Sentencing

The Federal Docket

United States v. Abdulaziz (1st Cir. June 2021)

The First Circuit vacated a defendant’s sentence which had been enhanced based on a 2014 conviction under state law for distributing marijuana, which the sentencing court held was a “controlled substance offense” under the Guidelines. The First Circuit held that convictions under state laws that do not distinguish between marijuana and hemp, as defined and legalized under federal law, cannot serve as “controlled substance offenses” under the Guidelines.

Ninth and Eleventh Circuits Split Over Amended Safety Valve Relief

The Eleventh Circuit and Ninth Circuit created a circuit split concerning the proper interpretation of the safety valve under 18 USC 3553(f), particularly as it was amended by the First Step Act. The courts disagreed over the proper interpretation of the word “and” in the list of requirements a defendant must meet for their criminal history to allow them to qualify for the safety valve. The Ninth Circuit’s interpretation would allow far more defendants qualify.

Eleventh Circuit Creates Circuit Split on Standard for Sentence Reductions–holds district courts have limited discretion to grant.

The Eleventh Circuit became the first, and so far the only, circuit court to hold that district courts considering sentence reductions motions under 3582(c)(1)(A) are bound by the criteria under USSG 1B1.13. To date, seven other circuits have held that district courts have discretion to determine if an inmate has presented extraordinary and compelling reasons warranting a reduction. District courts in the Eleventh Circuit now have much less discretion to reduce an inmate’s sentence.

U.S. Sentencing Commission Releases Data on Sentence Reductions

The U.S. Sentencing Commission has issued a “Retroactivity Data Report,” reflecting the data showing how many inmates have had their sentences reduced under the First Step Act’s retroactive sentencing provisions for crack-cocaine offenders. The data includes a break down by criminal history category, whether the offender had a firearm, and the average reduction.

United States v. Ian Owens (6th Cir. May 2021)

The Sixth Circuit held that the disparity between a defendant’s actual sentence and the sentence that he or she would have received if the First Step Act’s amendments applied can, along with other factors, constitute extraordinary and compelling reasons warranting a sentence reduction.

BOP States It Has No Immediate Plans to Send Inmates on Home Confinement Back to Prison, But That Could Chance

BOP Director Michael Carvajal testified before the Senate on April 15, 2021. He testified that the BOP does not currently have any immediate plans to send inmates back to prison who are currently on home confinement due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The director also testified, however, that Congress needs to pass a law to ensure inmates are not send back when the COVID-19 emergency order is lifted.

United States v. Tony Dewayne Williams (6th Cir. March 2021)

The Sixth Circuit affirmed a defendant’s sentence which was enhanced based on a prior felony conviction under Tennessee law involving marijuana. The Court held that the sentencing court erred in enhancing the defendant’s sentence based on that conviction because the Tennessee law at issue included hemp under the definition of marijuana, while hemp was distinguishable and legal under federal law. Therefore, the Tennessee conviction was not a “controlled substance offense” under the Guidelines. However, since the defendant had only objected generally at sentencing and did not articulate grounds for his objection, plain error review applied, and the sentencing court’s error here were not clear or obvious given the complexity of the issue.

United States v. Precias Freeman (4th Cir. March 2021)

The Fourth Circuit vacated a drug defendant’s sentence for two reasons. First, it held that, despite there having been no hearing where sentencing counsel testified, the record was sufficient to establish that defendant received ineffective assistance when her counsel waived meritorious objections to the guidelines that would have resulted in a lower range and where he put his efforts into getting her in a drug program despite not knowing the program’s requirements for admission. The Court also held that the defendant’s 17-year sentence was substantively unreasonable where the sentencing court failed to consider her severe opioid addiction and that her sentence was significantly longer than those of similarly-situated defendants across the country.

Group of Current and Former Prosecutors and Law Enforcement Officials Issue Joint Statement on Need to Reduce Extreme Sentences

This month, a group of current and former prosecutors and law enforcement officials issued a “Joint Statement on Sentencing Chances and Addressing Past Extreme Sentences.” The group is calling for reforms including the expansion of compassionate release, new agencies or units to review long sentences, and prospective limits on prosecutors’ ability to charge individuals for offenses that carry especially long mandatory minimums.

Fifth, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits Join Majority of Circuits Holding that Courts Have Broad Discretion in Granting Sentence Reductions

The Fifth, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits have issued opinions over the past few weeks holding that district courts have broad, independent discretion in determining whether an inmate has established “extraordinary and compelling reasons” warranting a sentence reduction under 18 USC 3582(c)(1)(A). The courts join the Second, Fourth, Sixth, and Seventh Circuits in recognizing the broad discretion of district courts, creating a substantial majority of the circuits. The other circuits have not yet addressed this issue.

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