Compassionate Release Questioned in Potential Conviction Errors
United States vs Musgrave Shows Ability to File Compassionate Release Called Into Question
In the wake of decisions like McCoy, Gunn, Jones and others, courts are trying to determine the limits of what is an extraordinary and compelling circumstance. More specifically, can compassionate release be used for sentence reduction when looking at conviction error.
While we might not know what it is, the Seventh Circuit’s decision in United States vs. Musgraves, No. 20-2702, calls into question when potential errors in a conviction may qualify.
Musgraves was charged with drug and gun related offenses after police officers found cash and ammunition during a search of his home. A jury found him guilty on all counts and the court found him to be a career offender and sentenced him to 240 months.
On direct appeal, the Seventh circuit also upheld the validity of the warrant, but vacated three convictions because of insufficient evidence. On resentencing he still received 240 months on the two remaining charges. One for felon in possession of a weapon and one for using his home for drug related purposes.
The district court stated that it would have imposed the same sentence even if the career offender guideline did not apply. The seventh circuit denied his appeal indicating that any error was harmless.
Musgraves then filed a 2255 indicating that the warrant was bad. He later submitted an affidavit from the informant, swearing that he never saw Musgraves sell drugs. He also submitted an affidavit from the informant’s mother, attesting that her son gave false testimony after the police threatened him. This was denied by the district court “as both procedurally defaulted and without merit.”
Musgraves then filed a compassionate release sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. 3582 indicating that he had hypertension, hyperlipidemia and arthritis. (Read more about compassionate release here.) He also “suggested that the search warrant leading to his arrest was invalid and that his designation as a career offender was erroneous.” He included the affidavits from his 2255 attack.
The district court denied the motion. The district court said that his medical records showed that his condition was stable and not severe. The district court also indicated that the issue with the search warrant was not a basis for sentence reduction under compassionate release because he had already raised it on appeal and on 2255.
Court Decision and Implications on Conviction
Finally the court indicated that he was a danger to the community, citing his record. Musgrave appealed, abandoning his COVID-19 arguments and contending that the district court abused its discretion “when it determined that his challenge to the probable cause determination would be successive and declined to consider that argument as grounds for compassionate release."
In denying the appeal, the court indicated that “compassionate release is a mechanism for inmates to seek a sentence reduction for compelling reasons, not for remedying potential errors in a conviction. See United States v. Fine, 982 F.3d 1117, 1118 (8th Cir. 2020).
Although Musgraves characterizes his argument about his search warrant as grounds for compassionate release, he asserts that justice requires his release even if his conviction stands. New evidence challenging the search that yielded the evidence against him plainly speaks to the validity of his conviction. And the correct vehicle to challenge a conviction or sentence is 28 U.S.C. § 2255 or, in rare circumstances, 28 U.S.C. § 2241.
Moreover, the court prudently declined to address once more, an argument it had only just rejected and that is before this court in a separate appeal.
Explanation of Decision
To Musgraves’ argument that he is no longer a career offender, the court indicated that he previously challenged his sentence on this ground and that the Seventh Circuit determined that any error in deeming him a career offender was harmless because “the district judge made clear on the record that he would have exercised his discretion to impose the 240-month sentence regardless of whether Musgraves technically qualified as a career offender under the Guidelines.”
Controlled Substance Offense
Further, “whether Musgraves committed a qualifying “controlled substance offense” goes to the validity of the sentence, which is a hallmark use of § 2255(a). See "Adams v. United States, 911 F.3d 397, 408 (7th Cir. 2018); Fine, 982 F.3d at 1118."
Danger to Community - 3553(a) Factor
Lastly, the court determined that Musgraves had no answer to the court’s finding that Musgraves was a danger to the community.
The Seventh Circuit Affirmed the ruling of the district court. No. 20-2702.
In affirming, the court adopted a ruling from the Eighth Circuit, United States vs. Fine, 982 F.3d 1117. There, the Eighth Circuit somewhat passed on whether an intervening change in CASE LAW could serve as an extraordinary and compelling circumstance.
Although Fine's argument relies in part on decisions that were issued after his sentencing, including "Mathis v. United States, ––– U.S. ––––, 136 S. Ct. 2243, 195 L.Ed.2d 604 (2016)," and "United States v. Madkins, 866 F.3d 1136 (10th Cir. 2017)," his challenge to the career offender determination was still a challenge to his sentence. A federal inmate generally must challenge a sentence through a § 2255 motion, see "Lopez-Lopez v. Sanders, 590 F.3d 905, 907 (8th Cir. 2010)," and a post-judgment motion that fits the description of a motion to vacate, set aside, or correct a sentence should be treated as a § 2255 motion. "Rey v. United States, 786 F.3d 1089, 1091 (8th Cir. 2015)."
The substance of Fine's argument was available to him at sentencing, but even an intervening change in the law does not take a motion outside the realm of § 2255 when it seeks to set aside a sentence. Insofar as Fine's brief on appeal seeks to rely on intervening case law as an “extraordinary and compelling” reason, independent of the validity of his sentence, he did not raise that contention in the district court, and we decline to consider it. "Cf. United States v. Loggins, 966 F.3d 891, 892-93 (8th Cir. 2020)."
United States v. Fine, 982 F.3d 1117, 1118 (8th Cir. 2020).
I believe that this is an area of the law that will require much more briefing and arguing. Why shouldn’t a change in case law serve as an extraordinary and compelling circumstance when a change in the statutory law can do so? McCoy is an example for reference.
In this case, the court did not squarely decide the issue of whether a person could file a compassionate release based on INTERVENING case law. This case law came out between when the incarcerated person was sentenced and the time they file.
When Musgraves was originally convicted he was found to be a career offender. He re-urged that same ground in this case. Further, the court did not consider that issue because the appellate court stated that the district judge would have made the same decision even if Musgraves weren’t a career offender:
“But the argument required no answer. Musgraves previously challenged his sentence on this ground, and we explained that any error in deeming him a career offender was harmless because “the district judge made clear on the record that he would have exercised his discretion to impose the 240-month sentence regardless of whether Musgraves technically qualified as a career offender under the Guidelines.”
So you will need to check the law in their circuit. They also will need to include arguments to distinguish themselves from Musgraves: Did the case that causes your loved one not to be a career offender come out before or after your loved one was sentenced? Is this a case that your loved one has brought up to the court’s attention before? Did the judge state at sentencing or anywhere else that the court would have sentenced him to the same amount of time if the court had not found him to be a career offender? What programming can your loved one point to under 3553(a)? These are things that your loved one will need to bring to the court’s attention.