In United States v. Russell, No. 19-12717 (Apr. 15, 2021) (Jordan, Jill Pryor, Branch), the Court vacated the district court's denial of a motion for a sentence reduction under the First Step Act, and remanded for further proceedings.
The defendant pleaded guilty to possessing with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of crack cocaine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(A). The factual basis of the plea, to which the defendant agreed, noted that law enforcement seized a total of 441.2 grams of crack cocaine from the defendant.
After passage of the First Step Act, defendant sent the district court a one-page letter, asking the court to appoint counsel to assist him in filing a motion for a sentence reduction under the First Step Act. The district court construed that letter as a motion requesting a sentence reduction under the First Step Act and directed the government to file a response. The district court, in a two-paragraph order, then denied the defendant a sentence reduction. The court found him ineligible for relief because his offense involved 441.2 grams of crack cocaine. The district court also noted that even if the defendant were eligible for a sentence reduction, the court would not exercise its discretion to grant such a reduction. The defendant filed a pro se motion to reconsider, noting his eligibility for relief as well as his rehabilitation. The district court denied that motion. The Office of the Federal Public Defender then filed a motion for appointment of counsel to represent the defendant on appeal, which the court granted.
The Court, on appeal, considered whether the district court abused its discretion when, after construing the defendant's letter requesting counsel as a motion for a sentence reduction, it refused to grant him a sentence reduction and then denied his motion for reconsideration. The Court answered in the affirmative. The Court, applying Jones, held that a vacatur and remand was warranted because the defendant was eligible for a sentence reduction, and it was unclear whether the district court understood that it had the authority to reduce his sentence. The Court found that it could not rely on the district court's statement that it would not exercise its discretion to reduce the defendant's sentence even if he was eligible for relief because the court did not provide enough of an explanation to permit meaningful appellate review.
The Court also noted, in a footnote, its "serious concerns" about the district court's decision to recharacterize the defendant's letter as a motion for a sentence reduction. But, the Court noted that it need not decide whether the district court's orders should be vacated because the district court purported to rule on a motion for a sentence reduction without giving him an opportunity to be heard, as the concurring judge proposed. Instead, the Court maintained that a vacatur and remand were appropriate because the district court's orders were inadequate to allow for meaningful appellate review.
Concurring in the judgment, Judge Branch noted that she would have vacated and remanded on different grounds. She would not have reached the eligibility determination under Jones because she believes the district court erred as a matter of law in recharacterizing the defendant's letter without any notification or warning to the defendant. Instead, she would have remanded for the district court to consider the defendant's letter requesting counsel.