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In Summary Order, Court Vacates Denial of Resentencing Motion, Citing Ambiguities in the Sentencing Record

On January 31, 2017, the Court (Katzmann, Kearse, Livingston) issued a nonprecedential summary order vacating and remanding an order denying a motion for resentencing in United States v. Majors, No. 15-4022. The remand was required in part due to substantial ambiguity over the sentencing range that applied at the defendant’s sentencing, an ambiguity caused in part by the enactment of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, after the defendant’s guilty plea, which reduced the Sentencing Guidelines ranges for defendants convicted of crack cocaine offenses in order to address long-standing racial disparity concerns about these provisions.

A district court addressing a sentencing reduction motion under section 3582(c)(2) must first consider the defendant’s eligibility for a reduced sentence, and second decide whether to exercise discretion to reduce the defendant’s sentence.  Here, the Court found fault with both aspects of this inquiry.

Majors pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute cocaine base.  He agreed at sentencing that he was responsible for the distribution of “more than” 196 grams of cocaine base, but had not objected to a finding that he was responsible for the “high end” of a range of 150 to 500 grams (level 34).  With a reduction for acceptance of responsibility and mitigating role enhancement, this would have set Majors’ offense level at 30, with a resulting range of 97 to 121 months’ imprisonment.  However, prior to sentencing, Congress amended the quantity ranges for cocaine base offense levels. As a result, an admitted quantity of 150 to 500 grams fell within three possible ranges: 112 to 196 grams (level 28); 196 to 280 grams (level 30); and 280 to 840 (level 32), each of which was subject to a 2-level reduction based on acceptance of responsibility, and the last of which was subject to a further 2-level reduction based on role in the offense.  Majors was ultimately sentenced with a base offense level of 30, and a Guidelines range of 97 to 121 months’ imprisonment.

In denying the motion for resentencing, the district court held that Majors was ineligible for a two-level reduction in his sentence because his Guidelines range would not have been reduced by the 2014 Sentencing Guidelines (based on Amendments 782 and 788). Majors claimed that the district court had utilized the 196-to-280 gram range, whose base offense level had now been reduced from 30 to 28. In a written order, the district court noted that Majors had conceded at sentencing that he was responsible for the “high end” of the 150-to-500 gram range, which “was 500 grams,” and therefore even after the amendments’ two-point reduction, his base “offense level remain[ed] at 30,” resulting in the same guideline range as before.  The court further held that it was “exercis[ing] its discretion” to deny the motion, without providing any analysis of the section 3553(a) sentencing factors.

In a short summary order, the Second Circuit reversed on two grounds, questioning both aspects of the Court’s ruling. First, under section 3582(c)(2), a district court may not make new findings of fact that are inconsistent with those made during the original sentencing. Here, it was unclear whether the court made new, inconsistent findings because Majors conceded that he was responsible for more than 196 grams of cocaine base and that his base offense level was 30. However, his base offense level of 30 could have been premised on a finding that he was responsible for 196 to 280 grams, or a finding that he was responsible for 280 to 840 grams but was entitled to a mitigating role adjustment. If the original sentencing court had relied on the former, the resentencing court’s new finding of “500 grams” would be impermissible.  Complicating matters further, the government conceded on appeal that Majors’ original sentence was based on a range of 196 to 280 grams, contrary to the resentencing court’s finding. Given these many ambiguities, the court remanded for further factfinding, “or at least a clarification of existing factfinding,” to determine whether Majors was eligible for a sentencing reduction.

Second, to the extent that the district court had determined that Majors was eligible for a reduction but declined to grant one, it abused its discretion because it simply discussed why Majors was not eligible in the first place, and failed to offer any discussion of the § 3553(a) factors so as to permit meaningful appellate review.

The unusual circumstances of the guidelines analysis and sentencing record give Majors limited import. But the case serves as a reminder that courts considering resentencing motions must engage in a two-step process with defined boundaries. First, the court must determine whether the defendant is eligible for a reduction because an amendment to the Guidelines has lowered his applicable guideline range. If he is not, the court’s analysis is at an end because it has no authority to grant a reduction. Second, if the defendant is eligible, the court must determine whether, in its discretion and in light of the § 3553(a) factors, a reduction is warranted. In exercising this discretion, the court must provide sufficient analysis of the factors to permit meaningful appellate review.

-By Brandon Trice and Harry Sandick