Can defendants subject to a mandatory minimum sentence, but who received a sentence below that minimum for substantially assisting the government, receive a further sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582 when the Sentencing Commission retroactively lowers the sentencing guidelines range that would have applied absent the mandatory minimum?
Koons and his co-petitioners were convicted of federal drug charges but received sentences below the statutory minimum because they “substantially assist[ed]” the government. The United States Sentencing Commission subsequently retroactively reduced the sentencing guidelines ranges for the crimes for which they were sentenced. Koons sought a further sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2), which provides for a sentence reduction when the initial sentencing was based on a sentencing range that had been subsequently lowered by the Sentencing Commission. Koons argues he is eligible for the sentence reduction because the Sentencing Guidelines were initially consulted in determining his sentencing range. The United States counters that he is ineligible for the sentence reduction because his sentence was ultimately based on the statutorily prescribed minimum sentence. The decision in this case has implications for sentencing disparities, the influence of mandatory minimums, and the power of the Sentencing Commission.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Whether a defendant who is subject to a statutory mandatory minimum sentence, but who substantially assisted the government and received a sentence below the mandatory minimum pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e), is eligible for a further sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2), when the Sentencing Commission retroactively lowers the advisory sentencing guidelines range that would have applied in the absence of the statutory mandatory minimum.
This case is a consolidated appeal from five petitioners—Timothy Koons, Kenneth Jay Putensen, Randy Feauto, Esequiel Gutierrez, and Josea Gadea—who have all been previously convicted of methamphetamine conspiracy offenses. United States v. Koons, 850 F.3d 973, 975 (8th Cir. 2017). In November 2012, defendant Randy Feauto pleaded guilty to conspiracy to manufacture and distribute methamphetamine and unlawful possession of a firearm. Id. Though Feauto’s recommended sentencing guideline range was 168 to 210 months, his offense carried a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence, so this became his guidelines sentence. Id. Pursuant to its power under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e), the district court instead imposed a 132-month sentence because of Feauto’s substantial assistance to the government. Id. However, shortly after Feauto’s sentencing, the Sentencing Commission promulgated an amendment to the Guidelines (“Amendment 782”) that both lowered the level of offense in drug cases like Feauto’s and provided that the sentencing range should be calculated without regard to mandatory minimums when defendants have substantially assisted the government. Id. Because Amendment 782 had retroactive effect, it worked to effectively lower Feauto’s sentencing range. Id. This led the district court to initiate a proceeding to inquire whether Feauto was able to receive a further reduction pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2), which provides that a court may reduce a sentence for a defendant whose initial sentencing was based on a sentencing range that had been subsequently lowered by the Sentencing Commission. Id.
On November 23, 2015, the district court held that Feauto was not eligible for a further reduction. United States v. Feauto, 146 F. Supp. 3d 1022 (N.D. Iowa 2015). This was because, according to the court, the Sentencing Commission could not have possibly used Amendment 782 to do away with a mandatory minimum sentence, as this would have exceeded the Commission’s statutory authority. Id. at 1040. And if Congress did intend to delegate this power to the Commission, then the court held that such a delegation would have exceeded Congress’ power and violated the non-delegation doctrine. Id. Consequently, Feauto was not entitled to further reduction in his sentencing pursuant to § 3582(c)(2). Id. at 1041.
On Feauto’s authority, the district court held that every other petitioner, each of whom were convicted of similar drug conspiracy offenses and had received a sentence reduction due to their substantial assistance, were likewise ineligible for further sentencing reductions under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2). United States v. Koons, 850 F.3d at 975–976. The petitioners subsequently appealed to the Eighth Circuit, and their cases were consolidated. Id. at 974.
On appeal, the Eighth Circuit upheld the district court decisions, but for a different reason. Id. at 977. Instead of looking to overarching principles like non-delegation and the Commission’s authority, the Eighth Circuit focused on the text of § 3582(c)(2) itself. Id. Pointing to the “based on” language of the statute, the court noted that the threshold question should be whether the defendant’s sentence was “based on” a sentencing range that had been subsequently lowered by the Sentencing Commission. Id. Because Koons’s sentencing was based on a mandatory minimum and not on a sentencing range, the court held that the threshold question of § 3582(c)(2) was answered in the negative, and thus the power that the statute gives to the district court to further reduce a sentence does not apply. Id. at 977–978. Consequently, the Eighth Circuit upheld the ruling of the district courts. Id. at 979. Koons subsequently appealed to the Supreme Court, which granted certiorari.
