News You Can Use: Tenth Circuit Rules It’s Plain Error to Impose Upward Variance Based on State/Federal Sentencing Disparity

In United States v. Beaver, No. 17-2151, the Tenth Circuit issued an unpublished decision holding the district court plainly erred by imposing an upward variance based, in part, on its view that a Guidelines sentence would have created disparities between the defendant’s sentence and the sentences imposed in state court for the same conduct.

The defendant drove drunk and had an accident resulting in the death of two passengers. The defendant was prosecuted in federal court because the accident occurred in Indian country and because Mr. Beaver is an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation. He pleaded guilty to two counts of involuntary manslaughter, and his Guidelines range was 41 to 51 months’ imprisonment.

The Government argued for an upward variance to a 120-month sentence. The defense argued that Mr. Beaver’s sentence should be capped at 48 months because the maximum sentence for involuntary manslaughter in New Mexico (the state where the crime occurred) is 48 months, and Mr. Beaver should not receive a longer sentence simply because he is a Native American. The Government’s reply, however, turned this argument back against the defense–pointing out that New Mexico has a specific statute for Homicide by Vehicle, which has a minimum sentence of 48 months and a maximum sentence of 456 months. Further, at the sentencing hearing, the Government argued that a Guidelines sentence would amount to disparate treatment in favor of the defendant.

The district court accepted the Government’s reasoning and varied upward to 120 months’ based, in part, on its perception that a Guidelines sentence would be significantly lower than Mr. Beaver would have received in state court.

The Tenth Circuit held that this was plainly erroneous. First, even though it was the defense that first raised state/federal disparity, the Court rejected the Government’s argument that the defense invited the error; the defense hadn’t asked for a longer sentence on the ground of state/federal disparity and, therefore, hadn’t invited this particular error. Second, even though the defense had argued for a lower sentence, it hadn’t preserved the particular argument it was making on appeal (that sentencing courts can’t consider state/federal disparity), so that argument could be reviewed only for plain error. Third, the district court’s sentencing decision was plainly erroneous because, under prior precedent, United States v. Wiseman, 749 F.3d 1191 (10th Cir. 2014), courts may only consider the need to avoid disparities among similarly situated federal defendants and may not consider disparities between state defendants and federal defendants.

 Takeaways:

 1) The sentencing judge isn’t allowed to increase or decrease a sentence to make it conform with sentences for similar offenses in state court.

 2) Double-check your sentencing disparity arguments to ensure that they can’t backfire, as the defense’s argument did in this case.

 3) On appeal, you may be able to defeat the Government’s claim of invited error by arguing that, though the defense invited the district court to commit the same type of error in arguing for a lower sentence, the defense didn’t argue for a higher sentence on those grounds.

 

 

Author: COFPD

Federal Public Defender's Office for the Districts of Colorado and Wyoming