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First Circuit Vacates Revocation Sentence for Improperly Considering Rehabilitation

by Anthony Accurso

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit vacated and remanded the revocation sentence of Adrián Vázquez-Méndez because the sentencing judge likely extended the sentence for the purposes of rehabilitation. 

In 2001, Vázquez-Méndez pleaded guilty in a federal district court in Puerto Rico to one count of conspiracy to distribute cocaine in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846. He was sentenced to 168 months’ imprisonment followed by five years of supervised release. He began serving his supervision term in December 2012 upon his release from prison. 

Near the end of his term of supervision, his probation officer reported violations, which included three positive drug tests for marijuana and failing to report that he had changed his residence. Vázquez-Méndez also failed to timely report that he had been arrested for a domestic violence incident in July 2017 and was questioned about a separate domestic violence incident in August 2017. Neither domestic violence incident resulted in charges, though a restraining order was placed on him after the second incident, pending a later hearing. 

Vázquez-Méndez admitted to the violations, which carried a guidelines range of three to nine months under the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines § 7B1.4(a) with an applicable statutory maximum of five years‘ imprisonment under 18 U.S.C. § 3583(e)(3). Vázquez-Méndez’s counsel and the Government jointly recommended time served (42 days) with six months of supervision, including three months of home detention. 

The district judge varied upward at sentencing, imposing two years’ imprisonment with two years of supervision. The judge stated that the sentence “may assist Mr. Vázquez-Méndez to work on his rehabilitation process and his reintegration into the community” and would give him “the space to think, reflect and establish new goals for himself, to continue working on his rehabilitation plan once he is released from prison.” Upon counsel’s objection to the judge’s mention of rehabilitation and a seemingly unreasonable upward variance, the judge rejected the objection and stated that “two times he was very aggressive with his consensual partner to the point where she had to submit a complaint against him.” 

On direct appeal, Vázquez-Méndez argued that the sentence was unreasonable and that the judge erred in citing rehabilitation concerns and unproven domestic violence allegations. 

The U.S. Supreme Court instructed in Tapia v. United States, 564 U.S. 319, 335 (2011), that under the Sentencing Reform Act, a judge should not extend a sentence to “promote a defendant’s rehabilitation.” The First Circuit applied this rule to resentencing on revocations of supervision in United States v. Molignaro, 649 F.3d 1 (1st Cir. 2011). And in United States v. Del Valle-Rodriguez, 761 F.3d 171 (1st Cir. 2014), the First Circuit explained that while not every mention of rehabilitation at sentencing requires reversal, where “the record indicates that rehabilitative concerns were the driving force behind, or a dominant factor in, the length of a sentence,” reversal is required. Id. 

Turning to the present case, the Court found that the “district court’s statements show that it did or likely did rely on rehabilitation” in determining the sentence in contravention of the statute and the case law in this circuit.  

The Court did not deem the sentence “unreasonable” per se and stated the district court was “well within its authority to consider an upward adjustment” because Vázquez-Méndez’s  “transgressions were multiple.” However, the error lay not in the upward adjustment to the guidelines but rather the consideration of an improper factor—rehabilitation—was likely considered.

Accordingly, the Court vacated and remanded with further instructions not to consider rehabilitation or “charges without proof” when crafting a new sentence. See United States v.Vázquez-Méndez, 915 F.3d 85 (1st Cir. 2019). 

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