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Sentence Reduction: Adopting the Letter, Not the Spirit of the Law

If a criminal defendant is at the point of already being convicted and sentenced to prison time for a federal offense, then a sentence reduction is a positive development. But what happens if the district court disagrees with an appellate court order for a sentence reduction based on the unreasonableness of the original sentence? The Second Circuit recently considered the issue of whether the fact that a district court ultimately reduced a defendant's sentence for different reasons than the appellate court listed in its mandate is grounds for an appeal in the case of U.S. v. Sawyer.

Appellate Court Mandates for Sentence Reduction

Sentence Reduction

Sentence Reduction

An appellate court may order that the sentencing court reduce a defendant's sentence for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons is that the appellate court finds that the sentence is unreasonable based on the nature of the defendant's actions or the circumstances leading up to the defendant committing the offense. Pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(1), a sentence reduction may be in order if the district court fails to consider the defendant's history and characteristics, which came into play in the case described below.

If the appellate court determines that a sentence reduction is warranted, it will issue a mandate to the district court that must be followed. The Second Circuit case of Burrell v. U.S. confirmed this principle, which is known as the mandate rule.

The Sentence Reduction Issue in U.S. v. Sawyer

In the case of U.S. v. Sawyer, the defendant received a 30-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to several counts of sexual offenses involving children. Before the defendant's most recent appeal, the Second Circuit already remanded the case back to the district court once before because the appellate court determined that the sentencing judge did not sufficiently take into account the defendant's troubled upbringing in imposing a sentence. There was a substantial amount of evidence in the record that the defendant had endured a horrific childhood. The defendant also did not have any significant criminal history prior to this case.

The district court granted a sentence reduction to the defendant to 25 years in prison, but the district court judge did not do so for the reasons cited by the appellate court. Instead of finding the original sentence incorrect based on the defendant's characteristics and history, the district court cited the defendant's rehabilitative efforts since he had been sentenced as the reason why his sentence was reduced by five years. The district court went so far as to note its disagreement with the Second Circuit's ruling that its original sentence was unreasonable in light of the serious nature of the crime. The defendant promptly appealed the reduced sentence based on reasonableness grounds as well as the fact that the district court openly disagreed with the appellate court's conclusion.

The appellate court eventually ruled that it is irrelevant whether the sentencing judge adopted the same reasoning the appellate court laid out in its ruling so long as the actual mandate from the appellate court is effectively implemented. Here, the district court reduced the defendant's sentence by a substantial amount, and the fact that the sentencing judge did so for different reasons than the appellate court cited is of no consequence.

The Impact of U.S. v. Sawyer on Sentence Reductions

The outcome of U.S. v. Sawyer is a good reminder that the ultimate goal in appealing a prison sentence is to have the conviction overturned or prison sentence reduced no matter the underlying reasoning that the court adopts. The fact that the district court was willing to reduce the defendant's sentence based on his post-sentencing rehabilitative actions alone is promising news for defendants. Even while a case is up for appeal, it is prudent for any criminal defendant to work with his attorney to identify ways that he can demonstrate rehabilitation. These efforts may pay dividends at re-sentencing, especially if the district court remains unmoved by any of the mitigating factors that a proactive criminal defense attorney would urge the sentencing court to consider.

In sum, U.S. v. Sawyer demonstrates the value of working with an engaged and dedicated criminal defense lawyer, such as Brandon Sample, Esq. While focusing on the legal details of any criminal appeal is essential, it can be equally beneficial to have an attentive lawyer in your corner to help you put your best rehabilitated foot forward for a potential sentence reduction.

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).

1 Comment

  1. juanita hubble on July 22, 2019 at 6:28 pm

    My husband robbed for banks and was sentenced to 13 and 1/2 years he didn’t use a gun he used to note and for the past three years he’s been conducting he’s been trying to move closer to me and seems to just keep getting farther away I was wondering is he eligible for any of this time off that just passed into law in December of 2019 I mean I don’t understand

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