USA v. Sean Blake
OPINION filed : we AFFIRM the judgment below, decision not for publication pursuant to local rule 206. Karen Nelson Moore, Authoring Circuit Judge; R. Guy Cole , Jr., Circuit Judge and Thomas M. Rose, U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of Ohio, sitting by designation.
NOT RECOMMENDED FOR FULL-TEXT PUBLICATION
File Name: 12a0948n.06
UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
FOR THE SIXTH CIRCUIT
Aug 27, 2012
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
LEONARD GREEN, Clerk
ON APPEAL FROM THE
UNITED STATES DISTRICT
COURT FOR THE WESTERN
DISTRICT OF TENNESSEE
Before: MOORE and COLE, Circuit Judges, and ROSE, District Judge.*
KAREN NELSON MOORE, Circuit Judge. Defendant-Appellant Sean Blake challenges
his sentence as substantively unreasonable on the basis that the district court impermissibly
considered several of his prior arrests and criminal charges that were later dismissed without
conviction. Because we find no evidence in the record to support the assertion that Blake’s prior
arrests factored into his ultimate sentence, and because the within-Guidelines sentence was not
substantively unreasonable, we AFFIRM.
I. BACKGROUND & PROCEDURE
On January 5, 2010, a federal grand jury indicted Blake on four counts of distributing cocaine
base (crack cocaine) in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1). R. 3 (Indictment) (Page ID #4–7). All
counts stemmed from a series of crack cocaine sales by Blake to an undercover detective with the
The Honorable Thomas M. Rose, United States District Judge for the Southern District of
Ohio, sitting by designation.
Memphis Police Department. Five exchanges occurred between September 8 and September 23,
2009, and resulted in a cumulative total sale of .54 grams of crack cocaine. Id. (Page ID #4–8); R.
62 (Sent. Hr’g Tr. at 30) (Page ID #206). On August 3, 2011, Blake pleaded guilty to Count One;
as part of his plea agreement, the other counts were dismissed at the December 19, 2011 sentencing
hearing. R. 58 (Dist. Ct. J. at 1) (Page ID #164); R. 62 (Sent. Hr’g Tr. at 59) (Page ID #235).
Prior to sentencing, the U.S. Probation Office prepared a Presentence Investigation Report
(“PSR”) that, among other things, calculated the advisory Guidelines range consistent with the
United States Sentencing Guidelines (“U.S.S.G.” or “Guidelines”). The PSR classified Blake as a
“career offender” because the instant crime was a controlled substance offense, and because Blake
had two felony convictions for crimes of violence—one for attempted aggravated robbery, another
for attempted murder during an aggravated robbery—and one felony conviction for a unlawful
possession of cocaine with intent to sell. (PSR ¶¶ 23, 34, 36, 38); see U.S. SENTENCING GUIDELINES
MANUAL (U.S.S.G.) § 4B1.1(b)(3) (2011).1 As part of the plea agreement, the government
recommended a full reduction for acceptance of responsibility, which resulted in a total offense level
of twenty-nine and a corresponding Guidelines range of 151–188 months. (PSR at ¶¶ 24–25; 107).
During sentencing, the district court reviewed the PSR’s accounting of Blake’s criminal
history. Mentioned in that discussion were Blake’s juvenile adjudications, his adult convictions, and
his history of mental-health issues and substance abuse. Included also was a discussion of “Other
Criminal Conduct,” which includes several juvenile and adult charges, each of which resulted in a
dismissal or a nolle prosequi. Id. at ¶¶ 43–59. Blake sought a downward variance to a sentence of
The PSR was prepared using the 2010 Guidelines, reliance on which the parties do not
contest. There are no changes between the 2010 and 2011 Guidelines relevant to this appeal.
