Fourth Circuit Announces First Step Act Determinations Subject to Procedural and Reasonableness Requirements
In 2009, Chuck Parker Collington pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute five or more grams of crack cocaine in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(B). Collington’s presentence investigation report (“PSR”) included a cross-reference for first-degree murder and calculated an offense level of 45 with a recommended Guidelines sentence of 40 years.
At the time of Covington’s sentencing, a conviction under § 841 involving at least five but fewer than 50 grams of crack cocaine carried a statutory minimum of five years and a maximum of 40 years in prison. The U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina imposed a sentence of 30 years.
Less than four months later, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 that reduced the sentencing disparities between powder cocaine and crack cocaine offenses. United States v. Wirsing, 943 F.3d 175 (4th Cir. 2019). Under the reforms of the Fair Sentencing Act, Collington’s statutory maximum sentence would have been 20 years. But the Fair Sentencing Act’s reforms do not apply retroactively to offenses committed before its enactment. United States v. Black, 737 F.3d 280 (4th Cir. 2013).
However, in 2018, Congress enacted the FSA to remedy this gap by making the reforms of the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive. United States v. Chambers, 956 F.3d 667 (4th Cir. 2020). And in 2019, Collington filed a motion seeking relief under § 404(b) of the FSA, contending that his sentence was unconstitutional because it was in excess of the statutory maximum of the Fair Sentencing Act made retroactively applicable by the FSA. He requested that the district court reduce his 30-year sentence by at least 10 years to the now statutory maximum of 20 years.
The district court denied the motion, stating that “nothing requires the Court to reduce [Collington’s] sentence” despite acknowledging that Collington “is now subject to a statutory maximum of 20 years.” Collington appealed.
The Fourth Circuit observed, “[w]e have held that section 404 motions are brought under § 3582(c)(1)(B), which permits district courts to ‘modify an imposed term of imprisonment to the extent otherwise expressly permitted by statute.’” Chambers. This is in contrast to sentencing modification proceedings pursuant to § 3582(c)(2), which permit “only a limited adjustment to an otherwise final sentence” and provide “a narrow exception to the rule of [sentencing] finality” to allow a defendant to receive only the benefit of a Guidelines amendment. Dillon v. United States, 560 U.S. 817 (2010).
Unlike § 3582(c)(2)—which speaks only in terms of sentence reductions—§ 404(b) permits district courts to impose a sentence on defendants under the retroactive provisions of the FSA. According to the Court, Congress intentionally selected the word “impose” to create more robust proceedings under the FSA than those for § 3582(c)(2) proceedings. Chambers.
In the FSA context, district courts must: (1) accurately recalculate the Guidelines sentence range, (2) correct original Guidelines errors and apply intervening case law made retroactive to the original sentence, and (3) consider the § 3553(a) factors to determine an appropriate sentence. Chambers. Thus, the Court explained that while the FSA provides that a district court “may ... impose a reduced sentence,” it abuses its discretion when it “impose[s] a reduced sentence” that exceeds the maximum established by the FSA. § 404(b). And the Fourth Circuit previously held that “any sentence greater than 20 years would not be authorized” under § 841(b)(1)(C). United States v. Promise, 255 F.3d 150 (4th Cir. 2001). Consequently, the district court abused its discretion when it failed to impose a new sentence upon Collington that was within the amended statutory maximum, the Court ruled and noted, “[A] court lacks the power to exact a penalty that has not been authorized by any valid criminal statute.” Id.
Having concluded that the district court did not have discretion to decline reducing Collington’s sentence to no more than 20 years, the Court then turned to the question of whether FSA resentencing decisions must be procedurally and substantively reasonable. It observed that the question is “whether First Step Act proceedings are more amenable to typical procedural and reasonableness requirements” or the “more limited § 3582(c)(2) modifications.”
The Court noted that “[d]ifferent circuits have adopted varying approaches to this question.” It observed that at least five circuits “have not applied a reasonableness requirement to First Step Act determinations.” In contrast, the Sixth and D.C. Circuits have both adopted “some form of reasonableness review.” United States v. White, 984 F.3d 76 (D.C. Circuit 2020); United States v. Boulding, 960 F.3d 774 (6th Cir. 2020).
The Court determined that “the holdings of the Sixth and D.C. Circuits are more convincing and in-line with our own understanding of section 404.” It explained that the Fourth Circuit “has already distinguished section 404(b) proceedings from § 3582(c)(2) proceedings. In addition, “section 404(c) of the First Step Act requires district courts to undertake‘a complete review of the motion on the merits.’”
After a detailed discussion of various cases and the relevant statutes, the Court stated that “Congress has chosen to correct [sentencing] disparities by broadly empowering district courts to resentence defendants—unlike the more cabined approach to § 3582(c)(2) requests.” Thus, the Court concluded that district courts must ensure that sentences imposed under the FSA comport with procedural and substantive reasonableness.
The Court instructed that the specifics of such a review will likely differ from plenary resentencing “and evolve as we consider First Step Act appeals.” It announced: “Today we merely hold that procedural and substantive reasonableness also require courts to consider a defendant’s arguments, give individual consideration to the defendant’s characteristics in light of the § 3553(a) factors, determine—following the Fair Sentencing Act—whether a given sentence remains appropriate in light of those factors, and adequately explain that decision.”
Accordingly, the Court vacated the district court’s judgment and remanded with instructions to ensure that the district court’s sentence comports with the Fourth Circuit’s typical review for reasonableness. See: United States v. Collington, 995 F.3d 347 (4th Cir. 2021).
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