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November 21, 2017
  United States v. Surratt -- Fourth Circuit
Closing the Judicial Door: Fourth Circuit Splits with Sister Circuits on Post-Commutation Sentencing Challenges

Areas of Law: Constitutional Law, Criminal Law

Issue Presented: Whether an individual who receives a commutation by the President of the United States can subsequently challenge his original sentence based on modifications to the sentencing guidelines that were passed after his commutation was granted.

Brief Summary:
In a published opinion, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that sentencing challenges to an original sentence are moot if they are registered after a presidential commutation. The Fourth Circuit determined that the commutation power belongs solely to the Executive branch of government and that once the President commuted Raymond Surrat's original sentence of life imprisonment to 200 months, the litigation process reached finality. The Fourth Circuit also stated that further appeals to reduce the sentence to match the guidelines reflected in the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 were outside the scope of their power as a co-ordinate branch of government and the Fourth Circuit respects the separation of powers.

Extended Summary: In 2005, Raymond Surrat pled guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute more than 50 grams but less than 150 grams of crack cocaine in violation of the Controlled Substances Act, 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(b)(1). Surratt already had three prior drug convictions and two of those convictions constituted "felony drug offenses." Therefore, Surratt's sentence automatically upgraded to a mandatory minimum of life imprisonment without release. Surratt's sentence accurately reflected the then-applicable 100-to-1 powder-to-crack ratio that punished distributors of crack cocaine much more harshly than distributors of powder cocaine.

In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act (the Act), which reduced the ratio from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1. Congress noted that the previous ratio disproportionately punished racial minorities (Surratt is a man of color). The Act applies retroactively so Surratt could appeal his original sentence which was imposed before the Act took effect. Surratt filed successive habeas petitions seeking relief. The district court denied Surratt's 2012 petition. His second petition, however, sat in the court for years without action.

In 2017, President Obama commuted Surratt's life sentence down to 200 months. The only condition attached to Surratt's commutation involved admittance to a Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP). Surratt agreed and shortly after, the Fourth Circuit asked both the government and Surratt's attorneys to address whether the President's commutation mooted Surratt's pending challenge to his original sentence. The Fourth Circuit determined that Surratt's appeal was moot.

The Fourth Circuit noted that it was without power to intervene in a lawful decision by a co-ordinate branch of government. By agreeing to the President's directive, the Fourth Circuit found that Surrat now serves a presidentially-commuted sentence and not a judicially-imposed one. Because Surratt agreed to serve a reduced sentence that the executive branch deemed fitting, the Fourth Circuit held that further challenges to his original sentence are no longer within the purview of the courts. The only way the courts could readjust the commuted sentence would be if a constitutional infirmity existed in the commutation order. Since there existed no such infirmity in President Obama's commutation, Surratt could not compel the Fourth Circuit to reconsider the propriety of his original sentence. Other circuits have reassessed sentencing lengths following a presidential commutation. Indeed, Judge Wynn, citing cases from the First, Seventh, and Ninth Circuits, noted exactly this point in dissent. Nonetheless, the Fourth Circuit decided that the President's commutation should represent the finality of litigation and that separation of powers rendered Surratt's (and future appellants) challenges moot.

To read the full opinion click here

Panel: Judges Wilkinson, Motz, Wynn

Argument Date:

Date of Issued Opinion: 04/21/2017

Docket Number: No. 14-6851

Decided by published opinion.

Case Alert Author: Saikrishna Srikanth, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law

Ann Loraine Hester, FEDERAL DEFENDERS OF WESTERN NORTH CAROLINA, INC., Charlotte, North Carolina, for Appellant. Michael R. Dreeben, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Washington, D.C., for Appellee. Steven Harris Goldblatt, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY LAW CENTER, Washington, D.C., as Court-Assigned Amicus Counsel. Erika L. Maley, SIDLEY AUSTIN LLP, Washington, D.C., for Amici Curiae. ON BRIEF: Ross Hall Richardson, Executive Director, Charlotte, North Carolina, Joshua B. Carpenter, FEDERAL DEFENDERS OF WESTERN NORTH CAROLINA, INC., Asheville, North Carolina, for Appellant. Scott A.C. Meisler, Assistant to the Solicitor General, Nina Goodman, Lena Hughes, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Washington, D.C.; Anne M. Tompkins, United States Attorney, Jill Westmoreland Rose, United States Attorney, Charlotte, North Carolina, Amy E. Ray, Assistant United States Attorney, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Asheville, North Carolina, for Appellee. Ruthanne M. Deutsch, Shon Hopwood, Supervising Attorneys, Utsav Gupta, William Hornbeck, Meredith Wood, Ryan W. Cooke, Courtney A. Elgart, Elizabeth Sebesky, Student Counsel, Appellate Litigation Program, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY LAW CENTER, Washington, D.C., for Court-Assigned Amicus Counsel. Douglas A. Berman, Professor of Law, THE OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY, Columbus, Ohio; Jeffrey T. Green, Kimberly A. Leaman, SIDLEY AUSTIN LLP, Washington, D.C., for Amici Curiae.

Author of Opinion: Order; Judge Wilkinson, Concurring; Judge Motz, Concurring

Case Alert Supervisor: Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 11/21/2017 04:06 PM     4th Circuit  

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