Sentencing: 9th Circuit Says Prisoners with Appeals Pending Can Challenge Sentences 6/3/05

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The fall-out from a pair of Supreme Court decisions upending the nearly 20-year-old federal sentencing guidelines scheme continues. In the latest response to the Supreme Court's dramatic decisions in the Blakely and Booker and Fan Fan cases, the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled Wednesday federal prisoners within its purview who are appealing their convictions can challenge their sentences.

In the Supreme Court cases, the high court held that only juries -- not judges -- could find facts, such as the amount of drugs involved, that would allow judges to exceed the maximum sentence when punishing offenders. As a result, the court held, the federal sentencing guidelines were unconstitutional and can now only be used in an advisory manner. The 9th Circuit Wednesday held that the only way for the Supreme Court's wishes to be followed was to allow those inmates to challenge their sentences.

The ruling came in USA v. Ameline, in which Alfred Ameline was sentenced to 12 ½ years in prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine in 2002. Ameline did not admit possessing or distributing any quantity of the drug, but the presiding judges accepted prosecutors' contentions that he was responsible for 1,600 grams and sentenced him accordingly. Now, Ameline will be able to have a resentencing hearing. His attorney told the Associated Press he will seek a two-year sentence because the judge errantly accepted the government's estimate of the amount of drugs involved.

The Ninth Circuit encompasses the nine western states of Alaska,
Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon,
Washington, and Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. (Photo and
info from http://www.ce9.uscourts.gov.)

But Ameline isn't the only one who will benefit from the ruling. According to the 9th Circuit's opinion in the case, the number of federal prisoners who will get hearings is "perhaps in the thousands." The 9th Circuit includes nine Far West and Rocky Mountain states.

The 9th Circuit is not the first US Circuit Court to review sentencing in the wake of the Supreme Court rulings, and its decision conflicts with those of some other circuits, which have issued more restrictive opinions. In those circuits, the courts have held that prisoners can seek resentencing only if the record is clear the judge would have issued a different sentence if the guidelines had not been mandatory. With conflicts in the circuit courts, it appears the issue will eventually make its way back to the Supreme Court -- unless Congress, in its infinite wisdom, acts to make the matter moot by rewriting the sentencing laws.

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Issue #389 -- 6/3/05

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