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United States v. Cozad.

No. 20-3233.  D.Kan. Judge Seymour. 18 USC § 3553(a)—US Sentencing Guidelines—Sentencing Based on Absence of Plea Deal—Procedural Reasonableness Challenge.

January 3, 2022

Defendant was indicted on a single charge of aiding and abetting the making of counterfeit currency. She declined the government’s plea offer and entered an open plea. Following the plea, the presentence investigation report recommended a custodial sentence of between 24 and 30 months based on the US Sentencing Guidelines. Defendant advocated for a term of probation, and the government recommended a custodial sentence of 24 months, the same it had offered during the unsuccessful plea negotiations.

The district court rejected both recommendations and sentenced defendant to a prison term of 27 months. In explaining its decision, the district court stated that its practice was to begin sentencing at the mid-tier of the guidelines range where there was no plea agreement, and to start at the low-end of the guidelines range where there was a plea agreement. Given the circumstances of this case, the court determined that the low-end guidelines range sentence was not appropriate. Defendant’s counsel objected, arguing that it was procedurally unreasonable to enter a sentence based solely on the absence of a plea agreement. The court disagreed and did not alter the sentence.

Defendant appealed the reasonableness of the sentence. The review of a defendant’s sentence for reasonableness includes a procedural component, which relates to the method by which a sentence was calculated, and a substantive component, which relates to the length of the resulting sentence. In arguing that the district court impermissibly treated her open plea as an aggravating fact warranting harsher punishment, defendant raised a procedural reasonableness challenge. The factors a court may consider in determining a defendant’s sentence are enumerated in 18 USC § 3553(a), and basing a sentence on a factor falling outside the scope of the statutory criteria is a form of procedural error. Based on the record here, the district court gave defendant a longer sentence than she otherwise would have received simply because she pleaded guilty without a plea agreement. Defendant’s open plea, standing alone, did not bear any meaningful relationship to the § 3553(a) factors. Further, § 3553(a) provides that courts are to impose no more punishment than is necessary to comply with the four penological goals set forth in § 3553(a)(2); imposing additional punishment on a defendant because the plea was not the result of a bargain does not reflect the seriousness of the offense, deter criminal conduct, protect the public from further crimes of the defendant, or address defendant’s rehabilitative needs. Accordingly, under § 3553(a), it was procedurally unreasonable for the district court to impose a harsher sentence on defendant based on her decision to enter an open plea, and the court abused its discretion,

The sentence was vacated and the case was remanded for resentencing.

Official US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit proceedings can be found at the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit website.

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