Resource and Practice Tip: Update on Granted First Step Act Sentence Reductions and Some Thoughts on the Compassionate Release Eligibility Framework

 

By Ashley Cordero

Ashley is a fall intern at the Office of the Federal Public Defender for the Districts of Colorado and Wyoming. She is a second-year law student at the University of Denver, Sturm College of Law. Prior to law school, she managed an employment program for previously incarcerated individuals in her hometown Los Angeles, California. She hopes to remain in Colorado to pursue a career in public defense.

FIRST STEP ACT UPDATE

Summary of the USSC Resentencing Provisions Retroactivity Data Report

In October 2019, the U.S. Sentencing Commission released the Retroactivity Data Report collecting data on sentence reductions granted pursuant to Section 404 of the First Step Act. Section 404 expanded the pool of individuals eligible for a sentence reduction for previous crack-cocaine convictions by retroactively applying sections 2 and 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. Now, under the First Step Act, the courts were to consider granting a sentence reduction as if the Fair Sentencing Act was in effect when the defendant was originally sentenced.

Sections 2 and 3 increased the quantity of crack cocaine that triggered mandatory minimum penalties and eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for simple possession of crack cocaine. This retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act guidelines had the potential to ameliorate some of the racial inequity stemming from the disparate crack-cocaine conviction rates between Black (83.0%) and White (5.8%) defendants. The report includes motions granted through September 30, 2019.

Key Findings from the USSC Retroactivity Report

  • Nationwide, district courts have granted 1,987 motions for sentence reduction under section 404. The Tenth Circuit has granted 1.7% (35) of these motions. The Districts of Colorado and Wyoming have granted four sentence reductions within the Tenth Circuit.
  • Of the defendants granted a sentence reduction, 91.2% are Black, 4.2% Hispanic, 3.8% White.
  • 98% of defendants granted a sentence reduction are male.
  • Nationally, on average defendants saw a 26.2% decrease from their current sentence. In the Tenth Circuit, defendants saw an average 30% decrease.

COMPASSIONATE RELEASE ARGUMENTS IN 924(c) CASES

Background

Section 403 of the First Step Act eliminated the archaic stacking provision that previously mandated minimums for individuals who were convicted of possessing a firearm in the commission of a crime of violence or drug trafficking offense –even if the charges arose from a singular criminal incident. The First Step Act revised 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(C) by providing that the higher penalty for a “second or subsequent count of conviction” under section 924(c) is triggered only if the defendant has a prior section 924(c) conviction that has become final.  See generally USSC First Step Act Summary. However, Section 403 was not made retroactive. This prompts the question, where do defendants with previous mandatory minimums under 924(c) fall within the First Step Act compassionate release eligibility framework?

Federal courts may reduce a defendant’s sentence if they find an “extraordinary and compelling reason” to warrant a reduction and that reduction is consistent with policy statements issued by the Sentencing Commission. 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i) (2018). This is known as “compassionate release.”

The Sentencing Commission Policy statement dated November 1, 2018, lists four eligibility criteria including “other reasons” where there exists an “extraordinary and compelling reason other than or in combination with reasons” described in the report. While the report has not been updated since the passage of the First Step Act, district courts continue to refer to the policy statement as helpful guidance.  United States v Bucci, 2019 WL 5075964, at *1 (D. Mass. Sept. 16, 2019); See also United States v Shields, 2019 WL 2645028, at *2 (N.D. Cal. June 27, 2019).

While a sentence reduction must be consistent with the Commission’s policy statements, federal courts are not bound to these prescriptive categories. Courts have not found the policy report circumstances list to be exhaustive. See United States v Overcash, 2019 WL 1472104 (April 3, 2019) (stating the court may make an independent determination). Even if eligibility is established, reduction is not required. Federal courts have the discretion to reduce the defendant’s sentence, considering the 3553(a) sentencing factors to make their determination. See United States v Cole, 2019 WL 3406872, *5 (N.D. Ind. July 29, 2019).

