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United States v. Hawkins

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

July 23, 2019



          Katharine S. Hayden, U.S.D.J.

         Before the Court are four motions filed by defendants Rodney Mack, his brother Ronald Mack, Jesse Opher, and Hassan Hawkins (the “Mack defendants”) for reduced sentences under § 404 of the First Step Act, Pub. L. No. 115-391, 132 Stat. 5194 (2018). (D.E. 530; D.E. 532; D.E. 534; D.E. 536.) The government has opposed (D.E. 547), and defendants have replied (D.E. 550; D.E. 551; D.E. 552; D.E. 553). The Court held oral argument on the motions on June 21, 2019. On June 24, 2019, the government filed a memorandum (D.E. 556) that further addressed certain issues identified at argument.

         The focus of the briefing and the extensive argument before the Court is these defendants' eligibility for reduced sentences under the First Step Act, and if eligible, the scope and manner of resentencing/sentence reduction. Deciding these issues requires examination of both the First Step Act and a predecessor, the Fair Sentencing Act.

         I. The Fair Sentencing Act

         On August 3, 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act, Pub L. No. 111-220, 124 Stat. 2372 (2010), was passed. It is self-described as “An Act To restore fairness to Federal cocaine sentencing.” It reached into the 1986 Controlled Substances Act and changed statutory penalties by increasing the quantity of crack cocaine that would trigger a mandatory minimum sentence. Whereas the Controlled Substances Act mandated a minimum sentence of five years for possession with intent to distribute or distribution of 5 or more grams of crack cocaine, now the offense had to involve 28 grams or more. The triggering quantity of crack cocaine for a mandatory ten-year sentence was increased from 50 to 280 grams. This reduced the sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine from 100:1 down to 18:1.[1]

         Section 8 of the Fair Sentencing Act directed the United States Sentencing Commission (“the Commission”) to implement the penalty changes swiftly.

         The United States Sentencing Commission shall-

(1) promulgate the guidelines, policy statements, or amendments provided for in this Act as soon as practicable, and in any event not later than 90 days after the date of enactment of this Act . . .; and
(2) pursuant to the emergency authority provided under paragraph (1), make such conforming amendments to the Federal sentencing guidelines as the Commission determines necessary to achieve consistency with other guideline provisions and applicable law.

         Thus the Commission was under orders to change the guidelines in order to implement the Act, and it did.

         Integral to the Commission's process of implementation is the interplay between the federal sentencing guidelines, specifically the Drug Quantity Table, U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual § 2D1.1(c) (2018), and the statutory penalties for drug offenses. As the United States Supreme Court noted in United States v. Dorsey, 567 U.S. 260 (2012), the “entire set of crack and powder cocaine offense levels” in § 2D1.1 was adopted by using the two five- and ten-year minimum amounts in the 1986 Controlled Substances Act “as reference points and then extrapolating from those two amounts upward and downward to set proportional offense levels for other drug amounts.” Id. at 268 (citing Kimbrough v. United States, 551 U.S. 85, 97 (2007)).

         And so consistent with the Congressional mandate in the Fair Sentencing Act, the Commission adopted amendment 750 that assigned lower base offense levels for the new trigger amounts of 28 grams and 280 grams of crack, which the Commission made retroactive. Then again in 2014, the Commission adopted amendment 782, which further reduced by two levels the base offense levels assigned to many drug quantities (known colloquially as the “drugs minus two” amendment), and it made those changes retroactive as well. According to the Commission, “amendment [782] revises the guidelines applicable to drug trafficking offenses by changing how the base offense levels in the Drug Quantity Table in § 2D1.1 . . . incorporate the statutory mandatory minimum penalties for such offenses.” U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual supp. to app. C, Amend. 782, cmt. (2018).

