United States v. Webb, No. 12-4856

Decided: December 19, 2013

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the defendant’s thirty-two month sentence following the revocation of his supervised release. Because the district court appropriately focused its discussion on the Chapter Seven policy statements and based the defendant’s revocation sentence on factors listed in § 3583(e), the Fourth Circuit found no error in the district court’s consideration of related factors.

In 2006, defendant Austin Romaine Webb, Jr. (“Webb”) pled guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute fifty grams or more of cocaine base and a detectable amount of cocaine hydrochloride, and was sentenced to an eighty-month term of imprisonment followed by a five-year term of supervised release. Webb received a sixteen-month reduction to his sentence and began serving his supervised release in August 2010. Less that one year into his term of supervised release, Webb was arrested for possession of marijuana and tested positive for use of marijuana. In September 2011, the district court found Webb had committed a Grade C violation of his supervised release. In September and December 2011, Webb was arrested again and indicted for distribution, possession, and conspiracy to distribute cocaine base. In October 2012, Webb appeared for sentencing and for a hearing on the supervised release violation. As to the supervised release violation, the government pressed the court for sentencing at the high end of Webb’s Guidelines range, on account of his marijuana charge at the beginning of his supervised release, but the court imposed a sentence near the low end of the Guidelines range. The court concluded that Webb’s conduct constituted a Grade A violation, revoked the term of supervision, and sentenced Webb to thirty-two months’ imprisonment. In explaining the rationale for its sentence, the court referenced, among other factors, the seriousness of the offense, the need to promote respect for the law, and the need to provide just punishment for the offense.

Webb appealed the district court’s revocation sentence, claiming that the sentence was plainly unreasonable because the district court mentioned § 3553(a) factors not specifically cross-referenced in Section 3583(e), the statute governing supervised release.

The Fourth Circuit reviewed the district court’s sentence for plain error. In exercising its discretion to impose a sentence of imprisonment upon revocation of a defendant’s supervised release, a district court is guided by the Chapter Seven policy statements in the federal Guidelines manual, as well as the statutory factors applicable to revocation sentences under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) and 3583(e). Chapter Seven instructs that, in fashioning a revocation sentence, “the court should sanction primarily the defendant’s breach of trust, while taking into account, to a limited degree, the seriousness of the underlying violation and the criminal history of the violator.” Section 3583(e), the statute governing supervised release, further directs courts to consider factors enumerated in various sections of § 3553. Absent from these enumerated factors is § 3553(a)(2)(A), which requires district courts to consider the need for the imposed sentence “to reflect the seriousness of the offense, to promote respect for the law, and to provide just punishment for the offense.” However, the Fourth Circuit found that, although § 3583(e) enumerates the factors a district court should consider, it does not expressly prohibit a court from referencing other relevant factors omitted from the statute. Moreover, the factors listed in § 3553(a)(2)(A) are intertwined with the factors courts are expressly authorized to consider under § 3583(e). For example, the “nature and circumstances of the offense,” a mandatory revocation consideration under § 3583(e), necessarily encompasses the seriousness of the violation of supervised release.  Even assuming, arguendo, Webb were able to demonstrate the district court committed plain error, the Fourth Circuit nevertheless concluded that he was unable to show that the court’s error affected his substantial rights by influencing the outcome of the revocation hearing. Webb’s thirty-two month revocation sentence was near the bottom of his Chapter Seven range and was presumed reasonable.

Full Opinion

– Sarah Bishop

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