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Tenth Circuit: District Courts Have Authority to Decide What Constitutes ‘Extraordinary and Compelling Reasons’ for Compassionate Release After First Step Act

After Congress passed the First Step Act in 2018, eliminating the “stacking” of convictions under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) that had resulted in draconian sentences for decades, Kepa Maumau filed a motion for compassionate release under the First Step Act citing, among several reasons, his mandatory 55-year sentence due to stacked § 924(c) convictions. He was convicted by a jury in 2011 of crimes related to a string of robberies during which he and a codefendant brandished a firearm. At the time, the court was mandated by law to impose the three § 924(c) convictions for using a firearm in furtherance of a violent crime consecutive to each other, even though they were all part of the same crime.

But since then, the First Step Act removed the consecutive § 924(c) penalties often called “stacking.” Congress noted the unfairness of the practice but declined to make the change retroactive to people sentenced before the law like Maumau. However, Congress also changed the compassionate release statute, 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A), via the First Step Act, opening the door for the first time to allow prisoners to file for a reduced sentence in court. Previously, only the Federal Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”) could file for compassionate release. But in order to qualify, prisoners must show “extraordinary and compelling reasons” for relief.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Utah determined that Maumau made such a showing and reduced his sentence to time served. It first determined that it had the authority to decide what constitutes extraordinary and compelling reasons and then cited numerous reasons why Maumau successfully made such a showing. First, the court noted the length of his sentence. “When considered together,” the court said, “Maumau’s age, the length of sentence imposed, and the fact that he would not receive the same sentence if the crime occurred today all represents extraordinary and compelling grounds to reduce his sentence.” The court also gave weight to Maumau’s “strong support network outside of prison” and his employment and education opportunities after release.

The government filed for an emergency stay of the relief, which the Tenth Circuit granted, and argued on appeal that “the district court did not have the authority to grant Maumau’s request for compassionate release.” It argued that only the U.S. Sentencing Commission has the authority to determine the factors upon which compassionate release may be granted and that the district court could not grant relief merely because of its disagreement with a mandatory sentence at the time. The Tenth Circuit rejected all of the government’s arguments.

First, the Court clarified that this case was not about the district court’s discretion in granting compassionate release but turned on the court’s interpretation of the criminal statute, § 3582(c)(1)(A), as revised by the First Step Act. The Court reminded that it is not required to give any deference to the district court in reviewing its interpretation of the statute.

At the outset, the Court announced the adoption of the three-step process established in United States v. Jones, 980 F.3d 1098 (6th Cir. 2020), by the Sixth Circuit for assessing compassionate release motions. The first step requires a district court to find that extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant a reduced sentence. The second is that a reduced sentence would be “consistent with applicable policy statements issued by the Sentencing Commission.” The third is that the court has to consider the sentencing factors under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).

As for the first step, the Court found that the district court had the authority to find extraordinary and compelling reasons for compassionate release. The Court noted that, under 28 U.S.C. § 994(a), the Sentencing Commission was directed by Congress to “describe what should be considered extraordinary and compelling reasons.” Referencing the Oxford English Dictionary, the Court stated that “describe” means “to use words to convey a mental image or impression” of a thing; whereas, “define” means to “set bounds to, to limit, restrict, confine.” The Court explained that it presumes that Congress knew the difference between the two words yet consciously chose to use “describe” in setting forth the Sentencing Commission’s duties. Thus, the Court concluded that Congress did not intend for the Sentencing Commission to have exclusive authority to define the phrase “extraordinary and compelling reasons;” rather, the Sentencing Commission’s description of the phrase serves as a general policy statement, not a statutory definition.

While district courts have the authority to determine what constitutes “extraordinary and compelling reasons,” the Court explained that “this authority is effectively circumscribed by the second part of the statutory test….” That is, the Sentencing Commission describes “those characteristic or significant qualities or features that typically constitute ‘extraordinary and compelling reasons,’ and for those guideposts to serve as part of the general policy statements to be considered by district courts under the second part of the statutory test in § 3582(c)(1)(A),” according to the Court.

The Court also noted that the Sentencing Commission’s description of “extraordinary and compelling reasons” was promulgated prior to the enactment of the First Step Act. “Treating the existing policy statement as continuing to be applicable would effectively eliminate, in all cases involving motions filed directly by defendants rather than the Director of the BOP, the ‘Other Reasons’ (i.e., “catch-all”) category,” for compassionate release, the Court said. “This is problematic and clearly undercuts not only Congress’ intent to expand the use of compassionate release, but also the Sentencing Commission’s intent to recognize a ‘catch-all’ category of cases,” the Court explained. The existing policy statement on “extraordinary and compelling reasons,” then, only applies to motions by the BOP, not prisoners, the Court concluded in joining the Second, Fourth, Sixth, and Seventh Circuits that have held the same. United States v. McCoy, 981 F.3d 271 (4th Cir. 2020); United States v. Gunn, 980 F.3d 1178 (7th Cir. 2020); United States v. Jones, 980 F.3d 1098 (6th Cir. 2020); United States v. Brooker, 976 F.3d 228 (2d Cir. 2020).

The Court found that the district court satisfied the first two steps, and it further found that the court did not base its decision to grant relief “solely” on its disagreement with Maumau’s long sentence. “Rather, the district court’s decision indicates that its finding of ‘extraordinary and compelling reasons’ was based on its individualized review of all the circumstances of Maumau’s case and its conclusion ‘that a combination of factors’ warranted relief,” the Court stated.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the district court’s grant of compassionate release to Maumau and vacated the government’s stay of that relief. See: United States v. Maumau, 993 F.3d 821 (10th Cir. 2021). 

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United States v. Maumau



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