Thursday, April 19, 2007

Court Reverses Below-Guideline Sentence In High-Profile Alien-Transporting Case

United States v. Sanchez, No. 06-20193 (5th Cir. Apr. 17, 2007) (King, Garza, Prado)

Sanchez was one of the defendants in the case where nineteen aliens died in the back of a tractor-trailer near Victoria, Texas. She pled guilty to one count of conspiring to transport illegal aliens. The stipulated factual basis for her guilty plea "stated that Sanchez, working in conjunction, and at times at the direction of co-conspirators, was responsible for a number of activities to promote, facilitate, and support the smuggling of undocumented aliens from South Texas, to and through the Houston, Texas area.”

When it came time to calculate the recommended guideline sentencing range, the district court applied enhancements under U.S.S.G. §2L1.1 for the number of aliens involved, reckless endangerment, and the death of at least one of the aliens. The resulting guideline range, after an adjustment for acceptance of responsibility, was 57 to 71 months.

However, the district court varied from the advisory guideline range on the grounds that 1) although Sanchez "was apparently known as someone who would assist people with smuggling[,]" this was "her only significant contact with the criminal justice system[,]" and 2) because there were multiple overlapping conspiracies involved in the case, the deaths of the nineteen aliens, as well as other aggravating factors, weren't reasonably foreseeable to Sanchez. For those reasons, the court initially imposed a 30-month sentence. After Sanchez told the court that she had already been in custody for 33 months pending the disposition of the matter, and after the U.S. Marshal told the court that Sanchez could be released immediately only if the court imposed a time-served sentence, the court sentenced Sanchez to time-served.

The government appealed the sentence. (Not a surprise, given the notoriety of the case.) The court of appeals reversed. (Also not a surprise, given the pattern of reasonableness review in our circuit.) It held that the sentence was unreasonable because 1) the district clearly erred in finding that there were multiple conspiracies involved and that the deaths were reasonably forseeable to Smith, 2) the district court's conclusion that Sanchez couldn't have foreseen 19 deaths was an improper basis for a non-Guideline sentence because the 2L1.1 death enhancement already took the death factor into account, 3) the district court failed to give sufficient weight to Sanchez's history and characteristics, i.e. her history of alien smuggling, and 4) the 42% reduction from the low end of the advisory range (what the court tellingly refers to as "the Guideline minimum") "would create significant disparity between Sanchez and other defendants with similar criminal histories convicted of similar criminal offenses."

I'm sure reasonable minds could differ about an appropriate sentence in this case, but is the sentence really unreasonable as a matter of law? This looks more like an instance of the court of appeals substituting its judgment for that of the district court (and from a very Guideline-centric perspective, no less). There's also the usual caveat: we'll see if the Fifth Circuit's approach to reasonableness review survives the Supreme Court's decisions in Rita and Claiborne, which shouldn't be more than a couple of months away at this point.



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