Fourth Circuit Rules In Important First Step Act Case: United States vs. Gravatt
All, the Fourth Circuit has ruled in an important case involving penalties under the FIRST STEP Act in United States vs. Gravatt. This ruling allows a person’s claim to go forward when their conspiracy includes a “covered offense” under the Fair Sentencing Act as well as an offense that was not covered by the FIRST STEP Act. If you haven’t filed or are in the process of litigating your motions under Section 404 of the FIRST STEP ACT, this case can substantially impact your ability to get your case heard on the Merits.
Gravitt and his offense conduct
Gravatt was indicted for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 5 kilograms or more of powder cocaine and 50 grams or more of crack cocaine. Gravatt pled guilty pursuant to a plea agreement to both of these cases.
In May 2003, “a conviction of possession with intent to distribute 50 or more grams of crack cocaine carried a minimum term of imprisonment of ten years and a maximum term of life pursuant to 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a), 841(b)(1)(A) and 846. Similarly, the conviction for possession with intent to distribute 5 kilograms or more of powder cocaine also carried a minimum term of imprisonment of 10 years and a maximum term of life.” Gravatt’s range of offense was 292 to 395 months imprisonment. Gravatt was sentenced to 262 months in prison and 5 years of supervised release.
Gravatt filed a motion under 18 USC 3582(c)(2) based on Amendment 782 to the Guidelines. As you know, this amendment reduced the Guidelines’ base offense levels for certain drug offenses. The court recalculated Gravatt’s guideline range of imprisonment to be 235-293 months in prison. It then reduced Gravatt’s sentence to 250 months with 5 years of supervised release.
Soon after the FIRST STEP Act was passed, Gravatt sought to reduce his sentence. The district court denied his motion concluding that he was ineligible for relief under the FIRST STEP Act. The court noted that while Gravatt pled guilty to conspiracy to distribute 50 grams or more of cocaine base[,]” the court also noted that “[b]ecause he also admitted guilt to conspiracy to distribute 5 kilograms or more of cocaine, his statutory penalty range was 10 years to Life, independent of the penalty on the cocaine base offense.” As a result, the district court denied the motion because the crack charge did not change his statutory penalty.
The FIRST STEP ACT's Applicability
The FIRST STEP Act does several things. As relevant here, Section 404 of the FIRST STEP Act defines a “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 of 2010, that was committed before August 3, 2010. First Step Act of 2018, Pub. L. No. 115-391, § 404(a), 132 Stat. 5194, 5222 (2018).”
Section 404(b) also states that “[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 of 2010 . . . were in effect at the time the covered offense was committed.” In other words, if a motion is made and the defendant’s sentence involves a covered offense the court may, but is not required to, grant relief.
The third thing that Section 404 does is place limitations on Section 404(b). “No court shall entertain a motion made under this section to reduce a sentence if the sentence was previously imposed or previously reduced in accordance with the amendments made by sections 2 and 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 . . . or if a previous motion made under this section to reduce the sentence was, after the date of enactment of this Act, denied after a complete review of the motion on the merits.” § 404(c)
Given this framework, the court determined that the question presented was “has Gravatt presented a 'covered offense' under Section 404(a) of the Act where the offense of conviction is a multi-object conspiracy where the penalties of one object (possession of crack cocaine) were modified by the Fair Sentencing Act, while the penalties of the other (powder cocaine) were not reduced and independently support Gravatt’s sentence?”
The court looked at its prior caselaw, including United States v. Wirsing, 943 8 F.3d 175 (4th Cir. 2019) to note that “eligibility” depends on the existence of a covered offense. There is no eligibility requirement beyond the threshold question of whether there is a covered offense.
In Wirsing, the court noted that “a ‘covered offense’ is defined 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 of 2010, that was committed before August 3, 2010.’” Further, “we concluded that there is no indication that Congress intended a ‘complicated and eligibility-limiting determination’ at the ‘covered offense’ stage of the analysis.”
The court determined that “there is no question that if Gravatt’s sentence involved only possession with intent to distribute 50 or more grams of crack cocaine, it would qualify as a covered offense under the Act.” However, Gravatt’s case also included “conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 5 kilograms of powder cocaine” and his sentence of 260 months fell in the range of punishment of 10 years to life.
The court determined that Gravatt had still been convicted of a covered offense. The court determined that there was nothing in the text of the act that “requir[ed] that a defendant be convicted of a single violation of a federal criminal statute whose penalties were modified by section 2 or section 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act.” Looking back at Wirsing, “[a]ll defendants who are serving sentences for violations of 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A)(iii) and (B)(iii), and who are not excluded pursuant to the expressed limitations in Section 404(c) of the First Step Act, are eligible to move for relief under that Act.”
The court also noted that this would impose an additional limitation on the Act’s applicability. “If Congress intended for the Act not to apply if a covered offense was combined with an offense that is not covered, it could have included that language. But it did not. We decline to expand the limitations crafted by Congress.”
The court determined that Gravatt’s Sentence involved a covered offense and because Section 404(c)’s limitations don’t apply that the district court should have reviewed the motion on the merits. Because the district court did not, the 4th circuit vacated and remanded the case back to the district court.
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