March 27, 2018
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE
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.
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).
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.
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
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
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.,
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
that explanation, the Court now turns to the circumstances of
this case and the sentencing issue it presents.