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4th Circuit not up for ‘reading tea leaves’

Maybe a defendant convicted of drug conspiracy deserves a break because most of his crack distribution occurred during the three-year period before he turned 19.

But what if the defendant, “K-Smooth,” was one of the few members of the 30-odd defendants from Petersburg’s “Third Ward Gang” to go to trial in Richmond federal district court? Criminal defendants usually get a break for taking a plea. Maybe Batts’s decision to go to trial should offset his youth as a basis for mercy.

Because the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals couldn’t get a clear picture of why Kevin Batts was sentenced to only 120 months in prison – a 54-percent deviation from the advisory federal sentencing guidelines range – it vacated Batts’s sentence for RICO and drug conspiracy offenses and sent the case by to Chief U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer.

In U.S. v. Batts, released yesterday, the appellate court said it had “never upheld such a significant variance,” and would only do so if presented with a sufficient explanation.

When he imposed the 120-month mandatory minimum sentence, Spencer said the sentence was “in line with” the defendant’s argument that the court should focus on Batts’s post-majority criminal conduct.

The district judge said he had “thought about this at great length before” and “considered all of the facts and circumstances.”

The 4th Circuit said the sentence was unreasonable.

It wasn’t clear whether the district court considered the need to avoid unwanted sentence disparities, the appellate panel said, especially in light of the fact that Batts’s sentence was lower than the sentences imposed on most of the gang members who pleaded guilty.

The district court also failed to give complete consideration to the defendant’s history, specifically, his age during the conspiracies.

“To the extent that much of Batts’s drug activity occurred while he was a minor, a variance of some sort might be considered,” the appellate court wrotein its unpublished opinion. “On the other hand, the fact that Batts continued the same illegal activity after he had reached the age of majority and spent time in juvenile detention may indicate that he should not be afforded such a significant break, since it is not clear that his coming of age has changed his unlawful conduct.”

“The task of reviewing a sentence’s reasonableness should not be akin to reading tea leaves,” the court said. Given the “significant deviation” in Batts, the need for an adequate explanation “is particularly important.”

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