1) Is the minimum sentence, within the range of sentences set out for a particular crime by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, reasonable when relevant factors suggest that a reduced sentence may be appropriate?
2) If an offender’s sentence is within the range of sentences set out for a particular crime by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, may a court of appeals approve this sentence without considering other relevant factors?
3) If the appeals court may approve a sentence without considering other relevant factors, may the sentencing court give a sentence without explaining the roll that these relevant factors played in the sentencing decision?
Victor Rita, a 25-year military veteran, was convicted of making false statements to a grand jury. At sentencing, Rita argued that his distinguished military service, his likelihood of being targeted in prison and his physical ailments justified a more lenient sentence than those set out in the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. A District Court judge determined that he should receive the minimum sentence set fourth in the Federal Sentencing Guidelines for his conviction. Upon appeal, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals expressed its view that a within-guideliness sentence was presumptively reasonable and upheld Rita’s sentence. In reviewing this case, the Supreme Court will clarify the role that the Federal Sentencing Guidelines are to play in sentencing decisions.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
1) Was the District Court’s choice of within-guidelines sentence reasonable?
2) In making that determination, is it consistent with United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005), to accord a presumption of reasonableness to within-guidelines sentences?
3) If so, can that presumption justify a sentence imposed without an explicit analysis by the district court of the 18 U.S.C. §3553(a) factors and any other factors that might justify a lesser sentence?
In 2003 the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms commenced an investigation of InterOrdnance, a gun dealing business. Brief for United States at 2. The Bureau determined that InterOrdnance brand “parts kits,” which could be assembled into PPSH 41 World War II rifle replicas, should qualify as “machine guns.” Brief for Petitioner at 2. This qualification lead to a recall of all previously purchased kits. Id.
Victor A. Rita had served in the Marine Corps for 25 years after which he served the government in law enforcement. Id. at 2-3. He had various health problems and one prior conviction for making false statements on a firearms permit. Brief for United States at 5. Mr. Rita had previously purchased a PPSH 41 “parts kit” and was questioned, regarding his contact with InterOrdinance, by the Bureau in the course of its investigation. Brief for Petitioner at 2. During his testimony, Mr. Rita answered that he did not speak with InterOrdinance after being contacted by the Bureau and that he was not asked by the Bureau to give up his PPSH 41 “parts kit.” Id. These statements lead to his being accused and convicted by a jury of making false statements and obstructing justice. Id.
Upon Rita’s sentencing the District Court judge heard arguments from both Rita and the prosecution. Rita argued that his distinguished military service, his likelihood of being targeted in prison and his physical ailments justified a more lenient sentence than those set out in the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. Brief for Petitioner at 4. The prosecution argued that the severity of the crime, Rita’s status as a law enforcement officer and his similar prior conviction justified a sentence within the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. Brief for United States at 7. The District Court judge determined that he “was unable to find that the sentencing guideline range . . . is an inappropriate guideline range.” Id. Therefore, the judge gave Rita a prison sentence of 33 months, which was the lowest sentence within the guideline range. Id.
Rita appealed asking that the decision be overturned because it was unreasonable. In a very brief opinion the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld the sentence stating that “a sentence imposed within the properly calculated guidelines range . . . is presumptively reasonable.” United States v. Rita, 177 Fed.Appx 357 at 358 (4th Circ. 2006). The Court of Appeals found that the District Court judge had properly calculated the guidelines range, had considered the relevant factors and had properly used the guidelines in an advisory manner. Id. Rita appealed to the Supreme Court contending that the sentence was not reasonable, and that the Fourth Circuit’s application of a presumption of reasonableness to the sentence was unconstitutional under Booker.