         Direction on applying the amendments retroactively was set forth in a policy statement in the guidelines, U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual § 1B1.10, requiring that the mechanics of changing sentences already reduced to judgment be consistent with the provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2). In determining whether and to what extent a defendant would receive a sentence reduction, § 1B1.10(b) directs that “the court shall substitute only the amendments listed in subsection (d) [a list of amendments that includes 750 and 782] for the corresponding guideline provisions that were applied when the defendant was sentenced and shall leave all other guideline application decisions unaffected.” If the amended base level attributable to the drug offense did not lower a sentenced defendant's overall guidelines range, then sentencing relief would not be available; also, any sentence reduction would not constitute a full resentencing. According to the application notes to § 1B1.10(a), “a reduction in the defendant's term of imprisonment is not authorized under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) and is not consistent with this policy statement if: (i) none of the amendments listed in subsection (d) is applicable to the defendant; or (ii) an amendment listed in subsection (d) is applicable to the defendant but the amendment does not have the effect of lowering the defendant's applicable guideline range because of the operation of another guideline or statutory provision (e.g., a statutory mandatory minimum term of imprisonment).” Assuming eligibility, “consistent with 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2), the court shall consider the factors set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) in determining: (I) whether a reduction in the defendant's term of imprisonment is warranted; and (II) the extent of such reduction, but only within the limits described in subsection (b).”

         The foregoing establishes that for those who were already sentenced when the Fair Sentencing Act passed, responsive guideline amendments could achieve a sentence reduction under defined circumstances. And indeed, a swath of incarcerated men and women received lowered sentences, but that only happened if the amended base offense level served to reduce their overall guidelines sentencing range. The tie-in was critical. See, e.g., United States v. Thompson, 714 F.3d 946, 950 (6th Cir. 2013) (“Because the amendment in question has no effect on the ultimate sentencing range imposed on Thompson under the career offender guidelines, the district court did not err in declining to grant his § 3582(c)(2) motion.”); United States v. Andros, 507 Fed.Appx. 725, 726 (9th Cir. 2013) (“Andros' pre-variance applicable guideline range was his career offender range under U.S.S.G. § 4B1.1. The Sentencing Commission's amendments to the Guidelines have not lowered that guideline range. Andros is therefore ineligible for a reduction of sentence.” (citation omitted)); United States v. Wilson, 515 Fed.Appx. 877, 881 (11th Cir. 2013) (“Amendment 750, which only affected the drug quantity tables in § 2D1.1, had no effect on Wilson's guideline sentence, and the district court was not authorized to grant him § 3582(c)(2) relief.”); United States v. Mabry, 481 Fed.Appx. 797, 798 (3d Cir. 2012) (“As a career offender, Mabry's applicable Guideline range remains unchanged. Thus, . . . the District Court did not abuse its discretion in denying Mabry's motion.”); United States v. Barlow, No. 06-694, 2017 WL 10242240, at *3 (D.N.J. Sept. 28, 2017) (Wolfson, J.) (“Thus, even if Amendment 782 had affected the guidelines under which Defendant Barlow was sentenced, and lowered the initially calculated guideline range, the Amendment would nevertheless have been irrelevant to Defendant's ultimate sentence, because the final guideline range under which he was sentenced would have remained the same mandatory minimum sentence required by law.”).

         Implicit in this approach is how sentences for cocaine crimes are calculated. The driver is the drug and how much of it the defendant trafficked in. Once admitted to or calculated in a defendant's presentence report, the Drug Quantity Table, § 2D1.1(c), sets the base offense level. For example, when Rodney Mack was sentenced in 2002, the quantity of crack cocaine the presentence report attributed to his criminal conduct was between 1.5 to 5 kilograms. That weight of that drug on its own produced the highest base offense level, 38.[2] With other enhancements found by the Court, Rodney Mack's adjusted offense level rose to 46, and he was sentenced to Life under the guidelines, which set a life sentence across all criminal history categories at the adjusted offense level 43. Albeit amendment 750 and an earlier amendment 706 were adopted and applied retroactively, they did not serve to change the guideline mandated life sentence.[3] Only when the drugs minus two amendment 782 was adopted, lowering by two the base offense levels for drug offenses, see United States v. Thompson, 825 F.3d 198, 202 (3d Cir. 2016) (“[I]n 2014, the Sentencing Commission promulgated Amendment 782 to the Guidelines, which retroactively reduced by two levels the base offense levels assigned to many drug quantities in the Drug Guidelines.”), did Rodney Mack's overall sentencing exposure drop below Life. At adjusted offense level 42, his guidelines exposure became 360 months to life.

