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United States v. Belcher

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Huntington Division

November 4, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
JASON P. BELCHER also known as “Biz”

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          ROBERT C. CHAMBERS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Pending before the Court is Defendant Jason P. Belcher's Motion for Reduction of Sentence under the First Step Act of 2018. Eligibility Mem., ECF No. 575. For the reasons set forth below, the Court GRANTS IN PART and DENIES IN PART the motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On March 19, 2010, a jury found Defendant guilty of conspiracy to distribute cocaine base, or “crack, ” in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846, as well as distributing five grams or more of crack in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1). Eligibility Mem., at 1. While no statutory minimum attached to Defendant's conspiracy conviction, his distribution conviction carried a five-year mandatory minimum and a forty-year statutory maximum. These penalties were enhanced pursuant to a 21 U.S.C. § 851 Information, resulting in an enhanced statutory sentencing range of ten years to life in prison and a term of supervised release of eight years.

         With a total offense level of thirty-five and a criminal history category of III, [1] Defendant's sentencing range under the Guidelines was originally calculated at 235 to 293 months. At Defendant's July 6, 2010 sentencing, the Court varied slightly downward and imposed concurrent sentences of 216 months imprisonment on both convictions and an eight-year term of supervised release to follow.[2] Id. On August 23, 2018, the Court reduced Defendant's term of imprisonment to 188 months. See Order Granting Defendant's § 3582 Mot., ECF No. 553.

         To date, Defendant has served approximately 115 months in prison. Probation Mem., at 4. While incarcerated, he has completed the drug education program, the non-residential drug treatment program, and “numerous” other educational courses. Probation Mem., at 5. He has also worked as an orderly for approximately two years. Id. Though he has accumulated at least eleven sanctions while incarcerated, his last recorded incident occurred in May 2017.[3] Id. At present, Defendant could be released as early as February 26, 2022. Id. at 4.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         When a court imposes a sentence of imprisonment, it is considered the final judgment on the matter and the court, as a general prohibition, “may not modify a term of imprisonment once it has been imposed.” 18 U.S.C. §§ 3582(b) & 3582(c)(1)(B). However, a court can modify a sentence where it is “expressly permitted by statute.” 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(B).

         The First Step Act of 2018 states, in relevant part, that a “court that imposed a sentence for a covered offense may . . . impose a reduced sentence as if sections 2 and 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 . . . were in effect at the time the covered offense was committed.” Pub. L. No. 115- 391, 132 Stat. 5194, § 404(b) (2018) (hereinafter “The First Step Act”). Section Two of the Fair Sentencing Act increased the quantity of cocaine base, or “crack, ” which triggers a mandatory minimum penalty. Pub. L. No. 111-220, §2, 124 Stat. 2372 (2010). Section Three eliminated the statutory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack. Id. at § 3.

         To be eligible for a reduction in sentence, a defendant's sentence must not have been imposed or previously reduced under sections two or three of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.[4]Id. at § 404(c). Nor can a defendant have been previously denied a reduction under § 404 of the First Step Act. Id. While a defendant, the Government, or the Court can move for a reduced sentence, individuals are not entitled to a reduction as courts are not required to grant relief under § 404. Id. The First Step Act therefore represents a broad grant of authority to the federal courts.

         Courts in this district and throughout the Fourth Circuit agree that the proper mechanism to seek relief under the First Step Act is 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(b).[5] United States v. Banks, No. 1:07-00157, 2019 WL 2221620, at *4 (S.D. W.Va. May 22, 2019) (Faber, J.) (citing United States v. Shelton, No. 3:07-329, 2019 WL 1598921, at *3 (D.S.C. April 15, 2019) (listing cases)). As such, the language of First Step Act controls the Court's ability to grant relief. See Wright v. United States, 393 F.Supp.3d 432, 441 (E.D. Va. 2019). Under § 3582(c)(1)(B), a court can choose to conduct a simple mechanical reduction of a sentence based on a decreased exposure to statutory minimums and the correlating lower guideline range.

         However, courts are not limited by § 3582(c)(1)(B). The First Step Act allows a court to “impose a reduced sentence” if an individual is eligible. The First Step Act, § 404(b). Reading the word “impose” consistently within the United States Code reveals that this equates to the announcement of a convicted person's sentence. See 18 U.S.C. §§ 3553(a) and 3582(a). Therefore, the First Step Act grants courts statutory authority to conduct a full resentencing, in addition to the discretion to decide when doing so is appropriate. See Wright, 393 F.Supp.3d at 441. Whether or not a court decides to resentence a defendant, the language of the First Step Act does not require a hearing. See Id. at 441. It is within the sound judgment of the Court to determine if an evidentiary or sentencing hearing is necessary to address the issues of a particular case.

         When considering the statutory authority under the First Step Act, federal courts presume Congress acts in the context of relevant case law. Abuelhawa v. United States, 556 U.S. 816, 821 (2009) (citing Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 380-81, n.12 (2000). The Fair Sentencing Act, and its application through the First Step Act, is administered in light of the Supreme Court's decision in United States v. Booker, which held that mandatory guideline ranges are unconstitutional. 543 U.S. 220, 244-45 (2005). While Booker is not retroactively applied on a collateral attack, a court may now vary outside of the guideline range if it chooses to conduct a full resentencing. United States v. Morris, 429 F.3d 65, 72 (4th Cir. 2005). This includes variances based on policy disagreements with the Sentencing Guidelines. See Kimbrough v. U.S., 552 U.S. 85 (2007).

         Once a defendant is determined to be eligible, the Court must examine the statutory threshold to which that defendant pleaded and compare it to the alteration of the applicable law. The Court recognizes that the drug quantity listed in an indictment traditionally tracks the statutory minimums to ensure a defendant's plea or conviction complies with the Sixth Amendment. It is not illogical to speculate that had the Fair Sentencing Act been enacted at the time of a defendant's plea, the elevated statutory amounts would be listed in the indictment and may have had little to no impact on the defendant's decision to plea. See United States v. Blocker, No. ...


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