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Second Circuit: Three Important Rulings Under First Step Act

by Dale Chappell

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit made three important favorable rulings on April 24, 2020, concerning relief under the First Step Act for career offenders, those who get released while their motion is pending, and the proper avenue for relief.

The case came before the Court after Jason Holloway’s First Step Act motion filed on February 1, 2019, was denied by Judge Charles Siragusa of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York, on the basis that Holloway was a career offender and therefore the First Step Act didn’t lower his guidelines range. After Holloway appealed, he was released in October, and the Government then argued his appeal was “moot” because his term of imprisonment was completed. The Second Circuit disagreed with all of this.

Holloway’s Appeal Was Not Moot

At the outset, the Court had to decide if Holloway’s appeal was moot, now that he was released from prison. A court must be able to grant some form of relief in order for a case to remain alive, or it’s “moot.” While Holloway filed for a reduced sentence under the First Step Act’s retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (“FSA”), he also requested his supervised release term be reduced under the FSA’s lower statutory term for his offense. He was subject to a 10-year term, which the FSA reduced to eight years. The Court ruled that because the district court had the ability to reduce his supervised release, Holloway’s appeal was not moot.

Standard of Review

The Court noted that it typically reviews a district court’s denial of a sentence reduction for an “abuse of discretion” by the judge in denying relief but recognized here that because the district court misinterpreted the statutory avenue for relief, review was de novo, meaning that the Court would consider Holloway’s appeal without any deference to the district court’s reasoning for its decision.

Holloway’s Career Offender
Status and First Step Act

The district court ruled that because Holloway was a career offender, he was not entitled to First Step Act relief since “the amendment does not have the effect of lowering Holloway’s applicable guideline range.” The district court relied on the new presentence report (“PSR”) in which the probation officer said Holloway’s guideline sentencing range (“GSR”) wouldn’t have changed under the First Step Act, so he wasn’t eligible for relief.

This was wrong, the Second Circuit said. Holloway was convicted under 21 U.S.C. § 841(a) and sentenced according to § 841(b)(1)(A), for possessing more than 50 grams of crack cocaine. This required a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison plus a minimum of 10 years on supervised release. The FSA changed the amount of crack for that stiff of a penalty up to 280 grams. Therefore, under the retroactive application of the FSA to Holloway under the First Step Act, he now faced the penalties under § 841(b)(1)(B), which was an 8-year term of supervised release and a 10-year minimum prison sentence.

Under the First Step Act, a person is eligible for a new reduced sentence, “as if sections 2 and 3 of the [FSA] were in effect at the time the covered offense was committed.” First Step Act § 404(b). The Second Circuit concluded that this provision has nothing to do with Holloway’s guidelines range but more accurately his statutory range for his sentence and supervised release term. The district court thus erred in considering his GSR for First Step Act eligibility, the Court concluded. In other words, Holloway being a career offender doesn’t matter under the First Step Act.

The Proper Avenue for Relief

Joining other circuits, the Second Circuit determined that the proper avenue for First Step Act relief is under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(B), not § 3582(c)(2). The district court filed a standard court form stating that Holloway was denied relief under § 3582(c)(1)(B), but the Second Circuit found the basis of the district court’s order was actualy under § 3582(c)(2), when it denied relief because it said “the amendment does not have the effect of lowering [Holloway’s] applicable guideline range.” This is the same language used for retroactive guideline amendments under § 3582(c)(2), the Court noted.

Instead, “a First Step Act motion is based on the Act’s explicit statutory authorization, rather than on any action of the Sentencing Commission” amending the guidelines, the Court explained. “For this reason, such a motion falls within the scope of § 3582(c)(1)(B).” Under § 3582(c)(1)(B), “a court may modify an imposed term of imprisonment to the extent otherwise expressly permitted by statute.” The “statute” referred to here is § 404(b) of the First Step Act, the Court explained.

While this avenue allows a court to reduce a “term of imprisonment,” the Court cited the Supreme Court’s decision in Mont v. United States, 139 S. Ct. 1826 (2019), which instructed: “Supervised release is a form of punishment that Congress prescribes along with a term of imprisonment as part of the same sentence.” Given this reasoning, the Second Circuit concluded that a reduction in a term of supervised release under the First Step Act was no different from a reduction in a term of imprisonment.

The Court held that (1) Holloway’s Fist Step Act motion was not rendered moot by his release since his term of supervised release could still be reduced; (2) the First Step Act is about a reduction in statutory penalties, not guideline penalties like career offender; and (3) § 3582(c)(1)(B) was the proper avenue for relief.

Accordingly, the Court vacated the district court’s order denying Holloway’s motion and remanded for consideration of a reduction in his term of supervised release consistent with it opinion. See: United States v. Holloway, 956 F.3d 660 (2d Cir. 2020).

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Related legal case

United States v. Holloway



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