Supreme Court Reinforces that District Courts Must Accurately Calculate Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Even If Imposed Sentence is Within the Accurate Guideline Range by Evan J. Davis
Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court reinforced that a felon’s liberty interest outweighed inconveniencing the district court when the Court held that appellate courts must send cases back to the district court where the district court made a mistake in calculating the federal sentencing guidelines. Rosales-Mireles v. United States, 585 U.S. ___ (2018), available at https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/585/16-9493/.
In 7-2 victory for justice over expediency, the Court slammed the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals’ overly stringent standard for granting a defendant a new sentencing hearing after the parties discovered for the first time on appeal that the district court’s guideline calculation was erroneous.
In the real world of federal sentencing, the “advisory” federal sentencing guidelines determine the sentence in most cases, even though they are supposed to be just the first step in an analysis that accounts for the defendant’s history and characteristics, among other factors. United States Probation Officers – employed by the district court – prepare a presentence report that includes a calculation of the guideline sentence based on the offense level and criminal history.
Florencio Rosales-Mireles’ guideline sentence was erroneously calculated because the Probation Officer double-counted a misdemeanor conviction and increased his criminal history level. This increased his guideline sentence from 70-87 months to 77-96 months. The district court imposed a 78-month sentence, which was within both the correct and erroneous guideline ranges. Only on appeal did anyone notice the double-counting. Because Mr. Rosales-Mireles didn’t object to the error in the district court, the Court of Appeals used a difficult-to-show “plain error” standard that required the defendant to demonstrate, among other things, a reasonable probability that the error affected his sentence and that it seriously affected the fairness and integrity of his sentencing.
The parties agreed that the incorrect guideline likely affected his sentence (even though the imposed sentence was still within his correct guideline sentence range), but disagreed whether the plain sentencing error implicated the fairness and integrity of his sentencing. Siding with the government and adopting a test that would make few sentencing errors reversible, the Fifth Circuit held that only sentencing errors that “shock the conscience” are reversible. The Fifth Circuit was an outlier, as most other circuits including the Ninth Circuit had adopted a lower standard for reversing sentencings based on erroneous guideline calculations.
The Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve the circuit split, and reinforced that inconveniencing district judges for a few hours isn’t a sufficiently important concern when balanced against ensuring the integrity and public confidence in sentences. The Court emphasized the convicted defendant’s perspective: “To a prisoner,” this prospect of additional “time behind bars is not some theoretical or mathematical concept.” However, the Court didn’t lose sight of judicial efficiency, noting resentencing hearings are relatively low-cost, compared to a costly new trial. The implication: less-egregious mistakes at sentencing can warrant remand, whereas only more-serious mistakes at trial will warrant a new trial.
Getting the guidelines right wasn’t just about the defendant being sentenced, as the Court noted that sentencing data is used to revise the guidelines, among other things, and not correcting guideline errors would skew the data. Protecting sentencing data justified requiring a new sentencing hearing in this case, even though Mr. Rosales-Mireles’ 78-month sentence was within the correct guideline range and, according to other precedent, was presumptively reasonable as a result.
The opinion was laced with lofty quotations from earlier Supreme Court cases and, interestingly, an appellate court decision penned by Judge (not-yet-Justice) Gorsuch of the Tenth Circuit:
In considering claims like Rosales-Mireles’, then, “what reasonable citizen wouldn’t bear a rightly diminished view of the judicial process and its integrity if courts refused to correct obvious errors of their own devise that threaten to require individuals to linger longer in federal prison than the law demands?”
United States v. Sabillon-Umana, 772 F. 3d 1328, 1333–1334 (CA10 2014) (Gorsuch, J.).
The next question: will the Supreme Court and lower courts elevate fairness and integrity over expediency in situations where a new trial would have to result? Although the Supreme Court noted the relatively low cost of resentencing in support of remanding to correct a guideline error, the Court’s remaining arguments in favor of remand would apply with even more force to errors that affected guilt. It’s important to ensure a defendant like Rosales-Mireles doesn’t have to spend seven extra months in custody based on a guideline error, but isn’t it even more important to ensure that a defendant wasn’t convicted as a consequence of an error at trial in the first place?
EVAN J. DAVIS – For more information please contact Evan Davis – firstname.lastname@example.org or 310.281.3288. Mr. Davis is a principal at Hochman, Salkin, Rettig, Toscher & Perez, P.C., a former AUSA of the Tax Division of the Office of the U.S. Attorney (C.D. Cal) handling civil and criminal tax cases and, subsequently, of the Major Frauds Section of the Criminal Division of the Office of the U.S. Attorney (C.D. Cal) handling white-collar, tax, and other fraud cases through jury trial and appeal. He served as the Bankruptcy Fraud coordinator, Financial Institution Fraud Coordinator, and Securities Fraud coordinator for the USAO’s Criminal Division, and the U.S. Attorney General awarded him the Distinguished Service Award for his work on the $16 Billion RMBS settlement with Bank of America.
Mr. Davis represents individuals and closely held entities in criminal tax investigations and prosecutions, civil tax controversy and litigation, sensitive issue or complex civil tax examinations and administrative tax appeals, and federal and state white-collar criminal investigations including money laundering and health care fraud. He is significantly involved in the representation of taxpayers throughout the world in matters involving the ongoing, extensive efforts of the U.S. government to identify undeclared interests in foreign financial accounts and assets and the coordination of effective and efficient voluntary disclosures (OVDP, Streamlined Procedures and otherwise).