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Fourth Circuit Holds Ineligibility for First Step Act Safety Valve Relief Requires Proof of All Three Listed Criminal History Characteristics Satisfied, Widening Circuit Split

by David M. Reutter

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that the plain text of 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f)(1) “requires a sentencing court to find that a defendant has all three of the listed criminal history characteristics before excluding a defendant from a safety valve eligibility” under the First Step Act.

Cassity Danielle Jones pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute 50 or more grams of methamphetamine, which carries a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence of imprisonment. At sentencing, Jones argued that she was entitled to relief under the First Step Act’s (“Act”) safety valve provision in § 3553(f)(1).

The safety value provision provides that a sentencing court may impose a sentence without regard to the applicable mandatory minimum if it finds that: “(1) the defendant does not have – more than 4 criminal history points, excluding any criminal history points resulting from a 1-point offense … a prior 3-point offense … ; and a prior 2-point violent offense….” § 3553(f)(1) (emphasis supplied).

There was no dispute that Jones had more than four criminal history points, satisfying subsection (A). However, she argued that because she did not have a prior 3-point offense or prior 2-point violent offense she was eligible for safety valve relief under the Act. She argued that only defendants who satisfy all three subsections (A) through (C) are ineligible for safety valve relief. The Government disagreed.

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina adopted Jones’ interpretation, applied the safety valve provision, and sentenced her to 100 months’ imprisonment. The Government timely appealed.

The Court explained that resolution of the appeal hinges on the meaning of “and” in § 3553(f)(1), i.e., whether the “and” is disjunctive or conjunctive. Jones argued the “and” is purely conjunctive, meaning a defendant must satisfy all three subsections in order to be disqualified for safety valve relief – that is, the defendant must satisfy subsections (A), (B), and, not or, (C). The Government ostensibly agreed “and” is conjunctive, but it asserted that having any one of the criminal characteristics listed in the subsections renders a defendant ineligible for the safety valve – in essence, treating the “and” as “or,” meaning any defendant who satisfies subsection (A), (B), or (C) is ineligible for safety valve relief.

The Court noted that when interpreting a statute, courts consider “whether the language at issue has a plain and unambiguous meaning with regard to the particular dispute.” Ignacio v. United States, 674 F.3d 252 (4th Cir. 2012). It concluded that the plain language of § 3553(f)(1) is “unambiguous.” The plain meaning of “and” means “along with or together with.” Webster’s New International Dictionary 80 (3d ed. 1961). The Court stated that dictionaries and statutory-construction treatises instruct that when the word “and” joins a list of conditions, “it requires not one or the other, but all of the conditions.” United States v. Lopez, 998 F.3d 431 (9th Cir. 2021).

Applying the foregoing principles, the Court concluded that “a criminal defendant is ineligible for safety valve relief only if she has all three criminal history characteristics.” The Court reasoned: “If Congress wanted any one of the criminal history characteristics to disqualify a defendant, it would have used the word ‘or,’ which it clearly knows how and when to do as reflected elsewhere in § 3553(f).”

At this point, the Court declared that its “judicial inquiry is complete” because the words used in the statute at issue are clear and unambiguous. Crespo v. Holder, 631 F.3d 130 (4th Cir. 2011).

However, the Court did not end its opinion there because “the Government and some courts which have considered this issue” have come to the opposite conclusion. It went on to address and reject each of the arguments put forth by the Government and courts that have treated the “and” as the disjunctive “or.” In doing so, the Court joined the Ninth and Eleventh Circuits. See United States v. Garcon, 54 F.4th 1274 (11th Cir. 2022); United States v. Lopez, 998 F.3d 431 (9th Cir. 2021). On the other side of the circuit split are the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Circuits. See United States v. Palomares, 52 F.4th 640 (5th Cir. 2022) (concluding that having any one of the criminal history characteristics renders a defendant ineligible for safety valve relief); United States v. Pace, 48 F.4th 741 (7th Cir. 2022); United States v. Pulsifer, 39 F.4th 1018 (8th Cir. 2022); United States v. Haynes, 55 F.4th 1075 (6th Cir. 2022).  

The Court concluded by holding “we are persuaded that the plain text of § 3553(f)(1) requires a sentencing court to find that a defendant has all three of the listed criminal history characteristics before excluding a defendant from safety valve eligibility.”

Accordingly, the Court affirmed Jones’ sentence. See: United States v. Jones, 60 F.4th 230 (4th Cir. 2023).

 

 

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