High Court Upholds Judges’ Right to Discretion in Sentencing

(CN) – A unanimous Supreme Court on Monday ruled a sentencing judge may consider the harsh, mandatory sentence handed down for a felony when determining the appropriate punishment for lesser offenses committed at the same time.

The case before the court was that of Levon Dean Jr., who on April 15, 2013, broke into a hotel room with his brother to recover an alleged debt owed by the room’s occupant, a drug dealer.

The brothers ransacked the room, and took the drugs and money they found there.

The dealer, identified in court documents as “J.R.” was in the room with a prostitute that night, intending to trade methamphetamine for sex.

Dean and his brother were later arrested and charged for their crimes, and because of J.R.’s planned transaction with the prostitute, the district court attached Hobbs Act violations to the charges, claiming the armed robbery had interfered with interstate commerce.

The hotel was located in Sioux City, which straddles the border of Iowa and Nebraska, and J.R. had brought drugs over the border from Iowa according to court documents.

Dean’s sentence was broken down to a mandatory minimum of 30 years in prison for the Hobbs Act violations, with another three years added for the remaining charges.

The judge did grant a downward variance the sentencing range for the related charges was about seven to nine years, but Dean requested a sentence of a single day for the remaining crimes, given the harshness of the Hobbs Act sentencing.

The judge was not unsympathetic and said as much, admitting he would have liked to grant the request, but felt he could not do so because of United States v. Hatcher, a 2007 ruling by the Eighth Circuit that reversed a lower court that had varied downward to a one-day sentence for remaining charges after a mandatory penalty of 300 months had been imposed.

Dean appealed, but the Eighth Circuit rebuffed him. “We see no meaningful difference between the situation in Hatcher and what Levon [Dean] requested in this case,” U.S. Circuit Judge Clarence Beam wrote for a three-judge panel in December 2015. “Accordingly, the district court correctly noted his (sic) inability to sentence Levon as requested.”

After the Eighth Circuit denied a rehearing on the matter, the U.S. Supreme Court held oral arguments on Feb. 28.

In reversing and remanding the Eighth Circuit ruling Monday, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court that there are four overarching factors that must be considered when imposing a sentence: just punishment, deterrence, protection of the public, and rehabilitation.

Roberts noted that in this case, the government argued district courts should calculate the appropriate term of imprisonment for each individual offense, disregarding whatever sentences a defendant might face on other counts.

“Only when determining an aggregate prison sentence, the government maintains, should a district court consider the effect of those other sentences,” Roberts wrote. “Nothing in the law requires such an approach.”

In fact, Roberts said, “[t]he government’s interpretation is at odds not only with the text of those provisions but also with the government’s own practice in “sentencing package cases.'”

The chief justice went on to say that while the relevant law, 18 U. S. C. §924(c), states that a mandatory sentence must be imposed “in addition to the punishment provided” for related offences, it says nothing about the length of those sentences, “much less about what information a court may consider in determining that sentence.”

In addition, Roberts said, “[N]othing in the requirement of consecutive sentences prevents a district court from imposing a 30-year mandatory minimum sentence under §924(c) and a one-day sentence for the predicate crime, provided those terms run one after the other.”

“Drawing meaning from silence is … inappropriate,” Roberts concluded, quoting from a previous case, Kimbrough v. United States. “Congress has shown that it knows how to direct sentencing practices in express terms.”

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