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Fifth Circuit Rules Miscalculation of Guidelines Sentencing 
Range Plain Error That Merits Correction Even Though Not Raised by Defendant

by Chad Marks 

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that a district court’s miscalculation of defendant’s sentencing guidelines range constitutes plain error necessitating resentencing, “even where the defendant fails to object or raise the argument in his opening brief on appeal.”

Christopher Douglas was indicted in the Eastern District of Texas for kidnapping. He also was indicted in the Western District of Louisiana in a separate case for drug-related charges. Douglas consented to having the kidnapping case transferred to the Western District of Louisiana. He entered a plea of guilty in both the kidnapping and drug cases. 

The district court imposed a term of 324 months for the kidnapping case and 192 months for the drug case. The sentencing court ordered that 96 months of that sentence to run concurrently with, “and 96 months would run consecutively to, the kidnapping sentence.” This resulted in a total term of 420 months in prison.

Douglas appealed to the Fifth Circuit, arguing that his sentence was unreasonable. However, in reviewing the case, the Court itself discovered there was a potential sentencing-range miscalculation by the district court’s “failure to determine a combined offense level encompassing both of Douglas’ convictions” pursuant to U.S.S.G. §§ 3D1.1-.5. This was an issue that Douglas had not raised on appeal nor argued below. The Court ordered supplemental briefing on the issue.

Both the Government and the defense agreed that the district court erred in determining the correct guidelines range applicable to Douglas.

Federal courts apply the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines (“U.S.S.G.”) as a starting point when determining an appropriate sentence. The Court explained that U.S.S.G. § 1B1.1 is the “natural starting point” because it “maps out the manner in which a sentencing court should apply the Guideline provisions.” United States v. Reyes, 881 F.2d 155 (5th Cir. 1989). The Court added that a court is to determine the base offense levels in accordance with Chapter Two and apply any appropriate offense characteristics provided for in U.S.S.G. §§ 1B1.1(a) and (b). When dealing with two separate counts as in Douglas’ case, courts are to group various counts and adjust the offense level accordingly as detailed in Part D of Chapter Three of the U.S.S.G.  

After painstakingly calculating Douglas’ guidelines range in accordance with the foregoing provisions, the Court determined that the correct range for him is 262 to 327 months. The Court then explained “a court should apply ‘Parts B through G of Chapter Five’ to determine ‘the sentencing requirements and options related to probation, imprisonment, supervision conditions, fines, and restitution.’” U.S.S.G. § 1B1.1(a)(8). 

When multiple sentences are involved, “U.S.S.G. § 5G1.2 governs the issue of how the separate sentences are to be imposed.” United States v. Candelario-Cajero, 134 F.3d 1246 (5th Cir. 1998) (quoting § 5G1.2, comment (n.1)). A court that imposes any sentence longer than the top of the guidelines range, i.e., an upward departure, “must state that it is in fact departing.” Candelario-Cajero. 

In the current case, the district court imposed a 420 month sentence, which constitutes a 93 month upward departure, but it failed to state that it was doing so. Instead, the court indicated that the sentence was within the guidelines range. Thus, the Court ruled that the district court’s miscalculation constitutes plain error. 

The Court made clear that in very rare instances it applies the plain-error standard to errors neither preserved below nor argued on appeal. United States v. Delgado, 672 F.3d 320 (5th Cir 2012). According to the Court, this is one of those rare instances that requires it to exercise its discretion “to remedy the error because it seriously affects the fairness, integrity or public repetition of judicial proceedings.” Rosales-Mireles v. United States, 138 S. Ct. 1897 (2018).

Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit vacated Douglas’ sentence and remanded the case for resentencing in accordance with this opinion. See: United States v. Douglas, 910 F.3d 804 (5th Cir. 2018). 

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