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U.S. Supreme Court: Defendant Sentenced Pursuant to a Rule 11(c)(1)(C) Plea ‘Generally Eligible’ for Sentence Reduction when Guidelines Retroactivity Reduced

by Christopher Zoukis

The Supreme Court of the United States, in a 6-3 ruling, cleared up significant confusion in the circuit courts of appeals by ruling that a criminal defendant who was sentenced pursuant to a Rule 11(c)(1)(C) guilty plea is “generally eligible” for a sentence reduction when the defendant’s Guidelines range is later reduced as the result of a retroactive guidelines amendment. The June 4, 2018, opinion resolved a circuit split as to whether such defendants can receive the benefit of a retroactive Guidelines amendment that lowers their Guidelines range.

In 2013, Erik Hughes entered into a Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreement in which he agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and being a felon in possession of a gun in exchange for a sentence of 180 months. The plea, also known as a “Type-C agreement,” reflected agreement between the parties that 180 months was the proper sentence and bound the district court to the sentence if it agreed to accept the plea. The district court determined that the proper sentencing range was 188-235 months, accepted the plea, and sentenced Hughes to 180 months.

Two months later, the United States Sentencing Commission enacted Amendment 782 to the Guidelines. The amendment, colloquially known as “all drugs minus two,” was made retroactive. Hughes immediately filed a motion for reduced sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2), arguing that the amendment lowered his Guidelines range to 151-188 months, and that he should be resentenced.

The district court ruled that Hughes was ineligible for relief because his sentence was based on the Type-C agreement, not the Guidelines range. Hughes appealed, and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed. The U.S. Supreme Court granted Hughes certiorari and reversed the lower courts.

The Court began its analysis by noting that the error made by the lower courts resulted from confusion over how to interpret the Court’s own previous fractured decision in Freeman v. United States, 564 U.S. 522 (2011). Freeman considered whether a prisoner who pleaded guilty pursuant to a plea agreement could have his sentence reduced based on a retroactive change to the Guidelines. The answer was yes, but no single interpretation or rationale commanded a majority (Freeman was a 4-1-4 decision). As such, the circuits split on whether defendants like Hughes, who was sentenced pursuant to a very specific and binding Type-C agreement, could benefit from a retroactively reduced Guidelines range.

Reasoning that “[a] principal purpose of the Sentencing Guidelines is to promote ‘uniformity in sentencing imposed by different federal courts for similar criminal conduct,’” the Court set out to resolve the circuit split. The Court held that “a sentence imposed pursuant to a Type-C agreement is ‘based on’ the defendant’s Guidelines range”—and subject to retroactive amendments—“so long as that range was part of the framework the district court relied on in imposing the sentence or accepting the agreement.”

Because the Guidelines are “the starting point for every sentence calculation in the federal system,” most federal criminal sentences are “based on” the Guidelines range. That reasoning extends to Type-C agreements in the usual case because even Type-C agreements adhere to the general rule that “a defendant’s Guidelines range is both the starting point and a basis for his ultimate sentence.” As such, defendants sentenced pursuant to a Type-C agreement may, in the usual case, seek relief under § 3582(c)(2) when a relevant Guidelines is retroactively amended.

The Court described the rare, unusual case where this rule would be inapplicable. When the Guidelines range was not “a relevant part of the analytic framework the judge used to determine the sentence or to approve the agreement,” then relief under § 3582(c)(2) would not be available. Only a clear demonstration, based on the record as a whole, that the court would have imposed the same sentence regardless of the Guidelines would render § 3582(c)(2) relief unavailable, though.

Here, the district court only accepted Hughes’ Type-C agreement after concluding that the 180-month sentence was consistent with the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. As a result, the Guidelines range was “a basis” for the sentence imposed. Under the Court’s rationale, Hughes would be eligible for relief under § 3582(c)(2).

In reversing and remanding the case, the Court was careful to note that it only ruled that Hughes was eligible for relief. The Court rendered no opinion as to whether the district court should exercise its discretion and actually reduce his sentence. See: Hughes v. United States, 138 S. Ct. 1765 (2018). 

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