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January 14, 2024

Notable district court ruling that circuit precedent precludes reduction of extreme stacked 924(c) sentence

A helpful reader made sure I saw a notable new denial of a sentencing-reduction motion in US v. Carter, No. 07-374-1 (ED Pa. Jan. 12, 2024) (available for download below).  I highly recommend the full 25-page opinion; it covers thoughtfully the legal debate over the US Sentencing Commission's new sentence-reduction guideline, a debate that is sure to play out in federal district and circuit courts across the nation in the months ahead.  Here is the start of the opinion and the ruling's concluding paragraphs:

Johnnie Carter is currently serving a de facto life sentence — 840 months, or 70 years — for a string of armed robberies he committed in 2007.  The bulk of this sentence was the result of Carter’s conviction on three charges brought under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), each of which earned him lengthy, mandatory terms of imprisonment that must be served consecutively.  Congress has since enacted the First Step Act, Pub. L. 115-391, 132 Stat. 5222 (2018), which among its many provisions amended Section 924(c) to substantially lower these mandatory minimums going forward.  As a result, the Government agrees that Carter “is serving a long sentence that would be significantly lower if imposed under current law.”

Carter now moves to reduce his sentence, pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i).  That statute, commonly referred to as the compassionate-release statute, authorizes district courts to reduce an imposed term of imprisonment upon a finding that “extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant such a reduction.”  In support of his motion, Carter points to a recently promulgated policy statement from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which states that an “unusually long sentence,” coupled with a non-retroactive change in the law, can constitute an extraordinary and compelling reason to modify a sentence. U.S.S.G. § 1B1.13(b)(6).  He further highlights his strong family ties, evidence of rehabilitation, and good conduct while incarcerated as “other circumstances” warranting a reduction.  Id. § 1B1.13(b)(5). The Government opposes the motion, arguing that the Sentencing Commission’s recent policy statement exceeds its statutory authority, and that Carter’s circumstances do not otherwise warrant a reduction....

When considered together, these factors paint a clear picture of a defendant who, while undoubtably having earned himself a significant term of imprisonment for serious and violent offenses, does not deserve to spend his life behind bars.  If permitted to do so, the Court would be inclined to agree with his argument that a shorter sentence would be “sufficient, but not greater than necessary, to comply with the purposes” of federal sentencing. 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). But, as discussed in Parts II.A and II.B, supra, Third Circuit precedent forecloses a finding that “extraordinary and compelling reasons” warrant compassionate release.  Unless and until that changes, his remedy lies not with the judicial branch, but with Congress — which could make its amendments to Section 924(c)’s mandatory minima retroactive — or the executive — whose clemency power operates as “the ‘fail safe’ in our criminal justice system.” Herrera v. Collins, 506 U.S. 390, 415 (1993).

Carter’s progress towards rehabilitation has been laudable, and the sentence he is serving is both unduly long and grossly disproportionate to the sentence a similarly situated defendant would receive today.  But in light of the Third Circuit’s decision in Andrews, these considerations cannot serve as the kinds of “extraordinary and compelling reasons” required to find him eligible for compassionate release.  As such, his motion must be denied.

Download US v. Carter (E.D.Pa.) - DE417 - Opinion Denying Compassionate Release

I have explained in numerous prior posts why I think rulings like Andrews, the Third Circuit precedent that dictates the conclusion in this case that an "unduly long and grossly disproportionate" sentence cannot be modified, is a misreading of § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i).  As I see it, the plain text of applicable statutes, which state only that "rehabilitation alone" cannot be considered an extraordinary and compelling reason, do not permit circuit courts making its own policy by deeming other factors catergorically insufficient for ever serving as the basis of a sentence reduction.

Notwithsanding what seems like clear statutory text, prior to the Sentencing Commission's revision to guideline 1B1.13, the circuit courts divided almost evenly as to whether so-called "changes in law" could provide a basis for a sentence modification.  This new Carter ruling leads me to suspect we will see a similar pattern of rulings replicated in new rounds of motions and appeals.  At some point, the Supreme Court will need to weigh in. 

January 14, 2024 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


My friend Gary settle is in a posture similar to that of Mr. Carter. In 1993, Gary was convicted in the Middle District of Florida of 8-armed bank robberies and 9 counts of violating 18 U.S.C. section 924(c), using or carrying a firearm in connection with a crime of violence. This was his first-ever criminal case, and first arrest. He received 12-year concurrent sentences for the 8 bank robberies, but 165 years of mandatory consecutive time for the guns, for a total sentence of 177 years. Gary was in his 20s at sentencing in 1993, but is now 57 years old. He is housed at Federal Medical Center, Butner, North Carolina, where he is terminally ill with cancer. Gary's commission of those 8 bank robberies occurred when he was addicted to narcotics and needed the money to buy drugs. Once Gary was incarcerated and no longer had access to drugs, he re-emerged as the polite, funny, intelligent middle-class guy that was raised by a nurse. In prison at FMC - Butner, Gary has worked to get dozens of men released n compassionate release, so that they can die with their families on the street. He developed a working relationship with FAMM, which found lawyers to represent his inmates in District Court after he got them thru administrative remedies. FAMM has worked hard to get Gary released (compassionate release), so that he can die at home with his mother in Florida, rather than in prison. But a U.S. District Judge denied him compassionate release, despite his health condition and terminal diagnosis. Look his Order up on PACER. Gary's case is an excellent example of why the mandatory, consecutive gun sentences are not necessary in most cases.

Posted by: Jim Gormley | Jan 15, 2024 9:59:25 PM

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