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Seventh Circuit Vacates Sentence for Failure to Explain Extreme Departure of Guidelines Range

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit vacated a defendant’s sentence because the district court failed to explain its reasoning for a 160 percent upward departure on remand where the original sentence involved only a 10 percent upward departure.

Jesse J. Ballard pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm in 2018, his first federal offense. However, Ballard had accrued more than 30 state felony convictions between 1985 and 2017, which placed him in Criminal History Category VI of the United States Sentencing Guidelines (U.S.S.G.).

Under the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”), 18 U.S.C. § 924(e), he was enhanced further, resulting in a Guidelines range of 180 to 210 months. The court sentenced him to 232 months, a 10 percent upward departure on the grounds that the Guidelines did not adequately account for his extensive criminal history.

On appeal, Ballard prevailed on the argument that he had been improperly enhanced under the ACCA. The Government conceded it had erred in counting his two Illinois attempted burglary convictions. His sentence was vacated and remanded for resentencing.

The district court calculated an amended Guidelines range of 33 to 41 months. However, without articulating any additional reasons beyond those cited in its original sentencing, the court imposed 108 months’ imprisonment, a 160 percent upward departure.

Ballard again appealed, claiming that the district court imposed an unreasonable sentence and failed to articulate a reason for doing so.

Judges may depart from the Guidelines range at sentencing; however, when doing so, the judge “must consider the extent of the deviation and ensure that the justification is sufficiently compelling to support the degree of variance.” United States v. Miller, 601 F.3d 734 (7th Cir. 2010). Citing United States v. Castillo, 695 F.3d 672 (7th Cir. 2012), the Court observed, “it follows that more significant justification is necessary for more substantial departures.” And, “regardless of whether the judge gave a sufficient explanation for [an upward departure at the original sentencing], a more substantial departure from a lower guidelines range on resentencing should be supported by a more significant justification.” United States v. Johns, 732 F.3d 736 (7th Cir. 2013).

The Court noted that sometimes a district court may vary higher from a lower Guidelines range than a higher one based on factors articulated as part of its analysis of applicable 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) factors. However, the district court did not invoke this rationale or otherwise explain why a 160 percent departure was warranted on the same grounds it had earlier justified a 10 percent departure.

Further, the Court noted neither party on appeal could cite a similar case where a district court had gone beyond even a 95 percent upward departure. The sentence applied to Ballard fell into a Guidelines range 10 levels higher than was calculated. The Court admonished that “emphasizing the defendant’s criminal history alone does not adequately explain a departure as extreme as the one in this case.” Thus, the Court ruled that the district court committed procedural error in failing to provide an adequate explanation for its extreme upward departure.

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Related legal case

United States v. Ballard



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