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United States of America v. Ronald Carter

September 28, 2012

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, APPELLEE,
v.
RONALD CARTER, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Jose A. Cabranes, Circuit Judge:

11-3605-cr

United States v. Carter

(Submitted: September 20, 2012

Before: LEVAL, CABRANES, and KATZMANN, Circuit Judges.

Defendant-appellant Ronald Carter argues that the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York (Frederick J. Scullin, Jr., Judge) erred by applying the ten-year mandatory minimum in 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(B) without first concluding that a ten-year sentence was "not greater than necessary" to achieve the sentencing objectives listed in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(2). See 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). We reject Carter's argument and hold that a statutory mandatory minimum provision constrains a district court's discretion under § 3553(a) when it "specifically provide[s]" for a minimum sentence. Id. § 3551(a). In other words, a statutory mandatory minimum provision need not "specifically provide[ ]" that it trumps the general sentencing factors in § 3553(a).

Affirmed.

This case reminds us of the tension in federal criminal law between two competing but overlapping systems for imposing a sentence. In most cases, a sentencing court computes the relevant range under the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, now advisory under the teaching of United

States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005), before making its own determination of an appropriate punishment after considering the general sentencing factors in § 3553(a), including the "parsimony" provision that a sentence must not be "greater than necessary" to serve appropriate sentencing objectives. 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). For certain criminal offenses, however, Congress has created a "mandatory minimum" term of imprisonment--a blunt directive that may require judges to give sentences that they consider unduly punitive. See Dorsey v. United States, 132 S. Ct. 2321, 2326-29 (2012) (describing the development of and relationship between these two sentencing regimes). The question presented in this appeal is whether a statutory mandatory minimum provision binds a federal sentencing court when the relevant statute does not specify that it overrides the "parsimony" provision in § 3553(a). For the reasons stated below, we hold that a statutory mandatory minimum binds a sentencing court by explicitly providing a sentencing floor. The relevant statute need not specify that it overrides the "parsimony" provision or other general sentencing considerations in § 3553(a). Therefore, we affirm the judgment of the District Court.

BACKGROUND

Defendant Ronald Carter pleaded guilty in 2011 to conspiracy to distribute, and conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute, fifty grams or more of cocaine base in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 846, 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(B), and 851.*fn1 Based on the drug amount and Carter's prior felony drug convictions, the government recommended a prison term of ten years--the minimum required under § 841(b)(1)(B).*fn2 Although Carter recognized at the time of his guilty plea that he was subject to a ten-year mandatory minimum prison term, he argued at sentencing that a ten-year term "punishes him a second time for the prior offense conduct" and "serves none of the purposes of sentencing found in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)." App. 12. Considering the statutory mandatory minimum as binding, the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York (Frederick J. Scullin, Jr., Judge) sentenced Carter to ten years' imprisonment.

On appeal, Carter argues that the District Court erred by applying the ten-year mandatory minimum. In particular, he argues that his sentence violated the so-called "parsimony" provision of 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), which provides that a sentencing court "shall impose a sentence sufficient, but not greater than necessary, to comply with [appropriate sentencing objectives]."*fn3 Carter acknowledges that § 841(b)(1)(B) purports to create a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment. See note 2, ante. He also acknowledges that Congress may override the general sentencing requirements in § 3553(a), see Dorsey, 132 S. Ct. at 2327 ("[O]rdinarily no matter what range the Guidelines set forth, a sentencing judge must sentence an offender to at least the minimum prison term set forth in a statutory mandatory minimum."), but to do so, Carter argues, the mandatory minimum provision must specifically provide that other sentencing provisions are not controlling. In support of this argument, Carter points to § 3551(a), which states that "[e]xcept as otherwise specifically provided, a defendant . . . shall be sentenced in accordance with the provisions of this chapter so as to achieve" the sentencing objectives listed in § 3553(a)(2). 18 U.S.C. § 3551(a)

(emphasis supplied). Carter also cites other statutes that include the phrase "notwithstanding any other provision of law," see, e.g., 18 U.S.C. § 1028A(b) (aggravated identity theft statute providing for certain punishments "[n]otwithstanding any other provision of law"), and he notes that Congress even used that phrase in § 841(b)(1)(B) when discussing the availability of parole, see 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(B) ("Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the court shall not place on probation or suspend the sentence of any person sentenced under this subparagraph.").

DISCUSSION

We review the procedural and substantive reasonableness of a district court's sentencing decision for an abuse of discretion, see United States v. David, 681 F.3d 45, 48 (2d Cir. 2012), keeping in mind that "[a] district court has abused its discretion if it based its ruling on an erroneous view of the law or on a clearly erroneous assessment of the evidence, or rendered a decision that cannot be located within the range of permissible decisions," In re Sims, 534 F.3d 117, 132 (2d Cir. 2008) (internal citations, quotation marks, and brackets omitted). Thus, we review de novo the ...


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