Chavez-Meza v. United States

Issues 

Is a district court deciding not to grant a post-sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c) in proportion to the amended Federal Sentencing Guidelines required to provide an explanation, or is no explanation necessary so long as the court uses a preprinted form order that provides a policy statement and certifies the applicable sentencing factors?

Oral argument: 
April 23, 2018

The Supreme Court will decide whether a court, in deciding not to grant a discretionary post-judgment sentencing revision under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) in proportion to the amended Federal Sentencing Guidelines, must provide an explanation or can issue its decision through a preprinted form order containing standardized language. The Fourth, Fifth, and Tenth Circuits have held that § 3582(c)(2) does not require a judge to provide an explanation when refusing to grant a motion for a proportional sentencing reduction in accordance with the amended Guidelines. The Sixth, Eighth, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuits, however, have found that judges are required to explain sentencing revision decisions. Petitioner Chavez-Meza argues that a judge must provide some explanation for a disproportional sentencing reduction when the reasons for the decision are not apparent from the record. Respondent United States argues that judges can use preprinted forms when granting sentencing revisions that are disproportional to the Guideline revisions, as long as the form order contains standardized language stating that the court has considered the policy and applicable factors set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). This case will clarify the extent to which application of the amended Guidelines reflects a bipartisan shift away from punitive sentences for drug offenses.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

Whether, when a district court decides not to grant a proportional sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2), it must provide some explanation for its decision when the reasons are not otherwise apparent from the record, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth, Eighth, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuits have held, or whether it can issue its decision without any explanation so long as it is issued on a preprinted form order containing the boilerplate language providing that the court has “tak[en] into account the policy statement set forth in U.S.S.G. § lBl.10 and the sentencing factors set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), to the extent that they are applicable," as the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the Fourth, Fifth and Tenth Circuits have held.

Facts 

Following an investigation and sting operation in 2012, federal authorities arrested Petitioner Adaucto Chavez-Meza on charges of conspiring with the Sinaloa Cartel to distribute methamphetamine in the United States. In 2013, Chavez-Meza pled guilty in the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico to two counts of conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine. The advisory Federal Sentencing Guidelines recommended a sentence for Chavez-Meza of between 135 and 168 months in prison. The sentencing judge accepted the Government’s recommendation of a 135-month prison term and provided an explanation as required by 18 U.S.C. 3553(c).

In November of 2014, the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s Amendment 782 went into effect, allowing a retroactive reduction in the base offense levels found in the drug quantity tables used to calculate sentencing ranges. Thereafter, Chavez-Meza filed a motion to reduce his sentence to reflect Amendment 782’s changes to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. The amended Guidelines recommended a reduced sentence of between 108 and 135 months. The United States Probation Office issued a memorandum outlining the new sentencing range recommendation and noted that Chavez-Meza had attended work, educational courses, and GED preparation classes. The Probation Office memorandum also included references to a Bureau of Prisons disciplinary report detailing that Chavez-Meza received work and phone sanctions for impermissibly using another inmate’s phone. Given that his original sentence fell at the lower end of the recommended sentencing range, Chavez-Meza requested that his new sentence also be at 108 months, the lower end of the range in the new Guidelines. The district court did not grant a hearing, but accepted Chavez-Meza’s motion. Instead of reducing the sentence to 108 months as Chavez-Meza had requested, however, the district court imposed a 114-month sentence without granting an explanation. The district court used Form AO-247, issued by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, to order the new sentence. On Form AO-247, the court included the new sentence, checked the “GRANTED” box, and certified that the appropriate policy and sentencing standards had been taken into account during the resentencing, as mandated by § 3553(a).

Chavez-Meza appealed the district court’s decision to the Tenth Circuit, arguing that the district court had abused its discretion in failing to provide any explanation of the factors considered in rejecting Chavez-Meza’s request for his sentence to be proportionally reduced to 108 months. The Tenth Circuit affirmed, reasoning that appellate courts presume district courts know and apply the law competently, absent some indication to the contrary. While acknowledging that this approach conflicted with that taken by other circuits, the Tenth Circuit found that a district court using form AO-247 need not explain the rationale behind choosing a sentence within the Guidelines. Chavez-Meza petitioned for the Supreme Court to hear the case, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari on January 12, 2018.

Analysis 

ROLE OF APPELLATE REVIEW IN STREAMLINING THE SENTENCE REDUCTION PROCESS

Chavez-Meza argues that the Tenth Circuit ignored precedent set forth in United States v. Taylor requiring that the district court explain its reasoning behind discretionary sentencing decisions. Chavez-Meza also asserts that, under § 3582(c)(2), Congress prescribed clear steps the district court must take when determining a sentence reduction, and thus Congress intended for the court to explain which prescribed factors were considered. Furthermore, Chavez-Meza contends that, without an explanation of the factors involved, no meaningful appellate review is possible. Chavez-Meza maintains that courts have repeatedly overturned decisions on such grounds when the district court failed to articulate its reasoning behind the exercise of discretion. Therefore, Chavez-Meza argues that the reviewing court must know which factors the district court considered, including whether it considered impermissible factors and whether there was clear error in balancing the different considerations.

