United States v. Shaw

Citation957 F.3d 734
Decision Date28 April 2020
Docket NumberNos. 19-2067,19-2117,19-2069,19-2078,s. 19-2067
Parties UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Terrance J. SHAW, Fred T. Robinson, Rashann Grier, and Romond Foulks, Defendants-Appellants.
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (7th Circuit)

Katherine Virginia Boyle, Attorney, Office of the United States Attorney, Urbana Division, Urbana, IL, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

Thomas W. Patton, Attorney, Office of the Federal Public Defender, Peoria, IL, Peter W. Henderson, Attorney, Office of the Federal Public Defender, Urbana, IL, for Defendants-Appellants in 19-2067, 19-2069, 19-2078.

Zachary L. Newland, Brandon Creighton Sample, Attorneys, Brandon Sample PLC, Rutland, VT, for Defendant-Appellant in 19-2117.

Before Manion, Kanne, and Brennan, Circuit Judges.

Kanne, Circuit Judge.

In 2018, Congress passed the First Step Act to address the disparities between sentences for crack and powder cocaine. Among other things, the First Step Act allows certain criminal defendants to seek, and district courts to impose, sentence reductions if the defendant was previously convicted of a "covered offense."

To determine whether a defendant is eligible for a reduced sentence under the First Step Act, a court needs to look only at a defendant’s statute of conviction, not to the quantities of crack involved in the offense. More specifically, if a defendant was convicted of a crack-cocaine offense that was later modified by the Fair Sentencing Act, he or she is eligible to have a court consider whether to reduce the previously imposed term of imprisonment. Here, each defendant’s statutory penalties for crack-cocaine offenses had been modified by the Fair Sentencing Act, so each is eligible to have a court consider whether to reduce the defendant’s sentence under the First Step Act. Because each district court did not do so in each of their respective cases, we reverse and remand all four respective district court orders denying the motions for a sentence reduction.

I. BACKGROUND

The First Step Act gives a court discretion to reduce the sentence of a defendant previously convicted of a "covered offense." See Pub. L. No. 115-391, 132 Stat. 5194, § 404(a) (2018). A "covered offense" is "a violation of a Federal criminal statute, the statutory penalties for which were modified by section 2 or 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010." Id. § 404(a). The offense must also have been "committed before August 3, 2010." Id .

A judge considering a motion for a reduced sentence under the First Step Act is faced with two questions. First, may the court reduce the sentence? And second, should the court reduce the sentence? The first question, which concerns a defendant’s eligibility for a sentence reduction, is governed by sections 404(a) and 404(c) of the First Step Act. If a defendant is eligible for a reduction, then a court "may" impose a reduced sentence. This appeal primarily concerns the question of eligibility.

Because the operation of the First Step Act is contingent upon changes made to the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, we begin with a bit of background about the Fair Sentencing Act.

Drug-offense penalties under federal law depend in part on the weight and type of the drug at issue and in part on the defendant’s prior convictions. For crack offenses committed before August 2010, the statutory penalties relating to imprisonment were the following:

 Section 841 Quantity No prior 1 prior 2 prior
                offense offense offenses
                  (b)(1)(A)       > 50 grams     10 years-life     20 years-life     life
                  (b)(1)(B)       > 5 grams      5-40 years        10 years-life     10 years-life
                  (b)(1)(C)       any            0-20 years        0-30 years        0-30 years
                

21 U.S.C. § 841 (2006 & Supp. IV).

In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act. See Pub. L. No. 111-220, 124 Stat. 2372 (2010). Section 2 of that Act, referred to in the First Step Act,1 changed the statutory penalties for crack offenses by increasing the quantity of crack required for imprisonment:

                Section 841 Quantity No prior 1 prior 2 prior
                offense offense offenses
                  (b)(1)(A)       > 280 grams     10 years-life     20 years-life     life
                  (b)(1)(B)       > 28 grams      5-40 years        10 years-life     10 years-life
                  (b)(1)(C)       any             0-20 years        0-30 years        0-30 years
                

As the two charts illustrate, the Fair Sentencing Act changed the quantity that triggers certain penalties of imprisonment. Under § 841(b)(1)(A), the threshold quantity increased from 50 grams to 280 grams; and under § 841(b)(1)(B), the threshold quantity increased from 5 grams to 28 grams. These changes reflected a recognition that the tremendous disparities in punishment of powder-cocaine and crack-cocaine offenses disparately impacted African Americans. See Dorsey v. United States , 567 U.S. 260, 268–69, 132 S.Ct. 2321, 183 L.Ed.2d 250 (2012).

