Buford vs. United States
Certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the seventh circuit
No. 99-9073. Argued January 8, 2001--Decided March 20, 2001
TYPE OF CASE. This case has to deal with the certiorari (Latin for “to be informed”) from the United States Court of appeals for the seventh district. This case raises a question of the sentencing laws. What is the standard of review as it applies when a court of appeals reviews a trial court’s Sentencing Guideline determination as to whether an offender’s prior convictions were consolidated, hence “related,” for purposes of sentencing? In particular, should the appeals court review the trial court’s decision deferentially or de novo?
FACTS OF THE CASE The trial court decision at issue focused on one aspect of the United States Sentencing Guidelines' treatment of "career offenders," a category of offender subject to particularly severe punishment. The Guidelines define a "career offender" as an offender with "at least two prior felony convictions" for violent or drug-related crimes. United States Sentencing Commission, Guidelines Manual §4B1.1 (Nov. 2000) (USSG).
Petitioner Buford pleaded guilty to armed bank robbery. At sentencing, the Government conceded that her four prior robbery convictions were related, but did not concede that her prior drug conviction was related to the robberies. The drug crime (possession of, with intent to deliver, cocaine) had taken place about the same time as the fourth robbery, and Buford claimed that the robberies had been motivated by her drug addiction. But the only evidentiary link among the crimes was that the police had discovered the cocaine when searching Buford's house after her arrest for the robberies.
Moreover, no formal order of consolidation had been entered. The State had charged the drug offense in a separate indictment and had assigned a different prosecutor to handle the drug case. A different judge had heard Buford plead guilty to the drug charge in a different hearing held on a different date; two different state prosecutors had appeared before the sentencing court, one discussing drugs, the other discussing the robberies; and the sentencing court had entered two separate judgments. Petitioner Buford pointed out that the State had sent the four robbery cases for sentencing to the very same judge who had heard and accepted her plea of guilty to the drug charge; that the judge had heard arguments about sentencing in all five cases at the same time in a single proceeding; that the judge had issued sentences for all five crimes at the same time.
The Court of Appeals found the "functional consolidation" question a close one, and wrote, "The standard of appellate review may be...