United States v. Rodriguez

Decision Date01 April 2020
Docket NumberCriminal Action No. 2:03-cr-00271-AB-1
Citation451 F.Supp.3d 392
Parties UNITED STATES v. Jeremy RODRIGUEZ
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of Pennsylvania

Salvatore L. Astolfi, Bernadette McKeon, United States Attorney's Office, Philadelphia, PA, for United States.

MEMORANDUM

ANITA B. BRODY, DISTRICT JUDGE

We are in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic. COVID-19 has paralyzed the entire world. The disease has spread exponentially, shutting down schools, jobs, professional sports seasons, and life as we know it. It may kill 200,000 Americans and infect millions more.1 At this point, there is no approved cure, treatment, or vaccine to prevent it.2 People with pre-existing medical conditions—like petitioner Jeremy Rodriguez—face a particularly high risk of dying or suffering severe health effects should they contract the disease.

Mr. Rodriguez is an inmate at the federal detention center in Elkton, Ohio. He is in year seventeen of a twenty-year, mandatory-minimum sentence for drug distribution and unlawful firearm possession, and is one year away from becoming eligible for home confinement. Mr. Rodriguez has diabetes, high blood pressure, and liver abnormalities. He has shown significant rehabilitation in prison, earning his GED and bettering himself with numerous classes. He moves for a reduction of his prison sentence and immediate release under the "compassionate release" statute, 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A). He argues that "extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant such a reduction." 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i).

For Mr. Rodriguez, nothing could be more extraordinary and compelling than this pandemic. Early research shows that diabetes patients, like Mr. Rodriguez, have mortality rates that are more than twice as high as overall mortality rates.3 One recent report revealed: "Among 784 patients with diabetes, half were hospitalized, including 148 (18.8%) in intensive care. That compares with 2.2% of those with no underlying conditions needing ICU treatment."4

These statistics—which focus on the non-prison population—become even more concerning when considered in the prison context. Prisons are tinderboxes for infectious disease. The question whether the government can protect inmates from COVID-19 is being answered every day, as outbreaks appear in new facilities. Two inmates have already tested positive for COVID-19 in the federal detention center in Elkton—the place of Rodriguez's incarceration.5 After examining the law, holding oral argument, and evaluating all the evidence that has been presented, I reach the inescapable conclusion that Mr. Rodriguez must be granted "compassionate release."

I. DISCUSSION

18 U.S.C. § 3852(c)(1)(A)(i) allows a court to reduce an inmate's sentence if the court finds that (1) "extraordinary and compelling reasons" warrant a reduction, (2) the reduction would be "consistent with any applicable policy statements issued by the Sentencing Commission," and (3) the applicable sentencing factors under § 3553(a) warrant a reduction.6 Congress has not defined the term "extraordinary and compelling," but the Sentencing Commission ("Commission") has issued a policy statement defining the term. The policy statement lists three specific examples of "extraordinary and compelling reasons," none of which apply to Mr. Rodriguez. U.S.S.G. § 1B1.13 cmt. n.1(A)-(C). It also provides a fourth "catchall" provision if the Director of the Bureau of Prisons determines that "there exists in the defendant's case an extraordinary and compelling reason other than, or in combination with, the reasons described." Id. § 1B1.13, cmt. n.1(D). Mr. Rodriguez argues that, in light of the First Step Act, the Court is no longer bound by the policy statement. Therefore, he argues, the Court can and should exercise its discretion to determine that "extraordinary and compelling reasons" exist for his release. The government argues that Rodriguez does not meet any of the enumerated criteria in the policy statement, and that the Court cannot independently assess whether other extraordinary and compelling reasons exist that warrant a sentence reduction.

I conclude that (1) the Court may independently assess whether "extraordinary and compelling reasons" exist; (2) the COVID-19 pandemic—in combination with Mr. Rodriguez's underlying health conditions, proximity to his release date, and rehabilitation—constitute "extraordinary and compelling reasons" that warrant a reduction; (3) Mr. Rodriguez is not a danger to his community; and (4) the factors under § 3553(a) favor reducing Mr. Rodriguez's sentence. Therefore, I will grant the motion.

A. The Court may decide whether "extraordinary and compelling reasons" exist

Federal courts may reduce a prisoner's sentence under the circumstances outlined in 18 U.S.C. § 3852(c). Under § 3852(c)(1)(A)(i), a court may reduce a prisoner's sentence "if it finds that" (1) "extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant such a reduction" and (2) the reduction is "consistent with applicable policy statements issued by the Sentencing Commission." Prior to 2018 only the Director of the Bureau of Prisons ("BOP") could file these kinds of "compassionate-release motions." United States v. Brown , 411 F. Supp. 3d 446, 448 (S.D. Iowa 2019).

