Court: We Don't Like It, But It's Not Plainly Unreasonable

By Robyn Hagan Cain on October 12, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Raymont David Brown was busted for cocaine possession after a positive urine test. For an ordinary person, that might mean a little trouble. For Brown, who was on supervised release after an earlier crack distribution conviction, it meant jail time.

Upon determining that Brown had violated the terms of supervised release, the district court classified the violation as a Grade B violation -- rather than a less serious Grade C violation -- reasoning that Brown could have been prosecuted for a recidivist drug offense under federal law. The court sentenced Brown to 24 months in prison, the statutory maximum revocation sentence.

Was it harsh? Sure. Was it plainly unreasonable? No.

This week, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Brown's sentence in an unpublished opinion.

Brown served eight years in prison on his distribution conviction. He was released in July 2010; he failed the fateful test only two months later.

The district court took some time to evaluate whether Brown's infraction was a Grade B or Grade C violation. (The advisory sentencing range was 21-24 months for a Grade B violation, but only 8-14 months in prison for a Grade C violation.) Based on unpublished opinions from the Fourth Circuit that affirmed Grade B violation sentences for drug possession, the district court found that Brown's violation qualified as Grade B.

The court further noted that Brown's prior conviction -- the underlying offense for which he was on supervised release -- made his possession a felony punishable by more than one year of imprisonment, and that Brown had "shown a total lack of respect and disregard for ... the rules of supervised release."

A sentence is procedurally unreasonable when the judge improperly calculates the advisory guidelines sentence, fails to adequately explain the sentence after considering the Sentencing Commission's policy statements on supervised release violations, or fails to consider other pertinent sentencing factors. It's substantively unreasonable if the sentencing court fails to sufficiently state a proper basis for its conclusion. It's plainly unreasonable if it contravenes "clearly settled" law.

Here, despite the panel's doubt as to the correctness of the district court's reasoning, it affirmed the sentence because it was neither illegal nor plainly unreasonable.

When arguing a supervised release revocation appeal, keep in mind that the Fourth Circuit is only looking for whether the sentence imposed is "plainly unreasonable." Even if the appellate judges disagree with the district court's reasoning, they are likely to affirm the sentence in the absence of error.

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