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July 24, 2004 - The Associated Press (US)

Federal Panel's Decision May Alter Sentencing Guidelines

LITTLE ROCK (AP) - The federal appeals court that includes Arkansas has joined others across the country in questioning whether federal sentencing guidelines are constitutional.

A majority ruling Friday by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at St. Louis in a Minnesota case, saying the federal guidelines violate the Constitution, may alter the way federal sentences are handed down in Arkansas.

Appeals from federal district courts in seven states are decided by the St. Louis-based court.

The issue arose after a June 24 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case called Blakely v. Washington, that struck down a state sentencing structure that resembles federal sentencing guidelines.

Four other federal appeals circuits have since then declared federal guidelines unconstitutional.

One federal circuit determined that the Blakely case doesn't affect federal sentencing guidelines and another court has taken up just part of the Blakely ruling.

The Blakely decision has left uncertainty in Arkansas on how to proceed with sentencing. Arkansas federal judges haven't addressed the ruling because they have not had an 8th Circuit precedent.

Already in Little Rock, a small handful of sentencings that could be affected by the ruling have been delayed.

The sentences at issue include enhancements, or increases in a sentence for certain reasons, such as possessing large quantities of drugs, leading a criminal conspiracy or defrauding someone of a large amount of money.

Judges have discretion as to whether a person is subject to a sentence enhancement.

But the Supreme Court ruled in June that leaving the decision up to judges violates a person's Sixth Amendment right to have a jury decide pertinent case facts.

In response, defense attorneys with federal clients have been inundating courts, including those in Arkansas, with motions seeking sentence reductions for clients sentenced before the Blakely ruling.

John Wesley Hall Jr. of Little Rock, treasurer-elect of the National Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the U.S. solicitor general has asked the Supreme Court to take up the issue as soon as possible, to clear up the nationwide confusion.

The guidelines were adopted in 1987 to make sentencing more uniform nationwide. Many federal judges say they are too strict and take away their independence.

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