The First Circuit’s decision in United States v. Lopez-Pastrana, 15-1894 (1st. Cir. May 4, 2018) is long, but can be summed up simply: federal courts can’t impose a term of supervised release on a charge that resulted in no prison time, even if the sentencing court is trying to help the defendant obtain federally-subsidized medical care for a serious condition. Here’s what happened in Lopez-Pastrana:
The Government charged Mr. Lopez-Pastrana with two drug crimes and two weapons crimes. He entered into a plea agreement. Mr. Lopez-Pastrana would plead guilty to possession of marijuana with intent to distribute (Count III) and possession of a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking (Count IV). In exchange, the Government would dismiss Counts I and II. The agreed-upon (but non-binding) sentencing range was zero to six months imprisonment for Count III, and a 60 month mandatory-minimum on Count IV. Of course, there was an appeal waiver in the plea agreement.
At sentencing, Mr. Lopez-Pastrana explained he has Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (“COPD”), which, if you believe the commercial, makes you feel like an elephant or some other large animal is sitting on your chest. His sentencing attorney told the district court that Mr. Lopez-Pastrana had a 20% chance of surviving the next four years. The Government thought he was overstating the matter. According to the Government, the Bureau of Prisons represented that “his medical condition is not an end-stage disease” and that his condition had improved during the four months he was incarcerated and awaiting sentencing. (Aside: BOP has a very high opinion of its ability to care for sick people. Check out the 11th Circuit’s opinion in United States v. Seecharan, where a defendant’s doctor opined the defendant would die of infection if he went to prison, and the district court ordered incarceration based on BOP’s response was that it “could handle anything.” Happily, the 11th Circuit reversed for resentencing).
Back to Mr. Lopez-Pastrana. The district court sentenced him to 60 months in a prison medical facility on Count IV, with 5 years of supervised release. But the sentence on Count III engendered some debate. The district court basically gave Mr. Lopez-Pastrana an ultimatum. Option 1: 12 months of home confinement with federally funded medical care as a condition of supervised release, and no time in prison. Option 2: 6 months in prison. Mr. Lopez-Pastrana took the 12 months of home confinement and appealed.
Michael Brownlee is board-certified as an appellate expert by the Florida Bar. He practices in federal appellate courts around the country and is the founding member of The Brownlee Law Firm. To learn more visit appealattorney.com or email Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org.