Thursday, November 17, 2011

Court Errs by Not Considering Postsentencing Rehabilitation on Remand after Pepper

In United States v. Salinas-Cortez, No. 11-1580 (3d Cir., November 8, 2011), the defendant challenged the sentencing court’s rejection of his request for a downward variance based upon postsentencing rehabilitation. In Salinas-Cortez, the defendant pled guilty to possession with intent to distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine, as well as conspiracy to do so. At his initial sentencing hearing, the defendant requested a downward adjustment based upon his minimal or minor role in the offense. The probation office claimed in the Presentence Report that the defendant had more than a minimal or minor role in the offense. The sentencing court, at this first proceeding, adopted the PSR without specifically addressing the defendant’s request. The Third Circuit vacated this initial decision, ruling that the sentencing court erred when it failed to address the defendant’s colorable argument for a minor role adjustment. On remand, the defendant also requested a reduction based upon his postsentencing rehabilitation. The sentencing court again rejected the defendant’s request, reasoning that it did not have the authority to consider any other issue on remand except the previously-requested minor role adjustment. Approximately one week after the sentencing court’s decision on remand, the U.S. Supreme Court decided United States v. Pepper, 131 S.Ct. 1229 (2011). The High Court in Pepper addressed the issue of whether, after the original sentence has been set aside on appeal, a sentencing court may consider evidence of postsentencing rehabilitation to support a downward variance. The Court answered in the affirmative, reasoning that information regarding the defendant’s history and characteristics historically has been highly relevant to the sentencing process. The Third Circuit interpreted Pepper to conclude that the defendant’s postsentencing rehabilitation is an essential part of his history, and therefore relevant to determine his likelihood of recidivism. The court in Salinas-Cortez concluded that, while the appellate court retains the authority limit the scope of a sentencing hearing on remand, such limitation must be explicitly instructed. The court ultimately ruled that its decision to remand the defendant’s original sentence did not dictate that the sentencing court could consider only the defendant’s previously-requested minor role adjustment. Consequently, the Third Circuit remanded the sentencing once again to afford the sentencing court the opportunity to address the defendant’s request for a downward variance based upon postsentencing rehabilitation.

*Congratulations to Supervisory Assistant Federal Defender David L. McColgin on this mighty win “on the papers”! He will surely be missed here in the Eastern District of PA, as he has decided to take his “mojo” up north to Vermont.

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