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Circuit Holds No Hearing Requirement In First Step Act Resentencing Challenge

In United States v. Gadsden, the Second Circuit (Walker, Katzmann and Wesley, per curiam) affirmed the decision of the Southern District of New York denying Damone Gadsden’s motion for resentencing under the First Step Act.  The opinion is consistent with recent decisions in other circuits, and reinforces the principle that the exercise of sentencing discretion is not synonymous with specific procedural requirements.

In 2007, Gadsden was convicted of charges related to conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine, then sentenced to 300 months in prison.  Following an appeal, the district judge reduced his sentence to 262 months, in contemplation of then-pending federal legislation to reduce the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.  Several months later, the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 increased the amount of crack required to trigger the applicable statutory penalty range.  Following the passage of the First Step Act of 2018, which gave retroactive effect to “covered offenses” whose penalties were modified by relevant provisions of the Fair Sentencing Act, Gadsden moved to reduce his sentence.  The government argued that Gadsden had not been sentenced for a “covered offense,” since his sentence was based on an amount higher than the increased threshold under the Fair Sentencing Act.

The district court denied Gadsden’s motion without a hearing.  It concluded that the requested sentence reduction was unwarranted regardless of Gadsden’s eligibility, taking into account Gadsden’s past violent conduct, his good behavior while incarcerated, the fact that his current sentence was well below the guidelines range under the First Step Act, and a comment by the sentencing judge—who had presided at trial—that Gadsden received the lowest reasonable sentence.  On appeal, Gadsden argued that (1) he was eligible for relief under Section 404(c) of the First Step Act, (2) the district court abused its discretion, and (3) he was entitled to a hearing at which he was present.

The Circuit agreed with the first argument, because Gadsden’s right to relief was established in its recent decision in United States v. Davis, 961 F.3d 181 (2d Cir. 2020) (discussed here).  However, it concluded there was no abuse of discretion here.  The district court had considered permissible factors, and the record did not suggest it overlooked any relevant § 3553(a) factors.

The Circuit also rejected Gadsden’s third argument, that Section 404(c) required the district court to hold a hearing on the motion.  Gadsden relied on statutory language prohibiting a court from entertaining a motion if a prior such motion was denied following “complete review of the motion on the merits.”  Several other circuits have held that this provision limits a defendant to filing only one motion; it does not entitle him to specific procedural protections.  Even though Section 404 authorizes the court to exercise its discretion as to sentence reductions, a proper exercise of sentencing discretion does not necessarily require the court to hold a hearing in every instance.   While a district court can hold such a hearing, it is simply not required.  Gadsden clarifies the interpretation of Section 404 in this circuit and provides necessary guidance to defendants seeking the benefit of recent criminal justice reform legislation.  Perhaps some of the issues left unresolved by the First Step Act will be the subject of subsequent reform efforts—from its name, it is plain that Congress did not intend to stop with these initial reforms.

by Sofie G. Syed and Harry Sandick