By Kaitlin Price

Today, in the criminal case of United States v. Lemon, a published opinion, the Fourth Circuit held that the district court did not plainly err when it discussed Lemon’s rehabilitative needs during its sentencing procedure. The Court affirmed the district court’s twenty-four month prison sentence for Lemon’s violations of her supervised release.

District Court’s Sentencing Proceeding

In 2008, Cynthia Lemon plead guilty to conspiracy to defraud the United States by making, uttering and possessing forged securities and was sentenced to thirty months in prison and three years of supervised release.  In February 2013, Lemon began her supervised release term and five months later was arrested for multiple violations of her supervision, including several forged checks.

The Supervised Release Violation Report recommended twenty to twenty-four months imprisonment based upon the nature of the violations and the sentencing guidelines. Lemon’s parole officer recommended a twenty-four month imprisonment sentence. At the revocation hearing, the district court adopted the Government’s recommendation of a sentence within the Guidelines range and sentenced Lemon to twenty-four months in prison. In addition to discussing the reasons for the issued sentence the district court also commented on Lemon’s mental health.

Lemon appealed alleging that the district court erred in considering her rehabilitative needs in determining the length of her sentence.

Standard of Review

Lemon did not raise this issue at the revocation hearing; therefore, the Fourth Circuit reviewed the sentencing for plain error. To prevail Lemon needed to establish “an error (1) was made, (2) is plain (i.e. clear or obvious), and (3) affects substantial rights.” United States v. Lynn. Even if Lemon established the required elements, the Court may exercise its discretion to correct the error based upon whether the error seriously affects the fairness of the proceeding.

Tapia v. United States and the Impermissible Use of Rehabilitative Needs in Criminal Sentencing

On appeal Lemon claimed that the district court violated the Tapia rule. In Tapia v. United States the Supreme Court held that the Sentencing Reform Act prohibits federal courts from imposing prison terms “to promote a criminal defendant’s rehabilitation.” The Supreme Court explained that “[a] court commits no error by discussing the opportunities for rehabilitation within prison” but a court cannot “impose or lengthen a prison sentence to enable an offender to compete a treatment program.” The district court in Tapia v. United States stated that “the sentence has to be sufficient to provide needed correctional treatment,” which is an impermissible consideration on the part of the district court.

In applying the Tapia v. United States holding, the Fourth Circuit has determined that courts are permitted to consider rehabilitation so long as the court is not imposing or lengthening a sentence to further rehabilitation. The Fourth Circuit has also held that the Tapia rule applies to revocation sentences.

In United States v. Alston the Fourth Circuit held that the district court’s comment that the defendant’s sentence would “provide the needed treatment of care in the most effective manner possible,” did not violate the Tapia rule because the comments only suggested the court was aware of the rehabilitative benefits of the sentence, not that the court chose the sentence based upon those benefits. On the other hand, in United States v. Bennett the Fourth Circuit held the district court did violate Tapia when it stated that the defendant “needs intensive substance abuse treatment. So, the court will impose a sentence that provides ample time for that.”

Based upon the Supreme Court’s holding in Tapia v. United States, the Fourth Circuit’s precedent, and the precedent in sister Circuits, the Fourth Circuit found that “it is unlikely that a court has committed Tapia error unless it has considered rehabilitation for the specific purpose of imposing or lengthening a prison sentence.”

The District Court’s Sentencing of Lemon Did Not Commit a Tapia Error

The Fourth Circuit held that the district court did not err when it discussed Lemon’s mental state during the sentencing proceeding. First, the district court never made any indication that its concern for Lemon’s mental health was a factor in determining the length of her sentence. Further, the court specifically stated it did not even know if she would receive mental health treatment, suggesting it did not impose Lemon’s sentencing based upon rehabilitation.

Finally, the district court provided an independent rationale for Lemon’s sentencing that had nothing to do with the possibility of Lemon receiving treatment. The district court specifically stated that because Lemon had continued to re-offend there was a “need to protect the public from further crimes.”

Practical Advice to Avoid Confusion Regarding a Tapia Error

The Fourth Circuit advised that to eliminate any question as to whether a Tapia error occurred, district courts should separate any discussion regarding rehabilitative needs from its discussion of the factors that influenced the sentencing.

District Court Sentencing Affirmed

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s twenty-four month sentence because the court did not wrongfully consider rehabilitation in its sentencing decision.