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May 22, 2021

Ninth Circuit panel interprets FIRST STEP amendment to statutory safety valve to greatly expand who can avoid federal mandatory-minimum sentences

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss a significant new Ninth Circuit panel ruling in US v. Lopez, No. 19-50305 (9th Cir. May 21, 2021) (available here).  Here is how the opinion gets started:

Title 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f), commonly called the “safety valve,” allows a district court to sentence a criminal defendant below the mandatory-minimum sentence for certain drug offenses if the defendant meets the criteria in § 3553(f)(1) through (f)(5).  In 2018, Congress amended one of the safety valve’s provisions: § 3553(f)(1).  See First Step Act of 2018, Pub. L. No. 115-391, § 402, 132 Stat. 5194, 5221. Section 3553(f)(1) focuses only on a criminal defendant’s prior criminal history as determined under the United States Sentencing Guidelines. See generally 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f)(1). As amended, § 3553(f)(1) requires a defendant to prove that he or she “does not have” the following: “(A) more than 4 criminal history points . . . (B) a prior 3-point offense . . . and (C) a prior 2-point violent offense.” Id. § 3553(f)(1)(A)–(C) (emphasis added).

As a matter of first impression, we must interpret the “and” joining subsections (A), (B), and (C) under § 3553(f)(1). If § 3553(f)(1)’s “and” carries its ordinary conjunctive meaning, a criminal defendant must have (A) more than four criminal-history points, (B) a prior threepoint offense, and (C) a prior two-point violent offense, cumulatively, before he or she is barred from safety-valve relief under § 3553(f)(1).  But if we rewrite § 3553(f)(1)’s “and” into an “or,” as the government urges, a defendant must meet the criteria in only subsection (A), (B), or (C) before he or she is barred from safety-valve relief under § 3553(f)(1). Applying the tools of statutory construction, we hold that § 3553(f)(1)’s “and” is unambiguously conjunctive. Put another way, we hold that “and” means “and.”

I believe that this statutory construction means that even more federal drug defendants will be able to benefit from the statutory safety valve thanks to the FIRST STEP Act than some may have thought. But, as the main opinion explains as it concludes, it is the statutory text that ultimately matters:

We recognize that § 3553(f)(1)’s plain and unambiguous language might be viewed as a considerable departure from the prior version of § 3553(f)(1), which barred any defendant from safety-valve relief if he or she had more than one criminal-history point under the Sentencing Guidelines.  See Mejia-Pimental, 477 F.3d at 1104.  As a result, § 3553(f)(1)’s plain and unambiguous language could possibly result in more defendants receiving safety-valve relief than some in Congress anticipated.

But sometimes Congress uses words that reach further than some members of Congress may have expected.  See Bostock, 140 S. Ct. at 1749 (noting that Congress’s plain language sometimes reaches “beyond the principal evil [that] legislators may have intended or expected to address,” but courts remain obligated to give Congress’s language its plain meaning) (citation and quotation marks omitted).  We cannot ignore Congress’s plain and unambiguous language just because a statute might reach further than some in Congress expected.  See id. (“[I]t is ultimately the provisions of [Congress’s] legislative commands rather than the principal concerns of our legislators by which we are governed.”) (emphasis added) (citation and quotation marks omitted).

Section 3553(f)(1)’s plain and unambiguous language, the Senate’s own legislative drafting manual, § 3553(f)(1)’s  structure as a conjunctive negative proof, and the canon of consistent usage result in only one plausible reading of § 3553(f)(1)’s “and” here: “And” is conjunctive.  If Congress meant § 3553(f)(1)’s “and” to mean “or,” it has the authority to amend the statute accordingly.  We do not.

May 22, 2021 at 05:10 PM | Permalink

Comments

Please point me in right direction so I can help my cousin. 20 years ago he was sentenced 2 life times plus 10 years for a non violent drug charge. His name is Jim Keith Eis 08544-030, United States Penitentiary, PO Box 33, Terre Haute, Indiana. 47808. I have been trying for years to get in touch with the right person to help him. He has just gotten over Covid. I’m older and have little to no computer skills but keep trying. Non violent drug charge should not be even one life sentence.
Thank you so much,
Cousin Joy

Posted by: Joy Firrell | May 30, 2021 1:24:32 AM

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