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Rita v. Unites States: The Sentencing Guidelines And Presumption Of Reasonableness Of Within Guidelines Sentences.

Rita v. United States 551 U.S. 338 (2007)

United States Supreme Court 


1) whether or not a within guidelines sentence is presumptively reasonable.

2) whether the District Court properly analyzed the relevant sentencing factors


1) The Supreme Court concluded that while the Courts of Appeal can apply a presumption of reasonableness to a within guidelines sentence, the presumption is not binding and the presumption applies only on appellate review and the sentencing court may not apply a presumption of reasonableness to within guidelines sentences, but must follow a process in determining a sentence.   The explanation in the Booker  case (543 U.S. 220 (2005)) was that the appellate “reasonableness” review merely asks whether the trial court abused its discretion.

2) the sentencing court did properly analyze the relevant sentencing factors under 18 U.S.C. §3553(a) and the length or depth of that analysis will depend upon the facts of any given particular case.

Legal Analysis:

The Courts Of Appeals May Apply A Presumption Of Reasonableness To A  Within Guidelines Sentence.

The first question is whether a court of appeals may apply a presumption of reasonableness to a district court sentence that reflects a proper application of the Sentencing Guidelines.  The Court of Appeals presumption reflects the fact that, by the time an appeals court is considering a within-Guidelines sentence on review, both the sentencing judge and the Sentencing Commission will have reached the same conclusion as to the proper sentence in the particular case.

The presumption reflects the nature of the Guidelines that Congress set out. In instructing both the sentencing judge and the Commission what to do, Congress referred to the basic sentencing objectives that the statute sets forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).

That provision tells the sentencing judge to consider (1) offense and offender characteristics; (2) the need for a sentence to reflect the basic aims of sentencing, namely, (a) “just punishment” (retribution), (b) deterrence, (c) incapacitation, (d) rehabilitation; (3) the sentences legally available; (4) the Sentencing Guidelines; (5) Sentencing Commission policy statements; (6) the need to avoid unwarranted disparities; and (7) the need for restitution. The provision also tells the sentencing judge to “impose a sentence sufficient, but not greater than necessary, to comply with” the basic aims of sentencing as set out above.

The Sentencing Court Can Not Presume The Guidelines Sentence To Be Reasonable, But Must Follow A Process In Determining The Sentence

The sentencing court does not enjoy the benefit of a legal presumption that the Guidelines sentence should apply. The sentencing judge, as a matter of process, will normally begin by considering the presentence report and its interpretation of the Guidelines. 18 U.S.C. § 3552(a); Fed. Rule Crim. Proc. 32.

The sentencing judge may hear arguments by prosecution or defense that the Guidelines sentence should not apply, perhaps because the case at hand falls outside the “heartland” to which the Commission intends individual Guidelines to apply, USSG § 5K2.0, perhaps because the Guidelines sentence itself fails properly to reflect§ 3553(a) considerations, or perhaps because the case warrants a different sentence regardless, see Rule 32(f). Thus, the sentencing court subjects the defendant’s sentence to the thorough adversarial testing contemplated by federal sentencing procedure.

The fact that we permit courts of appeals to adopt a presumption of reasonableness does not mean that courts may  adopt a presumption of unreasonableness.

The U.S. Supreme Court found that, where judge and Commission both determine that the Guidelines sentence is an appropriate sentence for the case at hand, that sentence likely reflects the § 3553(a) factors (including its “not greater than necessary” requirement). There is nothing in § 3553(a) that renders use of the presumption unlawful.

Legal Analysis of Second Issue:

whether the District Court properly analyzed the relevant sentencing factors. § 3553(c) is a provision that requires a sentencing judge, “at the time of sentencing,” to “state in open court the reasons for its imposition of the particular sentence.

The statute does call for the judge to “state” his “reasons.” And that requirement reflects sound judicial practice. Judicial decisions are reasoned decisions. Confidence in a judge’s use of reason underlies the public’s trust in the judicial institution. A public statement of those reasons helps provide the public with the assurance that creates that trust.

The appropriateness of brevity or length, conciseness or detail, when to write, what to say, depends upon circumstances. Sometimes a judicial opinion responds to every argument; sometimes it does not; sometimes a judge simply writes the word “granted” or “denied” on the face of a motion while relying upon context and the parties’ prior arguments to make the reasons clear. The law leaves much, in this respect, to the judge’s own professional judgment.

By articulating reasons, even if brief, the sentencing judge not only assures reviewing courts (and the public) that the sentencing process is a reasoned process but also helps that process evolve.

The record in this case makes clear that the sentencing judge listened to each argument. The judge considered the supporting evidence. The judge was fully aware of defendant’s various physical ailments and imposed a sentence that takes them into account. The judge then simply found these circumstances insufficient to warrant a sentence lower than the Guidelines range of 33 to 45 months.

 Facts:  Rita was charged with perjury before a grand jury and convicted.  At sentencing the trial court found that he was unable to find that the sentencing guideline range was inappropriate and under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) and sentenced him to a period of 33 months.