Eleventh Circuit Rules District Court May Hear Fair Sentencing Act Request – U.S. v. Hargrove
The federal Fair Sentencing Act addressed a situation that had long been seen as a problem: the disparity between sentences for crack cocaine crimes and powder cocaine crimes. The difference was perceived in some quarters as evidence of racial bias, because crack offenders were more often black and powder cocaine offenders were more often white. The 2010 law sought to reduce the disparity; in fact, it was the most successful of several bills stretching back into the 1990s, after the U.S. Sentencing Commission published a report saying the disparity was unjustified. It became effective about two years ago, and since then, prisoners sentenced for crack cocaine offenses have sought reductions in their sentences. U.S. v. Hargrove is one such case, arising from Central Florida. The district court ruled it didn’t have authority to consider the case, but the Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed.
Nathaniel Hargrove was convicted of four counts of distributing crack cocaine. At the time, the sentencing guidelines called for a sentencing range of 100 to 125 months in prison, based on 16.4 grams of crack cocaine. But because he had a prior drug offense, he was subject to a mandatory minimum sentence of 120 months (10 years), yielding a sentencing range of 120 to 125 months. The district court then departed upward considerably from that range for reasons not explained here, ultimately giving him 240 months in prison (20 years). In 2012, Hargrove moved for a sentence reduction in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida. The district court declined to rule, saying it didn’t have the authority to consider the request because Hargrove’s sentence was based on a mandatory minimum.
The Eleventh Circuit disagreed. Courts may lower sentences when a retroactive amendment to the Guidelines results in a lower sentencing range. But a sentence reduction is not authorized when the amendment does not lower the applicable Guidelines range because of a mandatory minimum. After the Fair Sentencing Act, Hargrove’s initial Guidelines range would be 70 to 87 months in prison, down from 100 to 125 months. But Hargrove was subject to a statutory mandatory minimum of 120 months, the court noted. That results in a new Guidelines range of 120 months, it said—lowering the applicable Guidelines range, though not by much. The court expressed no opinion on whether Hargrove should be resentenced, but agreed that under the applicable statutes, he was eligible for resentencing. It remanded the case to district court to decide on the merits.
It would be interesting to know what the reasoning was behind the upward departure made by Hargrove’s original sentencing court. Recall that his final sentence was twenty years, twice the mandatory minimum, which is a dramatic difference. As a rule, this kind of upward departure in a criminal case generally results from exceptional facts or strong feelings from the judge, and can include inappropriate reasons like racism. It’s not clear whether such feelings played a role here, since the Eleventh Circuit doesn’t delve into the reasons for the upward departure. But drug crimes are already subject to onerous sentences, so an upward departure can be very serious indeed. As a result, more and more defendants like Hargrove may request new sentences.
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