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August 18, 2021

Second Circuit panel reverses 48-month (way-below-guideline) sentence as substantively unreasonable for abused woman who provided material support to ISIS

Regular readers know I do not blog much these days about federal sentence reasonableness review because there are not that many blogworthy opinions.  Out of many thousands of appeals brought by federal defendants each year, typically only a few hundred are successful, and all but a few dozen involve miscalculation of the guideline range.  The government rarely appeals, though it has a much better success rate in the relatively few appeals it brings each year. 

In one particular (and relatively rare) categories of cases, the government has a particularly notable history of appellate success when arguing a sentence in unreasonably lenient (see posts linked below for some historical examples).  This category is terrorism cases, and a Second Circuit panel added another example in this category with its ruling today in US v. Ceasar, No. 19-2881 (2d Cir. Aug. 18, 2021) (available here).  Federal sentencing fans will want to review this 53-page opinion in detail, but here is the opinion's introduction:

It is undisputed that beginning in or around January 2016, the defendant-appellee, Sinmyah Amera Ceasar, conspired to provide material support to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria ("ISIS"), in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2339B(a). Using social media and the encrypted messaging application Telegram, Ceasar expressed her support for ISIS, encouraged others to join ISIS abroad, and helped individuals in the United States contact ISIS members overseas. The overseas ISIS members then facilitated U.S.-based ISIS supporters' travel to ISIS-controlled territory. Ceasar herself intended to travel to ISIS territory by way of Sweden, where she planned to marry another ISIS supporter. In November 2016, Ceasar was arrested at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport on her way to Sweden via Turkey. Following her arrest, Ceasar entered into a cooperation agreement with the government in which she pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. In April 2018, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York granted her presentence release.

While on presentence release, Ceasar reoffended.  Despite the fact that the conditions of her release explicitly prohibited her from contacting individuals or organizations affiliated with foreign terrorist groups, Ceasar obtained a laptop computer, recreated pseudonymous social media accounts, and resumed contacting or attempting to contact several individuals known to be supporters of ISIS or other extremist groups.  The FBI, investigating Ceasar's conduct, found that she had intentionally deleted incriminating communications and had instructed others with whom she had been in contact to do the same.  The bond underlying her presentence release was revoked, and she was remanded pending sentencing. When the FBI interviewed Ceasar about her conduct while on presentence release, she made a significant number of false and misleading statements....

Mental health professionals who met with and treated Ceasar characterize her conduct as a misguided search for community stemming from a lifetime of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse and neglect.  Beginning in her childhood, Ceasar's father sexually abused her.  At age 13, she entered the foster care system and was abused or neglected in each home in which she was placed.  While Ceasar has never been legally married, she entered into three successive so-called "religious marriages" with older men, beginning when she was 16.  In each of those marriages, her husband physically or emotionally abused her.  Ceasar was diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the abuse and trauma she endured.

Ceasar faced a Sentencing Guidelines range of 360 to 600 months' imprisonment.  Prior to sentencing, the district court ordered the government and Ceasar to provide expert witness testimony or other materials to assist in its sentencing determination.  The district court held a multiday sentencing hearing at which two government and three defense experts testified as to Ceasar's involvement with and support of ISIS and whether she would be likely to reoffend. 

The district court concluded that the advisory Guidelines range was "excessively harsh" and varied downward from it dramatically.  The court found that Ceasar was motivated by the abuse and trauma she suffered most of her life, and that she needed educational and mental health support in lieu of a long prison sentence.  On June 26, 2019, despite the Guidelines minimum of 360 months, the court imposed a 46-month sentence on Ceasar for the Material Support Offense, one month for the Obstruction Offense, and one month for committing an offense while on presentence release, pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3147, all to run consecutively for a total term of 48 months' imprisonment.  Because she had been in custody from the time of her arrest in November 2016 until she was granted presentence release in April 2018, and was then remanded to custody on July 19, 2018 (following her violation of the conditions of her presentence release), Ceasar served only 13 additional months from the time of sentencing (June 26, 2019) until she was released from prison on July 28, 2020. 

The government appealed on substantive reasonableness grounds, arguing that the district court abused its discretion by considering Ceasar's need for rehabilitation to the exclusion of other sentencing factors, and that this mitigating sentencing factor could not bear the weight assigned to it. The government further argues that Ceasar's sentence was shockingly low compared with other sentences imposed for similar crimes. 

We are not without sympathy for Ceasar, but we are constrained to agree with the government. We conclude that the district court placed more emphasis on Ceasar's need for rehabilitation than that sentencing factor could bear, and failed adequately to weigh section 3553(a) factors that balance the needs and circumstances of an individual defendant against, among other things, the goals of protecting the public, deterring criminal behavior, and engendering respect for the law. We further conclude that in comparison with sentences for similar terrorism crimes, Ceasar's sentence of 48 months' imprisonment was shockingly low and unsupportable as a matter of law. We therefore vacate the judgment of the district court and remand for resentencing.

Prior posts on similar reasonableness ruling:

August 18, 2021 at 02:09 PM | Permalink

Comments

Hmm, interesting decision. The late Judge Weinstein imposed the sentence. Since it was vacated and remanded I guess a different judge will do the resentencing. The 2nd Circuit did note that her background might still merit a below-Guidelines sentence. So we’ll see what happens next…

-kd

Posted by: kotodama | Aug 19, 2021 1:31:16 AM

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