Federal Sentencing Guidelines (Part 1)

by | Dec 19, 2018 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

On June 4, 2018, the United States Supreme Court decided the case of Hughes v. U.S. The principal issue was under what circumstances a sentence imposed pursuant to a negotiated plea agreement is “based on” the defendant’s Guidelines range.

Writing for a 6-3 majority, Justice Kennedy held in relevant part as follows: In Freeman v. United States, 564 U. S. 522, this Court considered whether a prisoner who had been sentenced under a plea agreement authorized by the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure could have his sentence reduced under 18 U. S. C. §3582(c)(2) when his Federal Guidelines sentencing range was lowered retroactively.  No single interpretation or rationale commanded a majority, however. Some Courts of Appeals, turning to Marks v. United States, 430 U. S. 188, for guidance, adopted the reasoning of Justice Sotomayor’s opinion concurring in the judgment. Others interpreted Marks differently and adopted the plurality’s reasoning. Because this Court can now resolve the substantive, sentencing issue discussed in Freeman, it is unnecessary to reach questions regarding the proper application of Marks.

The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 authorizes the United States Sentencing Commission to establish, and retroactively amend, Sentencing Guidelines. Though the Guidelines are only advisory, see United States v. Booker, 543 U. S. 220, a district court must consult them during sentencing, id., at 264, along with other factors specified in 18 U. S. C. §3553(a), including “the need to avoid unwarranted sentence disparities,” §3553(a)(6). When an amendment applies retroactively, district courts may reduce the sentences of prisoners whose sentences were “based on a sentencing range that has subsequently been lowered by the Sentencing Commission.” §3582(c)(2).   This case concerns the issue whether a defendant may seek relief under §3582(c)(2) if he entered a plea agreement under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(C) (Type-C agreement), which permits the defendant and the Government to “agree that a specific sentence or sentencing range is the appropriate disposition of the case,” and “binds the court to the agreed-upon sentence once it accepts the plea agreement.”

Without reading further, two opposing rationales come to mind regarding how the principal issue should be answered. The rationale against a lesser sentence is that a negotiated plea agreement is presumptively reasonable and therefore should not be disturbed. The rationale in favor of a lesser sentence is that plea agreements reflect an acceptance of responsibility and contribute to the efficient administration of justice. Therefore, they should be encouraged and using them against a defendant would discourage them.