Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Fives Address Issues Concerning Reasonableness Review and Plain Error In Course of Rejecting Various Challenges to Revocation Sentence

United States v. Whitelaw, No. 08-50346 (5th Cir. Aug. 19, 2009) (Davis, Owen, Haynes)

If the court imposes a term of imprisonment on revocation of supervised release, may it order that term to run consecutively to any other sentence, even though the sentence for the original offense—as required by the terms of the plea agreement—ran concurrently with an already-imposed state sentence? That question, and others concerning plain error and reasonableness review (including a circuit split!), are answered in Whitelaw.

The lengthy backstory:
Alan Whitelaw was convicted of theft of money in an amount exceeding $200,000 in state court and was sentenced to 60 years of imprisonment. Whitelaw subsequently pleaded guilty to federal bank fraud charges in the Southern District of Texas. While the same type of fraudulent conduct was the basis for both of Whitelaw’s convictions, the federal and state convictions involved different specific conduct, dates, and victims.

Although Whitelaw pleaded guilty to the federal charge without a written plea agreement, the Government made an oral agreement at rearraignment that it would recommend that Whitelaw’s sentence run concurrently with his state court sentence. The district court accepted the agreement as a plea agreement under FED. R. CRIM. P. 11(c)(1)(C), ruling that Whitelaw would be allowed to withdraw his guilty plea if it did not order that his sentence run concurrently with his state court sentence. The district court sentenced Whitelaw to 46 months of imprisonment, the sentence to run concurrently with his state court sentence, and five years of supervised release.
For reasons not explained in the opinion, Whitelaw was released from state prison after serving just five years of his sentence. He then began serving his federal supervised release term.

A little over three years later, Whitelaw was arrested on a revocation violation warrant. The Government then filed two motions to revoke Whitelaw's supervised release, the latter of which alleged six violations, including "committing the felony offense of theft of copper wire valued in excess of $1,000 or possession of stolen copper wire valued in excess of $1,000," lying to his probation officer about it (both orally and with forged documents), and technical violations.

After a hearing, the court found all but one of the alleged violations (a failure to report) to be true. Whitelaw requested a sentence at the low end of the advisory 4- to 10-month Guidelines range. The court instead sentenced him to 36 months—the statutory maximum—"and ordered that sentence run consecutively to any other state or federal sentence."
Following the revocation of his supervised release, Whitelaw filed a pro se motion that included a claim that he should be allowed to withdraw his guilty plea because his sentence upon the revocation of supervised release was not ordered to run concurrently with any state court sentence he received. The district court struck the motion because Whitelaw was represented by counsel and, therefore, not entitled to make pro se filings. In the alternative, the district court denied the motion on its merits.
Which finally gets us to the issues on appeal . . .

Standard of Review
For at least the third time, the court declined to decide whether revocation sentences are reviewed for reasonableness or plain unreasonableness, because all the issues Whitelaw raised were subject to plain error review:
  • "Whitelaw did not raise any of the specific claims of procedural error that he argues in this appeal when he was before the district court for sentencing[,]" so plain error review for those (failure to consider the policy statements in Chapter 7 of the Guidelines Manual, and an inadequate statement of reasons for the sentence).
  • Whitelaw's motion challenging the consecutiveness order "was stricken by the district court because Whitelaw was represented by counsel. Accordingly, Whitelaw did not properly raise this claim of specific legal error below, and this court reviews it for plain error only."
  • "Whitelaw also did not object to the substantive reasonableness of the sentence below. Whitelaw’s contest of the revocation charges and request for a sentence at the low end of the guidelines range are insufficient to preserve the substantive reasonableness of the sentence for review." See Peltier. (But don't forget that circuit split.)
No Error In Running Sentence Consecutive to Any Other Sentence, Notwithstanding Plea Agreement on Original Offense
Whitelaw challenged the consecutive order on his revocation sentence on two grounds, both of which the court rejected. First, he argued that the district court didn't indicate it realized that it could order the sentence to run concurrently with any other sentence. While the district court didn't specifically acknowledge it's discretion in the matter, the Government asked for the revocation sentence to run consecutively, and the district court express doubt that it could do that. "In the absence of evidence to the contrary, this court assumes that the district court knows the law and applies it correctly[,]" so no plain error.

Second, Whitelaw argued that the terms of his original plea agreement required any revocation sentence to run concurrently to any other sentence, as was the case with his original sentence. Not so, said the court. The rearraignment transcript wasn't in the record, but the PSR
describes the plea agreement as requiring that Whitelaw’s sentence run concurrently with the state court sentence Whitelaw was then serving. We see no indication that the plea agreement applied to any sentence other than for the crime upon which he was charged. The judgment of conviction provides only that Whitelaw’s sentence of imprisonment would run concurrently with the state court sentence that Whitelaw was then serving; it did not impose any restrictions upon possible sentences that could be imposed if Whitelaw’s later term of supervised release was revoked.
(emphasis added). Is that right? It may be the case that the plea agreement didn't purport to cover what would happen in the event of a revocation of supervised release (and given the lack of a written plea agreement or a rearraignment transcript, it's impossible to say the court's wrong about that). But to the extent that the court is suggesting that a revocation sentence is for a crime other than the one for which a defendant was originally convicted, the court applies a mistaken understanding of revocation. As the Supreme Court explained in Johnson v. United States, a post-revocation sanction is an additional punishment for the original offense, not a punishment for the violation of the terms of release. 529 U.S. 694, 699–701 (2000). Treating post-revocation sanctions as punishment for violations of conditions of supervised release would raise "serious constitutional questions," given that "the violative conduct need not be criminal and need only be found by a judge under a preponderance of the evidence standard, not by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt." Id. at 700. The court doesn't address Johnson here, but it's something to keep in mind if you find yourself with a case similar to Whitelaw.

