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United States of America v. Ricardo Eugene Epps

December 23, 2010

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
RICARDO EUGENE EPPS, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Paul L. Friedman United States District Judge

OPINION AND ORDER

This matter is before the Court on defendant Ricardo Eugene Epps's motions to reduce his sentence pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) and for an immediate hearing on this issue. The government opposes the defendant's motion to reduce his sentence. Upon consideration of the motions, the applicable law, and the entire record herein, the Court will deny both motions.*fn1

I. BACKGROUND

On August 6, 1999, the defendant pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute and to possess with the intent to distribute cocaine base ("crack cocaine"), in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 846, 841(a)(1) and 841(b)(1)(A)(iii). Pursuant to a plea agreement entered under Rule 11(e)(1)(C) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure -- now Rule 11(c)(1)(C) -- the defendant acknowledged responsibility for more than 1.5 kilograms of crack cocaine and accepted a sentence of 188 months in prison. See Plea Agreement ¶¶ 2-3. Had the defendant not accepted this negotiated sentence, the amount of crack cocaine in question would have placed him at Offense Level 38 under the then-mandatory 1998 United States Sentencing Guidelines ("U.S.S.G."). See U.S.S.G. (1998), § 2D1.1. With a three-level downward adjustment for acceptance of responsibility under U.S.S.G. § 3E1.1, the defendant would have been at Offense Level 35 and in Criminal History Category III.*fn2 In the absence of the sentence agreed upon in the plea agreement, his guidelines sentencing range therefore would have been 210 to 262 months. See U.S.S.G. (1998), Sentencing Table. Accordingly, the defendant's negotiated sentence of 188 months fell 22 months below the bottom of the applicable guidelines sentencing range.

The defendant now moves for a reduction in his sentence. He argues that the Court has authority to reduce his sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2), which permits a court to reduce a defendant's term of imprisonment when that defendant was originally sentenced under a guideline which has subsequently been lowered by the United States Sentencing Commission.

He relies on Amendments 706 and 711 to the United States Sentencing Guidelines, through which the Sentencing Commission amended and lowered the base offense levels for most offenses involving crack cocaine by two levels and made this reduction retroactive. Mot. at 3. These amended guidelines would place the defendant at a Base Offense Level of 36 and, after a three level downward adjustment under U.S.S.G. § 3E1.1, an Adjusted Offense Level of 33. With a Criminal History Category of III, his applicable guidelines sentencing range would be 168 to 210 months.*fn3 The defendant requests a reduction in his sentence to 144 months, the equivalent of 22 months below the low end of the amended guideline range, the same 22-month variance he negotiated as part of his plea agreement. See Supp. II at 2.

II. DISCUSSION

In 2007, the United States Sentencing Commission approved Amendment 706 to the United States Sentencing Guidelines, which reduced the base offense level for most crack cocaine offenses by two levels. See U.S.S.G. (2007), Supp. to App. C, Amend. 706, 711. The Commission made the amendments retroactive in 2008, see U.S.S.G. (2008), Supp. to App. C, Amend. 713, 716, enabling some defendants previously convicted of crack cocaine offenses to seek sentence reductions under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2). To be eligible for a sentence reduction, a defendant must show that: (1) he was sentenced "based on a sentencing range that has subsequently been lowered," and (2) that a reduction in his sentence would be "consistent with applicable policy statements issued by the Sentencing Commission." United States v. Berry, 618 F.3d 13, 16 (D.C. Cir. 2010) (quoting 18 U.S.C. §3582).

In the case of a defendant sentenced pursuant to an agreement under Rule 11(c)(1)(C) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, eligibility for modification turns on the question of whether the defendant's term of imprisonment was in fact "based on" a sentencing range that has subsequently been lowered or whether it was based on a binding plea agreement. See United States v. Cook, 594 F.3d 883, 888 (D.C. Cir. 2010). Most of the courts of appeals that have considered the issue have determined that such defendants are not eligible for sentence modifications under Section 3582(c)(2) because their sentences were "based on" the binding plea agreement, and not on the amended crack cocaine guidelines. See United States v. Rivera-Martinez, 607 F.3d 283, 287 (1st Cir. 2010); United States v. Main, 579 F.3d 200, 203 (2nd Cir. 2009); United States v. Sanchez, 562 F.3d 275, 282 (3rd Cir. 2009); United States v. Scurlark, 560 F.3d 839, 842 (8th Cir. 2009).*fn4 Two other circuits have concluded that a district court does not have the authority to modify any sentence imposed pursuant to Rule 11(c)(1)(C) because such an agreement is binding on both the parties and the court; these courts did not address the question of whether a sentence imposed pursuant to a plea agreement is "based on" that agreement or "based on" the Sentencing Guidelines. See United States v. Garcia, 606 F.3d 209, 214 (5th Cir. 2010); United States v. Peveler, 359 F.3d 369, 378-79 (6th Cir. 2004).*fn5

