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May 28, 2020

Split Sixth Circuit panel finds above-guideline illegal reentry sentence to be substantively unreasonable

Since Booker made the federal sentencing guidelines advisory and invented a reasonableness standard of review more than 15 years ago, there have been now well over one million federal sentences imposed.  And yet only a few dozen of these million+ sentences have been declared substantively unreasonable by a federal appellate court (even though, by my lights, a good many are truly unreasonable in one sense or another).  Because so few sentences have been found substantively unreasonable, every such decision is blogworthy, and so here I highlight a split Sixth Circuit panel decision handed down yesterday in US v. Perez-Rodriguez, No. 18-4203 (6th Cir. May 27, 2020) (available here). The 15-page ruling is worth reading in full, and here is how the majority opinion starts and its concluding substantive paragraph:

Eduardo Perez-Rodriguez, a citizen of Mexico, was sentenced to 24 months in prison for one count of illegal reentry in violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1326. The district court applied an upward variance that more than doubles the middle of his 8- to 14-month Guidelines range. Perez-Rodriguez challenges the substantive reasonableness of the upward variance and argues that the district court considered facts outside the record in selecting his sentence. Because Perez-Rodriguez’s sentence was substantively unreasonable, we REVERSE the district court’s judgment and REMAND for resentencing....

Because Perez-Rodriguez’s case falls within the mine-run of cases of illegal reentry under the Guidelines, it is subject to closer review to assure that the justification given “is sufficiently compelling to support the degree of variance.” Gall, 552 U.S. at 50.  Based on its upward variance, the district court entered a sentence of 24 months, a 118% increase from the middle of the Guidelines range.  The court’s justification for the upward variance is rooted in Perez-Rodriguez’s “return to the United States after having been previously removed and after having been convicted of reentry after deportation.”  These facts, however, have been accounted for twice in the Guidelines range, both in the criminal history calculation and in the sentencing enhancement under § 2L1.2(b)(1)(A).  Our review of the extent of the upward variance imposed in light of the sentencing goals of § 3553(a) and our caselaw indicates that the court placed too much weight on the § 3553(a) factors concerning criminal history, deterrence, and protection of the public from further crimes of the defendant, and that the court selected the sentence without properly considering sentencing disparities.  Beginning with the correct standard — the Guidelines range, comparing the circumstances in this case to Commission data and our precedent, and applying the § 3553(a) factors show that Perez-Rodriguez’s upward variance was improper and created unwarranted sentencing disparities.  The upward variance imposed was substantively unreasonable.

Here is how the dissent by Judge Murphy gets started:

If I were the sentencing judge in this case, I likely would not have chosen the 24-month sentence imposed on Eduardo Perez-Rodriguez.  He pleaded guilty to illegally reentering this country in violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1326, and his guidelines range was only 8 to 14 months.  My general weighing of the sentencing factors in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) would likely place great emphasis on uniformity concerns.  See 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(6).  Heavy reliance on the guidelines guards against a system in which each defendant’s sentence turns “on the spin of the wheel that determined the judge to whom the case was assigned.”  Pepper v. United States, 562 U.S. 476, 517 (2011) (Alito, J., concurring in part, concurring in the judgment in part, and dissenting in part).  Yet United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005), gave district judges substantial freedom to adopt competing sentencing views. It allows district courts to depart from a defendant’s guidelines range based on other sentencing factors, including the defendant’s specific circumstances, 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(1), or more general penological goals like the need for adequate deterrence, id. § 3553(a)(2)(B).  And, as an appellate judge tasked with implementing Booker’s regime, I do not see a sufficient basis to overturn the district court’s upward variance in this case.  I thus respectfully disagree with my colleagues’ considered contrary opinion.

May 28, 2020 at 09:15 PM | Permalink

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