For criminal defendants facing a possible sentence in federal court, the United States Sentencing Guidelines can be both friend and foe. Originally established by the United States Sentencing Commission in the 1980s, the Guidelines were meant to reduce or eliminate sentencing disparities across the court system and to prevent one criminal defendant from receiving a 30-year sentence for a federal crime, while another received only five years. While such uniformity was a welcome relief for defendants seeking some measure of predictability when considering possible sentences and plea deals, the resulting Guidelines have been widely criticized as harsh in their punishments, and many have noted that while the Guidelines prevent defendants from receiving excessive sentences, they also fail to allow judges and juries to give reduced sentences when such an option might be warranted.
Although they were originally mandatory, in 2005, a Supreme Court case, United States v. Booker, held that the imposition of mandatory guidelines was a violation of the Sixth Amendment and the right to have a jury determine one’s punishment. Accordingly, the guidelines are now only advisory. In a recent case before the Fourth Circuit, United States v. Martinovich, it is precisely this question of mandatory versus advisory guidelines that led to the vacating of the defendant’s sentence.
In Martinovich, the defendant, and now the appellant, was an owner and member of a public accounting firm and venture fund, where he oversaw the acquisition of millions of shares of of companies that eventually failed or otherwise did not reach the potential originally expected. In order to counter the negative effects of these acquisitions, the defendant engaged in fraudulent valuations and misrepresented the status of the companies to investors and shareholders. Eventually, a FINRA investigation was instigated, the defendant’s business was shut down, and the defendant was forced to surrender his license. He subsequently filed for bankruptcy but continued to lie about the nature of his income and holdings. Eventually, he was charged with mail and wire fraud, conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, and lying in a bankruptcy proceeding.
After a two-week trial, the jury found the defendant guilty on several counts. At the subsequent sentencing hearing, the district court repeatedly referred to the sentencing guidelines as mandatory and opined that it was required to fit its sentence within the dictates of the guidelines. Both parties raised their concerns and noted that the guidelines were meant to be treated as advisory, but the district court ultimately adopted the guideline range of 135-168 months and sentenced the defendant to 140 months in jail. The defendant appealed the sentence.
On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed that the United States Sentencing Guidelines are to be viewed as advisory, per the precedent of the Supreme Court, and it held that a court’s treatment of the guidelines as mandatory is procedurally unreasonable and a basis for vacating the sentence. In reviewing the district court’s comments to the defendant and government counsel during the sentencing hearing, the Fourth Circuit determined that it could not overlook the district court’s repeated references to the mandatory nature of the sentencing guidelines and that its imposition of a sentence within the guidelines was procedurally unreasonable. Additionally, the Fourth Circuit determined that it was possible that, had the district court not viewed the guidelines as mandatory, the defendant’s sentence might have been reduced due to mitigating factors, and thus the error was not harmless. Accordingly, the sentence was vacated, and the case was remanded to a different district court for further sentencing proceedings.
This appellate case is a reminder of the importance of attorney advocacy in ensuring that the United States sentencing guidelines are treated as advisory, rather than mandatory, instructions. If you have been charged with a federal crime and may be subject to the sentencing guidelines, it is important that you seek experienced legal representation. The West Virginia criminal defense lawyers at the Wolfe Law Firm have been serving clients in both state and federal courts for more than 25 years. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.
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