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Reasonableness Under The United States Sentencing Guidelines

Apr 18, 2008
In recent years, several decisions by the United States Supreme Court have determined how federal courts now apply the federal guidelines at sentencing. The most notable is United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005), where the Supreme Court transformed the federal sentencing guidelines from mandatory to advisory as a way of curing a defect that rendered the guidelines unconstitutional.

In Booker, the Court directed that sentences meted out under the newly advisory guidelines should be reviewed, if challenged, by the federal courts of appeals to determine whether they are "reasonable." In response, a number of appellate courts gravitated back to the guidelines. They affirmed as "reasonable" within-guideline range sentences, but vacated as "not reasonable" sentences that fell below the guideline range.

The picture became a little more cloudy last year with the decision Rita v. United States, 128 S. Ct. 19 (2007). There the Supreme Court addressed whether a within-guideline sentence could be "presumed reasonable" and determined that it could.

The question of how or whether the presumption applies to sentences below the guideline range was not decided because the petitioner in the companion case, Claiborne v. United States, 127 S. Ct. 2245 (2007), died while it was pending and his case was dismissed.

In the fall of 2007, the Court granted certiorari to the case Gall v. United States, 128 S.Ct. 586 (2007) to answer the question that it was not able to do in Claiborne. On December 11, 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that federal district court judges have greater latitude in imposing a sentence that falls outside the Sentencing Guideline range for a particular sentence.

The Court held that district courts need not be required to give "extraordinary reasons" for departing from the Guidelines, as long as they do no abuse their discretion in imposing a particular sentence.

The Court was not finished yet as it had granted another case by the name of Kimbrough v. United States, 128 S. Ct. 558 (2007), certiorari in order to answer additional questions about the use of the guidelines at sentencing.

In Kimbrough, the Supreme Court affirmed that district court judges have the discretion to deviate from federal sentencing guidelines and to consider other factors - including disparities in crack and powder cocaine sentences - when issuing sentences to drug offenders. This decision seemed to go hand in hand with the United States Sentencing Commission's amendment to the guidelines that reduced the crack offender offense levels due to disparity.

Many experts agree that these decisions have given federal district judges back the discretion that was once stripped away from them at sentencing. In the pre-Booker days, the sentencing judge had no choice but to follow the guidelines or else run the risk of being reversed by a government appeal in the appellate court.

Finally, these district judges are now free to exercise some long overdue common sense in determining an offender's sentence.
About the Author
Neil Lemons represents Teakell Law. For more information on reasonablness in sentencing and arrest in the Dallas/Fort Worth area visit their website http://www.teakelllaw.com.
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