United States v. Blue, 4th Cir., filed 12/12/17: Vacate and Remand on Sentencing Issue; Judge did not adequately consider Blue’s non-frivolous arguments in favor of downward departure

The Fourth Circuit finds sentence procedurally unreasonable when district court did not adequately address a defendant’s nonfrivolous arguments that he should receive a downward departure.  

Blue pleaded guilty to armed robbery and brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence.  Probation prepared its usual presentence report (PSR) and recommended a sentence of 188 to 235 months’ imprisonment for the robbery, and a consecutive 84 months for the weapons charge.  The district court adopted the PSR.  Blue requested a lower sentence and made several arguments for this request:  1) he was influenced by his older brothers who pressured him to commit an earlier robbery (which served as the predicate for a career offender status), 2) he committed the current robbery to support opioid addiction, 3) he successfully found employment and was a hard worker 4) he was a good father to his kid and his wife’s children from a previous relationship, 5) his co-defendant received a 63 months sentence, 6) the career offender Guidelines was overly harsh and failed to deter offenders, 7) he accepted responsibility for his conduct, and 8) he attempted to provide substantial assistance but his attempts were frustrated by factors outside of his control.

The district court imposed a 188- month sentence for count 1, and an additional 84- month sentence for count 2.  In its statement of reasons, it stated it considered the Guidelines range for the offenses. It also noted that it considered some of the factors above, but not all of them.  Blue then appealed and challenged the procedural reasonableness of his sentence based on the court’s failure to address his non-frivolous arguments.

The Court previously has stated that “for every sentence– whether above, below, or within the Guidelines range– a sentencing court must place on the record an ‘individualized assessment’ based on the particular facts of the case before it.”  United States v. Lynn, 592 F.3d 572, 576 (4th Cir. 2010); see also United States v. Montes-Pineda, 445 F.3d 375, 380 (4th Cir. 2006) (“District courts are obligated to explain their sentences, whether those sentences are within or beyond the Guidelines range…”).

The Court held that “a perfunctory recitation” of the defendant’s arguments or the §3553(a) factors “without application to the defendant being sentenced does not demonstrate reasoned decisionmaking or provide an adequate basis for appellate review.”  United States v. Carter, 564 F.3d 325, 329 (4th Cir. 2009).  As the Court points out, there is no mechanical approach to appellate review of the claim.  It is going to depend on the circumstances; sometimes the circumstances will call for a brief explanation, sometimes longer.  However, “‘where the district court could have made precisely the same statements in support of’ a different sentence,” the Court has found the explanation to be inadequate and have remanded for resentencing.  Id. at 585 (quoting Carter, 564 F.3d at 329).

Here, the district court’s statement of reasons only referenced two of Blue’s arguments, and left 6 arguments unaddressed.  The Court found that rendered Blue’s sentence procedurally unreasonable:

Our decision in Lynn makes it clear that a sentencing court must address the parties’ nonfrivolous arguments in favor of a particular sentence, and if the court rejects those arguments, it must explain why in a sufficiently detailed manner to allow this Court to conduct a meaningful appellate review.

Excellent opinion that reiterates the district court’s role in ensuring that federal sentencing is uniquely tailored to the individual characteristics of the defendant and crime.