Saturday, April 2nd, 2011

PC World

United States v. Perez-Frias, No. 10-1401-cr (2d Cir. March 31, 2011) (Jacobs, Calabresi, Lohier, CJJ) (per curiam)

Pedro Ruben Perez-Frias appealed his 42-month, below-Guideline illegal reenty sentence, arguing that it was substantively unreasonable. The circuit affirmed.

His case presented a particularly unsympathetic set of facts. In 1995, Perez-Frias was convicted of a drug-related manslaughter. He was selling marijuana at the time, and told his friends that he was having trouble with a rival dealer. This inspired someone else to kill the rival. Perez-Frias received a 7-to-21-year state sentence, and served about 14 years before being paroled to immigration authorities, who immediately deported him. He returned to the United States in August of 2009 and, two months later, was arrested for possessing marijuana. Within a few months he was in federal custody facing an illegal reentry charge.

Perez-Frias’ primary argument at sentencing was that a Guideline sentence was greater than necessary to satisfy § 3553(a). The sentencing judge disagreed, but granted his request for a four-month reduction to account for the uncredited time that Perez-Frias was in federal custody on a writ. The Guideline range was 46 to 57 months’ imprisonment, and the court imposed a 42-month term.

The circuit began by noting that it is “difficult to find that a below-Guidelines sentence is unreasonable,” although, in context, it seems that the court will find this difficulty only when assessing a defendant’s claim that the sentence is unreasonably high, and not when assessing a prosecutor’s claim that a below-Guideline sentence is unreasonably low. Here, according to the circuit, the district court’s assessment of the nature and circumstances of the offense and the defendant’s history and characteristics supported the sentence it chose.

Perez-Frias challenged the 16-level enhancement that he received for the manslaughter conviction as one not supported by “specific empirical data.” This is a common argument made in illegal reentry cases, and here the court pretty much shot it down. There is “no such flaw in the reentry Guideline.” Rather, the 16-level enhancement was “based on the Commission’s own determination that these increased offense levels are appropriate to reflect the serious nature of these offenses.”

Relatedly, Perez-Frias argued that the 16-level enhancement was unduly harsh because the illegal reentry itself is a non-violent act. The court rejected this, too. The guideline is not unreasonable merely because it produces an offense level that is equal to or greater than that of certain violent crimes.

Finally, Perez-Frias deployed another commonly raised argument: that the lower sentences imposed in “fast-track” districts showed that non-fast-track sentences are longer than necessary to achieve the statutory goals. The circuit disagreed because “defendants in fast-track districts are not similarly situated to defendants in non-fast-track districts.”


For those with a lot invested in illegal reentry cases – like federal defenders – this is a disturbing opinion, particularly on the issue of the empirical basis for the 16-level bump.

There has been a lot written, much of it quite compelling, that establishes that the Commission’s choice of 16-level bump was, in essence, random, and was not based on any systematic empirical study. And the quoted material that the court relies on here to find otherwise is not really an answer. That material comes from the Commission’s justification for the enhancement, and establishes only that the Commission believed that illegal reentrants with serious past convictions deserved a higher offense level. But it does nothing to explain why the Commission selected 16 levels, and not some lower number, and certain does not in any way show that the number, or even the concern behind it, was the product of a real empirical – or indeed any – investigation.

Others have observed that the 16-level bump seems to have been intended to coordinate with the statutory maximum of twenty years. But under Kimbrough that is an additional reason to give less deference to a determination by the Sentencing Commission. This opinion does not address that aspect of the enhancement at all.

Finally, as for fast-track, there is an issue that the Circuit has had before it many times but has not yet resolved: the claim that the disparity between the sentences imposed in fast-track districts and non-fast track districts is “unwarranted” under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(6). Although the government will likely trot out this case in answer to that argument, in fact, this case does not shut that particular door. Its holding that the fast-track disparity does not render non-fast-track sentences longer than necessary is not a holding that such disparities can never be “unwarranted.”

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