Wednesday, February 19th, 2020

Notable compassionate release decision

The First Step Act expanded so-called compassionate release, which permits a court to reduce a previously-imposed sentence if it finds that “extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant such a reduction.” 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A). The Act also for the first time enabled defendants to make an application directly to the court for such relief. We are still waiting to see the full impact of these legal changes. One open question is what constitutes “extraordinary and compelling reasons.” Both the Sentencing Commission and the Bureau of Prisons have promulgated definitions. But do these definitions limit the authority of courts to grant relief? Recently, a federal court in Utah found that they did not.

In United States v. Kepa Maumau, No. 08 Cr. 758 (TC) (D. Utah Feb. 18, 2020), the district court ruled that it was not bound by the Sentencing Commission’s or Bureau of Prisons’ definitions of “extraordinary and compelling reasons.” In Maumau, both parties recognized that Congress had tasked the Sentencing Commission with defining “extraordinary and compelling” reasons and that Mr. Maumau did not qualify for release under the Commission’s enumerated reasons (which include terminal illness, advanced age, or when a prisoner becomes the sole available caregiver for a child). See U.S.S.G.§ 1B1.13. But the court found that a majority of district courts to address the issue had agreed that, while the Commission can provide “helpful guidance,” it “does not constrain” a court’s independent assessment of whether “extraordinary and compelling” reasons warrant a sentence reduction. The court also specifically noted a catch-all provision in U.S.S.G. § 1B1.13, note 1(d).

The district court concluded that courts may, upon a motion of the defendant, reduce a sentence for extraordinary and compelling reasons other than those specifically identified by the Sentencing Commission: “Under the First Step Act, it is for the court, … to determine whether there is an ‘extraordinary and compelling reason’ to reduce a sentence.” The court went on to grant relief to Mr. Maumau based on his young age at the time of his offense and conviction, and the extreme length of his sentence, which resulted from stacked § 924(c) counts.

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