Sunday, July 20, 2014
I enjoy studying upward variance opinions, as they usually contain language and rules that can be used by the defense to support downward variances in other cases. This is true because, whatever specific factors are discussed, federal appeals courts typically speak of what justifies such variances in general terms, not distinguishing between upward and downward excursions. United States v. Ransom, decided earlier this month by the D.C. Circuit in an opinion by Judge David Sentelle, is no exception. Chester Ransom and Bryan Talbott each pled guilty to a fraud scheme and stipulated to a non-binding Guideline range of 46-57 months. The sentencing court calculated Ransom's range at 46-57 months but upwardly varied to a 72 month sentence. The court calculated Talbott's range at 63-78 months but upwardly varied to a 120 month sentence.
The Court initially held that Ransom's upward variance for lack of remorse was not inconsistent with the three point downward adjustment he received for acceptance of responsibility under Section 3E1.1(a) and (b). The Court in essence stated that one can plead guilty early and cooperate with the government without showing any remorse.
Next the Court rejected appellants' argument that the sentencing court improperly relied on factors in varying upward that the Guidelines had already accounted for. Joining some sister circuits the Court held (internal quotes and citations omitted) that:
It is not error for a district court to enter sentencing variances based on factors already taken into account by the Advisory Guidelines, in a case in which the Guidelines do not fully account for those factors or when a district court applies broader [Section] 3553(a) considerations in granting the variance.
As anyone who does federal sentencing work knows, those broader 3553(a) factors are often the key to obtaining a downward variance if the court is otherwise inclined to do so. To take one example, in the Mandatory Guidelines era it was almost impossible to obtain a downward departure based on family circumstances, but they can, and must, at least be "considered" by the sentencing court under the current regime. Believe it or not, not every district judge comprehends this simple rule. Ergo, it is nice to have additional case law on one's side.