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Sixth Circuit: District Court Committed Procedural Error by Impermissibly Ceding Its Discretion to Congress to Determine Guidelines’ Crack-to-Powder Ratio at Sentencing

by David M. Reutter

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held a District Court commits “procedural error by failing to appreciate the scope of its discretion” and by indicating that policy “disagreements are not a proper basis to vary” from the Sentencing Guidelines. The Court also found plain error in failing to explain why the Guidelines’ 18:1 crack cocaine ratio, rather than the 1:1 ratio for powder cocaine, made sense in this particular case.

Demari Lapaul Thomas-Matthews agreed to a plea agreement in mid-2021 to plead guilty to one count of possession with intent to distribute controlled substances and two counts of possession of a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking. The drug charge involved possession of base, or crack, cocaine.

A presentence report (“PSR”) applied U.S.S.G. §2D1.1, cmt. n.8(D), which renders crack about 18 times more significant to an advisory sentencing range than powder cocaine. Thomas-Matthews filed an objection to the PSR’s reliance on the 18:1 crack-to-powder ratio, arguing that crack cocaine “should be scored the same as cocaine on a 1:1 ratio.” He also requested a downward departure in the drug charge from the advisory sentencing range of 57-71 months in prison.

It was undisputed at the sentencing hearing in late 2021 that Thomas-Matthews took responsibility for his actions and expressed interest in receiving future vocational training. His attorney urged the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan to vary downward because “the Guidelines result in a sentence that is ‘greater than necessary’ to achieve the goals of sentencing.”

The District Court declined the “invitation … to utilize a one-to-one ratio of crack cocaine and powder cocaine.” It expressed that it had no discretion to do so and that the matter was one for Congress to address. It imposed a sentence of 60 months on the drug count and two consecutive sentences for each of the two gun counts, for a total of 180 months. After announcing the sentence, the District Court asked if there was “any legal objection to the sentence imposed.” Defense counsel stated that there were none and that he was satisfied the court addressed all his argument. Nonetheless, Thomas-Matthews timely appealed the sentence regarding the drug count.

The Sixth Circuit’s discussion began by determining what issues were preserved for appeal. Where the appeal concerns whether the District Court addressed a certain issue at sentencing, an objection must be preserved by an objection after sentencing because it “cannot be ‘preserved’ in advance of a sentencing event that has yet to occur.” United States v. Kamper, 748 F.3d 728 (6th Cir. 2014). However, failing to object after sentencing does “not undermine [his] right to appeal issues he had ‘previously raised,’” but he does “undermine his right to challenge the adequacy of the court’s explanation for the sentence – an issue that became apparent as soon as the court finished announcing its proposed sentence and that counsel nonetheless declined the court’s invitation to address.” United States v. Vonner,516 F.3d 382 (6th Cir. 2008).

Thus, Thomas-Matthews preserved his abuse of discretion argument by the District Court’s treating the advisory crack-to-powder sentencing Guidelines as effectively mandatory. His arguments about the District Court’s actual explanation for the sentence, in contrast, were not preserved for review. Consequently, “[w]here a defendant fails to properly preserve an issue for appeal, that claim is subject to review for plain error only.” United States v. Herrera-Zuniga,571 F.3d 568 (6th Cir. 2008)

Thomas-Matthews argued his drug count sentence was unreasonable. “When reviewing a sentence’s reasonableness, we typically first address the procedural reasonableness of a sentence and do not analyze its substantive reasonableness unless the sentence is ‘procedurally sound.’” United States. Adams, 878 F.3d 463 (6th Cir. 2017). The Court found Thomas-Matthews’ sentence was not reasonably sound.

“[T]he cocaine Guidelines, like all other Guidelines, are advisory only.” Kimbrough v. United States, 552 U.S. 85 (2007). The Court noted that procedural error occurs when “the district court fails to calculate (or improperly calculates) the Guidelines range, treats the Guidelines as mandatory, fails to consider the § 3553(a) factors, selects a sentence based on clearly erroneous facts, or fails to adequately explain the chosen sentence.” United States v. Fowler, 819 F.3d 298 (6th Cir. 2016). The Court explained that because it concludes that Thomas-Mathews’ sentence is not procedurally sound, it doesn’t need to analyze its substantive reasonableness. See United States v. Adams, 873 F.3d 512 (6th Cir. 2017).

Treating “the crack/powder disparity [as] mandatory” is error, the Court stated. While the Guidelines are among the wide array of factors to consider at sentencing, the “fact that a district court may disagree with a Guidelines for policy reasons and may reject the Guidelines range because of that disagreement does not mean that the district court must disagree with that Guideline or that it must reject the Guidelines range if it disagrees.” United States v. Kamper, 748 F.3d 728 (6th Cir. 2014).

At Thomas-Matthews’ sentencing, the District Court expressed that Congress makes the statutes and that it had no policy dispute with the Guidelines at the present time. Those comments were construed by the Court as meaning “that the district court should defer to Congress in such matters.” The Court reiterated that “district courts are not free to ‘cede their discretion [to Congress] by concluding that their courtrooms are the wrong forum for setting the crack-to-powder ratio.’” United States. Johnson,407 F. App’x 8 (6th Cir. 2010). Thus, the Court held that the District Court “impermissibly ceded its discretion to Congress.”

The Court then determined if the 18:1 ratio would result in a sentence disparity. Thomas-Matthews argued the District Court failed to address the issue as to his particular case. That is, the District Court failed to explain why the 18:1 ratio makes sense in this specific case. The Court agreed and instructed that the District Court will get the opportunity to do so on remand.

Finally, the Court addressed the issue of whether the District Court properly addressed the relevant § 3553(a) factors and concluded that it hadn’t. The Court explained that the “district court’s terse discussion of the [18 U.S.C.] §3553(a) factors and its consideration only of Thomas-Matthews’ criminal history and failure to address Thomas-Matthews’ personal history and characteristics constituted error.” Basically, the Court reasoned that the District Court failed “to show its work.” United States v. Byrd, 843 F. App’x 751 (6th Cir. 2021).

Accordingly, the Court reversed and remanded Thomas-Matthews’ sentence with directions for the District Court to “clearly recognize its independent authority to vary from the Guidelines’ crack-to-powder ratio,” the Court further instructed it to “expressly consider Thomas-Matthews’ arguments concerning the §3553(a) factors and his argument that a within the Guidelines sentence is greater than necessary in his individual case.” See: United States v. Thomas-Matthews, 81 F.4th 530 (6th Cir. 2023).  


Editor’s note: Anyone interested in issue preservation and the proper standard of review will benefit from reading the Court’s full opinion, which includes an informative discussion on those topics.   


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United States v. Thomas-Matthews



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