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Sixth Circuit: District Court May Consider Disparity of Defendant’s Actual Sentence Compared With Sentence Under First Step Act When Additional Factors Present

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that, in making an individualized determination about whether extraordinary and compelling reasons merit compassionate release, a district court may include, along with other factors, the disparity between a defendant’s actual sentence and the sentence he would have received if the First Step Act applied.

Ian Aza Jerome Owens was offered a plea agreement where, in exchange for his cooperation, he would plead guilty to one count of bank robbery and face a maximum sentence of 25 years’ imprisonment. Because he refused the plea offer, the Government charged him with numerous offenses in three subsequent superseding indictments.

In 2004, a jury convicted Owens of those numerous offenses, including five counts of possessing or aiding and abetting the possession of a firearm during a crime of violence in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). At the time of his sentencing, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan was required to impose a mandatory minimum term of five years’ imprisonment on the first § 924(c) conviction followed by additional terms of 25 years’ imprisonment on each of the four remaining § 924 convictions. He was ultimately sentenced to 105 years on the § 924(c) convictions plus an additional 10 years on his other convictions for a total prison term of 115 years.

In 2019, Owens moved the district court to “reconsider the current judgment in his case” in light of the amendments to § 924(c) enacted in § 403(a) of the First Step Act (“FSA”). Appointed counsel argued that 105 years of Owens’ sentence was for violations of § 924(c), but if he were sentenced today, the maximum penalty Owens would face after the FSA’s amendment to § 924(c) would be 25 years. Counsel moved for compassionate release under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1) based on this disparity in sentencing and based upon Owens’ remarkable record of rehabilitation.

The district court denied the motion. That court concluded that the FSA’s amendment to § 924(c) was not an “extraordinary and compelling reason” to merit compassionate release since Congress had expressly declined to make the FSA’s changes to § 924(c) retroactive. Owens appealed.

The Sixth Circuit observed that two provisions of the FSA were relevant to Owens’ appeal. First, the FSA permits defendants to move for compassionate release without the need for the Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”) to file the motions. FSA § 603(b). Second, FSA § 403(a) amended § 924(c) to eliminate the 25-year mandatory-minimum stacked sentences for defendants who had not previously been convicted of violating § 924(c). But Owens was ineligible for relief solely based on the § 403 amendments because he had been sentenced before the FSA’s enactment. United States v. Henry, 983 F.3d 214 (6th Cir. 2020). Thus, Owens could only seek relief as compassionate release.

The statute governing compassionate release, 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A), requires a district court to: (1) initially find that extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant a sentence reduction, (2) find that such a reduction is consistent with applicable policy statements issued by the Sentencing Commission, and (3) consider the factors set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) to the extent that they are applicable. United States v. Ruffin, 978 F.3d 1000 (6th Cir. 2020). However, if the motion is filed by the defendant instead of the BOP, factor (2) need not be met. United States v. Elias, 984 F.3d 516 (6th Cir. 2021).

In United States v. Tomes, 990 F.3d 500 (6th Cir. 2021), the Court considered whether the impact of a reduction in the applicable mandatory-minimum sentence of a different section of the FSA, § 401, was sufficient by itself to constitute an extraordinary and compelling reason for compassionate release under § 3582(c)(1)(A). The Court determined that since Congress did not make § 401(c) retroactive, it “w[ould] not render § 401(c) useless by using § 3582(c)(1)(A) as an end run around Congress’s careful effort to limit retroactivity of the First Step Act’s reforms.” Tomes. A similar result was reached in United States v. Wills, 991 F.3d 720 (6th Cir. 2021).

But in the instant case, Owens was seeking compassionate release based on his remarkable record of rehabilitation (he had completed the intensive Challenge Program, served as a mentor of the program for two years, and was housed in a medium-security prison instead of a high-security prison due to BOP staff securing a waiver for him). He included the disparate sentencing as just an additional factor to be included among those factors in addition to the fact that he received the harsher punishment for refusing the plea deal and going to trial.

The Court observed that in the recently decided United States v. McGee, 992 F.3d 1035 (10th Cir. 2021), the Tenth Circuit ruled that the FSA’s changes to sentencing law may be considered by the district court in conjunction with other factors that constitute extraordinary and compelling reasons for compassionate release. The Court also cited 12 additional recent cases with similar rulings (see opinion for citations).

The Court determined this “middle path” is not foreclosed by Tomes and Wills and ruled that district courts may consider the FSA’s changes and resulting disparities in sentencing if there are other factors warranting compassionate release.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the district court’s order and remanded for reconsideration consistent with the Court’s opinion. See: United States v. Owens, 996 F.3d 755 (6th Cir. 2021). 

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United States v. Owens



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