Along with some decision about cake, the Supreme Court issued two opinions this week concerning the scope of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2)’s requirement that, to be eligible for a sentencing reduction, the defendant’s sentence must have been “based on a sentencing range that has subsequently been lowered by the Sentencing Commission pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 994(o).”
In Koons v. United States, the Court issued a short, unanimous opinion holding that a sentence is not “based on” the Guidelines where the defendant was originally sentenced below the mandatory minimum for providing substantial assistance to the government. When the government so moves, see U.S.S.G. § 5K1.1, the district court is authorized to “impose a sentence below” the statutory minimum “so as to reflect a defendant’s substantial assistance in the investigation or prosecution of another person who has committed an offense.” 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e). The Court held that, under such circumstances, the district court “scrapped” the applicable Guidelines range “in favor of the mandatory minimums, and never considered the ranges again.” Hence, the defendant’s sentence was not “based on” the Guidelines range, and he is therefore ineligible for a sentencing reduction if that range is subsequently lowered.
In Hughes v. United States, the Court held that defendants are generally eligible for sentencing reductions under § 3582(c)(2) where they entered into a plea agreement pursuant to Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(c)(1)(C) (where the parties agreed as to the application of the Guidelines).
Sentencing Resource Counsel Sissy Phleger has the details:
Hughes revisited the fractured 2011 opinion of Freeman v. United States in which the Court had also held that 11(c)(1)(C) agreements could satisfy the “based on” requirement, but had done so with distinct reasoning from a four-justice plurality and from a probably-narrower-but-not-necessarily-overlapping concurrence by Sotomayor. As the Court recognized in Hughes, Freeman had given the lower courts fits as they attempted to coherently apply its precedent. Compare United States v. Rivera-Martinez, 665 F. 3d 344, 348 (1st Cir. 2011) (adopting Sotomayor concurrence requiring a “based-on” showing using plea agreement language); United States v. Thompson, 682 F. 3d 285, 290 (3d Cir. 2012) (same); United States v. Brown, 653 F. 3d 337, 340, n. 1 (4th Cir. 2011) (same); United States v. Benitez, 822 F. 3d 807, 811 (5th Cir. 2016) (same); United States v. Smith, 658 F. 3d 608, 611 (6th Cir. 2011) (same); United States v. Dixon, 687 F. 3d 356, 359 (7th Cir. 2012) (same); United States v. Browne, 698 F. 3d 1042, 1045 (8th Cir. 2012) (same); United States v. Graham, 704 F. 3d 1275, 1277–1278 (10th Cir. 2013) (same) with United States v. Davis, 825 F. 3d 1014, 1021–1022 (9th Cir. 2016) (en banc) (applying plurality rule it interpreted as 11(c)(1)(C) defendants being generally eligible); United States v. Epps, 707 F. 3d 337, 350 (D.C. Cir. 2013) (same). Indeed, the first two of the three questions presented in Hughes concerned how lower courts interpret fractured Supreme Court precedent. Side-stepping these thorny issues, the Hughes Court found the statutory question which had so fractured it in Freeman could now be resolved with more clarity.
In contrast to the prior divided opinion in Freeman v. United States, the Court in Hughes found that: “[a] sentence imposed pursuant to a Type-C agreement is no exception to the general rule that a defendant’s Guidelines range is both the starting point and a basis for his ultimate sentence.” The Court’s holding does not require a case-specific showing of eligibility. Instead the Court held that the central role of the guidelines in federal sentencing ensures that in the typical case even 11(c)(1)(C) sentences will meet the legal definition of “based on.” The Court pointed to general language in cases like Booker, Peugh, and Molina-Martinez emphasizing the guidelines’ as “provid[ing] the framework” for all federal sentencing. The Court also noted that the requirement in some circuits of a case-specific showing of the impact of the guidelines on a 11(c)(1)(C)-guided sentence had led to unwarranted disparities both between circuits, and “depending on the fortuity of whether [the plea agreement] includes a specific-enough reference to a Guidelines range.”
Roberts dissented, joined by Thomas and Alito. Sotomayor joined in the majority opinion, but also separately concurred.