United States v. Soto

Decision Date08 November 2022
Docket NumberCRIMINAL 10-20635
PartiesUNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff, v. MANUEL ANTONIO SOTO, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of Michigan

ORDER DENYING MOTION FOR COMPASSIONATE RELEASE

DAVID M. LAWSON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

Defendant Manuel Antonio Soto has filed a motion asking the Court to reduce his prison sentence to time served under the compassionate release provision of 18 U.S.C 3582(c)(1)(A)(i), as amended by section 603(b)(1) of the First Step Act of 2018, Pub L. 115-391, 132 Stat. 5194, 5239. The Court resentenced Soto in August 2021 to 216 months in prison for charges of drug trafficking, kidnapping, and obstruction of justice. Soto argues that he now is eligible for a sentence reduction to account for the First Step Act credits he would have received but for his immigration status. He also argues that he is at a high risk of severe illness from COVID-19. However, neither argument establishes that “extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant such a reduction,” as section 3582(c)(1)(A)(i) requires, and therefore his motion to reduce his sentence will be denied.

I.

The facts of the case are well known to the parties and discussed in prior opinions by this Court and the court of appeals. See, e.g., Soto v. United States, No 10-20635, 2019 WL 11250158, at *1-3 (E.D. Mich. Mar. 21 2019) (Lawson, J.). Soto, the leader of a Chicago-based drug trafficking organization, was convicted of multiple drug-related crimes at trial with three other codefendants. He and his co-defendants (Christopher Espinoza, Hector Santana, and Juan Ramon Respardo-Ramirez) were charged in a Fourth Superseding Indictment filed on April 2, 2013, with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and to distribute cocaine in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 846, 841(a)(1) and 841(b)(1)(A)(ii)(II) (Count 1), conspiracy to kidnap in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1201(a)(1)(C) (Count 5), kidnapping in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1201 (Count 6), brandishing a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime in violation of (18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A)(ii)) (Count 7), and brandishing a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence in violation of (18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(C)(i)) (Count 8). In addition, Soto, Santana, and Espinoza were charged with possession with intent to distribute 500 grams or more of cocaine in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(B)(ii)(II) (Count 2), and Soto was charged with obstruction of justice by tampering with a witness in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1512(b)(1), (2)(A) (Count 9). The indictment charged that the defendants were involved in a cocaine trafficking conspiracy between November 26, 2008 and January 23, 2012, and that in October 2009, the defendants conspired to kidnap Jose Ezequiel Enriquez-Enriquez for the purpose of collecting a drug debt. Testimony presented at trial established that Soto issued orders that resulted in Enriquez-Enriquez being taken against his will from Detroit to Chicago and questioned and threatened by Soto at gunpoint. It also established that Soto threatened his co-defendant not to testify against him. A jury convicted Soto of all charges.

On September 9, 2013, the Court sentenced Soto to 516 months (43 years) in prison. Soto's post-trial motions for relief were denied, United States v. Santana, 962 F.Supp.2d 906, 912 (E.D. Mich. 2015); his convictions and sentences were affirmed on appeal, United States v. Soto, 794 F.3d 635, 665 (6th Cir. 2015); and the Court denied his motions for retroactive application of sentencing guidelines under 18 U.S.C. § 3582 and to vacate his sentences under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, see ECF No. 656. Soto filed a second motion to vacate his sentence after the United States Supreme Court decided United States v. Davis, ___ U.S. ___, 139 S.Ct. 2319 (2019), holding that the so-called residual clause defining “crime of violence” in the brandishing statute, 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(3)(B), is unconstitutionally vague. Applying that decision, the Court vacated Soto's conviction and sentences on Count 8 for brandishing a firearm in furtherance of crimes of violence, United States v. Soto, No. 10-20635, 2020 WL 5440321, at *4 (E.D. Mich. Sept. 10, 2020), and resentenced Soto to 216 months in prison - a 25-year reduction from his original sentence. Soto now has a scheduled release date of May 16, 2027. Because Soto is not a United State citizen, he likely will be deported to Mexico, his home country, upon his release.

Soto presently is confined by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) at FCI Greenville in Illinois, which houses 1,222 inmates. As of November 8, 2022, one inmate and no staff members were infected with COVID-19, no inmates had died from COVID-19, and 696 inmates had been infected previously and recovered from the virus. Additionally, 1,292 inmates (including Soto) and 170 staff members have been vaccinated. see https://www.bop.gov/coronavirus/.

