Saturday, January 17th, 2009

Crack Under Pressure

United States v. Williams, No. 08-1065-cr (2d Cir. January 7, 2009) (Hall, Livingston, Gibson, CJJ)

Here, the defendant, Saquan Lewis, unsuccessfully appealed the district court’s denial of his motion for a sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c) based on the retroactive amendment to the Guideline for offenses involving crack cocaine.

The District Court Proceedings

Lewis had originally pled guilty to trafficking in crack cocaine and a 924(c) charge under a cooperation agreement. At sentencing, he agreed that he was responsible for between 50 and 150 grams of crack which, under the applicable version of the Guidelines, resulted in an offense level of 32, with 3 levels deducted for acceptance of responsibility. His sentencing range on the crack count was 97 to 121 months, but due to his prior felony, he faced a 20-year mandatory minimum on that charge and a 5-year consecutive sentence on the 924(c). After granting the government’s motion under U.S.S.G. § 5K1.1 and 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e), the court sentenced him to a total of 100 months’ imprisonment. There was “no evidence” that the range recommended by drug Guideline “played any role in the district court’s determination” of the sentence.

Under the November 1, 2007, crack amendment Lewis’ offense level on the drug charge would have dropped by two levels, to 27. But the district court denied his § 3582(c)(2) motion because the original sentence was based on a § 3553(e) departure and the original sentencing range “had no bearing” on the sentence.

The Appeal

The circuit affirmed. Section 3582(c)(2) authorizes district courts to modify the sentence of a defendant “who has been sentenced to a term of imprisonment based on a sentencing range that has subsequently been lowered by the Sentencing Commission … if such a reduction is consistent with the applicable policy statements issued by the Sentencing Commission.” Lewis, although nominally exposed to a sentencing range of 97 to 121 months, in fact, was subject to a 240-month mandatory minimum and, under U.S.S.G. § 5G1.1(b), that sentence became “the guideline sentence.”

Lewis argued that, as a matter of statutory interpretation, the term “Guideline sentence” was not the same as the term “Guideline range,” but the circuit disagreed. For him, the original range of 97 to 121 months “had no bearing on what became Lewis’ Guideline sentence because the 240-month mandatory minimum” subsumed and displaced “the otherwise applicable guideline range.” Once the mandatory minimum applied, his sentence was no longer “based on a sentencing range that has subsequently been lowered by the Sentencing Commission.”

This conclusion was further supported by a policy statement that provides that a reduction is not authorized under § 3582(c)(2) if the Guideline amendment “does not have the effect of lowering the defendant’s applicable guideline range because of the operation of another guideline or statutory provision” such as a statutory mandatory minimum term of imprisonment. Lewis was, in fact, subject to a 240-month mandatory minimum, and the court rejected his argument that, in departing below that minimum, the district court “must have” relied upon the original crack cocaine Guideline range. The district court expressly held that this range had “no bearing” on his sentence. The circuit approved of this reasoning, noting that it was consistent with its own rule that § 3553(e) departures may be “based only on substantial assistance to the government and on no other mitigating considerations.”

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