The U.S. Supreme Court has issued an opinion that helps defendants at sentencing in federal courts. Since 1984, the sentencing powers of district judges has been limited by the Sentencing Guidelines, thanks to enactment of Congress in the Sentencing Reform Act.
Most significantly, the Court in the decision styled Peppers vs. United States reversed the Court of Appeals, holding that a defendant’s rehabilitation after sentencing may be considered in a subsequent sentencing. The opinion also reminded Courts of Appeal that the character of the defendant is just as important in adjudging a a sentence as the character of the offense. That is significant indeed for criminal defense lawyers who have labored so long under the prosecution- helpful Sentencing Guidelines.
Defendant Jason Peppers had pled guilty to possession of over 500 grams of methamphetimine, an offense that carried a mandatory minimum sentence. However, since Peppers had essentially no criminal history, he qualified for the “Safety Valve” provision for defendants who are in the zero criminal history category. Moreover, Peppers lent significant cooperation and assistance to the government, giving the government information about others involved with drugs and guns in the case. As is usual in such a deal, the government filed a 5K letter with the district court. As to an appropriate sentence for the court to assess, the government urged a lesser sentence than called for by the sentencing guidelines and specifically urged a 15% downward departure from a sentence calculated from the Sentencing Guidelines.
District Judge Mark Bennett went further, however, departed downward 75% from the Guidelines calculations and sentenced Peppers to a 24-month sentence. This the government did not like. The prosecution appealed the sentence to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the sentence on the basis of the then-recent Booker decision from the U.S. Supreme Court. The matter was remanded back to Judge Bennett to render a new sentence.
At the second sentencing hearing, Judge Bennett considered evidence of Peppers’ rehabilitation since the original sentence. The court heard the testimony of three witnesses. Peppers himself testified to the significant progress he had made in his life since the original sentencing, a long-time drug addict, he completed one the many excellent federal drug rehabilitation programs while incarcerated and since had enrolled in college while employed part-time. Peppers’ father testified that he had had no contact at all with his son for the five years before his arrest but since had witnessed a complete change in his son, with whom he had reestablished his relationship. Finally, Peppers’ probation officer testified to Peppers’ compliance on supervised release, submitted his own sentencing memorandum to the court and even testified that a 24-month sentence was appropriate in this case. Judge Bennett then issued once again the sentence he originally issued: twenty-four months.
Once again, the government appealed the judge’s sentence to the Court of Appeals, which Court decided Judge Bennett had abused his discretion in rendering this sentence and had in particular impermissibly considered Peppers’ post-sentencing rehabilitation in setting the sentence. The Court of Appeals then reversed, sent the case back to the district court but took the unusual step of assigning the case to some judge other than Judge Bennett for a third sentencing hearing.
Not surprisingly, the newly-assigned district judge in his resentencing rejected any consideration of Peppers’ post-sentencing rehabilitation and sentenced Peppers to 65 months in custody. Peppers, by then out of custody, was returned to custody to begin serving his new sentence. Now it was Peppers’ turn to appeal the sentence. The Court of Appeals predictably affirmed Peppers’ increased sentence, and Peppers appealed further, this time to the Supreme Court, with a petition for writ for certiorari.
Before the Supreme Court, the government promptly confessed error on the issue of the district court’s ability to use post-sentencing rehabilitation in considering a sentence. The Supreme Court then appointed an amicus curiae to argue that issue alone in the appeal. Clearly the Supreme Court wanted to decide this issue.
The Court ruled that it was error for the district court to reject categorically the evidence of petitioner’s post-sentence rehabilitation. The Court of Appeals had relied on the Sentencing Guidelines in rejecting this evidence because the Sentencing Guidelines directed courts not to consider such evidence.
Justice Sotomayor, author of the majority opinion, criticized this exclusion and pointed to the sentencing statute, U.S. Code, Title 18, Section 3661, which directs consideration of any limitation on relevant information without limitation.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Breyer, long a promoter of the Sentencing Guidelines and even a former Sentencing Commissioner, wrote that the Commission erred in excluding postsentence considerations from the Sentencing Guidelines. Bryer pointed out that the sentencing statute, Section 3661 of Title 18, prevents any limitation on relevant information a court may consider at sentencing. Justice Breyer justifies its exclusion as a decision by the Commission that such evidence is not relevant. He went on to point out the Sentencing Reform Act specifically rejected the practice before 1984 of tailoring a sentence to the individual, instead balancing the need for individual sentences with the need for uniformity in sentences. That may be where we are headed, to the detriment of uniformity in sentencing, but likely for the benefit of individual defendants at sentencing.