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United States v. Williams

August 4, 2009



The opinion of the court was delivered by: McKAY, Circuit Judge


Before HARTZ, HOLLOWAY, and McKAY, Circuit Judges.

In this case, we review a sentencing challenge relating to the effect of U.S.S.G. § 1B1.10 on a district court's authority to reduce a sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2). The defendant, Lawrence Williams, disagrees with the district court's conclusion that it lacked authority under § 1B1.10 to impose a sentence below the range provided for in Amendment 706 to the sentencing guidelines. Specifically, Defendant argues that the court was not bound by § 1B1.10's limitations on sentencing because other policy statements of the Sentencing Commission are inconsistent with Amendment 706 and the amendment is inconsistent with the Sentencing Reform Act. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.


Because this appeal presents a purely legal question, the facts of Defendant's conviction need not be discussed in much detail. Suffice it to say, in 1996 a jury convicted Defendant of six crack cocaine offenses. More than 1.5 kilograms of crack cocaine were attributed to Defendant, which placed his base offense level at thirty-eight under the sentencing guidelines in effect at the time. However, Defendant's offense level was ultimately adjusted upward to level forty-two for his possession of a weapon and role in the offense. Although Defendant had a criminal history score of I, the then-mandatory guidelines called for a sentence of imprisonment of 360 months to life. The district court sentenced Defendant to 360 months on four counts, and to the statutory maximum sentence of 240 months on the remaining two counts.

Then, in November 2007, the United States Sentencing Commission amended the drug quantity table associated with § 2D1.1(c) of the sentencing guidelines. See U.S.S.G. App. C, Amend. 706. Amendment 706 provided for a two-level reduction in the base offense levels of crack cocaine-related offenses. Id. After the Sentencing Commission applied this amendment retroactively, Defendant filed a motion pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2), requesting a hearing and asking the court to decrease his sentence. Specifically, he asked for a sentence of time-served (at the time, 164 months)-well below the amended range of 292 to 365 months. Defendant contended the court could sentence him below the amended range and still sentence him consistently with the Commission's policy statements, as required by § 3582(c)(2). The government agreed Defendant was eligible for a sentence reduction but objected to a sentence below the amended range. The court ultimately found it lacked authority under § 1B1.10 to impose a sentence below the modified range. Accordingly, it imposed a sentence of 292 months.


Defendant's primary argument on appeal is that the district court erroneously assumed it lacked authority to sentence him to less than the minimum of the amended guideline range. Specifically, Defendant contends, the court improperly considered itself bound by U.S.S.G. § 1B1.10, where the Commission had issued other inconsistent policy statements. We review de novo the scope of a district court's authority in a proceeding under § 3582(c)(2), United States v. Rhodes, 549 F.3d 833, 837 (10th Cir. 2008), as well as its interpretation of a statute or the sentencing guidelines. United States v. Sharkey, 543 F.3d 1236, 1238 (10th Cir. 2008).

Generally, a district court "may not modify a term of imprisonment once it has been imposed." 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c). However, Congress has established a few narrow exceptions to this rule of finality. For instance, § 3582(c)(2) allows courts to reduce the terms of imprisonment of defendants who were sentenced based on a sentencing range later lowered by the Sentencing Commission under 28 U.S.C. § 994. Under § 3582(c)(2), a court can decrease a defendant's sentence "after considering the factors set forth in section 3553(a) to the extent that they are applicable, if such a reduction is consistent with applicable policy statements issued by the Sentencing Commission." 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2). In effect, this provision vests the Commission with authority "to define the extent to which a judge may reduce a sentence in a § 3582(c)(2) resentencing." United States v. Pedraza, 550 F.3d 1218, 1220 (10th Cir. 2008); see also 28 U.S.C. § 994(u). It also limits courts' authority to reduce a sentence based on a later guidelines amendment to circumstances where the reduction is consistent with the Sentencing Commission's applicable policy statements.

The Commission's statutory authority to make policy judgments is rooted in 28 U.S.C. § 994(a)(2). In accordance with this authority, the Sentencing Commission issued U.S.S.G. § 1B1.10 and designated it the policy statement governing § 3582(c)(2):

(a) Authority.-

(1) In General.-In a case in which a defendant is serving a term of imprisonment, and the guideline range applicable to that defendant has subsequently been lowered as a result of an amendment to the Guidelines Manual listed in subsection (c) below, the court may reduce the defendant's term of imprisonment as provided by 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2). As required by 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2), any such reduction in the defendant's term of imprisonment shall be consistent with this policy statement.

U.S.S.G. § 1B1.10 (emphasis added). The section goes on to strictly limit the reduction of a defendant's sentence to the modified guideline range: "Except as provided in subdivision (B), the court shall not reduce the defendant's term of imprisonment under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) and this policy statement to a term that is less than the minimum of the amended guideline range determined under subdivision (1) of this ...

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