Soto is 47 years old. He is mildly obese (195 pounds at 5'6"), has a latent tuberculosis infection, and recently injured his knee, but otherwise appears to be in good health. 2022 Med. Records, ECF No. 790-1, PageID.6088; see also BOP Clinical Guidance, Tuberculosis, at 3, 7-14 (Feb. 2020), https://www.bop.gov/resources/pdfs/TBCPG.pdf (describing the treatment regime for latent tuberculosis, which usually is asymptomatic). Soto previously reported experiencing joint pain and an unspecified respiratory disorder; however, his medical records indicate that both conditions resolved in early 2021. 2022 Med. Records, ECF No. 790-1, PageID.6089; see also 2021 Med. Records, ECF No. 790-2, PageID.6096 (indicating that Soto denied any respiratory problems). Soto also previously contracted and recovered from COVID-19 and subsequently received three doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. 2022 Med. Records, ECF No. 790-1, PageID.6089-91; 2021 Med. Records, ECF No. 777, PageID.6020. He contends that he still suffers from respiratory issues caused by the coronavirus, although there is no evidence of such symptoms in his medical records. see Supp. Brief, ECF No. 786, PageID.6041.

Soto contends that he has made efforts to rehabilitate himself in prison. He has completed more than 50 courses on topics ranging from job skills to finance planning to anger management, completed his GED, and achieved English proficiency. His Individualized Needs Plan indicates, however, that he is not eligible for Federal Time Credits based on his completion of these programs. There is no evidence that he has incurred any disciplinary infractions while in prison except for a single instance of phone abuse in 2012. As of December 8, 2021, Soto had not yet completed a substance abuse treatment class and did not have a work assignment. The Bureau of Prisons categorizes Soto's risk of recidivism as minimal.

Citing the risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Soto mailed a request for compassionate relief to the warden at FCI Greenville in December 2021. The warden denied the request on March 24, 2022.

On February 17, 2022, Soto filed a pro se motion for compassionate release. The Court ordered the government to respond to the motion and appointed Soto counsel to represent him for the purpose of seeking compassionate release. It then permitted Soto's newly-appointed counsel to file a supplemental brief in support of Soto's compassionate release motion.

II.

By now it is well understood that, generally, “a federal court ‘may not modify a term of imprisonment once it has been imposed,' United States v. Alam, 960 F.3d 831, 832 (6th Cir. 2020) (quoting 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)), and that this “rule comes with a few exceptions, one of which permits compassionate release,” ibid. The request for such relief must be presented by a motion filed in federal court, either by the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A), [o]r it may come through a motion filed by the inmate after he has ‘fully exhausted all administrative rights to appeal a failure of the Bureau of Prisons to bring a motion on the [prisoner]'s behalf' or after ‘the lapse of 30 days from the receipt of such a request by the warden of the [prisoner]'s facility, whichever is earlier,' ibid. (quoting 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)).

Upon a proper motion via either avenue, the Court may, [a]fter ‘considering the factors set forth in section 3553(a) . . . reduce the prisoner's sentence if it finds that ‘extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant such a reduction' or if the [prisoner] is at least 70 years of age,' has ‘served at least 30 years,' and meets certain other conditions.” Ibid. (quoting 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i), (ii)). Soto relies on subparagraph (i) of the statute. Under that provision, the Court can order a reduction of a sentence, even to time served, by following a procedure that the court of appeals has distilled into three steps. First, consider whether “extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant such a reduction.” Second, determine if the “reduction is consistent with applicable policy statements issued by the Sentencing Commission.” Third, “consider[] the factors set forth in section 3553(a) to the extent that they are applicable.” United States v. Ruffin, 978 F.3d 1000, 1004-06 (6th Cir. 2020) (quoting 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)).

The Sentencing Commission's policy statement to be considered under step two is found in U.S.S.G. § 1B1.13, which simply recites the statute. The commentary adds gloss, which does not have the force of law. United States v Havis, 927 F.3d 382, 386 (6th Cir.), reconsideration denied, 929 F.3d 317 (6th Cir. 2019) (en banc) (holding that the “commentary has no independent legal force - it serves only to interpret the Guidelines' text, not to replace or modify it”). That has led the court of appeals in its...

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