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Sixth Circuit Holds Career Offender Status Does not Bar Retroactive FSA Relief Under First Step Act

by Dale Chappell

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held on November 21, 2019, that a person sentenced under the career offender guideline does not bar the district court from granting relief under the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (“FSA”), which was made retroactive by the First Step Act of 2018.

Back in 2002, Charles Beamus was sentenced by Judge Karl Forester of the Eastern District of Kentucky to a total of 35 years in prison for possession with intent to distribute 6.68 grams of crack cocaine and for possessing a firearm in furtherance of that drug offense. The sentence imposed was the bottom of the mandatory guideline range, plus the five years for the gun conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c).

Had Beamus been sentenced under the drug guideline, he would have faced 120 to 150 months for that offense. His statutory range under 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(B) for that small amount of crack was 10 years to life because the Government filed a notice under 21 U.S.C. § 851, citing at least one prior conviction for drugs.

But Beamus was deemed to be a career offender because of his extensive criminal history, so the higher guideline range under U.S.S.G. 4B1.1 was used. This brought his sentencing range to 30 years to life, plus the five years for the gun.

All of the retroactive crack reductions over the years since his sentencing couldn’t apply to Beamus because of his career offender sentence: He was sentenced under the career offender guideline, not the drug guideline that had been lowered twice by retroactive guideline amendments by the Sentencing Commission.

The rule for a motion for relief under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) based on a retroactive guideline amendment says that relief can only be granted if the retroactive amendment actually would lower the guideline the sentence was “based on.” That means those who had a drug sentence imposed based on the drug table under the guidelines could get a lower sentence under § 3582(c)(2).

But the First Step Act provided a new path for relief under the FSA for career offenders such as Beamus. And that path has nothing to do with § 3582(c)(2) and retroactive guideline amendments, the Sixth Circuit made clear.

Instead, even career offenders can obtain relief, if they can show that had they been sentenced today their statutory range would be lower under the FSA. Not only did the FSA lower the drug table guideline range, it also changed the drug threshold amounts to trigger the higher statutory ranges under § 841(b)(1).

Beamus had just over six grams of crack cocaine. Before the FSA, his statutory range was 10 years to life with the § 851 penalty for his prior drug conviction. But because the FSA bumped the amount of crack to trigger that penalty today, Beamus’ six grams would now fall under § 841(b)(1)(C). That’s a range of zero to 30 years, even with the § 851 penalty.

Regardless of these distinctions, the district court denied Beamus’ First Step Act motion, saying that because he was a career offender he did not qualify. The court never reached the merits of his claims under the First Step Act.

“That was wrong,” the Sixth Circuit admonished when Beamus appealed. While his career offender status may have a lot to say about whether the district court would exercise its discretion on resentencing him under the First Step Act, “it has nothing to say about his eligibility for it,” the Court explained.

Under the First Step Act, even career offenders are eligible, the Court reiterated. “Beamus is eligible for resentencing because, and only because, the Fair Sentencing Act modified the statutory range for his offense.”

“The text of the First Step Act contains no freestanding exception for career offenders,” the Court said. “It makes retroactive the Fair Sentencing Act’s changes to the statutory range for crack cocaine offenses.”

The Court rejected the district court’s reliance on its prior cases dealing with retroactive guideline amendments to the crack guidelines excluding career offenders. “They do not govern resentencing under the Fair Sentencing Act. They instead interpreted § 3582(c)(2),” which had nothing to do with the First Step Act, the Court said.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the dismissal of Beamus’ First Step Act motion and remanded for the district court to reevaluate whether it would grant relief in light of its ruling. See: United States v. Beamus, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 34650 (6th Cir. 2019).

Writer’s note: The Sixth Circuit’s decision here could affect many people sentenced as career offenders who have been barred from the FSA under the First Step Act. Just a quick look at the district court within the Sixth Circuit shows that Beamus was not the only one denied an opportunity for relief under the First Step Act because he was a career offender.

The Court also made a special point that the district court has full discretion to consider Beamus’ criminal history in deciding whether to grant relief under the First Step Act, citing his extensive criminal history. Courts also have considered prison conduct in deciding to grant or deny First Step Act motions. United States v. Hardnett, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 185067 (E.D. Va. 2019) (reducing life sentence to 25 years under First Step Act, recognizing good prison conduct). Contra United States v. Green, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 181717 (M.D. Fla. Oct. 21, 2019) (denying First Step Act motion because of prison conduct).

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Related legal case

United States v. Beamus

 

 

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