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Second Circuit: District Court’s Failure to Offer Explanation for Its Sentence Constitutes Plain Error

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that a district court’s failure to offer an explanation for its sentence was plain error in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 3553(c).

Gilberto Rosa pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud (Count One) and aggravated identity theft (Count 2) for his role in fraudulently obtaining auto loans. Under the plea agreement, Rosa was to pay $798,542.43 in restitution to his victims. After pleading guilty, Rosa continued defrauding people, and the Probation Office determined that altogether he fraudulently obtained $850,104.23. Based on Rosa’s post-plea conduct, the Probation Office’s Presentence Report (“PSR”) assigned him a three-level enhancement pursuant to § 3C1.3 of the Guidelines for a total offense level of 26.

But at the sentencing hearing, the parties and the district court agreed that § 3C1.3 does not apply. The district court adjusted Rosa’s offense level to 23, and his Sentencing Guidelines range for Count 1 became 51 to 63 months. The district court sentenced Rosa to the maximum 63 months’ imprisonment on Count One and an additional mandatory consecutive 24 months on Count Two for an aggregate sentence of 87 months’ imprisonment. The court also ordered $715,857.25 in restitution instead of the $798,542.43 listed in the plea agreement. The district court neither adopted the PSR in open court nor explained its reasoning for the sentence imposed. The court merely stated it reached its decision “[a]fter hearing arguments by the counsel and reading the submissions and 3553(a) factors.” Rosa did not object.

Two months later, the district court entered its written judgment which included an even lower restitution amount of $690,774.08. The court also issued its written statement of reasons (“SOR”) that incorrectly stated: (1) the court had adopted the PSR without changes, (2) Rosa’s offense level was 26, (3) Rosa’s Guidelines range was 70 to 87 months, and (4) the restitution amount was $690,774.08. Rosa timely appealed, arguing, inter alia, that his sentence was procedurally unreasonable because the district court failed to state in open court its reasons for the sentence imposed.

Because Rosa did not object to the sentence, the Second Circuit reviewed for plain error, which required Rosa to show (1) an error occurred, (2) that was obvious, (3) which affected his substantial rights, and (4) seriously affected the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings. United States v. Balde, 943 F.3d 73 (2d Cir. 2019).

The Court observed “[s]ection 3553(c) of Title 18 of the United States Code obligates a district court to ‘state in open court the reasons for its imposition of the particular sentence.’” This serves the important goals of (1) informing the defendant of the reasons for his sentence, (2) permitting meaningful appellate review, (3) enabling the public to learn why the defendant received a particular sentence, and (4) guiding prison and probation officials in developing a program to meet the defendant’s needs. United States v. Molina, 356 F.3d 269 (2d Cir. 2004). Adopting the PSR in open court satisfies section 3553(c)’s requirements. Id.

The statement may be brief and concise, based on the context, record, and circumstances of the case. Rita v. United States, 551 U.S. 338 (2007). While a sentence must be sufficient but not greater than necessary to meet the aims of § 3553, a district court’s explanation that it had “taken into consideration the factors of 3553(a), oral argument and the submissions, and ... believe[d that] the sentence [wa]s sufficient but not greater than necessary to meet the aims of the statute” was held inadequate in United States v. Genoa, 869 F.3d 136 (2d 2017).

In the instant case, the Court could discern from the record a number of reasons why the district court imposed the maximum terms of imprisonment. But that did not eliminate the district court’s obligation to explain its reasoning in open court. Furthermore, the Court could not discern why the district court lowered the amount of restitution. And in the SOR, the district court made several incorrect statements, including a statement that it adopted the PSR without deviation when the court had actually imposed a sentence that deviated substantially from the PSR.

The error was clear, the court concluded. It affected Rosa’s substantial rights because he had a right to be sentenced by a court that correctly relied upon accurate information. And it seriously affected the public reputation of judicial proceedings because “[c]onfidence in a judge’s use of reason underlies the public’s trust in the judicial institution. A public statement of those reasons helps provide the public with assurance that creates that trust.” Rita.

The Court ruled that where a district court offers no explanation for its sentence and where neither the adopted PSR nor the SOR adequately demonstrates the district court’s reasoning, the district court has committed plain error in violation of § 3553(c).

Accordingly, the Court vacated Rosa’s sentence and remanded the case to the district court to conduct a resentencing that satisfies § 3553(c). See: United States v. Rosa, 957 F.3d 113 (2d Cir. 2020). 

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United States v. Rosa



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