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Seventh Circuit: District Court Erred in Denying Compassionate Release Motion by Limiting ‘Extraordinary and Compelling’ Analysis to USSG § 1B1.13

by Dale Chappell

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois must consider relevant changes in the law that may impact a prisoner’s sentence, even if those changes are not retroactive, when considering a motion for compassionate release.

The change in law addressed by the Court was the non-retroactive removal of the harsh consecutive sentencing scheme under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), that required sentencing judges to impose stacked sentences that often resulted in punishment that would be dramatically less if sentenced under the current sentencing scheme. That’s the situation in which Eural Black found himself, after he was convicted by a jury in 2007 for racketeering, robbery, drug distribution, and two counts of using a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison, 30 of which were based upon the §924(c) stacked mandatory minimums.

But that wasn’t the sole reason Black filed for compassionate release under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A). His primary reason was his diagnosis and treatment of cancer, which put him at high risk of complications from COVID-19—the virus that was killing several prisoners and staff and had infected hundreds at FMC Butner, the prison where he was being treated. The Government agreed that Black’s medical condition amounted to “extraordinary and compelling reasons” for compassionate release under § 3582(c)(1)(A) but argued that other factors outweighed granting relief. Some of those factors cited were that he had served only one-third of his sentence, that his crimes were “very serious,” and that reducing his sentence would not “promote respect for the law.”

The district court, however, applied the policy statement for U.S. Sentencing Guideline (“USSG”) § 1B1.13 Appl. Note 1, which governs compassionate release, and ruled that Black hadn’t shown that his cancer was terminal or he was at risk of getting COVID-19 and thus incapable of caring for himself in prison. The thrust of that Guideline is that a prisoner’s medical condition must be “terminal,” as determined by the Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”). As an alternative ground for denying Black’s motion, the court ruled that the factors under § 3553(a) did not warrant granting relief, mostly for the same reasons that the Government had argued.

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit first found that the district court’s strict adherence to USSG 1B1.13 was legal error, since it was contrary to binding precedent in United States v. Gunn, 980 F.3d 1178 (7th Cir. 2020). The Court explained that because the Sentencing Commission has lacked a quorum for years, it has been unable to update the applicable policy statement at issue since the enactment of the First Step Act. See United States v. Maumau, 993 F.3d 821 (10th Cir. 2021). The Gunn Court determined that the unchanged policy statement no longer applies and no longer limits the availability of compassionate release because it was written for a different statute, i.e., pre-First Step Act when only the BOP could file compassionate release motions.

The Court in the present case explained that the “district court was not bound by the parties’ agreement that Black had shown extraordinary and compelling reasons, but the court had broader discretion than it realized to decide whether Black’s condition was extraordinary and compelling.” See Gunn; United States v. Cooper, 996 F.3d 283 (5th Cir. 2021) (noting that all seven circuits that have addressed this question have given the same answer as the Gunn Court.

Based on this reason alone, the Court ruled that the district court legally erred and therefore abused its discretion.

The Court then addressed the district court’s alternative ground for denying relief to Black—that the § 3553(a) factors weighed against his release—finding that it, too, was incorrect. The changes to § 924(c) in the First Step Act, removing the stacking of multiple sentences, may not have been made retroactive by Congress, but these statutory changes should have been considered by the district court in reaching its decision. According to the Court, there was no indication that the district court took these changes into account, which “may well be relevant and could reasonably be deemed to alter the weight of those [§ 3553(a)] factors.”

The Court noted that the district court “relied principally on the fact Black had served only thirteen years of his forty-year sentence.” However, if Black were sentenced today, he would face a minimum of only 10 years, instead of 30 years, in prison. Under the current sentencing scheme, the Court stated that “it is at least plausible that Black would have served closer to two-thirds or even more of his total sentence….”

The Court explained that Congress’ policy choice not to make the changes to § 924(c) categorically retroactive does not mean that a district court is barred from considering that change in granting relief. “To the contrary, the purpose of compassionate release under § 3582 is to allow for sentencing reductions when there is not statue affording such a reduction but where extraordinary and compelling reasons justify that relief,” the Court said. See Maumau. The Court approvingly cited United States v. McCoy, 981 F.3d 271 (4th Cir. 2020) (“courts should be empowered to relieve some defendants of [stacked § 924(c)] sentences on a case by case basis”), and declared “We agree that such discretion is inherent in the compassionate release statute and process.” The Court concluded that the district court failed to recognize the “full extent of its discretion when it decided Black’s motion….”

Accordingly, the Court vacated the denial of relief and remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. See: United States v. Black, 999 F.3d 1071 (7th Cir. 2021). 

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