Thursday, March 01, 2007

How Much Is Enough?

How much does a district court have to say when imposing a sentence in order to protect that sentence on appellate review? "A district court’s perfunctory statement that it has considered the § 3553(a) factors, even when repeated, does not relieve the court of its obligation to explain how the factors informed its ultimate determination. Absent from the district court’s statement of reasoning is any application or explanation of the various § 3553(a) factors..." United States v. Harden, 195 Fed.Appx. 382, 386 (6th Cir. 2006) (unpublished) "Although we have held that it is not necessary for a district court to engage in a ‘ritualistic incantation’ of the Section 3553(a) factors, we have also not held that the mere recitation of the magic words ‘Section 3553(a)’ is itself sufficient to immunize a district court’s sentencing decision from reversal. To so hold would send a false message to district courts that all they need to do at sentencing is list the Section 3553(a) factors, impose a Guideline sentencing, and conclude by stating that the sentence provides ‘just punishment and affords adequate deterrence.’ Magic words are not necessary, but nor are they alone sufficient." United States v. Vonner, 452 F.3d 560, 568 n4 (6th Cir. 2006), rehearing en banc granted, judgment vacated (Oct 12, 2006) (emphasis in original).

According to the opinion in United States v. Snowden, No. 05-6778 (6th Cir. 2/26/07), the district court’s explanation for the imposition of a 240-month sentence for 15.7 grams of crack cocaine and a gun in possession of a felon was, "[T]he guideline range affords the Court more than enough discretion in imposing an appropriate sentence [in this case]. Such a sentence will reward the defendant for the substantial assistance that he’s rendered the government; it will also serve to reflect the seriousness of the offense, provide just punishment for the offense, to afford adequate deterrence for this type of criminal conduct, and also protect the public from future crime that Mr. Snowden might be inclined to commit." The Court of Appeals found that "These considerations directly comply with those laid out in § 3553. ... Hence, the sentence is procedurally reasonable." (Slip Op. at 7-8)

But is it? Why is this perfunctory statement of enumeration of the factors sufficient? Because it is certainly true about the statement in Snowden that absent from it is any "application or explanation of" the factors. Harden. What does the statement in Snowden tell us about why the district court imposed a sentence of 20 calendar years on a young man who had never served more than 1 year before? About why 20 years is "sufficient, but not greater than necessary" to achieve the aims of sentencing in this case? While the district court certainly recites the factors, missing is any true application of the factors to the facts in Snowden, or any explanation of why the factors mandate a two-decade sentence.

What this case does tell us about is the ideological distinctions within the Sixth Circuit over the development of post-Booker reasonableness review. Clearly one part of the fight is over the extent to which a district court should have to "state in open court the reasons for its imposition of the particular sentence." 18 U.S.C. § 3553(c). There are those judges of the Sixth Circuit who, as in Harden and Vonner, insist that the explanation be meaningful and sufficient for the appellate court to understand why the particular sentence was chosen. There are those judges who would find it sufficient for the district court to simply state that it had considered the factors without requiring any further explanation. While the questions accepted for review in United States v. Rita could resolve this issue, they by no means have to. It may very well be that this issue takes the fore in the Vonner en banc. In the meantime, the result in sentencing cases in the Sixth Circuit continues to depend on who’s on the panel.

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