New York Federal Criminal Practice Blog
January 26, 2009

Supreme Court Reaffirms Power of District Courts to Disagree with Sentencing Guidelines on Policy Grounds

If there is any doubt that district courts are free to disagree with the Sentencing Guidelines on policy grounds, the Supreme Court has given another adrenaline shot to this principle.  In Spears v. United States, 2009 WL 129044 (January 21, 2009) (per curiam) (summary order), the Court clarifies that a district court may vary from the crack-cocaine guidelines based solely on a policy disagreement with them, and not simply based on an individualized determination that they yield an excessive sentence in a particular case.  

This means that “even when a particular defendant in a crack cocaine case presents no special mitigating circumstances – no outstanding service to country or community, no unusually disadvantaged childhood, no overstated criminal history score, no post-offense rehabilitation – a sentencing court may nonetheless vary downward from the advisory guideline range . . . based solely on its view that the 100-to-1 ratio embodied in the sentencing guidelines for the treatment of crack cocaine versus powder cocaine creates an unwarranted disparity within the meaning of § 3553(a), and is at odds with § 3553(a)” (quoting Judge Colloton’s dissent in the Eighth Circuit decision below).  

Moreover, the Court reiterates that Kimbrough’s “closer review” dicta does not apply to cases involving guidelines, like the crack-cocaine guidelines, that “do not exemplify the Commission’s exercise of its characteristic institutional role.”  Spears, like the Second Circuit’s recent decision in Cavera, will hopefully stimulate a host of decisions disagreeing with a myriad of guidelines that do not reflect the Commission’s typical empirical and experiential analysis – like the gun guidelines at issue in Cavera and Handy, the career offender guidelines, the child pornography guidelines and the illegal re-entry guidelines, to name just a handful.

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