What is the Right Standard for Sentencing Enhancements? Rigdill vs. United States
As many of you may know, the government is typically only required to establish a “preponderance of evidence” standard when arguing for the application of an enhancement under the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. However, a preponderance of evidence is not always the appropriate level of proof. When a sentencing factor “has an extremely disproportionate effect on the sentence relative to the offense of conviction, the government may have to prove the factor by clear and convincing evidence.” United States v. Felix, 561 F.3d 1036, 1045 (9th Cir. 2009). But in United States vs. Rigdill, No. 18-50128 (9th Cir. Oct. 17, 2019), this issue came up on federal criminal appeal.
Edward Ridgill was found guilty at trial of 26-counts of illegally distributing various controlled substances. At sentencing, the district court relied on “CURES” data to enhance Ridgill’s sentence by fourteen levels. (CURES stands for Controlled Substance Utilization Review and Evaluation System). In assessing the fourteen-level enhancement, the district court did so under the preponderance of evidence standard.
What happened in Rigdill?
On appeal before the Ninth Circuit, Ridgill argued that 1) the court erred in utilizing a preponderance of evidence standard is enhancing his offense level by 14 points, 2) part of the Standard Conditions of supervised release imposed by the district court were impermissibly vague, 3) the district court plainly erred by admitting challenged portions of testimony at trial; 4) the district court abused its discretion in rejecting Ridgill’s proposed modifications to the jury instructions, and 5) Ridgill’s 60 month sentence was procedurally unreasonable.
Relying on United States v. Jordan, 256 F.3d 922 (9th Cir. 2001), United States v. Felix, and United States v. Mezas de Jesus, 217 F.3d 638 (9th Cir. 2000), the Ninth Circuit found that the district court erred by not using the higher burden of proof standard–clear and convincing evidence–in assessing the 14-level enhancement. The court discussed its previous holding in Jordan where it found a nine-point increase under the Guidelines “strongly support[ed] application of the clear and convincing evidence standard.” However, Ridgill did not object to this issue before the district court so the Ninth Circuit reviewed for plain error. Nonetheless, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the court’s error was plain and affected Ridgill’s substantial rights. As such, the appellate court vacated Ridgill’s sentence and remanded to the district court to assess the evidence utilizing the proper standard.
Both parties agreed that a portion of the Standard Conditions of Ridgill’s supervised release were unconstitutionally vague. The Ninth Circuit remanded to the district court to modify the conditions consistent with its opinion in United States v. Evans, 883 F.3d 1154 (9th Cir. 2018). The Ninth Circuit concluded that it need not determine whether Ridgall’s sentence was substantially reasonable given its remand for resentencing. Lastly, the court rejected Ridgill’s remaining arguments for appeal.
What Does All this Mean? How can my Loved One Use this on their Federal Criminal Appeal?
Most sentencing enhancements require the addition of a few additional levels (for example an enhancement under U.S.S.G. 2D1.1(b)(1) requires a two-level enhancement for possession of a dangerous weapon). Under those circumstances, a district court is permitted to find the enhancement applicable under a preponderance of the evidence standard. However, when an enhancement dramatically increases a sentence, a higher burden of proof is imposed on the government. In those cases, the government must establish clear and convincing evidence that the enhancement applies. As seen in Rigdill, this standard of proof can be overlooked by judges and attorneys at sentencing, which can have a dramatic effect on a defendant’s sentence.