Gall v. United States

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Opinion [Justice Stevens]
Concurrence [Justice Scalia]
Concurrence [Justice Souter]
Dissent [Justice Thomas]
Dissent [Justice Alito]




certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the eighth circuit

No. 06–7949. Argued October 2, 2007—Decided December 10, 2007

Petitioner Gall joined an ongoing enterprise distributing the controlled substance “ecstasy” while in college, but withdrew from the conspiracy after seven months, has sold no illegal drugs since, and has used no illegal drugs and worked steadily since graduation. Three and half years after withdrawing from the conspiracy, Gall pleaded guilty to his participation. A presentence report recommended a sentence of 30 to 37 months in prison, but the District Court sentenced Gall to 36 months’ probation, finding that probation reflected the seriousness of his offense and that imprisonment was unnecessary because his voluntary withdrawal from the conspiracy and postoffense conduct showed that he would not return to criminal behavior and was not a danger to society. The Eighth Circuit reversed on the ground that a sentence outside the Federal Sentencing Guidelines range must be—and was not in this case—supported by extraordinary circumstances.


1. While the extent of the difference between a particular sentence and the recommended Guidelines range is relevant, courts of appeals must review all sentences—whether inside, just outside, or significantly outside the Guidelines range—under a deferential abuse-of-discretion standard. Pp. 7–14..

(a) Because the Guidelines are now advisory, appellate review of sentencing decisions is limited to determining whether they are “reasonable,” United States v. Booker, 543 U. S. 220, and an abuse-of-discretion standard applies to appellate review of sentencing decisions. A district judge must consider the extent of any departure from the Guidelines and must explain the appropriateness of an unusually lenient or harsh sentence with sufficient justifications. An appellate court may take the degree of variance into account and consider the extent of a deviation from the Guidelines, but it may not require “extraordinary” circumstances or employ a rigid mathematical formula using a departure’s percentage as the standard for determining the strength of the justification required for a specific sentence. Such approaches come too close to creating an impermissible unreasonableness presumption for sentences outside the Guidelines range. The mathematical approach also suffers from infirmities of application. And both approaches reflect a practice of applying a heightened standard of review to sentences outside the Guidelines range, which is inconsistent with the rule that the abuse-of-discretion standard applies to appellate review of all sentencing decisions—whether inside or outside that range. Pp. 7–10..

(b) A district court should begin by correctly calculating the applicable Guidelines range. The Guidelines are the starting point and initial benchmark but are not the only consideration. After permitting both parties to argue for a particular sentence, the judge should consider all of 18 U. S. C. §3353(a)’s factors to determine whether they support either party’s proposal. He may not presume that the Guidelines range is reasonable but must make an individualized assessment based on the facts presented. If he decides on an outside-the-Guidelines sentence, he must consider the extent of the deviation and ensure that the justification is sufficiently compelling to support the degree of variation. He must adequately explain the chosen sentence to allow for meaningful appellate review and to promote the perception of fair sentencing. In reviewing the sentence, the appellate court must first ensure that the district court made no significant procedural errors and then consider the sentence’s substantive reasonableness under an abuse-of-discretion standard, taking into account the totality of the circumstances, including the extent of a variance from the Guidelines range, but must give due deference to the district court’s decision that the §3553(a) factors justify the variance. That the appellate court might have reasonably reached a different conclusion does not justify reversal. Pp. 11–14.

2. On abuse-of-discretion review, the Eighth Circuit failed to give due deference to the District Court’s reasoned and reasonable sentencing decision. Since the District Court committed no procedural error, the only question for the Circuit was whether the sentence was reasonable, i.e., whether the District Judge abused his discretion in determining that the §3553(a) factors supported the sentence and justified a substantial deviation from the Guidelines range. The Circuit gave virtually no deference to the District Court’s decision that the variance was justified. The Circuit clearly disagreed with the District Court’s decision, but it was not for the Circuit to decide de novo whether the justification for a variance is sufficient or the sentence reasonable. Pp. 14–21.

446 F. 3d 884, reversed.

Stevens, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C.J., and Scalia, Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined. Scalia, J., and Souter, J., filed concurring opinions. Thomas, J., and Alito, J., filed dissenting opinions.

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