Federal Sentencing Hearings: Supreme Court Issues Two Rulings

Most readers know that I am an Atlanta-based lawyer who handles lots of federal sentencing hearings, along with just about all other aspects of representing people and companies who are investigated or prosecuted for federal crimes.  Because of my work,  I try to keep tabs on developments in the court system that can impact my cases.  Today, the United States Supreme Court issued two rulings that talk about seemingly esoteric parts of a sentencing hearing.  One case involves an overlooked “mistake”, while the other discusses the amount of justification a judge needs to provide for making a sentencing decision.

The first case is Rosales-Mireles v. United States.    I understand human frailties, we all make mistakes.  But somehow, EVERYONE INVOLVED in this person’s case somehow missed that the U.S. Probation officer double-counted a previous misdemeanor conviction that had been imposed on Florencio Rosales-Mireles.  No one caught the mistake, which changed the U.S. Sentencing Guideline range from 70-87 up to 77-96  months.  Believing that the correct range was the higher number, the sentencing judge imposed a 78 month sentence, one month longer than the presumptive “low end” of the range.  On appeal, the Defendant’s lawyer recognized the mistake and asked for a correction.  That’s when his team ran headlong into the maw of what is called “plain error.”  This rule makes it near to impossible to win because there must be a finding that any error affected the Defendant’s “substantial rights.” The bottom line from this case is that the Supreme Court somewhat relaxed this otherwise stringent rule, and allowed the case to be sent back down for another sentencing hearing.

The other case is Chavez-Meza v. United States.  A portion of the law governing federal sentencing proceedings says that the Judge must “state in open court the reasons for [imposing] the particular sentence.”  However, an earlier Supreme Court decision, which discussed this aspect of the sentencing hearing, ruled that “[t]he law leaves much . . . to the judge’s own professional judgment.”  This is especially so when “a matter is . . . conceptually simple . . . and the record makes clear that the sentencing judge considered the evidence and arguments.”  Here, some amendments to the Sentencing Guidelines reduced the range that applied to Mr. Chavez-Meza’s case.  After the change, the defense lawyer asked for 108 months, but the Judge imposed 114 months. The Judge did not hold a hearing, but merely checked a box on a form for reducing the sentence.  The 5-Justice majority said that was OK. The dissenters pointed out the “serious problem” with this decision: “the difficulty for prisoners and appellate courts in ascertaining a district court’s reasons for imposing a sentence when the court fails to state those reasons on the record.”  This might not seem like a big deal, but it can be.  When we are arguing for an appropriate sentence, I always want to know the Judge’s thinking, for sometimes we can tailor our arguments to that thought process and get a better result.  This case is disappointing because it allows Judges to hand out a sentence without providing any background as to the Judge’s reasons.

These cases will not apply in most federal sentencing hearings.  But, these rulings are important, if for no other reason than these opinion show the the United States Supreme Court continues to keep close tabs on the process of imposing a sentence in federal court pursuant to the Sentencing Guidelines.

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