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United States v. Alston, No. 11-5204

Decided:  July 17, 2013

The Fourth Circuit held that the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina properly considered the government’s motion for an upward departure under section 4A1.3 of the United States Sentencing Guidelines (“Sentencing Guidelines”), after the Fourth Circuit remanded the case of defendant Lewis Alston (“Alston”) to the district court; that the district court erred by not retroactively applying the Fair Sentencing Act (“FSA”) to Alston’s case, but that the error was harmless; and that the sentence applied by the district court was not substantively unreasonable.  The Fourth Circuit therefore affirmed the judgment of the district court.

Alston pleaded guilty to two cocaine-related offenses.  The district court determined the applicable Sentencing Guidelines range in accordance with United States v. Harp, 406 F.3d 242.  The government moved for an upward departure under section 4A1.3 of the Sentencing Guidelines, but the district court denied the government’s motion, issuing a prison sentence of 150 months.  Alston appealed.  While his appeal was pending, the Fourth Circuit overruled Harp in United States v. Simmons, 649 F.3d 237.  The Fourth Circuit therefore vacated Alston’s sentence and remanded his case for resentencing in United States v. Alston, 447 F. App’x 498 (Alston I).  On remand, the government again moved for an upward departure under section 4A1.3; over Alston’s objection, the district court granted the motion.  The district court issued a prison sentence of 120 months.  At the end of the sentencing hearing, Alston asked the court to retroactively apply the FSA, which had been enacted after Alston’s conviction but before resentencing.  The district court found that the FSA could not be applied to Alston’s case retroactively.  Additionally, after the district court determined Alston’s sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), the court described the purposes of the sentence, stating that, inter alia, it “provide[s] the needed treatment of care in the most effective manner possible.”  On appeal, Alston asserted that the district court violated the mandate rule by granting the upward departure motion; that the district court should have retroactively applied the FSA; and that his sentence was substantively unreasonable, as district courts cannot lengthen prison terms for purposes of criminal rehabilitation.

The Fourth Circuit found that the district court did not violate the mandate rule.  The Fourth Circuit vacated Alston’s sentence in its entirety and remanded his case for de novo resentencing; furthermore, the Fourth Circuit’s mandate in Alston I did not relate to the district court’s consideration of a departure under section 4A1.3.  The Fourth Circuit also found that the district court erroneously failed to apply the FSA retroactively; however, the Fourth Circuit deemed this error harmless, as the 120-month sentence was within the applicable FSA range.  Lastly, the Fourth Circuit found that the district court did not lengthen Alston’s prison term for purposes of rehabilitation; rather, the district court was simply reiterating the sentencing factors contained in § 3553(a)(2) and discussing how Alston’s sentence met these factors.

Full Opinion

-Stephen Sutherland