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In Summary Order, Second Circuit Provides Guidance to Courts Deciding Motions for Sentence Reductions

On February 16, 2017, the Second Circuit (Leval, Calabresi, Carney) issued a summary order in United States v. Lopez, No. 16-1019, vacating and remanding for reconsideration the district court’s denial of the appellant’s motion for a sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) based on a recent change to the United States Sentencing Guidelines.  The Second Circuit has recently issued several summary orders reversing similar denials.  (See our prior coverage here.)

When Lopez was originally sentenced in 1991, his Presentence Report (“PSR”) calculated a sentence range of 324 to 405 months imprisonment after finding that Lopez was responsible for aiding and abetting the distribution of 44.8 kilograms of heroin.  At sentencing, the district court did not explicitly state the drug quantity for which Lopez should be held responsible.  Instead, it merely stated that the Guidelines range had been “accurately computed.”  However, with all relevant factors unchanged, the range would have been “accurately computed” so long as the Court had found that any quantity of heroin over 10 kilograms was attributable to Lopez.  When Lopez filed his Section 3582(c)(2) motion for a sentence reduction in 2014, the district court ruled that the sentencing court had attributed responsibility to Lopez for the distribution of 44.8 kilograms of heroin—the full amount listed in the PSR.  The district court therefore ruled that Lopez was ineligible for a sentence reduction because the Guidelines change on which Lopez’s motion relied applied to drug quantities under 30 kilograms.

The Second Circuit held that the district court clearly erred when it found that the sentencing court had explicitly found Lopez responsible for 44.8 kilograms of heroin.  As a result, it vacated the district court’s order and remanded for reconsideration.  The Court gave guidance to the district court, presenting it with two options for reconsidering Lopez’s motion.  It stated that the district court could consider Lopez’s eligibility for a sentence reduction by determining whether the quantity of heroin for which Lopez should be held responsible was less than 30 kilograms.  The Court conceded that this task would be “challenging,” perhaps in light of the passage of time since Lopez’s trial and sentencing.  In the alternative, the Court indicated that the district court could assume that Lopez was eligible for a reduction and then assess whether a sentence reduction was warranted in light of its discretionary evaluation of the relevant factors under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).  The district court could deny Lopez’s motion if it determined that it would not reduce the sentence despite an assumed change in the defendant’s Guidelines range.

In Lopez, the Court appears to have provided district courts with a useful roadmap (even if the context is a nonprecedential summary order) for handling Section 3582(c)(2) motions, particularly those where the record from sentencing is old or ambiguous.  The decision highlights that, setting the Guidelines aside, the Section 3553(a) factors are what carry the day when a defendant seeks to have his or her sentence reduced.  If followed notwithstanding its nonprecedential nature, Lopez might make it slightly easier for a district judge to deny a sentence reduction in a case in which it might be difficult to determine whether a defendant is eligible for such a reduction; by denying the reduction based on Section 3553(a) grounds, the court can avoid resolving the tangled factual issues that are sometimes presented by the first part of the Section 3582 inquiry.

-By Jared Buszin and Harry Sandick