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March 27, 2018

SCOTUS day for considering rules for prison sentence modification based on changed guidelines

The US Supreme Court this morning hears oral argument in two cases involving application of 18 U.S.C. §3582(c)(2), which allows a federal judge to modify a federal prison term for a "defendant who has been sentenced to a term of imprisonment based on a sentencing range that has subsequently been lowered by the Sentencing Commission."  Here are links to the SCOTUSblog case pages and previews for both cases (the second preview I authored):

Hughes v. United States

Koons v. United States

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of current federal prisoners might have their sentences directly impacted by these cases. Table 8 of the US Sentencing Commission's latest report on retroactive application of the reduction of the drug guidelines suggests that over 750 defendants may have been denied a reduced sentence based on the issue to be considered in Hughes and that nearly 3000 defendants may have been denied a reduced sentence based on the issue to be considered in Koons.  And, as always with criminal justice cases these days, I am especially interested to see if and how the new guy, Justice Gorsuch, approaches and frame the issue under consideration. 

March 27, 2018 at 09:23 AM | Permalink


I was reading through the sentencing transcripts from the joint appendix in the Koons case as I was curious as to whether the sentences given were in fact "based on" the sentencing guidelines. It seemed to me that the transcript would be a good source of evidence form which to make this inference. Having done that, I am led to the preliminary conclusion that the sentences handed down for Koons, Feauto, and Gardea were not based on a sentencing range located in the guidelines. Putensen's sentence actually was based on a sentencing range located in the guidelines, but not a range that has been subsequently lowered by the commission. Gutierrez's sentence was based on the sentencing range applicable to him, as evidenced from the sentencing judge's statements, and if this same range has been subsequently changed by the commission than it would seem he would qualify for resentencing. Based on my reading of the transcripts, Gutierrez's sentencing was distinguishable from the other 4 individuals and he might have been better off making a more individualized argument.

That conclusion kind of stinks though because of the 5 named individuals Gutierrez was the one who's conduct least warrants a further downward departure. In addition to drug trafficking he engaged in home invasions and strong-armed robberies of drug dealers. The sentencing judge was fairly transparent in his opinion regarding Gutierrez's conduct and at one point stated he (the judge) would have no problem giving Gutierrez a life sentence. However, the statements made in the sentencing transcript appear (based on my interpretation) to support the claim that the judge sentenced Gutierrez based off his advisory guideline range.

Posted by: anonuser879 | Mar 27, 2018 12:47:45 PM

The question isn't how many cases will a decision affect, but is the decision correct?

Nobody worried how many people would be affected by Brown v. Board because it came out correctly. (RIP Linda Brown)

So long as Koons and Hughes come out correctly (like Apprendi did), nobody will remember how much extra work it gave the government.

Posted by: Gravita | Mar 27, 2018 10:06:48 PM

Tangential question from Hughes. At least on one occasion, the U.S. Supreme Court used Marks to determine what qualified as clearly established law for habeas petitions challenging state convictions (under the 2254(d) deferential review provision). If the Supreme Court decides to do away with or modify the Marks test for creating a holding out of a splintered decision, how might that impact habeas review? It does not look like habeas came up during the argument as an area that could be impacted by any change to Marks.

Posted by: tmm | Mar 28, 2018 1:00:22 PM

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