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September 20, 2020

Spotlighting notable series of substantive reasonableness reversals by the Sixth Circuit

A helpful reader sent me this thoughtful review of some notable recent reasonableness rulings by the Sixth Circuit:

The review of sentences for substantive reasonableness is often thought of as toothless, or as a “one-way ratchet” toward more severe sentences.  Of the countless appeals challenging sentences as overly harsh, only a couple of dozen have prevailed.  (Government appeals challenging sentences as too lenient seem to have found more success).  Appellate courts have been far more willing, on a defendant’s appeal, to say the sentencing court failed to follow proper procedures than to say the sentence was just too long.  In a trio of recent 2-1 decisions, however, the Sixth Circuit has done just that, reversing above-Guidelines sentences where there was an insufficient justification for the upward variance and putting some substance into substantive reasonableness review.

This line of cases started with United States v. Perez-Rodriguez, where the Sixth Circuit reversed an above-Guidelines sentence of 24 months in an illegal re-entry case where the Guidelines range was 8 to 14 months. 960 F.3d 748 (6th Cir. 2020).  Over a dissent, the Court held that the upward variance was substantively unreasonable because this was a “mine-run” case where the upward variance was unjustified and “created unwarranted sentencing disparities.” (Interestingly, in doing so, Judge Stranch drew on her opinion in United States v. Boucher, 937 F.3d 702 (6th Cir. 2019), where the court had held that a sentence of just 30 days for Rand Paul’s attacker, when the Guidelines range was 21 to 27 months, was substantively unreasonable because it was a “mine-run case.” Thus, at least in this instance, the ratchet went both ways.)

In the less than four months since Perez-Rodriguez, the Sixth Circuit has twice struck down above-Guidelines sentences as substantively unreasonable, each time over a vigorous dissent.  In United States v. Lee, the court held that a sentence of 60 months for possession of a stolen firearm, when the Guidelines range was 30 to 37 months’ imprisonment, was “far too long for his offense of conviction” and that the sentencing court “placed too much weight on Lee's criminal history, and not enough weight on the need to treat like defendants alike.”  __ F.3d __, 2020 WL 5269820 (6th Cir. Sept. 4, 2020). Then, in United States v. Brown, relying on Perez-Rodriguez and the unpublished 2-1 decision in United States v. Warren, 771 F. App’x 637 (6th Cir. 2019), the Sixth Circuit again held that an above-Guidelines sentence of 60 months for distributing heroin was substantively unreasonable because this was a “mine-run case” and the upward variance from the Guidelines range of 24 to 30 months would create “unwarranted sentencing disparities.” __ F. App’x __, 2020 WL 5569677 (6th Cir. Sept. 17, 2020).         

It’s hard to say whether this recent spate of substantive reasonableness reversals reflects an increasing recognition by (some) federal appellate judges of the realities of mass incarceration and overly harsh sentences, or simply a lucky streak by defendants.  Cutting in favor of the latter interpretation is that both Brown and Perez-Rodriguez are sentencing appeals from the same district judge — as was Warren — and that in each instance the sentencing judge upwardly varied even though the Government sought a Guidelines sentence.  These reversals may, then, simply reflect an attempt by appellate judges to rein in a particularly punitive district judge.  But I tend to think that this string of cases reflects an attempt to give some substance to substantive reasonableness review, and to use it as a tool to curb at least the most egregiously punitive sentences.  

Though the Sixth Circuit’s newfound willingness to find upward variances unreasonable in cases that fall within the heartland of the Guidelines is encouraging, it nonetheless is worth considering the limitations of this approach.  To begin with, it implicitly accepts that the Guidelines are the starting point for reasonableness review.  This is perhaps a natural outgrowth of the appellate presumption of reasonableness that the Sixth Circuit (and some but not all other circuits) afford to within-Guidelines sentences.  But it risks blunting the impact of Booker and Gall, which held that district courts must start by calculating the Guidelines range but then must proceed to give the sentence required by the factors enumerated in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), regardless of what the Guidelines may advise.  Accordingly, in certain districts such as the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York, only a quarter of sentences have been within-Guidelines in recent years.  In the view of many district judges, it seems, the proper sentence for a “mine-run case” is a below-Guidelines one. 

Indeed, anyone with a working knowledge of the Sentencing Guidelines — or any regular reader of this blog — is likely familiar with just how harsh the Guidelines can be.  Yet the approach of Perez-Rodriguez requires only that above-Guidelines sentences provide sufficient justification; it offers no path to challenging harsh but below- or within-Guidelines sentences.  A more robust appellate review of the reasonableness of above-Guidelines sentences is certainly welcome, but it is not by itself a panacea for the ills of mass incarceration. 

I am always grateful for (and eager to post) any and all caselaw reviews, so I thank this author and encourage others to help me track and report on lower court sentencing developments like this one.

September 20, 2020 at 04:26 PM | Permalink

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