Friday, August 24, 2018

The Door is Merely Cracked for § 3582(c)(2) Sentencings

Case Background:

In 1998, the Sixth Circuit reviewed Matthew Otis Charles’ case for the first time (United States v. Charles, 138 F.3d 257 (6th Cir. 1998)). 

He was convicted by a jury of several counts including conspiracy to distribute cocaine base in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846.   At sentencing, the court adopted the recommended guidelines range of 360 months to life but varied upward and sentenced him to 420 months imprisonment. In his direct appeal, Charles raised several challenges pertaining to the search warrant, the insufficiency of the evidence at trial, and the district court’s application of the sentencing guidelines - including the amount of crack cocaine applied to him and the enhancement for obstruction of justice.  The Sixth Circuit found his arguments lacked merit and upheld the conviction and sentence. 

In 2008, the Sentencing Commission retroactively amended the sentencing guidelines to reduce the disparity between penalties for crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses.  This reduced Charles’ guideline range and he moved for a sentencing reduction pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2).   The government objected because he was a career offender, and the district court did not act on his motion.  In 2010, Congress amended and lowered the guidelines for crack cocaine offenses, and Charles filed a subsequent 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) motion.   The court did not respond so Charles sent follow-up letters to the district court and filed a third motion.  In 2014, after objections were made by the government, the district court granted the third motion and reduced his sentence to 292 months. 

The government appealed (United States v. Charles, 843 F.3d 1142 (6th Cir. 2016)).  In this second appeal, the Sixth Circuit recognized that Charles’ §3582 motion “hinges on his original sentence and direct appeal and whether he has already been deemed a career offender.”  The Sixth Circuit found that they had already ruled on that point in his direct appeal finding him to be a career offender.  This made him ineligible for the sentencing reduction and the Sixth Circuit reversed the sentence and remanded the case to the district court “for the purposes of entering an order that rejects Charles’ § 3582(c)(2) motion.” Charles, 843 F.3d at 1147.

Present Appeal:

Following remand, the district court imposed the original sentence and Charles appealed.  On appeal, He argued that the district court misread the Sixth Circuit’s previous decision and missed an opportunity to correct an illegality through a new sentencing.  The Sixth Circuit disagreed and noted a few principles of sentencing. 

First, a district court must respect the scope of the remand.  Here, the remand was quite limited and only permitted the lower court to enter an order denying the motion. 

Second, “§ 3582(c)(2) presents a narrow exception to the general rule that a district court may not modify a final sentence.” But this statutory provision limits who is eligible for relief and career offenders are not eligible.   Further, § 3582(c)(2) does not throw open the door to permit a full resentencing.  The door is merely cracked ‘to allow the sentencing court to reduce a sentence based on an amended guideline that the Commission has made retroactive.”  This does not enable a defendant to “‘take advantage of any changes’ in the law that occurred in the years after his original sentencing, be they ‘retroactive or not.’”

Charles raised other arguments pursuant to Alleyne v. United States, 570 U.S. 99, 103 (2013), Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466, 490 (2000), and also 18 U.S.C. 3742(g) and 28 U.S.C. § 2106.  However, the Sixth Circuit provided “the federal courts thus may not provide relief for Charles.” 

As a final note, the Court commended Mr. Charles for his spotless incarceration record and his educational pursuits.  While on supervised release, he earned noteworthy testimonials from supervisors and was noted to not only maintain a job but also volunteer.   Though the lower court’s denial of his § 3582(c)(2)  motion was affirmed, the  Sixth Circuit offered that “executive clemency provides Charles another avenue for relief.” 

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