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People v. Koon

The U.S Supreme Court

116 S.Ct. 2035

Decided on: June 13, 1996

U.S Supreme Court Says Appeals Courts Must Review For Abuse Of Discretion 

Summary: Police officers were convicted of violating suspect’s Constitutional rights under color of law during arrest and were each sentenced to 30 month’s imprisonment. Police officers appealed their convictions and the Government appealed the sentences imposed. The U.S Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the convictions but vacated the sentences.

The U.S Supreme Court held that 1) District Court’s decision to depart downward from applicable sentencing range under Sentencing Guidelines was to be reviewed under abuse discretion standard; 2.) District Court acted within its discretion in departing downward five levels based on finding that suspect’s misconduct contributed significantly to provoking police officer; 3) District Court improperly based three level downward departures in part on the fact that police officers would lose their jobs; 4) District Court improperly based such three-level departures in part on its belief that police officers posed low risk of recidivism; and 5) District Court acted within its discretion in considering police officers’ high susceptibility to abuse in prison and fact that they were subjected to successive State and federal prosecutions as factors upon which to base downward departure.

See Also: Hinton Hearings: Criteria Of Closing A Courtroom During Trial

Issue: What is the appropriate standard of Appellate review when a Sentencing Court decides to depart from the United States Sentencing Guidelines

Holding: The U.S Supreme Court held that The Court of Appeals should have used an abuse of discretion standard of review when a sentencing court departs from the Sentencing Guidelines.

Facts: California Police officer Koon noticed Defendant Rodney King speeding in his car. Koon followed Defendant and ordered him to pull over, but he continued to drive. Koon radioed for help and the officers eventually seized Defendant. The officers ordered Defendant to exit the car and assume a felony prone position, that is: to lie on their stomachs with legs spread and arms behind their backs. Defendant King got out of his car but did not lie down as ordered. The officers began to force Defendant down, but he resisted and became combative. Koon then fired taser darts into King.

     The events that occurred next were on videotape by a bystander. The video shows that King rose from the ground and charged toward one of the officers. The officer used his baton to strike King on the side of his head. King attempted to rise again, but Koon and the other officers struck him with their batons to prevent him from doing so. The police administered several more blows for the duration of the video. One of the blows fractured King’s Leg. King finally rolled over and laid prone. The officers repeated to beat Defendant King with their batons until the Police radioed in an ambulance. King was taken to a hospital where he was treated for a fractured leg, multiple facial fractures, and numerous bruises and contusions. A federal grand jury indicted the officers under 18 U.S.C. 242, charging them with violating King’s Constitutional rights under color of law. Koon was charged with willfully permitting the officers to use unreasonable force during the arrest.

The District Court sentenced Petitioners pursuant to 1992 USSG § 2H1.4 which applied to violations of 18 U.S.C. 242 which prescribes a base offense level which is greater of the following: 10, or 6 plus the offense level applicably to the underlying offense. The District Court found that the underlying offense was aggravated assault, which carries a base offense level of 5, to which 6 was added for a total of 21. The District Court increased the offense level by 4 because petitioners had used dangerous weapons

     The Government asked the court to add 4 levels for King’s bodily injuries but the court found however, that King’s injuries were sustained when the officers were using lawful force. The court did add 2 levels for bodily injury and adjusted the offense level to 27. Neither Petitioner had a criminal record and each fell within the criminal history category of 1. The sentencing range for an offense level of 27 and a criminal history category of 1 was, 70-87 months’ imprisonment.

The District Court departed down eight levels. The court granted a five-level departure because the victim’s wrongful conduct contributed significantly to provoking the offense behavior. The court also granted a three level departure, based on a combination of four. The departure yielded an offense level of 19 and a sentencing range of 30-37 months’ imprisonment. The Petitioner’s appealed their convictions, and the Government appealed the sentences, arguing that the District Court erred in granting the downward departures and in failing to adjust the offense level upward for serious bodily injury. The Court of Appeals affirmed and reversed the departure determinations.

    The Court of Appeals reviewed de novo whether the District Court had authority to depart. However, the U.S Supreme court granted certiorari to determine the standard of review governing appeals from a District Court’s decision to depart from the sentencing ranges in the Guidelines.

