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Hughes v. United States

United States Supreme Court

June 4, 2018


          Argued March 27, 2018


         In Freeman v. United States, 564 U.S. 522, this Court considered whether a prisoner who had been sentenced under a plea agreement authorized by the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure could have his sentence reduced under 18 U.S.C. §3582(c)(2) when his Federal Guidelines sentencing range was lowered retroactively. No single interpretation or rationale commanded a majority, however. Some Courts of Appeals, turning to Marks v. United States, 430 U.S. 188, for guidance, adopted the reasoning of JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR's opinion concurring in the judgment. Others interpreted Marks differently and adopted the plurality's reasoning. Because this Court can now resolve the substantive, sentencing issue discussed in Freeman, it is unnecessary to reach questions regarding the proper application of Marks.

         The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 authorizes the United States Sentencing Commission to establish, and retroactively amend, Sentencing Guidelines. Though the Guidelines are only advisory, see United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220, a district court must consult them during sentencing, id., at 264, along with other factors specified in 18 U.S.C. §3553(a), including "the need to avoid unwarranted sentence disparities, " §3553(a)(6). When an amendment applies retroactively, district courts may reduce the sentences of prisoners whose sentences were "based on a sentencing range that has subsequently been lowered by the Sentencing Commission." §3582(c)(2).

         This case concerns the issue whether a defendant may seek relief under §3582(c)(2) if he entered a plea agreement under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(C) (Type-C agreement), which permits the defendant and the Government to "agree that a specific sentence or sentencing range is the appropriate disposition of the case, " and "binds the court [to the agreed-upon sentence] once [it] accepts the plea agreement." In making its decision, the district court must consider the Sentencing Guidelines. And it may not accept the agreement unless the sentence is within the applicable Guidelines range, or it is outside that range for justifiable reasons specifically set out.

         After petitioner Erik Hughes was indicted on drug and gun charges, he and the Government negotiated a Type-C plea agreement, which stipulated that Hughes would receive a sentence of 180 months but did not refer to a particular Guidelines range. Hughes pleaded guilty. At his sentencing hearing, the District Court accepted the agreement and sentenced him to 180 months. In so doing, it calculated Hughes' Guidelines range as 188 to 235 months and determined that the sentence was in accordance with the Guidelines and other factors the court was required to consider. Less than two months later, the Sentencing Commission adopted, and made retroactive, an amendment that had the effect of reducing Hughes' sentencing range to 151 to 188 months. The District Court denied Hughes' motion for a reduced sentence under §3582(c)(2), and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed. Both courts concluded that, under the Freeman concurrence, Hughes was ineligible for a reduced sentence because his plea agreement did not expressly rely on a Guidelines range.


1. A sentence imposed pursuant to a Type-C agreement is "based on" the defendant's Guidelines range so long as that range was part of the framework the district court relied on in imposing the sentence or accepting the agreement. Pp. 7-14.
(a) A principal purpose of the Sentencing Guidelines is to promote sentencing uniformity. But in the aftermath of Freeman, a defendant's eligibility for a reduced sentence under §3582(c)(2) turns on the Circuit in which the case arises. Even within Circuits that follow the Freeman concurrence, unwarranted disparities have resulted depending on whether a defendant's Type-C agreement has a specific-enough reference to a Guidelines range. This Court's precedents since Freeman have confirmed that the Guidelines remain the foundation of federal sentencing decisions. See, e.g., Peugh v. United States, 569 U.S. 530; Molina-Martinez v. United States, 578 U.S.__. Pp. 7-9.
(b) A district court imposes a sentence that is "based on" a Guidelines range for purposes of §3582(c)(2) if the range was a basis for the court's exercise of discretion in imposing a sentence. Given the standard legal definition of "base, " there will be no question in the typical case that the defendant's Guidelines range was a basis for his sentence. A district court is required to calculate and consider a defendant's Guidelines range in every case. §3553(a). Indeed, the Guidelines are "the starting point for every sentencing calculation in the federal system." Peugh, supra, at 542. Thus, in general, §3582(c)(2) allows district courts to reconsider a prisoner's sentence based on a new starting point-that is, a lower Guidelines range- and determine whether a reduction is appropriate.
A sentence imposed pursuant to a Type-C agreement is no exception to the general rule that a defendant's Guidelines range is the starting point and a basis for his ultimate sentence. The Government and the defendant may agree to a specific sentence, but the Sentencing Guidelines prohibit district courts from accepting Type-C agreements without first evaluating the recommended sentence in light of the defendant's Guidelines range. So in the usual case the court's acceptance of a Type-C agreement and the sentence to be imposed pursuant to that agreement are "based on" the defendant's Guidelines range. Since the Guidelines are a district court's starting point, when the Commission lowers the range, the defendant will be eligible for relief under §3582(c)(2) absent clear demonstration, based on the record as a whole, that the court would have imposed the same sentence regardless of the Guidelines.
This interpretation furthers §3582(c)(2)'s purpose, as well as the broader purposes of the Sentencing Reform Act. It is also reinforced by Molina-Martinez and Peugh, which both confirm that the Guidelines remain a basis for almost all federal sentences. Experience has shown that, although the interpretation proffered by JUSTICE So-TOMAYOR's concurring opinion in Freeman could be one permissible reading of §3582(c)(2), as a systemic, structural matter the system Congress put in place is best implemented by the interpretation confirmed in this case. Pp. 9-12.
(c) The Government's counterarguments-that allowing defendants with Type-C agreements to seek reduced sentences under §3582(c)(2) would deprive the Government of a benefit of its bargain, namely, the defendant's agreement to a particular sentence; and that allowing courts to reduce the sentences of defendants like Hughes would be inconsistent with one of the Commission's policy statements-are unpersuasive. Pp. 12-14.
2. Hughes is eligible for relief under §3582(c)(2). The District Court accepted his Type-C agreement after concluding that a 180-month sentence was consistent with the Guidelines, and then calculated Hughes' sentencing range and imposed a sentence it deemed "compatible" with the Guidelines. The sentencing range was thus a basis for the sentence imposed. And that range has since been lowered by the Commission. The District Court has discretion to decide whether to reduce Hughes' sentence after considering the §3553(a) factors and the Commission's relevant policy statements. P. 14.

849 F.3d 1008, reversed and remanded.

          KENNEDY, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which GlNSBURG, BREYER, SOTOMAYOR, KAGAN, and GORSUCH, JJ., joined. SOTOMAYOR, J., filed a concurring opinion. ROBERTS, C. J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which THOMAS and Alito, JJ., joined.


          Kennedy, Justice

         The proper construction of federal sentencing statutes and the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure can present close questions of statutory and textual interpretation when implementing the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. Seven Terms ago the Court considered one of these issues in a case involving a prisoner's motion to reduce his sentence, where the prisoner had been sentenced under a plea agreement authorized by a specific Rule of criminal procedure. Freeman v. United States, 564 U.S. 522 (2011). The prisoner maintained that his sentence should be reduced under 18 U.S.C. §3582(c)(2) when his Guidelines sentencing range was lowered retroactively. 564 U.S., at 527-528 (plurality opinion).

         No single interpretation or rationale in Freeman commanded a majority of the Court. The courts of appeals then confronted the question of what principle or principles considered in Freeman controlled when an opinion by four Justices and a concurring opinion by a single Justice had allowed a majority of this Court to agree on the judgment in Freeman but not on one interpretation or rule that courts could follow in later cases when similar questions arose under the same statute and Rule.

         For guidance courts turned to this Court's opinion in Marks v. United States, 430 U.S. 188 (1977). Some courts interpreted Marks as directing them to follow the "narrowest" opinion in Freeman that was necessary for the judgment in that case; and, accordingly, they adopted the reasoning of the opinion concurring in the judgment by Justice Sotomayor. See United States v. Rivera-Martinez, 665 F.3d 344, 348 (CM 2011); United States v. Thompson, 682 F.3d 285, 290 (CA3 2012); United States v. Brown, 653 F.3d 337, 340, n. 1 (CA4 2011); United States v. Benitez, 822 F.3d 807, 811 (CA5 2016); United States v. Smith, 658 F.3d 608, 611 (CA6 2011); United States v. Dixon, 687 F.3d 356, 359 (CA7 2012); United States v. Browne, 698 F.3d 1042, 1045 (CA8 2012); United States v. Graham, 704 F.3d 1275, 1277-1278 (CA10 2013).

         In contrast, the Courts of Appeals for the District of Columbia and Ninth Circuits held that no opinion in Freeman provided a controlling rule because the reasoning in the concurrence was not a "logical subset" of the reasoning in the plurality. United States v. Davis, 825 F.3d 1014, 1021-1022 (CA9 2016) (en banc); United States v. Epps, 707 F.3d 337, 350 (CADC 2013). Those courts have adopted the plurality's opinion as the most persuasive interpretation of §3582(c)(2). Davis, supra, at 1026; Epps, supra, at 351.

         To resolve these differences over the proper application of Marks and the proper interpretation of §3582(c)(2), the Court granted certiorari in the present case. 583 U.S. (2017). The first two questions, relating to Marks, are as follows: (1) "Whether this Court's decision in Marks means that the concurring opinion in a 4-1-4 decision represents the holding of the Court where neither the plurality's reasoning nor the concurrence's reasoning is a logical subset of the other"; and (2) "Whether, under Marks, the lower courts are bound by the four-Justice plurality opinion in Freeman, or, instead, by JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR's separate concurring opinion with which all eight other Justices disagreed." Pet. for Cert. i.

         The third question is directed to the underlying statutory issue in this case, the substantive, sentencing issue the Court discussed in the three opinions issued in Freeman. That question is: "Whether, as the four-Justice plurality in Freeman concluded, a defendant who enters into a Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreement is generally eligible for a sentence reduction if there is a later, retroactive amendment to the relevant Sentencing Guidelines range." Pet. for Cert. ii.

         Taking instruction from the cases decided in the wake of Freeman and the systemic concerns that have arisen in some Circuits, and considering as well the arguments of the parties as to question three, a majority of the Court in the instant case now can resolve the sentencing issue on its merits. So it will be unnecessary to consider questions one and two despite the extensive briefing and careful argument the parties presented to the Court concerning the proper application of Marks. The opinion that follows resolves the sentencing issue in this case; and, as well, it should give the necessary guidance to federal district courts and to the courts of appeals with respect to plea agreements of the kind presented here and in Freeman.

         With that explanation, the Court now turns to the circumstances of this case and the sentencing issue it presents.



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