Thursday, May 5th, 2016

District Court Plainly Erred by Using a Guideline Unsupported by the Facts, Even Where the Parties Stipulated to that Guideline in a Plea Agreement

In United States v. Rendsland, Docket No. 14-3942-cr, a summary order issued today, the Circuit ruled that the district court committed plain error in relying on U.S.S.G. § 2A2.2 (“Aggravated Assault”) to calculate Mr. Rendsland’s Guideline range, rather than § 2A2.4 (“Obstructing or Impeding Officers”), even though the parties had stipulated that this was the applicable Guideline in a plea agreement. (Disclosure: Ed Zas of the Federal Defenders of New York submitted an Amicus brief raising this argument on Mr. Rendsland’s behalf). This was so because nothing in the record showed that Mr. Rendsland committed “aggravated assault,” defined in Application Note 1 of § 2A2.2 as a “felonious assault that involved (A) a dangerous weapon with intent to cause bodily injury (i.e., not merely to frighten) with that weapon; (B) serious bodily injury; (C) strangling, suffocating, or attempting to strangle or suffocate; or (D) an intent to commit another felony.”

Here are the undisputed facts. Mr. Rendsland is mentally ill. One day he went to the local Secret Service office, rang the doorbell, and became agitated after an agent told him that the office was closed. While saying “something about the government and mind control, and that ‘they tampered with my gun,’” Mr. Rendsland “drew a handgun from his right pocket and pointed it at the agent on the other side of the window.” Order at 2-3. The agent took cover and ordered Mr. Rendsland to drop the gun, but he refused. Nonetheless, “video surveillance showed him removing the magazine from the pistol, placing it in his breast pocket, and holstering his gun.” Id. at 2. Local police arrived shortly thereafter and “eventually brought [the defendant] to the floor using a taser and placed him under arrest.” Id.

Mr. Rendsland was initially found incompetent to stand trial. Two and a half years later, a follow-up evaluation determined that he was competent so long as he continued his treatment. Shortly thereafter he (through counsel) and the Government reached a plea agreement, under which Mr. Rendsland agreed to plead guilty to one count of violating 18 U.S.C. § 111(a) & (b). The parties further agreed that the base offense level was provided by § 2A2.2 of the Guidelines, governing “Aggravated Assault.” Tracking the agreement, the district court relied on § 2A2.2 in calculating the applicable sentencing range and then sentenced the defendant to 46 months’ imprisonment (and 3 years’ supervised release). Order at 3.

The Circuit concluded that the district court plainly erred in relying on § 2A2.2, rather than § 2A2.4 (which would have yielded a lower total offense level), because nothing in the record supported a finding that Mr. Rendsland committed aggravated assault. Order at 3-4. The Circuit emphasized that because the sentencing court “had an independent duty to calculate the Guidelines range and was not bound by any stipulation of the parties,” it should not have deferred to the parties’ agreement regarding § 2A2.2 “without making any findings that the offense conduct rose to the level of aggravated assault.” Id. at 4. And the error “affected Rendsland’s substantial rights and the fairness, integrity, and public reputation of judicial proceedings,” the Court concluded, because the correct Guideline (§ 2A2.4) “would have resulted in a substantially lower Guidelines range than the one ultimately considered by the district court and, in turn, would likely have resulted in a lower term of imprisonment or supervised release.” Id. at 6.

Finally, the Circuit rejected the Government’s argument that because Mr. Rendsland “only challenges his term of imprisonment and has already served his prison sentence, this case is moot.” Order at 4. Citing a longstanding rule, the Court concluded that “‘the fact that the district court might, because of our ruling, modify the length of [the appellant’s] term of supervised release would constitute ‘effectual relief.’ A case or controversy thus exists . . . .” Id. at 4 (quoting Levine v. Apker, 455 F.3d 71, 77 (2d Cir. 2006)).

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