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Fourth Circuit Vacates Sentence For Inadequate Explanation: Queriapa

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Queriapa Background

Queriapa was sentenced to 46-months imprisonment following a guilty plea to one count of illegal reentry after deportation subsequent to a felony conviction, in violation of 8 U.S.C. 1326(a), (b)(1). On appeal before the Fourth Circuit, Queriapa challenged the procedural reasonableness of his sentence, arguing that the district court improperly calculated his Guidelines range and failed to consider his nonfrivolous arguments for a downward variance from the Guidelines.

Fourth Circuit Ruling

The Fourth Circuit affirmed Queriapa’s challenges to the Guidelines, but concluded that the adequacy of the district court’s explanation for his sentence was not harmless error. A district court is required to provide an individualized assessment based on facts before the court and to adequately explain the sentence it imposed for meaningful appellate review.

The explanation need not be lengthy, and need not address each supporting mitigating argument so long as the “central thesis” is addressed by the district court. Here, the appellate court’s review of the sentencing transcript revealed that the district court considered some of Queriapa’s arguments in mitigation. However, it was not “patently obvious” that the district court considered Queriapa’s argument that:

(1) he reentered the United States because he was his parents’ caretaker;

(2) his father’s death served as a deterrent to engaging in additional criminal conduct; and

(3) his Guidelines range did not reflect his true culpability because his prior convictions enhanced his offense level and criminal history score.

Finding the district court erred, the Fourth Circuit proceeded to determine whether the error was harmless. The court found that the government had failed to establish that the sentencing omissions were harmless. The district court’s primary motivations for imposing a within-guidelines sentence were to promote respect for the law, specific deterrence, and general deterrence. Moreover, the court found the fact the court rejected Queriapa’s legal objection to the Guidelines did not mean the court could omit discussion on his equitable objection as part of his argument for a downward variance.

Because the district court’s failure to address some of Queriapa’s key mitigating argument was not harmless, the Fourth Circuit vacated Queriapa’s sentence and remanded for resentencing.

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