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United States v. Harris

United States District Court, District of Columbia

December 11, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
v.
SAQUAWN L. HARRIS, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ROSEMARY M. COLLYER United States District Judge

         In 2008 the Court sentenced Saquawn Harris to 78 months of incarceration for unlawful possession with intent to distribute 5 grams or more of cocaine base. At the time of sentencing, the statutory range for that offense was 5-40 years. That range has now been reduced to 0-20 years, with a corresponding shift in the guidelines' recommendation, and the First Step Act gives the Court discretion to modify its sentence accordingly. Mr. Harris moves for an exercise of that discretion. The Court will deny the motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Facts

         In March 2008 Mr. Harris plead guilty to one count of unlawful possession with intent to distribute 5 grams or more of cocaine base (crack cocaine), see 21 U.S.C. § 841(b), and one count of unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon, see 18 U.S.C. § 922(g). As part of the plea, Mr. Harris agreed that he was responsible for the distribution of 13.1 grams of crack cocaine. For its part, the government agreed to recommend a two-point downward adjustment for acceptance of responsibility and to not seek “any increase in [Mr. Harris'] base offense level” other than those already included in the plea. In the course of their negotiations, both parties understood that under the sentencing guidelines Mr. Harris faced (1) a base offense level of 24; (2) a two-point upward adjustment for the gun; and (3) a two-point downward adjustment for his acceptance of responsibility, bringing his total adjusted offense level to 24. Factoring in his category IV criminal history, Mr. Harris' guidelines range was expected to be 77-96 months.

         After Mr. Harris entered his plea, the probation office drafted a Presentence Investigation Report (PSR) in preparation for sentencing. As with the parties, it calculated a base offense level of 24 and a two-point upward adjustment for the gun. However, the probation office also determined that two of Mr. Harris' prior convictions-for robbery with a dangerous weapon and for threatening to injure with a deadly weapon, both in Maryland-were felony crimes of violence. These two felonies made Mr. Harris a “career offender” under the guidelines, automatically increased his criminal history category to VI, and automatically increased his base offense level to 34. See United States Sentencing Commission, Guidelines Manual, §4B1.1(b) (2007). His acceptance of responsibility brought his total adjusted offense level down to 32, but with a category VI criminal history his guidelines range was 210-262 months.

         Upon review of the PSR, Mr. Harris moved to withdraw his guilty plea. Although Mr. Harris' attorney was aware that his Maryland robbery conviction was a felony, neither he nor the government knew of the conviction for threatening to injure or its effect on sentencing. In part this was because information regarding Mr. Harris' misdemeanor criminal record was missing from his file. In part this was also because of a quirk of Maryland law: although threatening to injure with a deadly weapon is labeled a misdemeanor, it is a misdemeanor with a sentence of up to 18 months, making it a felony under the guidelines.[1]

         The Court noted that Mr. Harris had agreed during his plea colloquy to accept the judgment of the Court regardless of whatever agreement he and the government otherwise reached. However, the Court also determined that sentencing Mr. Harris as a career offender, based on a mistake of law that neither his attorney nor the prosecutor were aware of, would “promote disrespect for law.” Emergency Mot. to Reduce Sentence Pursuant to the First Step Act of 2018 (Mot.), Ex. A, Sentencing Tr. [Dkt. 63-2] at 24:25-25:1. The Court thus denied Mr. Harris' motion to withdraw his guilty plea but imposed a sentence “closer to what the defendant anticipated getting.” Id. at 24:23-24. Mr. Harris received 78 months' incarceration on both counts, to run concurrently, with a 4-year term of supervised release on each count to run concurrently. Mr. Harris did not appeal and has not moved for post-conviction relief.

         Mr. Harris was subsequently convicted in D.C. Superior Court on one count of conspiracy, one count of first-degree murder while armed, two counts of assault with intent to kill while armed, and related firearms charges. In November 2009 he received multiple consecutive sentences totaling 800 months' incarceration.

         B. Fair Sentencing Act and First Step Act

         Previously, a person convicted of possessing with intent to distribute more than 5 grams of crack cocaine faced a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years imprisonment and a 40-year statutory maximum. In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, Pub. L. No. 111-220, 124 Stat. 2372 (2010), Sections 2 and 3 of which eliminated the mandatory minimum for offenses involving fewer than 28 grams of crack cocaine and set the statutory maximum at 20 years. Compare 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(B) (2009), with 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(B) (2018). This change did not apply retroactively and so afforded Mr. Harris no relief.

         In 2018, however, Congress passed the First Step Act, Pub. L. No. 115-391, 132 Stat. 5194, 5222 (2018). Under Section 404(b) of the First Step Act, “[a] court that imposed a sentence for a covered offense may, on motion of the defendant . . . impose a reduced sentence as if sections 2 and 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act . . . were in effect at the time the covered offense was committed.” Id. § 404(b). A “‘covered offense' means a violation of a Federal criminal statute, the statutory penalties for which were modified by section 2 or 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act . . ., that was committed before August 3, 2010.” Id. § 404(a). In short, the First Step Act gives district courts the authority to retroactively apply reduced sentences for “the unlawful possession of five grams or more of crack cocaine with the intent to distribute it.” United States v. Mitchell, No. 5-cr-110, 2019 WL 2647571, at *3 (D.D.C. June 27, 2019).

         Mr. Harris currently has a projected release date of February 11, 2070. He now seeks relief under Section 404(b) of the First Step Act. In addition to reducing his sentence, he asks the Court to run his federal sentence concurrent with his 800-month sentence from D.C. Superior Court. The government opposes. The matter is ripe for review.[2]

         II. ...


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