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

The Federal Docket

In the past few weeks, three more circuit courts have issued opinions interpreting 18 U.S.C. 3582(c)(1)(A), the statute under which federal inmates can file a motion for “compassionate release” or a sentence reduction if they can show “extraordinary and compelling reasons.” The Fifth, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits joined four other circuit courts in holding that district courts have broad, independent authority to determine what circumstances constitute “extraordinary and compelling reasons.”

In United States v. Shkambi, the Fifth Circuit held that the district court erred in finding it lacked jurisdiction because the motion failed on the merits, but more importantly, it held that the district court erred in denying the motion on the merits because it considered itself bound by the policy statement under U.S.S.G. 1B1.13, which lists certain circumstances that can constitute “extraordinary and compelling reasons.” The Court held that the district court had discretion to determine if a sentence reduction was warranted since 1B1.13 only applied to motions filed by the BOP, not inmates.

The Ninth Circuit issued a similar opinion in United States v. Aruda, where it also held that “the current version of 1B1.13 is not an applicable policy statement” under 3582(c)(1)(A). As such, the district court erred in denying the motion based on finding that defendant posed a danger to the community, as this factor was only listed under the policy statement and not 3582(c)(1)(A).

In United States v. McGee, the Tenth Circuit also held that the Sentencing Commission’s policy statements did not bind district courts when considering what circumstances constitute “extraordinary and compelling reasons.” Specifically, the Court held that the fact that an inmate’s mandatory minimum sentence has been lowered by subsequent legislation can be considered by a district court, though it can not justify a reduction if it is standing alone. Setting itself apart from some of the other Circuits to consider the issue, the Court also seemed to indicate that district courts will retain independent discretion even after the Sentencing Commission enacts a new policy statement, holding that the policy statements “describe” the type of circumstances warranting a sentence reduction rather than providing an exclusive list.

The Fifth, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits joined the Second, Fourth, Sixth, and Seventh Circuits in holding that district courts have broad discretion when considering a motion for sentence reduction under the First Step Act. The differences in their approaches, however, will likely lead to future litigation. It remains to be determined to what extent courts can consider an inmate’s subsequently-reduced sentencing range or rehabilitation when considering a motion under 3582(c)(1)(A). It remains to be seen what kind of authority the Sentencing Commission will have to define the types of circumstances that can constitute “extraordinary and compelling reasons.” It also remains to be seen what the other circuits do, and whether there may be a circuit split in the future.

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.

Scroll to Top