Court Can Also Use Compassionate Release to Avoid Limits on Reduced Sentences Under Retroactive Guideline Amendment

Thanks to the First Step Act, which expanded the compassionate release remedy in federal court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit said that a court is not limited by the rules about how to apply a retroactive guideline amendment and can also give a further reduction under compassionate release if the judge sees fit.

Under the federal sentencing guidelines, in granting a reduced sentence under a retroactive guideline amendment, a court may not reduce a sentence below the amended guideline range unless the person’s original sentence was already reduced for providing “substantial assistance” to the government. U.S.S.G. § 1B1.10(b)(2)(A). This limitation has punished people who could not or chose not to testify against their codefendants.

An interesting twist is that it is the same statute, 18 U.S.C. § 3582, that provides the remedy for a retroactive guideline amendment and the remedy for compassionate release, just under different subsections. This means a court has the authority to consider both remedies under one motion. The Ninth Circuit explained in this case how this is possible.

Martin Garcia was indicted as part of a large drug conspiracy in 2004 and was later convicted and sentenced. In late 2019, Garcia filed two motions in the district court to reduce his sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) (retroactive guideline amendment) and to reduce his sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1) (compassionate release). The district court granted both motions and reduced Garcia’s total sentence from 720 months to 382 months of imprisonment, the lowest the court could go due to § 1B1.10(b)(2)(A). Garcia appealed these decisions, arguing that his sentence should have been reduced even further, to a time-served sentence of 221 months.

Here is what the court of appeals said about creating a workaround for § 1B1.10(b)(2)(A):

Even though the district court could not have reduced Garcia’s sentence for the drug charges any more than it did under § 3582(c)(2), a further reduction to Garcia’s total sentence was possible under § 3582(c)(1) (commonly known as the compassionate-release provision).  A district court can reduce a sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1) if it determines that extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant a sentence reduction and if, after weighing the factors set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), the requested sentence reduction is warranted under the particular circumstances of the case.

The court therefore remanded the case back to the district court to consider further relief based on the arguments Garcia raised in his compassionate release motion.

See United States v. Garcia, No. 22-30202, 2023 U.S. App. LEXIS 28482 (9th Cir. Oct. 26, 2023).

Dale Chappell is an expert on federal postconviction relief and the author of hundreds of articles and several books on challenging illegal and wrongful convictions and sentences. He is a former staff writer for Criminal Legal News Magazine and the author of the blog

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