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Third Circuit Announces Resentencing Under First Step Act Requires Use of § 3553(a) Factors

by Dale Chappell

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held on September 15, 2020, that when a district court determines that a person is eligible for sentencing relief under the First Step Act, the court must consider all the applicable sentencing factors under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), even if the new Guidelines range is the same as the old range.

After the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania found that Jamel Easter qualified for sentencing relief under the First Step Act, it recalculated his Guidelines sentencing range (“GSR”), found that it didn’t change after applying the new law, and refused to go any lower. Easter was convicted of a crack cocaine offense in 2008, under 21 U.S.C. § 841(a), (b)(1)(B), and a consecutive sentence under 18 U.S.C. 924(c) for possessing a firearm in furtherance of that drug offense.

Originally sentenced to a total of 19 years (14 for the drugs and five for the firearm), Easter got a reduction in 2015 when Amendment 782 reduced his crack cocaine offense level by two points. His sentence was reduced to just over 16 years total with the reduction. When the First Step Act made the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (“FSA”) retroactive to those with crack offenses like Easter, the district court concluded that “resentencing him as if the [First Step Act] had been in effect at the time of the offense would change nothing” because his GSR was still the same.

However, Easter also moved the court to consider his post-sentencing rehabilitation when imposing a lower sentence under the First Step Act. The court never mentioned this and denied his motion.

On appeal, the Third Circuit recognized that it normally would review a district court’s denial of a motion for a reduced sentence for an “abuse of discretion” because the district court has broad discretion under the First Step Act to impose a lower sentence. A reduction is not mandatory even if someone qualifies. But in Easter’s case, the Court said it involved statutory interpretation and therefore de novo review applies. That is, the Court had to determine if the district court’s refusal to consider the § 3553(a) factors was a proper interpretation of the Act.

Under § 404 of the First Step Act, a person serving certain federal crack cocaine sentences affected by the retroactive application of the FSA may file a motion in the district court to reduce their sentence. This motion has been deemed by the court properly filed under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(B), which allows a district court to reduce a sentence “expressly permitted by statute.” While § 3582(c)(2) allows the district court to reduce a sentence for a retroactive Guidelines amendment (like 782), the First Step Act was not such a change, and that subsection doesn’t apply. Thus, the GSR is not an issue in determining someone’s eligibility under the Act.

But § 3553(a) considers many factors, one of them being the GSR for the offense. The question before the Court was whether the district court was required to consider these factors after finding Easter qualified under the Act. The Court noted that at least five other circuits have held that a district court may consider the factors, but it’s not a requirement. The third Circuit, though, disagreed with these courts for four reasons.

First, the Court pointed out that § 404 uses the word “impose” in describing what a district court does in lowering a sentence under the Act. The court is “imposing” a sentence, not modifying one, the Court explained. “As the text of § 3553(a) makes clear, district courts look to the factors set forth there whenever they impose a sentence on a defendant,” the Court noted.

Second, applying the § 3553(a) factors when imposing a sentence under the First Step Act aligns with the purposes of the Guidelines, the Court said. The factors also influence each other. “Sentencing always turns on the balancing of a variety of factors; therefore, a change in any one factor may alter the relative weight the court assigns the others,” the Court stated.

Third, § 404 does not say the factors don’t apply, and Congress had the background that federal sentencing courts would refer to § 3553(a) when it wrote the First Step Act, the Court reasoned. Even the Government conceded in other cases the factors apply, the Court noted.

Fourth, the Court agreed with the Sixth Circuit in United States v. Boulding, 960 F.3d 774 (6th Cir. 2020), that § 404 requires an accurate calculation of not only the GSR but “thorough renewed consideration of the § 3553(a) factors.”

The Court also cited the Supreme Court’s decision in Pepper v. United States, 562 U.S. 476 (2011), that post-sentencing rehabilitation “may be highly relevant to several of [those] factors.”

Thus, the Third Circuit held that a district court “must” consider the § 3553(a) factors when contemplating whether to impose a reduced sentence under the First Step Act.

Accordingly, the Court remanded for the district court to resentence Easter under the newly announced rule. See: United States v. Easter, 975 F.3d 318 (3d Cir. 2020). 

Related legal case

United States v. Easter

 

 

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