Citing to studies of racial disparities in arrests, Third Circuit vacates sentence based on unexplained arrests that did not result in convictions

United States v Mateo-Medina 15-2862 (3d. Cir. 1/9/2017)

The defendant pled guilty to illegally reentering the United States, but appealed his sentence because the district court specifically cited a number of arrests that did not result in convictions, without discussing or possibly even knowing the reasons for those arrests, as a ground for its sentence. Most interesting in the opinion is its citation to disparity in numbers of arrests between whites and persons of color, supported by citation to a 2013 United Nations report entitled Report of The Sentencing Project to the United Nations Human Rights Committee Regarding Racial Disparities in the United States Criminal Justice System, and other publications describing the disparities. This case thus is a good source for sentencing arguments even in state court, where counsel seeks to place a long string of arrests into context.

After being deported from the United States in 2012, the defendant returned to care for his common law wife, dying of terminal cancer, and her minor grandchild, who had been abandoned by a drug addicted father. Also in the household was the wife’s other, adult son, who suffered from mental health problems, aggravated by substance abuse that made him disruptive. After the wife died a few months later, the defendant stayed to take care of the grandchild, but after being confronted by the defendant, the deceased’s wife’s disturbed son reported the defendant to the authorities and he was arrested. The grandchild therapist credited the defendant with providing him with a stable and loving environment during and after the time his grandmother was dying. The PSR— mandatory in federal sentencings—  recommended a downward departure of two points, and both the government and the defense sought time served. The district court though, citing the defendant’s seven arrests that led to two convictions, did not give as great a downward departure as everyone sought. It said, among other things, it was “rather obvious that the reason he doesn’t have any actual adult convictions is because of the breakdowns in the court—in the state court system—and not because of innocence . . . . Taking all those factors in to account, given the fact that their criminal points . . . I don’t think reflect quite adequately, the seriousness of their criminal exposure in the past. The fact that they were charged with crimes and then, the prosecution was dropped because nobody showed up to prosecute or something like that, means that their criminal history points were probably understated.”

After ruling that the defense preserved the objection (federal rules on preserving objections at sentencing are different from Pennsylvania’s rules), the Court ruled that resentencing was in order because of the reliance the sentencing court placed on the unexplained arrests. Among the quotations lifted form the report was the following:

Contrary to popular explanations of racial disparities in drug arrest[s], this research found that the racial disparity in drug arrests between black and whites cannot be explained by race differences in the extent of drug offending, nor the nature of drug offending. In fact, in this sample, African-Americans (and Hispanics) were no more, and often less, likely to be involved in drug offending than whites. Further, while minorities were more likely to live in the kinds of neighborhoods with heavy police emphasis on drug control and living in such neighborhoods had a strong relationship to drug arrest; neighborhood context explained only a small portion of racial disparity in drug arrests between African- Americans and whites.

For this reason, the district court’s reliance on bare arrest records when sentencing the defendant, and resentencing was required.

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