Modifications of Sentences (Part 1)

by | Dec 11, 2018 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

On June 18, 2018, the United State Supreme Court decided the case of Chavez-Meza v. United States. The principal issue was the standard for a reduction of sentence. Justice Breyer authored the 5-3 majority opinion.
The majority held in relevant part as follows: The Federal Sentencing Guidelines require a sentencing judge to first identify the recommended Guidelines sentencing range based on certain offender and offense characteristics. The judge might choose a penalty within that Guidelines range, or the judge may “depart” or “vary” from the Guidelines and select a sentence outside the range. See United States v. Booker, 543 U. S. 220, 258–265. Either way, the judge must consider certain statutory sentencing factors, see 18 U. S. C. §3553(a), and must “state in open court the reasons for imposing the particular sentence,” §3553(c).

But when it comes to how detailed that statement of reasons must be, “the law leaves much to the judge’s own professional judgment.” Rita v. United States, 551 U. S. 338, 356. The explanation need not be lengthy, especially where “a matter is conceptually simple and the record makes clear that the sentencing judge considered the evidence and arguments.” Id., at 359.

Here, petitioner pleaded guilty to possessing methamphetamine with intent to distribute. The judge reviewed the Guidelines, determined the range to be 135 to 168 months, and imposed a sentence at the bottom of the range. The Sentencing Commission later lowered the relevant range to 108 to 135 months, and petitioner sought a sentence reduction under §3582(c)(2). Petitioner asked the judge to reduce his sentence to the bottom of the new range, but the judge reduced petitioner’s sentence to 114 months instead. The order was entered on a form certifying that the judge had “considered” petitioner’s “motion” and had “taken into account” the §3553(a) factors and the relevant Guidelines policy statement. On appeal, petitioner argued the sentencing judge did not adequately explain why he rejected petitioner’s request for a 108-month sentence. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

The language in the order gives the impression that the judge may have delegated the analysis to a member of his or her staff. This is not permitted, but is probably a common practice with regard to matters like this where courts have so much discretion that the end result is almost never reversed on appeal.