First Circuit Holds District Court Failed to Articulate Plausible Rationale for Imposing Upward Variance
United States v. Flores-Nater, No. 21-1856, 21-1979 (1st Cir. 2023)
Flores-Nater was charged with kidnapping resulting in death, use of a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence, and use of a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence causing murder. He pled pursuant to a plea agreement to the one count of 924(c). As part of the plea agreement, the parties agreed that they would jointly recommend a sentence of 25 years.
After accepting the plea, the district court ordered preparation of a PSR. The PSR noted that the guideline sentence for the offense of conviction was 120 months-the mandatory minimum. Neither party objected to the PSR, and both recommended a 25-year sentence consistent with the plea agreement.
At sentencing, the district court adopted the PSR’s guidelines calculations. It then stated that it had considered the factors under 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) and briefly discussed Flores-Nater’s age, education, prior drug use, employment status, and previous criminal convictions before recounting the uncontested facts of the offense. After noting the parties’ joint recommendation, the court, without any further elaboration, concluded that the recommended sentence did not serve the 3553(a) factors and imposed a sentence of 30 years-a 25-year upward variance from the Guidelines.
Flores-Nater appealed the reasonableness of his sentence to the First Circuit. The appellate court found that where a court imposes an upwardly variance sentence, it must explain its reasons for doing so. The court’s burden of explanation increases proportional to the extent of the variance from the guideline range. In other words, the greater the variance, the more detailed the court must be in explaining why it is imposing an sentence higher than the guidelines recommends.
The First Circuit held that the district court offered no case-specific rationale to justify a 25-year upward variance. The only attempt the district court made to justify the sentence was its statement that a lesser sentence did not reflect the seriousness of the offense, promote respect for the law, protect the public from further crime, or address the issues of deterrence and punishment. The court found this explanation to be too generic to support such a drastic increase from the 10-year guideline range.
Because the district court failed to articulate a plausible sentencing rationale to justify such a dramatic upward variance, the First Circuit vacated Flores-Nater’s sentence and remanded the case to the district court for a new sentencing hearing.