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Important Compassionate Release Case in Favor of Inmates: Maumau

In Maumau, the 10th Circuit Joined the 2nd, 4th, 6th and 7th Circuits in holding that incarcerated persons could seek a compassionate release.

Tenth Circuit Decides Maumau in Favor of the Incarcerated

At long last the Tenth Circuit has made a decision in United States vs. Maumau.  In affirming the decision of the District Court the Tenth Circuit has joined the Second, Fourth, Sixth and Seventh regarding compassionate release motions that are brought by the incarcerated. 

Maumau’s Underling Conduct and Pre-Compassionate Release Procedural History

Maumau was involved in a gang.  As part of that gang, he committed three robberies.  In each of the three robberies he held a gun as he asked the employees to open the cash register.  

Maumau was charged with conspiracy to commit a racketeering offense, violent crimes in aid of racketeering, Hobbs act robbery and using a gun during a crime of violence.  Maumau rejected a ten-year plea offer and went to trial.  Maumau was found guilty of several crimes, but as relevant here, Maumau was found guilty of three 924(c) offenses.  

Maumau was sentenced to 57 years, including “a seven-year mandatory minimum sentence for the first § 924(c) conviction and twenty-five-year mandatory minimum sentences for both the second and third convictions. All of these sentences were to run consecutively (Maumau was sentenced prior to Alleyne vs. United States and as such, the first 924(c) was reduced from seven to five years.  This brought his total sentence from 57 to 55 years.  

Maumau and the FIRST STEP Act

Maumau filed a motion for relief under the FIRST STEP Act seeking relief from his stacked 924(c) cases.  The government opposed it.  

The court indicated that it had discretion to determine whether there was an extraordinary and compelling reason to reduce Maumau’s sentence.  The court also reasoned that “the existing policy statement, by its own terms, was not applicable to motions for sentence reduction filed directly by defendants.”  The court determined “'when considered together . . . Maumau’s age, the length of sentence imposed, and the fact that he would not receive the same sentence if the crime occurred today all represent[ed] extraordinary and compelling grounds to reduce his sentence...'  

The district court acknowledged that Congress chose not to 'ma[k]e its changes to § 924(c) retroactive,' but concluded this was not  dispositive...'It [wa]s not unreasonable for Congress to conclude that not all defendants convicted under § 924(c) should receive new sentences, even while expanding the power of the courts to relieve some defendants of those sentences on a case-by-case basis.”

The court held a telephonic hearing on the motion.  At the end of the telephonic hearing the court reduced Maumau’s sentenced to time served as well as a three-year period of supervised release.  The government appealed this immediately.  

The Government’s Appeal

The government appealed the case based on the following:

"First, the government argues that '[t]he Sentencing Commission, not the courts, has power to determine what constitutes an ‘extraordinary and compelling reason’ for purposes of compassionate release.' Id. at 16. Second, the government argues that '[u]nder the Sentencing Commission’s controlling policy statement, a district court has no authority to grant compassionate release based on its disagreement with the length of a mandatory sentence.' ... Third, the government argues that '[t]he relevant legislative history and the structure of the modern sentencing system both confirm that a court cannot grant compassionate release based on its disagreement with the length of a mandatory sentence.'

The Tenth Circuit’s Decision

First the Tenth Circuit noted that the Bureau of Prisons always had the authority to move for reductions in sentence for inmates “Between 1984 and 2013, the Director of the BOP used the process outlined in § 3582(c)(1) to release an average of twenty-four inmates per year. United States v. Rodriguez, 451 F. Supp. 3d 392, 395 (E.D. Pa. 2020) (citing Hearing on Compassionate Release and the Conditions of Supervision Before the U.S. Sentencing Comm’n, 2016, statement of Michael E. Horowitz, Inspector General, Dep’t of Justice).”

The court noted the impact of the Sixth Circuit’s cases and noted the following three step test:

"'At step one' of the test, the Sixth Circuit held, 'a [district] court must ‘find[]’ whether ‘extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant’ a sentence reduction...'At step two,' the Sixth Circuit held, 'a [district] court must ‘find[]’ whether ‘such reduction is consistent with applicable policy statements issued by the Sentencing Commission.'" 

