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October 20, 2010

Seventh Circuit joins Sixth and Eleventh Circuits in rejecting applicability of FSA to pipeline cases

At the end of a lengthy opinion addressing other issues, a Seventh Circuit panel today in US v. Bell, No. 09-3908 (7th Cir. Oct. 20, 2010)  (available here), weighs in concerning an issue that I know is being litigated in various ways in various federal courts in the wake of the enactment of the Fair Sentencing Act.  Here are excerpts from the panel's work:

Three days after the FSA was enacted, Bell, who had not previously challenged any aspect of his sentence, filed a pro se motion for leave to file a supplemental brief regarding the application of the FSA to his case. We granted Bell’s motion, ordered his court-appointed counsel to file a brief on his behalf, and ordered the government to file a response. After reviewing the ably prepared briefs of both parties, we conclude that the FSA is not retroactive and therefore does not apply to Bell’s case....

Like our sister circuits that have considered this issue, see United States v. Gomes, ___ F.3d ___, No. 10-11225, 2010 WL 3810872, at *2 (11th Cir. Oct. 1, 2010); United States v. Carradine, ___ F.3d ___, No. 08-3220, 2010 WL 3619799, at *4-*5 (6th Cir. Sept. 20, 2010), we conclude that the savings statute operates to bar the retroactive application of the FSA. Bell’s arguments to the contrary are novel but ultimately unpersuasive....

[T]he FSA’s predominant purpose was to change the punishments associated with drug offenses. The savings statute therefore prevents it from operating retroactively absent any indication from Congress.  And since the FSA does not contain so much as a hint that Congress intended it to apply retroactively, it cannot help Bell here.

Though I guess it is fair to say that "the FSA does not contain so much as a hint that Congress intended it to apply retroactively," I am not so sure (1) that Bell is technically seeking its retroactive application (at least as that term is used in habeas jurisprudence), nor so sure (2) that Congress did not want the FSA to be applied to cases still in the sentencing pipeline. Let me explain what I mean here:

1.As the term is used in habeas jurisprudence, asking for a new law to apply "retroactively" means seeking to apply that new law to cases that have already become "final," which means cases that have already completed all stages of direct appeal (up to and through SCOTUS review).  Bell's case is still on direct appeal, so he is not really seeking "retroactive" application of the FSA, at least not as that term is used in habeas settings.

2.Congress did provide in the FSA for the US Sentencing Commission to make emergency amendments to the sentencing guidelines to reflect the FSA's new crack/powder ratio. It is not entirely clear why Congress would want/need the USSG to make such emergency amendments unless it wanted the provisions and consequences of the FSA to kick in ASAP. This reality is not a clear statement of Congressional purpose to apply the FSA to cases in the pipeline like Bell's case, but it does at least "hint" that Congress intended the new sentencing terms of the FSA to impact crack sentencing cases as soon as possible.

October 20, 2010 at 03:19 PM | Permalink


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I wouldn't expect the FSA to apply to anyone who has already been charged on the effective date of the law, let alone anyone who has already been sentenced yet is still on direct review. If Congress wishes to provide a break to those so situated that body needs to so direct. The judges have been getting this call right.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Oct 20, 2010 9:45:00 PM

If you realize you've been doing something wrong, shouldn't you (a) stop doing it and (b) fix your mistakes?

I realize that it would be a monumental undertaking, but these are people's lives we're talking about. Real, actual people in prison cells across the country.

Posted by: NickS | Oct 21, 2010 10:41:48 AM

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