But the Fair Sentencing Act’s changes to the sentencing scheme applied only to defendants who were sentenced after the law’s enactment on August 3, 2010, United States v. Fisher , 635 F.3d 336, 338 (7th Cir. 2011), rev’d sub nom. Dorsey , 567 U.S. at 282, 132 S.Ct. 2321, leading us to comment that the Act might more accurately be known as "The Not Quite as Fair as it could be Sentencing Act of 2010."

Congress eventually addressed this deficiency when it passed the First Step Act of 2018. Section 404(b) of that Act makes the Fair Sentencing Act retroactively applicable to defendants whose offenses were committed before August 3, 2010. Now, a district court may "impose a reduced sentence as if sections 2 and 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act ... were in effect at the time the covered offense was committed." First Step Act, § 404(b).

Defendants Terrance Shaw and Fred Robinson were convicted—in 2007 and 2010, respectively—of possessing crack cocaine with intent to distribute. 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(B). Defendants Rashann Grier and Romond Foulks were convicted—in 2003 and 2010, respectively—of conspiring to distribute crack cocaine. Id. §§ 841(b)(1)(A), 846. In 2019, each defendant moved for a sentence reduction under Section 404(b) of the newly passed First Step Act. Each district court denied the motion, concluding that the defendant was ineligible to seek relief under the First Step Act because his crack offense is not a "covered offense" under the Act. As for Robinson, the court ruled in the alternative that, even if Robinson were eligible for a sentence reduction, the court would not exercise its discretion to reduce his sentence.

The defendants and the government disagree about whether the defendants are eligible to have a court consider reducing their sentences under the First Step Act. The crux of this disagreement is whether the defendants’ crack offenses are "covered offenses," as defined by the First Step Act.

The defendants contend that anyone sentenced for violating a federal criminal statute that was modified by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 is eligible for a sentence reduction under the First Step Act.

Under this straightforward theory, a court need only (1) examine the statute under which a defendant was charged, and (2) determine whether the statutory penalties for that offense were modified by the Fair Sentencing Act.

The government offers a contrasting interpretation that would have a court conduct a more fact-intensive analysis to determine eligibility for resentencing under the First Step Act. Under this interpretation, a court would look to the drug quantity described in a defendant’s presentence investigation report or a plea agreement’s factual basis to determine whether the Fair Sentencing Act altered a defendant’s penalty range.

The facts of these cases underscore the practical differences between these competing interpretations. Under the defendants’ theory, they are eligible to have a court consider their motions. They were convicted of crack offenses carrying statutory penalties the Fair Sentencing Act modified. But under the government’s proposed framework, the defendants would be ineligible for sentence reductions. That’s because the quantities of crack involved in each defendant’s offense exceeded the new quantity thresholds set by the Fair Sentencing Act.

Shaw and Robinson were each convicted of possession of crack with intent to distribute, and the penalties for this offense are established under 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(B). The Fair Sentencing Act changed the drug quantities that trigger mandatory-minimum prison terms under § 841(b)(1)(B) from 5 grams to 28 grams. Officers found 33.8 grams of crack in Shaw’s kitchen cabinet. Robinson possessed 32.7 grams of crack. Both quantities exceed the 28-gram threshold.

Similarly, Grier and Foulks were convicted of conspiracy to distribute crack, the punishment for which is set out in 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A). The trigger amount for the mandatory-minimum penalties under § 841(b)(1)(A) changed from 50 grams to 280 grams. Grier conspired to distribute 2.91 kilograms of crack, which is well over the 280-gram threshold. Foulks conspired to distribute 8.4 kilograms of crack.

II. ANALYSIS

The district courts denied each defendant’s motion for a sentence reduction by concluding that the defendant in each case was ineligible under the First Step Act to have his sentence reduced. Because these decisions turn on a question of statutory interpretation, we review them de novo . See United States v. Miller , 883 F.3d 998, 1003 (7th Cir. 2018).

A. The Defendants Were Convicted of "Covered Offenses"

Our first interpretive task is to determine the meaning of a "covered offense." First Step Act, § 404(a). We begin, as we must, with the relevant text of the First Step Act, which defines a covered offense as "a violation of a Federal criminal statute, the statutory penalties for which were modified by section 2 or 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010." Id. The question is: does "the statutory penalties for which were modified by section 2 or 3" refer to "Federal criminal sta...

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