A federal district court judge has broad powers in a federal sentencing. Sadly, often the judiciary fails to fully grasp the extent of its power. When that happens, a federal appeals court remands for resentencing.
For example, suppose a district court judge says at sentencing to the defendant, "You seem like a very kind person, but I can't give you a lower sentence just because you're a kind person -- the law won't allow it." That case is going back on remand. Eighteen U.S.C. section 3553(a) directs a district court to consider the characteristics of the person being sentenced. One of those, obviously, is whether he's nice.
When you think about it, this is kind of an odd situation. The district court is saying that it is moved by something, but can't consider it. Perhaps there's a bit of "don't throw me in the briar patch" syndrome going on -- the judge is moved, and wants to go lower, but feels that if he or she shows mercy to someone convicted of a serious offense it won't be good. So rather than simply owning that decision, one can empathize with why a judge would want to say the law won't let him make that decision. It's easier if the law takes away his ability to be merciful.
In United States v. Delany, the D.C. Circuit reversed and remanded because the district court believed it did not have the power to consider something at sentencing. As the court noted, a district court has to consider any serious argument that a lower sentence is warranted based on age, lack of criminal history, efforts at rehabilitation, or attempts to cooperate with the government.
"Indeed, '[n]o limitation shall be placed on the information concerning the background, character, and conduct of a person convicted of an offense which a court of the United States may receive and consider for the purpose of imposing an appropriate sentence.' 18 U.S.C. S 3661
After making this statement, the D.C. Circuit then goes on to, well, I don't know. Except for the conclusion that the sentence was reversed and a Fourth Amendment issue didn't go the defendant's way, the rest of the opinion is redacted.
So we don't know what it was that caused the district court to get reversed.
This, personally, is annoying. I practice in federal court in D.C. I need to know what the sentencing law is in the jurisdiction that I practice. I know that the U.S. Attorney's Office has a copy of this opinion -- my opposing counsel now knows the law as expressed in this case. But I don't. And I don't get to.
There are good reasons for redaction, especially when I'm asking for it. But this appears to be a case important enough to warrant publication -- it would be nice to know what it says. Redaction makes sense in many cases in the district court. But if the issue is important enough for it to be the basis of a D.C. Circuit opinion, it raises significant questions about how we are to know how the law is developing.
If you have questions about how federal criminal charges are different than state criminal charges, please visit this page on Maryland federal criminal charges or Washington DC federal criminal charges.