District Court Grants Compassionate Release Based on Changes in Marijuana Laws

The Federal Docket

Yesterday, a district judge in the Eastern District of Washington released an inmate from prison after finding that recent changes in marijuana laws presented “extraordinary and compelling circumstances” warranting the inmate’s release. In United States v. Orozco, the district court sentenced a defendant in April 2021 after a jury found him guilty of growing marijuana and using a firearm in 2012. Soon after it imposed the mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years, the court appointed the defendant a lawyer to file a motion for a sentence reduction, and it granted the motion yesterday.

While the facts in Orozco are unusual (it’s not every defendant who has already served 10 years before sentencing), there are two big takeaways from the case:

1. Some district judges may be willing to consider motions for compassionate release based on changes in marijuana laws. The brief submitted by the defendant in Orozco not only detailed changes in state laws and federal sentencing regarding marijuana, it pointed out that Congress now limits the use of federal funds to prosecute grow operations. The court’s opinion is a natural extension of the position, now adopted by several circuits, that sentencing reforms can be the basis for granting an inmate a sentence reduction if the inmate would have been sentenced to substantially less time under today’s law, even where Congress did not make those reforms retroactive.

2. The Court here was willing to grant a motion for compassionate release almost immediately after sentencing. Again, the facts here are unique–the defendant had been in custody for almost 10 years before sentencing–however, the opinion may be useful to cite in cases where a sentencing judge expresses disagreement with a mandatory minimum sentence he or she must impose. A well-briefed post-sentencing motion requesting a reasonable reduction should merit serious consideration, especially in cases where the defendant has already served extensive time in custody.

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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