Downward Departure in Sentencing under Federal Sentencing Guidelines for Defendant with Diminished Mental Capacity Prohibited When Possibility Exists That Defendant May Discontinue Medication

Article excerpt

Under the federal sentencing guidelines as they currently exist, a federal judge can reduce a sentence below the applicable guideline range "if the defendant committed the offense while suffering from a significantly reduced mental capacity." However, this reduction may not occur if (1) the reduced mental capacity was caused by the voluntary use of drugs or other intoxicants, (2) "the facts and circumstances of the defendant's offense indicate a need to protect the public because the offense involved actual violence," or (3) the defendant's criminal history indicates a need to incarcerate the defendant to protect the public.

A Maryland man had pled guilty to possession of a firearm, his second conviction of a crime punishable by imprisonment. During a traffic stop, the police officer noted the man was clutching the side of his jacket and ordered the man to remove his hands from the jacket. The man refused to do so and, after back-up officers arrived, was subsequently found to have a .22 revolver in the jacket. The man suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and, unless medicated, experiences auditory hallucinations and feelings of paranoia. At the time of the arrest, the man had stopped taking his medication, was hallucinating, believed he was an undercover police officer, and thought people were trying to "hurt" him.

At sentencing, the trial court granted the defendant a downward departure under the sentencing guidelines based on his diminished mental capacity and sentenced him to three years' probation. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, ruled that the defendant was not eligible for the departure because the offense involved a serious threat of violence and indicated a need to protect the public. The court reasoned that the defendant's clutching his jacket while refusing to comply with an officer's order to remove his hands from the jacket where the gun was located created a "highly volatile situation that could have erupted in violence." The court added that because the defendant thought he was an undercover police officer and that people were trying to hurt him, the defendant apparently was prepared to use the gun, exposing the officers and the public to potential harm. …