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Fourth Circuit: District Court Must Recalculate Guidelines Sentencing Range and Conduct Analysis of § 3553(a) Factors Even if Same Sentence Would Be Imposed Under First Step Act

by Dale Chappell

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina must recalculate the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines (“USSG”) sentencing range in a case where the district court claimed that it would still impose the same sentence, despite the prisoner qualifying for First Step Act relief.

When Christopher Lancaster filed for First Step Act relief after being convicted in 2009 for conspiracy to distribute powder and crack cocaine, the district court denied relief even though he was eligible. The reason, the court said, was that it would have imposed the same 15-year sentence Lancaster received over a decade ago. “The court has considered the defendant’s motion on the merits and, in its discretion, denies the motion,” the court said.

Another factor was that Lancaster was a career offender. The probation office filed a Sentence Reduction Report, in response to his First Step Act motion, stating: “The guideline range remains the same and it appears the court would have imposed the same sentence had the [FSA] been in effect at the time the defendant was sentenced.” The judge took the advice and said the same: “Had the [FSA] been in effect at the time of his original sentencing, the court would have imposed the same sentence.”

The First Step Act authorizes a sentencing court to reduce a sentence imposed prior to the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (“FSA”) as if the FSA was in effect at the time of sentencing. The FSA changed the amount of crack cocaine needed to trigger higher statutory sentences under 21 U.S.C. § 841(b), but Congress neglected to make the changes retroactive to those who were sentenced prior to the FSA. The First Step Act expressly changed that oversight.

On appeal, Lancaster argued that the district court should have calculated his Guidelines range under the current law, which would have removed the career offender enhancement. The Court agreed.

In determining whether to grant First Step Act relief, “the court must engage in a brief analysis that involves the recalculation of the [USSG] in light of intervening case law,” the Court said. See United States v. Chamber, 956 F.3d 667 (4th Cir. 2020). By doing this, only then could the sentencing court properly say that it would have imposed the same sentence, now fully informed of what the correct sentencing range should be.

The Court explained that in determining what sentence the district court would have imposed under the FSA, it must do a recalculation in light of intervening case law as well as a “brief consideration of the factors set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).” See Chambers. In doing so, the district court is permitted to take the defendant’s conduct after his original sentencing into account. See Chambers; United States v. Easter, 975 F.3d 318 (3d Cir. 2020) (collecting cases).

The Court noted that the district court didn’t conduct the appropriate analysis in denying Lancaster’s motion but stated that it was understandable because “Chambers and our related cases had not yet been decided.”

When the district court initially sentenced him, it relied on the career offender provision under USSG § 4B1.1 and calculated his Guidelines accordingly. However, because of changes in the law since his sentencing, the career offender enhancement no longer applies to Lancaster. See United States v. Norman, 935 F.3d 232 (4th Cir. 2019); United States v. Whitley, 737 F.App’x 147 (4th Cir. 2018) (“§ 846 conspiracy convictions cannot support” an “enhanced sentencing as a career offender because they are not categorically controlled substance offenses” within the meaning of the Guidelines). As such, the Court stated that “the district court was left, when considering Lancaster’s First Step Act motion, with gaps that needed to be filled to calculate an appropriate Guidelines range.” Additionally, the district court failed to “review the § 3553(a) factors to determine whether its balancing of the factors was appropriate in light of intervening circumstances.”

Thus, the Court ruled that “to determine whether a sentence under the Fair Sentencing Act would be the same as the sentence imposed—as the district court concluded—the court would at least have to conduct this brief analysis, which it apparently did not do.”

Accordingly, the Court vacated the district court’s order denying the motion and remanded for further consideration in light of its opinion. See: United States v. Lancaster, 997 F.3d 171 (4th Cir. 2021). 

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Related legal cases

United States v. Lancaster

United States v. Chambers

United States v. Easter

United States v. Norman

United States v. Whitley



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