Koon v. United States

United States Supreme Court

518 U.S. 81, 116 S.Ct. 2035, 135 L.Ed.2d 392 (1996)

 

        In this case the U.S. Supreme Court reviews the sentence imposed on two police officers who were convicted of violating Rodney King’s civil rights by subjecting him to police brutality during an arrest for a traffic offense in 1991. The legal question in this highly publicized case is whether the trial judge was correct in his downward departure from the federal sentencing guidelines.

 

Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court.

 

        The petitioners’ guilt has been established, and we are concerned here only with the sentencing determinations made by the District Court and Court of Appeals. ...

 

        ... Koon, Powell, Briseno, and Wind were tried in state court on charges of assault with a deadly weapon and excessive use of force by a police officer. The officers were acquitted of all charges, with the exception of one assault charge against Powell that resulted in a hung jury. The verdicts touched off widespread rioting in Los Angeles. More than 40 people were killed in the riots, more than 2,000 were injured, and nearly $1 billion in property was destroyed. ...

 

        On August 4, 1992, a federal grand jury indicted the four officers under 18 U.S.C. § 242 charging them with violating King’s constitutional rights under color of law. Powell, Briseno, and Wind were charged with willful use of unreasonable force in arresting King. Koon was charged with willfully permitting the other officers to use unreasonable force during the arrest. After a trial in United States District Court for the Central District of California, the jury convicted Koon and Powell but acquitted Wind and Briseno.

 

        We now consider the District Court’s sentencing determinations. Under the Sentencing Guidelines, a district court identifies the base offense level assigned to the crime in question, adjusts the level as the Guidelines instruct, and determines the defendant’s criminal history category. ... Coordinating the adjusted offense level and criminal history category yields the appropriate sentencing range. ...

 

        The court granted a five level departure because “the victim’s wrongful conduct contributed significantly to provoking the offense behavior.” ... The court also granted a three level departure, based on a combination of four factors. First, as a result of the “widespread publicity and emotional outrage which have surrounded this case,” petitioners were “particularly likely to be targets of abuse” in prison. ... Second, petitioners would face job termination proceedings, after which they would lose their positions as police officers, be disqualified from prospective employment in the field of law enforcement, and suffer the “anguish and disgrace these deprivations entail.” ... Third, petitioners had been “significantly burden[ed]” by having been subjected to successive state and federal prosecutions. ... Fourth, petitioners were not “violent, dangerous, or likely to engage in future criminal conduct,” so there was “no reason to impose a sentence that reflects a need to protect the public from [them].” ... The court concluded these factors justified a departure when taken together, although none would have been sufficient standing alone. ...

 

        The departures yielded an offense level of 19 and a sentencing range of 30 to 37 months’ imprisonment. The court sentenced each petitioner to 30 months’ imprisonment. The petitioners appealed their convictions, and the Government appealed the sentences, arguing that the District Court erred in granting the downward departures and in failing to adjust the offense level upward for serious bodily injury. The Court of Appeals affirmed petitioners’ convictions, and affirmed the District Court’s refusal to adjust the offense level, but it reversed the District Court’s departure determinations. Only the last ruling is before us. ...

 

        We granted certiorari to determine the standard of review governing appeals from a district court’s decision to depart from the sentencing ranges in the Guidelines. The appellate court should not review the departure decision de novo, but instead should ask whether the sentencing court abused its discretion. Having invoked the wrong standard, the Court of Appeals erred further in rejecting certain of the downward departure factors relied upon by the District Judge. ...

 

        The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, as amended, 18 U.S.C. § 3551 et seq., 28 U.S.C. §§ 991–998, made far reaching changes in federal sentencing. Before the Act, sentencing judges enjoyed broad discretion in determining whether and how long an offender should be incarcerated. …The discretion led to perceptions that “federal judges mete out an unjustifiably wide range of sentences to offenders with similar histories, convicted of similar crimes, committed under similar circumstances.” ... In response, Congress created the United States Sentencing Commission and charged it with developing a comprehensive set of sentencing guidelines, 28 U.S.C. § 994. The Commission promulgated the United States Sentencing Guidelines, which “specify an appropriate [sentencing range] for each class of convicted persons” based on various factors related to the offense and the offender. ... A district judge now must impose on a defendant a sentence falling within the range of the applicable Guideline, if the case is an ordinary one.

 

        The Act did not eliminate all of the district court’s discretion, however. Acknowledging the wisdom, even the necessity, of sentencing procedures that take into account individual circumstances, ... Congress allows district courts to depart from the applicable Guideline range if “the court finds that there exists an aggravating or mitigating circumstance of a kind, or to a degree, not adequately taken into consideration by the Sentencing Commission in formulating the guidelines that should result in a sentence different from that described.” ...

 

        ... As an initial matter, the Government urges us to hold each of the factors relied upon by the District Court to be impermissible departure factors under all circumstances. A defendant’s loss of career opportunities must always be an improper consideration, the Government argues, because “persons convicted of crimes suffer a wide range of consequences in addition to the sentence.” ... Susceptibility to prison abuse, continues the Government, likewise never should be considered because the “degree of vulnerability to assault is an entirely ‘subjective’ judgment, and the number of defendants who may qualify for that departure is ‘virtually unlimited.’” ...

