Koon v. United States

RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Rhode Island General Assembly

DOCKET NO.: 94-1664
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 518 US 81 (1996)
ARGUED: Feb 20, 1996
DECIDED: Jun 13, 1996

Michael R. Dreeben - Argued the cause for the respondent
Theodore B. Olson - Argued the cause for petitioner Koon
William J. Kopeny - Argued the cause for petitioner Powell

Facts of the case

Petitioners Stacey C. Koon and Laurence M. Powell, Los Angeles police officers, were acquitted on state charges of assault and excessive use of force in the beating of Rodney King during an arrest. They were convicted under 18 U. S. C. Section 242 of violating the victim's constitutional rights under color of law. Although the applicable U.S. Sentencing Guideline, 1992 USSG Section 2H1.4, indicated that they should be imprisoned for 70 to 87 months, the District Court granted them two downward departures from that range. The first was based on the victim's misconduct, which significantly contributed to provoking the offense. The second was based on a combination of four factors: (1) that the petitioners were unusually susceptible to abuse in prison; (2) that the petitioners would lose their jobs and be precluded from employment in law enforcement; (3) that the petitioners had been subject to successive state and federal prosecutions; and (4) that the petitioners posed a low risk of recidivism. The sentencing range after the departures was 30 to 37 months, and the court sentenced each petitioner to 30 months. The Court of Appeals reviewed the departure decisions utilizing a de novo standard and rejected all of them.


Did the Court of Appeals use the wrong standard in deciding whether a federal trial judge had erred in departing from the federal Sentencing Guidelines and giving lighter sentences to two ex-policemen convicted in the beating of Rodney King?

Media for Koon v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 20, 1996 in Koon v. United States

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument now in Number 94-1664, Stacey Koon v. United States, 94-8842, Laurence Powell v. United States.

Mr. Olson.

Theodore B. Olson:

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court--

This case involves the kind of fact intensive decision that district judges make 40,000 times each year.

It is the type of decision that trial judges are ideally suited to make, that appellate judges have neither the institutional competence nor resources to make, and that Congress and the Sentencing Reform Act explicitly vested in the district courts, and it is the kind of reasoned decisionmaking that Congress expected would provide vital data to the Sentencing Commission's continuous evolution and refinement of the Sentencing Guidelines.

The sentencing judge in this case made his decision to depart from the Sentencing Guideline range after presiding over a 7-week trial and a lengthy sentencing process involving detailed factual submissions by all of the parties.

He explained each aspect of his decision and his reasoning in a 54-page sentencing memorandum.

Each reason for departing from the guidelines was well documented and based upon the specific, highly unusual facts of this particular case.

Each departure was predicated on factors that are either encouraged as departure grounds by the Sentencing Commission or not forbidden or discouraged by the Sentencing Commission.

It is important to state at the outset that Congress explicitly authorized sentencing judges to depart from the prescribed sentencing ranges if they find factors of a kind or to a degree not taken into consideration by the commission in formulating the guidelines.

This, according to the commission, requires determining whether a case is unusual, atypical, or outside the heartland of the guideline range prescribed for this particular offense.

This is a highly fact bound inquiry.

Congress stated that sentencing judges were to have the flexibility and were required to impose that... use that flexibility to impose individualized sentences when warranted by aggravating or mitigating factors not taken into account by the guidelines.

Sentencing judges are to be guided by numerous factors in deciding whether a case is outside the heartland of the case.

As explained for the Court in the Rivera case from the First Circuit, a district judge is going to use the facts of the case, as found by him, to which deference must be given unless they're clearly erroneous, his experience or her experience as a sentencing judge, the intuition developed over years of sentencing, other statutes, the guidelines themselves, the sentencing regime prescribed by the guidelines, and to bring all that institutional superior feel, as the Rivera court put it, together to the case to determine whether a case is unusual or not.

Antonin Scalia:

Mr. Olson, let me ask about the first point that you make in your argument, and which I guess you're coming to now, whether in deciding this question we use the abuse of discretion standard or we decide de novo whether the particular factor is allowable under the guidelines.

Does it really make any difference?

Theodore B. Olson:

Well, I--

Antonin Scalia:

Because what is being contended by the Government is that certain of these factors are not lawful factors, that the guidelines do not permit them to be used.

Now, if we reviewed it de novo, we would come to the conclusion, assuming the Government's right, you're right, the guidelines do not permit them to be used.

If we did it under an abuse of discretion standard, we would say, well, of course it is always an abuse of discretion to violate the law, and therefore we have before us the same question Does the guidelines permit it to be used?

Whichever standard you use, the appellate court has the same question before it Is it lawful to use this particular factor?

I don't see why we--

Theodore B. Olson:

--What the--

Antonin Scalia:

--should bother fighting about what standard to use.

Theodore B. Olson:

--The answer to that question is... indeed, the answer, I can state directly that it does make a great deal of difference, because it is an experience that sentencing judges get.

What the Sentencing Commission intended to occur is that, and the Sentencing Commission specifically said that it is difficult to prescribe a single set of guidelines that encompasses the vast range of human conduct potentially relevant to a Sentencing Commission, so what the Sentencing... to a sentencing decision.

So what the Sentencing Commission did is elaborate on what the experience of district judges had been and create a typical sentence for a heartland type case, but it--

Antonin Scalia:

I understand, but you're missing my point.

The abuse of discretion standard simply says, within this broad range of the unlawful on this side and the unlawful on that side, the court can do whatever it wants in the middle.