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United States v. McGee.

No. 20-5047.  N.D.Okla. Judge Briscoe. First Step Act of 2018—Compassionate Release Statute—Motion for Sentence Reduction—Statutory Interpretation.

March 29, 2021

Defendant was convicted of charges related to his participation in a scheme to transport a large quantity of phencyclidine (PCP). Because he had two prior California felony drug convictions, defendant received a life sentence under 21 USC § 841(b)(1)(A) on count two, causing another person to possess with intent to distribute in excess of one kilogram of a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of PCP.

In 2018, Congress passed the First Step Act (Act). Section 401 of the Act reduced the mandatory minimum sentence under § 841(b)(1)(A) from life to 25 years. The amendments effected by § 401 were not retroactive to sentences imposed before the enactment. However, the Act also amended 18 USC § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i) (the compassionate release statute). Following the Act’s enactment, defendant filed a motion to reduce his sentence under the compassionate release statute. The district court denied the motion, concluding that it lacked the authority to reduce the sentence.

Defendant appealed, arguing that the district court did have such authority. Under the Act, a district court may grant a motion for release if the court: (1) finds that extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant such a reduction; (2) finds that such a reduction is consistent with applicable policy statements issued by the Sentencing Commission; and (3) considers the factors set forth in § 3553(a), to the extent applicable. The district court’s decision here indicates it concluded the Sentencing Commission possessed the exclusive authority to define the phrase “extraordinary and compelling reasons” through its general policy statements. However, Congress intended for the Sentencing Commission to generally describe such reasons as guideposts only; district courts have the authority to determine for themselves what constitutes extraordinary and compelling reasons.

Second, the district court also, as part of its analysis under the first step of the statutory test, concluded that it lacked the authority to treat the Act’s reduction of the mandatory minimum sentence under § 841(b)(1)(A) from life to 25 years as an “extraordinary and compelling reason” for purposes of § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i). However, a district court may find the existence of extraordinary and compelling circumstances based in part on a defendant’s pre-Act mandatory life sentence under § 841(b)(1)(A).

Third, the district court’s decision also indicates that the district court viewed its authority, at step two of the statutory test, as limited by the Sentencing Commission’s most recent policy statement. However, the Sentencing Commission’s existing policy statement is applicable only to motions for sentence reductions filed by the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, not to motions filed directly by defendants. Therefore, the district court misunderstood the extent of its authority at both steps one and two of § 3582(c)(1)(A)’s statutory test.

The judgment was reversed and the case was remanded for further proceedings.

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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