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June 14, 2016

Split en banc Ninth Circuit tries its level best to sort through what Freeman means for crack guideline retroactivity eligibility

This Courthouse News Service article, headlined "Ninth Circuit Tackles Sentencing Disparities," does a nice job explaining the context and particulars of the ruling on a Ninth Circuit en banc court yesterday in US v. Davis, No. 13-301335 (9th Cir. June 13, 2016) (available here). Here are snippets from the press reporting:

Davis pleaded guilty to distributing at least 170.5 grams of crack cocaine in 2005. U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton, a George W. Bush appointee, sentenced Davis on the higher end of the 188- to 235-month federal guidelines range a year later.

In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the sentencing disparity ratios between crack and powder cocaine down to 18-to-1. The U.S. Sentencing Commission passed an amendment the following year that would allow more than 12,000 drug offenders — 85 percent of whom were black — to apply for retroactive relief. But prosecutors claimed that Davis waived his right to contest his sentence when he signed his plea agreement back in 2005.

After losing two rounds of appeals, Davis notched a small courtroom victory that may help hundreds who received disproportionate sentences. In addressing Davis's case, the San Francisco-based Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals tried to settle a controversy that has raged since the Supreme Court's uncertain conclusion five years ago in Freeman v. United States, which did not clearly define whether defendants could be eligible for retroactively reduced sentences if they pleaded guilty under guidelines that were subsequently reduced.

Although five justices agreed that the appellant in that case should receive reconsideration of his sentence, only four concurred on the lead opinion. Four judges dissented, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a special concurrence. This left lower courts to puzzle over whether Sotomayor had broken the tie. "To say that Freeman divided the court would be an understatement," U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Paez wrote for a divided 11-judge panel in Monday's majority opinion. "Not only did the plurality and dissenting opinions take opposite positions, but both also strongly criticized Justice Sotomayor's concurrence."...

Davis has received a fresh opportunity to reduce his sentence, but this does not guarantee that the district judge will grant him relief. Jones Day attorney Nathaniel Garrett, who represents Davis, said in a phone interview that his client's recommended sentence under the federal guidelines should drop dramatically when it returns to the lower court. Garrett noted sentencing guidelines without the 100-to-1 crack-to-powder disparity would range between 78 and 97 months in prison, and Davis already has served 143 months behind bars.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission noted two years ago that at least 71 applications for sentence reductions have been denied because of plea agreements like the one Davis signed, but Garrett believes his client's case would open the way for others to find relief. "What we don't know is how many individuals are in prison who haven't applied because the courts told them that they can't," he said.

Nancy Talner, a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington state affiliate, said in a phone interview that the opinion underscores "how unfair the old crack-cocaine sentencing was."...

In a concurring opinion, U.S. Circuit Judge Morgan Christen agreed that Davis deserved the opportunity to reduce his sentence, but quibbled about how courts should interpret plurality decisions with no clear victors. The majority opinion leaves the possibility open to take dissenting opinions into account, but Christen thought that this could sow more confusion.

"This is not to say that dissents serve no purpose," Christen wrote. "They can and should be read to provide context and a deeper understanding of the court's decisions, but they do not inform our analysis of what binding rule, if any, emerges from a fractured decision."

Dissenting Judge Carlos Bea would have rejected Davis's effort entirely. "The district court correctly determined that it lacked jurisdiction to resentence Davis, and the panel should affirm on that basis," he wrote.

Defense attorney Garrett predicted, however, that the majority's "reasoned and thoughtful and thorough" opinion would serve as a guide for other circuit judges who have struggled to interpret the Supreme Court's plurality decisions.

June 14, 2016 at 05:34 PM | Permalink

Comments

Not much that comes out of Judge Richard Paez' chambers can be considered "well-reasoned."

He pled guilty and waived appeals. Prosecutor could have gotten more, but didn't. The bargain should be honored.

Posted by: federalist | Jun 14, 2016 5:38:31 PM

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