Rita v. United States will be one of two cases dealing with Federal Sentencing Guidelines decided by the Supreme Court this term. This interest in offender’s rights comes at a time when the Court is being described as “the most liberal, pro-defendant court in the country on sentencing procedure.” Linda Greenhouse, Supreme Court Limits Judges’ Sentencing Power, N. Y. Times, Jan. 23, 2007 available at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/23/washington/23scotus.html?ref=us. As such, there is a sense that Rita’s pro-defendant arguments will hold significant weight to the Court. Further suggests the Court’s intent to make a pro-defendant ruling is the Court’s decision to hear Rita’s case over a great number of similar cases. Rita is a sympathetic defendant, he is physically ailing due to a life devoted to serving our country, and the crime he committed was nonviolent and not particularly offensive. If Rita’s sentence is deemed unreasonable public outcry would not be expected in the way it would be if a violent career criminal’s sentence was overturned.
Rita’s main argument against the presumption of reasonableness is a textual one. Section 3553, which requires that sentences be “sufficient, but not greater than necessary,” sets out seven factors to be considered in determining a sentence. 18 U.S.C. §3553. The guideline range is only one among these seven factors. By affording the guideline range a presumption of reasonableness the Court of Appeals ignores the command of §3553 by undermining the importance of the other factors. Brief for Petitioner. The United States, in defense of the guidelines, maintains that they represent the Sentencing Commission’s reasonable application of all the §3553 factors as instructed by Congress. Brief for the United States at 16. Since the factors have already been taken into account in the guidelines, there is no need, the United States argues, to analyze them separately. Id. Furthermore, the guideline ranges, and thus the Commission’s application of the §3553 factors, must be approved by Congress so it should be found to be reasonable. Id. at 18.
Rita also argues that a presumption prevents application of the standard of review set out by the Supreme Court in United States v. Booker. 543 U.S 220 at 243 (2005). The standard, whether the sentence was “unreasonable, having regard for . . . the factors to be considered in imposing a sentence,” can not be properly analyzed if one factor out of the seven is presumed to be reasonable. Brief for the Petitioner at 24. Rita argues that such a presumption must also be struck down because it essentially renders the guidelines mandatory. Id. Such mandatory application of the guidelines was held unconstitutional in Booker. Id. The United States responds that a presumption of reasonableness for within-guidelines sentences does not render the guidelines mandatory. Brief for the United States at 34. The only way the Courts of Appeals could make the guidelines effectively mandatory is by applying a presumption of unreasonableness to outside-guideline sentences. Id.However, such a presumption is not before the Court.
Turning to the question of whether the District Court must explain its rationale for sentencing, Rita relies on language of the Sentencing Reform Act. This act directs the judge to “state in open court the reasons for its imposition of the particular sentence.” Brief for Petitioner at 43. Rita explains that without such an explanation there is no way for the Court of Appeals to apply the standard of review mandated by Booker. Id. at 47. The United States responds that such explanations are unnecessary because a within-guidelines sentence simply reflects the judge’s agreement with the Sentencing Commission’s application of the §3553 factors as represented in the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. Brief for the United States at 17. Furthermore, the Sentencing Reform Act does not call for the judge’s explicit explanation of each factor. Id.
The parties next turn to the reasonableness of the sentence in this case. Rita argues that because the District Court focused on the guidelines, without consideration of other factors such as his military service or injuries, his sentence was greater than necessary. Brief for Petitioner. On the other hand, the United States contends that the sentence given to Rita by the District Court was reasonable. Brief for the United States at 44-48. They point to aggravating factors such as Rita’s prior convictions and the seriousness of the offence as outweighing the factors suggesting a lower sentence for Rita. Id. However, a report that was prepared before Mr. Rita’s sentencing states that Rita’s criminal history should not be considered in increasing his sentence because his prior conviction occurred sufficiently long ago and that there were not any aggravating characteristics present that would justify an increase in sentence. Brief for Petitioner at 2.
Sentencing, the process of determining a criminal’s punishment, has gone through tremendous change in the past decades. Traditionally, after a criminal defendant’s jury conviction, the judge had broad discretion in setting the offender’s sentence. Many were concerned that this discretion led to inconsistent and unfair results particularly for those who committed similar crimes but were sentenced by different judges. See Lucien Campbell & Henry J. Bemporad eds. An Introduction to Federal Guideline Sentencing (2006). Therefore, in 1984 Congress passed the Sentencing Reform Act which restricted the discretion of sentencing judges with the goal of preventing disparity while maintaining individualized sentencing. 28 U.S.C. § 991(b)(1)(B). Judges were now required to choose a sentence that was “sufficient, but not greater than necessary” from a range set out by the Federal Sentencing Commission. 18 U.S.C. § 3553(b). Although, under §3553, judges could take a number of factors into account when choosing a sentence from within this range, the range was mandatory. Id.