Koons argues that the text of the Sentencing Reform Act allows the petitioners to receive reduced sentences under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2). Brief for Petitioners, Timothy D. Koons et al. (“Koons”) at 18. Koons contends that the Supreme Court has suggested that as long as a judge refers to the Sentencing Guidelines (“Guidelines”) in determining a defendant’s sentence, then that sentence is sufficiently “based on” the Guidelines to allow for a sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2). Id. at 18–19. In the instant case, Koons asserts that the sentencing judges were obligated by 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e) to consult the guideline ranges that resulted from Koons’s offense level and criminal history. Id. at 20–21. Koons maintains that the procedure established by the Guidelines requires courts to first calculate the defendant’s guidelines range before considering whether other sentencing requirements, like the statutorily required minimum sentences at issue here, impact the range. Id. at 21–22. Koons argues that subsequent adjustments for statutorily mandated minimum sentences, despite ultimately being inapplicable here, do not negate the fact that the Guidelines were initially consulted and ultimately determined Koons’s and two of his co-petitioners’ sentences. Id. at 22–23. Because the Sentencing Commission later lowered the applicable guideline ranges for the offenses Koons pleaded guilty to, Koons contends that he is eligible to have his sentence modified. Id. at 24.
Further, Koons asserts that he is eligible to have his sentence reduced even if the Eighth Circuit correctly held that his sentence was not based on the guideline ranges because § 5G1.1 of the Guidelines required his sentence first be adjusted to account for a statutorily prescribed minimum sentence before accounting for his substantial assistance. Id. at 25–26. Koons explains that Amendment 782 retroactively allows for amended guideline ranges to be calculated without considering statutory minimums under § 5G1.1 when, as in these cases, the court has the ability to impose a sentence below the statutory minimum due to defendant’s substantial assistance. Id. at 26–27. Additionally, Koons argues that where defendants give substantial assistance, the Eighth Circuit’s reasoning conflicts with both 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e) and 28 U.S.C. § 994(n). Id. at 27. Specifically, Koons contends that the text of § 3553(e) explicitly requires courts to refer to the Guidelines when setting sentences below a statutorily required minimum pursuant to a substantial assistance motion. Id. at 28. Koons also asserts that Eighth Circuit precedent, § 3553(e)’s legislative history, and the Guidelines support the proposition that granting a substantial assistance motion removes the need to consider statutory minimum sentences. Id. at 28–29. Koons maintains that § 994(n) allows the Sentencing Commission to set guidelines that provide sentences below statutory minimums where a substantial assistance motion is granted. Id. at 31. Thus, Koons argues that it was the Guidelines that ultimately set the parameters for his sentencing. Id. at 29–30. Finally, Koons contends that the Government’s interpretation conflicts with § 3553(e) and does not take into consideration § 994(n). Id. at 31–34.
The United States (the “Government”) counters that the statutory minimum sentences provided for Koons’s offense prevent him from utilizing § 3582(c)(2), a narrow exception, to seek sentence reductions. Brief for Respondent, United States of America at 18–19, 21. The Government argues that Koons’s sentencing range was based on the statutory minimum sentences set forth in 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1) and not on the drug guidelines that were amended by the Commission. Id. at 19. The Government contends that the text and structure of the Sentencing Reform Act—particularly, the use and context of the phrase “sentencing range”—strongly suggests that a defendant’s sentencing range must have been computed using the Guidelines in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(4) and be consistent with statutory minimum sentences in order for a defendant to be eligible for a sentence reduction under § 3582(c)(2). Id. at 21–22. The Government asserts that where a statutory minimum sentence for an offense is greater than a defendant’s guideline range, the statutory minimum controls pursuant to the final step in the Guidelines’ procedure and is considered to be the defendant’s sentencing range. Id. at 22–24. Additionally, the Government maintains that its motions for substantial-assistance departures did not affect the source of Koons’s sentencing range—the statutory minimum—because neither § 3553(e) nor Sentencing Guidelines § 5K1.1 mention or include a modification of a defendant’s sentencing range. Id. at 24–27.
The Government further supports its position—that the sentence reductions Koons received for his substantial assistance were not based on the drug guidelines that the Sentencing Commission later amended—by referencing the applicable statutes, the Sentencing Guidelines, and sentencing commission policy statements. Id. at 28. Specifically, the Government contends that § 3553(e)’s plain language ties any sentence resulting from a reduction for a defendant’s substantial assistance to the statutory minimum sentence. Id. at 29–30. Further, the Government asserts that § 3553(f), which allows courts to disregard statutory minimum sentences in certain situations, is additional evidence that § 3553(e) is connected to statutory minimum sentences because the two provisions use markedly different language. Id. at 31. The Government also maintains that while § 3553(e) allows for a sentence reduction from the statutory minimum to reflect substantial assistance, courts’ discretion in reducing the sentence is limited by the statutory minimum. Id. at 33–35. This is similar, the Government argues, to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 35(b), which was enacted at the same time as § 3553(e) and uses very similar language to impose limits on courts’ ability to modify sentences. Id. Additionally, the Government contends that the district court, in sentencing Petitioners, calculated Koons’s sentence reduction using the statutory minimum and that there is no indication in the record that the Guidelines calculation played a role in Petitioners’ final sentences other than to establish that the Guidelines sentence fell below the statutory minimum. Id. at 40–41, 43–44. Thus, the Government concludes that Koons’s sentence was not “based on” the Sentencing Guidelines and that a contrary interpretation conflicts with the commonly understood meaning of the phrase. Id. at 44, 46–48.
