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Seventh Circuit Holds First Step Act Applies to All Crack Offenses ‘As a Whole,’ Regardless of Crack Amounts

The decision came after four different First Step Act motions in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois were all denied because the court there found that the amount of crack involved in each case rendered the movant ineligible for relief. Consolidating the cases for appeal, the Seventh Circuit concluded that each movant qualifies for relief since the FSA changed the statutory penalties for crack offenses, without regard to the facts of the case.

Under the FSA, Congress significantly increased the amount of crack needed to trigger the statutory penalties under 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1). Prior to the FSA, a first offense involving more than 5 grams of crack required a minimum five-year prison sentence, and more than 50 grams required at least 10 years. The FSA bumped up those crack amounts to 28 grams and 280 grams, respectively.

But the FSA applies only to persons sentenced after August 3, 2010, leaving those sentenced before that ineligible for relief. Over eight years later, however, Congress corrected this unfair result by applying the FSA’s statutory changes to every “covered offense” under the FSA committed before August 3, by enacting the First Step Act. So, what is a “covered offense?” That’s the question the Seventh Circuit set out to answer.

The First Step Act defines “covered offense” as “a violation of a federal criminal statute, the statutory penalties for which were modified by section 2 or 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.” (Section 2 changed the crack amounts, and section 3 eliminated the mandatory minimum for simple possession of crack.) The dispute was whether the changes to the statutory penalties under the FSA applies to a “violation” of § 841 or the statute itself.

This is a critical distinction because if the new crack amounts apply to the “violation” of the law, then the court hearing a First Step Act motion would be required to consider the facts of the violation, the Seventh Circuit explained. Applying statutory interpretation rules, the Court found that the Government’s argument for a fact-specific inquiry turned the First Step Act into a “complicated” matter.

The Court concluded that, under the language of the First Step Act, “the statute of conviction alone determines eligibility for First Step Act relief.” Each movant here was eligible for relief under the First Step Act because the penalty for their crime was modified by the First Step Act.

One of the movants was also denied relief because, though he was a career offender, the original sentencing court departed well below the Guidelines range, finding the enhancement overrepresented his criminal history. He was also given a reduction for his cooperation with the Government. The district court said it would not reduce his sentence any further because he was still within the new Guidelines after the FSA (the Sentencing Commission had lowered the crack Guidelines in response to the statutory changes by Congress with the FSA).

The Seventh Circuit explained that under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), a court considering First Step Act relief is not precluded from taking a new look at the sentence. The Court explained that because of the long crack sentences handed out prior to the FSA, it will likely be a new judge considering whether to reduce a sentence and that the “statutory framework” and policies supporting the crack Guidelines have changed dramatically since the original sentence was imposed. The judge and the lawyers may have also “pressed different arguments” based on those factors at the time, the Court noted.

While a district court may not actually be “required” to consider § 3553(a) (the Seventh Circuit left that question for another day), the court should show that it at least considered those points. The Court further concluded that post-sentencing conduct, i.e., prison conduct, may also be considered in granting a reduced sentence under the First Step Act.

The Court noted that it has another important question coming before it in upcoming cases:

Accordingly, the Seventh Circuit reversed all four district court orders denying First Step Act relief and remanded. See: United States v. Shaw, 957 F.3d 734 (7th Cir. 2020).

Related legal case

United States v. Shaw

 

 

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