76 months in part because of his addiction and mental-health struggles, and in part because the status
of “career offender” was ill-fitting given that his violent-crime convictions occurred in the mid1990s.2 R. 62 (Sent. Hr’g Tr. at 24–26) (Page ID #200–02). The government defended a low
sentence, but one nevertheless within the Guidelines’ recommended range, because of the recurrence
and severity of Blake’s offenses. Id. at 27–28 (Page ID #203–04). After investigating both sides’
claims, the district court sentenced Blake to 151 months of imprisonment—equal to the minimum
within-Guidelines sentence. R. 58 (Dist. Ct. J. at 2) (Page ID #165); R. 62 (Sent. Hr’g Tr. at 54–57)
(Page ID #230–33).
On appeal Blake now argues that the district court improperly considered his past run-ins
with the law in reaching a sentence. Blake claims that mere evidence of arrest is consistent with
actual innocence when initial charges were dismissed or not prosecuted, thus making consideration
of these events during sentencing improper. In essence, Blake claims that his prior charges should
not be held against him because they were ultimately dismissed.
The parties agree that at issue is whether Blake’s sentence is substantively unreasonable
because the district court based its decision on impermissible factors.3 See United States v. Jones,
489 F.3d 243, 252 (6th Cir. 2007) (“A sentence may [be] substantively unreasonable where the
Although it was a prominent dispute at sentencing, Blake does not currently challenge his
status as a career offender before this tribunal.
We distinguish substantive and procedural unreasonableness. See Gall v. United States, 552
U.S. 38, 51 (2007) (identifying as procedural errors “failing to calculate (or improperly calculating)
the Guidelines range, treating the Guidelines as mandatory, failing to consider the § 3553(a) factors,
selecting a sentence based on clearly erroneous facts, or failing to adequately explain the chosen
sentence”). The parties agree that no procedural unreasonableness took place.
district court ‘select[s] the sentence arbitrarily, bas[es] the sentence on impermissible factors, fail[s]
to consider pertinent § 3553(a) factors or giv[es] an unreasonable amount of weight to any pertinent
factor’” (quoting United States v. Ferguson, 456 F.3d 660, 664 (6th Cir. 2006)) (alterations in
original). We review the district court’s decision making for abuse of discretion.4 Gall v. United
States, 552 U.S. 38, 51 (2007); United States v. Mayberry, 540 F.3d 506, 519 (6th Cir. 2008).
Moreover, we afford sentences that fall within the Guidelines’ recommendations a rebuttable
presumption of reasonableness. United States v. Liou, 491 F.3d 334, 337 (6th Cir. 2007).
A. Relevance of Dismissed Charges to Sentencing
The Guidelines themselves provide guidance only indirectly on whether and to what extent
purported criminal conduct not resulting in a conviction constitutes an impermissible factor. As a
preliminary matter, we observe that a sentencing court “may consider relevant information . . .
provided that the information has sufficient indicia of reliability to support its probable accuracy.”
U.S.S.G. § 6A1.3(a). The Guidelines contemplate adult criminal conduct specifically in U.S.S.G.
§ 4A1.3(a), which governs upward departures. On the one hand, a district court may consider
“[p]rior similar adult criminal conduct not resulting in a criminal conviction.”
Arguably the more appropriate standard is plain error, because Blake did not, when given
the opportunity, object to the purported consideration of prior charges during sentencing. See United
States v. Bailey, 488 F.3d 363, 367 (6th Cir.), cert. denied, 552 U.S. 999 (2007) (“[W]hen the district
court asks at sentencing whether there are any objections to the sentence and the appellant raises
none, we review the sentence only for plain error.”). But see United States v. Vonner, 516 F.3d 382,
389 (6th Cir.) (en banc), cert. denied, 555 U.S. 816 (2008) (stating that the reasonableness of a
sentence’s length need not be objected to before the district court). We need not decide the issue
here, in part because the standard applied will not alter the outcome of this appeal, and in part
because neither party raises plain error as the standard to be applied. See United States v. Williams,
641 F.3d 758, 763 (6th Cir.), cert. denied, --- U.S. ---, 132 S. Ct. 348 (2011) (“[E]ven though
plain-error review might have been available for this claim, we will not apply the plain-error
standard unless requested to do so by one of the parties.”).
