Utah District Court Finds First Step Act Gives Court Authority to Reduce Stacked 55-Year § 924(c) Sentence
by Chad Marks
Kepa Maumau was a 20 year old young man when he was arrested and charged with multiple 924(c) offenses. He was eventually sentenced to a total of 55 years in prison. That sentence was driven by the mandatory minimums required under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c).
After the First Step Act became law, Maumau filed a motion for a reduction in sentence pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3582. In that motion, he argued that the Court could reduce his sentence if a finding was made that “extraordinary and compelling reasons” exist for such relief.
In considering Maumau’s petition, the Court was tasked with answering three questions: (1) does the Court have discretion to provide relief, (2) should the Court exercise that discretion to modify Maumau’s sentence, and (3) if Maumau is an appropriate candidate, by how much should his sentence be reduced?
The Court first determined that it does have discretion to provide relief. As an initial matter, the Court looked to the text of 18 U.S.C. § 3582 (c)(1)(A)(i). Congress tasked the U.S. Sentencing Commission with defining the phrase “extraordinary and compelling.” The Sentencing Commission’s current policy after passage of the First Step Act still states that courts can grant compassionate release sentence reductions only upon a motion by the Director of the Bureau of Prisons. United States v. Beck, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 108542 (M.D.N.C. 2019).
However, after the First Step Act, a prisoner is now entitled to make a motion for modification to the courts on his own accord. 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A). In other words, Congress via the First Step Act has removed the Director of the Bureau of Prisons as the gatekeeper.
The Sentencing Commission’s policy outlines four situations in which compassionate release is appropriate. U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual § 1B1.13 cmt. n.1(A)-(D) (U.S. Sentencing Comm’n 2004). The first covers prisoners with terminal conditions. The second addresses prisoners of advanced age. The third applies when a prisoner becomes the sole available caregiver for a child. The last is a catch-all provision that permits relief when, “[a]s determined by the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, there exists in the defendant’s case an extraordinary and compelling reason other than, or in combination with the reasons described in subdivisions (A) through (C).” Id. at n.1(D).
Maumau argued that relief is appropriate under the catch-all provision. In addition, he argued that the catch-all provision that limits relief to grounds identified by the Director is inconsistent with the law as outlined in the First Step Act.
The Court agreed with Maumau, finding that there has been no new policy statement on the matter since the enactment of the First Step Act. The Court observed that to date no Court of Appeals has addressed this issue and stated that it agrees with the majority of other district courts that have. It announced: “this court joins the majority of other district courts that have addressed this issue in concluding that it has discretion to provide [the defendant] with relief, even if his situation does not directly fall within the Sentencing Commission’s current policy statement. Under the First Step Act, it is for the court, not the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, to determine whether there is an ‘extraordinary and compelling reason’ to reduce a sentence.”
After making its finding that it has the authority to reduce the sentence, the Court was tasked with deciding whether Maumau is entitled to the relief he sought.
The Court agreed with Maumau that there is an “extraordinary and compelling reason” to reduce his sentence. It concluded that “Maumau’s age [20 at arrest, 24 at sentencing], the length of sentence imposed [57 years], and the fact that he would not receive the same sentence if the crime occurred today [due to the First Step Act], all represent extraordinary and compelling grounds to reduce his sentence.” The Court also noted that at the time of sentencing it had agreed with defense counsel that the mandatory minimums associated with multiple 924(c) offenses were unjust.
The Court rejected the Government’s argument that his request for compassionate release should be denied because he is not suffering from medical or age-related issues like the vast majority of compassionate release requesters. The Court stated that “the fact that such cases are uncommon does not mean that Mr. Maumau’s request must be denied.”
Additionally, in making its determination regarding Maumau’s request for relief, the Court also looked to United States v. Urkevich, 2019 U.S. LEXIS 197408 (D. Neb. 2019) (prior CLN coverage, Dec. 2019 issue, p. 28), in which Judge Laurie Smith Camp relied on the First Step Act and compassionate release to reduce Jerry Urkevich’s sentence by 40 years.
The Government in this case argued that Congress could have made the § 924(c) changes retroactive but chose not to. And because of this, the Court should not reduce Maumau’s sentence. The Court responded by saying, “It is not unreasonable for Congress to conclude that not all defendants convicted under § 924(c) should receive new sentences, even while expanding the power of the courts to relieve some defendants of those sentences on a case-by-case basis. As just noted, that is precisely the approach taken by the Urkevich court.”
The Court set a resentencing hearing in this case for April 7, 2020, to determine what the appropriate sentence should be in this case after considering the 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) factors.
Accordingly, the Court granted Maumau’s petition for a reduction in sentence consistent with this opinion. See: United States v. Maumau, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 28392 (D. Utah 2020).
Writer’s Note: Relief is available to defendants in these types of cases as well as those that were sentenced under § 851 enhancements. Specifically, in § 924(c) stacking cases, § 403 of the First Step Act does not entitle people to relief because the change was not made retroactive. However, relief is available under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i) if a defendant can show extraordinary and compelling reasons for a reduction. The changes to the statute reflect congressional determination that the mandatory sentencing regime to which people were subjected (that is, a mandatory consecutive 25-year term for each additional § 924(c) charge) is so grotesque, cruel, and unintended by Congress that it had to end. This is where a defendant’s first extraordinary and compelling reasons for a sentence reduction should begin. The same can be said for those that were enhanced under prior felony information, 21 U.S.C. § 851.
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Related legal case
United States v. Maumau
|Cite||2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 28392 (D. Utah 2020)|