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Both a district court's crafting of an appropriate sentence and an appellate court's review of that sentence for reasonableness must be guided by the factors set forth in 18 U.S.C.S. § 3553(a). Reasonableness review proceeds in two stages, and employs the familiar abuse of discretion standard at each stage. First, the court of appeals ensures that the district court committed no significant procedural error, such as failing to calculate (or improperly calculating) the U.S. Sentencing 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. If the district court commits procedural error, the preferred course is to remand the case for re-sentencing, without going any further. But if the district court's procedures are sound, the court of appeals proceeds to examine the substantive reasonableness of the sentence. The touchstone of reasonableness is whether the record as a whole reflects rational and meaningful consideration of the factors enumerated in § 3553(a).
Defendant Hector Merced pleaded guilty to a drug possession charge. Due to his criminal history, defendant qualified as a career offender under U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual § 4B1.1, which resulted in an advisory Guidelines range of 188 to 235 months. During the sentencing hearing, the district court commented that it reserved career offender status for violent, significant drug deals. In analyzing the 18 U.S.C.S. § 3553(a) sentencing factors, the district court did not mention § 3553(a)(6), the need to avoid unwarranted sentencing disparities. The United States appealed, claiming that the District Court committed procedural errors in determining defendant’s sentence.
Did the district court commit procedural errors in determining defendant’s sentence?
The court of appeals held that the district court committed procedural error in imposing the sentence. Assuming that it was permissible to vary from § 4B1.1 based on a policy disagreement, further explanation was necessary. It was unclear whether the statement regarding "violent, significant" drug offenses was a stray comment or whether it was central to the choice of sentence. A variance based on a policy disagreement was permissible only if a sufficiently compelling explanation, grounded in the § 3553(a) factors, was offered. Also, because the government voiced concern regarding unwarranted sentencing disparities, the district court erred by failing to analyze § 3553(a)(6).