§ 4A1.3(a)(2)(E). On the other hand, “[a] prior arrest record itself shall not be considered for
purposes of an upward departure.” U.S.S.G. § 4A1.3(a)(3) (emphasis added).
Here we are confronted not with an upward departure from the Guidelines, but rather with
the denial of a downward variance. Nevertheless, the implication of U.S.S.G. § 4A1.3 is that past
criminal conduct may be considered in some instances, provided there is “sufficient indicia of
reliability” that the conduct occurred—and an arrest report alone is not sufficient. Relying on the
Guidelines text alone, however, does not resolve the question of when sufficiently reliable indicia
exist. The Supreme Court previously permitted the consideration of criminal conduct at sentencing
“so long as that conduct has been proved by a preponderance of the evidence.” United States v.
Watts, 519 U.S. 148, 157 (1997); see Nichols v. United States, 511 U.S. 738, 747 (1994)
(“Sentencing courts have . . . considered a defendant’s past criminal behavior, even if no conviction
resulted from that behavior. We have upheld the constitutionality of considering such previous
We have not addressed squarely the extent to which prior criminal conduct may be
considered during sentencing in a non-departure case. Nevertheless, we can glean insight from our
opinions that considered prior arrests to justify upward departures from the Guidelines. In United
States v. Matheny, we joined the Fourth, Fifth, Seventh, and Eleventh Circuits in holding that
“district courts may consider prior arrest records [in considering an upward departure] only when
It remains to be seen whether this approach will survive the further constitutional scrutiny
since afforded sentencing by Booker and its brethren. But see Jones, 489 F.3d at 250 (“We have
previously determined that ‘judicial fact-finding in sentencing proceedings using a preponderance
of the evidence standard post-Booker does not violate [due process rights].’” (quoting United States
v. Gates, 461 F.3d 703, 708 (6th Cir. 2006)); see also United States v. Mayberry, 540 F.3d 506, 518
(6th Cir. 2008).
the PSR provides specific facts surrounding the arrest.” United States v. Matheny, 450 F.3d 633, 642
(6th Cir. 2006); cf. United States v. Berry, 553 F.3d 273, 284 (3rd Cir. 2009) (adopting a similar
approach after surveying overlapping opinions from the First, Seventh, Eighth, and Tenth Circuits).
And recently in United States v. Jennings, we found no error where a district court considered,
among other things, the defendant’s “six prior arrests” in considering and adopting a sentence that
exceeded the Guidelines’ recommendations threefold. United States v. Jennings, 407 F. App’x 20,
22 (6th Cir. 2011) (unpublished opinion); see also United States v. Williams, 214 F. App’x 552, 555
(6th Cir. 2007) (unpublished opinion) (“[I]t is . . . well-settled that relevant unconvicted conduct,
even acquitted conduct, may be considered in determining a defendant’s sentence.”). Whatever may
be considered when adopting a within-Guidelines sentence in the face of a variance request—which,
as we noted, under our precedent carries with it a presumption of reasonableness—presumably it at
least includes the same evidence that may be considered to support an upward departure.
Blake did not object at the sentencing hearing, nor does he now on appeal, to the relevant
substantive claims contained in the PSR. Cf. FED . R. CRIM . P. 32(i)(3)(A) (“At sentencing, the court
may accept any undisputed portion of the presentence report as a finding of fact.”). Rather, his
argument rests on the observation that a decision to dismiss is equally consistent with innocence as
with something worse. This claim is true as far as it goes. But it does not go far enough, in light of
our jurisprudence, to forbid a trial court from considering criminal circumstances in sentencing. See
R. 62 (Sent. Hr’g Tr. at 45) (Page ID #221) (noting the PSR’s long factual discussion of charges that
were not later prosecuted).
