By Kelsey Mellan

On February 9, 2017, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in United States v. Spencer, a criminal appeal of an allegedly unreasonable sentence stemming from a “threatening communication” charge. Todd Spencer (“Spencer”) pleaded guilty to sending threatening communication to a federal employee in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 876(c). He was subsequently sentenced to 45 months in prison. Spencer challenged this sentence on both procedural and substantive grounds. The District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia determined this sentence was reasonable and upheld Spencer’s conviction. The Fourth Circuit affirmed, holding the 45-month sentence was both procedurally and substantively reasonable.

Facts & Procedural History

On September 12, 2013, Spencer sent a threatening letter covered in a mysterious white powder to the clerk’s office of the federal courthouse in Norfolk, Virginia. Parts of the letter read, “The very letter you hold may indeed be the last you hold. This letter may contain on it what takes your last breath…Good luck to you.” The clerk who opened the letter was understandably “disconcerted and afraid.” The U.S. Marshals called to the courthouse instructed her to lock herself alone with the letter in the mailroom until inspectors arrived. Inspectors determined the letter was from Spencer, who was currently an inmate at the Chesapeake City Jail. Once questioned, Spencer admitted to sending the letter and explained that the powder was dried toothpaste, which he included “to enhance the effect of the letter in order to put fear into the reader” that it was poison.

On October 2, 2014, Spencer pleaded guilty to sending a threatening communication in violation of § 876(c). His probation officer prepared a pre-sentence report, which yielded an advisory Sentencing Guideline range of 37 to 46 months based on the sentencing enhancement provisions in U.S. Sentencing Guideline Manual § 2A6.1(b)(1). At the actual sentencing hearing on January 13, 2015, the district court overruled Spencer’s objections to the sentencing range based on the “very, very serious” nature of the offense and the “devastating impact” on the victim. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit determined that the district court erred in applying the sentence enhancement because Spencer’s use of harmless toothpaste did not suggest an intent to carry out the threat and/or injure the clerk.

The district court held a resentencing hearing on January 12, 2016 where no sentence enhancements were applied. In order to “afford adequate deterrence” to similarly situated offenders and provide “just punishment” to Spencer, the district court decided to upwardly depart from the advisory Guidelines sentencing range (21 to 27 months) and imposed a sentence of 45 months. This timely appeal followed, in which Spencer argued the 45-month sentence was both procedurally and substantively unreasonable.

Procedural Unreasonableness

Spencer first contended that the district court erred by failing to provide advance notice of its intention to depart from the advisory Guidelines range, in violation of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure 32(h). He claimed the district court repeatedly characterized the sentence as an upward “departure,” yet never advised the parties that it was contemplating such an action. Thus, he claims he was deprived of the opportunity to challenge the increased sentence.

Because the circumstances surround threats, like the one made by Spencer, vary substantially, § 2A6.1 of the Sentencing Guidelines gives district courts latitude to depart from the Guidelines. District courts are allowed to apply other generic departures as necessary. At the resentencing hearing, the district court repeatedly stated that it would “upwardly depart” from the Guidelines. Additionally, Spencer should have realized that he would receive a longer sentence then what was originally advised by the Guidelines, based on his earlier sentence for this charge. Therefore, Spencer had every reason to believe that the court might adopt an above-Guidelines sentence.

Spencer also had ample opportunity to address the district court’s concerns about the letter’s effect upon the victim and the record does not indicate that advanced notice of the sentence deviation would have affected the parties’ presentation of the facts in any material way. Thus, the Fourth Circuit determined the 45-month was not procedurally unreasonable.

 Substantive Unreasonableness

Spencer also asserts that his 45-month sentence is substantively unreasonable because it is too long. He insisted that the severity of the sentence rested on improper sentencing factors and unfounded factual findings. According to the Fourth Circuit, the district court based its sentence on the intended effect on the victim, which was entirely proper grounds given the seriously nature of the threat accompanied by ostensible poison. The district court tailed its sentence in light of traditional sentencing factors such as deterrence and punishment. The Fourth Circuit determined the inference drawn by the district court lay within the bounds of its discretion.

However, this court has previously determined that district courts must explain the basis for their sentence. In United States v. Carter, the Fourth Circuit instructed that a district court must “justify its sentence with an individualized rationale.” But still, a balance must be struck between providing justification for a sentence and entitling district court decisions “due deference.” Since the district court in this instance based its decision on the factors of deterrence and punishment, the sentence is adequately justified and warranting due deferencTherefore, the Fourth Circuit held the 45-month sentence was not substantively unreasonably.

Disposition

Thus, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the judgment of the district court.

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