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Sometimes getting the government’s consent to a sentence reduction isn’t enough

Most cases before the Court of Appeals are there because the District Court accepted the arguments of one party or the other. The party that did not prevail noted an appeal and the two sides continue to advocate for their respective positions before the appeals court. There is, however, a narrow subsection of cases where the parties agreed as to what the correct ruling in a case should be, but the District Court nonetheless rules otherwise. We are then faced with the odd situation where the defense and the government are jointly asking the appellate court to reverse the judgment of the District Court. In these cases, the parties usually get what they wanted in the first place, but not before the Court of Appeals recruits an attorney to defend the District Court’s ruling.

This sequence of events played out in Lance Williams’s case. In 2008, Williams pleaded guilty to distributing crack and faced an enhanced mandatory minimum sentence of 240 months’ incarceration. Absent the government’s motion for that enhanced sentence, his advisory sentencing guidelines range would have been 130 to 162 months’ incarceration. Shortly before his sentencing, the government moved for a downward departure based on his substantial assistance to law enforcement. He therefore received a 180-month sentence on the government’s recommendation.

Three years later, Williams filed a pro se motion for sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2). In the motion, he argued that amendments to the sentencing guidelines, which were expressly retroactive, made him eligible for a sentence reduction. As the case progressed, the probation office, Williams’s newly appointed attorney, and the government all argued that Williams should receive a sentence reduction.

The District Court, however, ruled that an earlier decision from the Fourth Circuit, United States v. Hood, 556 F.3d 226 (4th Cir. 2009), precluded a sentence reduction. Its rationale was that because Williams’s sentence was based on the mandatory minimum and not the guidelines, Hood prevented the District Court from reducing the sentence. The District Court so held even though the Sentencing Guidelines had, after Hood, been amended to clarify the procedures for § 3582 sentence reductions in cases like Williams’s.

In examining the continued viability of Hood in § 3582 cases, the a divided panel of the Fourth Circuit held that guideline amendments can overrule judicial precedents, especially where the various circuits disagree about a sentencing provision or procedure. Thus, although Hood stood for the proposition that the extent to which a sentence was below the mandatory minimum in a cooperation case was driven solely by the extent of the cooperation, later action by the Sentencing Commission limited Hood’s applicability in § 3582 cases. The Court found that such a reduction was in keeping with the sentencing goals of rewarding cooperation with the authorities and avoiding unwarranted sentencing disparities.

This decision only limits Hood in connection with sentence reduction proceedings under § 3582. Thus, district judges in the Fourth Circuit remain unable to consider any mitigation information other than substantial assistance in cases where the government makes an 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e) motion for a sentence below the mandatory minimum based on substantial assistance.

The decision remanded the matter to the District Court to consider the merits of the § 3582 motion. It did not order a sentence reduction leaving the District Court free to deny a reduced sentence if it finds that such a reduction would not be proper.

Congratulations to Assistant Federal Public Defender Eric Placke from the Middle District of North Carolina.

Andrew Szekely is a Greenbelt-based criminal defense attorney with a practice specializing in federal criminal defense and serious state-court crimes in Maryland and the District of Columbia. He also maintains an active appellate, post-conviction, and habeas corpus practice.