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Fourth Circuit: Erroneous Career Offender Sentence Correctable in First Step Act Resentencing

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held on April 23, 2020, that a retroactive change in law that rendered a career offender sentence erroneous required a district court to fix that error when resentencing under the First Step Act’s application of the Fair Sentencing Act (“FSA”) to lower a crack cocaine sentence.

Brooks Chambers was sentenced 15 years ago to almost 22 years in federal prison without parole for conspiracy to distribute 50 grams or more of crack cocaine. At the time, this offense (because of a prior drug conviction) required a mandatory minimum of 20 years in prison. While the FSA retroactively changed the crack cocaine amounts that would trigger higher statutory sentences, Chambers couldn’t get resentenced under the FSA itself because he was a career offender.

When the First Step Act was enacted and applied the FSA retroactively to even career offenders, Chambers filed a motion under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(B), which allows the district court to “modify an imposed term of imprisonment to the extent otherwise expressly permitted by statute.” The U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina agreed that Chambers qualified under the First Step Act, but it refused to reduce his sentence on the basis that it could not correct the erroneous career offender penalty. The court also decided not to reduce his sentence, citing the “need for deterrence and to protect the public” and because of the “seriousness” of his crime.

Standard on Appeal

On appeal, Chambers argued that the district court misunderstood its scope of authority in resentencing under the First Step Act, and it could have reduced his sentence despite his career offender status, correcting that error.

While resentencing under the First Step Act is left to the discretion of the district court, the Fourth Circuit did not review Chambers’ appeal under the “abuse of discretion” standard but under the de novo standard, taking a fresh look without considering the district court’s determinations. This is because Chambers’ challenge was about the scope of the district court’s sentencing authority, not the resentencing he received (the district court did reduce his supervised release term).

The Simmons Error

Chambers needed at least two prior drug or violent felony convictions to be a career offender, and he had three felony drug convictions in North Carolina in the 1990s. But after an en banc court decided United States v. Simmons, 649 F.3d 237 (4th Cir. 2011), two of those convictions couldn’t have been qualified under the career offender guideline because he could not have been sentenced to more than a year in prison for them under North Carolina’s structured sentencing system.

The Fourth Circuit has since declared Simmons retroactive. Miller v. United States, 735 F.3d 141 (4th Cir. 2013). This meant that “the career-offender designation was just as much an error in 2005 as it was when we decided Simmons in 2011,” the Court said.

The Court Had Authority
to Fix the Error

The question was whether the district court had the authority to correct the career offender error in light of Simmons. Under the First Step Act, a court may reduce a crack cocaine sentence “as if” the FSA were “in effect at the time the covered offense was committed.” First Step Act, § 404(b). Under § 3582 (c)(1)(B), the court gets its authority to reduce a sentence from the statute authorizing the reduction, here§ 404(b) of the First Step Act.

The Government argued that the “as if” language of § 404(b) limits the district court’s role to only reduce Chambers’ sentence under the statutory changes by the FSA – the crack cocaine portion – and not his guidelines career offender sentence.

The Fourth Circuit rejected this position. “Section 404(b) also expressly permits the court to ‘impose a reduced sentence,’” the Court explained, and “not ‘modify’ or ‘reduce,’ which might suggest a mechanical application of the [FSA], but ‘impose.’” When a district court “imposes” a new sentence, “it must also calculate the guidelines range,” according to Gall v. United States, 522 U.S. 38 (2007). “That is why the sentencing court in this case received a supplementary PSR, for example.”

The Court called the Government’s argument “extreme”: “Chambers’ case is a perfect example of the resulting absurdity if we construe the First Step Act to only allow a Fair Sentencing Act statutory modification and no more,” the Court said. “It would pervert Congress’ intent to maintain a career-offender designation that is as wrong today as it was in 2005.” The Court cited other courts that have held the same.

The Court stated “we now hold that any Guidelines error deemed retroactive, such as the error in this case, must be corrected in a First Step Act resentencing.”

Section 3582(c)(2) Is the
Wrong Avenue

Finally, the Government (and the dissenting opinion by Judge Rushing) argued that § 3582(c)(2) was the proper avenue for relief, not§ 3582(c)(1)(B). They bothcited United States v. Hegwood, 934 F.3d 414 (5th Cir. 2019), where the Fifth Circuit ruled that § 3582(c)(2) was the proper avenue, which prevents correction of an erroneous career offender sentence under the First Step Act resentencing.

But the Fourth Circuit said Hegwood is wrong, reiterating that the Fourth Circuit and many other circuits have already found that § 3582(c)(2) is not the proper way to apply the First Step Act. United States v. Wirsing, 943 F.3d 175 (4th Cir. 2019).

The Court further reasoned that the First Step Act was created to help fix the crack cocaine sentencing disparity that disproportionately affects many Black defendants with long sentences.

The Court explained: “Under the First Step Act, Congress authorized the courts to provide a remedy for certain defendants who bore the brunt of a racially disparate sentencing scheme. In doing so, it did not import the strictures of § 3582(c)(2), even though it certainly could have. Perhaps it did not want to because it hoped for greater justice for individuals like Chambers.”

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Related legal case

United States v. Chambers



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