Friday, June 26, 2015

Sentencing Court’s Discretion Not Limited for Career Offenders; Must Consider § 3553

United States v. Clay, No. 14-60283 (5th Cir. May 22, 2015) (Jolly, Higginson, Costa) (per curiam)
The district court sentenced Clay, who was classified as a “career-offender” under the Guidelines, within the guideline sentencing range of 151-188 months of imprisonment.  Without such classification, the advisory range would have been 30-37 months.  Despite the district court being “troubled” that the Defendant’s career-offender status led to an increased sentence, the district court refused to vary downward because of no “Fifth Circuit guidance” on the matter. On appeal, the panel vacated the sentence and, on remand, ordered the district court to recognize its own discretion to vary from the Guidelines’ advisory range.

The panel reasoned that the Guidelines are relevant but not dispositive in determining the appropriate sentence. The Guidelines serve only an “advisory” role, which, per the Supreme Court, a district court may defer to for a within-Guidelines sentence only “after considering the factors in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).” District courts must “consider the nature and circumstances of the offense and the history and characteristics of the defendant.” Further, district courts must consider “other broad concerns…, in an individualized manner, before imposing its sentence.” If the district court finds that a within-Guidelines sentence is “greater than necessary to serve the objective of sentencing,” then the district court can vary. A district court’s sentencing discretion does not depend on whether the defendant is classified as a career-offender under § 4B1.1.

The district court erred by not applying an “individualized assessment” under § 3553(a) factors. This procedural error was not harmless. The record shows that the district court had misgivings about the within-Guidelines sentence; it was not only “troubled” by it, but also admitted that had there been “Fifth Circuit guidance to vary,” which, as we know now is not necessary, “the outcome [likely] would have been different.” This would also show that perhaps the within-Guidelines sentence was in fact “greater than necessary to serve the objective of sentencing,” thus the need for district courts to exercise sentencing variation.

Thanks to FPD Intern Adam Pena for this post.

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