United States v. Fields, 091321 FED1, 19-2012

Docket Nº19-2012
Opinion JudgeTHOMPSON, Circuit Judge.
Party NameUNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Appellee, v. BLAKE FIELDS, Defendant, Appellant.
AttorneyMax D. Stern, with whom Michael R. DiStefano and Todd & Weld, LLP were on brief, for appellant. Jennifer H. Zacks, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom Andrew E. Lelling, United States Attorney, was on brief, for appellee.
Judge PanelBefore Thompson and Kayatta, Circuit Judges.
Case DateSeptember 13, 2021
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals, United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Appellee,

v.

BLAKE FIELDS, Defendant, Appellant.

No. 19-2012

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

September 13, 2021

APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF MASSACHUSETTS [Hon. William G. Young, U.S. District Judge]

Max D. Stern, with whom Michael R. DiStefano and Todd & Weld, LLP were on brief, for appellant.

Jennifer H. Zacks, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom Andrew E. Lelling, United States Attorney, was on brief, for appellee.

Before Thompson and Kayatta, Circuit Judges. [*]

THOMPSON, Circuit Judge.

In 2008, a jury convicted Blake Fields of distributing more than five grams of cocaine base, 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), and the district court sentenced Fields to 18 years in prison. In the decade that followed, Congress passed two pieces of legislation relevant to Fields's case, the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, Pub. L. No. 111-220, § 2, 124 Stat. 2372 (2010), and the First Step Act of 2018, Pub. L. No. 115-391, 231 Stat. 5194 (2018). Fields filed a motion in district court seeking a reduction of his sentence, per the terms of those statutes. The district court denied Fields's motion without hearing. Fields appealed to us. Bound by circuit precedent, we affirm.

The Facts

At the time of sentencing, the district court calculated Fields's guidelines sentencing range to be between 262 and 327 months. This sentencing range was ultimately dictated by the fact that Fields's prior convictions for violent felonies qualified him as a career offender, which yielded a total offense level of 34 and a criminal history category of VI. See U.S.S.G. § 4B1.1 (total offense level of 34 applies to career offender where maximum statutory term of imprisonment is 25 years or more; career offender status equates to category VI). At trial, a government witness testified that the drug distribution took place within 1, 000 feet of a school, which doubled the statutory maximum sentence from 40 years to 80 years, per 21 U.S.C. § 860. At the time, Fields did not contest that the sale took place within a school zone. After hearing from Fields and considering the sentencing factors per 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), the district court sentenced Fields to 216 months' (18 years) imprisonment.

The History

In 1986, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, Pub. L. No. 99-570, 100 Stat. 3207 (the "1986 Act"). Kimbrough v. United States, 552 U.S. 85, 95-96 (2007). Relevant to our discussion, "the 1986 Act adopted a '100-to-1 ratio' that treated every gram of crack cocaine as the equivalent of 100 grams of powder cocaine." Id. at 96.1 The Sentencing Commission also incorporated the 100-to-1 ratio into the sentencing guidelines, which went into effect the following year. Id. at 96-97 n.7. The 100-to-1 differential led to the imposition of serious sentences "primarily upon black offenders" and gave rise to a widely held perception that the differential "promote[d] unwarranted disparity based on race." Id. at 98.

By the mid-1990s, the Sentencing Commission realized the error of its ways and began proposing changes to the ways the sentencing guidelines treated crack and powder cocaine quantities. See id. at 97-100 (explaining the Sentencing Commission's criticisms of the 100-to-1 ratio and detailing the Commission's efforts to amend the guidelines and to prompt congressional action on the issue). In 2007, the Sentencing Commission acted on its own and amended the drug sentencing tables in the guidelines to make the crack-to-powder-cocaine ratio less stark. See id. at 99-100.

In 2010, (after Fields's conviction and sentencing in this case) Congress got the message and passed the Fair Sentencing Act which reduced the punishment ratio to 18-to-1 in the relevant criminal statutes. See Fair Sentencing Act, § 2. Congress also instructed the Sentencing Commission to amend the drug quantity tables in the guidelines to reflect that change. The Commission complied and made the changed guidelines retroactive.

These changes helped a lot of defendants have the opportunity for shorter prison sentences, but not all. For example, a defendant who committed a crack cocaine offense and also qualified as a career offender at sentencing (like Fields) was ineligible for relief because the amendments to the guidelines did not change the career offender provisions which ultimately dictated the defendant's guidelines range. See United States v. Caraballo, 552 F.3d 6, 11 (1st Cir. 2008).

In an effort to address more of those cases, Congress passed the First Step Act. Section 404 of the First Step Act specifically addressed the sections of the Fair Sentencing Act that amended the applicable drug statutes. Section 404 says that "[a] court that imposed a sentence for a covered offense may . . . 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." First Step Act, § 404(b).2 The First Step Act is also clear that "[n]othing in this section shall be construed to require a court to reduce any sentence pursuant to this section." Id. § 404(c).

The District Court's Decision(s)

Seeing those statutory changes, in 2019, Fields filed a motion in the district court to reduce his sentence. In that motion, Fields argued that, if he were sentenced today, there would be no mandatory minimum for his conviction; the First Step Act lowered the maximum statutory sentence; and the sentencing factors in § 3553(a), especially his post-conviction rehabilitation, would counsel toward a shorter sentence.

Fields also argued that, because of a change in the sentencing guidelines since his conviction, he would not be deemed a career offender if convicted today. That change took place in 2016, when, after the Supreme Court held the so-called "residual clause" of the Armed Career Criminal Act to be unconstitutionally vague, Johnson v. United States, 576 U.S. 591 (2015), the Sentencing Commission removed the residual clause from the guidelines' definition of a career offender. See U.S.S.G. App. C, amend. 798 (U.S. Sentencing Comm'n Supp. Nov. 1, 2016); also check this out Beckles v. United States, 137 S.Ct. 886 (2017) (declining to hold that the residual clause of the career offender guideline was unconstitutionally vague). Further, Fields contended, if he were sentenced today, he would contest that the drug sale took place within 1, 000 feet of a school. All of these things together, Fields told the court, counseled toward a reduced sentence. The government opposed the motion, arguing that, at the time of sentencing, the district court carefully considered Fields's sentence and determined that an 18-year sentence was appropriate. The government contended that, despite Fields's claim otherwise, his guidelines sentence range would still be the same if he were sentenced today because he would still qualify as a career offender and the maximum statutory sentence would be 40 years because the fact of Fields selling drugs within 1, 000 feet of a school would still be a part of the record.

The district court denied Fields's motion in a brief order, explaining that "[t]he First Step Act does not sweep as broadly as is here claimed" and, in support, cited to another decision, authored by the same district court judge, published the prior day, United States v. Concepcion, No. 07-10197, 2019 WL 4804780 (D. Mass. Oct. 1, 2019).

In that case, the district court considered another First Step Act motion for a reduced sentence. Id. at *1. The district court denied the motion saying that, if Concepcion, the defendant in that case, "came before the [c]ourt today and the [c]ourt considered...

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