Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Court May Not Order Sentence to Run Consecutively to Anticipated, But Not-Yet-Imposed, Federal Sentence

United States v. Quintana-Gomez, No. 07-10139 (5th Cir. Mar. 25, 2008) (Jolly, Barksdale, Benavides)

May a district court order that a sentence run consecutively to an anticipated, but not-yet-imposed, federal sentence? Nope.
Let's get a little more concrete. Quintana pleaded guilty to illegal reentry in the Northern District of Texas. At that time, he had a supervised release revocation petition pending in the Southern District. The Northern District judge sentenced Quintana to 57 months on the new case, and ordered the sentence to run consecutively to any sentence Quintana might receive on revocation. Later, the Southern District judge revoked Quintana's supervised release, sentenced him to six months' imprisonment, and ordered the sentence to run concurrently to the 57-month sentence for the new case.

Quintana appealed the Northern District judgment, arguing that when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object . . . wait, that's not right . . . (leafing through opinion) . . . ah, here it is: Quintana argued that the court lacked authority to order the sentence to run consecutively to an anticipated, but not-yet-imposed, federal sentence. He contended that under the plain language of 18 U.S.C. § 3584, a court may order a sentence to run consecutively only if 1) "multiple terms of imprisonment are imposed on a defendant at the same time," or 2) "a term of imprisonment is imposed on a defendant who is already subject to an undischarged term of imprisonment[.]"

The Government countered that the Fifth Circuit's decision in United States v. Brown foreclosed Quintana's argument. Relying on the doctrine of dual sovereignty, Brown held that § 3584 doesn't preclude a federal court from ordering its sentence to run consecutively to any not-yet-imposed state sentence. (As Quintana-Gomez mentions in a footnote, there's a long-standing circuit split on this issue.)

The court here rejected the Government's reliance on Brown, pointing out that the opinion did not discuss the dual-sovereignty concerns, or the actual text of § 3584(a), in great detail. In fact, the dual-sovereignty rationale of Brown distinguishes it from this case, which involves a battle of wills between two courts of the same sovereign. Also, "it should be noted that the Brown panel did not hold that the state court was so legally bound by the federal court’s order that the state court could not order its sentence to run concurrently with the federal sentence if it chose to do so."

Instead, the court agreed with Quintana's argument, finding the Fourth Circuit's decision in United States v. Smith persuasive on this question. Smith reasoned that "allow[ing] one federal court to order that its sentence run consecutively to or concurrently with an anticipated but not-yet-imposed federal sentence 'would place one federal court in the position of abrogating the sentencing authority of another[,]'" a result Congress likely did not intend. Additionally, a court making the consecutive-vs.-concurrent determination must consider the § 3553(a) factors, and "'[o]nly a court that sentences a defendant already subject to an undischarged term of imprisonment could properly consider whether a consecutive or concurrent sentence best serves the goals of § 3553(a), as only that court knows the circumstances attending the later sentence.'"
So Quintana wins, right? No. Well, maybe.

You see, Quintana did not object to the Northern District's order that the 57-month sentence run consecutively to any revocation sentence. So the court of appeals reviewed for plain error. And it concluded that even though there was error, it wasn't "plain" because the Fifth Circuit hadn't yet addressed this question and Brown "at least arguably indicated" otherwise. But then there's this intriguing footnote:
Because the Northern District Court was without authority to order that its sentence run consecutively, its order, in this limited respect, is without effect and may be disregarded by the Federal Bureau of Prisons in the light of this holding.
For discussion:
1) Anyone know how the BOP actually handles situations like this?
2) The court added, in addition to its statutory holding, that "as a general principle, one district court has no authority to instruct another district court how, for a different offense in a different case, it must confect its sentence." Might that (dicta?) be the more important part of this opinion?
(Helpful diagram courtesy of Wikipedia)

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