Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

Criminal Law - Sentencing Guidelines - Sixth Circuit Holds That Imposing a Significantly Below-Guidelines Sentence Informed by a Jury Poll Is Not Substantively Unreasonable

Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

Criminal Law - Sentencing Guidelines - Sixth Circuit Holds That Imposing a Significantly Below-Guidelines Sentence Informed by a Jury Poll Is Not Substantively Unreasonable

Article excerpt

CRIMINAL LAW--SENTENCING GUIDELINES--SIXTH CIRCUIT HOLDS THAT IMPOSING A SIGNIFICANTLY BELOW-GUIDELINES SENTENCE INFORMED BY A JURY POLL IS NOT SUBSTANTIVELY UNREASONABLE.--United States v. Collins, 828 F.3d 386 (6th Cir. 2016).

Community safety is a bedrock justification for the existence of criminal law. Criminal law, the rationale goes, serves the dual purpose of protecting the community from suffering the results of future criminal acts (1) while punishing those who have already committed such acts. (2) Understandably, the criminal legal system engages many proxies for the community in the process of adjudicating cases. Juries, for example, can serve as a barometer of the community's sentiment on the correct level of punishment. (3) Recently, in United States v. Collins, (4) the Sixth Circuit held as a matter of first impression that a federal sentencing judge's consideration of a jury sentencing poll was a permissible part of determining a defendant's sentence. (5) The court was correct to uphold the sentence on this ground. The jury poll provided pivotal insight into community sentiment regarding fair punishment, exposing a remarkable gap between the jury's view of an appropriate sentence and the mandatory minimum sentence. However, the Sixth Circuit should have gone further and endorsed the practice. By polling juries, trial courts can leverage their unique institutional ability to measure community sentiment to inform the legislative process regarding mandatory minimums.

On February 10, 2013, a Canton, Ohio, police officer assigned to an FBI task force used peer-to-peer file-sharing software to download child pornography from Ryan Collins's computer. (6) The officer subsequently obtained a search warrant for Collins's residence, where he interviewed Collins. (7) According to the officer, Collins admitted to using peer-to-peer software to download and share child pornography. (8) After confiscating Collins's computer, the FBI discovered nineteen videos and ninety-three pictures of child pornography. (9) On October 28, 2014, a jury found Collins guilty of the offenses of receiving and distributing child pornography under 18 U.S.C. [section] 2252(a)(2) and possessing child pornography under 18 U.S.C. [section] 2252A(a)(5)(B). (10)

Following the jury's guilty verdict, Judge Gwin of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio conducted a poll of the jury in which he instructed the jurors to "[s]tate what you believe an appropriate sentence is." (11) At sentencing, the district judge reported that the average juror response was fourteen and a half months of incarceration and the median was eight months, though the responses ranged from zero to sixty months. (12) The jury's average sentencing preference for Collins strayed drastically from each offense's mandatory minimum--sixty months--and departed dramatically from Collins's calculated sentence range under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines--262 to 327 months. (13) The government repeatedly objected to the court's consideration of the jury poll as a factor in determining Collins's sentence. (14) Nonetheless, the district judge incorporated the poll into his sentencing decision and subsequently sentenced Collins to concurrent mandatory minimum terms of sixty months of incarceration. (15) On appeal, the government challenged the district judge's downward variance from the Federal Guidelines guided by the jury poll. (16)

The Sixth Circuit affirmed the sentence. Writing for a unanimous panel, Judge Guy (17) held that the district judge's explicit use of a jury poll did not render Collins's sentence substantively unreasonable. (18) In so holding, the court had to confront its inconclusive dicta from United States v. Martin (19)--a case involving the same judge's use of a jury poll--on "whether jury polling provided 'meaningful data with which to assess the suitability of the applicable Guidelines.'" (20) Reviewing the district judge's decision for an abuse of discretion, the court set forth several reasons for upholding Collins's sentence. …

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