 

        Those arguments, however persuasive as a matter of sentencing policy, should be directed to the Commission. Congress did not grant federal courts authority to decide what sorts of sentencing considerations are inappropriate in every circumstance. Rather, 18 U.S.C. § 3553(b) instructs a court that, in determining whether there exists an aggravating or mitigating circumstance of a kind or to a degree not adequately considered by the Commission, it should consider “only the sentencing guidelines, policy statements, and official commentary of the Sentencing Commission.” The Guidelines, however, “place essentially no limit on the number of potential factors that may warrant departure.” ... The Commission set forth factors courts may not consider under any circumstances but made clear that with those exceptions, it “does not intend to limit the kinds of factors, whether or not mentioned anywhere else in the guidelines, that could constitute grounds for departure in an unusual case.” ... Thus, for the courts to conclude a factor must not be considered under any circumstances would be to transgress the policymaking authority vested in the Commission. ...

 

        We conclude, then, that a federal court’s examination of whether a factor can ever be an appropriate basis for departure is limited to determining whether the Commission has proscribed, as a categorical matter, consideration of the factor. If the answer to the question is no—as it will be most of the time—the sentencing court must determine whether the factor, as occurring in the particular circumstances, takes the case outside the heartland of the applicable Guideline. We now turn to the four factors underlying the District Court’s three level departure. ...

 

        The goal of the Sentencing Guidelines is, of course, to reduce unjustified disparities and so reach towards the evenhandedness and neutrality that are the distinguishing marks of any principled system of justice. In this respect, the Guidelines provide uniformity, predictability, and a degree of detachment lacking in our earlier system. This too must be remembered, however. It has been uniform and constant in the federal judicial tradition for the sentencing judge to consider every convicted person as an individual and every case as a unique study in the human failings that sometimes mitigate, sometimes magnify, the crime and the punishment to ensue. We do not understand it to have been the congressional purpose to withdraw all sentencing discretion from the United States District Judge. Discretion is reserved within the Sentencing Guidelines, and reflected by the standard of appellate review we adopt. ...

 

        The Court of Appeals identified the wrong standard of review. It erred as well in finding that victim misconduct did not justify the five level departure and that susceptibility to prison abuse and the burdens of successive prosecutions could not be relied upon for the three level departure. Those sentencing determinations were well within the sound discretion of the District Court. The District Court did abuse its discretion in relying on the other two factors forming the three level departure: career loss and low recidivism risk. When a reviewing court concludes that a district court based a departure on both valid and invalid factors, a remand is required unless it determines the district court would have imposed the same sentence absent reliance on the invalid factors. ... As the District Court here stated that none of the four factors standing alone would justify the three level departure, it is not evident that the court would have imposed the same sentence if it had relied only on susceptibility to abuse in prison and the hardship of successive prosecutions. The Court of Appeals should therefore remand the case to the District Court.

 

        The judgment of the Court of Appeals is affirmed in part and reversed in part, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. …

 

 

Justice Stevens, concurring in part and dissenting in part. ...

 

 

Justice Souter, with whom Justice Ginsburg joins, concurring in part and dissenting in part.

 

        I believe that it was ... an abuse of discretion for the District Court to depart downward because of the successive prosecutions. In these cases, there were facial showings that the state court system had malfunctioned when the petitioners were acquitted (or, in the case of one charge, had received no verdict), and without something more one cannot accept the District Court’s conclusion that there was no demonstration that a “clear miscarriage of justice” caused the result in the state trial. ... This is so simply because the federal prosecutors, in proving their cases, proved conduct constituting the crimes for which petitioners had been prosecuted unsuccessfully in the state court. ... While such a facial showing resulting from the identity of factual predicates for the state and federal prosecutions might in some cases be overcome (by demonstrating, say, that a crucial witness for the State was unavailable in the state trial through no one’s fault), there was no evidence to overcome it here. ...

 

        This is not, of course, to say that a succession of state and federal prosecutions may never justify a downward departure. If a comparison of state and federal verdicts in relation to their factual predicates indicates no incongruity, a downward departure at federal sentencing could well be consistent with an application of a rational heartland concept. But these are not such cases.

 

 

Justice Breyer, with whom Justice Ginsburg joins, concurring in part and dissenting in part. ...

 

        In my view, the relevant Guideline ... encompasses the possibility of a double prosecution. That Guideline applies to various civil rights statutes, which Congress enacted, in part, to provide a federal forum for the protection of constitutional rights where state law enforcement efforts had proved inadequate. ... Before promulgating the Guidelines, the Commission “examined the many hundreds of criminal statutes in the United States Code,” ... and it would likely have been aware of this well known legislative purpose. The centrality of this purpose, the Commission’s likely awareness of it, and other considerations that Justice Souter mentions ... lead me to conclude on the basis of the statute and Guideline itself, that the Commission would have considered a “double prosecution” case as one ordinarily within, not outside, the “civil rights” Guideline’s “heartland.” For that reason, a simple double prosecution, without more, does not support a departure. ...

 

        ... I cannot find in this record anything sufficiently unusual, compared, say, with other policemen imprisoned for civil rights violations, as to justify departure. …