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11th Circuit: District Court Must Demonstrate It Considered § 3553(a) Factors When Denying Motion for Compassionate Release

by Douglas Ankney

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit vacated the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida’s order denying compassionate release because the district court failed to demonstrate it had considered the applicable factors under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).
Horace Cook pleaded guilty to robbery in federal court. The district court applied a career-offender enhancement and sentenced Cook to 151 months in prison. He subsequently pleaded guilty in state court to three additional counts of robbery and was sentenced to 51 months. Despite Florida’s recommendation to the contrary, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons ran all of Cook’s sentences consecutively.

In August 2020, Cook moved for compassionate release under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i), asking the court to reduce his sentence to time served, citing (1) the uniquely high risk COVID-19 poses to the incarcerated population; (2) his obesity, high blood pressure, and latent tuberculosis put him at a high risk of death or serious illness should he become infected with the coronavirus; and (3) intervening court decisions mean he would not be subject today to a career-offender sentencing enhancement so he is serving a disparately long sentence contrary to the guidance of 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(6). Cook also generally argued the other § 3553(a) factors supported granting his motion.

The district court, without awaiting a response from the Government, denied Cook’s motion with the following order: “THIS CAUSE came before the Court upon defendant’s motion for compassionate release pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i), based on extraordinary and compelling circumstances and the Court being fully advised in the premises, it is ORDERED and ADJUDGED that said motion is DENIED. The defendant’s age (47 years) and ailments (hypertension, obesity, and Latent Tuberculosis) are not extraordinary and compelling circumstances for a reduction to ‘time served.’” Cook appealed.

The Court observed that a district court “must explain its sentencing decisions adequately enough to allow for meaningful appellate review.” United States v. Johnson, 877 F.3d 993 (11th Cir. 2017). While a denial of a motion for compassionate release is reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard, United States v. Harris, 989 F.3d 908 (11th Cir. 2021), such a review is not simply a “rubber stamp.” Johnson. When Congress expressly requires consideration of § 3553(a) factors, a district court abuses its discretion when it fails to consider them, the Court stated.

Section 3582(c)(1)(A)(i) allows a district court to reduce a defendant’s term of imprisonment only “after considering the factors set forth in section 3553(a) to the extent that they are applicable.” Consequently, an order granting or denying compassionate release “in light of the record, must indicate that the court considered the [applicable] factors.” Johnson. The court isn’t required to exhaustively analyze every factor, but it must provide sufficient analysis to allow for “meaningful appellate review.” Id.

The Court stated that whether to grant or deny a motion for compassionate release requires the district court to weigh and balance various considerations in the first instance. Before granting a motion, the district court must determine whether a movant has offered “extraordinary and compelling reasons” and whether a reduction or release would be consistent with the policy statement found at U.S.S.G. § 1B1.13. United States v. Bryant, U.S. App. LEXIS 13663 (11th Cir. 2021). Weighing these considerations is suffused with discretion and is beyond a reviewing court’s limited role. United States v. Irey, 612 F.3d 1160 (11th Cir. 2010).

The Court explained that its task is to determine whether the district court considered the applicable § 3553(a) factors. At a minimum, the Court must be able to understand from the record how the district court arrived at its conclusion, including what factors it relied upon. Johnson. Otherwise, the Court “must vacate and remand the case to the district court.” United States v. Douglas, 576 F.3d 1216 (11th Cir. 2009).

In the instant case, the district court did not conduct a hearing, so the Court could rely only on the district court’s order to determine the extent of the district court’s reasoning. Cook argued that he is now serving a disproportionately long sentence which, if true, invoked the penultimate factor in § 3553(a). Cook also argued that the other § 3553(a) factors supports granting his motion. However, the district court’s order contained nothing to suggest it considered, balanced, or weighed any of these factors. Thus, the Court concluded that the current record did not allow for meaningful appellate review.

Accordingly, the Court vacated the district court’s order denying Cook’s motion and remanded the matter for further proceedings consistent with the its opinion. See: United States v. Cook, 998 F.3d 1180 (11th Cir. 2021). 

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Related legal case

United States v. Cook

 

 

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