Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

District Court Erred in Denying Motion to Reduce Sentence

In United States v. Bethea, No. 12-961-cr (2d Cir. Oct. 13, 2013) (Winter, Jacobs, and Straub) (per curiam), available here, the Circuit vacated the district court’s decision denying the defendant’s motion to reduce his sentence under 18 U.S.C. 3582(c).

Convicted of distributing cocaine, Bethea was originally sentenced in September 2010 to 80 months of imprisonment, above the then applicable 60-to-71 month Guidelines range. In September 2011, he filed a 3582(c) motion for a reduced sentence based on retroactive amendments to the crack cocaine sentencing guidelines. Everyone believed at the time that the defendant faced a mandatory statutory minimum sentence of 60 months in prison. The district court summarily denied the defendant’s motion for a sentence below 80 months, stating only that, since the original sentencing range of 60-to-71 months was already found inadequate, a further reduction “would only exacerbate the insufficiency.”

The Circuit vacated, holding that the district court failed to engage in the “systematic [two-step] approach” required by Dillon v. United States, 130 S. Ct. 2683 (2010), and United States v. Wilson, 716 F.3d 50 (2d Cir. 2013). Under that approach,  a court must first “consider whether the defendant is eligible for a reduction by calculating the Guidelines range that would have been applicable had the amended Guidelines been in place at the time the defendant originally was sentenced.” The court must then consider whether a sentence reduction is warranted under the particular facts of the case.

In Bethea’s case, the district court’s ruling was too perfunctory and infected by error. Had the court engaged in the required two-step analysis, the Circuit concluded, it would have discovered that Bethea, in fact, was not subject to a mandatory minimum sentence after all. His original sentencing range did not merely shift from a 60-to-71 month range to a fixed term of 60 months, as everyone assumed. Rather, the original range was 57-to-71 months, and was considerably reduced to 37-to-46 months. On remand, the district court was required to consider this development.

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