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United States v. Brown

June 22, 2010


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois. No. 07-CR-20080-Joe Billy McDade, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wood, Circuit Judge.


Before FLAUM, MANION, and WOOD, Circuit Judges.

When Rodney Brown pleaded guilty to distributing more than five grams of crack cocaine, it looked as if he was about to go to prison for a long time. Brown had a prior drug conviction, and so he faced a mandatory minimum sentence of 120 months' imprisonment. To make matters worse, his two previous convictions for aggravated assault qualified him as a career offender for purposes of § 4B1.1 of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, and this bumped up his recommended guidelines sentence to 262-327 months' imprisonment.

At the sentencing hearing, the district court limited itself to making a few negative remarks about Brown's character and capacity for change. It then surprised the parties by sentencing Brown to the lowest possible point available to it, the 120-month mandatory minimum, a full 142 months below the low end of the guidelines range. In its terse explanation of the sentence, the district court mentioned only Brown's age (40 years old), the short length of his previous state sentences, and the conditions of his upbringing.

The government has appealed the sentence. Although a sentence so far below the recommended guidelines range lies within the court's power, and may even have been justified in this case, the record is too spare to support that conclusion at this point. We therefore vacate Brown's sentence and remand for resentencing.


In the spring of 2007, the Champaign (Illinois) Police Department enlisted the services of a confidential informant to help it go after the local drug dealers. After the informant tipped the authorities to Brown's dealings in cocaine, officers had the informant engage in a controlled purchase of crack cocaine from Brown. Video and audio recording devices captured Brown handing over 13.3 grams of crack in exchange for $400 in pre-recorded currency.

On August 7, 2007, a grand jury indicted Brown on two charges: distributing five grams or more of crack cocaine and possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine. See 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(B), and (b)(1)(C). A few months later, Brown entered into a written plea agreement with the government and pleaded guilty to the distribution count. The Probation Office prepared a presentence report (PSR) that placed Brown's guidelines range between 262 and 327 months of imprisonment, based on an offense level of 34 and a criminal history category of VI. Brown faced such a lengthy sentence largely because of his considerable rap sheet, which qualified him as a career offender. (Indeed, without the career offender enhancement, his criminal history would have remained at VI, but his offense level would have dropped to 21.) The district court adopted the PSR's calculation of the guidelines range.

The PSR also furnished some details about Brown's life, which had been a difficult one. Brown grew up in a fatherless household, living for most of his youth with his mother and maternal half-sisters. He began abusing alcohol and smoking marijuana at age 12 or 13. By the time he was 14 years old, he had been convicted of theft. Brown reported that he had been abused as a child by his mother and bullied by other neighborhood kids. While his mother acknowledged that she disciplined Brown, she maintained that the "discipline never hurt anybody." She did admit, however, that on one occasion she "had to beat the shit out of him," but she asserted that the beating did not inflict permanent physical harm on Brown.

At the sentencing hearing, Brown reiterated the difficulties he had experienced growing up and he touched upon the extenuating circumstances associated with his past crimes. During his allocution, Brown also emphasized his commitment to change his ways upon his release from prison. In addition, Brown offered letters that family members had written attesting to his positive traits.

After listening to Brown, the district court expressed deep skepticism about Brown's sincerity. The court noted, "I don't believe that right now you take full responsibility of what you are and what you have done. I don't believe you have a commitment that from this day forward, I am going to change my life and lead a different life." The judge went on to observe that the rosy image of Brown set forth in his family members' letters was inconsistent with the story sketched out in the PSR. The court added, "I think that you are trying to run a con now to say what you feel is necessary to get a reduced sentence. . . . I think that you still see yourself as a victim who has the right to do anything you do because you are the victim. I don't think you're a role model."

When it came time to sentence Brown, however, the district court inexplicably took a different direction. Despite its stern lecture, it announced a sentence of 120 months' imprisonment, the statutory mandatory minimum. Its explanation for this sentence was as follows, in its entirety:

Based on the fact that you are 40 years old now, the longest period of imprisonment you spent prior to now has been more or less two years in prison on one or two occasion and given the history and circumstances of your upbringing, I feel that a sentence to the mandatory minimum sentence would be ...

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