December 16, 2018

Tenth Circuit: Retroactive Sentence Reduction Inappropriate for Successive Motion on Identical Issue

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Green on April 6, 2018.

Green appealed the district court’s decision to deny his second motion for reducing his sentence. Green’s appeal was based on his view that the district court abused its discretion in not considering all of the facts and circumstances of his case for reducing his sentence.

In 2011, Green was sentenced to 130 months’ imprisonment after pleading guilty to three counts of using a communication facility to facilitate the acquisition of cocaine powder in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 843(b). Green was initially indicted on seven counts of possession of cocaine powder and cocaine base with intent to distribute and three counts of using a communication facility to facilitate the acquisition of cocaine powder. He pleaded guilty for the three communication-facility counts, and the district court imposed 130 months’ imprisonment. One of the reasons for the higher sentence was the Defendant’s extensive criminal history spanning over 30 years and including a manslaughter conviction, convictions for distribution of cocaine base, violation of protective order, and distribution of crack cocaine.

Three years later, the base offense level for many drug offenses was reduced by two levels when the U.S. Sentencing Commission promulgated Amendment 782, which was retroactive.

Citing Amendment 782, Green then filed another motion to reduce his sentence under 18 U.S.C § 3582(c)(2), arguing he was eligible for a reduction based on the amendment and the progress he had made while in prison as shown by his transcript listing the courses he had completed. The district court denied the motion, and the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial.

Fifteen months after the first appeal, Green filed another motion to reduce his sentence under § 3582(c)(2), again citing Amendment 782 and based on the courses he completed while in prison. With the exception of additional courses, the second appeal was the same as the first appeal. The district court denied this second motion, explaining that Amendment 782 did not mandate relief and that completion of courses did not make a reduction appropriate. Defendant appealed the denial, arguing the district court abused its discretion in not considering all the facts and circumstances of his case, including his clean disciplinary record while incarcerated.

When assessing whether the district court had jurisdiction to consider Defendant’s second motion to modify his sentence under Amendment 782, the Tenth Circuit determined whether 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) contained a jurisdictional bar to second motions based on the same guidelines amendment, and stated it was a question “of considerable practical importance for judges and litigants.” It noted that courts have an ongoing obligation to determine whether adjudicating a particular case is within their subject-matter jurisdiction, even if neither party argues the court lacks jurisdiction.

In consideration of the Supreme Court’s caution against reckless use of the term “jurisdictional,” the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals relied on 18 U.S.C. § 3582 for guidance. The government contended § 3582(c)(2) only confers jurisdiction on district courts to consider one motion to modify a sentence under each amendment. Since Defendant had previously filed a motion to modify his sentence under Amendment 782, the government argued that the district court lacked jurisdiction to consider his second motion to modify his sentence under this same amendment.

Absent a clear statement from Congress that any potential bar on the number of motions a defendant may file per amendment is jurisdictional, the Court held § 3582(c)(2) did not divest a district court of jurisdiction to consider a second motion to modify a sentence under the same amendment. The government, however, did not advance any argument that § 3582(c)(2) imposes a non-jurisdictional bar, therefore, this issue was do not addressed.

The Tenth Circuit used a two-step inquiry to determine whether the defendant was eligible for a sentence reduction, and whether a sentence reduction was warranted in accordance with the 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) factors. The parties did not dispute that Defendant was eligible for a reduced sentence under § 3582(c)(2). Defendant only argued the district court erred in the second step of the § 3582(c)(2) inquiry by holding that a reduced sentence was not warranted upon consideration of the § 3553(a) factors, more specifically that the district court did not consider the courses he completed while he was in prison.

The Tenth Circuit found the district court’s considerations of these factors as “unquestionably appropriate.” The district court then determined that Defendant’s coursework while in prison and certificates of completed coursework did not overcome these considerations. The Tenth Circuit concluded that this determination was well within the district court’s discretion.

Additionally, Defendant argued in his initial pro se brief that the district court did not consider his clean disciplinary record while in prison. The disciplinary record was not presented to the district court, so the Tenth Circuit did not consider Defendant’s clean disciplinary record.

Defendant argued that the Circuit should have remanded to the district court so that the district court may consider the Defendant’s disciplinary record while in prison. In general, a remand for a party to produce additional evidence is inappropriate where the party had full opportunity to present the evidence in the first instance.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s order.

