June 17, 2019

Tenth Circuit: District Court Erred in Suggesting Offense Level Before Finding Facts

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Sabillon-Umana on Monday, December 8, 2014.

Elder Geovany Sabillon-Umana was convicted of drug offenses as part of a larger trafficking scheme. Because of his relatively small role in the scheme, the district court suggested that he should have a base Guidelines offense level of 32 and requested the prosecutor to justify that offense level. The prosecutor offered facts to support the offense level, telling the court that finding Sabillon-Umana responsible for 1.5 kilos of heroin and 1.5 kilos of cocaine would arrive at that offense level, and the court adopted those factual findings. Later in the proceedings, when the defendant requested a sentence reduction for compliance with the prosecution, the court rejected his request, instead finding the prosecution had authority to issue sentence reductions.

The Tenth Circuit found two errors in the district court proceedings. First, the Tenth Circuit sharply reprimanded the district court for reversing the proper order of proceedings by deciding on an offense level before finding facts. The Tenth Circuit evaluated the facts on which Sabillon-Umana’s conviction was based and found he could only be responsible for 1.5 kilos of heroin and cocaine combined, not 1.5 kilos of each, which would reduce his base offense level to 30.

Next, the Tenth Circuit found plain error in the district court’s failure to reduce the sentence due to Sabillon-Umana’s participation with the prosecution. The district court had contemplated a sentence of 72 months prior to stating it would not reduce the sentence unless the prosecution suggested it, and instead arrived at a sentence of 96 months. The Tenth Circuit found that sentencing discretion lies solely in the court.

The case was remanded for resentencing.

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