         Even though the Fair Sentencing Act substantially changed statutory penalties for the offenses charged against the Mack defendants, it was quickly and universally concluded that the Act would not be given retroactive effect. See United States v. Reevey, 631 F.3d 110, 111 (3d Cir. 2010) (“answer[ing] the question” of whether the Fair Sentencing Act” applies retroactively “in the negative”); United States v. Blewett, 746 F.3d 647, 650 (6th Cir. 2013) (en banc) (“(1) [T]he Fair Sentencing Act's new mandatory minimums do not apply to defendants sentenced before it took effect; (2) § 3582(c)(2) does not provide a vehicle for circumventing that interpretation; and (3) the Constitution does not provide a basis for blocking it.”). The same measured and cabined application of Fair Sentencing Act sentence changes was applied to Ronald Mack's and Jesse Opher's life sentences. Their sentences are now 360 months, see infra.

         II. The First Step Act

         On December 21, 2018, Congress passed the First Step Act. It covered a broad range of topics related to incarceration and re-entry, for example recidivism reduction (Section I); a variety of prisoner welfare and re-entry initiatives (Sections II, III, V, and VI); and relevant here sentencing reform (Section IV).

         Shortly after passage of the First Step Act, the Commission's Office of Education and Sentencing Practice issued a Special Edition publication on the new statute. From the introductory paragraphs:

The First Step Act (P.L. 115-391) was signed into law by the President on December 21, 2018. The Act deals mostly with reentry of the incarcerated, directing the Federal Bureau of Prisons to take specific actions regarding programming, good-time credit, and compassionate release, among other issues. The Act does not contain any directives to the Commission.
Related to its sentencing reform provisions (Title IV), the Act makes important changes to mandatory minimum penalties and to the safety valve provision (a provision that allows courts to sentence a defendant without regard to the mandatory minimum). Specifically, in relation to Title IV, the Act:
• reduces certain enhanced mandatory minimum penalties for some drug offenders (Section 401);
• broadens the existing safety valve at 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f), increasing the No. of offenders eligible for relief from mandatory minimum penalties (Section 402);
• reduces the severity of the “stacking” of multiple § 924(c) offenses (Section 403); and
• applies retroactively the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 which reduced mandatory minimum penalties for crack cocaine offenses (Section 404).

ESP Insider Express Special Edition First Step Act, United States Sentencing Commission Office of Education & Sentencing Practice, at 1 (Feb. 2019), available at (hereinafter “Special Edition”).

         Section 404 of the First Step Act provides in full as follows:

(a) DEFINITION OF COVERED OFFENSE.-In this section, the term “covered offense” means a violation of a Federal criminal statute, the statutory penalties for which were modified by section 2 or 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (Public Law 111-220; 124 Stat. 2372), that was committed before August 3, 2010.
(b) DEFENDANTS PREVIOUSLY SENTENCED.-A court that imposed a sentence for a covered offense may, on motion of the defendant, the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, the attorney for the Government, or the court, impose a reduced sentence as if sections 2 and 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (Public Law 111-220; 124 Stat. 2372) were in effect at the time the covered offense was committed.
(c) LIMITATIONS.-No court shall entertain a motion made under this section to reduce a sentence if the sentence was previously imposed or previously reduced in accordance with the amendments made by sections 2 and 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (Public Law 111-220; 124 Stat. 2372) or if a previous motion made under this section to reduce the sentence was, after the date of enactment of this Act, denied after a complete review of the motion on the merits. Nothing in this section shall be construed to require a court to reduce any sentence pursuant to this section.

