Federal Sentencing Guidelines in Firearms Cases
A Federal Criminal Sentencing Example
The United States Sentencing Guidelines (USSG) was an attempt to reach the goal of consistent sentencing among the 94 federal districts. In other words, the United States Guideline Commission was established to try to ensure that persons sentenced in Georgia were punished similarly to persons punished in Washington State for the same offense. However, as is the case with many ideals, an admirable idea actually had a number of problems in its implementation. It has been criticized for contributing to large sentences in the federal criminal system.
To be more specific, the Guidelines are a set of principles and rules designed to apply a mathematic formula that generates a specific range of punishment for a crime.
Understanding the Federal Sentencing Guidelines in Firearms Cases
It is important to recognize that there are two ranges of punishment in every federal case: the statutory range and the guideline range. Think of the statutory range as the outer sentencing boundaries established by Congress for every offense. For example, a Felon in Possession of a Firearm, assuming that the defendant is not an armed career criminal, is likely facing a statutory punishment range of between 0-10 years imprisonment. However, the Guidelines would actually look at the criminal history of the defendant and specific offense characteristics to create a more specific sentence recommendation.
Using the same example, while the person charged with possession of a firearm by a felon is facing a sentence of up to 10 years, that person’s guideline calculation will be much narrower. Imagine this person has 2 felony priors of burglary committed within the last 12 years and he possessed 2 semiautomatic rifles, one of which has an obliterated serial number.
Application of Federal Sentencing Guidelines
First, the correct guideline section will need to be determined. In this case it is Section 2K2.1. Then, the correct base offense level will need to be identified. Under the Guidelines, a person with 2 prior felony convictions who possesses a semiautomatic firearm that is capable of accepting a large magazine starts with a base offense level of 26. Then the facts need to be evaluated to see if any enhancements apply on the basis of enhanced specific offense characteristics. In this case, 4 levels are added because of the altered serial number. Thus, the total offense level would be 30. Next, the offender’s criminal history creates a criminal history score. In this case, two convictions would likely garner 6 criminal history points that would put the defendant in criminal history category of III. If the offender pleads guilty in a timely fashion, then the Court and the Government would likely agree to a 3 level reduction for acceptance of responsibility. In the end, this offender would have a criminal history score of III and a total offense level of 27. Under the Guidelines, a sentence of between 87 and 108 months would be called for. This range is determined using the Sentencing Table.
This mathematic approach has been the subject of much debate since the Guidelines were created. Initially, the Guidelines were mandatory. This means that judges were required to impose a sentence within the Guidelines unless extraordinary circumstances existed. However, in 2005, U.S. v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220, the Supreme Court mandated that the Guidelines, while still must be considered in every case, are merely advisory and not mandatory.
Make no mistake. Regardless of Booker, the Guidelines are still an important starting point for federal judges and most cases are still within the Guidelines.