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Seventh Circuit: Sentences for ‘Non-Covered’ Offenses Can Also Be Reduced Under First Step Act

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled on July 22, 2020, that when a “covered offense” under the First Step Act is reduced, a non-covered offense may also be reduced to achieve the purposes of sentencing, reiterating that any covered offense allows a court to apply the First Step Act to an entire case.

When three separate cases filed under the First Step Act came before federal district courts in Illinois, those courts refused to lower the overall sentences, either because a non-covered offense under the First Step Act had the same lengthy sentence or because the corrected sentence would have remained within the original Guidelines sentencing range (“GSR”). On appeal, all three were vacated and remanded when the Seventh Circuit ruled that the district courts had the authority to reduce those sentences for all the counts.

De Novo Review

The first point the Court made was that its review on appeal was de novo, meaning it reviewed the district courts’ reasoning without any deference to those decisions. This meant that it wasn’t whether the district courts abused their discretion denying relief under the First Step Act but whether the district courts improperly interpreted their authority in granting or denying First Step Act relief. This was a question of law about eligibility under the First Step Act apart from the merits of the cases, the Court stated.

The Sentencing Package

Two of the cases involved crack cocaine (a covered offense under the First Step Act), one of them also involved a powder cocaine conviction (a non-covered offense), and the third involved a firearm conviction (also a non-covered offense). The sentences imposed for all of the offenses were the same length and concurrent with the crack offenses. The Government had argued that the district courts had authority to reduce only the crack sentences but not the non-covered offenses. The district courts agreed and left the overall sentences intact, only reducing the crack sentences, even though the non-covered offense sentences were the same length as the crack sentences as a package.

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit agreed that because the sentences were imposed as a package, the First Step Act undid that package to allow the district courts to also reduce the sentences on the non-covered offenses to correspond with the purposes of sentencing. First, the Court explained that a district court must impose a single, aggregate sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 3584(c) and that the Guidelines require grouping of similar offenses, with the highest base offense level controlling for all the counts. This is why it’s not uncommon that a district court imposes the same sentence for every count, even when that count by itself may have received a lower sentence.

“Sentences for covered offenses are not imposed in a vacuum, hermetically sealed off from sentences imposed for non-covered sentences,” the Court said and added, “Sometimes ... a reduced statutory maximum for one count grouped with other offenses directly reduces penalties for other counts.”

The Court also noted that nothing in the First Step Act prevents a court from reducing sentences on non-covered offenses when a covered offense is reduced. “If Congress intended the Act not to apply when a covered offense is grouped with a non-covered offense, it could have included that language. It did not. And we decline to expand the limitations [already in the First Step Act] crafted by Congress,” the Court said.

First Step Act Relief Not Limited by the Guidelines or Other Factors

One case involved all covered offenses, but the district court refused to reduce those sentences because the corrected sentence under the First Step Act would have still been within the original GSR. “Nothing in the text of the First Step Act requires the Guidelines range to have changed for a court to consider whether to reduce an aggregate term of imprisonment,” the Court instructed. The Court reiterated its prior holding that relief under the First Step Act is not like that under a retroactive Guidelines amendment by way of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2). United States v. Shaw, 957 F.3d 734 (7th Cir. 2020).

And the Court explained that the district courts, on remand, could consider post-sentencing conduct in imposing an even lower sentence, if they choose. Such conduct, the Court said, “is pertinent to the need for the sentence imposed; and it can inform a court in carrying out its duty to impose a sentence sufficient, but not greater than necessary to comply with the sentencing purposes set forth in [18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)].”

One final point was that the Government conceded that because one defendant’s mandatory life sentence was commuted by the President to a term of years in 2017, it did not prevent the district court from further reducing his sentence. [Writer’s note: The Government’s position in similar cases to the current one is completely opposite of the position articulated by Seventh Circuit. Dennis v. Terris, 927 F.3d 955 (6th Cir. 2019) (explaining the effect of a commutation on a court’s ability to reduce a sentence and noting other court decisions on the matter).]


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Related legal case

United States v. Hudson



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