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January 23, 2009

Second Circuit uses lenity principles to interpret broadly judicial authority to grant crack reductions

The Second Circuit today in US v. McGee, No. 08-1619 (2d Cir. Jan. 23, 2009) (available here), works through the particulars of whether and when a defendant may be able to get the benefit of the new crack guidelines.  The opinion's methodology, as well as its result, may hearten a lot of defendants and counsel who have not been able to get all the relief they seek through crack reduction motions.  Here are the key concluding sections of the McGee ruling:

We acknowledge that U.S.S.G. § 1B1.10 can be read to permit a reduced sentence only where the defendant’s pre-departure sentencing range is found within the crack cocaine guidelines. However, “the meaning of language is inherently contextual [and] the [Supreme] Court has always reserved lenity for those situations in which a reasonable doubt persists about a statute’s intended scope even after resort to the language and structure, legislative history, and motivating policies of the statute.” United States v. Dauray, 215 F.3d 257, 264 (2d Cir. 2000) (alteration and quotation marks omitted); see also United States v. Simpson, 319 F.3d 81, 86-87 (2d Cir. 2002) (holding that the rule of lenity applies to Sentencing Guidelines).  Here, we conclude that there is ambiguity as to whether the Sentencing Commission intended to exclude defendants such as McGee, who were clearly sentenced based on the crack cocaine guidelines and were disadvantaged by the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity that the crack amendments sought to correct, from the reach of the amendments....

We conclude that a defendant who was designated a career offender but ultimately explicitly sentenced based on a Guidelines range calculated by Section 2D1.1 of the Guidelines is eligible for a reduced sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) and the crack amendments.

January 23, 2009 at 11:09 AM | Permalink

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Comments

I agree with the basic result, but the Court (even while applying lenity) under emphasizes the scope of the lenity doctrine. As the post notes, the 2d Cir. summarizes the doctrine by stating, "the [Supreme] Court has always reserved lenity for those situations in which a reasonable doubt persists about a statute’s intended scope even after resort to the language and structure, legislative history, and motivating policies of the statute.” In fact, the Court's most recent discussion of the lenity doctrine implicitly rejects the sort of "last resort" model of lenity the 2d Cir applies.

In June, Justice Scalia writing for a plurality summarized the rule of lenity as follows: "Under a long line of our decisions, the tie must go to the defendant. The rule of lenity requires ambiguous criminal laws to be interpreted in favor of the defendants subjected to them. . .. This venerable rule not only vindicates the fundamental principle that no citizen should be held accountable for a violation of a statute whose commands are uncertain, or subjected to punishment that is not clearly prescribed. It also places the weight of inertia upon the party that can best induce Congress to speak more clearly and keeps courts from making criminal law in Congress's stead." U.S. v. Santos 128 S.Ct. 2020, 2025 (U.S.,2008)

Posted by: Justin Marceau | Jan 23, 2009 12:47:43 PM

A MOTHER CRY FOR JUSTICE

Posted by: carolyn jones | May 17, 2009 4:41:24 AM

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