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United States v. Rucker

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

October 27, 2017

United States of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
Billy Joe Rucker, Defendant-Appellant.

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Kentucky at Louisville. No. 3:00-cr-00065-1-David J. Hale, District Judge.

          Frank W. Heft, Jr., Laura R. Wyrosdick, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL DEFENDER, Louisville, Kentucky, for Appellant.

          Candace G. Hill, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Louisville, Kentucky, for Appellee.

          Before: COOK, KETHLEDGE, and DONALD, Circuit Judges.

          OPINION

          KETHLEDGE, Circuit Judge.

         Billy Joe Rucker argues that the district court considered a forbidden factor-ironically, rehabilitation-when the court determined the length of his sentence for violating the terms of his supervised release. The record indeed suggests that the district court considered that factor. Hence we vacate Rucker's sentence and remand for resentencing.

         On November 8, 2013, Rucker finished an approximately 15-year term of imprisonment and began a five-year term of supervised release. Rucker violated the terms of his supervised release on four occasions in 2014 and 2016 when he tested positive for methamphetamine. Those violations triggered the application of 18 U.S.C. § 3583(g), which required the court to revoke Rucker's supervised release and to sentence him to "a term of imprisonment" not to exceed, in Rucker's case, five years. (For violations that do not trigger the application of § 3583(g), the court's decision whether to revoke the defendant's supervised release is discretionary. See 18 U.S.C. § 3583(e).) Before determining the length of Rucker's new term of imprisonment, however, the district court first permitted him to enter an inpatient addiction-treatment program. Presumably if Rucker had successfully completed the program the court would have imposed a short sentence for Rucker's violations. About a month after Rucker entered the program, however, he was ejected for arguing with another participant.

         The district court then held a revocation hearing to determine the length of Rucker's prison term for his violations. Rucker's Guidelines range was 21 to 27 months' imprisonment. The court imposed a sentence of 24 months, which it explained at least in part on the ground that Rucker could qualify for the Bureau of Prisons' residential drug-abuse program only if his sentence was at least 22 months in length.

         Rucker now challenges the substantive reasonableness of his sentence, which we review for an abuse of discretion. United States v. Deen, 706 F.3d 760, 762 (6th Cir. 2013). A sentence is substantively unreasonable if (among other things) the district court bases it on an impermissible factor. United States v. Greco, 734 F.3d 441, 450 (6th Cir. 2013).

         Rucker argues the district court did that here. His argument is based upon 18 U.S.C. § 3582(a), which provides in relevant part:

The [district] court, in determining whether to impose a term of imprisonment, and, if a term of imprisonment is to be imposed, in determining the length of the term, shall consider the factors set forth in section 3553(a) to the extent that they are applicable, recognizing that imprisonment is not an appropriate means of promoting correction and rehabilitation.

         Per the plain terms of this provision, the Supreme Court has held that "[s]ection 3582(a) precludes sentencing courts from imposing or lengthening a prison term to promote an offender's rehabilitation." Tapia v. United States, 564 U.S. 319, 332 (2011). And because in Tapia the sentencing transcript "suggest[ed] the possibility that Tapia's sentence was based on her rehabilitative needs[, ]" id. at 334, the Court remanded the case.

         Here, the district court explained the rationale for Rucker's sentence as follows:

. . . I'm going to indicate in the strongest terms to the Bureau of Prisons that you be placed in the residential drug abuse program ...

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