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United States v. Jones

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

January 24, 2017

United States of America, Appellee
James Antonio Jones, also known as Tonio, Appellant

          Argued October 21, 2016

         Appeals from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (No. 1:89-cr-00162-4) (No. 1:89-cr-00162-2)

          Tony Axam Jr., Assistant Federal Public Defender, argued the cause for appellant. With him on the briefs was A.J. Kramer, Federal Public Defender.

          Nicholas P. Coleman, Assistant U.S. Attorney, argued the cause for appellee. With him on the briefs were Elizabeth Trosman, Chrisellen R. Kolb, William B. Wiegand, and John Dominguez, Assistant U.S. Attorneys.

          Before: Kavanaugh and Wilkins, Circuit Judges, and Williams, Senior Circuit Judge.


          Williams, Senior Circuit Judge

         Appellants Melvin Butler and James Antonio Jones are each serving lengthy prison sentences for drug offenses. Based on a recent retroactive amendment to the United States Sentencing Guidelines, they sought reductions of those sentences under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2). Although the district court agreed that it could reduce their sentences, it declined to do so after considering the relevant factors listed in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). United States v. Butler, 130 F.Supp.3d 317 (D.D.C. 2015).

         Appellants challenge those denials as substantively unreasonable. Before reaching the merits, we must consider our statutory basis to hear these appeals and whether that authority extends to reviewing the reasonableness of the district court's decisions. Since we find that 28 U.S.C. § 1291 permits such review, we consider the underlying denials and, finding them to be reasonable, we affirm.

         * * *

         Section 3582 of Title 18 sets out the statutory background for the district court proceedings that we review. While it starts with the general proposition that a court may not modify a term of imprisonment "once it has been imposed, " it goes on to create exceptions, notably § 3582(c)(2). Where a defendant has been sentenced to a term "based on a sentencing range that has subsequently been lowered by the Sentencing Commission . . ., the court may reduce the term of imprisonment, after considering the factors set forth in section 3553(a) . . . if such a reduction is consistent with applicable policy statements issued by the Sentencing Commission." Id. § 3582(c)(2); see U.S.S.G. § 1B1.10(a) (policy statement on reductions); see also Dillon v. United States, 560 U.S. 817, 826-27 (2010) (further explaining the framework).

         Along with several others, appellants were convicted in 1989 of conspiracy to distribute large amounts of cocaine. After post-trial motions and appeals (the details of which are not relevant here), the district court determined that, based on the quantity of drugs and various enhancements, the then-mandatory Sentencing Guidelines provided a range of 324 to 405 months for both Butler and Jones. The district court then imposed sentences at or near the top of that range-405 months for Butler and 393 months for Jones. According to the Bureau of Prisons, Butler is scheduled to be released on October 14, 2017 and Jones on February 23, 2018.

         Roughly twenty years later, the Sentencing Commission adopted amendments that authorized retroactive reduction of the sentences for most drug offenses. Unlike prior amendments that targeted specific substances, Amendment 782 worked an across-the-board reduction in the offense levels for most drug crimes. And in Amendment 788 the Commission provided for courts to apply the reduction retroactively after determining that offense levels had previously been set unnecessarily high and "that a reduction would be an appropriate step toward alleviating the overcapacity of the federal prisons." U.S.S.G. Supp. to App'x C, Amend. 788 at 86. But the Commission built a one-year delay into its retroactivity amendment (until November 1, 2015), "to give courts adequate time to obtain and review the information necessary to make an individualized determination . . . of whether a sentence reduction is appropriate" based on the § 3553(a) factors. Id. at 87; see also U.S.S.G. § 1B1.10(e)(1).

          Appellants filed unopposed motions invoking Amendment 782 to reduce their sentences to time served as of November 1, 2015. The district court agreed that appellants were each eligible for a reduction under Amendment 782, which reduced their sentencing ranges to 262 to 327 months. Butler, 130 F.Supp.3d at 321. (Although by that point appellants had each served more than 327 months, the terms of Amendment 788 limited their maximum benefit to release on its November 1, 2015 start date.) Despite appellants' eligibility for reductions, the district court considered defendants' motions in light of the ยง 3553(a) factors ...

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