First Circuit Vacates Sentence Based on Inadequate Explanation for Upward Variance: Munoz-Fontanez
Munoz pled guilty to possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime and possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. As a part of the plea agreement, the parties agreed to recommend a sentence between 96 and 120 months imprisonment. The aggregate Guideline Sentencing Range (“GSR”) for the offenses was 60 to 66 months, but the district court imposed an upward variance for a total sentence of 144 months imprisonment. Munoz appealed.
Notably, the sentence imposed by the district court was nearly two and a half times that of the GSR. The court offered no explicit rationale tying the instant facts to the statutory sentencing goals of 18 U.S.C. 3553(a). After briefly hearing arguments from each party, the court described the plea agreement and Guidelines calculations and concluded that the recommended sentence by the parties did not reflect the seriousness of the offense, promote respect for the law, protect the public from further crimes, and did not address deterrence and punishment.
In a written statement of reasons, the court recounted the facts of Munoz’s arrest without explaining why those facts supported the result. The First Circuit concluded that the absence of an explanation here contravenes Congress’ clear and well known command that the courts explain themselves when announcing sentences. Although the court reviewed for plain error, it noted that it had overturned upward variant sentences under plain error review when the explanations were also lacking. The court held that when imposing a significant variance, a sentencing court must make clear which specific facts of the case motivated its decision and why those facts led to its decision.
Finding the district court erred in its significant upward variance without adequate explanation, the First Circuit vacated Munoz’ sentence and remanded for resentencing.