United States v. Jeremy Zullo (2d Cir. September 2020)

The Federal Docket

Sentencing/Compassionate Release – District courts have the discretion to define what circumstances constitute “extraordinary and compelling reasons” under 18 U.S.C. 3582(c)(1)(A).

Jeremy Zullo sought compassionate release under 18 USC 3582(c)(1)(A) while serving a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years. He argued that there were “extraordinary and compelling reasons” warranting his release based on his sentence being unjustly long, his exemplary rehabilitation, his close relationship with his family, the fact that he was a teenager at the time of his offense, and the fact that the government breached his plea agreement. The district court denied the motion, holding that these reasons did not fit under the enumerated categories defining “extraordinary and compelling reasons” under Application Note 1(D) of U.S.S.G. 1B1.13.

On appeal, the Court vacated the district court’s order and remanded for further proceedings. The Court explained that, by allowing inmates to file motions for release directly with the court (after meeting the exhaustion requirement) rather than relying on the BOP to file a motion, the First Step Act significantly shifted discretion from the BOP to the courts. While 3582(c)(1)(A) requires the court to base its order consistent with the policy statements from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the Court noted that the commission has not updated 1B1.13 since the First Step Act’s passage. That left certain language in 1B1.13 outdated and inapplicable, such as the statement saying only the BOP can bring motions under 3582(c)(1)(A). As such, the Court held that district courts are not constrained by 1B1.13 and can exercise their discretion in defining “extraordinary and compelling reasons” warranting an inmate’s release.

The Second Circuit became the first appeals court to tackle this issue and adopt this position, which has been adopted by the majority of district courts. Other courts have held that courts are still bound by Application Note 1(D), which has four narrow categories defining “extraordinary and compelling reasons” based on terminal illnesses, advanced age and debilitated condition, and medical conditions that leave inmates unable to care for themselves, and the need to serve as a child or spouse’s caregiver.

This ruling opens the door for inmate requests for release based on circumstances that previously weren’t grounds for release, such as the need to serve as a caregiver for a family member beyond a spouse or child, the excessiveness of a sentence in light of amendments that reduced the mandatory minimums, and other reasons that were previously insufficient.

That’s precisely what happened with Zullo, who had argued that his sentence was excessive after the judge had to sentence him to 15 years despite expressing that this sentence was greater than necessary. On remand, the district court will be able to consider if a sentence reduction is now warranted.

Opinion by Calabresi, joined by Winter and Chin

Appeal from the District of Vermont

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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