United States v. Lemont Webb (4th Cir. July 2020)

Sentencing – A sentencing court errs in imposing a life sentence if it fails to consider a defendant’s non-frivolous arguments for a non-life sentence.

Lemont Webb was convicted of drug conspiracy, possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine, and money-laundering charges. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Webb appealed, arguing that the district court improperly admitted evidence of his prior convictions, the state made improper statements during its closing argument, and that he was protected under the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment. He also challenged his sentence for being procedurally and substantively unreasonable.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed Webb’s conviction, holding that the evidence of Webb’s past state convictions for “possessing and intending to distribute cocaine in the same place during the same time period as the drug-trafficking conspiracy” was properly used to prove that Webb was “engaged in the charged conspiracy, not to support an impermissible inference” of propensity. Second, the Court held the government’s allegations about Webb’s infidelity were “fleeting and isolated” and did not mislead the jury nor affect its verdict. Third, Webb’s federal prosecution was “permissible under the Double Jeopardy Clause’s ‘dual-sovereignty’ doctrine.”

The Court vacated Webb’s sentence, however, holding that “Webb’s life sentence [was] procedurally unreasonable because the district court entirely failed to address several non-frivolous arguments for a lower sentence.” The Court held that the district court failed to consider Webb’s argument that, given his age, a definite sentence of 20 years “would be sufficient to incapacitate him until he is in his 60s and thus less likely to recidivate,” the potential disparity between Webb’s sentence and his co-conspirators, and Webb’s legitimate work history. The Court noted that, although its review is not limited only to the district court’s explicit statements when it imposes a sentence, “the district court did not put on the record its consideration of three of Webb’s non-frivolous arguments for a lower sentence or explain its rejection of those arguments.”

Appeal from the Eastern District of North Carolina 

Opinion by Harris, joined by Gregory and Wynn

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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