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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Fourth Circuit continues to chip away at Carter

by Kirsten E. Small

In this post I summarized United States v. Hernandez, in which a panel of the Court relaxed U.S. v. Carter's apparently stringent requirements for explanation of within-Guideline sentences.

Yesterday, in United States v. Boulware, the Court further blunted Carter's force by holding harmless an inadequate explanation.

Boulware pleaded guilty to false statements in a bankruptcy proceeding and sought a below-guidelines sentence on the basis of family obligations. The district court rejected this request and imposed a sentence at the bottom of the advisory guideline range, noting in the process that it had "taken into account all the factors requied of me by Section 3553(a)."

Assuming that this explanation was inadequate and thus constituted a procedural flaw in the sentence (the panel did not cite Hernandez), the panel concluded that the error was harmless, i.e., it did not substantially and injuriously affect the outcome of the proceedings. Contrasting the facts before it to U.S. v. Lynn, 592 F.3d 572 (4th Cir. 2010), the panel found the error harmless because "the record ... leaves us with no doubt that the district court considered [Boulware's] argument for a below-guidelines sentence" and because Boulware's arguments for such a sentence "were very weak."

In short, the panel held that a Carter error is harmless so long as it appears from the record that the district court actually considered a defendant's arguments, even if it made no mention of them in the course of its sentencing decision.

It seems to me that this decision has the potential to substantially undermine Carter; we'll have to see how it plays out.

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