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Sixth Circuit Vacates First Step Act 
Resentencing Denial Where Court Failed 
to Consider Post-Sentencing Conduct

 

by Anthony Accurso

In a decision filed on August 26, 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit vacated the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky’s order denying a prisoner’s motion for sentence reduction under the First Step Act because the court failed to consider his post-sentencing good-conduct argument. 

Shawn Williams pleaded guilty in 2005 to possession with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of crack cocaine in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a). The Government filed an enhancement under § 851 because of his prior felony drug conviction, raising his mandatory minimum to 20 years.

Based on a total offense level of 34 and a criminal history category of VI, his Guidelines range was 262 to 327 months. He was sentenced to 262 months’ imprisonment to be followed by 10 years of supervision.

In 2018, the passage of the First Step Act modified his effective statutory mandatory minimum sentence to 10 years, so Williams asked to be resentenced. In his motion, he argued, among other things, that his conduct while in prison warranted a reduction. Williams highlighted that he passed every drug test he had taken, held the same prison job for eight years, and helped 13 other prisoners obtain their GED.

The district court denied his motion while noting that the Guidelines, which account for most § 3553(a) factors such as the need “to protect the public from future crimes of the defendant, to provide just punishment, and to provide deterrence,” had not altered since his original sentencing, and it therefore affirmed his 262-month sentence.

Williams appealed on the ground that his sentencing judge failed to account for or even consider his post-sentencing rehabilitative conduct.

The Court of Appeals noted that the First Step Act does not entitle a movant to a “plenary resentencing.” United States v. Boulding, 960 F.3d 774 (6th Cir. 2020). Resentencing decisions under the First Step Act are reviewed for “substantive and procedural reasonableness.” Id. Upon any resentencing decision, the district court must “adequately explain the chosen sentence to allow for meaningful appellate review.” Gall v. United States, 552, U.S. 38 (2007). While the court need not respond to every sentencing argument, the record as a whole must indicate the court’s reasoning. Rita v. United States, 551 U.S. 338 (2007).

The Court determined that neither the current resentencing review nor Williams’ initial sentencing in 2005 accounted for his post-sentencing conduct, and thus the Court had no “indication of the district court’s reasoning as to that motion.”

Accordingly, the Court vacated the district court’s order and remanded the case to the district court for further consideration of Williams’ good-conduct argument consistent with its opinion. See United States v. Williams, 972 F.3d 815 (6th Cir. 2020). 

Related legal case

United States v. Williams

 

 

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