Tuesday, June 15, 2010

No Categorical Rule for Deciding Whether (c)(1)(C) Sentence Was "Based On" Retroactively Reduced Guidelines Range for § 3582(c)(2) Purposes

United States v. Williams, No. 09-30778 (5th Cir. June 15, 2010) (per curiam) (Jolly, Smith, Owen)

If that post title sounds familiar to you, it's because the Fifth Circuit addressed the same issue several weeks ago in United States v. Garcia. So why another published opinion so soon? Perhaps because Williams presents a slightly different factual scenario.

Recall that in Garcia, the defendant reached a (c)(1)(C) agreement that limited the court to a sentence within a range bounded by a stipulated minimum and the high end of whatever the Guidelines range worked out to be. Noting a wooly circuit split over whether a sentence resulting from a (c)(1)(C) plea was "based on" the Guidelines, for purposes of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2), the court ultimately concluded that "answering that question requires that we examine the nuances of both the plea agreement and the sentencing transcript in each particular case." In so doing, the court concluded that Garcia's sentence was based on the Guidelines range.

Change the facts a little, and we have Williams, and a different result. Instead of giving the court a range to work with, the (c)(1)(C) agreement here specified a particular sentence: 192 months. After once again canvassing the relevant authority from other circuits, and applying Garcia, the court spake:
In this case, we need not adopt a categorical rule regarding whether sentences pursuant to Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreements are in all cases “based on” the Guidelines. A review of the plea agreement, sentencing record, and applicable guidelines demonstrates that Williams’s sentence was not “based on” the subsequently amended crack-offense guidelines. Williams stipulated to a sentence of 192 months, whereas the guidelines range for his crime would have been 360 months to life. Even under the newly amended Guidelines, his sentencing range would be 324 to 405 months. Thus, Williams’s sentence was significantly lower than the then-existing guidelines range and is still significantly lower than the post-amendment guidelines range. Furthermore, the plea agreement never stated that the stipulated sentence depended on, or was even connected to, the applicable sentencing range. Likewise, a review of the sentencing transcript does not suggest that the district court based its decision on a guideline calculation. While the guidelines range may have affected the plea negotiations, we have never held that such a tenuous connection is sufficient to establish that a defendant’s ultimate sentence was in fact “based on” the Guidelines, as that term is used in § 3582(c). We decline to do so today. Therefore, the district court did not err when it found that Williams’s sentence was not subject to modification under § 3582(c).

But what if it had erred?
Even if Williams’s sentence were deemed to be “based on” the Sentencing Guidelines, and thus eligible for reduction under § 3582(c), the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying the motion for a reduced sentence. The policy statement accompanying § 3582(c)(2) states that “[i]f the original term of imprisonment imposed was less than the term of imprisonment provided by the guidelines range applicable to the defendant at the time of sentencing, a reduction comparably less than the amended guideline range . . . may be appropriate.” As we explained in United States v. Cooley, “[e]ven though the district court may grant a comparable sentence reduction, however, it is not compelled to do so.” The district court in the present case concluded that it did not have authority to reduce Williams’s sentence. However, the district court ruled in the alternative, as well, stating that even if it had authority to reduce the sentence, it would not do so because the “sentence of months is already significantly below his ‘modified’ range of 324–405 months, and there is no adequate reason why his sentence should be lowered further.” We agree. Williams identifies no convincing reasons why he is deserving of a sentence reduction. Therefore, the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying Williams’s motion for a reduced sentence.

An issue the opinion does not address: what if the district court had authority to do a full Booker resentencing, and did not realize it? Under existing Fifth Circuit law, the court did not have that authority. But don't forget that the Supreme Court has taken up the question.

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