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U.S. v. SPINKS, NO. 13-4771

Decided: October 28, 2014

The Fourth Circuit held that a court may not consider factors other than the substantial assistance offered to the prosecution when determining the extent of a defendant’s sentence reduction (i.e. downward departure) below the mandatory minimum.

Defendant (“Spinks”) was sentenced to a 240-month mandatory minimum sentence for conspiracy to distribute cocaine and cocaine base. Pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e), the Government filed a motion to reduce Spinks’ sentence on the ground that he had provided the Government with substantial assistance in the prosecution of the codefendant. The motion was granted and Spinks’ sentence was reduced by thirty percent to 168 months. Spinks’ also requested that the court consider other factors to further reduce his sentence, but the court rejected his request. Spinks appealed this denial, but the Fourth Circuit affirmed. After a habeas review, Spinks was re-sentenced to 120 months, and the Government renewed its § 3553(e) motion, which was again granted, reducing Spinks’ 120 months sentence to 84 months. Spinks asked the court to further reduce his sentence based on his post-conviction rehabilitation. The district court, however, denied that it had the authority to depart any further from the minimum sentence based on § 3553(a) factors. Spinks filed an appeal challenging the court’s failure to consider other factors.

Spinks argued that Pepper v. United States, 131 S. Ct. 1229 (2011), and United States v. Davis, 679 F.3d 190 (4th Cir. 2012), permitted the district court to consider factors other than the substantial assistance to the prosecution. The Fourth Circuit, however, held that precedent clearly establishes that “the extent of a § 3553(e) departure below a mandatory minimum guideline must be based solely on a defendant’s substantial assistance and factors related to that assistance.” The Court emphasized that United States v. Hood, 556 F.3d 226 (4th Cir. 2009), addressed the same issue and concluded that the statutory language limited departures from the mandated minimum sentence only where a defendant provided substantial assistance to the prosecution. The Court rejected Spinks’ reliance on Davis. Unlike the present case, Davis involved a motion for sentence reduction pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 35(b), a much broader rule. Davis established that a district court may consider additional factors only after a Rule 35(b) motion had been granted, which was not the case for Spinks. Similarly, the Court rejected Spinks’ claim that Pepper supported his argument. The defendant in Pepper sought a variance from the advisory U.S. Sentencing Guidelines range, not a variance from a mandatory minimum.

Judge Davis concurred in the judgment, but disagreed with the majority’s reasoning. Citing to the First and Sixth Circuits, Judge Davis emphasized that “there is no logical reason to treat Rule 35(b) and § 3553(e) differently,” as the majority did. He also noted that even if the district court would have considered Spinks’ post-rehabilitation, the record shows that the district court would still have imposed the same sentence.

Full Opinion

Abigail Forrister