Federal appeals court vacates drug defendant’s sentence, remands

A drug case involving cocaine possession and distribution is revealing for the manner in which it discusses the reasoning employed by an appellate court in a federal criminal appeals case. We summarize for readers the material facts of the case, the issue on appeal and the court’s reasoning that underlies its ruling in the paragraphs below.

The case came to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals from a defendant challenging the criminal sentence imposed upon him by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia. Although the federal sentencing guideline range for defendant’s cited criminal activity — one count of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute, and to distribute, 400 grams-plus of cocaine — was 46-57 months, the district court sentenced the defendant to a 66-month prison term.

Sentencing judges have ample discretion to depart from suggested sentencing guidelines. In doing so, though, they must sufficiently demonstrate that they have adequately considered all relevant sentencing factors and have not relied on clearly erroneous facts, and they must support their sentencing reasoning by explaining in writing why an upward variance is warranted in light of the facts before them.

In the case summarized here, the appellate court found the lower court to be in error, vacating the defendant’s sentence and remanding for resentencing.

What the appellate court found to be “clearly erroneous” in the sentence issued by the district court was the judge’s determination that the defendant’s past marijuana use “led to, no doubt,” stated negative and long-term consequences suffered by his family.

The record before the district court did not support that assessment. Moreover, prosecutors in the case stated their view that a sentence within the guideline range was appropriate in the case.

The appellate court’s vacation and remand owed, fundamentally, to what the appellate ruling stated was “no evidence in the record to support the district court’s factual findings.”

Source: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, “Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Georgia,” May 30, 2013