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Eleventh Circuit Reverses Denial of 404 Motion: Brown

In Brown, the Eleventh Circuit indicated that the district court used incorrect criteria to deny a First Step Act motion.

In Brown, the Eleventh Circuit leaned on their prior rulings in the Jones case to determine that the District Court made the wrong decision.

Vincent Brown filed for relief under Section 404 the First Step Act of 2018, which raised the amount of drugs that was necessary for courts to find for certain mandatory minimums. The court denied his motion and his motion for reconsideration. He filed an appeal and the government indicated that they agreed that Brown’s motion should be granted.

Section 404 of the First Step Act

“Section 2 of the Fair Sentencing Act changed the quantity of crack cocaine necessary to trigger a 10-year mandatory minimum from 50 grams to 280 grams and the quantity necessary to trigger a 5-year mandatory minimum from 5 grams to 28 grams…These amendments were not made retroactive to defendants who were sentenced before the enactment of the Fair Sentencing Act.”

“In 2018, Congress enacted the First Step Act, which made retroactive the statutory penalties for covered offenses enacted under the Fair Sentencing Act… Under § 404(b) of the First Step Act, a court “that imposed a sentence for a covered offense may … impose a reduced sentence as if sections 2 and 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act … were in effect at the time the covered offense was committed.” The statute defines “covered offense” as “a violation of a Federal criminal statute, the statutory penalties for which were modified by section 2 or 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act … , that was committed before August 3, 2010.”

The Eleventh Circuit, Summarizing The FIRST STEP Act

The court reviewed its prior case law on the matter: In Jones, the Eleventh Circuit indicated that in deciding eligibility, the court “must consult the record, including the movant’s charging document, the jury verdict or guilty plea, the sentencing record, and the final judgment.” The court rejected the government’s assertion that the District Court should consider the actual quantity of crack cocaine involved in the movant’s violation. “However, we recognized that a judge’s actual drug quantity finding remains relevant to the extent the judge’s finding triggered a higher statutory penalty.”

Further, the court held that “the district court cannot reduce a sentence where the movant received the lowest statutory penalty that would also be available to him under the Fair Sentencing Act” and that the district court was “bound by a previous drug-quantity finding that was used to determine the movant’s statutory penalty at the time of sentencing.” The result of this is that “if a movant’s sentence necessarily would have remained the same had the Fair Sentencing Act been in effect -- that is, if his sentence was equal to the mandatory statutory minimum imposed by the Fair Sentencing Act for the quantity of crack cocaine that triggered his statutory penalty -- then the Fair Sentencing Act would not have benefited him, and the First Step Act does not authorize the district court to reduce his sentence.”

Here, the court determined that Brown’s indictment involved “five grams or more” of crack cocaine. The court’s review of the record showed that “the indictment charged that Brown’s offenses had involved “five grams or more” of crack cocaine, and the jury returned only a general guilty verdict with no drug-quantity finding. In denying Brown’s motion, the district court relied on the amount of crack cocaine determined for sentencing purposes, which was 44 grams of crack cocaine.” This was error as per Jones, the District Court should have used a starting point of 5 grams of crack cocaine.

The Eleventh Circuit remanded the case back to the District court so that the district court could determine whether to exercise their discretionary authority under the FIRST STEP Act to reduce his sentence.

Image by Robert Carner from Pixabay

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