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Media Alerts - Case Name: United States v. Savani - Third Circuit
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April 25, 2013
  Case Name: United States v. Savani - Third Circuit
Headline: The term "applicable sentencing guideline" in the federal sentencing guidelines is grievously ambiguous so that the rule of lenity requires it to be resolved in favor of defendants

Area of Law: Criminal Law; Sentencing

Brief Summary: The defendants were sentenced in 2008 after guilty pleas for offenses involving possession with intent to distribute of crack cocaine. After the Fair Sentencing Act was passed, reducing the sentencing guidelines for possession of certain amounts of crack, they moved for a reduction in sentence. Whether or not the defendants were eligible for such reduction depends on the definition of "applicable sentencing guidelines" in the federal guidelines pertaining to sentence reductions. Finding this term to be hopelessly ambiguous, the Court invoked the rule of lenity to resolve the issue in favor of the defendants and allow for resentencing to be considered.

Extended Summary: This case involves three defendants who were convicted of crack offenses and who subsequently applied for a reduction in their respective sentences after the Fair Sentencing Act came into effect in 2010. Each of the three defendants was convicted of distribution and/or possession with intent to distribute cocaine base (crack). They then were assigned a base offense level under the United States Sentencing Guidelines determined based on the offense, the amount of crack possessed, and other factors. After the appropriate guideline sentence range was calculated, they each were granted a "downward departure" for providing substantial assistance to the government. However, because the sentence range calculated under the guidelines was less than the mandatory minimum sentence imposed by statute, the statutory minimum effectively became the guideline sentence range.

In August of 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA) came into effect. The FSA sought to reduce the disparity between sentences for possession of crack and powder cocaine. In particular, the amount of crack required to trigger a particular sentence was increased. The United States Sentencing Commission issued updated sentencing guidelines to conform to the FSA. Had the defendants been sentenced after the FSA came into effect, rather than before, they would have been subject to lower sentencing guideline ranges and statutory mandatory minimums. Therefore, the defendants sought to have their sentences reduced in line with the new guidelines and mandatory minimums.

Under federal law governing sentence reductions, a federal district court may reduce a previously imposed sentence only where the defendant has been sentenced to a term of imprisonment pursuant to a sentencing range, and that sentencing range has subsequently been lowered by the sentencing commission. The sentencing guidelines go on to explain that, pursuant to the statute, no reduction in sentence is allowed if the relevant amendment to the guidelines did not have the effect of lowering the defendant's "applicable guideline range." In order to determine whether these defendants' applicable range was reduced, that term must be defined. If that range applies to the actual guideline range calculation, then the defendants' applicable range has been lowered as a result of the FSA. On the other hand, if the guideline range for the defendants' in the first place was the statutory minimum, as a result of the fact that the calculated range was less than the minimum, the range has not been lowered and the defendants are not eligible for a reduction.

The Third Circuit looked at four provisions of the guidelines in an attempt to discern the meaning of "applicable guideline range." Those provisions were the historical notes for section 1B1.10, Application Note 3 for section 1B1.10, section 5G1.1(b), and Application Note 1(A) to section 1B1.10. The Court found that each of these items gave rise to reasonable interpretations supporting both the government's and the defendants' positions, and therefore did not lead to a clear definition. Having determined that it could not arrive at a definition, the Court invoked the rule of lenity. The rule of lenity is a rule of statutory interpretation applicable in criminal law matters, including sentencing, which states that in the event of "grievously ambiguous" statutory language, that ambiguity must be resolved in favor of the defendant. Since the term "applicable guideline range" was grievously ambiguous, the Court adopted the interpretation most favorable to the defendants, which allowed for a sentencing reduction to be considered.

Judge Fuentes concurred in part and in the juddgment. He disagreed with the majority that the term "applicable guideline range" was hopelessly ambiguous, but he agreed that the defendants' interpretation was the one that should be applied.

The full opinion is available at :

Panel: Circuit Judges Fuentes, Hardiman, and Roth

Argument Date: July 12, 2012

Date of Issued Opinion: April 24, 2013

Docket Number: 12-1034

Decided: Vacated and remanded for further proceedings

Case Alert Author: Michael Jervis

Counsel: James V. Wade, Frederick Ulrich, Sarah Garnett, Christy Unger, Brett Sweitzer, Leigh Skipper for the Appellants; Bernadette McKeon, Kathy Stark, Robert Zauzmer for the Appellee.

Author of Opinion: Circuit Judge Roth

Circuit: 3d Circuit

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Mark Rahdert

    Posted By: Susan DeJarnatt @ 04/25/2013 03:09 PM     3rd Circuit  

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