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Sentencing Guidelines Abused in CO, Court Says

DENVER (CN) - Finding that he put "sentencing judgments first and fact-finding second," The 10th Circuit admonished a Colorado federal judge about the proper use of sentencing guidelines on Monday.

The appeal stems from the sentencing of Elder Geovany Sabillon-Umana for his bit part in a larger drug conspiracy.

With that in mind, the judge asked the probation officer for help justifying a base offense level of 32 under the sentencing guidelines, the appeals court noted.

Based on that officer's suggestion that finding Sabillon-Umana responsible for 1.5 kg of cocaine and 1.5 kg of heroin would bring the conviction in line with that offense level, the judge imposed his sentence.

But the 10th Circuit found Monday that federal courts must start by making factual findings, and then calculating the base offense level from there.

In this case, however, the District Court started "with a conclusion about the appropriate guidelines sentence before backing into factual findings to support its conclusion," Judge Neil Gorsuch wrote for a three-member panel.

Since monetary transactions for the sale of drugs show that Sabillon-Umana was actually responsible for only half as much cocaine and heroin as suspected, the offense level should have been dropped down to a 30, the court found.

It noted that the government had fought against reversal, claiming that an offense level of 32 would apply if Sabillon-Umana possessed the smaller amount of heroin alone, rather than heroin mixed with cocaine.

Gorsuch said that argument "asks us to commit the same legal error the district court did: to back into a finding about the nature of Mr. Sabillon-Umana's drug trafficking activities only to support a judgment about an appropriate sentence."

The 10th Circuit showed unease with the fact that the sentencing discrepancy between the two offense levels could be as much as two years.

"What reasonable citizen wouldn't bear a rightly diminished view of the judicial process and its integrity if courts refused to correct obvious errors of their own devise that threaten to require individuals to linger longer in federal prison than the law demands?" Gorsuch asked.

While conceding that sentencing offenders to prison is one of the toughest jobs judges face, and one that relies much on their own discretion, the 10th Circuit still remanded the case for resentencing, insisting that, "in our legal order properly found facts drive sentencing decisions, not the other way around."

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