Ruling upholds extra prison time for felon who laughed during sentencing

Jurisprudence is no laughing matter.

Ramon Ochoa, 40, learned that lesson while appearing in Fresno before U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O'Neill.

Sentenced to nearly six years in prison for being a felon in possession of firearms and ammunition, Ochoa was serving an additional three years on supervised release.

A probation officer wanted that release revoked on the grounds Ochoa had been rude and abusive to the staff at a residential reentry program. He also had tested positive for synthetic cannabis and been found with a small knife, the probation officer said.

Ochoa admitted violating the terms of his release, and the government asked he be imprisoned for one year and one day.

O'Neill, a George W. Bush appointee, lectured him during a sentencing hearing.

"You are disrespectful," O'Neill said. "You think you can do and say anything you want to say just simply because you disagree. That's not acceptable."

The judge continued to upbraid Ochoa, telling him: "You know, you talk about wanting to see your children. This is a way not to see your children."

O'Neill then sentenced Ochoa to the time recommended.

While the defense lawyer was asking the judge questions, O'Neill noticed Ochoa laughing.

"You think this is funny?" the judge demanded.

"No way," Ochoa replied, insisting he was surprised by the sentence.

The judge retorted that Ochoa had laughed "at the court."

That mirth cost him extra time behind bars. After sentencing him to two years, O'Neill told Ochoa, "You are done."

In an appeal, Ochoa argued that judges may not revise sentences they have just handed down during a hearing.

A U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel disagreed, ruling 2-1 that judges can change their minds before banging the gavel.

"The rule Ochoa advocates would strip district courts of flexibility to respond to evolving circumstances during sentencing hearings," Judge Johnnie B. Rawlinson, a Clinton appointee, wrote for the court Thursday.

Judge Mary H. Murguia, a President Obama appointee, agreed.

But Judge Gloria M. Navarro, temporarily assigned to the 9th Circuit from a Nevada district court, called the sentence hike "injudicious" and "draconian."

"A judge's decision as to how long a defendant should be involuntarily imprisoned must be careful, measured, and deliberate — not subject to impulsive change or emotional whims," the Obama appointee wrote.

Unless the decision is overturned, litigants in federal court are on notice: Laugh at your own peril.

maura.dolan@latimes.com

Twitter: @mauradolan

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