A federal district judge in Dallas granted compassionate release based on a recent retroactive Supreme Court case, despite finding that the same exact claim filed earlier under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 was denied as being too late. The court reasoned that an illegal sentence was an “extraordinary and compelling reason” for compassionate release. United States v. Solomon, 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 63911 (N.D. Tex. Apr. 11, 2023).

The movant in this case was sentenced in 2018 for conspiracy to commit Hobbs Act robbery (18 U.S.C. § 1951) and for using a firearm in furtherance of that crime (18 U.S.C. § 924(c)). He was sentenced to almost four years for the robbery plus a mandatory consecutive seven-year sentence for the firearm conviction. He didn’t appeal and his criminal case became final. But then things changed when the Supreme Court held in United States v. Davis, 139 S. Ct. 2319 (2019), that the so-called residual clause of § 924(c) was unconstitutional. Subsequent developments in the courts then rendered a conspiracy conviction as one that could only fall under the now-invalid residual clause (the courts had previously held that a conspiracy was the same as a completed crime).

Had the movant in this case filed his Davis claim under § 2255 within one year of the High Court’s decision, his § 924(c) conviction and sentence would have been vacated. However, he waited almost three years after Davis and the district court denied his claim as untimely filed. But he didn’t give up and filed a motion for compassionate release under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A). Recall that Congress expanded compassionate release, in the First Step Act of 2018, allowing prisoners to file for relief in certain situations.

The court granted relief, finding that the unconstitutional § 924(c) sentence was an “extraordinary and compelling reason” for relief:

The Court concludes that the jurisprudential rebuke of § 924(c)’s elements clause, as applied to Solomon, is an extraordinary and compelling circumstance. Were he sentenced today, he would not receive an eighty-four-month sentence under § 924(c). And he has already served the forty-six-month sentence the Court found appropriate for the conspiracy conviction…and then some. Indeed, even were the Court to look at the upper level of the Guidelines sentencing range for the conspiracy violation instead of what Solomon received, that upper level was eighty-seven months, and Solomon has served more than eighty-four months as of the date of this order.

As expected, the government had argued that changes in sentencing law cannot support compassionate release. The court here rejected this position:

Solomon’s case is different. The sentencing change at issue is jurisprudential and has been explicitly found to be retroactive on collateral review. [*9] Thus, this is not the normal case involving a non-retroactive change to a criminal sentencing law. Further, because the change in law is jurisprudential [one made by the court and not Congress], the separation of powers concerns identified in McMaryion are absent. McMaryion [holding that non-retroactive changes made by changes in the law were not grounds for compassionate release] does not preclude a finding of an extraordinary and compelling circumstance in this case.

The court also rejected the government’s argument that claims that could be raised in a § 2255 motion cannot be grounds for compassionate release. Courts have been saying as much lately, but here’s what the court said about this trend:

The Court would agree if Solomon was claiming that his § 924(c) sentence violates the Constitution. But Solomon is not claiming, at least in this motion, that his § 924(c) sentence is illegal. He is saying that it is unjust—and an extraordinary and compelling reason for release—that he must discharge an eighty-four-month sentence that he would not have received were he sentenced today. This disparity is, according to Solomon, the extraordinary and compelling reason for a sentence reduction. And the Court agrees.

In other words, it wasn’t that the § 924(c) conviction and sentence were unconstitutional (which they were); it was that they were fundamentally unfair. This kind of argument took the claim outside the scope of § 2255. The way a claim is argued makes all the difference!

Having found the wrongful § 924(c) conviction and sentence were extraordinary and compelling reasons for compassionate release, the court then found that a reduced sentence aligned with the sentencing factors listed in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), one of the required steps a court deciding a compassionate release motion must take:

In sum, after considering the totality of the circumstances, the Court finds that Solomon has shown extraordinary and compelling reasons that justify a reduced sentence under § 3582(c)(1)(A). The Court also finds that his release from imprisonment will not a pose a danger to the safety of any other person or the community and does not undermine the statutory purposes of sentencing. Last, the § 3553(a) factors support a sentence reduction in Solomon’s case.

Accordingly, the court granted the movant’s request and reduced his sentence to “time served.”

Dale’s take: If you look at the proposed amendments to the Sentencing Guidelines that’ll go into effect in November (if Congress doesn’t object to them), you’ll see that unfair convictions and sentences are possible grounds for compassionate release. Here’s what it says for one of the suggested grounds: “CHANGES IN LAW — The defendant is serving a sentence that is inequitable in light of changes in the law.” Seems pretty clear to me that wrongful convictions and sentences can be corrected through compassionate release.