Fifth Circuit Finds No Reversible Error in Failure to Explain Sentencing Reasoning – U.S. v. Rouland
Often, when I read cases involving child pornography crimes, I see defendants appealing their sentences rather than the convictions themselves. That’s because the convictions tend to be based on uncontroverted evidence; child pornography possession requires only that the prosecutor prove possession, an easy task. But the sentences are often very long, which has prompted calls for reform—and often prompts individuals to challenge the sentences as unreasonable. In U.S. v. Rouland, the defendant, Roger Rouland of Texas, appealed his sentence because the district court that sentenced him failed to respond to his request for a sentence below the Sentencing Guidelines. Rouland also appealed the conditions of his supervised release, they were special conditions and there was no reason to think they were warranted. The Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected all of his arguments as meritless.
Rouland pleaded guilty in January 2012 to possession of child pornography and attempted possession. The opinion says only that an investigation found such material on Rouland’s “computer media devices.” The presentencing report recommended a Guidelines sentence of 30 to 37 months. Rouland himself filed a 169-page sentencing memo arguing that he should have a below-Guidelines sentence because of his educational and professional achievements, family ties, faith and back pain history. At the sentencing hearing, Rouland made no objection to a memo requesting nine conditions of Rouland’s supervised release. The court then sentenced Rouland to 30 months without explanation, to be followed by a five-year term of supervised release whose terms were not orally pronounced. The following written judgment included supervised release terms requiring no access to pornography of any kind, and submissions to substance abuse, mental health, cognitive behavioral and workforce development evaluations.
Rouland’s appeal started with the lack of explanation for the sentence itself. He argued that the district court was required to explain its reasoning, and that it didn’t adequately consider his arguments for a below-Guidelines sentence. The Fifth Circuit disagreed, saying Rouland’s appeal doesn’t meet the high plain error standard. Failure to adequately explain a sentence is error, the court said, but it doesn’t affect Rouland’s substantial rights because his sentence is within the Guidelines. The Fifth next rejected Rouland’s argument that the supervised release conditions that were imposed only in writing and not orally. It agreed with the prosecution that Rouland waived his rights by not objecting to the admission of an exhibit including the challenged conditions. In addition, the court said, he cannot show any error would affect his substantive rights. Finally, it disagreed that the special conditions imposed are special; they are standard in the Western District of Texas’s judgment form, and the court found this adequate.
I’d like to call attention to the deference the Fifth Circuit gives here to the Sentencing Guidelines. Since U.S. v. Booker, the Sentencing Guidelines are not mandatory, but a starting point for courts handing down sentences. Thus, while courts can presume that sentences within the Guidelines are reasonable, their inquiry into the matter shouldn’t end there; they ought to entertain any other arguments the defendant is making. Unfortunately, in practice, many appeals courts rubber-stamp sentences that are within the Guidelines. In my job defending people accused of serious cyber crimes, I prefer to vigorously dispute sentencing decisions early in the case, to give any appeal the best chance possible.
Seltzer Law, P.A., represents clients around the United States who are charged with crimes involving computers, technology and the Internet. Lead attorney David Seltzer is a former cyber crime prosecutor for the Miami-Dade State’s Attorney’s office, so he understands the technology as well as how prosecutors build their cases. For a free consultation, call us today at 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333) or send us an email.
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