By Malorie Letcavage
On December 14, 2015, the Fourth Circuit released its published opinion in United States v. Lance Williams. The Court vacated the district court’s denial of Lance Williams’ motion for a reduced sentence under 18 U.S.C. §3582(c)(2). The Court’s opinion made it clear that when there is an amendment to the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines (“Guidelines”) that explicitly allows for retroactive effect, this overcomes case law precedent prior to the amendment.
District Court Denies a Sentence Reduction
In 2008, Williams plead guilty to distributing cocaine. The United States Attorney filed a motion for an enhanced penalty under 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A) due to Williams’s prior drug conviction. Williams’ sentence was calculated but the enhanced penalty triggered the mandatory minimum sentence of 240 months. Before the sentencing hearing, the prosecutors filed a downward departure for the sentence based on William’s substantial assistance to the authorities, which reduced the sentence to 180 months.
Three years after the conviction and sentencing, Williams filed a pro se motion for a reduction under 18 U.S.C. §3582(c)(2) because of Guidelines Amendments 750 and 782, which were affected by Amendment 780. The district court, relying on United States v. Hood (“Hood“), denied this motion because Williams did not meet the criteria of §3582(c)(2) due to his sentence not being based on the Guidelines range, but instead being based on a statutory minimum and a reduction for substantial assistance.
Fourth Circuit Describes the Legal Framework
The Guidelines are the result of a commission created by Congress to help federal courts decide sentences. The commission is allowed to amend the Guidelines, and must clearly state if the amendments are to have retroactive effect. A sentence reduction is authorized only when an amendment has the effect of reducing the applicable guideline range. In order to determine if an amendment is applicable the Court uses a two-step test. First, the sentencing court must determine the prisoner’s eligibility for a detention modification, and then if he is eligible, the court can then determine the extent of the reduction.
The Fourth Circuit has recognized the power of the amendments to the Guidelines to override case law precedent because these amendments resolve disagreements among the courts of appeals. Thus, precedent in sentence reduction cases yields if it conflicts with the Guidelines amendments.
The Fourth Circuit’s decision to deny a sentence reduction in Hood was premised on the fact that the amendment Hood relied on had no impact on the statutory mandate or substantial assistance departure, which his sentence was based upon. Guidelines Amendment 780 was promulgated after Hood, and served to clarify that there is relief for prisoners who had been sentenced below statutory minimums as a result of substantial assistance motions.
Amendment 780 Precludes United States v. Hood
The Fourth Circuit found that Amendment 780 explicitly makes Williams eligible for a sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. §3582(c)(2) because it has the practical effect of changing the law. It held that the logic in Hood does not apply.
The Court also held that the amendment helps to eliminate disparity because otherwise a cooperating defendant with a guideline range above the statutory minimum would get relief while a cooperating defendant, like Williams, whose guidelines range was below the statutory minimum would be denied relief. The Court’s ruling thus also helps the policy of rewarding cooperation with authorities.
Williams is Eligible for a Sentence Reduction
Amendment 780 was in effect before the district court ruled on Williams’ motion for sentence reduction. The district court was therefore required to apply Amendment 780 and substitute the retroactive portion. If the Guidelines calculation then reveals a lower range, the prisoner is eligible for a sentence reduction.
Amendment 780 would reduce Williams’ offense level from twenty-seven to twenty-one and thus lower his guideline range to seventy-seven to ninety-six months. Since this range is lower than the original, Williams is eligible for sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. §3582(c)(2).
The Fourth Circuit reversed the lower court’s holding and remanded the case. It also made clear that while Williams is eligible for a reduction, the ultimate decision on amount of reduction is up to the sentencing court. Judge Traxler dissented because he believed only Congress, not the Guidelines, could change the sentencing departures. He also found Hood to be good law, and not completely in contradiction with Amendment 780. For these reasons, Judge Traxler did not think Williams was eligible for a sentence reduction.