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Court: 'mistakes' in judge's sentence

January 1, 2008
The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the sentence of man convicted of defrauding Medicaid because the District Court judge's sentencing transcript was "laced with apparent mistakes and misunderstandings."

In United States of America v. William J. Higdon, No. 07-3951, William Higdon appealed his 60-month sentence imposed by U.S. District Judge Richard Young of the Southern District, Evansville Division. Higdon pleaded guilty to defrauding the Indiana Medicaid program, and the judge and parties agreed the sentencing guideline was 18 to 24 months. However, Judge Young sentenced Higdon to 60 months.

After reviewing the judge's sentencing transcript, the 7th Circuit found it to be filled with "mistakes and misunderstandings" that caused him to sentence Higdon to a prison term nearly three times the length of the midpoint of the sentencing guidelines, wrote Judge Richard Posner.

A sentencing judge is allowed to have his or her own penal philosophy at variance with that of the Sentencing Commission; however, a judge must think long and hard before substituting his or her own personal penal philosophy for that of the commission's, Judge Posner wrote.

According to the sentencing transcript, the federal appellate judges listed nine points in which they feel the judge may have made a mistake: from the judge apparently believing Medicaid fraud is more serious than other fraud because it is against the government to Judge Young's belief that Higdon would benefit from a long prison sentence so he could take advantage of educational and vocational training.

Six of the nine mistakes or misunderstandings the 7th Circuit identified seem unrelated to a legitimate philosophical difference between the judge and the Sentencing Commission. Three of the mistakes or omissions could reflect Judge Young's penal philosophy that differs from the commission, which is permitted, Judge Posner wrote.

The 7th Circuit had to rely on the transcript of Judge Young's oral remarks for the appeal, which caused the Circuit Court to suggest that judges who decide to impose an out-of-guideline sentence express their reasons in writing.

"The discipline of committing one's thoughts to paper not only promotes thoughtful consideration but also creates a surer path of communication with the reviewing court," Judge Posner wrote.
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