Recent Amendments To Federal Sentencing Guidelines For Drug Cases

The United States Sentencing Commission has reduced the guidelines for federal drug offenses and has made those changes retroactive.

On April 30, 2014, the United States Sentencing Commission submitted to Congress an amendment to the federal sentencing guidelines that would revise the guidelines applicable to drug trafficking offenses by changing how the base offense levels in the drug quantity tables in sections 2D1.1 and 2D1.11 of the U.S. Sentencing Commission Guidelines Manual (2013) incorporate the statutory mandatory minimum penalties for drug trafficking offenses (Amendment 782). Specifically, the amendment would reduce by two levels the offense levels assigned to the quantities that trigger the statutory mandatory minimum penalties, resulting in corresponding guideline ranges that include the mandatory minimum penalties and make conforming changes to section 2D2.11. On July 18, the Commission voted to give retroactive effect to Amendment 782 beginning on the effective date of the amendment, which will be November 1, 2014, unless Congress acts to modify or disapprove the amendment. However, pursuant to the amendment, no offender may be released pursuant to the retroactive application of the amendment until November 1, 2015 or later.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission has added an additional §1B1.10 analysis pertaining to sentencing reductions under any retroactive amendment to the Guidelines in cases involving defendants who originally received downward departures from a statutory mandatory minimum term of imprisonment due to substantial assistance. In cases where a defendant received a downward departure from a mandatory minimum for substantial assistance, the question arose as to the correct starting point for the resentencing calculation under a retroactive amendment to the Guidelines. Some Circuits had held that the starting point should be the statutorily mandated minimum sentence. Other Circuits, led by the Third Circuit, directed trial judges to use as the starting point for the analysis the bottom of the recalculated Guideline range of imprisonment, whether or not that bottom was below or above the otherwise applicable mandatory minimum sentence. In short, in mandatory minimum substantial assistance cases, defendants who were deprived of the benefit of a retroactive comparable reduction due to bad case law in their Circuits pertaining to the starting point for the resentencing calculation, can try to seek relief as of November 1.

These amendments will affect thousands of defendants who are presently incarcerated for federal drug offenses. The U.S. Sentencing Commission has made this amendment extremely expansive in that (1) it applies retroactively; and (2) it applies to individuals who have already received a reduction below mandatory minimum sentences by reason of substantial assistance.