If Making Compassionate Release Argument, Consider Reading Shon Hopwood’s article, Second Looks and Second Chances

  • Shon Hopwood is an Associate Professor of Law at Georgetown Law. In June 2019, as part of a series on federal sentencing, Cardozo Law Review published his essay, “Second Looks and Second Chances,” which outlines the history of second looks provisions and suggests litigation tactics for certain defendants, such as those with previous 924(c) convictions.
  • Before the First Step Act, Congress did not define what constituted an “extraordinary and compelling reason” for sentence reduction. Congress intended this provision to act as a safety valve.
  • There is no indication that Congress intended to limit the compassionate release safety valve to only medical or elderly release. If a defendant can establish extraordinary and compelling circumstances, compassionate release could be used to justify a reduction of an unusually long sentence.
  • By eliminating the stacking provision, Congress has acknowledged that the original sentencing scheme for 924(c) was overly punitive and unfair.
  • Unlike section 404 which established categorical eligibility, section 403 was not retroactive. Those sentenced under the stacking provision and now seeking relief under compassionate release must establish “extraordinary and compelling reasons” individually.
  • However, simply because Congress did not create a retroactive categorical eligibility for sentence reduction does not suggest that Congress foreclosed other options of relief.
  • Consider using the “other reasons” provision to demonstrate that the defendant has a compelling and extraordinary reason for compassionate release.

 

 

 

News You Can Use: Tenth Circuit Holds Retaliation Against Witness Is Not a Crime of Violence for Purposes of 924(c)

This case arose out of the Johnson v. United States litigation that has been going on since 2015. After Johnson, Aaron Bowen filed a motion to vacate his sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, arguing that his predicate conviction for witness retaliation was not a crime of violence for purposes of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). The case was stayed pending the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Davis, ––– U.S. ––––, 139 S. Ct. 2319 (2019), where the Supreme Court recently held the residual clause of Section 924(c) is void for vagueness.

The Tenth Circuit’s decision in Mr. Bowen’s case had several important holdings:

First, that Davis is a new substantive rule that is retroactively applicable on collateral review.

Second, that Mr. Bowen’s convictions for witness retaliation do not qualify as crimes of violence under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(3)(A).

Third, that Mr. Bowen is actually innocent of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)—because his predicate conviction does not fall under the force clause of 924(c), and the residual clause was invalidated by Davis.

ANALYSIS OF FORCE AGAINST PROPERTY

The key takeaway is that force against property is analyzed differently from force against persons for purposes of the 924(c) force clause.  Recall that, unlike its ACCA counterpart, the elements clause of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) encompasses crimes that have as an element the use of physical force against not just people, but also other people’s property. After cases like Stokeling v United States and United States v Ontiveros, almost any force that causes bodily injury is enough to qualify under the force clause. This case, however, required the circuit to decide for the first time how much force is necessary to satisfy the statute when the force is directed at property.

The predicate crime here was federal retaliation against a witness, 18 U.S.C. § 1513(b)(2). A defendant may be convicted of that offense if either (1) with intent to retaliate, he knowingly causes or threatens to cause bodily injury to a witness or (2) knowingly causes or threatens to cause damage to a witness’s property. The Tenth Circuit concluded that witness retaliation through bodily injury qualifies as a crime of violence under § 924(c)(3)’s elements clause, but witness retaliation through property damage does not.

Although the underlying facts of Mr. Bowen’s predicate conviction encompassed actual force against persons and property, under the well-worn categorical approach, we all know that the facts don’t matter. In other words, to determine whether Bowen’s witness retaliation conviction has “as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of [violent] force against the person or property of another,” 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(3)(A), courts must look “only to the fact of conviction and the statutory definition of the prior offense, and do not generally consider the particular facts disclosed by the record of conviction.” United States v Serafin, 562 F.3d 1105, 1107–08 (10th Cir. 2009).

A Sixth Circuit case, United States v Edwards, 321 F. App’x 481 (6th Cir. 2009), demonstrated that the federal witness retaliation could be satisfied by spray-painting a car. Citing to Moncrieffe v. Holder, the Circuit explained that the salient question was whether spray-painting a witness’s car qualifies as a crime of violence under § 924(c)(3)’s elements clause. 569 U.S. 184, 190–91 (2013) (“[W]e must presume that the conviction rested upon nothing more than the least of the acts criminalized, and then determine whether even those acts are encompassed by [§ 924(c)(3)’s elements clause].”).

Ultimately, the Tenth Circuit agreed with Mr. Bowen that property “crimes of violence” under § 924(c)(3)(A) are those that include “violent force,” not merely those that “injure property.” Spray painting a car did not rise to the level of “violent force,” and so Mr. Bowen’s predicate conviction was not a crime of violence.

The decision was over a dissent by Judge McHugh, and also creates a split with the Second Circuit. See United States v Hill, 890 F.3d 51, 58 (2d Cir. 2018).

KEY TAKEAWAY

Force against property for purposes of 924(c)’s force clause requires violent force against property—mere property damage (such as spray-painting a car) does not satisfy the force clause. The Tenth Circuit didn’t elaborate on what sorts of offenses against property would qualify, but explained only that mere damage to property isn’t enough.