Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Extension Headache

United States v. Vargas, No. 08-1542-cr (2d Cir. May 5, 2009)(Calabresi, Livingston, CJJ, Restani, JCIT)

In connection with a drug conviction, Raphael Varas was sentenced to a five-year term of supervised release. In January of 2008, he pled guilty to a supervised release violation. At his sentencing, the district judge said “the sentence is going to be six months’ home confinement,” and entered a written judgment providing that Vargas “shall be on supervised release for ... [s]ix (6) months home confinement and electronic monitoring.” The court made no mention of any supervised release beyond the period of home confinement.

Two months later, however, the court entered an “Amended Judgment” that contained the same six-month period of home confinement but also continued the original five-year term of supervised release. Vargas appealed from the Amended Judgment, arguing that, since the court revoked his supervised release in January, absent a new violation, the court could not continue the original term two months later. The circuit disagreed, but reversed due to a procedural error.

The circuit viewed the Amended Judgment as an effort by the district court to “correct” an “omission” from the January 2008 Judgment. The court rejected Vargas’ argument that the court’s failure to mention any term of supervised release beyond the home confinement in the January 2008 Judgment meant that his sentence would end after the home confinement period. The revocation did not “necessarily eliminate” the possibility that Vargas’ supervised release might be reinstated, since the court did not “terminate” the supervised release. The court also rejected Vargas’ argument that the district court intended to impose six months of home confinement in lieu of the nearly four years of supervised release that Vargas would otherwise still have had to serve, calling that an “exceedingly odd” punishment for a violation.

On the other hand, the circuit also rejected the government’s argument that, under the January 2008 Judgment, the original term of supervised release “remained intact,” with the added condition of home confinement. The district court could have sentenced Vargas to continued supervised release after the home confinement, but did not “explicitly do so.”

In the end, since the January 2008, Judgment did not “clearly continue or terminate” the original supervised release term, this case turned on the circuit’s view of a district court’s authority to correct the judgment by later extending the term of supervised release. The court found that authority in 18 U.S.C. § 3583(e)(2), which provides in relevant part that a court “may, after considering the factors set forth in [various subsections of 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)] extend a term of supervised release ..., and may modify ... or enlarge the conditions ... at any time prior to the expiration or termination of the term.” Since this section “explicitly states” that a court can “extend a term of supervised release ‘at any time’ prior to its expiration ... the district court could extend Vargas’ supervised release term up to the allowable limit” after considering the relevant § 3553(a) favors.

While such extensions normally occur where “new circumstances” - like a violation of a condition - require extension to further the “general punishment goals” of § 3553(a), a district court “may correct an inadvertent omission that runs against the policies of section 3553(a) by extending supervised release even in the absence of a new violation.” Thus, here, while the district court had the authority to correct its “apparent” error, it could only extend the term if it considered the relevant § 3553(a) factors. Since the court did not do so here, the circuit vacated the Amended Judgment and remanded the case to the district court to first consider the statutory factors before determining whether an extension is appropriate.

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