Reducing Unjustified Sentencing Disparity

By McLaughlin, James A. | The Yale Law Journal, May 1998 | Go to article overview

Reducing Unjustified Sentencing Disparity


McLaughlin, James A., The Yale Law Journal


United States v. Meza, 127 F.3d 545 (7th Cir. 1997), cert. denied, 118 S. Ct. 1103 (1998).

The Federal Sentencing Guidelines(1) allow a judge to depart from the Guideline sentence range in certain extraordinary cases.(2) Until recently, every circuit to consider the issue had agreed that the departure authority does not allow a judge to depart in order to remedy disparities in the sentences received by codefendants in the same case.(3) That is, even if application of the Guidelines produced a much higher sentence for one defendant than for a codefendant of seemingly identical culpability, the judge was not permitted to depart--either by raising the low sentence, or by lowering the high sentence--to equalize the two penalties.

In United States v. Meza,(4) the Seventh Circuit reconsidered this position. Applying the departure analysis developed by the Supreme Court in Koon v. United States,(5) the Seventh Circuit held that a district court now must inquire whether the disparity is justified or unjustified. If it is unjustified, then the court may depart to remedy the disparity. The Meza court did not discuss the policy implications of its decision; it simply deduced the result from Koon.(6)

This Case Note argues that, from a policy perspective, Meza's approach is a significant improvement over the current ban on disparity-based departures. Widespread adoption of Mew not only would produce fairer sentences in multidefendant cases, but also would have the larger virtue of reintroducing explicit discussion of proportionality into the federal sentencing process.

I

In March 1994, Antonio Meza was indicted for his role as middleman in a marijuana trafficking conspiracy. Some ten months later, long after his coconspirators; had cooperated with the government, Meza pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiring to possess with intent to distribute over 100 kilograms of marijuana.(7) At the sentencing hearing, the district court determined that the applicable Guideline range was forty-six to fifty-seven months.(8) Meza's lawyer then moved for the court to depart downward in order to "equalize or regularize" Meza's sentence with those imposed on Meza's coconspirators.(9) The district court denied the motion, stating that it had no authority to depart on such a basis. The court then sentenced Meza to the minimum term of forty-six months.(10)

The Seventh Circuit initially upheld this decision and declined to revisit the "well-settled rule that disparity among coconspirators' sentences does not justify departure."(11) Its ruling was vacated and remanded by the Supreme Court(12) for reconsideration in light of United States v. Koon,(13) in which the Court had established an analytical framework for determining the circumstances under which a district court may depart. Koon requires the sentencing court to determine whether the sentencing factor relied upon for the proposed departure is forbidden, encouraged, discouraged, or unmentioned in the Guidelines.(14) If the factor is forbidden, then a court may not depart on that basis.(15) If it is encouraged, then the court may depart to the extent that the applicable Guideline does not already take it into account.(16) If it is discouraged, then the court should depart only if the factor is present to such an extraordinary degree that it "makes the case different from the ordinary case where the factor is present."(17) Finally, if the factor is unmentioned, then the court must look to the "`structure and theory of both relevant individual guidelines and the Guidelines taken as a whole'"(18) to determine whether the factor removes the case from the "heartland" of typical Guidelines cases.(19)

Applying this analysis, the Seventh Circuit once again evaluated whether the district court had the authority to depart in Meza's case. Although both Meza and the government agreed that disparity in sentences among coconspirators is a factor unmentioned in the Guidelines, the court rejected this view. …

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