Compassionate Release Denial Reversed in Owens

In Owens, the Sixth Circuit reversed the denial of a compassionate release for a failure to consider the defendant's arguments.

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In Owens, the Sixth Circuit reaffirmed the prevailing view that a specific and particularized review of all reasons that justify a compassionate release are necessary to properly make a determination in the case.   

Owens’s Underlying Case and Charges

At first Owens was charged with a single count of bank robbery.  The government admitted if he had agreed to cooperate, they would have let him plead guilty.  Owens rejected the deal. 

The government went on to file a first, second and third superseding indictment.  Right before trial, the government offered Owens a deal that allowed him to plead guilty to two 924(c) counts. 

Owens also rejected this deal.  He was ultimately convicted of 5 924(c) counts, one 2119 (carjackacking) count, four 2113 (bank robbery) counts, and one 922(g) (felon in possession of a weapon) count. 

Owens was sentenced to 1260 months on the 924(c) cases and 151 months on the remaining convictions.  His co-defendants pled to much lower charges and received much less time. 

Owens’s Compassionate Release Motion

Owens eventually filed a motion for reduction in sentence.  He was arguing “the First Step Act’s changes to § 924(c), the fact that Owens received an effective life sentence largely as a penalty for choosing to go to trial, and Owens’s remarkable rehabilitation constituted extraordinary and compelling reasons for compassionate release… [in addition,] Owens’s counsel emphasized Owens’s remarkable record of rehabilitation[.] 

The district court denied Owens’s motion for compassionate release, stating that the disparity between the sentence that Owens received and the sentence that he would receive today because of the First Step Act’s amendments to 924(c) did not constitute an “extraordinary and compelling reason to merit compassionate release.” 

The district court did not consider Owens’s evidence or rehabilitation or any other basis for a finding of extraordinary and compelling reasons.  The court did not consider the 3553(a) factors. 

The Sixth Circuit:  Individualized Factors Required  

The Sixth Circuit noted that there were cases in its circuit where Sixth Circuit panels had upheld the denial of compassionate release.  In United States v. Tomes, 990 F.3d 500, the Sixth Circuit indicated that Tomes “did not provide adequate records to support his [chronic asthma] diagnosis and failed to show that the BOP could not control COVID-19 outbreaks.” 

In United States vs. Willis, 991 F.3d 720, “the defendant filed a pro se motion for compassionate release that advanced only the disparity between his sentence and the sentence that he might receive under the First Step Act as an extraordinary and compelling reason for compassionate release. Although Willis cited other district court cases where district courts had found the First Step Act’s amendments to be extraordinary and compelling reason for release, “’[t]he mere fact that a defendant cites other cases in which courts determined certain defendants to be deserving of different sentences does not demonstrate abuse of discretion in the instant case.’” 

Owens Case 

However, unlike those cases, Owens gave specific information about how his case had extraordinary and compelling circumstances that warranted a reduction. 

  • The court noted that in United States vs. McGee, the Tenth Circuit found that “a district court has the authority to consider whether First Step Act § 401’s changes to § 841 in combination with a defendant’s unique circumstances could constitute an extraordinary and compelling reason for compassionate release.” 
  • The court also noted that the Tenth Circuit remanded McGee back for the District Court to reconsider “whether, in McGee’s case, there are unique circumstances that, in combination with the mandatory sentence he received…constitute[d] ‘extraordinary and compelling reasons’” for a compassionate release[,]”
  • Additionally, the Tenth Circuit’s decision in United States vs. Maumau was based on an individualized review of all the circumstances of Maumau’s specific case. 

The Sixth Circuit said “Owens presented three factors that he asserted together warranted compassionate release [the trial penalty, the stacked 924(c)’s and his rehabilitation].

The district court did not consider two of the factors Owens asserted and should have determined whether the combination of all three factors warranted compassionate release.  The court decided to remand the case back to the district court to “mak[e] an individualized determination about whether extraordinary and compelling reasons merit compassionate release, a district court may include, along with other factors, the disparity between a defendant’s actual sentence and the sentence that he would receive if the First Step Act applied[.]” 

The Sixth Circuit remanded the case back to the district court.  No. 20-2139

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