For appellate review under an abuse of discretion standard to be meaningful, Chavez-Meza suggests that the reviewing court must not speculate about which factors motivated a sentencing judge and thus should have an explanation available. Chavez-Meza also asserts that the Tenth Circuit conducted a post-hoc rationalization of the district court’s decision, depriving Chavez-Meza of the opportunity to challenge to the stated reasons. Chavez-Meza contends that the district court’s lack of explanation makes it impossible to know whether the district court based its decision on impermissible factors or ignored a rationale Congress believed to be pertinent. Furthermore, Chavez-Meza maintains that the purpose of Amendment 782 was to reduce overpopulation in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and that the U.S. Sentencing Commission expected that the majority of eligible prisoners would have their sentences reduced. Therefore, Chavez-Meza believes that it is far more important for the district court to articulate its reasoning in the small number of cases where sentences were not proportionately reduced under Amendment 782.

The United States counters that Chavez-Meza misinterprets the law by incorporating the explanation requirement under § 3553(c) into the sentence-reduction context. The United States argues that Chavez-Meza’s interpretation nullifies Congress’s intent to streamline the sentence-reduction determination. The United States further suggests that Congress’s decision not to reference § 3553(c) in the text of § 3582(c)(2) indicates that an explanation is not required. Moreover, the United States contends that Taylor does not apply because that case involved the Speedy Trial Act, which is inapplicable to Chavez-Meza’ case. Furthermore, the United States asserts that Congress prescribes, through legislation, the sentence for a federal crime and the scope of judicial discretion in imposing that sentence. Thus, the United States maintains that the controlling factor in this case is congressional intent, not Taylor.

The United States further argues that it is a hallmark of the abuse of discretion standard that the reviewing court will presume the lower court acted according to correctly applied legal principles, which is what the Tenth Circuit did in the present case. Moreover, the United States contends that Chavez-Meza has not produced any evidence that would give weight to a contention to the contrary. According to the United States, finding that the Tenth Circuit acted impermissibly would overturn the presumption of regularity granted to lower court discretionary decisions. The United States also asserts that under the Sentencing Reform Act, appellate review of sentence reduction is limited to those instances where a violation of law occurred, but no such review is available for challenges on the basis of substantive reasonableness. Additionally, the United States argues that full appellate review of the district court’s decision is unnecessary when the district court chooses a sentence within the range suggested by the revised Guidelines. The United States claims that Amendment 782’s expected reductions provide no guarantee that such a reduction would occur in every case.

DUE PROCESS CONCERNS AND THE RANGE OF PROCEDURAL PROTECTION IN RESENTENCING PROCEEDINGS

Chavez-Meza argues that Congress’s decision not to include a reference to § 3553(c) does not reflect a suspension of the court’s obligation to explain their discretionary choices. Chavez-Meza also contends that such an explanation of reasons is a necessary component of due process, as expressed by the Court in Kerry v. Din. The Sentencing Reform Act as a whole, Chavez-Meza suggests, expressed a congressional intent to address concerns regarding arbitrary sentences and the ability of the accused to understand the reasons behind judicial decisions affecting their freedom. Chavez-Meza maintains that § 3553(c) was intended to serve a multitude of functions and not be limited to the sentencing stage. Chavez-Meza thus claims that § 3582(c)(2)’s reference to § 3553(a) does not imply a suspension of the requirements set forth in § 3553(c) as the Tenth Circuit held. Furthermore, Chavez-Meza argues that the United States erroneously relies on Dillon v. United States to support its position, when there is no indication that Dillion relieved district courts of their obligation to provide sufficient explanation for their discretionary decisions in order to allow meaningful review. Moreover, Chavez-Meza asserts that an explanation is particularly necessary in sentence reduction proceedings because a defendant is not entitled to a hearing or counsel, thus further reducing due process protections.

