Case: Dean v. United States, 15-9260
VOTE: 8-0 in favor — April 3, 2017
A unanimous U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision allowing judges more freedom when deciding prison sentences. FAMM had shared its analysis of the legal and policy issues at stake in the form of a friend-of-the-court brief, and we were pleased that the Court agreed with so many of our arguments. (The Hill newspaper published a concise overview of today’s decision and included our happy reaction!)
With the exception of mandatory minimums, federal law requires judges to exercise discretion at sentencing to ensure that justice is done in individual cases. Dean v. United States is just the latest in a long string of Supreme Court cases affirming the necessity of judicial discretion. Today the Court underlined its commitment to protecting it, ruling that courts may take into account the length of a mandatory minimum sentence when deciding how much additional time to impose on other counts of conviction. Mary Price, general counsel of FAMM which co-authored an amicus brief in the case, remarked, “This opinion is notable for its unanimity, swiftness, and ringing endorsement of the abiding role of judicial discretion. FAMM was pleased to participate in this important case to underscore that judicial discretion is the law of the land.”
FAMM is grateful to lawyers Craig D. Singer, Amy Mason Saharia, and Chanakya A. Sethi, of Williams & Connolly LLP, who represented FAMM and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in drafting and submitting our amicus brief to the Court.
Summary of Case:
While mandatory minimum laws remain a significant challenge to proportional sentencing, the Supreme Court has dramatically expanded the discretion judges enjoy when sentencing under the federal sentencing guidelines. This has had an important impact because there are guidelines for every federal crime. They are used to calculate sentences for crimes that do not have mandatory minimums (such as economic crimes). They are also used to calculate sentences when the offense calls for a sentence below, between, or above the mandatory minimums for crimes that have them.
In 2005, the Court decided Booker v. United States, and ended mandatory sentencing guidelines. In case after case since then, the Court has underlined the advisory nature of the federal sentencing guidelines. This has given judges the freedom to meet their responsibility under 18 U.S.C. sec 3553(a) to tailor sentences to the crime and to the offender, rather than hew to the guideline grid.
FAMM has been a part of nearly every one of those cases because we want to preserve judicial discretion, which has benefitted thousands of defendants since 2005.
What it means:
Dean v. United States is our most recent case. It asks whether a judge, sentencing a defendant for two different crimes, one which includes a mandatory minimum and one that does not, can take into account the fact that he must impose a lengthy mandatory minimum for the one crime, when deciding how much to vary from the sentencing guideline for the other.
Mr. Dean was convicted under the Hobbs Act, which makes it a crime to “obstruct, delay, or affect commerce” through a robbery. Sentencing for Hobbs Act robberies are governed by the advisory sentencing guidelines.
He was also convicted of possessing a firearm during the robbery. Possessing a firearm in connection with a crime of violence requires a judge to impose a mandatory sentence of five years for the first conviction and 25 years for each additional one. These mandatory minimums must be imposed consecutively to the underlying sentence for the robberies and to each other. When such gun sentences are imposed in the same criminal proceeding they are considered to be “stacked” one on top of another. Perhaps the most famous stacking case you may have heard of is that of Weldon Angelos, who was sentenced to 55 years and one day for possessing a gun while dealing marijuana.
Mr. Dean was convicted of two gun charges. For the first, he received a mandatory five-year sentence and for the second he received a mandatory and consecutive 25-year sentence. In light of the 30-year gun sentence, Mr. Dean sought a variance from the guideline sentence for the robberies because 30 years was a sufficient sentence for the gun and robbery convictions. In other words, he asked the court to take account of the long mandatory minimum sentence it was required to impose when fashioning the guideline sentence over which it had discretion.
Mr. Dean was clearly the less culpable defendant. The robberies were led by Mr. Dean’s brother, who brought the firearms to the scene and used them to club the victims. Mr. Dean was, according to the prosecutor, “ a follower” in the crimes.
The judge, Mark Bennett—no friend to mandatory minimums—said if he had the discretion, he would have sentenced Mr. Dean to only one day for the underlying robberies, in light of the length of the gun sentences. But he could not, due to a law in the Eighth Circuit that said the judge may not consider the mandatory sentence imposed for the gun charges when fashioning the sentence for the underlying robbery. The Eighth Circuit requires sentencing judges to look at the robbery sentence on its own, without reference to the impact of the gun sentence.
Dean argues that the Eighth’s Circuit’s rule is contrary to that of other Circuit Courts of Appeals and to the Supreme Court’s guidance in a case called Pepper v. United States. That case said that “no limitation” can be placed on a court’s power to consider information about the defendant’s “background, character, and conduct” when fashioning an appropriate sentence. Mr. Dean argues that by failing to consider the impact of the 30-year gun sentence, a court is barred from considering an entire category of information about the defendant. FAMM’s brief further argues that nothing in the gun law changes the court’s responsibility to impose a sentence that must be, according to federal law, “sufficient but no greater than necessary” to fulfill the goals of sentencing.