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Decisions Involving Tapia v United States

Rehabilitative Sentences are Illegal

If you have a loved one who was sentenced to a longer than normal term of imprisonment specifically so he or she could participate in rehabilitative programs within the Bureau of Prisons, that sentence is unlawful and we can help get it reversed! Please read on for important information.

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Tapia and its Fallout

As reported in this earlier article on Supreme Court decisions this session, Tapia v United States was an important sentencing decision that can and will impact sentencing in U.S. District courts from now on. The collateral effects of the decision are now beginning to be felt, and here we’ll see two opposing decisions from two separate circuits involving the Tapia ruling in supervised release revocation decisions.

In Tapia, the Ninth Circuit decision was reversed in a 9-0 decision by the United States Supreme Court. The high court’s opinion was authored by Justice Elana Kagan on June 16, 2011. Justice Sotomayor filed a concurring opinion, which was joined by Justice Alito. This ruling held that:

18 U.S.C. § 3582(a) does not permit a sentencing court to impose or lengthen a prison term to foster a defendant’s rehabilitation.

This says that sentences passed down by judges that were lengthened specifically to enable the defendant to participate in rehabilitating programs within the Bureau of Prisons are considered unlawful. The ruling here is not challenged now by lower courts in original sentencing hearings. It is, however, being picked apart within hearings which deal with revocations of supervised release.

The First Circuit, in US v. Molignaro, No. 10-1320 (1st Cir. July 6, 2011), applied SCOTUS’s ruling in Tapia to reverse a lengthened term of imprisonment intended to facilitate a defendant’s rehabilitation upon revocation of his supervised release:

Acting under 18 U.S.C. § 3583(e), the district court revoked the order for supervised release and resentenced the defendant. Federal advisory sentencing guidelines recommended imprisonment of 3 to 9 months after such a violation, but the district court ordered 22 months (followed by further supervised release). The court imposed the longer prison sentence so that Molignaro would have ample time to take part in a course of sex therapy at a nearby federal prison (Devens) that could run for up to 18 months, and although the judge did not state the period he would have imposed in the absence of the treatment program, he did say that 9 months would have been too short in light of what he found to be Molignaro’s choices to go where children were present and the risk of untoward behavior was great. Molignaro objected that setting the imprisonment term with the goal of providing therapy was error as a matter of law, and that in any case 22 months was unreasonably long. We hold that the resentencing court’s objective of tailoring the length of imprisonment to provide adequate time for treatment was barred by statute, and we vacate the sentence and remand for resentencing.

The Fifth Circuit ruled the opposite way in US v. Breland, No. 10-60610 (5th Cir. July 19, 2011):

The question presented in this appeal is whether a district court may consider a defendant’s rehabilitative needs when revoking the defendant’s supervised release and requiring him to serve the remainder of his sentence in prison. The district court sentenced the defendant, William C. Breland Jr., to thirty-five months of imprisonment upon revocation of his supervised release. On appeal, Breland challenges the procedural reasonableness of that sentence, arguing that the district court imposed it for the sole purpose of qualifying him for the Bureau of Prison’s (“BOP”) 500-hour drug-treatment program. He also challenges the substantive reasonableness of the sentence. Because the plain language and operation of 18 U.S.C. § 3583(e) and (g), which governs post revocation sentencing, permits the consideration of rehabilitative needs, and because Breland’s sentence is not otherwise unreasonable, we affirm.

What this all means

To the lower courts, the application of Tapia to sentences handed down during supervised release revocation hearings is open to interpretation. Circuits are split and there is no way to tell which Circuit will go in which direction. This conflict in Circuit decisions will invariably be brought to the Supreme Court for further interpretation. Whether Certiorari will be granted is only up to the high court itself. Before this happens, however, different Circuit courts will continue to treat this issue within their own decisions.

If you want to find out if these rulings can help you or a loved one, please contact us to find out.