Whitelaw Failed to Show that the District Court Failed to Consider the Guidelines' Revocation Policy Statements
Whitelaw argued on appeal that the district court failed to consider the Chapter 7 policy statements. But the court of appeals held that he failed to show that, because 1) the district court correctly calculated the advisory revocation range and referred to it before imposing sentence, 2) "[d]efense counsel referred to that range in its argument[,]" and 3) the Government also referred to that range in its motions to revoke, and "made arguments for an above range sentence related to the § 3553(a) factors[.]"

District Court Plainly Erred in Failing to State Reasons for the Sentence, but That Error Did Not Affect Whitelaw's Substantial Rights Because the Record Reveals the Reasons
Given that the district court imposed a sentence that was more than three times the high end of the advisory Guidelines range, Rita required some explanation. The district court gave no reasons. That was clear and obvious error. But did the error affect Whitelaw's substantial rights? And how does the court of appeals assess that?

As it turns out, up until now the Fifth Circuit "ha[d] not yet applied plain error review to a district court’s failure to state reasons for an above guideline sentence." (emphasis added). As you'll recall, Mondragon-Santiago reviewed such an error in the context of a within-Guidelines sentence. It held that that the defendant must "show that the error actually did make a difference [in the sentence]: if it is equally plausible that the error worked in favor of the defense, the defendant loses; if the effect of the error is uncertain so that we do not know which, if either, side it helped the defendant loses." Mondragon-Santiago rejected the approach of "other circuits [that] have relaxed this requirement in the sentencing context[.]"

But given that Mondragon-Santiago involved a within-Guidelines sentence, Whitelaw had to decide whether that approach to the third plain-error prong also applies to review of above-Guidelines sentences. To that end, Whitelaw canvassed what appears to be a circuit split on the question:
In cases involving above guidelines sentences, the D.C. Circuit and the Second Circuit have relaxed the showing required by a defendant to demonstrate that the error affected the defendant’s substantial rights. These courts reason that the absence of a statement of reasons affects the appellate court’s ability to perform a meaningful review of the sentence. Both circuits also conclude that the failure to state reasons undermines “the public reputation of judicial proceedings” because the statement of reasons indicates to the public that the sentencing judge has thoughtfully discharged his responsibilities and demonstrates that the judgment is not arbitrary. [So has the Sixth Circuit.]

Other circuits have declined to follow that lead. The Tenth Circuit affirmed a below guidelines sentence in which the government argued procedural error for failure of the sentencing court to cite reasons for a downward departure. The Tenth Circuit refused to find that the error affected the government’s substantial rights because, applying traditional plain error analysis, the government could not explain how a more detailed reasoning process might have led the court to select a higher sentence. In other words, the government could not show that the error made a difference in the sentencing outcome. The court refused to presume prejudice.
(cites omitted). Ultimately, Whitelaw found it unnecessary to take sides on this question, because "our review of the record reveals the reasons for Whitelaw’s sentence, even if not explicitly stated by the district court." The revocation hearing was extensive. The district court heard evidence, and both parties presented sentencing arguments. "The government then urged the court to sentence Whitelaw to 36 months in prison (the statutory maximum) for the five reasons set forth in its motion to revoke and that the sentence be consecutive to any other sentence. The district court then granted the government’s motion and sentenced Whitelaw to the government’s recommended 36 month term of imprisonment." (By the way, a portion of the Government's motion is reproduced in the opinion, and is predictably purple.) The court then reaches this troubling conclusion:
We have no trouble concluding that by granting the government’s Motion to Revoke and sentencing Whitelaw to the term of imprisonment recommended and supported in that motion, the district court implicitly adopted the government’s rationale for that sentence as set forth in the motion. These reasons thoroughly explain Whitelaw’s sentence. The factual basis supporting them is implicit in the district court’s findings that most of the revocation charges were true. By reviewing the record of the sentencing proceedings in this case, we are able to conduct a meaningful appellate review. Accordingly, the district court’s failure to state these reasons on the record has not prejudiced Whitelaw.
Will that give prosecutors an incentive to paper the case with overheated arguments for a stiff revocation sentence, in hopes that the district court won't state reasons of its own? Perhaps. If possible, you might consider trying to blunt the effect of such pleadings with your own written submission (which may or may not be possible, depending on whether the releasee challenges the alleged violations, and on whether the court will allow time for written arguments before deciding on a disposition). Of course, it's also a good reason to object to procedural errors at the hearing so you're not stuck with plain error review in the first place.

On Review for Substantive Reasonableness, Whitelaw's Sentence was not Plain Error
After all that, the court's resolution of Whitelaw's substantive reasonableness challenge was pretty brief. The court simply said that because the sentence did not exceed the statutory maximum, it wasn't plain error, citing other Fifth Circuit opinions that also so held. Is the court relying on a broader principle that a sentence within the statutory range can never be plain error? If so, that sounds questionable. Hopefully, the court is just saying that, as a descriptive matter, such sentences will have a very hard time satisfying all four plain error prongs. And given the poor track record of preserved substantive reasonableness challenges, that's probably true.

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