Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Jones et al.: Addressing Eligibility for Relief Under Section 404 of the First Step Act

In United States v. Jones et al., No. 19-11505 (June 16, 2020) (William Pryor, Grant, Jung (MD Fla)), the Court addressed eligibility for relief under Section 404 of the First Step Act in the context of four defendants, and it ultimately affirmed two orders denying relief and vacated two orders denying relief.

The Court determined that anyone sentenced under 841(b)(1)(A)(iii) or (b)(1)(B)(iii) has a “covered offense.”  It explained: “To determine the offense for which the district court imposed a sentence, district courts must consult the record, including the movant’s charging document, the jury verdict or guilty plea, the sentencing record, and the final judgment.”  Although the Court rejected the “statute of conviction” interpretation of several other circuits, it understood that its interpretation ultimately “arrived at the same end result.”  It rejected the government’s argument that a defendant’s specific drug quantity affected whether he had a “covered offense.” 

However, at the same time, the Court the concluded that courts may still lack authority under 404(b) to reduce a sentence for a “covered offense.”  The Court concluded that a district court is bound by the drug quantity used at sentencing to determine the defendant’s statutory penalties, even if that quantity had been found only by a judge.  And if the statutory range would remain the same based on that drug-quantity finding, the court lacks authority to reduce the sentence.  In effect then, the Court appears to have adopted the government’s conduct-based interpretation to eligibility, but did so under 404(b) rather than 404(a).

Based on those legal determinations, the Court concluded that all four defendants had “covered offenses” because they were originally sentenced under 841(b)(1)(A)(iii) or (b)(1)(A)(iii).  However, it nonetheless affirmed two orders denying relief because the judge-found quantity used at sentencing exceeded the increased thresholds under the Fair Sentencing Act.  The Court vacated two orders because the drug quantity used at sentencing was based on the jury verdict, and thus did not exceed the increased FSA thresholds.  However, because it was not clear whether the district court understood that it had authority to reduce their sentences, the Court vacated those two orders and remanded.