Monday, July 10, 2006

Guidelines Sentence Reversed As Unreasonable

The refinement of "reasonableness" review continues with the Sixth Circuit’s decision in United States v. Vonner, __ F.3d __ (6th Cir. 6/29/06), 2006 WL 1770095. Vonner was charged with distributing at least 5 grams of cocaine with a Guidelines range of 108 - 135 months (and a 5-year mandatory minimum). At the sentencing hearing, defense attorney Steve Johnson of Knoxville presented evidence of his client’s childhood of "abuse, abandonment, violence, neglect, and trauma", and argued further that a history of drug and alcohol abuse, the circumstances of Vonner’s involvement in the offense, the conditions of pretrial confinement, and assistance provided by Vonner to the government (but, apparently, not arising to the level of a 5K1.1 motion) justified a sentence below the Guidelines range. The district court imposed a sentence of 117 months, the middle of the Guidelines range, referencing the 3553(a) factors, but providing no further explanation.

Before addressing the particulars in Vonner’s case, the Court reviewed the status of "reasonableness" review in the Sixth Circuit. Alluding to the lack of continuity in the decisions that this blogsite has previously detailed, the majority notes that "without a reasoned explanation", the Williams panel imposed a presumption of reasonableness for sentences within the Guidelines range. Even the dissent notes that "[t]he numerous cases by our court on the reasonableness of sentences post-Booker have confused attorneys and district courts alike."

The district court’s explanation for the sentence in this case was, in full, as follows:

"With respect to the sentence in this case, the Court has considered the nature and circumstances of the offense, the history and characteristics of the defendant, and the advisory Guidelines, as well as the other factors listed in 18 United States 3553(a). Pursuant to Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, it is the judgment of the Court that the defendant, Alvin George Vonner, is hereby committed to the custody of the Bureau of Prisons for a term of imprisonment of a hundred and seventeen months. It is felt that this term is reasonable in light of the aforementioned, in light of the aforementioned factors and is a sentence, furthermore, that will afford adequate deterrent [sic] and provide just punishment." Slip Op. p. 4.

The Court of Appeals reversed the sentence in this case based on the lack of detailed explanation by the district court for the sentence that was imposed. In doing so the Court noted that under U.S. v. Richardson, 437 F.3d 550 (6th Cir. 2006), "[w]here a defendant raises a particular argument in seeking a lower sentence, the record must reflect both that the district judge considered the defendant’s argument and that the judge explained the basis for rejecting it." 437 F.3d at 553. In Vonner, however, the district court apparently never addressed the mitigation proof offered by the defense or its reasons for rejecting that proof, or offered any other explanation for the sentence that it imposed other than the stock language above.

Addressing the statement that the district court did make, the Court of Appeals noted that while it had previously held that the district court need not engage in a "ritualistic incantation" of the 3553(a) factors in order for a sentence to be found to be reasonable, the reverse was also true – a ritualistic incantation of the 3553(a) factors will not insulate a sentence from being found unreasonable. Slip Op. p 7 n.4.

Judge Siler’s dissent would, disappointingly, put the burden for the explanation of the sentence on defense counsel where the district court didn’t explain its rationale. (The majority opinion also urged defense counsel to press for district courts to give "a thorough rationale for their sentencing determinations," but noted that they were not required to do so.)

The Court did not find that the 117-month sentence was itself unreasonable for the offense committed (and even noted in a footnote that the district court was free to impose the same sentence so long as it was explained), only that an insufficient explanation for the sentence prevented the Court of Appeals from performing its review function. However, in the development of reasonableness review this decision sheds more light on the district court’s obligations, especially where the defendant has raised specific mitigating circumstances.