(CN) – Federal judges must defer to state-level probation orders when determining whether a criminal is eligible for relief from minimum sentences, the 9th Circuit ruled Monday.
The case involves two men convicted in federal court for smuggling methamphetamine. Both men committed the drug crime while on probation for minor state-level offenses. A conviction for importation of methamphetamine carries a minimum mandatory sentence of 10 years in prison, unless the convicted person qualifies for so-called “safety valve relief.” A defendant with more than one “criminal history point” is not eligible for such relief.
David Yepez and Audenago Acosta-Montes, hoping to qualify for relief from the mandatory sentence, convinced California judges to retroactively terminate their probationary sentences. The U.S. District Court charged with sentencing Yepez rejected the retroactive state order and handed down the mandatory 10 years “despite its view that a 63-month sentence of imprisonment was the appropriate sentence,” according to the ruling. Acosta-Montes’s court accepted the state order and imposed a 46-month sentence.
The federal appeals panel in Pasadena ruled 2-1 in a cross-appeal that the latter court had made the correct move, finding that the California courts “retain and exercise very broad supervisory authority over ongoing probationary terms.”
The three-judge panel found that, in the interests of comity and federalism, “the federal district courts in calculating criminal history points for purposes of safety valve eligibility must credit state orders terminating probationary sentences.”
The ruling will free judges to give each safety-valve determination specific attention, Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote for the majority.
“Although it does not dictate our holding, requiring federal district courts to credit state court orders terminating or modifying ongoing state probationary sentences enhances sentencing discretion for those very courts,” Wardlaw wrote. “In sentencing Yepez and Acosta-Montes, both district judges repeatedly expressed their frustration with the criminal history calculations that eliminated eligibility for otherwise-warranted safety valve relief. Our holding makes room for district courts facing similar cases to impose individualized sentences … rather than compelling judges, against their better judgment, to impose sentences they find grossly excessive.”
Writing in dissent, U.S. District Judge Robert Timlin accused the defendants of gamesmanship and said the majority fell for it. Timlin sat on the panel by designation from the Central District of California.
“The majority here attempts to mask the odor of gamesmanship with a novel conception of the relationship between federal and state courts,” he wrote. “Nor do I find persuasive the majority’s reliance on principles of comity and federalism.”