The BOP rarely did so. The BOP was first authorized to file compassionate-release motions in 1984. From 1984 to 2013, an average of only 24 inmates were released each year through BOP-filed motions. Hearing on Compassionate Release and the Conditions of Supervision Before the U.S. Sentencing Comm'n (2016) (statement of Michael E. Horowitz, Inspector General, Dep't of Justice). According to a 2013 report from the Office of the Inspector General, these low numbers resulted, in part, because the BOP's "compassionate release program had been poorly managed and implemented inconsistently, ... resulting in eligible inmates ... not being considered for release, and terminally ill inmates dying before their requests were decided." Id. The report also found that the BOP "did not have clear standards as to when compassionate release is warranted and ... BOP staff therefore had varied and inconsistent understandings of the circumstances that warrant consideration for compassionate release." Id.

Against this backdrop, Congress passed and President Trump signed the First Step Act in 2018, a landmark piece of criminal-justice reform legislation that "amend[ed] numerous portions of the U.S. Code to promote rehabilitation of prisoners and unwind decades of mass incarceration." Brown , 411 F. Supp. 3d at 448 (citing Cong. Research Serv., R45558, The First Step Act of 2018: An Overview 1 (2019)). In an effort to improve and increase the use of the compassionate-release process, the First Step Act amended § 3852(c)(1)(A) to allow prisoners to directly petition courts for compassionate release, removing the BOP's exclusive "gatekeeper" role.7 Congress made this change in § 603(b) of the First Step Act. Section 603(b)'s purpose is enshrined in its title: "Increasing the Use and Transparency of Compassionate Release." Section 603(b) was initially a standalone bill that "explicitly sought to ‘improve the compassionate release process of the Bureau of Prisons.’ " Brown , 411 F. Supp. 3d at 451 (quoting Granting Release and Compassion Effectively Act of 2018, S. 2471, 115th Cong. (2018)).

The amendment to § 3852(c)(1)(A) provided prisoners with two direct routes to court: (1) file a motion after fully exhausting administrative appeals of the BOP's decision not to file a motion, or (2) file a motion after "the lapse of 30 days from the receipt ... of such a request" by the warden of the defendant's facility, "whichever is earlier." 18 U.S.C. § 3852(c)(1)(A). These changes gave the "district judge ... the ability to grant a prisoner's motion for compassionate release even in the face of BOP opposition or its failure to respond to the prisoner's compassionate release request in a timely manner." United States v. Young , 2020 WL 1047815, at *5 (M.D. Tenn. Mar. 3, 2020). The substantive criteria of § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i) remained the same.

Congress never defined the term "extraordinary and compelling reasons," except to state that "[r]ehabilitation ... alone" does not suffice. 18 U.S.C. § 994(t). Rather, Congress directed the Sentencing Commission to define the term. Id. The Commission did so prior to the passage of the First Step Act, but has not since updated the policy statement. See U.S.S.G. § 1B1.13 cmt. n.1(A)-(D). In subsections (A)-(C) of an Application Note to U.S.S.G. § 1B1.13, the Commission enumerated three specific "reasons" that qualify as "extraordinary and compelling": (A) terminal illness diagnoses or serious medical, physical or mental impairments from which a defendant is unlikely to recover, and which "substantially diminish" the defendant's capacity for self-care in prison; (B) aging-related health decline where a defendant is over 65 years old and has served at least ten years or 75% of his sentence; or (C) two family related circumstances: (i) death/incapacitation of the only caregiver for the inmate's children or (ii) incapacitation of an inmate's spouse, if the inmate is the spouse's only caregiver. See id. cmt. n.1(A)-(C). The policy statement also added a catchall provision that gave the Director of the BOP the authority to determine if "there exists in the defendant's case an extraordinary and compelling reason other than, or in combination with" the other three categories. Id. cmt. n.1(D).

Thus, implicitly recognizing that it is impossible to package all "extraordinary and compelling" circumstances into three neat boxes, the Commission made subsections (A)-(C) non-exclusive by creating a catchall that recognized that other "compelling reasons" could exist. See United States v. Urkevich , 2019 WL 6037391, at *3 (D. Neb. Nov. 14, 2019) (noting that § 1B1.13 never "suggests that [its] list [of criteria] is exclusive"); United States v. Beck , 425 F.Supp.3d 573, 582 (M.D....

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