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Third Circuit Limits Sentence Reductions

The opportunity for a sentence reduction is appealing for any incarcerated offender. In 2014, the United States Sentencing Commission passed Amendment 782 to the United States Sentencing Guidelines (“USSG”) to offer retroactive sentence reductions to convicted drug offenders. Despite the belief that Amendment 782 could broadly be applied to many offenders, on August 15, 2017, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in United States v. Richard Martin, No. 16-4289, 2017 WL 3481669 (3d Cir. Aug. 15, 2017), identified a restriction to the application of Amendment 782.

Amendment 782 reduces the mandatory minimum penalties for offenses involving drugs and narco-terrorism. Under the Amendment, the base offense level for sentencing would be reduced by two points, which could translate to a potential sentence reduction of six months for minor offenses or five years for more severe crimes.

In Martin, the defendant sought a reduction of his drug offense conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2), based upon Amendment 782. The guideline sentencing range for his offense was 188 to 235 months because Martin was considered a career offender, an individual previously convicted of violent or controlled substance offenses. The designation as a career offender drastically increases the sentence range for a defendant. However, Martin agreed to a plea agreement under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(C) (“C Plea”). A C Plea establishes an agreed upon sentencing range between the government and the defendant. Martin’s C Plea included a drug offender range of 70 to 87 months, eliminating the career offender range.

Under § 3582, a defendant qualifies for a sentence reduction only if (1) his sentencing range was subsequently lowered by the Sentencing Commission and (2) the amendment has the “effect of lowering the defendant’s applicable guideline range.” The government conceded that the first requirement was met. Therefore, the primary issue considered by the Court addressed the second requirement - whether the District Court’s acceptance of Martin’s C Plea changed his applicable guideline range from a career offender to drug offender.

Martin argued that he was drug offender entitled to a reduction because of the drug offender range in his C Plea. In its analysis, the Court considered the opinions of two sister Circuits directly addressing this issue and a USSG definition. Both the Second Circuit and Amendment 759 of the USSG define a defendant’s applicable guideline range as the range set by the court that corresponds to the defendant’s offense level and criminal history category before any departure or variance to reduce a defendant’s sentence. Similarly, a Ninth Circuit case explained that a defendant under a C Plea is not entitled to a further sentence reduction because he was only able to avoid the career offender guidelines because of the plea agreement.

The Court ruled that Martin was not entitled to a sentence reduction. Martin’s applicable guideline was the career offender range of 188 to 235 months. The range identified in his C Plea was not a result of the District Court’s application of the sentencing guidelines, but an agreement between the parties to lower the applicable range. Despite the agreed upon reduction to his sentencing range, the court-assigned career offender range of 188 to 235 months was still the applicable guideline range for determining the applicability of Amendment 782.

This opinion highlights a critical point that although Amendment 782 was designed to reduce the number of imprisoned offenders, not all drug offenders can benefit from a reduction. Martin demonstrates that a career offender cannot avoid the harsher penalties imposed on those categorized as career offenders. Martin will further fuel critics of the career offender designation because it demonstrates that although the Sentencing Commission has a desire to reduce the number of drug offenders serving long prison sentences, the opportunity for a sentence reduction does not extend to career criminal offenders.