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United States v. Aguilar-Vargas

United States District Court, District of Columbia

July 20, 2016



          Royce C. Lamberth United States District Judge

         Before the Court is defendant William Aguilar-Vargas's motion [169, 170] for a sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2). The motion is based on Amendments 782 and 788 to the United States Sentencing Guidelines and must be analyzed under the "two-step inquiry" set forth in Dillon v. United States, 560 U.S. 817 (2010). Under Dillon's test, the Court must first determine if Aguilar-Vargas is eligible for a sentence reduction under § 3582(c)(2) and then determine whether or a not such a reduction is warranted according to the factors enumerated in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). After considering Aguilar-Vargas's motion [169] for a sentence reduction, the federal public defender's unopposed motion [170] for a sentence reduction, the entire record in this case, and the applicable law, the Court will DENY Aguilar-Vargas's motions. In short, Aguilar-Vargas is ineligible for a sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) because his sentence was not "based on" a subsequently-lowered range.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On March 3, 2009, a federal grand jury returned a one-count indictment against Aguilar-Vargas and his seven co-defendants for Conspiracy to Distribute and Possess With Intent to Distribute 50 Grams or More of Cocaine Base and Five Kilograms or More of Cocaine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846, 841(a)(1), 841(b)(l)(A)(ii) and (iii). See Presentence Investigation Report (PSR) ¶ 1. On July 21, 2010, Aguilar-Vargas pled guilty to this charge and entered into a plea agreement with the government under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(C) ("Rule 11(c)(1)(C)"). See Plea Agreement, ECF No. 95. If a Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreement includes a "specific sentence or sentencing range" that the parties determined was appropriate, then once a court accepts the defendant's plea agreement, it is bound to impose the agreed-upon sentence. See Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(c)(1)(C); see also United States v. Duvall, 705 F.3d 479, 481 (D.C. Cir. 2013) ("If the district court accepts a Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreement, the court must impose the sentence listed in the plea agreement.").

         And indeed, pursuant to Rule 11(c)(1)(C), Aguilar-Vargas and the government agreed that his "appropriate sentence .. . [was] 120 months imprisonment without possibility of parole." Plea Agreement ¶ 5.[1] In his plea, Aguilar-Vargas also agreed that he intended to distribute more than "five kilograms but less than 15 kilograms of a mixture and substance containing a detectable amount of cocaine . . . ." Id. at ¶ 1. Lastly, the government agreed that in exchange for Aguilar-Vargas's guilty plea, it would dismiss charges against Aguilar-Vargas contained in a separate indictment for conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute 500 grams or more of cocaine, dated December 15, 2005 and labeled Criminal No. 05-445 (RCL). On July 21, 2010, the undersigned district court judge accepted Aguilar-Vargas's guilty plea, and on April 19, 2011, the undersigned sentenced him to 108 months imprisonment, as called for in Aguilar-Vargas' modified Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreement.

         Before imposing the 108-month sentence, the district court judge calculated Aguilar- Vargas's total offense level to be 27 and his criminal history category to be I, a combination, which at the time yielded a guideline range of 70 to 87 months. Further, the Court determined that Aguilar-Vargas's conduct subjected him to a statutory mandatory minimum sentence of 120 months. See Statement of Reasons 1, ECF No. 144. Although Aguilar-Vargas's conduct triggered a mandatory minimum 120-month sentence, the sentencing judge found that he satisfied the requirements of 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f)'s Safety Valve provision. Id. (showing that Aguilar-Vargas received a sentence below his mandatory minimum[2]). As such, the district court was free to sentence Aguilar-Vargas "without regard to the statutory minimum, " 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f), and ultimately imposed its sentence of 108 months-one year less than the 120-month statutory minimum.

         Although generally speaking a court may not modify a term of imprisonment once it has been imposed, § 3582(c)(2) provides an exception. See Dillon v. United States, 560 U.S. 817, 824 (2010) ("Section 3582(c)(2) establishes an exception to the general rule of finality."). Under this statutory provision, a court may be authorized to modify a prison term where the original sentence was "based on a sentencing range that has subsequently been lowered by the Sentencing Commission." 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2). On April 30, 2014, the U.S. Sentencing Commission submitted to Congress Amendment 782 of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, proposing a downward revision to sentencing ranges for drug trafficking offenses. The Commission then passed Amendment 788 to allow Amendment 782's revisions to be applied retroactively, which in this case, means that Aguilar-Vargas's calculated 70-87 month guideline range would have been 57- 71 months had the newly amended ranges been in effect at the time of Aguilar-Vargas's original sentencing. See Probation Mem. 1, ECF No. 172.

