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June 11, 2010

Split Sixth Circuit ruling spotlights split over who can get resentenced under new crack guidelines

Within the next few weeks, the Supreme Court will hand down a ruling in the Dillon case dealing with the extent of a district court's authority to reduce sentences when a defendant is eligible for a reduction under the Sentencing Commission new reduced crack guideline.  But the Dillon case is unlikley to resolve or even address questions concerning just who is eligible for a reduction in the first instance, and this eligibility issue has lead to some circuit splits in a variety of contexts

An intriguing  new split opinion today from the Sixth Circuit in US v. Pembrook, No. 08-6452 (6th Cir. Jun. 11, 2010) (available here), spotlights some aspects of this debate over this eligibility issue. Here is how the majority opinion in Pembrook starts:

In 1997, Daryl Marcus Pembrook pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine. Under U.S.S.G. § 4B1.1, Pembrook was a career offender. At sentencing, Pembrook prevailed upon the district court to depart downward from his career-offender guideline range to a sentence stated with reference to the analogous range for his crack-cocaine offenses. A decade later, Pembrook filed a motion to reduce his sentence pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2), arguing that Amendment 706 to the crack-cocaine guidelines had lowered his applicable guideline range. The district court denied his motion, on the grounds that Pembrook’s applicable guideline range was his career-offender range–not his crack-cocaine range–and Amendment 706 did not affect that range. Pembrook now appeals. Because we conclude that Pembrook’s applicable guideline range was his career-offender range, and Amendment 706 did not have the effect of lowering that range, we affirm.

Here is how the dissent in Pembrook starts:

The Sentencing Guidelines should be interpreted, if the words can fairly be so read, to permit resentencing when a properly applied Guideline that affected the length of a sentence is later retroactively reduced. When two Guideline calculations were properly used at two different steps of the sentencing determination process to determine a defendant’s original sentence, no policy supports permitting resentencing only if the first, but not if the second, calculation would have been different under a retroactive amendment. It is hard to imagine why the Sentencing Commission would adopt such a policy.  The syntax of the operative policy statement language does not require such a limit; indeed, it cuts the other way.  Under the policy statement, there must have been a lowering of “the defendant’s applicable guideline range.” U.S.S.G. § 1B1.10(a)(2)(B).  The words most naturally mean “a guideline range [properly] applied to the defendant.”  The words do not require that there be only one such range. By analogy, if a sport rule provides for a penalty if “the player’s foot steps out of bounds,” English syntax does not require that the rule apply only to the right foot or the left foot.  The clear meaning of “the player’s foot” is “a foot of the player.”  In short, because the Sentencing Commission retroactively lowered the Guideline range that the district court properly applied to Pembrook so as to affect his sentence, the requirements of the statute and the operative policy statement were fulfilled, and the district court had the authority to resentence Pembrook.

I have not given much attention to these issues as we await a ruling from the Supreme Court in Dillon.  But it will be interesting to see if SCOTUS will take up

June 11, 2010 at 09:51 AM | Permalink

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