PURPOSE OF THE SENTENCING REFORM ACT
Koons argues that the structure and purpose of the Sentencing Reform Act supports allowing the Petitioners to receive reduced sentences. Brief for Petitioners at 35. First, Koons contends that the Act gives the Sentencing Commission wide leeway in deciding what persons are encompassed by retroactive amendments to the Guidelines. Id. Koons asserts that § 3582(c)(2)’s text provides the Commission with an important role in proceedings related to modifying sentencing, including determining the circumstances in which subsequent Guideline sentence reductions apply and the reduction amount. Id. at 35–36. Koons maintains that because Congress explicitly delegated this power to the Commission, the courts must follow the Commission’s determinations. Id. at 36. Koons argues that this is especially true here, given the thorough process the Commission undertook in deciding that Amendment 782 should apply to prisoners in the Petitioners’ positions. Id. at 36–38. Secondly, Koons contends that not allowing Petitioners to seek reduced sentences would conflict with the goal of the Sentencing Reform Act—to avoid unjustified disparities in sentencing. Id. at 38–39. Koons asserts that the Court has previously held that statutory amendments and new guidelines should be interpreted in a way that avoids creating new disparities in sentencing. Id. at 39. The Eight Circuit’s decision, Koons warns, will potentially allow for disproportionate sentencing because it allows convicted defendants whose guideline ranges exceeded statutory minimums to receive reductions for substantial assistance, while similarly situated defendants whose guideline ranges are below statutory minimums would not be able to receive reductions for substantial assistance. Id. at 39–42. Koons also argues that the Eighth Circuit’s interpretation of § 3582(c)(2) should be precluded by the rule of lenity, because any ambiguity regarding whether sentence reductions are allowed in this context should be resolved against the government. Id. at 42–43.
The Government counters that reducing Petitioners’ sentences would conflict with the purpose of § 3582(c) by increasing sentencing disparities. Brief for Respondent at 54. The Government argues that Koons’s interpretation would unduly benefit him by giving him a shorter sentence by virtue of being sentenced before Amendment 782 was effectuated—as compared to defendants sentenced post-Amendment 782. Id. Meanwhile, the Government asserts that under its interpretation, Koons’s sentence would be the same, regardless of whether he was sentenced before or after Amendment 782 because the initial guideline ranges would still be disregarded in light of the statutory minimums. Id. at 54–55. The Government also maintains that Koons’s interpretation would create unjustified discrepancies in the sentences given to defendants who provide substantial assistance and those who do not because only those who provided substantial assistance could have their sentences reduced under § 3582(c)(2), despite Amendment 782’s purpose of reducing sentences resulting from overly harsh drug guidelines, regardless of the assistance the drug offense defendants offered the government. Id. at 56. Further, the Government argues that Koons’s inability to have his sentence reduced is a result of the statutory minimum sentence applicable to the offenses he pleaded guilty to and is unrelated to the guideline calculations. Id. Additionally, the Government contends that there is no unjustified discrepancy in allowing defendants sentenced prior to Amendment 782 with guidelines above the statutory minimum to receive a sentence reduction under § 3582(c)(2) while not allowing defendants with guidelines below the statutory minimum to do the same, because the starting point for the substantial-assistance reductions was different. Id. at 56–57. The Government asserts that ultimately, its interpretation eliminates sentencing discrepancies created by the drug guidelines, while Koons’s interpretation would only provide him with an undeserved sentence reduction because the Guidelines did not impact his sentence length. Id. at 58.
