Requirement to Explain Sentencing Modifications

Sentencing modifications are typically good news for a criminal defendant. In fact, it seems odd that a defendant would appeal a reduction in his prison sentence. However, if a defendant receives a reduction that is less than what he thinks he is entitled to, he may try to challenge the judge's decision, especially if the judge does not provide a substantive explanation for his sentencing decision. In United States v. Chavez-Meza, the Supreme Court addressed the degree of explanation that the court must provide in imposing a sentencing modification that is above the minimum terms per the federal Sentencing Guidelines.

Explanations for Sentencing Modifications

Sentencing Modification

Sentencing Modification

Pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), a district court may impose a criminal sentence that is "in variance" of the Sentencing Guideline range. There are several factors that must be considered in determining an appropriate sentence. In imposing a sentence, a judge must complete an AO-245 form that includes four pages in which the judge provides detailed reasons for selecting a particular sentence.

After a sentence is imposed, a judge may modify the sentence if there has been an adjustment to the federal Sentencing Guidelines per 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2). In order for that statute to apply, the Sentencing Commission must expressly state that the amended Guidelines should apply retroactively. If a criminal defendant files a motion to have his sentence modified pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2), the district court can consider a sentence modification and must complete form AO-247 to officially hand down a new sentence.

Background of United States v. Chavez-Meza

In United States v. Chavez-Meza, the defendant pled guilty to conspiracy and possession with the intent to distribute methamphetamine in 2013. At the time of his sentencing, the applicable Guideline range was 135 to 168 months. The defendant received a sentence at the bottom of the Guidelines range of 108 months. The 2014 amendments to the federal Sentencing Guidelines reduced the base level sentence for drug offenses. Given that the defendant was eligible for a reduction in his prison sentence, he filed a sentence modification motion pursuant to Section 3582(c)(2) to have his sentence reduced to the bottom of the newly reduced recommended range, which was 108 to 135 months. The defendant argued that since he was originally sentenced to the very bottom of the range, his sentence should be modified to 108 months, the bottom of the newly applicable range.

Instead of holding a hearing, the judge issued an AO-247 form reducing the defendant's sentence to 114 months. The judge did not indicate on the form why he chose to reduce the defendant's sentence to the middle of the new range rather than the bottom. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the defendant's appeal because Section 3582(c)(2) does not indicate the degree of specificity that a judge must provide in his reasoning to impose a sentence that is harsher than the minimum set forth in the Sentencing Guidelines.

The Supreme Court affirmed the Tenth Circuit's ruling in a 5-3 vote based on the record that demonstrated that the judge had a "reasoned basis" for his decision to resentence the defendant to the middle of the new sentencing range. Since the AO-247 form includes a box for the judge to check off to confirm that all of the appropriate sentencing factors were considered, the Supreme Court affirmed that the boilerplate language is sufficient to provide a basis for appellate review of the sentencing decision. The Supreme Court also dispensed with the defendant's argument that any sentencing modification should be "proportional" to the original sentencing. In other words, a defendant is not automatically entitled to a sentence modification that is at the same level of the adjusted range as the original range.

The Impact of United States v. Chavez-Meza on Sentencing Modifications

Some constitutional scholars predicted that the Supreme Court would recommend a revision to the AO-247 form in order to provide more information for the judge's sentencing decision. Although some justices commented on the lack of details provided on the form, the final decision means that the current procedure stands for now. As long as a judge checks the appropriate portions of the sentencing modification form, no additional information is necessary to allow a sentencing modification to stand. This means that a defendant will likely have an uphill battle in arguing that a modified sentence should be reduced further because the judge did not provide sufficient reasoning for the new sentence.

About Brandon Sample

Brandon Sample is an attorney, author, and criminal justice reform activist. Brandon’s law practice is focused on federal criminal defense, federal appeals, federal post-conviction relief, federal civil rights litigation, federal administrative law, and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

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