Friday, February 24, 2006

Fourth Circuit issues Sentencing Guidelines opinion

The Fourth Circuit has once again affirmed that district judges must pay heed to the Sentencing Guidelines when handing out punishment. In United States v. Moreland, Moreland was convicted on two counts of possession with the intent to distribute cocaine base. The district court imposed a sentence of ten years imprisonment--a two-thirds reduction from the bottom of the advisory guideline range. The Fourth Circuit vacated the sentence and reminded district courts that there is a formal analysis they must apply before deviating from the Guidelines:

Thus, in imposing a sentence after Booker, the district court must engage in a multi-step process. First, the court must correctly determine, after making appropriate findings of fact, the applicable guideline range. See United States v. Hughes, 401 F.3d 540, 546 (4th Cir. 2005). Next, the court must "determine whether a sentence within that range . . . serves the factors set forth in section 3553(a) and, if not, select a sentence [within statutory limits] that does serve those factors." Green, 2006 WL 267217, at *4. In doing so, the district court should first look to whether a departure is appropriate based on the Guidelines Manual or relevant case law. (We will return to this subject momentarily.) If an appropriate basis for departure exists, the district court may depart. If the resulting departure range still does not serve the factors set forth in section 3553(a), the court may then elect to impose a non-guideline sentence (a "variance sentence"). The district court must articulate the reasons for the sentence imposed, particularly explaining any departure or variance from the guideline range. See 18 U.S.C.A. section 3553(c) (West Supp. 2005); Hughes, 401 F.3d at 546 & n.5. The explanation of a variance sentence must be tied to the factors set forth in secton 3553(a) and must be accompanied by findings of fact as necessary. See Green, 2006 WL 267217, at *4-*5.

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