"At step three," the Sixth Circuit held "'§ 3582(c)[(1)(A)] instructs a court to consider any applicable § 3553(a) factors and determine whether, in its discretion, the reduction authorized by [steps one and two] is warranted in whole or in part under the particular circumstances of the case.'"  

Because this three-step test is consistent with the plain language of the statute, we adopt the test for use in this circuit.  

Extraordinary and Compelling Reasons

The government argued that the district court lacked the authority to determine for itself what constitutes “extraordinary and compelling reasons” for purposes of 3582(c)(1)(A).  But the court rejected this:

We instead conclude that district courts, in carrying out step one of § 3582(c)(1)(A)’s three-part statutory test, possess the authority to determine for themselves what constitutes “extraordinary and compelling reasons,” but that the discretion afforded to district courts in step one of the three-part statutory test is bounded by the requirement under step two of the statutory test that a reduction in sentence be consistent with applicable policy statements issued by the Sentencing Commission.  

The court noted that in section 994(t) congress used the word “describe” as opposed to define.  The use of the word describe gives the Sentencing Commission the ability to “convey a mental image or impression” whereas the word “define” is commonly understood to set boundaries on, to limit, restrict or confine.”  The court noted that the word “describe” makes sense “when considered in light of the fact that the specific duty imposed by § 994(t) is part of the Sentencing Commission’s overarching duty to “promulgat[e] general policy statements regarding the sentencing modification provisions in section 3582(c)(1)(A) of title 18.”

Further, the court noted that the word “describe” fits in with the overall framework of 18 usc 3582(c)(1)(A):  

"If, as the government asserts, Congress intended by way of § 994(t) to afford the Sentencing Commission with the exclusive authority to define the phrase 'extraordinary and compelling reasons,' that would mean that district courts, in carrying out the first step of § 3582(c)(1)(A)’s statutory test, would have to examine the Sentencing Commission’s applicable policy statements to determine the meaning of the phrase "extraordinary and compelling reasons," and would in turn have to, in carrying out the second step of § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i)’s statutory test, return to those exact same policy statements to determine whether a reduction is "consistent with" those statements. The government’s position would thus render the second part of § 3582(c)(1)(A)’s statutory test largely, if not entirely, superfluous. If, on the other hand, the Sentencing Commission’s description of what constitutes “extraordinary and compelling reasons” is treated not as the equivalent of a statutory definition, but instead as a “general policy statement,” the problem is avoided.

The Court Found that USSG 1B1.13 was Inapplicable

As many other courts have done, the 10th circuit held that the Sentencing Commission was unable to revise the policy statement set forth in 1B1.13 because the Sentencing Commission has been unable to change the guidelines because they do not presently have a quorum. 

The government responded that 1B1.13 was still binding on defendants, but the court rejected this:

“First, it ignores the fact that the Sentencing Commission has failed to fulfill its statutory duty to issue a post-First Step Act policy statement recognizing the ability of defendants to file their own motions for sentence reduction. Second, and relatedly, it effectively undercuts the statutory changes that Congress made in the First Step Act when it authorized defendants to file their own motions. More specifically, treating the existing policy statement as continuing to be applicable would effectively eliminate, in all cases involving motions filed directly by defendants rather than the Director of the BOP, the “Other Reasons” (i.e., “catch-all”) category that the Sentencing Commission clearly intended to exist. This is because the “catch-all” category, as described in the Sentencing Commission’s existing policy statement, requires a determination by the Director of the BOP that extraordinary and compelling circumstances exist in a given case. But, in a case where the defendant has filed a motion for sentence reduction under § 3582(c)(1)(A), the Director of the BOP has necessarily not made any such determination. This is problematic and clearly undercuts not only Congress’s intent to expand the use of compassionate release, but also the Sentencing Commission’s intent to recognize a “catch-all” category of cases in addition to those that fall within the narrow confines of the first three categories of cases.”

The court went on to hold that the Sentencing Commission’s existing policy statement is applicable only to motions filed by the director of the BOP, and not to motions filed directly by defendants.  In doing this the court joined the Second, Fourth, Sixth and Seventh Circuits.  

Finally, the court rejected the government’s argument that the court “the district court in the case at hand granted relief to Maumau based upon its disagreement with the length of his statutory sentence.”

The 10th Circuit Affirmed the Ruling of the District Court. 

If anything here applies to you, contact us today.

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