All, the Fourth Circuit made an important decision regarding sentencing in Chambers. This will be important to those of you who are still engaged in post-conviction sentencing litigation.
The Prior Proceedings
In 2005, Chambers pled guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 50 or more grams of cocaine base. He stipulated that he was responsible for 50 to 150 grams of crack-cocaine. With his 851 notice (originally two 851’s reduced to one), he faced a statutory minimum of 20 years to life.
The probation office designated Chambers as a career offender, stating that he had 3 prior convictions. Chambers argued that he did not face more than a year in prison on his 1996 and 1997 convictions for “Felony Possession with Intent to Sell and Deliver Cocaine.” However “North Carolina’s sentencing structure is tied to criminal history, some repeat offenders could have faced more than a year in prison on those same offenses.” And the law at the time in United States vs. Harp stated that “we consider the maximum aggravated sentence that could be imposed for 4 that crime upon a defendant with the worst possible criminal history.” “Therefore, Chambers was only sentenced as a career offender based on a ‘hypothetical enhancement’ that he did not actually receive for either his 1996 or 1997 conviction.” This was overturned in United States vs. Simmons, which the 4th circuit later applied retroactively.
In May 2019 Chambers moved to reduce his sentence under the First Step Act to time served. He asked that the court calculate his guideline range without the career offender enhancement. When combined with the FSA reforms his guideline range would have been 57-71 months. If the court declined to apply Simmons, Chambers asked the court to vary downwards under the 3553(a) factors in recognition of the career-offender error.
The district court held that Chambers was eligible for a reduction but denied him the reduction because Chamebrs would have received the same sentence under the Fair Sentencing Act because he would have faced a statutory max of life imprisonment and because the career-offender enhancement would still apply. The district court stated that Chambers was eligible but declined to impose a reduced sentence because they believed that they could not correct the erroneous career-offender designation, stating that “Section 404(b) of the First Step Act . . . does not authorize such a plenary resentencing.” The district court also held that Chambers’s “history and characteristics” and the “need for deterrence and to protect the public,” warranted a denial to reduce the sentence under the 3553(a) factors. Chambers appealed. Among other things, the government adopted the view that the court rephrased as “[w]hen imposing a reduced sentence to give retroactive effect to the Fair Sentencing Act, a court must perpetuate a Guidelines calculation error that was an error even at the time of initial sentencing.”
The Fourth Circuit stated that First Step Act Motions fall under 18 USC 3582(c)(1)(B), which authorizes courts to “modify an imposed term of imprisonment to the extent otherwise expressly permitted by statute.”
The court also noted that “Under § 404(b) of the First Step Act, sentencing courts may ‘impose a reduced sentence as if section 2 and 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 . . . were in effect at the time the covered offense was committed.’” The court noted that the text indicated that the court could “impose a sentence” as opposed to modifying or reducing a sentence, which implies a more mechanical application. When the court imposes a new sentence, the court must recalculate the guidelines range as well, the court found. As the court noted in Wirsing, the point of the First Step Act was to fill gaps left by the Fair Sentencing Act. “ It would pervert Congress’s intent to maintain a career offender designation that is as wrong today as it was in 2005, and under which Chambers is subject to a Guidelines range that is four times the correct range and that even at the low end is much greater than the new statutory minimum of 10 years.” On resentencing the government “conceded that the § 3553(a) sentencing factors apply in the § 404(b) resentencing context.” The government also conceded “that the resentencing court has discretion within the § 404(b) framework to vary from the Guidelines and, in doing so, to consider movants’ post-sentencing conduct.”
The court vacated the district court’s order and remanded the case back for further proceedings. The Fourth Circuit noted that the district court should recalculate Chamber’s Guidelines range without the career-offender enhancement. The court also noted that “[t]o the extent that it considers a sentence above the new mandatory minimum of 10 years, the court may consider post-sentencing conduct within the First Step Act framework.”
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