The Importance of Case Law in Understanding How Sentencing Guidelines Work

Kelly Lyn Mitchell
Kelly Lyn Mitchell

In addition to the guidelines themselves, case law helps to inform our understanding of how the guidelines work in a particular jurisdiction.  “Case law” is law that is derived from the decisions issued by judges in the cases before them in court.  Case law adds to our understanding of the guidelines when the court interprets aspects of the guidelines that may be unclear or when the court makes a decision about how the guidelines should be applied to a case with a particular set of facts.

Within the Sentencing Guidelines Resource Center, we have provided a case law summary for each jurisdiction.  Each summary addresses three main topics. If there are additional topics that are unique to the jurisdiction, they may also be covered as explained below.

Availability of and General Standards for Appellate Review

This section indicates whether sentences issued at the trial court level may be appealed by the prosecutor or defendant.  If appeal is available, this section will address what the appellate court’s standard is for reviewing the trial court’s sentence (e.g., substantial deference). Appeal is one way that a jurisdiction can further enforce the guidelines. In jurisdictions where the guidelines are mandatory, there is generally a strong right to appeal because the defendant has an expectation of being sentenced in accord with the guidelines. Appeals in these jurisdictions can correct sentences where the court made an error in calculating the guidelines sentence or where the court did not have proper justification for departing from the recommended guidelines sentence. In contrast, jurisdictions with advisory guidelines generally do not permit appeal, or only allow appeal in very limited circumstances.  In a purely advisory system there is no need to correct sentences on appeal because, due to the voluntary nature of the guidelines, the defendant has no reasonable expectation of receiving a sentence like that recommended in the guidelines. Nevertheless, some advisory systems permit the appeals court to address issues involving the interpretation and application of the guidelines, albeit under a highly deferential standard of review.       

Standards and Allowable Grounds for Departure

A “departure” is a sentence that is different from the sentence recommended in the guidelines.  The duration, or length, of the sentence may be longer or shorter than the guidelines call for.  Or the disposition, which is the recommendation for prison or probation, may be different than that called for in the guidelines (e.g., the court may order a sentence of probation when the guidelines recommend prison).  This section addresses court interpretations or applications of the departure standard.  For example, if a particular jurisdiction requires the court to have substantial and compelling reasons in order to depart from the recommended sentence, there might be case law deciding what kinds of reasons fit the substantial and compelling standard.

Constitutional Requirements for Proof of Facts Permitting Upward Departure under Blakely v. Washington

In 2004, the United States Supreme Court issued a decision in Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296, 124 S.Ct. 2531 (2004), holding that an upward departure under Washington’s sentencing guidelines (that is, a sentence more severe than recommended in the guidelines) violated the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.  The Court stated that the facts used by the trial court to justify the harsher sentence must be found by a jury, similar to the way that a jury must find the facts that support a criminal conviction.  Because most guidelines systems were designed to allow the judge rather than the jury to make those findings, the Blakely case called into doubt the validity of guidelines systems outside of Washington.  This section includes case law within the jurisdiction that addresses the Blakely issue. In particular, this section should address whether the guidelines were impacted in any way by Blakely, and whether they remain in force or were weakened as a result.

Other Important Sentencing Decisions

In addition to the three categories of case law described above, there may be appellate decisions in some guidelines systems that are particularly important to an understanding of how that system works.  Such a case might involve issues separate from or broader than the guidelines themselves (for example, a constitutional challenge to the guidelines and/or important statutory sentencing provisions), or an interpretation of particular aspects of the guidelines other than the departure rules discussed in part 2 above (e.g., a case adding an important clarification concerning computation of the criminal history score). This section will include other cases like this that help explain the application of the guidelines.  There may be other case law in the jurisdiction that addresses sentencing in general (e.g., clarifying the definition of a “predatory offender” in order to apply a statutory sentencing enhancement), but the case law summaries in the Sentencing Guidelines Resource Center will not cover those issues.  Instead, the summaries will only addresses case law that is directly related to the application of the guidelines.

What the case law teaches us overall, is that the guidelines themselves are not the sole resource one should be looking to in order to understand how the guidelines work.  Rather, to fully understand the guidelines, we must also look to the cases to which the guidelines are regularly applied.  Case law provides a record as to the larger disputes and disagreements in the application of the guidelines, and provides guidance as to how to interpret and apply the guidelines going forward.