         On November 1, 2014, Amendment 782 and its retroactive application became effective, and Aguilar-Vargas now argues that these amendments authorize the Court to reduce his sentence to the bottom of his newly revised guideline range-that is, 57 months. See Mot. to Reduce Term of Imprisonment Pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) and Amendment 782 of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines 1, ECF No. 169 ("[T]he Court may reduce the term of imprisonment . . . if such a reduction is consistent with the applicable policy statement issued by the Sentencing Commission."). Further, Aguilar-Vargas's counsel requests-and the government does not oppose-that this court reduce his 108-month sentence to 94 months pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2). See Unopposed Mot. to Reduce Sentence 1, ECF No. 170. For the reasons stated below, the Court will deny these motions, finding that it lacks the authority to reduce Aguilar-Vargas's sentence because the original sentence was not "based on" a sentencing range that has been subsequently lowered by the Sentencing Commission.


         In order for the Court to have the authority to reduce a defendant's sentence pursuant to § 3582(c)(2), the defendant must satisfy two basic eligibility requirements: his sentence must have been '"based on' a subsequently-lowered guideline range, [and] ... the sentence reduction [must be] consistent with U.S.S.G. § 1B1.10, the policy statement governing § 3582(c)(2) proceedings." In re Sealed Case, 722 F.3d 361, 366 (D.C. Cir. 2013) (quoting Dillon v. United States, 560 U.S. 817, 827(2010)).

         When considering these requirements, it is often difficult to assess whether or not a sentence was "based on" a specific sentencing range when a defendant and the government entered into a Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreement and the Court imposed the sentence contained in that agreement. In the context of Rule 11(c)(1)(C) agreements, the D.C. Circuit has ruled that "a defendant's sentence is 'based on' a subsequently-lowered guideline range 'to whatever extent' that range was a relevant part of the analytic framework the judge used to determine the sentence." In re Sealed Case, 722 F.3d 361, 366 (D.C. Cir. 2013) (citing Freeman v. United States, 131 S.Ct. 2685, 2692 (2011)). The Circuit originally set this standard when it issued United States v. Epps, 707 F.3d 337 (D.C. Cir. 2013). In Epps, the Circuit adopted the Supreme Court's plurality opinion in Freeman v. United States, 564 U.S. 522 (2013), a 4-4-1 split decision that ruled a defendant who had entered into a Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreement was not automatically ineligible for a sentence reduction under § 3582(c)(2). Freeman, 564 U.S. at 534. The plurality opinion, which is binding on this Court-took a "broad view" of § 3582(c)(2), see In re Sealed Case, 722 F.3d at 365, and stated that "the judge's decision to accept the [Rule 11(c)(1)(C)] plea and impose the recommended sentence is likely to be 'based on' the Guidelines." Freeman, 564 U.S. at 534. In other words, the plurality opinion declared that most defendants who had entered into Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreements would be eligible for a sentence reduction under § 3582(c)(2) if the Sentencing Commission was subsequently and retroactively lowered his applicable guideline range.

         The D.C. Circuit reaffirmed this relatively expansive reading § 3582(c)(2) in In re Sealed Case, 722 F.3d 361 (D.C. Cir. 2013). In that case, the Circuit ruled that a defendant's 135-month sentence was "based on" his 151-181-month guideline range because that range played at least some role in the judge's sentencing decision. The Circuit came to this decision even though the defendant's 151-181-month sentencing guideline range would have been supplanted by a 20-year mandatory minimum had the government not filed a motion under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e) for substantial assistance. In re Sealed Case, 722 F.3d at 363. Regardless of the looming 20-year mandatory minimum and the fact that the defendant was sentenced below his applicable guideline range, the Circuit found that the 151-181-month range formed "the very basis" of the defendant's 135-month sentence, id. at 367, and determined he was eligible for his requested sentence reduction.

         When conducting the "based on" analysis set out in Epps and In re Sealed Case, the D.C. Circuit has directed that the "focus . . . ought to be on the reasons given by the district court for accepting the sentence that it ultimately imposed, not on the parties' agreement." Epps, 707 F.3d at 353 (citation omitted). Consistent with this directive and as recently articulated in United States v. Barajas, "[s]ince Epps, courts in this Circuit have found three sources of evidence for * determining the connection between a Rule 11(c)(1)(C) sentence and the Guideline range: sentencing hearings, plea hearings, and the text of the plea agreement.[3]" Crim. No. 11-148 (ESH), 2016 WL 1328095 at *2 (D.D.C. Apr. 5, 2016) (citing United States v. Gross, Crim. No. 10-0036 (PLF), 2016 WL 410985 (D.D.C. Feb. 2, 2016); United States v. Santana-Villanueva, 144 F.Supp.3d 149 (D.D.C. 2015); United States v. Galaviz, 130 F.Supp.3d 197 (D.D.C. 2015)).[4]

         In looking to these sources of evidence, it is clear that Aguilar-Vargas's sentence was not "based on" a subsequently-lowered sentencing range. First and most importantly, the undersigned sentencing judge's statements at Aguilar-Vargas's July 21, 2010 plea hearing show that the defendant's 70-87 month range had absolutely nothing to do with the 108-month sentence that the judge ultimately imposed. Before ...

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