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March 30, 2021

Tenth Circuit becomes the latest circuit to embrace a robust view of sentence reduction authority under 3582(c)(1)(A) after FIRST STEP Act

I was pleased to see late yesterday another important circuit ruling on the reach and application of the compassionate release provisions amended by the federal FIRST STEP Act.  As regular readers know, in lots of (pre-COVID) prior posts, I made much of the provision of the FIRST STEP Act allowing federal courts to directly reduce sentences under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) without awaiting a motion by the Bureau of Prisons.  I have long considered this provision a big deal because, if applied appropriately and robustly, it could and should enable many hundreds (and perhaps many thousands) of federal prisoners to have excessive prison sentences reduced on a variety of grounds. 

The Second Circuit back in September was the first circuit to rule in Zullo/Brooker, quite rightly in my view, that district courts have now broad discretion to consider "any extraordinary and compelling reason for release that a defendant might raise" to justify a sentence reduction under 3582(c)(1)(A).  Not long thereafter, the Fourth, Sixth, and Seventh Circuits issued somewhat similar opinions generally recognizing that district courts now have broad authority after the FIRST STEP Act to determine whether and when "extraordinary and compelling" reasons may justify a sentence reduction when an imprisoned person files a 3582(c)(1)(A) motion.  Yesterday, the Tenth Circuit joined the fun with its extended panel opinion in US v. McGee, No. 20-5047 (10th Cir. Mar. 29, 2021) (available here).  Here is how this opinion gets started:

In November 2000, defendant Malcom McGee was convicted by a jury of three criminal counts: (1) conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute one kilogram or more of a mixture of substance containing a detectable amount of PCP, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846; (2) causing another person to possess with intent to distribute in excess of one kilogram of a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of PCP, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(A)(iv), and 18 U.S.C. § 2(b); and (3) using a communication facility to commit and facilitate the commission of a felony, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 843(b).  Because McGee had previously been convicted in the State of California of two felony drug offenses, the district court sentenced McGee to a mandatory term of life imprisonment pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A).

Following Congress’s enactment of the First Step Act of 2018 (First Step Act) and the changes the First Step Act made to both § 841(b)(1)(A) and 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A), McGee filed a motion with the district court pursuant to § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i) to reduce his sentence based on “extraordinary and compelling reasons.”  The district court denied that motion.  McGee now appeals.  Exercising jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2241, we reverse and remand to the district court for further consideration of McGee’s motion.

Though there are various elements to the McGee ruling, I was especially glad to see the panel explain effectively why it was improper for the district court to decide it could not grant a sentence reduction simply because Congress has not (yet) decided to make the sentencing changes in the FIRST STEP Act fully retroactive.  Here is part of the court's discussion on this point (emphasis in the original):

The plain text of § 401(c) of the First Step Act makes clear that Congress chose not to afford relief to all defendants who, prior to the First Step Act, were sentenced to mandatory life imprisonment under § 841(b)(1)(A).  But nothing in § 401(c) or any other part of the First Step Act indicates that Congress intended to prohibit district courts, on an individualized, case-by-case basis, from granting sentence reductions under § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i) to some of those defendants.  Indeed, as the Fourth Circuit noted in McCoy, Congress’s purpose in enacting § 3582(c)(1)(A) was to provide a narrow avenue for relief “when there is not a specific statute that already affords relief but ‘extraordinary and compelling reasons’ nevertheless justify a [sentence] reduction.” Id. at 287 (emphasis in original).  Thus, the possibility of a district court finding the existence of “extraordinary and compelling reasons” based, in part, on a defendant’s pre-First Step Act mandatory life sentence under § 841(b)(1)(A) does not, in our view, necessarily usurp Congressional power.

A few of many, many prior related posts:

March 30, 2021 at 03:27 PM | Permalink

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