Sixth Circuit Compassionate Release Overturned: Hunter
The Sixth Circuit overturned a district court that granted a compassionate release and in doing so, foreclosed a method of compassionate release based on facts that existed at sentencing.
Hunter's Case and Original Compassionate Release Petition
Hunter was sentenced to life in prison for killing a person in furtherance of a continuing criminal enterprise as well as using or carrying a firearm in relation to that. He was sentenced to life for the killing and five years for the 924(c) charge. Based on his criminal history category of IV and his offense level these were the minimum prison terms that were available.
Later, Hunter sought compassionate release. The court determined that his risk of covid-19 combined with his health conditions did not rise to “extraordinary and compelling circumstances” especially because Hunter refused the vaccine. However the court determined that the following, when taken together, could constitute extraordinary and compelling circumstances:
(1) Hunter was sentenced before the change in sentencing law announced in Booker, 543 U.S. at 245-46, which changed the nature of the Guidelines from mandatory to advisory by invalidating two statutory provisions;
(2) Hunter’s “relative youth” of almost twenty-four years of age when he murdered Johnson;
(3) the “sentencing disparities” between Hunter and three particular co-defendants who pleaded guilty and testified for the government at trial and
(4) Hunter’s rehabilitation because, after discounting Hunter’s prison discipline record, Hunter had “taught himself to read, earned a GED, completed the intensive Challenge course, completed drug treatment, [and] completed many other courses” while in prison.
When considering the 3553(a) factors the court “considered Hunter’s “relatively youthful” age at the time of the offense as a ‘mitigating factor’; placed weight on Hunter’s ‘very difficult childhood,’ his ‘substantial post-offense rehabilitation,’ and the six letters submitted by Hunter’s family and friends, including his youth football coach; and discounted Hunter’s prison discipline record.” The court also noted that granting the motion would “would mitigate an “unjustified disparity between the life sentence imposed on [Hunter] and the sentences imposed on [the] three co-defendants” who pleaded guilty and testified for the government, and also bring Hunter’s sentence “more in line with national sentences for murder” in 2019.
The government appealed the court’s order.
Abuse of Discretion and the 6th circuit
Appeals of the denial of compassionate release motions are held to an abuse of discretion standard. The 6th circuit has indicated the following:
“‘[A] motion to [a court’s] discretion is a motion, not to its inclination, but to its judgment; and its judgment is to be guided by sound legal principles.” ... “limiting discretion according to legal standards helps promote the basic principle of justice that like cases should be decided alike.” ... After all, “‘discretion’ does not mean ‘whim.”
The district court reasoned that “non-retroactive changes in the law, whether alone or in combination with other personal factors, are not ‘extraordinary and compelling reasons’ for a sentence reduction. Second, facts that existed when the defendant was sentenced cannot later be construed as ‘extraordinary and compelling’ justifications for a sentence reduction.”
The reasons for granting the compassionate release
Based on the above the court determined that sufficient legal reasoning did not exist to grant the compassionate release.
Booker was decided after Hunter’s sentence was already final. However, “the court concluded that the change in the law announced in Booker was an appropriate factor to consider because, in the court’s view, if Hunter had been sentenced post-Booker, “he would have had a fighting and meaningful shot at a below guideline sentence.”
However, after the district court ruled on Hunter's compassionate release case, the 6th circuit held that non-retroactive statutory reforms could not be used to find “extraordinary and compelling circumstances” in Jarvis, Tomes, and Willis. While these cases dealt with the non-retroactive portions of the FIRST STEP Act, the Sixth Circuit held that those statutes also applied here:
“The holding and reasoning in Jarvis apply with equal force here. The fact that this case involves non-retroactive precedent, as opposed to statutes, is no reason to take a different approach. We are required to follow statutes and binding precedent.” This meant that giving retroactive effect to Booker was improper. Further, the Sixth Circuit “Specifically declined to apply Booker retroactively in the context of a § 3582(c)(2) motion. United States v. Carter, 500 F.3d 486, 491 (6th Cir. 2007). Just as courts cannot use § 3582(c)(1)(A) as an “end run around” Congress’ retroactivity choices, Jarvis, 999 F.3d at 444, courts cannot use that statute to circumvent binding precedent declaring the non-retroactive effect of new rules of criminal procedure.
The Sixth Circuit also indicated that when 3582 was amended in 2018 [as part of the FIRST STEP Act], congress made no reference to non-retroactive precedent. “Congress’ silence in § 3582(c) means it did not grant district courts the discretion to unilaterally alter the non-retroactivity of criminal procedure precedent.”
Moreover, the Sixth Circuit indicated that this was an impermissible end-around of habeas provisions of 2255:
“[Hunter’s] position is that compassionate release is available whenever ‘there is not a specific statute that already affords relief,’ so long as the judge uses the magic words ‘extraordinary and compelling.’ … But that is not stated in § 3582(c)(1)(A). Moreover, Hunter misapplies the well-established canon of statutory interpretation that ‘the specific governs the general.’..Here, there is a more specific statute that takes priority. The federal habeas statute grants ‘the right to be released upon the ground that the sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States.’ 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a). If a claim ‘demands immediate release or a shorter period of detention, it attacks ‘the very duration of . . . physical confinement,’ and thus lies at ‘the core of habeas corpus… There is no “clear intention” that Congress intended to allow prisoners to avoid the specific habeas restrictions by resorting to compassionate release… Therefore, we will not read 3582(c)(1)(A)’s “general permission” in a way that would “swallow” the more “specific prohibition or permission” for habeas relief.”
As a result of all of this the court determined that the district court abused their discretion when relying on Booker as a part of the extraordinary and compelling analysis.
Hunter’s Age and Codefendant’s sentences
The court determined that the district court’s decision rests on three other factors, but two of those factors, Hunter’s age and his codefendant’s sentences, were deemed impermissible factual considerations because those facts existed at sentencing.
“Section 3582(c)(1)(A) precludes a court from simply taking facts that existed at sentencing and repackaging them as ‘extraordinary and compelling.’ The problem with such an approach is that it renders the general rule of finality and the extraordinary-and-compelling-reasons requirement ‘superfluous, void or insignificant.’” This went to show ‘that identifying ‘extraordinary and compelling reasons’ is a task that focuses on post-sentencing factual developments. A court must first find that the facts of the defendant’s personal circumstances changed after sentencing in a way that is ‘extraordinary and compelling,’ before a court is permitted to weigh (or revisit) the § 3553(a) factors.”
Also, this paragraph is in there, which is not great:
“But there will always be a new academic article a defendant can marshal to recharacterize their background and the facts of the offense, and there is no limit on the number of successive motions a defendant can file under § 3582(c)(1)(A). That novel approach offers no principled limit on when a court may find an extraordinary and compelling reason to reduce an already-final sentence.”
Without Hunter’s age and codefendant’s sentences being appropriate grounds for extraordinary and compelling circumstances, the only thing that remained was his rehabilitation, which as we know, is not enough under 994(t).