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Gall v. United States: Federal Sentencing Procedures And Standard Of Review Under The Post Booker Era United States Sentencing Guidelines



DECIDED: December 10, 2007

ISSUES: Whether the District Court committed an abuse of discretion in sentencing Mr. Gall to straight probation; and

What is the procedure for sentencing for the District Court and what is the procedure and standard of review for the Appellate Courts when reviewing a sentencing decision under the post-Booker era United States Sentencing Guidelines.

HOLDING: The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Circuit Court of Appeals decision and reinstated the District Court’s decision on sentencing stating that there were no procedural errors and no abuse of discretion by the District Court.

The U.S. Supreme set out the procedures that the District Court must follow at sentencing and the standard of review for appellate courts when reviewing a sentencing under the post-Booker era Guidelines.


Procedures That The District Court (Sentencing Court) Must Follow

The District Court must begin all sentencing proceedings by correctly calculating the applicable Guidelines range.  The Guidelines should always be the starting point and the initial benchmark.

After giving both parties an opportunity to argue for whatever sentence they deem appropriate, the district judge should then consider all of the factors set out in 18 U.S.C.A. § 3553(a) to determine whether those factors support the sentence requested by a party.

The District Court Judge may not presume that the Guidelines range is reasonable.  He must make an individualized assessment based on the facts presented. If he decides that an outside-Guidelines sentence is warranted, he must consider the extent of the deviation and ensure that the justification is sufficiently compelling to support the degree of the variance.  After settling on the appropriate sentence, he must adequately explain the chosen sentence to allow for meaningful appellate review and to promote the perception of fair sentencing.

The District Court Judge must give serious consideration to the extent of any departure from the Guidelines and must explain his conclusion that an unusually lenient or unusually harsh sentence is appropriate in particular case with sufficient justifications.

Standard of Review That Circuit Court of Appeals Must Follow

The U.S. Supreme Court held that in light of the decision in United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 the United States Sentencing Guidelines are advisory and appellate review of sentencing decisions is limited to determining whether the sentence was reasonable.  Reasonableness is equated with the familiar abuse-of-discretion standard of review and this now applied to appellate review of sentencing decisions.

Regardless of whether the sentence imposed is inside or outside the Guidelines range, the appellate court must review the sentence under an abuse-of-discretion standard. It must first ensure that the district court committed no significant procedural error, such as failing to calculate (or improperly calculating) the Guidelines range, treating the Guidelines as mandatory, failing to consider the § 3553(a) factors, selecting a sentence based on clearly erroneous facts, or failing to adequately explain the chosen sentence—including an explanation for any deviation from the Guidelines range.

Assuming that the district court’s sentencing decision is procedurally sound, the appellate court should then consider the substantive reasonableness of the sentence imposed under an abuse-of-discretion standard. When conducting this review, the court will, of course, take into account the totality of the circumstances, including the extent of any variance from the Guidelines range. If the sentence is within the Guidelines range, the appellate court may, but is not required to, apply a presumption of reasonableness.

The Appellate Court Must Apply A Deferential Abuse of Discretion Standard

if the sentence is outside the Guidelines range, the court may not apply a presumption of unreasonableness. It may consider the extent of the deviation, but must give due deference to the district court’s decision that the § 3553(a)factors, on a whole, justify the extent of the variance. The fact that the appellate court might reasonably have concluded that a different sentence was appropriate is insufficient to justify reversal of the district court.

The sentencing judge is in a superior position to find facts and judge their import under § 3553(a) in the individual case. The judge sees and hears the evidence, makes credibility determinations, has full knowledge of the facts and gains insights not conveyed by the record.

The sentencing judge has access to, and greater familiarity with, the individual case and the individual defendant  before him than the Commission or the appeals court.” Moreover, “[d]istrict courts have an institutional advantage over appellate courts in making these sorts of determinations, especially as they see so many more Guidelines sentences than appellate courts do.

Mitigating Factors That Contributed To A No Jail Sentence

  • Gall withdrew from the conspiracy of his own accord;
  • Gall led a law abiding and drug free lifestyle before being charged in the conspiracy;
  • Gall’s age – he was under 21 at the time of the conduct;
  • Gall had no significant criminal history;
  • He was not an organizer, leader, or manager,
  • the offense did not involve the use of any weapons;

Legal Arguments That Were Specifically Rejected By The U.S. Supreme Court: Extraordinary Circumstances and Mathematical Formulas

The U.S. Supreme Court specifically rejected an appellate rule that requires “extraordinary circumstances” to justify a sentence outside the Guidelines range and rejected any use of a rigid mathematical formula that uses the percentage of a departure as the standard from determining the strength of the justifications required for a specific sentence.  These approaches were rejected because they came too close to creating an impermissible presumption of unreasonableness for sentences outside the Guidelines range.

FACTS: Defendant Brian Gall was part of a conspiracy to distribute the drug known as ecstasy.  For a brief period of a few months he was part of a network of distributors and earned approximately $30,000.  After only a few months Mr. Gall stopped using drugs all together and communicated to the other conspirators that he was withdrawing from the conspiracy.

He eventually graduated from the University of Iowa and moved to Arizona where he worked as a carpenter and led a law abiding life.  More than a year later he was indicted with the rest of his co-conspirators in the Southern District of Iowa.

Although, the probation report recommended that he be incarcerated for a period of 36 months and the Guidelines range was 30 to 37 months, the District Court sentenced him to no jail and a period of 36 months probation.