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Violation of supervised release sentences must be reasonable

On February 9, 2018, the Second Circuit issued a summary order vacating a sentence imposed for a violation of supervised release.  United States v. Kalaba, 17-328, involved a defendant who had been convicted for credit card theft and who was sentenced to 70 months’ imprisonment.  After his time in prison concluded, he began a three-year term of supervised release.  Before his supervised release term ended, Kalaba was arrested and indicted with multiple narcotics offenses, for which he was sentenced to 84 months’ imprisonment, well below the 240 month sentence recommended by the U.S. Probation Office.  He was also charged with four specifications of violating supervised release.  He did not admit to the specifications alleging the narcotics conduct, but instead was allowed to admit only to less serious specifications relating to unauthorized travel and a failure to notify the Probation Office about his change of residence.  He was sentenced to the maximum of 24 months’ imprisonment, above the Guidelines range of 15 to 21 months’ imprisonment, without a written statement of reasons or any spoken explanation offered at sentencing.

The Circuit reversed in light of the district court’s failure to explain the reasons for the sentence it imposed, which was contrary to Circuit law that requires the Court to provide such a rationale both in writing and in open court.  The Circuit commented that the district court was required to articulate specifically why this defendant is different from the ordinary defendant in terms of the goals to be furthered by supervised release.  It is not clear that it would be difficult for the district court to provide such a rationale on remand—the defendant committed serious crimes while on supervised release and was sentenced only three months above the applicable range—but the law requires that this be done.  The Court then conducted a plain error analysis and found that (1) the error was plain (the law in the Circuit is clear on the need to explain the rationale for a given sentence); (2) substantial rights were implicated by the district court’s failure to articulate the rationale; and (3) such failure “erodes public trust in the court and its criminal proceedings,” and thereby seriously affected the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings.

Given that the exacting plain error standard is often not satisfied in this  Circuit, it is something of a pity that this decision was not published.  Indeed, if this type of error is plain error, then other more substantive errors logically should be as well.  However, the value of theKalaba decision to future litigants is uncertain given the summary order’s nonprecedential nature.  See Second Circuit Local Rule 32.1.1(a) (“Rulings by summary order do not have precedential effect.”).

-By Clinton Morrison and Harry Sandick