Compassionate Release Granted While Vaccinated
In Hatcher, the Southern District of New York has granted a compassionate release to a person who was fully vaccinated.
The federal courts are still considering and deciding compassionate release motions. The requirements have shifted a little bit as we are entering a period where everyone in federal prison has been offered the vaccine.
Hatcher’s Underlying Case
Hatcher was charged with one count of conspiracy to distribute and possess with the intent to distribute cocaine base, heroin and marijuana. She pled guilty to the lesser included offense of conspiring to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute cocaine base.
The federal court stated that after considering her mental and physical health issues, personal and family circumstances and the relative role in the conspiracy, the court sentenced Ms. Hatcher to 52 months of imprisonment.
Hatcher’s First Compassionate Release Motion
In April 2020, Hatcher filed a motion for “temporary release to home incarceration until the COVID-19 pandemic ended.” This was because of her health conditions which imposed a higher risk of contracting covid-19. Her health conditions included COPD, HIV, obesity and high blood pressure. The BOP opposed the motion and the court denied in a hearing because she had not satisfied the exhaustion requirement.
Hatcher’s Second Compassionate Release Motion
Hatcher filed a second compassionate release motion in June of 2020. She stated that her health issues were continuing, and she was at risk because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the conditions of her confinement at the MCC.
Between her filing and the court’s ruling her lawyer filed letters to the court. These letters addressed three things:
- “(i) providing additional information regarding Ms. Hatcher's more well-developed reentry plan;
- (ii) keeping the Court apprised of the health risks posed by COVID-19 to Ms. Hatcher;
- (iii) sharing information about the conditions in the MCC and MDC.”
On March 22, 2021 the court was informed that Ms. Hatcher had received the covid-19 vaccine. The court asked for additional briefing. Hatcher stated that the “harsh conditions” of the confinement created by the pandemic continued to serve as extraordinary and compelling reasons for release.
She further stated that she was unable to attend RDAP because of COVID-19. RDAP “would have taken additional time off her sentence, perhaps making her eligible for her immediate release." Also, she “experienced substantial fear and anxiety associated with being incarcerated during this unprecedented period. Given her co-morbidities, she suffered prolonged periods of lockdowns, and was unable to avail herself to the programs typically afforded similar inmates.”
The government argued that “Ms.Hatcher's inoculation ‘essentially negates any conceivable ‘extraordinary and compelling reason’ to release her on account of her health[,]’”
The Court’s Reasoning
The court stated that there must be extraordinary and compelling circumstances to warrant release. The court noted that “the majority of district courts to consider the question have found that the amendments made to 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) grant this Court the same discretion as that previously give to the BOP Director, and therefore the Court may independently evaluate whether [a defendant] has raised an extraordinary and compelling reason for compassionate release.”
Even if a court determines that “extraordinary and compelling reasons” exist, it must also consider the factors set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), to the extent that they are applicable.
In this regard, the Court again looks to, but does not consider itself bound by, the Sentencing Commission's view. This states that a sentence reduction would be consistent with its policy statements if “[t]he defendant is not a danger to the safety of any other person or to the community, as provided in 18 U.S.C. § 3142(g).”
Extraordinary and Compelling Circumstances
The court noted that it has previously “found that harsh conditions of imprisonment occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic are not, without more, sufficiently “extraordinary and compelling” to warrant compassionate release.” However, the court noted that its rulings on that were “issued in the fourth, rather than the thirteenth, month of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Moreover, it is also true that courts reviewing motions for sentence modifications have considered the extent to which onerous lockdowns and restrictions imposed by correctional facilities attempting to control the spread of the virus have made sentences ‘harsher and more punitive than would otherwise have been the case.’”
Ms. Hatcher stated that “the harsh period of confinement precluded her from accessing important programs that would have provided her with critical mental health and rehabilitative services. Additionally, this period of incarceration was more severe because she experienced “substantial fear and anxiety of death or severe illness due to the confluence of her serious co-morbidities and COVID-19.”
The court noted that the extreme conditions prevented Hatcher from receiving mental health care, drug abuse treatment and other important services that the court envisioned her receiving while incarcerated. These services were critical to her physical and mental health and to her ability to reenter society.
The court also noted that “Ms. Hatcher's serious mental and physical health issues, deprivation of these services for such a prolonged period of time rises to the level of “extraordinary and compelling reasons” for compassionate release in this instance. Indeed, when coupled with the extreme lockdown conditions and heightened serious risk of severe illness or death, the deprivation of mental health and other support services must have taken a severe toll on Ms. Hatcher's mental and physical health.”
The court also noted that Ms. Hatcher’s sentence would not undermine the 3553(a) factors. As indicated. the court did not envision Ms. Hatcher to serve her term of imprisonment during a near-total lockdown without mental health and other support programs. Also noted, Ms. Hatcher had served half her sentence and she has demonstrated good behavior and had taken advantage of programming and services offered before the pandemic.
The court stated that the policy goals of 3553(a) could be achieved by releasing her now to a period of home incarceration as a special condition of supervised release where she can get mental health, drug rehabilitation, vocational and other support.
The court GRANTED her compassionate release motion. Special conditions were arranged so she would be subject to home incarceration and location monitoring technology from the probation department. She would also self-quarantine while there.
Compassionate Release, COVID-19