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Ninth Circuit: Drug Quantity in PSR Adopted by Sentencing Court not Binding in § 3582(c)(2) Sentence Reduction Proceedings

by Michael Berk

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that a court determining eligibility for a sentence reduction based on an amended Guidelines range is not bound by the conclusions of a pre-sentence report (PSR) “adopted” at sentencing in the absence of explicit quantity findings by the court. 

In January 2012, Emilio Huaracha Rodriguez pleaded guilty to knowingly possessing over 500 grams of methamphetamine with the intent to deliver it to another person, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 84l(a)(l). As a factual basis for his plea, Rodriguez stipulated that, in 2011, law enforcement had seized 11 pounds of meth from his vehicle, which a lab determined contained “over 1,500 grams of actual methamphetamine.” At the time, the highest base offense level under § 2D1.1 of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual encompassed any amount of methamphetamine (actual) over 1.5 kilograms, so the precise quantity was technically immaterial.

When the PSR was prepared, it attributed some 4.8 kilograms of meth to Rodriguez’s relevant conduct and accordingly recommended a base offense level of 38. Aside from a departure to account for overstatement of Rodriguez’s criminal history, the court adopted the PSR and “agree[d] with the justifications set forth” therein. Rodriguez was sentenced to 168 months’ imprisonment.

In May 2016, Rodriguez moved the sentencing court under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) for a reduction based on Amendment 782 to the Guidelines, which set a base offense level of 36 for 1.5 to 4.5 kilograms of methamphetamine (actual), leaving quantities greater than 4.5 kilograms at level 38. The parties disputed whether the PSR’s 4.8-kilogram quantity meant that Rodriguez’s Guidelines range did not in fact change from level 38, and a hearing was conducted in May 2017.

The court agreed with Rodriguez that adoption of the PSR at the original sentencing did not constitute a disqualifying drug-quantity finding and proceeded to reduce Rodriguez’s sentence to 151 months. The Government appealed. 

Section 3582(c)(2) provides an exception to the general prohibition on modification of sentences if the defendant had been sentenced based on a Guidelines range that has subsequently been lowered pursuant to a retroactive amendment like Amendment 782. The statute, in conjunction with Section lBl.10 of the Guidelines, sets forth a two-step inquiry for determining whether a defendant is entitled to a sentence reduction: First, the reviewing court must evaluate whether the amendment actually lowers the defendant’s Guidelines range by calculating the range that would have been applicable if the amendment had been in effect at sentencing. If so, the court next must consider all applicable factors under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) to determine whether, in its discretion, the authorized reduction is warranted. 

In United States v. Mercado-Moreno, 869 F.3d 942 (9th Cir. 2017), the Ninth Circuit instructed that only specific quantities admitted by the defendant or found by the sentencing judge are binding in § 3582(c)(2) proceedings. Where the record is “ambiguous or incomplete” as to a fact necessary to the eligibility determination, the judge must make supplemental findings. In the course of doing so, the court may consider transcripts of the trial and sentencing hearing and “portions of the [PSR] that the defendant admitted to or the sentencing court adopted,” so long as the ultimate findings are not “inconsistent with any factual determinations made by the original sentencing court.”

But, as the Court in Rodriguez’s appeal made clear, prior to such supplemental fact-finding, “[u]ncontested facts in a generically adopted PSR do not constitute specific findings” and are therefore irrelevant for purposes of the first step of § 3582(c)(2) eligibility analysis. The Court observed that both parties lack incentive to contest PSR assertions in instances where the accuracy of the information has no material effect on the outcome of the sentencing. Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit agreed with Rodriguez that the PSR’s conclusion involving an amount over the 4.5-kilogram threshold did not preclude his eligibility for a sentence reduction. Notably, the Court stated that Rodriguez’s stipulation to the seizure of 11 pounds of meth from his vehicle was “not tantamount to a specific admission of drug possession with intent to distribute.” 

However, the district court was still required to evaluate whether Amendment 782 had the effect of lowering Rodriguez’s Guidelines range. Since the only relevant quantity found by the court or admitted by the defendant was that he was responsible for “over 1,500 grams” of methamphetamine (actual) — meaning that either level 36 or level 38 might apply — the court was obligated to make supplemental findings of fact to determine Rodriguez’s eligibility under § 3582(c)(2).

The Court ruled that the district court erred in granting Rodriguez’s motion without first determining the drug quantity attributable to him with sufficient precision to know whether Amendment 782 changed his applicable Guidelines range.

Accordingly, the Court reversed and remanded for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. See: United States v. Rodriguez, 921 F.3d 1149 (9th Cir. 2019). 

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