Justices Settle Sentencing Hiccup for Immigrant

     WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court was mostly unanimous Wednesday in chucking a ruling that denied relief to an immigrant who was sentenced under the wrong guidelines.
     Saul Molina-Martinez received the sentence in question after pleading guilty to being in the United States illegally after deportation, having been previously convicted of an aggravated felony.
     A federal judge in Southern Texas district court sentenced the man to 77 months in prison, at the bottom end of a 77- to 96-month sentencing guideline range.
     Only on appeal to the Fifth Circuit did Molina-Martinez note that the correct sentencing range was 70 to 87 months.
     Since 77 months still fell within that range, however, the Fifth Circuit denied Molina-Martinez relief.
     Molina-Martinez’s predicament revealed a split among federal appeals courts in how to handle such discrepancies, so the U.S. Supreme Court took up the case this past fall.
     Reversing for the immigrant Wednesday, the lead opinion says “most Courts of Appeals have not adopted so rigid a standard.”
     Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the Fifth Circuit’s resolution of the case “fails to take account of the dynamics of federal sentencing.”
     Kennedy said “the cases where the guidelines are most likely to have influenced the district court’s sentencing decision — those where the court chose a sentence within what it believed to be the applicable guidelines range — are also the cases least likely to provide the defendant with evidence of the guidelines’ influence beyond the sentence itself.”
     “The defendants in these cases should not be prevented by a categorical rule from establishing on appeal that there is a reasonable probability the guidelines range applied by the sentencing court had an effect on their within-guidelines sentence,” Kennedy added.
     Though the Fifth Circuit said Molina-Martinez could not establish an effect on his substantial rights, Kennedy said “the record points to a different conclusion.”
     With no specific word from the trial court on why it chose a sentence of 77 months, Kennedy called it “conspicuous” that this is also the “position as the lowest sentence within what the District Court believed to be the applicable range.”
     “Given these circumstances, there is at least a reasonable probability that the District Court would have imposed a different sentence had it known that 70 months was in fact the lowest sentence the commission deemed appropriate,” Kennedy added.
     In addition to Chief Justice John Roberts, Kennedy’s opinion was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
     Justice Clarence Thomas meanwhile joined an opinion concurring in judgment by Justice Samuel Alito.
     Thomas and Alito agreed that the Fifth Circuit’s “rigid approach to unpreserved Guidelines errors is incorrect.”
     They also called it reasonably probable that Molina-Martinez would have received a “different sentence in his case if his recommended Guidelines sentence had been accurately calculated.”
     “Unlike the Court, however, I would not speculate about how often the reasonable probability test will be satisfied in future cases,” Alito wrote. “The court’s predictions in dicta about how plain-error review will play out are predicated on the view that sentencing judges will continue to rely very heavily on the guidelines in the future, but that prediction may not turn out to be accurate. We should not make predictions about the future effects of guidelines errors, particularly since some may misunderstand those predictions as veiled directives.”
     Alito noted that the majority reached its findings about what will occur in “most” cases by looking at Sentencing Commission statistics.
     “Perhaps these statistics are probative of the guidelines’ current impact on sentencing,” Alito wrote. “But they provide an unstable and shifting basis for the court’s prophecies about the future. The Guidelines are now entirely advisory, and in time the lower courts may increasingly drift away from the guidelines and back toward the sentencing regime that prevailed prior to their issuance. As circumstances change, and as judges who spent decades applying mandatory guidelines ranges are replaced with new judges less wedded to the guidelines, the statistics underlying the Court’s forecasts may change dramatically. Because I cannot join the court’s questionable predictions, I concur only in part and in the judgment.”

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