There are specific steps that a judge is to take when determining what range is appropriate for a given offender. These steps are set out in section 1B1.1 of the Guidelines Manual which was created by the United States Sentencing Commission as mandated by Congress. First, the judge must decide the “base offense level” (a number of “points”) determined by the conviction of the offender. U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual §1B1.1(a) (2005). The judge is next to make adjustments to the base level by adding or subtracting points for certain considerations. Id at §1B1.1(b)-(h). Examples of these adjustments include: §3A1 - victim related adjustments for vulnerable, official or restrained victims; §3B1 - adjustments for the offender’s role in the crime, managing or minimal roles, misuse of trust or the use of a child to commit the crime; §3E1 - adjustments for the offender’s acceptance of responsibility; §4A1 - adjustments for the criminal history of the offender. Id. Once the number of points an offender has accumulated is calculated, the judge is to consult a chart to determine the guideline range, in months, that is appropriate for the offender. Id. Lastly, the judge is to “[r]efer to . . . Specific Offender Characteristics and Departures, and to any other policy statements or commentary in the guidelines that might warrant consideration in imposing sentence.” Id. at §1B1.1(i). Each of these Special Offender Characteristics is introduced as being “not ordinarily relevant in determining whether a departure [from the guideline range] may be warranted.” Id. at §5H1.1-.12. However, the chapter’s introduction states that the characteristics are “not . . . necessarily inappropriate to the determination of the sentence within the applicable guideline range” and “[may be relevant to] whether a sentence should be outside the applicable guideline range . . . in exceptional cases.” Id at §5H1.
In the Supreme Court case of United States v. Booker the mandatory nature of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines was rejected as unconstitutional because it infringed upon an offender’s Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury. 543 U.S 220 at 243 (2005). However, the Court did not dispose of the guidelines. The Supreme Court required that the guidelines, which are one of the seven factors included in the sentencing statute (18 U.S.C. §3553), be given the same weight as the other factors in §3553 were given when determining a sentence. Id. These other factors include: “the nature and circumstances of the offense and the history and characteristics of the defendant;” the purposes of punishment; the kinds of sentences available; policy considerations; the desire for uniformity among sentences; and the need to compensate the victim. 18 U.S.C. §3553. As one of seven equal factors, the guidelines became merely advisory.
Today, once a guideline range is determined by the District Court judge and considered along with the other factors of §3553, a sentence is handed down by the District Court. If unsatisfied, the offender may appeal the sentencing decision to the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals may only invalidate a sentencing decision if it is unreasonable considering all of the §3553 factors. Booker at 261.
The Supreme Court decided to hear the case at hand, in part, because some of the nation’s Courts of Appeals have afforded a presumption of reasonableness to sentences that are within the guideline range. Other Courts of Appeals have refused to find such sentences presumptively reasonable. Because an offender who must overcome a presumption of reasonableness is faced with the “nearly impossible task of proving a negative,” the difference in approaches can be extremely burdensome.Brief for Petitioner at 34. The resolution of this case will clarify the advisory nature of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines and will determine the burden faced by offenders who appeal their sentences.
Congress has attempted to effectuate its policy goal of preventing disparity among sentences while maintaining their individualized nature by implementing the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. Prior cases have weighed in on these goals by shifting the balance towards greater individualization and less uniformity. The pro-defendant Court will be analyzing the sentence of a sympathetic defendant. It seems likely that the Court will further support greater individualization by striking down the presumption of reasonableness afforded to within-guidelines sentences by many Courts of Appeals. However the Court decides, the role of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines in District Court sentencing decisions will be clarified.
Written by: Elizabeth Cusack