B. Actual Reliance on Past Charges
We need not go further to determine the precise contours of the reliability calculation
necessary for considering past criminal conduct during within-Guidelines sentencing. This is
because Blake’s appeal depends not just on the suggestion that relying on non-convictions is
substantively unreasonable as a matter of law, but also on the claim that the district court in this case
in fact relied on such information. We find insufficient evidence to support such actual reliance.
Blake directs us to the discussion of his prior criminal history in the sentencing hearing.
However, the record indicates that the district court did little more than recite each instance listed
in the PSR. R. 62 (Sent. Hr’g Tr. at 44–46) (Page ID #220–22). Paraphrasing aloud the PSR does
not amount to proof that the district court relied on these arrests in forming its opinion. Blake
suggests that the district court was in fact influenced by his arrest record, because the district court
considered his past conduct before deciding his sentence. As evidence of this, Blake directs us to
the trial court’s rehearsing of the 18 U.S.C. § 3553 factors, and in particular the court’s explanation
of why the Guidelines require that past conduct be considered. R. 62 (Sent. Hr’g Tr. at 48) (Page
ID #224) (“[W]e’re required to look at history and characteristics because one of the principles under
the [G]uidelines is that what a person has done repeatedly in the past is a pretty good predictor of
what they will do in the future.”). Explaining in general terms obligations imposed by the Guidelines
is not grounds for finding an impermissible consideration.6 Likewise, there is no reason to suspect
that the district court’s ultimate assessment depended upon Blake’s prior arrests. The district court
Indeed, we note the possibility that to hold otherwise based on the record presented would
doubly bind future trial courts: those that thoroughly satisfy their § 3553(a)(1) duty would be
deemed substantively unreasonable, while those that respond by avoiding such discussion of
§ 3553(a)(1) would be procedurally unreasonable. See Gall, 552 U.S. at 51 (stating that “failing to
consider the § 3553(a) factors” is procedurally unreasonable).
engaged in a lengthy discussion of the former convictions, including crimes of violence that Blake
argued should be discounted, and including recent drug-related felonies and misdemeanors. The
court paid special attention to Blake’s mental health, to the prospect of rehabilitation through
different means, and to considerations of communal fairness across sentencing decisions. R. 62
(Sent. Hr’g Tr. at 50–52, 54–55) (Page ID #226–28, 230–31). Ultimately, the court ordered a period
of 151 months of incarceration, consistent with the Guidelines given Blake’s conviction record,
coupled with drug treatment and vocational training. Id. at 57 (Page ID #233). We cannot say that
a sentence based on such considerations is substantively unreasonable.
Blake points us to two statements by the district court as evidence that the court did more
than merely note the PSR’s discussion and state the § 3553 factors generally. First, the district court
stated that Blake had “a lot of familiarity with the criminal justice system.” Id. at 46 (Page ID #222).
Of course, this statement has the inconvenient virtue of being true. Blake has experienced doubledigit juvenile adjudications and adult convictions, including the three felony charges that designate
him as a career offender. Second, Blake identifies as evidence of improper consideration the district
court’s remark that “it appear[s] that courts were attempting to take into consideration either your
youth or the difficult circumstances and tried to give you a chance.” See id. at 44 (Page ID #220).
This comment alone, we think, is insufficient to support a finding of substantive unreasonableness.
For one, context matters: the remark came immediately before discussing Blake’s assignment to a
juvenile bypass program in response to a car theft, in which the state determined he in fact
committed the underlying criminal conduct. See id. For another, as noted above, Blake’s sentence
was consistent with his status as a career offender, and the district court centered its attention on
Blake’s health, the possibility of rehabilitation, and norms of fairness and communal safety. We do
not interpret this single statement to undermine the reasonableness of that analysis.
Because we conclude that the district court did not improperly rely on Blake’s prior arrest
record in determining his sentence, we AFFIRM the judgment below.
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