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Opinion analysis: Justices discard game effort to extend eligibility for sentence reduction

The parties’ briefs and oral arguments made the statutory issue in Koons v. United States, concerning which prisoners are eligible for sentence reductions under 18 U.S.C. §3582(c)(2) after the U.S. Sentencing Commission has lowered a potentially applicable guidelines range, seem intricate and complicated. But Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion for a unanimous Supreme Court made the matter look quite simple. The petitioners argued mightily that they were eligible for reductions because, having received sentences below otherwise applicable mandatory minimums after they provided substantial assistance to the government, they satisfied the statutory requirement of having prison terms “based on a sentencing range” subsequently lowered by the Sentencing Commission. The court saw it otherwise, holding that the “petitioners’ sentences were ‘based on’ their mandatory minimums and on their substantial assistance to the Government, not on sentencing ranges that the Commission later lowered.”

The petitioners in Koons were five defendants who all pled guilty to drug-trafficking offenses carrying statutory mandatory minimum sentences under 21 U.S.C. §841(b)(1), and who all received sentences below the applicable mandatory minimums by providing substantial assistance to authorities under 18 U.S.C. §3553(e). The defendants subsequently sought to have their sentences further reduced after the Sentencing Commission adopted and made retroactive Amendment 782, which lowered the base offense level for the applicable drug offenses. The courts below decided, however, that these defendants were not eligible for sentence modifications under Section 3582(c)(2). Foreshadowing language adopted by the Supreme Court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit said each defendant had received a sentence “based on his statutory mandatory minimum sentence and his substantial assistance,” and therefore had not received a prison term “based on a sentencing range that has subsequently been lowered by the Sentencing Commission.”

In briefing, the petitioners made much of the fact that district courts are to calculate and consider guideline ranges even when those ranges are trumped by an applicable mandatory minimum, and noted certain statutory language suggesting courts should look back to the guidelines whenever a defendant’s substantial assistance renders an otherwise binding statutory minimum inapplicable. At argument, the petitioners’ counsel stressed that key statutory text “directs the court straight to the guidelines, not away from the Guidelines” and “says nothing about … somehow setting the guidelines aside.” But the Supreme Court adopted a competing nomenclature for describing the sentencing proceedings below: All the sentencing courts “discarded the advisory ranges in favor of the mandatory minimum sentences” and in “no case did the court consider the original drug Guidelines ranges that it had earlier discarded.” Today’s opinion, tellingly, used the term “discarded” five times in a mere six pages, and also spoke of the guidelines being “scrapped” and having “dropped out of the case.” These descriptions and word choices are arguably sufficient to resolve the case; it is hard to claim a sentence is “based on” a guideline range that has been “discarded” or “scrapped.”

Responding directly to various arguments made by the petitioners, the Supreme Court put forth an appealing metaphor to explain why the requisite initial calculation of guideline ranges at the start of the sentencing enterprise does not mean the guidelines served as a foundation for the ultimate sentence:

In constructing a house, a builder may begin by considering one design but may ultimately decide to use entirely different plans. While the first design would represent the starting point in the builder’s decisionmaking process, the house finally built would not be “based on” that design.

This metaphor not only captures the rhetorical point the Supreme Court wished to make, but also explains the petitioners’ ultimate downfall. The petitioners could not convince the court that the builders of prison terms (sentencing judges), after first designing a sentence according to guidelines calculations, never really can “ultimately decide to use entirely different plans” once their thinking is framed by the guideline design. Notably, the court never mentions that three of the five petitioners ended up with sentences that fell within their calculated guidelines ranges, a fact that would seem to bolster the claim that the first guideline design still affects the look of the sentencing house once mandatory minimums are rendered inapplicable because of a defendant’s substantial assistance.

But rather than find force in claims that the guidelines always play a role in sentencing, the Supreme Court instead stressed that it is always proper for sentencing courts to discard the advisory ranges and “consider only factors related to petitioners’ substantial assistance, rather than factors related to the advisory ranges, as a guide in determining how far to depart downward.” Embracing this approach to sentencing design, the court had a ready blueprint for affirming the ruling below, precluding the petitioners from obtaining a rebuilt sentence.

Interestingly, the oral argument in this case suggested that some justices might consider pursuing a much broader interpretation of the “based on” eligibility language in Section 3582(c)(2). The court’s short, unanimous opinion, however, bears no trace of that possibility, leading an observer to wonder whether the press of other business may have dissuaded the justices from attempting another approach to the issues raised in this case.

Recommended Citation: Doug Berman, Opinion analysis: Justices discard game effort to extend eligibility for sentence reduction, SCOTUSblog (Jun. 4, 2018, 5:47 PM),