Tuesday, April 14, 2020

A broad interpretation of crack-cocaine defendants eligible for First Step Act relief

The First Circuit recently took an expansive interpretation of who is eligible for relief under § 404 of the First Step Act. In United States v. Smith, the court held that individuals convicted under 21 U.S.C. §  841(b)(1)(C)--for distribution of drug quantities too small to trigger any mandatory-minimum penalty--are eligible to move for a reduction. The court rejected an argument that a defendant is not eligible if the statutory range for the specific quantity of crack cocaine attributed to that particular defendant did not change.

The court relied on the text of § 404. The court reasoned that a crack-cocaine defendant is eligible for relief if he was convicted under a "federal criminal statute" whose penalties were "modified" by the First Step Act (as made retroactive by the First Step Act). The court held that the "federal criminal statute" at issue is § 841(a), "which describes all the conduct necessary to violate § 841," and not the particular penalty subsection that applied to a defendant. The court also pointed out that the Fair Sentencing Act raised the upper threshold for § (b)(1)(C) offenses from 5 grams to 28 grams. "This is a modification," the court reasoned, even if it is not a change to the prescribed sentencing range. That modification matters, because the "statutory benchmarks likely have an anchoring effect on a sentencing judge's decision making."

Be aware that the Tenth Circuit has rejected a similar argument in an unpublished opinion, albeit one that does not address the statutory interpretation arguments addressed by the First Circuit. See United States v. Martinez, 777 Fed. Appx. 946, 947 (10th Cir. 2019). Keep an eye on the Fourth Circuit. In a case raising this same issue, the Fourth Circuit recently vacated the denial of a defendant's motion for First Step Act relief for reasons that "will be further explained in [the court's] forthcoming opinion." United States v. Woodson, No. 19-6976, 2020 WL 1623742 (4th Cir. Apr. 2, 2020).

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