United States v. Maurice Jerome McDonald (8th Cir. December 2019)

Sentencing/First Step Act – A defendant is eligible to request a sentence reduction under the First Step Act as long as he was convicted of a “covered offense,” regardless of how his sentence was calculated under the Guidelines.

Based in part on his criminal history, Maurice McDonald was initially sentenced to life imprisonment for distributing drugs, including cocaine base. He was later able to get his sentence reduced to 360 months. In 2019, he filed a pro se motion for a reduced sentence under the First Step Act’s provision making the lower penalties for crack retroactive.

The district court denied McDonald’s motion without a hearing, however, based on its finding that McDonald was ineligible under the First Step Act because the Sentencing Guidelines range was based on 150 kilograms of powder cocaine rather than cocaine base.

Applying a de novo standard of review to questions of eligibility under the First Step Act (abuse of discretion on whether to grant/deny a reduction), the Eighth Circuit held that McDonald was eligible for a sentence reduction. Though McDonald’s sentence was indeed based on 150 kilograms of powder cocaine as calculated under the Guidelines, he was still convicted for distributing cocaine base as well, and “the First Step Act applies to offenses, not conduct.” Because he was convicted under a law that was modified by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (which reduced cocaine-crack disparities), he committed a “covered offense” and was eligible for a sentence reduction.

The Court rejected the Government’s arguments that McDonald’s prior sentence reduction foreclosed him from seeking relief in the instant case, since the previous reduction was based on a retroactive Guidelines Amendment and his current reduction request was statutory in nature.

On Appeal from the Eastern District of Arkansas

Opinion by Kelly, joined by Melloy and Stras

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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