S. Sentencing Commission surveyed defendants whose records and offense conduct were similar to Dautovic’s....  Dautovic’s offense conduct involved aggravating circumstances, including the use of a dangerous weapon, the physical restraint of Bonds during the course of the beating, and the infliction of serious injury.  Moreover, acting under the color of law, Dautovic tried to conceal his wrongdoing by falsifying a police report and lying under oath.

When the totality of the circumstances is considered, a variance from the Guidelines range of 135 to 168 months’ imprisonment to a 20-month sentence is unreasonably lenient.  The district court erred in weighing the § 3553(a) factors and abused its discretion in varying downward to the extent that it did.

August 14, 2014 at 10:45 PM | Permalink

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