Friday, March 14, 2014

Defendant eligible for sentence reduction when mandatory minimum not applied at original sentencing

In United States v. Ortiz-Vega, 12-1482 (3d Cir. March 12, 2014), the Court found that where a defendant was subject to a mandatory minimum sentence but that minimum was not actually applied, he is eligible for a sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) based on retroactive changes to the guidelines. Ortiz-Vega’s crack cocaine offense called for a guideline range of 97 to 121 months but the count of conviction at that time carried a mandatory minimum 120 months. 21 U.S.C. §841(b)(1)(A)(iii). Nonetheless, the court sentenced Ortiz-Vega to 108 months and the government did not challenge the sentence. When Ortiz-Vega moved for resentencing, arguing that the new range would be 78-97 months, the District Court found a reduction would not be consistent with the Commission’s policy statements (Step Two), relying on United States v. Doe, 564 F.3d 305 (3d Cir. 2009) to treat the mandatory minimum as the “applicable guideline range,” whether or not the mandatory minimum had been applied. However, Doe was superseded by the 2010 amendments to the guidelines and the “applicable guideline range” corresponds to offense level and criminal history category if the mandatory minimum was not applied. See United States v. Savani, 733 F.3d 56 (3d Cir. 2013) (discussing below minimum sentences based on substantial assistance). The Court would not read a limitation into the guideline commentary for substantial assistance, even though it is one of few permissible bases for sentencing below a mandatory minimum. The Court then considered whether Ortiz-Vega was sentenced based on a range that has been subsequently lowered (Step One). The Court found Ortiz-Vega was not “subject to” or subjected to the mandatory minimum sentence and thus his range had been lowered. The Court found it appropriate to perpetuate the sentencing error because prior errors cannot be modified in a 3582 proceeding and this principle should not only be used against defendants. The case was remanded for the District Court to consider a sentence reduction.

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