Monday, April 15, 2013

Plain Error to Impose Sentence Based on Rehabilitative Needs

United States v. Garza, No. 11-10543 (Feb. 1, 2013) (DeMoss, Owen, Haynes)

United States v. Culbertson, No. 11-10917 (Mar. 22, 2013) (Stewart, Garza, Elrod)

In Tapia v. United States, the Supreme Court held that a district court "may not impose or lengthen a prison sentence to enable an offender to complete a treatment program or otherwise to promote rehabilitation." A court can still discuss the opportunities for rehabilitation within prison, however, as long as the prison sentence is not based on rehabilitative needs.

In Garza, the Fifth Circuit panel held that Tapia applies to revocation sentences. Garza’s revocation sentence was erroneous because the district court considered Garza’s rehabilitative needs in imposing a prison sentence. The court sentenced Garza to 24 months in prison, even though his advisory guideline range was 3 to 9 months, noting that Garza should participate in the residential institutional drug treatment program. The panel vacated the sentence and remanded for sentencing since the error was plain at the time of appeal and it affected Garza’s substantial rights.

In Culbertson, the advisory guideline range of imprisonment was 5 to 11 months. The district court imposed a sentence of 30 months and 113 days for "punishment and deterrence from further criminal activity." Defense counsel objected to the "substantive and procedural reasonableness of the sentence." The district court overruled the objection and told Culbertson that the court is trying "to give you a period of time where you can, once again, get clean and sober and stay clean and sober and come out after you serve your sentence and stop using drugs and stay on your meds." Defense counsel questioned the need to triple the guidelines, and the court responded, "I think you need that time to get yourself stabilized."

So, was the court imposing the sentence because of rehabilitation, or was the court merely discussing the opportunities for rehabilitation Culbertson could access while imprisoned?

The panel decided it was the former given the court’s explanation for the lengthy sentence, even though the court did not specifically mention a rehabilitative program. The panel found that defense counsel’s objection did not preserve the alleged error, so plain error review applied. Nonetheless, this error was plain at the time of appeal and affected his substantial rights.

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