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Seventh Circuit: District Court Abused Discretion by Denying Relief Without First Considering Recalculations Under First Step Act

Corner was originally convicted of violating 21 U.S.C. § 841 and later violated the conditions of his supervised release. For the violation, he was sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment followed by 42 months of supervised release. Shortly after Corner was sentenced, Congress passed the Act that retroactively applied the provisions of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. (The Fair Sentencing Act reduced the statutory minimum penalties and increased the minimum amounts of crack cocaine necessary to trigger those penalties.) Corner filed a motion under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c) seeking a reduction of his 18 months’ revocation term and his 42 months of supervised release.

At issue in this case was whether §404’s retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act would result in Corner’s statutory range being reduced from five to 40 years to 0 to 20 years.

The maximum prison term for revocation of supervised release would have been reduced from three years to two years, and the minimum period of supervised release for his underlying offense would have been reduced from four years to three years.

In denying Corner’s motion, the district court concluded it wasn’t necessary to even determine if Corner was eligible for relief under the Act because even if he were, the court “would deny his request for a reduction.” The court noted that even under the new maximum revocation penalty of two years, Corner’s 18-month sentence was permissible. Corner appealed, arguing that by failing to decide his eligibility under the Act, the district court failed to determine which lower statutory penalties applied, and without that information, it had no baseline from which to exercise its discretion.

The Seventh Circuit determined that “the question here is less about determining eligibility than determining the consequences of eligibility — the new statutory penalties — and whether a district court can reasonably exercise its discretion without doing so. The text of the First Step Act, however, suggests that it cannot.” There must be a complete review of the motion on the merits. United States v. Boulding, 960 F.3d 774 (6th Cir. 2010).

The Court explained that “[a] complete review suggests a baseline process that includes an accurate comparison of the statutory penalties — and any resulting change to the sentencing parameters — as they existed during the original sentencing and as they presently exist.” A resentencing predicated on erroneous or expired Guidelines calculation or a decision to decline resentencing without consideration of the Guidelines at all would seemingly run afoul of Congressional expectations. Boulding. A district court is procedurally required to correctly compute the applicable sentencing Guidelines range before deciding, in its discretion, what sentence to impose. Gall v. United States, 552 U.S. 38 (2007). A court may impose a sentence outside the calculated range, but the Guidelines “must be considered seriously and applied carefully.” United States v. Lopez, 634 F.3d 948 (7th Cir. 2011). A failure to properly calculate and consider the Guidelines amounts to reversible procedural error. United States v. Griffith, 913 F.3d 683 (7th Cir. 2019).

The Court concluded that by failing to consider what reduced penalties would now apply to Corner’s offense, the district court fell short of the review envisioned by the Act.

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Related legal case

United States v. Corner



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