High court bolsters sentencing guidelines

In a closely watched decision, court's majority says they're more than advisory but less than mandatory.

The US Supreme Court has breathed new life into what had become a somewhat battered federal sentencing-guidelines system.

In a decision that is likely to encourage judges to rely on the guidelines, the high court Thursday ruled against a North Carolina man whose lawyers argued that judges had placed too much emphasis on the guidelines in sentencing him. The court said that appeals court judges can presume that a criminal sentence falling within the guidelines range is a reasonable punishment.

The case was closely watched because it was expected to help clarify for lower court judges how they should apply the sentencing guidelines following a 2005 high court ruling that had struck down a portion of those guidelines.

While judges sometimes look past the guidelines to other factors in handing down criminal sentences, appeals court judges assessing the reasonableness of those sentences can give greater weight to the sentencing guidelines because they represent a two-track approach to sentencing laid out by Congress, Justice Stephen Breyer said in his majority opinion Thursday.

The federal sentencing guidelines are more than merely advisory but less than mandatory, the majority said. They represent the considered judgment of the US Sentencing Commission and an effort by Congress to establish a sentencing system that strives to issue similar sentences for similar crimes.

In addition, the high court said that reliance on the sentencing guidelines does not necessarily violate Sixth Amendment rights to a jury trial when a federal judge boosts a sentence based on guidelines factors not presented to the jury. The high court said this is so because the guidelines are not mandatory.

Of the 70,000 defendants sentenced each year, roughly 9,800 receive sentences that are outside the suggested guidelines sentence.

Justice Breyer said appeals court judges could give significant weight to the suggested guidelines sentence in determining the reasonableness of a particular sentence. But the presumption must not carry so much weight as to transform the guidelines into a mandatory, mechanical process.

The presumption of reasonableness only applies for appeals court judges assessing sentences handed down by trial court judges. And it is not binding, Breyer emphasized.

In a dissent, Justice David Souter said the decision will encourage trial judges to use the guidelines as if they were mandatory in order to hand down appeal-proof sentences.

Justice Souter said that rather than trying to craft a judicial remedy, the high court should leave it to Congress to rewrite the guidelines scheme.

"If Congress has not had a change of heart about the value of a guidelines system, it can reenact the guidelines law to give it the same binding force it originally had, but with provision for jury, not judicial, determination [of key sentencing facts]," Souter writes.

"At this point, only Congress can make good on both its enacted policy of mandatory guidelines sentencing and the guarantee of a robust right of jury trial."

The high court decision stems from the case of Victor Rita, a 25-year decorated combat veteran who was convicted in North Carolina of making two false statements to federal agents about a parts kit he purchased for a vintage battle rifle.

Mr. Rita had no prior criminal history or other factors suggesting a higher prison sentence. But a presentence report prepared under the federal sentencing guidelines classified Rita as an "accessory after the fact" to alleged import violations by the company that sold him the parts kit.

That classification – never presented to the jury at his trial – more than doubled his potential prison term from 15 to 33 months.

The judge sentenced Rita to 33 months in prison in accord with the guidelines. The Fourth US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the sentence as "presumptively reasonable" since it was within the guidelines range.

In appealing the sentence, Rita's lawyers argued that the judges relied too heavily on the guidelines and failed to explain why other factors pointing to a lesser sentence were rejected.

In affirming the Fourth Circuit decision, the majority justices said: "The sentencing statutes envision both the sentencing judge and the [Sentencing] Commission as carrying out the same basic ... objectives," Breyer writes.

He adds, "The guidelines as written reflect the fact that the Sentencing Commission examined tens of thousands of sentences and worked with the help of many others in the law enforcement community over a long period of time in an effort to fulfill this [congressional] mandate."

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