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United States v. Thornton

United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

January 20, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee,
v.
CHRISTOPHER WAYNE THORNTON, Defendant-Appellant.

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Colorado (D.C. No. 1:14-CR-00443-RBJ-1)

          Ryan K. Melcher, Assistant Federal Public Defender (Virginia L. Grady, with him on the briefs), Denver, Colorado, for Defendant-Appellant.

          Karl L. Schock, Assistant United States Attorney (John F. Walsh, United States Attorney, with him on the brief), Denver, Colorado, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

          Before TYMKOVICH, Chief Judge, EBEL, and BACHARACH, Circuit Judges.

          EBEL, Circuit Judge.

         Defendant Christopher Thornton appeals from the district court's sentence of seventy-eight months in prison. The issue is whether the district court committed procedural error by basing the length of Thornton's sentence, in part, on the treatment and vocational services he would receive in jail. Federal judges may not use imprisonment as a means to promote defendants' correction or rehabilitation. Tapia v. United States, 564 U.S. 319, 335 (2011). In this case, the district court calculated the advisory prison range under the Sentencing Guidelines and Thornton moved for a downward variance-requesting a sentence below the advisory range. The court denied that request, offering several reasons not to impose a below-guidelines sentence, including that Thornton "needs enough time in prison to get treatment and vocational benefits." (Aplt. App. Vol. III. at 36). Thornton claims on appeal, without having objected in the district court, that the court's rationale for sentencing violates Tapia. With this new argument we review the case for plain error.

         In evaluating Thornton's sentence, we clarify several principles. First, denials of downward-variance motions are subject to Tapia scrutiny. Second, Tapia error can occur even when a district court articulates additional valid reasons for the prison sentence. Third, a district court need not expressly link a prison sentence to a specific treatment program in order to trigger Tapia error. Fourth, there is no Tapia error when a district court addresses rehabilitation merely to refute an offender's argument that in-prison treatment justifies a lesser sentence, but there is error when the district court goes further and grounds his sentence, in part, on the perceived benefit to the offender of providing prison-based rehabilitation.

         Applying these principles, we find the district court's consideration of in-prison treatment was erroneous, but not plainly so. Accordingly, having jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291 and 18 U.S.C. § 3742(a), we AFFIRM.

         I. Factual Background

         In 2014, Thornton pleaded guilty to possession of a firearm as a felon. The district court calculated the range of imprisonment under the federal Guidelines was seventy-seven to ninety-six months. Thornton requested a downward variance to thirty-eight months based on his youth and the nonviolent nature of his criminal history. He also argued that in-prison treatment during the proposed thirty-eight months would help mitigate any potential risk he posed to the community. The district court, however, denied the variance motion. Even though the district court was initially prepared to sentence Thornton to eighty-four months in prison, the government ultimately requested a bottom-guideline sentence of seventy-seven months. After explaining his reasoning, the judge imposed a sentence of seventy-eight months' imprisonment.

         The district court offered several reasons for its decision not to grant the downward variance or otherwise to impose a lesser sentence. The district court first emphasized: "[T]he overriding reason is that I don't think certainly in this case that it is in the defendant's best interest to argue for or for a court to give him the lowest possible sentence. This is a fellow who doesn't do well on his own. Never has. And he needs all kinds of services that he can get and will get in prison[.]" (Aplt. App. Vol. III. at 32) (emphasis added). The court then turned to Thornton's criminal history, citing his juvenile felony-level adjudications and his adult felony convictions. It also discussed Thornton's upbringing, observing how Thornton had been deserted by his mom and had a challenging history with his dad. The court then addressed Thornton's gang history, his lack of education, and the credit Thornton warranted for going back to get his GED. Then, the judge said: "He's got mental-health issues, and he needs treatment. . . . He hasn't received a lot of treatment, mostly because he has rejected the efforts of the system in the past to provide him treatment." (Id. at 35) (emphasis added). The court also confirmed that Thornton is a community safety risk because he "mixes drugs and firearms." (Id.). In finalizing his decision at seventy-eight months' imprisonment, the judge summed up with three reasons: "I do that [1] because of the community-safety issues, [2] because of his history of rejecting efforts to help him, [3] because I am firmly convinced that he needs enough time in prison to get treatment and vocational benefits." (Id. at 36) (emphasis added).

         II. Legal Background

         The Sentencing Reform Act commands federal judges generally to consider several factors in determining an appropriate sentence, including the nature and circumstances of the offense and the history and characteristics of the defendant, 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(1), as well as the public's need for punishment, deterrence, community safety, and the defendant's need for rehabilitation or correctional treatment, § 3553(a)(2). But the Act separately and more specifically addresses itself to the sentence of imprisonment, directing judges to "consider the factors set forth in section 3553(a) . . ., recognizing that imprisonment is not an appropriate means of promoting correction and rehabilitation." § 3582(a) (emphasis added). The same law instructs the Sentencing Commission to "insure that the guidelines reflect the inappropriateness of imposing a sentence to a term of imprisonment for the purpose of rehabilitating the defendant or providing the defendant with needed educational or vocational training, medical care, or other correctional training." 28 U.S.C. § 994(k) (emphasis added). The Supreme Court interpreted these two sections to permit a sentencing court to consider the § 3553(a) factors in deciding the length of imprisonment, except for the factor relating to rehabilitation and correctional treatment. Tapia v. United States, 564 U.S. 319, 326-34 (2011). Accordingly, Tapia announced an unequivocal rule: "a court may not impose or lengthen a prison sentence to enable an offender to complete a treatment program or otherwise to promote rehabilitation." Id. at 335.

         III. Standard of Review

         Thornton did not argue below that the district court improperly based Thornton's sentence on rehabilitation. We therefore review for plain error. E.g., United States v. Mendiola, 696 F.3d 1033, 1036 (10th Cir. 2012). Under this standard, Thornton must show: (1) the district court erred, (2) the error was plain, (3) the error prejudiced his substantial rights, and (4) ...


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