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United States v. Hemmelgarn.

No. 20-4109.  D.Utah. Judge Tymkovich. Motion for Compassionate Release—Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies—COVID-19.

October 4, 2021

Defendant moved for compassionate release under 18 USC § 3582(c)(1)(A) based on a COVID-19 outbreak at the correctional institution where he was housed. The district court denied his motion and his subsequent motion for reconsideration, determining that defendant had not established extraordinary and compelling reasons to support a sentence reduction because of his health conditions or the risk of exposure to COVID-19.

Defendant appealed the motion denial. The First Step Act modified 18 USC § 3582(c)(1)(A) to allow a defendant to move for a sentence reduction with the district court after either exhausting administrative rights to appeal the Bureau of Prison director’s failure to file such a motion, or the passage of 30 days from the defendant’s unanswered request to the warden for such relief. The district court may then reduce the imprisonment term only if it (1) finds that extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant such a reduction; (2) finds that such a reduction is consistent with Sentencing Commission’s applicable policy statements; and (3) considers the 18 USC § 3553(a) factors, to the extent they are applicable. A district court may deny compassionate release motions when any prerequisite is lacking and does not need to address the others. Here, defendant failed to provide proof that he exhausted his administrative rights, so the Tenth Circuit initially considered whether 18 USC § 3582(c)(1)(A)’s exhaustion requirements were jurisdictional or established a mandatory claim-processing rule. The Tenth Circuit determined that the exhaustion requirement is a mandatory claim-processing rule, so it had authority to decide the merits.

On the merits, the district court’s findings that (1) the medical conditions defendant identified do not place him at risk of severe illness from COVID-19, (2) defendant was receiving treatment for his medical issues, and (3) there were no confirmed COVID-19 cases at the time of the ruling were not clearly erroneous. Accordingly, the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying the compassionate release motion.

Defendant also challenged the denial of his reconsideration motion, arguing that his counsel abandoned him and failed to bring evidence to the court’s attention that would have impacted its decision on his motion. However, the district court ruled that even with such evidence, it would have denied the motion. Further, there is no constitutional right to counsel to aid in a defendant’s request for compassionate release. Accordingly, the court did not abuse its discretion.

The motion denials were affirmed.

Official US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit proceedings can be found at the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit website.

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