SW Legal studies in Business

Courts May Deviate from Guidelines Rules Based on Totality of Circumstances

Supreme Court held that a district court did not violate the Sentencing Guidelines by giving probation to a guilty party who would have been sent to prison under Guideline standards. Judges have the discretion to review all circumstances and can justify greater or lower sentences.

Topic Criminal Law
Key Words

Sentencing Guidelines; Variances; Extraordinary Circumstances

C A S E   S U M M A R Y

When Gall was in college in Iowa, he used and sold drugs, especially ecstasy. He netted over $30,000 from sales. He quit using and selling drugs, finished school and began work. Several years later, he was named in an indictment along with seven other persons for distributing drugs. He pleaded guilty to certain charges. Given the quantity of drugs, his having quit dealing drugs, and his cooperation in the investigation, the pre-sentence report recommended a sentence of 30 to 37 months in prison under the Sentencing Guidelines. The district judge rejected the recommendation and imposed a sentence of probation for 36 months. The government appealed. The appeals court reversed and remanded for re-sentencing, stating that rejecting the minimum prison term was “extraordinary” because it amounted to “a 100% downward variance” from the Guidelines. Gall appealed.


Reversed. There is no rule that requires “extraordinary” circumstances to justify a sentence outside of the Guideline ranges. The district court committed no procedural errors. The decision of the judge was based on a review of the evidence that Gall had withdrawn from the drug conspiracy and lived a law-abiding life for years before he was charged with violations of the law. The court has the ability, when reasonable, to go outside of the Guidelines. The Guidelines are the starting point for analysis, but the judge takes into account arguments from prosecutors and defendants about the appropriateness of the punishment. The judge must fully explain why there is a deviation from the Guidelines so an appeals court can ensure that there has been no abuse of discretion given the totality of the circumstances.


Gall v. U.S., 128 S.Ct. 586 (Sup. Ct., 2007)

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