By: Katharine Yale

Did the District Court Err in Declining to Consider Any 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) Factors Other Than Substantial Assistance when Determining the Extent of Appellant’s Sentence Reduction Below the Mandatory Minimum?

Today, in United States v. Spinks, the Fourth Circuit considered the Appellant’s challenge to his eighty-four month sentence for conspiracy to distribute cocaine and cocaine base. The Appellant argued that the district court erred by solely considering factors related to substantial assistance in reducing his sentence below the mandatory minimum. He contended that other 18 U.S.C. 3553(a) factors should have been considered.

Appellant Returns to the Fourth Circuit.

The appellant, Spinks, pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and cocaine base in 2008. Due to a filing of an Information of Prior Conviction, the district court determined that a 240 month sentence was appropriate. The government then moved, pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e), for a thirty percent downward departure on Spinks’ sentence based on his substantial assistance in the prosecution of a co-defendant. Ignoring factors other than those related to the substantial assistance, the district court granted the reduction, resulting in a 168 month sentence.  On appeal, this court affirmed the sentence.

In 2012, Spinks filed a motion requesting a reduction in his sentence because the underlying felony supporting his initial sentencing enhancement no longer qualified for the enhancement, after the ruling in United States v. Simmons. After resentencing, Spinks’ sentence became 120 months. The government renewed its § 3553(e) motion and the district court again granted the thirty percent departure, resulting in a eighty-four month sentence.

Spinks then asked the court to consider “some additional amount” of reduction due to rehabilitation that occurred since his first sentencing. The district court concluded that it did not have authority to consider § 3553(a) factors once it had departed below the mandatory minimum sentence.

Under § 3553(e), Only a Defendant’s Substantial Assistance and Factors Related to That Assistance May be Considered when Determining the Extent of a Departure Below a Mandatory Minimum Sentence.

Spinks appealed on the basis of the district court’s denial of consideration of factors other than his substantial assistance under § 3553(e). He contended that his post-conviction rehabilitation should have been considered in determining the extent of his reduced sentence. Spinks relied on two cases, United States v. Davis and Pepper v. United States.

Distinguishing both Pepper and Davis, and relying on United States v. Hood, the court emphasized that the extent of a reduced sentence under § 3553(e) can only be influenced by a defendant’s substantial assistance when a further departure would be below the mandatory minimum sentence.

Factors Related to Appellant’s Rehabilitation do not Fall Under § 3553(e) Because They are not Related to his Substantial Assistance, and the Cases upon Which Appellant Relied do not Apply to These Facts.

This court found that Hood controlled under the facts of this case. In Hood, the issue was the same as here: can a district court consider non-assistance factors when determining the extent of a reduced sentence under § 3553(e)? The Hood court concluded that because Congress has authorized a departure from the minimum sentence for this limited purpose, only the defendant’s substantial assistance and factors related to that assistance could be considered under § 3553(e). Thus, in this case, factors relating to anything other than Spinks’ substantial assistance should not have been considered, and the district court was correct in declining to consider Spinks’ rehabilitation.

Spinks contended that Davis overruled Hood and permits consideration of other factors because in that case, other factors were considered in a motion for sentence reduction under rule 35(b) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. The Fourth Circuit rejected this argument because here, the motion before the court was a § 3553(e) motion, not a 35(b) motion. The court emphasized the differences in the language of the two statutes. Section 3553(e) provides that the court can reduce the sentence “so as to reflect” substantial assistance, while Rule 35(b) does not contain language that the reduction must “reflect” the defendant’s assistance.

Spinks also contended that the Supreme Court decision Pepper abrogated Hood. In Pepper, the Supreme Court held that after a defendant’s sentence has been set aside on appeal, a sentencing court may consider a defendant’s post-sentencing rehabilitation to support a sentence outside of the advisory Guidelines range.   The Fourth Circuit rejected this argument because the Pepper court made clear that the holding applied to variances “from the now-advisory Federal Sentencing Guidelines range.” In this case, Spinks was not seeking a variance from the advisory Guidelines range, but instead was seeking a departure from a mandatory minimum.

The District Court Was Correct in Only Considering Substantial Assistance Factors.

Based on the language of the statute and the reasoning in Hood, the Fourth Circuit held that the district court did not err by solely considering Substantial Assistance factors under § 3553(e).  The court affirmed the appellant’s reduced sentence.

Dissenting Judge Would Not Make the Distinction Between § 3553(e) and Rule 35(b).

The dissent would not have made the distinction between § 3553(e) and Rule 35(b). In the advisory committee notes to Rule 35(b), the committee states that the omission of “reflect” (and other changes) in Rule 35(b) “are intended to be stylistic only.” Thus, based on the committee note and the reasoning in the Ninth Circuit case, United States v. Tadio, Senior Circuit Judge Davis would not make the distinction between the two and would allow other factors to be considered in both circumstances.   However, because Spinks failed to offer sufficient evidence regarding his rehabilitation, Judge Davis concurred in the judgment and voted to affirm the sentence.