Pub. L. No. 115-391, 132 Stat. 5194 (2018).

         III. Defendants' Eligibility Under the First Step Act - The Arguments

         The pending motions were brought by the Office of the Federal Public Defender on behalf of the Mack defendants, and as indicated, the government opposes on the basis of eligibility. By way of background, the Mack defendants and one other defendant[4] went to trial in September 2001 on a one-count indictment charging a conspiracy to traffic in 5 kilograms or more of powder, and 50 grams or more of crack cocaine. The indictment when handed down named six additional defendants, all of whom entered pleas, some entering into cooperation agreements under which they gave testimony during the three-month trial. The jury made identical findings as to the defendants who went to trial: all were guilty of the conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute cocaine and cocaine base, and the United States proved that the conspiracy involved 5 kilograms or more of cocaine and 50 grams or more of cocaine base.

         Sentencing enhancements under the then mandatory guidelines produced life sentences for the Macks and Jesse Opher. Hawkins was sentenced to a term of 360 months to life. After the Commission adopted the drugs minus two guidelines amendment 782 discussed above, the guidelines range for the Macks and Opher dropped to 360 months to life. In 2017 by agreement between the government and the public defender, who represented the four Mack defendants for purposes of calculating the amended guidelines, their sentence became 360 months.

         Turning to the parties' dispute about the Mack defendants' eligibility for reduced sentences, the Court notes that a Westlaw search turns up a multitude of written decisions from the last three months resolving applications for sentencing relief under the First Step Act. The decisions run the gamut in terms of process: in some, the sentenced defendants are represented, in others the applications are made pro se and the only filings are the defendant's application and the government's opposition. Some decisions describe court proceedings where the defendants are present in court. Some decisions are written by the judge who rendered the original sentence; in others the sentencing judge was long gone.

         The government's opposition in these cases most frequently rests on the offense conduct - did the defendant plead to, or get convicted of, trafficking in a drug quantity that matches or exceeds the triggering quantities in the amended statutory penalties? If so, the government argues there is no available relief. See, e.g., United States v. Boulding, 379 F.Supp.3d 646, 651 (W.D. Mich. 2019) (“The government argues that a defendant is eligible for consideration only if his actual offense conduct quantities fall below the statutory thresholds of the Fair Sentencing Act.”); United States v. Valentine, No. 99-01-2, 2019 WL 2754489, at *5 (W.D. Mich. July 2, 2019) (another decision by the Boulding court discussing and ultimately rejecting “the government's view, which ties eligibility to quantity”); United States v. Johnson, No. 01-543, 2019 WL 2590951, at *2 (N.D.Ill. June 24, 2019) (“The Government argues that Johnson is not eligible for relief under the First Step Act because ‘the record confirms' that the quantity of crack cocaine ‘involved' in Johnson's offense was over 280 grams, such that the Fair Sentencing Act would not have modified the applicable statutory penalty.”); United States v. Rose, 379 F.Supp.3d 223, 228 (S.D.N.Y. 2019) (“The Government argues that the Court should assess eligibility on the basis of Defendants' actual conduct, rather than the statute of conviction.”).

         The choice, then, is between finding eligibility based on the statute of conviction v. finding eligibility based on the offense conduct, that is the quantity of the drug a defendant distributed or possessed with the intent to distribute. In the case at bar, the government focuses on offense conduct, but its very specific argument is that the jury found the Mack defendants also trafficked in a quantity of powder cocaine that triggered statutory penalties under the Controlled Substances Act that the Fair Sentencing Act did not change. Five or more kilograms of powder cocaine continue to be punished by a mandatory minimum sentence of ten years. For this reason, the government argues the Mack defendants were not sentenced under “a covered statute, ” defined in § 404 as one whose statutory penalties have changed. From the government's opposing brief:

Their motions rely on a fiction: that they are eligible for a reduced sentence even though the statutory penalties for a single conspiracy to distribute both cocaine (“powder cocaine”) and cocaine base (“crack cocaine”) have not changed. Facts control here, not ...

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