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Eighth Circuit Reiterates Statute of Conviction Determines Eligibility for Sentence Reduction Under First Step Act, Not Actual Conduct

by Dale Chappell

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reiterated that it is the statute of conviction that determines First Step Act relief under the retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (“FSA”), not the defendant’s actual conduct or drug amount involved.

The case came before the Court after Clarence Robinson filed for First Step Act relief in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska, claiming that had the FSA been in effect when he was sentenced more than 20 years ago, he would have received a lower sentence. He was sentenced as a “three-strike” drug offender to mandatory life in prison after a jury found him guilty of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute a “detectable amount” of crack cocaine in violation of §§ 841(a)(1), 846.

The jury never made a determination on drug quantity, but the district court determined at sentencing that he was responsible for 2.35 kilograms of crack. Based on that amount, the court sentenced him under § 841(b)(1)(A)(iii) (1994), which at the time applied to violations of § 841(a)(1) involving 50 or more grams of crack. He had two prior drug convictions, and the third conviction required the court to impose the harsh mandatory life sentence under U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A) (1994).

But this sentencing scheme changed in 2010, when Congress enacted the § 2 of the FSA to correct the disparity in sentencing between powder and crack cocaine. See United States v. McDonald, 944 F.3d 769 (8th Cir. 2019). This sweeping change, however, did not apply retroactively to those, like Robinson, who were sentenced on or before August 3, 2010. See Dorsey v. United States, 567 U.S. 260 (2012). In 2018, Congress enacted the First Step Act and made certain provisions of the FSA retroactive to everyone. See McDonald. Section 404(b) of the First Step Act authorizes the court that imposed the original sentence for a “covered offense” to issue a reduced sentence as if § 2 of the FSA were in effect when such offense was committed.  

A district court considering a sentence reduction under the First Step Act proceeds in two steps: (1) determining whether the defendant is eligible for a reduction, and (2) whether to exercise its discretion to grant relief. McDonald. Under the first step, eligibility for reduction requires that the person seeking relief to have been convicted of and sentenced for a “covered offense.” See § 404(b). A covered offense is defined as (1) a violation of a federal statutes, (2) the statutory penalties for which were modified by § 2 or § 3 of the FSA, and (3) the offense was committed before August 3, 2010. McDonald.

The district court denied Robinson’s First Step Act motion, concluding that because he faced the same mandatory life sentence—either with or without the FSA—due to the 2.35 kilograms of crack (found by the judge), it was deprived of discretion to reduce his sentence under the First Step Act.

The Court rejected the district court’s reasoning and conclusion, reiterating that the First Step Act applies to offenses, not conduct. McDonald. It is the movant’s statute of conviction that determines eligibility for relief. Id. The Court explained that the movant’s sentencing range under the First Step Act is governed by the offense of conviction, not the movant’s underlying conduct. See United States v. White, 984 F.3d 76 (D.C. Cir. 2020) (“The First Step Act provides relief even where the penalty range applicable to a defendant’s specific drug amount … would remain the same after application of the Fair Sentencing Act.”).

Robinson was convicted of and sentenced for a covered offense because (1) he violated a federal statute, i.e., conspiracy to distribute 50 grams or more of crack under § 841(b)(1)(A); (2) the threshold quantity under that statute was increased from 50 grams to 280 grams by the FSA, see United States v. Banks, 960 F.3d 982 (8th Cir. 2020); and he committed the offense before August 3, 2010. The Court explained that the district court “erred as a matter of law when it relied on the sentencing court’s drug quantity finding of 2.35 kilograms of crack cocaine to determine Robinson’s applicable statutory sentencing range under” the FSA and the First Step Act and concluding that relief was “categorically unavailable due to defendant-specific drug quantities.” Thus, the Court ruled that Robinson is eligible for a sentence reduction under the First Step Act but made it clear that it expresses “no opinion” as to whether Robinson merits a reduction, “which is reserved to the district court’s discretion.”

Accordingly, the Court reversed and remanded to the district court to determine whether to exercise its discretion regarding Robinson’s request for sentence reduction. See: United States v. Robinson, 9 F.4th 954 (8th Cir. 2021). 

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Related legal case

United States v. Robinson



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