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Clarifying Booker‘s application to Section 3582(c)(2)

Patrick Scanlon is a summer associate at Akin Gump.

In a decision that potentially precludes sentence reductions for thousands of individuals convicted of federal crack cocaine offenses, on Thursday, the Court held that the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines are binding in hearings held pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2), which permits courts to reduce the prison term of a defendant sentenced under a Guidelines range that was retroactively amended by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. In so holding in Dillon v. United States (No. 09-6338), the Court rejected the petitioner’s contention that its decision in United States v. Booker – holding that the Guidelines are advisory, rather mandatory, in sentencing – applied to proceedings under Section 3582(c)(2). [A preview and recap of oral arguments in the case are available here and here.]

In 1993, petitioner Percy Dillon was convicted of a crack cocaine offense which subjected him to the then-mandatory applicable Sentencing Guidelines. The district court imposed the lowest possible sentence under the then-current Guidelines range but did not grant him a downward departure from the Guidelines sentence. In 2008, the range was retroactively lowered; it was accompanied by a policy statement which provided that a revised sentence should not include a downward departure other than the one imposed in the original sentence.  However, Dillon filed a motion for a sentence reduction under Section 3582(c)(2) in which he requested not only the reduction sanctioned by the 2008 amendment, but also an additional sentence reduction based on his conduct during incarceration. Dillon argued that he was eligible for an exception to the Guidelines range, and that the court was authorized to grant such an exception because the Court in Booker had treated the Guidelines as advisory, rather than mandatory.

The district court reduced Dillon’s sentence to the fullest extent possible under the revised Guidelines range, but it denied any further reduction.  It reasoned that it lacked the authority to adjust a sentence in a manner inconsistent with any Commission policy statement, and that Booker did not apply because the sentencing proceedings at issue in that case were clearly different from Section 3582(c)(2) proceedings. On appeal, the Third Circuit affirmed, reiterating the distinction between Section 3582(c)(2) proceedings and general sentencing, as well as the binding nature of the Commission’s policy statement regarding Section 3582(c)(2) proceedings.

In an opinion by Justice Sotomayor, the Court emphasized the fundamental difference between sentencing and sentence modification proceedings and explained that Section 3582(c)(2) embodies a narrow exception to the general rule that a prison sentence imposed under the Guidelines range may not be modified.   Sentence reductions under Section 3582(c)(2) are constrained by provisions promulgated by the Sentencing Commission:  the text of the statute, the Court noted, explicitly limits courts’ authority to modify terms of imprisonment to cases in which “such a reduction is consistent with applicable policy statements issued by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.”

The Court characterized proceedings under Section 3582(c)(2) as a two-step process.  First, courts considering a potential sentence reduction must adhere to the instructions (i.e. policy statements) issued by the Commission. In taking step two – considering whether the reduction is warranted, based on the factors outlined in Section 3553(a)  – courts are limited to the universe of those instructions.

The Court found further support for its conclusion in the history of sentencing rules and regulations. Under the Sentencing Reform Act, Congress explicitly provided the Commission with the power to determine both whether to amend the Guidelines and the extent to which any amended Guidelines may be retroactive. Thus, the Court concluded, Congress had clearly delegated the authority to oversee sentence modifications under Section 3582(c)(2) to the Commission.

Based on these findings, the Court reasoned, Booker’s constitutional holding did not apply to Section 3582(c)(2) proceedings. Unlike the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial implicated in Booker, Section 3582(c)(2) proceedings are not constitutionally compelled, nor do they threaten any other constitutional rights. The Court similarly declined to extend its remedial holding in Booker – that the Guidelines be treated as advisory – to Section 3582(c)(2) proceedings, emphasizing that such proceedings are different from, and significantly more constrained than, the kind of general sentencing at issue in Booker.

In a lengthy dissent, Justice Stevens conceded that Dillon has no constitutional right to a sentence reduction under Section 3582(c)(2), but he would have held that Booker’s remedial holding does indeed apply to Section 3582(c)(2) proceedings because Booker abolished a “fixed, determinate sentencing regime based on mandatory Guidelines.” And although neither party had previously raised the issue, Justice Stevens also suggested that the Court’s holding ran afoul of separation-of-powers principles, arguing that the scope of the Commission’s authority under the decision represents a “forbidden delegation of legislative power.”