Pretty much every federal district judge in the country knows by now that the sentencing guidelines are not mandatory, the guidelines can't be presumed to be accurate, and that federal district court judges have authority to impose a sentence above, below, or within the sentencing guidelines, applying the factors set out in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).
And so just about every federal district judge knows that if he or she says she's going to give a guidelines sentence, he or she has to also say it's the sentence that they'd give under § 3553(a).
It's odd, but in federal court it's very important that a judge knows what power he has, which is exemplified in the D.C. Circuit's opinion in United States v. Terrell. If a district judge is going to give a guidelines sentence, he or she has to be clear about whether a lower sentence is even possible.
Mr. Terrell had a crack (conviction) problem. He pled guilty to dealing a bit of crack and went to sentencing.
At sentencing, he asked the judge to give him less time than the sentencing guidelines called for. The guidelines in his case called for a sentence of 210 months on the low side (ok, perhaps it was more than "a bit" of crack).
The judge, though, told Mr. Terrell that he didn't think he could help him out. As the D.C. Circuit summarized it,
the court stated that it would sentence Terrell below the applicable Guidelines range only if it found "compelling reasons" to do so. See, e.g., Tr. 6/27/06, at 4:6-14 ("There would have to be compelling reasons for the Court not [to] impose an advisory guideline sentence."); id. at 7:8, 7:18-20 ("Now, I'm not so sure compelling reasons exist here. . . . [I]f you think there's a basis for the Court to impose something other than an advisory guideline sentence it's going to have to be for compelling reasons."); see also Tr. 8/4/05, at 4:16-18 ("In all likelihood, I'm going to follow the guidelines even though they're advisory. In all likelihood I'm going to do that."). The court explained that it had found "compelling reasons" to deviate from the Guidelines in only two prior sentencings. Tr. 6/27/06, at 4:6-14.
If there's one thing a federal appellate court doesn't like, it's being ignored. Just three months before Mr. Terrell's hearing, the D.C. Circuit had decided, in United States v. Pickett, 475 F.3d 1347, 1353 (D.C. Cir. 2007), that a district court can't decide that the sentencing guidelines are presumptively reasonable - put another way, it can't say that it'll only go below the sentencing guidelines if it has compelling reasons.
For the district court to keep on applying a "compelling reasons" standard was, perhaps, a bit of a snub to the august appellate court.
As the court of appeals put it,
Even after we issued our decision in Pickett, the court indicated that it was continuing to apply its "compelling reasons" approach. See Tr. 3/27/07, at 10:2-3 ("The question becomes why shouldn't the Court impose a [within-Guidelines] sentence of 210 months? . . . I just can't think of any compelling reasons why I should not impose a sentence of 210 months.").
Because the district court was wrong about when it could go below the sentencing guidelines - employing a "compelling reasons" approach after the D.C. Circuit had already said that wasn't the law - the D.C. Circuit remanded because, "the [district] court took too narrow a view of its authority to deviate from the Guidelines"
Mr. Terrell will be resentenced.