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Sentence Below Career Offender Guideline Found Procedurally Unreasonable

United States v. Merced, 2010 WL 1542263, April 20, 2010. Merced pleaded guilty to a drug possession charge, his career offender guideline range was 188 - 235 months. At sentencing, the district court pointed to several factors in support of a below-guideline range, including the "street level" nature of Merced's previous crimes, his own possible drug problem, his troubled childhood, his strong family relationships, and the fact that his longest prior prison term was, at most, four years. The court addressed most of the § 3553 factors, but did not mention unwarranted disparity. The court also noted at one point "I kind of reserve career offender status for violent, significant drug deals, that type of thing, even though the guidelines may advise that it's appropriate." The court ultimately sentenced Merced to 60 months.
The Third Circuit, in an opinion thoroughly recapping reasonableness review precedent, found the sentence procedurally unreasonable based on two errors. First, based on the above statements, it found that the district court may have sentenced Merced pursuant to a personal policy disagreement with the scope of the career offender provision of U.S.S.G. § 4B1.1. While recognizing that a variance on such grounds may be permissible, the court explained that the district court must state clearly whether it is granting a variance based on a policy disagreement with § 4B1.1 and, if so, explain its reasoning more thoroughly. Second, the circuit found that the district court failed to analyze a highly relevant sentencing factor, § 3553(a)(6). Finding that Merced’s sentence may have created a risk of unwarranted disparity between similarly situated recidivist crack cocaine dealers, the district court should have considered this issue, and addressed the government's argument that a Guidelines sentence was necessary to promote uniformity in sentencing.

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