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NICE GUYS DON’T NECESSARILY FINISH LAST
Over the past 30 years of the Sentencing Guidelines, the U.S. Sentencing Commission has modified different guidelines to reduce their impact on many occasions. Most of those changes – such as eliminating the “recency” points, which added to criminal history if the new offense was committed within a few years of the end of a prior sentence – applied to people who were sentenced only after the change went into effect.
Some, however, were made retroactive to people already sentenced, which let inmates apply under 18 USC 3582 for a sentence reduction. The most notable of these were the three changes to the drug quantity tables in USSG 2D1.1, which lowered sentencing ranges based on the quantity of drugs a defendant was found to have. The changes, in 2007, 2011 and 2014, led to tens of thousands of sentence reductions being granted.
One would think that a reduction would be simple and mathematical. A defendant sentenced in 2013 had a final sentencing range of 87-108 months, based on possessing 1 kilo of methamphetamine and getting a 3-level reduction for acceptance of responsibility under USSG 3E1.1 and a criminal history of III. Let’s say the judge sentenced him in the middle of that range, to 96 months.
After the Sentencing Commission lowered all of the drug quantities in USSG 2D1.1(c) by two levels in 2014, the inmate files for a sentence reduction. Everything in the calculus – his acceptance of responsibility and criminal history category – remains the same except for lowering the base offense level for a kilo of meth from 30 to 28. A Level of 28, minus 3 levels for acceptance of responsibility, and a criminal history of III, yields a sentencing range of 70-87 months.
Under 18 USC 3582, the judge could decide to lower his sentence all the way to 70 months, lower it only part of the way, or not to lower it at all.
Pretty straightforward. The system worked well when the Guidelines were mandatory, that is, when a judge was required to sentence within the sentencing range except in very limited circumstances. But two factors have conspired to make a hash-up of the system.
The first factor arises in cases where a defendant is awarded a downward departure under USSG 5K1.1. Many times, a defendant will end up with a sentence of half or less of what the Guidelines required. The second problem arises because of United States v. Booker, the 2005 case in which the Supreme Court declared mandatory Guidelines to be unconstitutional. Since Booker, the Guidelines have been advisory only, and judges have exercised their freedom to vary from suggested sentencing ranges with much greater frequency.
Because the rules say that a judge may not grant a sentence reduction motion where the adjusted sentencing range is higher than the sentence a defendant originally received, a lot of inmates were stranded, unable to benefit from a reduction of sentence.
The Sentencing Commission, sensitive to the government’s need to enjoy a steady flow of snitches, changed the processing rules so that an inmate with a USSG 5K1.1 departure would have his or her original guidelines before the downward departure adjusted, and then the departure added in again, usually on a percentage basis. If an inmate had a 300-month sentence with a 150-month downward departure, but the original sentencing range fell to 250 months, the court would use the new 250-month figure, and decrease it by 50% (the same ratio as the original departure bore to the original sentence). The inmate’s new sentence would end up being 125 months.
Occasionally, it would get very squirrelly. In today’s case, for example, an illegal immigrant known in the case caption only as D.M. was caught at the border with a load of meth and heroin. He wisely decided to cooperate with the government, and did so quite well. Because as an illegal alien, he was deportable as soon as his sentence was served, he also signed up for what is known as “fast track” deportation, where he waived hearing and other rights so that ICE could rocket his butt out of the country as soon as he finished doing his time. “Fast track” deportation entitles a defendant to an additional 4-level downward departure under USSG 5K3.1.
But for his initial crime, D.M. must be a pretty nice guy. He quickly and efficiently cooperated with the law, and he agreed to let his deportation roll without legal roadblocks. When the Sentencing Commission’s 2-level drug quantity reduction came along in 2014, the government was so happy with him that it recommended D.M.’s sentence cut to the judge.
The request stymied the district court. D.M.’s judge expressed doubts whether, in reducing D.M.’s sentence, he could consider departures other than the substantial assistance departure. If the court could only consider the substantial assistance departure, then it could not reduce D.M.’s sentence because the minimum available sentence would be longer than the sentence D.M. was serving. Seeking clarification on the issue, the district court ordered further briefing and then demanded the government’s position “in writing” so it could fully consider the reasoning before ruling. The district court defined the issue as being “when a defendant previously received a substantial assistance departure as well as an additional departure for fast-track, in granting ‘a reduction comparably less than the amended guideline range,’ may the Court include in the calculation the fast-track departure?”
Last Friday, the 9th Circuit reversed the decision. Guidelines section 1B1.10(b)(2) – which governs sentence reductions like this one – prohibits reducing a sentence below the “minimum of the amended guideline range.” In determining a sentence reduction, USSG 1B1.10(b)(1) provides that “the court shall determine the amended guideline range that would have been applicable to the defendant if the amendment(s) to the guidelines… had been in effect at the time the defendant was sentenced.”
However, USSG 1B1.10(b)(2)(B), on which D.M and the Government both relied, provides a specific exemption to this floor, allowing a reduction where “the term of imprisonment imposed was less than the term of imprisonment provided by the guideline range applicable to the defendant at the time of sentencing pursuant to a government motion to reflect the defendant’s substantial assistance to authorities.”
The 9th admitted that 1B1.10 “is not a model of clarity. Nonetheless, we conclude that the most natural reading of the policy statement, its history, and the practical consequences of opposing interpretations, all favor the conclusion that it allows a court to consider additional applicable departures in an original sentence, not just the deduction specifically attributed to substantial assistance.”
Thus, because D.M. had a substantial assistance departure, any other departures he may have gotten – in this case, the fast track departure – could be considered as well. If 1B1.10(b)(2) did not say that, the appeals court argued, then no one could tell what it means, and in such a case, “D.M. would nonetheless be eligible for consideration of a reduced sentence under the rule of lenity.”
D.M. is already out of prison and home in a nameless country located somewhat south of here. Sometimes, nice guys do not finish last after all.
United States v. D.M., Case No. 16-50243 (9th Cir., Sept. 7, 2017)
– Thomas L. Root