Week Thirty-Eight

Week of September 18, 2017 through September 22, 2017

US v. Lacresha Slappy (Gregory 9/22/2017): The Fourth Circuit held that a district court, when imposing a revocation sentence, must address the parties’ nonfrivolous arguments in favor of a particular sentence, and if the court rejects those arguments, it must explain why in a detailed-enough manner that the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals can meaningfully consider the procedural reasonableness of the revocation sentence imposed. Additionally, the court held that a revocation sentence is procedurally unreasonable where the district court fails to address the defendant’s nonfrivolous arguments in favor of a within-range sentence or to explain why the maximum sentence was necessary. The court also held that a revocation sentence is plainly unreasonable where the district court fails to so much as mention the defendant’s arguments or provide any explanation for why it is necessary to depart from the policy statement range and impose the maximum sentence. Finally, the court held that procedural errors are not harmless when the district court neither considers the defendant’s arguments in favor of a within-range sentence nor contemplates imposing anything other than the statutory maximum sentence. The court thus vacated Defendant’s revocation sentence and remanded for sentencing. Full Opinion


Highlight Case

US v. Lacresha Slappy, No. 16-4010

Decided: September 22, 2017

The Fourth Circuit held that a district court, when imposing a revocation sentence, must address the parties’ nonfrivolous arguments in favor of a particular sentence, and if the court rejects those arguments, it must explain why in a detailed-enough manner that the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals can meaningfully consider the procedural reasonableness of the revocation sentence imposed.

Defendant Lacresha Slappy (“Defendant”) previously pled guilty to armed bank robbery and aiding and abetting, and was sentenced to 107 months of imprisonment followed by five years of supervised release. She served her term of imprisonment and began serving her term of supervised release in 2014. In February 2015, her probation officer filed a Petition for Action on Supervised release, stating that Defendant had violated the terms of her supervised release by submitting urine screens that on two occasions tested positive for the use of cocaine. She was, however, otherwise in compliance with the terms of her release. In October 2015, her probation officer submitted an Amended Motion for Revocation alleging that she committed several violations, such as engaging in criminal conduct, failing to report for urine screens, using a controlled substance, leaving the district without permission, and absconding from supervision. The court held she committed only the third and fourth violations. The parties agreed the violations had a recommended sentence of seven to thirteen months imprisonment under the Sentencing Guidelines’ Chapter Seven policy statements, and that the statutory maximum sentence was thirty-six months of imprisonment.

Defendant explained her post-incarceration conduct and attempts at rehabilitation at the revocation hearing. She resided in a halfway house, worked at a fast food restaurant, participated in a Scared Straight program, and was interviewed by a local news station for a documentary on prostitution and female drug users, which helped her gain some perspective and desire to better her life. Furthermore, she explained she only left the city because she felt she was in danger, which her probation officer did not take seriously. The Government requested the court impose the statutory maximum sentence and emphasized Defendant’s criminal history and characteristics, focusing heavily on the underlying crime. Defendant’s counsel argued that she had already been punished for her role in the bank robbery and requested the court consider only the currently alleged violations, which were “nowhere near” any of the priors the Government described. Defendant requested the court consider her significant attempts to help society through her involvement in community programs in issuing her revocation sentence.

The district court sentenced Defendant to the statutory maximum of thirty-six months imprisonment without addressing any of the above arguments. The district court reiterated the violations and stated only that Defendant’s behavior evidenced her lack of respect for the court. Defendant timely appealed her revocation sentence.

The Fourth Circuit began its analysis by noting that Defendant presented detailed, nonfrivolous evidence of her positive employment history, her efforts at rehabilitation, and her voluntary community service, and that the district court did not even mention her arguments when it imposed the statutory maximum. The court found instructive in determining the reasonability of a revocation sentence the analysis in United States v. Carter, 564 F.3d 325, 328 (4th Cir. 2009) and Rita v. United States, 551 U.S. 338, 357 (2007). According to the court, these cases made clear that, when imposing an original sentence, the district court must address the types of arguments given by a defendant and it must explain why if it rejects the arguments. The court recognized it generally applies the same principles to original and revocation sentences. The Fourth Circuit therefore held that a district court, when imposing a revocation sentence, must address the parties’ nonfrivolous arguments in favor of a particular sentence, and if the court rejects those arguments, it must explain why in a detailed-enough manner that the court can meaningfully consider the procedural reasonableness of the revocation sentence imposed. The court explained that while a district court’s statement of reasons need not be very specific, where a court entirely fails to mention a party’s nonfrivolous arguments in favor of a particular sentence, or where the court fails to provide at least some reason why those arguments are unpersuasive, even the relaxed requirements for revocation sentences are not satisfied.

The court noted that the district court’s failure to address Defendant’s nonfrivolous arguments in favor of a within-range sentence was compounded by its failure to explain why it was necessary to impose the statutory maximum sentence. The district court at no point mentioned the policy statements’ advisory range of seven to thirteen months of imprisonment, nor did it explain why it was imposing the statutory maximum rather than some other sentence. The court explained it is not clear that the district court even considered the relevant advisory range because, prior to imposing the sentence, the district court’s only remark regarding a potential revocation sentence was to ask the Government, “You’re asking for 36 months?” Because the district court failed to address Defendant’s nonfrivolous arguments in favor of a within-range sentence or to explain why the statutory maximum sentence was necessary, the Fourth Circuit held that the revocation sentence was procedurally unreasonable.

Furthermore, the court stated that well-settled precedent clearly establishes that while the district court need not be as detailed in imposing a revocation sentence, it must still provide enough of an explanation to assure the Court of Appeals that it considered the parties’ arguments and had some basis for choosing the imposed sentence. Because the district court failed to mention Defendant’s arguments or provide any explanation as to why it was necessary to depart from the policy statements’ range to impose the maximum sentence, the Fourth Circuit held the revocation sentence was plainly unreasonable. The Fourth Circuit further held the district court’s procedural errors were not harmless because, had that court considered Defendant’s arguments in favor of a within-range sentence or contemplated imposing anything other than the statutory maximum sentence, the court might have imposed a lower revocation sentence.

Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit vacated Defendant’s revocation sentence and remanded to the district court for resentencing.

Full Opinion

Jennifer M. Greene

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