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Sentence Reduction Granted on First Step Act 404 Motion

In United States vs. Hardwick, the Third Circuit remanded the denial of a FIRST STEP Act reduction to the district court.

United States v. Hardwick, No. 19-3172 (3d Cir. Feb 10, 2020)

In 2006, Hardwick was convicted of federal offenses relating to his involvement with a gang that distributed controlled substances in New Jersey. Count One of his superseding indictment charged him with conspiring to distribute and possess with the intent to distribute one kilogram or more of heroin and 50 grams or more of cocaine base, in violation of 21 U.S.C. 841(a)(1) and 841(b)(1)(A).

At the time Hardwick was sentenced, 841(a)(1) offenses involving 50 grams or more of crack cocaine triggered a statutory minimum sentence of 10 years to life imprisonment. The district court imposed a life sentence, and the Third Circuit affirmed on appeal. United States v. Hardwick, 544 F.3d 565, 575 (3d Cir. 2008).

After the enactment of the First Step Act of 2018, which made the statutory changes of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 fully retroactive, Hardwick filed a motion for reduction in sentence under Section 404 of the FSA.

Without calling for a response from the government, the district court summarily denied Hardwick’s motion. In doing so, the court did not discuss the provisions of the First Step Act or how the Fair Sentencing Act relates to Hardwick’s statutory sentencing range. Rather, with little explanation, the district court denied Hardwick’s motion on the sole ground that the First Step Act and Fair Sentencing Act “would not affect the calculation of petitioner’s offense level” under the Guidelines. Hardwick appealed the decision to the Third Circuit.

The Third Circuit concluded that the district court’s sole focus on the offense level under the Sentencing Guidelines was error. “Whether a defendant’s Guideline range has changed is a determinative factor in adjudicating motions for sentence reductions pursuant to Guidelines amendments. See 18 U.S.C. 3582(c)(2). The defendant’s Guideline range, however, is not determinative of motions for sentence reductions under the First Step Act and 3582(c)(1)(B).”

The government argued on appeal that Hardwick’s conviction was not a “covered” offense under the First Step Act because it also involved one kilogram of heroin, which still triggered the statutory range of 10 years to life. However, the Third Circuit concluded, “The parties have not cited, and we have not located any appellate authority addressing the issue… In particular, we have not located any appellate authority addressing whether a hybrid conviction like Hardwick’s renders a defendant statutory ineligible for consideration under the First Step Act or whether such a conviction is instead a factor that the District Court can consider in the exercise of its discretion.

The government acknowledged that there is a split in district court authority on the issue, and at least one district judge in the Third Circuit has taken the approach in granting motions under the FSA despite similar hybrid convictions. It should be noted, however, that the government is currently appealing these decisions.

Ultimately, the Third Circuit declined to decide the issue in the first instance since the district court did not rely on the hybrid convictions as grounds for denial. Because the district court erred in concluding Hardwick was not eligible for relief under the FSA based on the Sentencing Guidelines, the Third Circuit vacated the district court’s judgment and remanded for further proceedings.

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