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Congressmen File Amicus Brief Stressing Congressional Intent That First Step Act’s New Drug Laws Apply at Resentencing

Courts often look to Congress when interpreting the meaning of a law. They look at Congress’ intent behind the law and any statements made by legislators in drafting the law. This is the “legislative history” of the law and one of the main tools courts use to divine a law’s meaning.

But the tables were turned when three Congressmen who helped write the First Step Act filed an amicus brief, saying that both the government and the district court got it wrong in a case where the court refused to apply the new drug laws under the First Step Act after the original sentence had been vacated.

Senators Richard Durbin, Charles Grassley, and Cory Booker filed the bipartisan amicus brief on May 12, 2020, urging the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to reverse the district court’s decision. Judge Derrick Watson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Hawaii adopted the government’s reasoning that the new, more lenient drug laws couldn’t apply at a resentencing after a sentence had been vacated, but only at a new, original sentencing.

“The interpretation advanced by the executive board and adopted by the district court in this case is contrary to Congress’ language and intent,” they wrote. “That unquestionably is not what Congress intended.”

The trio of lawmakers explained that the district court’s interpretation of the First Step Act “attributes to Congress a baffling motive: to give legal effect to illegal sentences.” In other words, by resentencing under the old drug laws, the court would be imposing an illegal sentence. The First Step Act, they said, “treats defendants whose prior sentences were vacated no differently from individuals being sentenced for the first time.”

They stressed that “Congress tailored the text of Section 401 [the changes to the drug laws] to ensure that the statute it spent years developing reach its intended target.” That “target” is those sentenced under the “harsh” mandatory minimum sentences of the “failed” two- and three-strikes drug laws that caused an “explosion” in the country’s federal prison population.

Under Section 401(c), Congress provided that the changes to the drug laws would apply to offenses committed before the First Step Act, “if a sentence for the offense has not been imposed as of such date of enactment.” The government had argued that the last part meant it applied for new, original sentences imposed, not vacated sentences, and the court agreed.

Section 401 of the First Step Act made two major changes to the drug laws. First, it limited the types of prior convictions that can qualify for the harsh mandatory minimums under the law. Now, the defendant must have “served” more than 12 months in prison for that prior, and any priors older than 15 years when the federal offense was committed don’t count. Second, it lowered the mandatory minimum sentences required for prior convictions — when the government requests them — to 15 years for one prior (instead of 20) and 25 years for two or more priors (instead of life).

“The language Congress selected makes plain that Section 401 applies when a sentence is vacated and a case remanded for resentencing, just as Congress envisioned,” they explained, citing the Supreme Court’s long-established rule that Congress “says in a statute what it means and means what it says.” Conn. Nat’l Bank v. Germain, 503 U.S. 249 (1992). “Had Congress intended to achieve a different outcome ... this Court can be sure that Congress would have spoken with utmost clarity,” using unambiguous language, they said.

“Vacatur nullifies a sentence, leaving the defendant in the same position as an individual who has never been sentenced,” they further explained, citing numerous cases that have held the same. Once a sentence is vacated, the court is working with a “clean slate,” and the court “must sentence the defendant as he stands before the court on the day of sentencing.”

Treating a vacated sentence as if no sentence had been imposed aligns with the purposes of the First Step Act, the drafters of the Act said. The old drug laws “created racially discriminatory outcomes and increased overcrowding and costs,” they quoted the president as saying when he signed the Act into law. Other Congressmen were quoted as saying that they don’t want federal prisons to become “nursing homes,” and the old laws disproportionately affected “people of color and low-income communities.”

In addition, they noted that “over the last several decades, it had become clear that inflexible mandatory minimum sentences that do not allow judges to distinguish between drug kingpins ... and lower-level offenders are not fair, smart, or an effective way to keep us safe,” they reasoned. “Put simply, the First Step Act’s resentencing reforms were widely regarded as a critical step ensuring that our criminal justice system is, in fact, just.”

This clear legislative intent filed by the primary drafters of the First Step Act should weigh heavily on the Ninth Circuit’s decision on whether the district court misinterpreted the Act, at the government’s urging, by refusing to apply the new drug laws during resentencing after the vacatur of a drug sentence imposed years before the Act. See: Amicus Brief of Congressmen in Support of Defendant, United States v. Mapvatuli, No. 19-10233 (9th Cir. May 12, 2020). 


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Related legal case

Amicus Brief of Congressmen in Support of Defendant, United States v. Mapvatuli



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