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Supervised Release Statute Specifies No Aggregate Limit on Post-Revocation Imprisonment

Joining two other circuits, the Third Circuit rules in United States v. Williams, No. 11-2267 (Apr. 3, 2012), that the principal federal supervised release statute does not specify any aggregate limit on the length of imprisonment that may be imposed for successive violations. Instead, the Court holds, the maximum sentences specified in the statute may be freshly imposed upon each and every revocation.

Under 18 U.S.C. § 3583(e)(3), a defendant whose supervised release is revoked may be required "to serve in prison all or part of the term of supervised release authorized by statute for the offense that resulted in such term of supervised release." The "term of supervised release authorized by statute" depends on the classification of the underlying offense. For a Class A felony, for example, the maximum is ordinarily five years; for a Class C felony, it is three years. See 18 U.S.C. § 3583(b).

Ms. Williams argued that these limits apply in the aggregate to all post-revocation sentences. Thus, if a defendant convicted of a Class C felony violates and is sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment to be followed by another 18 months’ supervised release, any further violation occurring during the renewed period of supervised release subjects the defendant to no more than an additional 18 months’ imprisonment, i.e., no more than three years’ imprisonment in total.

Separately, however, § 3583(e)(3) provides that a defendant convicted of a Class C felony whose supervised release is revoked may be sentenced to up to two years’ imprisonment "on any such revocation." Relying on "the ‘legislative history and the atmosphere in which the statute was enacted,’" the Court holds that district courts may impose up to two years’ imprisonment upon each successive revocation, regardless of whether the aggregate length of all post-revocation imprisonment exceeds the initially authorized supervised release term of three years. The Court rejects Ms. Williams’s argument that this construction offends the rule that courts "should attempt to reconcile two seemingly conflicting statutory provisions whenever possible, instead of allowing one provision effectively to nullify the other provision." It also reads subsection (e)(3) as "unambiguous" and thus holds the rule of lenity inapplicable.

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