United States v. Taylor: An Extra Dash of Pepper

Yesterday saw the publication of a significant case addressing subsection (g) of 18 U.S.C. § 3742, which addresses a district court’s treatment of the sentencing guidelines upon remand for resentencing. Judge Moore’s comprehensive opinion in United States v. Taylor, No. 09-1961 demonstrated a considerable understanding of both § 3742 and the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Pepper v. United States, and gave some teeth to that opinion’s holding.

Taylor was originally convicted as a felon in possession of a firearm, but prevailed on an appeal regarding a sentencing issue. On remand, Taylor argued that later versions of the sentencing guidelines would have lowered his guidelines range. At resentencing, however, the district court refused to consider subsequent amendments to the guidelines and instead used the guidelines as they existed at the time of the previous sentencing, as mandated by 18 U.S.C. § 3742(g)(1). Taylor appealed his resulting sentence as procedurally unreasonable.

In the recent Pepper opinion, the Supreme Court reviewed § 3742(g)(2), a separate but related provision requiring resentencing courts to impose only within-guidelines range sentences on remand except in limited circumstances. The Court in Pepper found that this mandate ran afoul of both § 3553(a) and § 3661 by impermissibly limiting the district court’s ability to consider any and all evidence in order to "sentence the defendant as he stands before the court on the day of sentencing." Taylor argued that this same rational should invalidate § 3742(g)(1).

The Sixth Circuit refused to find that § 3742(g)(1) should be invalidated along with § 3742(g)(2). Although the appeals court recognized that the provision was poorly worded and existed in considerable tension with both the guidelines and § 3553(a), it was not constitutionally invalid under Booker or the Sixth Amendment. This portion of the holding comes as a disappointment to sentencing reform advocates, who have long argued that § 3742(g)(1) should be invalidated.

The Taylor panel was not finished, however, and it went on to hold that the district court’s refusal to consider subsequent amendments was procedurally unreasonable. First, the panel rejected the district court’s rationale that using subsequent amendments could result in unfairness to one party or the other, noting that the Supreme Court had rejected this exact rationale in Pepper. Indeed, it was an abuse of discretion to rely on this "policy of fairness." The panel also recognized that § 3661 prohibits placing any limitation on the types of information a court can consider in sentencing a defendant. Likewise, the Sentencing Commission’s evolving view of the guidelines is "highly relevant" to the district court’s assessment of the "nature and circumstances of the offense" and the "seriousness of the offense" under § 3553(A). Ultimately, subsequent amendments bear directly on the district court’s primary role at sentencing: "to impose a sentence sufficient, but not greater than necessary" to serve the purposes of sentencing. The opinion goes on to clarify that a district court is not required to agree with or apply the subsequent amendments, but that court cannot refuse to consider them.

Ultimately, Taylor simply upholds what by now ought to be beyond controversy: that a sentencing court’s duty is to impose an appropriate sentence that is (1) based on the unique characteristics of the crime and the individual and (2) not greater than necessary to serve the purposes of punishment. The opinion, however, demonstrates that the Sixth Circuit is still willing to take a close look at both congressional and Supreme Court mandates regarding sentencing.


Kevin Schad Appellate Director SDOH said...

Kudos to AFPD Clare Freeman on this great win!!!!

Clare Freeman, RWS, WD Mich said...

Thank you!

I love the title to this post! :)