Does a Judge Have Unfettered Discretion in Imposing a Criminal Sentence?
When a criminal defendant has either plead guilty to a charge or been found guilty by a jury, the next step in the court proceedings is called “sentencing.” This is the punishment phase. The judge presiding over the case determines what punishment the defendant will have, but there are a lot of factors that play into the judge’s decision:
- Presentence Report – Utah law has given Adult Probation and Parole the responsibility to evaluate convicted felons and then to prepare a report for the judge giving him recommendations on what a proper criminal sentence would be.
- Sentencing Matrix – The Utah Sentencing Commission has developed guidelines based on the type of crime and criminal history of the defendant to help judges make a reasonable sentence.
- Victims’ Statements – In cases involving victims, the victim will have the opportunity to talk to the judge.
- Character Witnesses – the defendant can have individuals who have known him for some time present letters of reference to the court to consider his character.
- Any other relevant evidence.
Judge’s appear to have total discretion in sentencing a defendant, but this is not the case. The law still requires the judge to act reasonably.
When a defendant appeals his criminal sentence the appellate court reviews “the sentencing decision of the district court, including the decision to grant or deny probation, for abuse of discretion.” See State v. Valdovinos, 2003 UT App 432, ¶ 14, 82 P.3d 1167. “An abuse of discretion results when the judge fails to consider all legally relevant factors, or if the sentence imposed is clearly excessive.” Id. Furthermore, “[a]n appellate court may only find abuse if it can be said that no reasonable [person] would take the view adopted by the trial court.” Id. Finally, a “defendant is not entitled to probation, but rather the court is empowered to place the defendant on probation if it thinks that will best serve the ends of justice and is compatible with the public interest.” State v. Rhodes, 818 P.2d 1048, 1051 (Utah Ct.App. 1991). However, in making a sentencing decision, “the Utah Constitution . . . requires that a sentencing judge act on reasonably reliable and relevant information in exercising discretion in fixing a sentence.” State v. Wanosik, 2001 UT App 241 ¶ 34, 31 P.3d 615.
In order to establish that the district court abused its discretion in relying on allegedly unreliable or irrelevant information, “the defendant must show (1) evidence of reliance, such as an affirmative representation in the record that the judge actually relied on the specific information in reaching her decision, and (2) that the information she relied upon was irrelevant [or unreliable].” State v. Moa, 2012 UT 28, ¶ 35, 282 P.3d 985.
Thus, as long as the information considered by the judge is “relevant” it can legally play into the judge’s decision and there is nothing that can be done about it. That is why it is so important to thoroughly review any type of plea offer from the prosecutor because once a defendant enters his plea agreement his fate is in the hands of the judge.