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Guidelines Not Binding: Pre-Spears Claim Helps Vacate Sentence

By Robyn Hagan Cain on July 22, 2011 4:07 PM

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated a Sentencing Guidelines-conforming drug sentence today in USA v. Priester on "the admittedly unfair ground" of the district court's "insufficient clairvoyance."

Here are the facts in a nutshell. The appellant, Xavier Priester, pled guilty to conspiring to distribute crack cocaine, powder cocaine, and marijuana. At sentencing, Priester's lawyer argued that the Guidelines' 100:1 or greater ratio between crack and powder penalties was unfair and asked the district court to ignore it in favor of a "sufficient and just sentence." The district court indicated that it had to stick to the guidelines, and sentenced Priester to 180 months' imprisonment.

The Supreme Court subsequently clarified in Spears v. United States that district courts can reject and vary categorically from the crack-cocaine Guidelines based on a policy disagreement with those Guidelines.

In today's opinion, the Sixth Circuit noted that the district court sentenced Priester under the Guidelines because, as Spears had not been decided, it did not know that it had the authority to depart from the Guidelines. The opinion distinguished Priester from other recent Sixth Circuit Guidelines challenges in two ways: other defendants had not made Spears-type arguments in the district court and other district court opinions had not addressed the issue. The Sixth Circuit was sympathetic to the district court, noting that "we have no reason to think -- and affirmative reason not to think -- that the district court knew what was coming in Spears." The case was remanded for a new sentencing hearing.

Priester could be a game-changer for lawyers in the Sixth Circuit who argued at sentencing that courts should depart from the Guidelines.

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