Saturday, June 6th, 2020

Eligibility for First Step Act relief depends on the statutory offense for which a defendant was sentenced, not the “actual conduct.”

The First Step Act of 2018 authorizes district courts to make a discretionary decision about whether and how to reduce a defendant’s sentence, but only if the defendant was sentenced for a “covered offense.” The Act defines a “covered offense” as “a violation of a Federal criminal statute, the statutory penalties for which were modified by section 2 or 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 . . ., that was committed before August 3, 2010.”

The question in United States v. Davis, No. 19-874 (2d Cir. June 5, 2020) (Katzmann, Wesley, and Bianco), was whether Davis was originally sentenced for a “covered offense,” in which case he was eligible for a sentencing reduction. The defendant said he was sentenced for a “covered offense” because he had been convicted and sentenced for conspiring to distribute at least 50 grams of crack cocaine, in a violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A)(iii), a statutory offense whose penalties were changed by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. The government, in contrast, said that Davis was not sentenced for a “covered offense” because, as part of his guilty plea, he admitted to a drug quantity (at least 1.5 kilograms of crack cocaine) that would have triggered the same statutory range even after Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act.

The Second Circuit sided with Davis, holding that it is the statute under a which a defendant was convicted, not the defendant’s actual conduct, that determines whether he was originally sentenced for a “covered offense” within the meaning of the First Step Act. The Court cited ordinary principles of statutory construction and rejected the government’s argument that the Court’s decision would create unfair sentencing disparities and grant defendants like Davis an “unwarranted procedural windfall.”

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