The U.S. Supreme Court held that the Court of Appeals erred when it rejected the downward departure factors relied upon the by the District Judge. The Court of Appeals should not review the departure decision de novo, rather, should ask whether the sentencing court abused its discretion. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed in part, reversed in part; remanded.

Legal Analysis: The. U.S Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine the standard of Appellate review from a District Court’s decision to depart from the sentencing Guidelines. The U.S Supreme Court held that the appropriate standard of review for The Court of Appeals is the abuse of discretion standard when they are applying the Guidelines to the facts. The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 allows a Defendant to appeal an upward departure and the Government to appeal a downward one. Section §3742 (e) (4), as enacted in 1984, provided the Court of Appeals shall give due regard to the opportunity of the District Court to judge the credibility of the witnesses, and shall accept the findings of fact of the District Court unless they are clearly erroneous

The U.S Supreme Court held that the District Court retains much of its traditional discretion does not mean Appellate review is an empty exercise. Congress directed Courts of Appeals to “ give due deference to the District Court’s application of the guidelines to the Facts. The deference that is due depends solely on the nature of the questions presented. The District Court may be owed no deference, for instance, when the claim on appeal is that it made some sort of mathematical error in applying the guidelines.

A District Court’s decision to depart from the Guidelines, by contrast, will in most cases be due substantial deference for it embodies the traditional exercise of discretion by a sentencing court. The Court of Appeals adopted deferential review to afford the District Court the necessary flexibility to resolve questions involving ‘multifarious, fleeting, special, narrow facts that utterly resist generalization. A District Court’s departure decision involves the consideration of unique factors that are little susceptible of useful generalization. This does not mean that District Courts do not confront questions of law in deciding whether to depart. Whether a factor is permissible basis for departure under any circumstances is a question of law, and the Court of Appeals need not defer to the District Court’s resolution on that point.

The Government advocated de novo review, saying that, like the Guidelines themselves, Appellate review of sentencing, and in particular of departure decisions, was intended to reduce unjustified disparities in sentencing. In its view, de novo review of departure decisions is necessary, to protect against unwarranted disparities arising from the differing sentencing approaches of individual District Judges.

The abuse of discretion standard involves a District Court making a refined assessment of the many facts bearing on the outcome, informed by its vantage point and day-to-day experience in criminal sentencing. Whether a given factor is present to a degree not adequately considered by the Commission, or whether a discouraged factor nonetheless justified departure because it is presented in some unusual or exceptional way, are matters determined in large part by comparison with the facts of other Guidelines cases.

The U.S Supreme Court held that District Courts have an institutional advantage over Appellate Courts in making these determinations, especially given that they see so many more Guideline cases. Such considerations require adoption of the abuse of discretion standard of review, not de novo review

The Court of Appeals erred in rejecting certain downward departure factors relied upon by the District judge. The U.S Supreme Court held that victim misconduct is an encouraged basis for departure and the District Court did not abuse its discretion in basing departure on it. The Court of Appeals misinterpreted the District Courts findings that the victim had been the but-for cause of the crime, but not that he had provoked it. The Court of Appeals also misinterpreted the “heartland” of the applicably Guideline range by concentrating on whether the victim’s misconduct made this an unusual case of excessive force.

The District Court did abuse its discretion in relying on petitioner’s collateral employment consequence as support for its second departure. The U.S Supreme Court held that it is expected that a public official convicted of using his government authority to violate a person’s rights will lose his or her job and be barred from employment in the future. The career loss factor cannot take the case out of the heartland of the Guidelines.

The low likelihood of Petitioners’ recidivism was also an inappropriate ground for departure because the commission specifically addressed this factor in formulating the sentencing range for Petitioner’s criminal history category. However, the District Court did not abuse its discretion in relying upon the susceptibility to abuse in prison.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that where a reviewing court concludes that a District Court based a departure on both valid and invalid factors, a remand is required unless the reviewing court determines that the District Court would have imposed the same sentence absent reliance on the invalid factors. The. U.S Supreme Court affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.


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