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U.S. Court: Thousands Can Challenge Terms

(AP)

By DAVID KRAVETS Associated Press Writer SAN FRANCISCO. Thousands of inmates doing federal time in the West won a chance to challenge their sentences under an appeals court ruling Wednesday.

The decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is part of the continuing fallout from a controversial Supreme Court decision that struck down part of the federal sentencing system.

The high court in January decided judges should consult federal sentencing guidelines in determining prison terms _ but only on an advisory basis.

In its 7-4 ruling Wednesday, the 9th Circuit said the only reasonable way to ensure the high court´s wishes are followed is to allow all federal inmates whose convictions are on appeal to challenge their sentences.

The court _ the largest appeals court covering nine Western states _ estimated that number in “perhaps the thousands.” The dissenting judges said the decision would prompt a flood of appeals.

The Supreme Court´s ruling was meant to cure constitutional deficiencies when judges, in setting sentences, consider facts a jury did not decide at trial.

Though juries usually consider a person´s guilt or innocence, judges have used other factors _ like the amount of drugs involved in a crime or the number of victims in a fraud _ to add years to someone´s sentence.

The case before the 9th Circuit involved Alfred Ameline, who was sentenced to 12 1/2 years _ or 150 months _ in 2002 after pleading guilty to conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine in Great Falls, Mont.

He did not admit any amount of drugs, but the judge accepted it was 1,603 grams based on claims by the government. Using that drug weight and other factors, the sentencing range was 135-to-168 months; the judge chose the middle ground.

Now a judge is free to re-sentence Ameline as if that guideline range was not mandatory. His attorney suggested Ameline should be sentenced to about two years because the judge wrongly concluded the quantity of drugs.

The Justice Department, which fought re-sentencing Ameline, declined to comment.

Some appeals courts have interpreted the high court´s ruling differently. They have allowed re-sentencing only if the record is clear the judge would have come to a different conclusion had the guidelines not been mandatory.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court might settle the ongoing dispute over federal sentencing guidelines, which were adopted in 1984.