The Court Ruling
The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week that a sentencing judge gave too lenient a sentence - 30 days in jail - to the man who assaulted the world's most famous libertarian, Senator Rand Paul. Senator Paul's neighbor, embroiled in a dispute regarding the placement of brush piles on their property line, seems to have lost it one day. He attacked Senator Paul so viciously, the Senator suffered several broken ribs. He had a long, painful, uncomfortable recovery period. The defendant had broken two of his ribs completely in half. During his recovery, he suffered an extended bout of pneumonia.
Criminal Sentencing in State and Federal Court
Usually, an assault case would be prosecuted in state court. Assault of a neighbor is not a federal crime - unless your neighbor is a United States Senator, that is.
And in most state courts - including New Hampshire, for example - there are no sentencing guidelines. In a case like this one, the Judge may have a maximum sentence of 3-1/2 to 7 years in prison, and a minimum sentence of, basically, nothing. The Judge has to use her discretion to pick a sentence somewhere in that broad range that is a just outcome of the case. There aren't really any hard and fast legal standards to apply. The sentence just has to balance the purposes of criminal sentencing in a fair and just manner. Those purposes - deterrence, rehabilitation, punishment - are often at odds with each other, which often makes for a difficult decision for the sentencing judge. But often in violent crimes like this one, the "punishment" and "deterrence" purposes tend to overshadow the "rehabilitation" goal.
United States Sentencing Guidelines
In federal court, the sentencing judge also has broad discretion, but first the Judge must calculate the "advisory" sentencing range under the United States Sentencing Guidelines. It's like working through a tax code, sifting through hundreds of pages of guidelines that vary depending on the circumstances of the offense, and the circumstances of the offender. In this case, the advisory guideline range was 21-27 months in federal prison. The sentencing judge has discretion to sentence outside this range - either more lenient or more harsh - but must explain her reasons for doing so. Our firm has handled many criminal cases in the United States District Court for New Hampshire, so we spend a lot of time immersed in the sentencing guidelines. We have filed many "Sentencing Memoranda" which are lengthy pleadings that paint the full picture of our client's life, in an effort to ensure that no one is ever judged solely by their worst moment or their worst decision. We have seen that good advocacy, by our firm and other highly experienced lawyers who appear frequently in federal court, may result in a sentence far below the advisory guideline range.
Sentence Vacated on Appeal
In this case, as it turned out, the sentencing judge went a bit too far outside the advisory guideline range. The judge sentenced the defendant to just 30 days in prison, 20 months lower than the low end of the advisory guideline range. A remarkable outcome given the extent of injury inflicted upon poor Senator Paul. Unfortunately for the defendant, it was a little too good to be true. The 6th Circuit Court vacated the sentence, ruling that the sentencing judge abused his discretion in choosing so lenient a sentence. So we learn - don't assault your neighbor, or you may just lose your liberty and spend some time in a government-run prison - even if your neighbor is an anti-government libertarian.
You can read the Court's decision here.