United States v. Jennifer Riccardi (6th Cir. March 2021)

The Federal Docket

Sentencing Guidelines – The Guidelines commentary directing courts to calculate a minimum loss amount of $500 for each unauthorized access device improperly expands the text of the substantive guideline under USSG 2B1.1.

The defendant challenged her sentence for possession of unauthorized access devices, arguing that the district court erred in calculating the loss amount based on an application of the Application Notes to U2B1.1 which set the minimum loss amount for each device at $500.

Under Application Note 3(F)(i) to 2B1.1, courts are directed to impose a loss of at least $500 for each unauthorized access device, which include stolen gift cards and credit cards. The defendant argued, and the Sixth Circuit agreed, that “guidelines commentary may only interpret, not add to, the guidelines themselves,” and that “the commentary’s bright-line rule requiring a $500 loss amount for every gift card…cannot be considered a reasonable interpretation of – as opposed to an improper expansion beyond – §2B1.1’s text.”

The Court also recognized that the $500 rule was not a result of interpreting the substantive guidelines provision. It was a “a substantive policy choice” wherein the courts are asked to impose a fictional loss amount where another one cannot be reasonably ascertained and “the Commission may not make this kind of substantive policy choice in the commentary and claim that its choice represents nothing more than an ‘interpretation’ of the guideline.” 

The case followed a recent trend wherein courts have reversed sentences based on commentary to the guidelines where the commentary expands the conduct specified in the guidelines, such as the Sixth Circuit’s opinion in United States v. Havis where it held that the definition of “controlled substance offense” under the career offender provisions improperly expanded the definition under the guidelines themselves.

Appeal from the Northern District of Ohio
Opinion by Murphy, joined by Daughtrey, Nalbandian

Click here to read the opinion.

Tom Church - Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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