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February 13, 2013
  United States v. Epps
Headline: D.C. Circuit parts company with sister circuits regarding eligibility for sentencing reductions after Freeman v. United States

Area of Law: Criminal Law

Issue Presented: Whether a defendant is eligible for a sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. ยง 3582(c)(2) where the district court accepted a plea agreement pursuant to Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure that did not specifically reference the applicable Guidelines range.

Brief Summary: In 1999, Appellant Epps entered into a Rule 11 plea agreement for crack cocaine offenses. Pursuant to the agreement, Epps was sentenced to 188 months' imprisonment, followed by five years' supervised release. At the time of sentencing, the district judge expressed concern about the disparity in sentencing under the Guidelines for crack cocaine offenses, noting that Epps's sentence would have been "substantially less" had his offense involved powder cocaine. In late 2007 and early 2008, the U.S. Sentencing Commission revised the Federal Sentencing Guidelines to retroactively reduce the sentencing disparity. Epps moved under 18 U.S.C. ยง 3582(c)(2) to reduce his sentence to reflect the Guidelines modification. The government opposed his motion, arguing that the sentence was based on the time specified in the plea agreement, not on the Guidelines range. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia rejected the motion, and Epps appealed. The U.S. Court of Appeals held the appeal in abeyance pending the outcome of U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Freeman v. United States, 131 S. Ct. 2685 (2011), which addressed the precise question at issue here. Subsequent to Freeman, the D.C. Circuit reversed and remanded the case to the district court for relief.

The D.C. Circuit held that the plea agreement did not prevent Epps from seeking a reduction in his sentence, as the term of imprisonment specified in the agreement was clearly based on the Guidelines, thus bringing it within the ambit of section 3582(c)(2). As a preliminary matter, the court concluded, over Judge Brown's dissent, that the fact that Epps had already served his term of imprisonment and been released did not moot his challenge to the length of his sentence, since a modification of the sentence could affect the supervised release portion of the plea agreement.

The court further concluded that there was no controlling opinion in Freeman to be applied to the present case and that it was therefore bound only by the result, not the rationale, of that case. The court read Supreme Court and D.C. Circuit precedent regarding interpreting a fragmented Supreme Court decision to require a common rationale among "all the analytically necessary portions of a Supreme Court opinion" in order to constitute a binding precedent. Parting company with other courts of appeals, the D.C. Circuit declined to follow the approach taken by the Freeman concurrence, which limited the availability of section 3582(c)(2) relief to cases where a plea agreement makes specific reference to the Sentencing Guidelines. The court concluded that, since the concurrence relied on a different rationale than the plurality opinion, it did not "embody a position implicitly approved by at least five justices." Instead, the court followed the reasoning of the Freeman plurality, under which a defendant is eligible to seek a section 3582(c)(2) reduction regardless of whether the plea agreement expressly referred to the Guidelines. For the full text of this opinion, visit:

Significance: The absence of a clear majority opinion in Freeman has given rise to disarray in the circuits over when defendants are eligible for section 3582(c)(2) reductions.

Panel: Rogers, Brown, Williams

Argument: 10/11/2012

Date of Issued Opinion: 2/12/2013

Docket Number: 11-3002

Decided: Reversed and remanded.

Case Alert Author: Ripple Weistling

Counsel: Mary Manning Petras and A.J. Kramer for appellant. Bernard J. Apperson III, Ronald C. Machen Jr., Roy W. McLeese III, James S. Sweeney, and Elizabeth H. Danello for appellee.

Author of Opinion: Judges Rogers and Williams

Author of Dissent: Brown

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Beske/Weistling

    Posted By: Elizabeth Beske @ 02/13/2013 10:05 AM     DC Circuit  

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