Tuesday, April 5th, 2016

Second Circuit Updates – April 5, 2016

There were no opinions in criminal cases from the Circuit this day.  The Circuit issued a single summary affirmance in United States v. Miller, No.15-108-cr, where it rejected the defendant’s claim that his 144-month – but nevertheless below-Guidelines – sentence was substantively unreasonable.

United States v. Miller, No.15-108-cr:

Miller was convicted of a  drug distribution conspiracy ( 21 U.S.C. § 846)  involving a (b)(1)A)-quantity of drugs — i.e., 21 U.S.C. § 841.  The drugs were more than 1,000 kilograms of marijuana.  He committed the offense “while on supervised release from a prior conviction for cocaine trafficking and firearms possession.”  His sole contention on appeal, according to the Circuit, was that his 144-month prison sentence, which was a downward variance from a Guidelines range of 151 to 188 months, “was substantively unreasonable the because the only reasonable sentence is one at the statutory minimum of 120 months’ imprisonment.”

The Circuit set forth its basic principles for reviewing claims that the length of  a sentence is substantively unreasonable. Our Circuit does not apply a “presumption of reasonableness for sentences that fall within a guidelines range.” United States v. Douglas, 713 F. 694, (2d Cir. 2013). But it places a “heavy burden” on a party claiming that a Guidelines (or below-Guidelines) sentence is substantively unreasonable.

First, it accords “considerable deference” to the district judge’s decision about the particular sentence warranted in a particular case;  it will find error only in an “exceptional case[]” when that decision is outside “the range of permissible decisions.”  Second, its view is that a “within-Guidelines sentence will rarely fall outside the permissible range[.]” And “it is particularly difficult to mount a successful substantive challenge to a below-Guidelines sentence[.]” (emphasis in original).  And thus its third and final principle, summarizing its consideration of substantive reasonableness challenges is the following: “The ‘few cases’ raising substantive concerns are those in which the sentence is so ‘shockingly high, shockingly low, or otherwise unsupportable as a matter of law’ that allowing it to stand would ‘damage the administration of justice.’”

The Circuit concluded that Miller’s 12-year prison sentence did not raise substantive concerns.  It discussed aggravating factors in the case: the conspiracy spanned 10 years; it distributed perhaps up to 30,000 kilograms of marijuana; Miller personally bought a trailer to bring marijuana in quantity to New York, from Arizona and Texas; and he had not been deterred by a prior 10-year sentence for cocaine trafficking (in 1992) or a 27-month sentence (in 2006) for violating supervised release.

The Court noted Miller’s complaint that the district court had relied too much on his history to the exclusion of mitigating factors “such as his attempts at self-rehabilitation, his professed ignorance of the conspiracy’s full scope, and changing laws and mores regarding narcotics offenses.”  The Circuit stated, however, that the “weight” to be given such considerations is “firmly committed to the discretion of the sentencing judge.” And it said it could “identify no abuse of that discretion here.”

-Darrell B. Fields

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Categories: guideline, marijuana
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