Colorado Supreme Court: Amendment 64 Applies to Sentences for Crimes Being Appealed at Effective Date

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in People v. Boyd on Tuesday, January 17, 2017.

Amendment 64—Marijuana Legalization—Constitutional Amendment.

The Colorado Supreme Court considered whether Amendment 64 deprived the state of the power to continue to prosecute cases where there was a non-final conviction for possession of less than one ounce of marijuana and where there was a pending right to appeal when Amendment 64 became effective. The court concluded that Amendment 64 nullified the state’s authority to continue to prosecute respondent on appeal because the amendment superseded the underlying statutory authority for the prosecution. The court contemplated United States v. Chambers, 291 U.S. 217 (1934), in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that when a statute is rendered inoperative, no further proceedings can be had to enforce it in pending prosecution. Accordingly, the court affirmed the Colorado Court of Appeals’ judgment reversing respondent’s conviction.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Statute Permitting Will Reformation Based on Extrinsic Evidence of Intent Is Not Rule of Construction

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in In re Estate of Ramstetter on Thursday, May 19, 2016.

Probate—Extrinsic Evidence—Mutual Mistake.

Louise Ramstetter devised her ranch to her daughters, Jeanne, Marie, and Karol, “in equal shares to be held as joint tenants.” Louise died in 2009 and Marie and Karol, as personal representatives, began administering the estate. Three years later, Jeanne petitioned to remove Marie and Karol as personal representatives and for a declaratory judgment that she had severed the joint tenancy among the sisters, creating a tenancy in common as to her one-third of the ranch by deeding her interest to a trust she had created. Marie and Karol cross-petitioned to enforce a 2012 Agreement and Release in which they had agreed to convey 35 acres of the ranch to Jeanne and she had agreed to convey the remainder of the ranch to them, with all other claims being released. They also sought reformation of the will based on the failure of the attorney who drafted the will to have implemented Louise’s intent to keep ownership of the ranch within the family.

The trial court granted Jeanne’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, finding the will unambiguous. It accepted the parties’ position that application of CRS § 15-11-806, which allows a court to reform an unambiguous instrument “to conform the terms to the transferor’s intention” based on clear and convincing evidence that the “transferor’s intent and the terms of the governing instrument were affected by a mistake of fact or law,” was determined by CRS § 15-17-101(2), but concluded that CRS § 15-17-101(2) did not make CRS § 15-11-806 applicable because Louise had died before the latter section became effective. Moreover, it found that the reformation claim depended wholly on extrinsic evidence of Louise’s intent, and therefore dismissed it. The court found that the Agreement and Release was “invalid as a result of mutual mistake among the parties to it” and that Jeanne had severed the joint tenancy by the conveyance to her trust.

On appeal, Karol and Marie first argued that the trial court improperly dismissed their claim for reformation of Louise’s will. CRS § 15-11-806 amended the probate code to allow reformation of an unambiguous instrument. The Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court that CRS § 15-11-806 cannot be applied retroactively in this case, but on different grounds: The Court found that CRS § 15-17-101(2)(b), which would allow retroactive application of CRS § 15-11-806, does not apply here because CRS § 15-17-101(2)(a) applies only to governing instruments and therefore controls over the more general subsection (2)(b) and does not provide a basis for retroactively applying CRS § 15-11-806. Also, CRS § 15-17-101(2)(e) does not allow retroactive application of CRS § 15-11-806 because CRS § 15-11-806 is not a rule of construction and therefore 2(e) doesn’t apply. Because CRS § 15-17-101(2)(a) and (b) do not permit retroactive application, the trial court properly precluded Karol and Marie from attempting to reform Louise’s will using extrinsic evidence of her intent under CRS §15-11-806. Karol and Marie also argued that the court improperly invoked stare decisis when dismissing their reformation claim. Because the terms of the will were unambiguous, the court properly did not admit extrinsic evidence to establish a contrary intent to that expressed in her will.

Karol and Marie then argued that the trial court misapplied the mutual mistake doctrine and erred in declining to enforce the Agreement and Release because all the sisters were mutually mistaken that only a contract among them could sever the joint tenancy. The Court reviewed the trial court decision for clear error and found sufficient support in the record to uphold its conclusion that all three sisters held the same mistaken belief. The Court also rejected Karol and Marie’s arguments that other findings of the trial court were irreconcilably inconsistent with the finding of mutual mistake.

The orders dismissing the reformation claim and voiding the Agreement and Release for mutual mistake were affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.