In United States v. Lymas, the district judge from the eastern district of North Carolina, sentenced three Hobbs Act robbery defendants to fifteen years each, despite the fact that one defendant’s guidelines were significantly lower than the other two.
The Court reversed, holding that the district judge did not sufficiently explain his sentence. The lower court focused mostly on the seriousness of the offense, and discounted the other sentencing factors in 18 USC 3553 such as criminal history, role in the offense, characteristics of the defendant, etc. Here is the critical passage in the opinion by Chief Judge Traxler, joined by Judges Wynn and Harris:
In this case, the district court provided the opposite of individualized sentences and explanations. As noted above, the court determined that the Guideline underpunished the crime and that each defendant should receive the same sentence. Thus, except for offering its view of the seriousness of the offense, the district court ignored every other statutory factor and essentially sentenced the crime itself rather than the individual defendants.
The Court then reviewed all the various distinctions between the defendants which weighed in favor of higher or lower sentences, and which the district judge did not address.
From an appellate practice standpoint, the case is significant. Appealing a sentence or other ruling on the ground that the lower court did not sufficiently explain its decision can seem like a desperate argument, a “last line of defense” for when you can’t point to an actual error by the district judge. But it can sometimes be a winning argument, especially in the Fourth Circuit, as this case shows.
As for the defendant, his case is not over. He will be resentenced, probably by the same judge. The judge could conceivably give the same sentence with a more detailed statement of reasons, and be affirmed on the second try. But the defendant does have a chance at a better outcome.