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Fourth Circuit Explains Compassionate Release Administrative Remedy Protocol: Muhammad

A compassionate release claimant could either engage in the administrative remedy process or wait 30 days after reaching out to the BOP.

Muhammad's Charge and Compassionate Release Request

Muhammad was serving 210 months because of drug trafficking crimes.   In March of 2020 he wrote his warden asking for a compassionate release, stating that his hypertension and cardiac arrythmia “combined with his inability to properly social distance in an institutional facility placed him at increased risk of contracting and experiencing severe illness from COVID-19.”  Seventeen days later the warden denied his request because he had “not been diagnosed with an incurable, progressive illness” or “suffered from a debilitating injury from which [he would] not recover” and was not otherwise “completely disabled.”  The warden’s denial stated that he could go through the administrative remedy program to contest the finding.  But instead, on August 27, 2020 he filed a compassionate release motion with the court. 

The District Court's sua sponte Denial

The government filed a response where they stated that the court had the authority to rule on the motion but asked that it be denied on the merits.  The government stated:

“[b]ecause defendant filed his motion for compassionate release with the Court after the lapse of thirty days from the receipt of his request by the Warden, ... his motion is properly before the Court pursuant to  18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A).”

The court denied the motion because of a perceived failure to finish the administrative remedy process:

On September 29, 2020, the district court denied the motion, concluding  § 3582(c)(1)(A) required Appellant to first exhaust his administrative remedies before he could file a motion with the district court. Because the district court held Appellant had not exhausted his remedies, it did not address the merits of Appellant’s motion.

The Threshold Requirement is not Jurisdictional

The court determined that the 30-day requirement was not jurisdictional and as such it could be waived:

The text of  § 3582(c)(1)(A) does not plainly demonstrate that Congress imbued the so-called exhaustion requirement with jurisdictional consequences.  Section 3582(c) is not part of a jurisdictional portion of the criminal code, see 18 U.S.C. § 3231, but, rather, it is part of the chapter dealing generally with sentences of imprisonment. Moreover, the statute “neither ‘speak[s] in jurisdictional terms’ nor ‘refer[s] in any way to the jurisdiction’ of the courts.”

We conclude, as have many of our sister circuits, that the statute’s requirement that a defendant satisfy the threshold requirement before filing a motion in the district court is a non-jurisdictional claim-processing rule. 

Muhammad Satisfied the Threshold Requirement

The court determined that here, Muhammad could complete the threshold requirement one of two ways:

According to the statute’s plain text, once a defendant completes the initial step of requesting that the Bureau of Prisons bring a motion on their behalf, the defendant may file a motion with the court after (1) “fully exhaust[ing] all administrative rights to appeal ... or” (2) after “the lapse of 30 days from the receipt of such a request by the warden of the defendant’s facility, whichever is earlier ....”  § 3582(c)(1)(A) (emphasis supplied). The words “or” and “whichever” make it unambiguously clear that Congress has provided defendants with two alternative ways to satisfy the threshold requirement.

As a result of the court was wrong to dismiss the motion based on a failure to engage in his administrative remedies.  The Fourth Circuit remanded the case back down to the district court.  No. 20-7520

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