Concepcion v. United States (U.S. Supreme Court, June 2022)

The Federal Docket

July 18, 2022

Before the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 reduced the disparity in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine, Carlos Concepcion pled guilty to distributing crack cocaine and was sentenced to 228 months in prison. Because he was sentenced as a Career Offender at the time, Concepcion was also ineligible for a retroactive sentence reduction based upon the 2011 amendment to the Sentencing Guidelines.

After the First Step Act of 2018, however, Concepcion filed a motion for a reduction, arguing both that he was eligible for resentencing since his crack-cocaine offense was a “covered offense.” He also argued that he had been rehabilitated and that, since one of his predicate convictions had been vacated, he would no longer be considered a Career Offender, and his sentence was thus outside the Guideline range. Though the Government conceded Concepcion’s eligibility for a sentence reduction, it opposed actually reducing his sentence. The district court denied Concepcion’s motion, claiming that the First Step Act did not authorize relief on those grounds, and the First Circuit affirmed the decision.

The Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case for reconsideration. The Court held that district courts have broad discretion to consider all relevant materials during both initial sentencing and a sentencing modification, and they are only limited by the Constitution and express statutory decree. Section 404 of the First Step Act thus allows district courts to consider changes of law and fact when resentencing a defendant, and those courts are required to at least minimally explain their consideration of all of the parties’ nonfrivolous arguments.

Justice Kavanaugh dissented, claiming that, by its text, the First Step Act authorized courts to reduce a defendant’s sentence only to comport with changes to the crack-cocaine sentencing ranges and not in accordance with other “unrelated changes.”

While the opinion involves Section 404 of the First Step Act, which relates to crack-cocaine convictions, some legal scholars have written that the opinion should be interpreted to mean district courts have broad discretion to determine whether an inmate presents “extraordinary and compelling reasons” warranting a sentence reduction under Section 403 of the FSA, known as “compassionate release.” There is currently a circuit split regarding the extent to which district courts can determine what circumstances constitute “extraordinary and compelling reasons.”

Certiorari to the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit
Opinion by Sotomayor, joined by Thomas, Breyer, Kagan, and Gorsuch
Dissent by Kavanaugh, joined by Roberts, Alito, and Barrett

Click here to read our compilation of compassionate release cases.
Click here to read the opinion.

Tom Church - Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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