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Can I fight federal sentencing guidelines?

Apr 13, 2021 | Criminal Defense

Unfortunately, the story is all too common. A woman was injured and prescribed opioids. The prescription evolved into an addiction, and the woman made some poor decisions while fueled by this addiction. The court finds her guilty of various crimes and moves forward to sentencing, using the federal sentencing guidelines to determine the right sentence.

What are the federal sentencing guidelines?

The federal sentencing guidelines are set of rules used by the court system to determine the sentence for those convicted of federal crimes. Developed in 1987, lawmakers intended for the guidelines to provide some uniformity. Critics argue that they tie the judge’s hands and make it difficult to impose a sentence that truly fits the crime.

What happened in this case that is worth discussion?

At its heart, this case involves a woman who was addicted to opioids. During her trial she chose to take a plea deal, pleading guilty to possession of hydrocodone and oxycodone with an intent to distribute. The court used federal guidelines to calculate her sentence, deciding to sentence the woman to 17 years imprisonment.

The woman appealed to sentence. Ultimately, the appellate court found that the judge failed to take two important considerations into account when determining her sentence. First, her addiction. The appellate court noted this should warrant a downward variance. Second, that her legal counsel failed to provide adequate representation. In one example, the court notes that the lawyer did not question the number of drugs the judge used to come up with the sentence, even though it was in conflict with the amount reported by his client. As a result, the appellate court overturned the lower court’s sentence.

Why is this holding important?

This is the first time the Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a sentence because it was unreasonable, even though it fell within the federal sentencing guidelines. This provides hope for those in similar situations as it could signal the possibility of future successful challenges.