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No error in sentencing defendant to jail for a supervised release violation

In U.S. v. Vandergrift, the defendant was placed on three years of supervised release after serving a 97-month sentence for the federal crime of possession and distribution of child pornography. Before the expiration of a three year supervised release, Vandergrift’s probation officer filed a petition seeking revocation of his supervised release charging that he violated the following conditions of his supervised release: (1) failing to obtain lawful employment; (2) failing to obey instructions to search for and obtain employment; (3) knowingly giving false information to a probation officer when questioned about the whereabouts of another federal supervisee; (4) possessing or having access to a pornographic DVD and a Maxim magazine, both of which contained sexually stimulating material; and (5) violating 18 U.S.C.§ 1001, when he knowingly lied to a probation officer about his roommate’s absence. The district court revoked Vandergrift’s release and imposed an above-guidelines sentence of 24 month imprisonment to be followed by one year of supervised release.

In revoking supervised release, the court considered the safety of the public, the example set to others in deterring similar conduct, punishment for the crime that was committed, and the court also considered what was best for Vandergrift as a factor.
Having considered all of these, the sentence imposed was 24 months in prison, the maximum under statute hoping that during the period of imprisonment “something can be found to put him on a better course.”

The Vandergrift appealed arguing that the district court erred with respect to two of the alleged supervised release violations. He claimed that he did not fail to obtain employment “willfully”, and that he did not constructively possess the pornographic DVD and the Maxim magazine. He also challenged the procedural reasonableness of his 24-month sentence, arguing that the district court relied on impermissible factors in violation of Tapia v. United States.

Because Vandergrift pleaded guilty to conduct underlying two of the supervised release violations, the district court did not abuse its discretion in revoking his supervised release. Vandergrift also challenged the procedural reasonableness of his 24-month sentence contending that the district court made two errors when fashioning his post-revocation sentence. First, it was impermissible to consider the factor set out under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(2)(A), the need to promote respect for the law, and the need to provide just punishment for the offense. Second it erred in considering the benefits of rehabilitation when sentencing Vandergrift to 24 months.

In Tapia v. United States, the Supreme Court stated that sentencing prohibits federal courts from considering defendant’s rehabilitative needs when imposing or lengthening a prison sentence. The Supreme Court emphasized that a sentencing court errs by relying on or considering rehabilitation in any way when sentencing a defendant to prison.

The Court of Appeals found that there was a Tapia error because the district court considered rehabilitation, an improper § 3553(a) factor in sentencing Vandergrift. This amounts to procedural error. The court held that the district court errs when it considers rehabilitation when imposing or lengthening a sentence of imprisonment. In light of Tapia, the Court of appeals found that the district court erred when it sentenced Vandergrift to prison because it considered rehabilitation when doing so.
The Court of Appeals found the sentencing transcript reflected that Vandergrift’s “rehabilitative needs clearly constituted only a minor fragment of the court’s reasoning”. The court’s primary considerations were for the safety of the public and deterring others from similar conducts. For these reasons, despite the court of appeals finding of Tapia’s error, the district court is affirmed.

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