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When federal appellate courts rule that sentences are too light

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Since a very young age, I would hear people urging not to "make a federal case" out of this or that. The phrase has not been my cup of tea, but in the jurisdictions where I practice, more often than not it is better for my clients’ criminal cases to be resolved in state court than in federal court, as federal court often involves harsher penalty exposure.

In federal court, for instance, prosecutors can raise appellate arguments that a sentence is too lenient. Federal appellate courts sometimes agree, including a Fourth Circuit opinion from today that concluded in a tax evasion case:

"To summarize, we conclude that the district court committed significant procedural error by minimizing of the seriousness of Engle’s conduct, failing to consider the relevant policy statements and the need for general deterrence, and insufficiently explaining the reasons for its view that a term of imprisonment was not required. We also conclude that the sentence imposed was substantively unreasonable because of the district court’s improper focus on Engle’s financial ability to pay restitution. Accordingly, we hereby vacate Engle’s sentence and remand for further proceedings before a different district court judge." U.S. v. Engle, ___ F.3d ___ (4th Cir., Jan. 13, 2010).