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Eleventh Circuit Clarifies When a Court Must Conduct Resentencing Following § 2255 Relief

by Dale Chappell

In an issue of first impression for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, the Court clarified when a district court must hold a resentencing hearing, rather than summarily “correcting” a sentence, when granting relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2255.

In the wake of courts granting § 2255 relief based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s retroactive decision in Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015), holding the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”) residual clause unconstitutional, numerous prisoners saw their mandatory ACCA sentences vacated, but the remedy imposed by the courts sometimes did not make any difference at the end of the day.

While the unconstitutional ACCA sentence was vacated, courts were leaving the rest of the sentence intact, by simply “correcting” the sentence by removing the ACCA sentence on the record.

The unanswered question was when must a court conduct a resentencing hearing and when may it merely “correct” a sentence under section 2255? The Eleventh Circuit has finally answered that question.

When Jazzman Brown learned his § 2255 motion was granted and his 15-year mandatory minimum ACCA sentence was vacated in light of Johnson, he was surprised to learn he would not be resentenced. Instead, the district court simply “corrected” his illegal ACCA sentence by changing the 15-year mandatory sentence to the 10-year statutory maximum without the ACCA enhancement, all without resentencing him. When the court denied his request to be resentenced at a full resentencing hearing, Brown filed a direct criminal appeal based on the new amended judgment, and a civil appeal on the § 2255 motion, to the Eleventh Circuit, which consolidated his appeals and agreed to address the issue.

Section 2255 provides four remedies from which a district court may chose after vacating a prisoner’s sentence: (1) release, (2) resentencing, (3) new trial, or (4) correcting the sentence. Resentencing and correcting a sentence may seem similar, but they are two distinct remedies. Correction is used for a specific error, and resentencing is more open-ended. If a court chooses resentencing as a remedy, the Due Process Clause requires the prisoner’s presence to contribute to the “fairness of the proceeding.” Kentucky v. Stincer, 482 U.S. 730 (1987).

But when a district court must hold a resentencing hearing, rather than correct a sentence, is not so clear, the Eleventh Circuit discovered. Judges have “broad” discretion to choose a § 2255 remedy, but that discretion is not limitless. While some vacated sentences do not require resentencing, such as when the court vacates a sentence and re-imposes the same sentence to allow a late direct appeal, whether to resentence is a fact-intensive inquiry with no clear-cut rules, the Court said.

As is common with federal sentencing, multiple counts are usually sentenced together as a “package.” A “sentencing package” is when all the counts are “interrelated” and create an “overall plan” to meet the sentencing factors outlined under 18 U.S.C. [§] 3553(a). When a district court vacates one of those counts under § 2255, quite often that one count may have influenced the sentencing judge’s decision on the overall sentence. A count vacated that had a maximum of “life” could make a judge rethink his position, that maybe the original sentence without that erroneous count would now be “too harsh,” the Court explained. “A resentencing hearing with the defendant present may therefore be required.”

The Court announced that a resentencing hearing is required in cases involving a change to a defendant’s sentence, as a result of his or her § 2255 motion, when: (1) “the errors requiring the grant of habeas relief undermine the sentence as a whole,” and (2) “the sentencing court [will] exercise significant discretion in modifying the defendant’s sentence, perhaps on questions the court was not called upon to consider at the original sentencing.”

In Brown’s case, the mandatory minimum 15-year floor no longer applied after Johnson. A resentencing hearing may be the first opportunity he has to challenge the accuracy of the information the sentencing court relied on initially. The court had to impose the mandatory sentence at the initial sentencing hearing; now, the court is not limited by that consideration. Moreover, Brown’s new sentence without the ACCA enhancement was based on a different statutory provision that the sentencing court had not considered during the initial sentencing hearing.

For the district court to simply “correct” Brown’s sentence and impose a new sentence, even varying upward to the 10-year statutory maximum without any explanation, without conducting a resentencing hearing, was an abuse of discretion. The Eleventh Circuit remanded for the district court to hold a resentencing hearing at which Brown and his attorney are present. See: United States v. Brown, 879 F.3d 1231 (11th Cir. 2018).

Author’s note: Many ACCA defendants also were sentenced as career offenders, which assumes its base offense level on the statutory maximum for the offense. Removing the ACCA’s maximum of “life” would affect the base offense level for a career offender in some cases, requiring a resentencing hearing, according to the Eleventh Circuit’s holding in Brown. 

 

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