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July 27, 2010

Lengthy Third Circuit discussion of crack retroactivity issue that has split the circuits

A Third Circuit panel decision today US v. Flemming, No. 09-2726 (3d Cir. June 27, 2010) (available here), provides a thoughtful and comprehensive account of a little sentencing issue that has divided the circuits. Here is how the lengthy opinion in Flemming starts and ends:

Glenn Flemming was sentenced in February 2005 to 175 months’ imprisonment for federal firearm and crack cocaine offenses committed in 2002. After the United States Sentencing Commission retroactively lowered the offense levels for most crack cocaine offenses by two levels, Flemming moved for a reduction of sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2).  The District Court denied his motion, concluding that it lacked authority to reduce Flemming’s sentence because he was a career offender under U.S.S.G. § 4B1.1.  On appeal, Flemming argues that, despite his status as a career offender, he is eligible for a sentence reduction under § 3582(c)(2) because the District Court granted him a downward departure under U.S.S.G. § 4A1.3 after concluding that the career offender enhancement overstated the seriousness of his criminal history, and instead sentenced him within the Guidelines range for crack cocaine offenses.

The narrow issue presented in this case — whether a career offender who receives a § 4A1.3 downward departure under a pre-2003 edition of the Sentencing Guidelines to the Guidelines range for crack cocaine offenses is eligible for a sentence reduction under § 3852(c)(2) — is one of first impression in our Court, but one that has divided our sister circuit courts.  The First and Second Circuits, as well as a divided panel of the Fourth Circuit, have concluded that such a defendant is eligible for a sentence reduction. The Eighth and Tenth Circuits, as well as a divided panel of the Sixth Circuit, have disagreed.

Though we do so through a somewhat different analysis, we join the First, Second, and Fourth Circuit Courts in concluding that such a defendant is eligible for a sentence reduction under § 3582(c)(2).  Accordingly, we vacate the District Court’s order and remand for further proceedings....

Application of the rule of lenity is called for only in rare cases, and thus we stress the narrowness of our holding.  We conclude that, under a pre-2003 edition of the Sentencing Guidelines, a career offender who is granted a § 4A1.3 downward departure to the Crack Cocaine Guidelines range is eligible for a sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2). Accordingly, we vacate the District Court’s order and remand this case for the Court to exercise its discretion to determine whether, and to what extent, a reduction in Flemming’s sentence is warranted.

July 27, 2010 at 04:06 PM | Permalink

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