§5K2.0 .Grounds for Departure (Policy Statement)
Under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(b), the sentencing court may impose a sentence outside the range established by the applicable guidelines, if the court finds "that there exists an aggravating or mitigating circumstance of a kind, or to a degree, not adequately taken into consideration by the Sentencing Commission in formulating the guidelines that should result in a sentence different from that described." Circumstances that may warrant departure from the guideline range pursuant to this provision cannot, by their very nature, be comprehensively listed and analyzed in advance. The decision as to whether and to what extent departure is warranted rests with the sentencing court on a case-specific basis. Nonetheless, this subpart seeks to aid the court by identifying some of the factors that the Commission has not been able to take into account fully in formulating the guidelines. Any case may involve factors in addition to those identified that have not been given adequate consideration by the Commission. Presence of any such factor may warrant departure from the guidelines, under some circumstances, in the discretion of the sentencing court. Similarly, the court may depart from the guidelines, even though the reason for departure is taken into consideration in determining the guideline range (e.g., as a specific offense characteristic or other adjustment), if the court determines that, in light of unusual circumstances, the weight attached to that factor under the guidelines is inadequate or excessive.
Where, for example, the applicable offense guideline and adjustments do take into consideration a factor listed in this subpart, departure from the applicable guideline range is warranted only if the factor is present to a degree substantially in excess of that which ordinarily is involved in the offense. Thus, disruption of a governmental function, §5K2.7, would have to be quite serious to warrant departure from the guidelines when the applicable offense guideline is bribery or obstruction of justice. When the theft offense guideline is applicable, however, and the theft caused disruption of a governmental function, departure from the applicable guideline range more readily would be appropriate. Similarly, physical injury would not warrant departure from the guidelines when the robbery offense guideline is applicable because the robbery guideline includes a specific adjustment based on the extent of any injury. However, because the robbery guideline does not deal with injury to more than one victim, departure would be warranted if several persons were injured.
Also, a factor may be listed as a specific offense characteristic under one guideline but not under all guidelines. Simply because it was not listed does not mean that there may not be circumstances when that factor would be relevant to sentencing. For example, the use of a weapon has been listed as a specific offense characteristic under many guidelines, but not under other guidelines. Therefore, if a weapon is a relevant factor to sentencing under one of these other guidelines, the court may depart for this reason.
Finally, an offender characteristic or other circumstance that is, in the Commissions view, "not ordinarily relevant" in determining whether a sentence should be outside the applicable guideline range may be relevant to this determination if such characteristic or circumstance is present to an unusual degree and distinguishes the case from the "heartland" cases covered by the guidelines.
The United States Supreme Court has determined that, in reviewing a district courts decision to depart from the guidelines, appellate courts are to apply an abuse of discretion standard, because the decision to depart embodies the traditional exercise of discretion by the sentencing court. Koon v. United States, 518 U.S. 81 (1996). Furthermore,"[b]efore a departure is permitted, certain aspects of the case must be found unusual enough for it to fall outside the heartland of cases in the Guideline. To resolve this question, the district court must make a refined assessment of the many facts bearing on the outcome, informed by its vantage point and day-to-day experience in criminal sentencing. Whether a given factor is present to a degree not adequately considered by the Commission, or whether a discouraged factor nonetheless justifies departure because it is present in some unusual or exceptional way, are matters determined in large part by comparison with the facts of other Guidelines cases. District Courts have an institutional advantage over appellate courts in making these sorts of determinations, especially as they see so many more Guidelines cases than appellate courts do." Id. at 98.
The last paragraph of this policy statement sets forth the conditions under which an offender characteristic or other circumstance that is not ordinarily relevant to a departure from the applicable guideline range may be relevant to this determination. The Commission does not foreclose the possibility of an extraordinary case that, because of a combination of such characteristics or circumstances, differs significantly from the "heartland" cases covered by the guidelines in a way that is important to the statutory purposes of sentencing, even though none of the characteristics or circumstances individually distinguishes the case. However, the Commission believes that such cases will be extremely rare.
In the absence of a characteristic or circumstance that distinguishes a case as sufficiently atypical to warrant a sentence different from that called for under the guidelines, a sentence outside the guideline range is not authorized. See 18 U.S.C. § 3553(b). For example, dissatisfaction with the available sentencing range or a preference for a different sentence than that authorized by the guidelines is not an appropriate basis for a sentence outside the applicable guideline range.