Thursday, April 30th, 2020

Examining the scope of crack resentencings under the First Step Act

Last week we highlighted the Second Circuit’s decision in United States v. Holloway, No. 19-1035, holding that a motion for a sentence reduction under Section 404 of the First Step Act of 2018 is governed by 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(B), not § 3582(c)(2).

In United States v. Chambers, No. 19-7104, 2020 WL 1949249 (4th Cir. Apr. 23, 2020), the Fourth Circuit recently reached the same conclusion in addressing a slightly different issue. In Chambers, the district court erroneously applied a career offender enhancement in a First Step Act crack resentencing, because the career offender enhancement had been applied at the original sentencing. Overturning this decision, the Fourth Circuit holds that the “First Step Act does not constrain courts from recognizing Guidelines errors” and that “any Guidelines error deemed retroactive … must be corrected in a First Step Act resentencing.”

Although this is a somewhat narrow issue, the Fourth Circuit’s analysis endorses broad resentencing authority under the First Step Act:

First Step Act motions fall under § 3582(c)(1)(B) …. In sharp contrast to § 3582(c)(2), the § 3582(c)(1)(B) exception authorizes courts to ‘modify an imposed term of imprisonment to the extent otherwise expressly permitted by statute.’ … Section 404(b) also expressly permits the court to ‘impose a reduced sentence.’ Not ‘modify’ or ‘reduce,’ which might suggest a mechanical application of the Fair Sentencing Act, but ‘impose.’ Cf. 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) (as described in the title, providing only for a “modif[ication of] a term of imprisonment once it has been imposed,” and using the verb “reduce” within that subsection). And, when ‘imposing’ a new sentence, a court does not simply adjust the statutory minimum; it must also recalculate the Guidelines range.

The Fourth Circuit found expansive resentencing authority consistent with both the First Step Act’s statutory text and its remedial purpose:

Under the First Step Act, Congress authorized the courts to provide a remedy for certain defendants who bore the brunt of a racially disparate sentencing scheme. In doing so, it did not import the strictures of § 3582(c)(2), even though it certainly could have. Perhaps it did not want to because it hoped for greater justice for individuals like [the defendant]. To self-circumscribe a sentencing court’s authority under the First Step Act would not only subvert Congress’s will but also undermine judicial integrity.

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