Federal trial judges enjoy wide discretion in sentencing defendants and can consider acquitted conduct in determining the punishment range, the U.S.Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled yesterday in a drug possession case.
The defendant, Sorenson Oruche, was challenging his 145-month prison sentence on appeal, saying Judge Emmet Sullivan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia unfairly linked Oruche to more than 1,000 grams of heroin even though the related charge, a conspiracy count, was set aside by the judge.
Oruche’s case has been drawn out since 2001 in the district and appellate courts. In 2007, the D.C. Circuit reversed and remanded Sullivan’s declaration that Oruche should receive a new trial. Allegations of prosecution misconduct had been central in Sullivan’s decision to grant a new trial.
A pre-sentence report indicated Oruche should be held responsible for thousands more grams of heroin, but Sullivan backed off that suggestion.
The appellate panel—Chief Judge David Sentelle, Judge Douglas Ginsburg and Senior Judge A. Raymond Randolph—noted yesterday that Oruche’s two convictions—each for distribution of 100 grams or more of heroin—potentially carried a statutory maximum of 40 years behind bars. Oruche’s sentence of a little more than 12 years is far below the maximum, the court said. Click here for a copy of the judgment.
The law of the circuit, the appellate judges said, allows district judges to consider acquitted conduct in establishing the base level of an offense. Sullivan therefore was not wrong to find Oruche responsible for heroin in the conspiracy count for which Oruche was acquitted.
“In exercising its wide discretion in setting a defendant’s sentence, nothing forbids a district court from placing heavy weight on factual findings inherent in a verdict that was overturned on unrelated legal grounds,” the panel judges ruled.
Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner associate Michael O’Shaughnessy argued for Oruche last month in the D.C. Circuit. The firm represented Oruche pro bono.