DISPARITIES IN SENTENCING
Koons argues that by not allowing the operation of § 3582(c)(2) in this case, the Eighth Circuit stripped the Sentencing Commission of its authority to remedy situations in which similar offenses create drastically different sentences. Brief for Petitioners at 39. According to Koons, under the Eighth Circuit’s construction, § 3582(c)(2) would apply to a case in which a defendant’s sentencing guidelines range was above the mandatory minimum, but would not apply in a case in which a defendant’s guidelines range was below the mandatory minimums, as was the case with Petitioners here. Id. at 39-40. This results in an unjustifiable sentencing disparity because the defendant with presumably more culpability is allowed the potential for relief under § 3582(c)(2), yet the defendant with less culpability is not. Id. Echoing these concerns, the National Association of Federal Defenders (“NAFD”) points out that the Eighth Circuit ruling will favor criminals with longer histories and aggravating role adjustments. Brief of Amicus Curiae the National Association of Federal Defenders, in Support of Petitioner at 30. This is because, the NAFD argues, those with longer criminal histories and aggravating role adjustments will typically receive sentencing guideline ranges higher than the mandatory minimum. Id. These criminals can thus potentially qualify for both a substantial assistance reduction under § 3553(e) and a retroactive reduction under § 3582(c)(2), whereas those criminals whose guideline ranges fall beneath the mandatory minimum are denied a retroactive reduction. Id. The NAFD maintains that this policy does not make any sense, particularly in light of the fact that those with shorter criminal histories—that is, those who would usually not qualify for a retroactive reduction under § 3582(c)(2)—are less likely to be repeat offenders or to pose risks to society. Id. at 32-33.
The Government counters that allowing for more sentencing reductions under § 3582(c)(2) would itself lead to more sentencing disparities. Brief for Respondent, the United States at 54. The Government argues that if the Petitioners received additional relief under § 3582(c)(2), they would be receiving such relief simply due to the happenstance of having been sentenced before the Sentencing Commission’s Amendment 782. Id. at 55. In other words, the Government maintains that identical defendants being sentenced after Amendment 782 would have received the exactly same sentence as the Petitioners did before Amendment 782 was enacted. Id. Thus, a further reduction in Koons’s sentencing would be unfair and would result in a time-based disparity, the Government contends, as a similar defendant in Koons’s shoes today would not have this chance for a further reduction. Id. at 55-56. Further, the Government argues that allowing § 3582(c)(2) to operate in the way Koons suggests it should would create a sentencing disparity between Koons and other defendants who did not offer substantial relief to the government. Id. at 56. This is because, the Government argues, under Koons’s approach, those who did not offer substantial assistance (and whose cases did not involve a § 3553(e) motion) would not be eligible for further relief under § 3582(c)(2). Id. This disparity is unjustified, the Government asserts, because Amendment 782 has nothing to do with whether a defendant substantially assisted the government or not, but rather is purposed to reduce the harshness of drug guidelines. Id.
MANDATORY MINIMUMS AND SENTENCING COMMISSION AUTHORITY
Arguing in support of Koons, Families Against Mandatory Minimums (“FAMM”), a nonprofit group dedicated to promoting discussion on fair sentencing policies, argues that by disallowing relief under § 3582(c)(2) through pinning Koons’s sentencing to a mandatory minimum rather than the Sentencing Guidelines, the Eighth Circuit holding unduly enhances the influence of mandatory minimums in sentencing defendants. Brief of Amicus Curiae the Families Against Mandatory Minimums, in Support of Petitioner at 9. According to FAMM, an increased reliance on mandatory minimums is problematic because mandatory minimums create sentencing “cliffs,” in which offenders who barely fall within a mandatory minimum offense receive much harsher punishment compared to an offender whose conducts falls just outside of it. Id. at 10. In addition, FAMM argues that mandatory minimums shift the power of sentencing to prosecutors, who are often less experienced and trained, and are guided by different incentives than are judges. Id. at 12. FAMM also maintains that the key policy reasons advanced in support of mandatory minimums—increased deterrence, reduction in crime, and improved cooperation with law enforcement—are not actually served by mandatory minimums. Id. at 15. Lastly, FAMM argues that mandatory minimums negatively affect how certain communities view the criminal justice system. Id. at 18-19. Thus, FAMM warns that upholding the Eighth Circuit’s decision would increase the influence of a flawed and unjust system. Id. at 8.
The Government, on the other hand, argues that embracing Koons’s construction of § 3582(c)(2) would grant too much power to the Sentencing Commission. Brief for Respondent, the United States at 49. This outcome is because, according to the Government, the Commission’s role in reducing sentences is important, but limited. Id. While the Commission has the power to lower sentencing ranges through policy statements, the Government contends that it does not have the power to decide how a defendant was sentenced; that is, the Commission cannot decide whether a defendant’s sentence was “based on” a sentencing range that had been lowered. Id. at 50. Further, the Government argues that the Commission does not have the power to authorize a further reduction of sentences that are already below the statutory minimums. Id. at 53. If the Commission could authorize such reductions under § 3582(c)(2), the Government maintains that the Commission could regularly circumvent statutory minimums, which would fly in the face of Congress’s authority over the Commission. Id.
- Brandon Sample, Certiorari Granted By Supreme Court In Three New Criminal Appeals, Sentencing.net (Dec. 10, 2017).
- Koons v. United States, Ballotpedia.