Case o' The Week: Doubting Thomas - Joel Leon Thomas Jr., Guideline variance, and Mand-Mins
DJ wanted to give shorter sentence.
DJ could have given shorter sentence.
Yet half-century sentence stands?
United States v. Joel Thomas, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 22625 (9th Cir. Dec. 20, 2017), decision available here.
Players: Decision by Judge Schroeder, joined by Judge Wallace. Dissent in part by Judge Kozinski.
|Twenty-four years old when sentenced, Thomas will be 73 when released.|
Convicted after trial, Thomas was hit with stacked Section 924(c) counts and a mand-min sentence of 32 years. Id. at *6-*7. The district court then added 210 months for the conspiracy and robbery counts, for a total sentence of 49.5 years. Id. at *7.
Issue(s): “On appeal . . . Thomas contends the resulting sentence was substantively unreasonable. He argues that a 49.5 year sentence is disproportionate to the crimes for which he was convicted.” Id. at *14. “The . . . issue is the reasonableness of Thomas’s sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 3742, the statute authorizing appellate review of sentences. Thomas argues that his sentence was unreasonably high. In imposing the 49.5 year sentence, the experienced district judge was well aware of the impact of the mandatory minimum sentences. Indeed, the district judge expressly said that he believed that the total 32 year mandatory minimum for use of a firearm in this case was excessive, but recognized that he had no discretion with respect to its imposition. Thomas agrees. In imposing the sentence on the robbery and conspiracy counts themselves, the district judge concluded that the within-range 17.5 year sentence, under all the circumstances, was not unreasonable.” Id. at *9-*10.
Held: “We agree, but Thomas does not.” Id. at *10. “The troublesome issue in this case arises because the mandatory minimums must be combined with the sentence imposed on the underlying crimes, to create a very long sentence. Yet this does not make the sentence unreasonable . . .” Id. at *17.
Of Note: In dissent, Judge Kozinski compellingly details the district court’s fundamental misunderstanding of its discretion to vary downwards. Note that Thomas was only 24 years old when he was sentenced, with no real criminal history, and wasn’t even present for two of the robberies. Id. at *19. With the sentence imposed, Thomas will be 73 when he gets out of prison. Id. In fact, Thomas got a dozen years more than a terrorist who plotted to blow up LAX. Id. at *23.
Do you feel bad about that half-century of incarceration? So did the district judge.
The D.J. complained the sentence was “too much. I wouldn’t impose that sentence if I had the discretion. But I don’t.” Id. (emphasis in original?) As Judge Kozinski observes, “The district judge mistakenly believed he was required to calculate the Guidelines portion of the sentence as if it were a stand-alone sentence, rather than as one component of a combined sentence. There is, at the very least, a serious risk that the district judge meant what he said: He imposed a 49.5 year sentence because he believed he had no discretion. This is a major procedural error that requires reversal.” Id. at *21-*22.
What happened in this case? It appears the D.J. didn’t understand that he could vary downwards on the guideline component of the sentence – all the way down as far as the 32 year mand-min, if he wanted. As Judge Kozinski observes, the erroneous resulting sentence is far “greater than necessary” – a tragic result from a fundamental sentencing mistake, that stands uncorrected by the Ninth.
How to Use: That infernal tangle of mand-mins and guidelines will be coming more frequently to a court near you, soon. Before that happens Thomas is worth a close read to understand how those two components interrelate -- Judges Schroeder and Kozinski both agree on the variance that could have happened in this case.
For Further Reading: Inauguration on Friday. How will President Trump affect the Ninth? For an interesting early analysis, see How Big a Deal are Four 9th Circuit Vacancies that Await Trump?, available here.
Image of Mr. Thomas from http://www.yourwestvalley.com/suncitygrand/article_be608910-3a18-11e4-8e9c-a70dc4cf1458.html
Steven Kalar, Federal Public Defender. Website at www.ndcalfpd.org