The Tenth Circuit is the only court of appeals to have overturned a district court's refusal to modify a crack cocaine sentence entered under Rule 11(c)(1)(C). See United States v. Cobb, 584 F.3d 982, 984-85 (10th Cir. 2009).*fn6 In doing so, it noted that while Section 3582(c)(2) is triggered when a defendant's term of imprisonment was "based on a sentencing range" that has subsequently been lowered, it "imposes no requirement that to be based on a qualifying range, the sentence be a non-negotiated, 'run-of-the-mill' guideline sentence. Instead, it generally allows for reductions of sentences which are based in any way on a qualifying range. No other connection is required." Id. at 985. The Tenth Circuit therefore concluded that a defendant whose plea agreement stipulated to a term of imprisonment at the low end of the guidelines sentencing range was eligible for sentence modification because his "sentencing disposition was tied to the guidelines at every step." Id. at 983.

While the Seventh Circuit and the Ninth Circuit have not approved sentence modifications for defendants sentenced under Rule 11(c)(1)(C), both have suggested in dicta that they might do so in an appropriate case if there were explicit evidence -- for example, in the plea agreement itself -- that the agreement was closely tied to the guidelines sentencing range. See United States v. Ray, 598 F.3d 407, 409 (7th Cir. 2010); United States v. Franklin, 600 F.3d 893, 897 (7th Cir. 2010); United States v. Bride, 581 F.3d 888, 891 (9th Cir. 2009)).

The D.C. Circuit has not yet decided this issue. It has noted, however, that the other circuits are divided regarding whether a defendant sentenced under a plea agreement entered pursuant to Rule 11(c)(1)(C) can benefit from the sentence modification provision of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c). See United States v. Cook, 594 F.3d 883, 888 (D.C. Cir. 2010) (noting that the Tenth Circuit has found that sentences imposed pursuant to Rule 11(c)(1)(C) agreements might be modifiable, but that "other circuits have reached the opposite result") (quoting United States v. Robinson, 587 F.3d 1122, 1129 n.8 (D.C. Cir. 2009)). Chief Judge Lamberth, the only judge on this Court to have issued a written opinion on this question, has followed the majority of the circuits, concluding that district courts are without authority under Section 3582(c)(2) to reduce the term of imprisonment for defendants sentenced pursuant to Rule 11(c)(1)(C) pleas. See United States v. Mowatt, Criminal No. 95-46-02, 2010 WL 3562090, at *2 (D.D.C. Sept. 10, 2010); United States v. Bundy, 613 F. Supp. 2d 35, 37 (D.D.C. 2009), vacated as moot, No. 09-3049, 2010 WL 3516574, at *1 (D.C. Cir. Sept. 3, 2010); United States v. Oliver, 589 F. Supp. 2d 39, 40 (D.D.C. 2008). Writing in a separate context, Judge Urbina has also refused to modify the sentence of a defendant initially sentenced pursuant to a Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreement, finding that because such an agreement is binding on both the parties and the court, it would be inappropriate for a district court to alter the terms of such an agreement "simply because the defendant comes back to the court for re-sentencing." Winchester v. United States, 477 F. Supp. 2d 81, 85 (D.D.C. 2007) (refusing to alter the terms of a plea agreement on a motion to vacate, set aside, or correct sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255) (citing United States v. Hemminger, 114 F.3d 1192 (7th Cir. 1997)).

In United States v. Heard, 359 F.3d 544 (D.C. Cir. 2004), the court of appeals stated in dicta that "[a] sentence arising from a Rule 11(e)(1)(C) plea . . . does not result from the determination of an appropriate guidelines offense level, but rather from the agreement of the parties: an agreement that is binding on the court once it is accepted by the court." Id. at 548. Chief Judge Lamberth has interpreted this language to mean that sentences based on Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreements can never be "based on" the guidelines sentencing ranges, and that the district courts therefore are without authority to modify any such sentences under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2). See United States v. Bundy, 613 F. Supp. 2d at 37; United States v. Oliver, 589 F. Supp.2d at 40. But the D.C. Circuit in Heard -- much like the Seventh and Ninth Circuits in Ray, Franklin, and Bride -- also noted, again in dicta, that "there may be at least some Rule 11(e)(1)(C) sentences that do rest on a determination of [guidelines] offense levels," such as an agreed-upon sentence which "is the same as that which would have resulted from using the applicable guidelines offense level." United States v. Heard, 359 F.3d at 549 n.5 and accompanying text.

The defendant in this case argues that his sentence was "based on" the applicable crack cocaine guidelines, and that he therefore is eligible for a sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2). He bases this argument on the fact that his plea agreement stipulated that the sentence "was determined in accordance with (based on) the guidelines." Mot. at 3 (citing Plea Agreement ¶ 8) (alteration in Motion). The government challenges this assertion, contending that the "in accordance with" language of the defendant's plea agreement merely indicates that the agreement complies with section 6B1.2(c) of the Sentencing Guidelines, which permits deviation from the prescribed sentencing range in certain circumstances. Opp. ...

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