Friday, September 16, 2005

Court Must Give Reasons for Imposing Sentence Outside Advisory Chapter 7 Range

United States v. Myrisa V. Lewis, Docket No. 04-4105-cr (2d Cir. Sep. 15, 2005) (Feinberg, Sack, Katzmann): This is a well-reasoned and interesting opinion by Judge Sack -- and another good win by Ed Zas of this Office (see here for Ed's other win this month). The decision holds that a district court must state its reasons for imposing a sentence that is outside the advisory Chapter 7 range for revocation of supervised release or probation, a holding that obviously has broader implications given that the governing statute applies to all sentences, whether imposed upon revocation or upon conviction. The decision also contains an interesting discussion of the still-unsettled issue of whether standard plain error analysis, or a more "relaxed" form of plain error review, is applicable to errors occurring at sentencing.

The essential facts are simple. While on supervised release, Ms. Lewis tested positive for drug use on numerous occasions, missed several appointments with her probation officer, and flunked out of drug treatment. She admitted to drug use as a violation of supervised release. The applicable Chapter 7 range was 3 to 9 months. Probation recommended a sentence within the range. The Government did not request a particular sentence.

The court then imposed a sentence of 24 months. It gave no reason to justify the sentence at sentencing. Nor did it provide a written statement of reasons for the sentence on the judgment of conviction. The defendant did not object to the court's failure to state reasons.

On appeal, Ms. Lewis argued that the court violated both 18 U.S.C. § 3553(c), requiring a court to "state in open court the reasons for its imposition of the particular sentence," and § 3553(c)(2), requiring a court, when imposing a sentence outside the applicable sentencing range, to state "the specific reasons for the imposition of a sentence different from that described, which reasons must also be stated with specificity in the written order of judgment and commitment." The Court agreed with both arguments, and vacated the sentence and remanded for further proceedings.

As the Court points out, Section 3553(c) was left intact by Booker's excision of § 3553(b)(1). And while a court need not explain its reasons for imposing a particular sentence with great deal of specificity, "[s]tating no reasons at all 'plainly' falls short of the requirement to state reasons that is set forth in § 3553(c), no matter what the level of 'specificity' may be." Op. at 12.

The Court also rejected the Government's argument that it should affirm nonetheless simply because the 24-month sentence is reasonable. Relying on the concept of "procedural unreasonableness" set forth in cases such as Crosby and Selioutsky (that a sentence, even if reasonable as to length, may be unreasonable "because of the unlawful method by which it was selected," Crosby, 397 F.3d at 115), the Court concluded that "a sentence imposed without complying with the requirements of the still-applicable provision of 18 U.S.C. § 3553(c)(2) constitutes error, even assuming that its length is reasonable." Op. at 14.

The opinion also contains an interesting discussion of the plain error standard, given that the defense counsel failed to raise an objection based on 3553(c) or (c)(2) at sentencing. It notes, first, that the form of plain-error review applicable to purely sentencing errors is still unsettled in the Circuit. While some cases have applied a straightforward version of the 4-part Cotton plain error test to such errors, others have applied "a less stringent standard" when reviewing unpreserved sentencing errors, e.g., United States v. Sofsky, 287 F.3d 122, 125 (2d Cir. 2002) (noting that "in the sentencing context there are circumstances that permit us to relax the otherwise rigorous standards of plain error review to correct sentencing errors"). While this opinion does not resolve the issue, finding that plain error was shown even under the more rigorous version, it strongly suggests that Sofsky's "relaxed form" of plain error analysis is appropriate for errors occurring solely at sentencing. See Op. at 18.

And in conducting the standard form of plain error review, the Court interestingly concludes that an error of the sort at issue here -- i.e., the court's failure to explain the reasons for its sentence -- is akin to a "structural" error defying standard "harmlessness" or "prejudice" analysis. Op. at 17-18. Indeed, the Court analogizes the "right" awarded by 3553(c) to the defendant's right to the public's presence at sentencing -- which is of course a structural error for which prejudice need not be shown, see Waller v. Georgia, 467 U.S. 39, 49 n.9 (1984). Op. at 15, 17-18. Thus, although the Court acknowledges that "it seems unlikely that a court's failure to state its reasons for imposing a particular sentence would . . . 'affect' the sentence imposed," it concludes that the defendant's "substantial rights" were affected by the 3553(c) error and vacated the sentence.

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