Supreme Court Decides Federal Sentencing Guidelines Cases
When is a sentence “based on” a Guidelines range so as to require resentencing when the range is lowered?
In Koons v. United States, decided June 4, the Court held that where defendants were sentenced below a mandatory minimum because they provided substantial assistance to the Government, their sentences were not “based on” the lower Guidelines range, and thus, they were not eligible for resentencing when the Sentencing Commission later lowered the initial range more.
18 U.S.C. Sec. 3582(c)(2) makes defendants eligible for a sentence reduction if they were initially sentenced “based on a sentencing range” that was later lowered by the Sentencing Commission.
The defendants at issue had originally been subject to a mandatory minimum that was above the applicable Guideline range. But because the defendants provided substantial assistance to the Government, the district court was allowed to impose a sentence below the mandatory minimum, and did so.
Later, the Sentencing Commission lowered the applicable sentencing range. The defendants sought resentencing under Sec. 3582(c)(2).
But the Supreme Court held that the defendants were not eligible for resentencing because their sentences were not “based on” the Guidelines range. Instead, their sentences were “based on” their mandatory minimums and their substantial assistance.
“For a sentence to be ‘based on’ a lowered Guidelines range, the range must have at least played a relevant part in the framework the sentencing judge used in imposing the sentence,” the Court said. Some cases, such as here, “explicitly call for the ranges to be tossed aside. When that happens – when the ranges play no relevant part in the judge’s determination of the defendant’s ultimate sentence – the resulting sentence is not ‘based on’ a Guidelines range.”
Here, the defendants’ sentences “were not ‘based on’ the lowered Guidelines ranges because the District Court did not consider those ranges in imposing its ultimate sentences,” the Court said. “On the contrary, the court scrapped the ranges in favor of the mandatory minimums” which the court went below because of substantial assistance, “and never considered the ranges again.”
A binding plea agreement is “based on” the Guidelines range
In a second case involving Sec. 3582(c)(2), Hughes v. United States, decided June 4, the Court held that a defendant who was sentenced under a binding plea agreement is generally eligible for a sentence reduction if there is a later reduction in the Guidelines range, because their original sentence was “based on” the Guidelines range.
Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(C) allows a defendant to enter a plea agreement for a specific sentence, which the district court may choose to accept or not.
Hughes entered into an agreement for a 180 month sentence. In exchange, the Government agreed not to file an information alleging prior drug felonies, which would have triggered a mandatory life sentence. The district court accepted the agreement.
Later, the Sentencing Commission lowered the sentencing range for Hughes’ offense. Hughes sought resentencing under Sec. 3582(c)(2).
The Supreme Court held that Hughes was entitled to resentencing. “[A] sentence imposed pursuant to a [binding plea] agreement is ‘based on’ the defendant’s Guidelines range so long as that range was part of the framework the district court relied on in imposing the sentence or accepting the agreement,” the Court held. “A district court imposes a sentence that is ‘based on’ a Guidelines range if the range was a basis for the court’s exercise of its discretion in imposing a sentence.”
“A sentence imposed pursuant to a [binding plea] agreement is no exception to the general rule that a defendant’s Guidelines range is both the starting point and a basis for his ultimate sentence,” the Court said. “The Sentencing Guidelines prohibit district courts from accepting [binding plea] agreements without first evaluating the recommended sentence in light of the defendant’s Guidelines range. So in the usual case the court’s acceptance of a [binding] agreement and the sentence to be imposed pursuant to that agreement are ‘based on’ the defendant’s Guidelines range.”
The Court noted that there may be cases – such as Koons – where a binding plea agreement was not “based on” the Guidelines range, but those cases are the exception, not the general rule.
How much explanation must a judge give for resentencing?
In Chavez-Mesa v. United States, decided June 18, the Court held that where the Sentencing Commission had lowered the Guidelines range after the defendant’s original sentencing, the district judge gave an adequate explanation for imposing a new, lower sentence by using a standard form stating that he had “considered” and “taken into account” statutory factors the judge was to required consider in resentencing.
Chavez-Mesa argued that the judge should have lowered his sentence even further, and that the explanation given by the judge for not doing so was inadequate.
18 U.S.C. Sec. 3553(c) requires a judge to state the “reasons” for imposing a particular sentence. Sec. 3553(a) requires a judge to take into account certain statutory factors.
Here, the same judge had imposed the original sentence on Chavez-Mesa, and had given extensive explanation for that sentence at the original sentencing. On resentencing, the judge used a standard form issued by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, certifying that he had “considered” Chavez-Mesa’s arguments for reduction, and “taken into account” the required statutory factors.
A judge must give an adequate explanation to allow for meaningful appellate review, the Court said. But the amount of explanation that must be given will vary “upon the circumstances of a particular case.”
“In some cases, it may be sufficient for purposes of appellate review that the judge simply relied upon the record, while making clear that he or she had considered the parties’ arguments and taken account of the Sec. 3553(a) factors,” the Court said. In other cases, more explanation may be necessary, depending, for example, on the legal arguments raised by the parties.
“If the court of appeals considers an explanation inadequate in a particular case, it can sent the case back to the district court for a more complete explanation,” the Court said.
Given that the judge had extensively explained the original sentence, the judge’s brief explanation of the resentence was adequate, the Court held.
Incorrect Guidelines calculation is usually plain error and requires resentencing
In Rosales-Mireles v. United States, decided June 18, the Court held that an incorrect Guidelines calculation will ordinarily constitute plain error under Rule 52(b) on appeal, and require resentencing.
The district judge imposed a 78 month sentence on Rosales-Mireles based upon a mistaken calculation of his criminal history score, which resulted in an increased sentencing range of 77 to 96 months. If the criminal history score had been calculated correctly, the sentencing range would have been 70 to 87 months.
Rosales-Mireles did not raise the mistaken calculation until his appeal.
Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 52(b) allows an appellate court to consider “plain error that affects substantial rights” even though the error was not raised in district court.
The Fifth Circuit held that because Rosales-Mireles’ 78 month sentence fell within the correct range, the error did not “shock the conscience,” and did not warrant relief.
But the Supreme Court reversed. “Shock the conscience” is not the correct standard for proving plain error, the Court said. The standard is whether an error “seriously affects the fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings.”
A Guidelines calculation error necessarily leads to a “risk of unnecessary deprivation of liberty” and undermines the fairness, integrity and public reputation of judicial proceedings, the Court said. “Moreover, a remand for resentencing, while not costless, does not invoke the same difficulties as a remand for a retrial does.”
The Court noted that there may be rare cases where a Guidelines error would not implicate the fairness, integrity or public reputation of the proceedings, and not require resentencing. But resentencing will “ordinarily” be required.