By Blake Stafford
On June 9, 2015, the Fourth Circuit issued its published opinion in the criminal case of United States v. Padgett. In this case, the district court revoked the two concurrent supervised release sentences of Defendant Robert L. Padgett (Padgett) after he was found to have violated the terms and conditions of his release. The district court sentenced him to consecutive terms of ten months and fourteen months in prison, followed by two new concurrent terms of twenty-four and twenty months of supervised release. The Fourth Circuit affirmed, holding that (1) the district court did not clearly err in finding, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Padgett violated the terms of his supervised release, and (2) the revocation sentence imposed by the district court was reasonable.
Padgett’s Two Convictions, Sentences, and Revocations
In 1998, Padgett was convicted of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute cocaine base, violating 21 U.S.C. § 846. In 2009, he was convicted of attempted escape from custody, violating 18 U.S.C. § 751(a). Padgett’s sentence for each conviction included a term of supervised release. In January 2013, the district court revoked Padgett’s supervised release, sentencing him to two days in prison followed by two new concurrent terms of supervised release.
In July 2014, the court again revoked Padgett’s supervised release. In its petition for this second revocation, the Government alleged four violations of the terms of Padgett’s supervised release: possession of a firearm, two counts of battery, and possession of a switchblade knife. Following an evidentiary hearing, the district court found that the Government had proven, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Padgett possessed a firearm, committed one count of battery, and possessed a switchblade knife. Based on these violations, the court revoked Padgett’s supervised release, and sentenced him to consecutive terms of ten months and fourteen months in prison, followed by concurrent terms of twenty-four and twenty months of supervised release.
Padgett appealed this revocation sentence on two grounds, contending that: (1) the district court’s finding of fact that he possessed a firearm constituted an abuse of discretion, and (2) the imposed revocation sentence was plainly unreasonable.
Finding of Fact: Possession of a Firearm
First, Padgett challenged the district court’s finding of fact that he possessed a firearm. A district court’s findings of fact underlying a revocation are reviewed on appeal for clear error, and the ultimate decision to revoke a defendant’s supervised release is reviewed for abuse of discretion. Reliance on a clearly erroneous material fact itself constitutes an abuse of discretion.
In this case, the Government offered three witnesses in the evidentiary hearing to support the firearm allegation. First, an officer testified that, while on patrol, he heard five gunshots fired in rapid succession. He then received a call directing him to Padgett’s workplace, Sheer Fantasy, to investigate a possible shooting, where witnesses provided a description of the shooter. Shortly thereafter, nearby officers apprehended Padgett, who matched the witnesses’ description. The officers also found shell casings less than a block from Sheer Fantasy. Second, a bystander testified that she observed an altercation in the Sheer Fantasy parking lot between two men. One of the men, whom she recognized as Padgett, fired five shots in the area where the shell casings had been found. Third, a forensic analyst testified that Padgett’s hands and face contained particles consistent with gunshot residue. The analyst offered her expert opinion that Padgett had either discharged a firearm or came into contact with an environment where gunshot residue was present.
On cross-examination, the defense elicited testimony from the forensic analyst that gunshot residue could be transferred by means other than discharging a firearm. The defense also offered a single witness—Padgett’s girlfriend—who testified that she too heard five gunshots that night, but that she was inside her home at the time, with Padgett.
The district court found that the Government had proven that Padgett had possessed a firearm by a preponderance of the evidence, a burden that only requires “the existence of a fact” to be “more probable than its nonexistence.” The Fourth Circuit held that the district court did not clearly err in this finding of fact; thus, the revocation of Padgett’s supervised release was not an abuse of discretion.
Revocation Sentence: Imprisonment for 10 and 14 Consecutive Months
Next, Padgett challenged the revocation sentence of ten and fourteen consecutive months of imprisonment. A district court’s revocation sentence will not be disturbed on appeal unless it falls outside the statutory maximum or is otherwise plainly unreasonable. In determining unreasonableness of revocation sentences, the Court strikes a more deferential appellate posture than when reviewing original sentences, and evaluates the district court’s consideration of (1) the policy statements and the applicable policy statement range in Chapter 7 of the Sentencing Guidelines Manual, and (2) applicable factors from 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). A sentence that is within the policy statement range is presumed reasonable, though the sentencing court retains broad discretion to impose a term of imprisonment up to the statutory maximum.
In this case, the district court did not cite to Chapter 7 or to § 3553(a). However, the Court noted that the factors relied upon by the district court closely tracked the language of both, providing the Court with a sufficient explanation to review the sentence for reasonableness.
Upon review, the Court found that the terms of ten and fourteen months’ imprisonment fell within the policy statement ranges and were, therefore, presumed reasonable. Moreover, while the combined term of twenty-four months represented the maximum in-range sentence, the Court noted that the district court was reasonable in eschewing leniency given that Padgett had violated the terms of his supervised release once before. Therefore, the Court held that the district court correctly calculated the policy statement range, considered the appropriate factors under Chapter 7 and § 3553(a), and sentenced Padgett to a term of imprisonment within that range; thus, the revocation sentence of ten and fourteen months’ imprisonment was reasonable.
The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling.