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United States v. Alvaran-Velez

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

February 5, 2019

United States of America, Appellee
v.
Alvaro Alvaran-Velez, also known as Marcos, Appellant

          Argued October 16, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (No. 1:07-cr-00065-2)

          Carmen D. Hernandez, appointed by the court, argued the cause and filed the brief for appellant.

          Kirby A. Heller, Attorney, U.S. Department of Justice, argued the cause and filed the brief for appellee. Elizabeth Trosman, Assistant U.S. Attorney, entered an appearance.

          Before: Henderson and Pillard, Circuit Judges, and Edwards, Senior Circuit Judge.

          OPINION

          PILLARD, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         The question on appeal is whether the Ex Post Facto Clause forbids applying a current U.S. Sentencing Commission policy statement, which offers sentence reductions only to those defendants whose original sentences are not already below newly reduced guideline ranges, to a defendant whose crime occurred before that version of the policy statement took effect. The defendant, Alvaro Alvaran-Velez, claims that he could have gotten a sentence reduction under the version of the policy statement in effect at the time of his crime. Using a newer version, he argues, violated the Ex Post Facto Clause by eliminating a real chance for a shorter sentence upon guideline range reduction that he believes existed when he committed the offense. Because, correctly read, the earlier version did not even apply to him, we affirm the district court's denial of Alvaran's motion for a sentence reduction.

         I.

         Alvaran violated 21 U.S.C. §§ 959, 960, and 963 by conspiring between 2005 and 2007 to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine, knowing or intending that the cocaine would be imported into the United States. He was convicted after a jury trial in 2010. At the time of Alvaran's sentencing in 2013, the applicable Sentencing Guideline range was 324 to 405 months imprisonment. The court nevertheless sentenced him to 180 months, significantly below the applicable range. In doing so, the court weighed the seriousness of the offense, Alvaran's lack of a criminal record, his poor health, letters from his family attesting to his good character, the fact that he was raised in a poor family, and that he was far less culpable than another defendant who had been sentenced to 300 months-all factors appropriate to consider under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).

         The year following Alvaran's sentencing, the Sentencing Commission adopted Guideline Amendment 782, which lowered the base offense levels for certain drug crimes by two levels, and Amendment 788, which applied the new levels retroactively. United States Sentencing Commission, Guidelines Manual, App. C, amends. 782, 788 (Supp. 2014). Had Alvaran been sentenced under the amended guidelines, the applicable sentencing range would have been 262 to 327 months-substantially lower than the 324-to-405-month range at Alvaran's initial sentencing, but still well above his actual 180-month sentence.

         Alvaran requested a sentence reduction pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2), which allows a district court to reduce the sentence of a defendant whose guideline range is subsequently lowered "if such a reduction is consistent with applicable policy statements issued by the Sentencing Commission." But the district court held that a newer version of one of those policy statements, USSG § 1B1.10, foreclosed reducing his sentence. As revised by a 2011 amendment, Amendment 759, that policy statement set the bottom of the new guideline range as a floor for sentence reductions by providing that "the court shall not reduce the defendant's term of imprisonment . . . to a term that is less than the minimum of the amended guideline range." USSG § 1B1.10(b)(2)(A) (2016). Because Alvaran's sentence was already below the minimum of the amended guideline range, the district court held that USSG § 1B1.10 prevented any further reduction.

         Alvaran contended that applying the policy statement's sentence reduction floor to deny him a reduction violated the Ex Post Facto Clause, U.S. Const. art. I, § 9, cl. 3, because a 2006 version of the policy statement-in force when he committed his crime-would have allowed the district court to reduce his sentence in response to the amended guidelines range. That 2006 policy statement advised a court reducing a sentence pursuant to guideline amendments to "consider the term of imprisonment that it would have imposed had the amendment(s) to the guidelines listed in subsection (c) been in effect at the time the defendant was sentenced." USSG § 1B1.10(b) (2006). Subsection (c) listed twenty-four amendments that lowered guideline ranges; it did not include the amendment that lowered Alvaran's sentencing range, Amendment 782, which would not be passed for another eight years. Alvaran pointed to an application note to the 2006 version that states that, "[w]hen the original sentence represented a downward departure, a comparable reduction below the amended guideline range may be appropriate." Id. § 1B1.10, comment. (n.3). That application note, he claimed, shows that, but for the 2011 amendment of USSG § 1B1.10(b)(2)(A) prohibiting below-guideline sentence reductions, he would have been eligible for a reduction below the lowered guideline range comparable to the original reduction the court granted.

         At the hearing on Alvaran's motion for a sentence reduction, the district court said that it would lower his sentence "very substantially" if it could, but that the then-current Guidelines Manual forbade a reduction. Alvaran argued that applying the new policy statement with the guideline reduction violated the Ex Post Facto Clause because it eliminated his opportunity to invoke the court's discretion to lower his sentence. The district court disagreed.

         We review de novo whether applying the 2016 version of USSG § 1B1.10 to Alvaran violates the Ex Post Facto Clause. See United States v. ...


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