OCTOBER TERM, 1991
WILLIAMS v. UNITED STATES
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SEVENTH CIRCUIT
No. 90-6297. Argued November 6, 1991-Decided March 9, 1992
Under the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, the United States Sentencing Commission has promulgated Guidelines establishing sentencing ranges for different categories of federal offenses and defendants. The Act allows a district court to depart from a guideline range under certain circumstances, 18 U. S. C. § 3553(b), and provides for limited appellate review of sentences, requiring a remand for resentencing if a sentence (1) was imposed in violation of law or "as a result of an incorrect application" of the Guidelines, § 3742(f)(1), or (2) is an unreasonable departure from the applicable guideline range, §3742(f)(2). Petitioner Williams was convicted in the Federal District Court of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. The applicable sentencing range for someone in his criminal history category and at his offense level is 18 to 24 months. However, the District Court departed upward from that range and sentenced him to 27 months' imprisonment, determining that his criminal history category was inadequate because it did not include two convictions that were too old to be counted in the Guidelines' criminal history calculation and because it did not reflect several prior arrests. The Court of Appeals agreed that the convictions were reliable information indicating more extensive criminal conduct than was reflected by Williams' criminal history category, but it rejected the District Court's reliance upon the prior arrests, finding that the Guidelines prohibit a court from basing a departure on a prior arrest record alone and that the District Court had not adequately explained the factual basis for its use of those arrests as a ground for departure. Although the District Court had used both proper and improper factors to justify departure, the Court of Appeals affirmed the sentence on the ground that it was reasonable in light of the proper factors standing alone.
1. A reviewing court may, in appropriate circumstances, affirm a sentence in which a district court's departure from a guideline range is based on both valid and invalid factors. Pp. 197-202.
(a) Construing the plain language of the Guidelines and the Act, it is an incorrect application of the Guidelines for a district court to depart from the applicable sentencing range based on a factor that the Commission has already fully considered in establishing a guideline range or, as
in this case, on a factor that the Commission has expressly rejected as a ground for departure. An "incorrect application of the sentencing guidelines" occurs when the departure ground is prohibited either by the Guidelines or by general policy statements regarding the Guidelines' application, which the Commission is also authorized to promulgate, 28 U. S. C. § 994(a)(2). A policy statement is an authoritative guide to the meaning of the applicable Guideline, and an error in the statement's interpretation could lead to an incorrect determination that departure was appropriate. Pp. 199-20l.
(b) When a district court relies upon an improper ground in departing from a guideline range, a reviewing court may not affirm a sentence based solely on its independent assessment that the departure is reasonable under § 3742(f)(2). In order to give full effect to both § 3742(f)(1) and §3742(f)(2), the reviewing court must conduct separate inquiries under each provision to determine whether a remand is required. It may not focus on one provision to the exclusion of the other. pp. 201-202.
(c) Williams' argument that a remand is automatically required under § 3742(f)(1) in order to rectify any "incorrect application" of the Guidelines is rejected. A remand is required only if a sentence is "imposed as a result of an incorrect application" of the Guidelines, i. e., if the sentence would have been different but for the district court's error. The party challenging the sentence bears the initial burden of showing that the district court relied upon an invalid factor at sentencing, but not the burden of proving that the invalid factor was determinative in the sentencing decision. Rather, once the court of appeals finds that the district court misapplied the Guidelines, a remand is appropriate unless the reviewing court determines that the error was harmless. Pp. 202-203.
(d) If the court of appeals determines that a remand is not required under § 3742(f)(1), it may affirm the sentence as long as it is also satisfied that the departure is reasonable under §3742(f)(2). The reasonableness determination looks to the amount and extent of the departure in light of the grounds for departing. In assessing reasonableness, a court must examine the factors to be considered in imposing a sentence under the Guidelines and the district court's stated reasons for the sentence's imposition. §3742(e). A sentence can be "reasonable" even if some of the district court's reasons justifying departure are invalid, provided the remaining reasons are sufficient to justify the departure's magnitude. Pp. 203-204.
(e) The limited appellate review of sentencing decisions does not alter the traditional deference a court of appeals owes to a district court's exercise of its sentencing discretion, and the selection of the ap-