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Fifth Circuit Vacates Sentence Eight Times Higher Than Guidelines Range That Was Imposed Without Explanation

The facts were tragic, but ultimately the Government could not hold Corey Bostic responsible for the drug-overdose death of a 24-year-old woman with a preexisting condition that made it impossible to prove that the drugs she received from Bostic constituted the “but-for” causation of her death. After the woman overdosed on heroin, her boyfriend called Bostic, and he sold them methamphetamine, apparently in an attempt to reverse the effects of the heroin. Her boyfriend administered the drug, and she died. The Government couldn’t prove the methamphetamine Bostic provided was the “but-for” cause of her death because the victim suffered from a preexisting heart condition.

Bostic pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine under 21 U.S.C. § 841(a) and (b)(1)(C).

The presentence report (“PSR”) calculated a Guidelines sentencing range (“GSR”) of 21 to 27 months in prison, given Bostic’s criminal history and the offense conduct. Notably, the PSR stated there was no identifiable victim attributed to Bostic despite the death. The district court adopted the GSR in the PSR but then said that “if the government had been able to charge [Bostic] with distribution of methamphetamine which resulted in death, [Bostic] would have faced a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment of 20 years.” The court then handed him 235 months in prison, only five months fewer than the 240 he would have received had the Government been able to prove he was responsible for the death.

Bostic’s lawyer objected to the significantly above GSR sentence, arguing it didn’t account for the fact that the victim contributed to her own death and her underlying heart condition. The district court merely responded “noted” and then ended the sentencing proceeding. The court also wrongly stated in the judgment that the sentence was within the GSR and left blank the section on why it imposed a sentence well above the GSR. Bostic appealed.

In Gall v. United States, 552 U.S. 38 (2007), the U.S. Supreme Court instructed that “the Guidelines should be the starting point and the initial benchmark for sentencing.” A sentence can therefore be procedurally unreasonable when the sentencing court fails to “adequately explain the chosen sentence – including an explanation for any deviation from the Guidelines range.” And the law requires a court to state on the record “the specific reason for the imposition of a sentence different from that described in” 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).

Developing the record at sentencing allows for “meaningful appellate review,” the Supreme Court explained, and to “promote the perception of fair sentencing.” The Supreme Court also instructed that “a major departure should be supported by a more significant justification than a minor one.” Gall.

While the district court here adopted the GSR of 21 to 27 months, it offered no explanation for the higher sentence, or why it ignored Bostic’s objection. “The sentence imposed here was nearly eight times longer than the Guidelines range and quite similar to an appropriate sentence for someone who was responsible for a death in these circumstances,” the Court noted. Thus, the Court ruled “the district court procedurally erred by offering an inadequate explanation, which was an abuse of its discretion.”

“Our ruling should not be interpreted as taking a position on whether this same sentence could be justified by a more fulsome explanation. The substantive reasonableness of any sentence will be reviewed based on a thorough record that allows for meaningful appellate review and promotes the perception of fair sentencing,” the Court cautioned.

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Related legal case

United States v. Bostic

 

 

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