Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Third Circuit rules on Booker reasonableness review, jurisdiction, etc.

In United States v. Cooper, (3d Cir. Feb. 14, 2006), the Third Circuit has touched on a number of sentencing issues affecting the federal courts since the Supreme Court decided United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005), more than a year ago. First, the Court rejected, 2-1, the government’s assertion that the circuit court did not have jurisdiction to review post-Booker sentences imposed within the guidelines for unreasonableness. The Court affirmatively rules that it does, in fact, have jurisdiction under 18 U.S.C. § 3742(a)(1) to review for reasonableness. The Court states that an unreasonable sentence is one imposed "in violation of law," under § 3742(a)(1). The Court did not address whether a district court's imposition of a sentence "greater than necessary" under § 3553(a)'s parsimony provision is likewise imposed "in violation of law" under § 3742(a)(1). The Court also indicates that it may have such jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291. Judge Aldisert, in dissent, asserts that the Court does not have jurisdiction to review within guideline sentences for reasonableness.

Second, the Court expressly declined to follow the lead of a number of its sister circuit courts that had ruled that a sentence imposed within the federal sentencing guidelines is presumptively reasonable. Rather, the Third Circuit notes that a within guidelines sentence only indicates that the district court considered one of the relevant § 3553(a) factors, rather than all of them. Thus, the circuit court, as directed by the Supreme Court, will continue to review sentences for reasonableness, whether it lies within or outside the applicable guidelines range. In reviewing for reasonableness, the Court demands that the record demonstrate that the district court gave meaningful consideration to the § 3553(a) factors, not just the guidelines. A "rote statement of the § 3553(a) factors should not suffice." The Court declares that it must be able to ascertain that, where properly raised, the district court not only considered the applicable § 3553(a) factors, but that it also "reasonably applied" those factors.

Note that while the Court indicates that sentencing facts under the guidelines need be proved by a preponderance of the evidence, the Court expressly withheld ruling on the standard of proof to be applied where a sentencing enhancement involves a separate crime.

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