United States v. Smalls, 12-6021

Decided: June 19, 2013

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s order granting, in part, the defendant’s motion for a sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2).

In September 1996, Smalls was found guilty of conspiracy to import cocaine and sentenced to life in prison. In February 2008, Smalls filed a motion for reduction, based on the 2007 crack cocaine amendments to the Sentencing Guidelines, which reduced his guideline range to 324 to 405 months. The district court granted the motion and reduced Smalls’ sentence from life to 405 months. In November 2011, Smalls filed a second motion for reduction, based on Amendment 750, which reduced his guideline range to 262 to 327 months. The district court again reduced his sentence to 327 months, the maximum sentence in the range. The district court used a form document to rule on Smalls’ motion, indicating that it granted the motion by considering the factors set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2). Smalls appealed, arguing that the court erred in failing to provide an individualized explanation.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals addressed whether a court ruling on a § 3582(c)(2) motion must provide an individualized explanation. The court cited to United States v. Legree for the presumption that a court deciding such a motion has considered the pertinent factors, unless evidence suggests otherwise. Consideration is implicit in the court’s ultimate ruling. A full explanation for its decision is not necessary.  However, Smalls contended the district court did err in his case for three reasons. First, Smalls argued that Legree did not address the question of whether a district court must provide some reasoning in support of its grant or denial of a § 3582(c)(2) motion. However, the Court of Appeals concluded that Legree addressed that exact issue and did not find that the district court erred even though it provided no individualized explanation.

Second, Smalls argued that the facts of his case overcame the Legree presumption that the district court considered all relevant factors in ruling on his motion. However, the court concluded that, like Legree, Smalls failed to offer any new mitigating circumstances to rebut the presumption. As in Legree, the same district judge presided over Smalls’ original sentencing and his § 3582(c)(2) proceeding. Therefore, he was familiar with the mitigating factors set forth at the time. Further, it did not matter that fifteen years elapsed between Small’s original sentencing and his motion, in comparison to four years in Legree. Smalls filed, and the same district judge addressed, several motions during the fifteen-year period, suggesting that the judge remained familiar with the facts of Smalls’ case. Further, it did not matter that Smalls had no opportunity to submit evidence of his exemplary post-sentencing conduct by way of a reply brief before the court decided his motion. The court concluded that new arguments cannot be raised in a reply brief and, therefore, the district court did not fail to consider all relevant factors properly before it. And finally, the court rejected Smalls’ argument that his case resembles not Legree, but another case where the defendant and the government jointly recommended a sentence reduction and the district court refused to adopt that agreed-upon reduction or explain its refusal to do so. In Smalls’ case, the Government never agreed to the extent of the reduction he requested. The Government requested a reduction only to the top of the amended guideline range, and the district court granted that request.

Third, Small argued that Legree is no longer good law because of the Supreme Court’s decisions in Gall v. United States and Dillon v. United States. The Court of Appeals concluded that while Gall makes clear that a sentencing court must explain its reasoning when initially sentencing a defendant, it says nothing about § 3582(c)(2) proceedings. In Gall, the district court was required to explain its reasoning on the basis of 18 U.S.C. § 3553(c), a provision which does not apply to § 3582(c)(2) proceedings and applies at the time of sentencing, not at the time of sentence modification. The Court of Appeals also concluded that while Dillon did note that courts deciding § 3582(c)(2) motions are to consider applicable § 3553(a) factors, Dillon did not create that requirement. Rather, § 3582(c)(2) itself instructs courts to consider the § 3553(a) factors. Courts do not necessarily have to consider those factors on the record. Because Legree governs and the facts of Smalls’ case fail to overcome its presumption, the court held the district court’s explanation sufficient and affirmed the judgment

Full Opinion

– Sarah Bishop

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