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United States v. Melendez-Rocha

United States District Court, D. South Dakota, Southern Division

June 1, 2016

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
BENJAMIN MELENDEZ-ROCHA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER DENYING MOTION FOR REDUCED SENTENCE UNDER 18 U.S.C. § 3582(C)(2) AND AMENDMENT 782

          Lawrence L. Piersol United States District Judge

         Defendant Benjamin Melendez-Rocha filed a pro se motion for a reduced sentence pursuant to Amendment 782 of the United States Sentencing Guidelines and the provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2). (Doc. 1299.) The government resists the motion. (Doc. 1300.) For the reasons set forth below, Melendez-Rocha's motion will be denied.

         BACKGROUND

         On December 10, 2010, Melendez-Rocha was sentenced by this court after a jury found him guilty of conspiracy to distribute a mixture or substance containing 500 grams or more of methamphetamine and conspiracy to commit money laundering as charged in counts 1 and 3 of the indictment. The Court sustained Melendez-Rocha's objection to a four-level increase in his base offense level for being an organizer or leader and instead applied only the three-level enhancement as a manager. Melendez-Rocha's total offense level was 41. With a criminal history category of VI, Melendez-Rocha's advisory guideline range was 360 months to life imprisonment. Melendez-Rocha's lawyer argued in favor of a variance below 30 years of imprisonment, comparing him with the leader of the conspiracy whose role in the offense was much greater and who had received a sentence of 30 years of imprisonment, and contending that Melendez-Rocha's sentence should not be as long. After considering the factors under 18 U.S.C. § 3553, and in particular noting that Melendez-Rocha had a criminal history category of VI, the Court determined that there was no basis for a downward variance. (Doc. 1115 at 15.) Melendez-Rocha was sentenced to 360 months on the methamphetamine conspiracy charge and 240 months on the money laundering conspiracy charge, both sentences to run concurrently and also to run concurrently with sentences that were imposed in Arizona.

         After Melendez-Rocha's sentencing, the government realized that a prior drug conviction did not meet the requirements for increased punishment under 21 U.S.C. § 851(a), and the government withdrew an information providing notice that it would seek increased punishment pursuant to section 851(a) for that conviction.[1] In light of this new development and Melendez-Rocha's motion to correct his sentence under Rule 3 5(a), the Court vacated the sentence and held another sentencing hearing on December 18, 2010. There, the Court granted Melendez-Rocha's objection to the career offender enhancement and thus his criminal history category was not enhanced to VI. The government agreed that Melendez-Rocha's criminal history category was III rather than VI. (Doc. 1118 at 8.) With a total offense level of 41 and criminal history category III, Melendez-Rocha's advisory guideline range remained at 360 months to life imprisonment.

         The new criminal history category of III instead of VI prompted the Court to revisit the issue of a variance at the second sentencing hearing. (Doc. 1118 at 12.) Although the co-defendant and leader of the conspiracy was found guilty on the marijuana count, the Court noted that Melendez-Rocha was found not guilty on that count. (Id.) The Court also credited Melendez-Rocha for not having a gun enhancement. (Id. at 12-13.) The Court concluded that a variance would be granted in order to avoid unwarranted sentencing disparities. A sentence of 348 months imprisonment was imposed on the methamphetamine conspiracy count. (Id. at 14.)

         On direct appeal, the Eighth Circuit affirmed Melendez-Rocha's conviction and sentence. See United States v. Diaz-Pellegaud, 666 F.3d 2012 (8th Cir. 2012). On January 5, 2016, this Court denied Melendez-Rocha's motion to vacate, set aside or correct his sentence filed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. See CIV. 13-4102, docs. 26, 27. That decision is currently on appeal before the Eighth Circuit. Id., doc. 28.

         After the Sentencing Commission adopted Amendment 782, made retroactive by U.S.S.G. § 1B1.10, Melendez-Rocha filed his first motion for a sentence reduction based on Amendment 782 on August 26, 2015.[2] (Doc. 1280.) Essentially, Amendment 782 "applies retroactively to reduce most drug quantity base offense levels by two levels." United States v. Lawin, 779 F.3d 780, 781 n. 2 (8th Cir. 2015) (per curiam) (citing United States v. Thomas, 775 F.3d 982 (8th Cir. 2014)). Under Amendment 782, Melendez-Rocha's new total offense level is 39 rather than 41and, with a criminal history category of III, his sentencing range is 324 to 405 months. In an Order issued on September 25, 2015, the Court granted the motion for a sentence reduction and reduced Melendez-Rocha's sentence to 324 months imprisonment on the methamphetamine count. (Doc. 1282.)

         In Melendez-Rocha's pending pro se motion he asserts that educational achievements and vocational rehabilitation he has accomplished in prison entitle him to a further reduction in his sentence under Amendment 782 and the provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2).

         DISCUSSION

         A district court may reduce a term of imprisonment under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) if a defendant's sentence was based on a sentencing range subsequently lowered by the Sentencing Commission, and that a reduction is "consistent with applicable policy statements issued by the Sentencing Commission." 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2). The United States Sentencing Commission has imposed restrictions on a court's ability to reduce a sentence, and courts have no choice but to follow the Sentencing Commission's applicable policy statements in considering a sentence reduction. The Supreme Court has stated that § 3582(c)(2) "provides for the 'modification of] a term of imprisonment' by giving courts the power to 'reduce' an otherwise final sentence in circumstances specified by the Commission, " and does not provide for "a plenary resentencing proceeding." Dillon v. United States, 560 U.S. 817, 825-26 (2010) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 994(a)(2)(C)) (alterations in original). Because the Commission maintained the ability to determine the scope and content of available sentence reductions under § 3582(c)(2), courts are "constrained by the Commission's statements dictating 'by what amount' the sentence of a prisoner serving a term of imprisonment affected by the amendment 'may be reduced.'" Id. at 826. Section 1B1.10(b)(2)(A) of the sentencing guidelines states, in relevant part, that "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...." The Supreme Court established a two-part analysis to guide a district court in considering a § 3582(c) motion. See Dillon, 560 U.S. at 826-27. First, the court must recalculate the applicable guideline range by determining what it would have been if the amended guideline had been in effect at the time of sentencing. Id. at 827; see also U.S.S.G. § 1B1.10(b)(1). A reduction under § 3582(c)(2) is not authorized unless the amended guideline has "the effect of lowering the defendant's applicable guideline range." See U.S.S.G. § 1 Bl. 10(a)(2)(B). Second, if a defendant is eligible for a sentence reduction, the district court must consider any applicable sentencing factors listed in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) and decide whether to exercise its discretion to reduce the defendant's original sentence, and to what extent, see Dillon, 560 U.S. at 827, keeping in mind, however, that the Sentencing Commission has decreed that a court may not reduce a defendant's sentence to a term less than the low end of the amended guideline range.[3]

         In this case, the Court completed the two-step process for Melendez-Rocha before granting his first motion for a sentence reduction. First, the Court determined that, under Amendment 782, Melendez-Rocha's new total offense level is 39, his criminal history category remains at III, and his sentencing range is 324 to 405 months. Next, the Court considered relevant § 3553(a) factors and reduced Melendez-Rocha's sentence to the bottom of the new guideline range (324 months) on the methamphetamine count, which is the lowest sentence that the Court had authority to impose under the parameters set by the Sentencing Commission.

         The Court commends Melendez-Rocha for his efforts to improve himself while in prison, but the Court has no authority to reduce Melendez-Rocha's sentence any further. Accordingly, IT IS ORDERED that Defendant Benjamin Melendez-Rocha's pro se motion for modified sentence ...


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