The United States counters that Dillon stands for the proposition that § 3582(c)(2) provides for the possibility of a narrow exception to the principle of sentence finality and does not create a resentencing proceeding. The United States further argues that § 3582 does not provide the defendant with the full range of procedural protections as offered in the original sentencing hearing, particularly with regards to explaining the rationale for a decision. Moreover, the United States maintains that Amendment 782 is only an expression of congressional lenity, not a constitutionally compelled mandate. Furthermore, the United States contends that Congress explicitly included an explanation requirement in the Sentencing Reform Act for original sentencing proceedings, but it chose not to include any such statutory requirement for sentence reductions. Therefore, the United States asserts that Congress did not intend to require courts to explain the reasons behind their decisions regarding sentence reductions. The United States further argues that the contention that Congress did not intend to require an explanation is further supported by the principle that when Congress affords one procedural requirement but not another, courts should not infer that procedural choice and respect Congressional decisions. The United States also suggests that the Sentence Reform Act was passed at a time when courts did not have to explain their reasons for original sentencing decisions, thus Congress consciously chose not to afford that procedural safeguard in the sentence reduction context. Moreover, the United States notes that Congress reasoned that the need for an explanation is reduced when a sentence comports with the Sentencing Guidelines. Accordingly, the United States maintains that this view would be consistent with a decision not to require an explanation in the sentence reduction stage. The United States contends that Congress did not intend to provide entitlement to another full round of procedural safeguards with respect to sentence-modification proceedings.

Discussion 

REFLECTING THE PURPOSE AND SPIRIT OF AMENDMENT 782

The Center for Administration of Criminal Law (“Center”), in support of Chavez-Meza, argues that explanations from judges revising post-judgment sentences in accordance with revised Federal Sentencing Guidelines are necessary to meet the objectives of Amendment 782. The Center suggests that Amendment 782 reflects bipartisan agreement that people serving certain drug-related sentences were originally sentenced too harshly and should thus have their sentences readjusted. Further, the Center asserts that district courts should be required to communicate their reasoning when sentence revisions are issued that are in conflict with the bipartisan policy goals, public support, and the general cultural shift away from more punitive sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. The Center maintains that sentence revisions that are disproportional to the amended Guidelines are in conflict and therefore require judicial explanations to ensure the revision process was followed. The conflict, as explained by the Center, results because the U.S. Sentencing Commission and supporters of Amendment 782 expect that qualifying defendants will have their sentences reduced by two levels, unless there exists a public safety concern or alternative reason under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the National Association of Federal Defenders (NACDL) propose that sentencing revisions without explanations appear arbitrary, which defeats Congress’s intent to provide a solution to sentencing injustices.

The United States contends that Congress has the power to dictate the degree of explanation required by courts when ordering a sentencing reduction. Further, the United States argues that § 3582(c)(2) specifically omits a requirement that courts incorporate detailed explanations and overcome default principles. Finally, the United States maintains § 3582(c)(2) does not statutorily require an explanation, unlike in original sentencing under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(c), which requires an explanation to accompany any sentence. Along with the presumption that lower court judges, absent evidence otherwise, know the law and appropriately apply it in decision making, the United States asserts that explanations are not required from district court judges in sentence reduction. Therefore, the United States argues, the lack of explanation meets the need to create a meaningful basis for review at the appellate level and to promote the perception of fairness in the judiciary.

FAIR AND EQUITABLE ADMINISTRATION OF JUSTICE

The Center argues that sentencing revisions without accompanying explanations frustrates the appellate process because the appellate court can determine neither the factors considered in the revising judge’s issuance nor the weight each factor was afforded. The NACDL asserts that, for retroactive sentences that are not proportional to the amended Guidelines, appellate courts cannot appropriately assume that the district court’s discretion in the sentencing revision was tied to the revised Guidelines. Further, the Center contends that appellate courts, without explanations about sentence-reduction decisions from district courts, cannot determine if discretion was abused during sentence revising. The Center suggests that this fosters public distrust of the judicial system and the perception of unfairness. The Center maintains that distrust results when the public perceives courts’ original sentencing and post-judgment sentence revision decisions as purely discretionary, as opposed to the court being beholden by the values of basic justice and sound legal principles.In sentencing revision proceedings, the Center notes that defendants have fewer rights as they are not guaranteed a new sentencing trial and are not afforded the opportunity to be present for such revisions. The NACDL also suggests that most resentencing proceedings are not adversarial, and it is common for courts to not appoint counsel. Finally, the Center contends that explanations by judges revising sentences provide valuable feedback to the Sentencing Commission, which leads to more informed and accurate Sentencing Guidelines. According to the Center, creating a record of explanations helps ensure the guidelines are fair, equitable, and uniformly applied.

The United States counters that appellate review of discretionary sentence revisions would not just be a formality. The United States argues that the Court has never held that meaningful appellate review for abuse of discretion requires the lower court to have articulated every factor considered by the lower court. According to the United States, Congress has the power to define the scope of appellate review in § 3582(c)(2), and such review can be restricted in ways other than detailed explanations of reduced sentences. Additionally, the United States argues that, while original decisions are reviewable for subjective reasonableness, discretionary revisions under § 3582(c)(2) are not. Finally, the United States contends that § 3582(c)(2) does not distinguish between proportional and non-proportional reductions; therefore, there should not be special explanatory requirements in non-proportional sentencing reductions.

Edited by 

Additional Resources 

Jody Godoy, Judges to Weigh Resentencing Under New Guidelines, Law360 (January 16, 2018)