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Above guidelines sentence for federal supervised release violation reversed for sentencing court’s failure to state reasons

After serving his 195 month federal sentence for possession of a firearm Defendant Parks went on federal supervised release. Fifteen months later Parks was arrested by state authorities for burglary and grand theft. Parks plead guilty to the state court charges and was sentenced to 455 days, with credit for time served. On the day of his sentencing he was taken into federal custody and charged with a violation of his federal supervised release based on the facts of his state court charges.  When he went before the federal judge for his violation hearing he admitted having committed the violation because he had just pleaded guilty in state court. The federal judge then sentenced him to 60 months incarceration, though his sentencing guidelines were 21-27 months. The sentencing judge did not announce how he arrived at that sentence and did not mention the 18 U.S.C. §3553(a) factors.

Parks appeals the sentence on the grounds that the trial court failed to consider or even acknowledge the statutory factors under 18 U.S.C. §3553(a). Furthermore, he argued the trial court failed to give a specific reason for his upward departure guideline sentence as required by 18 U.S.C. §3553(c)(2). Under §3553(c) the court is required to state in open court the reasons for its imposition of the particular sentence. If the sentence is outside the applicable guideline range the court must give the specific reasons for the imposition of that sentence.

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decision found that 18 U.S.C. §3553 provides that §3553(c) applies to supervised release revocation proceedings and requires that the sentencing court give a specific statement of reasons for all outside the advisory guidelines range sentences including supervised release violations. Therefore the section applied to Parks sentencing and the court’s reasons must be sufficiently specific so that an appellate court can engage in the meaningful review envisioned by the sentencing guidelines. The statutes imposes a mandatory obligation on a sentencing judge. Here the district judge failed to answer the key question of why he imposed an above guidelines sentence. The judge did not provide any reason for Park’s sentencing.

The district court’s reasons must be sufficiently specific so that the Eleventh Circuit Federal Court of Appeals can engage in the meaningful review of the sentence. The sentencing court did not do enough to satisfy the requirements of §3553(c)(2). This provision embodies a congressional judgment that explaining a federal non-guideline sentence has both instrumental and intrinsic value, citing In re Sealed, 537 F.3d 188 (D.C. Cir 2008) in which the court stated that it is important not only for the defendant but also for the public to learn why the defendant received a particular sentence. The district court failed to comply with §3553(c)(2). The appellate court adopted a per se rule of reversal for errors and explained that in past rulings it found that a sentencing court has an obligation to explain deviations from the guidelines sentencing range, so that the reviewing court can determine whether the departure was justified. If the sentencing court failed to do this the case will be remanded for resentencing.