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Sixth Circuit: District Court’s Refusal to Reduce Crack Sentence Under First Step Act Requires Justification

by Dale Chappell

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held on May 15, 2020, that the refusal by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky to reduce a crack cocaine sentence under the First Step Act required the court to justify why it wouldn’t reduce the sentence, especially where the old guideline range was more than double the new guideline range under the First Step Act.

After the First Step Act was passed in 2018, Marty Smith filed a pro se letter to his sentencing court asking for counsel to be appointed to see if he would be eligible for a reduced sentence under the Act. Instead of appointing counsel, the court construed his letter as a motion under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(B) and denied relief. The court acknowledged Smith was eligible for relief but refused to lower his sentence, citing the “need to protect the public” because statistics showed people like Smith are at high risk for recidivism.

In 2006, Smith pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute more than 50 grams of crack cocaine. His guideline sentencing range (“GSR”) was 168 to 210 months, but because of a prior conviction, the Government filed a notice under 21 U.S.C. § 851 requiring the court to impose a mandatory minimum of 20 years in federal prison. And that’s the sentence the court imposed.

The First Step Act, however, retroactively applies the Fair Sentencing Act (“FSA”) to people like Smith, which bumps up the amount of crack needed to trigger harsh sentences. It allows a court to resentence someone as if the FSA were in effect at the time of their original sentencing. But it’s not automatic, and a district court has “discretion” in granting relief under the Act.

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit acknowledged as much but reiterated that discretion doesn’t mean just whatever the judge wants to do: The judge must still follow established legal standards in justifying his decision to grant or deny relief.

Smith’s GSR after application of the FSA was cut to just 77 to 96 months. Under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), a district court must consider several factors when deciding to reduce a sentence. This includes any policy concerns about the sentencing guidelines and whether the sentence is greater than necessary.

While a court can sentence outside the GSR, it “must ensure that the justification is sufficiently compelling to support the degree of the variance,” the Sixth Circuit explained. “The variance in this case is certainly a major one. It is twice the maximum of the guideline range set by the statute, and two-and-a-half times what the guideline would otherwise be.”

The justification the district court gave — that Smith’s risk for reoffending required a need to protect the public — was already accounted for in the amended guidelines after the FSA. This was not “sufficient justification for maintaining a sentence that is twice the maximum of the guideline range set by Congress,” the Court said. This was “especially true” when the district court found a within-guideline sentence reasonable the first time.

Accordingly, the Sixth Circuit vacated the district court’s denial of Smith’s First Step Act motion and remanded to the district court. See: United States v. Smith, 959 F.3d 701 (6th Cir. 2020). 

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Related legal case

United States v. Smith



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