The Ninth Circuit held Thursday that the current version of a federal sentencing guideline isn’t the proper legal standard for motions criminal defendants file under the First Step Act, a 2018 law that among other criminal justice reforms expanded prison inmates’ opportunities to have their sentences reduced.

The defendant in this case, Patricia Aruda, pled guilty to a drug charge in 2015 and was sentenced to 130 months in prison and five years of supervised release. In June 2020, Aruda filed a motion for compassionate release under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i), which was amended by the First Step Act. She argued that the high number of COVID-19 cases at her prison facility, combined with her medical conditions that put her at increased risk of complications from the virus, created “extraordinary and compelling” reasons for her release.

The district court denied the motion, finding that U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual (U.S.S.G.) § 1B1.13 is binding for federal courts considering defendants’ § 3582(c)(1)(A) motions. District courts across the country were split on the issue at the time because the First Step Act amended that statute to allow defendants as well as the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) director to file compassionate release motions, but U.S.S.G. § 1B1.13 wasn’t amended accordingly.

Aruda’s circumstances did constitute “extraordinary and compelling” reasons under § 3582(c)(1)(A), the district court found. But, citing U.S.S.G. § 1B1.13, the court held that her release was unwarranted based on a finding of dangerousness. That finding wasn’t statutorily required but was part of a Sentencing Commission policy statement in the sentencing guideline.

Reversing that decision, the Ninth Circuit’s three-judge panel joined five other circuits that have addressed this question in finding that U.S.S.G. § 1B1.13 applies only to compassionate release motions filed by the BOP director, not to motions filed by defendants.

“The Sentencing Commission’s statements in U.S.S.G. § 1B1.13 may inform a district court’s discretion for § 3582(c)(1)(A) motions filed by a defendant, but they are not binding,” the court wrote in the per curiam opinion.

The panel vacated the district court’s decision and remanded for it to reassess Aruda’s compassionate release motion under the correct legal standard. The court didn’t weigh in on the merits of Aruda’s motion, and left it to the district court to consider her new allegation that she contracted and recovered from COVID-19 while the case was pending.

Salina Kanai, the federal public defender who represented Aruda, said in an email that “[w]e are happy that the Ninth Circuit has joined the Second, Fourth, Sixth, Seventh, and Tenth Circuits in correctly deciding this issue.”

“I am proud of the work that our office, and the entire Federal Defender community nationwide, has done litigating compassionate release motions and appeals on behalf of our clients during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Kanai said.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Justice said in an email that the department will determine whether any further review of the case will be sought.

The case is U.S. v. Aruda, case number 20-10245, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

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