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Media Alerts - Sixth Circuit: No further reduction of amended-guideline sentence based on nonassistance factors
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June 5, 2016
  Sixth Circuit: No further reduction of amended-guideline sentence based on nonassistance factors
Headline: Sixth Circuit denies further reduction of amended-sentencing-guideline minimums based on nonassistance factors.

Case: USA v. Kimberly Taylor

Area of law: Criminal law; Sentence reductions; Assistance and Non-assistance Factors

Issue presented: May a district court further reduce a sentence to include a downward variance in amended sentences?

Brief summary: A meth-maker was eligible for a sentence reduction based on the new drug-offense levels established by the amended Sentencing Guidelines, and the district court reduced her sentence 19% below her amended guidelines range to account for the substantial-assistance departure she received as part of her original below-guidelines sentence. Because the meth-maker's original sentence also included a downward variance, she asked for a further reduction. The government agreed to the reduction, but the district court still denied the request, stating, "U.S.S.G. § 1B1.10(b)(2) restricts a district court's discretion to impose a new below-guidelines sentence based on any factor but a departure for substantial assistance." The Meth-maker appealed, but the Sixth Circuit affirmed based on § 1B1.10(b)(2)'s historical application and the decisions of other circuits.

Extended summary: A meth-maker was sentenced to 72 months' imprisonment after pleading guilty to "(1) conspiracy to manufacture 5 grams or more of methamphetamine, and (2) aiding and abetting in maintaining a place for the purpose of manufacturing methamphetamine." Her guideline range was 108 to 135 months, based on her total offense level and criminal history. The government moved for a sentence as low as 87 months, or 19% below the bottom of the guidelines range, based on her substantial assistance. She also separately moved for a downward variance. The district court granted both motions and imposed the 72-month sentence, but did not specify to what extent the reduction was attributable to each one. The final sentence reflected a 33% reduction from the bottom of the guideline range.

Years later, an amendment to the Sentencing Guidelines became effective, retroactively lowering the sentencing guidelines for drug offenses. The meth-maker once again moved for a sentence reduction. As amended, her new guideline range was 87 to 108 months. Because her original sentence was already 33% below the applicable guidelines range at the time of sentencing, she sought a sentence as low as 58 months, 33% below the amended guidelines range. The district court ruled that 19% of the original reduction was attributable to the meth-maker's substantial assistance and thus reduced her new sentence to 70 months, a 19% reduction from the bottom of her amended guideline range.

Two months later, the meth-maker and the government filed a joint motion for reconsideration arguing that she is "eligible for a 33-percent reduction below the amended guidelines range, i.e., for a term as low as 58 months' imprisonment." The district court denied the joint motion, concluding that because U.S.S.G. § 1B1.10(b)(2)(B) "is limited to departures awarded 'pursuant to' substantial assistance motions, and because variances and non-cooperation departures are not awarded 'pursuant to' such motions, courts lack authority under § 3582(c)(2) to grant the relief requested by the present motion." The meth-maker appealed, arguing that the district court erred when it held that it "could not reduce her sentence below her amended guideline range to account for the downward variance she received at her original sentencing."

Under § 3582(c)(2), a defendant may receive a reduced sentence when: (1) the defendant "has been sentenced to a term of imprisonment based on a sentencing range that has subsequently been lowered by the Sentencing Commission"; and (2) such reduction is "consistent with applicable policy statements issued by the Sentencing Commission." The Sixth Circuit noted that the relevant policy statement -- § 1B1.10 of the Sentencing Guidelines -- limits a district court's ability to sentence a defendant below the minimum of her amended guideline to the extent of a defendant's substantial assistance.

The Sixth Circuit noted that the caselaw on this issue in other circuits supports reading § 1B1.10 as limiting the scope of below-guidelines reductions to substantial assistance. For instance, the Second Circuit has held that "the provisions of § 1B1.10 . . . require a resentencing court to apply the amended Guidelines range that would have been applicable to a defendant, without applying any departures other than one . . . based on a defendant's substantial assistance." The First, Eighth, Tenth, and Eleventh Circuits have likewise issued published or unpublished opinions supporting the limitations on below-minimum sentences based on the amended Sentencing Guidelines. Therefore, the Sixth Circuit found that the district court properly determined that it lacked authority to reduce the meth-maker's sentence further below her amended guideline range to account for a non-assistance downward variance.

Dissent: The dissent, authored by Judge Merritt, argued that the percentages used in the original sentencing were not scientific, but rather "just a guess or speculation," and should not limit the court's discretion to issue an amended sentence based on current factors. In this case, both the government and the meth-maker had already agreed that the sentence should not be limited to a 19% reduction. Rather, they agreed to a 33% reduction, and there was "no indication that district judge would not agree that this would be a more just sentence." He opined that the court should be allowed to use their discretion in resentencing.

Panel: Circuit Judges Gilbert S. Merritt, Julie S. Gibbons, and David McKeague.

Date of issued opinion: March 7, 2016¿
Docket number: 15-5930

Decided: Affirmed

Counsel: ARGUED: Erin P. Rust, FEDERAL DEFENDER SERVICES OF EASTERN TENNESSEE, INC., Chattanooga, Tennessee, for Appellant. Debra A. Breneman, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Knoxville, Tennessee, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Erin P. Rust, FEDERAL DEFENDER SERVICES OF EASTERN TENNESSEE, INC., Chattanooga, Tennessee, for Appellant. Caryn L. Hebets, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Knoxville, Tennessee, for Appellee.

Author of opinion: Circuit Judge Julie S. Gibbons.

Author of dissenting opinion: Circuit Judge Gilbert S. Merritt.

Case alert author: Luciana Viramontes, Western Michigan University Cooley Law School

Case alert circuit supervisor: Professor Mark Cooney

Link to the case:

    Posted By: Mark Cooney @ 06/05/2016 07:52 AM     6th Circuit  

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