Criminal Justice

Federal judge's 'people like you' comments don't require sentence reversal, 7th Circuit says

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The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Chicago has said a district judge “walked a fine line” when he made comments about resentencing of a man who pleaded guilty to unlawful gun possession by a felon, but they didn’t constitute reversible error. Image from Shutterstock.

A federal judge’s comments about “people like you” weren’t the kind of inflammatory remarks that would require resentencing of a man who pleaded guilty to unlawful gun possession by a felon, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Chicago said U.S. District Judge John F. Kness of the Northern District of Illinois “walked a fine line” when he made the comments, but they didn’t constitute reversible error.

The Chicago Sun-Times has recent coverage of the June 14 opinion written by Judge Diane Wood.

Kness gave Elvin Saldana-Gonzalez an above-guidelines sentence of 78 months in prison in February 2022, exceeding the government’s recommended 46-month sentence, according to the appeals court.

Saldana-Gonzalez had maintained that he had the gun for protection after his release from prison for murdering a rival gang member and injuring another. He also pointed to a troubled childhood as a mitigating factor.

The 7th Circuit said Kness made these “brief troublesome remarks”:

  • “When I look at your criminal history, your criminal history is entirely firearm-centric. And if you didn’t feel compelled not to go around with a gun—I don’t care how much danger you feel you were in; I feel in danger every single day when I drive on the expressway. I do. And I’m sorry, sir, it’s because of people like you. It really is. It’s because of people like you who have absolutely no respect for the law.
  • “And this city is—it’s as bad as it has been for as far back as I can remember, and I’ve lived here my entire life. We have shootings going on everywhere. There was a shooting last week a mile from where I grew up in a fairly lower-middle class but otherwise quiet southwest suburb. We never had shootings when I grew up. Ever. And yet a pregnant woman was shot on Route 83 in the middle of the day.”

The gun conviction stemmed from a traffic stop that happened a year and a half after Saldana-Gonzalez was released from prison. Saldana-Gonzalez jumped out of the car and fled while holding a loaded gun that he tossed into a dumpster.

In mitigation, Saldana-Gonzalez’s lawyers introduced evidence about his troubled childhood in Puerto Rico.

Raised at first by a blind mother, Saldana-Gonzalez was placed in foster care at age 5. He was abused there and moved back in with his mother. At age 10, Saldana-Gonzalez was in a car accident that caused him to lose his childhood memories. He moved to Milwaukee to live with an alcoholic uncle who neglected him. He then moved to Chicago to live with his uncle’s friend and joined a street gang. He was 19 when he killed the gang member.

The 7th Circuit said Kness “trod on dangerous ground” when he attributed a personal fear of driving on the expressway to “people like” Saldana-Gonzalez.

“Though the court was entitled to discuss Saldana-Gonzalez’s offense in the broad context of gun violence in Chicago, the remark is questionable because it implies that the court partly blamed Saldana-Gonzalez for issues that ‘only tangentially relate to his underlying conduct,’” the appeals court said, citing from a prior decision.

“Nothing in the sentencing process should give the impression that individual defendants may serve as scapegoats for judges’ frustrations with a particular city’s social ills. Although the district court walked a fine line, we are satisfied on this record that its observation did not cross over to the type of ‘extraneous and inflammatory’ comments that would require remand,” the 7th Circuit said.

According to the appeals court, Kness “carefully considered Saldana-Gonzalez’s upbringing and personal history” when he recognized that the defendant “was not dealt a good hand in life.” Kness considered that background as a mitigating factor.

But he also “underscored the need” to protect the public from future crimes by Saldana-Gonzalez.

Kness observed that there is “debate whether the data backs up general deterrence,” but he said he wanted others to get the message “that at least one judge in this district is very concerned about the level of violence.”

“Maybe that will have a deterrent effect on others and help protect our beleaguered public,” Kness said.

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