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April 23, 2020

In praise of (split) Fourth Circuit panel prioritizing sentencing fitness over finality

A few years ago, I wrote this article, titled "Re-Balancing Fitness, Fairness, and Finality for Sentences," in which I urged policy-makers and judges to be "less concerned about sentence finality, and to be more concerned about punishment fitness and fairness, when new legal developments raise doubts or concerns about lengthy prison sentences."  The article came to mind as I reviewed a new (split) panel ruling from the Fourth Circuit in US v. Chambers, No. 19-7104 (4th Cir. Apr. 23, 2020) (available here).  Here is how the majority opinion gets started:

Erroneously sentenced as a career offender, Brooks Tyrone Chambers is currently serving an almost 22-year prison sentence on a pre-2010 crack-cocaine offense.  In 2019, he moved to reduce his sentence to time served under the First Step Act.  Because the First Step Act gives retroactive effect to sections 2 and 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, his statutory minimum would drop from 20 years to 10 years.  In his motion, he asked the district court to apply retroactive intervening case law, under which he would not be a career offender.  Without the enhancement, Chambers’s Guidelines range would also drop to 57 to 71 months; with it, his Guidelines range would remain the same — 262 to 327 months.

The district court determined that Chambers was eligible for a sentence reduction under the First Step Act, but it proceeded to perpetuate the career-offender error when recalculating the Guidelines.  Nor did it exercise its discretion to vary downward.  Instead, the court denied Chambers’s motion to reduce his custodial sentence, though it granted the motion as to his supervised release term.  Because the First Step Act does not constrain courts from recognizing Guidelines errors, and because the district court seemingly believed that it could not vary from the Guidelines range to reflect post-sentencing information, we vacate the district court’s resentencing order.  Additionally, we now hold that any Guidelines error deemed retroactive, such as the error in this case, must be corrected in a First Step Act resentencing.

Here is how the dissent gets started:

Modification of a final sentence requires express congressional authorization.  The majority’s decision sidesteps this statutory imperative and instead reasons that district courts are free — and here, required — to modify final sentences unless specifically prohibited from doing so.  Congress enacted Section 404 of the First Step Act to retroactively reduce disparities between the crack and powder cocaine sentencing schemes; the statute is silent about other changes to a defendant’s final sentence.  The majority finds in this silence an implicit grant of authority to retroactively correct Sentencing Guidelines errors based on intervening law, an authority this Court has rejected in the context of collateral challenges to final sentences.  I would instead conclude that 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(B) authorizes only the modification “expressly permitted” by the First Step Act, which does not include reevaluating a defendant’s career-offender Guidelines designation in light of a post-sentencing change in the law.

Since a judge at any full resentencing is now obligated to "impose a sentence sufficient, but not greater than necessary, to comply with the purposes set forth" in 18 USC 3553(a)(2), it really ought not matter too much what sentencing range gets spit out in a guideline calculation.  But because many judges still focus a lot on guideline calculations, I am pleased to see the majority here is eager to make sure the district court is focused on a correct guideline calculation.

April 23, 2020 at 11:00 PM | Permalink

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