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July 11, 2016

First Circuit finds sentence enhanced based on a song (and thrice longer than guideline range) substantively unreasonable

Thanks to Howard Bashman at How Appealing, I did not miss the interesting First Circuit panel ruling in Alvarez-Núñez, No. 15-2127 (1st Cir. July 9, 2016) (available here), declaring an above-guideline sentence substantively unreasonable. Here are excepts from an opinion that has a wordy flair that would justify reading in full:

In this case, the sentencing court confused the message with the messenger. That led the court to blur the line between the artistic expression of a musical performer and that performer's state of mind qua criminal defendant. Concluding, as we do, that this line-blurring undermined the plausibility of the court's sentencing rationale (and, thus, rendered the sentence substantively unreasonable), we vacate and remand for resentencing....

Evidence extrinsic to the protected words or conduct may make clear that a performance or artistic work speaks to a defendant's motive, state of mind, or some other attribute in a way that is relevant to sentencing.  In the absence of such extrinsic evidence, the mere fact that a defendant's crime happens to resemble some feature of his prior artistic expression cannot, by itself, establish the relevance of that expression to sentencing.

Evidence that might support such an inference is conspicuously lacking in this case. Nothing in the record indicates that the lyrics or music videos had any direct application either to the defendant or to his lifestyle.  Nor is there any basis for a claim that they are unlawful in any respect.  By like token, there is no hint that the defendant had any prior involvement with illegal firearms, much less with violence or murder.  The government did not so much as attempt to prove any uncharged conduct, nor did the district court make any findings about the defendant's involvement in any other criminal activity. To the contrary, the PSI Report — accepted in this regard both by the government and the district court — confirms that, at age 34, the defendant had no adult criminal history.

The district court's conclusions — that the lyrics and music videos comprised "objective evidence . . . that this [crime] was not a mistake," that they reflected that the defendant had a history of involvement "with firearms, with violence, [and] with murders," and that they made it likely that the defendant possessed the gun for nefarious purposes — thus rested entirely on naked inferences drawn from the content of the lyrics and music videos....

Taking the lyrics and music videos as "objective evidence" of factors relevant to sentencing, without an iota of corroborating evidence, results in a sentencing rationale wholly unsupported by the record. Like a house built upon a porous foundation, a sentence built upon a rationale that is unsupported by the record cannot stand.

July 11, 2016 at 10:39 AM | Permalink

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