Friday, July 22, 2011

Spears Again: Rejecting GLs

(A knight with a spear! Hey, it's hard to pick pictures. :) I'm trying!)

In United States v. Priester, No. 08--2391 (6th Cir. July 22, 2011) (published), the panel of Judges Boggs, Moore, and Kethledge considered the Spears issue again. Judge Boggs dissented.

The majority opinion starts out: "In some cases we hold the district court to a standard we would dislike imposing on ourselves. This is such a case." The defendant was sentenced pre-Spears. After parsing "the sentencing transcript, [the Court] agree[d] with [the appellant] that the district court appeared unaware of the authority that the Supreme Court expressly announced months later," that the court could vary from the guidelines based on policy reasons.

The Court found that the sentencing court's "comments go beyond mere silence as to whether the district court knew that it had the authority to reject the 100:1 ratio outright. Instead, they reflect an assumption that the court did not have that authority." The panel emphasizes that "The essence of Spears’s holding is that a district court can take the 100:1 ratio out of play, up front, before even determining whether the ratio yields an overlong sentence in a particular case. Here, the district court expressly stated that the ratio was in play—and then the court moved on to other issues. To say, on this record, that the court silently recognized its later-announced authority in Spears, but chose not to exercise that authority, would be mere fiction."

The panel distinguishes prior cases: "In both United States v. Johnson, 553 F.3d 990 (6th Cir. 2009), and United States v. Curb, 625 F.3d 968 (6th Cir. 2010), the district courts had been silent as to whether they had the authority later expressly granted to them in Spears. We remanded for resentencing in light of Spears. In United States v. Simmons, 587 F.3d 348 (6th Cir. 2009), we affirmed the defendant’s sentence on plain-error review. There, the defendant did not make a Spears-type argument in the district court, and the district court itself said nothing about the issue. Neither of those circumstances is present here."

Judge Boggs's Dissent:

Judge Boggs concluded that "in the context of our earlier cases, [the appellant's] claim should fail. As even the majority must concede, the crack-cocaine disparity was before the judge and he recognized that the guidelines are only a starting point. The record, read fairly, is bereft of any expression as to the judge’s authority to reject categorically a particular judgment or reasoning in the guidelines."

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