Federal appeals court orders lower court to redo crack sentence

Another recent federal appellate case has brought good news to people convicted of crack cocaine-related federal drug crimes. Recent reforms, sometimes called the “crack amendments,” to the federal sentencing guidelines have reduced the sentencing disparity between comparable drug crimes involving powder cocaine and those involving crack cocaine. Both Congress and the U.S. Sentencing Commission have admitted the 100-1 disparity in sentencing was unjust.

That injustice has led to a flood of federal appeals as wronged defendants come forward to ask the courts to reduce their unfair sentences. Meanwhile, the federal courts are trying to sort out whether the 2010 guideline reforms should be applied to those already convicted of crack cocaine offenses.

Should people sentenced under the old law — a law now recognized by a bipartisan majority in Congress as unjust — be resentenced? Or should we only apply the revised sentencing guidelines to those charged with crack and cocaine crimes in the future? How should we decide?

Crack defendant’s resentencing denied before he even asked for one

The case of Christopher Larry of Louisiana involves the 2008 reforms to the federal sentencing guidelines, which were made retroactive.

Larry had pled guilty to conspiracy, possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine and marijuana, and a weapon violation. He was initially sentenced to 280 months, a low- to mid-range sentence under the guidelines. Prosecutors got that sentence further reduced to 138 months because Larry had substantially assisted the prosecution.

With the 2008 reforms, Larry became eligible for a reconsideration of his sentence. Unfortunately, by the time he found out it had already been denied. The district court, on its own initiative, had decided to look over past crack cases that might deserve resentencing. It looked at Larry’s case and turned him down.

A proactive approach is to be applauded, but the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana didn’t give Larry — or the prosecutor — a chance to make an argument. Before the parties were even notified, the district court simply determined that Larry had “been given sufficient credit for cooperation” and that “the previously imposed sentence is still sharply below the amended guideline range.”

Larry appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, and this month the federal appeals court ruled that the district court did not have the right to make such a decision on its own.

Trial courts do have the power to order resentencing hearings on their own initiative, but they can’t simply forego the hearing and issue the order, the appellate court said.

At the very least, the court must consider two classic resentencing factors. First, is a reduction in the sentence is authorized by law? Second, should a reduction be granted, considering the seriousness of the crime, the potential risk to the community, and other such concerns?

The district court can’t just shoot resentencing requests down. It has to show that it has duly considered those issues.

It is not certain that Larry’s crack cocaine sentence will be reduced. The Seventh Circuit sent the case back to the district court and ordered them to listen to prosecution and defense arguments, consider the factors and — then and only then — make its decision.

Source: U.S. v. Larry, United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, Case No. 08-30368, February 8, 2011