Friday, April 1, 2011

Downward Variances at the District Court: Beware of Pyrrhic Victories

This week's Sentencing Guidelines opinion from the Third Circuit in United States v. Negroni underscores the importance of forcing district courts to create an adequate record at sentencing hearings. Paul Negroni and James Hall IV pled guilty to mail and wire fraud, among other crimes. They were knowing participants in a massive fraud scheme. Hall's original Guidelines range was 87-108 months, reduced to 46-57 months after the district court struck Paragraph 45 of the PSR, which had provided the factual support for a 6-level "250 or more victims" enhancement. The judge then downwardly varied to a 15 month sentence. Negroni's Guidelines range was 70-87 months. The judge downardly varied to a probated sentence with 9 months home detention. The Third Circuit vacated both sentences, because of the procedural unreasonablemess of the downward variances, and remanded for resentencing, I have commented previously on the disturbing trend in federal circuit courts of reversing downward variances based on alleged procedural irregularities, thereby gutting Gall and Kimbrough. The Fourth Circuit is particularly notorious for this.

But district judges must step up to the plate and do their part. In Negroni, the sentencing court struck Paragraph 45 of Hall's PSR, but clearly failed to articulate on the record its reason for doing so. The district court also failed to adequately articulate the substantial downward variance it granted to Negroni. Instead, like so many sentencing judges, it rather rotely recited the Section 3553 factors without intelligently discussing most of them or specifically applying them to the facts of Negroni's case and personal history.

It is really not that hard for a district judge to make an adequate procedural record. Defense counsel must force the sentencing court to discuss each Section 3553 factor and apply it in some fashion to a defendant's unique circumstances. How does counsel do this? By literally providing, in writing and in advance, a paint-by-numbers guidebook for the court. I do not know if that was attempted in Negroni. Perhaps it was. It is not always psychologically easy, in the midst of a hearing, to convince a judge who is ruling in your favor to touch all the bases. But don't kid yourself--the circuit courts are waiting, and itching, to send these babies back. Better to educate the district court beforehand, through your sentencing memorandum, about the procedural requirements for a downward variance.

Here is the opinion. Hat tip to Greg Poe for sending this decision our way.

(wisenberg)

 

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